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Posts from the ‘interviews’ Category

THE BIKE THAT’S LIGHTER THAN LIGHT

by Anne Foster

 

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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States reserved titanium for military use, making it scarce, expensive and rarely used for bicycle components. After the fall of communism, Russia began exporting titanium for civilian use and it began to be used for bike components and eventually entire bikes: light, strong but relatively inexpensive. Source: Bicycle Design, Hadland and Lessing

Dave Perry, owner and mechanic at Bike Works in the Lower East Side, talked road bikes with me.

The true beauty of the road bike, Dave explained, is its malleability. “A road bike doesn’t have to have skinny tires. It can have medium width tires. So I like to think of it more as a wider range—it’s not just the road bike that you see in the Tour de France. You can have upright flat bars—sometimes that’s the best bike for commuting. Or other people like the drop bars.

“Obviously the new carbon fiber stuff can be much lighter than pretty much anything, but the rest of the bike has to have parts that are light, too. I had to get a carbon bike just to see what it was like.”

On the other hand, it’s not always about lightness and speed. Some road bikes are made with steel, which is heavier than carbon fiber.

“Steel…it’s a fine ride. I probably prefer it,” Dave said. Because of its ability to absorb shocks, steel makes for a comfy ride. And “You can trust it more…The steel bikes are just kind of there and you can repair them if necessary. Steel is real, you know…

 

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Originally from California, Dave Perry had dreams of racing professionally until the day a young junior named Greg LeMond ” blew by me in a time trial… I realized he had a natural talent that none of us could touch. That was my last race pursuing a professional career.”

 Dave came to Brooklyn in 1979 to study at Pratt. In New York he rode everywhere. “When you get to the city when you are young–or when you grow up here–the bike is the best way to get to know the whole city. It’s good for commuting obviously because of the autonomy. But really just riding around is a good way to get to know the city and just to relax.

“It used to be that you could really enjoy really traffic. There weren’t bike lanes so you would pretty much be forced into traffic unless you rode on one side of the road. But before there were bike lanes, you would just ride in traffic and that was always fun cause traffic doesn’t move that much faster than a cyclist does.”

 Something as wonky-looking as drop handlebars seems like it must be a modern invention, but in fact the road bike as we know it evolved through the early decades of the twentieth century.

“The drop bar that we see today is a slight variation on the earlier bars that were maybe a little flatter, in other words they were like drop bars but not as drop.

lighter-than-light-dinosaur400x600Drop handlebars were invented by 187, during the high-wheeler era. Although an upright riding position is more comfortable, a stooped position reduces air resistance making it possible to go faster with less effort. Source: Bicycle Design, Hadland and Lessing

“The derailleur wasn’t perfected until the fifties or so. Now it’s an essential component of the road bike, and gives another facet to its flexibility of use.

“The other day I had to carry a 125-pound thing on a trailer. I have a hitch on my regular bike but that’s a big maximum weight to be dragging on a trailer and I needed my lowest gear to go over the bridge because it’s—what?—four or five percent grade? That’s enough to mean that with that much weight I was going walking pace in my lowest gear.

“So when you use your bike for a lot of things you need a wide ratio of gearing.

“One of my coolest feats on a bike was carrying a five-foot tall refrigerator on the handlebars of a ladies Phillips three-speed, for five kilometers with sectors of cobblestone and brick road. It was a prop for a performance by Melora Walters.”
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CYCLING CITY: Urban Bicycling in the 1890s

 

5th Ave at 23rd St in 1909 NYPL

5th Ave at 23rd St in 1909 (NYPL)

We were thrilled to hear that Evan Friss will be talking about his book Cycling City at CUNY Graduate Center on April 6. He was kind enough to make some time to talk with us. 

BU: As I understand it, bicycling first became popular in the 1880s as an as part of the fitness craze that began in the middle of the 19th century, but in Cycling City I get the impression it evolved from the physical culture movement into a mad fad for mechanization of the city, in turn replaced by the next mad fad for mechanized mobility: cars. Is that an accurate assessment and can you talk a little about the context in which bicycling in the city first became popular?

EF: The 1890s is a wonderful decade to study.  There’s a great wave of industrialization and urbanization, there’s a deepening health consciousness, there are new patterns of recreation, and there’s this palpable sense that the century is coming to an end.  All of these themes, in one way or another, explains the sudden rise of the bicycle.

For some, the bicycle was a technological beauty, a marker of modernity, and a sign of progress.  Enthusiasts waited anxiously for each year’s new models, studied the extensive parts list, and perused the booths of elaborate bicycle exhibitions.  More than that, the bicycles of the 1890s weren’t just exciting new takes on an established platform (think Tesla).  The bicycle was totally new.  Sure there had been some predecessors, but none developed a long-term or overwhelming following.  The millions of cyclists who bought and rode bikes in the 1890s were doing so for the very first time.  And the bicycle seemed to hold so much promise: a way to escape the increasingly polluted cities, a way to exercise brain and brawn, a way to get to work faster.  As the century was about to turn, it was the bicycle that offered a vision of the future.

 

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Lower East Side in 1900 (NYPL)

BU: The fad for cars was attractive because a more expansive expression of the ideals of personal freedom and the limitless possibilities of technology that dominated so much of the thinking at the turn of the 20th century, not to mention economically far more lucrative. Still, that doesn’t entirely explain the abrupt decline of bicycling–or does it? 

EF: Yes and no.  Cars sapped a lot of the enthusiasm that late-nineteenth-century Americans had for bicycles.  Bicycles no longer seemed so progressive, so cool, and so fashionable.  At the same time, when the cycling city came to an end, hardly anyone who stopped riding bicycles began driving automobiles.  It would be another two decades before Americans purchased automobiles in significant numbers.  In fact, when people stopped riding bicycles, they didn’t turn to a new form of transportation.  They didn’t suddenly find value in the streetcars.  And subways were still few and far between. They stopped riding because it simply became unfashionable.

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Prospect Park bike path in 1896 (NYPL)

BU: The role of bicycling in female empowerment was fascinating, opening access to greater autonomy and personal freedom in all aspects of women’s lives, from social mores to clothing ( I had no idea there was an anti-corset movement). Would you say bicycling, in spite of its general decline after 1900 had a more long-lasting impact with regard to women? 

EF: The question of the long-term impact of the cycling city is a good one.  Some, but very little of the cycling infrastructure that was built in the 1890s, endured well into the twentieth century.  But in terms of social changes, the bicycle pushed the conversation in new directions and helped, at least incrementally, instill change.  In terms of women in particular, the 1890s was certainly not the first time that women began talking about the need for greater independence, freedom to dress more comfortably, etc., but since bicycling was so popular these age-old questions began to be answered in new ways.  Bikes and long flowing dresses didn’t make a good couple, so practically wheelwomen (as they were often called at the time) had to find alternative solutions.  Some particularly clever women realized that if society could come to terms with the new kinds of outfits that bicycling demanded, then perhaps people would get used to seeing women in such clothes even when they weren’t riding.  The notion of sportswear continued to evolve–as did the women’s movement more generally.  So while bicycling alone did not transform women’s lives, it did have an impact in both the short and long term.

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Ladies riding the Harlem River Speedway in 1897 (NYPL)

BU: One thing I was completely unaware of was the impact bicycling and bicycling advocates had on urban design, in particular in pushing for paved roads, not to mention the push and pull with regard to bike lanes. Infrastructure is such a big part of the conversation around biking today, those issues from 100 years ago seem very contemporary. Can you talk a little about what is the same and what is different?

EF: The debates about bicycling today are eerily similar to those of the 1890s.  Do bicycles belong on separate paths (off-road) or on the roadway itself?  How should cycling amenities be paid for?  Are cyclists the solution to create healthier and more livable cities or are they reckless traffic violators who make driving (a car or horse, depending on the era) unnecessarily more difficult?

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Over New York City Pavements 1892 (NYPL)

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Lafayette and Bond in 1897 (NYPL)

BU: The argument for keeping bikes out of parks and for bike lanes because they scared the horses, for example, that looks hilarious now. Can you talk a little more about that? 

EF: By all accounts, even at the time, the horses were fine with the bicycles. The people who didn’t like bikes were the people who were riding or driving the horses. Horses are very loud, and bicycles aren’t, so people weren’t used to it, and afraid of what kind of havoc that could create. So the horse drivers didn’t like bicycles, but their best rationale for prohibiting them was to suggest the complaints came from the horses.

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Ladies driving along 5th Ave, 1900 (NYPL)

BU: At Bicycle Utopia we look forward to a day when the arguments against bicycling because they inconvenience automobile traffic and take away parking spaces from cars will one day sound just as bizarre.  

EF: A lot of it has to do with space and control over space.  One example is streetcar operators would often demand that even if they the tracks were no longer in use that they not be ripped up, because they felt a sense of ownership of the street. Bicyclists wanted the unused tracks to be ripped up because they made it harder to ride, so that was an area of conflict.

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Bowery streetcars and elevated train, date unknown (NYPL)

In parks, the idea was that these winding bridal paths were exclusive places for people who could afford horses, and where you would meet only similarly well-heeled people, and who agreed on the proper decorum. One fear was that bikes would compromise exclusivity, and that parks would become too democratized. At the beginning, even when bikes were quite expensive, another problem was that the riders were young men, sporty and interested in speed and adventure, which didn’t sit well with the people using the paths to ride out on their horses. So the initial agreement with the park was that bicyclists had to get a special tag and agree to behave themselves in a certain way.

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The Grand Drive in Central Park, 1869 (NYPL)

The underlying questions about where bicycles belong, what kinds of people bicycle, and the degree to which cities should accommodate, promote, or limit bicycling are the same.  Yet, there are some critical differences.  As much as city dwellers in the 1890s understood that they were living in unhealthy environments, the tenets of sustainability are much more widely embraced today.

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View of South Street, 1878 (NYPL)

BU: Those differences are very interesting, indeed. Cities were much unhealthier environments in the late 1800s than they are today, with a lot of noisy, smelly, filthy manufacturing and substandard, terribly overcrowded housing for working people. In addition, there was some concern that the sedentary nature of office employment was intrinsically unhealthy, at a time when the white collar working class was really beginning to encompass a large segment of the working population. You touch on this in Cycling City; can you talk a bit more about that in the context of the health and sport movements of the 19th c. inspired by the Industrial Revolution?

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City dwellers in 1868 (NYPL)

 It’s interesting because a lot of health advocates were talking about the need to get out of doors in spite of the fact that lots of people were still doing what we now think of as hard labor. But within this there was a large population of people sitting in offices, and there was a fear that this work would generate a kind of toxicity that was even worse than the boredom, and that people needed to get out and get fresh air and move around. Central Park wasn’t enough, you needed to get to the countryside, swim in the ocean, to relieve yourself of the chaos of the city. Despite all the advantages of the city, the urbanity, the opportunity, you needed to get away from time to time to be able to sustain city living. So biking became a prescription of sorts.

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Sheet music cover (NYPL)

BU: The discussion around how to formalize the status of bicycles and bicycling made me laugh out loud, such as proposal of a bicycle tax, not to mention resistance on the part of cycling clubs to the requirement that bicycles be equipped with brakes, calling them unnecessary and  “an infringement upon their personal property.”  It sounds a bit like some of the more heated controversies around biking today, for example the helmet debate. What happened to all those attempts to regulate bicycles? Do you think if urban biking becomes significantly more popular the attempt to more strictly codify the status of bicycles will be revived?

EF: Efforts at regulating bicycles have been around since they first arrived in the US.  Even the predecessors to the modern day bicycles were quickly met with restrictions on how, where, and when they could be ridden.  Nobody, including cyclists, can seem to agree on how bicycles fit into our cities.  Part of the reason stems from the unique nature of the device itself.  Is it a vehicle or a toy? Is it more like a car or a pedestrian?  How one answers these questions then frames whether or not one thinks bicycles belong on the streets, the sidewalks, or separate paths.  It’s complicated.

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Biking in Central Park, 1895 (NYPL)

Even after the bicycling boom of the 1890s, ideas about taxing bicycles, licensing bicyclists, restricting the movements of bicycle messengers, and requiring helmets have come, gone, and arrived again.  Cyclists have long resented attempts at regulation, even as certain riders argued that doing so would help legitimize cycling.  Where I live now, the college town of Harrisonburg, VA, a recent city council candidate campaigned on a promise to institute a local bicycle tax.  Even if she had won, it’s unlikely the tax would have ever been implemented, but I think it speaks to one of the ways in which the talk of regulating bicycles is used today: as a threat to cyclists.  They better behave and stop asking for so much.

BU: It sounds like you may have heard about the All Powerful Bicycle Lobby, and its hilarious twitter feed (@BicycleLobby) one of my favorite artifacts of the resistance to the implementation of bike share in New York City in 2013.

EF: Even back in the 1890s there were lots of complaints that cyclists were getting their way all the time, while the cyclists felt they were always fighting an uphill battle. In NYT editorials there were complaints that bicyclists were writing the laws. One editorial ended with “Soon they’ll want all of the Earth!” On the bicyclists’ side, there were people who thought the regulations were far too many–one group of riders talked about what regulation would look like in the future, that cyclists would be required to light fireworks to let people know they were coming, etc.

At the time, most cyclists were mostly concerned with bicycling having a place in the city, so they wanted bikes to be regulated exactly like other vehicles. If bicyclists had to have a lamp at night, so should horse carriages.

Biking politics are also much more political in the twenty-first century.  So while there was great debate in the 1890s about whether or not parks should allow bicycling, whether or not the city should pay for paving bicycle lanes, etc., the various camps did not fit neatly into existing political categories.  There were certainly elements of classism at play, but the environmental issues were not understood through the lens of party politics in the same way that they are today.  City politicians from either party in the 1890s ran on “bicycling platforms.”

In many ways, it would seem easier to encourage bicycling in today’s world.  Bicycles are, relatively, much cheaper than they were then.  We already have lots of paved, very wide roads that could easily be redesigned for bicycles.  Yet, we’ve lived in a country that has defined itself as a nation of cars.  There’s a sense that we are a car country, a car people, and that our cities should reflect that culture.  Of course, that’s been starting to change of late and we’ll have to wait and see what comes next.

BU: How did you get interested in this topic and what inspired you to write this book?

EF: I had always been interested in urban history, urban planning and transportation. I was born in New York, and I went to graduate school in NYC, so I spent about half my life in NYC. I think of myself as a New Yorker, but my formative years were spent in Columbia, Maryland.

Columbia is a completely planned town, designed right down to the streets being named for American poets. A key part of the planning was these biking and walking paths, which had a big impact on how I understood the uses of public space.

Later, when I was in graduate school, a fellow student was writing about the politics of street names in the 1890s, and a lot of the city council meetings where these were discussed were taken up with discussions about biking.

BU: Can you talk a bit about how biking is different in Harrisonburg from New York City? 

It’s very different biking in Harrisonburg, which is a small college town, than biking in New York City. People here think biking in a big city would be terrible, but in many ways I felt more comfortable biking in NYC. Even before there was so much biking infrastructure, there were always plenty of places to park; you could get anywhere you wanted to go by bike. There is always the sense that drivers at least know you’re there. But in Harrisonburg, apart from a mountain-biking scene, biking is much less popular, and the cars, like to buzz you when they pass you. I don’t know if they’re doing that purposely or not.

There’s a bike movement for more bike lanes and the issue always comes back to one thing: parking. There’s this erroneous idea that there isn’t enough parking, even though there’s tons of free parking. It’s an unhealthy obsession with parking. People don’t want to lose one parking spot, while the fact is there are too many parking spots.  There’s a perception that there is this war against cars and parking spots. The larger issue is control and people not wanting to yield to change, or people who worry that environmental issues or bicycling issues are part of a politics they don’t agree with.

There’s very little bike infrastructure, although some streets have sharrows, or bike lanes, but routes sometimes strangely disappear. Some are colored, some are not, there’s no uniformity. It’s very haphazard. Even walking, to some degree, is similar. I have two small children and am used to walking with a stroller. Sometimes there are no curb cuts, sidewalks just disappear. It’s a sad reminder of the priority of car-driven projects. Policy that proposes alternatives to cars is still very piecemeal; biking is treated as a token and it’s not really institutionalized. The idea, for example, that every time a road is repaved, let’s restripe it for a bike lane.

Evan Friss will be speaking about Cycling City at the CUNY Graduate Center on April 6 at 6:30 PM. The event is free and open to the public. 

MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER

The CUNY Graduate Center

365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th St)

Room 3110

Directions  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ana Benaroya at ArtCrank

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We loved Ana Benaroya’s poster at ArtCrank this year. “I wanted to create a raw, powerful image of a woman riding a bike nude. She and the bike are one and they are rebellious, powerful and free.”

Ana’s work merits a Buzzfeed listicle, 8 Life Hacks Every Woman Should Know, excerpt from her forthcoming book 120 Ways to Annoy Your Mother (And Influence People).

Stay moist and go slow.

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A Bikestrian

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This just in from artist Frédéric Lère:

“You could not miss me.

“Walking a Citibike from the art supply store to my studio. Should I use the sidewalk or the bike lane? I opted for the bike lane, smoother surface.

“All the way up 8th Avenue from 23rd to 38th Street. Respecting all the traffic lights and unruly pedestrians…

“I was special, a bikestrian.

“One of the unruly persons that I met was driving a Yellow cab. He cut me off, forcing me to use my brakes, as he turned left on 35th Street, running a red light.

“The driver was a cop in a uniform!?!”

You can see Frédéric’s The Freevolous King Lère Show at the Mayson Gallery, 254 Broome Street, New York, from January 22 to February 05.

Proceeds from the show benefit the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit.

 

A Visit to Bicycle Roots Bike Shop in Crown Heights

What’s different about New York City from Central Illinois? Artist Kathy Creutzburg pays a visit to Joe, Nechama, Herschel and Steven at Bicycle Roots Bike Shop in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

 

 

 

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Chinese Delivery Man

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“The decorations hadn’t changed in years. On the wall was a giant red Double Happiness poster. The formica counter was cracked and repaired with duct tape. Overhead was a giant take out menu with vinyl numbers taped over the old prices. Fortune Garden was strictly take out only. There was no room to dine in even if someone wanted to.”

Author, playwright and screenwriter Isaac Ho has written a pulp thriller based on a series of murders of Chinese delivery men that took place in New York City in 2004. “It wasn’t a serial killer,” says Ho,  “It turned out to be a gang of kids who saw easy money: a Chinese guy, therefore he, and the people around him, probably don’t speak English very well, or at all, and are probably illegal, and so wouldn’t be too well-documented or protected by the legal system.  But once the arrests were made the story ended, the press stopped covering it. I wondered, what happened to the victims’ families?”

The story is told in both English and Chinese, highlighting the isolation the language barrier creates for the main characters.

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Told from the perspective of the family of the murdered man, the main actors in the story are poor working-class or illegal immigrant business-owners, for whom the crime itself is only the beginning of their troubles in a world made of trouble.

The novella’s deeply ironic perspective pokes fun at a host of TV drama clichés as it makes the case that the only thing worse than being invisible is to become visible.

Detective Jackson knew he had to let the other shoe drop. “As far as the police are concerned, it’s an open and shut case. We have all the proof we need. However, the District Attorney may plead them out rather than go to the trouble of a jury trial.” 

 “What?” 

 Detective Jackson tried to sum up the U.S. criminal justice system for Lau. “Judges love it when you make things easy for them. It’s kind of the American way.” 

 Now Lau was upset. “They’re not going to die for what they did to my son?”

“They’re minors. Even if convicted at trial they won’t get the death penalty.”

Lau composed himself and tried to put his thoughts into something the American detective could understand. “My youngest son tries to make me watch baseball but I don’t understand the rules. Difficult. Not simple. In China, when a person kills someone, they are put to death. Simple.”

The murder victim’s father, outraged by the legal system’s failure to deliver a justice he can understand, driven by grief, and guided by the incomprehension that comes with a 300-word English vocabulary, tries to save his son’s honor and prevent his family from falling into the abyss of poverty, homelessness and deportation that the crime, with its loss of one wage-earner and the delivery car, pushes them into.

The legal system’s betrayal is only the first in a series that leads Lau ever deeper into a conflict  that becomes exponentially more complex  as each person Lau encounters brings his or her fear and cultural values to it. His ultimate downfall involves a bicycle and two fateful Mets tickets to a game at Citifield.

“If you write this story from the investigating cop’s point of view, you’re free to move around, to talk to everyone, but if I’m following Lau, I only know what he knows; the investigation is the least interesting part of the story. I grew up watching TV with all these stereotypes–characters and storylines. This perspective imposed limitations that were challenging to me as a writer. In writing the story, I had to break my own stereotypes. The question becomes, what is he going to do about his son’s murder? How does his journey resolve?

Isaac Ho grew up in Rockland County in the 1970s. His parents were immigrants from different parts of China who met in the United States. Every Saturday the whole family drove to Chinatown to shop for groceries, pick up the Chinese newspapers and eat dim sum.

Growing up in white suburbs, where kids at school called him Bruce and Pearl Harbor, he learned to hide in plain sight–trying to fit in as much as possible with white friends, and consciously trying to repress his Chinese identity.

That changed when he came to New York City to study acting. He found himself bumping into all kinds of people, and connecting with an Asian arts community. But one of his teachers at NYU advised him against working on original plays by Asian Americans, saying, “Nobody takes ethnic theatre seriously. You’re going to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.”

“In my other books, the politics are like a sledgehammer, but in this book it was sufficient to tell the story from Lau’s point of view, that’s enough of a political statement in itself.

“In my first book, The Repatriation of Henry Chin, the story is about a guy who goes on the run chased by an ICE agent. Someone who read the first completed draft said “You introduce the protagonist way too late,” which I didn’t understand because Henry Chin is introduced on the first page. He thought Henry was the evil Chinese guy, and the ICE agent was the knight in shining armor–we’re so used to seeing white male characters as heroes, “You really have to change this; it’s way out of balance.”

“So I reworked things to make it clearer that Henry, the Chinese guy, is the hero.

“I ran into the same kind of thing when I started working on the new book. A lot of people asked me,’Why would you write about a Chinese delivery guy? If you’re going to tell a story about someone like that, there has to be something special about him, he’s just too ordinary.’ But the opportunity that writing about Americans who also have an outsider identity provides is to look at how strange America is, instead of looking at it from an “insider” perspective.

“Recently I took a trip to China with my father. We were driving through a modern section of Shanghai and slipped into a little alley that was completely traditional, surrounded by all these enormous highrises and shopping centers. When I was growing up, my grandmother told us she lived a day’s boat ride upriver from Shanghai. I asked my father if we could visit that place, but he said no, it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s part of Shanghai now. The city has expanded so much it has just absorbed the surrounding villages and towns.”

Ho, who has lived in California for 20 years, experienced an even more intimate culture shock when he visited New York in 2012.

“When I came to visit New York City for the first time since 1998, I was shocked by how much it had changed: on the one hand, it was like slipping on an old skin, the heat and sticky clothes, eating from food carts, getting around on the subway–except I had to get used to the metro cards, instead of using tokens.

“On the other hand, Lower Manhattan and Chinatown is like a military zone, with all the barriers and the security around 1 Police Plaza, and forget about parking your car. A friend of mine who lives in Chinatown and works in Long Island City told me he uses his bike to get to and from work. “He said,  ‘Screw the subway, it’s much easier by bike.’

“Even Chinatown has changed: it’s not just Cantonese food now. When I went with my aunt we had Shanghai-ese food at  a dim sum place on Elizabeth St.”

Chinese Delivery Man

Isaac Ho, 2013

152 pages

Digital Fabulists

 

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 Photograph: Andrew Shuie, Am I Invisible? A Portrait of New York City Bicyclists, 2012

 

 

¡Vivan los Muertos! Day of the Dead Celebrations at la Casa Azul

paul lambertonArtist Paul Lambermont’s lifelong fascination with Mexica theology began when he was seven or eight years old and saw an image of the Mexica dipping their feet into pails of sap to makes boots for themselves. “How cool is that?”

This spectacular painting (“the figure is the size of a small child”) is part of the Vivan los Muertos exhibition currently on view at La Casa Azul. The piece is made of found paper, that has been sewn, stapled and painted.

The painting represents the God Xipe Totec, and is part of a series inspired by the Codex Borgia, the Codex Zouche Nuttal, and Tibetan Art which he calls The Codex Chitipati. “I am interested in the art and myths of many cultures and time periods. Despite separation of geography and time, images are constantly repeated.

“Xipe Totec is the God of Springtime and Vegetation. He is represented as having been flayed: the skin is removed so new life can come through. During the ritual devoted to him the priests wore the flayed skin of sacrificial victims. It’s sort of nice we don’t do stuff like that now–it would make us more paranoid than we are already.”

The Vivan los Muertos exhibition includes work by Claudia Corletto, Pablo Caviedes, Michael Guillen, Ramon Gutierrez, Antonio Pertuz, Vanessa Peters and Airy Quiroz, and a community altar in memory of the writer Oscar Hijuelos, who passed away in October of this year.

¡Vivan los Muertos at La Casa Azul on view from now to November 23.

La Casa Azul Bookstore 143 E. 103rd St 

A Yankee Circus on Mars

Animals roller skating or dressed as airline pilots make me sad, and human beings walking on a wire at great heights or diving into tiny buckets of water fill me with terror, but no delight. A circus-themed childhood nightmare involving frothing alligators, sequined ladies,  a sinister jar of pickles, and…well, the mere thought of it even today makes my heart freeze.

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No circuses for me, therefore, most definitely not.

How to explain, then, my passion for circus art? For what Einstein was to physics, so is circus art to the art of the poster.

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The announcement in the New York Times of an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center The Circus and the City had me on the phone in an instant to the painter Frédéric Lère.

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Apart from supreme distinction of having three accents in his name, Frédéric has quite a pronounced circus theme in his work, not to mention a French trapeze artist grandfather. A few days later we were standing together at the entrance of 18 W 86th street.

Well, not exactly together. We waited for each other for 20 minutes at a distance of about six feet, one so absorbed in the catalogue (me) and the, other unable to resist taking a peek into the first room and then  transfixed as if before the Oracle at Delphi (Frédéric), that neither of us were able to perceive the presence of the other, even as we both wondered whether we hadn’t gotten the time or the day wrong.  The spell was broken only when we, almost simultaneously, pulled out our cell phones, and looking up as we waited for the first ring, found ourselves gazing into each other’s eyes.

circus_picture_puzzle
Frédéric lives in a fantastic world of esoteric and astonishing facts peopled with extraordinary personalities whose lives defy not only social convention but occasionally the space-time continuum. A stroll through a sequence of rooms whose walls are covered with images of regally bearded ladies and 3-ton golden carriages rolling through Union Square finds him in his element.  He is also a rare craftsman with a deep knowledge and keen appreciation of the technical mastery required to produce an article such as The Grand Procession of the Steam Calliope Drawn by a Team of Six Elephants in the City of New York, the details of which he is delightfully willing to share.
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A lengthy discussion of registration, wood blocks versus metal plates, paper shrinkage and conservation, the fading properties of ink, or not…time stopped as a magic spell wrapped me up in a moment I would have liked to go on forever.

Then we stopped in front of this,  which reminded Frédéric of something. It reminded me of something, too. “Maybe it wasn’t just a dream…” I thought, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up in a braid.

Fortunately, Frédéric was talking, and I tore my thoughts from the abyss reeling before my mind’s eye to give him my full attention. When with Frédéric, this is best. He speaks quietly and quickly, and if you let your mind wander for even an instant, when you come back you will find you have completely lost the thread.

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“A while back, when I was going to Moscow a lot for work,  I met a girl who ended up marrying the pal I worked with. They eventually moved here. Little by little, she brought  her whole family over.

“Her sister married a guy who had an alligator farm, and they went to live in Florida. She started doing a show in which she fought with an alligator. ”

At this point he had to stop to laugh at the mental image of the sister of the pal’s girlfriend in a bikini combatting an alligator, a laugh made of equal parts delight, astonishment, and maybe a little sadness.

“It’s incredible, these people who come here wanting nothing more than a normal life. All she wanted was to escape the Hell that was life in Russia for a quiet, ordinary existence, and she ends up in Florida fighting alligators…

“She was a very unassuming kind of person…in a room full of people, you wouldn’t notice her. She had a couple of kids… Over the years I’ve sort of lost touch with them. I think we’re Facebook friends.”

And he laughed again, shaking his head.

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Frédéric Lère

A few weeks later, I met Frederic at his studio, where he was in the middle of creating an enormous wall mural for La Bergamote’s new shop in Midtown. He was on a terrifically tight deadline, so I brought lunch.

“French Dip. That’s a first.”  he said, taking a bite.

“Do you know why it’s called that?” I asked. “There’s nothing like it in France, as far as I know.”

“Nothing,” he agreed. “Maybe it’s the baguette?”

He picked up a small paper bag lying on the table where we had spread out the sandwiches.

“The people downstairs make extraordinary chocolate, he said, picking up the remains of a bar. “This is chocolate à la bergamote.  I’ve managed to hold on to this, three squares, for two days–we’ll have it for dessert.

“It’s an old story, the story of bergamot, it’s very bizarre. Attempts to export these bergamot candies were never successful. They’re a specialty of Nancy. The Duke of Lorraine, Stanislaus, was the King of Sicily as well–or the Duke, or something like that– he introduced the bergamot fruit into Nancy. So the pastry chefs of Nancy developed a recipe for bergamot candies. But the problem is, they never exported it; even in France it’s not well known outside the region where Nancy is, the Lorraine.

“Anyway, these two French guys came here, and opened a pastry shop. They named it La Bergamote thinking everyone would be very impressed, but it was a bit of a flop at first.”

“Where do you come from in France?” I asked.

“Tours.”

“And how was that?”

“Profoundly boring. I detested it. When I lived there I had only one goal: leave Tours.

“When I was in art school, I lived with a group of friends in a kind of collective in the center of town, in a building that was slated for demolition.

“In this building  there was a doctor’s office–everyone else had been put out–and the owner was trying to get the doctor to leave. There was a lease, and the doctor didn’t want to go.

“So the owner posted a classified ad at the art school ‘Free apartment for rent.’ Wow! When I saw that, I went to valium check it out immediately! And it really was a free apartment. We paid only the electricity, heat, things like that.

“The owner thought that we, being artists, would make a lot of noise and be generally obnoxious, and drive the doctor out.  We, on the other hand, realized right away that if we made the doctor leave, we’d have to leave too, so we mustn’t make noise or be a nuisance. We became great friends with the doctor, and we had parties only on Saturday and Sunday, or late at night when he wasn’t there.

“It was a magnificent apartment.”

Frédéric Lère La Bicyclette

Frédéric Lère

“My grandfather was born in Paris, he started in the circus very young–he must have been around sixteen– in 1914. Apparently this circus was a hit, and the whole troupe was hired to tour the United States. They came over on a boat, and since this was 1914, during the crossing war was declared. When the ship arrived in New York all the French passengers were told to remain on board, they weren’t allowed to disembark; they had to return to France with the ship because everyone was being called up, it was the mobilisation générale.  My grandfather watched his colleagues jump overboard and swim to shore because they didn’t want to go back to fight. But he didn’t jump, thinking that since he was so young he wouldn’t be called up right away, and the war would be over before he was drafted.

“So he returned to France without ever setting foot in the United States.

“But he was called up, and he was in a battalion called the Bataillon de Joinville, which was just for athletes. They didn’t go on combat missions, they just did sports–competitions and demonstrations, things like that–until the Battle of Verdun when they said, the time for fun and games is over! Now we need everyone. He was wounded, he took a bullet in the head. He had a scar, a kind of indentation, on his forehead.  And after that the trapeze, it was finished for him.

“After the war, since he was from the Auvergne, which meant the whole family was in show business, he opened a boîte,  a place like a cabaret or a nightclub. He performed there, and of course he had all his connections with circus people. Then, during WWII, when everyone fled Paris, he went to Tours. After the war he stayed on, and set up again there.

“When I was growing up, we all lived together, on a farm. My grandparents lived in a big house behind ours. It was wonderful. I didn’t get on with my parents very well, so I was always going to stay with my grandparents in their big old house behind our house.

“One day my grandfather bought a gymnastic apparatus with a trapeze, knotted cords, rings, smooth cords–everything for practicing circus numbers. It was an enormous thing. He said, ‘Now I’m going to show you all what I know how to do.’

“He got all dressed up in his trapeze costume and climbed on the apparatus where he struck a few poses, he did a few pirouettes–and then he fell.

“No one ever used that apparatus after that–we were all afraid of it.

“Because of that experience, I had a rather ambivalent perception of the circus. My grandfather talked about it as something absolutely fantastic, with all his stories of voyages and things he’d seen, but in fact, all I ever saw of it myself was the dangerous side.

“The first circus in my own work came about when I was doing frescoes. I found the process of fresco painting so dangerous, I said to myself  I must paint something really dangerous to express the danger of the fresco itself, so I painted circus performers, always in poses of delicate equilibrium.

“In fresco painting, you have up to five hours to paint, and after that it’s over, finished! You can’t correct or add anything. The fresco is done. Everything that is wrong, well, it’s there–all the flaws are there, right along with whatever came out well. It’s a real balancing act. You start at one end of the cord, and you walk on a wire across the whole distance of the circus.  And if you fall, well then, you fall.

“For La Bergamote, I made a wall mural for their first shop in Chelsea. I liked what they did, but I felt the decor was a bit… cheesy. I felt they needed something a little more French, more traditional –because it’s really traditional and authentic, what they do.

“The most important thing, when you go into a place you like, is that if you can contribute to making it nicer, that in itself is the best reward.

“Then they opened a second boutique on 52nd Street and they decorated it in the same non-descript style as the first one. After only two years the decor was falling apart, so they had to completely redo the place and they asked me to make a new mural.

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Frédéric Lère

“Here you have chariot crossing the Place Stanislaus in Nancy, making the first delivery of the bergamot from Calabria.*

“Remember this image of the horse and carriage in the exhibition? I thought it was such a gas, I absolutely had to take that for the point of departure of my mural.

“Instead of the orchestra, here I have the pastry chefs who toss bergamot candies from the chariot into the crowd. And the two people driving the chariot, are, of course, Romain and Stephane, the owners of  La Bergamote.

“When I paint, what I want to achieve is not, ‘Look at me, I’m so gorgeous,’  but to express an action.

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Frédéric Lère

The arrival of the bergamot in Nancy is on permanent view at La Bergamot , 515 West 52nd Street. The FREEvolous King Lère Show is a public art installation which has been traveling around the world and on the web since December 2012, when it launched at Cup Cake Café. Since then, Frederic has given several small free-standing reliefs of circus scenes to friends who take them around the world.

The tiger act was last seen at the Bouglione Circus in Paris.

To see more of Frédéric’s work, visit his site, or  La Bergamote.

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On June 18, he will be painting the Empire State Building from the terrace of the Spring Hill Suites in Midtown at 25 W 37th St. from 4 to 7 pm.