An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Rapping on Dean Street

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 18, 2010

Leah Hart & friends, ready to rap

When I picked up my camera this afternoon and headed outside, I never thought I’d come across a bunch of rappers: eight of them, along with a woman with a video camera and a car blasting background music, right outside my house. The videographer was Leah Hart, and they were performing a rap cypher, a 16 bar chant to which all eight add their own individual rhythm. They live nearby — Leah’s on Park Place — and they chose my street because they liked the graffiti.

I love my new neighbourhood, Crown Heights in Brooklyn. There’s something magical about it, a community feel with creative artistry sewn in. It’s ethnically diverse and has not always fared well. In 1991 riots broke out after a 7-year-old African American boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man. In the three days of violence that followed, one man was killed and almost 200 injured. Now, though, such conflict seems a thing of the past, and all sorts of groups co-exist and work together, literally, with businesses that are side by side.

Nearby Franklin Avenue is a hive of activity: locals gather on their apartment stoops, businesses thrive. Yesterday I discovered a bijou community center, where freelancers, artists, and local organizations can meet, for free. One or two organic groceries and swish coffee shops bear witness to change: gentrification, which is raising rents and bringing double-edged benefits.

Off Franklin, warehouses and factories overshadow the sidewalks, some in their original function, others converted (legally & illegally) into artists’ lofts and collectives. Everyone seems to have something on the go. At the end of my road, canopied by orange parasols, a man sells watermelons, and plants from his garage.

These are pictures from my 15 minute walk.

Poem by James Wright, on a lampost at Franklin & St. Johns (click to enlarge)

Locals plan to appropriate this disused lot & make it into a community garden (this weekend)

Notice on on Franklin Ave.

Factories on Bergen St.

Local film-maker, McClinton Karma Stanley (see http://www.youtube.com/karmastanley)

A graffito on Franklin Avenue

Sarah Palin [whatever]-gate

Posted in US politics by Frieda on June 13, 2010

Palin on 'On the Record' (Fox news)

As a member of the ‘liberal elite’ eastcoast media, you would expect me to side against Sarah Palin in any argument. And let me be clear, although I’ve had phases of fascination with Ms. Palin (she is SO popular — what can we learn from that/her?) I do detest her politics.

But I’m disappointed in the media’s recent kerfuffle over her. The debate surrounds the question of whether Palin has had breast implants: if you closely peer at the multitude of photos that websites are posting on the subject, you can almost detect a marginal increase in their size; though ultimately it’s hard to tell.

A while back I became a ‘fan’ of Smart Girl Politics on Facebook. Now, these are Republican women activists, who say they are dedicated ‘to effecting change at the grassroots level.’ Although I’m not Republican (bien sûr) I think that it’s salutary to know what the other side is thinking, and even to learn from them if possible, subscribing to an idealistic notion that if both sides listened to each other more, American politics might not — just might not — be so terrifyingly polarized.

On Friday a Smart Girl Politicker posted, ‘deciding it’s easier to ignore Sarah Palin’s role in yesterday’s primaries, the media instead focuses on … her chest?’ linking to an article in the Boston Herald, written by a woman, that begins, ‘Hey Sarah Palin, I can see your cleavage from my house!’ The Herald piece is so snarky and gratuitously anti-Palin, minus any substantial political content, that I felt some sympathy. However nasty you think the woman is, her breasts should not be the point.

Further, sticking ‘Sarah Palin’ and ‘breasts’ into a newspaper article just ends up lending weight to Palin’s criticisms of the media. In the short-term such articles may get a gazillion hits, but in the medium and long-term it’s a liberal-elite-media own goal.

The story’s all over the web of course. On Gawker I watched Palin defending herself on Fox news. With a trickling (Alaskan?) waterfall in the background, evocative of religious bookmarks or the cheesiest of greetings cards, Palin says ‘boob-gate is all over the internet right now because there are I guess a lot of bored, idle bloggers and reporters out there with nothing else to talk about’ (er, I guess so!). But she makes a serious point: ‘They need to grab a shovel, go down to the Gulf, volunteer to help, clean up and save a well or something instead of reporting on such stupid things like that.’

I’m going to stop here, as I’m feeling chastised. On this one, I’m with Palin.

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New York blues

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 10, 2010

The view from my house yesterday

If you’re in a bad mood in New York the best thing to do (if possible) is to stay indoors. Don’t go to the shops, don’t buy coffee, don’t get on public transport or walk on crowded pavements. Don’t even check email. Wear a helmet. There’s something strangely responsive about this city, as if it senses your troubles and chooses not to help, deciding instead to hurl irritations, hindrances and crazy people in your way. On a good day the sun shines and people will be astonishingly nice, but if you’re having a difficult time the environment easily becomes hostile. And, to be frank, bad things may happen.

Last Thursday was a case in point. In the morning I attended an MTA appeal. After going through a three-hour process, I was given the maximum fine. A few hours later, as I cycled tired and annoyed along a street near my home, my bike hit a pothole and I flew over the handlebars, landing on my left elbow.

Within two hours of my bike accident I had inadvertently managed to offend a friend’s friend. He was extremely angry with me and I was angry back. We have resolved the matter, but the offense was as unintentional as my bike accident, and it seemed odd: I truly didn’t mean to stir up trouble.

All that took its toll. This week I’ve felt as if the whole city has been fighting with me, and my misery only seemed to attract more of the same; or as a rather more expressive writer once put it, ‘when sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.’ Things have kept going wrong. On Monday I waited for the subway, huddling towards the upper end of the platform away from other people, but when the train arrived, the conductor yelled, ‘First three carriages are not in use!’ Cradling my coffee I stepped toward carriage four, only to see the subway doors close, as the train pulled off.  The conductor could have waited for me, he just didn’t. (It’s also true that I didn’t smile at him when he made his announcement, when normally I would have).

My computer started to play up and went into ‘Panic’ mode without my asking; Google refused to work, linking instead to a weird Wiki page full of meaningless text. But Tuesday was the nadir of my New York blues. I was walking down the street to a coffee shop near my house when a woman approached me. Something in her step put me off, and I wondered if she would be mad, or hostile. I didn’t have to wonder long. She walked towards me and thrust her face at mine and said in a tone that was almost sane, ‘I am everything. You are nothing! I am everything. You are nothing!’ I was scared. I ducked and ran away from her, across the quiet street. Yet she’d got something right: she had articulated, succinctly, aggressively and in a way that was fittingly unhinged, the world’s hostility.

After that, and after I spoke to a friend, things gradually improved. Today even Google has cooperated, miraculously righting itself without intervention from the ‘Genius’ men at Apple (perhaps the weirdness had to do with this). Still, it has rained all day — see the pic above.

*******

One day on, we are on good terms again — the city seems back to its magical self. On the subway this morning, a man smiled and gave me his seat. ‘Your bag looks heavy,’ he said, as he thought up a beautiful image: ‘What are you carrying? Golden bricks?’

The door leading up to my roof

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Crime & punishment

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 3, 2010

Don't mess with the MTA

It’s well known that the Metropolitan Transport Authority is utterly strapped for cash at the moment. This means they’re cutting services and firing employees. It also means it’s a bad, bad time to offend them in any way. About a a month ago I made a foolhardy attempt to save 18 minutes by skipping under a turnstyle (all excuses can be found here). I had my hearing today and received my just desserts — or unjust ones, depending on your perspective.

MTA officials are often very unpleasant, but the office at 29 Gallatin Place was surprisingly calm, much like an NHS hospital waiting room. My number flashed up and I moved from ticketing desk to another desk to an adjudicating official within three hours.

29 Gallatin -- actually quite an insalubrious area

Most people there were African American and Hispanic: laconic teens, ironical women who had seen it all, and aggravated, angry men. Most seemed a bit down at heel, but a few men in shirt suits sat looking around them in bewilderment. I felt acutely aware of race and gender. It was notable that none of the adjudicating officials were African American or Hispanic — I spotted a blond woman, a white man with bushy eyebrows, and another woman with dark hair and glasses. I hoped I’d get a man, thinking he might be more sympathetic.

Well, Mr. Andrew R., watery-eyed and middle-aged, was nice enough. He switched on an ancient vintage-style tape-recorder, read out my charge, and other details, read me my rights, and got me to swear to tell the truth holding up my right hand. It seemed rather melodramatic. I recounted my take on the situation and he listened with what appeared to be a friendly ear.

Back in the main office, I awaited the verdict. Because we were all in the same boat the atmosphere was friendly, and people began to chat about how much they hated the MTA. The man across from me had been booked for going through the emergency door, after he had swiped through with his card. He had paid with the card! he said. Another man, dignified and bespectacled, was quiet about his crime. It was hard to imagine what he could have done. ‘They just need money,’ he said. ‘They’re fining everyone for everything.’ I thought, uneasily, how if I was in charge of the MTA, it would make sense to ask all adjudicators to fine everyone uniformly at the maximum amount.

The dignified old man was called up to the window, and we all jumped when he waved his arms and shouted, ‘This is ridiculous!’ He stomped out the door without looking over at us.

Next was a young, anxious-looking Asian-American man who’d been sitting beside me and who seemed worried about getting back to work. Next was me. My heart beat when I looked at my form, where Andrew R. had written that my tale of having bought the monthly travel card did not diminish the fact that I’d broken the law. The fine was the maximum: $100.

So that’s the way things are at the moment in New York. There’s no leeway, no discretion, there are no excuses or explanations: if you get booked for something here — regardless of X or Y or P or Q, the morals of the situation, or whatever plaintive reasons or motives you may have had — you’ve broken the law and you will be punished.

The funny thing is people do break rules here all the time in flagrant, flamboyant ways. It’s only a problem, as it always is, if you get caught.

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