City (Not) on Fire




The following is a feature article from the upcoming LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2016 edition. Become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books to receive your copy of the Journal.

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IN 1977, WE PLAYED BALL. We played basketball, handball, stickball, stickball barely still a thing. We invented shit, punch ball, slap ball, off-the-wall (before the record came out), chuck ball, like stickball but with the bat of a nunchuck.

We were too young, just kids, but we watched the older guys play touch football in the street (three completions for a first down), maneuvering, showing off, around the blue MTA buses, the Bx15, the Bx17, the W in the WBLS ad always sideways, the orange bus to Queens, and the Manhattan express buses. There was this sweet music that always played, if not the Stylistics anymore — all that longing in falsetto, “write your name across the sky …,” no, that was old, from kindergarten — it was Tavares still or L.T.D. Already we liked to dance.

We were white, we were black, we were half-white half-black, we were white wanting to be black, black wanting to be white. We were Puerto Rican. There were two Indian kids, from India; they were down. We were ahead of our time; if only we’d known. No one particularly cared.

We had fights, play fights, during school, after school. We went to school together, public school. We got stuck in the elevators together; there was piss in the elevators, and in the stairwells. We took the stairwells together, in pairs, those dark stairwells filled with smashed fluorescent lights, graffiti even on the banisters. We took buses to the RKO Fordham together, to the White Castle on Gun Hill Road. 

We were skinny, and we were fast, God, were we fast — yo, that boy can book! — and we never knew when we’d have to run. There were stray Dobermans from Boston Road, kids from the Valley, from Section 5, teenagers from Truman.

This was 1977. Or was it ’76? You can say ’78. We were scared but we didn’t show it.

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There’s a scene, a brief one, in Stations of the Elevated, Manfred Kirchheimer’s sublime, suddenly timely 1981 film of a New York City on its knees — released quietly late last year digitally and as a limited-edition DVD from Oscilloscope — that if you hadn’t grown up in the city would mean nothing. It begins as a loving exterior shot of a slow-moving graffiti-covered subway car on one of the elevated lines in the Bronx. Then, in the foreground, a bus bursts through the perfectly framed composition.

It’s not one of the dozens of MTA city buses, not the Bx this, the B or Q that. It is, instead, a red, white, and blue coach, a private line, the seats cushioned, the windows tinted, that coursed between Manhattan and the Bronx, north, northeast, to neighborhoods not only without cachet, that much was a given — it was the Bronx after all, besides Riverdale, what cachet? — but to mysterious outskirts that may well have not existed. (Was it Throggs Neck or Throgs Neck? Where, in God’s name, did the Sheridan Expressway begin? Where did it end? Was it Co-op or Co-Op City? And anyway, we, who lived there, just called it Co-op. Were they even co-ops? Yo, any a y’all been to Parkchester? It’s like Co-op? Even we didn’t know the answers.)

Those bus lines (New York Bus Service was the name of the company) started in the early 1970s, with the city broke and broken down, the subway system being the most conspicuous emblem. The buses traveled far and wide up the Bruckner Expressway, often to the dreaded two-fare zones, meaning to get to the subway, if you rode them — and some people chose not to — you had to take a bus and, without a free transfer, pay double.

The subways in those years, no matter how mesmerizing they are now, and were then to some — to Kirchheimer to Martin Wong to Norman Mailer — could also be terrifying. Sometimes the fear was imagined; other times it wasn’t. (Mailer lived within the cul-de-sac of Brooklyn Heights, and his left hook, no matter how well practiced at the Gramercy Boxing Gym, would’ve had a tough time scoring against younger, quicker opposition with switchblades on the Elder Avenue platform.) The subways were slow, dirty, loud. They’d come whenever. The lights would go out for a few beats, maybe a full measure. Guys would ride between cars, why it wasn’t clear. The last car was off-limits. The feeling was that anything could happen at any time.

So New York Bus Service thrived — during rush hour the driver might declare “standing room only, standing room only” — and one of its fleet interrupts, for a moment, the filmmaker’s compassionate gaze. Kirchheimer’s film, though shown at the 1981 New York Film Festival, was soon forgotten. By the end of the decade, most of the graffiti was covered with a putrid, life-sucking maroon paint, the ensuing cars dubbed “the red birds.” Stations was a rumor more than anything, until excerpts of it appeared at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014 as part of the exhibit City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection and then showed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

There are no interviews in the film, no narration. The only voices are those of children from the Central and South Bronx. They’re sweet-faced kids, without much to do except play amid the building carcasses and admire the subway expressionism, lowercase e, sans art world endorsement; no Neo-Pop Expressionism in these parts. The kids speak like we spoke: “Check it out, that shit is bad”; “that Slave piece was def, man, that dude is bustin’ out.” (What happened to those kids? How did life treat them? Are they okay?)

In place of talking heads, Kirchheimer uses music. Not Bongo Rock or the Jimmy Castor Bunch, nor the emerging sound of the Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash, or Kurtis Blow, who by the mid-’80s would migrate to Co-op, our neighbor, but instead Charles Mingus — “Better Git It In Your Soul”; “Haitian Fight Song”; “Fables of Faubus” — with a touch of Aretha at the end. Mingus’s music is somehow perfectly New York in all its paradoxes: brawling but refined; angry but graceful; highly composed but improvisational; melancholy but triumphant. (And anyway, Mingus and Danny Richmond kept way better time than the MTA.)

Kirchheimer sees the ironies. (German-born, New York City–raised after fleeing the Nazis, he seems most enchanted with the No. 5 train.) High on billboards, sanctioned painters stencil in advertisements, smiling white faces with blue eyes, selling products — cigarettes, suntan lotion, hamburgers — to be appropriated, any day, by Richard Prince, et al., and sold in burgeoning SoHo. In one three-car succession, there is a mural of the Bicentennial, followed in the next car by “Heaven Is Life,” and in the very next “Earth Is Hell,” enveloped with flames.

New York City from that era, and the Bronx particularly, had a Dante-esque quality. A little Paradiso — all those Catholic schools (oy), Hayes, Spellman, Tolentine, Mount Saint Michael, Stepinac, Fordham University, Manhattan College; The Angel Esmeralda, by the Bronx’s own bard; and lest we forget, Mount Hope and Mount Eden (if only) — though more celebrated for Inferno: The Bronx Is Burning; Love Goes to Buildings on Fire; last October’s Macabre Suite, a pop-up art exhibit and party with Melo and a Jenner and developers trying to rebrand Mott Haven “the Piano District”; and the recent novel City on Fire, which earned the author, Garth Risk Hallberg, $2 million, quadruple what Reggie was paid in 1977, ’76 too, and probably ’78, even after going deep three times in Game 6.

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In 1979, we bought sneakers. PRO-Keds were wack now, you had to have Clydes or shell tops. You had to hook them up with thick laces, double laces, or the checkerboard. If they were white, you polished them with Sani-White; if they were suede, you kept them fresh with a toothbrush. You kept the toothbrush in your back pocket, so everyone could see it. Black kids had it sticking out next to their pick, the one with the Black Power fist. Teenagers at the handball courts (they went to Truman) had this leather string sticking out of their pockets. This was a 007, a pocketknife. You pretended you didn’t notice, minded your business. You couldn’t look soft; you had to have a cool walk. I watched the older guys, their every move.

We took the Bx15 to Onyx on Fordham Road. I was a mama’s boy, we were all mama’s boys, and my mother only let me go because I was with my older friends. They were black, one was Indian. They were angels, she said, angels. Good kids. When we got to Fordham Road, they said we had each other’s backs (you down, Mike?) — that they’ll steal these sneakers, even in Co-op. Hide your money in your sock.

I showed up at home room, fewer and fewer white faces, rocking rust on tan Pumas. Yo, where’d you get those? This was I.S. 181. We weren’t little anymore. We wore our navy blue gym shorts under jeans, Lee jeans, creased in the front, and tucked our orange shirts — Northeast Bronx Education Park, it read across the front — into the shorts. Gym was our favorite period, even if there were stories of punks from 180 attacking us in the Truman fieldhouse. They were jealous of us; we had the music program; they gave us instruments to take home. The string orchestra played 1812 Overture, the brass band played The Hustle, the chorus sang Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway, “Where Is the Love?” (What happened to those kids? How did life treat them? Are they okay?)

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In the fall of 1980, Brooklyn native Jamel Shabazz, just out of the Army, took to the streets and subways, camera in hand, and documented young African Americans and Latinos in Flatbush and Fort Greene, long before liberal white “pioneers” started buying and flipping houses, changing up the neighborhood. (What us natives have been saying for years, since Brooklyn became New Brooklyn, now has a hashtag: #SegregatedBrooklyn.)

The documentary “Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer” — originally released in 2013, but also put out late last year from Oscilloscope, both digitally and as a limited edition DVD with extras — is a revealing portrait of an unheralded New York City visionary. Directed by Charlie Ahearn — himself a visionary, best known for the early hip-hop chronicle Wild Style — the likes of KRS-One, Bobbito Garcia, and Fab 5 Freddy offer insights into the photographer’s work. (The Get Down, the Baz Luhrmann extravaganza soon to be brought to you by Netflix? Did anyone think of including a Shabazz and/or Ahearn as a producer, you wonder?)

If the Manhattan-centric mainstream turned away, or ran away, from these young people, Shabazz did the opposite, what great artists do, and not only came toward them, but immortalized them — looking, as he says, “fly” in Cazal glasses, Kangol hats, sheepskin coats, Lee jeans, adidas and Pumas. Shabazz — part Gordon Parks, part Bruce Davidson, part Bill Cunningham, and even a precursor to the paintings of Kehinde Wiley — gave his subjects, in the words of Fab 5 Freddy, a “nobility” and “blessed them with a royalty.” As Jamel’s homeboy Tony, a barber, puts it, he was “capturing life in its purest form, man.”

All the while, for 20 years, he kept a day job, a difficult one, as a corrections officer. It was only when The Source and then Trace Magazine published his work in the late 1990s that he got a gallery show — in Paris (not in his hometown) — which was followed by four phenomenal books by powerHouse.

While Shabazz clearly has affection for his childhood and his surroundings, he doesn’t romanticize either one. Jamel and Tony remember the friends who didn’t make it. They talk about how you had to carry yourself. Shabazz says a similar mien was struck in jail, where he worked, and his neighborhood. “In jail you couldn’t appear weak,” he says. “You’d get victimized if you didn’t walk correct. People could look at you and sense weakness behind your walk. So the way you walked, the way you spoke … all these things were very relevant growing up.”

And while Kirchheimer’s subways are all swirls of color, exteriors, Shabazz shows the interiors, where there was “never a dull moment.” Another friend, the graffiti artist Sharp, says, “If you didn’t want to get robbed, you didn’t go back there [to the last subway car].” Like Kirchheimer, Shabazz has an eye for the absurd: “If it concerns you, it concerns us,” a local CBS News billboard reads in a subway station, with someone — homeless or worse — lying beneath it. In another photo, a rare subway exterior for Shabazz, the graffiti, circa 1980, reads: “New York City … where else could I get away with this shit?”

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In 1981, Halloween ended — ’80, ’81. It was when one of the Johnson brothers in my building, the middle son, got jumped and they sprayed Nair on his Afro and his hair fell out. That scared us. He wasn’t soft; his father drove a Rolls, I’m serious, with out-of-state plates. (Don’t ask questions.) So on Halloween best to stay home. The next morning, the lobby windows were pummeled with eggs, shaving cream, chalk. The cars, too. Thank God ours had been stolen.

That year our social studies teacher called us, his students, the boys, Face. “Yo, Face” or “Ay yo, Face.” After school, we listened to the Chief Rocker on BLS and Paco and Rosko on KTU Disco 92, the midday master mix from John “Jellybean” Benitez, maybe Rockers Revenge featuring Donnie Calvin. My boy made mixtapes: “The Glow of Love,” Change; “I Hear Music,” Unlimited Touch; “Let’s Do It,” Convertion; “Spank,” Jimmy Bo Horne; “I Like What You’re Doin’ to Me,” Young & Company; “Fantastic Voyage,” Lakeside; “I’m Ready,” Kano. Then Kool & the Gang came out with “Get Down on It.”

And what was that song, the one that started “Yo, yo, yo …”?

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Chantal Akerman, the great Belgian filmmaker, took her own life last year. She made a series of exceptional works, most notably Jeanne Dielman. News from Home — from 1977 ­— is another extraordinary piece, and one of the great New York films from the era. It’s considered experimental though there’s nothing austere about it. It’s just Akerman, shooting from a car window or the subway while reading letters from her mother, who could be my mother, or yours: worrying, sending care packages, and hoping for a letter in return.

In Akerman’s eyes, the city is gentle, if resigned. The subways seem especially placid; if, at first, passengers eye her camera with suspicion, they continue on, minding their business. (I look closely around the frame; maybe I’ll see a short, thick man with glasses and a blazer, my father, holding a little boy’s hand, running into the subway car or hustling to his office at the Department of Welfare in TriBeCa, before it was “TriBeCa.”)

Still, menace, or the perception of menace, lurks: her mother writes, “Just be careful going out alone at night, New York is dangerous”; “I hope your new apartment is affordable and isn’t in a dangerous area”; “People here … say New York is terrible, inhuman. Perhaps they don’t really know it and are too quick to judge.”

Spoiler alert: Akerman ends the film shooting from a boat (probably the Staten Island Ferry), Manhattan slowly receding into the distance. The scene is painstakingly slow, so beautiful you don’t want it to end, but finally it does, as the city fades away, goes gray, as if an apparition. Were we even there?

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In 1977 and ’78 and the years before and after and into the dreary 1980s, we called Manhattan “the City.” If we weren’t the city’s heart, we were, no, not its soul — that’s too easy (even if we did have soul as Rakim would assure us a few years later). No, maybe we were its spleen, in all senses of the word, something tucked away, off the side — where exactly? — its function unclear, but vital nonetheless. And yeah, a little angry.

We were white, black more and more, and West Indian and Puerto Rican and Indian and Dominican. We were then what New Brooklyn wishes it could be now. We were middle-middle class, working class, lower-middle class, under class. (Although the Johnsons had a Rolls.) We were inner (city) but outer (borough). And — ha! — all this time, we never knew we were somehow looked through, looked over, looked past, looked down on.

Nothing ever happened to me, not in the ’70s, not in the ’80s, the subways every day to college, at odd hours. It was the angels, those boys, what they taught me. Or else it was better. Nah, it wasn’t better. Except maybe it was. Do you remember?

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Last October at The Boiler, a gallery space on North 14th Street in Williamsburg, Aldo Tambellini’s transfixing video installation piece Atlantic in Brooklyn (1971–72) was on display for the first time in 41 years. Tambellini — a native of upstate New York who migrated down to the city in the 1960s and was part of the thriving experimental film scene recorded life passing by from his window at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, now home to an arena constructed by a starchitect, named after an English bank, for an NBA team owned by a Russian billionaire — with a Target, a Starbucks, and a Shake Shack.

There were six chairs in a row in the back of the gallery — and the piece involves six large projections, two each on three walls, repeated on an hour loop; it forced you to swivel this way, that way, the other way to take it all in: a man running; a cop eating; a stray dog; prostitutes milling about in daytime; George McGovern volunteers arguing; church folk strolling; even a few people cycling. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians. One local business offers loans; another donuts, franks, thick shakes. It washes over you.

I’ve always had a fantasy of walking through the screen of News from Home or Stations of the Elevated or a Jamel Shabazz photograph. At the gallery, I was pretty much alone — a few people came in, but left soon after — and I just sat there, for over an hour. At one point, I stood up and took a few steps forward. I just stood there.

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Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City and The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game.


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