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Fish Rots From the Head

The Pacifica Radio Network has always been a flagship of free speech, inviting listeners to participate in everything from filing to programming to decision-making. But now the executive committee has abandoned democracy in favor of the worst kind of corporate secrecy. Go to the Pacifica web site and click on the link to ‘executive staff and board,” and you will get a message that reads “the requested URL . . . was not found.” They won’t tell you the agenda, and they won’t say who’s calling the shots.

Anti-Pacifica sentiment came to a head late last month, when the network abruptly terminated several employees of its WBAI affiliate in New York and literally began locking listeners out of the station. The WBAI mess is widely blamed on Mary Frances Berry, as was last year’s lockout at the Berkeley affiliate KPFA. Berry, who stepped down as chair of the Pacifica national board last October, left behind a despicable legacy: She has run the radicals out of the network and brought in the sycophants.

To be sure, Berry appointed several African Americans to the Pacifica board in the past year. But instead of choosing liberal scholars or activists or community radio professionals, Berry went “straight to corporate America,” says Dan Coughlin, who was pushed down from national news director to WBAI producer and has recently resigned. On the current board, he says, “You’re getting businessmen, privatizers, and anti-union lawyers, and the political and economic context that they come from is completely the antithesis of what Pacifica has stood for for 50 years.”

Ideological reversals. A new top-down style of corporate management. Board meetings behind closed doors. No wonder Pacifica lovers are in open revolt. Either the new management has no idea what they’re doing—or they’re a very cynical bunch. The network, which includes stations in Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles as well as Berkeley and New York, has been called “cash-poor but asset-rich.” That is, its stations generate less than $10 million in annual revenues, but the broadcast licenses are worth an estimated $500 million, with New York and Berkeley worth the most. Could the fog surrounding Pacifica be a strategy designed to cover up a takeover?

In September, national board members Robert Robinson and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel filed suit against the national board, demanding that the executive committee be removed altogether. They contend that Berry didn’t know what she was getting into, and left behind a board packed with cronies and yes-men who have done little to improve the network.

“We have to stop what’s happening, because Pacifica is being dismantled one station and one program at a time,” says Robinson, a member of Pacifica’s local board in D.C. “As you descend into chaos and conflict, you run the risk that somebody is going to introduce a measure and totally effect a corporate takeover. Then Pacifica will no longer be in charge of its own assets—and those licenses are going somewhere else altogether.”

Robinson is particularly incensed by the lack of accountability on the part of Pacifica’s executive committee. For example, he says, they are either too “lazy” or “incompetent” to keep minutes of meetings, and they put people on the governing board “totally without scrutiny.” He says Berry put together a claque who “will vote for whatever leadership suggests,” adding that some of them were elected by the national board on a conference call without a review of their résumés.

The managers who are calling the shots are mostly in Houston and D.C., the stations that have posted the most recent growth. Last January, the Pacifica Foundation moved its headquarters from Berkeley to Washington. At the end of February, Berry handed off her job to David Acosta, a Houston accountant who once casually proposed the sale of KPFA. At the same time, Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick was succeeded by Bessie Wash, a loyal station manager at WPFW in D.C.

Last October, Berry stepped down. She continues to run the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and to act as a Pacifica consultant. While she was succeeded at Pacifica by Acosta, her real mouthpiece is John Murdock, a health care litigator in the D.C. office of Epstein, Becker & Green, a firm that prides itself on union busting, among other things (www.ebglaw.com). Says Robinson, “It became clear as soon as Murdock came on that Berry had hired him as her personal legal representative.”

As chair of the board governance committee, Murdock has been wielding his power, nominating new board members and quietly rewriting the bylaws. He is said to be a friend of Berry, “very vocal” and “willing to do her bidding.” Some say it’s a conflict of interest for one of Murdock’s partners at Epstein, Becker to be defending Pacifica in pending litigation in which Murdock is a named defendant, but the firm denies any conflict.

Ken Ford is vice chair of the Pacifica Foundation and a program manager at the National Association of Home Builders, a D.C. group that champions deregulation over the rights of the disabled and the environment (www.nahb.com). Pacifica treasurer Micheal Palmer is a vice president at C.B. Richard Ellis, a booming real estate brokerage with offices in Houston, where Palmer is based, and in 44 countries including Mexico (www.cbrichardellis.com).

Acosta, Ford, and Palmer are the titular heads of an inner circle that tends to agree on every vote. The block includes longtime board members Frank Millspaugh and Andrea Cisco of New York, and Robert Farrell of L.A. Then there are newcomers Karolyn van Putten and Valerie Chambers, who were recruited by friends on the board. Two surprise names were added last February: Murdock and Bertram Lee, a D.C. minority entrepreneur (and business partner of the late Ron Brown) who was instrumental in buyouts of a CBS-TV affiliate in Boston, the Denver Nuggets, and WKYS in D.C.

The national board also includes the so-called dissidents: Leslie Cagan, Beth Lyons, Pete Bramson, and Tomas Moran. The dissidents who sued, Rob Robinson and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel, have been asked to leave and were recently excluded from conference calls. In September, Murdock proposed two more board members. One is Francesco Rocciolo, a Citibank vice president who advises rich Italians on their investments; the other is Luis Wilmot, a telecom lobbyist in Texas. Professionals? Yes. But Mumia supporters? Not likely.

No doubt still more strangers will crash the party when the board meets in Houston at the beginning of March. But Robinson warns that if Murdock and company continue their efforts “to throw the dissidents off the board and destabilize station operations, we’ll use every resource we have to stop them.”

Murdock, Ford, and a publicist for the Pacifica Foundation did not respond to calls for comment on Friday.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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NY Mirror

Location Noho

Rent $1000/mo. (rent-stabilized)

Square feet 2400

Occupants Carmen Einfinger (painter); Scott Saunders (independent feature filmmaker)

Your humongous loft is near that antique store on Houston with the eyeballs in jars. You had quite a spatial shift when you moved here two years ago. You used to live on Avenue C with only 400 square feet, pretty little for two. For some people, living in a small space can be about denial. “I won’t have a dinner party because there won’t be room for the empanadas.” A small space is like living with a tyrant. You two took a different approach, like a person with one leg who becomes an Olympic runner. Scott, you turned your old bedroom into a film production office and had four people working in there. Carmen, you made the living room your studio and painted bigger than ever. Even though the two of you had to sleep in the closet, there you were. It brings to mind what happened in the local grocery when someone bought two pieces of bubble gum for 10 cents and apologized for the size of the purchase. The man behind the counter said, Ah, little can be very big. He was reading the Koran or something. Then he said, Pennies make quarters. Anyway, one day you got a reward for your toil. Scott’s former Lewis and Clark College roommate heard about this loft in an artist-filled former factory/flophouse converted in the ’70s that you said is owned by a trust—the best deals are always through connections—and though you have to share it with a third person, you get to live in a space that looks like the kind that are always in movies about New York. [Carmen] Scott made his latest movie, This Close to Nothing, right here.

Really! [We watch it on video. A man has an Internet relationship. He stands before Scott and Carmen’s refrigerator, with all their refrigerator magnets, and drinks too much chilled vodka.] Scott, you grew up in a stucco house in Pasadena, but Carmen grew up in Brazil and her parents were Dutch and Yugoslavian and she speaks Portuguese. Since Carmen’s life was more exotic, let’s talk about her. Why did your parents move to Brazil? The answer is the reason I became Scott’s girlfriend. My parents met in London. My father was a painter and European bohemian and he wanted to go to Brazil and catch butterflies in the Amazon. Scott loved that part of the story. But then my mother left my father when I was four. I had to go live in a boarding school in a suburb of São Paulo sponsored by wealthy Germans for kids from broken homes. At that time in Brazil, if you were a single mother, it was the worst thing.

Then you moved to Toronto—Brown and RISD came later—lived in a windowless basement, became a glamorous model, and got into primal scream therapy. I don’t do that anymore. Now I have a home with Scott. You know, every time somebody comes here and says, You’re so lucky, the loft is so beautiful, it really makes me nervous, makes me think I have to appreciate it every day or it will go away.

Do you think living in a bigger space makes people feel bigger, more successful? Yes. [Scott] I don’t know if I feel the direct correlation. But my tension level is so much lower now. I don’t feel like a rat stuffed into a hole in the subway. We do have more big dinner parties. We start everybody off with this sugarcane drink. I get everybody good and loose. Then Carmen makes feijoada, a black bean and sausage stew. [Carmen] You have to put that in, it’s my signature dish. [Scott] It’s an incredible sensual experience. [Carmen] It cooks for eight hours. [Scott] Two weeks ago, everybody had the drinks, the food. Then everybody was yelling.

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Hasid Jazz?

It’s Passover on the Lower East Side. Flocks of people are scurrying across Houston like it’s the Red Sea, and Ludlow’s the Promised Land. They have brunch, get their hair cut, and buy deliberately dirty jeans in the same cramped storefronts that people 90 years ago bought deliberately ugly wigs, herring by the pound, and prayer shawls in. But at the same time that the area becomes increasingly assimilated into the modern, panethnic culture of gentrification, an inverse phenomenon is taking hold—nostalgia. There seems to be a hankering for the handmade virtues of the Old World, or at least for signifiers of what once was. The ancient Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery on Houston is a tour-bus stop, and come summer, Ratner’s, that perennial kosher canteen, will be overtaken by its less kosher, more kitsch backdoor lounge, named for token Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. For nine dollars, it’s possible to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s carefully restored early-century apartments and have an interactive immigrant experience. And down on Norfolk Street, people are playing klezmer again. The Tonic Sunday klezmer brunch series, created by acclaimed clarinetist David Krakauer, just celebrated its one-year anniversary.



Cooking klezmer kids the Murrys, from left to right: David Siegel, David Griffen, Noah Leff, Anne Champion, Alex Kranjec, Matt Fiveash, Annette Ezekiel, Nathen Ela

Photograph by Michael Schmelling

Is this, too, a part of the nostalgia phenomenon—a retooling of the old to make it new and hip? Once a kosher wine cellar, Tonic has been transformed into a haven for downtown music of the Knitting Factory variety. Each week, the audience reverently watches virtuoso performers play as if the messiah has come (at last) to inspire them. Appearing with his band one recent Sunday, Krakauer recalled the old days, when people would gather to drink and make merry as they listened to various Lower East Side clarinetists. Then he looked intensely at the ceiling, closed his eyes, and began to play. Krakauer has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet and was a member of the Klezmatics, this scene’s most visible band. His clarinet, which in the wrong hands can be a wimpy instrument, is powerful, muscular even, a driving force for the rest of his small, tight band. But as much as he talks about the communal feeling of old Jewish wine cellars, it’s clear he is playing to a different end.

In Klezmer! Jewish Music From Old World to Our World (Shirmer, 1999), Henry Sapoznik points out that klezmer musicians in Europe served an important celebratory function, providing music for elaborate wedding dances such as broyges tants, during which mothers-in-law would pretend to fight and then make up. Now there isn’t so much as a mother-in-law joke—the audience sits on wooden chairs and politely claps after every set. Tonic may have once been a wine cellar, but now it’s an art house where people drink coffee. And the music is different too. Often, the bands back up Jewish melodies with a rhythm closer to experimental rock or jazz, transforming klezmer’s tragic march into something else. Krakauer sees what he’s doing as moving forward. “Klezmer does have room for innovation,” he insists. “It’s a song form related to jazz.” He claims that his improvisational elements don’t change the original spirit of the music, but instead help “bring back the rawness to it, getting back to something simpler, something playing it note for note just wouldn’t do.”

A few blocks away from Tonic, a bunch of hipsters are standing around outside Katz’s Delicatessen. The front of Katz’s is so mobbed that it looks like a club. Inside, people table-hop excitedly, making their way to the back room. Everyone’s come to see the Murrys, an emerging band who do in fact play virtually note for note klezmer they’ve found in the library. The Murrys have attracted their friends, friends of friends, and people who heard about them through the grapevine. Although Katz’s is on Houston, the gate to Ludlow’s party zone, it is unaccustomed to this kind of action. The guys behind the counter slinging out bowls of soup and compiling huge towers of meat look unfazed, but some of the longtime patrons are surprised. “Is this a bar now?” one elderly lady asks. Observing the band setting up amongst salamis and photos of Katz’s owner with his arms around Jackie Mason and Alan Dershowitz, it does look like some crazy kind of Jewish theme tavern. The Murrys’ drummer, Noah Sheldon, is decked out as a Hasid, with a heavy black coat and dark curly earlocks. A guy dressed in suit and skinny tie is carrying an accordion, and a girl with wild curls in a tight leather outfit adjusts the mike. They look like a Kids in the Hall skit about Jews—this costumed 12-piece marching band crammed onto a too-small stage. But then they start to play. At first the crowd shuffles around, vaguely bobbing their heads. These are cool kids, trained not to dance. But then the Murrys start cooking. The girl in leather belts out Yiddish, the guitarist plays full blast, and two trumpets and a trombone go nuts. The fast two-beat rhythm sounds a whole lot like polka, and it’s virtually impossible not to dance (or at least march) to. The accordion gives the whole enterprise an Old World tint, even though guitarist Milan McAlevy is twanging surf riffs. Soon everyone’s sweaty and red-faced, sashaying around in a circle and lifting squealing volunteers up on chairs.

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“It was a shock to see kids freaking out,” the accordionist says afterwards. “We knew people would react, but we didn’t know they would react like that. They loved it.” While some of the Murrys have had musical training (Noah Sheldon attended the New England Conservatory of Music and even drummed at the Chabad Lubavich in Evanston, Illinois, where he’s from), they insist they are not very interested in form per se, concerning themselves more with making the audience move. “Admittedly, we can’t play like someone like David Krakauer,” says Murrys singer Alex Kranjeck. “The virtuosity thing’s been done, and it’s called Rush.” Experimental klezmer and progressive rock, Kranjeck suggests, both take something seen as essential and raw and make it into something to be listened to seriously. Can a visceral folk music meant for dancing turn into “art” without losing something? Probably not. Then again, as Krakauer says himself, all this experimentation can only mean that the form will continue to evolve. After all, without Rush, there would be no Metallica.

When a form as ethnically loaded as klezmer is used for avant-garde ends, there’s inevitably going to be a divide over the oldest issue in folk music: authenticity. Are musicians doing justice to their ancestors’ ancestors’ klezmer? Does this loyalty even matter? Is the traditional style no longer important, something that should be relegated to compilations of Jewish wedding music of the ages? Klezmer scholar Sapoznik explains that there are now different schools, which break the genre down the way Jewish temples classify themselves: the orthodox movement, which insists on “play[ing] the music as if it never intersected with the twentieth century”; the reform movement, which pushes klezmer’s boundaries or fuses with other kinds of music (for instance, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars); and the conservative middle-of-the-roaders. Sapoznik is a traditionalist, holding that the reform category is essentially Klezmer for Dummies, and quite simply, does not work.

But when I ask the legendary Andy Statman, who plays mandolin and clarinet in his own Jewish/jazz/bluegrass (jewgrass?) quartet, about Sapoznik’s denominational structure, he says, condemningly, “He doesn’t know.” A well-regarded pioneer of “orthodox” klezmer in the 70’s, Statman makes frequent appearances with his band, playing to what he describes as “mostly secular audiences.” He has held court weekly at the Charles Street Synagogue for the past few months, leading a weekly jam session, with a simple sign out front announcing “Klezmer Tonight.” Andy points out, though, that his current music is not really klezmer. “Only one or two people in Europe can actually play it,” he says gravely. “It’s a very tragic form, but people think it’s ‘party music.’ ” While his band sets up, and the audience takes their seas in pews complete with prayer books, the MC—an older man with a hat, beard, and microphone—announces, “Klezmer is written for the feet, but this, he gestures dramatically at the stage, “this is written for the heart.” The band then kicks into a song almost resembling free jazz. Although the familiar tragic clarinet is present, there are also large helpings of electric bass, drums, and keyboards. Andy wears a yarmulke, but his clarinet at times sounds at times like panpipes, not so much Jewish as what we came to recognize as generically “spiritual” sometime around Sgt. Pepper. This vibe segues into Peter Gabriel-style African drums and a mandolin that buzzes like a grasshopper. Meanwhile the bassist starts playing a bluegrass tune that sounds like a kid nagging his mother to buy him a video game system for his bar mitzvah. The effect is about as far from orthodox Jewish music as you can get, but that seems to be the point. If only two or three people really know how to pull off traditional klezmer (which may be technically true: there aren’t that many 80-year-old Jewish musicians around), then what is everyone else supposed to do? The answer seems to be, for Statman’s band at least, to make music as unpurist as they wanna be. If it’s abstract enough, it resists pigeonholing. The music can claim a certain spiritual depth at the same time that it resists existing categories. “You just play it,” Andy says, describing his unique arrangements. “It’s beyond klezmer.” And indeed, the sign out front of the temple has since changed—It now reads “Jewish Mystical Music.”

[

So is this the fate of this once-raucous music of a lost Eastern Europe and the old Lower East Side? Has it gone “beyond klezmer” to live in a far-off universe which sometimes gets flashes from the light of a distant Star of David? Scholars have trouble pinning down our moment in the genre’s trajectory, and musicians involved in the movement seem to like klezmer in part because it’s difficult to pin down. Like Yiddish, it is a dead language with a vivid cultural history. Klezmer has given rise to a million different definitions, a million different shticky names: Jew-less klezmer (Klezgoyim), teen klezmer (the Klezminors), Ivy League klezmer (The Klez Dispensors), punk klezmer (Yid Vicious). To add to the confusion, The Knitting Factory has recently put out several new Jewish-identified CDs, including The Jewish Alternative Movement: A Guide for the Perplexed—featuring offerings from Krakauer and the Balkan-influenced Paradox Trio—as well as an album of Fiddler on the Roof covers on which Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, morose as ever, imagines he’s a dairyman named Tevye imagining he’s a rich man.

If there’s a commonality in all these developments, it’s that klezmer is still an ecstatically happy Jewish marching music with a sad, almost funereal edge. It’s Goth wedding music, both a kind of crazy dance tune and a mournful dirge, doubting itself even as it asserts itself. This very contradiction is what allows for so many interpretations. As for whether klezmer will live on or become just another tour-bus stop, well, as David Krakauer says, “the history books will tell.” But then again, as the Murrys say, “We couldn’t give a shit about the history books.” Ironically enough, it’s this spirit of debate that will most likely keep klezmer alive for many Passovers to come.

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LES Is More

As I write, another street protest simmers outside the former Esperanza community garden on East 7th Street and Avenue C. Founded 23 years ago by the Puerto Rican residents of the homesteaded co-op next door, the garden was bulldozed last month to make way for mostly market-rate housing. Now the boarded-up lot has become a symbol of the Giuliani administration’s agenda to privatize public properties and uproot both green space and the multicultural life of the Lower East Side (LES).

Just a few doors west, near Avenue B, a new luxury residence offers swank rentals priced between $2500 and $4500, along with amenities such as valet service, a fitness center, and high-speed Internet access. The lobby’s crisp decor is enlivened by a series of photographs—an attractive female punk with multiple piercings, an old Latino man picking an electric guitar on the sidewalk, a black kid playing in an open street hydrant—that harken back to the old neighborhood’s vibrant street life.

The irony of aestheticizing a building with images of the very people that such upscale housing displaces is not lost on sociologist Christopher Mele. In his new book, Selling the Lower East Side, Mele traces how prevailing stereotypes of the East Village as an ethnic haven or bastion of working-class dissent and countercultural rebellion have been “reworked as place themes” by real estate players seeking to capitalize on the area’s “alternative allure.”

The architectural features and interior designs of the East Village’s new, high-end commercial and residential spaces produce a contrived sense of urban grittiness and feel of “downtown” without the risks and inconveniences of poverty. . . . The effect of this latest form of urban development is the gated community without the gate—the symbolic inclusion of difference coexists with its material exclusion.

Mele is an academic, not an insider. This book grew out of graduate research he began during the 1980s while living in the East Village and studying at the New School. Now an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, Mele seems to have written from afar. This might explain how he can still refer to “the area’s dominant population of working-class and impoverished families, minorities, informal workers, drug dealers, prostitutes, petty criminals, and homeless.” He limits his study to the area south of 14th Street and north of Houston, ignoring the recent boutiquification of the old Jewish quarter south of Houston, dubbed “Loho,” where an Orchard Street condo just sold for $1.1 million.

Nevertheless, Mele compiles an impressive wealth of archival data and historical surveys along with his own field research to illustrate how cultural representations have helped shape the political and economic development of the LES since the 19th century. Early portrayals of the overcrowded immigrant quarter as a “jungle” or “underworld,” he argues, were used by both the state and property owners to justify neglect. The area’s marginalization in turn fueled working-class resistance in the form of rent strikes and demonstrations, like the so-called “Communist” riot of 1874, which attracted the city’s first bohemian community. Over the last 100 years, successive generations of avant-garde and subcultural movements (the beats, hippies, punks, squatters, queers) have sought to harness this legacy of dissent in order to bolster their own rebellions.

With his penchant for postmodern lingo, Mele can get carried away with notions about how “prevailing discourses” have “sculpted” the neighborhood. Was the area’s sluggish development caused by the prevailing conception of it as “inferior and marginal,” dating back to 19th-century slums, or by the fact that it was for many years a high-crime area with crummy housing stock where you had to pee in the corridor? Was the “culture of conflict” fostered by squatters and activists over the squats and Tompkins Square Park during the late 1980s successful in undermining efforts to market the neighborhood as a desirable middle-class district? While local unrest and the ubiquitous tag “Die Yuppie Scum!” no doubt frightened off some investors, the slackening of gentrification at the end of the decade probably had more to do with the stock market slump.

The more compelling question posed by the book is how, since the 1990s, resistance to gentrification has itself been co-opted. The shift, Mele writes, has to do with the emergence of a “hyperconsumerist culture” capable of assimilating aspects of underground culture as mere lifestyle choices. The “East Village” he says, has become a brand name, “a stylized and depoliticized subversion borrowed from past and present images, symbols, and rhetorics of protest, resistance, and experimentation.” Mele cites the Broadway play Rent, which reduced squatting to a nonthreatening bohemian romance, and the mid-’90s cybersoap The East Village, which allowed Internet browsers to interact with a fictional cast of trendy artist-types.

In today’s new “rental niche market,” Mele asserts, “[media] content workers pay high rents to tolerate the area’s above normal levels of crime, noise, and drug-related social problems that are viewed as integral to the ambience of Downtown urban living. Thus they derive social capital from occupying an area that the stereotypical middle class are reputed to avoid.” Netheads are no doubt drawn to the area’s funky ambience and profusion of theme bars and cafés, but skyrocketing rents reflect its proximity to Silicon Alley and Wall Street, along with the reality of life in a rapidly globalizing city where the vacancy rate has dropped below 4 percent. Indeed, given these market realities, Mele’s conclusion that the neighborhood’s allure may fall victim to media overkill seems rather naive. Absent an economic crash, the demand for housing will continue to rise.

The challenge to community activists today, Mele contends, is to remain a step ahead of the culture industry by “manipulating the realm of ordinary activity and coding it with political meaning.” Here Mele falls victim to the old neighborhood’s romance. LES activists used to think that projecting animage of cultural freedom would trump establishment power. But as longtimers have learned, real power comes from who controls the land.

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No Services Offered in Arrest of Homeless Man

On the night of November 24, less than a week after Mayor Giuliani announced his plan to arrest homeless people sleeping in public places, Gerald Cazes bedded down on a bench, thinking about little other than keeping warm. It was about 30 degrees and he and a few buddies were in Sara Roosevelt Park on Houston and Chrystie streets, buried under as many blankets as they could find.

It wasn’t the cold that woke them. Cazes says the police roused him and the other homeless men in the park around 2 a.m., asking everyone for identification. What the police didn’t ask, according to Cazes, was whether the men were interested in going to shelters or receiving any other services, a question the Giuliani administration says is part of its new policy. “If they had, I might have gone,” says Cazes, “depending on which shelter.” The police department did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

Instead, says Cazes, the group was herded into a police van, which took them to the Ninth Precinct, where they were arrested for trespassing and locked up with other homeless people. At about 5:30 a.m., the group, which Cazes estimates at this point to have been about two dozen men, was moved to a holding cell in the courthouse and assigned a Legal Aid attorney. At around 11:30 in the morning, Cazes went before the judge.

“He said this was a waste of his time and that we should all just get out of there,” says Cazes. Upon leaving the courthouse, the 37-year-old, who characterizes himself as a severe alcoholic, was given a token, which is routine in the release of indigent detainees. “I used it to ride back to the area I stay in around Houston Street.”

But his usual crew was nowhere to be found. “I haven’t really seen anybody because they’re so scattered out now,” says Cazes, who has heard that one of the men arrested with him has been riding the trains. At press time, Cazes is hoping to spend the night in a mission. “Everybody’s slowly but surely disappearing, finding more secluded areas to sleep.”

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Signs of the Times

The battle over Times Square is being fought again. Only this time, it’s being waged about four miles south of 42nd Street. In Noho and Soho, residents say they are being overrun with megabillboards and advertising signs that are turning their neighborhood into one huge, glittering, gawdy commercial.


“They’re making this space into Times Square,” says artist and businessperson Marc Balet, who lives and works in a loft at Broadway and Houston, where a new double-sided, 2100-square-foot billboard sits, tabula rasa, awaiting an ad; the possibility of another 6000-square-foot poster along his building looms. “I don’t think anyone cares much if my windows are blocked, but there’s a bigger question of turning this into an impenetrable alley of advertising.”


Community Board 2 chair Alan Gerson conjures up an equally frightening image: “Pretty soon, we’ll all be staring at monster-sized Chiquita bananas, Snoopys, and Cap’n Crunches,” he says, a scene that sounds more like living in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than in any neighborhood.


Community complaints in Noho and Soho are growing as advertising for everything from Smirnoff vodka to Solgar vitamins to Fila gear and Internet search engines proliferates in murals, vinyl banners, and illuminated billboards. Most are popping up along Houston from Lafayette Street to Sixth Avenue, and around the Holland Tunnel.


The barrage is yet another symptom of the success that killed Soho. Longtime residents who say they pioneered the now ultrahip neighborhood lament that its popularity has turned it from artists’ colony to a commercial highway.


In Noho, residents met last week about the ads, galvanized in part by the newly erected, still-blank 2100-square-foot billboard above a Houston Street car wash. The corner, near Broadway, is famous for its ads, including Donna Karan’s photo-quality image of New York City and Fila’s mural featuring a 3-D mountain climber ascending a peak. The new billboard, put up by Go Outdoor Media, has two flanks erected on a tripod scaffold, effectively wedging four windows of a loft co-op in between.


Worse still, says Balet, who lives in the building, Go has permits to erect another billboard as large as 6000 square feet on the gas station property; such a structure would darken windows along his building’s entire southern wall. The windows are “lot line,” meaning they were not part of the building originally, and owners have no legal right to the light and air they provide.


James Giddings, a partner in Go Outdoor Media, says the smaller sign “is above a car wash with a 24-hour gas station and a 24-hour blinking sign. We thought it would be an appropriate place.” As for the second, giant billboard, which Giddings says could range from 4000 to 6000 square feet, “nothing is decided.” But the prospect leaves Balet—who, ironically, runs his own ad agency—feeling worried and bullied, because, he says, Go Outdoor Media is negotiating with his co-op in no-win terms: Co-op owners can avoid a light-blocking billboard on the gas station lot so long as they allow Go to hang a mesh ad covering the entire side of their building. Usually, such deals compensate co-ops with ad revenue and accommodate tenants by cutting the mesh where it covers a window. Balet says, so far, Giddings has been unwilling to pay or cut windows.


“It’s like, if we don’t take his offer, he’ll put up the other billboard, which is arguably worse,” say Balet. Giddings says no plans are finalized, adding, “I don’t like the term bullied because it’s really not appropriate. We’re trying to be good neighbors.”


Giddings warns that co-op dwellers face a possibly worse outcome: The owners of the gas station could put up a four- or five-story building. “What seems like blocked light and air because of a sign might be a lot better than cinderblock walls,” says Giddings. “It’s like the lesser of two evils, but no one’s going to appreciate that fact because I’m the one that showed up first.”


Giddings says Go Outdoor Media recently signed a 20-year lease for both the smaller billboard and the larger, unbuilt one. The smaller sign, which has indirect lighting, is being brokered through an agency, but Giddings said no client has bought space yet. “We’ll sell it to whatever legal advertising wants to pay for it,” he says.


City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, who represents Soho and parts of Noho, says the signs raise several zoning questions. Signs are restricted within a certain proximity of residential districts and buildings. In fact, one of the reasons Soho and Noho are being barraged is because they remain manufacturing districts, where signs are more easily installed. And while Soho has some protection by being designated a historic district, Noho does not.


“I empathize with the residents and understand that this is not a welcome change,” says Giddings. “But this city is always changing; it’s kind of chaotic, and there are zoning regulations that allow you to do certain things in certain places. I guess the artists and manufacturing zones went well together for a while, but now it seems like they’d rather not be manufacturing.”


Sean Sullivan, director of the Soho Alliance, is considering litigation regarding signage. He and others say the city’s Department of Buildings wrongly issues advertising permits; DOB could not be reached for comment. Freed says her staff is investigating zoning laws that prohibit signage near parks, since there are several in the area. In fact, her staff is checking into whether the sparsely planted traffic barriers along Houston—formally considered parkland—qualify.


“I don’t ever see any forest rangers in there,” quips Balet, who looks from one of his two rooftop gardens to an array of ads along Houston. Mixed among a skyline view that includes the World Trade Center, the Woolworth Building, and glimpses of both the Williamsburgh and Manhattan bridges are ads for gin, health pills, and gym shoes. “I love advertising,” says Balet, who has made part of his living from advertising. “I’d love to paint on the wall,” he says, noting that he once tried to get the site of the current DKNY ad for his then-client “Mr. Armani.”


But there’s a limit, he says: “People have gone mad to put their name on the wall, and I know I’m part of the problem. I just don’t want it to rule the environment.” As he spoke, the Izod blimp lazily passed by.