Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Sleeping Giants and the American Recession

"Signora, between Austria and Italy, there is a section of the Alps called the Semmering. It is an impossibly steep, very high part of the mountains. They built a train track over these Alps to connect Vienna and Venice. They built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew some day, the train would come..." --Under the Tuscan Sun

People who have lived in New York too long forget to look up. Something about the pace, the straight rush of velocity eliminates peripheral vision, dilutes the pull of your eyes to even the most grandiose structures. Only two kinds of people in New York City look up at buildings: tourists and the deranged.

It's a behavior I suspect has reached all the way to Brooklyn, tainted our residents as the yuppies and time-is-money business folk begin to encroach more and more on this humble way of life. And maybe that's why I'm only just now noticing them -- the buildings.

They're all over Williamsburg. The half-built structures, lacking glass, tumbling towards the sky, their frames exposed. Orphaned by developers. Feral almost, absent sophistication. A sign of the times, I've heard some people say. These times they mean are now. Declining times.

It is no secret that the recent economic downturn has caused the country's housing market to plummet in a big way, but I've yet to experience a more telling (and direct) example of that fact than the soaring buildings that cut a path through Williamsburg; like lighthouses all in a row, illuminating a course abandoned. Big dreams that didn't pan out.

The New York Observer reported earlier this year that while sales prices of apartments slumped in other parts of Brooklyn, Williamsburg costs rose exponentially. Yet, despite the increase in prices, home sales dropped nearly 30 percent. It's the classic story of too much too soon and now, there on the horizon, is something less like accomplishment and a lot more like regret.

Still, there is something beautiful to be taken from the stunted structures whose lifespans may have been put on hold temporary. Because there, cemented between the layers of concrete, is a hope that one day people will come to fill the space, create lives between the walls and burn lights to dot the sky. It's enough to remind me to look up.

Silent H.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Disappearing Act of Post 689 and Others

Walking past, they are hardly noticeable. No signs separate them from the stores or the sidewalk, their presence eclipsed by more prominent establishments who can offer something to passersby - a product or service of some kind. Peaking inside, open doors reveal the bare, institutional first floors of buildings marked for yuppie renovation. Old TV sets with washed out picture quality flash baseball or the races as whited haired men sit around folding card tables, gumming cigars in a space that is half living room, half kitchen. The refrigerator hums. The men cough or laugh, drinking beer and espresso. Telling stories or not talking at all, since their lives have been full of words and this is the one place where they can be silent --

"This is our place," Carl Tullo (or "Tullo" as his buddies refer to him) tells me. "A home away from home. We come here to socialize, to watch sports or just to sit. We're here every day. Whenever we can be." He's talking about the Catholic War Veteran's of America Association, one of Williamsburg Brooklyn's few remaining social clubs.  For the original citizens of Williamsburg these clubs or posts as they are called -- a nod to the military backgrounds the men all have in common --provide a welcome escape from the monotony of retirement and changing neighborhood outside their windows. 

Dedicated to Father Edward Giorgio, the Catholic War Veteran's Association is strange combination of dusty antiquity and vintage charm -- a big grandfatherly front room adorned with silver war plaques and newspaper articles yellowing in their frames and a darkened club area dotted with circular tables and a swinging Copa Cabana style bar in the rear. 

On this particular Sunday when I visit, Tullo and his friends Sonny Scali, "Rubber," "Apples" and Bobby are all sitting around the stuffed brown couches, watching television. At other clubs, like the San Conodi Teggiano Catholic Association on Graham Avenue, members pour over poker or rummy, yet as the years go by the pool of players gets smaller 
and smaller.

"Because the members are dying," says Sonny Scali, many of these clubs are shackling up, closing their doors and turning their leases over to younger generations to become trendy clothing stores and overpriced coffee shops. Last year, the former Wither's Italian-American War Veteran's Club run by famed gangster Dominick Napolitano and once headquarters for Bonanno Crime Family was remodeled into a peach-colored law office. Just this past month, the silver plaque of Father Giorgio donated by the members of Post 689, the Catholic War Veterns of America club, was stolen by vandals. 

Years ago, Wither's club, brick-laden and weathered was the site of a famous mob hit featured in the movie Donnie Brasco and is rumored to have once housed a (regularly feed) lion in it's tiny basement.  Before it turned over I used to press my face up to the glass, marveling over it's unique past. Staring into the darkness, there was no telling what had become of the space, instead I could only make out the lines of what once was...

Silent "H"

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Music to Live By...

Here is a fact that's strange, but true:

Maybe its the artist in me, or let's face it, maybe I'm just a snob, but for as long as I can remember I've been in the habit of appraising real life, critiquing its composition like most people would a painting or a symphony. Am I the only person out there who does this? There has got to be others of you.

My criteria (if I could call it that) is simple enough: the more my regular life resembles the glossy, dream-like quality of a movie, the more it fulfills my urge for something bigger, deeper, more remarkable, the more satisfied I can be with living it. 

Williamsburg suits me in this way, it fits -- the grit, the quiet loneliness that seems to permeate every street, the way it nearly topples with the weight of its history -- qualities that beg to be captured, that make something of this dream-life of mine real. And now, to top it off, there is the music...

I first noticed Saxbad, as he prefers to call himself, one afternoon while being carried along in the crowd of business folks exiting the subway at Graham and Metropolitan Aves. Tall, black, a saxophone resting at his mouth, he stood, twisting sentences, beckoning flirty notes at the passerby who came grumbling home from work as if trying to seduce them out of their seriousness. Like a modern day Dizzy Gillespie turned up on a street corner instead of a Harlem jazz club, Saxbad plays with an effortless joy that's simply contagious. 

I certainly caught it that first day, when quite suddenly my Wednesday was swept up in the glory of 1940's film noir where the wind was suddenly not just wind anymore, but an angry wind and my coat was long because I was detective-like, braving the inclement weather because, well, thats what detectives do. Another day, a rendition of something summery made me feel like finding an iced tea and a Southern porch. Music can do that to you.

As it turns out, Saxbad started the sax in junior high over 25 years ago, and continues to play, he says, "to make a living and to make people happy." Now, he divides his time between street corners in Williamburg, New York housing projects, the city subways and at open mic nights and is working on releasing his first CD.

But in the meantime, you can find him just off Graham and Metropolitan Aves, orchestrating the afternoons.  

And scene...

Silent "H"

PS. For more information about Saxbad, check out his Myspace page here

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Beyond Trash

Last week I read an article from the Associated Press about a homeless man who found a set of disregarded plans for New York's proposed Freedom Tower in a trash can in Lower Manhattan. It got me thinking about other important items people throw away and the strange, serendipitous way these same objects become part of other people's lives and take on whole new personalities, appearances, even functions in their surrogate homes.

In a city where bulk-trash day is more event than chore, I count myself as one of New York's numerous and proud dumpster divers. This is not to say that I literally get into the trash with the browning banana peels and used paper towels, but nevertheless I can't help but search for promising finds among other people's cast offs, which often become center pieces in my own home. To those living outside of urban areas, this may seem vulgar or somehow unconscionable, but I prefer to think of it as low-income antiquing.

Living in Williamsburg has afforded me the opportunity to outfit my apartment with some of the most interesting and eclectic pieces of urban antiquity around. Every Sunday, it's become a conquest of mine to carry home at least one bit of neighborhood bounty from the streets around my apartment, even if it means lugging it a considerable distance. Lately, I worry it's becoming an obsession. Walking down the block, trash piles command my full attention. I beg for broken chairs, with their peg legs and worn wicker, or dressers without cabinets, like a child pleading for ice cream.

I make a case for these objects, maybe because of their historical value, but more likely for the memories of they hold of an era (once characteristic of Williamsburg) that is slowly going the way of other invaluable relics, like the dinosaurs and the woolly mammoth. Time waits for no one, but as a collector, I feel the kind of God-like power to save or sacrifice more than these objects, but the neighborhood itself. 

From the glass cabinet doors-turned picture frames to the mint-condition bread box marked with the logo of some long-defunct company, there is a history in these special finds that, like the layers of earth covering the remnants of an ancient city, remains always in transition, a fragile link between our world and that which is no longer. 

If you're interested in taking home a Williamsburg treasure, here are a few tips:

-Make sure to get up early. 
-Weekends are usually yield the best finds, since people have time to clean out their garages and basements. 
-If you see something you like, don't wait. It may not be there when you get back.
-A little cleanup is almost always necessary, so don't balk if the item isn't department store quality.
-Keep your eyes open. Sometimes the real gems are hidden among the trash. (No pun intended)

Happy hunting,

Silent H

Monday, April 14, 2008

Art or Accident?

Were these pieces meticulously placed by some inspired creative or are they just products of the neighborhood's unconscious collaboration? 

You decide.

Silent H

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Prevalence of Mary

I've never been a particularly religious person. Brought up a (severely) reformed Jew in a household where Passovers we used a computer printout as a Sedar plate (which always left a watery ink stain on the boiled egg) and only ever went to temple to remark on the hats, to me "religion" has always called to mind images of stained glass windows and cold, silent pews, of Catholic's heavy with sin kneeling before the body of Christ, gospel choirs preaching, wailing, deep in the bayous of some Mississippi town, the woman in the congregation fanning themselves from the sweltering heat or the power of their devotion, of Italian boys in white gowns on bustery nights in the front rows of churches, dreaming of baseball. Perhaps this is why, upon moving to Graham Avenue, I became fixated on the Marys.

Before I left for college a good friend, knowing of my fascination with religious iconography, bought me a rosary from a store in Italy. Real silver with lacquered beads, it opened the door to the mystical, morose world of the Catholics, whose feminine deity I learned later, was Mary, mother of God. Mary, with her kind of split symbolism (in my mind anyway) -- at once a feminist who required no man to give birth to the Christian God, like an ancient bra burner, and a pious, chaste symbol of conservative Catholicism. Over the past few years, she, along with San Cono, the patron saint of Teggiano (where many of the neighborhood folks are from) have become my adopted protectors.

In the Northwest section of Williamsburg, where Italians and Puerto Ricans find common ground in the same God, Mary reigns supreme. Images and busts of her fragile form are everywhere, outside my local deli, poked into the ground like ceramic knomes in the gardens of my neighbors, even suspended, as it were, from atop what would otherwise be indiscriminate street signs. All shapes and sizes. With Jesus and without. That's why, in this first "official" post of The Williamsburg Diaries I decided it was only fitting to go on what I've dubbed a "Mary Tour." Screw Beacon's Closet. If you want to see an iconic image of Williamsburg, take my Mary Tour one Sunday morning, when the sun is just peeking over the horizon and the Marys are in full force:

Watching over the BQE on the corner of Meeker and Frost.

Protected from years of tarnish on Withers between Leonard and Manhattan.

Reticent on Withers b/w Graham and Manhattan.

With Baby Jesus on Frost b/w Graham and Manhattan.

Crowned in tinsel on Concelyea by the corner of Graham.

Simply divine in stain glass b/w Leonard and Manhattan.

Mary and some unnamed dignitary on Conselyea by the corner of Graham.

The virgin mother in all her glory at Anthony and Son on Graham b/w Frost and Withers.

Cosy in her house on the corner of Woodpoint and Withers.

Mary in a jar on Frost Street b/w Graham and Manhattan.

God Bless,

Silent "H"

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Silent "H"

In 1638 the fine men of the Dutch West India Company purchased a vast green land along the East River in Brooklyn, NY from a group of hard bargaining Native Americans. In 1802, a real estate speculator by the name of Richard M. Woodhull bought a chuck of the territory and gave Colonel Jonathan Williams the honor of naming his new purchase. Colonel Jon dubbed the land (whose name had become a point of contention for residents) "Williamsburgh," in a vain yet decisive move that leads us more than 200 years in the future to an apartment on Graham Avenue overlooking the Brooklyn Queens Expressway where I sit, my feet on the radiator.

A lot has gone on in the years since Woodhull procured that land and Jon W gave it it's distinctive moniker - most notably for us, the elimination of that closing "h." For the purposes of this blog, the "h" holds the uttermost importance. For contained in that vanquished symbol is the sum of everything that is concealed in Williamsburg -- it's rich hidden secrets, the life stories lost to time, the strange, remarkable characters always on the verge of extinction.

Herein lies the goal of this blog. In the coming months, the Williamsburg Diaries aims to be your guide to the quirks, characters and oddities of this flourishing Brooklyn neighborhood. I've lived in Williamsburg for approximately 2 years now, yet every day I discover something new and fascinating about this unique American town. With any luck, a few of those discoveries will make their way into this blog. Either way, I leave you with the promise of entertainment and wonder of things to come.

Yours truly,

Silent "H"