The Accidental Playground

Image result for the accidental playgroundDaniel Campo worked for the New York City planning commission in the late 1990’s, a time when NYC was rising from its Death Wish reputation in a climb that hasn’t stopped. Rudy Giuliani was still basking in the glow of his take-no-crap popularity, and with downtown Manhattan almost 100% gentrified, he was setting his sights on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront, with its disused piers and trash-strewn lots. But what was left out of all the hubbub was the fact that the Williamsburg waterfront was no longer the crime-magnet that people thought it was. In the past decade, with struggling artists moving into the area, the waterfront had become a place for skating, music, and performance art.

Image result for the accidental playgroundBy 2000, there were several improvised skate ramps on the “slab,” an old concrete pier. One of them was called the volcano for its odd shape, built with leftover concrete from building projects. For the construction companies, it was cheaper to give away wet concrete than haul it back in the truck, so there was plenty of free material. Some of it was sponsored by skate magazines, because having another skate park (legal or otherwise) would boost their sales (another example of capitalism at its best, Occupy Movement take note.) It was a weekend performance space for bands, fire dancers, jugglers, and just about every street performance imaginable; an urban version of the Burning Man festival.

Image result for the accidental playgroundIn stark contrast to the “hip” reputation of today, Greenpoint was still an industrial zone by 2001. I remember it being safe, healthy (despite the underground oil spills), but with few nice restaurants. The 1990’s Brooklyn is depicted positively in Alex Robinson’s graphic novel Box Office Poison, but in the scenes where they eat out, it’s always a diner or an Italian place. There weren’t any of the cool restaurants that you have there now. If you didn’t mind the simple atmosphere, it was great for artists, musicians, or anyone that needed a place that was cheap, close to Manhattan, and safer than the South Bronx. In those days, Williamsburg’s inhabitants, whether they were yong artists or old working-class Poles, were used to making things themselves. The “slab” exemplified the DIY ethic.

The waterfront that was featured in the movie Hurricane Streets (among others) is mostly gone. It was gobbled up by State Parks and condominiums with views of Manhattan. But thanks to Campo’s unbiased writing, this is a great book of what the city used to be.

The Last Bohemia: Scenes From the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

I visited Williamsburg for the first time back in 1997. My professor had a studio there in an old warehouse, and looking back on it, I realize how ignorant I was. It was a great place to live, but only for economic reasons. The rent was cheap and there was ample parking, and as far as logistics were concerned, it was a short ride on the L train away from NYU. But socially, it wasn’t great. There weren’t a lot of good restaurants (unless you liked Polish, Italian, or typical roadside diners) and the bar scene catered to construction workers. The only people that lived there were looking for cheap rent and big spaces. But by 2000, I wished I’d seen the huge potential. Dopey me.

Robert Anasi’s The Last Bohemia is a great book by a writer who was there the whole time. He narrates this great history of the area, from a time when it was a backwater to the present day “hipster” hangout. When I say hipster, I’m not making any compliments; the so-called “hip” is little more than a bunch of snobs trying to one-up everyone else with their expensive clothing and knowledge of every bar, band, and eatery. The real “hip” people lived in Williamsburg because the rent was cheap. The real artists had to work, and they put up with the place being not much fun.

Anasi doesn’t pull any punches when describing the uber-stylish. He has a lot of respect for the people that lived there before it was cool, and those are the people that got priced out. It truly is the “last bohemia,” because there’s no place like it left in this city (unless you want to trek farther and farther from Manhattan.)

This book reminds me of the recent In Love With Art, because 1970’s Soho is described in a similar way; run-down, few restaurants, but safe, because nobody had anything to steal. In a way, the old Williamsburg was safe too, because who would be there besides the people who worked and lived in the area? The residents weren’t walking around with expensive stuff to steal. If you broke into an apartment, you’d be lucky to find a TV.

Habitats by Constance Rosenbloom

Image result for habitats by constance rosenblumCollected from the Real Estate section of the New York Times, these articles show you the elegant, or sometimes eccentric flair of the city’s apartment dwellers, and some private houses too. One of them is a white couple in Mott Haven, which is probably the last place you’d see an upper middle class couple in this city. The place is called the “Bertine Block” on East 136th, an area not known for elegance, despite the stately-looking buildings (the housing projects in the area didn’t help things.) They’d lived there since the 1920’s and never left, and as for the thugs in the streets, they left the family alone because they knew they lived there. But the stained glass windows were ruined by bullets.

As for the other articles, they’re not as interesting. One of the problems with the Real Estate section is that it’s all about apartments none of us can afford. Most of the city’s unmarried people live with roommates, and they don’t put much effort into decorating. If they do, then it mostly consists of painting the walls with eccentric designs and/or furnishing the place with dumpster-diving treasures. Then again, the New York Times Sunday section doesn’t market itself to people that have no money to spend, so the elegant fancy stuff is all we see.

Still, sometimes I’d rather see a section titled “getting along in a cramped pad.”

The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carrol

basketball-diariesI read this back in 1995, when I was going to the Pratt Manhattan summer program. I wasn’t accustomed to being in the city every day of summer, and it was definitely a life-changing experience. It’s like you become a different person by living in this borough; you start to expect more from everything in your life, whether it’s food, clothing, the apartment where you live, or the people around. The kids in the city are much more independent, and they’re used to getting around on their own. I think this is what I envied most about the characters in this book-they’re totally independent and they do exactly as they please.

The diary begins in 1963, when Jim Carrol was attending Trinity School, playing basketball and running around with the hip kids (mostly from poor families.) He was definitely attending the exclusive private school on a scholarship, because there’s no way a working-class Irish American parent could afford to send his son there. It would’ve been an athletic scholarship, because this boy doesn’t seem to be much of a student.

As far as basketball goes, he gets to play with a Harlem team where one of the players is Lew Alcendor (later Kareem Abdul Jabar.) As for his skills, he’s great, but he gets left out of the team photo because they can’t risk having a white kid in the picture. Is it racism? Sure it is, but then you also have to wonder if Trinity School gave Jim Carrol a scholarship based on color. There had to have been hundreds of black boys in the city who could play basketball AND were top students.

As the story goes, Jim gets hooked on heroin, hustles gay men to support his habit, and things get dirty. Washington Heights had a sizable Irish population at the time, though it wasn’t thought of as Manhattan because it was built up much later than other areas. The fact that Harlem is to the south doesn’t figure much in the book, because Jim moves between the Irish, black, and Puerto Rican groups seamlessly. Perhaps they’re all united by sleaze, drugs, and filth?

Basketball Diaries is the opposite of Prozac Nation, written by fellow Manhattanite Elizabeth Wurtzel. Despite having three things in common-drugs, risky sex, and crazy parents-the two characters are opposites. Wurtzel dreams of being anyplace other than Manhattan (and doesn’t seem to enjoy any of them when she does) while Jim really enjoys his life in the city! Whether it’s making out with a hooker in the balcony of a movie theater, running across rooftops, or swimming in the Harlem River, he really has quite a time. He doesn’t fantasize about living in Hackensack or being poor (even though his family is) and at the same time doesn’t get jealous of kids who have more. In fact, despite going to Trinity School, he has few dealings with the rich kids.

Like fellow uptown-born writer Priri Thomas, Jim Carrol spends his childhood swimming in filth. Unlike Piri Thomas, he has his color on his side, which allows him to get away with a lot more.