The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory

sunshine-crust-baking-factoryStacey Wakefield has crafted a novel of historical fiction, set in a Brooklyn Squat in the mid 1990’s. Our protagonist, Sid, is basically a 20-something rover hanging out with the punk-anarchist crowd, looking for a squat to live in. The problem is, the Manhattan squats are all full by this point, and since this is the era when the price of East Village real estate went up, there aren’t any more abandoned buildings to squat in. So she goes for the next available spot, in this case, Williamsburg.

If you expect a novel about booze, drugs, and partying, you won’t find it here. This novel is in the realm of Ash Thayer’s Kill City, and much of it is spent renovating, hauling debris, getting water, etc. Though most third-wave feminists probably won’t agree, this novel does more for women’s lib then a whole lot of activists. Think of it as a book about a woman doing everything on her own; no money from home, and no getting by on her looks. She’s not in the kind of life where looking pretty is an asset, and her part-time job doesn’t require a cute girl.

I consider this book a cross between Little House on the Prairie and Home Girl. As with the former, Sid is a homesteader, trying to make a home out on a frontier. As with Home Girl, Sid is a woman in a harsh part of town. But unlike Judith Maitloff’s book, Sid doesn’t have to contend with as much crime as she would in Hamilton Heights. For those of you that read The Last Bohemia, you’ll see that Williamsburg, an industrial area, had less crime because fewer people lived there. Soho was like that in its early days too. I guess it’s easier to live in an industrial area than a poor one.

Stacey Wakefield’s previous effort was Not For Rent, consisting of interviews with squatters in several cities, including London, England. Unfortunately, the days of the city squatters in New York are over. There are no more abandoned spaces, thanks to rising values. If you want to squat, you might as well try Philadelphia, Camden, and Detroit, all of which are full of abandoned blocks. But you’d have to contend with dangerous neighbors in those cities.

Invisible City: Photographs by Ken Schles

invisible-cityOriginally published in 1988 by Twelvetrees Press, and now reissued by Steidl, these photographs capture the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the end of her life. When I say “end,” I mean that the buildings are vacant, the trees are bare ad stunted, the streets are empty, and the people look empty too. Schles captures them lying around in filthy apartments, hollow eyed, and depressed. One of them shows a woman on the toilet, crammed into a tiny bathroom, her dress hiked up to reveal her flabby legs. I remember the city in the Kotch-Dinkins-Giuliani days; most New Yorkers were averse to being photographed, and the subject here must’ve been pretty hopeless to let herself be compromised like this. Regardless, I was not turned on.

In another photo, the neighborhood comes out to celebrate the fireworks, everyone’s out dancing in the street. Other than that, there’s no sign of happiness in this book. Everyone’s just waiting for the place to die quickly so they can move on. Seen from a window on a hot summer day, weed-grown lots and empty tenements. I know it’s the summer because the tree have leaves and the sky is cloudless. But even the trees look sick. There are three cars on the street, theibuildings-with-garbage-bag-1983r windows intact. Is it because nobody’s there to break them? Do the owners move the cars at night? One photo shows a bunch of tulips on a windowsill overlooking an alley. They say that when a tree des, a thousand flowers bloom.

Today, the Lower East Side has good things. Community gardens are well-maintained, streets are clean, kids can walk safely in the streets, and there are healthy things to do. Young people have moved in, and they proudly decorate their apartments. The neighborhood was once a dead tree, and it finally fell down. Flower bloomed in its wake.

The grainy pics capture every horrible sad detail of the old Lower East Side. Some might call it poor quality, but keep in mind that not all artists are well-financed with the best equipment. The photographer may have been too poor to afford a flashbulb, or maybe he bought some past-date film. I remember when I started taking pictured in that era; I used grainy 400dx black and white film. You couldn’t blow it up, but it was perfect for low light. Or a dark, unlit tenement.

New York’s New Edge

new-yorks-new-edgeMy first encounter with Chelsea and the New York City Highline was back in 1996. The neighborhood was already one big gallery space, and the old factories and warehouses had all become artist studios. As for the Highline railway, it had not been used in nearly 20 years. Still, I was fascinated by this old relic of the past, an elevated railway that ran through buildings and stopped very abruptly in the middle of the street. Today it’s an expensive area, but what about the 80’s, when it wasn’t as desirable?

David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso collect the stories of people who lived there through the years. In the first chapter, Silas Seandel describes his move to Chelsea in 1978. He needed a concrete space, SoHo was already taken, so he found a spot west of 9th. The area had lots of S&M bars (well-known from the movie Cruising with Al Pacino) and since nobody lived there, muggers didn’t bother with it. The city didn’t want to lose industry by allowing Chelsea to become residential, but they didn’t realize that industry in the city was practically dead. Kind of reminds me of an earlier book, In Love With Art (about Francois Mouly and Art Spiegelman) where the artists acquire a cheap printing machine, thanks to all the local print shops shutting down.

SoHo was residentially zoned b 1995 and had long-term leases, so all the galleries were priced out by the Giuliani era. The Dia Art Center, started by the DeMenil family, is portrayed by the author as being an anchor for the neighborhood. My problem with this book is that the Westbeth building is barely discussed. The apartments-located in the old Bell Telephone factory-were founded as residences for artists. Don’t the longtime residents of the Westbeth have stories to tell? They loved down on Bethune Street when it was barely safe to go at night. The authors also ignore the transportation issue, which would have been a major factor in the area. SoHo had connections to all subway lines on the east side, but Chelsea had only the west side lines, and 11th avenue is almost half a mile from the nearest subway stop.

The great thing about this book is that it give an insight into the way the artists were the pioneers of the city in the earlier days. They lived and worked in an area that was not glamorous, not fun, not vibrant, and didn’t have all the great restaurants and fun bars. They had to be tough enough to handle seed streets, which were probably pitch black at night from unrepaired streetlights. My hat will always be of to these people for toughing it out.