July 16, 2010

Spock’s New York

Star Fleet Federation Headquarters has moved to Chelsea, and it is called the High Line. This is a spectacular renovation of an old elevated freight railroad track in lower Manhattan that rides over what were once a meatpacking district and a notorious Romulan sex slave market. The Federation has recaptured the neighborhood and turned it into a nice place. No, the High Line actually does not suck. It was the no-brainer thing to do with these old elevated tracks, and the new promenade has been rightly advanced as a model for urban development in the 23rd century.

July 11, 2010


On June 21 Governor Patterson signed the “New Loft Law” into law, and it is generally considered a victory and a testament to the tireless work of Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who sponsored the bill in what is now its third iteration in nearly 30 years. I commend the passage of this law most highly, and for reasons that go beyond the common sense fairness it extends to artists who live and work in industrial buildings.

June 22, 2010

City Council Land Use Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Domino Sugar Factory

The City Council “land use subcommittee on zoning and franchises” heard testimony yesterday at a daylong hearing on the proposed development of the Domino Sugar Factory site on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. The developers have been putting this idea together for five years, and it showed. An impressive array of community and church leaders, architects, real estate people, and assorted beneficiaries of the largesse of CPCR (the developers) came out to support the plan. So too did a representative for Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez; and executives from the two key Latino community organizations in Williamsburg, Los Sures and El Puente. And filing into the chamber were scores of people in bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Domi-YES!”

Opponents of the “New Domino” plan held a rally on the steps of City Hall just before the hearing, and assemblyman Vito Lopez fumed against the “paid t-shirts.”

“It’s outrageous," said Lopez. "No one I know here has any paid t-shirts, and no one I know here stands to make 400 million dollars on this project.”

The costume party did seem to disrespect the hearing and therefore to work against CPCR, exposing a hint of cynicism. As the hearing got underway, you could almost see the gates slamming down over the eyes of the council members seated along the dais. It was no fashion show.

What is was, and what it is shaping up to be, is a face-off between Vito Lopez and his protégé councilman Stephen Levin on the one side, and Velasquez and councilwoman Diana Reyna on the other. Reyna and Levin both represent Williamsburg, although the Domino site is in Levin’s district. Reyna supports it, Levin wants to send it back for revision.

The developers want to build 2,200 units in a complex of towers rising as high as 40-storeys on both sides of the old Domino refinery, with 30% of those units being low-income. A key point of contention is that the developers are claiming the site is exempt from restrictions imposed by the 2005 waterfront rezoning; because the Domino factory was still in operation at that time and had not been rezoned. One opposition group holds that the “New Domino” plan exceeds by 21% those restrictions on size.

Councilman Levin says the site should comply with the limitations imposed by the 2005 rezoning, and he is clearly aiming for a scale-down of the project. He does not, at this point anyway, seem to be considering any kind of a “new vision” for the site. However, in view of what the councilman is up against, I commend him for standing his ground yesterday against “business as usual.”

Levin grilled CPCR executives on the density and size of the project, and he snagged one proponent after another on a simple question — “Would you support this plan if it could be scaled down, but still retain its 660 low-income units and the other community benefits promised in the plan?”

The question was intended to smoke out the fact that CPCR really has no interest in bargaining or compromising on the plan. It worked. Most people he asked were stumped. Only one person said “sure” without blinking. It looked as if the developer’s tactic had been simply to come heavily armed and make a forced march through the hearing.

To be sure, the proponents of the plan made some valid arguments, notably that the plan does address affordable housing, and that it does so forthrightly to the Latino community that has suffered most from displacement on account of gentrification. Diane Reyna cited a decline of more than 14,000 Latinos in Williamsburg in the past 20 years, from a Latino population of over 67,000 in 1990. This decline is a difficult figure to verify, but it is probably conservative.

Assemblyman Lopez underscored Reyna's point in impassioned language. “Six-hundred units! Are you kidding? We need three thousand. I get calls every day at my office from people who’ve been here all their lives and they are being forced out of their homes. We are creating a gold coast here.”

Finally, this reporter’s name was called, and I testified for the plan that Stephen Zacks has articulated on behalf of that loose consortium of urbanists who circulate around, well, Stephen Zacks. His letter and proposal on the Domino site is worth a read:

During the hearing, councilman Levin and many others repeatedly talked about density in the neighborhood, especially overcrowding on the L train in Williamsburg, a situation they say would be exacerbated by the proposed Domino development. I argued that the way to alleviate stress on the subway is to create jobs in Williamsburg so people don’t have to get on the subway. And the way to preserve communities is by creating high quality jobs and industries for those communities. And the way to create those jobs and industries is by starting a high-tech “green” industrial center and business incubator at the site in question … Domino University!

Public speaking is hard. Some people are too shy, some are too theatrical. As I came off the podium, Zacks said my delivery was suitably “dramatic.” But I knew it was a backhanded compliment. (Disclosure: Zacks and I were in vaudeville together years ago.)

It was the testimony of Stephen Zacks that got Levin’s attention and had the councilman pursuing him with questions. Zacks rather surprised the room by saying he has no problem with the height of the towers, no problem with the density, no real problem with the plan in general … except that it is “boring.” It is simply not visionary enough, it does not do justice to the legacy and the grandeur of the location.

This broke with the repetitive theme of real estate and housing that had dominated the hearing, and indeed which dominates most discussions of development in Williamsburg. To be sure, my own group at facebook Urbanum Tremendum has talked about education and business incubation. Another opposition group in Williamsburg has talked about museums and cultural tourism at the Domino site. But the urbanism of Stephen Zacks was a new voice, full of informed ideas.

Zacks talks about a “downtown Williamsburg” with a reconfigured transportation infrastructure, easing congestion on the existing system, flowing commerce and investment “to the east,” rescuing the “hapless” intersection of the BQE and the JMZ and "inclining" it all toward the new landscape design currently underway for the "BQE trench." Zacks dares even to look over the ancient wall of Flushing Avenue into “Brooklyn proper” of all places. All this in view of the potential economic reach of the Domino site, which he compares to the High Line in Chelsea.

And when it comes to leveraging the “creative economy” of Williamsburg, there’s no stopping Stephen Zacks:

“It is a community filled with entrepreneurs busy inventing software, designing spaces, opening shops, crafting objects, making clothing, producing magazines and newspapers and websites, working in and starting some of the best restaurants, fashion houses, and design firms in the city. They’re college graduates turning rooftops into farms, and kitchens into start-up companies selling organic food and creating beautiful and unheard of fusions of ethnic cuisines. They’re milling the interiors and industrial designed products and modeling the high-design spaces of Manhattan and the rest of the city and country. They’re teaching in the city’s expanding universities, creating new musical genres, writing movies, books, and dramas for television. They’re performing scientific and medical research, curing diseases, and transforming our ability to live healthy lives.”

Who, the hipsters? Precisely. But not only them:

“A part of the [Domino] facility would be specifically programmed by stakeholders from the Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish communities that have made the area their home, along with the West Indian communities to the southeast whose historical relationship to sugar plantations and Domino sugar is particularly important.”

Finally, the “Zacks Paper” was the only testimony at yesterday’s City Hall hearing that used positive language to address the matter of the Domino Sugar site:

“Don't just vote no. Let's start a process by which we can make this project great. Let's form a working group within the city's department of design and construction in cooperation with the NYC Economic Development Corporation that actively develops sites like these in neighborhoods everywhere around the city. Let's create special places that we LOVE and think of with affection.”

Let us hope our elected officials have that much love in their hearts for Williamsburg. See Zacks' paper — A Call for New Vision for Urban Development at the Domino Sugar Site.

June 1, 2010

Legitimation and Hipsterism

Could a universalistic linguistic ethics no longer connected to cognitive interpretations of nature and society a) adequately stabilize itself, and b) structurally secure the identities of individuals and collectives in the framework of a world society? Or is a universal morality without cognitive roots condemned to shrink to a grandiose tautology in which a claim to reason overtaken by evolution now merely opposes the empty affirmation of itself to the objectivistic self-understanding of men? Have changes in the mode of socialization that affect the socio-cultural form of life perhaps already come about under the rhetorical guise of a universalistic morality that has lost its force? Does the new universal language of systems theory indicate that the “avant garde” have already begun the retreat to particular identities, settling down in the unplanned, nature-like system of world society like the Indians on the reservations of contemporary America? Finally, would such a definitive withdrawal mean the renunciation of the immanent relation of motive-shaping norms to truth?
— Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, 1973

May 29, 2010

Libation to a Waterfront

Myk Henry and Marisa Sullivan, circa 1990, photo by Jessica Nissen. Originally published in TDR (The Drama Review 37 no. 3) 
The Cat's Head, Constructing Utopia in Brooklyn and Dublin, by Melanie Hahn, TDR, Fall 1993. (PDF download 2MB)

Myk and Rube were talking with the fire chief, and talking easy with him, and the first thing that came to my mind was … That makes three Irishmen, maybe we’re in luck. It was still early in the evening, but five hundred people had already gathered in the lot on the north side of the warehouse, waiting to get into the great charred hulk that ran from Kent Avenue right down to the waterfront.

A pyramid of beer kegs had been stacked inside the warehouse, a stage erected, and a gigantic polystyrene worm was billowing along the ceiling. All manner of unearthliness had been deployed throughout the cavernous space, and a small army of young people was busy at work all over the space. And then the fire department had arrived to shut it all down. Who knows what Myk and Rube said to that fire chief on that warm spring night in 1990 to get him kindly to turn a blind eye and be on his way. But on their ways they went. Some say a local bar keeper took care of the platoon that night.

For you see, there was to be a moon howling that night, a calling down of Hecate, a goat-stomp to the Goddess of Fertility. And the Irish are sensible people in this regard. The firemen started to return later in the night, in mufti this time, to get a closer look at all these strangely beautiful women.

In any case, the firemen did stall the opening for a few hours, during which time the few hundred early arrivers in the lot to the north of the warehouse became impatient to be let into the warehouse. Brooklyn was the stigmata of malhepitude in those days, and you just didn’t make a voyage like that from the East Village all the way out to “Avenue E” (Bedford Avenue) to stand in a trash heap on the waterfront. Our names would be dirt if we didn’t bring some game to the situation, and fast.

I ran back to my storefront on Bedford Avenue and North Fifth Street (where the “Subway” sandwich shop is now) and grabbed the “light guitar” — the wooden crutch with the six light bulbs of various colors screwed into the neck where your tuning keys would be, and the buttons on the bridge to blink them, and a big dimmer bulb at the base that was your wa-wa lever. I ran back to the warehouse and plugged this contraption into the generator.

Then I stood out on the corroded landing dock before 500 pissed-off East Village assholes and I played that guitar. Someone put “Smoke on the Water” over the PA, and I played that guitar, casting colors all about in the night. It was a smash hit. It was the shit. A reporter from the Village Voice happened to be in the crowd and I got a sweet little write-up a few weeks later.

As I played the light guitar, it felt like a dream. And as it happens in dreams sometimes, if you are in the midst of some commotion, and you turn your head briefly to look away into the distance, always, in a dream, as you know, there is someone, or something, standing there, away from the commotion.

I was playing to a crowd in the loading area, and I looked away to my left toward the river. The reeds grew tall from the wetlands that had reclaimed the waterfront in those days before the whole place was paved over. And there standing in the reeds, all in a row, were seven maidens all dressed in the whitest, fluffiest gowns of goose feather, shining bright and lovely in the night they were. Only later I learned that these were Marisa’s Peaches. At the time I felt upstaged and a bit intimidated by these rarefied females who signaled something more strange and interesting than my dada agit-prop. It was the moment the shadows started to turn and the scene to unfold, and upon the unearthly derelict waterfront inscrutable creatures began to converge.

From that moment it occurred to me, the night was unfolding like a dream, behaving like a dream. The uncanny obtained, in the realization that the event was aligned with the sequence and the symbolism of dreams. There was no “program,” no “lineup,” but rather a calculated weirdness. Thus did the night never quite touch the ground.

May 15, 2010


You, gargantuan prow of insatiation
Slammed into the rectilinear sky,
On what dawn did your hollow fury
Turn to the inverted world.

What thou, behemoth! Plying maw,
The pinking rictus of a thug’s dusk
That teethed upon the Erie Canal
And whistled down the rails to war.

Long years came shank of beast,
Bolt of cloth and mustard seed
To thy clarion of tons and wheels.
And then came pay dirt you had never seen:

Th'ethereal phosphor Hubris
Pitched on the jut of your bow,
Burning the oil at ungodly hour,
Beatitude’s illumined cube.

Then maenads all dressed in white
Tore at the flesh of your fruit,
All in a row in the river’s reeds,
And slowly goes the night.

Rapture of thy keening toil,
Cant of the rooftop’s leaning sky,
Sweep down shaft to peeling depth,
The very echo of your belly sweats.

Bold city under siege, spare of line
That braced the mind and steeled the heart
To polygons of shifting art.
Yours is the song of the earth.

What heathen glow unearthly cast,
What Midas touch on river’s breeze,
What obscure torque of your concretion
Could cause such things to pass.

Thee, candescent juggernaut,
Infeudated brawn of faith,
By one confounded calculation
Transfigured in occulting light.

Once you were the wings of Gotham
And the pinion of her spine,
We anoint thee now a motherfucker,
And here is the fury this time.

Ethan Pettit, May 2010

March 7, 2010

The Silence and the Fury

As Brooklyn gentrifies, the role of the “artists” goes unexplained. And more, an explanation is stymied by a conflicted feeling about this population. We want to blame them for setting gentrification in motion. At the same time, we do not want to give them credit for it. We settle for the view that the artists are the tools of the developers. And yet the developers founder in the recession, while the artists and their culture and businesses have proliferated almost without a hitch through two recessions.

January 19, 2010

The Bohemian League

We shall seize twenty blocks of obsolete industry in Brooklyn, connect them to a hundred non-profit organizations the world over, and bring ten thousand resident artists into the borough every year, not one of them male, fat, or over 30. We shall incur the wrath of every man in the Republic of Slovakia.

We are the Hanseatic League of urbanism. In that wonderful old German city in Poland called Gdansk, surely they talk about us, and about what happened when we moved into that wonderful old Polish city in Greenpoint. The artists are a distinct class of journeymen innovators. And I mean “artist” in a colloquial sense; it is not an exclusive claim for this group to Art with a capital ‘A’. Art happens in every group. “artist” with a small ‘a’ is the designation of a class, a certain population that embodies a set of values and functions in society. We are called artists because we as a group value the arts and aspire to them frequently. But not all artists are artists; some are entrepreneurs, engineers, teachers, tradesmen, or journalists such as myself.

Willy-nilly, this is the group that not only catalyzes the chemical reaction called gentrification, but is also its ongoing reference. We provide the ideology, the style, and the cultural framework in which the real estate and commerce of gentrification unfold. The fact that these business developments may not square with what we had in mind “back in the day” is trivial. The point is that gentrification is the muscular outcome of the cells we implanted in the community. And urban life from here on out will always refer to us, just as in Norway, Poland, Russia, Italy, and England, there are cities that refer to the German traders called the Hansa who built those cities or changed them forever.

Gentrification can happen with our without artists. Luxury housing was being contemplated for the Williamsburg waterfront in the mid-1980s; and there is an argument to be made that without an artist and proto-yuppie constituency in place by then, and the political voices this added to the community, there would have been more towers along the waterfront than there are today. In an alternate universe where all the artists moved to Staten Island, there is no saying the towers of Guttenberg, New Jersey, would not have appeared in Williamsburg.

But it is not a matter of who started gentrification, but of whose version of it has prevailed, and will prevail. In Brooklyn we have a form of gentrification that is deeply inflected by the arts, and by ideological forms in society that correspond to the arts. Therefore, we identify the artists as a social and political force in the formation of Brooklyn at the outset of the 21st century. The more we acknowledge ourselves and our role in the world, the more we articulate ourselves as a class, the more power we can seize from the bums in city hall — to realize what we had in mind back in the day.