Saturday, September 18, 2010

Katrina, Five Years After

Amid the - forgive me - flood of media coverage marking the five year anniversary of Hurricance Katrina in late August, these three pieces caught my attention. Herewith:

On August 20th, Josh Levin, a Senior Editor at Slate in charge of the sports and technology sections, who hails from New Orleans, wrote an article called Five Years Later detailing how Katrina has both changed the city and his perception of his hometown. "While the storm did alter New Orleans' physical landscape, " Levin writes, "its effects have been as much internal as external. Katrina was a collective disaster endured in private, a tragedy that caused a rupture in time for every New Orleanian. Lives are now divided into pre-Katrina and post-Katrina segments, with everything after the hurricane connected to the stuff before it by a jagged line, if it's connected at all." This last point about pre- and post-Katrina absolutely rang true during my visit to New Orleans in March. If a local began to tell a story and the narrative stretched back to an event that occured before the storm, without fail the phrase "before Katrina" would emerge. This parallels how many New Yorkers segment a time "before 9/11," too.

Following the "jagged line" extending out to New Orleanians in the aftermath of Katrina, one finds this insightful piece by Nicole LaPorte, senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast, on the prevelance of divorces in the wake of the storm. As Katrina bore down, families and couples cobbled together plans to evacuate and prepare for exiles of undetermined length, "Katrina became a truth serum for a lot of folks," quotes Ray Cannata, a Presbyterian paster in New Orleans. If a relationship was rocky or lifeless (or both) pre-Katrina, it could hardly withstand the stress of this natural disaster. Simply put: physical separations caused by the storm made divorces less messy. As I read the piece, I began to think this is one of the more underreported outcomes of Katrina. It may well be, though LaPorte offers this reason: the large migration of people has made it difficult to pin down hard statistics on divorce patterns.

While the effects of Katrina, five years on, have been "as much internal as external," as Levin writes, massive public works and recovery projects have taken effect on the physical side. From Google Earth's fascinating Lat Long Blog comes a slideshow of aerial photos taken before and after the reconstruction of the Biloxi Bay Bridge, with time-stamped photos of the Lower Ninth Ward for good measure. As Google Earth team member and compiler of this slideshow, Kate Hurowtitz, writes, "these now-familiar images of the Lower Ninth Ward are no less heartbreaking today than they were when we first saw them." No less heartbreaking than the collage of photographs at the top of this page, taken in 2009, I'd hasten to add.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Way of the World (NYRB), review

Although The Way of the World centers around two young male travelers—one, the scribe; the other, the philosopher-artist—On the Road it is not. The epigraph to World gives a clue to the motives behind why the men in this book travel: "I shall be gone and live, or stay and die." (Shakespeare) This is restlessness at its most basic. There is no choice but to seek.

Nicholas Bouvier, author of the book and journals on which World is based, and his companion, artist Thierry Vernet, set out from Geneva in 1953, in the shadow of a world war that left its bloody prints all over Europe. They drive east in a beat-up Fiat heading for the Kyhber Pass into Afganistan. They plan to finance their trip as they go: through Bouvier’s writing (in Istanbul he sells a "long piece on Lapland, with photos ... for fifteen lirettes.") and with sales of Thierry’s paintings and drawings—many of which, happily, illustrate the book—at the seemingly infinite village markets on their route. They earn enough only for the roughest accommodations, and so they get by on favors, bribes, and no small amount of luck. 

And music. One night they stop at a gypsy encampment in Bojogevo, Serbia. After rounds of wine and smoked fish, Bouvier records the gypsies as they play, "crude, rousing, vociferous songs ... of ordinary life, poaching, small windfalls, the winter moon and empty stomachs." Upon waking, Bouvier plays the recording back for the gypsies and "it was excellent: their voices timid at first, soon lapsing into rustic bellows, irresistibly gay. They listened with their eyes closed in pleasure, smiles on their hatchet faces. Bojogevo had never heard its music issuing from a machine." How better to make new friends?

In addition to his knack for winning people over, Bouvier writes remarkably well about place. Take, for example, Belgrade. This is how it comes to life in summer: "It is a morning city: at six o'clock the municipal watering cart sweeps away the refuse left by the market-garden trucks and the shops' wooden shutters bang open; at seven, all the cafes are jumping." Further, it is a town "where horses bore children's names.” And when Bouvier would sit down in a cafe to write, the owner "would bring a pot of purple ink and a rusty pen."

The strength of Bouvier's prose is the care with which he lays out a double commentary both on what he sees and how he interprets it. And it's this intimacy to The Way of the World that hooks the reader, gets him to believe, if only for a moment, he's rumbling in the hatch of the Fiat, the scent of melons pouring out of the glove compartment.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Cleveland Means To Joe Posnanski

Here's an excerpt from one of sportswriter and blogger Joe Posnanski's always literate and exploratory - when's the last time you saw "sportswriter" and "literate" in the same sentence? I'll tell you when: not since Mitch Albom - blog posts. A link to the full post is just below. I'll follow up soon with what Detroit / metro Detroit means to me. City-conscious juices are flowing ...

See to me, Cleveland — and Cincinnati and Charlotte and Kansas City and every other place I have lived — has always been at its best when it was unapologetic and immune to what other people thought. Dance like no one is watching. One of my heroes, Calvin Trillin, writes all the time about coming to a place and trying to find the best restaurant in town. People will always insist on taking him to some ridiculous restaurant with four stars and continental cuisine, a place he began to call "La Maison de la Casa House." This is NEVER the best restaurant in town. Calvin Trillin would see about 20 better restaurants along the way. But people so rarely appreciate what make their own places wonderful. Often, they are EMBARRASSED by what makes their own places wonderful.

This goes way beyond food. People in every city I go to will talk one minute how much they despise New York and in the next, when you ask where you should go out that night, they will inevitably try to send you to some little part of town that is supposed to trigger images of Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side in a minor key. Cleveland, for a long time, tried to sell itself as a little New York, which it very much is not. Cleveland is Cleveland. Cleveland is ethnic and sarcastic and covered in snow. Cleveland is optimistically-pessimistic (or pessimistically optimistic) and bigger than you think and smaller than it used to be. Cleveland has a great symphony, a great art museum, a great playhouse and the vast majority of people in town (including me) would rather watch the Browns. Cleveland has potholes and abandoned buildings and has not won a championship since 1964. Cleveland has brick houses and close-knit neighborhoods and a lot of ice cream shops. The sky is often gray.
What I love about Cleveland has never been easy for me to put into words because it is something that comes from growing up there. Cleveland feels distinct to me, different from every other city in the world. Cleveland to me is my Uncle Lonka playing the accordion at weddings. Cleveland to me is the smell of bread while driving on Mayfield past Corbos Bakery. Cleveland to me is the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video on YouTube and the wildly different reactions it inspires in Clevelanders. Cleveland to me is the people playing chess at the Arabica Coffee House. Cleveland to me is a baseball game on a cold April afternoon under gray skies.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Team, A Town, A Tour

(Photo: Christopher Nesbet [Photo and Illustration])


I didn't know much about audio documentary and production before starting this project but, with the help of  a few tech-oriented friends and good old trial-and-error, I learned a few tricks -- how to pick up ambient noise on the sly, turn my phone into a recording device, even "cold-call" craigslist ads to set up interviews. I enjoyed all of it. But, in the end, I think what I liked most was writing the scripts, tagging where a bit a sound should go to embellish the composition, conducting the thing from start to finish.

Baseball fans, I know, I know: Ebbets and the Dodgers are no longer. The field was razed in the 60's and the Dodgers now play on the west coast. All true. This was the project's main conceit: to recreate an object, place, and / or a time that no longer exists. I decided that the tour should pass the perimeter of where the field once stood -- now the paleolithic and drab Ebbets Field Apartments -- touching on various sights and landmarks as points of entry to the field, the Dodgers, and a thick slab of Brooklyn history. So, I wrote the script, marked the tour out in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and brought in some ambient street noise and old songs (Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By," Sinatra's "There Used to Be a Ballpark") to round out the production and place it in its time.

Then I set about producing it. I used Audacity, a multi-track mixing program that's free online. Limited and clunky compared to ProTools, it works just fine for short projects like this. I recorded the narration in a storage closet at my office over a number of Saturday afternoons. The tour is broken into five parts and runs 9:40. Give yourself 20-30 minutes to complete the walk. Here's a link to the audio files, recorded and mixed October - December, 2009.

And here's the script--enjoy!



Welcome to the Ebbets Field audio walk.

You should now be on the corner of McKeever Place & Sullivan Place in Brooklyn, NY. On April 15th, 1947, no more than fifty feet from where you’re standing, Jackie Robinson bounded out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout along the third base line – parallel to McKeever – to become the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. Of the 26,632 people who attended the game that day, 14,000 were African-American.

Imagine being there: you sit down in your seat, tip your fedora to a familiar face in the crowd, breathe in the smells of cut grass and spilled beer as cheers rise around you, cascading down Flatbush Avenue and out over Prospect Park. Robinson pounds his hand into his glove and bends into position at second base. You’re charged with an electricity bubbling in the crowd as it witnesses history, as it sheds the skin of an old, tired era.

On this tour of Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers until 1957, you will not see the field, which was demolished in 1960. This tour will take you along the perimeter of where the field once stood, touching on what little remains here of the team and its short but memorable history. The field was built in 1912 on a 4 ½ acre plot in Brooklyn bordered by four streets – McKeever Place, Montgomery Street, Bedord Avenue and Sullivan Place. At the time, some referred to the parcel of land as “Pigtown” because the site was filled with makeshift trash dumps where pigs would go to feed on the waste each morning. Nonetheless, the first owner of the team, Charles Hercules Ebbets, gave his name to a field serviced by nine trolley lines and a stone’s throw from Brooklyn’s main drag, Flatbush Avenue, and watched a budding community take shape around it.

Stop #1 on the tour is in the very place you’re standing, the corner of McKeever and Sullivan. Please start Track #1.



Jackie Robinson Intermediate School is ahead on your left. On April 15th, 1997, fifty years after Robinson broke the so-called “color barrier,” a mountain ash was planted in his honor at the school’s entrance. You’ll pass the tree, as well as a striking mural of Robinson painted on an outdoor wall in just a moment. But stay put for now. Position your body so when you hold our your left arm it’s flush with McKeever, and your right arm is flush with Sullivan. You’re facing where the main entrance to the field used to be, and if you were to take a few steps into the street – please DO NOT do this – you’d be inside the rotunda. And this was no ordinary rotunda: 80 feet wide, tiled with Italian marble decorated like the stiching on a baseball, and lit by a massive chandilier featuring twelve arms shaped like baseball bats. Nothing is left of the original rotunda, save a cornerstone donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame after the field was torn down. If you have a BlackBerry or iPhone, you may want to Google “Ebbets Field rotunda” to view some photos of the rotuduna in its time. For a live taste of the rotunda’s flash and elegance, you could go to CitiField in Queens , the new home of the New York Mets as of 2009, where a near-replica of the rotunda has been built.

Your next stop is on Montgomery Street, roughly halfway between McKeever Place and Bedord Avenue. You’ll simply walk along McKeever, make a right on Montgomery, then another right on Bedord until you begin to pass a row of parking spaces. As you do, you’re covering the entire breadth of the former outfield. Stop when you see a sign with familiar letter to your right. Find a way inside the parking lot, preferably through a gate. Then start Track #2.



You’ll notice the words “Ebbets Field” fitted on a wall in tall, white block letters. The words are there so plainly, without any supporting information, as if we’re to assume just beyond the words is THE Ebbets Field. Instead we see multi-storied, mammoth apartment complex with various wings and gates and walls, named Ebbets Field Apartments. All that's left of the park, in its former home, is a name and plaque (more on this shortly.)

Many of you may remember the apartments from Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary, “Super Size Me,” about the health hazards of McDonald’s. Spurlock used the apartments as a backdrop when discussing the demographics McDonald’s targets with their ads. Let’s keep moving. Walk through the parking lot and stop in front of the numbers 1700 and 1720, on your right. Face them, and begin Track #3.



Walk a little closer to the numbers and you’ll see a concrete plaque embedded in the brick, low to the ground. You may need to pin back a bush to see it clearly. On the slab is an engraving with a baseball and the words “1962: This is the former site of Ebbets Field.” Are you impressed by this plaque? Do you feel it honors the field or anything about the Dodgers and what they meant to this community? I, for one, don’t. It reminds me of the kind of half-finished tombstone you’d get if you defaulted on payment. You can listen to the rest of the audio for this section where you’re standing, or pass through the gate and stand on the street corner – your choice.

Ebbets Field was built on a sloping piece of land, moving downward from this point in what was the right field corner. Working with, and against, the uneven land, the wall in right field grew prodigiously. At its zenith in 1957, the wall towered 38 feet high. The top half was a black fence through which onlookers could watch the game from the rooftop of a neighboring building, and the bottom half was a patchwork collection of local ads. At the wall’s center was a scoreboard featuring two of the more idiosyncatic sights at Ebbets – the famous Abe Stark “Hit Sign, Win Suit” ad at bottom (nearly impossible to hit, of course) and the Shaefer Beer ad, which gave the official scorer’s ruling of “hit” or “error” by lighting up the letter H or E in the sign.

One last thing about the wall. With the ads competing for space and odd topography of the ground on which it was built, there were 289 different angles built into the wall. This played havoc with any ball that struck it: a very handy home-field advantage.

Unfortunately, the concession stands were thrown out with the park, as it were, so no hot dogs, beer or cotton candy on this tour. Be that as it may, the McDonald’s on Empire Boulevard just before Franklin Street will be our final stop. Simply head back toward the Jackie Robinson School on Sullivan. Turn left at McKeever and then right on Empire. If you’ve hit Franklin, you’ve gone to far. It shouldn’t take you more than a minute or two to get to the restaurant. When you enter, please start Track #4.



If you’re feeling peckish, by all means order some food. Mine’s on the way.

The first McDonald’s wasn’t opened in New York City until 1973, fanning out into the boroughs shortly thereafter. If you lived here in the 1950’s and wanted a bite before the Dodgers game but weren’t in the mood for a hot dog from the Stahl-Meyer stand, which stood directly in front of the stadium, McDonald’s wouldn’t have been an option. When you’re ready, or when your food arrives, pass the registers and make a left, heading toward the back of the restaurant.

You’ll see a bank of black-and-white photos of Dodger players – Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese – an artist’s rendition of Ebbets Field, along with some great aerial shots of the field, city and fans. Each photo is dated, with a short caption at bottom. There’s a similar photo nook on the opposite wall. Take your time at the photos. Note especially the candid, loose nature of the locker room shots – they’re great – and when you’ve seen enough, take a seat wherever you’d like.

This is last stop on the tour. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative. If you, like me, feel the Ebbets Field site isn’t outfitted with the proper memorabilia, statues or interactive means into Dodger history, petition your local politician, and do something about it.

Thanks for listening.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

O, Albany

From semi-regular contributor Sheridan Dupre, here's a wonderful piece on Albany and the current of his family history that runs through it. In Dupre's words: "Blood has a strange way of binding you to a place, even if its past seems somehow unreal and unknowable."

Dupre blogs at Guard the Guardians on cliches that need debunking, the missteps of the Town of Bedford Parking Authority and the 1970's.


O, Albany

In March of 1972, years before I was born, a plane carrying 47 people crashed into a house two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Albany, New York. Seventeen people died, but miraculously many more survived, including the family unlucky enough just to be safely at home on a Friday night, watching TV, doing the dishes, reading the paper, children playing. The mother was found bloodied but OK, lying in the splintered shards of their house, amidst the improbable remains of a small jet. Her husband was discovered wandering around dazedly asking for his two children, both already safely rescued. When we would visit our grandparents who lived in that same house just blocks away from an event that terrified and enthralled me, I would ask about that night. Where were you? What did it sound like? What did you do? Did you know the people?


My father grew up in Albany. He commuted to college from the house we would visit as children. We would drive up the winding Taconic to the New York Thruway where there was a magical moment when we would ascend a small hill, glimpse the city in the midst of the rolling hills by the wide Hudson River, before we dipped back down and out of view. And my father would ask the same three questions as we passed over the river: What river are we crossing? (The Hudson!) Who discovered it? (Henry Hudson!) What was the original name of Albany? (Fort Orange!)

This house and this city were my family’s, but the history, and spirit, seemed as distant to me as Hudson’s explorations and the early Dutch Fort that became the Capitol of New York. To go to Albany was to visit a past I did not know. Time and memory here included decades that didn’t include me, a striking realization when one is young. And this was complicated by the fact that their move to this house happened when my father was already going into college, his sister already in high school. We would sometimes drive by the apartment of his childhood where he was – remarkably – once a boy like me, but it was untouchable. And we’d return to a house whose history now seemed even more incomplete and partial.

This certain foreignness of family history seemed reflected in the city itself. In the 1950’s, Albany looked like this, almost medieval in its clustered downtown of Church spires and town houses:

In 1965, the city began construction on the Empire State Plaza, razing downtown neighborhoods and uprooting families:

Rockefeller’s folly, as my family referred to it. But of course people were leaving the city, and the region, anyway. Between 1950 and 1978, when the Plaza was completed, Albany’s population fell from 135,000 to 100,000 and it would continue to decline, decade by decade. The ghosts of this past were everywhere. Albany’s very vitality seemed somehow drained to me. It was almost odd to see the city in color, not only because a great deal of the evidence of my father’s youth was in black and white, but the city itself, stone and severe, my grandparent’s neighborhood of grey sidewalks and modest white houses, seemed unprepared for the advent of color. Driving into Albany on a snowy day – and when wasn’t it snowing? - felt like driving into an old photo album. And we would eat square pizza at The Orchard, a neighborhood pizzeria no longer part of a neighborhood, isolated now in a barren stretch of the city. And we’d go to Jack’s, the kind of oak-paneled downtown bar that seemed as though it should be smoke-filled and bustling with newspaper types and well-dressed people having drinks on their way home or their way out; except, it wasn’t.

But blood has a strange way of binding you to a place, even if its past seems somehow unreal and unknowable. Perhaps this is a common enough experience in visiting the places of one’s grandparents. Perhaps we assign their location the attributes we assign them. Like those black and white photos, I almost couldn’t believe that at one time the playground we’d play in off of Washington Avenue was filled with children; that their house was at one time filled by the commotion of my father and his sister; that downtown ever bustled; or that on one night a plane, for example, just fell out of the dark, snowy sky.


When my Grandmother died two years after my grandfather, a strikingly tall strange man appeared at her wake. It turned out he was an old neighborhood kid who my father hadn’t seen in some fifty years. He saw my grandmother’s obituary in the paper and came to pay his respects. He told me and my brother that he had always liked our grandmother because she didn’t punish him when she caught him shooting a BB gun off of a garage roof out back. He reminded my father that when he was injured when they were playing football as eleven year olds, and subsequently had to have a kidney removed, it was our grandmother who was his nurse and saw him back to health.

When I was young, I recall being impatient of a past which, because it didn’t include me, didn’t seem to matter. But as I got older I learned that things matter in surprising and lasting ways. The legacy of family and of place we all inherit - unwillingly, perhaps; without choice, certainly - has a way of lingering, linking to a history we might never fully know or understand but one that can be a deep and permanent part of who we are.

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