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.
May 6, 2013
“None of us know the Lord’s will,” Burtis J. “Bert” Dolan wrote to his wife about his journey on the new airship, the Hindenburg. He had purchased his ticket for the trip on May 1, 1937, two days before setting off from Frankfurt, Germany. It cost him 1,000 RM, equivalent to about $450 during the Great Depression, according to the National Postal Museum. His ticket survived the disaster on May 6, 1937. He did not. He died, along with 35 others.
The exhibit, “Fire and Ice,” which opened in spring 2012 for the 75th anniversary, included never-before-seen discoveries like the map of the Hindenburg’s route across the Atlantic, but now, thanks to the Dolan family, it will also include what may be the only surviving passenger ticket from the disaster.
Had Dolan not listened to his friend, Nelson Morris, and changed his travel plans, he would’ve headed back from Europe by sea. But Morris persuaded him to try the passenger airship and surprise his family with an early return. It was the perfect plan for Mothers Day and so Dolan agreed. When the airship caught fire just before docking at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Morris jumped from a window with Dolan behind him. But Dolan never made it.
Not knowing he was on board, Dolan’s wife learned of her husband’s involvement through Morris’ family and, along with the rest of the country, followed the newsreel and audio reports from the disaster that made headlines. Debates continue about what caused the initial spark and ensuing flame that consumed the ship within 34 seconds.
As part of the museum’s exhibit “Fire and Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic,” visitors to the National Postal Museum can view Dolan’s ticket and passport and learn more about the disasters that still captivate audiences.
May 3, 2013
When Christopher Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of a Western route to Asia, the continent became a footnote in the discovery of America. But before the country was even founded, Asians and Asian Americans have played integral roles in the American story. Some chapters of that history are well known: the impact of Chinese railroad workers or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But countless others have been overlooked.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a new traveling show developed by by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center seeks to provide a more complete story of Asian American history. Now on view at the American History Museum, the exhibition “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” begins with the pre-Columbian years and spans the centuries, to tell of the Asian experience with a series of posters featuring archival images and beautiful illustrations that eventually will travel the country. A condensed set of exhibition materials will also be distributed to 10,000 schools nationwide as teaching tools.
Though often marginalized with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asian Americans were central to American history, “from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement,” explains Konrad Ng, director of the Asian Pacific American Center.
The densely packed exhibit resonates with many of today’s conversations around immigration, identity and representation. Beneath the broad banner of Asian American identity dwells a deeper, more diverse set of experiences. The Puna Singh family, for example, represents a unique blending of cultures that occurred when Punjabi men–unable to immigrate with Indian brides–became employed in agriculture in the West, and met and started families with female Mexican fieldworkers. “The story of Asian Americans,” says Lawrence Davis, who worked on the exhibition, “is very much one that’s not in isolation.”
The Asian experience is one that includes a diversity of cultures and countries. As early as 1635, Chinese merchants were trading in Mexico City. By the 1760s, Filipinos had set up fishing villages in the bayous of New Orleans, and Vietnamese shrimpers and fishermen are a large part of the Coast’s current economy. Asian Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, including two brothers, who were the sons of the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, brought to the U.S. by circus-owner P.T. Barnum. In 1898, Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese American, won a landmark Supreme Court case, which established the precedent of birthright citizenship. In the 1960s, Filipino workers marched alongside Cesar Chavez for farm workers’ rights.
The exhibit borrows its title from the 20th-century Filipino American poet, Carlos Bulosan who wrote:
Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers,
I say I want the wide American earth
For all the free.
I want the wide American earth for my people.
I want my beautiful land.
I want it with my rippling strength and tenderness
Of love and light and truth
For all the free.
“When he arrived in the U.S., like most immigrant stories, it wasn’t easy,” says Ng of the poet. “And yet he still came to love this country.” Despite the hardship, discrimination and even vilifying, many Asian Americans came to love this country as well, and from that love, they improved it and became an integral part of it.
Though Ng had a hard time singling out any favorite chapter from the show, he says many present “new ways to think about the community,” including the politics of international adoption, the spread of Asian food cultures and much more.
“I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” will be on display at the American History Museum through June 18, 2013 before traveling to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
April 16, 2013
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke major league baseball’s color barrier, the world was still 16 years away from the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as just getting organized. The Montgomery bus boycott was eight years away and housing discrimination based on race would remain legal until 1968. In his first season with the MLB, Robinson would win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He was a perpetual All-Star. And in 1955, he helped his team secure the championship. Robinson’s success was, by no means, inevitable and in fact he earned it in a society that sought to make it altogether impossible.
Unsurprisingly, his story seemed bound for Hollywood and in 1950, still in the midst of his career, he starred as himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Now Robinson’s story returns to the screen in the new film “42,” this time played by Howard University graduate, Chadwick Boseman, who was at the American History Museum Monday evening for a special screening for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We caught up with him there.
Are you happy to be back in D.C.?
I’m excited, you know, this room got me a little hyped. It’s fun coming here after having been here a few weeks ago after meeting the First Lady and the President for the screening at the White House. I went to college here and you always think, oh, I’m never going to get to go in that building, I’m never going to get to do this or that so coming here and doing it, it’s like wow, it’s a whole new world.
You said you can’t remember ever not knowing who Jackie Robinson was, but that it was important not to play him as just a hero. How did you get all those details? Did speaking with his wife, Rachel Robinson, play a big part?
The first thing that I did was, I went to meet her at her office on Varick Street. She sat me down on a couch, just like this, she just talked to me very frankly and told me the reasons why she was attracted to him, what she thought of him before she met him, what attracted her once they actually started conversing, how they dated, how shy he was, everything you could possibly imagine. She just went through who they were.
I think she sort of just started me on the research process as well because at the foundation, they have all the books that have been written about him. It was just a matter of hearing that firsthand information.
Then I met her again with children and grandchildren and in that case, they were sort of examining me physically, prodding and poking and measuring and asking me questions: Are you married, why aren’t you married? You know, anything that you could imagine. Actually, before they ever spoke to me, they were prodding and poking and measuring me and I was like, who are these people? And they said, you’re playing my granddad, we gotta check you out. It was as much them investigating me as it was me investigating him.
So they gave you a seal of approval?
They did not give me a seal of approval, but they didn’t not give it. They were willing to gamble, I guess.
What were they looking for, what did they want to make sure you got right?
She was adamant about the fact that she didn’t want him to be portrayed as angry. That’s a stereotype that is often used, just untrue and one-dimensional with black characters and it was something that he had been accused of, of having a temper. In some senses, he did have a temper but it wasn’t in a negative sense.
I, on the other hand, after reading the script knew that it was necessary to not show him as being passive or a victim, which is another stereotype that’s often used in movies. I didn’t want him to be inactive, because if he’s passive, he’s inactive and you run the risk of doing another story that’s supposed to be about a black character, but there’s the white guy, there, who is the savior. There’s a point where you have to be active and you have to have this fire and passion. I view it more as competitive passion as Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns said to me today, that he had a competitive passion, competitive temper that any great athlete, whether it be Larry Bird or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they all have that passion. That’s what he brought to the table. . . .My grandmother probably would call it holy anger.
Was that dynamic something you were able to talk about with Harrison Ford, who plays the team executive Branch Rickey, and the writer?
First of all yes. But they already had really advanced and progressive points of view about it anyway and were very aware. Harrison was also very clear, even in our first conversations about it, that he was playing a character and I was playing the lead and that there are differences in the two.
There were instances where I might voice, this is what we need to do, and everybody listened to it and that’s definitely not always the case, definitely not always what you experience on the set. But I think everybody wanted to get it right. I can’t really think of a moment, I know that they came up where it was like, well I’m black so I understand this in a different way, but they do happen and everybody was very receptive to it.
Was there any story that Mrs. Robinson told you about him that stuck in the back of your head during the process?
She just talked about how he adapted after very difficult scenes where he was being abused verbally or threatened. She said he would go hit golf balls because he would never bring that into the house. The question that I asked that brought her to that was: Did he ever have moments where he secluded himself at home, or where he was depressed, or you saw it weighing on him? And she said: ‘No, when he came into our space, he did whatever he needed to do to get rid of it, so that our space could be a safe haven, and he could refuel, and could get back out into the world and be the man he had to be.’
And she’s going through it just as much as he is. She’s literally in the crowd. People are yelling right over, calling him names right over her or calling her names because they know who she is. That’s something people don’t really think about, that she was actually in the crowd. She has to hold that so she doesn’t bring that home to him and give him more to worry about and that’s a phenomenal thing to hold and to be strong. I love finding what those unspoken things were that are underneath what’s actually being said.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope they get a sense of who he really is. I think what’s interesting about it is that he played himself in that original 1949-1950 version. . .What I found is that him having to use the Hollywood script of that time does not allow him to tell his own story because he couldn’t really be Jackie Robinson in that version.
It wasn’t his exact story, if you look at the version it says all he ever wanted to do was play baseball and he didn’t. Baseball was his worst sport, he was a better football player, better basketball player, better at track and field. He had a tennis championship, he played golf, horse back riding, baseball was the worst thing he did. I’m not saying that he wasn’t good at it, I’m saying that it’s not the truth. He was a second lieutenant in the army, he was All-American, he led his conference in scoring in basketball and he could have been playing in the NFL, but he had to go to Hawaii and play instead.
So what is that? Why did he end up playing baseball? Because baseball was where he could actualize his greatness, it wasn’t the only thing that he was great at and so just that little untruth in the script skips all of the struggle that he had getting to the point of being in the minor leagues. He’s doing this because it’s one more thing that he’s trying to do in that United States at that time that maybe will allow him to be the man that he wants to be. He could have done any of those other things, it just wasn’t an avenue for him to actualize his full humanity, his full manhood and so that version doesn’t allow him to be Jackie Robinson.
When I look at this version, we live in a different time where you can tell the story more honestly. Ultimately I think that’s what you should take away from the film, I get to see who he is now because we’re more ready to see it.
April 5, 2013
Celebrities, the hottest tech-gadgets and a dance craze that swept the globe: these were the top Google searches of 2012. According to Google Zeitgeist, we couldn’t get enough of Kate Middleton, the iPad3 or Gangnam Style. So are we just incredibly shallow or what? The internet gets blamed for a lot these days, a perceived lack of sophistication included. Serious-minded articles query whether the internet is even responsible for making us “dumb.”
But a survey of more than 100 Japanese woodblock-printed books from the Edo period at the Sackler Gallery reveals that our current obsession with what is beautiful and entertaining follows a long tradition.
The museum’s “Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” documents the “brush to block” revolution that allowed for a flowering of popular culture in the form of widely-available volumes. Where visual narrative had once been the domain of painted hanging scrolls circulated within an elite society, now various social classes could engage with printed media, whether it was poetry, illustration or fiction. Curator of Japanese art Ann Yonemura says, “It was part of the culture to be able to create and read images to tell a story.”
The vibrant works serve as an ode to a widespread visual literacy that could support both academic and instructional texts as well as books full of illustrations of famous courtesans and Kabuki actors and even a healthy pornography industry despite official censorship. Part art, part commercial product, the books bridge that divide between a so-called high and low culture that even today can feel impossible to reconcile: reality TV is rarely elevated above “guilty pleasure” and newspapers still insist they carry “all the news that’s fit to print,” and nothing more.
Yonemura says she wanted the exhibit to feel like browsing in a bookstore, wandering from the action-packed battle scenes to the tranquil nature images and maybe even sneaking a peek at the row of erotic images–many of which include an unexpected element of comedy–tucked away. Perusing the books reveals that the strikingly fresh colors of the illustrations are as vibrant as the subject matter. From epic battle scenes to delicate landscapes and famous beauties, the popular culture of Edo Japan is a gorgeous place to visit; one that might even offer contemporary culture a path from the critic’s wrath to redemption.
“Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books” is on view April 6 through August 11, 2013 at the Sackler.