Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part II

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here.

2. Greenwich Village

culture shock
noun
          1 The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly                       subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

7:00 am. “Anything to declare?” said the customs official in a broad New York accent.
“Jam and tea”, we said, suddenly realising that we were importing the singularly most British things we could have stolen from the boat.
“Can I see it?”, he asked, as we furtively made him privy to our loot.
“I think we can cope with that”, he said, hiding a smile and thereby granting us access to the United States of America.

7:20 am. Our yellow cab pulled up at MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village after a whirlwind whisk over Brooklyn Bridge and through the early morning commuter traffic; the city flickering past like an old movie. As our sleepless eyes worked overtime to comprehend the new scenery, we were promptly deposited, rucksacks and all, outside our new abode. Our sturdy sea legs, firmly instated over seven days, struggled to make the transition to land, as, Bambi-like with the burden of our bags and the weight our own expectation, we located the only establishment open at 7:25 in the morning; McDonalds. Ellie promptly bought a coffee for herself and a homeless man, whilst we sat, bemusedly watching the eclectic stream of New Yorkers gallivant past.

8.00 am. We took our custom to an all the more elegant setting; Caffé Reggio, where the bohemian dream is still alive and well. Caffé Reggio was opened in 1927 by Domenico Parisi and claims to have served the first cappuccino in America. The café is lavishly decorated with ancient European riches, including a bench from the Medici family (which we sat on), a Caravaggio school painting and an original espresso machine from 1902. These treasures, along with the bold autumnal colours give Caffé Reggio an air of faded grandeur.

We outstayed our welcome here for two hours, nibbling on croissant and stealthily imbibing tea, as we surveyed the scene from our aptly chosen people-watching position. Adjacent to us, the French waitress perused her book with latent moroseness, the Italian-American proprietors impaled their Victorian looking cash register with numerous varieties of screwdriver, and an NYU student with long combed-back hair and round spectacles, conscious of his own cultivated image, posed with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

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Caffé Reggio

I felt as if I’d been taken and plunged head first into a living stereotype of 1920s Greenwich Village bohemia. I began to think I was Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and was half expecting Djuna Barnes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or any of the other famed literary figures from that era, to walk in and order a coffee. After all, the next building along was the Provincetown Playhouse where so many important writers of the early twentieth-century had performed and debuted their plays.

Taking a reality check, I reminded myself that Greenwich Village had long been the subject of its residents’ own self-constructed mythopoeia; café culture having been a key exponent of bohemian ideology. Numerous independently owned establishments, for example, demanded eccentricity and play-acting from their guests. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Room (now a takeaway) for instance, was opened in 1916 in a basement on West 4th Street at the corner of Washington Square Park. In 1917, Anna Alice Chapin wrote in her book Greenwich Village that:

The entrance alone is a monument to the make-believe capabilities of the Village. Scrawled on the stone wall beside the steps that lead down to the little basement tea room, is an inscription in chalk. It looks like anything but English. But if you held a looking-glass up to it you would find that it is “Down the Rabbit Hole” written backward! […] The people around you seem only pleasantly mad, not dangerously so. There is a girl with an enchanting scrap of a monkey; there is a youth with a manuscript and a pile of cigarette butts. The great thing here is that they are taking their little play and their little stage with a heavenly seriousness, all of them. You expect somebody to produce a set of flamingos at any moment and start a game of croquet among the tiny tables.[1]

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Mad Hatter’s Tea Room by Jessie Tarbox Beals (ca. 1906-1916)

With numerous other madcap cafés, clubs, shops and restaurants, the news quickly spread that Greenwich Village was the place to be. There was an influx of cultural tourism or ‘slumming’ as it is better know, with visitors descending from far and wide with the hope of catching their own glimpse of bohemia. In Djuna Barnes’ article ‘Becoming Intimate with the Bohemians’, Madam Bronx goes out in search of the Greenwich Village she has read about in newspaper articles. Initially disillusioned with what she finds, Madam Bronx suddenly spots someone she deems to be a bohemian, and ‘grabbing a hand of either child exactly like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass as she hurried forward. ‘There’s one now!’ […] And so she left me in pursuit of a mere woman in a gingham gown with a portfolio under her arm.’ [2] This sort of urban safari is still possible in the Village, but with prices as they are, sightings are more likely to be bohemians with hedge funds.

The theme of cultivated bohemia extended into our AirBnB apartment which, as the owner informed us, was adorned with swathes of sequinned fabric and beautiful treasures from her time as an actress in Paris. The building had six floors accessed via a large wooden staircase, four flats per floor and an intercom which fictitiously listed G. Sands, A. Ginsberg and D. Parker among its residents. The apartment itself was cosy with just three rooms and fire-escapes from the windows. In the kitchen was a bathtub, there were WCs in the corridor and walls were so paper thin, we knew the intricate details of the lives next door, above us and below us. This was the New York I had read about and imagined, but it was only after visiting to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum that we realised we were staying in an old Greenwich Village tenement building.

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Layout of a New Law “Dumbbell” tenement block – our apartment was exactly the same layout, three rooms with two windows to the front and two to the back

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The old freestanding bathtub was in the kitchen, next to the sink

MacDougal Street Old Law Tenements:

We’re aware in every nerve end of our tenement’s hand-mortared Jersey brick, the plumbing’s dripping dew-points, the electric running Direct, and on each landing four hall-johns fitted to the specifics and minima of the 1879 Tenement Housing Act. We lived in its clauses and parentheses, that drew up steep stairways and filled the brown airwells with eyebrowed windows. Unwhistling, the midwinter radiator lists in its pool of rust. A lightcord winds through its light chain; from a plasterless ceiling-slat topples a roach, with its shadow. Downstairs, our Sicilian widow beats the cold ribs with a long-handled skillet, and faucets drum in twenty old-law flats.[3]

Although our apartment was not in the least bit squalid, cramped or dark (in fact it was beautiful), I could imagine it, perhaps a century ago; stifling, noisy and overcrowded. I thought of all those people; new migrant families, restaurateurs, aspiring artists or poets who must have paced barefoot over these same uneven floorboards or spilled out onto their fire-escape balconies on a hot day. What was it they were seeking from this city? Did their dreams come true? I could imagine them, all of them, packed in like bees into a hive, room upon room, building next to building, engulfing the city in a swarm of diverse cultures, colours, clamour and chatter. The ghosts of the past were palpable here.

New York was overwhelming for the first few days and an unexpected sense of culture shock set in. I think British people often take cultural similarities between the UK and the USA for granted because we share the same language. But what about the cultural differences? As someone who has visited a lot of different European countries, I thought I was pretty well prepared for anything. It turns out that speaking the same language doesn’t always help in New York. We got confused an embarrassing number of times on the subway and got lost trying to follow the grid system. We got talked to by a lot of people in the street, even though New Yorkers are supposed to be some of the least friendly Americans. The city is like a collage of life, we never knew what sort of eccentric or unusual scene might be unfolding around the corner. One moment we saw a man nonchalantly taking his parrot for a walk, and the next an enormous bulldog blocking the entire sidewalk because he didn’t want to go to day school.

One of my favourite experiences was taking a small detour to visit one of the many places of literary importance in the Village; Patchin Place. Having taken a daily jog around Washington Square park, I had already marvelled at the arch where, as the story goes, in 1917 a motley crew of artists (including Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan) declared Greenwich Village a ‘free and independent republic’. Nevertheless, Patchin Place, a gated pedestrianised row behind Jefferson Market library was my favourite literary location. This was the home poet E.E. Cummings and his neighbour, writer and artist Djuna Barnes. Barnes spent her last years in this street, and it is said that her long periods of solitude were occasionally broken by Cummings shouting from his window “Are you still alive, Djuna?” This little street with its 19th Century gas lamp at one end and its iron railings at the other was home to some of New York’s most key artistic figures of the last century, also including novelist Theodor Dreiser, writers and socialists Louise Bryant and John Reed, as well as actor Marlon Brando. Although the whole of New York is steeped in cultural and literary history of this sort, Patchin Place really stole my heart.

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Patchin Place

Eventually one cannot help but surrender to the pace and rhythm of the city. By the end of our stay, accustomed and unfazed, we were the ones giving directions and helping people on the subway. The city is vibrant and uncompromising, you have to learn to keep up with it, because it won’t wait for you.

One of the key emblems of Greenwich Village:

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 Jefferson Market by John Sloan (1917)

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Jefferson Market taken by me – the elevated railway was demolished in 1938, and the surrounding buildings have changed, but now a library, the Jefferson Market building remains the same

[1] Anna Alice Chapin, Greenwich Village (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917) (pp. 233-234).

[2] Djuna Barnes, Djuna Barnes’s New York, ed. by Alyce Barry (London: Virago, 1990) (p. 238).

[3] Winters Anne, The Displaced of Capital (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) (p. 44)

[Next instalment – Midtown]

CFP: Local Modernisms: 1890-1950

Modernism – cosmopolitan and international in its connections and networks – found its home in cities, regions and locales. And yet provincialism and localism are still dirty words in criticism surrounding literary and artistic responses to modernity: they remain tinged with the reactionary and the conservative. Many narratives of artistic culture of the period 1890-1950 maintain that advanced aesthetics move from core to province, losing vitality as they become part of a supposedly ‘middlebrow’ culture. But what if the current were reversed? What if the local, the regional, the provincial, the civic and the municipal were the sites of artistic energy rather than cultural backwaters? Terms such as ‘local’ and ‘regional’ have more recently been animated by the reaction against financial and consumerist globalisation, but a glance backwards reveals that artists and writers of the modernist period were engaging with ideas of the local too, and that many of them were located far away from the metropolitan ‘centre’.

This two-day conference on 22nd-23rd June 2015, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity at the University of Birmingham, invites academics, postgraduate students, curators and other arts and heritage professionals to come together to discuss the many ways in which our current literary and artistic maps of modernism might be redrawn so that proper attention can be paid to local cultural nodes and networks. The organisers are looking for papers on any aspect of the topic. Potential speakers might talk about such issues as the following:

  • Literary and artistic responses to civic, local, municipal, regional and provincial modernity
  • Local, civic, municipal and regional activities, groups, coteries and enclaves
  • Rural modernisms
  • The concept of the ‘region’
  • Rejections/reformulations of internationalism
  • Town planning and urban design
  • Public art
  • Contemporary re-imaginings/re-workings of the spaces and places of civic modernity

For further information about the conference, or to submit an individual or panel proposal, contact Dr Daniel Moore (d.t.moore@bham.ac.uk). The deadline for proposals is Monday 18th May.

See the conference website for more information.

Rosalind Fursland’s New York City, Part I

Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis,  ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts.

1. Queen Mary II

I have read many times that everyone’s New York is different. Prior to September 2014, my only real knowledge of post 1930s America had been accumulated though cultural osmosis as a 1990s child. That is to say, having studied the city as it was in the 1910s and ‘20s, and having only ever been outside Europe at the age of 4, my whole perception of modern day New York was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster comprised of Friends; Will & Grace; Stuart Little and Ghostbusters. As the glowing city entered my bleary vision at 3am, its skyscrapers rising beyond the decks of the Queen Mary 2, I had no idea of what to expect.

I chose New York 1910-1929 as the main subject for my PhD thesis (in progress). I had never been to America, nor had the money or plans to go anytime soon. I think I was inspired by the idea of challenging my preconceptions and learning about somewhere completely new. I grew up in a household filled with jazz and this, alongside loving The Great Gatsby at school, fuelled my interest in the 1920s. As we arrived into Brooklyn harbour, I hoped above all else that some remnant of the New York captured by the writers, painters and photographers I have studied, would be traceable amid the 21st century city.

The decision to embark on a transatlantic voyage was initially circumstantial, although quickly became more meaningful as I was struck by the significance of this notoriously volatile journey. We were truly following in the wake of history. I reflected on the millions of individuals who had made this passage, whether forcibly or voluntarily, each with their own burden of expectation. I thought about what America might have represented to them, whether it be a land of new hope or likely suffering. As we arrived, I remembered the essence of Carolyn Burke’s opening to the biography of the Futurist poet Mina Loy, Becoming Modern:

TRAVELERS ARE OFTEN awestruck on their first sight of New York Harbor. In the decades before planes, however, they had time to let their impressions take shape. Passengers arose at dawn – and went on deck in a dream. After weeks of pitching and tossing, seasickness, and the ordeals of steerage, Manhattan looked like paradise […] Often their only welcome came from the female figure that greeted ships on their approach. “I felt grateful that the Statue of Liberty was a woman. I felt she would understand a woman’s heart,” recalled a traveler about her arrival in 1916, when German warships on patrol intensified the hazards of transatlantic passage.

That year, on October 14, Mina Loy saw Manhattan for the first time. At dawn, after a perilous trip past mines and submarines that lay along its path through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic, her ship – the Duca d’Aosta – entered the harbor. The Statue of Liberty was invisible beneath the fog. Mina peered through the dim light with the other passengers, mostly Italians […] Mina, too, thought that New York looked like paradise – but paradise imagined by a Cubist or a Futurist. As the famous skyline emerged through the mist, its buildings floated above their foundations like ladders reaching to heaven. Soon thousands of windows shone like coloured glass. Although these glistening towers reminded her of medieval spires, the most beautiful Italian buildings were dwarfed by comparison. Then, as the mist evaporated, the air brightened and the city woke up. Watching its skyscrapers sharpening their angles, she composed a mental picture of Manhattan’s vast cityscape. [1]

I feel incredibly fortunate that my first vision of New York followed in this timeless tradition. “I can see lights” were the first words I uttered that day, after only two hours sleep. “Are you sure?” said Ellie, “I think those are stars”. We had been scrutinising the ship’s webcam for some minutes before we agreed that the lights of New York were indeed emerging from the darkness. Wearily but euphorically we left our cabin and climbed to the highest point on the ship where a small gathering crowd was waiting to spy the still distant spectacle.  It seemed to take an eternity as we huddled together like penguins in the cool Atlantic breeze. Eventually as the boat ducked perilously under the Verrazano Bridge and rounded the corner, Manhattan arose in all its splendour. We bypassed Ellis Island which had once been home to the immigration inspection unit and now stands as a monument to the millions who passed through it’s gateways between 1892 and 1954 on their way to a new life. As promised, Liberty greeted us as she had greeted so many, with her shackles undone and her torch aflame, a symbol of hope and freedom. The words of Emma Lazarus’ renowned poem (‘The New Colossus, 1903’) inscribed at the base of Liberty’s pedestal, echoed in my ears:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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One of my initial observations was how the city changes colour almost kaleidoscopically. By sunrise when we docked, the skyscrapers had taken on an almost emerald glow as their million iridescent windows winked in the morning light. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between our arrival and the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) in which Dorothy and her companions first catch sight of The Emerald City. The bejewelled metropolis, comprised of ‘beautiful marbles in which are set a profusion of emeralds’, is an overt display of a radiantly gleaming modern city with quasi Art-Deco towers and lights akin to New York. [2] They are in awe as the majestic city rises before them and glints through the darkness, its jagged assortment of towers closely resembling the haphazard growth of uncut emerald in its crystalline form. For Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, the city is symbolic of the fulfilment of dreams, perhaps even the American Dream, as each is rewarded with what they seek; a way home; a brain; a heart and courage.

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As New York sprawled out before us, I reflected, as many had before, on what it was I was seeking from this city.

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Henry Bacon (1839-1912) ‘Distant Thoughts’

[1] Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy [New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996] (pp. 3-7)

[2] L. Frank Baum, The Emerald City of Oz (New York: HarperCollins, 1910) (p. 29).

[Next instalment – Greenwich Village]

Carolyn Steedman (University of Warwick) ‘A Lawyer’s Letter: Everyday Uses of the Law in early Nineteenth-century England’

As part of the School of History & Cultures’ Modern and Contemporary History Seminar Series, Professor Caroyln Steedman of the University of Warwick will be giving a talk, ‘A Lawyers Letter: Everyday Uses of the Law in early Nineteenth-century England’.

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The session will take place at 4.15pm on Wednesday 25 February, Art Lecture Room 8 (301 Arts Building). All are welcome!

Next seminar paper: Hayley Flynn on ‘The Victorian Dream’

On Wednesday 11th February, 4.30-5.30pm (Arts Building Room 105, University of Birmingham) as part of the EDACS postgraduate seminars, Hayley Flynn will be giving a paper entitled ‘The Victorian Dream’. The paper will consider the importance of the dream in the Victorian period and its subsequent influence on literature, focusing specifically on the work of Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald. Staff and students alike are welcome to come along!

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