Sunday, May 28, 2017

Old Cars in Brooklyn

An exhibition at the OS Cafe, on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, closes at the end of the month. The title of Christian Linsey's show is self-explanatory, but the series of photographs explores something more intangible - those hazy spots of time where past and present intersect. The small size and the faded gaudy colors of the pictures gives them a snapshot feel that fits the vintage of the cars themselves. Though the settings are contemporary, some of them show buildings that must have looked much the same when the cars were brand new.  Others show building sites and scaffolding more obviously modern.  Many of the pictures are taken locally - a special pleasure.  I'm hopelessly drawn to muscle cars and Cadillacs myself, and can hardly ever pass one without taking out my camera, so I found these little images compulsive.  This is a modest and affordable collection; you can easily afford to buy one of these pictures and carry it home in a pocket.  Find a simple spot for it - a shelf above your desk, a blank space in a hallway - and watch how often it'll catch your eye.  You'll be surprised.

The show closes on May 31st.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Be Moved by Love

I caught this a month after it first appeared, but it's destined to stick around.  With the community garden right on the corner, and the block's beautiful mixed stock of buildings, the U.Santini moving company art murals just add to 15th's good spirit.

"The company commissioned local artist Tara Dixon to create a piece of art to be painted on the gates of the business with the goal of inspiring the community and neighbors alike.  The mural on the gates will be colorful flowers in the spirit of Earth Day that local residents and those who want to participate can paint.  The main gate will have the message BE MOVED BY LOVE painted in gold to motivate all who view the artwork."

... "It is an honor to be a part of this project and I'm excited to work with the community, " said artist Tara Dixon.  "These murals will hopefully be a reminder of love, and how it is a vehicle for positive change.  As people walk by they can pick up a brush and add a bloom to the garden.  We protect what we love, and this can happen block by block.  I think this is a great message for Earth Day and every day."

U. Santini was established in 1930, by current owner Daniel Menchini's grandfather Peter.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Mad Max on 9th Street

It was raining, and I only had my little camera.  You can't see the details here, but the cab's festooned with chains and skulls, and the metal work is crazy with detail. This is some fortress. I guess the guy who owns the rig this is used to the star treatment - at the lights on Third, he got a small crowd of admirers, and one photographer chased the lights along the avenue, trying to get a better shot.


Around Fulton, the streets are pock-marked by building sites.  I don't think I've come across a greater concentration of green plywood fencing - no mean achievement in today's NYC.  Whole stretches of storefronts are shuttered.  The group of frame buildings between Fulton and DeKalb won't be around much longer, and I figured I should stop by Mr Fulton and the giant toothbrush of Atlantic Dental before they turned to dust.

Stur-Dee, the health food store on Livingston, closed a year ago. The building's staying put, but like all the other smaller buildings here, it's hemmed in by new construction.  Sturd-Dee was founded in 1932 by "hardy little" Leo Kerpen.  In addition to his nearby processing plant, Austrian-born Kerpen ran a store and restaurant. In 1952 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Kerpen's health business as the biggest in the country:

"Which proves we're not fooling folks about this health food.  Would we now have 15,000 accounts in Brooklyn alone?  Would I have 50 in help, need a whole four-story building ... ship products all over the world?"


A couple more views,

and a photograph from 2009 that shows the site of the Albee Square Mall, later replaced by City Point.  Look how prominent the Williamsburg Bank building still was, just a few years ago.

(Brooklyn Paper)

Miss Kitty, did you see it all coming?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


With both storefronts now empty, they've been re-positioned for 2017.  The rent is not exorbitant in today's market, and I hope someone can find this the place to build a small, honest business, but you have to wonder what's next.

Amazing opportunity for restaurateur, yoga/pilates studio, spa/tanning salon, dog boarding, party planning, recording studio, office space, and open to other suggestions .

Some address confusion here, but the buildings are unmistakable

I love this old block, with the buildings on the south side crammed right up next to the viaduct.  If you wanted to play the game of historical significance, I'd place it over any handsome brownstone row. Here, perched near canal and factory, is a block less vaunted for its architectural merit, less lauded for the lives and labors of its residents.  History here's a rougher, dirtier, less conformist creature, awarded less attention.  Some of the street's wooden frame houses have vanished over the decades, but there are still plenty of them left.  A couple of them hide under stucco or brick-face, and others are by now fragile with age and hard use. Several that remain are clearly mid-nineteenth-century, including yes, oh yes, that house of my dreams a few doors up from (the former) Henry's barber shop. Ninth is a busy, noisy corridor, all too prone to flooding, and maybe the noise and the water and its mixed-use status have kept it from changing, at least on the surface, as quickly as other nearby streets.  It doesn't announce itself yet.  I'm always waiting for the obvious tipping point - the house popped up and out and painted all in black and grays, the small insouciant bistro. They'll be here soon enough.

The block in 1973, with many more frame houses (and a couple of small apartment buildings) on the south side.  Screen shot from the movie Shamus.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Scenes from the Beach

The newly-renovated Childs Restaurant, now part of the Ford Amphitheater complex, is a grand confection - all fondant wedding curlicues. When I went by the building was closed for a private function.  Right next to it, by the VIP entrances, there's a Sandy tile memorial created in 2013 by local senior citizens and artist Jennifer Wade.  Here's everything to love about the Coney Island waterfront on bathroom 4" X 4"s.   The shades of sun-soaked summer days predominate; the blues and tans of ocean, sky and sand, are home to mermaids, seabirds, bathers and rides. It's bliss.

And then there's this one.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Unseasonably Warm

We're down to the beach early enough to catch a Ruby's table right before the regulars take up their stations.  This makes for beer on the early side, but the spot's worth it.  Then a walk along the boardwalk.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


And he's back ... Adam America is in talks to buy the Church of the Redeemer site at 24 Fourth Avenue. On the cards: mixed development set to include 72 condos.  Closer to home, Adam America has new buildings under construction at Fourth & 15th, and Fourth and 11th.  The A.A. sites at 15th & 11th have appeared on this blog quite a lot before - maybe we'll throw in a few links down the line.
(The Real Deal)

Updates on the Weir greenhouse construction, including a brand new copper dome (Brooklyn Eagle)

CityView: As They Rally Around Rezonings, Planners Often ‘Plansplain’ (City Limits)
... the “Friends of the BQX”—a developer-led lobbying group pushing the city to build a streetcar along a route that maps closely with their real estate holdings—held a walking tour called “Connecting Brooklyn and Queens.” This event was part of the Municipal Arts Society’s annual “Jane’s Walk,” a series of walking tours held around the world in honor of Jane Jacobs. In response, groups like UPROSE, Queens Is Not For Sale and the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project protested the event, calling it “Robert Moses’ walk.” In this case, the plansplainers lost—the protests garnered far more attention than the project, and the walk turned into a depressed “happy hour” instead.

Hear the Voices of Brooklyn’s Diverse Past Through a New Digitization Project
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral historian discusses the museum’s new online platform for audio. (Hyperallergic)

Neighborhood Slice looks at Sunset Park

Protest & Politics - This project, Protest & Politics, will be the world’s first map of the sounds of protest, demonstration and politics – with artists recomposing and reimagining these recordings to reflect their own experiences and lives.
We need your help to make it happen: do you have a field recording of a protest, demonstration or any kind of political activity somewhere in the world?
Send it to us and be part of a global collaborative project to record and celebrate how the sounds of protest and politics can unite us all, and will not be silenced.  (Cities and Memory)

MAP: Who Owns All the Property Along the Gowanus Canal
Reporter Leslie Albrecht's last story for DNAinfo  - a fine piece of journalism.  Thanks, Leslie, for your great local coverage.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mystic Essentials of Brooklyn (Part Two)

When I first go into Mystic Essentials, owner José Santana is busy in the back with a customer. Frankie goes to ask if I can speak to him.

To be honest, I'm not expecting José will spare much time for a curious outsider, but I couldn't be more wrong. He appears a few minutes later - a compact but graceful figure, dressed in a wine-colored Indian shirt embroidered with silver thread.  He's amused, I think, by my interest, but doesn't seem the least surprised.  When I meet him, what strikes me immediately about him is his air of serenity. A few minutes after we've first met, we're sitting by the window sipping coffee and Jose is telling me how he got here. His story pours out in a rush, as life goes on around us, customers coming or going, or waiting to see him.  A guy with dreads drops in for candles.  A woman slips a dollar to St. Michael. I ask him several times if we should adjourn our meeting, but he smiles, shakes his head and continues. The story's a circular one, as events loops back and link to earlier ones. Even a minor circumstance, however slight it appears at the time, is set to resonate in future.

José grew up in the Dominican Republic.  He was born in Salcedo, a small town in the north of the country, and talks of an upbringing steeped in the Catholic faith.  He describes his mother as religious, but also "modern" and "open-minded." He was the middle child of three, and after a difficult birth with her first child, his mother consulted "la negra" in preparation for the next one. José, or little Pilarito, as his family called him, was born prematurely, at seven months, and the doctor attending the birth told his mother that her son was born to do something special.  His great-grandmother predicted a life in the priesthood.

José's childhood was colored by dreams. At around nine years old, he dreamed he was standing in a river, and he knew, with a dreamer's certainty, that he was present at the end of the world.  Amidst a scene of chaos, with people rushing to flee the scene, there was Jesus, himself a child, standing in the waters too. He spoke to José, as if he'd been waiting for him, and told him he too would be a savior some day.  As he grew, his mother continued to visit a healer.  This was something that he knew of only peripherally, but her visits made him curious.

At the age of 16 or 17, before he had finished high school, he was chosen to attend a seminary run by Guatemalan priests, for a week of religious and moral instruction. There were three days in town, with talks on morality, and advice that was as much psychological as religious. The priests told the boys that they didn't have to go to church to be close to God, and taught them how to create meditation spaces.  After the time in town, he and the seventy or so other young boys - were taken to the mountains for a period of retreat. The students came from all backgrounds, and were instructed to put aside worldly possessions during this time. No phones, watches, or other markers of the outside world were allowed.  The boys studied together, and slept on cots in a dormitory.  José remembers the meager rations of food the boys received, and how they balked at the conditions. But the spartan meals and the social mix of rich and poor students were all part of the teaching, and the lessons in humility he learned there, in the beauty of the mountains, have stayed with him. Towards the end of their stay, three boys were chosen for their special spiritual promise.  José was one of the them. But the promise was deferred.

As a young man José studied business and accounting in San Francisco de Macoris, then lived for a period of time in Santo Domingo. José brings up humility again, as he tells me his story.  Living in a poorer district of the capital, José says he was still learning to abandon residual assumptions about race and class.  And he was still struggling to find the way to spiritual harmony, visiting a series of churches and healers that never quite gave him the authenticity and guidance he needed. Finally though, after refusing the suggestion of a visit to her several times he finally consulted a Santera called Maria.  In the casa de santa at the back of her house, Anaisa (a 21 Division lwa, or spirit) spoke to him through her. His scepticism started to waver. She knew too simply much about him, including intimate details of family affairs, and she mentioned the business of that black spell a jealous wife had placed upon the house where he was living with family and friends. He'd known there was something bad about the atmosphere there. She predicted a move to the States, and told him he'd meet someone special there and start a business together. Before he left the country José had an urge to visit a river again. His cousin took him out on the trip, and of course, there it was in front of him, the same river where Jesus had spoken to him all those years ago.  He was traveling in the right direction.

In the States there were more of the signs that defied mere coincidence.  After landing at LaGuardia José took a taxi, going, as he'd hoped, to the Bronx, where his father was living, but the cabby, either confused by the instructions or more likely ready to scam an innocent newcomer, drove him all the way out to Brighton Beach.  It was a long trip back uptown.  José settled into life in the city, and like many gay Latino New Yorkers, often gravitated towards the social scene on Roosevelt Avenue, in Jackson Heights.  One morning, after a night of heavy drinking at the Friends Tavern, a monster of a hangover convinced him he'd never go back to that bar again, but only a couple of weeks later a friend convinced him to go along with him "just for a quick visit," and there he was again.  Wearing a love attraction perfume his friend had dabbed on, but hardly in the mood, he met his future partner, James Rosado.  At first the signs weren't good. José didn't like the looks of the crowd James was there with, but as the evening wore on, things clicked.  James, of mixed Puerto Rican/Salvadorian heritage, was working at an optician in Manhattan, doing readings in Downtown Brooklyn, and living in Brighton Beach.  In James, José found the home and partnership he'd longed for, and eventually they set up their business on Fourth.

After James's death, the botanica suffered a wave of shock and grief.  For a while José hired a reader to replace James, but it didn't ever feel right; he began to take on the work himself.  An elderly woman I spoke to said José wasn't yet as good as James, who "didn't even need the cards," but had the gift, and was gaining in his skills.  She told me it was hard to get over here to Sunset Park to see him, but it was worth the trip.

I stop by Mystic Essentials another afternoon. It's packed with visitors again.  José's little dog Chewy is underfoot, demanding attention, and a black cat, Simon, is a warier presence.  A couple of friends in their twenties are here together, one supporting the other's consultation.  Four women and a toddler are sent away but return later, and are able to snag the last appointment of the evening, towards eight o'clock.  Everyone here is patient, even the toddler.

Because their needs are greater than mine, I let most of the women go ahead of me. It's almost closing time before I get the time to talk with José again. The consultation room, behind the store, is small and softly lit.  It's a comforting refuge.  At the end of a long and busy day, I suggested he might be tired from working with so many clients, but he told me it was the opposite; he draws strength from his work. With the night drawing in, and other clients waiting to be seen, there isn't time for a reading this evening.  I'd return for it, though.

I'm back a couple of weeks later.  In the consultation room, I'm told to pick my bag up off the floor and place it on a chair. "Money runs out the door," José laughs.  And then we turn to the reading. While forms of divination vary, and can involve shells, or palm nuts, José commonly uses cards. He runs through some steps in basic numerology, to determine my personal number, and the element it represents. The number also reveals the most spiritual days of the week for me, and how I should conduct myself on those particular days.  Every nine years the universe enters a new cycle, and 2017 marks a new planetary beginning.  I'm counseled to maintain a good connection to nature and to practice self-discipline.  Before we turn to the cards we cleanse our hands with Florida Water and lavender.  José uses two packs of cards. The baraja Española cards date back to the fourteenth century, and are used here for general readings. These are the ones he uses today.  The Santa Muerte cards are reserved for specific situations.  They are powerful, have darker associations and are not to be toyed with.

José recites a blessing before the cards are cut, placed and cut again. The cards are placed in a pattern that marks a central state of being, and move from the present, through to the immediate and more distant future.  I'll just say that St. Michael appears in the cards surprisingly often, acting in his role as a protector.

(All photographs by One More Sunset)

José says his mission is to heal, to love, and to pray for the wishes of others.

Earlier: Mystic Essentials of Brooklyn (Part One)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Mystic Essentials of Brooklyn (Part One)

In the latest of our ongoing series on a section of Third Avenue, Brooklyn, photographer Larry Racioppo and I visit a botánica on 32nd Street.

It's loud on Third. Even in a changing city economy, with "makers" on the rise (how did we ever live without them?), and industry lighter than in earlier decades, that expressway traffic never goes away, and the cycles of delivery, spreading out across the city, roll on and on. Even when most of the businesses below bring down their shutters for the night, leaving only the twinkle of Candy Land and the other forlorn adult stores to light up the avenue with their cheap come-ons, the trucks keep going. A vein of capital hauls along, rig by rig, the goods and services that fuel the economy. The cycle's so insistent I've started to recognize some of the regulars. There goes Food Nation doing the rounds again.

There are other, quieter systems of transport in the city, that move not on William Blake's' "chartered streets" (or elevated highways), but in visions, messages, the sudden turn of a card in a pack. Just a hundred yards or so up from Third on 32nd, Mystic Essentials of Brooklyn offers you pathways to the spirit world. From outside, the place looks unassuming enough, with its plain, modern windows screened by potted plants. There's no store sign, but it hardly needs one.

It was Bob Palinkas who brought me to Mystic Essentials.  Palinkas owns the beauty supply store Mariposa Products down on the corner of Third and 32nd, along with a string of properties up the block, including the botánica. He introduced me to José Santana, who's been at this location since 2008. Before that, José and his late partner, James Rosado, owned a botánica at Fourth and Dean, on the Park Slope/Boerum Hill border, but they were forced to move due to rising rent. It's common enough round here to see the 'moving south' signs of businesses headed for Sunset Park or beyond: hair salons, tire shops, cafes and travel agents.  And then where? Like the Downtown Albee Square Mall where James once worked – formerly a hub of Black street culture - community staples are vanishing fast.

Despite the displacement that occurs as neighborhoods change complexion, botánicas can be still be found throughout the city, most often in Caribbean communities.  The faiths supported there, such as Santería (also known as Lucumí ), Espiritismo, or Vodou are derived from the diaspora experience. African ancestral beliefs & customs were preserved in the Americas during slavery and/or other periods of colonial oppression, and absorbed elements of Catholicism there - through forced conversions, as a facade behind which to maintain traditional beliefs, and as a nominally accepted (if not necessarily fully integrated) partner to African belief systems.  In Santería and the Dominican 21 Division Vudu, for example, which evolved via Cuba and Haiti, Christian saints and Native American spirits are "syncretized," or associated, with ancestral spirits, or orishas. Via countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, Hindu gods are syncretized too, as are Mexican and Central American religious figures. There's a cross-fertilization between the varieties of African-based religions, particularly in the States, as successive waves of Caribbean immigrants have moved to North American cities such as New York and Miami. José explains that while his work is rooted in traditional belief systems, and he is trained as a Santero, his healing work draws on multiple sources, and attracts a diverse crowd of believers. He studies with a Trinidadian Hindu guru, who visits New York periodically, and serves as a 'consultant' healer with several of José's clients. He also studies the Kabbalah.  His network of visitors is broad-based too. A contingent of clients date back, via James, to the Albee Square Mall days, and most of his other visitors are from Brooklyn. But people come to him from across the city, and consult him online or by phone from as far as Florida or Texas, or even overseas.  The countries of origin they represent stretch far across the Caribbean archipelago - a glittering chain of island and coastal nations.  While I'm there I meet women of Puerto Rican, the Dominican Republic, Jamaican and Guatemalan heritage.

The Indian deity Ganesh is syncretized into Santería as Eleguá  and is associated with wealth and the removal of obstacles

Santa Muerte, of Mexican origin, is also known as Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Land of the Dead, a protector of souls and children. The owl next to her is associated with Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of Darkness, to whom she is mistress. Although Santa Muerte is traditionally associated with love, today she is also known for other acts of protection - defending, for example, the LGBQT community and prostitutes – and vengeance. She is revered by drug cartels, and abhored by the Catholic Church.

There's a flexible, creative energy at work in these faiths, one that borrows from other sources but bypasses the dogmas of  'ordained' religions. For some believers, the traditions of Santería or Vodou, say, are adjunct to Catholicism, while for others they're the sole faith.  They offer a support system, and a celebration of cultural roots.  Believers seek to achieve a state of blessings, or harmony, which is given through communion with ancestors, and to connect with a force of energy and growth. In Santería this growth is called aché.  As in other African-based traditional religions, Santería is grounded in the senses, the elements, and natural healing remedies. If not in opposition to the rational mores of modern urban life, faiths like Santería are at least an antidote, and can offer an alternate path in the face of oppressive economic and social conditions. For most believers, consultations, or consultas, are a practice they've grown up with over generations, both overseas and here in the States.  A consultation might be a regular occurrence, part of maintaining a general sense of spiritual balance, or it might be a sporadic one. A healer or priest might be the first person to turn to in a crisis, or a visit might be a last resort, when 'rational', societal solutions to a problem either cease to exist or have failed you. If you're landed with a lawsuit, can't pay the bills, are betrayed by a lover, or struggling with sickness, you might come to a traditional healer, who can counsel, prescribe and serve as a spiritual liaison. The healer is part doctor, part priest, the botánica part business, part temple. The spaces it occupies?  A liminal portal between faith and day-to-day necessity.

The 32nd Street botánica is painted in vivid reds and yellows, and underneath the windows at the front, there are chairs.  It's not unlike a friendlier and more charismatic medical office, and it's a good deal nicer than the gray little rooms my budget-rate insurance plan provides.  Whenever I visit, the place has a steady stream of customers.  Almost all of them are women.  There's no rushing here. José is generous with his time, and patience is a given.  In fact, sitting here is calming and pleasant.  Often the air is thick with incense. Frankie, the slender young man who works behind the counter, dispenses sweet black coffee in thin cups, and ersatz New Age music plays, muting the voices from the back room. Sometimes an agitated phrase of conversation breaks through to the front, but those of us waiting our turn make an effort to tune it out. Sometimes the gentler sound of bells is heard. Relaxing as the atmosphere is though, a notice in English and Spanish instructs us not to disclose any personal information to strangers.  Trouble will always find a way to the unwary; you'd be a fool not to be cautious. For a new visitor, there’s a lot to take in, and with each subsequent visit, I find differences - a shrine re-positioned, a table shifted, a new figure in the pantheon.  It’s slightly disorienting, this rearrangement of space and energy.  Every time there are fresh discoveries.

A rack down the center of the room holds a number of books in Spanish and English, most of them related to traditions of Santería and Haitian Vodou, but the titles are varied. Some of the books are well thumbed through - it looks as though they're more often used as waiting-room material than purchases, and I'd rather read one of these than an issue of a news-expired Time.

Shelves of candles dominate one side of the room, and varieties of healing despojos, or baths, the other.  The canisters of incense powder, like the candles, are used for purification, and are also specific to certain situations, such as court cases, love problems, the combating of envy, and business difficulties.  There are also amulets, tokens, sachets of herbs, and galangal root, oils, cigars, and charms.  Many of the objects here are purchased independently, but items such as candles and despojos are commonly prescribed via readings, with specific guidelines for use. Cleansings, or limpiezas, take many forms. They may be performed during a consultation, often with the use of eggs, herbs, fruit, and oils, or directeded for use at home. Cleansing baths can purify both the home and the individual from negative forces. Outdoors, cleansings are often performed in rivers, or in other bodies of water.  Though some cleansing rituals in African-based traditional religions involve live animal sacrifice, it’s a practice that is widely misunderstood and often sensationalized by non-believers. José tells me that the pigeons he uses in cleansing rituals fly free after they have played their part.

In addition to smaller statues and figures, there are larger shrines here. St. Michael takes a prominent position.  "Destroyer of demons," he is petitioned for protection against evil, or to undo negative spirits. Offerings are given at all shrines, and they come in many forms; money and food are common gifts. On one visit, I find bottles of Dominican Country Club soda at Saint Michael's feet, and a bamboo basket full of fat red apples nearby.  The apples still bear their supermarket price stickers. Altars are also set up in private homes, and initiates have a special connection to specific orishas, who guide and protect them.

The figures on the floor - muñequitas or muñecas de trapo (dolls and fabric dolls), catch my attention. José tells me later that they're placed there for a reason. Representing African ancestors, they remain close to the earth. The ancestors can communicate through them, and they can offer protection. Other African and Native American figures act as spirit guides. I ask José if the ancestors speak to people directly through him, and he recalls a covert visit to a client who was critically ill in hospital, and unresponsive to modern medicine.  With a nurse tactfully turning her back on the healing ceremony, the voice of St. Lazarus (Babalú-Ayé, the orisha connected to healing) spoke to the patient.  The man made a full recovery.

Candle work plays an important part in the faiths observed here. Before use, candles are dressed with oils, appropriate to their general purpose, and to the specifics of a personal situation. Common colors used in matters of love - commitment, communication, passion, for example - are pink, red, yellow or orange. In petitions of love, a candle might be dressed as an offering to Oshun, an orisha especially connected to love. José prepares particular oils with herbs and essences, and for Oshun, cinnamon, which is a strong love attraction, is always used. Honey is important too, as Oshun is known for her sweet tooth. Honey jars or pots are traditional in matters of love, and a written petition is added to a jar containing honey and other ingredients.  The honey must be tasted by the petitioner first to make sure it is safe, as Oshun was once poisoned by honey.  The dressed candle is placed and lit on top of the pot. At other times petitions might be placed directly under a candle.  A candle in a glass that burns clearly is a positive sign, while one that clouds the glass in darkness indicates the negative.

I watch clients up at the counter carefully writing out petitions - first putting down a target name (repeated several time) superimposed by their own name, and then a list of their wishes. The preparation of candles is a slow and careful process too. When all is complete the candles are wrapped up in parcels of paper, ready to be taken home.  Lined up on the shelves the candles, in their different hues of pink and green and red and blue, are a color code to human needs and divine answers.  All our frailties, material requirements and desires are catered to here. The Steady Work candle pictures a muscled arm, sleeve rolled-up, wielding a mallet, and around it the many varieties of honest labor are spelled out plain: plumber, teacher, butcher, dressmaker, factory worker, gardener. Some candles declare their purpose baldly - of breaking bad luck, bringing money, finding love, or keeping quiet. The Shut Up candle warns against a loose tongue, perhaps a reflection of the air of secrecy that still permeates these faiths.  I'm struck by the candles' beauty, with their glasses etched with guiding saints or orishas:  St. Raphael, San Martin Caballero, San Pancracio, La Diosa del Mar, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, the Divino Niño ("Yo reinaré" " - "I will reign."), Santisma Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre , the Patroness of Cuba, who is syncretized with Oshun, Chango Macho - syncretized with St. Barbara.  Some of the candles temper their curative promises with the word "alleged," but it's a token gesture, entirely disregarded.

I ask José about the smaller, figure candles which come in red, white and black, and are molded in the likeness of the first man and woman.  The white ones, he says, are cleansing candles, the red are used in matters of love and the black are connected to protection, repelling the negative, dealing with issues of separation & in the case of black/red combined candles, reversing or redirecting spells. He shrugs as he talked about the darker powers of black candles - "If it helps people to believe, then ..." - but I sense, perhaps, a slight evasion.

At the far end of the room, there's a shrine to James, and his portrait is garlanded with flowers.

Behind the counter, the consulting room.

Even outsiders can feel a pull toward the world offered here, even the if the ancient traditions of the countries they come from hover only faintly in the shadows of consciousness. Here in the botánica, traditions, community and the laws of the natural world are blessedly bright, alive, and active. I'm grateful to José for giving up his time to share something of the nature of his work with me.  I've learned a lot, but of course my lot is only a very little.  But what I have learned certainly counters the negative stereotypes surrounding these faiths.  José's work promotes self-awareness, spiritual balance, and oneness with nature. José himself is welcoming, calm, reflective, and humble of spirit. I'm aware that I've only being given a partial, simplified view of the work that goes on here, and that a protective stance is instinctive, especially in the presence of strangers. That's unsurprising given the long history of nurturing and keeping safe traditions that have faced institutionalized opposition and retribution.  An act of faith is a political act too, and this one is defiant of dogma, respectful of the planet, and attendant to the needs of its many followers, regardless of color, background or income. If you look at it this way, you can see a system that's progressive - a negation of received discourse. The system of faith here doesn’t rule out engagement for the good in the 'rational' world  - it can also nourish and support it. If you wish to believe it, the power here is potent.

All photographs © Larry Racioppo

In Part Two, I'm lucky enough to talk to José about the journey that brought him here to this industrial corner of Sunset Park.