Greenpoint, October, 2015

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Kwik One

In which your correspondent takes a break
From all the heavy lifting of late

I caught the end of a TV commercial on NY1 for Kwik Lube. A pretty woman singing with a Caribbean or West Indian lilt in front of a Kwik Lube store. My short term memory loss prevents me from supplying the words, but it had something to do with letting us make your life a little easier. I'm a Jiffy Lube man myself, but still it recalled something... What was it? Then it hit me. Sister Carol singing over the closing credits from Something Wild, Jonathan Demme's great 1986 movie with Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels. Here they are, closing credits worth the price of admission and surely the funkiest take on the Chip Taylor song, "Wild Thing." Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Moby Dick or the Confidence Man?

Whale Oil Row
A New Yorker's first thought: Look at all those parking spaces, must be Staten Island. Close, it's New London, Connecticut: Huntington Street, locally referred to as Whale Oil Row. These four Greek Revival houses were built between 1835 and 1845 for ship owners and merchants who got rich from the lucrative whale oil industry. Somehow New London has decided to hold onto the houses despite its penchant for eminent domain evictions, about which, more to follow.

Whale Square
I was hopeful that I'd discover traces of New York City's own whaling history when I spotted "Whale Square" on a map at the water end of 53rd Street in Sunset Park. Alas, not that whale, not that oil, and not all that old. Whale Square is named for the Whale Oil Company, a fuel distributor that built an office there in 1948. The company was later bought by Standard Oil. There are some great industrial history sites to be seen on the Sunset Park waterfront, as this excellent blog reveals, but Whale Square is not one of them.

Back to New London. As many of you will remember, in the early years of this century, the city of New London claimed by eminent domain properties on the Thames River waterfront comprising the Fort Trumbull neighborhood. The rationale: construction of a mixed residential, office, and retail complex. New London argued that it was in the city's economic interest to evict the working class families living there, many for several generations, and allow private developers to build the complex. Some of the property owners held out, and the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 2005, in Kelo v. City of New London, the Court ruled 5-4 that "the city's disposition of petitioners' property qualifies as a 'public use' within the meaning of the Takings Clause." This was a real precedent setter, since eminent domain had never before been used to take private property for private development purposes.

Fort Trumbull neighborhood today (from an Amtrak train)
After people were relocated and houses razed, the economy collapsed and plans for redevelopment languished. Now, after 10 years of controversy, Riverbank Construction of New York has been given the go-ahead to break ground. According to owner Robert Stillman, the village will be constructed in the "Greek Revival style." Tasteful.

The Mystery of Married Island

That's the glorious Hell Gate Bridge in a photo from 1937 by Berenice Abbott. The name Hell Gate refers to the narrow and dangerous tidal strait above which it crosses. The Hell Gate, or "Hellegat," in Dutch is still with us in name and place. And so is Ditmars Boulevard, named for Ditmarsen in Lower Saxony, whence Jan Jansen van Ditmarsen came to the New World around 1640. Around the same time, a certain Hendrick Harmensen was also enaged in cultivation of a "bouwery," or farm, in the area. When he died, his widow married Juraiaen Fradell, a native of Moravia. Fradell obtained a deed for a "piece of land lying on Long Island east of Hellegat" (in present day Maspeth).

From Brno to BQE
Now for the mystery. According the History of Queens County, published by Munsell & Co. in 1882, the deed included a "little island, lying about west from the house"--how's that for accuracy? The island was named Married Island, "on account of the manner in which it was obtained." In other words, when Fradell got the widow, he got the island.

So what happened to Married Island? I can't find any reference to it beyond the account in the History of Queens County cited above and a similar one in Early Long Island: A Colonial Study by Martha Bockee Flint (1896).

It was too small to be what would become Roosevelt Island, that's for sure. U Thant Island, which has its own interesting history, only resulted from the much later construction of "trolley tunnels" to Manhattan. Did it sink into the East River, like a tiny Atlantis? Or did it somehow become incorporated into the Long Island mainland? Or, here's my theory, was it used as a prototype for Myles na gCopaleen's "land migration scheme"?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All About Wallabout

Brooklyn Navy Yard and Wallabout Bay, c. 1851
In my research on the Rapeljes (or Rapelyes) of Brooklyn, I discovered that Joris Jansen Rapelje had exchanged goods with the Carnarsee Indians for property on Wallabout Bay in Brooklyn, just north of what would become the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The name Wallabout Bay intrigued me. It comes from the Dutch, "Waal bocht" for "bay (or bight) of the Walloons." And that bight has bucketfuls of history: the site of the first European settlement on Long Island (the Rapelejes and a few other Walloon families); location of the first ferry across the East River; and the doleful spot where British prison ships docked during the Revolutionary War, allowed thousands of prisoners to die, and dumped their corpses into the Bay. For more about Wallabout Bay, check out Pauline's Pirates & Privateers Blog.

Riddley's map of Inland
It got me thinking about other place names I encounter or might discover between the river and the BQE: Hunter's Point, Red Hook, Bushwick Inlet, Whale Square, New Town, Squibb Park, Buttermilk Channel, Good Shoar, Fork Stoan, Bernt Arse.... Alright, I admit the last three are from Russell Hoban's novel, Riddley Walker, about a post-apocalyptic Britain. Hoban, who died on December 13th, is best known for his children's books, especially those about Frances, his charming badger heroine. For the very adult novel, Riddley Walker, published in 1980, he made up not only these wonderful place names but the simplified yet often confounding English his characters speak. For example, of the guy in the Infiniti ad I blogged about the other day, Riddley might have said, "Pressurs littl barset" (precious little bastard). And he'd have been right!

In future posts, I'll explore some of the history and geography of these place names--the ones in New York, that is, not Hoban's Inland. Though who knows, it might turn out that  that there's a Walloon version of Dunk Your Arse Island in Wallabout Bay.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Smiles for Smuggles

There are some brands that are marketed exclusively to the smug or even the super-smug (aka, the 1%). Infiniti is definitely one of these. Take for example, its recent TV commercial, "Snowball."

A smartly dressed businessman leaving work. As he gets into his sleek gray Infiniti we hear a smarmy voice off camera, "Heads up Dave." His colleague has thrown a snowball at him. Dave whips out his mobile phone and says, archly, to someone on the other end, "Get your friends." A chase commences along snowy woodland roads. Dave passes his rival to be waiting when he pulls into his driveway next door (they're neighbors too you see). "Heads up, Jim," he says as Jim gets out of his somewhat inferior luxury automobile. Suddenly, a dozen or so kids pop up from garbage cans and from behind snowbanks to launch a full-scale snowball barrage on poor Jim.

Well, it's just good clean fun and a valuable Christmastime lesson for the kids: The Smug Shall Inherit the Earth. Oh wait, they already own it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ark Angel

Noah's Ark
This holiday card is actually a painting by the Polish artist Nikifor (1895-1968) who was born and died in the small spa town of Krynica in southern Poland. Nikifor was actually a Lemko, an ethnic minority deported along with ethnic Ukrainians by the Polish government after WWII. He made it back to his hometown and survived, in poverty, by selling his little paintings on the street. He was "discovered" several times, only to be forgotten again. In 1960, he met the painter Marian Włosinśki, who would devote much of his own time to promoting Nikifor's work.

Jesus and John-the-Baptist
Like Karol Kozlowski, the Brooklyn folk painter I blogged about recently, Nikifor was illiterate. Their paintings share a number of similarities, especially the fondness for architectural detail and the use of block letter titles with no spaces between words--Kozlowski at the top of the canvas and Nikifor at the bottom. Nikifor was decidedly more influenced by Christian iconography than Kozlowski. I especially love Nikifor's Noah's Ark above--only such a genius would do it without the animals!

His story is told beautifully in the Polish film Mój Nikifor (dir. Krzysztof Krauze), alas not available in the States. However, you can see some of his pieces in this short excerpt from the film. By the way, that is the great Polish actress(!) Krystyna Feldman playing Nikifor.

As the sign at George's Ukrainian Bar on East 7th St. used to say, "Have a Happy!" Happy what? That's up to you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Toto We're Not in DUMBO Anymore.

 Rapelje skyline
As far as I can tell, there is no town or city, river or or park, named for Joris and Catalina Rapelje in New York State. This despite the fact that they were among the very first European settlers and landowners in New Netherlands and then New Amsterdam, which would become New York State and City. There's the little street in Red Hook I wrote about in my post yesterday, a couple of portraits and paintings of their farm on Wallabout Bay in Brooklyn, and their daughter Sarah's chair, in the City Museum of New York. Sarah, by the way, is thought to be the first New Netherlander-American born in the New World.

You have to go to Montana to find a place name honoring the Rapelje legacy. That's the Rapelje Church in northern Stillwater County. Rapelje is actually an unincorporated ranching community (pop. 110), named for J.M. Rapelje, general manager and vice president of the Northern Pacific Railway, which no doubt has a lot to do with it being there at all. Lewis and Clark came close, but I'm not sure if they made it to what would become today's Rapelje.

If you are planning your summer vacation, Rapelje is not far from both the Hailstone and Halfbreed Lake National Wildlife Refuges. And before you go, check out some of the other beautiful Montana churches on the Montana Film Office site. Damn, now they're trying to steal the movie business from us!

Where the Devil says Goodnight?


Rapelye of My Eye

Corner of Rapelye and BQE
There are markers for some of the major streets the BQE is passing below, like Queens Boulevard, and some it is passing over, like Vanderbilt Avenue or Union Street. This sign for Rapelye St. is different though, just a regular NYC street sign poking up just enough to be visible to BQE drivers just before the bridge over the Gowanus Canal.

The Rapelje Children (1768)
Yesterday, with traffic backed up from the Prospect Expressway, I decided to get off at Atlantic Avenue and work my way through Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, and Sunset Park on local streets. Worked pretty well, and I got to check out Rapelye. Just a couple of quiet blocks, its tongue twister name comes from the family name Rapelye, or Rapelje. These early settlers of New Amsterdam came from Spanish Netherlands (figure that one out) in 1624. They settled first in what would become Albany, then Manhattan, and finally Brooklyn (or Breukelen), becoming the first hipsters to make the move from Downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn.

Maybe it's a good thing the borough or city took its name from the family, Rapelye Town? We might all speaking Walloon instead of English.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Profiles in Courage and Cringage

"The Heist"
As loyal readers know, the standing policy of this blog is to provide fair and balanced commentary on all the pressing issues of the day, generally transport related. Reflecting on Vaclav Havel's career, though, it's hard not to feel the need to have a wastebasket handy when talking about the current lineup of GOP candidates.

The photo looks like a still from a gangster movie from the 1960s. Actually it's four of the leaders of the emerging Solidarity movement in 1980: Jacek Kuron, Zbigniew Bujak, Lech Wałesa, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki (l to r). Mazowiecki would go on to become Poland's first non-communist Prime Minister in decades. Like others in that car, he would spend years in jail during the Martial Law period of the 80s.

This Sławomir Mrożek cartoon from Poland in the 1960s captures our present moment in politics.

"And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, in our continuing series,
A Fair Chance for Everyone..."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Farewell to a Plastic Person

That's former Czech president and longtime dissident Vaclav Havel in 1989. Looking pensive but comfortable in front of... a drum set? Havel was a man of the theatre, true, but also a lover of rock and roll, including Frank Zappa's and of course Czechoslovakia's own Plastic People of the Universe.

The PPU formed in 1968 and lasted two more decades, skirmishing with and occasionally being arrested by police and security forces. They gave heart and happiness to dissidents in Czechoslovakia and throughout Central Europe, including Poland's Pomarańczowa Alternatywa (Orange Alternative), which staged "happenings" throughout Poland during Martial Law in the 1980s.

Of the PPU, Havel said, "We may have our freedom now, but no one would have it without the inspiration of the music of the Plastic People." Can you imagine Obama or Bush (not to mention Romney or Gingrich) saying something this about any artist--and meaning it?

You can see a short history of PPU and hear just a bit of their music on this very short YouTube video:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

From a Darkling Train

This photo was taken from a moving 7 train looking north over the BQE. Jackson Heights looks almost like a village on the banks of some European river or strand. Can you make out the graffiti on the retaining wall there? It reads, "Dover So Club." I could have sworn, the last time I looked, it said "Dover Beer." Either way, Matthew Arnold had the BQE spot on when he wrote in "Dover Beach":

We are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

And ignorant drivers by day?

Friday, December 16, 2011

That Tinguely Feeling

You can see the most gripping French film in New York on that iPad mounted on the wall of the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. It's a video of Jean Tinguely's construction, Radio No. 1, in action. That's the piece itself on a pedestal, sadly immobile. In the video, wheels turn, parts spin or pivot, and the whole thing moves haltingly forward then back on tiny rubber tires. And it emits radio sounds and static that cut in and out as the thing jolts along. Something like Dr. Seuss crossed with Rags, the mechanical dog from Woody Allen's  Sleeper.

It's part of the Private Collection of Robert Rauschenberg show that takes up three full floors of the gallery. Bob really dug Jean Tinguely. In addition to Radio No. 1, there are a number of drawings for other constructions, including one signed "pour Bob" of the infamous Homage to New York. A contraption on a far grander scale that Tinguely exhibited at MOMA in 1960, it was intended to self-destruct, but failed. An allegory for New York or just a French farce?

I first saw Tinguely's work when I was a student in London in 1982--yikes, there was less time between when these pieces were made and me then than there is between me then and me now! I've always been drawn to them. Come to find out Tinguely and I share an affinity for "the most beautiful artwork" (probably sounds better in French), the automobile. 

Add caption
The Museum Tinguely in Basel recently had an exhibit called Fetisch Auto: I Drive Therefore I Am. Check out the website for some great takes on this universal theme. Tinguely loved Formula 1 and made several pieces with parts from F1 cars. The one above brings together a Lotus racecar (once driven by world champion Jim Clark!) with Eva Aeppli's "Five Widows" as a memorial to to the "often-fatal circus that is the Formula 1." 

One Tough Hombre

Don't mess with El Bimbo
Bimbo, as most New Yorkers know by now, is the name of a Mexico-based food company and now the largest bread baker in the world. You might laugh at the name but you will bow down before the awesome global power of Grupo Bimbo and the its mascot, who looks like the lovechild of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Snuggles.

Wonder how long
We're seeing fewer and fewer of the Wonder Bread trucks on the road and more and more of the Bimbomobiles. Some even have red-painted wheel rims, a clue that they were once Wonder trucks?

In January, after 130 years, the Wonder Bread bakery (factory?) in Jamaica, Queens closed its doors. And Grupo Bimbo owns the right to market Wonder Bread in Mexico.

This YouTube video may provide an allegory for the fate of wonderful Wonder.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I'm Not a Troll

Newt as evil troll (from
There has been a lot of talk about bridges on this blog, but none about their trusty guardian, the troll. That ends now. I've been wondering why the race for the Republican presidential nomination has been so durn fun.  It wasn't until Christine O'Donnell, remember her?, came out for Mitt Romney that it struck me. This isn't politics, it's a fairy tale.

We've got a would-be knight in silvery armor (Mitt), an elf (Ron Paul), and a troll (Newt). Michelle Bachmann makes an excellent Evil Stepmother (of the foster mother kind). What about Callista? Sleeping Beauty?

I heard Rachel Maddow call them the "Seven Dwarfs," a reference to to the 1988 Democratic hopefuls,* but these guys and gals are so much more diverse than that. We've got a whole damn fairy tale here.

I'm just so glad Christine is back and I can share the Youtube video of her "I am not a witch" ad, auto-tuned. Strangely moving. Now it's back to my lair beneath the Kosciuszko Bridge.

*In 1988, the Democratic candidates were dismissed as the "Seven Dwarfs." Okay, the Duke was a bit of a dwarf, and Paul Simon did wear that goofy bow-tie, but Bruce Babbitt, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt--not exactly lightweights. Time to get out your Tanner '88.

SubDude (or The ************ with the Hat)

Setting: 34th St. subway station. An R train is pulling in. A paunchy guy with hipster frames and a fake fur hat (in his mind he's the model at left) asks me if the N and the R go to the same place.

"No," I tell him, "they both go to Queens, but after Queensboro Plaza the N goes to Astoria and the R..."

"But in Manhattan, they're the same?"

"Well, yes, but you asked about where they 'go to.' In Queens, at least, we take that to mean destination and not just one part of the route...."

Of course, after the word "yes," I was talking to myself alone. He'd gotten on the train, without a word of thanks.

Walker Evans
"Oh," I added, "and I hate your hat."

Why couldn't it have been the woman in fur collar on the Lexington line instead?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Take the Skyway

From an NJ Transit train
Take the skyway
It don't move at all like the subway
It's got bums when it's cold like any other place
It's warm up inside
Sittin' down and waitin' for a ride
Beneath the skyway

Paul Westerberg and the Replacements weren't singing about this skyway. Still, there's a Depression Days ring to the song that suits New Jersey's landmark Pulaski Skyway, which was completed in 1932. Six years before the Kosciuszko and, at 3.5 miles, many times its length. Just like the Kosciuszko, it's falling apart. The Skyway is a landmark and, thankfully, there are no plans to get rid of it. But it hasn't had a major structural renovation since 1984! Estimates for the repairs it needs: $1,000,000,000.

Let's give the Replacements the last word:
There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway

(I saw the Replacements only once, in Cleveland in 1983, opening for R.E.M. They had decided to do whatever they could to offend the audience, including insulting the headliner. And it worked. Now I listen to the 'Mats all the time--and R.E.M, almost never.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Ice-road driving
No that's not the BQE. It's the E77 where it crosses the icy Vistula (Wisła) river in Kiezmark, Poland, about 23 km from Gdansk. Amazing photo, right? What's even more amazing is how it was taken--from a paraglider. The photographer, Kacper Kowalski, shoots from a paraglider: a "lightweight, free-flying, foot-launched glider aircraft with no rigid primary structure," according to Wikipedia. "The pilot sits in a harness suspended below a hollow fabric wing whose shape is formed by its suspension lines, the pressure of air entering vents in front of the wing and the aerodynamic forces of the air flowing outside."
(Courtesy Wikipedia)

While Kowalski pilots a traditional paraglider for fun and competition, he uses a powered one for work, which means there is a small engine attached to give the thing some thrust. You can check out some of his other amazing photos on his website (Polish/English) and on his blog (Polish only, but you'll get the drift--or draft?).

Standard Barer

A riddle: What's never there when you need it but always in the way? Give up? It's a bus.

Pity the poor MTA bus driver for what he has to deal with. Traffic, sure, but also suicidal pedestrians, taxi drivers, people asking for directions, and those who just refuse, on principle, to use the center door to exit. And all that's on a good day.

Q: How many American flags do MTA buses boast?
A: Two. One on either of the bus's rear-end most windows.

I do like the way the flags look from inside, sort of translucid and diaphonous. But I am bound to question the MTA's placement of its behavioral rules. Not that I'm an advocate of spitting on public transportation, but if the flag is meant to be a symbol of anything, it's freedom--after all, it's not "I pledge allegiance to no smoking, spitting or radio playing..."
No Stairway?!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Suspension is Killing Me

Vrancic's vision
Is it really so farfetched, a suspension bridge over the Newtown Creek? A bridge worthy of the George Washington, Verrazano, or Brooklyn bridges. According to the DOT's "Bridge Primer," this long-span bridge type is "not economical" for the short Kosciuszko main span. Well, sure, the current KB's main span is just 300 ft. long but the total length of the bridge is 6021 feet, just a little shy of the Williamsburg's (another suspension bridge) 7308 feet. Instead, we will get something like this "desk-arch" design, one of the four finalists.

Is it all about the money? Or just another diss of Queens and Brooklyn? After all, why should there be a glorious bridge visible from the east side of Manhattan that doesn't haven't anything to do with Manhattan?

Before we shop for suspension bridges, though, let's take a trip with Peabody and Sherman in the Wayback Machine to travel to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia circa 1600...  That's where the great engineer, astronomer, inventor and linguist Faust Vrancic created the original design (above) for a suspension bridge, that is, one whose roadway would be supported by cables strung from towers, eliminating the need for multiple sets of piers. This allows for largely unobstructed space below for river traffic and an overall sense of lightness and grandeur. It is no coincidence that Philip Petitte's early wire-walking expeditions included ones between the spires of one of the Verrazano Bridge's towers and of the gothic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Although Vrancic published his design in 1595, it was not until the late 18th century that one was built. Talk about suspended animation! By the way, Vrancic also designed a wind turbine (left). Maybe the design for the new KB should incorporate some of these babies atop its towers, generating wind even as it enables the burning up of carbon-based power below.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Floating World

(Courtesy University of Michigan Museum of Art)
Could it be that the greatest painter from Brooklyn was actually from Dziesławice? Not sure where that is?  Well, it's about 18 km east of Busko-Zdrój. Still stumped? OK, it's a village in southern Poland (pop. 280). Karol Kozlowski left the impoverished Dziesławice in 1913 after serving a stint in the Russian Army in Mongolia. He came to Brooklyn, where he was more or less adopted by a family who took him for "simple." For 27 years, he worked 6 days a week cleaning the inside of furnaces for Astoria Light, Heat and Power Company. In his scarce free time, he painted landscapes from countries he had never seen.

According to the excellent entry on Kozlowski in the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, the paintings appear to be based on imagined views rather than any identifiable print source. Perhaps this accounts for the the way this painting, "Japan's Thousand Islands Mt. Huzi" (c. 1960), seems to conflate Japanese, or at least Asian, iconography (houses like pagodas) with a prospect that reminds me of the Kosciuszko Bridge doubled and seen from somewhere up the Newtown Creek. Kozlowski died in 1969. He is thought to have made just 36 paintings--one or two more than Vermeer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fracktured Fairy Tale

Of all the TV commercials the oil industry is bombarding us with, to convince us how eco-friendly they really are, this one by ConocoPhillips is far and away my favorite. It's also the most subversive.

It's every professor's fantasy (well one of them): Three attractive students so excited by the lecture topic that they gather around the prof after class to hash it out.

"Aren't you getting a little emotional," the white dude with the headphones says.
"Aren't you getting a little industrial," the crunchy white chick responds. (Ouch!)
Then the Mr. Headphones and the black chick try to convince Miss Crunchy that there's plenty of energy right here in America ("Over a hundred years' worth"). She accuses them of ignoring the environment. The black chick turns on her with a look of withering contempt: "Actually, it's safer" (you stupid bitch).

What's safer? Cheaper? Provides jobs and helps the economy? Well, that's left unsaid as they leave the hall joking about how they might be able to get jobs when they graduate after all (thanks, ConocoP!).

As you watch this mini-masterpiece--and I've watched it dozens of times--ignore all the high tech little arrows and factoids projected onto the scene. Instead, keep your eye on the fifth man: the custodian buffing the floors, which apparently they do daily at Douchebag U. He's the Everyman of the piece, a silent reproach to the avuncular (and complicit) prof. At the end of the ad, his energy-sucking machine is still there, along with a vintage overhead projector, but he is nowhere to be seen. Bergman or Brecht could not have done it better.

Oh, by the way, that's the ominously named Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit the prof is pointing to, which stretches from North Carolina to southern New York State. They just can't wait to frack us up. (Go here more about fracking in New York State.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Morning for New Town?

It's well known that one of the all time great New York City views is from the Kosciuszko Bridge on the BQE. No, not that one, I mean the one looking east out over the Newtown Creek, that profoundly polluted estuary that forms a border between Brooklyn and Queens.

The Newtown Creek has long headed the list of most-polluted waterways in the United States. Among other contaminants, the water and sediment of the creek contain high levels of PCPs and VOCs (volatile organic compounds--not good). Not to mention a slow-motion oil spill in Greenpoint going on for decades. Don't despair. The creek was added to the EPA's Superfund Priorities List about a year ago. In July, the EPA signed an agreement with the "Stinky Six" most culpable for the state of the Creek: Phelps Dodge, Texaco, BP Products North America, National Grid, and ExxonMobil. Familiar faces, one and all. The sixth man, of course, is the City of New York, which according to this Brooklyn Eagle story, began using the creek as a sewer as early as the 1850s.

(Courtesy NCBOA)
The cleanup will last decades. Not to worry, while we wait, we can bone up on some of the Creek's history and culture. Check out "Air Conditioner Slime," "Smelly Tap Water," and other heartbreaking oral histories collected from area residents and posted on Creak Speak by the Newtown Creek Alliance, a community organization dedicated to "revitalizing, restoring, and revealing the creek." There are also some great photos, like this one with the KB in the background, on the site of the Newtown Creek BOA (Brownfields Opportunity Area), a more business-oriented group focused on restoring the Creek's industrial character. As the site helpfully explains, "brownfields are just vacant or underused sites that haven't been redeveloped or reused because people are afraid they might be contaminated from previous industrial uses. Sometimes they actually are contaminated; sometimes they're not."

Well if the Gowanus Canal can come back, why not us? It won't be long before we start to see boutiques, galleries, cafes, and clubs along the banks of the Newtown Creek. I can even visualize a mascot for the the revitalization effort, a lovable, yet slime-dripping creature called Brownie....

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Schokolade und Awe

Zwei Fiat (128.9 x 198.9 cm)
This superb painting was done by Gerhard Richter in 1965. For a year or two, Richter had been experimenting with techniques for painting from photographs. I'd say he got it right with this one.

Break me off a piece of that
The artist's source for the painting was this advertisement for Sarotti chocolate from a copy of Der Stern magazine. In the ad, the two Fiats whizz by in the background as a jolly threesome engage in some risky roadside chocolate fetishism. I don't care how much you love chocolate, can't you hold it until you get to the Raststätte?

(This post dedicated to Mr. Picky, who came within centimeters of being a Fiat driver himself. Mi dispiace.)

Molecular Theory

The definitive Smiley
If I were to tell you this post is about a mole from Czechoslovakia, you'd probably say I was talking about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the John LeCarre novel turned into a masterly BBC miniseries with Alec Guiness and now a forthcoming feature film. And, in a sense, you'd be right.

Except that the mole in question is Krtek, the animated cartoon character created by Zdenek Miler, who died this past week. Created by Miller in Prague in 1956, Krtek went on to cult status throughout Europe, Asia, and Japan, though not in the USA. Krtetek (Czech for "mole") is a clever fellow who lives underground but pops up to get himself in and out of scrapes with his friends, a mouse, a rabbit, and... well, I'm not sure what the other guy is.
Life in Czecho
Why a mole? Miler's answer was that Walt Disney had created animated versions of every other animal besides the mole. A bit superficial (get it)? I think so too. Think about it. Czechoslovakia in 1956, the year of the Soviet crackdown on Hungary and 12 years before the Prague Spring. A free spirit, living under ground? Are you with me?

There is a fine Krtek, in which he teaches himself to drive, with predictable consequences, and you can watch it here. But I prefer "Krtek and the Metro." Krtko laughs a lot but doesn't usually say much; however, you can learn a little Czech from him in this episode: "Pomoc" (Help!) and "Tam" (There).

Happy as I am for the little guy, Krtek's success is bittersweet. I can only imagine what might have happened for Cardvark had he been in better hands than the MTA.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Motion Pictures

Inching towards the Kosciuszko Bridge, I am transfixed by the image in the side-view mirror of the car in front of me. Like watching a tiny movie about a woman in a frustrating situation. Slight movements of the eyes, chin, nose express variations of boredom, acceptance, impatience. When I downloaded the photograph, I realized that another movie had been going on in the mirror of the car in front of hers. And that means..... The guy or gal in the car behind me could have been watching a movie of me.

Tony Oursler, Spectral Disorder
Somehow these disembodied faces remind me of pieces by Tony Oursler in which he projects faces, or sometimes just eyes, onto unexpected objects. It just goes to remind us, objects in the mirror are more intimate than they appear.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ghosts in the Wires

High art?
New Yorkers are past masters of the level gaze. If we err, it's on the side of looking down, mostly to avoid stepping in dog shit. But looking up? That's for the tourists. Still, every now and then, it pays to crane the neck skyward. Just for instance, have a screw at this cryptic signature I photographed above Winfield, Queens. What is it? What does it do? Does it still do what it once did?

Woodside Ave. & 64th St.
For over a decade, the City has been trying to eliminate the 15,000+ emergency-help, or fire-alarm, boxes, like the one connected to that curlicue above. A federal judge has said no, on the grounds the City's proposed alternative, which involves public pay phones (when's the last time you used one of those?), discriminates against the deaf and hearing-impaired. But the death sentence can only be deferred for so long. Then what will happen to these iron sentinels, sidewalk fixtures since the 1870s, when the "key box" was introduced?

Who knows? More and more, we live wi-fi and wireless lives. The need for wires above or cables below ground is everyday reduced. If we could only figure out how to digitize our sewerage.

Mi vida cambio

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bring Back The Cardvaark!

Peter Stangl, 1995 (played here by Dick Van Dyke)
It's hard to conceive, now, with ubiquity of swipecards and transponders (EZ Pass), but in the early 1990s the MTA lived in fear that it would have to pry the token from our cold, dead hands before we'd accept MetroCards. And thus, Cardvaark, and more to the point, a whole PR campaign to "sell MetroCard."

As reported in this space yesterday, the first documented public reference to Cardvaark came in Ellis Henican's Newsday column of July 27, 1993. Only appropriate, then, that the last one came in Henican's column of August 5, 1993--just over a week later. Henican reported on a meeting of the MTA's marketing department, after which MTA Chairman Peter Stangl announced: "As far as I'm concerned, Cardvaark can go away." And go away he did. To this day, the MTA has never used a mascot again. (Just imagine: "Hi, I'm your friendly subway beagle, See-Something-Say-Something: Hooowlp us out....")

Henican's reporting was instrumental in the death of The Cardvaark and in exposing the costly, ill-conceived marketing plan Cardy was a symbol for, but questions remain:
-Whose original concept was The Cardvaark?
-Who drew it? And where can we see some of his/her other work?
-Why an aardvark anyway?
-Why the bizarre misspelling with two "As"--but in the wrong place (guess the MTA faactcheckers missed this one).
Not Carvdaark but we can dream... (Courtesy WFMU)
-Was a Cardvaark suit ever created?

I say: Bring Back The Cardvaark! Not as a mascot for the MetroCard, but as a symbol of the audacity and paternalism of public (or quasi-public) institutions like the MTA that are forever selling us on their services--and paying private advertising and PR firms to do so--even as we are using those very services. And charging us for the privilege.

Who Killed Cardvark? (Part Two)

Home schooler triumphs!
There we were, deep in the bowels of the MTA archives. My research assistant and I, like Woodward and Bernstein--if you can imagine Carl Bernstein as a blond, thirteen year old girl--digging through folders, record boxes, and binders of MetroCard-related swag. I have to admit, I was beginning to lose hope (after about 10 minutes), when Sr. Research Assistant Lucy exclaimed, "There he is!"

Sure enough, she had found a story from Newsday from July 27, 1993. The paper's "In the Subway" reporter, Ellis Henican described how the MTA, as part of its plan to "hype" the soon to be launched MetroCard, decided the system needed a mascot: "a dumb-looking, snout-nosed, big-eared, bug-eyed, round-cheeked, pot-bellied, card-pitching mascot." Way harsh, dude.

(Courtesy MTA Transit Museum Archives)
After that discovery, it took only moments to locate a draft report commissioned by the MTA with its "Metropolitan Marketing Plan" for MetroCard. There, among other "kick-off events" was the genesis of "The Cardvaark" (sic): "Create a character to symbolize MetroCard--a high-tech, yet lovable creature who can 'sell' the card." (p. 57). The appendix of the report includes the sketch you see here.

"Dumb-looking, snout-nosed..., pot-bellied" or "high-tech, yet lovable creature." Reader, you decide. Tomorrow: Did The Cardvaark "sell" the MetroCard or get sold down the river? The mystery of who killed Cardvaark solved!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Who Killed Cardvark? (Part One)

Sketch by Finnian (2011)
Was it all just a dream? Could the collective unconscious of three crazy kids have given life to such a figure, part Golem and part Goofy? And given it such a name? Or did the MTA really introduce a mascot named Cardvark (possibly Caardvark) as part of its PR campaign to promote the then forthcoming MetroCard to a ridership grown fat and happy on tokens, tokens, tokens, tenpacks of tokens?

If there was a Cardvark, why is there no trace of it on the Internet? It was only 25 or 30 years ago. And what did it look like? To begin, we engaged a talented young sketch artist to reconstruct a plausible likeness from our descriptions--note the swiper-paws. And then I got serious. No more Googling with myself and cooking up conspiracy theories (about these, more to come). Time to storm the castle: the archives of the MTA itself.

Fortress MTA, Brooklyn
Tomorrow: What we discovered!