In Jackson Heights, an exploration by the Guggenheim turns into a vaguely colonial exercise

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Stillspotting at a Jackson Heights cafe. (Akira Yamada)
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"Please forgive us! We are urban barbarians. You are hungry and we have offered you no food. Dasha is in the kitchen. She is making a special Czech dish: roast pork with sauerkraut and dumplings."

Seated in a spare, modern dining room, the man gestured towards an empty kitchen. His wife was nowhere in sight. And none of the mouthwatering smells one would expect could be detected from the stainless steel range. Was he an actor? He delivered his tale with such genuinely folksy charm, yet he also possessed an incongruously native-sounding New York accent.

Following a printed script, he had just recounted his early life behind the Iron Curtain, coming of age in a Czech family warped by an oppressive regime: a mother who drank plum brandy alone in the cellar; a brother who played ice hockey and slept with too many girls, and a father who unapologetically supported the Communist party. To escape the silence between them, the man fled to the U.S. in the year claimed by Orwell: 1984. A machinist by trade, he first turned steel for the wings of F-16 fighter jets. Then, he opened his own shop to manufacture bagel-making equipment, a thoroughly American enterprise.

"People will always eat. And, in New York City, people will always eat bagels," he reasoned. "Do you like everything bagels? I mean, it’s a bit of an overstatement. Can a bagel really have everything?"

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The narrative, full of good humor and native intelligence, wouldn’t have been out of place at the Tenement House Museum—that is, if it belonged to an earlier generation and it wasn't a work of fiction. Titled "Vast Emptiness. Nothing Holy," it was written by 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and Astoria resident René Georg Vasicek. For the next three weekends, both the story and the performer who reads it will inhabit a number of spaces in Jackson Heights, Queens, including the well-appointed apartment referred to simply as "Erin’s House."

Installations like this one are all part of the Guggenheim Museum’s "stillspotting nyc," a series of projects that explores the search for peace in the chaos of the urban landscape.

The subject was one that Assistant Curator of Architecture and Urban Studies David van der Leer felt compelled to investigate.

"I’m from Holland, where it’s very quiet and incredibly boring," he said over his shoulder, leading the projects’ sponsors on a guided tour. "When I moved to New York, I was shocked and fascinated by how noisy it is."

That fascination led him not only to commission performance pieces—arguably a growing trend among museums and galleries—but to take the art out of the museum and out into the city.

With earlier stillspotting editions in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the summer and fall of 2011 respectively, the new project opened in Queens last weekend under the direction of architectural firm Solid Objectives—Idenburg Liu (SO-IL). Called "transhistoria," this incarnation collects post-modern, post-national meditations on home.

JACKSON HEIGHTS, A GARDEN COMMUNITY DENSELY populated with immigrants, was the perfect setting. Farms and fields prior to the 20th century, the land was developed in the real-estate boom that accompanied the building of the Queensboro Bridge and followed the path of the 7 Train. The idea was to offer apartments "equal to the best in Manhattan" with more green space and room to breathe: shared, lushly planted inner courtyards and street-side foliage. The area is now protected from further development and recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the 2010 Census, there are around 165,000 residents in the district, but City Councilman Daniel Dromm estimates that the number is closer to 200,000.

"All you have to do is look around the neighborhood and you can see there’s been an increase in the population," he said, greeting constituents on the bench outside the local coffee shop, Espresso 77. "You can feel it. You know that it’s happened. Whether or not its been recorded is another story." Anecdotally, some 167 languages are spoken there.

"By day, we’re architects, but we appreciated the neighborhood for its incredible diversity," explained SO-IL co-founder Jing Liu. "Instead of working with walls, floors, and ceilings, we thought why not transform spaces with languages, memories, and stories."

Rather than create physical installations, SO-IL commissioned pieces ranging from poetry to autobiography from ten writers with connections to Jackson Heights or Queens more broadly speaking. They hired performers to read the resulting pieces in stillspots across Jackson Heights and neighboring Elmhurst— sites that would ideally become places of peace and respite.

A lovely idea, but how well these compositions and the experiences created as a result of their performance ally themselves with Jackson Heights, a real flesh-and-blood community, is another matter. Like the Tenement House Museum, with its staged rooms that make the absence of their original inhabitants palpable, "transhistoria" feels disconnected from the neighborhood’s own natives, even as they physically surround the project. The Guggenheim has made a vaguely colonial exercise out of translating them for outsiders.

Criss-crossing the neighborhood on two mild, sunny afternoons, I visited several of the locations on a map provided at the stillspotting ticket center, a borrowed, unfinished storefront on 75th Street. Finding my way around wouldn’t have been a problem, but this is also the neighborhood where I live.

A. Jackson Heights Pedestrian Plaza, 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets

"Alright, so that's my competition," said the reader, a woman from Jamaica with a British accent who told us that she acts and teaches yoga under the name Chandana. In the pedestrian plaza where we sat on triangular, styrofoam stumps, kids were racing by on scooters, weaving in and out of the foot traffic only to disappear into their parents’ shops. That, of course, was nothing. It would only be a few minutes before we were overwhelmed by the roar of jet planes on the flight path to LaGuardia.

At this end of the neighborhood, there are brightly colored flyers in every window: for Bollywood films, Pakistani pop concerts, and pro-Tibet rallies. There had been no comparable fanfare to announce stillspotting’s arrival, save some postcards made for café tables that did not demand one’s attention. Looking foreign in a sea of saris, a T-shirt clad volunteer held up a sign and answered the questions of passers-by, as did volunteers at the other locations.

"Jackson Heights is not only the preserve of the expatriate Indian community, but is also a re-mix of cultures," the woman read. The essay "You say Samosa, I say Samoosa" was written by Premilla Nadasen, a South African-born Indian-American and a professor of history at Queens College. "The definition of Indian and the contours of Indian culture cannot be confined to the geographical boundaries of the nation-state or those with a direct connection to it. The Indian diaspora is far flung, hailing not only from the Subcontinent, but from Guyana, Trinidad, Canada, Britain, Australia, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa. Indian culture exported along these migratory trajectories has been adapted and remade. Second generation, and maybe third generation, Indian immigrants find their way to Jackson Heights, looking for community, belonging, or just good mysore dal.

That diasporic community—and more—was all around us, and could have been more than a colorful backdrop if one knew how to decipher it. One curious onlooker felt compelled to stop by and explain that Jackson Heights wasn’t only an Indian neighborhood, but Pakistani and Bangladeshi, too. On Sunday night, a klatch of business owners approached to say just what they thought about the pedestrian plaza itself, a relatively new and costly addition to the neighborhood. Cutting off the pedestrian flow from the old bus route that ran there, they said that their business had become stillspots. (The Department of Transportation, responsible for creating the plaza, is a sponsor of stillspotting.)

Did many locals join the participants at this location—free and open to the public? No, not many over the course of the weekend, even though they were within earshot at the drab, lavender-blue picnic tables. The majority of attendees were imports from Manhattan and Brooklyn.

C. Serenity Room at Elmhurst Hospital

Staring down at the tile floor decaled surreally with green grass and a pebble pathway just down the hall from Admitting, it was not hard to imagine the pain suffered by Agustin Martinez or his long rehabilitation. The shattered left leg, broken right knee, broken ribs, damaged arms, and head injury were the result of a horrific car wreck fueled by an argument and a night of drinking.

"Agustin was completely dependent on others. He couldn’t eat or bathe or go to the bathroom by himself. His family was his arms and legs."

"Up from Oaxaca" was written by Fr. William Alan Briceland, the hospital chaplain who tended Agustin’s psychic wounds. Was Agustin equally dependant on Fr. Briceland to tell his story? As Agustin’s family takes care of him, the intricacies of his extended family stretched between Queens and Mexico unwind: slowly, stiffly, like his own untried muscles, to the tune of piped-in flute muzak and the gurgle of a plate glass fountain. It is stillspotting’s only window facing South.

E. La Gran Uruguaya Café

(photo at top of page)

One stop past 74th Street on the 7 Train puts you at 82nd Street, where the neighborhood is a heady mix of South American cultures: Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Uruguayan to name a few, with their requisite eateries. How the nearby Taco Bell survives in the midst of so much good Latin American cuisine might be the area’s greatest mystery.

At La Gran Uruguaya Café, Jeremy Goren needed to refuel, breaking Passover a day early for a guava pastry. The reading he had been chosen to perform, "My Dinner with Joe and Steffi" by Iranian-American poet Roger Sedarat, was difficult: almost 20 minutes long and not particularly suited to an oral medium. It was not so much a story as a story about writing a story that cleverly took My Dinner With Andre as its point of departure. Sedarat, who grew up in Austin, had settled in Jackson Heights for a time in the 1990s.

With a game humming on TV in the background, a few listeners squeezed past soccer fans into the narrow back of the café. Goren read at a two-top with a waving, neon American flag that proclaimed "God Bless America" directly above him.

"Beyond allowing me to become my own individual, one among many during my formative past in the city, Jackson Heights has played a role in my present life as a writer," he declaimed. "It has an artistic culture without becoming too much like some areas of pretentious Brooklyn. There are real people here, as opposed to idealized hipsters doing some kind of commercial for the idea of an indie band."

Someone scored a goal. And the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.

I. Wall-All Apartment by Haiko Cornelissen Architecten, 82nd Street and 34th Avenue

my uma & i
searched for my brother on 82nd st.
while he was prowling streets
with flying dragons in black
leather jackets, perched on green benches
like crows waiting for dusk, glinting
with laughter, fear & silver.

The Korean-American poet Ishle Yi Park was born in Queens. The reader was Korean by birth, but had been adopted and raised by a family in Wisconsin, far removed from her native language and culture.

She sat on the couch; the Towers, one of Jackson Heights' most envied residences, visible through the window behind her. Most visitors never make it north of 37th Avenue, entirely missing the neighborhood’s historic district with its reassuring pattern of six story brick buildings concealing lush interior gardens—the neighborhood’s real stillspots for those who could afford them. stillspotting never made it past 34th Avenue toward Northern Boulevard, an area with illegal house conversions, where residents had to double and triple up just to make the rent.

The apartment was otherworldly, but not part of the "moon village" Park describes. It was an alien interior for one of Jackson Heights’ classic pre-war buildings, completely gutted and redone, an open-concept living space in a closed-concept neighborhood, at least when it comes to design. Trees beckoned outside the windows and a table covered with grass—real green grass, a roll of sod that required periodic replacement—drew eyes to the middle of the room. The Dutch architect who designed the apartment and lived there called it the picnic table. Above the ebony floors, one side of the room was dominated by the geometry of bookshelves; the other, shiny white cabinets. A showcase, all was clean and pristine.

Oh, these young
hopefuls, boarding one way
planes in da 70s, with their English
dictionaries and Corean
soap-opera dreams—hated because
of their accent, hated
because of their FOBBiness,
hated because their pursuit
of happiness landed them
in Crown Heights, Brooklyn
or Bayside, Queens, dealing
with the squinty-eyed, polite racism
that meets us kind of immigrants
every day…

B. Roof at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights

René Georg Vasicek’s "Vast Emptiness. Nothing Holy" moved from "Erin’s House," a ground floor apartment on 79th Street, to the roof of the Jewish Center on Sunday. Waiting to ascend, the only seating to be found was on the sidewalk outside the door to the stairwell, a spot occupied during the weekdays by flea market furniture for sale.

"I only woke up to this after I got the link from my friend from the Upper West Side," admitted the only other person on line. Greg Stowell had lived in the neighborhood for three and a half years. A retailer by day and photographer by night, his work happened to hanging across the street in the Maram Gallery, a set of prominent display windows belonging to a local pharmacy.

"Sometimes you have to go outside of the neighborhood to bring people in and support our work," he said, encouraged by the attention and prestige afforded the neighborhood through its discovery by the Guggenheim. "Maybe this isn’t DUMBO, and it’s a slow process, but I think the seeds have been planted. I feel that we’re on the cusp of that. The neighborhood has got a lot of raw talent."

On the roof, the reader struggled to make himself heard over the Spanish Evangelical service in the synagogue below. There was surprisingly little to see up there besides the tops of skylights with their trapped party balloons. The gravel underfoot was stained with tar and algae. A low-slung one-story building, there wasn’t much of a view, only the unusual sight of fans and vents on other roofs, tirelessly struggling to push warm air further upward.

H. The Berkeley

The apartment was in the other wing but on the same floor as my own and almost its mirror image. Maria Terrone’s "At Home in the New World" had already been performed on Saturday, in the garden at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on 34th Avenue, as much a personal ad as a love letter to the power of food.

"In short, food equals home," Terrone wrote. "Cooking dishes from all around the world I feel connected to everyone else who has ever stood or stands by a kitchen stove or over a fire stirring a pot. So in the almost relentless stimulation of Jackson Heights, my kitchen becomes my stillspot, whether I’m dicing carrots for sauce bolognese or cucumbers for a cooling post-curry dish of raita. I find myself drifting with a Buddha-like serenity, a welcome counterpoint to the hubbub beyond my haven. There must be other women out there who share this experience and could become my friends and guides in to their own culinary traditions. I fantasize about posting flyers around the neighborhood: ‘Help wanted. Excellent cook from any nation in the world except Europe willing to take on Italian American apprentice.’"

I came to hear it again out of curiosity, to be a voyeur, and with the hopes I would meet one of my neighbors. The building’s courtyard with its sunken garden was tantalizingly close, visible below out of the corner window. The place was filled with art books, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Zhang Huan, and beautiful objects: African sculpture, Navajo pots, and a giant, glossy hyper-real photo modeled on the Pieta. It featured two naked men. It was the closest stillspotting had come to Jackson Heights’ LGBT community, second only to the West Village and so strong that it boasts its own pride parade every year.

No one was home. But I fell into conversation with the reader, a 26 year-old actress named Marie Mocerino.

"Obviously, there’s some desire to change the way we conceive of performances," she observed. "People want something more intimate than before. I don’t know where it comes from, but it feels so natural to have these experiences with people, just like we’re having this conversation. I think it’s a really special opportunity to simply let someone tell you a story."

All photos by Yakira Yamada except the photo of the Jackson Heights Pedestrian Plaza, by Marcus Woollen via flickr.