“Life is a Carnival”*

The Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street is a gem of a small New York museum. On my birthday last Saturday, Kyle asked me what I wanted to do for fun. I suggested we go view Bard’s current exhibit, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”

I’ve loved the circus for years, and have even collected artwork on it, like the print below of high-wire artists on a bike, by Dame Laura Knight. I bought it  in 1987 from my late art dealer friend Robert Henry Adams when I was editing and publishing the splendid circus novel, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, by Ellen Hunnicutt, who won the Dru Heinz Literature Prize that same year for her short fiction collection, In the Music Library. Ellen’s novel centers around a young female protagonist who’s a runaway from a bizarre custody battle in her family. Holed up in the safe harbor of the Florida winter quarters of a circus troupe, throughout the novel she’s using their calliope to compose a musical work in memory of her late mother. The novel’s theme is how we may turn our mourning and loss to the service of art and creativity. For the record, Ellen passed away in 2005. I hope some day to republish her novel.

Much as I’ve read about circus lore, I had not understood a key aspect of the historical record as documented by the exhibit: the central role that NYC played in the growth and development of the circus throughout North America. Many of the biggest promoters were headquartered in Manhattan, the continent’s entertainment capitol. Once the circus began moving from town to town via train cars, Gotham’s status as a rail hub, as well as its large, diverse population, made it the essential city for promoters and performers alike.

The 20th century was covered on the third floor of the exhibit, with great photographs by Weegee, best known for his lurid crime scene photography, here depicting circus audiences enthralled by performances. There was also a video monitor showing a film of female stunt artist Tiny Kline performing the “Slide for Life,” in which she clamped down on a kind of leather bit she’d placed in her mouth, then slid on a cable for a 1,000 feet hanging above Times Square.

Along with the exhibit, which comprises more than 200 works displayed on three floors of the museum, there will be nine public talks given beginning October 11 and stretching into 2013, ending on January 31, discussing female equestrians; performance photography; the design and typography of circus posters; P.T. Barnum and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Alexander Calder; clowning; and the circus of the future. I hope to be there for one or more of these presentations. Meantime, here is a gallery of images from the exhibit. Please click through to view art and images from the exhibit.

*Thanks to The Band, for use of the title of their song, “Life is a Carnival, written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and J.R.R. Robertson, from their 1971 album, “Cahoots.”

Sunset Singing Circle in Battery Park with Terre Roche, June 8

Last evening Kyle and Ewan and I took part in a New York summer ritual, the Sunset Singing Circle led by Terre Roche, one of the three singing Roche sisters, from longtime fave group, The Roches, whose “Hammond Song” I am listening to right now, with its lovely theremin-like sounding lead instrument, joined to the trio’s arcing harmonies. I recently read and enjoyed sister Suzzy’s splendid novel of music and redemption, Wayward Saints, and it’s been great being in touch with her and Terre on Facebook and through this blog.

The Sunset Singing Circle is held at the tip of lower Manhattan, facing New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It is a grand place to listen to music as evening falls. Notebooks, including lyrics to more than 100 songs, are shared among folks sitting on the grass, with guitar players and people like the three of us offering up requests from among these selections. Last night we sang “The Weight,” in honor of a memorial Ramble being held tonight in memory of Levon Helm; “Happy Trails;” “The Times They are a Changin’;” “Bird on a Wire;” “The City of New Orleans,” among many others, and following a brief but heavy downpour, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Wet as it was for a while, everyone was stalwart, even the guitar players whose instruments were being rained upon. After the sun shower ended, a real rainbow emerged out of the eastern sky and a considerate Parks Dept. staffer offered towels for people to dry their instruments and seat cushions. It was a special New York night. Click through for all photos.

Danger from NYC Trees, Part III

Following three articles on this topic earlier in May, which I blogged about here, and an earlier piece I wrote after seeing tree pruners at work in Riverside Park, the NY Times has published another revealing article about tree care in New York City, or more accurately the decline of tree care in the city. While the Bloomberg administration has commendably pledged to plant one million trees before it leaves office at the end of 2013–and it claims to be halfway to that goal–the budget for maintaining and pruning the city’s existing trees has fallen drastically. Reporter Lisa W. Foderaro writes that the city’s tree-tending

“work force has shrunk, however, to 92 pruners and climbers today from 112 five years ago. The budget for street-tree care has fallen more sharply. The 600,000 trees on the city’s streets are largely maintained by outside tree-service contractors. Because of budget cuts, the pruning rotation has been stretched, to every 15 years from once every 7 years in 2008. During that time, the budget for street-tree pruning contracts fell to $1.4 million from $4.7 million.”

In the city’s parks, where hazards posed by untended trees often go undetected, she reports that

“Arborists and tree-care experts say that New York City could significantly improve public safety by ensuring that the workers who evaluate trees understand the warning signs of decay and failure.”

Despite the promise of greater safety such training offers, she reports on the decline of the tree care budget even while multi-million dollar damage awards continue to be paid to civil litigants, after fatalities and serious injuries occur. The city has a legal and moral responsibility to keep its inhabitants and visitors safe, within reasonable limits. While all urban hazard cannot be eliminated from our urban midst, the ones that are avoidable should be prevented to the maximum extent possible; when New York City fails to do so–even as reasonable safeguards are within reach–it is a moral and ethical failing. I cannot understand how the Mayor’s office allows this to continue. I will call my city councilperson to request that they restore the budget for tree care. Any other course is just stupid and negligent.

Danger from NYC Trees, Part II

May 16 Update: Turns out the NY Times article on Monday “Neglected, Rotting Trees Turn Deadly” was only the first of three this week on the dangers posed by inadequate maintenance of the city’s trees. The others are Ailing Trees Sound a Warning Before Falling and Suits Over Tree Injuries Show City’s Aggressive Legal Tactics. The first of these documents how the falling limbs and trees that have gravely injured people showed early signs of decay and arboreal ill health, while the second demonstrates that lawyers for the city don’t hesitate to play hardball in handling the legal cases of people for whom the city’s failure to tend to sick trees has led to grievous harm. Surveilling a woman who spent four months in the hospital after a hollow limb from a tree smashed into her? The city did it. This is appalling. We’d all be better off if this great wooded city spent its resources tending to our trees before they harm innocent New Yorkers.

Readers may recall a recent post of mine about seeing tree pruners at work in my neighborhood and in nearby Riverside Park. I noticed and wrote about them, in part, because of incidents over the past couple years when a number of people have been seriously injured, even killed, by falling limbs. Today, the Times has a lengthy and disturbing article, Neglected, Rotting Trees Turn Deadly, on how slashed city budgets for tree care have led to more danger for pedestrians, cyclists, and people just trying to enjoy a bit of the pastoral amid all our urban activity. The pity is that there are known, empirical methods for establishing the health of city trees, but too often city and parks workers are not trained to detect them. The city ends up paying large awards to the injured and/or their survivors, with lives ruined or lost, and costing the city millions of dollars anyway. In one instance, parks workers were focused on trimming trees along the route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, then four months off, only to fail in removing a Central Park tree that had already lost one limb in what turned out to be a tragic foreshadowing of the serious maiming of a New Yorker.

Literary and Cultural History Preserved in Wood, Paint, Ink & Graphite

Literary, social and cultural history are all fascinatingly preserved in an old wooden door from a 1920s Greenwich Village bookstore. In Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street the proprietor was surprised one day in 1921 when writer Hedrik Willem Van Loon, an author with the publishing house of Boni & Liveright, signed his name to the door and for good measure added a little drawing to his contribution. Soon, Shay began routinely asking visiting writers and other cultural notables to sign the door. Ultimately, it would bear hundreds of signatures, including such figures of the day as John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Heywood Broun, Christopher Morley, Edward Arlington Robinson, Frank Conroy, artist John Sloan, explorer Vilhalmur Stefansson, poet Don Marquis (creator of “The Adventures of Archy & Mehitabel”), and Henry Seidel Canby (editor, Saturday Review of Literature).

When the shop closed in 1925, the door was removed from the premises before the contents were auctioned to pay creditors. In subsequent decades its value as a cultural artifact became evident, with this advertisement appearing thirty-five years later:  “Mrs. Frank Leon Smith has a door for sale. On the door are the autographs of about sixty people who in the early Twenties were important, famous, talented, unusual. Im [sic] telling you, this is a fabulous door….Want a door? Ask Mrs. Smith at 321 East 52nd Street, New York 22. —’Trade Winds’ in the Saturday Review, 1960”. Note that money would evidently not have been required to become custodian of the door.


Eventually, by steps unknown, the door reached the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where it is housed today. Organizers there have created a terrific website devoted to it, to the shop, to Greenwich Village, and the period that produced it. Jennifer Scheussler’s New York Times Book Review article in September, with a neat slideshow, alerted me to the door’s colorful history and I’ve visited the Ransom website many times since. I love that Van Loon’s spontaneous signature became an inspiration for hundreds of contemporaries, all eager to scribble on a plank of wood, leaving a small imprint of their existence. It’s a veritable time capsule, or even better, a time machine taking us back to bookselling and publishing ninety odd years ago.

Manhatta, a Gift to the City

There is a special category of artifacts about New York City that express the near-boundless possibilities of the metropolis. One is E.B. White’s essay, Here is New York. Another is the short film Manhatta made by photographer Paul Strand and precisionist painter Charles Sheeler. The images are the artists’ while the words are borrowed from Walt Whitman. When you have 11 minutes give yourself a gift–watch this and listen to the modern score by the Cinematic Orchestra that was included in this version until it was taken off the Internet due to copyright issues. To me the film is all about the boundless possibility of Gotham, and living in a New World promised land, like Blake’s Jerusalem. It has great symbolic weight. The denizens of  the city arrive on its shore and stride into the future. My heart soars every time I watch it. H/t to web site Music of Sound from New Zealand for bringing the Cinematic Orchestra’s score to my attention. The version on here now has no musical score.