May 13, 2020

RIP JoeyKid*

dumont sign


Like so many of us, Joseph began shaping my life before I ever met him. Most Fridays in the springs and summers of 2001 and 2002, my cousin Greg and I would have dinner at the charming neighborhood restaurant near Greg’s place on Powers Street in Williamsburg. I’d emerge from the Lorimer stop on the G, my eyes automatically scanning for Dumont’s vertical green neon sign – a new landmark quickly internalized as part of my city map.  Neither an upstart, nor a striver, Dumont seemed simply to have quietly arrived, only announcing itself in contrast to the glare of Kellogg’s Diner across Union Ave. And then in contrast to the scores of new bars and restaurants mushrooming around it in the years that followed. It was my go-to, especially for close friends visiting from out of town, whom I wanted to take to the parts of the city that were an extension of my home. It even had different rooms I could choose from depending on the occasion, or the company, and when I did meet Joseph a few years later, I told him I could never forgive him for redesigning the middle room and taking it away. A small nook with a bar, in the hallway between the front main dining room and the large garden in back, time seemed to stop in that small space. One day I arrived and it was “paved over” – refitted with a few rows of more seating. Through the years I also witnessed the garden grow from an informal gravel-floored back yard with fairy lights, to a beautifully landscaped and highly designed outdoor area that rivaled the front room as the heart of the place.  I can’t remember my last meal there, but I do remember convincing my dad and his sister Debbie to have a family brunch at Dressler, Joseph’s new creation. On Broadway, not far from Diner and Peter Luger’s, it also happened to be around the corner from where my grandma Ethel grew up and where the Blum family candy store once stood. I was very excited to share our experience with Joseph.


Joseph and I only hung out in person a handful of times over the years. But both because of the intimacy and immediacy of social media, and his personality – present, immediate, generous – he was a large presence. He shared himself and told great stories, which included his own bio – an Irish-Italian kid growing up in Williamsburg in the 70’s and 80’s, in a building on Grand Street that most of his extended Italian family eventually left – his dad reluctant to follow because of his beloved pigeons. Ultimately, this brilliant and energetic artist and visionary realized the potential he saw around him, and helped catalyzed the transformation of the borough of Brooklyn. I’m sure he had mixed feelings about that, and did eventually decamp to his place upstate, but we never completely got into it, perhaps a pact native New Yorker’s have with each other (at least for me, why ruin a nice moment).

I last saw Joseph at the new beautiful world he cultivated for himself near Woodstock. His voracious appetite for reading, for riding (motorcycles), for people, for the world, and his energy to take it all on, continued (and continue) to inspire. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with him and can’t completely believe that a life force like his was human and extinguishable.


*Joseph Foglia passed away last month. I had’t seen him in a couple of years and we didn’t speak often, but his personality did not allow you to feel anything but close. And he had a  huge impact on my life and my experience of New York, as he did on pretty much anyone who’s lived in NYC over the last 20+ years, whether they are aware of it or not. His restaurant designs and visions for the potential for his borough, even (especially) during the rough and tumble of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, have had an impact that is almost impossible to measure. And he was more personally central to so many lives, whether through art, design, cycling, motorcycling, or just being an irrepressibly curious and caring person. Such a loss, still hard to believe. (Just a note: his personal bio is based on my memories of his stories from years ago, if I have gotten anything wrong, please let me know).


Pandemic Pangs: May 1, 2020

May 1, 2020

Sorry We Missed You, American Factory, and the ever-elusive dignity of work and a living wage in America


sorrywemissed youboxes


In February, in that land before time, a friend and I attended a New America Foundation Social Cinema event, at Betaworks Studios, around the corner from the Whitney Museum. A warm and sleek open space, Betaworks was both a perfect and slightly off-putting venue for the screening and panel that followed. It is a start-up incubator, a place for innovation and disruption – two words now almost completely perverted by the unintended consequences of a tech gold rush that has enabled so much of our current broken labor model (and the belief that solutions are best left to the private sector).


That night, a hundred or so gathered for a preview screening of Ken Loach’s most recent production, “Sorry We Missed You” (now available as a rental from Film Forum) about a family in Newcastle caught in the purgatory of “independent contractor,” gig economy, struggles. Loach, one of the more strident Cassandras of socially engaged narrative cinema, has, since the 1960’s, been producing unflinching portraits of the economically, politically, and socially disenfranchised. He sends up broken systems through the lives of the individuals navigating them. Thankfully there’s ( just enough) intimacy and charm to make these unrelenting stories engaging  (But I really don’t recommend watching more than one Ken Loach film at a time – they are so bleak that they either paralyze you completely or have the opposite of their intended effect, where you just shut off because you are being barraged with a “message”).  This great Guardian list ranks all of his 37 movies, for a quick snapshot of his prolific output. He does not like to leave many stones unturned.


In “Sorry We Missed You,” we find Ricky and Abby Turner, parents of two, still recovering from the 2008 crash, in which they lost their house and incurred unbearable debt. Critically,  many of those laid off in 2008 and its aftermath, were never hired back full time. Instead, they returned as independent contractors, allowing businesses to avoid having to pay for health insurance and other basic benefits. Gig work filled this vacuum without any attendant government protections. The Freelancers Union did arise to meet some of these needs but its umbrella could not cover many classes of workers.

Grasping for work in this new landscape, Abby and Ricky turned to the new economy’s promise of autonomy and entrepreneurship. They decide to sell Abby’s car so that Ricky can buy a van to become an independent warehouse delivery worker (not unlike an Amazon warehouse – an order fulfillment center where workers are essentially held hostage by scanner guns recording their every move). The eventual reward would be outright ownership of a delivery franchise. In the meantime, he gets paid per delivery. Abby, who works as a home health aide, paid per visit, has to trust that the added difficulty of traveling to her patients on public transportation will eventually pay off.

We soon see that as independent contractors they seem to have none of the autonomy and all of the risk; none of the security afforded by having an employer, such as sick days, set hours, or a minimum wage, but all of the obligations of being beholden to quotas and others’ schedules. And in Abby’s case, not only does this structure degrade her, but her patients as well – the independent contractor structure provides very little incentive for home health aides to spend ay significant amount of time with them before rushing off to their next paid visit. This degrades Abby further. She refuses to treat her clients as anything less than human, and it is at her own and her family’s expense.


A warm and loving family, we watch as the stress and unrelenting schedules fray the Turner family unit. The physical and emotional exhaustion is palpable, and the toll it takes easy to foresee. In his patronizing review in the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that the dramatic device in “Sorry We Missed You” seems to be Murphy’s Law. But of course, as we now all plainly see, so many are just one small crisis away from having it all go completely wrong – there is no room for error. And the irony for American audiences watching this bleak downward spiral is that at least the Turners wouldn’t go bankrupt from any medical issues (the drama of Ricky’s injury in the film is that he does not have the time to tend to it properly, leaving the hospital before being seen; an American worker would envy that Ricky had a choice at all).

The film illustrates one of the gig economy’s central issues: misclassification. By incorrectly classifying workers as “independent contractors,” individuals don’t receive the protections afforded “employees.” In the U.S. (UK experts can chime in), minimum wage does not apply to those classified as independent contractors, and the NLRA — National Labor Relations Act — specifically excludes them. However, some states have made headway in addressing misclassification. California has already passed a law — AB5 — that sets a new standard: a three factor “ABC Test” that places the burden on the corporation to give the worker certain conditions in order to allow him or her to be classified an independent contractor. If they do not meet these then the worker is considered an employee. The NY Direct Coalition is trying to achieve the same here. And of course, the ripple effect of misclassification is that those classified correctly have less leverage. It is a completely unsustainable model for any that want a society based on more than mere survival. The hard-won workers’ rights that so many fought for, for so long, seemed institutionalized and taken for granted.


We see this plainly in “American Factory” (now streaming on Netflix), this year’s well-deserved documentary Oscar winner. The desperation of the American worker – and whom he or she should look to for any solutions – is beautifully and tragically portrayed. Reinventing the rustbelt, and America’s languishing manufacturing base, are for many the poster child for America’s labor and economic woes (they are certainly the face of the Midwest voter being fought over).

When a Chinese company reopens a shuttered GM plant near Dayton, Ohio, it seems one answer to the devastation of America’s industrial base. However, along with broader culture clashes, some quite hilarious, early optimism gives way to resignation and defeat. While incredibly grateful that they have a job again, the workers have to contend with much lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and punishing work schedules and expectations. A non-union shop, the American managers and Chairman Cao (the factory owner) are extremely displeased when Senator Sherrod Brown – invited for the grand opening – encourages the workers to organize if they need to.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell the story masterfully – with the nuance and context it requires.  Living outside Dayton, they have been observing and living in this post-industrial landscape for years. This film revisits their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Few are better positioned, committed, and talented enough to capture this portrait of American labor. We should be incredibly grateful for their work.

The pitfalls of the gig economy, and “share price above all” corporate dictates, have been crystal clear to many, but the coronavirus and quarantine have helped ensure the rest can no longer pretend or look away. The American apparatus that ensures basic workers’ (and basic human) rights is broken. A living wage, health insurance, and reasonable working conditions are just no longer part of the social contract. And strangely, as government oversight and protection have eroded, the market and private interests have not filled the breach.

Pandemic Pangs

April 27, 2020

On Trying to Write During Corona & Quarantine

Film Forum has enabled a rental streaming service for its current run. I decided to rent and watch Down and Out in America, Lee Grant’s 1987 Oscar-winning documentary. I thought it would be a good place to start writing about all this. By all this, I mean the the dramatically different effects the coronavirus and quarantine have had on the less privileged, underemployed, underinsured, those whose professional value and personal dignity have been eroded by the gig economy and other not-inevitable economic forces — those generally overlooked and those who don’t quite realize just how badly they needed those safety nets they thought were meant for others — amid some musings that people will finally understand why we need government. Also, the quite intentional and near-fraudulent forces that led us to a place where so many sincerely believe that government has been the problem (I do believe it is something close to fraud — if you need a reminder of how intentional, disingenuous, and systematic it has been, read or reread Dark Money by Jane Mayer and Transaction Man by Nicholas Lemann).

Can these forces be undone? How? Can we make people understand that it’s about them? Like the film makes clear, no one is immune from poverty in this country (and makes it clear it wasn’t always the case — in 1979 a team of doctors travelled the country and then were able to declare that hunger had been eradicated. In 1985, the time of the movie, approximately 20 million Americans did not have enough to eat). And yet the average Trump voter still identifies with the rich because he or she would like to believe he is one lucky break away from becoming one, and why begrudge anyone their fortune (you know, by regulating water pollution or for instance; logical right?). And/or resentment is misdirected by respective criminally misleading news outlets.

And I’d still like to write that. But sheesh. It’s just so damn depressing. And all too close to home for so many of us right now (hard to write about people on the verge when you’re worried about your own job). My focus is torn between the urgency of what’s relevant, and a complete need to escape. In the meantime, my brain is just firing in every direction.




Shooting the Mafia

November 10, 2019

Shooting the Mafia, Film by Kim Longinotto

A Documentary Misses its Mark but Finds Another

Ida Post Mafia

The Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia (b. 1935) – glamorous, iconoclastic, talented – should make for a story that tells itself. She devoted her life to staring down the Sicilian Mafia, defying a deeply conservative society to do so. With her shocks of blond hair, grand quips such as “Success is a terrible thing, I prefer love,” a parade of younger lovers (the gap seems to grow with her age – at the time of the film she is involved with a photographer 38 years her junior), and commitment to the truth at great personal risk, this is a woman who has lived passionately, fearlessly, as close to the surface as life allows.


Battaglia escaped an expected early marriage and children to become Italy’s first female photographer for a daily newspaper. She and her partner, Franco Zecchin (who like another lover is awkwardly brought into the movie for a sort of reunion) would produce some of the most iconic photos documenting the violence of the Sicilian Mafia. Until 1990, as photography director of L’Ora, Battaglia was personally present (or if not, would send a substitute) at every major crime scene. According to the film, some of those years would see more than 1000 murders at the hands of the Mafia. Especially as a woman challenging these men, and a body of work that is stark, tragic and often stunning, this film should have an excess of searing images, emotion, and appreciation for her work and life. That it doesn’t is not completely hard to understand – Battaglia is physically present as an interview subject but is not especially forthcoming. Though for some reason, the filmmaker has not shared nearly enough of Battaglia’s images as she could have. One or the other (and certainly both together) could have provided a deeper sense of this trailblazer, including the sacrifices she had to make to forge a path in an especially hostile environment.


While the movie does not give us a three-dimensional Letizia, it does something else. Perhaps out of necessity. It provides unsentimental portraits of both war photography and the Mafia. That the name Corleone frequently arises is a helpful reminder of the many ways the Mafia has been portrayed over the years. It is true that many have created their versions of correctives to any reverie for organized crime. “Gomorrah” is unflinching, and “The Sopranos” showed the rot at the core. And certainly “Goodfellas” exposed more venality than somber allegiance to Omertà. And yet, the scale of the cost, and the depth of the tragedy to an entire society still, it turns out, merit better representation.  Perhaps as long as the story and camera train their eye on the criminals, it’s near impossible to avoid connection to even the most depraved anti-hero. “Narcos,” both the Pablo Escobar and Mexico seasons, are good reminders of that. In “Shooting the Mafia,” the individual Mafia dons and henchmen are always secondary to their crimes. And the beautiful and rugged Sicilian landscape is barely perceptible as such – we mostly see poverty, bloodshed, grief and fear. As compared to when Apollonia dies in “The Godfather,” and we are mostly left remembering her stunning beauty and what seemed like a disappointing end to Michael’s gap year in Sicily (I say this is as an absurdly huge fan of both GI & GII).

Ida Post Mafia Apollonia

In “Shooting The Mafia,” we do watch those who confront their fears to try and bring some kind of justice. This is ostensibly what the film is supposed to be about – Battaglia’s work in the face of this immense personal danger. We see when she decides to exhibit their photos in the Corleone town square. The photo display is a direct indictment of the local crime boss Liggio – with images of both him and the bloody trail he has left behind. At first, we see crowds approaching the images. But then, as they realize what they are looking at, they recede until disappearing completely, leaving an empty square. It would have been great to see longer takes and footage from this moment, of the radical boldness of the exhibit and the fear that sent a whole town running from it.


However, this detachment ultimately provides an important unsentimental portrait of the Mafia’s violence. Footage of the trial that ended with the conviction of more than 300 men remains focused on the cold-blooded nature of this business. It does not elevate any individual personalities. And the tragic but unsurprising assassination of the prosecutor, and then of his deputy, continue this portrait of historic and systemic violence. Crowds of protesters and grieving widows in churches,  helps us zoom in and out of this tragedy.


In documenting Battaglia as a crime photographer, the film also undermines any prurient sensationalism. That is difficult to do. Thinking of someone like Weegee while looking at these images feels downright perverse.


And there is just enough Letizia for us to get a sense of this woman’s outsized mark. Maybe another film – or preferably, a retrospective (she does not seem inclined to offer more in person; her images are our best bet)– can bring us closer to her.


Vera, Vilna, and Portals to the Pre-War Past

October 31, 2019

This past October 2nd, we lost one of the people central to my family’s life — Vera Winograd (née Silin). She was 95 and passed away in her home of 55 years in Jerusalem. l’ve actually written about her here before, in a long post devoted to That Pesky Jewish Question. I often call her my “great aunt,” but that is really just shorthand for who she was to us, especially in those family trees, like my mother’s, violently cut down and uprooted during the War. Those who remained after the war became perhaps even closer than family — they represented the human connection necessary for survival in a new shattered world, and also the only links to the whole one that was lost. And since that world was Vilna, the Jerusalem of the North of mythic proportions, Vera was one of the last living links to almost all that it represented and promised. She lived with a fierceness that only began to ebb in the last couple of years. Below is the short eulogy I wrote for her on my and my siblings’ behalf, hopefully endowing her legacy with at least some of what she brought to life.




Few people embodied the fullness of the world quite like Vera. Some harness its physical energy and move through life with the force of nature. Some are keen students of human behavior and the human spirit – often quietly observing from the side. Others are able to take in literature, languages, the events of the day, history, and absorb them in a way that enables them to become integral parts of society and the world. Vera was all of these things. It was always through her that I felt like I could physically enter the world of pre-war Vilna, and what I imagine so much Jewish intellectual life in pre-war Europe to have been – Vera was a portal to the Viennese Café, to the Warsaw and Vilna parlors, drawing rooms, concert halls, and fervent youth group debates, eagerly confronting all of the big questions of the world, including the Jewish one – knowing the answers, from the political to the creative, were essential to their survival. And while Vera was unique, that she came from a long line and community of brilliant and commanding women also places her among a particular pantheon of Jewish life. In his biography of Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore spends a whole chapter on “Stalin’s Jewesses” — the most vital of which were Jewish Polish and Lithuanian (Vilna, although the capital of modern-day Lithuania, took turns in many different empires, and was famously a Polish and Jewish intellectual capital).  Like many others, Stalin knew these women brooked no foolishness, either in substance or in style – they were always alert, all-seeing, curious, informed, and deeply caring. It is from this caring that their passionate countenance derived its force. While she could sometimes be challenging, mostly because she demanded you match her level of passionate engagement with each and every point (sometimes you just don’t want to argue about the pogroms or Siberia, or whether the musical Fiddler on the Roof is dreck that illustrates Jews have lost their way), she instilled in me, Michal and Jonathan the understanding that there was no choice but to engage. There was no pass to being passive as the world unfolds before you.


Because Vera never had children, and also because of the loss of her sister  — something she really never spoke about – and because my mother is who she is, and got to live with Vera as a young adult while attending Hebrew University, I feel like my mother was able to give Vera, until the very end, one of the only things Vera could not give herself. Her imprint on our lives is so firmly embedded, that like Vera, it transcends time and space and has entered the realm of the imagination, more interesting than some celestial heaven – she is eternally part of this earth, of all she cared about.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room

June 5, 2016

Lisa Schweitzer

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows Things. About Cities. And how they work.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that cities run like little clockworks, and that if People Would Just Do As He Says, cities and every service, space, or interaction in them would be So Much Better;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room spends a lot of time on the internet sending dumb wimmins and Joel Kotkin emails and tweets that start that out with “Actually…Teh Facts Are…” that usually involve cherrypicked statistics he got from Another Smart Boy Urbanist;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows what bicyclists need, all bicyclists, everywhere, and what they need is Amsterdam. He knows what women bicyclists need, too, because Amsterdam;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room can give a two-hour long lecture on the GM Streetcar conspiracy;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the…

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Reading Year in Review, Part II

March 17, 2014



Books, Plays, Films:

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

August Is A Wicked Month, Edna O’Brien

The Collected Stories, William Trevor

Charming Billy, Alice McDermott

Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle

A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle

Watching the Door, Kevin Myers

Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine And The Saga of The Irish People, John Kelly

The Famine Plot: England’s Role In Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Tim Pat Coogan

My Left Foot

The Crying Game

What Richard Did

DruidMurphy plays by Tom Murphy (Conversations On A Homecoming, A Whistle In The Dark, Famine) (The NYRB essay by Fintan O’Toole)

The Talk of The Town, Emma Donoghue 


Teasing out romance from reality seems the most undesirable exercise when it comes to Ireland.   A long memory for loss, tyranny, and tragedy, laced together over time with whiskey and poetry — why unravel that? But the romance lingers over the less savory parts of Irish culture as well, such as often unflinching support of the IRA by Irish America, long past when it was beneficial to the future of Ireland; the grip of the Church; and the idolatry of too much booze. Not to mention problems with objectifying any one culture – on the other side of the coin where the flattering impressions lie are the more insidious ones, both bereft of nuance.  I’ve often tried to reconcile my love for so many things Irish with how I feel when a Gentile loves a Jew (not as in one individual gentile or Jew, a general love and admiration for the People), imbuing the object of desire with a mythical historical aura extending far beyond the one individual. So is it ok if I treat the Irish with a similar embrace?  A self-conscious one, but still, I am not of them. I am very aware of how I caught the bug, and for that I blame Irish-Americans. It’s hard growing up in Rockaway and not internalizing the romance of the Irish Diaspora, and as a recent arrival from a totally foreign culture, in 3rd grade, trying to fit in, and ultimately assimilating in unpredictable ways.

I’ve taken my Irish homework pretty seriously, and after years of reading, listening, watching, I finally made the pilgrimage. My two weeks there took me to Dublin, Belfast, Ballina, Galway and Inishmore and not long after I wrote an article about two new books about the Famine. My cocktail party conversation at this time was a bit monomaniacal. But thankfully diving deeply, very deeply, into the Irish past, and traveling through its present, has helped add missing layers of history and perspective.

Mssrs Maguire

Along with achieving a more nuanced understanding of Ireland, I’ve finally reflected on my blinkered romanticization of the Roman Catholic Church, it hasn’t helped me in life that some of my favorite writers converted, similarly possessed with the mystical aesthetic of the church, though as an atheist the aesthetic part is foremost for me, for them, an already heightened sense of sin, guilt, fear and sanctity led. I have less than a socially acceptable intolerance of religious Judaism, and yet, with the Church, I’ve dismissed the “bad” parts as  antiquated vestiges that hardly matter. But they truly still do, and with abortion, homosexuality, the non-ordination of women, and celibacy of priests, not to mention the abuse, there is much I should not ignore as having already passed. Seeing the movie Philomena recently with remembering the very real and very common negative aspects of the church’s past, and also Ireland’s (Magdalene Sisters certainly helped with that as well). Edna O’Brien’s memoir spends most of its first third in less than morally liberated Irish territory. There was a reason O’Brien and others fled to freedom when they could, at that time. Though O’Brien’s recollections of her time in a convent school were also quite lovely, especially her descriptions of one nun she and most of the other girls were quietly in love with. There is so much to hold on to in O’Brien’s book, and her writing epitomizes that rare natural talent for economy of words, and which stories to leave in, which to leave out.  I was tempted to put down the book at the point when she finally arrives as a full fledged success and enters all the right circles in London and New York, but her story-telling defies any semblance of gossip or highlighted glamor (or at least savors them in just the right way); her descriptions of Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, and so many others, are sharp and often sweet.  I might recommend staying away from her novels if you are a single woman though. Mostly because she nails it. Especially how girls, and the more guileless among us, fumble our way towards womanhood, after much wisdom is gained. Too much wisdom.


And, an antidote to Ben Affleck, and the rest of Hollywood’s, love for Southie and other similar Irish American caricatures, is Alice McDermott. Charming Billy especially. But all of her work takes up Irish America, and it is a long thoughtful look each time, without diminishing the charm and pride that Ben Affleck also loves.

Nixon, The Home Movie

December 18, 2013

Nixon’s Bright Young Men


The Super 8 seems to have been invented to capture the nostalgia of unchastened idealism and youth. When Richard Nixon entered the oval office in 1969, he brought with him a small team of young, ardent acolytes – Dwight Chapin, HR (“Bob”) Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman –who came equipped with their Super 8’s, obsessively filming everything for posterity, for history to hold witness to how they changed the world. A recent documentary, “Our Nixon”, uses footage from these reels to show us the tragic trajectory of these bright, young men, who entered the White House with sincere if somewhat naïve ambitions and convictions, and ended up in prison, co-conspirators in an affair that traumatized a nation and helped undermine the sanctity of the American presidency.

Much like the Nixon tapes, unsealed to the public in 2011, these home movies – 500 reels only recently released by the National Archives – let us peer into the machinations and idiosyncrasies of Nixon and his inner circle. There are few presidents who continue to elicit such a morbid curiosity and desire to climb inside another’s head, to understand how and when Nixon’s ambition and distrust of “the liberals”, Vietnam protesters, and the New York Times and Washington Post, turned into delusional paranoia, lies and criminal acts. A few years ago, the English playwright, Peter Morgan, wrote a play and  movie Frost/Nixon, which revisited this fixation with Nixon’s states of mind, his understanding of his own guilt and the motivations for his actions. “Our Nixon” does something similar, and casts a wider net, giving a fuller picture that includes those who worked around Nixon and very much enabled and abetted him.

The almost campy home movies, of the groundbreaking trip to China, nervous backstage smiles at the inauguration, a meeting with the pope in Rome, sitting with the President as he watched on television the landing on the moon and phoned to congratulate Neil Armstrong, dignitary dinner parties, and Sunday poolside idylls, give us a gauzy view of Eden before the fall.  We see genuine camaraderie and sense of purpose, an eagerness to capture every moment of this great long ride into changing the world.

As a poignant counterpoint, the film uses archival footage from the era and from subsequent interviews with the three men, after their terms in prison for their roles in Watergate, when famous talk show hosts, such as David Frost and Mike Wallace, asked the questions on everybody’s mind. The ambition and lack of any real healthy skepticism or irony glimpsed in the home movies come through for Haldeman and Chapin especially, who even in the latter day interviews seem to sincerely believe they were on the side of right. In one interview, in the early 1980’s, when asked about the crimes of Watergate, Chapin says, “I just don’t see it that way,” that is was some kind of a “sinister era of criminality” or that people in the Nixon White House were trying to “rape the country of its democracy.”  Mike Wallace and other interviewers’ questions are often delivered with explicit incredulity and indignation – everyone seemed to take Watergate as a personal betrayal.

Nixon did also employ more skeptical and world wise advisors, including Henry Kissinger and Leonard Garment, the latter a liberal Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who has just passed away and was for years assumed to be the real identity of Deep Throat because of his more sophisticated and less dogmatic attachment to President Nixon. Both provided a dimension to the administration that seems significantly missing from the inner circle portrayed in the film. It wasn’t a completely isolated echo-chamber filled with lackeys. But Nixon, from within a thickening fog of paranoia, increasingly only listened to those most keen to please him, his trio of young men. They would continue to prop up his growing angers and delusions, and perhaps before they realized it, he would ask them to resign for doing just that.

While the film does not offer any new insight into “what actually happened,” nor intend to, it does provide a portrait of young, ambitious, unfettered ideas about power and government and the role of the president, and much in the film resonates with power and policy today. But it also importantly, reminds us, both through these men and the event of the day, that the  late 60’s to early 70’s marked an era of so much shattered idealism and seemed to have ushered in a more cynical resentful political dynamic. Watergate, and these three men, embodied both the heady idealism and its near total destruction.

Reading Year in Review, Part I

December 4, 2013

JFK, LBJ, Dallas, Texas, America


The JFK assassination, whether we have collectively willed it into an event more history-altering than it really was (check out this piece from The Daily Beast, about the anniversary and Boomer Narcissism), or if it truly was the moment when America’s exuberant, youthful rush into the future veered off course and fell through a tear in time, was of course, the subject of much speculation this past November (and always — but is it because of the Boomers?).

In his novel 11/22/63, King’s protagonist, a burnt out English teacher named George, living in a small town in contemporary Maine, finds a portal into the past (a real one, in the back of a diner soon to close to make way for a new LL Bean), to the year 1959. The owner of the diner, now dying, shares the fact of its existence with George and implores George to complete a task he was unable to himself – go through the portal, find Lee Harvey Oswald, figure out whether he “did it” and stop the assassination, thereby apparently also stopping the turbulence, death and destruction of the 1960’s and the war in Vietnam with this one act. Like all King books, this one is compulsively readable, absorbing and scary, the tension of violence about to erupt following you through to the end.  At first it might seem too full of the neat tricks of Back to The Future – where we get to see how it all looked and sounded back then. But it becomes much more than its conceit and is immensely satisfying. George, and the reader, soon see that apart from what seemed to be the main narrative (the historical one and this book’s) there is daily violence, the kind that shatters “lesser” lives, of people George finds himself suddenly close to in his quest to change history; while these lives are seemingly less significant to history, they are not less important  to want and try to “fix” if one could go back in time and do so. And for the history buffs, spending time with Lee and Marina and their milieu is as creepy as any King parallel reality.

In the New World: Growing Up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties

Lawrence Wright

Long before the looming 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination (or my awareness of it anyway) I was looking for a nonfiction book about growing up in America as it came of age to its present age. I finally landed on Lawrence Wright’s In The New World and it ended up being a crash course in Dallas, where he grew up before he made his escape to Tulane in New Orleans (his word, Chapter 6 is titled “Escape”; at the moment, Wright’s current book about Scientology is making all the lists, but this book seems so much more interesting and significant to me – the 100 page New Yorker article about Scientology was plenty no?).

I had really only vague ideas about Dallas, probably wrapped up in impressions of Texas as a whole; a certain East Coast notion of Dallas as a land of new money, many churches and deeply conservative and rigid ideas of the way life ought to be. Wright, of course, gives more context, and illustrates, through the telling of Dallas’ modern history, much that resonated strongly about modern America’s trajectory as well:

It was not just Dallas, of course. New cities were forming, cities without traditions, with only the blind instinct to grow, to add wealth. Already in the fifties the urban centers of the Northeast had begun their long decline. A great migration was taking was taking place, out of Boston, for instance, which lost 13 percent of its population in the fifties; and New York, which diminished by one hundred thousand people;  and Cleveland and Providence; all of them great industrial centers, union towns, politically liberal. A million immigrants settled in the newly built suburban tracts surrounding Phoenix, San Diego, Albuquerque, Orlando, Los Angeles, Houston…What distinguished Dallas from the other cities of the new world (this was the legend we told ourselves) was that there was no reason for its existence.  It did not float atop an ocean of oil; there was no seaport, no mighty river; there were no paper mills or coal mines…Dallas had pressed itself into existence through force of will and public relations…a city finally of  commerce, information, and trade, self-created like no other city in the world.

And further on in the book:

The prevailing ethic in the city was not hard work but high risk…Anyone who worked too hard to make money or who seemed to be too cautious in holding on to it was regarded as a drudge or a scrooge. Money  was supposed to be inconsequential, and although our millionaires didn’t light their cigars with fifty-dollar bills like Daddy Warbucks did, they enjoyed wasting their money, buying up entire store window displays from Neiman Marcus, or his-and-hers submarines.

The most extreme conservative views  were bankrolled and openly condoned by some of Dallas’ most prominent citizens, including  “the richest  man in the world” – H.L. Hunt, a neighbor of the author, who lived in a replica of Mt. Vernon and who hired former FBI agent Dan Smoot to serve as his mouthpiece, on a radio show called Life Line. Some favorite topics for the show were the “enemies within” (Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Edward R. Murrow, Earl Warren) and the impeachment of JFK. On the day of the assassination itself his newsletter editorialized, “that if Kennedy succeeded in his plan to communize America, we would find ourselves living in a country where ‘no firearms are permitted the people, because would then have the weapons with which to rise up against their oppressors.”

Most interesting and new to me though, was learning about just how painfully synonymous Dallas was, and still is to so many, with the assassination. I’m not sure how to explain that the word “Dallas” does not immediately (and only) invoke the assassination to me, except by way of suspecting it is a generational thing, much as  “The War” means only one war to the baby boomers. But still, I was pretty astounded.

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights (Book, Movie, TV Show)

Before there was Dillon, there was Odessa. Friday Night Lights, the nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger, is one of my favorite things I’ve read about Texas, about the oil boom and bust town of Odessa which suffered from all the follies, and lived high on all the speculative joys, of neighboring Midland. A near caricature of labor and capital. And being an East Coast city kid, it really did actually take this book, and this series (and a guy I met in an airport once who played for the coach FNL is based on, who even after breaking some serious bones that caused him to lose a scholarship and nearly all his mobility, still could not understand how every kid does not want to play football if he can) to finally get some sense of the mania of football and its role in the fabric of life of so many small towns and suburbs.

The show doesn’t need much more hype, except to say it is completely deserved and I can’t imagine any type of person who would not enjoy it (it has something for everyone, truly — I recommended it to my brother and his wife, who have rather divergent tastes, and I take great pride in the fact that they watched it together and loved it). Lorrie Moore wrote a great piece about it in the New York Review of Books, though I was pretty surprised to learn that “serious” folks considered it a “cultural guilty pleasure,” until, of course, they agreed together otherwise.

LBJ: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro

The latest volume in the Caro LBJ opus provides what may become the defining account of LBJ’s masterful legislative canny in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. But it is Johnson’s improbable entrance into the neutered role of Vice President  that turns out to be one of the most fascinating case studies in those qualities that serve to both drive and keep back an individual. In this case a man with nearly superhuman tenacity and political energy that was fueled by fear that at other times held him hostage and nearly undermined his political career altogether.

LBJ grew up poor in the Texas Hill Country, but was not born into yet another generation of poverty. His mother came from a proud long lineage and projected high expectations onto her son. His father was an ambitious but ultimately failed politican and businessman. The failure of his father and his own consequent poverty instilled in LBJ an almost pathological fear of being powerless. (And certainly led his genuine determination to fight poverty in general). While this led him to become Master of the Senate, as Caro called Vol #3, it also, finally, when given the green light by the Democratic party to run for the office he had always coveted, kept him from tossing his hat in the ring until way too late. He was so petrified of losing and embarrassing himself, and being like the powerless loser  he saw as father as, that he never even really tried.

The book also gives a detailed and at times incredible account of the assassination, and of LBJ’s steps to consolidate his power in the crucial hours and days after. His phonecall to Bobby Kennedy, made right after Bobby was crushed by the news of his brother’s death, to ensure Bobby would stand solidly behind LBJ’s presidency, was just one of the many steps LBJ took to harness the power of his new post. While somewhat cold blooded and calculating, it also, arguably had to be done. Someone had to think in the midst of the emotional turmoil, and ensure that the next president would not only be characterized by not being JFK.

New Orders

June 24, 2013

Ponte City & The Shifting Meanings of The Built Environment

In a piece posted in the new and sleek Turn On Art, I look at two works at the current ICP Triennial that explore the  human instinct to impose meaning on the built environment. In those works,  the artists played with perceptions of the city of Jerusalem — a place especially vulnerable to personal projections and shifting political realities.

Another series at the Triennial, titled “Ponte City,” does something similar. In three glowing light boxes measuring  152.4 x 50.2 inches each, “Ponte City” presents several reconfigurations of this iconic apartment building in Johannesburg. Built in 1976, in a society that worked quite hard to engineer its way toward a certain order (ICP recently held an exhaustive exhibit about photography during and after apartheid, which I wrote about here), this colossal construction of a 54-story luxury apartment building in the middle of Johannesburg could hardly withstand the aspirational projections of its architects. Like King Hussein’s unfinished palace in East Jerusalem, the grandiose plans of those in power quickly fell prey to political forces – facts on the ground competing.

SUBOTZKY_Windows - Ponte City 1

Originally built for a central Johannesburg community that was white and well off, Ponte City saw its intended residents flee to the suburbs with the end of apartheid in 1994. In 2007, developers tried to recast their aspirations once again, this time attempting to lure middle class black professionals. But the project faltered, and after going bankrupt a year later, Ponte City was left to deteriorate, in many places still unfinished, unpainted, and partially occupied.

Between 2008 and 2010, South African Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky, known for his gritty prison projects (such as Beaufort West about Beaufort West Prison 2006-2008, and The Four Corners 2004, about the inmates of Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison where Nelson Mandella was incarcerated), and English artist Patrick Warehouse, set about to photograph every window, internal door, and television in Ponte City. The resulting three panels echo the scale of the building, and are thematically organized by television/window/door. They are a sort of excavation of an ongoing  reality —  uncovering the results of the past rather than the past itself, exposing how the building has resisted any one meaning from taking root.

Political and economic booms and busts have littered the landscape with monuments to often delusional aspirations. Along with visual testimonials such as those at ICP, several fictional and nonfictional works have provided especially poignant, and often quite tragic, investigations of what these developers leave behind once their funding has dried up. Tana French, the Irish writer known for her page-turning mysteries, has actually provided one of the best of these in Broken Harbor, a murder-mystery set in one of Ireland’s many ghost estates that sprang up during the boom and now serve only as haunting reminders of so much folly. And in his piece on Venezuela, Jon Lee Anderson writes about the failed city of Caracas by way of the Tower of David, the world’s tallest slum, originally intended as Venezuela’s answer to Wall St.

It is possible to raze bad ideas sometimes.  But it is near impossible to foretell a building’s future, its place in society and whom it will ultimately serve.  You can only will so much reality by building it.