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An Evening in the Life of Washington Heights

 

Children watch as friends play volleyball at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Kids play along the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.
Neighborhood friends celebrate the birthday of Miss Shay, who is turning 15-years old (center left) in Washington Heights on a summer evening.
12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Washington Heights residents practice volleyball and softball in the Hudson River Greenway on a summer Sunday evening. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends sit at the riverfront at the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening.

12 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Friends play a game of Ecuavolley in the Hudson River Greenway in Washington Heights on a summer Sunday evening. Ecuavolley is a variant of volleyball invented and played in Ecuador. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Anthony and Orlando, long-term residents of Washington Heights, sit on Amsterdam Ave on a summer evening.
16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR THE VILLAGE VOICE

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Jahmel, Liam, Mia, Kourtney, Jared, and Bria sit on the stairs in front of their apartment building in Washington Heights on a late summer evening. The group lives on 164th, where they have grown up together their whole lives. They are not related, but feel the same as family.

16 AUGUST 2018, MANHATTAN, NEW YORK: Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights on a summer evening. The street is filled with cars and set designs, as the community is being used for the filming of “The Deuce” for HBO this week.
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Lin-Manuel Miranda Can’t Save All Our Favorite Places

In the struggle against skyrocketing New York rents, it helps to have Lin-Manuel Miranda on your side. When news broke in January of the upcoming closing of Coogan’s, a beloved Irish pub in Washington Heights, after its landlord, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, demanded a $40,000 per month rent increase, Miranda tweeted to his 2.3 million Twitter followers, “I love Coogan’s. My stomach hurts from this news.” (2,300 likes.)

Within 48 hours, an online petition to save the restaurant had garnered more than 15,000 signatures, and local politicians had started making calls to the hospital demanding that it renew Coogan’s lease at a reasonable rent. By the end of the week, Coogan’s co-owner Dave Hunt had a handshake deal for an affordable lease renewal. That night, he signed the papers in the back room of the pub as the celebration was already under way in the bar. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Congressman Adriano Espaillat were there, as was Miranda, singing “Happy Birthday” to patrons and tweeting about the victory. (3,600 likes.)

A week or so later, on January 21, Washington Heights residents gathered once more, this time for a rally to save Galicia, a Spanish restaurant three blocks north of Coogan’s. According to owner Ramón Calo, Galicia’s landlord, Edel Family Management, was demanding a $20,000 per month rent increase. Standing in front of handmade posters reading “Save Galicia” and “Salvemos a Galicia,” activists and politicians spoke out to call on the landlord to offer Galicia more reasonable terms. Another online petition — “Let’s Save Galicia Restaurant, too!” — went live. To date, the petition has gathered only 1,600 signatures. Miranda didn’t tweet. (Zero likes.) According to Calo’s son Cristian, Galicia recently lost a court battle for its survival and will be forced to close on June 30.

More than a quarter-million small businesses exist in New York City employing more than 1.2 million workers, and the Small Business Congress estimates that more than a thousand close each month, many for reasons other than rising rents. Local advocates are hoping for the passage of a robust Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was reintroduced by Washington Heights Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez for the umpteenth time in the City Council on March 22. The proposed law would grant lease renewal rights to commercial tenants, somewhat leveling the playing field between small businesses and landlords, who currently can evict store owners at will when their leases expire, regardless of how much cash and sweat equity they’ve put into their businesses.

Lena Meléndez, an activist with Dominicanos Pro Defensa Negocios y Viviendas (Dominicans in Defense of Businesses and Housing), says the lack of legal protections for small business owners are especially devastating in neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood, where rezoning is likely. “We are talking about the decimation of any kind of wealth that has been amassed by this majority-minority community,” she says.

Calo, who built his business in the lean years of the 1980s, says that now, after so many people worked to build up the neighborhood, it’s hard to see landlords and developers looking to cash in: “They’re getting the luxury of eating the steak while we were stuck with eating the bone.”

***

Calo says he came to New York in 1985 from Boiro, a small town in the region of Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain. He hadn’t originally intended to stay, but after five years in the city he had an opportunity to become co-owner of a restaurant at 172nd Street and Broadway. His friends said he was crazy. “Why would you go up there? You’re going to end up dead!” he recalls them telling him. But he remembers thinking, “I’m only going to sell food. I’m not going to do harm to anybody. So why shouldn’t I be able to go?”

Calo knew for years that renewing his lease, which was set to expire in October 2017, might be difficult, so in 2015 he began calling his landlord to start negotiations. For the next two years, he says, he called a couple of times a week, finally receiving his landlord’s offer only a few weeks before the end of the lease. Calo figured the highest rent increase he could sustain was about 40 percent of the $5,000 a month he was paying. Edel Family Management asked for a 400 percent jump, Calo says, which would raise his rent to $25,000 a month. (Edel Family Management did not respond to a Voice request for comment.)

The landlord also wanted him to expand into the commercial space next door, an expensive and disruptive proposition that still wouldn’t have brought in enough revenue to cover the increase. “It was basically a diplomatic way to ask for us to leave,” says Calo.

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Calo started crying shortly after being asked how he felt about his eviction. A minute or two later, he came back to the table and said, “I can’t lie: pretty bad. It’s just tough, knowing that one person can just say, ‘This is the end for you. You have to start over.’ ” He said he was worried about his employees, many of whom had worked at the restaurant for years. He was concerned about his financial future. And he was saddened by the prospect of losing the physical space where he’d made so many memories: the times when taxi drivers and truckers came for a warm meal late at night, the dance parties he and the staff had had while cleaning up after closing.

“The location itself is part of the family. It’s where my sons grew up. My wife works here. I’ve worked here for thirty years. It’s just a heartbreaking struggle — how one person can determine whether this is the end or not.”

***

An early version of the SBJSA was first introduced in 1986 by then-Councilmember Ruth Messinger. It was first voted down in 1988, and has resurfaced multiple times since, with 27 councilmembers signing on as co-sponsors by 2016. Yet the bill has never made it to a full council vote, as real estate interests have complained that its provisions were of dubious legality and would present too much of a hardship for commercial landlords.

The goal of the SBJSA is to make it so that no one person can determine whether a small business owner like Calo has to leave. The bill guarantees the right to a minimum ten-year lease renewal for all commercial tenants (with a few exceptions, such as if the tenant has broken the lease or violated tax or license laws). Crucially, if the tenant and landlord are not able to agree on terms, the bill would also send the dispute to an independent arbitrator, who would set a rent based on comparable prices in the area and the landlord’s and tenant’s finances, among other criteria.

With so many failures in the bill’s past and the powerful real estate lobby led by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) dead set against it, Steven Barrison, a spokesperson for the Small Business Congress, has worried that it will again fail to even be put for a vote. Small Business Committee chair Mark Gjonaj has received significant donations from the real estate industry — $96,070, more than 10 percent of his total campaign contributions in 2017 — with new Council Speaker Corey Johnson right behind him at more than $63,000.

Reginald Johnson, Gjonaj’s chief of staff, told the Voice in a statement: “Councilman Gjonaj is committed to addressing the needs of New York business owners. He wholeheartedly supports the objective of reducing the cost of owning a business in New York and looks forward to reviewing and debating the bill in committee.” Corey Johnson also offered a statement, which read, in part, “I am committed to giving the Small Business Survival Act [sic] the hearing and full consideration that it has been denied for too long, so that it can be debated on its merits.” REBNY did not respond to a request for comment.

Jenny Dubnau of the Artist Studio Affordability Project, an SBJSA supporter, shares Barrison’s skepticism. “These quote-unquote ‘progressives,’ when it comes to what’s going on in our city, they’re not progressive when it comes to real estate policy. It’s shocking.”

Rodriguez, the latest councilmember to introduce the bill, says he’s committed to it, but says it’s just “one of many measures that I want to put in place to protect mom-and-pop stores,” including adding local-business requirements for developers who get public money.

As of this writing, no hearing on the bill has been scheduled.

***

In the past, the bill’s opponents have argued that its passage would harm landlords and disincentivize developers from investing in property, and therefore ultimately hurt small businesses. They’ve also argued that a bill like this is unprecedented, maybe even illegal.

Mary Ann Hallenborg, a clinical assistant professor of real estate at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, says there’s precedent in New York City for commercial rent control, dating back to a 1945 law that limited commercial rent increases, much as residential rent regulations still work today. Then, as now, small business owners complained of excessive rent hikes and evictions, and the state legislature stepped in to regulate the commercial rental market, though the law was repealed in 1963 once the rent emergency was deemed to have passed.

David Eisenbach, a Columbia historian and 2017 candidate for Public Advocate, believes that the bill, if passed, “will absolutely hold up” to court challenges. “LaGuardia passed commercial rent regulation back in the 1940s because he saw a very similar situation happen,” he says. “There were numerous court challenges, and each time, the courts in the state of New York said that New York City has the powers, under home rule, to address a crisis. And it was a crisis.”

Dubnau would like to see things go even further. She worries that the arbitration component in the bill may be too expensive for small business owners. And she believes “there should also be legislation that makes it illegal for landlords to simply warehouse space. There should be a tax penalty for that.” She’d even love to see a restoration of commercial rent control.

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Hallenborg isn’t so sure that limits on commercial rents are a solution. “I agree that it hurts when your favorite neighborhood restaurant closes its doors because the landlord has hiked the rent,” she says. “But the reality is, in the urban core, property taxes, insurance, and other operating costs have increased dramatically over the last thirty years. And rents have increased commensurately.” She worries that the current draft of the SBJSA defines tenants so broadly that it could cover “big law firms, big pharmaceutical companies, big financial services companies — and I’m sure that they will appreciate everything that the city is doing to keep them in a below-market lease.”

Moreover, she notes that unlike commercial rent control, the SBJSA does not feature mechanisms to assure landlords of a fair return on investment or address landlord hardships, and doesn’t include a sunset clause. Such clauses “would help protect” the proposed new law from legal challenges by landlords, she says; as the law is written, “we could expect many challenges to it on a variety of grounds,” including a failure to provide due process and whether it’s an illegal taking of private property.

For small business advocates, though, the issue is not just the specifics of a new law, but the fact that the city has gone thirty years without even holding a vote on a bill that has strong support both on the council and among small business owners. “I don’t know a neighborhood in New York City where the people aren’t upset and angry about these businesses closing,” says Barrison. “If the people knew that all they had to do was go to their lawmaker and hold their lawmaker responsible if they did not pass a law that stopped this, it would stop. The people just need to know.”

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In 36 Saints, There Is Only the Senseless Curse

Strip Catholic teaching bare, remove its overarching story, its context, its reaching toward God at the expense of man, and you have a dime-store horror novel chronicling ghastly deaths—of, say, Saint Stephen (stoned to death) or Saint Maria Goretti (stabbed 14 times by her attempted rapist). Add to the mix an obsession with an obscure corner of mystical Judaism and you have 36 Saints, the fourth feature by writer-director Eddy Duran. The low-budget slasher adapts the idea of the “lamedvavniks,” or “humble chosen ones,” to the present day, as it explains in peculiarly trailer-like exposition at the beginning, complete with a faux-gravelly voice: “In every generation, there are 36 individuals who carry the suffering of the world. . . . Without them, the world we know will fall into . . . darkness. To achieve this darkness, there are those who have chosen evil over good.” This generation’s are headed by the demon Lilith. If this premise already sounds vague, it’s stretched further by mounting improbabilities, like the fact that all God’s chosen attend the same Washington Heights school, or that they’re all VIPs at a local club. (They also all have saints’ names—Joan, Valentine, etc.—and mirror their namesakes’ lives and deaths.) But the real problem with this film is that its voiceover at the beginning is its only real attempt at storytelling; there is no central character or quest to latch onto. There is only the senseless curse and its slow but sure fulfillment.

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Tio Papi Is an Underwritten Mess of Blind Optimism

Cinema deserves rich stories and positive portrayals of Latino life, but director Fro Roja’s cheapjack family dramedy—about a middle-aged Washington Heights bachelor unequipped to suddenly care for six children—doesn’t try to be anything more than a soft-serve pull of treacly pandering. Writer and co-producer Joey Dedio stars as rockabilly-haired, party-hearty wage slave Ray Ray Dominguez, an affable but underwritten mess of blind optimism and self-righteousness, who must now play “Uncle Daddy” to his dead sister’s six-to-16-year-olds. Cue the phony affirmational bonding and cheesy montage of doing chores together (one of the kids has to sleep in the laundry basket, how heartbreakingly cute!), smothered by a bombastically tacky salsa soundtrack that’s more a Nuyorican cliché than a boost of cultural vibrancy. Kelly McGillis only turns up at the most inappropriate moments as a by-the-book social worker, The Wire‘s Frankie Faison is Ray Ray’s building superintendent and buddy who feels bad about having to collect unpaid rent, and Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez plays the long-suffering ex-girlfriend who still holds a tiny Bic flame for our struggling everyman. Fine actors or not, there’s not a rough edge or third dimension to any of their roles in Tio Papi. Dios mío!

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Penguin Prison’s Sylvan Terrace Home: Like Boardwalk Empire Without the Whores

Shelter is a column about New Yorkers and the places they call home. Last time, we went to Victorian Flatbush to visit indie filmmakers Kasia Kowalczyk and Tal Harris.

Location: Washington Heights, Manhattan
Size: About 1,500 square feet
Rent: $1,900 a month
Occupant: Chris Glover (musician)

Manhattan’s oldest house is the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a Palladian hilltop manse that served as George Washington’s headquarters in the autumn of 1776. Overlooking the Harlem River, the Bronx, and the Long Island Sound, the home’s lofty perch made it an ideal strategic base against the British. So as a city museum since 1903, it has become sort of a historical dead zone that draws Revolutionary War hounds and camera-carrying rubberneckers from half a world away. And when Chris Glover, a 29-year-old who lives on an adjacent block, knocks on the locked front door after visiting hours, the first thing the motherly attendant wants to know, before she decides whether or not to send him away is, Where are you coming from?

Glover smirks, offers, “Down the street?” She sighs. Then you can come back, we’re closed. But he’s brought people and they don’t live around here, he appeals. Against her better judgment, she lets everyone inside.

Glover has brought us up here for two reasons: 1) to show us where he sometimes comes to hang out, specifically, in the encircling park around the building’s perimeter; 2) that proximity to this place is another reason he likes living where he does, around the corner on Sylvan Terrace. If the Morris-Jumel Mansion’s selling point is that “Washington Slept Here” (Aaron Burr did, too, though Morrisjumel.org’s History Section gives George top billing), then Sylvan Terrace’s 21st-century slogan might be “Steve Buscemi’s HBO Mistress Lived Here.” The secluded block of 20 wooden houses appeared on Boardwalk Empire last season, as a “whore row” where protagonist Nucky Thompson moved his lover. As a Prohibition-era backdrop, the former carriageway is a perfect relic: More than 100 years after the street was first built, the narrow stretch that connects St. Nicholas Avenue and Jumel Terrace seems like a fossilized alley, all symmetrical clapboard and quaint porches and cobblestone path, with no parking and little foot traffic.

Glover, a New York City native who records electro-pop under the name Penguin Prison, moved to Sylvan Terrace four years ago with his girlfriend, after he saw the rental listed on a website. “I just got lucky,” he says. Together, they pay $1,900 a month for the three-bedroom/two-bathroom duplex rowhouse that’s an estimated 1,500 square feet. “Our landlord doesn’t charge as much as he could, I think,” surmises Glover. (A few doors down, a real-estate-agent neighbor put her 1,650-square-foot version on the market for $875,000 last year.) “I guess the landlord likes us?”

The couple has been delicate with the place. Both levels are supremely neat, an untouched canvas of high ceilings and white walls. Upstairs, Chris has converted one of the bedrooms into a soundproofed home studio—as Penguin Prison, he’s been living off tour revenue and remix jobs for the past few months after leaving a job at Sandblast Productions, a music division of Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video. But even in such a typically overstuffed workspace as a home studio, there isn’t a hint of clutter. “I like to throw things away,” he explains. “If I throw something away today, a year from now, I’ll never remember I had it. I mean, I’m not going to throw away a guitar. But you don’t need that much.”

The impulse to discard—or willingness to move on, depending—has also characterized Glover’s creative life. “I always wanted to be a musician,” he admits, an ambition that led him to Star Search at 12, a gospel-choir stint as a kid with Alicia Keys, and singing jingles for hire as a teenager. But then he rejected harmony, threw himself into punk, and joined a Long Island band. He soon left that behind, too, by forming a fake boy band in college with two friends called The Smartest People at Bard. (An old black-and-white photo of the trio in varying degrees of undress is tacked up in Glover’s studio.) That last project was a joke, but Glover’s Interscope-sponsored solo jaunt as a corndog r&b emcee in a starched collar, blazer, and sneakers wasn’t. “It was a little too crazy for them, I guess,” he says now of his major-label run as a hip-hop troubadour under his own name. He eventually scrapped that approach, too.

Amusingly, Glover’s recent metamorphosis into a kewpie-haired synth-pop frontman is a direct consequence of something he didn’t trash. A while back, his friend Alex Frankel from the DFA dance band Holy Ghost! was rummaging through Glover’s stuff and discovered a vintage mini-keyboard, the Mattel-manufactured BeeGees Rhythm Machine. They started fooling around with cheesy disco-beat setting and came up with the first Penguin Prison song, “Golden Train.” Glover liked the sound and kept writing in that style; he has since recruited people to join him in playing live for the project. Now, Penguin Prison songs are on the BBC One playlist and Glover just returned from a Southern tour with one-man mash-up megalith Girl Talk.

Girl Talk shows are far more dance party than performance, the sorts of crowd-detonating blitzkriegs in which everyone gets hit with more ass than a toilet seat. “Kids there just want to dance and get drunk. They don’t even care if there’s sound,” Glover admits. The Charleston, South Carolina, date earlier this year drew “the rowdiest crowd I’ve ever played to—they were just going crazy.” That isn’t at all indicative of his home life, he swears, even though there’s a pyramid of Knob Creek bourbon bottles downstairs in the kitchen. It’s his girlfriend’s birthday on Friday, they’re having a party, and they’ll be serving Manhattans along with a drink in honor of their home: the Sylvan, a concoction of vodka, lime, elderflower, and cucumber.

The only drawback of living so far uptown, Glover admits, is that Washington Heights is far away from where his friends live. “You kind of end up not going out that much and just staying in,” he concedes, more of an acknowledgment than a complaint. “People joke when they’re coming here, ‘Oh, I’m going upstate! Oh, I gotta get on a plane, catch a flight, to go visit Chris.’” What do people say when they finally make it up here? “Wow, you have so much space.”

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Servants of Fish: A Taste of Seafood

Fried fish has long been a big deal in Harlem. As African-Americans from Georgia and the Carolinas migrated northward to New York in the first half of the 20th century, they brought their love of catfish with them. But finding no precise equivalent in the area’s waterways, they substituted it with the ubiquitous, cheap, and mouth-watering whiting, a snowy-fleshed local fish with a delicate texture that recalled catfish, but lacked its muddy flavor.

Places selling whiting sandwiches—on white or whole wheat, liberally squirted with tartar and Tabasco—soon sprang up from 110th Street to Washington Heights. During their heyday, these small cafés and carry-outs must have numbered 50 or more. Some also sold steamed crabs, showing the influence of Baltimore and D.C. on the local cuisine. By the mid-’80s, catfish farming made it possible to reintroduce catfish to the menu, but whiting was already firmly planted in the popular taste. Sadly, the number of fried-fish places has dwindled over the last few years, so that now only a handful remain.

For years, my favorite was an odd place on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street with the duplex name Servants of God/A Taste of Seafood. It was run by a Bronx church as a profit-yielding enterprise—hence the “Servants of God” part. Piled high with fillets, the whiting sandwich was beyond compare; the mac and cheese was rich and fluorescently orange; the shrimp was crisp and fresh-tasting; and the chicken wings were dinosaur-size and fried a perfect shade of brown. The fries were only so-so, but the red-velvet cake made up for it, and the coconut cake beat the hell out of that.

Come lunch, a line snaked out the door, filled with customers willing to wait 20 minutes or more to grab the fish. Like Seinfeld‘s Soup Nazi, Servants of God maintained order in the line by imposing rules. The first rule was that, if you somehow managed to score one of the rare seats at the counter (which were incredibly uncomfortable), you were required to keep track of your position in the queue, and were permitted to order only when it was your turn. (The waitresses keep careful track—no butting in line!)

When the place closed a couple of years ago, I was forlorn. Except that it didn’t close forever—it bided its time and then moved across the street. Now, it’s merely called A Taste of Seafood, and God’s fry-o-lators have been reinstalled in a deluxe two-story space with purple light fixtures and a smattering of nautical décor. In a spacious open kitchen at the rear of the first floor, a congregation of cooks cooperate to produce fried seafood with standards of perfection rarely seen in fancier establishments. Though spacious booths line one wall, these are invariably occupied by folks waiting for carry-out. Hike upstairs if you want to dine in.

The whiting sandwich ($4.50) remains the core of the menu—three perfect fillets breaded with a combo of flour and cornmeal, trapped between slices of white. For an extra dollar, you can have catfish—rotund, narrower fillets. Don’t pray for any muddy flavor—this is farmed catfish. Both of these selections are also offered in a panoply of configurations featuring fries and sides. The menu has been expanded since the across-the-street days, and now a couple of whole fish are available, bones and all, lightly breaded and fried. The red snapper ($13) is strictly for high-rollers, while the so-called porgy sandwich ($8) is a small specimen, just the right size for one person, and the clerk at the cash register may or may not remember to throw a couple of slices of bread in the paper basket when he calls your number. In Harlem, a sandwich is just a state of mind.

The chicken wings remain superlative, crisp-skinned and served with chips and sides. I won’t bother repeating the complex price schedule listed on the menu, but you can get eight wings by themselves for $9. The wings are so big that I’d hate to run into the chickens that produced them in a dark alleyway. Among the sides, the mac and cheese still burns itself into your memory with its orangeness, and the collard greens are notably cooked without either fatback or smoked turkey, which is a plus in my book. Fried or steamed okra is another fine option.

The menu lists some even higher-end stuff, including steamed king crabs, snow crabs, ocean scallops, and lobster tails. Skip ’em. This is a fried-fish spot, after all.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

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BAROQUE BASH

The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights has historical blue blood—George Washington’s forces convened there before the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. Their resident ensemble, Brooklyn Baroque, will harken even further back in To the Nines, a program of composers with milestones in 2009. On the bill, and hopefully smiling down from the conductor’s riser in the sky: opera and concerti grossi composer George Frideric Handel, who died in 1759; Mannheim symphonist Franz Xaver Richter, who was born in 1709; and string quartet pioneer Joseph Hadyn, who died in 1809.

Sat., April 18, 4 p.m., 2009

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The Conquering Hoard

By the time Steven, a 16-year Washington Heights resident and former Wall Street broker, had climbed the stairs to his apartment—4D—the smell had grown so strong it consumed the hallway. Jingling his keys, Steven, 62, paused and said, as if giving fair warning, “The cats have really torn up the place.”

He opened the door, and a hot, stifling stench came crashing through the corridor.

And that sickly smell—or more aptly, the anonymous complaints about it—is what brought an animal-hoarding interventionist here in the first place. Allison Cardona, the chief hoarding investigator at the Manhattan-based ASPCA, has conducted these types of rescue missions all over New York City lately. In 2005 the ASPCA, as part of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, helped the city get thousands of dollars in grant money to launch an anti-hoarding program. Administered by the city’s Department of Health, the pilot project pairs Cardona with a social worker who hooks up troubled hoarders with medical care, food stamps, and other services. Cardona, meanwhile, deals with the animals—first, spaying and neutering them; and then, trying to place them in adopted homes.

Over the past 18 months, the program has seen 80 hoarding cases in total, spanning all five boroughs and every ethnic group and income level. Most of those cases (59) involved women. But gender aside, the average animal hoarder fits a pretty typical profile: They tend to be elderly, isolated, and lacking in resources. They are, in short, people like Steven.

“I haven’t had anybody in this apartment since maybe 2002,” he said as he entered his one-bedroom apartment. His wife, Hazel, had to leave their home for a nursing facility in Riverdale three years earlier. These days Steven survives on a $200 monthly allowance from his estranged sister and lives with his cats, all 35 of them, each one now scrambling, screeching, and scurrying around the apartment.

From the looks of it, Steven’s cats had taken over his abode a long time ago. Gone were the cushions on his red sofa, for instance, which was shredded down to its bare wooden frame in multiple places. Ditto for the vinyl blinds, and the padding on the kitchen chairs. Large claw marks dotted every wall; tiny scratch marks decorated every piece of furniture—from tables to bookshelves to kitchen appliances. Dust, inches thick and intertwined with cat hair, blanketed the environment. Flies buzzed and swarmed around the rooms; maggots contaminated the litter boxes.

Cardona, who wore an orange T-shirt with the words ASPCA: We Are Their Voice, walked around the unit, inspecting it with a careful gaze, scrawling notes in a folder. She had heard about Steven from an ASPCA law-enforcement officer who had fielded the anonymous complaints about the foul odor. But when the officer decided that Steven wasn’t abusing his cats (and could therefore not, legally, seize them), he referred the case to Cardona, whose job it is to persuade Steven to lower his animal load voluntarily.

During this particular visit, she was taking an inventory of the orange and black tiger and tabby cats, the ones perched on top of the refrigerator and nestled in the sink and camped inside the sofa. Four tiny kittens frolicked about in an empty Pyrex pan on the floor.

“Is that the nursing cat?” Cardona asked, as Steven reached for one of the rattier animals. He nodded, the grayish tiger cat wiggling violently in his arms.

“I think she might need more food,” Cardona said, feeling the cat’s frame. “She’s too thin to be a nursing cat.”

“Oh, no. She’s OK,” he replied, explaining that he feeds his cats two times a day, which eats up $75 of that monthly allowance.

“I’m telling you that she’s not,” Cardona responded, firmly.

“Yes, she is. She’s healthy. She’ll be all right,” he persisted.

Like most hoarders, Steven didn’t start out that way. In 2000, he stumbled upon three stray kittens outside his building. One year later, he brought in another cat, hit by a car, stranded on the front stoop.

“They all started multiplying,” he explained. Four cats reproduced three times over the ensuing six years, leaving him with nearly three dozen.

Steven thinks of himself as simply a man who loves his animals. “I consider them my companions,” he told Cardona, as a half-dozen or so cats moved in around his feet. “They’re smarter than a lot of people, and they never, ever disappoint,” he said. Besides, now that his wife has left, they’ve given him a reason to get up in the morning. “I would have cracked up if I didn’t have something to get me going. They forced me to clean up their mess.”

Still, he confided, it’s a lot of work. In recent months, his cats have knocked over candles, turned on the gas stove, and gotten into the cabinets. One day last summer, they turned on the faucet and flooded his entire apartment.

“I’m going insane,” he told Cardona. “This whole place is not amenable to a good life.”

Cardona made an appointment to return in a week to have all the cats spayed and neutered; the next step would be adoption. As he walked her out of the apartment, Steven agreed to give up his companions, but said he’d like to hold on to three of them.

It’s a lucky number, he said.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Media MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Technology THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Hot Hot Heat

This is why “This Is Why I’m Hot” is hot: Because it’s hot. There are of course other reasons the breakout single from Mims, a Washington Heights rapper who intends to carry New York hip-hop on his back and restore us to glory, is hot. It ascended to number one on Billboard’s Hot 100, for example, and topped iTunes’ singles chart as well. But consider these other, purer, more intangible reasons why it’s hot, best explained by Mims himself over the course of the song. Where appropriate, we will back him up with visual aids.

The most amazing line in “This Is Why I’m Hot”—and, even at this early a juncture, quite possibly the most amazing line of any song to see release in 2007—is “I’m hot ’cause I’m fly/You ain’t ’cause you not.” Brutal and unassailable in its simplicity. Consider the reasoning, first, of just “I’m hot ’cause I’m fly”:

Mims is hot because he’s fly. But it raises the question: Does being hot guarantee one’s being fly? “You ain’t ’cause you not” would seem to clear that up:

It would appear that fly and hot are interchangable. If you are one, you are both; if you aren’t at least one, you are neither.

If you find completely overlapping Venn diagrams visually unhelpful, consider this tautology:

If that’s a bit pretentious, then maybe a blunt flowchart works best:

The other remarkable, oft-quoted line in “This Is Why I’m Hot” is “I could sell a mil’ sayin’ nothin’ on a track.” Critics gibe that “This Is Why I’m Hot” proves precisely that; others muse on what Mims would sell if he deigned to actually say something on a track. Would he sell less than a mil’? Exactly a mil’, as when he said nothing? Or a great deal more than a mil’? The song does not elaborate.

In any event, note that he can do those things, not will, which suggests he might not. As these claims and predictions are speculative, there are more possible outcomes; it seems reasonable to assert that Mims can’t sell more than a mil’ sayin’ nothin’. Though we would love to see him try.

Sonically, the most entertaining part of “This Is Why I’m Hot” is the first verse, in which Mims underscores his hotness by touting his skill at adapting to regional styles, as the slow, minimal, eerie beat morphs beneath him, sampling both “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and “Jesus Walks.” In the Dirty Dirty (South) he makes the ladies bounce. He slows it down in the Midwest per their preference. He does it the Cali way in L.A., and in Chi, in addition to adeptly moving the crowds from side to side, everyone loves his fashion sense. (If you enjoy nothing else about “This Is Why I’m Hot,” acknowledge the rakish, immensely appealing way Mims says the word attire.)

Our quarrel lies with “If you need it hyphy/I take it to the Bay,” an homage to the Oakland–San Francisco Bay Area’s relentlessly knuckleheaded and sorta wonderful hyphy movement, with its proclivities for going dumb, making thizz faces, ghost-riding the whip, etc. (Yahdidabooboo.) But unlike Mims’s other geographical shout-outs, that’s all he says here—”I take it to the Bay/’Frisco to Sac-town/They do it e’y’day.” First of all, no one calls it “Frisco” except rhyme-starved rappers, and the only worthwhile MCs living anywhere near Sacramento are in prison. But even worse, there’s no style adjustment here—he just takes it to the Bay. This is wholly insufficient for hotness—several entities that take it to the Bay do not qualify:

The song’s other two verses are a relative letdown—Mims can get chopped birds by the flock, he’s got money in the bag, he coordinates his outfits, he compels you to Google the word guap, people tend to like how he records, he’s into big spendin’, bah. He does intimate that we will find him “with different women” that we personally have “never had,” which is awfully gentlemanly of him, really. Since we’re feeling charitable we’ll assume all of Mims’s women are hot; with regard to our own conquests, it’s best to be honest with ourselves.

Though a fantastic song, “This Is Why I’m Hot” verily reeks of Skee-Lo. It’s so distinctive and goofy that no follow-up could possibly do it justice. But even if Mims is not built for endurance, he has given us an invaluable gift nonetheless—reclaiming and re-energizing the word hot after years of abuse. Plumbing one’s memory (with a bit of Internet aid) reveals how even reputable musicians have overused the “I’m hot like _____” construction. Behold:

Yes. Mere mortals are hot like other people or things; having ascended to a higher plane, Mims is hot like Mims. It doesn’t get hotter than that.

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Adventures of a Barrio Girl

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes has a lot on her plate. “Oh, my God,” she moans, “I’m never going to be able to eat all this. This is like the largest side order of rice and beans I’ve ever seen!” Though she’s eight months pregnant, and correspondingly hungry, she seems daunted by the platters arrayed before her at Malencon, a Dominican restaurant on 175th Street: codfish stew, beans and rice, buttered rolls, a side order of pasteles. She gestures at the pasteles with her fork. “These are so hard to find. They’re holiday food—like for the New Year or Christmas or Three Kings Day. One person in the family will work for days [to make them].”

These days, Hudes, 29, hasn’t time to bake her own pasteles. Pregnancy aside, she recently closed one show, Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue, which won a rave in The New York Times. And she’s in the midst of another, In the Heights, opening at 37 Arts on February 8. Hudes supplies the book to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics, which concern the changes a Washington Heights block undergoes over a Fourth of July weekend. Commissions for South Coast Rep (26 Miles) and the Signature Theatre (a musical called Honeys on the Half-court) are also in the works. Though the ink’s barely dry on her Brown University MFA, Hudes is already writer to reckon with.

In New York, Latina playwrights have met with plenty of approbation, but little commercial success, (Maria Irene Fornes, is perhaps the only exception). The likes of Marga Gomez, Cherrie Moraga, and Carmelita Tropicana float on the theatrical edge, while Hudes seems primed for major acclaim. If Hudes realizes the challenges of succeeding as a Latina playwright, they don’t particularly faze her. She describes herself as a “punky little kid who always thought I could do whatever I wanted.”

The product of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother, she grew up in West Philadelphia, playing piano by ear and entertaining herself writing songs, stories, and plays. “I was always writing,” she says. “I have poems that are in the shape of a Converse high-top, my ode to sneakers from when I was seven years old.” The first in her family to attend college, she studied music composition at Yale, where she remembers, as a freshman, talking her way into an upper-level music seminar. “I got there and I was at the table with these really well-educated juniors. There were 20 men in a room—and me.” At the end of her own junior year, Hudes received a Mellon fellowship that allowed her to spend the summer writing. During her senior year, she staged two original musicals, which drew on Puerto Rican, West African, and African-American musical traditions.

The producers of In the Heights contacted Hudes while she was still in graduate school. (After a few years paying the bills as a composer and musician—even releasing an album—Hudes followed her mother’s advice and returned to playwriting.) When Manhattan Theatre Club sponsored a reading of one of her plays, The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl!, the producers came calling. But Hudes had a year of school remaining and couldn’t commit. “I knew the timing wouldn’t work,” she says. But the producers made it work, waiting 15 months until Hudes had collected her degree and moved to New York. Producer Jill Furman says, “There’s an elegance to her writing. Her language in particular—it’s poetic yet always rooted in reality.”

The book for In the Heights presented particular challenges. Not the least of which: A book already existed. Twenty-seven-year-old Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda had originally conceived the project years ago while at Wesleyan University and had written several drafts of the book himself, as well as the music and lyrics. He describes his first meeting with Hudes as a mixture of “trepidation and relief.” Though he knew he needed a book writer, “I’d never collaborated in that way before. You hear all sorts of stories about disastrous collaborations—it can be a shotgun wedding in the worst sense.” Both Hudes and Miranda mention their astonishingly similar backgrounds. “We’re both Puerto Rican, our families are both business owners, community leaders,” says Hudes. “We realized very quickly that we’d had the same childhood, albeit in different cities,” says Miranda. “Also, she’s an extraordinarily accomplished musician. She gets music. Elliot? It’s a freaking fugue!”

Over the next several months, Hudes, Miranda, and director Thomas Kail spent several nights a week at Miranda’s Inwood apartment. “She’d write on the couch while I banged away on my keyboard (or played Tony Hawk Underground, when the notes didn’t obey),” comments Miranda. “I live next to the elevated 1 line, and they were doing construction across the street, my roof was sometimes leaking, and here we were, trying to create a musical.” Together they worked to shift the piece from a love story with the community as a backdrop to a musical about the community itself and the costs of gentrification. A New York Times article noted that the median household income in Washington Heights nearly doubled between 1999 and 2002, suggesting rapid change and rising rents. She drew on her memories of childhood (she describes Washington Heights as North Philly “on an incredibly large scale”) and her parents’ struggles as small business owners, running and leasing bodegas, pizzerias, and Puerto Rican restaurants.

Miranda may have already created the characters, but Hudes has made them her own. At a recent preview performance, Hudes’s jokey, lyrical tone, and her particular passions infuse the script. One scene even features pasteles. The character of Nina, a 19-year-old who’s the first in her immigrant family to attend college, has become a much more central figure than she was in Miranda’s original version. “My whole family thinks I’m totally Nina,” she admits. “They sob at every Nina scene. They say, That’s you, Quiara. OK, partially.” But most of the script should move audiences to laughter rather than tears. A sample exchange: “Does your cousin dance?” “Like a drunk Chita Rivera.”

For Hudes, dancing will have to wait until after the February 8 opening and the baby’s birth two weeks later. In the meantime, like Heights‘s fast-talking hairdresser Daniela, Hudes is “burning the candle a las dos puntas.” She needs all the energy she can muster. Throughout lunch, she nurses a single cup of café con leche, a soupçon of caffeine OK’d by her obstetrician. “I’m in previews! I need the coffee.” And the occasional pastele.