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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

Ireland

Inishmore

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 

Dublin

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.

Ballina

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

NIXON HALDEMAN

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.

New Motor City

October 12, 2012

Will The Real Detroit Please Stand Up?

(In a recent piece for The Economist, I highlighted two new works that examine Detroit’s past, present and future. But Detroit’s problems are so complex, and the solutions so hard to see or understand, and I wanted to explore further. Here is a much longer version of that article, published here with the permission of The Economist).

 

CLINT EASTWOOD’S baffling conversation with an empty chair at the recent Republican Convention was not the first time this year that the aging actor stepped into the political spotlight. In the now famous Super Bowl  commercial for Chrysler, Eastwood declares, “It’s Halftime in America.” He tells us, “How do we come from behind? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.”

Detroit seems to represent many things to many people, often in hyperbolic terms —  the death of America’s indutrial might, the worst kind of urban blight, intractable racial tension. But also the future of America, the future of cities, the future of the post-industrial world. That’s a lot to project onto one city.

A (Very) Brief History

Most people immediately associate Detroit’s downfall with the 1967 race riots that left the city burning and brought in the National Guard in tanks. However, its demise began long before, bred, in many ways, by the very conditions that made it the world’s fastest growing city in 1930.  Henry Ford’s famous innovations and assembly lines in massive factories led to the quick profileration of other giant auto plants and related industries. The demand for mostly unskilled labor skyrocketed and presented a chance for the regular working man to finally make a decent wage and enter the middle class.  Diego Rivera and other fellow travelers visited the factories in Detroit and spoke praises of a new workers’ paradise. (You can take a look at Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle here).

Along with immigrants and white Southerners, this promise of a good life appealed to so many Southern blacks who had been languishing in often dire poverty. The mass migration North began, into a city that was neither prepared to house all its new citizens nor to address the  friction between the races and obvious racial inequities in hiring practices. The failure to effectively address these issues exacerbated already simmering racial tensions that only “resolved” themselves in the eventual white flight from the city and into the neighboring suburbs, taking most of the tax-base with it. Powerful unions that kept the working middle class thriving kept the lid on the pressure cooker for a while longer. But bad policy and racial politics, combined with a one-industry town manned by  mostly unskilled labor, left Detroit woefully unprepared for globalization and American auto fading.  It was a perfect and deadly storm. The world’s once most modern city suddenly seemed a crucible for the worst racial and economic issues plaguing America.  Today, a city once bursting at the seams, has lost half its population, leaving so much of it (40 square miles out of 149) abandoned, slowly being reclaimed by the Midwestern prairie from which it sprang.

Ford Assembly Line

“Saving” Detroit

The effort to “save” Detroit and what remains of the American auto industry has played a prominent role in the political landscape the last few years and certainly  in the upcoming presidential election.  To let Detroit and Big Auto fail would seem too strong a statement about the still precarious economic recovery. Obama’s decision to bail out the big three auto makers in 2009 is a major part of his economic recovery platform. As he boasted at the Democratic National Convention, “Osama is dead, Detroit is not.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, famously stated in a 2008 New York Times Op-Ed that Detroit should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Along with major government intervention in Detroit’s fate, a serious grassroots movement of artists,  young entrepeneurs, urban planners and urban farmers has taken root in the city over the last few years. The cheap rent, empty arable land and the fading glory of a once grand city, has attracted a consistent and growing number of young people who very genuinely see the city as the new Brooklyn or Berlin, full of creative possibilities. It has attracted big names as well – Matthew Barney produced a major performance piece there that brought in big players in the art world;  David Byrne apparently likes to bike around the city; and  developer Tony Goldman, who famously revived Miami’s South Beach and New York’s Soho, visited and saw great potential.  Much has been written about new and trendy Detroit– a 2011 article in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times about the new (mostly white) hipster class, was titled,  “Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscle. “

A more serious examination of these two competing narratives – Detroit as beyond salvation and Detroit as the future of post-industrial America – has been sorely needed. Two recent , excellent, works take on this task, and mostly succeed. “Detropia,” a documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, looks at the personal, political and phsyical landscape of the city. Mark Binelli’s book, “Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis,” explores these themes in full, alternating between hard tragic truths and the new seductive air of optimism. There is almost too much material to mine.

Detropia

In their beautiful and moving film, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, provide the kind of stark visuals and atmospherics that underpin all of the issues Detroit presents, never shying away from hard realities but also never judging. Ewing and Grady, best known for their 2006 film Jesus Camp, are astute observers of  various aspects of the American condition. As Ewing  describes it,  “We actually went in to Detroit planning to on making “Detroit Hustles Harder,” a film focused on the revitalization of the city. Once we moved to Detroit in October 2012, however, it became clear that the story of Detroit is in many ways not one of the future but of people dealing with decisions made long ago. Detropia is a story of consequences: the realities of globalization, the price of short term thinking (by the big 3) and the real downside to unresolved racial tension. It also shines a light on those people who have chosen to stay in Detroit, to stick with the city and do their part. The pluck and grit they exhibit bring a sense of hope to the city.“

Ewing and Grady’s cameras achieve this by taking us along to frustrating union meetings, tense confrontations between the mayor and the public about his plans to “downsize” the city, long rides past abandoned auto plants, evenings spent with scrap metal scavengers, and the somewhat surreal existence of the artists homesteading in Detroit, who see it as their canvas and can afford to live there for $700 a month (rent can be as low as $250).  For the viewer who does not come equipped with familiarity of Detroit’s condition, the movie may lack a coherent enough explanation of its intentions. But for the initiated, it is a beautioful and sad meditation on all of these issues.

There is much discussion in their film of the American middle class and whether it is dying, like the city that many believe gave birth to it. China serves as the bogeyman to many of the people in the film, most poignantly during scenes of the annual auto show where amid excitement over the unveiling of the Chevy Volt, we are quickly introduced to competition from a new Chinese model, significantly cheaper.

Looking at the landscape in the film, one wants to resist the allure of “ruin porn” that Detroit so easily provides. But it is hard to pretend not to see the beauty of the decay in the city – grand old Beaux Arts  buildings sitting empty and overgrown, the history of the city lying around you. The beauty is sad but it is still beautiful.

Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis

Like Ewing, Mark Binelli also grew up in Detroit, and returned in 2009 to see the new highs and new lows for himself.  The result of his two-and-a-half year long stay is a book that hits almost every issue, giving both the necessary stupefying numbers (in 2009, half of all children in Detroit lived in poverty and nearly half of all adults were functionally illiterate; the city regained its number one spot as America’s murder capital and was a leading contender for most arsons, to name a few) but also supplementing hard numbers with the actual problems as grappled with in real life and providing optimistic counterpoints.

In one chapter he introduces us to Mark Covington – a Detroit gardener who has gained much attention for his urban farming efforts. After losing his job in 2008, at age 37, Covington, out of sheer boredom, began to clean up and eventually cultivate the vacant land in his blighted neighborhood. Detroit is a leader in America in urban farming and according to long-time Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, the city has enough unused land to become the first entirely self-sufficient sustainable city in the world.

Of course, the DIY culture of Detroit extends to less utopian ends as well. So many city services have been cut so drastically and crime is so rampant that a near-anarchic state exists for many residents. In his chapter on civilian responses to crime, Binelli tags along with Rick Ector who runs a firearm academy and gives classes mandatory to obtaining a conceal and carry license. In one class, Ector asks his student,“ What if, a twelve year old with a shotgun in his pants rolls up on a bicycle? Would you have it in you to shoot him? If you are not prepared to shoot a twelve year old, you should not carry a handgun!”

Binelli gives incredibly well grounded and always engaging colorful accounts of all that ails Detroit and the myriad proposals for its survival. His book is empathic but also highly skeptical – the poverty, mostly incompetent political class,  horrific but regular crime, lack of basic city services and weight of the city’s history appear to keep him from believing that Detroit can withstand these forces. His chapters about Detroit as a new creative capital are tinged with irony, and he rightfully remains skeptical of the idea that the creative class can save a city. And yet, he confesses to ultimately being seduced by the optimism of these new folks, who seem determined to stay, make Detroit their home and remake it into a new 21st century city that embraces its post-industrial fate.

Both the film and the book provide more than mere indulgence of morbid curiosity or scenes from the “last frontier.” As Binelli writes, “… it’s undeniable that Detroit feels like an extraordinary place, and at the same time, just as Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis, Detroit feels like ground zero for…what, exactly? The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else? Either way, that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn’t want to see the future?”

Detroit’s problems are mostly particular to it and it may be unwise to read too much into its fate, but it serves as a strong cautionary tale for the new industrial capitals of the world and has emerged as a sort of canvas for possibiities for post-industrial, urban, America.

Further Reading & Viewing

Books

Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy

Movies

BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit

Searching for Sugar Man

The Way of the Jesuit

February 9, 2012

And a new book about Father John Brooks, the 1960’s, Holy Cross and some of its first Black Alumni (Clarence Thomas and Ted Wells among them)

In one of his many “God & Religion: Good or Bad?” debates, Christopher Hitchens addressed the role of religion in the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s, certainly one of religion’s more admirable chapters. Hitchens pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and said, “Fortunately for us, he wasn’t really a Christian, because if he had followed the preachments in Exodus about the long march to freedom, he would have invoked the right that the Bible gives to take the land of others, to enslave other tribes…The people who actually organized the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, were both secularists and socialists. The whole case for the emancipation of black America had already been made perfectly well by secularists.”

Perhaps, but it is an unrelenting belief in one’s own righteous cause that leads both the secular and religious to that kind of unyielding faith and fight they deem their cause requires. The kind of moral and intellectual tenacity that led Mr. Hitchens himself to propound and act on his myriad beliefs and causes (Hitchens’ moral god was far more infallible than many celestial gods of others, just look at his unwavering support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq despite the mounds of evidence showing how ill-conceived they were).  Many models do exist wherein religious structures provide the kind of missionary advocacy necessary for effective action. Usually the key questions are what action, and to what end.

The history and tradition of the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church exemplify the possibilities for religious advocacy for progressive change. The work of the Jesuits is especially instructive since it is an exceptional and often-defiant part of a larger global faith that can be dangerously conservative and out of step with the day to day needs of its devout.

A new book by Diane Brady is a sort of unvarnished ode to the important work the Jesuits did during the civil rights era, and a reminder that religious advocacy and action belong equally to the left as to the right. In Fraternity, Diane Brady tells the story of the personal mission of Father John Brooks at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a college Time magazine then dubbed the “Cradle of the Catholic Left.”  From its beginnings in the mid-19th Century, Holy Cross proved a haven of elite scholarship for members of the population unwelcome elsewhere. As Brady recounts:

Among the first students to enroll at Holy Cross were four sons of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish-born planter in Georgia, and Eliza Clark, a mixed-race slave whom Healy owned and had fallen in love with. Their children were considered slaves, making them ineligible to attend school in the South. Instead,  James, Patrick, Hugh and Sherwood Healy came to Holy Cross in 1844. The Healy boys did well – Patrick went on to become president of Georgetown University in 1874, James was valedictorian of the first graduating class in 1849 and later became the country’s first African American Catholic bishop, Michael became a celebrated sea captain, and Sherwood became a priest and rector of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The 1960’s presented somewhat different challenges than antebellum America though. Despite its earlier displays of integration, Holy Cross had evolved into an institution for the sons of the Irish Catholic well to do, quite removed from the hurly-burly of the decade.  While many liberal intellectuals embraced the ideas of integration and change in the 1960’s in the abstract, Father Brooks was one of the few who felt it his personal duty to realize them. The history of the Healy boys certainly played a part in affirming his convictions that Holy Cross was the right place. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, deepened his belief that this was also the right time. The time to try and bring bright young black men to Holy Cross, the kind of men – boys really, at age 18 —  that would survive and hopefully thrive as helmsmen of a new generation of radical change. Not a small amount of pressure, and quite a bit to ask of an 18 year old boy.

The title of the book, “Fraternity,” refers to the members of the first class Father Brooks recruited. It focuses on Ted Wells, Stan Grayson, Eddie Jenkins , Ed Jones and Clarence Thomas —  in one graduating class, one of America’s top litigators, a New  York City deputy mayor, a running back on the ’73 Miami Dolphins undefeated team and also subsequently a successful lawyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.

As Diane Brady rightfully emphasizes, Brooks understood that recruitment was perhaps the easiest step. The greater burden lay on the recruited, in dealing with feelings of isolation in an alien environment, one filled with the incomprehension and latent racism of an otherwise homogeneous college community.  Questions such as “Is it easier to get in here if you’re coloured?” and other less innocent-minded questions and comments were common. Father Brooks often could only act as a sort of spiritual and social facilitator for the black students who arrived on campus. The rest the students had to figure out on their own.

Through the accounts of their experiences over the next few years, one witnesses many of the merits and drawbacks of affirmative action as well all of the other issues playing on the minds of young, black, draft-aged men in the 60’s – Black Power, the War, the questioning of sacredly-held traditions. Perhaps most illustrative are the widely divergent experiences of Ted Wells and Clarence Thomas —  the ones they arrived with at Holy Cross and the ones they carried away:

Wells, having grown up in a city (Washington, DC) that  had become a mecca and marching ground for black pride, was   looking for ways to recreate the sense of brotherhood at Holy Cross. Thomas had spent much of his life digesting racism on his own. He had learned to move easily in the white community, even if he never felt a part of it, and he didn’t have much interest in making skin color the prime factor in determining his social circle. Thomas wanted to be seen as someone who could fit in and get along with anybody. Let Wells revel in the black identity and push for civil rights. What bothered Thomas wasn’t being black; it was being noticed for being black.”

Thomas’ subsequent experience at Yale Law School only further embittered him towards affirmative action. And it famously informed his political outlook, which has tended to estrange him from civil rights causes, black institutions and the notion that black Americans should in any way view themselves or be viewed as different than anyone else. Ted Wells, on the other hand, embraced his role as a black American leader and role model. After doing graduate work at Harvard – earning both an MBA and a JD – he has, along with his accomplishments as a top litigator (his clients include Elliott Spitzer and Scooter Libby), served as counsel for the New Jersey NAACP, State Chair of the United Negro College Fund and Co-Chair of the NAACP Legal Defense  and Education Fund.

Sometimes it does take a perfect storm. Father Brooks had arrived at Holy Cross fresh from Vatican II (1962-1965), which filled him, and many others, with a sense of purpose and urgency for social change, and a belief that the church should be at its forefront. He also had exactly the right combination of altruism, zeal, empathy, guidance and ability to know when to step back and let the black students stake out their places for themselves. Indeed, Clarence Thomas often looks back fondly at Holy Cross as a place and time where he was treated and appraised as a man, rather than a black man, mostly because of Father Brooks.

While Father Brooks is highly unique, he also seems to embody everything that is possible from a religious sect that values intellect, scholarship and a commitment to social advocacy. The Jesuit Order may be “gaying and graying,” as some insiders jokingly lament, but it also in many ways seems the way forward.

Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)

June 20, 2011

Here’s something to round out everyone’s newly-acquired Rockaway IQ  (and by “everyone” I mean those who have just recently discovered what happens at the Queens end of the A Train, the rest of “everyone” I apologize for adding even more to the flood of Rockaway attention, but I’ve always liked to give Rockaway attention, I guess not everyone was listening carefully enough).

Over drinks after seeing Woody Allen’s latest film on Friday – Midnight in Paris – a friend and I reached that inevitable moment in the evening of having to address how this movie compared with the last few and with his best and what it says about the man. It’s totally inescapable, but always fun, and definitely worth indulging (though I probably wouldn’t want to overhear a conversation like that). I won’t say too much about Midnight in Paris, except to say it is too charming to miss (an antidote to the Rom-Com?).  The casting of the American literati of 1920’s Paris was kind of brilliant. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein was maybe my favorite, and that’s the only one I’ll give away (try hard not to read too much about it before seeing it; hopefully, as a rule, like me, you don’t read too much about things you are about to see anyway). And Owen Wilson as a 21st Century wide-eyed American writer in Paris looking for inspiration was great – Owen Wilson does earnest SO well (remember Meet The Parents?).

For the  more savvy and literary transplants,  who arrived here after years of cultivating a romance for this city, Woody Allen looms large as the godfather of urbane and idiosyncratically neurotic  Jewish New York. (Spike Lee is another such godfather, of other outsized myths of New York).   Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977) seem to be the apotheoses of an outside admirer’s visions of New York –  the kind of place where Wallace Shawn’s intellectual animal magnetism causes beautiful and charmingly neurotic  women to fidget and stutter, while Woody Allen stands back, bewildered.  And worried.  But also the kind of place that revels in its romance, in long black and white takes with Rhapsody in Blue playing.

Another of Woody Allen’s odes to New York, and to a long-gone Golden Age, is his Rockaway movie – Radio Days. These days Rockaway is predominantly known and sentimentalized for its Irish-American-ness, once even dubbed the Irish Riviera, now a term reserved for Breezy Point alone, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, where the Kings County DA, Charles Hynes, has a summer home (not without controversy – there is just something about the district attorney of an ethnically diverse borough, where many people of color are regularly prosecuted, living in an all-white gated community; during the dog days of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Al Sharpton decided to make a point about this by marching to Hynes’ house in Breezy, with 100 supporters, chanting “Hynes, Hynes, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”).

In Rockaway we have our own St. Patrick’s Day parade and a disproportionate amount of cops and firemen. If you want to look at one place where nearly everyone was directly affected by 9/11, almost to a man, Rockaway provides way too many scary numbers and stories; some would even say that my generation was irreparably scarred and there is an unspoken eerie sense of survivor’s guilt, in a community where booze is already a go-to remedy. Amazingly I can’t think of any movies about Irish Rockaway, though I have an uneasy feeling that a Ben Affleck type might want to produce another less than flattering story about Irish America. So maybe it’s best left alone. Rescue Me sort of takes that on – Dennis Leary and a few of the other guys from his house live out there.  Might not be the most nuanced portrayal of Rockaway and Irish Americans either though.

But Radio Days, set during the Golden Age of Radio, in the late 30’s and 40’s, is Woody Allen territory, and so pretty thoroughly Jewish, as much of Rockaway once was. Rockaway used to be about half non-religious Jewish and half Irish, but like most non-religious Jews in the rest of Queens, and certainly Brooklyn, Rockaway Jews left town – to Long Island and Jersey, the richer ones to Westchester.  And loads of Jews (and many others) used to summer down there in the days before AC; I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing that’s how Allen got to know the place. My parents are still there and so are a few others like them, but the “newer” Jews are quite religious, and quite apart. It’s sad that the Jewish New York of Woody Allen is mostly gone, but you can add it to the long list of things once intrinsic to the New York character that are now sealed in history.

In the main household of the movie, a bursting with life working class Jewish one, the individual characters, confined to a stifling and intrusive home, find their escape and fantasy life through the radio. A young Seth Green plays the Woody Allen alter ego and the cast includes Allen regulars like a shrieking and overbearing Julie Kavner and also Farrow and Keaton.  The movie is a lot less “serious” than Annie Hall and Manhattan, and premised mostly on various small stories within stories, often ones with great punch lines, including ones about radio starlets and hanky-panky in the studios.  In one bit, Larry David plays the Communist next door neighbor, who lures his more observant neighbor – on Yom Kippur, in the middle of his fast – to commit an unspeakable transgression (eating pork, and then promptly being punished by God and getting sick).  Another story, making great use of the radio, takes us on one of Aunt Bea’s dates (Dianne Wiest), where she and her suitor drive out to the sand dunes of Breezy Point, only to get stuck in the sand in the middle of hearing about the impending alien invasion (think Orson Welles). A more recent invasion of Breezy occurred on June 6, 1993, when the Golden Venture, a boat carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, ran aground just off Breezy after a mutiny; 10 people drowned trying to reach shore; several others who made it showed up on the doorsteps of some very confused Breezy Point residents.

Rockaway makes one wistful in many different ways – it’s a vestige of much that no longer exists in New York (including one of the last NYC neighborhoods to retain a local accent) and beach communities often hold on to their pasts longer than other places, and are an easy place on which to project idealized histories and simpler times.  The beach is fun and easy, and away from the city, which you can always see in the distance across the bay.  Radio Days doesn’t completely capture that, and Rockaway definitely deserves its own movie, relating to its more recent identity. But for NYC & Allen buffs, and the generally nostalgic, Radio Days is a charming tour of imagining what a place  and time once were.

Food, Freud & God

June 2, 2011

By far, my favorite and most used cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food – an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Since Roden’s book is, essentially, a Jewish diaspora culinary survey, the book serves as a veritable tour of world cuisine, or at least wherever the trade winds took Jewish merchants and frequent expulsions took Jewish refugees.  Eastern Europe is given its respective space of course, but the most dog-eared battered pages in my copy are in North Africa and Asia, especially Morocco, Iran, Iraq and India (the dishes my dinner party guests may have already tired of are Fesenjan/Duck or Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnut Sauce, Kofta Mishmisheya /Lamb Meatballs in Apricot Sauce and Moroccan Mezze). Interspersed throughout the book, between different regions and courses, are short histories  — personal anecdotes and more general histories — of the various local Jewry, such as a quick rundown of the three different Jewish communities of India (the Cochinis, Bene Israel and Baghdadis) and the once vibrant community of the Greek Jewish population of Salonika, that make the book equally interesting as a colorful and engaging ethnographic guide as it is a cookbook.  The Sephardi World half of the book is subtitled “Many Styles of Sephardi Cooking, with Echoes from Ancient Baghdad, Medieval Spain and the Ottoman World.”  It more than lives up to the expectations that title inspires and includes recipes for savory pies from Salonika, soups from Yemen and various salads, rice and meat dishes from Iran, Italy, Morocco and Georgia.  The shopping for the ingredients alone  is worth investing in these dishes (especially if you have Sahadi’s nearby, Sahadi’s itself merits buying this book so you can actually feel like you are finally taking advantage of everything Sahadi’s has to offer).

Once, while flipping through the book with my mother, I came across a story about the author’s great-grandfather who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. Already naturally inflated with ancestral pride (I was raised to believe Vilna Jews are inherently very special — hard even for me to tell whether I am being serious or not when I invoke it; it may have started as a way to tease my dad who has no roots in Vilna, where my mother is from, but if I am honest, maybe, sometimes,  in private moments, I think Vilna Jews are a little superior), I asked my mother “Do we have any chief rabbis in our family?” My mother replied: “No, I think we’re about 10th generation atheist.”

Spiritual thirst is a totally alien instinct to me and most of my extended family. It is not something we have ever spent any thought or energy on. It is a non-issue.  We did grow up with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything else though – history, politics, food, sports, art, music. Not that spirituality and engagement with the world are mutually exclusive, but the terrestrial world always seems to provide enough material  for us to get lost in.

Growing up in Israel, especially with roots in a kibbutz, there was a very clear,  loudly articulated and socially acceptable demarcation between the secular and the religious, often with much mutual disdain and incomprehension. And Israel being a Jewish country, “doing” Jewish things did not entail actually believing in their spiritual underpinnings. I carried this over when I moved here, and assumed that those who were modern, educated and sophisticated were surely also atheists who were religious only in their habits and practices of going to Church, observing holidays and following those precepts that helped them and made them good people. I did not – not for a second – think people actually believed. Especially not in the miracles. Living for many years in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, I quickly learned about all the magical “stuff” but always assumed that like Moses drawing water from a rock and an angel moving Abraham’s hand before he could kill Isaac, these were absorbed as myths with larger messages. Not so. Or at least not for a lot of great, sophisticated people I respected and admired. I learned the hard way that the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection are very serious, non-metaphorical, business indeed.  It was not merely about following the teachings of Christ.  And of course, after my limited exposure to religious Jews in Israel whom I dogmatically distrusted, I also met religious Jews who had first rate minds and intellects and are leaders in their professional fields (the amazing and accomplished Twerski family comes to mind – Professor Aaron Twerski,  a legal scholar, is maybe the top products liability expert in the country).  

After a few years of absorbing this realization – that a faithful mind could also be a truly modern sophisticated one – I became transfixed by it. Rather than wrestling with agnosticism, I have developed a deep hunger for understanding this and am always eager to hear it discussed by those whom I respect or at least have thought about their faith with the intellectual rigor they have applied to other parts of their lives. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens recently had a famous public spar about it in Toronto, though that was more about the evils and virtues of organized religion, which is a lot less interesting. But still, an opportunity to hear someone who has excelled at Britian’s top institutions (and you know, was a popular Prime Minister, until he wasn’t) discuss faith.  But still, it left me unsatisfied, the rationality of faith itself wasn’t dissected quite enough.  My own personal attempts at engagement have mostly failed, as when a boy once asked me on a date, after learning I was an atheist, “But aren’t you worried about Judgment Day?”  — yeah that wasn’t heading anywhere especially edifying.

At last, I have finally come across a truly gratifying conversation about the subject in a play called Freud’s Last Session, at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre at the West Side YMCA. In this fun, hypothetical , pseudo-historical jaunt that takes place on one of the most memorably ominous days in modern history – Sept. 3, 1939 –  in Freud’s study in London, where he had taken refuge rather briefly before succumbing to cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what a meeting between CS Lewis and Freud would have been like*, and their inevitable conversation about their respective “faiths” – Freud’s sardonic declarations explaining why God does not exist, and CS Lewis’ earnest, charming incantations of why he does – you very nearly want to believe him. I could have sat there for a few more hours listening to those two actors and that script.  With the atrocities of Hitler about to be unleashed as the backdrop, the clear existence of evil and total absence of an interventionist God set the tone, and CS Lewis admits to wrestling with that very notion.

 And yet when Lewis talks to Freud about that craving that all humans seem to be born with for seeking some type of God or power higher than themselves, even I, who have never had that craving, had to admit that Lewis was actually using logic  pretty successfully to make his non-logical point, since it appears that most humans do (of course I believe it’s because the as-yet-unexplainable-by-science leads some to this, but still, it is pretty prevalent!).

Psychoanalysis was of course also at play, with the two literally and figuratively taking turns on the couch. Both had fathers whose religious fervor affected them very obviously and directly, with Freud musing that Lewis sought God as the father he never had (or at least one he could love) and with Freud clearly wanting to eschew the faith of a religious father who cowed and submitted to the anti-Semitism around him rather than stand up for himself – in the play Freud muses that he didn’t know whom he hated more, the man who had told his father to get off the sidewalk because he was a dirty Jew, or his father for doing so.

Another reason to see this play is the venue. One of the reasons I am pretty sure I won’t ever leave New York permanently is because there is always more of it. The theatre is in the West Side YMCA, one of the most beautiful buildings I think I’ve come across in this city in many many years, and it had somehow eluded me until last week. Need I say more?

*From the Playbill – “In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. writes, ‘Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England…(a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?’ – His speculation sparked this play.”

The Man From Jamaica

May 24, 2011

Chris Blackwell, Island Records and Remembering Bob Marley

Last week, on the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, Chris Blackwell, Mr. Island Records, joined the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber for a very rare public interview.

On hand for the multi-media event, which included the video for Island’s first hit – Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, footage of “The Harder They Come” and some spectacular photos of Grace Jones – were eager life-long reggae fans (some sporting t-shirts with Bob Marley’s photo), various folks from the industry and even some major music-makers themselves, including Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Paul Holdengraber had the enviable but rather serious challenge of providing, in such a limited time, a satisfying conversation with a man who seems to have lived one thousand lives in one.  Starting at the beginning of the beginning, Holdengraber and Blackwell recreated Blackwell’s youth – his life in a tony expat enclave in Jamaica, where Noel Coward and other major English notables, good friends of Blackwell’s mother, played prominent roles. Blackwell, who worked for a while as a water-skiing instructor, first witnessed water-skiing when Errol Flynn, fully-clothed, lit cigarette in mouth, miniature dachshund under his arm, rolled up his trousers and took to the water. Blackwell’s mother, one of Ian Fleming’s great loves, also undoubtedly had much to do with Blackwell’s employment as local guide for one of the first Bond films – “Dr. No”. This early immersion amongst larger than life talents and personalities led Blackwell to develop a natural touch amongst celebrities and would-be stars alike. More importantly though, his days in Jamaica planted the seeds of his lifelong love of Jamaican music, which while not always reflected in the top-selling acts he signed in later years, stayed with him and led to perhaps his greatest legacy – introducing the world to Bob Marley.

But long before the days of Bob Marley, Blackwell began Island Record’s discography by rather unglamorously loading his Mini with his then-slim  catalog –re-mastered records from cassettes sent him from Jamaica—and taking sales trips to the outskirts of London, to places like Brixton, Lewisham, Hackney.

Apart from his total devotion to musicians whose music he believed in, Blackwell’s success also has as much to do with his total devotion to musicians whose music he may not have felt a natural affinity to but whom he believed in as individuals. Cat Stevens and U2 are perhaps the most famous of these.  Blackwell told of finally, politely relenting to a meeting with Cat Stevens, who had reportedly wanted Balckwell to help him produce a musical. After hearing “Father and Son,” Blackwell told Stevens, “I’m really not interested in doing a musical, but I would love to sign you.” When Stevens asked him how should he go about getting out of his contract with Decca – with Dick Rowe no less, the man famous for turning down the Beatles – Blackwell had the perfect plan – Stevens should tell Rowe that the next record absolutely had to include the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Blackwell assured him Rowe would think him a bit mad and give him his release. He was right.

Like Stevens, U2’s music, which Blackwell mused was “rinky dink,” was far from anything seemingly natural for Island Records. Yet Blackwell was deeply impressed by the group and their manager and his only instructions to his staff at Island was to just follow the band’s lead.

When Blackwell began to actively seek out rock music to produce, he realized that Island was known for its reggae and he’d perhaps have to differentiate the label in some way to include rock. He came up with the pink album cover for his rock records, saying that at the time he thought, “people would know, nothing pink would ever come from Jamaica.”

The evening closed with tales of two of the major icons of Island Records, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s success in Jamaica reached its height with his role and album for “The Harder They Come,” which Blackwell strongly urged him to do. Yet soon after, Cliff finally succumbed to the siren’s calls of big money and international fame. Totally personally and professionally devastated by seeing Cliff go, Blackwell was perfectly poised to receive Bob Marley and The Wailers, who entered his world soon after. The group had acquired a less than positive reputation amongst the producers in Jamaica and Blackwell’s  early trust of Marley despite this has become legendary. Blackwell fondly recalls , “They were broke but they walked in like kings.” Blackwell  advanced them the 4000 pounds they requested, simply telling them “go make your album”. Before the evening concluded with Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” Blackwell noted that “Jimmy Cliff played the character (in “The Harder They Come”), but Bob Marley was the character.”