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The moon is not a stargazer’s friend, and neither are all of the city lights of New York City. Still, with the help of the Amateur Astronomers of New York City, I’ve been able to gaze at the bumpy crevices of our moon like I have never seen it before — from the pitch black expanse of Staten Island’s Great Kills National Park, the darkest spot in the metropolitan area, to the busy center of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. One cool summer evening in August, I drove to the farthest reaches of Staten Island with my partner, filmmaker Mark Street, and our two daughters. Having lived in New York for almost a decade, I’ve been trained to avoid murky places where a human being a mere six feet away is impossible to see. It was truly scary to drive into a completely unlit network of winding roads full of other cars without their lights on all searching for a few hidden telescopes perched to watch the sky. In Brooklyn, we stood with two breathtakingly knowledgeable astronomers in the subdued light of the borough’s government center. My fellow selenograpahers seemed bewildered by the fact that I was shooting video in the darkness. Surrounded by office buildings and courthouses, I listened to their scientific explanations and personal anecdotes on the narrative of the cosmos. Knowing very little in the realm of astronomy, I felt confident that the reflection of light on the surface of the moon would be just enough to awaken the screen.
On Staten Island in search of pelagic experiences, Susan and I drive along Arthur Kill Road, a meandering marineside motor access leading to the Outerbridge Crossing to New Jersey. We had heard aboout a mysterious ship graveyard in the area and were intent to find it. We ask three bewildered Staten Island natives – on the street, in a diner, at a marina – where we might find this seemingly fascinating urban archeological wonder. Eventually, we find the rusty, decomposing, dinosaurs in the water next to a very active scrap metal depository, across the street from a hot pink tourist motel. These enormous, industrial carcasses jut forcefully up from the serene, yet polluted waterway of the Arthur Kill. We both stand in awe with our cameras poised and are immediately thrown off the grounds of the scrap metal yard. We are threatened with arrest and finally agree to leave the premises. Just a normal day in the production of Abecedarium NYC.
There is a French word I dearly relish for its ability to express the sensation one has when feeling outside your home, your country, yourself. The word is “depayser” and literally speaking it translates as “to be outside one’s country”, experiencing a new state of mind and body, which has certainly been a part of my year of discovery here in New York City. I am constantly reminded of my often parochial attitude toward unfamiliar territory when I allow myself to discover a new place or community here in my own town.
So once again, I am in a position of awe, this time as I stand surrounded by a giddy flock of seagulls on the City Island Waterfront at the north –eastern most tip of the Bronx. The air is, sadly enough, unseasonably warm (an expression I have come to fear). Bronx native and Abecedarium media artist George Kuchar encouraged Susan and I to drive to this far most finger of the metropolitan area in pursuit of the quintessential pelagic experience. I stare long and hard at the horizon, at the waters of the Pelham Bay, the Long Island Sound and the Eastchester Bay, utterly transported by a sensation of openness. I am here and there all at once. One of my favorite scenes in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn occurs when Francie, the 11 year old heroine, is taken by her father to the shore to ride in a small fishing boat, smell the salt, gaze at the gulls. For the first time in her life, she has a pelagic sensation of the sea.
See the map of this post from City Island, Bronx, New York.
Nosogeography is not a happy word. I’ve been trying to avoid shooting video for this word for weeks, not knowing when I would be able to face the daunting reality of filming a neighborhood where disease or the rumor of disease floats invisibly and silently through the air and the water. I have decided to focus on the largest environmental disaster in the history of New York City, the accidental spilling of 22 million gallons to oil in the Newton Creeek, a small waterway which serves as the dividing line between Brooklyn and Queens. By chance, I meet another experimental filmmaker, Scott Nyerges, who lives in Greenpoint, the closest residential neighborhood to the site of the spill. We agree to take a field trip to photograph . As we stand along the smelly, filth banks of the Newtown Creek, Scott recounts the daunting environmental disaster that occurred here in 1950 and is just beginning to be cleaned up.
My understanding of open city is that it is a military designation that creates a hallow of protection over an urban setting. All of its defenses have been abandoned, and a kind of diplomatic trust ensues. Having lived through the initial shock and the harrowing aftereffects of September 11, 2001, I was wondering how it would feel to visit a perfectly preserved Civil War fort situated at the mouth of the East River to “protect and defend” the people of New York City. Fort Schuyler is a remarkably picturesque and serene enclave that is perched on the tip of a finger of land that juts into the water. Surrounded by the White Stone and the Throgs Neck Bridges, the fort would seem to have a more prominent place in the city’s consciousness. Instead, we felt as if our drive across this narrow piece of land was taking us to a remote island way off the coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.
Arthur Avenue seems to be best known for its Italian epicurean delights, so I am surprised to discover a multitude of Eastern European shops and restaurants on this famous Bronx neighborhood avenue. Since I lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia for several weeks in 2001, I am particularly pleased and intrigued by the presence of this large, unexpected community. Susan and I spent a day visiting a Montenegrin sundry, a Kosovo bar and grill, an Albanian video store and finally the most welcoming, aromatic pizza parlor I have ever walked into in my life. I would imagine there must be at least ten Tony’s Pizza Parlors in New York City, but the Arthur Avenue Tony’s has a quality all its own. Fylip, the owner and kitchen wunderkind behind this Albanian community gathering spot, welcomes each and every customer inside this corner restaurant at the end of the avenue. Of course, we immediately smelled the spectacular scent of Burek meat, cheese and spinach pastries. Within seconds, however, our curiosity was piqued even further upon noticing the framed photos of Mother Theresa, the large statue bust of a notorious Albanian military leader, and the sounds of many Albanian women and men chattering in their native language. We were the strangers, the bewildered outsiders, and we knew right away that this would be the perfect place to create another mini-DIGLOT documentary. A few weeks after our initial visit, Susan and I returned to Tony’s Pizza to listen to the owner, his father and the two extraordinary cooks, all fairly recent Albanian emigrants, talk in English and their native language.
See the map of this post from Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
In my hand I hold a leaf from the tree outside my window. Old hand lined now age and experience veins grown larger. Central vein on the leaf stems my palm. Outside under the tree on the playground the shrieks of children poke sounds of traffic near and far. Rumble is the distance away of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sun is the fenders bending the sound of the city so many sounds at once un-focusing my eyes. Traffic is snarled. I am thirsty. I shut my window thick and everything goes but the light the light pounds away a second at a time, relentless. Everything is connected is a close place is passing is a light through a tree against night and sky. Make a wish a sign a cross across a great distance. That’s the sun that’s the road I take that takes me south in sun back to her.
Today I took a guided tour of Southpoint Park on Roosevelt Island as part of Open House New York (OHNY). This 14 acre parcel of land is the site of the ruins of the James Renwick, Jr. Smallpox Hospital (1856) and the Strecker Laboratory (1892).
Lilac’s significance as a naval vessel is indeed that she is the only surviving example of a vessel that once served a vital role in the navigable waters of every coastline of this country. She is unique in that she is the last unaltered steam propelled and steam hoisting lighthouse tender designed for work on the open sea and connecting bays and sounds. She is also the last such vessel to survive that was operated by the United States Lighthouse Service, the civilian manned agency responsible for maintaining aids to navigation from 1910 to 1939, when this work was assumed by the United States Coast Guard.
For more information visit: http://www.steamerlilac.org/