Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Short history of Oakland’s Miller Avenue Library

Monday, August 27th, 2012

The following is a short history of Oakland’s Miller Avenue Library written in 1996, excerpted from the registration form for the National Register of Historic Places (available in PDF form at the National Park Service website). The vacant, city-owned building is currently the site of the Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez, or the People’s Library, where activists and neighborhood residents are operating an open-air volunteer library and community garden.

Narrative Statement of Significance

The Oakland Free Library 23rd Avenue Branch (later Ina Coolbrith Branch, now commonly called Miller Avenue Library), a Carnegie Library, meets the requirements for National Register nomination as set forth in the Multiple Property nomination entitled “Carnegie Library development in California and the Architecture it Produced, 1899-1921.” It was one of four architecturally similar but varied branches built under a 1914 grant to the city of Oakland, in four different North and East Oakland neighborhoods, designed by Oakland architects of statewide prominence. It served as a library from its construction to the late 1970s. Physically it is slightly but not greatly changed inside and out.

Oakland pioneered branch libraries in California, opening branch reading rooms as early as 1878 and continuing to emphasize neighborhood branches as the city expanded. The 23rd Avenue branch traces its history to a reading room established in 1890 in what was then the easternmost part of Oakland, under the auspices of the Library Board with assistance from the 23rd Avenue Improvement Club. It occupied a succession of rented locations on the busy 23rd Avenue commercial strip (back to back with the present location). The present building was the second of the four libraries constructed with the 1914 Carnegie grant obtained by City Librarian Charles Greene for new branch library buildings. Greene’s project was suited to the Carnegie philosophy at the time; since 1899 when Oakland’s downtown Main Library had been funded, Carnegie’s focus had shifted to small towns and, in metropolitan areas, branches, to bring books closer to the people.

Oakland applied for and received a grant of $140,000 for four new libraries. The $35,000 per branch was apparently a typical amount for a medium-large city. The four new libraries were to replace four of Oakland’s ten existing branches. The sites ultimately selected were Golden Gate and Alden in North Oakland, and Melrose and 23rd Avenue in East Oakland. Oakland’s match was to provide sites for the buildings, and 10% of the grant amount per year to maintain the buildings and their operations.

Site selection for the 23rd Avenue branch seems to have been the most problematic of the four. The library board originally looked for a site to replace the existing East Oakland branch at 9th Avenue and East 14th Street in the old, fully built up Clinton neighborhood. This stirred protests against a location in the East 14th Street commercial area, and demands that the branch be located in one of the newer lakeshore residential areas farther north. After almost two years, the board gave up on finding an acceptable site in the service area of the old East Oakland branch, and accepted the donation of a site to replace the next branch south, 23rd Avenue, in what is now called the San Antonio neighborhood.

The site was donated by Henry Root, also co-donor with County Supervisor J.R. Talcott of the Melrose Branch site. Root was a railroad man and large local landowner with an interest in enhancing the amenities of the district. The donation was conditioned on the city’s extending a street in front of the library, thereby assisting Root in subdividing a very large block. The new street was originally called Foothill Boulevard, an extension of the scenic boulevard developed by Talcott through his Fruitvale neighborhood holdings parallel to East 14th Street. In August 1925 the street name was changed to Miller Avenue: reportedly “for a veteran of World War I,” notwithstanding the coincidence with the name of Grant Miller, county coroner whose mortuary business also fronted on the new street.

Building permit #46090 was issued for the 23rd Avenue branch on July 20, 1917, for a brick and concrete library building, with an estimated construction cost of $31,000. The plans credit John J. Donovan, architect for the City of Oakland, and C.W. Dickey, associate architect. Contractor was Nielsen & Bertelsen. Reportedly escalating construction costs resulted in some of the funds for the Alden and Golden Gate branches, not yet begun, being diverted to the elaborate Spanish Colonial 23rd Avenue branch.

The 23rd Avenue, Golden Gate, and Alden branches were all designed by Charles W. Dickey and John J. Donovan; the first branch constructed, Melrose, was by reinforced concrete expert William Weeks. The three Dickey and Donovan libraries had virtually identical plans and programs, and different period costumes: Spanish Colonial for 23rd Avenue, and a more austere Tudor for Alden and Georgian for Golden Gate. The Oakland Examiner of July 1, 1917, gave an excellent collective description of the three:

C.W. Dickey and John J. Donovan are the architects for three libraries which remain to be built. The branch to be next constructed [23rd Avenue] will be of Spanish architecture with warm colored stucco walls over brick and a variegated Cordova roof. The Alden branch library… will be of modern English design with walls of dark red brick. The Golden Gate branch library… will be of Colonial design with red brick walls with white trimmings. While the external appearance of the three buildings will be totally different, they will have the same interior requirements and fittings.

Each library will be two stories in height, the main entrance being halfway between the two stories, with broad stairs leading up into the central delivery room, and other stairs leading to the ground floor. The delivery desk is to be so placed that the librarian in charge will have complete command of the two reading rooms flanking the delivery room and of the main entrance.

The reading rooms will each be about thirty-two by forty-one feet, lined with book shelves capable of accommodating 15,000 volumes, besides magazines and newspapers. The rooms will be lighted from three sides in the daytime and by semi-direct electric fixtures at night. The openings from the reading rooms to the delivery room will be so large that the three rooms will architecturally count as one. Back of the delivery room will be the librarian’s private office and the book bindery with a private staircase leading to the lower floor.

On the ground floor will be located an assembly room about thirty by forty feet, capable of seating about 250 persons and fitted with a stage and electric connections for a moving picture machine. On this floor there will also be a study room sixteen by thirty-one feet, a staff room with a kitchenette, a furnace room, men’s and women’s toilets and a large shipping and receiving room with a fumigating closet and book lift to take books to the second floor.

Each of the buildings will cost $35,000: the construction, finish, heating and ventilation will be modern and first class in every respect.

Architects Charles Dickey and John Donovan were associated on three Oakland Carnegie libraries in 1917, and designed Oakland schools in the 1910s and 20s. Charles Dickey (1871-1942) was born in Alameda and studied architecture at MIT. He practiced in Oakland from about 1903 to 1924 and thereafter in Honolulu, where he is considered to have created a distinctive Hawaiian style of architecture. His numerous major Oakland works include the Claremont Hotel (1907), the 15-story Oakland Bank of Savings at 1200 Broadway (1907; one of Oakland’s first skyscrapers), Kahn’s Department Store (1913), and University High School (1922). MIT-trained John Donovan (1877-1949) came west in 1911 as supervising architect for Oakland City Hall, representing the New York firm of Palmer & Hornbostel. He stayed to become Oakland City Architect, supervising architect for the Oakland Auditorium and Oakland’s $2.6 million school construction program of 1911-19, an authority on school design, and an architectural consultant for the Bay Bridge.

The new 23rd Avenue Branch building was dedicated on March 14, 1918, with the Garfield Civic Association arranging the program. (They also sponsored a “Book Drive Entertainment” a month later to benefit the new library.) Speakers at the dedication included Charles Greene on “The Library as a Municipal Asset,” and John Miller, superintendent of the California Cotton Mills, on “The Relation of the Library to Industrial Life.” The California Cotton Mills had been a major local employer since 1884, especially in the largely Portuguese Jingletown neighborhood “below the tracks.” In the years after World War I the Oakland schools and libraries were very conscious of their mission of “Americanization” to Oakland’s large foreign-born population of many nationalities. The June 30, 1929, annual report of the 23rd Avenue Branch gives a vivid picture of the neighborhood:

The development of the Twenty-third Avenue district this year has been along the line of more apartment houses, stores, restaurants, and factories…This has always been a factory district, and across the S.P. tracks lies the Estuary with its many facilities of rail and water, giving rise to many industrial plants and other institutions. The California Cotton Mills, employing many Portuguese and other foreigners, ranges in its demand upon us from Portuguese fiction and Americanization literature to technical philosophy for the Vice-president’s son…

The ten largest industrial plants now in our section are: International Harvester Co. of America; Bent Concrete Pipe Co.; Atlas Imperial Engine Co.; John Wood Mfg. Co.; California Cotton Mills; Ventura Oil Co.; Montgomery Ward; Contra Costa Laundry (splendid new plant); Barrow Corporation; and Union Diesel Engine Co. …

These, with the Coast Guard on Government Island, send in some call for our scientific books. The wives of the officers of this prohibition Guard live in apartments here and read the usual apartment-house fiction. …

Our surrounding population may now have become over one half American, though the many foreign races are most evident: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Czecho-Slovakian, Polish, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Negro…

To make them happy, so that they will love America, long to become Americans, and read American books, is our task…. Mrs. Eleanor Smith, Americanization teacher of the Garfield School has been a great help to us in bringing about a larger purchase of foreign books and their deposit in the branches, where our timid patrons can see and choose their own books…. This also helps the second generation to respect and obey their parents, and to become richer by the possession of two languages and literatures.

In 1966, near the end of the building’s service as a library, the city acknowledged the confusion of the 23rd Avenue Branch not being on 23rd Avenue, and renamed it Ina Coolbrith Branch, for Oakland’s first City Librarian. By 1973 it had become the Latin American Branch, and last appears in directories as a library in 1976, though building permits from 1980 (for electrical work and fire repairs) still refer to it as Miller Library. It has been used as a nursery school and for other school district uses, as city council district offices, and by Volunteers of America – the current occupants – for social services and job training. It is an Oakland City Landmark, designated November 4, 1980, in a group designation of the city’s four Carnegie branch libraries.


Friday, January 14th, 2011

I wrote half of a post the other day about the Tucson shootings and related matters, but it wasn’t really coming together as I hoped, so I’ve set it aside for now. Maybe after my thoughts jangle around in my head for a little while, they’ll emerge more fully formed at some later date. Meanwhile, I walked the dog over to City Hall on Wednesday evening and attended the second half of a candlelight vigil for the victims in Arizona and victims of violence more generally.


At one point, a speaker asked us to turn to the people around us and tell one another what we would do in the future to reduce the violence, of all kinds, which plagues our society. The guy next to me happened to be a reporter covering the event, so he joked that the first thing he was going to do was write a story about the vigil. We had a little chuckle about that and never really got around to what I planned to do. Just as well, perhaps, since all the quick answers that popped into my head seemed either hopelessly vague, or totally inadequate to the enormity of the problem. That’s just how it goes with eternal problems such as violence, I suppose, but the “What will you do?” question is one that can always bear more consideration. If you’re at all like me, one thing to keep in mind is that it’s almost always better to do something than to worry excessively about which particular something you should do.

Avanti! Avanti!

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Almost a year and a half ago I posted a photo of The Grateful Tree a few blocks from my apartment. In the intervening months, time and the elements took their usual toll, and the little tree eventually looked like it would be grateful for a bit of sprucing up itself.

I walked the dog past there today, and was glad to see that the treelet has been given new life as The Grateful-Hopeful Tree. Passersby are now asked not only what we are grateful for today, but also what we are hopeful for tomorrow, and a small lamp has been installed, perhaps to help light the way toward that brighter future:

The Grateful-Hopeful Tree

I’m cautiously pessimistic about the future myself, but nonetheless I applaud the tree’s new forward-thinking mindset. I’m reminded of what I heard an irreverent newspaper columnist say when he was told that all the masthead editors were away at a retreat: “A retreat? Never retreat; always advance. Avanti! Avanti!” Whether the future is bright or dim, it is indisputably our destination, so the wry columnists’s exhortation is pretty hard to argue with.

Goodnight Oakland

Friday, October 15th, 2010

I haven’t posted—or written, for that matter—any doggerel since my very first post, but since I apparently don’t have much else to say these days, I might as well. I happened to look up at the moon when I went out for my little just-before-bed dog walk last night, and this is the result. My apologies to the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown.

Goodnight moon
Goodnight city
Goodnight to the neighbor flattening cans
Goodnight lake
And the saxophone man
Goodnight pugs
Goodnight thugs
Goodnight fixies
And goodnight mixtes
Goodnight tacos
Goodnight potholes
Goodnight A’s
And goodnight gays
Goodnight cranes
Goodnight trains
Goodnight speeders
And psychic readers
Goodnight to the ladies
On East Fourteenth
Goodnight bars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Interesting Times

Friday, August 20th, 2010

“May you live in interesting times” —Ancient chinese curse, likely apocryphal

WeedsOver a year ago I posted this photograph from a vacant lot along the Oakland waterfront. One commenter suggested that it looked like a relic of the dying American economy. Another thought, more colorfully, that it was “maybe the last known hideout of a gang of Cotton Candy Carny Vendors on the run from the law.”

Whatever it evoked, the scene no longer exists. Construction crews have been working to expand neighboring Union Point Park, so this overgrown, debris-strewn lot has been transformed into tidily landscaped parkland, with a small stretch of the Bay Trail running through it. The graffiti-decorated concrete pipes have been replaced by new lampposts, landscaping and bike racks, and the cool (but deteriorating) boatworks building behind it will also be renovated and put to some use:

This project is funded by Measure DD, the bond measure passed by Oakland voters almost a decade ago—the same measure that is allowing for all the improvements around Lake Merritt, of which the redone parkland along the Lakeshore side is just one example:



Unfortunately, the canada geese have discovered the plush new carpets of grass since these photos were taken, so picnickers and sunbathers aren’t quite as plentiful as they were in the spring, but even so, this side of the park still looks better than it has in decades. (Other wonders of the Lake Merritt work: the smooth pavement and new bike lanes which have turned a bike ride on Lakeshore from a medieval ordeal into a pleasure, and the razing/rebuilding of the 12th street viaduct, which is so exciting that someone has created an entire blog just to document daily developments in the construction.)

And Measure DD projects aren’t the only positive developments around Oakland these days. In fact, there is exciting news on many fronts: Oakland’s plentiful new restaurants are getting approving attention from coast to coast; new bars, clubs and performance spaces continue to open at a furious clip; and the art scene continues to thrive. I see more bikes on the road than ever before, with a wider variety of riders on them. Even with Oakland’s high unemployment rate and shrinking police force, crime continues to be down by double-digit percentages compared with recent years in nearly every category except residential burglaries. In many ways, Oakland feels a lot like a city on the upswing.

Why talk about curses, then? Because despite all this good news, one can’t help but wonder if Oakland is on the verge of collapse. The city’s municipal finances are in terrible shape and projected to get much worse. The unemployment rate is said to be around 17%, but given the wide disparity between Oakland’s rich and poor neighborhoods, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is more like 50% in some areas. Oakland’s precarious financial situation and wealth disparities are, of course, just a microcosm of what we also see on a state, national and global level. And events as varied as the ongoing economic crisis, the BP oil spill, and the rise of Sarah Palin as a prominent political figure have made some of us wonder if prophets of doom like Dmitri Orlov or Jim Kunstler might not only be entertaining cranks, but also correct.

During this moment of instability and pervasive anxiety, here comes the race for mayor. Ten candidates have ultimately qualified for the ballot, and while none of them (with the exception of the minor candidate who openly espouses municipal bankruptcy) seem nervy enough to propose solutions commensurate with the city’s fiscal problems, the race does promise some entertainment value. We have the “Green” Party candidate who wants to abolish parking meters. We have one city councilmember who seems to think that helping to squander all the city’s money during the boom years makes her qualified to lead the city during these bust years. We have a former community college trustee whose best-known accomplishment was using her public credit card for over $4000 of personal spending, some of it in Las Vegas. We have a professor and political analyst who seems smart and sensible, but perhaps more eager to share the details of his preferences in baked goods than the details of his plan to cope with Oakland’s fiscal disaster. We have a veteran politico who was term-limited out of his state senate seat, but apparently held it long enough to leverage it into a lucrative longterm arrangement with the state’s extremely powerful prison guard’s union.

As an under-40 blogger with an interest in “alternative” transportation, I may be demographically doomed to vote for Rebecca Kaplan, but some of her proposals seem fantastical (which is not to say fantastic) and some of her recent actions, such as placing herself between a line of riot police and an unruly crowd after the Mehserle verdict, or voting in support of a liquor store in North Oakland, have made a lot of people wonder if she is perhaps a bit too eager to be all things to all people. (Then again, she’s an energetic and smart lesbian former rabbinical student and transportation wonk who did her undergrad at MIT, on whose campus I spent much of my early boyhood—I mean, what’s not to love, right?)

Despite the motley assortment of oddballs, insiders and longshots who are running for mayor, it’s hard for me personally to muster any enthusiasm about any of them, but the campaign will at least provide a fair amount of drama for the next few months. As for whether Oakland—and the state and the nation—will see a renaissance in coming years, or enter a tailspin of ecological, financial, and social collapse…we’ll just have to wait and see. Interesting times, indeed.

Everything Else is Purple Prose

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

“The ball is round; the game lasts 90 minutes; everything else is pure theory.”
— Attributed to Sepp Herberger

The World Cup begins tomorrow. This means, of course, that it’s time for romantics worldwide to abandon themselves to a monthlong orgy of self-indulgence. For most of us, this just means plopping down on barstools before 7 am, or sneaking out of work for a long lunch in order to get worked up over a match between two countries that we couldn’t confidently find on a map, but for professional writers, such as novelist Rabih Alameddine, the urge to channel this quadrennial folie à deux billion into published prose is apparently irresistible:

A soccer game is a Wagner opera. The narrative sets up, the tension builds, the music ebbs and flows, the strings, the horns, more tension, and suddenly a moment of pure bliss, trumpet-tongued Gabriel sings, and gods descend from Olympus to dance—this peak of ecstasy.

During these moments, I no longer am my usual self, no longer human. I am connected to life. Call it bliss, call it ecstasy, call it what you will.

In that moment, I not only see God, I am God.

I am not only connected to life, I am connected to my TV!

Of course, not every game has these moments, just like not every opera is Wagnerian. Some games are delightful Puccinis, others are Verdis.

None are a Lady Gaga song.

The TV and Lady Gaga remarks suggest that his tongue is in the general vicinity of his cheek, but when a soccer fanatic gets on a roll like this, no amount of ironic self-awareness can dilute the pathos. (“I always considered the 1812 Overture to be the best allegory for the male orgasm, while Wagner, with its peaks, more female,” he goes on to say.)

I plan to join in the global madness too, but it may be prudent for me to keep this blog football free, lest I start waxing operatic myself…

Walk at Your Own Risk

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

It’s been a terrible week for pedestrians around here. On Tuesday alone, a woman was killed in an Oakland crosswalk by a hit and run driver, a woman crossing the street in San Francisco was killed by a city utility truck (she appears to have been in a crosswalk too), and yet another woman was critically injured by an SF Muni bus as she walked across a crosswalk. Then yesterday, two teenagers were hit by an SUV in Santa Rosa as they walked across a crosswalk, and one of them is critically injured.

Seriously, enough is enough! If it were swine flu or a defective Toyota part or al Qaeda which was causing this level of ongoing slaughter in the United States, then it would be considered a national crisis. When it’s stupid or reckless or inattentive drivers who are causing this mayhem, however, the problem is mostly dismissed with a shrug and the explanation that these are just “tragic accidents.”

I understand why these individual incidents don’t make big headlines. (The Oakland hit and run death was relegated to the “News Briefs” on page 6 of yesterday’s Oakland Tribune; homicides sometimes get the same treatment—when these tragedies become routine, then they no longer qualify as big news.) And I also understand, legally speaking, why drivers who hit pedestrians (or bicyclists) are rarely held responsible for their negligence—these are, after all, “just accidents,” as the police often say when they explain why no one is being charged in these cases. Despite what it may feel like when one is walking or biking around American cities these days, the overwhelming majority of automobile drivers do not actually want to hit anyone. And the fact that responsibility for all these pedestrian deaths and injuries is borne by a diffuse array of individual drivers, rather than a single entity like a car company or a terrorist group, makes it seem less like a systematic problem and more like a random set of unavoidable tragedies.

It is a systematic problem, however. I don’t know precisely what perverse set of historical developments got us where we are today, but the fact is that we as a society have taken most of our public space and turned it over to millions of absent-minded or distracted or careless people who are each controlling about a ton of fast-moving metal. In my opinion, this is completely insane. It’s no wonder that so few people walk anywhere in most parts of the country!

And not only have we turned over most of our urban public space to people in cars, but we then do a lousy job of ensuring that they drive responsibly. Any 16-year-old who can do a three point turn can get a license to kill—excuse me, I mean a license to drive. Drunk drivers, who are essentially broadcasting to the world the message that they do not really care if they take the life of another human being, are usually allowed to get behind the wheel a few months after getting a DUI—and we usually don’t even take their cars away, so these people who have already displayed a lack of concern for obeying the law and for other people’s safety can easily get behind the wheel and drive to their favorite bar again, suspended license be damned.

It’s not just pedestrians and bicyclists who are in danger from this absurd set of circumstances—we just happen to be the most vulnerable, since we aren’t ensconced in protective metal cages ourselves. Roughly 40,000 Americans die in car crashes every year, and many, perhaps most, of those crashes would not occur if drivers simply slowed down a little bit and watched where they were going. I don’t believe that most automobile drivers are more indifferent to human life than other people, but they just happen to be piloting very dangerous, fast-moving objects with minimal training. (Auden wrote that “indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” but if he had spent a few hours riding a bike around a modern American city, he might have changed his mind about that.)

It’s about time that politicians (aided by the police, prosecutors, etc.) undertook a serious effort to make people realize that recklessly endangering the lives of other people will not be tolerated anymore. Even baby steps would be a nice start, such as aggressively ticketing all the oblivious drivers who blithely cruise through intersections while people are in crosswalks, forcing the walkers to jump back to the curb—if the risk of killing pedestrians isn’t enough to make drivers pay attention, then maybe a few moving violations will start to do the trick.

An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

The Passage of Time and the Failure of Memory

Friday, September 11th, 2009

This painting by Gerhard Richter is my favorite piece of 9/11-related art or literature; in fact, it might be the only piece of 9/11-related art or literature that I’ve ever actually liked:

September 11 by Gerhard Richter

I first came across it in The Atlantic about 2 years ago, and it resonates with my own changing perspective on September 11th as the years have passed. I was fortunate not to know anyone personally who perished in the World Trade Center towers, but (like millions of other people who lived in New York at the time) I was powerfully affected, perhaps traumatized in some small way, and I felt the effects for many months—indeed, on the first anniversary I felt compelled to write a short essay and email it out to some friends. It was one of the more mawkish things I’m ever likely to write, but apparently it touched a nerve, because the next thing I knew I got a request from a stranger in New Jersey asking if he could share it with his high school students in class. (How much easier that all would have been if I had had a blog back then!)

What a difference eight years makes. If you had asked me in late 2001, when the smell of smoke drifted up the Hudson to my apartment and soldiers with machine guns stood guard at my local subway station, or in late 2002, when I wrote that essay, I think I would have told you that the events of 9/11 had forever altered the way I viewed the world. I suppose that they did, strictly speaking, but I don’t think I would have predicted how quickly other events (wars, elections, tsunamis, droughts, recessions, whatever) would overtake 9/11 at the forefront of my consciousness, and how quickly memories of that period would fade. Sure, I still think about 9/11 sometimes, and occasionally I even feel a momentary twinge of panic when I hear a plane close overhead, but for the most part, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have settled in among a lot of other horrific geopolitical/historical events in my mind, with little special prominence except that they happened to occur in my city and my country (and that the tragedy of those lost lives was compounded by the tragedies of the wars that have followed).

For me, Richter’s painting of the iconic smoking towers captures that phenonemon well. A mere eight years after a period when I was almost obsessed by the events of 9/11 (or am I misremembering that too?), it now all feels like a fuzzy memory. The passage of time, and the failures of memory, have a way of distorting and obscuring the past so much that it is almost unrecognizable. It sounds odd, maybe even ghoulish, to suggest that I feel a kind of nostalgia for such a traumatic period when so many people were experiencing such intense grief, but when I look at the painting, it evokes a yearning to reverse the distortions of the image—that is, to reverse the very passage of time that has allowed most people to “move on” more quickly than anyone expected. A somewhat similar (albeit less tragic) feeling of loss hits me when I look at another piece of art showing a very different iconic image—Warhol’s large National Velvet, which hangs at SFMoMA. It shows the young Elizabeth Taylor, the very picture of beauty and vigor and innocence, literally fading before our eyes, as Warhol manically tries to stop time by furiously reproducing the image over and over and over. Or at least that’s how it always seems to me when I stand in front of it, and it is surprisingly poignant.

All this naturally makes me wonder which of my current feelings and convictions will dramatically alter with the passage of time. I generally approve of taking “the long view” when it comes to current events, because it’s far too easy to become consumed by the fleeting minutiae of the moment, but the danger of the long view is that if your view is too long, then it’s hard to really care about the present. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out in rebuttal to more laissez-faire economists who argued that the economy would work itself out fine on its own in the long run, “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Who knows, maybe in the long run my feelings about the Richter and Warhol works will change too—I guess I’ll have to revisit them in eight years to see how I feel then.

Who owns…?

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

In a review of Milk in the New York Review of Books (yes, it’s from March, and yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), Hilton Als asks the following question:

One may find oneself powerfully moved by the images of candles flickering on that cold November night in San Francisco, and the close-ups of various stunned faces. But the question remains: Who owns Harvey Milk, and the rights to his hard-won, unequivocally “out” gayness?

But the question remains: When will we stop fighting about who “owns” public figures and historical events? I distinctly remember when I first took a dislike to Cynthia Ozick, the novelist and critic: it was when she wrote a 1997 essay in the New Yorker called “Who Owns Anne Frank?” I’m reluctant to summarize it because I haven’t read it in years, and I no longer own Quarrel & Quandary, the collection in which it was reprinted, and the essay doesn’t seem to be available for free online. But when I read “Who Owns Anne Frank,” I had the impression that Ozick was really asking, “Who Owns the Holocaust,” and that her own preferred answer was, “I, Cynthia Ozick, own the Holocaust.”

Perhaps I’m being terribly unfair to Ozick, and with my lousy memory, I probably shouldn’t criticize something I read so long ago, but my negative reaction to that essay pretty much soured me on Ozick forever. That’s a shame, since I agree with her about so much (we’re both fans of the late W. G. Sebald, for example; heck, I even agree with her distaste for the sentimentalized, redemptive depictions of the Holocaust that seem to predominate these days).

In any case, I look forward to the day when our most esteemed periodicals no longer feel the need to ask who owns historical figures and their legacies.

Out-Hipstering the Hipsters

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

If you’ve set foot in an American city in the past few decades, then you are probably familiar with hipster T-shirts. They might be regular old T-shirts, but instead of having earnest logos such as “Dysart’s Truck Stop, Bangor, ME,” they have ironic logos such as “Dysart’s Truck Stop, Bangor, ME.” The sensibility is what makes the difference: If a working class guy in his 50’s in Milwaukee is wearing a “Pabst Blue Ribbon” T-shirt, then it’s probably not a hipster tee. When a guy in his 20’s on a fixie in Portland wears a “Pabst Blue Ribbon” T-shirt, then you can be sure that it is a hipster tee.

Unironic shirts donned with ironic intent are only one kind of hipster tee. Another variety are ironic shirts donned with ironic intent. When Seinfeld was the big Thursday night NBC sitcom in the 1990’s, Vandelay Industries T-shirts were born (“Importing/Exporting — Fine Latex Goods”). Now that The Office is the big Thursday night NBC sitcom, Dunder Mifflin and Schrute Beet Farm shirts are worn with pride from the Mission to Bushwick. With shirts such as these, one gets to wallow in corporate consumer culture while simultaneously showing one’s cool detachment from corporate consumer culture: hipster heaven!

I’m not a serious connoisseur of hipster tees, so I won’t try to explain the full taxonomy here, and I know that I’m lumping a lot of disparate styles under the rubric “hipster tees,” but I’m sure you know the sort of shirts I’m talking about. Many hipster T-shirts have a cool or funky design on them, or a clever phrase, or some combination of the two. As long as it is worn with an appropriate level of ironic distance, any T-shirt can be a hipster tee.

Ceci n'est pas une pipeI was thinking the other day about what a quintessential hipster tee might consist of. Since many have a combination of word and image, and often a self-referential element that subverts the entire premise of putting a design on a T-shirt, this train of thought carried me to Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,”  with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).

Magritte, like a lot of the surrealists, was something of a protohipster (an ur-hipster? a hipst-ur?). Nothing is meant to be taken entirely seriously, the work tends to undermine itself in one way or another, and if you don’t like it…well, that just proves that you’re not in the know. If something is not said or done in earnest, then earnest objections to it tend to look silly (cf. David Denby).

Just as media critics ask, “Who’s watching the watchdogs?” and the movie ads ask, “Who’s watching the watchers,” I naturally asked myself, “Who’s ironizing the ironists?” Well, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, so I have given notice at my job and have founded a T-shirt company that will try to out-hip the hipsters (probably a futile aspiration, I know). I’ve tried to come up with something for everyone, starting with the basics: (more…)