Brooklyn Declares Independence
by Turk Studzel
At midnight, December 31, 1898, the first and the fourth largest cities in the U.S. were officially merged, to share in what one commentator called New York’s "imperial destiny." Despite intense opposition from many of its citizens, Brooklyn, fourth in the country in terms of population — 900,000 strong — and fourth in terms of industrial power, was joined to Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to form the mega-metropolis of Greater New York. In the 1894 referendum on this consolidation, 64,744 Brooklynites voted for merger and 64,487 voted against — a margin of a mere 277 votes. We at The Williamsburg Observer feel that an issue with such weighty consequences deserves a stronger mandate — indeed, as with the recent Fiasco in Florida, we feel that a recount is most certainly called for. To use the lingo that Brooklyn has made famous, perhaps "we wuz robbed."
Today, with its 2.7 million citizens, Brooklyn is larger than Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Atlanta combined. It is thought that one-quarter of all Americans can trace their ancestry to people who once lived in Brooklyn. Our 81 square miles are home to people of 90 nationalities, and some of the largest settlements of West Indians, Poles, Russians, and Puerto Ricans outside their native lands. One need only visit Coney Island on a summer day to see the panorama of human culture in all its vast and beautiful diversity.
And yet do we get any respect? In the mass media, Brooklyn is generally portrayed as ugly, uncouth, and crime-ridden, with we who live here as subliterate proles who can barely speak English. Remember the short-lived police drama "Brooklyn South"? Do you know anyone who really speaks with such a doltish accent, or whose brain is that limited? Then, of course, there is Rudy Giuliani, whose attacks on our cultural institutions have become a standing joke. The ridiculous flap he started over the Madonna in the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum has been rivaled only by his marital antics. He just doesn’t get it, does he? And then, on a more serious note, we have the continual attempts at placing garbage dumps, waste transfer facilities, and pollution-belching power stations on our shores. In this issue Cathleen Breen details the latest insult in this series of insults: the 1000 megawatt power plant currently proposed for the Northside of Williamsburg. Yes, it is difficult not to smell a swindle.
We at The Williamsburg Observer feel that the time has come to take a stand against the colonization and second-class citizenship of Brooklyn, and that the best way to do that is to declare a State of Mental Independence. Manhattan, with its 1.5 million, has nothing on us. Disney and Starbucks can have Manhattan, for all we care. The Sovereign Brooklyn Peninsula does not give a whit for the silly shenanigans of Manhattan money, and if we cannot secede from this union physically and politically, we can do it Spiritually. We will just say "fahgeddabouddit."
The writer Hakim Bey, whose works are published by Williamsburg’s Autonomedia press, tells the story of the poet and artist Gabriele D’Annunzio, who in the aftermath of WWI marched the company of soldiers under his command into the Yugoslavian city of Fiume to capture it for Italy. The Italian government didn’t want it, and so D’Annunzio decided to declare Fiume an independent state and see how long he could get away with it. In the new Constitution of the independent Republic of Fiume, music was defined as the central principle of the state. Hakim Bey writes: "Artists, bohemians, adventurers, anarchists..., fugitives and Stateless refugees, homosexuals, military dandies..., and crank reformers of every stripe....began to show up at Fiume in droves. The party never stopped. Every morning D’Annunzio read poetry and manifestos from his balcony; every evening a concert, then fireworks. This made up the entire activity of the government." (T.A.Z.)
We at the Williamsburg Observer feel that there are lessons to be learned from this somewhat silly historical fluke. The Republic of Fiume lasted only eighteen months before the Italian Navy came to break up the party, but what a party it must have been! Imagine MUSIC as the central principle of the state, a poet and artist as president. Imagine the love of life as the organizing motive of society, instead of the death-hunger that seems to rule us now: the Puritan ethic, workaholism, mental censorship, unbridled greed. Nietzsche is on the money when he writes: "An observer viewing our terrestrial existence from another planet might easily be persuaded that this earth is strictly an ascetic star, the habitation of disgruntled, proud, repulsive creatures, unable to rid themselves of self-loathing, hatred of the earth and of all living things, who inflict as much pain as possible on themselves, solely out of pleasure in giving pain—perhaps the only kind of pleasure they know." The question that haunts us now is, can we imagine the situation otherwise?
The ideals of independence, freedom, autonomy, the pursuit of happiness, supposedly central to our American Way, have been subject to at least a century of degradation at the hands of bureaucrats, tyrants, and fascists of every stripe: see, for instance, Bill Brown’s maps in these pages of the surveillance cameras of Manhattan—he counts 231 in Greenwich Village, that one-time bastion of bohemian living. But while Big Brother may have grown large and fat, more and more people recognize him when they see him, and know the evil things that he wants. In another piece in these pages, artist Ebon Fisher writes of a new Zeitgeist of protest arising in recent years — as evidenced in the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle — where, after the Reagan/Bush decade and a half, and after the Clinton swindle, people are finding their voice again and taking it to the streets, the press, and the Internet.
The Williamsburg Observer sees in Williamsburg and the rest of Brooklyn abundant examples of this new Zeitgeist, this reawakening of the Spirit: the current community outcry about the proposed 1000 megawatt power plant to be built on our shores is but one moment in a larger movement of people standing up for their rights and the rights of others. We are declaring Brooklyn independent; declaring our communities and neighborhoods independent of the desires of rapacious developers; declaring our minds independent of the sense of frustration and boredom that so pervades the United States. The Sovereign Brooklyn Peninsula proclaims a state of unbridled Lust — a Lust for freedom from toxic bureaucracies, blockheaded robber-barons, clownish petty-dictators, and the semi-moribund amoeba of manhattan. When in the Course of Human Events, it becomes necessary for People to dissolve the Bonds which had hitherto kept them in The Power’s ugly thrall, We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident: the colonization of our Minds, Time, Streets, and Waterfront has reached its very Limit. The Sovereign Brooklyn Peninsula says goodbye to the sphincter aesthetics of yesterday’s wasteland and embraces the excessive economics of a vivid portmanteau vitality: delicious budding abundance in a thanksgiving of real-life rapture.
This is a hot rod crackdown and soda pop at a wayside blaze. This is the promiscuous red pepper snout of a fanciful lick entry canyon. This is flash ignition swimming and a queer bugle hoagie, a vivid thanksgiving of creation in busboy abundance. My battery juice thermometers go on automatic, locomotive
stimulus to my Vesuvius. My gonad rosary rides to unprecedented stratospheres. I hear the randy slurp hot dog auger of a
deadbeat seminal freethinker whose curvaceous absentee muzzle is a smalltalk persuasion pouch. No tin monkeys to spell paradise. No machine bags of quantum bloat autocracy ‑‑ instead the excessive economics of an unremitting romanticism. Ho and hallelujah and twinkling Jesus feet, let's toothbrush pandemonium anecdotes into our dazzling satchels of dreams and sweepstakes, rupture hardcore tedium to elaborate stirring oceanographic physical education. Our lotus refuge is a First Amendment arabesque and a drive‑in cardiovascular beef carousal. Dionysus' dingus in multiplicity — to transgress, impervious to the cautionary librarian, the penniless dodo, and the tired baboons of atonement. To trespass the metermaid security commissariat. No prohibitions. Rhapsodize abandon, abandon. Versify the battleaxes. Overthrow antiperspirant martyrdom. Revolutionary epoch inhabitants shed unwholesome credentials and in triceratops independence eat tastebud Eden.
Listen as the sounds make your mouth.
July 4, 2001 Autonomy Issue
Don’t Be Square—
The Secret’s in the Slant
In This Issue:
Bill Brown &
the Surveillance Camera Players:
The Coney Island
Mermaid Parade w/ Photos by:
Download PDF of Entire Print Issue
With work by:
Thomas Hobbes and the Attack of the Big-Haired Gig-Bag Hipster Children of Bruce
Many Universes on Top of Each Other
By Carl Watson
Young Tom Hobbes read a lot of adventure books for boys. Fellas named Buck and Skipper who rode fast rockets and snuck into forbidden cities and haunted houses. They always had that “Let’s’ go!” expression stretched over their mugs like the world was a big novel and they were in it. One day Tom Hobbes was reading an article in the Science Times about the creation of new universes. Apparently the cosmos was like a space/time seaweed, with big lumps of separate universes growing along the stalks. These universes were balloons in different states of inflation, a lump here, a lump there. “Wow!” Tom thought. There was London and there was Brooklyn. Two bubbles of meaning. Walt Whitman lived in Brooklyn. Walt and Tom were pals. Tom packed a lunch and some clean socks and headed out the door.
“Where are you going Tom, his dad asked.
“I’m taking a boat to Brooklyn, Dad!”
“Never heard of it son. But you have fun. Don’t get in trouble. And be back in time for dinner.” Tom’s mom was dead.
So Tom took a ship. It was a big fast steamer and got to Brooklyn in no time flat. When he arrived he found out that Walt was dead too. The lilacs had bloomed at last for his buddy. So he got an apartment by himself, some neighborhood near the Prospect Park. Lefferts Gardens, the real estate agents were calling it. They said you could fool people by calling crummy neighborhoods ‘gardens’. It went all the way back to the Bible. But the people that lived there didn’t know it was a garden. Then Tom moved to Park Slope, down by 4th avenue. But the people who lived there asked him to leave. They said he was a Monarchist.
So Tom moved to Williamsburg and started drinking. He drank at the Ships Mast and the Right Bank. Those were yeasty days. Fervid and fun. Artists threw bottles. Cars were burning in the street. Young people were sick of the capitalist pigs who fueled the myth-making machinery of Manhattan. It was depleting and mean. People have to think their lives are worth something. Dissatisfied with the imposed values of the ‘downtown’ hegemony, Williamsburgers fashioned their own contrasting identity: non-commercial, cyber, communal etc. They built great Jules Verne-like art machines that ran on anti-capitalist energy. There were plans on the drawing boards even back then to install free computers in the future shopping malls of the neighborhood, so everyone could participate.
“11211!” they cried. “718!” “Down with 10002, 10009. Down with 212 and 646” (They seemed to agree on 917 as a neutral zone.) But as Henry James said: everyone is both a great guy and a jerk depending on what they want from you. Parvati takes the poison from Siva’s throat and transforms herself into Kali. Which has nothing to do with anything except to say that things could get ugly quick.
One day Thomas Hobbes was hanging out with his friend, Virginia Woolf, an old Williamsburg resident from long back. She’d had her own room in a loft building where she and others worked on a thing called Modernism. She lived in Manhattan now. But she came to Brooklyn to party with Hobbes. After a few beers at Galapagos, they went to a gallery opening on the Northside. A local paleontologist was sketching a timeline of the neighborhood. He had names dates events etc, and it was all on a map with lines drawn all over the place like some kind of family tree of Williamsburg’s cultural history. And there were castles and feuds and children born to siblings and dinosaurs and one-celled amoebas crawling out of the primal slime of the East River. Kind of like a Disney version of Bohemia—one second it’s giant lizards and Mozart, the next its goatees and gig bags.
“And so you see,” he said, “the center of the universe is right here.” He was pointing at the intersection of Bedford and Metropolitan. Where Avant Garde Man first freed himself from the Chains of Capital.”
Virginia said “Yes, I remember those days well. And grand days they were.”
“Oh really.” The guy said in a European accent. “I think you are more probably some kind of nothing but a Bridge and Tunnel person, yah?”
Virginia turned to Tom and said, ”Now you know why I moved.”
The Bridge and Tunnel Wars
That night Tom had a nightmare of flesh-eating people with giant hair walking across the bridge, imposing their mediocrity on the elite masses. Devouring culture like a rite. Mindlessly demanding more restaurants.
Tom asked his buddy Walt Whitman what the dream might mean. Walt was alive again because that’s just the way things are. Walt said that these were the dreaded ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ people. Walt claimed that he had invented them in his famous Brooklyn Bridge poem but now they had mutated into political symbols of conservatism and cultural inertia. He lamented the new connotations of the word, the veiled, anti-working class sentiment so prominent in liberal weeklies.
“Believe me, you don’t want people like that living next door,” those haughty editors would proclaim as they sipped colored drinks at perpetual designer-line release parties.
Now Brooklyn people were using Bridge and Tunnel to describe Manhattanites. “They are coming to eat Williamsburgers and drink our Brooklyn Lager. Fuck them.” We should secede from this devil’s union. Fists pumped the air. Factions split. Fingers pointed. Committees were formed demanding recounts. There were references to Singapore and Vatican City. Being the dreamer he was, Thomas Hobbes became the Walter Mitty of separatist fantasies. He saw civil war brewing throughout the borough. In Carrol Gardens the people declared themselves independent of Red Hook. Prospect Heights denied any relation with Crown Heights. The South Slope went to war against its uppity neighbor to the north. In Williamsburg, barriers were set up between the North and the South sides. Between the Past and the Present. The Brooklyn Commune was established, as old artists blocked off a whole portion the neighborhood with sandbags and broken furniture. People carried banners in the street “Remember the Cat’s Head” “Remember the Lizard’s Tail.” “Remember Annie Herren.”
Now Tom may have fantasized about California seceding from the union, and thought that was a good thing. But he was afraid of Brooklyn becoming a sovereign state. These people had emotions. The world was already shrinking into an infinite number of special interest groups. If things got any worse, there might be a cold war in New York. He saw Howard Golden pounding a table with his shoe. He saw George W. proclaiming Ich bin ein Brooklyner.
But then again with recession around the corner, war might be a good thing. Just think of the entertainment value. Like a subway series but with guns and barbed wire. Art for Art’s Sake. Goatees vs. Van Dykes. Lattes vs. Cafe con Leche. Thai vs. Nouveaux Mexican. Gangs in black-leather fighting gangs in three-button vintage. Giant pods appearing in dumpsters all over the city. No one would know who were the real people and who were the body snatchers. Your best friends would seem hollow and duplicitous.
Eventually there could be Checkpoint Charlies. Families would be separated. People would be taking submarine kayaks across the East River. Or crossing in balloons. They could make a movie with Bruce Willis. They could build a wall. Then after years they could tear the wall down and everybody could get back together. It would be in the news. “Brooklyn reunites with New York.” They would show people shaking hands or just walking around bewildered. Tickertape and bands. Reunification would be sweet. But it had its downside as well. And that would be the tragedy of love.
One night Tom was watching a movie about Hong Kong being reunited with Mainland China. Gong Li was a prostitute and Jeremy Irons was the Colonizing Journalist who loved her anyway. Gong’s fiancé wouldn’t marry her because she’d been a whore. He was old world. Jeremy was new. He would marry her. It was East vs. West. But Jeremy died of leukemia and Gong ended up without a place to go. Trapped between worlds, at home in neither. Like the city itself.
Thomas Hobbes thought of all the great movies that could be made in a fractured New York. ‘The Last J Train’: in which Catherine Deneuve falls in love with an actor from Brooklyn during the occupation. Or Casabianca’: in which ex-Williamsburg resistance fighters hang out in Morocco and Ingrid Bergman is played by Bianca Jagger who is a blacklisted performance artist. Or how about ‘The Awesome Escape’: in which Steve McQueen flees the futuristic mental hospital of Manhattan by crashing his Triumph motorcycle through holographic barriers of barbed wire in the name of free thought. The possibilities were endless. The romance was intoxicating. Problem was most of these movies had already been made. Hollywood was faster than the collective imagination. It had turned the romance of revolution into entertainment.
Being reduced to a perpetual naiveté by the speed of the corporate machine was a problem in and of itself. And as nice as all this war stuff sounded, the more probable route to autonomy was a commercial one. Perhaps Brooklyn should become a giant nightclub with velvet ropes. Large men in tight black tee shirts and sunglasses could point at the better dressed amongst the crowd. Of course the beautiful women would be the first to cross the bridge. Thus Brooklyn would become the fabled ‘Borough of Beautiful Women.’ Limos. Klieg lights. ‘Bob’ DeNiro with babes on both arms. And shiploads of lost souls crashed on its shores.
The Transcendental Homelessness of Thomas Hobbes
There was so much going on in Tom’s imagination, he felt a little bit like Fredric Moreau from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education—just trying to find a girlfriend in the middle of a revolution. And Tom met many women in his quest. Women who seemed to talk but had nothing to say. One day he jumped narratives, and went on a date with young Emma Bovary. He was telling her about this book he wanted to write. He was thinking of calling it ‘Leviathan.’ A book about power and the manipulation of public will. But his date kept walking away from him to talk on her cell phone. Emma would say “Oh excuse me, Tom Hobbes. Hold that thought for a minute.” And he did. But it kept happening. Once she never came back. Tom felt like a fool. It was then he wrote down on his cocktail napkin “Life in the State of Nature will be nasty brutish and short.” He used the future tense.
He also shifted his political stance. He decided that human right to self-preservation and happiness did not jibe with the clashing interests of numberless ‘individuals’. So he decided to run for office on the platform of no more phones. But nobody liked his campaign. It meant they might have to talk to their neighbors. Actually, they thought Tom was insane. But Tom thought insanity was a relative term, a ‘seeming’ inability to properly process information that was trumped up to begin with—a simulacrum of some original ur-information that never really existed except as propaganda. Who wouldn’t be insane reading sentences like that? Not that there weren’t real insane people—people walking down the street flailing their arms talking to voices miles away. But today everybody looked like that. If space men came to earth they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Every human is an island after all.
Tom knew deep in his heart that he too was this autonomous moral unit touted in all the ads. He just didn’t seem to be able to depend on that independent feeling. He began to spend time on the internet--the Global Village as they used to call it, bolstering his self-legislating abilities. But trying to bridge that gap between independence and infinite desire he got carpal tunnel syndrome—it was as if Walt Whitman’s big-haired people were in his veins and nerves crucifying his e-spirit to the cross of matter.
Still he couldn’t stop. He liked the feeling of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And if you stay in your apartment no one can laugh at you for waving your arms around in autonomous glee. Unless you’re on the internet in a coffee shop. Maybe that’s why they keep making coffee shops, to put personal autonomy on display. So more people would see it and want it.
Somehow in all the increasing want and individual freedom you still had to pay rent. And it was a lot more rent than it used to be. Tom had a job painting a stairwell in a loft building in Brooklyn. Oddly enough the money that was paying for it was cell-phone money. The landlord had rented out his rooftop for the erection of cell-phone relay towers. So Tom was really working for the enemy. What they used to call ‘the Man.’ But it wasn’t called the man anymore. It was called Opportunity. Ironically, Emma Bovary lived in that very building. But she had changed her name to Lil’ Ayn Rand and had become a rap poet. She laughed at Tom in the stairwell almost every day.
Later that week, Tom and his friend, Niccolo ‘Nick’ Machiavelli were having lunch at the L Cafe. They were talking about complex issues of identity and landscape. Nick said it had become difficult to tell who really lived somewhere and who only thought they did. There were cyber residents and renters. People with intellectual claims on a lifestyle and those who were merely followers and fools. There were couch surfers, web surfers, gigolos and mooches. Locals and interlopers. Then there were the guys who worked in the auto-body shop.
Oddly enough, at that moment, outside the cafe, a so-called ‘local’ man was eating Chinese food on the L Cafe bench. The L Cafe doesn’t sell Chinese food so they told him to leave. The so-called ‘local’ man countered with some populist defense, like “This bench is on the sidewalk and the sidewalk belongs to the people,” he said. “Besides, I was born in this neighborhood.” Everybody laughed. Indeed these ‘native’ people were becoming a problem that needed a new kind of cowboy to conquer them. “This is our neighborhood now, we bought it and you have to move,” said the clerk.
The incident catalyzed a conversation between the two old friends . “You know you can buy air rights, you can buy and sell intellectual property,” said Tom, “It doesn’t even have to be very intellectual. You can pay taxes in cyber space. But you can’t call any place home anymore. Waht’s to be done.”
Niccolo responded wistfully, “I don’t know, I like to think there’s somewhere, a place for everybody, one that doesn’t require anti-depressants or narcotics—a homeland where people who think alike can get together for coffee on the sidewalk and talk about their great grandparents without fear of intervention. This was the job of compassionate government.”
Just then Charles Baudelaire stopped by. He’d been working on his new book ‘Brooklyn Spleen.’ He was living in Greenpoint in those days, and had just written a review of Rousseau’s Social Contract. He tried to sell it to 11211 Magazine, but the editor said they wouldn’t run the review because Baudelaire didn’t live within the zip code. It’s a “11211 kind of thing, man . . . You wouldn’t understand.” Charles could understand the snobbish attitude, after all he was a snob himself, but he couldn’t understand basing that attitude on a mediocre teen TV show.
He agreed with Tom’s observation that we moderns are merely trying to feel at home in a world that denies the possibility. Transcendental Homelessness, as Lukacs called it. But the truth is we secretly desire it. Americans have always believed in alienation as an inalienable right. So we created a world where everybody could be equally alienated. It’s as American as folk music and hobos. Those movies about visitors from space have a secret message—there won’t be no Woody Guthries in the virtual boxcars of our coming exodus from the dust storm of self-reification, and if you feel like you’re living in that kind of folksong buddy you better take a good long look in the mirror.
Thomas Hobbes suddenly found himself longing for his beloved 17th century. He moved to Manhattan to escape Brooklyn’s modern ways, but as he walked the streets of his newly adopted ‘home’ he felt things had gone quite weird. The space-time matrix was flexing its muscles. Bodegas would disappear in the blink of an eye, as if they were never there. Suddenly there’s a dress boutique or another coffee shop. He thought it best to stick with the material explanation—quantum mechanics, as opposed to economic dislocation. Marx might say they were the same, but Steven Hawkings might claim “ Those dress boutiques were always there anyway, see. They were merely latent.”
It’s true. Many universes are going on all the time. Terre Haute, Indiana had superimposed itself on the East Village. Crowds of young students screaming ‘Yahoo.’ Strange Danish people had come to Brooklyn. They looked just like us but they weren’t. They were Danish. They wanted to recreate the Broadway Diner in Denmark and even had real Brooklyn people flown there, so that they could be in Brooklyn while they were still in Denmark. They called it an art project and everybody loved them.
There was general confusion whether the revolution had already happened or whether it was still to come. Time and morality were all cockeyed. You could stay in one place but it didn’t help. In fact you might end up moving faster by standing still. Tom was visiting India at www.jayajagannatha.com when he heard the Chambers Brothers song ‘Time has come today’ wafting across the Ganges. He sang along with the lyrics, “I’ve been lost and put aside, I’ve been crushed by the tumbling tide. And my soul has been psychodelicized. Oh Lord, I have to roam. I have no home. etc. etc.” It seemed particularly pertinent.
Tom didn’t feel at home on the Lower East Side. But then Tom didn’t feel at home in Williamsburg either. You only ever get a brief look at this vague concept ‘home’ just enough to make you want it. Since you can’t inherit it, you spend the rest of your life and money trying to reclaim it. It’s part of ‘their’ plan. But who are ‘they’ anyway. Some people said it was ‘us.’ Others said ‘them.’ Meanwhile the shopping continues. Addicts roam the streets. Everyone is clean and talented. And you can buy delicious cheese and olives. Life isn’t so bad. Tom was just settling into this tasty dream when his dad popped his head in the door.
“Tom, time to go to bed, son.”
“Aw gee Dad, do I have to?”
Carl Watson is a writer and philosopher. His books include Beneath the Empire of the Birds, Bricolage ex Machina, and hotel des actes irrovocables.
Alex Oliveros is a photographer who lives in Williamsburg’s Southside. His work has shown widely in Brooklyn galleries.
I COVER THE WATERFRONT....
HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES
by Lex Grey
There comes a time when the things that draw you to a place begin to disappear. They become barstool legends and urban folklore. Tall tales for late nights and things to tell (or not tell) my children even though I don’t have any. Some names and situations have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.
When I first came to Williamsburg it was snowing. Entertaining a friend from out of town, we passed a wintery New York evening under the twinkling lights of an East Village Indian restaurant, drinking wine and burning our lips on vindaloo....yet all that kept twinkling in my mind and burning on my lips was the thought of this beautiful performance artist I’d just met and her eccentric charms....and her party just over the Williamsburg Bridge. Ah, Brooklyn....the final frontier. Enticing my friend and his rental car to accompany me on this adventure was not difficult, since he had no idea what he was getting into and neither did I. Watching him with his tropical tan not-yet-faded scrape the rapidly accumulating snow off the windshield, a strange rush came over my entire body. I somehow knew I was leaving the East Village, college, and my life as I knew it, never to look back.
The bridge was nearly invisible in the post-midnight blizzard. The roadway, slippery and unstable, felt like it was falling apart beneath the wheels. Snow cascaded above and a darkened desolate waterfront unfolded before us, snowy white tufts draping over crumbling piers and burnt-out buildings. Thoughts were racing like snow in a streetlight — paranoia tinged with titillation....I kept thinking "the bridge is crumbling — I’m never going to leave." Both things turned out to be true. When I cracked open the car window, in crept the sweet brine of a winter river and the faint smell of wood burning.
I was startled out of the fantasy when a stranger came out of nowhere and put his hand into the window I had just opened. Before I could react, he said in broken English, "Please, miss, take the kitty," and out of his overcoat came a tiny black kitten that he shoved through the window, abruptly saying "please" again and disappearing into the blizzard.
The loft, the woman I was visiting that fateful evening, and the cat, would all become mine for a short and tumultuous time, a vivid life lesson in being careful what you wish for, but those scars disappeared quickly. I was seduced by the Burg’s brand of romantic danger — taken in by the spell — the redbrick buildings glowing in the afternoon sun — the days of innocence and wildness. We were drawn here because it was open and untamed and so were we.
Whatever happened to the Vodka Man? On a hungover Sunday morning you’d arrive on the corner of Berry and North 7th still awake from the night before, and if you had any money left you’d give it to the little old man in the frayed and ill-fitting suit. He’d open his large, tartan-plaid suitcase, and produce a bottle of cheap vodka....usually Alexi or Popov. "Ten" was all he would say, and he’d smile and nod enthusiastically as he took your money. His ears and nose resembled florets of cauliflower, and his smiling face was red as a beet, but if you had a guitar case or a hard luck story you could sometimes talk him down to six. Never five. Once a passing patrol car slowed down to investigate the crowd that had suddenly formed on this normally desolate corner. He quickly zipped up his suitcase and sat on it, putting his head in his craggy hands, looking like someone’s grandfather left at a train station. One Sunday he just stopped showing up. I never saw him again.
Juanita worked the corner of Metropolitan and Wythe. If you were crossing her path, you had better not loiter for a second ‘cause that was her corner. She would tell you that immediately, and then demand to know who you were and what you were doing. After getting interrogated by her for a few days, she realized I was not her competition. She had such a natural grace about her; a courageous street-beauty that made it easy to see a soul behind those crack and dope eyes. She was a real-life superhero, so matter-of-fact, so unfazed by her own life, never looking sorry or sad or vulnerable — a post-apocalyptic painted princess asking me for my sunglasses because she dropped hers in someone’s car.
The waterfront working girls came and went — at a point there were twenty or thirty along Kent and Wythe from Southside to North — I watched them fade like cheap flowers around her. Juanita was the queen. One day I saw her looking up from applying lipstick in the cracked side-mirror of a parked van and she summoned me over. "Hey, Madonna," she said, smiling. She knew my name, but seemed to get a big kick out of calling me Madonna. "Where can I get some clothes like yours?" From then on I’d always bring her stuff I wasn’t wearing anymore. On an especially cold winter afternoon I brought her a white fur jacket that I bought at Domsey’s for three bucks. She jumped up and down like a little girl and hugged me. "Madonna, you always bring me luck....and nice presents."
Sometimes I would ride by on my bike and see her in one of my outcast outfits, climbing into a truck or getting out of a car wearing my old sunglasses. This thrilled me more than disturbed me until she went missing. No one seemed to notice or care. Soon there was another girl on her corner. I later heard that Juanita was found in a Lower East Side dumpster, bound and strangled, wrapped in a white fur jacket.
These were the days of unrestricted East River access. An accidental riverfront park had sort of cropped up between the squatted buildings, stripped and torched cars and very unusual garbage that dotted the landscape west of Kent Avenue. This was the last stop for factory seconds. It was not uncommon to see hundreds of incomplete, lopsided ladies’ purses strewn about, or piles of plastic googly eyes, punctuated by an occasional defunct household appliance or dead animal in a beyond-your-wildest maggot nightmare state of decomposition.
Charles lived on the waterfront in the remains of the flour terminal. His view of Manhattan was impeccable, as was his collection of mystery vintage drugs from the VA hospital. Every time I would pop in he’d tell me in his soft and soothing voice that he’d been expecting me. We’d read through the Physician’s Desk Reference that he kept out like a coffee table book, trying to determine exactly what was in those 1950’s and ‘60’s style medicine bottles stacked high and deep in a storage locker. I remember trying to decipher the faded and ominous warning labels...."danger — this drug may have a hypnotic effect"...."or may cause psychosis, particularly in children..."
It was remarkably easy to while away winter afternoons drinking tea steeped over a Sterno, sitting in Charles’ "den," which was a graffiti-covered square terra cotta block room with the ceiling burned away, flanked by a bank of broken toilets, a cherry tree on one side and the river on the other. There was a makeshift table covered in found objects illuminated by candles. Trinkets, Mardi Gras beads, doll heads, keychains, broken costume jewelry, ashtrays....I was never sure if it was solely his creation, or some sort of offering table for passersby. Sometimes when I stopped in and Charles wasn’t there, I’d sit awhile, then leave something on the table. The charred rafters against the sky, the gnarled glassless panes framing a vista better than any postcard, and the cherry tree are all gone now, bulldozed and fenced into a sterile limbo. Rumor has it that Charles moved into a brownstone in Park Slope with a beautiful young girl he’d met on the waterfront. I guess he was having difficulty making the leap to conventional living with its walls and doors and such....I last heard he’d set up his furniture in their backyard.
Time certainly seemed to move at a different rate here. Leaving Manhattan, crossing the then-dilapidated pedestrian walkway of the Willy B where the brittle shingles fell away under your feet, the deceleration would begin. You were leaving the land of amenities and entering the land of myth and legend. Of course, you had to get across the mighty span first. In addition to the throngs of shady individuals that called the bridge home, bands of young marauders would string piano wire across the barely-lit walkway in an attempt to ensnare unwary bicyclists. It was also remarkably easy to climb the tower. The railing surrounding the walkway was ornate in that industrial revolution sort of way, a semi-script WB that interlocked in a lattice of rusty bars and rivets. Where this met the base of the tower there was a treacherous two-foot gap, but a confident step later, I found myself shaking the rusty door that led to the zig-zagging stairs. I was ascending the spiraling cage to the top. With each gust of wind I was sure I was going to plunge to my death. The zig-zagging of the open stairwell got tighter, the stairs seemed to have an unnatural give, and I was gripped with the sensation that the bridge was precariously swaying. Still, convinced that I was the first person ever to do this, the proverbial flag had to be planted. Inches from my goal, I realized just how wrong I was about being the first one in the tower. The stench of excrement slapped me across the face as I stepped into Armageddon’s penthouse, covered in newspapers and condoms, syringes and empty bottles — a honeymoon suite for the disenfranchised. Brooklyn and Manhattan lay sprawling in the twilight like two lovers with nothing in common, like the past and the future separated by swirling black water. Trouble was, there was no way to determine which was which.
To be continued....
Lex Grey is a chanteuse, writer, and artist. See http://www.lexgreymusic.com/
Eve Gilbert’s forthcoming book, Tits, Ass, & Machine Guns will be published by FantaGraphics Press in 2002.
By Ebon Fisher
"Capitalists can't fathom the bottom web of nature. That's why they invented a bottom line." ‑St. Woowoo
Sophia Loren snagged an Oscar for making World War II look like a universal slide into madness. The 1961 movie, Two Women ("La Ciociara"), presented soldiers and civilians alike as weilding a form of pragmatic tunnel vision which leads them into all manner of cruel and cowardly actions. Paranoia and self‑interest, even in the small villages peripheral to the action, ultimately unraveled the threads of kindness which made life worth living.
We are currently in the throes of another war, but it is harder to pin‑point the bombs and soldiers, let alone capture it in a movie. Over‑weening pragmatism is also a player in this war, but with strains of vanity that has enjoined us in a new cold war with everything and everyone. Maybe it's my own rude awakening, but hasn't corporate culture, even in this brief economic slow‑down, become overwhelming? We seem to be infected by a particularly virulent strain of corporate culture, throwing the Earth into paroxysms of teeth‑gnashing gentrification and commercialism, affecting everything from over‑blown real estate values to the scramble to alter and patent the DNA of our biological heritage. Everything is for sale. Everything is entering the wars of commerce. From the tip of your nose to the sweat under your grandmother's knee, there is information waiting to be entered into a database and sold to an insurance company. Got a home remedy for the flu or melancholy? Stupid simian, give us your money and eat one of the following: Viagra, Xenical, Propecia, Claritin, Celbrex, Renova, or Zyban. Most of us have no idea what any of those synthetic creations actually do, but TRUST THE CORPORATION. Some call the situation inevitable. Some call it Darwinism. Some call it libertarianism. I call it a bad case of greed backed up by magazine puff science. Our culture is in a fever. It may be the last flare‑up before the United States comes to terms with the limits to unbridled growth.
THE BOHEMIAN CAPITALIST
There's a peculiar woman in Minnesota who calls herself the "Bohemian Capitalist." Heather Mackalhattan appears periodically on National Public Radio spouting off suggestions on "fun" ways to invest money. There is absolutely nothing bohemian about her. She's merely wacky in that efficient way a Pottery Barn catalogue moves your eyeballs from fish‑shaped candlesticks to prices. Her "bohemian" suggestion for a graduation gift? A high‑risk Bio Tech stock. "It's a fun way to learn about the stock market," she says. Since when do Bohemians invest in ecosystem devastation?
GOOGLE ISN'T GIGGLING
When bohemians start playing the stockmarket we should worry. But things have gotten so twisted even the capitalists are beginning to freak out. Serge Brin, President of the hugely popular search engine, Google.com, recently lamented over our new corporate culture at the Commonwealth Club of California.
"Silicon Valley has a lot of materialistic focus," he said. "A lot of focus on money which I do not enjoy at all." One of Google's rivals, GoTo, hasn't hesitated to sell search rankings to the highest bidder. Despite Google's stated innocence, they've picked up a thing or two from their nemesis and sell ads which pop up next to related search results. At least they keep the commercials in little boxes.
IT'S THE WATER, STUPID
Let the people of India share their water rights? No, too vague, too weird. Monsanto must buy the water rights out from underneath them and sell it back to the citizens for a profit. And that's just practice. Wait till Monsanto seeps into to your biome. Ask Vandana Shiva. Her book, Stolen Harvest, will scare the sweatshop clothes right off your loins.
I left New York a few years ago to take on some work in Iowa City, a bucolic oasis with a couple of decent caf s, a bloated university, and a lovely independent bookstore named Prairie Lights. The Writer's Workshop brings in interesting characters to inflate the graffiti at the Fox Head and George's Bar. Endless acres of fields and farms surround the town. Iowa seemed like a good respite from the incinerators and auto emissions of New York.
Jesus, was I deluded. Like a transformer toy dripping with pesticides, the small family farms are consolidating into vast, carcinogenic agricultural systems. In a sense Iowa has become one of the most industrial states in the country. The water is polluted. Strip malls and huge car parks have replaced a host of ancient barns and Victorian houses. The University of Iowa has replaced collegiality with corporate nomenclature and statistical analysis. A huge, impersonal shopping mall was built just outside of town and sucked the living juices out of Iowa City's economy. Only the chain bars are managing to prosper. Agribusiness and corporate culture has eaten the area alive. There's only about 5 acres of prairie left in the entire state. Laura Engels Wilder would think she was on another planet.
BIG BUSINESS = BAD WATER
Consider the water here. Its problems can be placed squarely on the rise of corporate farming upstream. Until a couple of decades ago, small family farms evolved for generations into a well‑coordinated ecosystem of animals, produce, farmers, distributors and nature. Conflicts were handled with conversations and handshakes at the local bar or church. A lot of farm goods were produced without a huge tax on the social or physical environment. In fact, the culture of Iowa was exemplary. It had one of the best school systems in the country and boasted one of the highest numbers of local theatres.
In the early 1980s Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard to violently bust up striking meat packers in Southern Minnesota. Along with a gradual evolution of farm technologies and government‑sponsored consolidation and corporatization of the farm industry the family farm system has been forced into a corner. As Gary Choder, a farmer from Lakemills, Iowa, points out, "The farm magazines are biased because they're sponsored by the chemical companies. They don't tell you what's really going on. The big farmers lobby in Washington or Iowa to squeeze the little farmer out. They don't like the competition." Corporations lobby for spurious quality control standards which are an unnecessary burden for a small farm, but reflect precisely the needs of a large operation to sanitize its over‑crowded conditions.
SMELLING THE OBVIOUS
True to the corporate model, the owners of large farms do not live anywhere near their operations. They have proven to be indifferent to the repugnant smell which the over‑sized hog farms send downwind, or the massive pesiticide runoff into the rivers. Corporate economies of scale allow for greater amounts of chemicals to be used per acre, with less careful tayloring to each crop. Their disregard for water pollution and fish kills stemming from over‑sized operations is legendary. Michael Pollin, author of "The Botany of Desire," points to the Irish potato famine as a warning. "You could put the whole problem with American agribusiness in one word: monoculture," he stated recently on National Public Radio. "The logic of capitalism drives you towards monoculture. The logic of nature drives you towards diversity."
THE BOTTOM WEB
The 1997 Iowa Geological Survey reports that groundwater contamination from the toxic build‑up in leaking hog manure lagoons has begun to threaten our interconnected underground water supply. Over 100 rivers have been designated dangerously toxic. The Iowa River is a recipient, ultimately, of such underenlightened practices and we drink that water in Iowa City. It literally burns the stomach. Parents are warned against feeding it to their children. To make matters worse, the town adds an unhealthy amount of chlorine to the water just to fight the bacteria. Needless to say, we're forced to purchase filtered water. If I were to stay here, I'd be sorely tempted to start a class action suit against the huge agribusinesses for polluting our water. The big companies wouldn't be profitable if their "bottom line" had to account for "the bottom web" they were destroying.
SOULS FOR SALE
Last Fall my research assistant at Digital Worlds, John Freyer, opened up a websight, Allmylifeforsale.com, which proceeded to unfurl an entire sidewalk sale of the entire contents of his apartment. His tongue‑in‑cheek indictment of capitalist culture is deepened considerably by an ongoing dialogue he maintains with the purchasers. The newsmedia have gone wild over the site and John has frantically ridden the hysteria for months. The New York Times, the London Times, Good Morning America, NPR, and PBS have all jumped on the story. Some get it, some don't, but what is clear is that a nerve has been struck. Whether or not our lives are entirely for sale is not the question. The public is becoming queasy about the possibility.
ROB HICKMAN DROPPED 7 TELEVISIONS OFF A ROOF
Long before this odd era of restaurants and incinerators, a Williamsburg sculptor, Rob Hickman, gathered a huge crowd of people on South 12th Street to witness the ritual bashing of six TV sets. He had them dropped simultaneously from the top of a six‑story building. They were still plugged in and flickering as they descended. The build‑up lasted for hours. It was one of the most piquant communal gatherings I've ever experienced. Corporate media never felt so good.
LUISA CALDWELL SURROUNDED A HOUSE WITH ALLEGORICAL BOMBS
Awhile ago a Williamsburg media artist, Luisa Caldwell, surrounded a small replica of a house with three menacing rings of bombs. Gated community? Military‑industrial flower?
The huge international protests against the World Trade Organization are a sign of a pivotal change occurring in the sentiments of the public towards corporations. Mainstream and underground press alike have begun to churn on the topic. I've even heard pundits from a Harvard thinktank ruminating on the meaning of the anti‑corporate movement. Although we can continue to count on the couch potatoes of the world to stay in a coma, enough alternative media, memes, culture jams and legislative scribblings are beginning to galvanize into a zeitgeist. It's quite lovely and refreshing. It won't be long before Big Media flatten the energy with a Big Movie starring Julia Roberts as a Seattle anarchist. Her character will "grow" in the movie and learn that all she really wanted was to work for a PR company, buy a belching SUV with a credit card, and marry the cop who arrested her.
THE BIG SPIN
Somewhere between the end of the Vietnam War and the reign of CEO George W. Bush, we took our finger out of the dam and allowed capitalism and competition to completely wash over us. It is tempting to say we simply switched our antagonism from the Russians to ourselves. And we might wisely say that the pursuit of power and golden calves has always wrenched our attentions away from the unfathomable pleasure of sharing the universe. What is different is that our culture is now mediated by the greatest consolidation of corporate power the world has ever seen. Our mental environment vascillates between reptilian postmodern mendacity and one endless jingle. And that jingle is loaded with such a hive of copyrights that the product is delivered tepid and loveless.
Needless to say, the "art world" hasn't leveraged any major coups against the corporate culture. Museums and literary societies lost much of their cultural significance somewhere between the invention of photography in 1839 and the rise of the indie music and film scenes of the late 20th century. There continues to be an odd flirtation between independent and corporate media which may provide the seeds to a better balance of social energies. Someday our schools may actually wake up and teach media literacy, folding the older arts into its analysis.
I think there is a mythology about the "inevitability" and even the "righteousness" of corporate systems which we are up against here. Calvin used to curry favor with rich Christians in England by convincing them that their wealth implied that their ticket to heaven was pre‑ordained. This, of course, helped to justify the exploitation of workers and tenants who amassed the wealth in the first place. Today biologists and roboticists have been exploring the idea of "emergent behaviour" ‑the random, trial‑and‑error integration of small parts into large systems. It won't be long before corporations invoke emergent behaviour to justify their gradual suffocation of democratic institutions.
FIGHTING THE DAD
I used to be in a low‑grade war with my dad. As a teacher of economics in Philadelphia, he attempted to convince me that capitalism was the only reasonable method by which natural human self‑interest could be harnessed into productivity. To a certain extent, he had a point, if you like the idea of being harnessed. It is the very purpose of capitalism to treat every object, every living thing, even one's own lurching thoughts, as an exploitable resource. Of course, my dad was a public school teacher, a socialist role if there ever was one. So he did have one proviso which made his position more tolerable: "Everyone wears different hats," he would say. "And we have to alternate our business hat with our creative hat." Given that my dad was starting to go bald at the time I always wondered if there was a toupee in the metaphor somewhere. There must be more than two kinds of hats.
How do we diversify our hats? How do we keep the oily hat of corporate power and commerce in check and make room for a vital democracy, women's rights, effective unions, stellar public schools, and unhurried conversations? How do we bend into view a more tender, more sustainable vision of life? We must, and we will, overcome. Every war wears itself out. That is the truth behind economic cycles. If we are entering a downturn, so be it. It is a welcome correction in the world psyche. With every recession sharing and resourcefulness rise to the occasion and sweeten the air with rare consideration.
Ebon Fisher came
to Williamsburg during the previous Bush recession and was an active
participant in its early 90's warehouse culture. After 3 years at the
University of Iowa starting up a digital arts program, he is returning to New
York to teach at Hunter College in the Department of Film & Media Studies.
His manifesto for subjective ecology, Wigglism, can be found at OlulO.net Visit his website, http://www.nervepool.net: here
Visit his website, http://www.nervepool.net: here.
On the pages below, Bill Brown and the Surveillance Camera Players identify some of the major sites of video surveillance in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and East Village. And apparently, the camera saturation of Lower Manhattan is now forcing video underground. As Brown writes, "without informing you or getting your permission, the NYPD and the MTA have taken it upon themselves to secretly install video cameras in NYC subway cars.”
But as one New York police lieutenant asked, “If you’re not guilty, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry?" Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want anybody else to see at the locations outlined below.
Rasha Refaie is a Williamsburg artist and writer.
I’m wrapping extra tight tonight,
For tomorrow I plan on breaking out in a hybrid of feathers and flowers
I summon the force of negative death and amusement park candy store powers,
It was a reaction for my friend,
He did it for the money and was turned into a chocolate bunny,
And eaten disorderly by a chow-blind fat pig cousin of the nepotist
that sponsored his botched short-wave accident,
Money always means well,
like a belligerent buck-toothed simpleton that plays with chocolate
bunnies in sweltering hot tree houses,
Lookin’ like he just made in his pants when he comes down for dinner,
Destined to be a shit-eater even if that’s not what he intended,
With no connections made in the shrink tanks of his future,
They’re blasting holes all over this town to imbed the bridge,
No good for shadow crossings in the modern day of ghostless fear,
Don’t you hear that whistle blow?
It’s halftime at the sugar factory,
Time for the ghouls to start dancing with machetes,
Show you where that stuff came from,
All pure and white,
White like the night I met your mother
I won the chicken dance at the Puerto Rican social club,
With a Hasidic rabbi ref to make sure the fight was clean and the
$.12/lb. And out the door quicker than a meat district whore,
and still the mayor admits no poltergeist infestation down by the
A call to spell books with holy men and women,
A spray can and symbol book for unblessed work sites that took the lives of
human innocents where a hill of beans still means something,
"There you are sir, one can of grade A progress, no prep no mess",
Active ingredient: human spine,
The eye of opportunity is upon us,
Get out the mace,
Turn the art hideous,
Disguise the neighborhood as a dog,
Put the smoke back into choice,
Pretty soon there will be no dilapidated real-estate left
and every landlord will consider his tour bought possession sacred and unalterable according to the laws of worth,
Once they have their first sexual experience with rent collection it’s
It’s all over you and me and every cracker from here to the factory
Abstract prayer is the answer,
Out of sight petitions,
Cardiac emissions and munitions,
The church that gets thrown out of every town is open,
Sign paint is peeling everywhere,
No one owns the world,
Just the power of that perception,
It must not make us out to be tolerated by use of dyslexic media,
Us is we is you is me,
Try calling the company sympathizer when it’s you with the flu
The TV is mama
And the only thing on is daytime drama,
Why is it that these tasteless people have all the money,
Because the hip control the secrets,
And survive on irony
Abundance of which is approaching buyout status,
How very reactionary,
the meek waiting for their inheritance,
Throw the manual override or forever be cursed with pittance,
A sidewalk grin that makes everyone feel edible,
The unleashing of subatomic facsimilizing,
no more supply and demand,
Uncopyable assets are being researched as we speak,
Have an idea that needs appreciating, how’s your karma?
Let us scan your heart for impurities,
…Running a little rich,
Went back in time and slapped your great grandmother silly,
Should be alright now,
Just don’t leave the moment,
Back to the bridge of sunset suicides,
The ‘X’ on the splat boat sponsored by The Vic Thrill Salon & Bionic Cruises,
We use paintbrushes to lick your bruises,
Identity restoration through toy self,
Frequent glass bottom trips to Hell to see what you’d be missing,
The arc will have no windows,
There will be no light,
You won’t know what color you’re making love to,
We’ll spill out like a rainbow on an island to ourselves
The Isle of Pastoral Mischief,
Silence ends in a bang,
Day dreams ring true with a cymbal clang,
Knocking heads with a low flying coconut,
With a monkey’s face,
Music behind a thick curtain of palms,
Paying ritual respect sacrifice to the life giving energy of your
In a shallow pool they chase the tail of ritual’s incarnation,
In the black water with the confusion of flame reflections off the
incalculable surface, they’re lost until the sun comes up
Or until I arrive with my alien friends,
Planned Parenthood and pre-arranged marriages by trained buffoons,
Wise in the ways of past lives and multiple wives,
Flow charts and sound bite incantations,
Shorter is longer,
Pie tasting slogans,
"I dare you to kill me."
"More laws for better humans",
"You’re all one and I’m king of my penis"
Men are from Mars Bar and women are intravenous
How dare you stop us from dancing,
Time to shred some paper,
Too many statutes conflicting,
Final party for city government,
Find the leader and put a bumblebee up her ass,
Strap the 1000-megawatt meringue machine to her hips and shake her like
It’s healthy for the wind to cry,
For tip jars to be filled with napkin art,
To gamble with heart,
And pay dearly for romance,
With best knowledge that it’s everyone’s first time here,
On this rockpile built on Indian land.
Pre-Parade at Coney Island