Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brooklyn and Queens on a hot weekend

I have seen BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music evolve over thirty years from salvageable hulk of ruin amid scenes of ruin (with unusual performances), to punk palace of the arts (with its own snazzy crowd of devotees and lots of Euro-art), to major grande dame of the city arts scene, jewel set in glittering renewed downtown Brooklyn. At the moment it is holding a Muslim Cultural Festival, with Asia House and other institutions around town – music, theater, dance, film, “storytelling” from a dozen countries – and I am getting to as much of it as I can.

There was a “souk” in BAM’s car park this past weekend, the usual arts and crafts (overpriced), the usual unhealthy junk food – and some exceptions. At the Turkish booth, a bunch of ladies in headscarves brought home-made stuffed vine leaves (best I’ve ever eaten) and home-made baklava (ditto, especially when it had been sitting in the hot sun a while), and some Lebanese guys had spinach pies shaped like hamantaschen. Someone was selling witty T-shirts for far too much money, such as, on a covered wagon, heading a whole train of such, “Why settle? … Israel!” which could be taken to support either (any) side of the question, eh?; “Surf Saudi Arabia! Sportsman’s Mecca,” “Petro sexual,” “Come out to … Iran!,” “Party Like Iraq Star,” “Gaza Strip Club XXX,” and “Afghanistan!” above images of a wind surfer on the ocean. There was very good Middle Eastern music but the CDs on offer were mostly recent, jazz-inspired, beatboxed shit - if it uses microphones or electric instruments, I'm not very interested.

Across the street, by the way, is Mark Morris’s building, an old hulk completely gutted and refitted and modernized for his dance troupe, with rehearsal halls to rent to others. Typical of the modesty of the man: The new cornerstone, prominently visible, was laid in 2000, so it reads: “A.D. MM.”

According to an article I happen to be proofreading, 46 percent of Queens is foreign-born (a record for U.S. counties), and the borough is huge, in addition, with well over a million people. All sorts of cool folk live there now.

All this as prelude to Sunday when, fed up with being cooped up by ill health in gorgeous weather, I took the bike (via E train) to Roosevelt Avenue for Queens Pride. I’d somehow never made it before, and by the time I arrived, the parade was over (if it had ever been) and a street fair on rainbow themes filled a dozen blocks where the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan colonies meet various Latino enclaves as the E train crosses the 7. (There are also a Thai temple and a Jain center not far down the street.)

Several stages had lip sync drag mamas or folk acts or rappers to which almost no one in the crowd paid attention, there was lots of unhealthy food, there was a guy giving out cards of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, lots of condom distribution, petitions to sign (I signed one to save the libraries of Queens from budget cuts), free hepatitis shots and STD screenings, someone selling straw cowboy hats (I bought one, and it saved me from sunstroke), a bin of used CDs (Ann Hampton Callaway scatting standards in tribute to Ella, a bargain for $2), and I got pair of binoculars for $10 which won’t hurt me when I lose them, as the $140 ones did, there were assorted well-built young men but it was very neighborhood, much of the crowd was straight and enjoying the festa part. I’ve always preferred that Gay Pride be a festa for all, not just Our Crowd.

After an hour or so, I’d had enough of it, so I began biking aimlessly southerly, pausing for beer at an Irish bar (barman from Galway, “city of the tribes” – “I have friends who spend the summer there,” I told him; “Have they got a summer there?” he was skeptical) with a waterfall and barbecue in back, drifting down Greenpoint Avenue through ethnic neighborhood upon ethnic neighborhood, all unknown to me, over the Newtown Creek into Brooklyn. The plaza around the east end of the Williamsburg Bridge, once full of elegant bank buildings, then a ruin for decades, is now reviving nicely – some of the banks are now churches; others are, once again, banks – and through the Valley of the Shadow of the Hasidim to Fort Greene and on and on, miles and miles, most of it amazingly less shabby than it was in the 80s. I attempted a bridge to Manhattan, but my thighs were having none of it.

At last I was at BAM again – easy to spot from a distance because it is beside the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, a Romanesque domed minaret spire, the oldest skyscraper in Brooklyn and one of my favorites in the city. (The ground floor, currently in restauro during condo conversion, has a sublime Cosmatic pavement which I trust will be preserved.) The Turks were out of vine leaves, so I got spinach pie instead to wash down more baklava. Then I took the bike by subway back to the Village. Another week of exercise and I’ll be able to handle a bridge or two.

Old movie houses (often full of fine deco detailing) and old banks (usually of turn-of-the-century grandeur: many domes, imitating either the Pantheon or the U.S. Capitol/St. Paul’s; many colonnades of one or another classical order) and old churches tend to switch functions: churches become theaters, banks and movie theaters become churches; banks become carpet warehouses. I favor retaining the old buildings just to vary the streetscape, prevent it becoming lethally dull, so I am delighted when they are preserved, whatever the organization.