May 22, 2013
Just a block from Harlem’s great thoroughfare, 125th Street, is a brownstone listed for a cool $2.3 million, courtesy of the Corcoran Group Real Estate. Advertising its proximity to the subway and trendy restaurants like Red Rooster, the listing provides a snapshot of the dramatic changes underway in the Manhattan neighborhood. Projects like the expansion of the Harlem Hospital Center and the plans for Columbia University and rezoning efforts have brought a wave of development interest to Harlem, which suffered along with the rest of New York during the 1970s when the city was verging on bankruptcy.
In the process, the profile of the neighborhood, long considered the Mecca of African-American culture, has changed. According to census data for Central Harlem, the population of white residents grew by more than 400 percent between 2000 and 2010. In the meantime, the average sale price for housing in Central Harlem increased 270 percent from 1996 to 2006, the fourth largest increase of all neighborhoods city-wide. Starting at the north edge of Central Park on 110th Street, real estate interests staked their claims. Glossy businesses like the hotel chain Aloft moved in.
But for all the attention paid to the changing skyline and demographic profile, Harlem historian and architectural consultant John Reddick argues there’s more beneath the surface of Harlem’s development. He says the roots of the community’s development have long been building to this economic high note, and that despite the common conception that much of this change has come from the outside, it’s established community members who brought it about.
The fight for affordable housing, for better schools, for renovated properties–all that, he says, came from the community itself. “There were people who lived there during the worst of times and really made a commitment and who were part and parcel of the genius to turn things around,” says Reddick, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980, ”and nobody knows who they are!”
In part to rectify that error and to highlight the ways Harlem inspires and innovates in the design fields, Reddick has been curating a series and lectures and programs in conjunction with the Cooper-Hewitt titled, “Harlem Focus Series,” that will continue through the summer. Museum director Caroline Payson says the series, “encourages people to think about design in their own backyard.”
Reddick has done much of his work in the neighborhood on memorial projects and in the parks, which he calls the “treaty grounds for everybody.” Whether as a place to walk a dog or to hold a barbecue for a birthday party, the parks draw everyone in. His favorite park space is at the north end of Central Park by the Harlem Meer lake, where the landscape is rockier and hillier. “It’s very different from the rest of the park.”
But it’s the people as much as the parks that make Harlem the inviting neighborhood he remembers from his first visit in 1965. “As an African-American, it was just mythic,” he remembers. “I just was energized by all of it. I knew I’d end up here.” Neighborhood staples like the churches felt familiar to Reddick. Others were attracted by that same energy.
Now Harlem is home to a large percentage of African immigrants concentrated on 116th Street, in addition to a growing Asian and Hispanic population. All around him, Reddick says he can see the global influences taking shape in Harlem as it orients itself on a wider stage. Even Harlem’s most famous rapper today, A$AP Rocky borrows from rap cultures around the country in his music while still representing the “pizzazz, spunk, charisma, character” he says is indigenous to his childhood home.
“I think Harlem is this amazing brand,” says Reddick, “greater than Chanel.” And yet, he says, its story has been stunted in the telling.
Reddick’s own research into the Jewish and black roots of music in Harlem prior to the Harlem Renaissance challenges the idea that Harlem was “happening” in discrete moments. Outside historians and writers, he says, are “like explorers in the black community and once they document it, they’re like Columbus: history starts when they decide Harlem is improving or it has value and so it diminishes anything that was there before.”
Harlem’s recent economic development has brought a similar reading. But Reddick says the changes that are just now starting to bring attention have been a long time coming. Fights like the one that kept Marcus Garvey Park, with its amphitheater and swimming pool, public and available to the community helped protect major neighborhood assets.
Decades before City Council speaker Christine Quinn stopped by Make My Cake in Harlem as she set about laying the groundwork for her mayoral bid, JoAnn Baylor was baking up her tasty and addictive creations in her basement, according to a profile of the business on DNAInfo. In 1996, the family opened their first shop. Now with two locations, the shop is co-owned by Baylor’s daughter and has irregular hours which don’t hurt the demand one bit. Though its success was made visible by high-profile patrons and inclusion in a Small Business Saturday American Express campaign, the roots of the business were long part of the neighborhood.
Or there’s the American Legion Post 138 on West 132nd Street in Harlem, whose weekly Sunday jazz jam session was ranked the best free Uptown jazz in 2012 by the Village Voice and is one of Reddick’s personal favorites. Though the show was started in the late 90s, its organizer, Seleno Clarke, has been playing organ professionally for more than 40 years. His connections to Harlem musicians help him keep a steady rotation of guest artists, in addition to the international musicians who also stop by.
The creative, collaborative spirit that enlivens the American Legion is precisely the sort that first attracted Reddick to Harlem and what he hopes to highlight with his Cooper-Hewitt series. “There are creative people who have this energy.” When people talk about things like rooftop gardens and urban farming, he says “people in Harlem are thinking about this, it’s not just happening in other well-to-do neighborhoods.”
The series continues May 22 with architect Jack Travis, who will discuss the Harlem Hospital’s Mural Pavilion, connecting Works Progress Administration-era murals by African-American artists to contemporary African-inspired color palette, pattern and philosophy.
December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
November 30, 2012
Saul Lilienstein was just your average kid growing up in the Bronx. He rode the train to the dazzling Times Square and music classes in Manhattan and watched Joe DiMaggio from his rooftop overlooking Yankee Stadium. If this sounds like the same sort of nostalgic yarn Woody Allen spins in Annie Hall when his character Alvy tells the audience that he grew up underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island, Lilienstein is here to tell you it’s all true.
“He might have been born in Brooklyn but you’d be surprised how close the character was of kids from either Brooklyn or the Bronx and their utter attachment both to their boroughs and to New York as the center of their world.”
While it may not be surprising today that New Yorkers don’t suffer any insecurities about their town, the city’s fate as a global capital seemed uncertain after the stock market crash of 1929. That’s where Saul Lilienstein, a music historian, plans to pick up when he presents “New York in the Thirties: From Hard-Times Town to the World of Tomorrow” with colleague George Scheper for Smithsonian Associates. His Saturday seminar will touch on everything from Broadway to Harlem, Mayor LaGuardia to city planner Robert Moses, and explore how the city rose from the crash.
“I’ll always be a New Yorker, there’s no question about it. That’s my neighborhood,” says Lilienstein. Born in 1932 in the Bronx, Lilienstein takes what has become a familiar story of a city’s triumph–demographics, government support, new art forms and platforms–and tells it from a unique point of view, reveling in the seemingly endless potential available to any kid with a nickel.
The familiar players will all be in attendance Saturday: the New Deal, Works Progress Administration, Tin Pan Alley, Radio City Music Hall, the Cotton Club. But Lilienstein weaves personal memories into the narrative to bring New York in the 30s and 40s to life.
Like when he won an award in 1943 for selling more war bonds than any other Boy Scout in the Bronx. “I was chosen to lay the wreath at the opening of the Lou Gehrig memorial outside of Yankee Stadium,” remembers Lilienstein. “And the New York Daily News had a picture of me and it said, boy scout Saul Lilienstein lays the wreath at the Lou Gehrig memorial and then it mentioned the people standing around me: Mrs. Babe Ruth, Mrs. Lou Gehrig.” For a boy whose life revolved around riding the subway to any and every baseball game he could, the memory stands out as a favorite. “And then we all went out to lunch together to the Concourse Plaza Hotel.”
Now an opera expert, Lilienstein has a musical background that stretches back to his high school days. “I went to a high school that had six full symphony orchestras in it. I’m not exaggerating,” he says. Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art is a public school, but was the project of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who founded the school in 1936 as part of a trend of government support for artists and the arts. Factors like these seem almost impossible to imagine today, says Lilienstein, when rhetoric often villainizes anyone who benefits from the government. “But, it was a marvelous thing that generated theater and music in the city.”
He remembers taking the subway to music lessons in Manhattan where he trained with the first trombone from the New York Philharmonic, for free. Density created audiences large enough to support world renowned cultural institutions. A public transportation system open to anyone helped democratize access to those institutions. And Lilienstein’s story is just one of many from a city built to embrace the arts.
Times Square, for example, served as a sort of theater lobby for the entire city, according to Lilienstein. “It’s this place where a huge, milling crowd of people are getting something to eat and talking about what they’ve seen,” he says. “It’s not just a place where people are passing through.”
Lilienstein even goes so far as to defend the billboard funhouse that is Times Square today, saying, “Well it’s not quite the same. There are some differences: you can sit down in the middle of it now. I’m not one of those people who thinks everything gets worse, a lot of things get better.” But, Lilienstein pauses for a bit before adding, “Nothing gets better than New York in the 30s and the early 40s!”
“New York in the Thirties: From Hard Times Town to the World of Tomorrow” takes place December 1, 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Ripley Center. Purchase tickets here.
December 5, 2011
Monday, December 5 Through the Eye of the Needle
See the world premiere of the documentary, “Through the Eye of the Needle” at the 22nd annual Washington Jewish Film Festival. Based on the life story of Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz who went beyond storytelling to show to her daughters the painful images of loss and survival during her childhood in Poland. To do this, Krinitz created a series of 36 hand-stitched, embroidered fabric panels that are now on display at the Ripley Center. The film uses interviews from before Krinitz’ 2001 death as well as footage of family members and others. Tickets available online. 6:15 to 7 p.m. D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.
Tuesday, December 6 Basket Weaving
Julie Parker, master basket weaver of the Me-Wuk and Kashaya Pomo tribes of Northern California, leads this fascinating demonstration workshop. Parker is a Cultural Specialist at the Yosemite Museum and one of the most renowned Native basket-makers in the country. Her work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the private collection of Queen Elizabeth II. Drop in and join Parker in this all-day demonstration of her exquisite craft. Free. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. American Indian Museum, Potomac Atrium.
Wednesday, December 7 Smithsonian Gardens Holiday Tour
Deck the Halls! Take a festive holiday tour of the Institution’s gardens, decked out in their finest holiday decorations. The tour, led by Gardens Education Specialist Cindy Brown, will feature interesting information on history and helpful how-to tips. After winding through the Enid A. Haupt and Mary Livingston Ripley outdoor gardens, the tour will head inside the Castle where participants will get to see the Smithsonian’s annual holiday tree. The event will conclude inside the Ripley Center, where everyone will get the chance to make their own botanical decorations. Tickets are $39 for Residents Associates Members, and $52 for the general public. 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with tours also offered Friday, Dec. 9 and Saturday, Dec. 10. Meet outside the South entrance to the Smithsonian Castle.
Thursday, December 8 The Tori Project
In this groundbreaking musical event, four Korean performers will collaborate with three New York-based improvisational artists to explore the variations and melodies of traditional Korean folk song in a contemporary context. The musicians will perform on instruments such as the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), geomungo (stringed instrument) and janggu (double-headed drum). Free, with tickets required. 7:30 p.m. Sackler Gallery, Meyer Auditorium.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
July 6, 2011
Last week, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum hosted a dedication ceremony for the U.S. Postal Service’s new set of stamps honoring 12 pioneers in American industrial design.
Each stamp features a sleek product, be it a camera, flatware or typewriter, on a white backdrop, and the name of the design and its designer. The designers chosen include Peter Müller-Munk, Frederick Hurten Rhead, Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, Dave Chapman, Greta von Nessen, Eliot Noyes, Russel Wright and Gilbert Rohde.
“They were very important in getting the profession of industrial design off of the ground,” says Gail Davidson, head curator of Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “A number of these people were immigrants to the United States. These were men who were in the right place at the right time. Many of them were artists. They could not make a career in the fine arts, and they turned to industrial design as a way of making a living. Many of them entered the profession through set design and costume design. People like Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss would be included in that group. Other people entered the profession through advertising or window display. Raymond Loewy is an example of that group and also Donald Deskey.”
The field of industrial design emerged in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when manufacturers turned to designers to create products with a modern look. What resulted were products that were simple, functional and more aesthetically clean than their ornate predecessors. After World War II, products were mass produced and designers experimented with new materials, such as plastic, vinyl, chrome, aluminum and plywood, which made the products more reasonably priced. “Industry turned to designers directly as a way of distinguishing their products from those of another company,” says Davidson.
The 12 designers whose work is featured on the stamps heavily influenced the look of everyday life in the 20th century. Some of the more familiar designs on the stamps are boldly colored Fiesta dinnerware from 1936 by Frederick Hurten Rhead and the 1961 IBM “Selectric” typewriter by Eliot Noyes. Davidson hopes that the stamps will make people aware of design and how it impacts their lives.
If you like the stamps, there are related artifacts within the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection. For instance, the museum has a pitcher and other examples of Rhead’s Fiesta line; cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who collaborated with the Eastman Kodak Company; dinnerware designed by Raymond Loewy for the 1976 Concorde airliner; drawings and examples of flatware designed by Russel Wright; and drawings for John Deere tractors and models of Bell telephones by Henry Dreyfuss. The Cooper-Hewitt also holds the archives of both Henry Dreyfuss and Donald Deskey.
The Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are on sale now at local post offices and online at usps.com.