Love and Longing in New York

 

Walking is my form of enlightenment.

I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.

Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.

At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.

The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.

But I love walking in New York City.

When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.

When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.

When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.

When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.

When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.

One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.

Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.

Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

(Selected from college application essay)

Chinatown: A Living Neighborhood

Chinatown is both static and dynamic: Static in its resilience against gentrification, dynamic in its cultural interplay between past and present, immigrant and American.

Everywhere in Chinatown, past and present intermingle. Dusty and decrepit Jewish textile stores struggle onward; their elderly owners wait to close up shop and sell out for many millions. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and an immigrant job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited, red paint flaking off its brick walls. Weathered brick tenements, serving successive waves of Germans, Italians, and Irish, still serve elderly Asians and urban “hipsters.” Streets are still chronically dirty, as they were a century ago. Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.

On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garishly painted crêperie, a chic souvenir shop advertising “I love Chinatown” tote bags. This neighborhood is devoid of its youth; little children and wizened elderly remain. The rest have left to work in the America beyond. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads, “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles on above.

On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The cycling documentary chronicles life on the Lower East Side. Black and white imagery flickers across the screen: Italians and Irish, Germans, and Jews, the immigrant experience, dreams of coming to America. It is all too convenient to reflect on the past and to falsely conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more. Problem solved. Case closed.

Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

 

 

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IMG_6173This high-density tenement on Eldridge Street is home to a myriad of businesses including: 

Third Brother’s Fuzhou Snack Bar

Green Forest Internet Bar

United Express and Lottery Tickets

Universal Phone Cards

Everything OK Job Agency

International Job Agency

Twinkling Star Job Agency

.Field Chicken

These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.

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All Purpose Flower Shop and Funeral ServicesThis all purpose establishment advertises the following services:

Weddings

Conferences

Concerts

Gatherings

Ceremonies

Western Chinese Music

Performing Arts

Potted Plants

Floral Arrangements

Funerary Flowers

Funerals and Birthdays

Windmobiles

These sculptures made of paper, wire, and wood are powered by the wind. When placed before a light breeze, their pinwheels spin and power the sculptures’ cyclical movements. The bird will soar. The horseman will eternally charge forward, lance at the ready.

This series explores movement. Each sculpture physically and symbolically invokes the purity and lightness of moving elements.

 

Pinwheel is the simplest in this series. A light breeze spins a three-pronged pinwheel, which vibrates a wire. The following sculptures are variations on this mechanism.

 

In Ocean Voyage, the pinwheel gently rocks a sailing boat. Wind movement translates into wave movement.

 

Liberty explores the search for freedom. The pinwheel connects to a wire that flaps the dove’s white wings. Ironically, the dove flees from the source of its movement.

 

Similar to Liberty, Don Quixote’s Windmill explores the interplay between source and recipient of movement. The pinwheel powers the horse’s legs as it charges forward. Ironically, Don Quixote attacks the windmill that powers him.

 

In Cityscape two pinwheels power rows of zigzagging traffic. In this “snapshot” of urban life, movement is choreographed along mechanical lines. A black paper cutout contrasts the white sculpture, which is illuminated from beneath.

 

Time employs movement as a metaphor about life and death. A crank rotates a wheel and powers a walking skeleton. On the wheel, silhouettes of infant, child, worker, senior, cripple, and coffin symbolize the stages of life. While the skeleton depicts death, the wheel depicts continuity. In juxtaposition to the series, the human hand, not natural wind, moves the sculpture and completes the metaphor.

Vanishing City

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about redevelopment in Newark, my birthplace. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots. Through this series, I document the beauty behind decay, destruction, and rebirth.
I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage.  An abandoned barge slowly sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home.  An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body.  As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches to the sky.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the ephemeral.  It is the realization that what was built to last forever, will not last.  It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city.  Lastly, it is the hope that someday the past will become cherished in its entirety because a culture without history is like a body without life.
The ephemeral nature of my environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes in the protean vortex of memory.  Years from now, my city will continue redefining its identity.  Years from now, I will assess my memories with fresh experience and nuanced perspective.  Although today’s present may become tomorrow’s past, the present will survive through our collective consciousness.
When one visits the ruins of past civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them not as whole structures, but as shards of memory and as the detritus of what once was.  Their grandeur stems not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is more moving than grandeur still extant.  These ruins are powerful because of their decay, not in spite of it.
The battered past should remind the proud present of its transience.  I look at the built world of today and ask: Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure?  What will the future remember us by?  Roman roads lasted millennia; will our potholed highways last as long?  Obelisks of stone withstood the elements for centuries; will our rusty skyscrapers of steel last as long?  The Greek forum became legendary; could the same destiny await our “forums” of today, the strip mall, the grocery chain, and the drive-thru?  The Renaissance aspired to the grandeur of Rome; what society will aspire to the “grandeur” of our society with its twisted piles of fallen metal and the troubled environment our children will inherit?  Maybe the question should be different: in a culture of blind “progress”, what past will there even be to preserve?  Time will tell.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here. Below, pictures of my neighborhood’s architectural losses, photographed first in 1978 and again in 2014 from the same camera angles.

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South Bronx

Strolling in the Bronx, one aspect arrests me every time: Homogeneity. Block after block, street after street, a never ending treadmill of bodegas, tenements, hair salons, C-TOWN supermarkets, strip malls, and laundries. I ask myself, “Wasn’t I just here before?” I become an explorer lost wandering the Sahara; I retrace my footsteps.

And then . . .  There is the ceaseless cacophony of Spanish speakers, buses, and autos. The chaotic maze of streets leads me to fantasize walking thru a painting by de Chirico. The copious signage for SHOES, SHIRTS, PIZZA, etc. hints at shabby decadence. The never too distant fast food joint hints at obesity in a quality food desert. The din of distant cars on the Cross Bronx or Major Deegan hint at childhood asthma. I momentarily immerse myself in the urban grid.

After many hours, I spy an elevated subway stop in the far distance. I take the next southbound train back to Manhattan. I must return to the Bronx soon. The outer boroughs beckon.

To read more about my walks in New York, click here.

Detroit: Year Zero

Detroit is living misery. It is the very antithesis of urbanization and a victim of America’s senseless auto culture. Thousands of homes lie vacant and decaying. Copious infrastructure built to serve millions serves only thousands. Highways slashed through decaying neighborhoods serve a city devoid of life in many parts. Downtown is a skyscraper graveyard full of empty storefronts and a labyrinth of rotting art deco architectural gems.

During WWII, Detroit was dubbed “the arsenal of democracy” for all the military equipment it rolled out. Planes from Detroit went on to bomb European cities (like Dresden) to smithereens. In a form of fitting, yet ironic, justice Detroit has been bombed to smithereens. Except this time, it isn’t a B-27 doing the dirty destruction, it’s a culture of decay and the very society that erected this metropolis.

After Detroit’s 1967 Riots, over 200,000 whites fled Detroit for good. They left behind a racially divided city. They wiped their hands clean of decades of corruption and let the “blacks manage themselves.” White corruption became black corruption. Out with the old rascals and in with the new. And the birthplace of the automobile plummets ever lower.

Attempts to rectify Detroit’s fallen stature make a mockery of progress. An empty monorail endlessly circles a downtown devoid of life. Renaissance Center soars above downtown, secluded from the helpless city. Renaissance Center is a corporate Death Star accessible only by car. The ominous Greektown Casino abuts the city jail. Whites commute to Detroit for sports games at Comerica Field and then flee afterwards. Everywhere there is parking, parking, parking . . . Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert even proposed creating a demolition countdown clock that listed the number of vacant buildings to be demolished.

Detroit is a failure on countless levels. It represents the failure of government to stem the victorious forces of suburbanization and cars. It represents the failure of short-sighted planning and American industrial might. It represents the failure of democracy to level the playing field of racial divides. De facto segregated Detroit has become de jure segregated Detroit. Detroit is by all means a failure. Then and again, the forces causing the downfall of this metropolis are just as guilty. Government. The free-market. The auto industry. Capitalism.

Detroit’s Latin motto is: “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus.”

We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.

New Jersey Meadowlands

The meadowlands, nestled between New York City and Newark, is a strange sort of interstitial zone. It belongs to neither nature nor to man. The grasslands and birds of nature are abundant. Yet, so are the derelict factories and warehouses of yesteryear. The unwanted detritus of civilization is cast off into the meadowlands, ranging from garbage to industry.

Through this region of indeterminate identity pass millions of commuters on their way to and from work. Many look out the windows of passing trains, planes, and cars. Yet few care to observe the lapping tides and bizarre beauty of this unwanted strip of land. The views below are drawn from memory. They show various scenes from my daily train ride on NJ Transit between Newark Broad Street and Hoboken Terminal.