Archive for April, 2008

New: Evenings at the tenement museum

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Your chance to compare the LES of yesterday with the partying present. Beginning May 1 and running through October 30, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a new program called Twilight Thursdays. The museum will conduct evening tours at 5:45, 6:30, and 7:15 pm on Thursdays (except June 12), and your ticket will get you discounts at neighborhood spots afterward. Tour reservations are encouraged. More info here.

Religious freedom in Flushing

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

I recently took a walking tour of Flushing, Queens, commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance, which is on display at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park through June 29. This document, in which Flushing settlers stood up to New York Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the rights of the Quakers to worship, is an uncommonly brave and beautiful declaration; if they made lapel pins of it, I’d wear one.

The tour, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and conducted by Jack Eichenbaum, an urban geographer and Flushing native, visits the Quaker Meeting House and walks around temples and churches of several denominations. Eichenbaum says there are about two hundred churches within a kilometer of the Main Street 7 train stop.

Many of the churches are Korean. Eichenbaum sees similarities between Korean immigrants and Eastern European Jews in that they came with a stake and goal of building a business, and they rely on networking organizations—often churches—more than other immigrants.

The first church of Flushing, and the oldest house of worship in the state, is the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built in 1694. (It’s open to the public from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.) When you enter, you can smell its age. The main room is lined with squeaky, cushioned pews that face each other. New England–style Quakers conduct meetings without a preacher; people speak as they are moved to. Quakers were a big part of 19th-century Flushing, and they dominated business there.

The second church of Flushing is St. George’s Episcopal Church, founded in 1702; the present building, on Main Street, went up in 1854. The third is the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME), on its site since 1811; the current building dates from the late 1800s. The Catholic St. Michael’s arrived in 1833.

In the 19th century, Flushing’s churches did not come in ethnic varieties, because it wasn’t an immigrant neighborhood. Now the tour takes you past an Afghan mosque; a spectacular Buddhist temple-in-progress; dozens of Korean Presbyterian churches, with new storefronts popping up all the time; St. Paul Chong Ha-Song Catholic Church; a Sikh center across the street from Temple Gates of Prayer, Flushing’s first synagogue; and the Bowne Street Community Church, which was Dutch Reformed in 19th century but is now Taiwanese Anglican.

This tour focused on the area north of the Long Island Railroad tracks; Eichenbaum will conduct the second part of the tour, south of the tracks, on Sunday, May 18.

You don’t want to leave Flushing without having lunch; Chinese and Korean restaurants are everywhere. After the tour, we ate at 66 on Prince Street, which specializes in Taiwanese seafood. They offer Chive with Frog, Three Cups Eel, and Intestine and Pig Blood with Sour Mustard, along with many other dishes you won’t find at your local Chinese takeout spot. Our tame, ordinary orders were very good, and the rice was perfect.

May music calendar

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Music for May is now posted in the music calendar. Highlights include:

April 30: Swedish Walpurgis Celebration with Cantores Sofiae Women’s Choir.

May 3: Qawwali of Pakistan. Mehr & Sher Ali perform the ecstatic devotional music of Sufi Muslims.

May 9 and May 10: Aruna Sairam: Carnatic Visions.

May 13: Nanina, a panorama of vocal Georgian music.

May 16: Ngqoko: Ancient Songs of South Africa.

May 17: Zarbang: Iranian Rhythms.

What makes New York home to so many?

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Dawn Scibilia and Alan Cooke’s documentary Home explores the concept of home, the essence of New York, and the experience of coming here. Cooke, a recent Irish immigrant, gives his impressions as he gets to know the city, and director Scibilia expands on this with a gorgeous array of footage and interviews with Frank and Malachy McCourt, Liam Neeson, Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sarandon, Pete Hamill, Rosie Perez, Mike Myers, and more.

Home, which was shown on PBS on March 17, addresses so many interesting aspects of the subject that I can touch on only a few. It discusses New York in particular as an immigrant city; Pete Hamill speaks of the “density of the layering” in the city’s history, with all the generational waves, as well as the merging of talent and cultures that result from so many newcomers. Liam Neeson contrasts it with growing up in Ireland, “where people hold the same views for generations.”

Frank McCourt says New York has a “sense of beginning” that other cities don’t have. This must have been true of most of the United States at one time; the Europeans who settled here did not settle into Native American culture but forced it out. Today, though, most of the country feels much more settled than New York does, which is partly why the most recent wave of immigrants is such an emotional issue elsewhere. In many areas, it feels like upheaval; in New York, gentrification and chain stores feel like upheaval.

Change is another theme of the film—much as we lament the continual losses of major and personal landmarks (from the old Penn Station to St. Clair’s diner on Atlantic Avenue), if New York stopped changing, it would die.

Alan Cooke says at one point that walking around New York, he feels “beautifully anonymous.” I identify with that feeling—to me, it’s a sense of freedom and a strange kind of belonging not in the sense of others recognizing you, but in the sense of being one among millions of others. I find this soothing. But at the same time, Rosie Perez really nails it when she describes her neighborhood in Brooklyn as home because it’s where she feels most like herself.

I don’t know when Home will screen again in New York, but if you pick up the DVD, you’ll get nearly an hour of additional interviews, including Fran Lebowitz on New Yorkers’ tolerance of different cultures (“I mean, they’re more into what restaurants have moved in. They don’t think ‘Oh no, we hate Greek people, we hate Nigerian people,’ they think, ‘What do they eat?'”), Malachy McCourt on dreams coming true, Frank McCourt with a beautiful description of how your experience makes a place a part of you, and Pete Hamill on the danger of forgetting the history of New York: “What you lose is the tale of the tribe,” which was once told by people in the neighborhood, on the “worst looking folding chairs in the history of mankind.”

Adventure in Five Points

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Metropolis, by Elizabeth Gaffney (Random House, 2005)

The hero of this novel is a young German man who arrives in New York and gets into trouble fast. Under the adopted name Frank Harris, he juggles the dictates of his conscience with the demands of a Five Points gang, particularly its alluring representative Beatrice. Although the aggressive omniscience of the narrator is a little too much for me, it’s certainly a rollicking story. It begins in the 1860s and covers lower Manhattan, Fort Greene, and the nascent Brooklyn Bridge. Lots of interesting historical color, particularly concerning Irish and German immigrants of the day.

Congratulations to Elizabeth Gaffney on her winning proposal for the Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Interpreting Brooklyn” project. I’m sure the results will be compelling.

Tear down that wall

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

The Visitor, directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), is the story of a man (Richard Jenkins) cranking open his rusty heart. A withdrawn, listless widower, Walter Vale encounters a pair of illegal immigrants (one from Syria, one from Senegal) living in his unused New York apartment. (New Yorkers’ emotions may run high when they see the size of the place he’s wasting.) The immigration issue is more than just a subplot; it reflects the whole theme of the film–when he welcomes them in, he benefits more profoundly than they do. The drum lessons are just the beginning.

But don’t think it’s going to be dragging you through a sentimental swamp; it’s too quietly intelligent for that. Much as Walter sympathizes with the couple, Tarek and Zainab, he’s on the outside of their troubles. He can walk away. When he doesn’t, it doesn’t make him a hero; it merely restores his humanity.

Highly recommended.

Immigrant Heritage Week

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

More about this later, but the mayor’s office has at last put up the schedule of events for Immigrant Heritage Week, April 14-20.

Here are some events that particularly grab me; see the schedule for more details.

  • Monkey Steals the Heavenly Peaches, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
  • Our Immigrant Ancestors: A Concert of American Popular Song, Tuesday. 
  • Liberty, The Musical: “Concert reading of the new, political cartoon musical about the Statue of Liberty and immigration,” Wednesday.
  • Discover “The Neighborhoods of Queens” with Claudia Gryvatz Copquin, Wednesday. (I’ve read every word in this book, and it’s a terrific resource.)
  • Contributions of Immigrants to the Jazz Tradition, Wednesday.
  • The Impact of the Hart-Celler Act on New York City, Wednesday.
  • Queens: A Celebration of Our Diverse Heritage, Wednesday.
  • The Odyssey of the Greek Immigrants into New York City, Wednesday.
  • Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds, Immigrant Voices (music and discussion with American immigrant composers), Thursday and Friday.
  • Drawn Apart: An Evening of Animated Short Films by Immigrant Artists, Thursday.
  • The World in a City: with Joseph Berger, journalist and author of the book by that name, Thursday. (I’ll write more on this book later!).
  • Armenian Song and Dance, Friday.
  • Bus Tour: Public Art of Immigrant Communities, Saturday.
  • Connecting African Immigrants with Their Roots, Saturday.
  • Tribute to Emma Lazarus, Downtown Poet, Saturday.
  • Called by the Bell: Tour the [Irish] Servants’ Quarters, Sunday.

There are LOTS more. It’s completely overwhelming and wonderful.

Dispatch from Brooklyn & Puebla

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

There’s No José Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants, by Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books, 2007)

I highly recommend this book. Thompson was an organizer at the Pratt Area Community Council in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when he became friends with Enrique, a smart, savvy, and talkative cab driver from Puebla. This is Enrique’s tale and more.

It’s both a good solid look at the difficulties faced by Mexican immigrants in New York (those who came legally and those who didn’t), and a clear-eyed picture of their families’ lives in rural Mexico. It’s not a tract, just a story about people.

And now, whenever I use Chinantla corn tortillas, I feel a personal connection.