Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Save THIS!

The leader of the faction fighting to keep the high-rises out of Domino Sugar site added a few extra stories to her own historic building when she renovated, to the detriment of the adjoining playground. She understandably would like to protect her view but is that our problem? Is her cause even helpful for the rest of us?

Now I see signs all over the place calling for us all to rise up and "save Grand Street" from a huge condo building slated for the NE corner of Driggs. But what real harm does that project portend? Even the flyer itself only argues for "context." The real concern for the group that is posting the flyers, based in the co-op building across the street is that it will block their view. It will not even really diminish their light because the zoning requires considerable upper-story setbacks, there is a wide avenue in between, and the complainants’ windows face north anyway so a glass tower of the type so in vogue might actually increase their natural light.

So why the fuss? Because that view is a magnificent selling point and its loss will diminish their units’ resale value without reducing their [likely undervaluated] property taxes. I’m sure the view is nice itself as well.

Of course they can and should fight to protect their interests but I don’t have a dog in that fight. I sometimes wonder if those NIMBY-driven battle cries are actually even contrary to my interests. It breaks my heart that we cannot buy a home in New York and will soon probably leave as a consequence. After all, once this apartment leaves the rent stabilization regime (about 5 years), we will not be able to continue renting in the neighborhood. Buying is the only way we can stay long-term.

Loads of new housing stock coming on line can only make spaces more affordable for purchase, even accounting for the strange dynamics of real estate in New York. I am well aware of the downsides, but we must at least consider the benefits. It could well be that my interests are opposite of this particular group of crusaders.

But the disingenuous and prejudicial tone is what really bothers me. It’s like the Boogyman is coming and I’ve been on the other side of that. The talk of "context" is the key.

All of the "Save such-and-such edifice" signs I’ve been seeing around lately remind me of the "Save our school" signs the PS 84 PTA used to block the new neighborhood charter school. They talked about the school’s "context" and "character" but that was code for race. They didn’t have any idea what they were talking about—after all the Board of Education had not finalized any plan. That did not stop them from rallying, holding a press conference, and raising a very passionate ruckus. End result: one fewer option for their (and my) children.

So I’ve been the imagined boogyman and the eventual loser in a NIMBY spat. I’m not sure that blocking the construction of more housing is a winning strategy for my family in this case either. Something to at least consider.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


"It’s official: I’m never going back to Chelsea." ] That’s what J-Dalt said after we finished touring the Lower East Side galleries. Of course, that very night she went to a performance in Chelsea, but never mind. I’ve decided to skip the Armory Show and related fairs this year because I’m bummed out about the hyper-inflated yet completely vacuous state of the blue chip art world but I’ve really been wanting/needing to see some great art. Figuring the local places would bring out their best for be well-washed masses in town for the various festivals, J-Dalt suggested that we check out the LES scene.

Boy, were we impressed!

Everything that has been written about how visitor- and art-friendly the neighborhood is exactly right. The galleries are easy to reach and it is interesting to walk from one to the next. In fact, there’s probably more inspiration outside the galleries as there is within. It is, after all, one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the world. The same can hardly be said of Chelsea.

The galleries themselves were terrific too. I found the art extremely interesting and relevant for the times we live in. It’s generally very sincere, conceptually interesting, and well executed. We visited nearly a dozen galleries and none disappointed. You’re not going to love everything, but I appreciated everything I saw. The galleries themselves were professionally managed with good facilities and professional and friendly(!) staff. The scale of both the galleries (cause) and the work (effect) were intimate. We both found the scene to be like Williamsburg back in the day—only with slightly better art and universally professional.

Standouts included Jen Bekman, Thierry Goldberg, Salon 94, Eleven Rivington, Fruit & Flower Deli, Sunday, Fusion Arts Museum and, of course, 31Grand. We also stopped by the New-squared Museum. Not so bolly-ho about that, but that’s subject for another post/rant.

Two of a Kind

Later that night I ran into Schmertzy and the Ankinator at the NurtureArt opening. They took me back to the LES for a Norwegian party. We walked in to a very civilized room with about a dozen statuesque blondes sitting around a coffee table full of cupcakes, cookies, and brownies. One of them apologized for there being so many Scandanavians. I tried to find a way to cope with the situation.

It was very fun. We ate chocolate, danced, and the hours went by very quickly. The oddest thing was this. The only person not of Northern-European extraction (including citymouse) was a pair of African American twins who dressed exactly alike. They were dating the two Norwegian women who lived in the apartment. One of the ladies started dating one of the brothers and found out that her friend was coming from Norway. She told her friend on the phone, "Don’t worry, I have everything lined up for you: a job, an apartment, even a boyfriend!"

The two guys together comprised one single being and they did everything together—like the party version of synchronized swimming. They went to get a beer in unison, the sulked on the couch side-by-side, they looked through the music together, and they simultaneously bust out their video handhelds for some mid-party gaming. Not sure if they took a leak together...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Love Knots

All untitled ink on paper 9"x12" 2008

Connections--often highly sensual--between trees and rocks. Much of my work is an interface between trees and the sky. Here it's trees and Earth.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Infinity's Crossing Point

The signs of Spring are everywhere!

The other night I attended a celebration in the East Village to welcome the Vernal Equinox and the amazing full moon that arrived on the same evening. That was not the first pagan ritual I have joined over there—I love the spirituality that is resident in that neighborhood. It feels plugged in to something really, really old. Lots to think about: seasonal renewal, new beginnings, and the interweaving of opposing forces, the male and female, the Hieros-gamos.

Of course the trip home was a nightmare due to construction on the L train. Took me over an hour, which is considerably longer than it would have taken had I walked home. About two miles as the crow flies. It was one of those things that make me hate the city. Those periodic (and frequent) indignities are a key part of the Williamsburg experience. Yet we cannot relocate within the city, leaving a stark choice between regular humiliation or departure.

The historical trend in the neighborhood (going back at least a hundred years) is for the ambitious to leave and for the broken to default to systematic degradation. I don’t feel like I can take that $h!t much longer. Couple that with the predictable longing one feels for green and growing things following a springtime rite and it is easy to ask oneself, "Why exactly am I doing this?"

I had lifted weights that day and it tends to make me ornery, so that explains the mood a little bit. The next day I took a train to Sleepy Hollow and went for a three hour run through the woods and fields and that certainly mellowed me out. Still, I feel like there is a clock ticking within me and the point is approaching when the alarm will ring and I will say, "I’ve had it."

Saturday, March 22, 2008

BCI: Bloke Confidence Index

I heard about a guy who has a profile on match.com and it has a space where he specifies the age of his desired soul-mate. Apparently he changes it all the time; sometimes older, sometimes younger. With wild swings.

That number must be some kind of indicator, like the Dow, the price of gas, or the dollar versus the Euro. But wait: those indices only seem to go in one direction. A better comparison would be the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI).

We’ll call this new measure the BCI—Bloke Confidence Index. If the guy’s feeling really desperate, he raises the number, say to 85, allowing essentially any woman with a pulse to match his profile. If on the other hand he looks in the mirror and sees a randy stud-muffin looking back at him he may lower it enough to exclude anything but a recently graduated Tri-Delt. We'll keep an eye on that number and keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hedge Fund Traders and Nightmares, Revisited

"Good Greed" coming to our fair nabe?
Photo Stolen from 20th Century Fox via NY Times

PapaCole and MamaCole were in town this past weekend so that meant a [woohoo!] date night for Citymouse and Mrs. Mouse. We decided to try a new place in the neighborhood that we had heard about. One of our playground friends had told us that the food was really good and the prices exceptionally low, either because they were trying to grow the business or they simply didn’t know better. Either way, we were all over it.

It was true: excellent food, very reasonable prices, and outstanding service. A very nice experience and of course Citymouse is far too savvy to say where the place is, lest the hungry masses from Manhattan overwhelm the place. It’s a sad refrain of the City-savvy: when you find a good thing, keep your mouth shut.

Sadly, that ship already seems to have sailed. Notice that I didn't say anything about the atmosphere. As dinner progressed—the mouse family has an early bed time—the place filled up and we started to look around and be surprised and then horrified by what we saw. The place was full of suits and starched shirts—you know the blue ones with the white collars. I would not have been surprised to see Michael Douglas walk in to reprise his role in Wall Street.

And this on a Saturday!

Even more frightening were the trophy wives/girlfriends/escorts. All bleached out, made up, scarey thin and dressed to the nines. Yikes!

I should have known better. After all, the woman who recommended the place to me is married to a Wall Street type, though she’s a very down to earth. They’re both perfectly nice actually. But man, has this neighborhood really changed!

Let’s be honest though: every wave of immigrants tries to keep the next group out. My ranting is really not any more excusable than the ignorant mutters of "diablo blanco" I occasionally hear on the Southside. Still we’re getting it from both sides: Sebastian’s school wants desperately to stay frozen in a romantic Latinized past yet milk is pushing $10 a gallon at the local grocery stores. It’s an unpleasant way to be squeezed.

That’s the reality of the City though. Better to get past the prejudice and ignorant assumptions and treat each individual and every experience with a fresh mind and an openness to the good in each. That restaurant was excellent and we’ll go back. My friend is sweet and I would be glad to see her husband more if he didn’t work so much. And no one is asking me to leave my home. The rest is just stuff I have to get over. The world is too small to live any other way.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Eastward Ho?

Something's going to fill the block between Bedford, Berry, N3, and N4—but what?

There’s lots of speculation about what’s being built on the super-lot that fills the entire block between Bedford and Driggs and North 3rd and North 4th. From what I hear, the reality is going to be much more sane than the original 40-story plan—last I heard was 5 stories. There is a new wrench in the mix, one that poses an existential crisis that is uniquely Williamsburg.

Trader Joe’s.

That’s the rumor around the Met Pool locker room. It must be said that the building is a loooooooong way from complete—I would estimate at least a year—so all bets are off. Still, the notion does cause a quandary for Williamsburgers. It is a national chain—no two ways about that—and this neighborhood does not like and has almost entirely blocked national chain stores (with one minor exception).

Traitor Ho’s (as I call them) may be one that neighborhood long-timers may be inclined to accept. See, in a district with a zillion restaurants, there are shockingly few grocery stores. The two that exist—CTown on South 1st and Tops on North 6th—are ghetto (rotten produce) and corrupt (prices ring differently than what's marked on shelves), respectively. And like the many fancy or fancified bodegas that flourish on both the North and South Side, both retailers are radically over-priced. For example, milk (albeit organic) approaches $10/gallon.

So most Williamsburgers I know ride the subway that oft-quoted "five minutes to Manhattan," stopping at the first available grocery store: Traitor Ho’s. There we find consistent quality and reasonable prices. Plus their offerings are hip and exotic and well suited to the creative type’s idiosyncratic tastes. A neighborhood Joe may be a go.

We need to look at this thing in the larger context of what is happening in the neighborhood. National/International chains are certainly coming. The huge new buildings along the waterfront are slated to include retail footage measuring in the millions of square feet. Few mom-and-pops or boutiques will move into those spaces. Only chains. And the people who actually live in those buildings will most certainly want their starbucks and other suburban trappings. That had better include grocery stores or the the massive influx of people will lead to a food shortage on a scale not seen since the Great Hunger.

The most sensible plan (and the most likely) envisions the shops along the charming blocks around Bedford Avenue remaining low scale and local. The small size of the available spaces makes that outcome likely anyway. Meantime, big stores along Kent Avenue in the big buildings. It’s a delightful compromise for an urban planner and a winning sale for a politician, but I’m not sure I like even this idea.

Doesn’t that just create a microcosm of what killed American Cities? You know the story: Charming downtown; huge stores open on periphery; local stores cannot compete; local stores go out of business; national (but faux- or retro-boutique) chains also move into downtown; sponge away all local color and replace with a Disnified and neutered verion of one's own home town and life experience.

Not at all sure I like it.

But I would love to have a shorter trip to Traitor Ho’s.

Like so many things about this city, I love the idea and hate it. Passionately and simultaneously.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Monsters and Metaphors

The paths inward are alot scarier than those that lead outward.

In my dreams of ancestors, I imagine patrolling the remote pathways of some dark untamed forest, making them safe for travelers and abandoned orphans who lose themselves there.

As the years have passed, I’ve learned that it’s more complicated because the lost souls actually carry the wolves and witches and dragons within themselves. We’re both villains and victims. And we pose a greater danger to the forest than it does to us. The real danger then is not the darkness around us, but the darkness within.

When I was a kid, I used to like to chase the deer I sometimes encountered while playing in the woods. One time I actually caught one; cornered it in a thicket. I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Instead of fighting, she surrendered. I could have killed with a knife or, I suppose, my teeth. But the hopeless and terrified look in her eyes sent me staggering backward. All sport was gone and I realized how terrifyingly powerful I am. Suffering results when we underestimate our potency.

That was also when I realized that I’m a pretty decent runner.

I just saw the new Beowulf movie. It's horrid but fun. I think we can all agree that the visual effects are just ridiculous—the ultimate expression (so far) of what the motion-capture technique can do. It is however a thoroughly contemporary take on the seed tale of English literature and it doesn't let historical reverence interfere with straightforward story-telling. In spite of myself. I could not help but nod when the old king verbalized exactly what I had been thinking, "The age of heroes and monsters is ended. Now we are the monsters."

Hollywood truism? No doubt, but one that bears repeating over and over, lest we lose the world as we dream complacency and imagine that we are somehow victims.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Costa Rican Beer, White Wine, or Punch?

Those were the beverage choices at the LaGrange Biennial. And red wine. That was my choice. (I admit that I did try the punch too.)

General Lafeyette welcomes travellers to his empty square.

Here are some impressions from my trip to Georgia, in no particular order:

  • A dog running in mad circles at the extreme frontier of his invisible paddock as I run by along a country road.
  • Completely empty town square.
  • I enter an army surplus/sporting goods store looking for Gu for tomorrow’s long run:

    Old timer, comes rushing over as soon as I enter the store. "May I help you?"
    Me: "I’m looking for Gu."
    Old Timer: [Quizzical look]
    Me: "You know, energy gel, like PowerGel...a liquid version of power bars."
    Old Timer: "What’s that?"
    Me: "It’s a high-calorie energy source for endurance sports..."
    Old Timer: "Like for diabetics?"
    Younger guy in store: [shakes head]
    Me: Thank you!
    Old Timer: My wife’s diabetic...
  • Sierra Nevada listed as an import in the local art/cafe.
  • College campus without a soul. Granted, it’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon (70 degrees) but wow!
  • I’m coughing up (and spitting out) the last remnants of that flu bug everyone had.
  • Evidence of the draught everywhere. Not a green blade of anything. Granted, it is winter, but again...wow!
  • Daffodils (the one exception)
  • Many, many lakes, all with boat launches.
  • Cloudless cobalt sky drops in to a Peter Max gradient to yellow at the horizon made of bare trees like a comb.
  • Sitting by the lake in a relaxed (or is it expectant?) quiet. The New Yorker in me keeps waiting for something to happen. The reality is more likely to be a sigh, then sleep, followed by more of the same.
  • For some reason, the town on the hill reminds me of Noto, Sicily.
  • Everyone I meet has been to New York at least once.
  • The Bible is on a quarter of the radio stations.
  • The more beautiful the woman, the sooner church seems to arise in the conversation.
  • Every bite of food had been delicious. Even at the airport.
  • At one point, when I parked for lunch, I actually rolled all the windows down to air out my stuff while I took a walk. In New York, that would be the source of a thousand jokes...

Neighborhood Updates

Photo: Sebastian

So here are a few notes from the neighborhood.

P.S. 84 PTA Slays Scary Beast of Change
So not only did the inflamed PTA at Sebastian's school block the charter school from opening within the school's walls, they killed it entirely. According the Board of Education, the neighborhood charter school will not open this coming year. One would be justified in wondering if it will ever happen. One fewer option for the children of Williamsburg. To quote the numerous fliers and emails, "Felicidades!"

The school administration has come up with a new idea that certainly will appeal to 84's overwhelmingly Puerto Rican parent body: a Spanish immersion program. Starting in kindergarten next year, two of the classes will be taught in Spanish.

That hits two birds with one stone. Since the arts magnet program is now over, they had to replace it with something innovative. And for a community under siege, what could be more comforting than to know that the local school is actively working to protect their culture?

I have to wonder, though, if it makes sense to teach in Spanish in a school where the failing test scores in reading are attributed to limited English comprehension. Maybe they'll raise test scores by attracting motivated, cosmopolitan parents. My guess, though, is that the plan is designed to appeal more to the "local" parents who do not want their children to to forget where they [the parents] came from.

There is one thing I really love about the idea, however. In this neighborhood so divided between Spanish and Anglo communities, perhaps this could be a bridge. Perhaps this is the school's way of saying, "We belong to both worlds. Not one or the other. Both."

Conicidentally, the PS 84 in Manhattan has already tried this. [NY Times]. I don't have time to do any more than quick reading on the subject but it would be very interesting to see how they did at their school.

Northside Health Food Closing
Citing "Too much competition" from the myriad pricey convenience stores that have popped up in the neighborhood, the owners of the health food shop just north of North 7th Street is having a clearance sale. I love that place so much that I am glad to walk past 8 or 9 of those afore-mentioned food boutiques to get there. I'm sad to see them go and as is so typical in the neighborhood, it is the trail-blazers who are pushed out.

I'm just glad those guys had the foresight to open their amazing falafel joint around the corner on N7. Goodbye Northside. You will be missed. [Foodmonkey bids Northside farewell]

Relocating The Read
I was equally depressed to see The Read shut its doors a few months ago. My sorrow was replaced with joy when I learned that it is reopening on the Southside, right across the street from my house. Woohoo! I love that place and will be so glad to have it a mere stumble away. So that's good news for us.