Tag Archives: New York

Battle For Bed-Stuy

battle

Battle For Bed-Stuy –
The Long War on Poverty in New York City
By Michael Woodsworth
Harvard University Press – £27.95

We must maintain our commitment to act, to dare, to try again. The plight of the cities, the physical decay and human despair that pervades them, is the great internal problem of the American nation, the challenge which must be met.

                                                                                            Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

What I particularly like about this book is it’s considered, yet ultimately down-to-earth approach on a grossly unnecessary subject matter, many might consider heartbreaking and inflammatory at best.

Indeed, as the United States self-implodes beneath a seemingly unstoppable torrent of racism, division, myopic stupidity and hatred, it could well be argued from afar, that much of the populace cannot, or will not, appreciate just how much is at stake in next week’s Presidential Election.

As the ultimate wretch, Donald Trump – who Robert de Niro has described as a ”punk” and Richard Branson as ”vindictive in the extreme” – continues to placate a menagerie of yahoos with his vile and spurious rhetoric of fundamentalist bollocks; it becomes increasingly hard to remember (let alone act upon) that of the opening sentiment quoted above. Although Battle For Bed-Stuy – The Long War on Poverty in New York City is a most worthy testament to that of the Kennedy era.

Moreover, that brothers John and Robert were both conveniently murdered by way of a lunatic with a firearm, acts as something of a current-day template for what’s happening amid so many of America’s inner-cities. Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn neighbourhood upon which this fine book is essentially based, being a prime example.

An area which houses 400,000 predominantly black, poor residents, it is often derided as America’s largest ghetto; which, for all intents and investigative purposes, these eight chapters do much to bring to our attention. As already mentioned, Michael Woodsworth (who teaches history at Bard High School Early College in Queens) has approached this book with a most approachable and open manner.

From the very outset, he intersperses the socio-political with humanistic values: ”Elsie Richardson stood shivering on a windy street corner in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district, one of the poorest places in New York City. A gray midwinter sky hung low above her head; beneath her feet, a thin layer of wet snow concealed crumbling sidewalks. Richardson was a mother of three who spent her days working as a school secretary and packed her nights and weekends with community organizing and committee meetings. The next few hours would define her career as an activist – but the main thing on her mind was the cold […] When Elsie was ten and her family was living in East Harlem, her father lost his job working in a tie factory; days later, the family saw everything they owned disappear in a tenement fire that killed five people. It was 1932 – the depths of the Great Depression. They’d seen the fire coming, suspecting the landlord might burn the building down to collect an insurance payout. Elsie’s father had even placed a ladder by the back window of their third-floor apartment, just in case. The ladder saved Elsie and her three siblings. But they reached safety too late for their father to scramble up and salvage his last paycheck, which sat neatly folded in the pocket of his work pants, waiting to be cashed. Elsie desperately held onto is legs, afraid he would try to clamber back into the blaze. Then the air filled with the screams of children – Elsie’s neighbours – burning to death. For the rest of her days, that indelible memory would inspire Richardson’s activism.”

Such reading, only highlights both the shame and the travesty with which so much of American society, or Western society in general, still operates and unfortunately conducts itself. Whether it’s the Great Depression or the scandalous banking crisis of 2009, the fact that scumbag landlords are still burning down buildings (quite often with tenants inside) to pocket an insurance payout, or simple, endemic racism. The latter of which has also been on the increase in the United Kingdom thanks to Brexit.

Gritty and earthy, factual yet never dull, Battle For Bed-Stuy makes for powerful and at times, poignant reading; although I can’t imagine it’ll be on Trump’s bedside table.

David Marx

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Woody Allen – Film By Film

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Woody Allen – Film By Film
Introductory Interview With Woody Allen
By Jason Solomons
Carlton Books – £25.00

”You could see Woody Allen’s out-of-time physical clowning as a corrective to our own assumptions of intellectual superiority, and there’s always humour in
seeing an inadequate Jewish man trapped within all this mechanical paraphernalia, usually trying to impress a girl. It’s a humour tinged with tragedy, of course, a crushing, absurdist comic mechanism.”

Reading this book is almost as good and enjoyable as watching Woody Allen’s films. The prime difference being, when watching his movies, you’re concentrating on
what you’re hearing and seeing: the movie itself – replete with the actors, the dialogue, the direction and naturally everything that watching movies entails.

Whereas reading Woody Allen – Film By Film, you’re fundamentally concentrating on more of the man. More of the artist. An invitation, which, if you care to think about, really is altogether fabulous, because Woody Allen doesn’t exactly show up betwixt the pages of glossy magazines every other week.

All we essentially have to go by, is the work – which is as it admittedly should be.

But within these 253 pages (excluding Index), we get a variant of inviting (colour) close-ups of Woody Allen the artist, the writer, the stand-up, the ragingly up-tight Jewish New Yorker.

Plus, dare I say it, that which makes the man tick.

So be it behind or in front of the camera, this exceedingly wonderful book brings Woody to the fore, in a way I have personally never come across before.

This is partially achieved by exploring the didactic subject matter of the work itself. From a premise might I add, that is not only surprisingly in depth, but which reflects on each and every one of us in a profoundly idiosyncratic and inadvertent manner: ”Woody Allen’s films capture the absurdity of life and love, the humour and the pain. He can somehow nail what is most modern and evolved about us and yet also skewer our most basic, primal urges. His characters take us to the abyss and yet transport us, in fits of laughter, on flights of fantasy. Alvy Singer, Fielding Mellish, Harry Block, Gil Pender – all these creations with their ties and stammers, their inadequacies, desires and thick glasses, are far removed from most of us, yet in them we see ourselves reflected.”

That we do – which probably accounts for Allen’s relentless popularity.

Indeed, through the perplexing and quite often, poignant prism of his huge body of work – the bar of which has remained uncontestedly high throughout most of his career – we the audience, are subliminally reminded of our own doubts. Our own desires. Our very own, uncontested pangs of ridicule and remorse.

Not to mention the variant short-coming(s) of comedic sexuality. Comedic, simply because, whether it’s Alvy Singer himself, or an array of other fictitious characters; we, as film-goers, readers and society, can, and do, so very strongly relate to them all. Characters whom again and again, we meet ”throughout this book, and many more, male and female, all of them prismatic reflections of both of us and their creator, Woody Allen. Can we separate these fictitious folk from his life and our lives? Can he, especially when he plays most of them, or his real-life girlfriend does? As Alvy says of writing his first, rudimentary play in Annie Hall: ”You know, you always try to get things to come out perfect in art because, uh, it’s real difficult in life…” This book will examine the career-long tussle between the two.”

Lest it be said there are a menagerie of terrific one liners scattered throughout Woody Allen – Film By Film, which is another aspect that makes flicking through the pages, ever more inviting:

”My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
”I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, except for certain parts of New Jersey.”
”I was born in the Hebrew persuasion but I converted to narcissism.”
”Drew Barrymore sings so badly, deaf people are afraid to watch her lips move.”
”My view of reality is that it’s a grim place to be… but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.”

That said, there is, as previously mentioned, an in-depth quality to almost all of the writing contained herein; of which the following, from the chapter ‘Themes, Styles and Motifs’ is a most pertinent example: ”What typifies Woody Allen’s films is their remarkable facility for toggling between past and present, slipping into different modes with a smooth economy and narrative precision. Despite these huge leaps of logic, the audience are rarely left wondering: ”What just happened?” or ”Is this a dream sequence?” or ”Wait, how is he talking to his mother?” There is never any need for wobbly visual dissolves,special effects or Twilight Zone-style music to signal this alternate mode. And Woody can do it in any genre or tone: Midnight in Paris, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Another Woman – in all these films, characters wonder the rooms of their past and interact with other characters to comic, philosophical or tragic effect. The weird thing is that it never, not for a second, feels weird at all.”

Compartmentalized into five specific sections, the book is made up of the five decades in which Woody Allen has been making films. Starting with the 1960s (with What’s New Pussycat in 1965) and concluding with the 2000s (by way of 2015’s Irrational Man), this nigh un-put-down-able, absolutely superb book, is a resolute MUST for any discerning, serious fan or admirer of Allen’s work.

Woody Allen – Film By Film is quite possibly the next best thing to a new release; the one difference being, you can both enjoy and refer to it, at random and at will.

David Marx

The New York Nobody Knows

NYNY

The New York Nobody Knows –
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
By William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press – £19.95

In 2009, Running Press published New York 400, a visual history of America’s, if not the world’s, greatest city – to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival along the river that continues to bear his name. It’s a fascinating book that alluringly invites one to investigate the Big Apple from that of a visual perspective.

This book on the other hand, delves unto a far grittier and deeper premise, by literally investigating the city, borough by borough, street by street. And I have to say, having lived in New York for a number of years, I know first hand that walking a mere three streets in any direction, is a lot more acute, radical, potentially leery and conspicuous, than walking three streets in any direction in say London, Berlin or Paris (where I have also spent a significant amount of time). The prime reason being, three blocks away in New York, can account for an entirely different world, which, I suspect, constitutes for author William B. Helmreich having undertaken such a mammoth task to begin with.

Mammoth being the operative word here, for New York is as dense and diverse a city, as it is chaotic, exotic and simply brilliant, and this is resolutely pronounced in The New York Nobody Knows – Walking 6,000 Miles in the City’s Introduction: ”There are too many ways to analyse the city of New York. One approach is to use its geographical division into boroughs and neighbourhoods and carefully examine each of them. Another approach is to think of the city in terms of categories – Asians, whites, New Yorkers, Brooklynites, organizations, small stores, sports, seniors, children. The city can also be evaluated in terms of issues – immigration, gentrification, crime, and education. Yet another method is to look at New York City as a patchwork of physical spaces. These include streets, buildings, walls, statues, playgrounds, and memorials. All of these lines of inquiry are employed in this book, because each one helps us to better comprehend this complex metropolis.”

Halfway through this book, one does inadvertently find oneself coming to terms with and comprehending New York City in such a way that might not otherwise be possible via other publications. For how else might one find oneself in such a similarly, quixotic and dare I say it, prized persuasion?

As Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan is quoted as saying: ”Helmreich has walked everywhere and read everything pertinent on New York, and has many astute observations about both the essential spirit of the Big Apple and its rapid changes.”

Along with topographical and infrastructure changes, it’s New York’s inexorable social changes that ultimately account for it’s magnetic allure and accountability; segments of which are touched on in chapter two (‘Selling Hot Dogs, Planting Flowers, and Living the Dream – The Newcomers‘): ”[…] groups are aware of their past differences but may wish to seize a fortuitous opportunity to try to repair them. And in that sense the city becomes a hothouse laboratory for conflict resolution, demonstrating that in another context warring groups can live together in harmony. It’s a view that reinforces the most optimistic hopes of the immigrants – namely, that they can leave their age-old conflicts behind them and start over again. Whatever the individual motivations, by the time second-generation immigrants have reached adulthood, they have been here for most of their lives, and cannot relate to conflicts with which they have no real familiarity. At the same time, if group members are taught prejudice, it may take hold.”

Such clear-cut analysis, surely warrants another book in its own right?

Returning to the book in hand however, my one and only gripe is that I wish the collection of twenty-nine, black and white photographs appeared in the book as they were written about, rather than merely being placed together in its centre. As by the time one stumbles upon them, it’s all to easy to forget what they’re in reference to.

But other than that, The New York Nobody Knows really does (socially) traverse the New York nobody knows; while in so doing, invariably opening a menagerie of colourful doors I suspect most people didn’t even know existed. Myself wholeheartedly included.

David Marx