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The Larry Davis Show: Rambo Rocks the House

Davis and I were sitting in the visitor’s area of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. The MCC is a large fortress filled with orange paint, thick Plexiglas partitions, and steel doors that constantly buzz, click, and whine like robots in heat. Davis had entered the visitor’s area through one of those doors, shackled along the wrists, waist, and ankles, a postmodern Kunte Kinte in federal prison browns. He was trailed by five male guards, one of whom held a video camera to record his departure from the holding area. Even in the joint, Larry Davis is a star.

“Sometimes,” Davis said quite seriously, “it’s good to pay attention to movies, because you get what’s really happening.” Before the movie ended on November 19th, what was really happening in the apartment overwhelmed what was playing on the TV screen: Davis, who was wanted for the slayings of four suspected South Bronx crack dealers, faced down almost 30 cops in one of the wildest shootouts in New York history. It was all over by nine, in time for the 11 o’clock newscasts to begin to make Larry Davis an outlaw celebrity. It was the night he became the talk of the town: a muscular young black man bursts his way out of a small apartment seiged by a 27-member team of armed police officers, wounding all of them in the process. It was the night he became an urban legend, a black Billy the Kid, an adolescent gunslinger outshoots an army of cops and lives to tell about it. It was the night Larry Davis became a star.

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In the weeks after Davis shot the six cops, faked out the costly, nationwide manhunt for 17 days, and held a major portion of the NYPD to a standoff in the Twin Parks Houses near Fordham Road, huge black-and-white mug shot-like photos of a starry-eyed, baby-faced killer adorned the front pages of the tabloids under headlines like “They Won’t Take Me Alive” and the local news anchors excitedly invoked his name at the top of every show. He was all the talk between assistant D.A.’s and reporters during court recesses, between rap DJs and MCs during songs at the Latin Quarter, between old Jewish women and their doormen on the Upper East Side. Did Larry Davis shoot and kill dopeboys and take off crack spots? Did he really decide (as a cop testified) that it was too crowded in his van one afternoon, and casually order a flunky to kill a man sitting in an orange Toyota for the extra room? Did he really cook a Chihuahua and eat it?

I started getting phone calls from friends who couldn’t stop talking about the B-boy renegade from the South Bronx. “That kid used to rock the fresh jams in the summertime in the P.S. 145 schoolyard,” one buddy remembered. Another told me that, in addition to playing cops and robbers, Davis had stroked the keyboards on “Goldie’s Hot Tracks,” a hip hop show on Manhattan Cable. I was told that Davis also sang, danced, and virtually, “turned the show out.”

Some of Davis’s acquaintances later told me he used to watch a videotape of that show over and over in his bedroom — a space that was packed with drum machines and keyboards and doubled as an eight-track recording studio — with “that look” on his face, a sly grin and a faraway, star-struck expression. Family members say it’s the look he had playing drums for the choir of the Rapture Preparation Church on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx. It’s the look of an impressionable young kid who sees his name in lights on the marquee of a hit movie with a long line, or his face 70 feet high inside the darkened theater, with the crowd screaming out his name.

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But instead of the customary head-in-the-jacket running crouch of the arrested criminal, Davis kept his head high, his face visible to the TV cameras, as he was hustled through the courtyard. Just before the cops carried him off, he made his now-famous declaration: “It’s a good thing to sell drugs. The cops gave me the guns.”

To would be revolutionaries, Larry Davis was Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas come to life, a South Bronx native son, a mindless killer spawned by white racism, poverty, and hopelessness. To black nationalists, Davis became a figurehead, an explosive life-sized model that defined the movement’s heartbeat: the oppressed striking back at the oppressors. To old lefties, Davis was a throwback to the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers; William Kuntstler, who took over Davis’s case from a Legal Aid lawyer, said to me, “Any black guy that shoots six cops and puts the fear of God in police officers, I think is great.”

After the police killings of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs, and the frustrated rage over the Howard Beach incident and the Tompkins Square Park riot, Davis’s stand against the police served as a metaphorical wheel of justice: whatever goes around, comes around. But much of white New York — and a significant segment of the black population — saw him as a real-life monster too true to be good; a heavily armed creature from the Bronx lagoon.

In all cases, Larry Davis lost his identity to become an ideal that is reviled or revered: Public Enemy and Soul Brother Number One, and nothing more. Mere publicity and hype to justify the ends of each group’s own means. But Davis would never object to being exploited: it soon became apparent that Larry Davis eats hype like some kind of weird food. Not long after he was captured, he began calling newspapers — most notably The City Sun and later New York Newsday — to give his version of his story. “Write this,” he would instruct reporters. If they added details that didn’t please him they would receive phone calls chewing them out. And if here stories didn’t appear, he would refuse to grant them further interviews.

Gradually, a truer portrait of Larry Davis emerged between the lines of the media frenzy. Here was a young kid, a semi-illiterate high school dropout who spent his time chillin’ on street corners but who felt a burning need to be known, to be recognized, to be listened to, to be larger than life. His plans to be a pop star fizzled and his street scrambling produced only a shadowy local celebrity. Then, all of a sudden, he was on the top of every New York City broadcast. What did that do to him? What would it do to anybody? Your heart would pound like a bass drum and your skin would be drenched in cold sweat, knowing you are in the biggest trouble in your life. The rush would play in your mind forever.

Larry Davis didn’t have to use his imagination. The newspapers he read every day replayed the images: the courtyard crowds, the mayor, the police commissioner, the cameras, the lights, the cheers and jeers, the “The cops gave me the guns.” it was splashed across the front pages and he fell in love with it, tumbled into it, became one with it. With the flick of a camera shutter, Larry Davis became the New Narcissus.

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In the street, the Davis legend is very real; Sunday’s triumphant verdict pumped his image larger than the Superman balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade. The inner city now gazes up at him with a mixture of victimized fear and vigilante pride. It reminds me of a hood from my teen years, who I’ll call “Igor Jackson.” Jackson was the scourge of 148th Street and Eighth Avenue, a wild man fueled by angel dust and barbiturates who killed because it amused him. He was a legend on the streets of Harlem in 1977 because he made more than a few victims — mainly the teenage operatives of heroin kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes — get on their knees and beg for their life, only to see Jackson smirk and savor his response, a cold, dry, “No.”

Like Igor Jackson, Larry Davis personifies a running character in rap music: the cartoonish hood LL Cool J portrays in “I’m Bad” as he taunts cops, buries the faces of musclemen in the sand, and wears a gold nameplate that says, “I Wish You Would.” In a bizarre sense, Davis fulfilled the ultimate goal of any young inner-city black teen who practices rapping over long hours with a microphone and a tape deck: to develop a voice, to make that voice heard beyond the confines of the street corner — as Big Daddy Kane brags in “Set If Off,” “Your vocals go local/on the m-i-c/Mine go a great distance/like A T and T” — and most importantly, to make those listening respect that voice. Davis had accomplished all three and his delivery was loud and bloody.

To those whose only knowledge of rap comes from watching the movie Colors or minicam reports after concert riots, Davis is the final, dreaded proof; the incarnation of the rap ideal, the bloodthirsty, nigger teen with a $3000 gold cable around his stiff neck whose only goal is to put heads in graveyard beds and cold-snatch money like the feds. But to the makers of the music, Davis — who had his own record label for a while, Home Boys Only — is the freakish exception, a flesh-and-blood lyric taken too far.

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In my secret moments, in the midnight of my living room, as the Sony earphones fill my ears with Big Daddy Kane waiting for the fake gangsters, “front artists,” to taunt and step to him so he can destroy them like “Jason” from Friday the 13th. I live vicariously through the sonic violence. It’s a release, a shot of dope that makes my blood race. Kane’s tune “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” gives me foolish courage every time a young sucker-punk busts a series of clips from his Beretta from the crackhouse from across the street. The tune, and maybe even the street-corner bravado of Larry Davis, whisper twisted, suicidal words of encouragement to me: “If you had an Uzi, you could take care of that problem across the street.” But the line is drawn when I remove the headphones — the violence belongs on the vinyl.

But for Larry Davis, the music never stopped. The sound panned from a Bronx schoolyard full of junior high school kids dancing to the music on his two turntables to a small Bronx apartment full of cops collapsing to the beat of bullets tearing through their bodies.

A tour of the South Bronx would convince anybody that Davis’s tale of night-crawling, street-racketeering, and dealing drugs for dirty cops is possible — in fact, if Davis wasn’t doing all he claimed, somebody is definitely is for some cop up there. The Bronx is a very big small town, a mesh of hills, valleys, concrete atolls, and dead ends. The streets are narrow, the city blocks wide, and the tenements, row houses, projects, and co-ops prop each other up. Flashing patrol-car lights provide 24-hour illumination; police and ambulance sirens mingle with hip hop, salsa, reggae, soca, and r&b like the fragmented strains of some strange carny pipe organ. The Bronx is a sprawling, Third World, urban fun house.

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The raggedy cityscape of East 169th Street is a perfect movie set for the type of clandestine meetings with corrupt cops that Davis describes. Fat and grimy Chevy vans dot the quarter-mile stretch of five-story urban wasteland like rusty camels — who knows what’s going on inside? Grant Avenue has so many abandoned pre-war buildings it looks like an estate of haunted houses. You can feel the action you can’t see: the teen scramblers who bring the crackhouse whores here for tag-team sex. who lure the snitches and rival crack czars for no-name murders; the crackheads who burrow into dank basements to get high and talk to Scotty on the Enterprise.

Not surprisingly, Davis gets a vote of confidence from a young kid I saw hawking “jums” — the abbreviated term for jumbos, the larger pieces of crack — on a 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. “The cops were comin’ to kill that kid that night,” he told me, “and Larry wasn’t with that program. He was about to expose their whole joint, and they had to keep him from speakin’ on it. This crack money is crazy large out here, and you know Five-O is getting put on to all the action. Drugs flow so freely in this neighborhood, it’s like they legal. I know — I’m out here every day.”

Davis’s firefight may have set a violent precedent, declaring open season on cops. In recent months the word on the street is that cops — from Officer Ed Byrne in Jamaica, Queens, to Officer Michael Buczek in Washington Heights a few weeks ago — are not superhuman.

Teflon-coated bullets, now available in the inner city, are made to pierce bullet-proof vests. And not everybody agrees who wears the white hats: with the long standing belief that New York cops are racist and the recent corruption in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct and allegations of police abuse in Queens’s 113th, many in the black and Latino communities are disgusted with New York’s Finest. They feel it’s more likely than not that the South Bronx cops are dirty, that Davis was working for them, and that they came to murder him because of what he knew.

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To say Larry Davis is intense is an understatement. The day I interviewed him in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the guy not only stared me down, he appeared to look right through me, and then discard my bodily contents. It reminded me of somebody chewing all the sugar out of a stick of Juicy Fruit and throwing it in the garbage. Davis gave the impression he regards reporters as nothing more than inquisitive ectoplasm that collect and distribute information.

By Larry Davis is no psycho killer. Davis is more insular than he is callous, more calculating that he is crazy. Prince, another self-invented idiot savant, treated me the same way when I interviewed him in 1980 at the Westbury Hotel after the release of Dirty Mind. There he sat (dressed in a gray trenchcoat, black stockings, and black bikini briefs), calmly reanimating his mythos for me: how his mother was white and his father was black, how he was the servant of both the LORD GOD Almighty and “the Other,” how all of his songs were autobiographical, even the incestuous “Sister.” When I pressed him for details, he slyly told me, “the clues are all you need to know.” As he continued his presentation, I began to laugh. The expression on his face changed from surprise to indignation to a self-realization that finally caused him to join in the laughter.

Like Prince, Davis spun me a yarn. He told me how he worked for the cops taking off crack spots, and then sold the drugs. He told me how he woke up one fine day in the Bronx and it was revealed to him that he was wrong, how “through the mercy of Allah, I realized I was brain dead, and I was going to tell the world I was wrong to work for those drug-selling policemen,” and how the cops came to hunt him down at his sister’s apartment to silence his Redemption Song. When I remarked to him that this was the same rap he gave The City Sun’s Peter Noel, and Newsday’s Len Levitt, Davis began to lose his patience. When I asked him to elaborate on the details — especially his whereabouts during his 17-day flight from the authorities — he told me pointedly, “Homeboy, you gonna have to wait for the movie.”

After giving me that look, he and I laughed. But the joke only served as another smoke screen: the interview was over and the real Larry Davis remained in the shadows. Looking at his expressionless face, I realized that was the way he wanted it. All I saw was a blankness that defied filling in. Is he Adam Abdul Hakeem — an Islamic name which means “lifeblood, servant of the wise” — the young, studious, and natty Muslim convert who sits quietly while others accuse him of mayhem and murder, and then sobs softly when vindicated?

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Or is he the frenzied madman who slashed at the Department of Corrections from the inside for 367 days — allegedly assaulting guards, spitting and throwing urine at them — eventually forcing a transfer to the higher security MCC, the federal facility in lower Manhattan?

According to those close to him, Davis is more like Prince than Charles Manson. Once acquaintance told me, “Larry is a musician. That guy knows sound. He’s written 200 great songs, he’s a singer — he sounds like that old guy, Billy Paul — keyboard player, arranger, producer, everything. He had a studio in his house. I couldn’t understand the sound he got from his room, from just an eight-track channel mixing board — it sounded like a 24 or 36-track recording studio.” The man speaks the truth. Davis’s bittersweet, Philly soul ballads “Silly Love” and “Loving You Is So Beautiful” could very well score on the music charts. His hard rocking hip hop tunes, like “I Ain’t No Popeye” and “Vultures of the Subculture,” melodic and rhythmically complex songs written almost three years ago, still seem far more advanced than most of the music on current radio. So is he a disillusioned auteur who turned to wild-style glamour when he failed to land a contract with a major label?

With Davis, like Prince, there are precious few times you are able to find the chink in the calculated persona, to see the true, naked person living behind the costumed exterior. It took me a few months of interviews with Davis before the moment came along. About three weeks before the acquittal in the first trial, he started bugging me for some portraits Voice photographer Joe Rodriguez took during the MCC interview. Since Rodriguez was busy with another project, I couldn’t get the photos. During the recesses, or even when court was in session, Davis would turn around and mouth to me, “Where are the pictures?” outlining a frame in the air with his fingers. All of the spectators looked at me, wondering, “Who is this guy and why is he so important to Larry Davis?” Embarrassed, all I could do was shrug my shoulders. Davis would wave his hand at me disgustedly.

Our Tom and Jerry routine went on for almost two weeks. Finally, during a lunch break, I coughed up the goods. As I handed the white envelope to his co-counsel, Lynne Stewart, Davis grinned. “Yo, man, come and see me,” he said in a stage whisper. “Let’s talk.” Davis smiled so wide, I thought his face was going to break. He took the pictures out and studied them. One by one. I had seen the pictures: four 8x10s, stark black and white close-ups of a young black man in an orange box with no escape hatch. Davis’s smile faded slowly and he stiffened, as if he was unable to move.

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Larry Davis was born May 28, 1966, the youngest of Al and Mary Davis’s 15 children. The couple drove up from Perry, Georgia in 1952 and settled into a weather-beaten white row house on Woodycrest Avenue in the southwest Bronx, a working-class neighborhood with clean, narrow streets and well-kept playgrounds. “Larry was a big and playful baby,” says Betty Patron, his oldest sister. “He was born big, a baby with big muscles.” Al Davis — who died a few months ago — supported his growing family working as a plumber, while Mary took care of the home and children.

Al Davis moved out around 1976; some say he left because of the pressures of raising such a large family (it would later grow to include more than 42 grandchildren). Davis, with a note of sadness in his voice, told me the two of them have stayed in contact. When I asked Davis if his father visits him in prison, he eyes fell, and he looked less like a slick new jack who shoots cops than a sad adolescent who is waiting for someone to come and take him home. “No. I don’t call him,” he replied. “My father would visit if I call him. I don’t call him, because it’s not not his position. Me being a man, I gotta face what has to come, or what won’t. I don’t feel that’s his position.”

Larry was 10 when his father left. Mary struggled on without Al, opening a thrift shop near the house and taking in foster kids, runaways, and homeless children. As her elder sons turned to crime (all four of Larry’s older brothers eventually served time for charges ranging from theft to assault), Mary Davis became increasingly devoted in the Rapture Preparation Church in the Bronx. Larry, who often went with her, had sung with the church choir since he was seven. By the time he was 10, he was also playing drums and piano for the group.

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But after graduating from fifth grade at P.S. 73, the bad times began to roll. He went to J.H.S. 145 where “he was not a good student,” according to principal Bernard Krasnow. “He didn’t come very often. When he did attend he was usually in trouble. He was quite an aggressive young man.” After a teacher found Davis with a weapon — officials can’t remember if it was a knife or a gun — the 12-year-old was transferred to J.H.S. 147. But “he was only here a couple of days,” recalls principal Calvin Hart. Later, Davis was transferred to P.S. 58, a special education high school in Manhattan. At 14 years of age, he disappeared from the school system altogether.

By 18, Davis had supplemented the weapons charge at J.H.S. 145 with arrests for resisting arrests, possession of a hypodermic needle, and harassment. His harshest fine was $60, which he paid; he never served more than 24 days in jail.

Despite its problems, the Davis family remained close and large-hearted. Charlie Addo, a 39-year-old Ghanian musician and part-time cab driver who boarded at the Davis house for a year (until just after the shootout), remembers Mary Davis as a kind woman who occasionally shared her private pain with him. “She used to tell me, ‘It would be a mess without me. They’d kill themselves without me.’ Sometimes she falls apart because she goes through so much. But she’s very strong.”

Addo’s fondest moments of the Davis house were the times he and Larry watched videos in the Davis bedroom. “Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop was one of Larry’s favorites,” says Addo, “because he liked to laugh. He also liked watching Rambo.

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Davis claims he discussed the deal a few days later with his buddy Rick Burgos. The two were close; Davis was the bossy older sibling, and Burgos was the loyal sidekick. Davis even bragged about Burgos’s fidelity to a confederate on a wiretap during his time on the run: “Yo, Rick will do 30 years before he talks.” Burgos had idolized Davis since hearing him kick bass tempo on Run-D.M.C. records in the playground of P.S. 145. Like Davis, Burgos — a short, scrappy kid with squinty, Humphrey Bogart eyes — came from a large family and started fighting the law at an early age. At 14, Burgos was arrested for spraying grafitti on the D train, and was sentenced to clean Crotona Park every other weekend for six weeks. In August 1986, he was accused of robbing and shooting a man at the White Castle on Webster Avenue.

Both Davis and Burgos knew that crack was catching on in the Bronx and Manhattan faster than the Asian flu. Whether it’s smoked in a glass pipe or mixed in a joint with reefer — the “woo-woo” or “woolahs” — crack hits are not only highly addictive, exhilarating, demoralizing, and deadly, but also big biz. A seasoned hustler who could sniff out money and opportunity, Burgos told Davis to go with the program and make the “stupid” money.

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Guys from my generation would’ve killed for the illicit carte blanche that Davis and Burgos claimed they enjoyed after they went into the business with the cops. Imagine — that is, if what Davis and Burgos are saying is true — using crackheads to make crack in basehouses throughout the Bronx like mad scientists in abandoned ghetto labs. Imagine breaking the law, with the law enforcers’ blessing. Imagine making piles — “coming off” — and Being Untouchable. Friends say the young “stunts,” the gangster groupies, went crazy over them like rock stars, while the fellas whispered and pointed at them with fear, envy, and admiration. It was almost like a bad joke; they dealt drugs and they couldn’t get arrested.

But the sweet scene turned on October 30, 1986 when the four suspected drug dealers were shot to death at a brickfaced apartment building, 829According to Davis, he had been in Norfolk. Virginia, for about two weeks, intending to buy his mother a house. If this were true — and Davis did come up with an alibi in the form of a Norfolk woman he was friendly with — it would make it impossible to place him at 829 Southern Boulevard on October 30. But after questioning by the prosecution before the first trial, the woman was unsure as to exactly when Davis was in Norfolk. Davis’s lawyers, Kunstler and co-counsel Lynne Stewart, filed a motion stating that the prosecution had intimidated her and placed doubt in her mind, thereby ruling out the possibility of her testifying at the trial.

Davis had additional problems in his first trial, and one was Charlie Conway. Many courtroom observers were surprised that he testified, including Davis. In a wiretapped conversation, Davis is heard explaining the finer points of street silence to Conway’s son, “Little Charlie”; “Your pops don’t talk man, that’s what I like about him. He do not say shit.”

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Big Charlie proved Davis wrong. He denied his willingness to testify was connected to any agreement that would help him out with his parole board (he’s currently serving an armed robbery sentence); instead he told the court, “I am tired. I’ve been involved with crime a lot of years, you know the dates. You went back to like ’65. I am really tired.”

Conway’s underworld weariness had not taken effect when he met Davis in 1984 through his son, Little Charlie, who was a student at J.H.S 145 with Davis. Big Charlie Conway, a former U.S. and merchant marine, testified he taught Davis how to bore out the barrel of a .45, making it difficult to trace. (Davis told me that the police showed him: “I got all my training from the police. They taught me how to bore out a gun.”) Conway also spoke of a meeting with Davis and James “J.J.” Patron on October 31, 1986 — the day after the murders of the four suspected drug dealers. That morning there was a knock on Conway’s apartment door. Conway asked who it was, and a voice replied “Rambo, Rambo” — Davis’s nickname. Conway let Davis and his nephew inside. In this meeting Davis asked the elder Conway if he’d seen Burgos. Conway said he hadn’t. Davis then told him, according to Conway’s testimony, “You all should have come up with us last night because we came off.” Patron then displayed a bracelet to Conway, and Davis said, “We had to pap-pap-pap these four guys.”

“Yeah man, one guy jumped on Larry’s back,” Patron chimed in, according to Conway’s testimony. Patron allegedly added that he shot one of the guys and then took all four men into a room where “Larry took care of them.”

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There were inconsistencies in Conway’s testimony. He seemed confused on names, dates, and places of past crimes. On one occasion, defense attorney asked Conway if he recalled an NYPD badge found in his apartment, and if was given to him by Larry Davis; Conway answered yes to both questions. But under questioning by assistant D.A. Brian Wilson, Conway said it was a security guard badge that Davis had given him in August 1986.

Between the time of the Southern Boulevard murders and the November shootout with police, Davis shuttled from place to place. Aside from various friends, he either stayed with his mother, his girlfriend Melody Fludd — the mother of his daughter Larrima — or his sister Regina Lewis. His lodging at Joe and Regina’s was the source of many arguments for the couple. Joe Lewis, a stocky private sanitation worker, didn’t like the fact that Davis stashed guns, blocks of cocaine in plastic bags, and large sums of money in their tiny apartment at 1231 Fulton Avenue; Lewis feared for the safety of his three young children, Joe Jr., Krystal, and Ravon. After one disagreement in the early fall of 1986, Regina reluctantly asked her baby brother to leave. Lewis soon reconsidered and welcomed Davis back into his home a few weeks before the shootout. Davis returned with the guns, drugs, and money in tow.

In early November, according to Burgos and Davis, the cops gave them 40 kilos of coke to sell to a Columbian dealer. Davis told me he met the Columbian and exchanged the drugs for $1 million in a suitcase. Both say that they kept all the money instead of handing the cops their share. The police “became worried” about Davis, Kunstler asserted later; “One, that he might tell on them, and two, that he took their money.”

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On November 19, 1986, Davis, Melody Fludd, little Larrima, Joe, and Joe Jr. were in the apartment watching a cassette. Although Davis remembers it being Rambo, the Lewises say it was Romancing The Stone (another example of Davis’s self-mythologizing?). Meanwhile, the other children, Krystal and Ravon, were playing in a rear bedroom.

Regina Lewis was on the phone in the front of the apartment when she saw the front doorknob begin to twist. She thought it was probably her prankster sister, Helen Mendoza, who lived next door. Regina got up, went to the door, and opened it just a crack. “Who lives here?” came a voice from the other side of the door. Curious, Joe Lewis got up and went to the door. Through the crack, he could see a brace of police officers with shotguns and flak jackets. They questioned Lewis for a second or two until they spotted Davis on the sofa: Davis saw them about the same time and made his move to the back bedroom.

“Somebody ran,” shouted one of the officers. About 13 cops rushed in, filling the tiny apartment with armed men. According to Regina Lewis’s testimony, no one produced a badge or a search warrant, not even Captain John Ridge, who backed her off iinto the kitchen, and told her to get on the floor. She began to scream. Sergeant Edward Coulter, who was called to testify by Davis’s attorneys, continued Regina’s account, saying, “All I could do was hear her screaming. There was a lot of screaming going on.”

The police hustled Joe Lewis, Melody Fludd, and her daughter out of the apartment. Joe said he wanted to run back and get Krystal and Ravon. “But there was no way to get them,” he recalled. “That’s where they were shooting.”

In the back bedroom, Davis said he pushed Krystal and Ravon under the bed. Davis also said that Detective Thomas McCarren — who William Kunstler maintained at trial was the dirty cops’ assassin — was the first officer he saw. “He ran in the back and asked me, ‘Where’s the money, where’s the money?’,” Davis told me. “I said, ‘I got your money, just don’t hurt my family.’ He was trying to act like Scarface or something. Next thing I know, his gun goes off, and he skinned the top of my head. If I get a close haircut, you can see the scar. So I shot back.”

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Sergeant Edward Coulter testified that he was standing behind McCarren when Davis was desperately rummaging around the room for a gun. “The detective [McCarren] kept yelliing, ‘Police, come out with your hands up.'” Suddenly, McCarren yelled, “Get back, he’s got a gun” and waved his arms desperately, falling backwards into Coulter. Coulter claimed Ravon, Larry Davis’s three-year-old nephew, then walked out of the bathroom. “I can draw you a picture of this kid today,” Coulter said on the stand. “The kid walked out of the bathroom, made a right, and started into the bedroom and as the kid got to the bedroom entrance, I heard an explosion. The guy fired a shot at us. We started to retreat. I … I don’t know if that’s the shot that hit the detective or it was a second shot or a … The gunfire, it was unstopped gunfire, just sounded like the range.” Coulter described shooting wildly through the walls of the bedroom at Davis, whom Coulter says he never saw.

Just as dramatic was the second-trial testimony of Officer Mary Buckley, who was shot in the mouth. On a wiretap recorded during his 17 days on the run, Davis told a friend that after Buckley said, “Freeze, you fuckin’ black nigger, I’m gonna blow your fuckin’ ass away,” she caught a bullet “in her mouth.” (Buckley has denied the slur.) Buckley, who has received more than 135 hours of dental work since the shooting, gave a visceral portrayal of the action. “It was like a knife cutting into my lip,” she told the court. “I realized that I was shot, and I thought I was going to die on some strange floor. I could feel all my veins turning to ice.” Within minutes, however, Buckley said she felt “very peaceful. I started to think of my daughter. She was nine at that time, and I didn’t want to leave her.”

Regina Lewis testified that after the six wounded officers retreated from the apartment, she ran to the bedroom and retrieved Ravon and Krystal from underneath the bed. “I started screaming because I heard the door open,” Regina Lewis told the court. “I thought the police were coming back in. And Larry said, ‘It’s me.’ I said, ‘Please don’t start shooting again.'”

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Davis darted out of the front door of the apartment. Outside, he spotted a few more policemen, and sprayed the hallway with gunfire. The cops scurried. Davis then shot the lock off of his sister Helen’s door and went inside. Looking out a rear window, he spied several cops in the backyard. Davis claims they saw his figure in the window but didn’t realize it was him. Mimicking a woman’s voice, he asked the cops what was happening. They gruffly told the “woman” to get back inside. After the cops left, Davis jumped from the first floor apartment window into the backyard and disappeared into the wilds of the Bronx. (This daring impersonation remains unverified; is it another product of the movie that plays in Davis’s head?)

After slipping in and out of safehouses for more than two weeks, Davis was cornered at 365 East 183rd Street in the Twin Parks West projects in the Fordham section of the Bronx on December 5, 1986. After more than six hours of tense negotiations between Davis and the NYPD — conducted over the phone and shouted through the front door of the apartment where Davis had taken two families hostage — Davis surrendered without incident at 7:30 a.m. He later claimed he gave up because he was concerned for his mother’s safety as well as his own. As a ring of cops led Davis down the building’s wheelchair ramp, he was showered with applause and cheers. Mayor Koch and Commissioner Ward patted each other on the back. The minicam crews raced back to their stations with the grand finale to the greatest show in the Empire State.

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Hunting for a conviction in the first trial (where Davis was charged in the Southern Boulevard murders), assistant district attorneys William Flack and Brian Wilson looked like mako sharks in NBO suits. They had a solid case against Davis; not airtight, but strong. In his summation, Flack likened the case with all of its testimony and physical evidence to “building a house.” He asked the jury not to be distracted by Kunstler and Stewart’s “landscaping and shrubbery” — the political dramatics — but to concentrate on the “house” itself.

With more than 50 witnesses, the prosecution’s case seemed stronger every day. There was the testimony of “Big Charlie” Conway, Addo, and a spacey crackhouse steerer named Roy Gray who claimed that, a few hours after the killings of the four suspected drug dealers, Davis, Burgos, and Patron robbed Gray outside a Washington Heights crackhouse (Burgos is currently serving a two-to-six year stretch at Rikers for this stickup). After Gray called the police and they arrived — and handcuffed Gray in the backseat of their patrol car just in case — the police chased Davis’s crew (driving a stolen car) all the way from 165th and Edgecombe in Manhattan to 167th and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. As Davis and company bailed out and scaled the sloping staircase from Jerome to Anderson Avenue, Gray testified that Davis and his boys fired at the cops. Flack and Wilson had evidence; the shells on the staircase and the fingerprints on the getaway car matched the shell casings and fingerprints taken from the scene of the murders.

Kunstler and Stewart ignored the murder case; their aim was to persuade the jury that corrupt police officers were out to assassinate Larry Davis. Kunstler’s theory was that McCarren, the detective who led the charge into Regina Lewis’s apartment on November 19, was out to “assassinate” Davis because he knew too much about police corruption and drug dealing. The defense team did their best to play to the frustrations and loyalties of the seven blacks and three Latinos on the jury.

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One person who figured heavily into Davis’s defense was his brother-in-law Joe Lewis. Lewis, who testified for the prosecution and later recanted, gave what appeared to be very damaging testimony. He claimed that Davis came to his house a day or two after the October 30 murders and said that he “went to rob some guys, but some static happened.” Lewis said Davis told him that one of the men rushed him and he shot the man. Lewis said Davis explained that the remaining three were shot and killed because Davis “didn’t need no witnesses.” Then the four were stripped of their clothing — one corpse did have socks on — tied up, and tossed into a bathtub full of water.

When I asked Davis what he thought of his brother-in-law’s account, he went off on me. “What’s the use of getting mad at the boy?” Davis asked sharply. “We know what they [the prosecution] is doing to him. The boy’s a punk, he’s scared, they tellin’ him he’s going to jail — he has children. I got a daughter myself. They scarin’ him. But they can’t do that to my family. They ain’t going for it.” And then Davis did something very brash. “Cut the tape off,” he said. Stunned and curious, I complied. “You see that tape recorder, how small it is? if you got a big coat, I want you to go to my mother’s house and interview Joe — but you can’t let him see the recorder. Take a pen and pad, but hide the recorder, switched on, in your coat pocket. He’s been telling people how he was scared, how they made him lie on the witness stand, how he didn’t want to do that, and I want that on tape.” I looked at Davis for a full minute as I let the full shock of his request sink in. Then I told him I couldn’t do that for him.

I did interview Lewis, however. He told me that right after Davis’s capture he kept getting calls from the Bronx D.A.’s office; he avoided them until the morning he was picked up by two detectives who drove him to the courthouse where he was interrogated for more than two hours by an assistant D.A. and a detective. According to Lewis, when he denied any knowledge of the murders or the shootout, the assistant D.A. told him, “You do know something. Why are you being stupid?” The detective allegedly added, “You asshole, why mess up your life for this bastard? Everybody here is telling on everybody anyway. We already know everything.” (The prosecution would not comment on the Lewis interview.)

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Says Lewis, “He had me thinking that it was other people that had already told on him, and they had all they needed to pin Larry. Then come to find out they only had me as a witness. They used me as a little sucker. I didn’t think it would be my testimony that would hang my brother-in-law. Larry used to call me and say, ‘Yo, don’t let them do this to me, don’t let them hang me.’ I told him, ‘I just put shit together from the newspapers. They was threatenin’ me so much, I was scared, tears was comin’ out of my eyes at the time.’ Then he told me, ‘Joe, stand up to them. Tell what they did to you, so people could know.’ They tried to use me, and I didn’t dig that. So I told Larry not to worry about it.” On the witness stand, Lewis avoided looking at Davis, his mother-in-law, and his wife.

On Sunday, February 14, Mary Davis called Stanley Cohen, Davis’s Legal Aid lawyer and one of the architects of his defense. After inquiring about his health, she said, “Somebody wants to ask your legal advice.” Joe Lewis took the phone. Cohen called him back and taped his recantation on an answering machine. Judge Fried did not allow the recantation because Lewis took the Fifth when asked whether his previous testimony was untrue. Fried also told the court that “Mr. Cohen did suggest the answers [for Lewis] outright.” But the next day the papers wrote about Fried barring the recantation. It was discussed on WLIB, and there is speculation that the jurors — who were sequestered upstate — got wind of it.

On March 3, 1988, after nine days of deliberation — the longest in Bronx county history — Davis walked on the murder charges. Objectively, the prosecution should have won, but crack and police corruption have filled the minds New Yorkers like sweet smoke spreading through a glass pipe. When it came down to choosing between “dirty” cops, unsympathetic victims, and poor leadership in the county’s judicial system on the one side and, on the other, a kid who may or may not have been lured into police corruption and no-name murders, Larry Davis was the people’s choice.

Mary Davis rocked with her eyes closed, her family fell on her and cried, her Pentecostal sisters raised open palms, on the brink of an unknown language. An older black man in the back of the courtroom shouted, “Alright now! Next, win, Jesse, win.” Stanley Cohen trembled, and then he cried. Lynne Stewart beamed and hugged Kunstler who tried to remain cool, but said, “I’m delirious. This is great, just great.” And he put his arm around Larry Davis, who sobbed into the sleeve of his lawyer’s charcoal gray suit.

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The acquittal in the first trial not only vindicated Davis, but it also bolstered his credibility, confirming the street-level perception that he was telling the truth about working for the cops. It was also the sort of surprise ending that suggested that the second trial (for the attempted first-degree murder of nine police officers, aggravated assault, use of a firearm, and criminal possession of weapons) would deliver even more drama.

After three months of false starts — involving possible racism in jury selection, subsequent empaneling and dismissals, until not one white sat on the jury — Davis II began in late July with the hoopla worthy of a new Martin Scorsese film. For the first couple of weeks, the courtroom was standing room only. As in the last trial, there was a broad cross-section of spectators: radicals, Muslims, Pentecostals — prayer capped women from Mary Davis’s Rapture Preparation Church — detectives, cops, reporters, and the legion of Davis’s family and supporters. I even remember small wagers made between reporters that Davis II would eclipse the hype of the Brawley mystery, which, at that time, was at it’s peak.

For a while, it seemed that it would. First, there was the tearful testimony of some of the wounded officers. Emergency Service sergeant Edward Coulter, who was wounded in the hand and thigh, broke down as he recounted the story of how he and his fellow officers were felled by the flashes of heat and light from Davis’s gun. Kunstler went as far as to show the courtroom a videotape of a police training lecture that depicted a much calmer Coulter describing the same event to fellow Emergency Service officers in a January 1987 meeting. Indeed, Coulter seemed to have a firmer grip on his emotions when I witnessed his testimony back in February. If anything, his steady delivery held the court spellbound, with his claim of Davis shooting first, even with a tot in the line of fire.

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Four of the other five wounded cops followed Coulter to the witness stand (four cops have filed civil suits against the city for negligence). The injured officers include Captain John Ridge who was grazed in the head (and who, according to a Newsday article, had a trace of alcohol on his breath during the post-shootout hospital examination, though he denied on the witness stand that he had been drinking), Officer John O’Hara, who was shot in the eye, and Detective Donald O’Sullivan, grazed in the head and hand. Throughout their testimony, Kunstler maintained the same position he outlined for Newsday on the day of the opening arguments: “You don’t assemble an entire task force with cops from all over the place, including ESU [Emergency Service Unit], get denied a request for a warrant from the DA’s office, and then still make a raid on the house with bulletproof vests, sawed-off shotguns, and 34 men unless you are hellbent on killing him.”

Bolstering the testimony of these and other officers on the scene that night were the daily sea of blue uniforms in the first two rows of the courtroom, including the wheelchair-bound Steven McDonald. McDonald, the officer disabled by a teen gunman in Central Park, was a quiet but powerful cheerleader for the cops. At the beginning of the second trial, he told the Post, “I consider them [the wounded officers] victims, and I’ll continue to be here as long as I am physically up to it.” Kunstler countered that McDonald’s presence was “a trick to win sympathy from the jury. It’s a shameful exploitation. I feel sorry for him.”

Perhaps the trial became too taxing for McDonald, because he didn’t show up in the courtroom for a while. Or maybe he just lost interest. McDonald’s absence was just one indication of the public’s lethargy during the bulk of Davis II. Despite the police parade of witnesses and the visceral testimony describing the melee, empathy had began to wane not only for the cops, but also for Larry Davis. Most people didn’t seem to care anymore; many said it was because the image painted by the cops of Davis using his toddler nephew as a shield in the shootout. Others said that the cop-shoot had been tried already in the murder trial; once you’ve seen the surprise ending, the thrill is gone.

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The disaffection of the general public grew despite the defense’s theatrical presentation. Davis, Kunstler, and Stewart did their best to pump a case that was in danger of becoming a mundane installment of Superior Court up to the level of a Hitchcock thriller. The most unexpected twist came in the October 5 testimony of Davis’s mother. Mary Davis, 65, told the court that on October 31, 1986 — the day after her son and two accomplices allegedly killed four suspected crack dealers at 829 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx — she was visited by four police officers. She testified that one of the officers, Joseph Nealon, said, “You know what you did? You raised a dirty bastard.” He went on to tell her, “You tell him, we’re going to put a f—in’ bullet in his head. You tell Larry we are going to kill him.” She informed the police Civilian Complaint Review of this harassment just in case “anything did happen,” (Nealon received a minor reprimand from the department for pushing and verbally abusing Mary Davis.)

Two weeks later, Kunstler, former Tawana Brawley advisers C. Vernon Mason and Al Sharpton, and other supporters staged a six-hour sit-in Brooklyn Criminal Court (over a judge’s decision in another case) that ended in a mini-riot and a group sleepover in a holding cell. Next, Davis developed a back problem that delayed the trial for a week. Were these carefully orchestrated blows against the system or were they acts of desperation? Well, Davis’s problem may have been genuine; months before he made the complaint, he told me had injured his back in a car accident that happened when he was being transferred from the Bronx Courthouse to the MCC. But there was widespread speculation that Kunstler was stalling because he had run out of ammunition.

Last week, the defense rested, the jury was charged, and deliberations began. as the trial drew to a close, the public revved itself up once more as if, having slept through the dreary exposition of the movie, the audience was waking up just in time for the car chase. Reporters who weeks ago were filling their notebooks with doodles suddenly scrambled to get to the fourth floor courtroom an hour early, because waiting for the verdict was the uptown ticket that’s as hot as Waiting For Godot. And Larry Davis was the hottest topic on the street corner again.

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Like a sequel that tops the original movie, the verdict in Davis II realized its great expectations. On Sunday afternoon, Larry Davis was found not guilty on all of the most serious charges — nine counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault — and found guilty of six counts of weapons possession. The press room on the ground floor of the Bronx County Courthouse swelled with reporters who were stunned into silence; meanwhile, shouts of “Hallelujah!” and revolutionary war cries caromed down the halls on the fourth floor. Soul power was alive and well in the Bronx.

Larry Davis will continue to be a figurehead for factions in New York. To the ruling class, he is society’s nightmare, a horror-film monster who keeps coming back every time you think you’ve put him away for good. Worse, he is not a lone gunman: he is the advance man for an urban earthquake that is rocking society from the bottom, a terrifying state of flux that can no longer be ignored or reversed. But to the powerless, Davis is a resistance fighter, decorated with the blood of the occupational forces and crowned with victories on the enemy’s home turf, the halls of justice that have traditionally been nothing more than corridors of white power. By paralleling Davis with Bernhard Goetz immediately after the verdict, Kunstler has (quite brilliantly) forced Judge Fried into choosing between either imposing a minimal sentence that matches Goetz’s penalty or a heavier one that implies the court is racist. If Davis serves any substantial length of time on the weapons convictions or if he is jailed on upcoming murder charges (he still faces two unrelated counts of murder), his name will be invoked the way Hurricane Carter’s was for years: as the patron saint of black victims.

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The triumph of Davis II has fueled the hunger for the kind of black hero that has been missing since the days of urban riots, Black Panthers, and Malcolm X. While Jesse Jackson has assumed the highest profile of any black leader in America today, there are many who feel his careful mainstreaming leaves a vacuum on the radical side; the rally to Davis’s bloody banner is a return to Malcolm X’s credo, “By any means necessary.” How could a crack dealing strongman be compared to a great visionary? “Hey man,” one Harlem professional told me recently, “remember that Malcolm used to be Detroit Red [a pimp and a drug dealer] before he became El Hajj. Everybody makes mistakes. It all depends on what you learn from them.”

I have heard the analogy between between Larry Davis and Malcolm X made so many times recently, it’s almost beginning to sound like an article of faith. But what the hopeful believers ignore is that Malcolm X was weaned on the black struggle through his father, a Marcus Garvey acolyte: Malcolm X was schooled to be a powerful beacon. As much as I believe God can rewrite any soul, and as much as I want to believe in Davis’s Islamic epiphany in prison, I can’t. I don’t think a true prophet would tell me to wait for the movie. ❖

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A Fierce Attachment

A Mother and Daughter, Living Their Lives

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second­-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apart­ment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her hus­band. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mothers says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, ride the subway was a euphemism for going to work.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and 21. There were 20 apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly re­member the men at all. They were every­where, of course — husbands, fathers, brothers — but I remember only the women. And I re­member them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I — the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image — I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.

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My mother and I are out walking. I ask if she remembers the women in that building in the Bronx. “Of course,” she replies. I tell her I’ve always thought sexual rage was what made them so crazy. “Absolutely,” she says without breaking her stride. “Remember Drucker? She used to say if she didn’t smoke a cigarette while she was having intercourse with her husband she’d throw herself out the window. And Zimmerman, on the other side of us? They married her off to him when she was 16, she hated his guts, she used to say if he’d get killed on the job it would be a mitzvah.” My mother stops walking. Her voice drops in awe of her own memory; “He actually used to take her by physical force,” she says. “Would pick her up in the middle of the living room floor and carry her off to the bed.” She stares into the middle distance for a moment. Then she says to me: “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” She starts walking again. “Once Zimmerman locked him out of the house. He rang our bell. He could hardly look at me. He asked if he could use our fire escape window. I didn’t speak one word to him. He walked through the house and climbed out the window.” My mother laughs. “That fire escape window, it did some business! Remember Cessa upstairs? Oh no, you couldn’t remember her, she only lived there one year after we moved in, then the Russians were in that apartment. Cessa and I were friendly. It’s so strange, when I come to think of it. We hardly knew each other, any of us, sometimes we didn’t talk to each other at all. But we lived on top of one another, were in and out of each other’s houses. Every­body knew everything in no time at all. A few months in the building and the women were, well, intimate.

“This Cessa. She was a beautiful young woman, mar­ried only a few years. She didn’t love her husband. She didn’t hate him, either. He was a nice man, actually. What can I tell you, she didn’t love him, she used to go out every day, I think she had a lover somewhere. Anyway, she had long black hair down to her ass. One day she cut it off. She wanted to be modern. Her husband didn’t say anything to her but her father came into the house, took one look and gave her a slap across the face she saw her grandmother from the next world. Then he instructed her husband to lock her in the house for a month. She used to come down the fire escape into my window and out of my door. Every afternoon for a month. One day she comes back and we’re having coffee in the kitchen. I say to her, ‘Cessa, tell your father this is America, Cessa, America. You’re a free woman.’ She looks at me and she says to me, ‘What do you mean tell my father this is America? He was born in Brooklyn.’ ”

My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to wors­en. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of soften­ing, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room — a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces — “She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

But we walk the streets of New York together endless­ly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apart­ments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am 45 now and my mother is 77. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.

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The apartment was a five-room flat, with all the rooms opening out onto each other. The kitchen window faced an alley in back of the building. There were no trees or bushes or grasses of any kind in the alley — only concrete, wire fencing, and wooden poles. Yet I remember the alley as a place of clear light and sweet air, suffused, somehow, with a perpetual smell of summery green.

The alley caught the morning sun (our kitchen was radiant before noon), and it was a shared ritual among the women that laundry was done early on a washboard in the sink and hung out to dry in the sun. Crisscrossing the alley, from first floor to fifth, were perhaps 50 clotheslines strung out on tall wooden poles planted in the concrete ground. Each apartment had its own line stretching out among 10 others on the pole. The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap of the wash on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. While she was pulling at the line she might also be calling, “Berth-a-a. Berth-a-a. Ya home, Bertha?” Friends were scattered throughout the buildings on the alley, and called to each other all during the day to make various arrangements (“What time ya taking Harvey to the doctor?” Or, “Got sugar in the house? I’ll send Marilyn over.” Or, “Meetcha on the corner in ten minutes”). So much stir and animation! The clear air, the unshadowed light, the women calling to each other, the sounds of their voices mixed with the smell of clothes drying in the sun, all that texture and color swaying in open space. I leaned out the kitchen window with a sense of expectancy I can still taste in my mouth, and that taste is colored a tender and brilliant green.

For me, the excitement in the apartment was located in the kitchen and the life outside its window. It was a true excitement: it grew out of contradiction. Here in the kitchen I did my homework and kept my mother company, watched her prepare and execute her day. Here, I learned she had the skill and vitality to do her work well but that she disliked it, and set no store by it. She taught me nothing. I never learned how to cook, clean, or iron clothes. She was a boringly competent cook, a furiously fast housecleaner, a demonic washerwoman.

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Still, she and I occupied the kitchen fully. Although my mother never seemed to be listening to what went on in the alley, she missed nothing. She heard every voice, every motion of the clothesline, every flap of the sheets, registered each call and communication. We laughed together over this one’s broken English, that one’s loud­mouthed indiscretion, a screech here, a fabulous curse there. Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. She would hear a voice go up one octave and observe: “She had a fight with her husband this morning.” Or it would go down an octave and “Her kid’s sick.” Or she’d catch a fast exchange and diagnose a cooling friendship. This skill of hers excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, more interesting when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley. I felt a live connection, then, be­tween us and the world outside the window.

The kitchen, the window, the alley. It was the atmo­sphere in which she was rooted, the background against which she stood outlined. Here she was smart, funny, and energetic, could exercise authority and have impact. But she felt contempt for her environment. “Women, yech!” she’d say. “Clotheslines and gossip,” she’d say. She knew there was another world — the world — and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

So this was her condition: here in the kitchen she knew who she was, here in the kitchen she was restless and bored, here in the kitchen she functioned admirably, here in the kitchen she despised what she did. She would become angry over “the emptiness of a woman’s life,” as she called it, then laugh with a delight I can still hear when she analyzed some complicated bit of business going on in the alley. Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator. How could she not be devoted to a life of such intense division? And how could I not be devoted to her devotion?

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We’re walking up Fifth Avenue. It’s a bad day for me. I’m feeling fat and lonely, trapped in my lousy life. I know I should be home working, and that I’m here playing the dutiful daughter only to avoid the desk. The anxiety is so great I’m walking with a stomach ache. My mother, as always, knows she can do nothing for me, but my unhappiness makes her nervous. She is talking, talking at tedious, obfuscating length, about a cousin of mine who is con­sidering divorce.

As we near the library, an Eastern religionist (shaved head, translucent skin, a bag of bones wrapped in faded pink gauze) darts at us, a copy of his leader’s writing extended in his hand. My mother keeps talking while the creature in gauze flaps around us, his spiel a steady buzz in the air, competing for my attention. At last, she feels interrupted. She turns to him. “What is it?” she says. “What do you want from me? Tell me.” He tells her. She hears him out. Then she straightens her shoulders, draws herself up to her full five feet two inches, and announces: “Young man, I am a Jew and a socialist. I think that’s more than enough for one lifetime, don’t you?” The pink-gowned boy-man is charmed, and for a moment bemused. “My parents are Jews,” he confides, “but they certainly aren’t socialists.” My mother stares at him, shakes her head, grasps my arm firmly in her fingers, and marches me off up the avenue.

“Can you believe this?” she says. “A nice Jewish boy shaves his head and babbles in the street. A world full of crazies. Divorce everywhere, and if not divorce this. What a generation you all are!”

“Don’t start, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit again.”

“Bullshit here, bullshit there,” she says, “it’s still true. Whatever else we did, we didn’t fall apart in the streets like you’re all doing. We had order, quiet, dignity. Fam­ilies stayed together, and people lived decent lives.”

“That’s a crock. They didn’t lead decent lives, they lived hidden lives. You’re not going to tell me people were happier then, are you?”

“No,” she capitulates instantly. “I’m not saying that.”

“Well, what are you saying?”

She frowns and stops talking. Searches around in her head to find out what she is saying. Ah, she’s got it. Triumphant, accusing, she says, “The unhappiness is so alive today.”

Her words startle and gratify me. I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her. “That’s the first step, Ma,” I say softly. “The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

She stops in front of the library. She doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying, but she’s excited by the exchange. Her faded brown eyes, dark and brilliant in my child­hood, brighten as the meaning of her words and mine penetrates her thought. Her cheeks flush and her pud­ding soft face hardens wonderfully with new definition. She looks beautiful to me. I know from experience she will remember this afternoon as a deeply pleasurable one. I also know she will not be able to tell anyone why it has been pleasurable. She enjoys thinking, only she doesn’t know it. She has never known it.

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A year after my mother told Mrs. Drucker she was a whore, the Druckers moved out of the building and Nettie Levine moved into their apartment. I have no memory of the Druckers moving out or of Nettie moving in. People and all their belongings seemed to evaporate out of an apartment, and others simply to take their place. How early I absorbed the circumstantial nature of most attachments. After all, what difference did it really make if we called the next-­door neighbor Roseman or Drucker or Zimmerman? It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. Nettie, however, would make a difference.

I was running down the stairs after school, rushing to get out on the street, when we collided in the darkened hallway. The brown paper bags in her arms went flying in all directions. We each said “Oh!” and stepped back, I against the staircase railing, she against the paint-blis­tered wall. I bent blushing to help her retrieve the bags scattered across the landing and saw that she had bright red hair piled high on her head in a pompadour and streaming down her back and over her shoulders. Her features were narrow and pointed (the eyes almond­-shaped, the mouth and nose thin and sharp), and her shoulders were wide but she was slim. She reminded me of pictures of Greta Garbo. My heart began to pound. I had never before seen a beautiful woman.

“Don’t worry about the packages,” she said to me. “Go out and play. The sun is shining. You mustn’t waste it here in the dark. Go, go.” Her English was accented, like the English of the other women in the building, but her voice was soft, almost musical, and her words took me by surprise. My mother had never urged me not to lose pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of the sunny street. I ran down the staircase, excited. I knew she was the new neighbor.

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Everything about Nettie proved to be impossible. She was a gentile married to a Jew like no Jew we had ever known. Her husband was a Merchant Marine, away at sea most of the time. (“Impossible,” my mother had said, “what Jew would work voluntarily on a ship?”) Alone and apparently free to live wherever she chose, Nettie had chosen to live among working-class Jews who offered her neither goods nor charity. A woman whose sexy good looks brought her darting glances of envy and curiosity, she seemed to value inordinately the life of every respectable dowd. She praised my mother lavishly for her housewifely skills — her ability to make small wages go far, always have the house smelling nice and the children content to be at home — as though these skills were a treasure, some precious dowry that had been denied her, and symbolized a life from which she had been shut out. My mother — secretly as amazed as everyone else by Nettie’s allure — would look thoughtful­ly at her when she tried (often vaguely, incoherently) to speak of the differences between them, and would say to her, “But you’re a wife now. You’ll learn these things. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to learn.” Nettie’s face would then flush painfully, and she’d shake her head. My mother didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain.

Rick Levine returned to New York two months after Nettie had moved into the building. She was wildly proud of her tall, dark, bearded seaman — showing him off in the street to the teenagers she had made friends with, dragging him in to meet us, making him go to the grocery store with her. An illumination settled on her skin. Her green almond eyes were speckled with light. A new grace touched her movements: the way she walked, moved her hands, smoothed back her hair. There was suddenly about her an aristocracy of physical being. Her beauty deepened. She was untouchable.

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I saw the change in her, and was magnetized. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I was going to run into her in the hall that day. If I didn’t I’d find an excuse to ring her bell. It wasn’t that I wanted to see her with Rick: his was a sullen beauty, glum and lumpish, and there was nothing happening between them that inter­ested me. It was her I wanted to see, only her. And I wanted to touch her. My hand was always threatening to shoot away from my body out toward her face, her arm, her side. I yearned toward her. She radiated a kind of promise I couldn’t stay away from, I wanted … I want­ed … I didn’t know what I wanted.

But the elation was short-lived: hers and mine. One morning, a week after Rick’s return, my mother ran into Nettie as they were both leaving the house. Nettie turned away from her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother demanded. “Turn around. Let me see your face.” Nettie turned toward her slowly. A tremendous blue-black splotch surrounded her half-closed right eye.

“Oh my God,” my mother breathed reverently.

“He didn’t mean it,” Nettie pleaded. “It was a mis­take. He wanted to go to the bar to see his friends. I wouldn’t let him. It took a long time before he hit me.”

After that she looked again as she had before he came home. Two weeks later Rick Levine was gone again. He swore to his clinging wife that this would be his last trip. When he came home in April, he said, he would find a good job in the city and they would at long last settle down. She believed that he meant it this time, and finally she let him pull her arms from around his neck. Six weeks after he had sailed, she discovered she was pregnant. Late in the third month of his absence, she received a telegram informing her that Rick had been shot to death during a quarrel in a bar in port some­where on the Baltic Sea. His body was being shipped back to New York, and the insurance was in question.

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Nettie became intertwined in the dailiness of our life so quickly it was hard for me to remember what our days had been like before she lived next door. She’d slip in for coffee late in the morning, then again in the afternoon, and seemed to have supper with us three nights a week. Soon I felt free to walk into her house at any hour, and my brother was being consulted daily about Rick’s insurance.

“It’s a pity on her,” my mother kept saying. “A widow. Pregnant, poor, abandoned.”

Actually, her unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other. It was as though she had been trying, long before her husband died, to let my mother know that she was disenfranchised in a way Mama could never be, perched only temporarily on a landscape Mama was entrenched in, and when Rick obligingly got himself killed this deeper truth became apparent. My mother could now sustain Nettie’s beauty without becoming unbalanced, and Nettie could help herself to Mama’s respectability without being humbled. The compact was made without a word between them. We got beautiful Nettie in the kitchen every day, and Nettie got my mother’s protection in the building. When Mrs. Zimmerman rang our bell to inquire snidely after the shiksa my mother cut her off sharply, telling her she was busy and had no time to talk nonsense. After that no one in the building gossiped about Nettie in front of any of us.

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My mother’s loyalty, once engaged, was unswerving. Loyalty, however, did not prevent her from judging Nettie, it only made her voice her reservations in a manner more indirect than the one to which she was accustomed. She would sit in the kitchen with her sister, my aunt Sarah, who lived four blocks away, discussing the men who had begun to appear, one after another, at Nettie’s door in the weeks following Rick’s death. These men were his shipmates, coming to offer condolences. There was, my mother said archly, something strange about the way these men visited. And Nettie herself acted strangely with them. Perhaps that was what was most troubling: the odd mannerisms Nettie seemed to adopt in the presence of the men. My mother and my aunt exchanged “glances.”

“What do you mean?” I would ask loudly. “What’s wrong with the way she acts? There’s nothing wrong with the way she acts. Why are you talking like this?” They would become silent then, both of them, neither answering me nor talking again that day about Nettie, at least not while I was in the room.

One Saturday morning I walked into Nettie’s house without knocking (her door was always closed but never locked). Her little kitchen table was propped against the wall beside the front door — her foyer was smaller than ours, you fell into the kitchen — and people seated at the table were quickly “caught” by anyone who entered without warning. That morning I saw a tall thin man with straw-colored hair sitting at the kitchen table. Opposite him sat Nettie, her head bent toward the cotton print tablecloth I loved (we had shiny boring oilcloth on our table). Her arm was stretched out, her hand lying quietly on the table. The man’s hand, large and with great bony knuckles on it, covered hers. He was gazing at her bent head. I came flying through the door, a bundle of nine-year-old intrusive motion. She jumped in her seat, and her head came up swiftly. In her eyes was an expression I would see many times in the years ahead but was seeing that day for the first time, and although I didn’t have the language to name it, I had the sentience to feel jarred by it. She was calculating the impression this scene was making on me.

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It rained earlier in the day and now at one in the afternoon, for a minute and a half, New York is washed clean. The streets glitter in the pale spring sunlight. Cars radiate dust-free happiness. Storefront windows sparkle mindlessly. Even people look made anew.

We’re walking down Eighth Avenue into the Village. At the corner of Eighth and Greenwich is a White Tower hamburger joint where a group of derelicts in permanent residence entertains visiting out-of-towners from 14th Street, Chelsea, even the Bowery. This after­noon the party on this corner, often raucous, is definite­ly on the gloomy side, untouched by weather renewal. As we pass the restaurant doors, however, one gentleman detaches from the group, takes two or three uncertain steps, and bars our way. He stands, swaying, before us. He is black, somewhere between 25 and 60. His face is cut and swollen, the eyelids three-quarters shut. His shoes are two sizes too large, the feet inside them bare. So is his chest, visible beneath a grimy tweed coat that swings open whenever he moves. This creature con­fronts us, puts out his hand palm up, and speaks.

“Can you ladies let me have a thousand dollars for a martini?” he inquires.

My mother looks directly into his face. “I know we’re in an inflation,” she says, “but a thousand dollars for a martini?”

His mouth drops. It’s the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence. “You’re beautiful,” he burbles at her. “Beautiful.”

“Look on him,” she says to me in Yiddish. “Just look on him.”

He turns his bleary eyelids in my direction. “Whad­she-say?” he demands.

“She said you’re breaking her heart,” I tell him.

“She-say-that?” His eyes nearly open. “She-say-that?”

I nod. He whirls at her. “Take me home and make love to me,” he croons, and right there in the street, in the middle of the day, he begins to bay at the moon. “I need you,” he howls at my mother and doubles over, his fist in his stomach. “I need you.”

She nods at him. “I need too,” she says dryly. “Fortu­nately or unfortunately, it is not you I need.” And she propels me around the now motionless derelict. Para­lyzed by recognition, he will no longer bar our progress down the street.

We cross Abingdon Square. The gentrified West Vil­lage closes around us, makes us not peaceful but quiet. We walk through block after block of antique stores, gourmet shops, boutiques, not speaking. But for how long can my mother and I not speak?

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“So I’m reading the biography you gave me,” she says. I look at her, puzzled, and then I remember. “Oh!” I smile in wide delight. “Are you enjoying it?”

“Listen,” she begins. The smile drops off my face and my stomach contracts. That “listen” means she is about to trash the book I gave her to read. She is going to say, “What. What’s here? What’s here that I don’t already know? I lived through it. I know it all. What can this writer tell me that I don’t already know? Nothing. To you it’s interesting, but to me? How can this be interest­ing to me?” On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared.

The book I had given her to read was a biography of Josephine Herbst, a ’30s writer, a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute. “Listen,” my mother says now in the patronizing tone she thinks conciliatory. “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing. To you it’s inter­esting. Not to me.” Invariably, when she speaks so, my head fills with blood and before the sentences have stopped pouring from her mouth, I am lashing out at her. “You’re an ignoramus, you know nothing, only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” On and on I’ll go, thoroughly ruining the afternoon.

However, in the past year an odd circumstance has begun to obtain. On occasion, my head fails to fill with blood. I become irritated but remain calm. Not falling into a rage, I do not make a holocaust of the afternoon. Today, it appears, one of those moments is upon us. I turn to my mother, throw my left arm around her still solid back, place my right hand on her upper arm, and say, “Ma, if this book is not interesting to you, that’s fine. You can say that.” She looks coyly at me, eyes large, head half-turned; now she’s interested. “But don’t say it has nothing to teach you. That there’s nothing here. That’s unworthy of you, and of the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” Listen to me. Such wisdom. And all of it gained 10 minutes ago.

Silence. Long silence. We walk another block. Silence. She’s looking off into that middle distance. I take my lead from her, matching my steps to hers. I do not speak, do not press her. Another silent block. “That Josephine Herbst,” my mother says. “She certainly car­ried on, didn’t she?”

Relieved and happy, I hug her. “She didn’t know what she was doing either, Ma, but yes, she carried on.” “I’m jealous,” my mother blurts at me. “I’m jealous she lived her life I didn’t live mine.”

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Mama and Nettie quarreled, and I entered City College. In feeling memory these events carry equal weight: Both inaugurated open conflict, both drove a wedge between me and the un­knowing self, both were experienced as subver­sive and war-like in character. Certainly the conflict between Nettie and my mother seemed a strategic plan to surround and conquer. Incoherent as the war was, shot through with rage and deceit, its aims apparently confused and always denied, it never lost sight of the enemy: the intelligent heart of the girl who if not  bonded to one would be lost to both. City College, as well, seemed no less concerned with laying siege to the ignorant mind if not the intelligent heart. Benign in in­tent, only a passport to the promised land, City of course was the real invader. It did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an un­shared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people but I was no longer one of them.

I think this was true for most of us at City College. We still used the subways, still returned to the neighborhood each night, talked to our high school friends, and went to sleep in our own beds. But secretly we had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents. We had been initiated, had learned the difference between hidden and expressed thought. This made us subversives in our own homes.

As thousands before me have said: “For us it was City College or nothing.” I enjoyed the solidarity those words in­voked but rejected the implied depriva­tion. At City College I sat talking in a basement cafeteria until 10 or 11 at night with half a dozen others who also never wanted to go home to Brooklyn or the Bronx, and here in the cafeteria my edu­cation took root. Here I learned that Faulkner was America, Dickens was poli­tics, Marx was sex, Jane Austen the idea of culture, that I came from a ghetto and D.H. Lawrence was a visionary. Here my love of literature named itself, and amazement over the life of the mind blos­somed. I discovered that people were transformed by ideas, and that intellectu­al conversation was immensely erotic.

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We never stopped talking. Perhaps be­cause we did very little else (restricted by sexual fear and working-class economics, we didn’t go to the theater and we didn’t make love), but certainly we talked so much because most of us had been read­ing in bottled-up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release. It was not from the faculty that City drew its reputation for intellectual goodness, it was from its students, it was from us. Not that we were intellectually distinguished, we weren’t, but our hungry energy vitalized the place. The idea of intellectual life burned in us. While we pursued ideas we felt known, to ourselves and each other. The world made sense, there was ground beneath the feet, a place in the universe to stand. City Col­lege made conscious in me inner cohesion as a first value.

I think my mother was very quickly of two minds about me and City, although she had wanted me to go to school, no question about that, had been energized by the determination that I do so. “Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of my uncles said to her, drinking coffee at our kitchen table on a Saturday morning in my senior year in high school.

“Here it is written,” she replied, tap­ping the table hard with her middle fin­ger. “Right here it is written. The girl goes to college.”

“But why? What do you think will come of it?”

“I don’t know. I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s go­ing to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” I stared at her. Where had that come from?

The moment was filled with conflict and bravado. She felt the words she spoke but she did not mean them. She didn’t even know what she meant by an education. When she discovered that upon graduation I wasn’t a teacher, she acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.

“You mean you’re not a teacher?” she said to me, eyes widening as her two strong hands held my diploma down on the kitchen table.

“No,” I said.

“What have you been doing there all these years?” she asked quietly.

“Reading novels,” I replied.

She marveled silently at my chutzpah.

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But it wasn’t really a matter of what I could or could not do with the degree. We were people who knew how to stay alive, she never doubted I would find a way. No, what drove her, and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking: coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know. I had never before spo­ken a word she didn’t know. Or made a sentence whose logic she couldn’t follow. Or attempted an opinion that grew out of an abstraction. It made her crazy. Her face began to take on a look of animal cunning when I started a sentence that could not possibly be concluded before three clauses hit the air. Cunning sparked anger, anger flamed into rage. “What are you talking about?” she would shout at me. “What are you talking about? Speak English, please! We all understand En­glish in this house. Speak it!”

Her response stunned me. I didn’t get it. Wasn’t she pleased that I could say something she didn’t understand? Wasn’t that what it was all about? I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing. I’d speak my new sentences, and she would turn on me as though I’d performed a vile act right there at the kitchen table.

She, of course, was as confused as I. She didn’t know why she was angry, and if she’d been told she was angry she would have denied it, would have found a way to persuade both herself and any interested listener that she was proud I was in school, only why did I have to be such a show-off? Was that what going to college was all about?

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I was 17, she was 50. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying bellig­erent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game. The lines were drawn, and we did not fail one another. Each of us rose repeatedly to the bait the other one tossed out. Our storms shook the apart­ment: paint blistered on the wall, lino­leum cracked on the floor, glass shivered in the window frame. We barely kept our hands off one another, and more than once we approached disaster.

One Saturday afternoon she was lying on the couch. I was reading in a nearby chair. Idly she asked: “What are you reading?” Idly I replied: “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last 300 years.” She looked at me for a mo­ment. “That’s ridiculous,” she said slow­ly. “Love is love. It’s the same every­where, all the time. What’s to compare?” “That’s absolutely not true,” I shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea. You think it’s a function of the mysterious immutable be­ing, but it’s not! There is, in fact, no such thing as the mysterious immutable be­ing … ” Her legs were off the couch so fast I didn’t see them go down. She made fists of her hands, closed her eyes tight, and howled, “I’ll kill yew-w-w! Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” And then she was com­ing at me. She was small and chunky. So was I. But I had 30 years on her. I was out of the chair faster than her arm could make contact and running, running through the apartment, racing for the bathroom, the only room with a lock on it. The top half of the bathroom door was a panel of frosted glass. She arrived just as I turned the lock, and couldn’t put the brakes on. She drove her fist through the glass, reaching for me. Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door. I thought that afternoon: One of us is going to die of this attachment. ■

This article is an excerpt from Fierce Attachments, a memoir by Vivian Gornick that will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

NYCFC’s Bronx Stadium Would Use City Parks Land — Sorta

When the owners of the New York Yankees announced, on a June day in 2005, plans for a new stadium to replace the 82-year-old Yankee Stadium, they had a special treat for New Yorkers who’d been hearing for more than a decade how the public would need to pay for a new home for the ball club: Steve Swindal, George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law at the time, declared, “There will be no public subsidies.”

That turned out to be not quite so much true. After adding up all the tax breaks and parking garage construction fees and costs of rebuilding parks that were bulldozed to make way for Yankee Stadium 2.0, city and state taxpayers ended up out more than $800 million — one of the spendiest public costs for any baseball stadium in U.S. history up to that time.

Earlier this month, developers working with New York City FC — the Major League Soccer franchise co-owned by the Steinbrenner clan and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — revealed the latest plan for a new soccer stadium to arise just south of the Yankees’ home field, which has been serving as a not-entirely-satisfactory temporary home for the soccer team since the club launched in 2015. (Among other things, the field dimensions make for a soccer pitch so narrow that players can all but throw the ball into the goal from the sidelines.) Unlike NYCFC’s previous plan for the same site, a New York Times report promised, the soccer team’s owners were “not asking for the avalanche of free land, tax breaks, and public funding” received by previous stadiums in the tristate area.

Is this sports promise for real? A Voice analysis finds the answer to be: It’s complicated. Even more than other previously proposed NYCFC home field sites — which have wandered the five boroughs from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens to Pier 40 in Manhattan to Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks to a riverside spot in the South Bronx that was dead seemingly even before it got off the ground — the new Bronx plan involves a rabbit hole of leases and subleases, public land and private operators, and creative bookkeeping that makes the final price tag difficult if not impossible to calculate.

“This generation of development just seems to be getting bigger and bigger and more complex,” says Bettina Damiani, a Bronx resident and former director of Good Jobs New York, an economic development watch group that tracked and analyzed the Yankee Stadium deal. And with the added complexity, she says, any hope of transparency has gone out the window: “If you don’t care about the people that live and work and run small businesses in a neighborhood, you should at least have a marker of whether this will financially benefit a community, or a city, or a region, or something.”

***

The latest site to catch NYCFC’s eye will be familiar to anyone who lined up around the block for Yankees playoff tickets during their postseason runs in the Seventies or Nineties. Garage 8, also known as the “triangle garage,” is a four-level parking structure that sits immediately south of the old stadium site, providing parking spaces at $35 a pop for anyone foolish enough to drive to a Yankee game. Along with an elevator parts factory across 153rd Street to the west — plus 153rd Street itself, as well as an on-ramp to the Major Deegan — the garage would be demolished to create a roughly eight-acre plot of land just big enough to squeeze in a soccer-specific stadium of the kind that makes fans happy, and MLS execs positively drool with glee.

Five years ago, NYCFC’s owners planned on having the city let them use the land free of charge — and also free of property and other taxes, for a total public gift on the order of $106 million. If you count the $100 million in IOUs that the city would have to forgo collecting from the nonprofit company that runs the garage — money it might never get, given that hardly anybody, it turns out, wants to pay $35 for parking when there are other cheaper garages plus the subway and Metro-North all a couple of blocks away — the total taxpayer cost would have cleared $200 million.

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In this latest iteration, the team owners would do away with the need for public cash by means of a new gimmick. Instead of giving the land to the team, the city would sell or lease it to a private developer, the exquisitely named Maddd Equities, which was already looking to build housing in the area. Maddd would, in turn, sublease the garage site to NYCFC, which would erect on it a 26,000-seat, $400 million soccer stadium. (The city, it should be noted, has yet to sign on this plan, though deputy mayor Alicia Glen told the Times that negotiations are ongoing.)

If all that sounds a bit alchemical — add one private housing developer, and presto chango, watch the public subsidies disappear! — it only gets odder from there, thanks to the convoluted history of that garage site.

Back in 1973, when the city embarked on its first Yankees stadium redo project — right after George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS for the cut-rate price of $8.7 million — it acquired the triangle garage land, city property records accessed through PropertyShark.com show, from Kinney System, which had run an open-air parking lot there. (Around the same time, the city used its eminent domain powers to seize the stadium site itself from the Knights of Columbus and Rice University, which through a series of sales by former Yankees owners had ended up holding title to the land and the building, respectively.)

Sometime between the 1970s, when the city actually took title to the garage site, and the present, City Hall placed the parcel in the hands of the Parks Department. But at the same time, it never formally designated it as parkland, a process that involves the city getting the state to add the land to its zoning maps.

This is, parks and city land use experts agree, kinda weird. Some space that is treated as public parks isn’t actually owned by Parks — many community gardens, for example, are technically owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But the reverse is seldom true. “In general, because Parks has traditionally had a bare-bones budget, they’ve been unwilling to take on things that aren’t really parks,” says Tom Angotti, a Hunter College urban planning professor who formerly worked for the Department of City Planning.

And in any case, even if Parks owns the garage land, that doesn’t mean its exactly Parks land, let alone parkland. That’s because in 2009, after Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council approved building a new baseball stadium atop two public parks (which were actually mapped as parkland, as was the old stadium, as were some of the sites of new garages built by the city to accommodate the Yankees’ demand for still more parking), the land was leased by Parks to the city’s quasi-public city Economic Development Corporation, which then subleased it to Bronx Parking Development, that nonprofit parking company that is currently defaulting on its rent payments to the city. (Not to mention on its commitments to bondholders, who have been keeping Bronx Parking afloat only by allowing it to punt on loan payments for years.) Queries to the Parks Department about the status of the garage site were referred to EDC, as the leaseholder; EDC, in turn, directed questions back to Parks, as the landowner.

All of which is a fascinating glimpse into the byzantine land swaps that underlie our city. But really, there’s one big question here: Would NYCFC’s proposed deal require the city to give up land that, even if it has a surplus parking garage sitting on it now, could otherwise be used as a park, or for housing, or for some other purpose other than a soccer stadium?

The best way to tell for sure would be to look at the lease between Parks and EDC, and see what it says can and can’t be done with the land. Neither agency, though, will directly disclose the actual lease language; a Voice Freedom of Information Law request for the document is currently pending.

***

The worry, obviously, is that somewhere in all that fine print are hidden costs that will end up on the city’s tab. This wouldn’t be at all unusual: When University of Michigan sport management professor Judith Grant Long compiled a database of sports venue deals in 2012, she determined that such under-the-table goodies as free land and tax breaks added an average of 40 percent to the public cost of each stadium and arena.

With a little creative financial thought, it’s easy enough to see how NYCFC’s arrangement could be used to sneak in public subsidies as well. The market value for just the 4.5-acre triangle garage site is $31.5 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Let’s say EDC were to offer it up for sale to Maddd for, say, $10 million, and the developer then turned around and leased the site to NYCFC for the same price. Even though the city still wouldn’t be giving any cash to the soccer club, suddenly — presto chango — the Steinbrenners and Sheikh Mansour would be getting a $21.5 million discount on their land costs, courtesy of taxpayers.

And if EDC leased the land to Maddd, the deal could be even worse for the city, because the site would then remain exempt from paying city property taxes. The current assessed value of the garage site, per IBO, is $14,165,100; forgoing property taxes on that would cost the city just over $1.4 million a year. (Mayor de Blasio’s office did not have a comment in response to Voice queries about whether Maddd will pay market value for the land or property taxes on the proposed stadium site.)

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We’ve seen this kind of maneuver before when it comes to sports venues. In 2013, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno offered to pay for $150 million in renovations to the team’s publicly owned stadium if the city of Anaheim would just hand over development rights to 150 acres of parking lots on the site; the land gift, the city later determined, would have been worth about twice as much as the renovation costs. (After Anaheim mayor Tom Tait rejected the deal, Moreno quietly signed a lease extension without getting his desired land.) And closer to home, the New York Islanders are pursuing a new arena atop state-owned land at Belmont Park that could be worth anywhere from $74 million to $300 million in public land discounts.

And there’s one final twist to the NYCFC plan: The garages only become available if the Yankees agree to lift the requirement, agreed to in 2006, that the city provide a minimum of 9,500 parking spaces for fans — a provision that even the team owners no longer care about, but which they can decline to do away with unless the city agrees to use the garage property for a project of their liking. In effect, the Yankees and NYCFC can say: Yes, that’s a valuable site you have there — now give it to us for a stadium, or else we’re going to make you keep it a parking garage until long after cars are a thing of the past. Michael Bloomberg’s Yankee Stadium deal truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES Summer Books Uncategorized

Building a Book Scene in the Boogie Down Bronx

In 1939 at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, if you had happened to drop into an assembly, you might have come across any of the following students: the iconic author James Baldwin; comic book writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee; longtime New York Times executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal; or the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Richard Avedon would also have been there — before he took up photography while serving in the merchant marine during World War II, Avedon edited the high school’s prestigious literary magazine, The Magpie, with Baldwin. In fact, in 1941, Avedon was named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools.”

Though these men were wordsmiths in different ways, their presence at Clinton some eighty years ago is emblematic of the borough’s rich cultural history with respect to the written word. It also highlights how far things have fallen: By 2016 Clinton was in danger of closing. But if young Bronx students are not aware of this history, that, too, is emblematic of the Bronx literary renaissance. Perhaps the distant past feels so easy to forget because the future is finally looking up.

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In recent years, a book scene has been slowly but steadily evolving in the boogie down borough. The Bronx Book Fair, led by Poets Network & Exchange executive director Lorraine Currelley and backed by several nonprofit institutions, started in 2013; this year, it was held at the Bronx Library Center and featured writing workshops, panels, and a keynote from Noëlle Santos, a Bronx native and entrepreneur who is planning to open the Lit. Bar, a wine and bookstore, this summer. And Rebekah Shoaf, a former public school teacher, recently launched her start-up Boogie Down Books, “a bookstore-without-walls for Bronx kids, teens, families, and educators.” 

Bronx Book Festival, Volunteers manning swag-grab table

In 2016, when the last general interest bookstore in the Bronx — a Barnes & Noble in Co-Op City — shut its doors, Saraciea Fennell’s response was to fill in the gap. Fennell, 29, is a book publicist for MacMillan, and she has worked with young adult and children’s authors for several years. She also grew up in the Bronx and knows what it’s like to live in a literary desert, a place where authors never come to your classroom to visit. A former foster care kid like me, Fennell read books to escape the kind of circumstances that force a girl to become mature before her time. In the stacks of the New York Public Library, she cultivated a love for the works of authors such as Octavia Butler, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl.

When the Barnes & Noble closed, Fennell accelerated her long-held dream of launching a literacy program. That ambition came to fruition this month when her new program, The Bronx is Reading, brought New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) to select Title 1 schools in the borough on May 18. She simultaneously organized the inaugural Bronx Book Festival, which brought 36 authors and illustrators to Fordham Plaza on May 19.

Frequent statistics about the borough note that there are 1.5 million Bronx residents and more than a quarter-million public school students; the majority of these students have difficulty reading, so they often do not. Students who don’t read well by third grade are at the highest risk of dropping out of high school. This is particularly true for Black and Latinx students from low-income households, whose average reading scores have consistently ranked far below their white peers in New York State. At Clinton the four-year graduation rate was less than 50 percent in 2016.

Emma-Otheguy at the Bronx Book Festival

A former eighth-grade teacher in Maryland, Acevedo said at the start of the festival that a book should be “a mirror and a window,” especially for struggling or resistant readers. The majority of her students were Latinx. “They would ask, ‘Where are books about us? Isn’t this the work of artists?’ This is my work. I write what I know,” said Acevedo, the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants who was born and raised in New York City. “I write my people.”

Daniel José Older, author of Shadowhouse Fall, warned festivalgoers not to create a hierarchy of literature that makes some books better than others. That means not shaming kids for reading graphic novels instead of literary ones, or engaging with audiobooks instead of physical ones. “There should be no politics of respectability in literature,” he said. Older, who is working on a novel about the Civil War due in the fall, says the cultural moment we’re in now is one we’ll look back on. “We’ll say, ‘This is when kids started to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories and then say, ‘Now I’ll go on to write my own story.’ ”

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Panels included exploration of the immigrant experience featuring authors Ibi Zoboi and Rakesh Satyal, as well as Bronx stories featuring Just Kids From the Bronx author Arlene Alda and Chulito author Charles Rice-Gonzalez. Zoboi, author of last year’s critically acclaimed American Street, had a ready answer for wary young readers. “I ask them if they like gossip,” she said. “It’s the original form of storytelling.”

Between panels, I stopped Taina Coleman to hear why other Bronx residents were motivated to come to the festival, even on a rainy Saturday. Coleman, a literacy specialist, grew up in Harlem and East Tremont. She’d been looking forward to the festival because she’s pursuing a career in writing and wants to tell the stories of people of color.

“I’m impressed by the authors who are here; they’re the writers I admire and so generous with their time and resources,” Coleman said. “I knew it would rain, but I had to come because it’s something I’ve been longing to see. I feel like we’re building a community for kids that need to see themselves reflected in literature.”

Saraciea Fennell, Daniel Jose Older, and Elizabeth Acevedo

It was the energy of intentional community building that set the Bronx Book Festival apart from some of its larger, more established counterparts, such as the Texas Book Festival or the Brooklyn Book Festival. The message, in each reading, panel, presentation, and giveaway, was that Black and brown people’s stories matter as much as their lives. Because their lives matter, we gathered to celebrate the stories we tell that reflect them as they are.

Patrice Caldwell, founder of People of Color in Publishing, moderated a panel composed exclusively of queer authors of color, including Adam Silvera, author of More Happy Than Not, which explores his experience of toxic masculinity in the Bronx as a gay Puerto Rican youth.

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One festivalgoer who works in the publishing industry noted that buying books by authors of color is a political act, because it sends a message to the publishing industry that the myths about the lack of audiences for works that center on diverse voices won’t sell well. Particularly in young adult fiction, Women of Color are dominating the New York Times bestseller list in a way that doesn’t show any signs of stopping; this began with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and now extends to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.

The Bronx has a rich cultural past, but Fennell and Santos, along with the rest of us in the literary community here, are invested in cultivating an even richer cultural future. As the Lit. Bar is poised to open its doors, and Fennell pursues nonprofit status to keep the Bronx Book Festival and the Bronx is Reading program sustainable for years to come, it feels like a renaissance for literature in the Bronx is underway.  

James Baldwin, for one, knew well the power reading has to open up one’s world: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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Housing Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Gentrifying Highbridge Faces a Rocky Future

In recent years, the Bronx neighborhood of Highbridge — perched on a steep ridge between the Harlem River on one side, and the valley that holds the 4 train and Yankee Stadium on the other — has become pockmarked with rectangular holes, whose precipitous sides display a cross section of whorls of Fordham gneiss that were once the core of an ancient mountain range. But if you want to see the innards of the Bronx, look soon, because these windows into the ancient past won’t be there long. Soon they will be the foundations of apartment buildings, which are sprouting in Highbridge at an accelerating rate.

For most of the neighborhood’s century-plus history, say locals, it’s been too costly for anyone to bother with removing Highbridge’s rocks, an accident of geology that’s left the neighborhood with a scattering of mid-rise apartment buildings where the ground was penetrable, and parking lots and ad hoc gardens and single-family homes (sometimes perched atop outcroppings, reachable only by long staircases) where it wasn’t. But all that has changed of late, as the city’s gentrification wave has struck Highbridge with force, creating incentives for developers to squeeze in new homes wherever possible. And for the largely low-income Dominicans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans who make up nearly 90 percent of Highbridge’s population — the Irish residents who congregated there in the early twentieth century mostly followed the newly constructed Major Deegan and Cross Bronx expressways to the suburbs after World War II — it’s brought with it the fear common to gentrifying neighborhoods the city over: When the construction cranes come, what will that mean for us?

“Now there’s organic food and craft beer in the Fine Fare,” says Elliott Lassi, a Highbridge resident who since 2001 has lived in one of the neighborhood’s few genuine high-rises, a 25-story pale green monolith on Ogden Avenue, striped with building-wide balconies, that was built by the city in the late 1960s.

For the most part, even amid the new construction, Highbridge is still a neighborhood of corner bodegas and mid-rise Art Deco apartment buildings — as of now, it’s unsullied even by a bank branch. (Locals have to walk down the hill past Yankee Stadium to do their banking.) But while the promise of new residents is as yet mostly hypothetical — the number of white Highbridge residents rose between 2010 and 2016 only from 288 to 664 — it also comes with a threat: Both those who live in Highbridge and the stores they’ve come to rely on could be priced out by a flood of new residents with the money to rapidly change the streetscape.

“We know what happened to Loisaida, to Williamsburg and its Latino community,” says Lassi. “Here it’s been taking its sweet time, but now it’s happening very quickly.”

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Highbridge drew attention earlier this year when the realty website Zumper ranked it as the New York City neighborhood with the fastest-rising rents, its median price leaping 22 percent just in 2017. And while figures like these need to be taken with a grain of salt — they can be skewed if they’re based mostly on listings for new high-priced developments, and Zumper didn’t respond to Voice queries about its methodology — residents say they’ve already seen prices start to creep up to levels unaffordable to many who live there.

“There are a lot of new buildings that came up, and those new buildings are not under rent stabilization,” says Bakary Camara, a Highbridge resident and local real estate agent. The most recent census data compiled by the city on a neighborhood level is from the 2012–2016 American Community Survey: It shows 39,144 people living in Highbridge, up from 37,727 people in 2010, and from 33,844 ten years before that. And as most of the new construction is either recently completed or still in the works, Highbridge could have an even bigger flood of new neighbors yet to come.

And for existing buildings, Camara notes, “rent stabilization is out of the window as soon as somebody moves from the apartment” — thanks to the vacancy decontrol laws passed in the 1990s. As the current population ages out, he says, “you have elders moving out of these apartments, and the owners are renovating and putting them up for market rent.”

The theories as to how Highbridge ended up in the crosshairs for upscaling, and why now, are as numerous as there are compass directions. To the south, the lower reaches of the Grand Concourse began drawing deeper-pocketed residents seeking respite from sky-high Manhattan rents a decade ago, a trend that’s only accelerated with the burgeoning rebranding of nearby Mott Haven. To the east, the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, obliterating a beloved neighborhood park but helping realtors sell the South Bronx to newcomers as an area on the cusp of renewal. To the west across the river, Washington Heights has been among the city’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods, with the 2015 reopening of the pedestrian-only High Bridge — so named because it soars 140 feet above the river between rocky bluffs — after a nearly 45-year closure, making the Bronx feel just a few steps away. To the northeast, the recently approved city rezoning of Jerome Avenue in the valley below promises to land a sea of new mid-rise buildings on the neighborhood’s doorstep, bringing new attention to the previously isolated hilltop community.

And then there’s the zoning of Highbridge proper. The vast majority of the neighborhood has always been zoned R7-1, which allows for medium-sized apartment buildings. That makes the neighborhood’s collection of nineteenth-century single-family homes look like an underutilized resource to developers. And the steep slopes at the neighborhood’s edge mean that a building with a relatively low frontage on one side can be several stories taller on the other, all while remaining within the law.

Camara says in his realty work, he’s seen outside interest in people moving to Highbridge intensify in the last three to four years, especially among teachers and healthcare workers seeking to escape pricey Manhattan rents for an accessible alternative just across the river.

“Once Brooklyn and Manhattan become a little too expensive for people, investors turn their attention to the Bronx now,” he says. “And if they can’t get open land to buy, whatever property came on the market for sale and it’s got a good zoning, they will go and buy that and demolish and build.”

Off 163rd Street on Woodycrest Avenue — named for the thick woods that once ran along the ridge line — a strip of single-family houses is now interrupted by a modern gray apartment building speckled with asymmetric windows. Across the street, the eighteenth-century Anderson Homestead sits half-renovated, its fate dependent on whether its owner continues to hold out against interested buyers; none of the buildings on the block have been landmarked.

It’s an impossible position for homeowners to be put in, says Chauncy Young — a Highbridge resident and community organizer who is director of the parent action committee at New Settlement Apartments — and some may find it hard to hold out much longer. “Because Highbridge is such a small neighborhood and so unique and isolated, it’s more of a target for gentrification,” he says. “It also is a community with small private houses that have been maintained by family members, and they have a large amount of land.”

Much of Highbridge’s story will be familiar to anyone who’s watched how gentrification has played out in other city neighborhoods like Bushwick or Mott Haven: Residents largely pull themselves up from the fires and abandonment of the 1970s through community organizing and nonprofit housing development to make a more livable, if still largely low-income, neighborhood — which at that point starts attracting interest from newcomers

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“When everything was burning down in Highbridge, you still had a solid middle class,” says Mary Blassingame, who for 21 years chaired Community Board 4’s housing and land use committee. “A lot of things deteriorated in the Eighties, but there were highly active tenants, a mix of middle and working class, who stayed. They went on rent strike, went to court, got in the Interim Lease Program. Their co-ops’ stability lends the community stability today.”

Aside from the single-family homes and the co-ops, which starting in the 1980s took advantage of the city’s Tenant Interim Lease Program to take control of buildings whose landlords had all but abandoned them, Highbridge is overwhelmingly a community of renters: The homeownership rate for the area and its neighbor to the east, Concourse, is just 7.8 percent. That makes it highly vulnerable to rent increases, especially for the 25 percent of neighborhood apartments where landlords have imposed preferential rents, a means of getting around state caps on annual increases for rent-stabilized apartments by setting legal rents higher than what tenants actually pay so that rates can be abruptly jerked upward once there’s interest from high-paying prospective residents.

Claribel Sanchez grew up on University Avenue, in an apartment where her mother still lives. Until this month, Sanchez rented a two-bedroom apartment in a house half a block from the entrance to the High Bridge. But with her rent having jumped from $1,600 to $2,000 over the last two years, she’s now been forced to move back in with her mother while she and her fiancé look for a permanent home.

Sanchez says her brother, a sophomore at Duke University, has written a paper about the gentrifying effects of the High Bridge. “Once it opened, to put it bluntly, you saw different people, white people,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “At least seven of these buildings were magically renovated before the bridge reopened.” After Highbridge Park was closed for three years during the reconstruction, she says, “With the reopening, they brought in a Wafels & Dinges truck. I mean, I love waffles, but I didn’t appreciate the message.”

As in other city neighborhoods faced with the promise and threat of gentrification, the options for residents once the construction crews have been set in motion are limited. “I would doubt that anyone could do anything about this now,” says Camara. “Organizing tenants is the only factor that can, if not bring the price down, stabilize the prices where they are. Other than that, it’s just going to be a train going forward. The only way everybody can hold their own ground is to organize, organize, and organize.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Cardi B Is the Red Hot Boss Bitch of the Pop Moment

Around 10 p.m. at her release party Thursday night in New York’s meatpacking district, Cardi B inhabited her role as Boss Bitch of the Pop Moment with endearing sass and insouciant verve. Swinging a luxuriant blonde ponytail above a tailored white-lace dress jacket, the 25-year-old rapper, who only two years ago parlayed a notorious Instagram feed into a breakout role on Love & Hip Hop New York, introduced each of the new tracks from her major-label debut in between sly callouts to haters and shout-outs to fans. A blur of impromptu gesticulation, she flawlessly lip-synched her rhymes as they played, prompting protective label reps to stop audience members from recording her direct to YouTube.

One of the most eagerly anticipated major-label debuts in years, Invasion of Privacy was preceded by too many quality independent releases for anyone to believe it would be bad. Even before the pop chart–topping success of last year’s “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B’s work — online, on cable TV, on stage, and on record — had been too consistent for any but the most hardened or clueless cynics to underestimate her potential. Favorable early comparisons to Lil’ Kim ignored how she evoked other distaff pioneers, including the raw spunk of Sha-Rock, the succinct flippancy of Salt ’N Pepa, the hardness of MC Lyte, and the relaxed authority of Queen Latifah. When Atlantic released “Bodak Yellow” last June, Cardi B’s trajectory toward stardom was already in place, built on mixtapes, guest performances, online videos, and pure charisma. By October, she was up for nine BET Hip-Hop Awards and had the number one single on the Billboard Hot 100.  

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To her credit, Belcalis “Cardi B” Almanzar made an album she herself would want to buy, and as a result Invasion of Privacy abounds with equal parts true grit and potential hits. She admits that the material here slants more commercial in sound and subject matter than she might prefer, but is quick to assure you it’s all part of a bigger plan. Don’t let her cusswords fool you; Cardi is a brave, smart, determined, industrious tyro. A hood superhero. A drive-or-die bitch. If you already own Gangsta Bitch Music, Vols. 1 & 2 then you know all this. As she told you on “Sauce Boyz”, she never defrosts. “Bronx Season” (lead track on 2017’s Vol. 2) is the unapologetic autobiographical statement that vindicates every drop of love her larger-than-life personality extracts from her loyal followers.

A line like “How much times do I got to prove these niggas wrong,” might seem like a yen for external validation until you realize Cardi’s so confident she doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks. “Get Up 10,” the lead track on Invasion of Privacy, picks up where “Bronx Season” and “Bodak Yellow” leave off. It’s the continuation of the historical novel of Cardi’s life; a spooky psychological memoir that explains her determination to prove all doubters wrong while simultaneously laughing and popping off in their faces. The hook, “Knock me down nine times, but I get up ten” is no brag, just fact for all the tough urban strivers she represents. A frequent adolescent runaway with gang affiliations who nonetheless finished high school and briefly went to college between earning on a stripper pole, she’s not soft, she’s not stupid, fearful, or dependent on anyone but herself. Hers is the kind of female energy recent #MeToo warriors really want to channel but somehow can’t seem to own.

The genius of Cardi launching Invasion of Privacy after her 2016–2017 stint on VH-1’s Love & Hip Hop New York, is that she used her time with the show in the most strategic way possible. Zany onscreen antics helped immortalize her Instagram persona, but she used those two seasons of reality television to set up her mixtapes, pump up her social media following, and facilitate her indie-label’s fifteen-city tour. One might say that this 25-year-old ’round the way girl has improved upon the Paris Hilton and Kim K. methods of celebrity advancement. “I want a certain type of respect,” she confided on the Breakfast Club. And if the past three years of stellar collaborations, talk show appearances, and awards-show nods are any indication, she is willing to work her ass off to get it.

Shrewdly interpolating lines from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” into the current single “Be Careful,” Cardi reminds us she not only drops bars but can also sing. Although it’s clear she alludes to Hill as a form of homage rather than demanding comparison, one can imagine Cardi B as a more Millie Jackson-ish version of Hill, fertilized by the cautionary tales of Amy Winehouse and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. After collaborating in 2017 with the Migos on “MotorSport,” and performing alongside Bruno Mars on his remix of “Finesse,” Cardi B successfully bridged the two poles of hip-hop credibility and paved the way for the range of material on Invasion of Privacy.

From the aggressive bounce of “Get Up 10” to the sultry melancholy of “Ring,” Cardi migrates easily from classic trap and Fugees-style hip-pop, to bachata-meets-boogaloo hybrids. She rides with reggaeton greats Bad Bunny and J. Balvin on the Spanglish party record “I Like It,” and keeps pace with guest crooners like SZA and Kehlani on melodic downtempo tracks like “I Do” and “Ring.” The influence of genre-bending releases from Beyoncé and Solange make even moody odes to heartbreak want to percolate with polyrhythmic swing. While Chance the Rapper taps into Cardi’s lesser-known spiritual side by injecting Christian optimism into the song “Best Life,” it doesn’t stop her from bringing us sex and pornography with tracks like “She Bad” and “Bartier Cardi.”

People now talk about the rise of Latino trap as if crunk didn’t blend with reggaeton and dancehall way back when Lil Jon was working with Pitbull. If you draw lines of evolution between the subgenres of Miami bass, crunk, and trap music, you find one common denominator that particularly typifies Southern and Southeast corridor hip-hop: Each produces defiant party music rooted in a non-white cultural reality (simultaneously grim and glorious) that insists — with a militant rhythmic attitude — upon self-affirmation, no matter what. No matter how dark the lyrical content, all three styles command you to dance, offering an almost ritualized opportunity to liberate your ass with the hope that your mind will eventually follow. And as Cardi B, Ginuwine, and Luther Campbell can tell you, all three drew inspiration and commercial momentum from the world of strip clubs. “Bickenhead” is Cardi B’s salute to the Dirty South via allusions to the 2001 single “Chickenhead” by Memphis artist Project Pat. Fast and feisty, it’s a showcase for an artist willing and able to embrace all of rap’s regional histories. Judging by her eclectic taste and sense of humor, Cardi B seems to be a unifier by nature. She manages to avoid high-profile feuds with fellow female MCs by generalizing her disputes: Lyrics mostly accuse “them bitches” and “these hoes” without naming names. It’s enough for Cardi that the guilty know who they are.

Even Cardi’s detractors can’t deny the palpable strength of will that makes these tracks vibrate with personality. Cardi convincingly morphs from battle rapper to shrewd business woman to vengeful girlfriend. Her carefully slurred intonation and pronounced accent shifts implied meaning, which injects ambiguity and subtlety into lines about sex and violence that might otherwise be taken too literally (or not literally enough). She sells all of this not only because of what she says, but how she says it.

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In her multi-culti fluidity, Cardi comes across like a wonderfully bizarre amalgam of Lil’ Kim, La Lupe, and Keny Arkana — a pretty unexpected fusion that carves out ample territory in which to grow her talent without competing in any direct way with Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, Princess Nokia, Ivy Queen, or the many other current, recurrent, and future rap divas. In fact, the most relevant comparison I can remember to Cardi B as a catalytic force in the music industry may be Roxanne Shanté, whose debut single “Roxanne’s Revenge” shook up the rap game in the mid-1980s. It was Shanté, along with Queen Latifah, who first overturned existing gender inequalities by becoming a female boss of her respective crew, as seen on the new Netflix biopic Roxanne Roxanne.

What I like to remember about Cardi B is that she was a professional entertainer — yes, a stripper — and a TV star long before Atlantic Records begged to sign her. In that 1990s Mickey Mouse Club sense of multimedia grooming, this petit entrepreneur of Trinidadian and Dominican extraction had more going for her as a debut recording artist than any random Orlando-bred Britney- or Justin-come-lately.

And let’s stop sneering at strippers, shall we? I can name successful rock stars, filmmakers, a former member of the Voice’s copy department, and the president of a groundbreaking record label who all did time in exotic dance clubs. Moving through that world (as Eve, Amber Rose, Channing Tatum, and Diablo Cody can attest) prepares those clever enough not to get old on the pole for — as Cardi might put it — bigger money moves. 

Categories
Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Parks, Arts, and Eats of Hunts Point

Diego León is the son of Ecuadorean immigrants and a native of Hunts Point, where he still lives today. He earned a master’s in education and worked as a preschool teacher before launching his current venture, a menswear and lifestyle blog called Dandy in the Bronx.

When I was growing up, Concrete Plant Park (Bronx River between Westchester Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard) was just this graveyard of a once-existing concrete plant. For me, the architecture looked cool. I guess the people behind it thought the same thing. So they left a lot of the infrastructure of the plant and built a park around it. It reminds me of a Sonic the Hedgehog level with all the ramps and stuff, surrounded by green hills. The Bronx River passes right by it. People use it for barbecues, to run, and it’s photogenic. Also, the Bronx River Alliance meets there sometimes to go kayaking.

Hunts Point, Bronx, NY 4/1/18:
Here City Tamale, a local eatery in the industrial section of the Bronx serving Tamales, smoothies, juices among other things.

If you go deeper into Hunts Point, there are a lot of warehouses and factories. City Tamale (1316 Oak Point Avenue) is just a little tamale place. The owner, Israel Veliz, just wants to have the best tamales ever. All the factory workers go to him. He’s open at 5:30 in the morning and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He also has gluten-free and vegetarian options.

The Point (940 Garrison Avenue) is an event space in Hunts Point where people host concerts, events — actually, a friend of mine told me he saw a wrestling match there! So there are a bunch of things happening. If you’re a family guy, there are always arts and crafts events. There are spoken word events, a lot of poetry readings. Awhile back, they had this T-shirt-making workshop where kids could come in and design T-shirts and they’d print them out. You’ve just gotta check their calendar, because there’s always something happening. There’s a café there as well!

When I think of New York City pizza — you know, big slice, greasy as hell, people patting it down with a paper towel — I think of Tetaj Brothers Pizzeria (957 Aldus Street). Growing up, whenever I had friends over and we wanted to get something easy to eat, we’d get a pie there. A pie, some garlic knots, and you’re set.

Hunts Point, Bronx, NY 4/1/18:
Here the Yes She Can! mural at 825 Hunts Point Avenue.

Yes She Can! Mural (825 Hunts Point Avenue) — there are a bunch of art initiatives happening in Hunts Point, including a lot of really cool graffiti. Seeing women in positions of power in a positive light, especially women of color — there’s no reason not to showcase that.

Hunts Point Library (877 Southern Boulevard) has been my library since forever. I remember going there as a kid, using their computers. They had computer classes and one-on-one sessions. Obviously, it’s so much more advanced now. But I remember going there with my aunt, taking out three or four books, researching. Nowadays, they have a lot of group reading sessions, and an amazing kids’ section. You can check out magazines, movies, and music — with your free library card! And they have Wi-Fi, so it’s a place you can just work and chill.

Casa Amadeo on Prospect Avenue, a Latin record store on the National Register of Historic Places, in New York, May 3, 2014. Funded by an $80,000 grant from the New York Community Trust, a series of 10 permanent markers will be installed next year, creating the South Bronx Culture Trail, a self-guided tour of the South Bronx and its cultural history. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

Casa Amadeo (786 Prospect Avenue) has been around for, like, a billion years. It specializes in Latin and Caribbean music. Sometimes there are performances or random jam sessions. My Spanish isn’t great, but just being able to listen, hearing people talk, hearing the stories — and, of course, you can’t beat dancing to authentic Latin music up in there! And there’s something about having a physical piece of music in front of you — whether it’s an album, a cassette, whatever — that feeling is something you can never get from an MP3.

The Bronx ranks 62nd in health in New York State. But there are healthy places if you want to get something easy. You can get a nice smoothie at Hunts Point Juice Bar (620 Manida Street) for when you start your juice cleanse. You don’t have to get that Diet Coke! My favorite is a peanut butter smoothie with blueberries, banana, strawberry — and extra peanut butter, please!

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

Categories
NYC ARCHIVES Scene THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Damp but Not Defeated: A Marathon Scrapbook

The weather for yesterday’s New York City Marathon was soggier than it’s been in recent years, but that didn’t stop the city from turning out in force to cheer on more than 50,000 runners on their exhausting five-borough tour. Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the race since 1977, and Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya won the men’s division.

We checked in on the race in Bay Ridge, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, Harlem, and the Upper East Side. At each location, all of the day’s usual block-party elements were in place — goofy signs and shouting day drinkers; little kids begging for high fives; neighbors handing out bananas, Halloween candy, salty pretzels, and sheets of paper towels — while dozens of bands and DJs all along the route kept things lively. The NYPD was out in force but kept things low-key, allowing people to have fun with the event.

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Four Reasons You Should Care About Tuesday’s Elections

After two and a half million New Yorkers marched to the polls last November, only for four-fifths of them to watch with horror as results trickled in from the rest of the country, city voters could be forgiven for never wanting to be inside a polling station again. And this year voters are likely approaching Election Day with the excitement of a trip to the drugstore, especially with the highest-profile race, for mayor, looking like a shoo-in for Bill de Blasio.

But there are still reasons to vote and watch the final tallies tomorrow, with seats up for grabs in certain key districts and in the surrounding region, as well as a ballot measure that could change the definition of New Yorkers’ basic rights:

The Suburbs

The most important race in the region is happening across the Hudson River, where Democrats have an excellent chance of nabbing a high-profile governorship when voters in New Jersey will choose a successor to term-limited Republican and former Trump bestie Chris Christie. One-time Goldman Sachs exec and diplomat Phil Murphy has led Republican lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno wire-to-wire since the primary and is ahead by 16 percentage points according to polling averages. Whoever wins will have to face a $687 million state budget shortfall over the next two years, and $49 billion in rising pension liabilities making up much of the state’s $153.5 billion debt, not to mention skyrocketing property taxes and more summers of hell on the rails.

Meanwhile, two contests in the city’s suburbs could be bellwethers for how the state will vote in future elections. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino wants a second crack at the governor’s mansion in 2018, but first must get past Yonkers state senator George Latimer. Nassau GOP senator Jack Martins is neck and neck with Democrat Laura Curran for the open Long Island county executive seat. How the county manipulates property taxes should be a key issue in that race, but the two have mostly squabbled over gangs.

The Council

New Yorkers aren’t just picking the next mayor on Tuesday. Dozens of municipal leaders are on the ballot, and some contests could be decided by only a handful of votes. The most competitive race in the city is in Bay Ridge, where two rising politicos, Democrat Justin Brannan and Republican John Quaglione, have fiercely debated immigration policy, broken windows policing, and discrimination in their debates. Republicans hope for a rare pickup in the borough — there are only three GOP members currently on the entire city council, none from Brooklyn — while Democrats are monitoring turnout to determine whether they would have a shot at reclaiming the neighborhood’s GOP-controlled congressional seat in 2018.

Elsewhere there are several rematches from the September primaries in which second-place Democratic finishers found another party to hitch a ride on. In the northeast Bronx, Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj spent $716,000, or a little more than $200 per vote, to get past community board members Marjorie Velazquez and John Doyle in the primary. Velazquez took the Working Families Party line and Doyle snagged the Liberal Party ballot line, but Gjonaj is emptying out his campaign coffers — his spending is up to $1.2 million, according to the latest city campaign filings.

There’s a rematch in Maspeth between Democratic Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and civic leader Bob Holden, who is running on multiple party lines after he lost the Democratic primary. A race for an open seat in Borough Park between Kalman Yeger and Yoni Hikind has divided the area’s close-knit Orthodox Jewish community. And in Lower Manhattan, Democratic councilmember Margaret Chin is facing a rematch from Christopher Marte, now on the Independence Party line, after edging him by only 222 votes in September. Chin’s support for a senior housing development at the site of a garden on Elizabeth Street could cost her her seat this time around.

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The Convention

Read your ballot closely for a question concerning a constitutional convention. State law allows voters to decide whether the state’s constitution needs a little freshening up every 20 years, which New Yorkers last approved in 1967. A vote in favor of a convention starts the process enabling candidates to run next year as convention delegates — there would be 204 total, three for each state senate district and 15 at-large — and the convention itself would be held in April 2019 in Albany at a mostly clean hotel with a bar that stays open past midnight. By November of that year, voters would ratify or reject any of their proposed edits.

The referendum has divided like-minded advocacy groups on the left and the right, some of which have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the cause. Labor leaders are opposed to a Con Con because they’re worried delegates would do away with their pensions. Good government groups see a convention as their best chance to pass stronger ethics laws, civil rights protections, and election reform. The Voice’s Ross Barkan laid out the pros and cons of a Con Con, which you should read before voting; statewide support for the referendum appears to be faltering, according to a November Siena poll.

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The Right to Vote

You’re a New Yorker, damn it, and you already spend half your day giving your opinion to everyone around you, even if they never asked for it. Think of voting in an off-year election as giving the mayor and your local council member a piece of your mind. That way, when you see them in public you can tell them you voted for them, so they should put a bike rack on your corner and plant two more trees on your block already. (And if you throw in a couple hundred thousand dollars to the mayor’s campaign you can even ask for your water bill overcharges to be taken care of, or for building inspectors to back off your property.) And while you’re at it, you can also make sure you can actually still vote at your polling place — don’t forget how the city Board of Elections admitted to illegally removing 117,000 voters from the rolls in Brooklyn last year. The board has apparently corrected the error, although it wouldn’t surprise anyone if there is another glitch. If they don’t let you vote? You can always order those stickers in bulk.

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This Week in Food: Shake Shack Run, A Square Meal, and Beer Trolley 3.0

Becoming a Food Entrepreneur
Brooklyn FoodWorks (630 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn)
Tuesday, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Terry Frishman of culinary consultancy firm Culinest is leading a class on ways to help create your own food start up. The class will cover everything from legal requirements to production and sales. Reservations are $40; secure a spot here.

Run and Drink
Shake Shack (1 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn)
Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Shake Shack’s DUMBO location is offering free community runs on the second Tuesday of every month, with runners of all ages invited to grab a free drink at that Shake Shack location afterwards.

A Square Meal in 1930’s America
NYU Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health (411 Lafayette St., 5th Fl.)
Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Examine the cuisine of the Great Depression and sample recipes from the era at this talk and tasting from the Culinary Historians of New York. Reservations are $40 for general admission; rsvp here.

The Food Funny
QED (27-16 23rd Avenue, Queens)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Comedy and cooking mix at this live show which features select chefs performing stand up comedy while comedians try their hands at making a few dishes. Tickets are $7 and can be reserved here.

Beer Trolley 3.0
Gun Hill Tavern (780 E 133rd Street, Bronx)
Thursday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Beer industry veterans Chris Cuzme and Kelly Taylor are touring four Bronx based breweries in a trolley and inviting guests to hop aboard. The tour includes drinks on the trolley, a bottle share, and two half pours of beer or a pint at each brewery; food is available for cash purchase at select stops.  Tickets are $40 and include drinks; rsvp here.