Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burning Man Decompression 2008

The fire jockeys slap the pads of ignition systems connected to four vertical flame-throwing propane tanks. The crowd erupts in a paroxysm of pyromania.

As Promethean mavens perform the Flaming Simon, flames waltz and woo in a percussive display of upwardly explosive heat energy. The gods of Burning Man are aroused by the fire-based version of the late 1970’s electronic game “Simon.”

“Step right up. The fire demons are breathing,” says ringleader Eric Singer, who teaches pyrotechnics at Brooklyn musical robot collective LEMURplex.

But the setting is not the alkali flats of northwestern Nevada's Black Rock desert, the Burning Man locale where impervious Paiutes repelled pioneering white men seven score and eight years ago.

This is Burning Man's New York City Decompression 2008 at Aviator Sports on South Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett field. And, to mesh with the place where aviatrix Amelia Earhart broke several flight records, the theme of the costumes and art is “Flying Laboratory.”

"There was a time when Burning Man was thought of as counter-cultural," said Steven Raspa, lifetime burner and special events coordinator for Burning Man NYC Decompression. "We don't think of it as counter-cultural any more. We think of it as culture, and of New York as a hub of the community.”

The music, art, and pyrotechnic Labor Day weekend festival of Burning Man is about 20 times larger than the NYC Decompression version, but the latter strives to maintain the same emphasis radical self-expression, anti-commercialism, community, and spontaneity.

Although the ferocious rains on the eve of the October 25th Decompression rivaled some of the worst dust storms on the Burning Man playa, some participants doubted whether the annual main event at Black Rock City could be replicated by one of many satellite “decompression” gatherings across the country.

Veteran, virgin, and future Burners had mixed perspectives on their assimilation into the ethos of NYC Decompression and the broader Burning Man culture.

Some participants questioned the decision to hold the diet Burning Man at a philistine, Chelsea Piers-type recreational facility in Brooklyn.

Thirty feet from the pyrotechnic delights, six young Brooklynites raved about the displays, though they stood on the other side of the Aviator Sports fence on Flatbush Avenue.

Max Yablonovskiy, 21, is a student at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU who was passing by with fellow Brighton Beach residents, three on top and three inside his friend Ilya’s green Ford Explorer. They stopped on a whim to witness the fire games.

"There's just one lonely fire marshal,” said Yablonovskiy, eyes ablaze and entertained as if the pyromaniacs were circus clowns. “With that twirling fire, I expected to see the fire department everywhere.”

“I had never heard about Burning Man before, but the fire musical chairs is cool because non-pyros actually got to set off the fire too,” Yablonovskiy said. “I’m absolutely going to Decompression next year. I’ve been converted.”

Supervising the dance of fire was O Man, whose real name is Oscar Yong. He is a lifetime burner who raved about the "most ambitious fire project for Burning Man so far," a giant plywood rat’s nest built in 2006 by 79 Belgians called the Uchronians.

"The heat energy from the ‘Belgian Waffle’ was incredible. The fire here doesn't compare to the waffle," said O Man, as pyrotechnicians lit up the scene. "Even so," he continued, pointing towards a burly, white-bearded man in a black fleece, "He's our man at the fire department. It's his fourth year doing Decompression, but he's nervous about this one!"

Inside the Aviator Sports complex, kaleidoscopic video mash-ups generated by a NuVJ controller captivated passers-by. Two-time burners from New York Jeff Schram and Holly Danger toyed with archival Burning Man footage mixed with 1978 Sesame Street counting lessons, where pinballs blasted off from castle cannons. Until their set in the corner of the indoor soccer pitch lost power, and .5% of Decompression was temporarily out of order.

"People dig the visuals, especially when synchronized with the sonic stuff,” Schram said, reveling in his visceral connection to the video controller.

"Decompression has a lot of Burning Man elements, even if it doesn't take you out of reality. We’re still in the ‘default world,’ but it’s as close as you can get,” said Schram, referring to the contrast with non-Burning Man society.

"It's very Zen-like," said Danger, whose video toy was then generating a collage of moon and playa images. The psychedelic clips of a Black Rock City map hypnotically merged with a paraglider’s descent onto the sand. But, this contrasted with pastiche stencil prints on an adjacent wall of Marilyn Monroe, Geronimo, and Jimmy Hendrix.

Walking past a dormant LED-covered windmill, a glowing orb-bearing warrior peered at the prints as if rejecting what might now sell as Ikea artifice. He then frolicked with giant dominos on the floor, which looked like they had dropped down from the hangar ceiling above, where Tracey Real Estate and Nantucket Nectars banners were hoisted.

This was a reminder that the organizers were challenged to find an appropriate space for the 2000-plus revelers, away from the perceived commercial profligacy of the “default world.”

Another Decompression attendee was Korean-born Jiyoon Yeom, who arrived in midtown Manhattan 15 months ago seeking to study graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In August, she went under the knife to remove a stomach growth and two days later left for Burning Man 2008.

"The different energy with the desert air cured me when I was on top of a steel tower 11 stories high. We could see the whole playa,” said Yeom. “After Burning Man, I came back perfect even though the doctor said it would take two weeks to heal."

For Yeom, the NYC Decompression had a similar energy to Burning Man - just without the inspirational art cars. Next year, Yeom plans to bring friends from Korea to stay once more at Burning Man’s Geisha Camp - the community known for giving out free sake.

She has already started planning the Geisha Camp vehicle, replete with Asian-themed decor, flaming dragons, and mobile sake distribution. Yeom’s worst fear is that fellow burners will lose control and make trouble with their art car. She also hopes that the whiteouts will simmer down at Burning Man 2009.

Outside the Disorient tent where Funk and Drum ‘n’ Bass coalesce, Rachael Moore was swaying in the chilly October air. She was taking a break from the night’s most sweaty dance affair, where guests dressed as a toucan, rocket man, exterminator, and spider were among the flight-themed creatures lurking.

The 30-year-old Williamsburg resident, originally from Australia’s bush, arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 18. Having given away most of her possessions before leaving the land down under, she packed just two suitcases for her voyage to America and subsequent journey to Burning Man - one with regular clothes and the other with costumes and accessories.

“When you enter the gates of Burning Man, they say, ‘Welcome home!’ As I left Black Rock City at the end, it was like leaving home, because I literally had no other house,” said Moore, who stayed at Camp Straya with 25 people, mostly fellow Australians.

“Since there’s no money exchanged, there’s no fear that you can't afford something or have a bag stolen. Outside of Burning Man, people are afraid of the recession, afraid of Obama, McCain, of being ugly, growing old, afraid of their boyfriend or girlfriend cheating. You just forget about those things, but it's not really an escape or a tease. It would be a tease if there were no way to take Burning Man lessons back to the default world.”

“You can experience a little Burning Man here and there everywhere in New York,” said Moore, who is currently looking for an event-planning job.

“I could do 8 weeks of Burning Man a year. But I would need a good showering device. And maybe an RV next time. Our tent got destroyed in a dust storm the first night. The rest of the time, it was pretty much collapsed on our face.”

A visitor from the “default world” was gawking at the Smooch Dome’s nine enmeshed couples, one six-way caress group, and a single man licking his lips alone.

"It reminds me of the old Loft and the Garage clubs in Manhattan. You can just bring pillows and be yourself," said ice cream distributor Penny Monge, 34, who was with her son, Sonny, from Ridgewood, Queens.

"We never knew about Burning Man culture before. We came to Scary House at Aviator Sports and then sneaked into this party, which is much more exciting," said Monge.

She said she preferred the Decompression folks to the rowdy Brooklyn crowd of normal
Saturday nights.

"Too bad it ain't every weekend," Monge declared.

The 12-hour Decompression event wound down around 4 a.m. Nicole Mucciolo headed towards the Flatbush-bound shuttle buses, donning a blue wig with authority.

"I had a fabulous time, both at Decom and at the Burn. I even became more comfortable living in my East Harlem community after I got back from Nevada,” said Mucciolo, 27, who works for Phillips de Pury auction house.

“I found out about Burning Man on the Internet and then made the pilgrimage,” she said. “I flew from NYC to Denver, via Minneapolis, then drove 18 hours with my aunt in a Euro van from Denver to Burning Man.”

“On the way back, the clutch started to go. We were dirty, tired and hung over. Our car broke down on 80 then AAA came, we got towed to Reno and were stuck at a casino. Then flew to Denver, via Salt Lake City, and then flew to NYC, via Minneapolis."

Mucciolo’s journey to Decompression had a similar number of legs. “From East Harlem, I took the 6, the L to work, then the A, an MTA shuttle, a cab, the 2, and then car service to Aviator Sports.”

“The radical self-expression and explosive sense of community tickled my fancy. There is definitely a sense of escapism for anybody who goes. Anyone denying that is kidding themselves. You go to get away from whatever you're used to doing,” Mucciolo said.

“Burning Man is like picking up a musical instrument for the first time and just playing.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for Ninguno: Puerto Rican Nationalism in 2008

In the scorching August sun of his home state, John McCain stumped with Puerto Rican reggaetonero Daddy Yankee, introducing his “special friend” as the megastar famous for delivering gasolina.

The double entendre on Daddy Yankee’s hit single, whose chorus is “dame mas gasolina,” implied an endorsement of McCain’s pledge to “drill, baby, drill.”

On board the Arizona senator’s plane after their joint appearance at Phoenix’s Central High School, the top-of-the-charts musician told the media with a straight face that his hit song was about energy independence.

Ironically, Daddy Yankee (Raymond Ayala) cannot even vote in the presidential election, since he resides in Puerto Rico.

The pop icon’s endorsement, which was apparently based on McCain’s war record, anti-terror stance, and immigration plan, raised the ire of staunch Puerto Rican nationalists, including many in the five boroughs.

Puerto Rican nationalists have counted 21 presidential elections since their movement was born in 1922. Yet, this 2008 election is no different. Puerto Rico is just waiting for Ninguno.

Both candidates in this otherwise historic presidential election have supported the status quo on the unresolved political status of Puerto Rico. And that means supporting indecision - waiting for Puerto Rico to decide for herself.

The three options in this lingering Caribbean saga are full independence, maintenance or enhancement of commonwealth status, and full statehood.

“Even if a majority of Puerto Ricans are not supportive of independence, the Puerto Rican community is still sympathetic to Vieques, the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, and the prisoner issue,” said Hiram Rivera, an active member of the Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (PNPR) who lives in the Bronx.

A poll conducted in May by Kaagan Research Associates of New York found that 57 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island supported statehood, 34 percent supported the status quo, and a mere 5 percent supported full independence.

Plebiscites on the status question were held in 1967, 1993, and 1998 saw strong majorities vote against independence. In 1998, 50.3 percent voted write-in for “none of the above,” while 46.7 percent were for statehood, 2.5 percent for independence and a mere 0.1 percent for the status quo. Puerto Rico keeps waiting for Ninguno.

The day that over 120 million mainland Americans pull the lever for 44th president, Puertorriquenos vote for governor, non-voting Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Congress, and a number of local offices.

Enter Ninguno. For the gubernatorial race, political theater group Papel Machete launched a satirical write-in campaign in September called “Ninguno pa’ Gobernador” or “Nobody for Governor.” They have advocated voting for an ironic puppet named Ninguno: “Everyone makes promises, but Ninguno delivers.”

Other slogans include Ninguno favorece la libertad de los prisioneros politicos (Nobody wants freedom for the political prisoners) and Ninguno respecta a las periodistas (Nobody respects journalists). Ningunistas represent la quinta (the fifth) – in opposition to the four main Puerto Rican political parties.

In this odd political limbo, an acute case of indecision plagues the 110-year-old colony of four million people with a gross domestic product per capita of $18,400.
The populations aqui y alla are growing steadily, and the stateside population of Puerto Ricans is also nearly four million.

“For folks who are born here and have never been there, the flag, food, drink, and the music are about pride. But, the average young Puerto Rican does not learn much history about Puerto Rico,” said Rivera, a PNPR member who also works as a youth organizer for Brown University’s Urban Youth Collaborative.

The U.S.-based nationalist party is most closely linked to the green-hued Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), whose members - pipiolos - are the most numerous pro-independence group on the island.

Rivera, who wore a black hoodie with “Sucka Free” scrawled across the front, discussed the party’s concerns about the island being used as a springboard for U.S. military interventions in Latin America.

Since World War II, the island has had more casualties per capita than any of the 50 states, and the Puerto Rican casualty rate is also among the highest in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon statistics.

The list of complaints by nationalist groups includes concerns about the carcinogenic effects of U.S. Navy weapons testing at Vieques and a myriad of economic woes.

“While full independence for Puerto Rico is a noble ideal, integration as an equal state of the union with all the rights of U.S. citizenship is best,” said Justin O’Brien, executive director of the United States Council for Puerto Rican Statehood.

O’Brien said that support for full independence has waned, with notable public figures such as Brooklyn-born actress Rosie Perez now partial to statehood.

Divisions between the three main factions are expressed by the three versions of the Puerto Rican flag. Although the horizontal bands are always red, the triangle color varies with ideological stance.

Navy blue for statehooders. Sky blue for nationalists. And royal blue for proponents of the status quo.

Although Puerto Rico retains a significant amount of autonomy, ultimate authority is vested in the U.S. president and Congress.

While all eight million Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland are U.S. citizens, island residents cannot vote in the general election – like residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.

This year, for the June 1 Democratic primary, both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama visited the territory.

Clinton won by more than a 2-to-1 margin. According to CNN exit polls, Clinton supporters were much more likely to be pro-statehood.

President Clinton formed the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which culminated in the publication of two reports by the Bush administration in 2005 and 2007. To mixed reviews by the two main political parties in Puerto Rico, it concluded that the island remains a territory of the U.S. under the plenary powers of Congress.

On June 14, 2007, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization urged the U.S. to “expedite a process that will allow the Puerto Rican people to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

While the armed resistance peaked in a series of violent confrontations in the early 1970’s, there are still core supporters of independence both in the Puerto Rican diaspora and in the motherland.

In what critics alleged was a bid to garner Puerto Rican support for his wife’s Senate campaign in New York state, President Bill Clinton issued clemency to 11 jailed independentistas in 1999. One of the nationalists’ primary goals is liberation of the three remaining prisoners.

Nuyoricans, centered in East Harlem, constitute the most numerous of the diasporic communities. But, the swing state of Florida has attracted significant attention for its growing community of Puerto Rican origin around Orlando.

“The PNPR does not officially take a stand on elections here in the U.S.,” said 28-year-old East Harlem resident Camilo Matos, also an active member of PNPR and sales rep for the San Juan-based newspaper Claridad, formerly the mouthpiece of the pro-independence movement.

“We consider the elections a colonial game set up by the colonizers to keep Puerto Rican colonized. We call for an abstention so as not to give the election credibility,” he added.

Although PNPR officially stays out of electoral politics, dues-paying members vote for a variety of presidential candidates, including some from third parties such as the Green Party and the Socialist Workers Party.

On the one hand, the Democratic Party’s 2008 platform states: “The people of Puerto Rico have the right to the political status of their choice…to be resolved during the next four years.”

The G.O.P.’s 2008 platform is almost indistinguishable in advocating “the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine.”

However, Cynthia McKinney’s running mate on the Green Party ticket is Rosa Clemente, a South Bronx-born activist and independentista who was a founding member of La Voz Boriken, a pro-independence organization.

Regardless, both major parties and their candidates for president endorse the status quo, recommending that further popular referendums determine the island’s status.

“John McCain was among the 14 Senate co-sponsors of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, which was introduced by Sen. Salazar and Rep. Serrano,” said O’Brien, of the non-partisan U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood.

The bill would mandate the first Congress—sanctioned popular referendum on whether Puerto Rico would end up as an independent country or as a state with two senators and six members of the House.

O’Brien, whose organization arose in the wake of the last failed status vote in 1998, said that the issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

“Resident Commissioner Fortuno supports permanent union with the U.S. but ultimately believes that the decision should be in the hands of the Puerto Rican people,” said Audrey Sotolongo, spokesperson for the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to Congress.

“The best outcome is to be state,” she added.

Luis Fortuno is the Resident Commissioner as well as the New Progressive Party’s pro-statehood candidate for governor. He spoke during prime time for McCain at the Republican National Convention.

However, stateside Puerto Ricans were about 3-to-1 for John Kerry in the last election. One of poorest communities in the U.S. is likely to vote Obama by about that ratio.

Although residents of the island cannot vote for president, conventional wisdom would suggest that they are largely pro-Obama, since the Illinois senator promised to “keep the checks coming,” said Hiram Rivera, the PNPR activist, who calls for the island to wean itself off of U.S. economic assistance.

The ideal for nationalists is a fully independent and sovereign island with a spot on the U.N. General Assembly.

“If you support the nationalist cause in Puerto Rico, you get blacklisted. You can’t get a job. We’re facing the same sorts of classism and racism that are in the U.S.,” added Rivera.

He continued: “You’re constantly reminded of what you’re not. Real American - not. Other category? Latin immigrants? Caribbean? West Indian? Outside of the U.S., they sees us as American, but we have an identity crisis.”

“Puerto Rico has a Fidel scare, and the anti-left propaganda says that independence equals bread lines, totalitarianism, and the equivalent of the Dominican Republic,” said Matos, also a nationalist party member.

Matos tells a poignant story about his two six-year-old nieces in the Bronx, who asked their mother why there were U.S. flags all over their block after September 11th. They were accustomed to seeing only Puerto Rican flags and could not make sense of the 13 stars and 50 stripes.

Daddy Yankee may have surprised his fans by pumping gasolina for John McCain, but nationalists have the unlikely support of Pat Buchanan.

Yet, with a stagnant movement that refuses to budge in either the statehood or independence directions, mas gasolina for unfinished political business is not forthcoming from either presidential candidate this pivotal election year. Puerto Rico is still waiting for Ninguno.

”Even though I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico was born in me. If I was born on the moon, I’d still be Puerto Rican,” declared Rivera.

He added, “Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird. Obama is not the savior of Puerto Rico. No U.S. president could ever be our savior.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Target This: East Harlem

The avenues of El Barrio constitute a retail desert, where shops charge unwarranted prices for goods of dubious quality. But, with Target on tap, soon there may be higher caliber doormats, cutlery, and Halloween costumes galore for East Harlemites.

Sandwiched up against FDR Drive at the site of the old Washburn Wire factory, the 1.2 million square foot East River Plaza on East 116th Street is under construction at a time when the credit crunch and the equities nosedive present exceptionally unfavorable market conditions.

But, the reality of the economic downturn presents an opportunity for retailers that offer higher-quality goods at consistently low prices.

“Target is a perfect store to open up here in this type of economic situation. It’s not like they’re Neiman Marcus,” said Mark Olson, construction manager for RC Dolner, which is building the East River Plaza complex.

Olson estimated that the Target’s grand opening would take place around October 2009.
Target’s breakneck expansion across America seems undaunted by dismal economic forecasts.

From Wasilla, Alaska, to Alpharetta, Georgia, the Minneapolis-based Target chain opened 45 stores last Sunday alone, following news that September sales were up 2.5% - when the rest of the retail sector had its biggest contraction in three years.

With a total of 1,685 stores in 48 states, “Target offers a strong brand and value message, with high-quality products at affordable prices,” said spokesperson Anna Anderson.

At East River Plaza, the mega-retailer looks to transplant suburbia into the ghetto by sublimating local infrastructure into its voguish bulls-eye.

Generating new tax monies at a time when the city is becoming increasingly cash-strapped, East River Plaza promises to be a “unique shopping experience…and a catalyst for future economic development,” according to the developer, Blumenfeld Development Group, a Syosset N.Y.-based company that is partnering with Forest City Ratner on the project.

“I am always willing to reach out to make developers and those businesses coming into the area be more responsive to the community,” said Melissa Mark-Viverito, councilwoman from East Harlem.

According to the developer, the project is generating 2,000 permanent retail jobs and 2,000 construction jobs.

Target promises around 200 jobs, which will be opened up first to area residents via local media, said spokesperson Anna Anderson.

Moreover, through its charitable wing, the corporation said that it gives more than $3 million per week to local communities for grants and special programs.

Last Thursday, Target awarded $14.9 million to schools nationwide, a small chunk of which was reaped by dozens of East Harlem schools who are participating in the Take Charge of Education program, according to spokesperson Harold Reid.

The company also has honed its community relations with the October 4th dedication of the Target East Harlem Community Garden, in conjunction with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.

Giant red metal umbrellas covered with solar panels greet green-seekers who enter the East 117th Street garden. In addition to the solar energy, giraffe-like steel masts can be cranked out to harness wind power. The electricity then powers the light bulbs of a community gardening shed, as well as the irrigation system that uses harvested rainwater.

While the goal was to open the space to anyone, head gardener Callie Yarbrough stated the need to keep out riff-raff from the unspoiled, corporate-financed plot.
On Sunday, the Diaz family elected to continue their weekly domino game in the non-Target park down the street. The son littered his Lays bag, and the grandfather stumbled to and fro with a Bud Light, both of which would not mesh well with the Target garden or its stewardess.

“The New York Restoration Project’s vision is to create a more aesthetic and neutral place. They argue that this is more appealing to a wider audience but I have spoken to them and told them that I disagree with this perspective,” said Councilwoman Mark-Viverito.

“I want to ensure that the organization is respectful of the existing residents and making the place a welcoming environment for them and that the garden is not seen as one that is only for the new residents arriving into the community,” she added.

The cushy Target garden space will be used to display Target lawn furniture starting in December, according to Yarbough.

The success of the Target garden has inspired Yarbough and her gardening friends to work with Home Depot on another garden on the same block.

“I’m looking forward to Costco, because then we won’t have to go all the way to Jersey or the Bronx,” said Yarbrough, who lives next to the Target garden.

Originally, Target was expected to fill the second story of the East River Plaza building anchored by Home Depot. However, there is rampant speculation in the neighborhood that the home improvement giant is seeking to exit its 30-year lease, leaving the project with a gaping 110,000 square foot hole.

While Best Buy and Marshalls are expected to round out the project, rumors abound that Costco will fill the Home Depot slot. Sources that wished not to be revealed also mentioned the possibility of Home Depot subletting their space to another tenant, such as Loews. Blumenfeld Development Group principal David Blumenfeld would not comment on the issue.

The nearest existing Marshalls is nine blocks north from East River Plaza on East 125th Street, and the nearest Best Buy is 30 blocks south on East 86th Street.

Although Target already operates stores in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the East River Plaza store will be the first in Manhattan – albeit in an area in dire need of decent retail.

With 485,000 square feet of prime retail space and a 1,248-space parking garage, the project will contribute traffic to a community with already congested and polluted arterial roadways and one of the highest asthma rates in the country.

Until the 2nd Avenue subway line opens around 2020, automobiles will be the main way to access East River Plaza.

“The more people they bring in, the better for us. Traffic is what we need,” said Gordon Telford, an employee at Benjamin Moore paints on First Avenue.

“It behooves Target to have easy and convenient access to the site. We are committed to where we build and take pride in the location that we select,” said Target spokeswoman Anna Anderson. She added, “Redevelopment in this community is drawing eyes and ears to the area, making it a great opportunity for a longstanding partnership.”

With a lack of sympathy for retailers that over-charge for clothes, chips, and cigarettes, Target is sprucing up retail options where worthy shops are few and far between.

With the sluggish tide of the area’s transformation, Target represents a thrifty and Bohemian turn for El Barrio.

Although some residents bemoan the tide of gentrification, many wonder if this will slow due to Wall Street woes. Less upward pressure on housing costs might please an area that remains skeptical of bourgeois delights and urbane big box retail, even if offered up at low prices.

“It used to be such a quiet neighborhood,” said Columbia Altieri, a retired teacher at P.S. 112.

“But who knows when they'll be finished Target. I probably will be gone by then.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Al Jazeera Election Coverage

Here's a news report by Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman, who traveled to eastern Ohio for a Palin rally. The attendees reveal startling opinions about Barack Obama and the election. Excellent report by the burgeoning station. This sort of material is scarcely found in American media.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Reincarnation of Exodus House: East Harlem School

On a formerly downtrodden stretch of East 103rd Street next to 2nd Avenue, the Arcs construction crew hastily finished sidewalk digging for fiber optic cables and hauling off chunks of concrete. An irate blond driver of a shiny Lexus SUV several vehicles into the queue yelled, “Come on, man. Let us through.”

The motorist’s view was blocked by another SUV in front of her, so she could not see the futuristic phoenix that has risen from the site of the erstwhile Exodus House drug rehab clinic.

The current avatar, East Harlem School at Exodus House, will provide similarly beneficent services to the blighted neighborhood, upon relocation in under a month.

These are the last days that the 106-pupil school will spend at St. Lucy’s Church, one block from its nearly complete new digs at East 103rd Street.

Co-founder and Principal Ivan Hageman’s family history will have come full circle when his school moves back to the Exodus House site. He was born and raised in the rehab clinic, which his parents Lynn and Leola Hageman founded in 1963.

The Exodus House became an after-school program in 1984 and subsequently a school in 1993.

While his upbringing and professional success may not be typical for a neighborhood of ubiquitous public housing and fast-food eateries, Hageman was always exposed to the substance abuse and indigence that plague East Harlem.

“It’s been a pleasure to build for Ivan and his group of kids, who will truly appreciate this,” said Marc Gee, the construction manager for Arcs. The company did a design-build with architect Peter Gluck, who has done non-profits such as Harlem RBI and Bronx Charter Prep, in addition to projects in Westchester County and Aspen, Colo.

“Most of these nonprofits are just getting by. They still think they’ll just be bringing the old building’s furniture over,” said Gee. “So this project hits home.”

While the East Harlem School’s new building was expected to open at the start of this school year, administrators had to settle for a November grand opening, the exact date of which has not yet been announced.

Gee said that the city was dragging its feet in issuing permits, due to backlog in the aftermath of several crane accidents.

In the meantime, the school is readying for an October 28th benefit at Chelsea Piers, which will attempt to generate the final $700,000 of the $12 million capital campaign that began over 10 years ago to raise funds for the school’s new home.

Around the corner in the well-worn stairwell of the school’s temporary home, a stern Grace Eagar said, “You all are never going to do that again,” as she scolds her humanities class for having broken a cardinal class rule.

Eagar, like most of the über-attentive staff, has multiple roles in ensuring that the strict academic and disciplinary policies are enforced. As the development director and a teacher, she said that the last days at the St. Lucy’s building have been hectic.

“Yet, I’m not shocked that people say this is a great school. Students are always our top priority, and the average class size is just 15 students,” she said.

In a city where 84% of minority high-school students attend dropout factories, Exodus House has a stellar record of graduates matriculating in some of the city’s best private high schools.

“The East Harlem School’s new building is beautiful for the area,” said 61-year-old Esther Rodriguez Hill, who lives in the St. Lucy’s Apartments next door. Hill’s mother was a community organizer who worked with Principal Hageman’s father.

“I have four cousins who went to the old Exodus House. Although the center really helped them, two died from heroin overdose and the other two from AIDS,” she added.

“You see those Exodus House kids walking in straight lines? That shows the progress of our neighborhood,” said Hill, after she scolded one-year-old Skyla Boldon, for whom she babysits.

“I’ve seen the Exodus House built, knocked down, and rebuilt. Ivan better send me an invitation for the grand opening!” she declared.

The new four-story avant-garde structure with Ikea-inspired 1960’s minimalism contrasts with the tenements nearby. With black, white, and grey rectangular trespa panels, the façade looks more Malmö tech park than East Harlem middle school.

Locals stroll by toting their laundry in handcarts and clutching 32 oz. Styrofoam cups of watered-down Mug root beer from the JFK Fried Chicken restaurant on the corner. Though incredulous about the new structure, they seem to betray a sense of delight in its visual novelty.

“The new facility is pretty much like a regular school, except for the front,” said 8th grader Daniel Lucero, who recounts the full-sized gym, science labs, smart boards, and spaciousness.

The building is consistent with the educational philosophy that some parents described as “New Age,” including vegetarian food and an annual spring poetry slam. Yet, passing the high-demand school’s entrance test places applicants, who must live nearby, into a competitive lottery system.

In the neighborhood, criticism of the school was scant, but Marisa Steffers, a resident of 1199 1st Ave., said that the mandatory summer classes and over-emphasis on test preparation were not ideal for her 11-year-old son Jude, who attends P.S. 3 in the West Village.

Fausto Lopez recently moved from a building down the street from Exodus House to the Bronx because of rent increases. Yet he feels blessed that his 6th grade son Richard can still attend the East Harlem School.

“This school has the highest standard, no negatives, and is so far so good. We want to send him to a New England boarding school later,” said Lopez.

“This is a huge step up for kids who used to have torn textbooks,” said Karen Ayala, 35, whom Hageman taught at University Heights Secondary School in the early 1990’s.

“Before he was my homeroom teacher, I was a hot mess. Look where I am now,” said Ayala, a teacher at the Head Start across 2nd Avenue from Exodus House.

“The school and its new building are not the norm for this neighborhood,” said Ayala. “But they try to show the children that there is something better. An opportunity of this magnitude is a beautiful thing.”

“If Ivan’s gonna do it, then he’s gonna do it big.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

America Mountain Multimedia Slideshow

America Mountain audio slideshow by Chikodi Chima and me on Vimeo.

As part of an Obama fundraiser, kids and families frolic on a giant American flag in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

For more info on the organizers, visit

Thursday, October 09, 2008

New York Rents: Interactive Graphic

This interactive flash graphic (by Malia Politzer and me) depicts the jump in NYC rents over the past two decades. Click on the buttons above!

East Harlem Public Housing and Homicides (2008)

View Larger Map

This map shows the location of public housing projects and murders in 2008 within Manhattan Community District 11, which encompasses NYPD precincts 23 (East Harlem South) and 25 (East Harlem North).

The 23rd Precinct went from 31 murders in 1990 to 2 thus far in 2008. There are 23,028 public housing units in Community District 11, the largest number in any NYC district.

Only two of the six murders in East Harlem are marked. The locations of the other four have not yet been found...Any and all tips are welcome...

(Sources: New York City Housing Authority, Emporis, NYPD's 23rd Precinct, and Wikipedia)

Monday, October 06, 2008

One Semitistan: Mixtape 2008

This album will be released on Saturday, October 18, 2008 at the One Semitistan Uptown NYC Party.

Please contact for more information.

One Semitistan شلميستان وحاد שמיסטן אחד

1. Tamer Hosny – Arrab Habibi (Egypt) / تامر حسني - قرب حبيبي
2. Tomer Yosef – Al Tatusi (Israel) / תומר יוסף – אל תטוסי
3. Amr Diab – Mayal (Egypt) / عمرو دياب - مايال
4. Hanan - Dahilak (Israel) / חנן – דאחילק
5. Cheikha Remitti - Sidi Mansour Ya Baba (Algeria) / شيخه رميتي - سيدي منصور يا بابا
6. Zohar Argov – Perach B'Gani (Israel) / זוהר ארגוב – פרח בגני
7. Khaled - Didi (Algeria) / خالد - ديدي
8. HaDag Nachash – Shirat Ha-Sticker (Israel) / הדג נחש – שירת הסטיקר
9. Samira Said – Youm Wara Youm (Morocco) / سميره سعيد وشاب مامي - يوم ورا يوم
10. Shotei Hanvuah – Ein Ani (Israel) / שוטי הנבואה – אין אני
11. Amr Diab & Cheb Khaled – Qalbi (Egypt) / عمرو دياب وشاب خالد - قلبي
12. Samir Shukri – Rona (Israel) / סמיר שוקרי – רונה
13. Cheb Khaled & R. Taha – Abdel Kader (Algeria) / شاب خالد ورشيد طه - عبد القدر
14. Zion Golan - Yom El Ehad (Israel) / ציון גולן – יום אל אחד
15. Cheb Jalal - Sidi Habibi (Algeria) / شاب جلال - سيدي حبيبي
16. Shotei Hanvuah – Dakah B'Pardes (Israel) / שוטי הנבואה – דקה בפרדס
17. Cheb Mami - Rani Maak El Youm (Algeria) / شاب مامي - راني معاك اليوم
18. Tomer Yosef - Avarti Rak Kdai Lirot (Israel) / תומר יוסף - עברתי רק כדי לראות

This album is a compilation of songs from the Arab/Arabic and Israeli/Hebrew cultural spheres and thus constitutes an expression of the cultural, linguistic, and geographic unity of the Semitic world.

While the philosophy of this 2008 mixtape supports every step towards a viable and lasting peace in the Middle East, this album refrains from proposing any specific political solutions.

Semitic music and culture are shared by multitudes, despite the boundaries of nation-states and the ongoing ideological conflict.

One Love / One People / One Semitistan
שמיסטן אחד / עם אחד / אהבה אחת
شلميستان وحاد / أمة واحدة / حب واحد

Friday, October 03, 2008

NMN Soundslide: Meta @ Farmer's Market

This is the audio soundslide that Malia Politzer and I did for our New Media Newsroom class. The project features our profile character Meta Bodewes shopping at the Union Square Farmer's Market.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

King Towers Homicide

On day two of a likely month-long murder trial, a confident key witness testified that he saw the defendant pull the trigger just before nightfall on April 6, 2006. As part of a bargain with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Harlem resident Eric Calvin offered his account Monday in exchange for exoneration from a string of drug crimes.

The defendant, Travis “Trav-Ice” Woods, lives down the street from Calvin in the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers and faces a possible life sentence for his role in the murder of Barry “B-Low” Miller, among other charges, including attempted murder, drug conspiracy, and weapons violations.

The Woods case is one of several cases that resulted from Operation All the King’s Men, a police investigation that began in early 2005. The original watershed indictment from December 2006 charged 43 suspected drug dealers and three suspected gun dealers. The suspects were associated with two rival gangs in Central Harlem, the King Towers Gang and the Schomburg Crew, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

“The King Towers Gang’s PCP product was well-known in the area because the defendants sometimes sold the drug packaged in empty baby food jars,” according to the D.A. Moreover, the gang grossed over $1 million annually in dealing PCP and crack cocaine around 115th Street and Lenox Avenue next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Towers.

Manhattan assistant district attorneys Christopher Conroy and Eric Arnone are prosecuting the Woods case before Judge Bruce Allen of the New York State Supreme Court. Arnone quizzed the case’s key witness, Calvin, who appeared alternatively discombobulated and composed in articulating his account of the murder, as well as in explaining his own checkered history of drug dealing.

“After approaching B-Low from the back, Trav Ice looked straight at him, raised both hands on fired four shots,” said Calvin, who identified Woods as having worn a black thermal hoodie, black jeans, and black Nike ACG boots on the night of the murder.

Both Arnone and Williams attempted partial reenactments of the murder, using cartographic and photographic evidence, but Calvin’s responses about sequence and direction somewhat seemed to confuse the jurors. The 16-member jury also appeared perplexed by a seemingly endless array of drug dealer street names, including “Leather,” “Playboy,” “Foot,” and “Ant.”

Calvin, a 21-year-old 10th-grade dropout, said he started robbing drug dealers at gunpoint with his friends and dealing PCP, crack cocaine, and powder cocaine in his early teens.

Calvin also discussed the logistics of dealing PCP, which is also known as angel dust, embalming fluid, wet, and sherm. He stated that a $50 investment in PCP “juice” could result in a $500 profit for a street level dealer.

Woods, who wore a white dress shirt and a striped blue tie, appeared unconcerned by Calvin’s incriminating words.

According to prosecutors, Miller was the ringleader and chief drug supplier of the King Towers Gang. They said that Woods, a gang manager and enforcer, killed Miller so he could take over.

"It is easy to say he did it, but it doesn't mean he did it. We're being tried by association," said court-appointed defense attorney Norman Williams, before poking holes in Calvin’s statements during an awkward cross-examination that included questions about Calvin’s consumption of marijuana, relationship with the D.A., and geographic details of the crime scene.

“Ultimately, the success of Calvin’s testimony depends on how much the jury believes him,” said Williams. Having represented Woods for 10 years, Williams added that he hoped Calvin’s testimony was not too damaging in bringing about “the best possible result: a full acquittal.”

Kevin “JD Black“ Harris and Terry “JB“ Patterson, two additional defendants named in the original grand jury indictment, both pleaded guilty, according to Williams.
Jurors’ ears perked up when prosecutor Arnone asked Calvin how he was perceived in his community for having agreed to testify as a crucial witness in the murder trial of a fellow King Towers resident.

“I’m viewed as a snitch - a rat,” said Calvin, who could barely look at the defendant after identifying him by name.

“You know that where I’m from it don’t work like that. I grew up with these people. What happens to snitches is you get shot,” said Calvin.

“But, I have more things to live for. My five-month-old girl and other kids are why I’m cooperating,” added Calvin, who testified that he would receive $500 and reimbursement for cab fare and meals for his testimony, in addition to vindication from several drug charges.

Defense attorney Williams acknowledged safety concerns in an urban environment that often brutally enforces the “Stop Snitching” dictum. Calvin’s attorney, Gabriel Tapalaga, declined to comment.

Woods is also charged with the attempted murder of Germaine “Maine” Gordon, who Williams expects to testify against his client.

Later in the week, a doctor, chemist, and more cops will be testifying. On Monday, the medical examiner will take the stand, said Jennifer Kushner, spokesperson for the District Attorney. Kushner would not say whether the District Attorney had ironed out cooperation agreements for any other members of the King Towers Gang to testify.

عيد مبارك and שנה טובה ומתוקה

Reflections excerpted from the New Year's sagacity of Unetaneh Tokef:

When we really begin a new year it is decided,
And when we actually repent it is determined;

Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist,
Who shall be happy, and who shall be miserable;

Who shall attain fulfillment,
And who shall not attain fulfillment;

Who shall be tormented by the fire of ambition,
And whose hopes shall be quenched by the waters of failure;

Who shall be pierced by the sharp sword of envy,
And who shall be torn by the wild beasts of resentment;

Who shall hunger for companionship ,
And who shall thirst for approval;

Who shall be shattered by the earth quake of social change,
And who shall be plagued by the pressures of conformity;

Who shall be strangled by insecurity,
And who shall be stoned into submission;

Who shall be content,
And who shall go wandering in search of satisfaction;

Who shall be serene and who shall be distraught,
Who shall be at ease, and who shall be afflicted with anxiety;

Who shall be poor in spirit,
And who shall be rich in tranquility;

Who shall be brought low with futility,
And who shall become exalted through achievement.
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