Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Cityroom blog: park slope plane crash - the lingering scars
Monday, December 6, 2010
I had to look the word up- a fragment of a manuscript or scroll scraped off to be reused. Scraping is a specific act that to me implied some tenacity on the part of the inscribed. The idea of reuse also seemed to help convey some part of the past manuscript forward. In architecture the word refers specifically to a shadow of one structure on another such as that seen here. These shadows adhere to our New York as traces of past cityscapes. The city is full of such shadows.
Publisher: Walden, Sons & Mott New York
The stories my folks told of Jackson Heights revolved around Dominican people in decidedly Dominican places. My visits during the 1980s seemed to confirm that, making it my own Dominican Republic, or something like that. At least I was sure it wasn't Mexican, the dominant Latino identity in Texas and the ethnicity with which I spent the greatest time negotiating during my childhood and adolescence.
People spoke Spanish (and Spanglish) the way my father did in Jackson Heights. They ate red beans or moros with their arroz blanco and tostones. The accordion was an unknown instrument there. Neither the term orale nor the term güey made up any part of the Jackson Heights vocabulary as I knew it. Jackson Heights was my personal claim to "Dominicanness" or, perhaps more accurately, to "non-Mexicanness" and "non-Texanness."
That link remained uncorrupt in my overly-proud mind until my late teens, when by chance I ran into another native of Jackson Heights. By the standard of my social context then, he was white -- white as it was possible to be, as he was a suburban doctor. But our conversation led to the discovery that we shared a common origin place, Jackson Heights. How different his origin place was than mine! His Jackson Heights was an Italian-American neighborhood, one that his family left not long after the flood of Dominicans that brought my family there had swept over that part of Queens. I nodded my head proudly at the mention of the replacement of people I considered white by the great brown flood, one that I'd not heard of before that moment. But the mention of a later brown flood, an influx of migrants from the Indian subcontinent, threw me for a loop. The story of Dominican triumph, developed in my mind only seconds earlier, fell, and quickly. I listened with greater humility then, as my claim to outside ethnicity crumbled and the notion of palimpsest arose in my mind for the first time. I was more than shocked when the doctor told me that most New York neighborhoods experienced such turnover. The white doctor became Italian-American that instant. He cured me of my cough and of a certain social blindness at the same time.
Since I returned to New York several months ago, I've lived in Corona, Queens (where my Dominican family now resides in the wake of the "other" brown wave), but I have made it something of a private mission to explore the place to which my Dominicanness was once tethered. More specifically, I've spent a fair amount of my spare time in Jackson Heights searching for Dominican "survivals" in terms of businesses, homes, and other material aspects. My Dominican family's world existed largely within the spatial confines of Roosevelt Avenue, near the Jackson Heights station, so my semi-ethnographic jaunts have been limited generally to the same area.
Since my first visit, however, my interests have moved quickly from seeking Dominican survivals (of which there are relatively few in that area) to studying the latest brown flood: the arrival (ironically for me) of Mexican migrants in great numbers. I've been told by many that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, most Mexicans in New York having been born in Mexico. Though I didn't quite expect it, the Mexicano presence, including the occasional "que onda guey," makes me feel more at home than any other aspect of New York City. And, getting to what this post is actually supposed to be about, the material symbols of Mexicanness have become a sort of conglomerate anchor for me, coming together in my mind bringing me a sense of familiarity in this otherwise confusing and often unfriendly city.
I understand the symbols I see in contemporary Jackson Heights. I know why the serpent chokes under the talon of the Aztec eagle. I know the Old English font wrapped around the Aztec Nacion storefront. I know many of the songs I hear on the new Roosevelt. I recognize its smells. I know its colors. I know its Virgen. Maybe I even know some of its thoughts. Whatever the case, I've come to see that while I'm Dominican in Dallas, I'm Mexican in New York. Viva la raza, pues. I've attached some examples of the symbols that helped me come to that realization, retethering my identity to Jackson Heights.
Contemporary Roosevelt Avenue, draped in a new red, white, and green standard. The photo suffers from lighting problems, but if you look closely you'll see that the Mexican flag floats in some form over many, many doors.
Restaurant in Jackson Heights just off Roosevelt. What a fantastic business name! It truly does represent the latest Chicano frontier!
A Mexican flag placed proudly in the window of a home on my old block.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
On a website of ‘Strange Maps’, I came across an early nineteenth century image of a distorted and bloated Manhattan. The title of the particular post, “A Really Greater New York,” explores a 1911 proposal for the expansion of New York City by Dr. T Kennard Thompson, a consulting engineer and urban planner. The proposal called for the reclamation of 50 miles of land from the New York City Bay and East River. If carried out, the water dividing Manhattan and Brooklyn would be non-existent and the 5-mile distance between Staten Island and Manhattan would be significantly lessened.
Through some more searching, I was able to find Dr. Lennard’s radical proposal in an issue of Popular Science Monthly from 1916. In the volume he propounds, “New York’s City Hall would become the center of a really greater New York. Having a radius of twenty five miles, and… ample room for a population of twenty-five million, the entire project would be carried out in a few years.”
Now of course this idea was never realized, but for a few fleeting moments I was overcome with images of ‘imagine if’. Imagine if the Empire State Building was never constructed because it was never necessary or imagine if the Brooklyn Bridge was razed to the ground. I was left considering what was laden in this realm of possibility of “A Really Greater New York”? And to what extent would our collective memory of New York have been altered?
I also recently stumbled upon a series of photos from 1960s New York City. The Mad Men-esque photographs signify an actualized, but now defunct image of Manhattan. Vibrant Images of classic yellow cabs, women in voluminous skirts and cat eye-glasses, buildings cloaked in adverts of a bygone era, all trigger feelings of nostalgia. Once again I was flooded with imagined memories. In my mind’s eyes, I was watching a woman ever so coolly take a drag from a cigarette and another blissfully soak up the sun on a busy street corner.
These evocative images, one a map of a proposed future, the other of snapshot of the past, seem an index to situate us in the present and a stimuli for the proliferation of memories. Memories of this sort Mary Warnock argues, reifies the past as continuous with the present and effectively allows us to live through it (949). And it is by reliving a memory that we experience the pleasure and sense of creativity that lies within the historical imagination (949). Viewing these pictures (you can see the larger images on the websites) are a wonderful exercise in historical imagination. How does one imagine past and possible future in the present? What can we learn about individual and collective memory/imagination by such an exercise?
Mary Warnock, "Memory: The Triumph Over Time"
Popular Science Monthly Volume 88, "A Really Greater New York"
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
The Rubin Museum of Art has been intriguing enough to host a remarkable exhibition entitled Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. It tries to shed some light on parallels between the Eastern Orthodox Christian and Tibetan Buddhist sacred traditions in function, subject matter, composition, and story telling strategies. Pairing some 63 icons from important private collections and the Museum of Russian Icons (Clinton, Massachusetts) with 26 from the Rubin Museum of Art and other collections, the authors wanted to intrigue our skepticism and see whether orthodox icon paintings, iconostases, and crucifixes or Buddhist thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings with embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity), and reliquaries are essentially serving the same functionality. The possibility of salvation, battles of good vs. evil, notion of heaven and hell are the concepts introduced by these works of art from 2 very remote and separate regions of the world.
Although unconvinced in the beginning, I began to see some symmetries between the two realms of depicting the Holy. Exhibition shows us the different notions of compassion manifested in the iconography of Mary and Jesus and that of Tara, the goddess of Tibet and the feminine embodiment of compassion. Parallels are also seen in the depiction of ‘’family trees’’, such as Christianity’s Tree of Jesse and Buddhism’s diagrammatic charting of the deities and teachers connected to particular historic figures.
An 18th century Byzantine icon from Greek Asia Minor depicting Christ adorned in flowing red robe, rising from the tomb amid fields like blue and green waves is exhibited nearby 19th century Tibetan thangka in which the life stories of the Buda are depicted in colored profusion. A considerable number of works on view, show us the canonic representations of saints and teachers from the Russian or Greek Orthodox Church. This impressive collection is juxtaposed to an impressive collection of images of Tibetan lamas, ascetics and yogis represented in a group of 18th century paintings or sacred statues.
The exhibit tries to explore for the first time, how two very different religious traditions have used very analogous visual language and iconography to express fundamental religious narratives. The symmetry of both Buddhism and eastern Orthodox Christianity translate their written and oral traditions into symbolic imagery for the same sole purpose to convey the religious message. Viewed through Peirce’s sign typology, such imagery (Tibetan or Christian Orthodox) is, in fact, based on a convention that personifies iconic similarity no matter how distant and isolated these two realms of religious thought might be.