New York City in Spring

As its residents are well aware, spring time comes and goes very quickly in Manhattan. First it rains, then everything blooms at once, then it gets scorching hot. Early May is a sweet spot for temperate weather. I was lucky to spend a week in the city this May, and it did not disappoint. The townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood were covered in lilac blossoms, and the brave were out riding bicycles up First Avenue.

Lilacs on Stuyvesant Street near St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery

The neighborhood in which I came of age, the East Village, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Retail establishments, especially restaurants, have a very brief life span—barring a few holdouts that have managed to stay relevant. I tried to visit a shoe store that’s been in business almost forever, for example, and found a construction site instead (below at top left). More significant changes have occurred closer to Astor Place and Cooper Square, where luxury towers were erected in the 2000s and the street grid was altered. There is now no road in front of my old building, just an expansive, and not very attractive, plaza. (There’s no service access in the rear either… it’s a stranded building.)

The remains of a tree as uncanny valley

Typically when I go to New York I fill up my time with necessary tasks. Over the past few months I’ve tried a new tactic: incorporating one fun thing to serve as an outlet. Art museums used to be that thing, but these days they feel more like work. I’ve become a fan of a particular podcast over the past couple of years—Mission to Zyxx—a science fiction-rooted improvisational comedy with great sound design. When I’m in town I try to see the cast members’ live shows or the occasional live performance of the podcast. This May I saw Alden Ford and Justin Tyler host UCB at Subculture, which is essentially a stand-up variety hour. Alden plays main character Pleck Decksetter on Mission to Zyxx, and Justin has collaborated several times as Pleck’s mentor, Derf. It was really great to laugh and relax and hang out with these two very talented performers and very nice people. They’re hilarious too.

Iron column
Footing of steel structural column

The venue, Subculture, on Bleecker Street just west of the Bowery, dates from the turn of the twentieth century. In this era in this neighborhood (called “Noho” for “north of Houston”1), and in much of Soho as well,2 there was a flurry of cast iron architecture, wherein iron substituted for stone as ornament on the façade. These buildings have steel frames, which allowed for greater floor-to-floor heights and larger windows then in previous commercial buildings; the raw materials for today’s opulent lofts. This steel was heavy—lots of iron. Subculture is located in the basement, where the footings of these structural columns are exposed (see the image above). I’ve never actually observed these footings before, even though the building where I grew up has the same structural system.

The image at the top of this post shows the Manhattan skyline set against that of Long Island City, in Queens, taken from the Amtrak train. I hope to be back in the city soon.

Art is the Only Escape

Life presents itself as a series of stressful events, good and bad, and the task of becoming is often stymied by the overwhelming nature of reality. In those moments remember: Art! presents the ridiculous beauty and joy of the world. I saw this message written in the forgotten space of a bare, utilitarian façade above an old movie theater in New York’s East Village. It was a crisp, clear day. My heart was lifted, buoyed by the shared spirit of appreciation. When the news is bad, solace is at hand, if you look for it in the arts.

Typography in Portugal

Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research.  This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.

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The vamp of Savannah

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I was in Savannah recently for a wedding and took lots of pictures. Savannah, Georgia is a picture-perfect southern town (if you stay in the historic area) preserved through a combination of General Sherman’s mercy and Savannah College of Art and Design’s diligence. Half of downtown seems to be owned by SCAD, with each department occupying its own architecturally rich structure. One of my fellow travelers was determined to take only “coffee table book” pictures, and did so with great success. This is a place filled with lavishly wrought iron balconies, blossoming dogwood and magnolia trees, spanish moss, and pretty fountains. Couples from across the country come here to be married and have their pictures taken among the city’s 22 garden squares. I decided to concentrate instead on the overlooked modern parts of town. Above (from top to bottom) you see a school or a convent located across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Savannah Theater (it looks like a movie theater but it’s a stage), and an office building—perhaps a bank or government building—on the corner of East Broughton and Abercorn.

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Above are some photos of quirky Savannah, including a parking garage with graffito, a DIYer’s home, and the SCAD art house movie theater.

The town’s urban plan is of great interest. It was drawn up by English General James Oglethorpe for the purpose of military defense against the Spanish and the indigenous nations to the south and west, and for the prevention of disease. The plan’s beauty seems to be of only secondary interest to its creator. The core idea is the creation of very small neighborhoods, or wards, each anchored by a square that includes both tything lots and trust lots, the later of which were small blocks along the shorter sides of the square intended to house only civic buildings. It’s alleyways are a New Urbanist’s dream, and I took photos of those as well for my colleague Robert Orr (though he probably has his own stock already).

A perfect urban alleyway

Savannah is a place with a lot of folk lore and a lot of interesting people (especially because of the presence of its art school—I saw Manolo Blahnik on the street going to a private showing of an exhibition about his shoes). The film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was shot here, which I re-watched immediately upon my return. They also serve rose petal ice cream at the local homemade ice cream shop.

Savannah Art Museum (Jepson Center), Moshe Safdie, 2006
Fountain in a square designed by Moshe Safdie, fronting the museum

Finally, I’ll leave you with a song, Hard Hearted Hannah. My mother sang it to me when I told her about my trip. It’s a tin pan alley song from 1924. You can hear Belle Baker sing it, or Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s another fantastic, melancholy version from Ray Charles.

In old Savannah, I said Savannah,
the weather there is nice and warm!
the climate’s of the Southern brand,
but here’s what I don’t understand:

They got a gal there, a pretty gal there,
who’s colder than an arctic storm,
got a heart just like a stone,
even ice men* leave her alone!

They call her “Hard Hearted Hannah,”
the vamp† of Savannah,
the meanest gal in town.
Leather is tough, but Hannah’s heart is tougher,
she’s a gal who loves to see men suffer!

To tease ’em, to thrill ’em,
to torture and then kill ’em,
is her delight, they say.
I saw her at the seashore with a great big pan,
there was Hannah pouring water on a drowning man!
Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!

musical interlude
verse added later

Talk of your cold, refrigeratin’ mamas,
brother, she’s a polar bear’s pajamas!
To tease ’em, and thrill ’em,
to torture and kill ’em,
is her delight, they say.
An evening spent with Hannah sittin’ on your knees,
is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs!
She’s Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!

* An ice man, by the way, is the fellow who would deliver ice to your house, not the unlucky prehistoric warrior discovered in Austria in 1991. † A “vamp” is a term used to refer to a woman who uses her sexuality to entice and somehow to harm men. It’s a shortened version of “vampire.”