The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latin Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though. One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, … [Read more...]

Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City

New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s was home to a squatting movement unlike any other in the United States. Drawing on their diverse radical and progressive roots, squatters claimed and occupied city-owned abandoned building with a winning combination: a Yippie sense of drama and fun, punk rock aggression and subcultural grit, and urban homesteaders’ earnest appeals to American values of self-sufficiency and initiative. When faced with eviction they learned how to build barricades and booby traps and drum up riots from their European counterparts, and each attempt to evict Lower East Side squatters from the late ‘80s on brought newly escalated police and squatter tactics.  By the mid-1990s, … [Read more...]

Shouting in Silence: 9/11 and the Importance of Saying Nothing Revisited

As August comes to a close, the dog days of summer end, leaving before everyone the distance of Fall. For some like myself, Fall remains the premier season of the year. The air cools, football, England’s Premier League (EPL), and basketball commence and the business of work begins. In its own way, Autumn initiates a sort of professional renewal. For New Yorkers (and yes those in Washington D.C. as well) though, Labor Day marks the uncomfortable memory of an impending milestone many would rather forget, 9/11. Unfortunately as the fifteenth anniversary of this national tragedy approaches, a cacophony of rhetoric seems to be greeting it. When I orginally wrote this post a couple of years back, … [Read more...]

No Escape from New York: Revisiting Jacob Riis, New York and Urban America at the Library of Congress

Two years ago, Washington Post journalist Paul Schwartzman drove war photographer Seamus Murphy and a quiet, black-haired, “poet/musician” on a “windshield tour” of Anacostia, Washington D.C. They toured East Capitol Street “where the city had replaced a notoriously violent housing project with mixed-income townhouses, created under a federal program known as Hope VI”; took in the future Homeland Security Headquarters to be located at what had been previously St. Elizabeth Hospital, a large mental health institution; and generally explored “the darker side” of the city, Schwartzman wrote recently. Of course, that quiet, dark-haired woman in the back seat turned out to be P.J. Harvey, one … [Read more...]

Waiting for Righty: How Uber Plans to Change the World

Eighty years ago, Clifford Odets wrote a play about striking taxi drivers in New York City. With too many drivers on the road and bare-bottom wages, the cabbies debate whether to strike for better pay. Two years after Waiting for Lefty, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia introduced a law that limited the number of officially licensed taxis to 16,900. The point of the system? To curb the number of taxis, ensuring that the streets weren’t filled with overworked, possibly unqualified drivers desperate to find fares. The so-called “medallion” program, which made a fixed number of taxi licenses available, might have provided a safeguard for the wages of drivers, since it shielded them from the effect of … [Read more...]

Taylor Swift, 1989, and the Magic of Nostalgic NYC

In October 2014, Taylor Swift dropped her fifth album, 1989. Less than a month later in November, she performed the first track off 1989, “Welcome to New York.” Letterman guffawed, the crowd gasped, and Swift looked like the seasoned artist she is, confidently belting out the song’s chorus with hand claps and poise galore. Without a doubt, “Welcome to New York,” like many of the songs off the album, nails all the peaks and valleys one would expect from an earworm by Ms. Swift, and it opens with the kind of universal experience that any Midwesterner new to the city can understand. That first trip to the “village,” the crowds of fellow young people all jostling to see and hear what movies and … [Read more...]

Scrooged: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Yuppie Christmas

“It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger. This entire production seems to be in dire need of visits from the ghosts of Christmas,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1988 holiday film, Scrooged. Calling the film “disquieting” and “unsettling,” Ebert left no confusion as to his opinion of the movie, giving it one star. Whatever the famed Chicago critic’s views, Scrooged went on to secure holiday favorite status and will no doubt soon be in semi-constant rotation along with Gen X classics like A Christmas Story and more recent hits like Love Actually. If not quite as … [Read more...]

Sloping toward the Future?: Generation X and Malaise in Richard Fulco’s There Is No End to This Slope

  “Hurt people hurt people,” the damaged Roger Greenberg tells a pre-Frances Ha Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg. Stiller’s character, a fortyish former indie rock star turned carpenter returning to California after years in New York, writes angry correspondence to local newspapers, letters of complaint to companies about poor service or accommodations and spends most of his time not doing stuff.   The dissolution of his old band, in part because he harbored fears about more or less selling out, might have seemed like a sign of integrity back in the day, but now his extremism seems to stem from some sort of pathological state of arrested development. He exudes passive … [Read more...]

Frank Costanza and the War on Christmas

Bill O’Reilly recently thought he had liberals pinned in their remorseless war on Christmas: the namby-pamby secular humanists who insist on saying “Happy holidays” so as not to offend people of other faiths had no ground to stand on this year. Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving in 2013, meaning “There are no other holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year,” O’Reilly snorted.  Thus, there are no grounds to say “Happy Holidays” in December.  There is only one holiday, the mac-daddy of all holidays, the reigning champ—Christmas—and every right-thinking American has to say “Merry Christmas,” or else. Elsewhere on Fox News, Sarah Palin was squawking about how much she loves the … [Read more...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy? I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut. As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about … [Read more...]