Monday, October 24, 2016

Halloween, 1974 - 78: The Photographs of Larry Racioppo

A couple of days ago, on a whim, I typed "Halloween" into the search box of the NewYork Public Library Digital Collections online website. The first few images that appeared were holiday postcards from the early 1900's.  One of them showed a pursed-lipped pumpkin that bore a troubling resemblance to Donald Trump.  Apart from this one, they were charming enough, but as I scrolled down, the search results transitioned to a set of black and white photographs that jumped right off the screen.   Kids from a bygone decade, in Halloween costumes, posed against a background of frame and brick buildings.  How they caught my eye - these devils, these superheroes, brides and ghosts, their futures undetermined - facing the camera with all the sudden sense of power a costume brings, and sometimes (surprisingly) revealed without their masks in all the tenderness of childhood. The pictures summoned up the pure magic of Halloween, when, for one day & night at least, you could step out of your day-to-day life and reveal your deeper, darker, bolder self. That brief time when the world shifted balance. The pictures were almost entirely adult-free, giving the suggestion of greater liberty for a kid on the streets of the city back then & they invested these miniature saints & angels with tremendous dignity, gravity & sweetness.  They also felt like the work of someone who understood children, could talk to them, and take them seriously.  I couldn't stop looking at the pictures, and the more I looked, the more the low-scale landscape looked familiar.  I supposed it could be one of a number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Queens, but yes, it really was close to home - South Brooklyn in the teens and twenties blocks.  By the expressway on Sixth, looking up 19th from Sixth to Seventh, snippets of schools & spires, doorways & chain-linking fencing, flashes of a past that was still recognizable today.

The photographs were taken by acclaimed photographer Larry Racioppo, between the years of 1974 and 1978.  The kids in the pictures would be in their forties and fifties today.  Racioppo, son of a longshoreman, grew up in the area, and one of the buildings he lived in, at Sixth and 17th, was torn down to make way for the Prospect Expressway.  His parents later moved to Sunset Park, but the hub of his Italian-American family life remained nearby, on 18th Street, and he has stayed closed to his old neighborhood.  After a spell in California in the late 60's, Racioppo returned to live in Park Slope, and with no formal training, decided to become a photographer.  He supported himself by various means, as a cab driver, bartender, & construction worker.  He also worked under the auspices of CETA, a federal jobs program, which was created in the 70's as an heir to the WPA program. Some of the 70's Halloween photographs were taken during his time with CETA. Eventually Racioppo found work with the City, as a photographer for the Department of Housing Preservation & Development, which offered him the opportunity to further develop his art while earning an income, and to travel all over the city with his camera.  Today he lives in the Rockaways.


Racioppo's work has captured many aspects of city life, including the myriad faces of religious observance, the vernacular of street basketball, the grandeur of abandoned movie theaters, and the rituals of the Williamsburg Giglio.  His photographs are in the collections of many institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum, El Museo Del Barrio, The New York Historical Society & the Schomberg Center. Multiple honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, & awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Racioppo continues to be fascinated by Halloween, and is always out with his camera on October 31st.  The 70's Halloween pictures appeared in an eponymous book, published by Scribner in 1980, and The Word on the Street: The Photographs of Larry Racioppo, was published by the Museum of Biblical Art in 2007.  His work is currently on view in the exhibition Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island, at The New York Transit Museum, & will appear next week in a group show, Sanctuary, at the Tabla Rasa gallery in Sunset Park.

To Halloween again. To the plump-cheeked cowboy pointing a pistol at the camera. To the slender girl in a anti-hero Chapulin Colorado t-shirt & a fragile-looking pair of tin foil wings.  To the three boys with tears painted on their cheeks, one quite formally dressed in a broad collared shirt & jacket, the second with a head-turned hint of a sneer, and the third strumming a tiny toy guitar. To Bambi, the Bionic Woman, & Cinderella, masks on & off.  To the Rubber Devil, whose mask seems as much a part of the animal world painted on the wall behind him as of a block in Brooklyn. To the Bride of Frankenstein, who looks far too beatific for any remotely horrific deeds . To the ghost, in street clothes except for a veil of what looks like net curtain scooped up and fastened under his chin. To the kid in the black mask, hands on hips & exploring machismo, & to the shaving cream fighters, in no need of costumes to assert their presence.  To little, beaming  Lucy and her larger, scowling companions, who look as severe & repressive as Sendak's elderly aunts or grandmothers.  To Doctor Zaius, revealed as a bit of a wise guy, & to Superman, half-smiling, with his plastic cape rising in the breeze, which seems to arrive right on cue.  To short figures with large, masked heads, that look like creatures out of latter-day Grimms.  To inexpensive costumes & home made touches, as powerfully affecting as anything fancy.  To dressing up, hitting the streets, and being your heart's desire.

Many thanks to Larry, for giving me permission to include his photographs here, and for taking the time to talk.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Fifth & 9th

A new sign at Fifth & 9th replaces one for phone  & computer repair, phone cards, candy & smokes. It's almost a classy sign for a smokeshop. There are certainly lots of these kinds of businesses around these days - so many in fact, that one wonders how they pay the rent.  Another one arrived a couple of blocks south recently, replacing the Franchezka Unisex hair salon.  The Fifth & 9th corner wouldn't win any beauty contests, with Deals & Discounts (DII),  a deli & smokeshop, the Park Beer Store (formerly just the plain S&P newsstand) & a bank holding the corners, but despite an overabundance of beer & nicotine, I like the way the intersection hasn't at least gone all upwardly mobile on us. Beauty isn't just in looks, it's there in spirit & resilience, and the feeling of a place that attracts all-comers. You get that here, with streams of people passing through, arriving via bus or train, or on foot. It's a hub. The discount store & fast food are popular draws. Daisey's diner, Smith's (the last old bar on the avenue), the Square Store menswear shop & the Fifth Avenue Diner are all close by, along with a liquor store & the Record & Tape Center, blessedly still hanging around against all expectation.  Pharmacies abound, most of them with sluggish, indifferent service, though Neergaard, the king of the bunch, is a happy exception.  El Viejo Yayo II restaurant is just up 9th, and a supermarket just beyond that. There's still affordability at the crossroads, and a blessed diversity of people passing through. Preachers still plant themselves on the Chase corner from time-to-time, and you'll still find Connie, our resident diva, panhandling, at 70, inside the bank itself.  There's a bit of hustle left here. The corner has weathered the ups and downs of decades, lost cinemas, department stores, an elevated train line, and more, but it hasn't lost a popular touch.  And the intersection marks a kind of territorial border for me.  Below 9th, I'm on home turf.

S & P, 2010


Thursday, October 20, 2016

On 13th

In March of 2013 Silvershore Properties bought 219 13th Street, a 25-unit building between Fourth & Fifth, for $5.25M.  In November of the same year it was listed by TerraCRG for $12.95M:

"There is considerable upside in the offering as the seven rent-stabilized units pay an average of $811 per month for two and three bedroom apartments worth approximately $2900 and $3900 per month. This property also presents a near-term opportunity for condo conversion as eighteen of the twenty-five units will be destabilized by the end of 2013. "

By all appearances it didn't sell, but it's currently listed by Cushman & Wakefield for the same price, down from $13.5M.  

"The building consists of 25 residential units of which 13 are FM, 4 are RS, and 8 are currently vacant. The FM units were recently renovated and feature hardwood floors, large closets, full-size stainless steel appliances, and excellent light from windows in nearly every room. Five of the units are three-bedrooms and the rest are two-bedrooms, two of which may be converted to three-bedrooms... This is a rare opportunity to acquire a low maintenance, high cash flowing multi-family building in the heart of Park Slope, one of Brooklyn's fastest growing neighborhoods"

The building or its owners don't appear on Tish James' most recent worst landlord list, but a look at the DOB open violations for 219 13th shows a sorry picture, with Failure to Maintain, material false statements as to rent controlled/stabilized units in the building, & unsafe wiring. All open violations were issued after Silvershore bought the property.  This is not the first indication of dubious practices by these owners.  In 2014 Bushwick longtime tenants of a Silvershore building faced eviction from their apartments, despite alleged assurances from the previous landlord that they would be able to stay.   Earlier this year Silvershore was accused of "predatory" behavior by purposely neglecting a property in Ridgewood to displace Section 8 tenants:

In a protest outside the Ridgewood building on Tuesday, (Councilman Antonio) Reynoso accused the company of purposely failing to maintain the residential units in an effort to fail building inspections and lose the Section 8 subsidy — which covers the difference between how much the tenant can afford to pay toward rent and the rent itself — it receives from the federal government.
Once Washington cuts ties with Silvershore, the lawmaker said the residents would effectively be evicted, as they couldn’t afford to pay the full rent.
And once they’re out, the company could repair the units and lease them at far higher rates, leading to dramatically higher profits.

Silvershore has amassed a large portfolio of multifamily buildings throught the city - almost a hundred according to a Real Deal article published last month.  In 2014, Norman Oder, writing for City Limits, covered the Massey-Knakal Real Estate Summit, in which Silvershore principal David Shorenstein participated.  Shorenstein described recent company activity:

Silvershore Properties has purchased more than 60 buildings in Brooklyn, including in Crown Heights and Bushwick. “We discovered some lower-cost buildings in Brooklyn,” principal David Shorenstein said, observing that there are “so many different neighborhoods that haven’t yet been established,” at least from the perspective of the real-estate investor.
His company, Shorenstein said, invests to improve buildings with amenities like granite countertops, Shaker cabinets, and quasi-spa showers: “You have to spend a lot of money to get those quality tenants.”
Those tenants are often newcomers with parental guarantors. Some 85 percent of those renting 200 apartments from his company in the last eight months showed out-of-state drivers’ licenses, he said.

Styles at Max Beauty Supply & Salon

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Down 12th

These signs went up yesterday, as speculation about commercial change at Hamilton Plaza has become more intense. Show some support to the guys here!


Figures in the Industrial Landscape at Gowanus Open Studios 2016 (Hyperallergic)

De Blasio Bypasses Council on Moving Taxpayer Funds (Wall Street Journal)

Sandy+3: NYC Not Pulling Back from the Water’s Edge (City Limits)

More details on plans for controversial new Sunset Park Library (Curbed)

Teaser alert: New Plan for Park Slope Key Food Development is 'Big Win,' Councilman Says - no further information until Nov. 1st Community Meeting (DNAinfo)

Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements (Ephemeral New York)

Uprooted to Brooklyn and Nourished by Cricket (NY Times)

Another interview at the wonderful Coney Island History Project: Derrick Batts
Coney Island resident and proprietor of Coney Island Hook and Bait Shop (CIHP)

Infinite upon infinite: New York City in maps.  A new atlas highlights the city as ‘a place that contains worlds’  (Curbed) A beautiful Nathan Kensinger piece on Rebecca Solnit & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's new book, Nonstop Metropolis.  A brilliant book - buy it!

What's Happening at Red Hook's Lead Polluted Ball Parks? - watch a BRIC TV update:

Monday, October 17, 2016

Open Words & Pictures

I had planned to get in plenty of Open House NY & Gowanus Open Studio visits this weekend, but other activities got in the way.  I did, however, get to a couple of events.   On Saturday I made it to the Municipal Building Library, on Chambers Street, where a sale was taking place, and spent a good hour rummaging in boxes of de-accessioned books.  It was important to maintain self-control in these circumstances - did I really need a set of fire chief manuals, or a small 60's volume on New Jersey's Financial Crisis?  I came away with four books: Stud Terkel's Division Street (who could argue with this choice?), Academy Lectures on Lie Detection (1957), a 1970's journal on New York arts, and a copy of truly dreadful love poems inscribed to Ed Koch.  I also got three beautiful poster-sized blow-ups of city photographs, of Chinatown in 1936, and work on the Williamsburg & Queensboro bridges.  And then it was a walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yesterday, towards the end of the Open Studios weekend, I stopped in at MadArts, at 18th & Fifth, where a visit to award-winning artist-illustrator Sean Qualls' studio was a real highlight.

Part of what fuels my art (and illustration) is the desire to shine a light on those who have been forgotten by history, underrepresented or misrepresented. My goal is not to merely tell their stories but to reframe them and their lives. By reframing, I mean looking at people and events from a different vantage point and thereby changing the way we perceive them, reminding us that identity is perception and therefore malleable, not static. 

Qualls' illustrations are bold, multi-textured and visually sumptuous, and it's exciting to see up close the process by which his picture book art is created.  More on his work here.

from The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls

October Brides

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pathmark Site Purchased for $35M

Back in August '15 I learned that the Gowanus Parkmarket supermarket, down at the end of 12th Street, close to the canal, was set to close. The supermarket was part of the A&P empire, which declared bankruptcy in July of the same year. 296 supermarkets, including 42 Pathmarks, went on the market, and while most of them were sold at auction & retained as grocery stores, the fate of a few markets, including the Gowanus store, was uncertain. In October '15 the lease on the Gowanus market (along with the lease on a Pathmark in Borough Park) was purchased by Meral Properties & Joyland Group under the name of Manichevitz Family LLC. At the time of the sale the new owners claimed to have no interest in retaining grocery stores at the two sites. The Borough Park store was acquired by an Israeli supermarket chain in March of this year, but the Gowanus store, which closed last November, remained empty.  As the fate of the A&P empire was decided through summer and into fall of '15, the Gowanus Pathmark workers' hopes that their jobs would be saved, or that they would at least receive fair compensation, grew fainter, and the last days there were sad ones:

As I waited in line to pay for my purchases, the guy behind me, whose apron identified him as an employee, was joking around, gallows humor-style, with other workers.  "What do we do with the uniforms tomorrow? Throw them in the trash or burn them?"  Soon I was chatting with him too.  As a part-time employee, ready to retire in a couple of years, he wasn't too worried on his own behalf about the store's closure.  But what about the others, he said.  What about the minimum wage checkout clerks?  What about the butchers, who'd worked there for years, and were earning upwards of thirty dollars an hour?  How would they support their families now?  The promise of severance pay had been withdrawn, though the company top brass had lined their own pockets with fat, farewell checks.

Recently, there have been signs of action down on 12th. Is a market coming back? On Monday,  Park Slope Stoop reported on word that a supermarket - possibly a Stop & Shop - was likely to be opening again on 12th Street. I thought a property deal might be in the works, but saw nothing recorded online. On Friday, though, Crain's announced that the Meral/Joyland developers had bought the Hamilton Plaza Shopping Center  for $35M.

The 4.6-acre site, located at 1-37 12th St., contains a parking lot and a 125,000-square-foot building; however, the new owner has the right to construct an additional 315,000 square feet of commercial space, which could be retail, office or a hotel.

The new owners will likely maintain the existing building, because if they were to replace it with a new structure, they would not be able to replicate the 50,000-square-foot space that housed Pathmark. Under current city law, the maximum size allowed for a single retail tenant in a manufacturing zone is typically 10,000 square feet.

The property was also home to a handful of smaller tenants, including a gym, a liquor store and a Dunkin' Donuts.

The Big J liquor store (we're fans) & Dunkin', and vision & dental centers are long established tenants at the site, but the national chain Retro Fitness arrived recently, at the end of last year.  We're certainly not lacking for gyms around here, with other new arrivals including an iLoveKickboxing & an in-the-works Crunch.
Of the smaller tenants in the Plaza, I'd say Big J & the dental/vision centers stand on shakiest ground, but I hope they manage to stay. I'm excited about the rumors of a grocery store coming back - just fantastic news.  If we can a get market with fair prices, and a good selection of fresh food, this will be a real boon to area residents.  It will also mean the restoration of jobs at the site, most likely with union protection, but I'm not sure if Local 1500 will have any means to help those Pathmark employees get their jobs back. I hope so.

Pathmark to Close
Pathmark Updates
12th Street Pathmark Auctioned Yesterday
No Supermarket Replacement for Gowanus Pathmark?
Local 1500 Ends Efforts to Keep Supermarket at Pathmark Site, but Fight is Not Over

New Life Tabernacle/Thunderbird