NYC: August 2007 Archives

we have a history

Except to most of the poor citizen infantry of every description and every station which it has been enlisting for six years, the so-called "war on terror" has always been fundamentally about controlling the powerless - and sustaining the power of the powerful.

By 2001, after almost a century of the political and social distortions and perversions committed in the name of fighting what ordinary folk were told was their enemy both outside the country and in their midst, the dreaded "Red Terror" had melted away. The lies which had succeeded in destroying the American Left had to be remodeled. A new devil had to be invented. And surprise! The Arab/Muslim world, the new monolithic (conceptualized) enemy, showed up on our doorsteps just in time.

Fifty years ago Senator Joseph McCarthy had shown us exactly how to go about fighting our imaginary devils. Some New Yorkers seem to have taken their cues directly from the American witchhunt which managed to silence or send into exile, among so many others, Charlie Chaplin, W.E.B. DuBois, Clifford Odets, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Paul Robeson, Bertholt Brecht, Hans Eisler and Pete Seeger.

You'd think that after 230 years what is now the strongest and richest nation in the world might finally be able to stand up for its professed principles and stop crippling itself in regular paroxysms of fear about real or imagined enemies allegedly capable of undoing us all.

I've wanted to write something on this story since it first broke, but what I knew about its complexity discouraged me from trying to do so in any compact form. Maybe the controversy about a school's conception and the form it was to assume had to be separated from what happened afterward.

Today the NYTimes carries a column on the Education page by Samuel C. Freedman, Columbia professor of journalism, which manages to assemble the basic facts and calmly describe the enormously-important issues involved. It's an appalling story of a distinguished teacher and social activist being defamed and peremptorily removed from a public post because of a racist, cultist and nativist stupidity and hysteria driven by media and political operatives and bosses representing the most shameful political opportunism, or deliberate calculation.

And remember this is in the multicultural, polyglot, ethnic cornucopia of New York City. From Freedman's piece in the Times:

“I hope it burns to the ground just like the towers did with all the students inside including school officials as well,” wrote an unidentified blogger on the Web site Modern Tribalist, a hub of anti-immigrant sentiment. A contributor identified as Dave responded, “Now Muslims will be able to learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York City.”

Not to be outdone, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried this commentary on Feb. 14:

“Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there’s going to be the Taliban hanging out on the history hall, Al Qaeda hanging out by the gym, and Palestinians hanging out in the science labs. Hamas and Hezbollah studies will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in gym they’ll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they’ll convert the football field to a terrorist training camp.”

Thus commenced the smear campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy and, specifically, Debbie Almontaser. For the next six months, from blogs to talk shows to cable networks to the right-wing press, the hysteria and hatred never ceased. Regrettably, it worked.

Ms. Almontaser resigned as principal earlier this month.

The school is designed to be entirely secular. It is named for a Lebanese-born Christian poet and visual artist who lived in New York. Eventually it is to include the sixth through twelfth grades, offering classes such as math and science in both Arabic and English. The academy will be one of more than 60 existing dual-language city schools teaching in languages such as Russian, Spanish and Chinese. The new principal unfortunately does not speak Arabic, but the fact that she is a Jew rather than an Arab might not have been a problem for the school's cosmopolitan namesake.

For a richer perspective read this excellent narrative from Steve Quester, a New York educator, activist and friend of mine, who is familiar with Almontaser's work.

There's also an excellent piece, "Jewish Shootout Over Arab School", in The Jewish Week, from which I have excerpted a section describing Almontaser's place in the larger community and the dismay of one wise and compassionate Jew concerned about what the incident will mean to his own community as well as that of New York City and even the nation as a whole:

Almontaser, a public school teacher and administrator, was born in Yemen but immigrated here when she was three. Since 9/11, the slight woman in a hijab had emerged as a prominent advocate in the Muslim community for reaching out and working with other faiths. After the attacks her son, an Army Reserve officer, served as a rescue worker at Ground Zero.

Among other things, Almontaser had invited hundreds of Jews and Christians to her own home in the wake of the terrorist attack to help defang fear and anger towards Muslims. She had joined social action groups, such as We Are All Brooklyn, an inter-ethnic initiative supported by JCRC [the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York], to combat hate crimes in the dense, mixed neighborhoods of that borough. She had trained with ADL’s anti-bias program, A World of Difference, to become a better facilitator for diversity training and inter-group dynamics in the public schools.

Rabbi [Michael] Paley, a scholar-in-residence with UJA-Federation, warned that the prominent role played by a faction within the Jewish community in the attack on her would “come back and bite us. This begins to destroy the America that's been so good to us.” Rabbi Paley, who has met Almontaser during interfaith activities, emphasized that in his remarks on this issue he was speaking only for himself and not his organization.

“The most important thing to know about the Muslim community here is that it replicates the Jewish community from many years ago,” he said. “These are people trying to become Americans as hard as they can, and also trying hard not to lose their identity, just as groups before them did.

“The idea that unless they pass an acid test — that Muslims are terrorists until proven innocent — will mean that none will pass. We are ultimately blocking them from becoming American,” he warned. The result, he said, would be an Arab immigrant community more isolated and less assimilated, “like the Arabs in France.” [my italics]

The message to the Arab-American community as a result of this debacle was, “You’re a fool to think they’ll accept you,” he said.

[image of James Pinckney Alley from Assumption College]


As the chief says, "we're still working on a few features and tweaking the design", but the new ArtCal site is now live. By next week at this time, with the opening of New York's vigorous fall gallery season, the nearly three-year-old site will be displaying more shows than ever before, but sorting them out will be easier than ever before. Some additional features have been added, and there will be more to come.

Go see for yourself.

The clean design is by Michael Mandiberg.


It seems that the tangled story at which I could only hint in my Tuesday post, "Ayn Rand linked to Deutsche Bank skyscraper tragedy?", has caused some serious bustle around the city desk at the NYTimes.

The lead story on the front page reports that the firm whose creators picked the Ayn Rand hero John Galt for its corporate name was a paper corporation with no employees. It had been assembled to insulate or hide its "integrity"-challenged owners and officers from the view of its clients, the people and officers of the New York community. This is the company which was given the lucrative contract to perform one of the most hazardous and certainly one of the most visible jobs in the city if not in the entire country.

Two firefighters died fighting a fire inside the building last Saturday, probably as the result of criminal negligence.

Meanwhile, inside the same section of the paper we learn in another story that the New York Fire Department hadn't inspected the Deutsche Bank building's standpipe or sprinkler system since 1996, in spite of the fact that twice-monthly inspections were mandatory for buildings under demolition. It seems the department was also aware that the sprinkler system was not working. Some have argued that the FDNY was unwilling or unequipped to enter a building permeated with the toxins that had necessitated its condemnation, but since demolition began firefighters had been in the building on at least two occasions for reasons unrelated to the standpipe or the sprinkler system.

[image of the two firefighters from NYFD via Gothamist]

skyscrapers have very complex lives

I've just read that the name of the sub-contracting company in charge of the demolition at the Deutsche Bank building is the John Galt Corporation. Who is John Galt? I immediately recognized the intriguing literary/political reference within the firm's name, and, regardless of what we eventually learn about the ultimate responsibility for the death of two firemen this week, the connection is likely to continue the fictional character's complex association with corporate greed and laissez-faire capitalism .

ADDENDA: I've turned up these few bits on the John Galt Corporation by searching Google and its cached links:

The firm is located at 3900 Webster Avenue in The Bronx [718-654-5300]; its principals are former executives of the Safeway Environmental Corp., a firm with its own history of problems; Galt's work at the Deutsche Bank site was already causing injury and incurring fines before this week; and finally, World Trade Center-area neighbors had expressed serious concerns about the firm's qualifications since early last year.

[image from wikipedia]

view through our open French doors on a cool, cloudy August afternoon

untitled (fuzz) 2007

Now it's just a website frippery, but this happy mix lining our courtyard-garden path makes me smile every time I walk through it.


Its neighbor's roses and its own arbor gate standing at the edge of the sidewalk are homey touches for this unreconstructed wooden Federal house on Green Street in Greenpoint. The house is built in exactly the same form as the typical urban row house but in fact, apart from late excrescences on either side, it's actually free-standing. It's probably a relic from the second quarter of the nineteenth century.


The almost-hidden eyebrow windows, the heavy flat moldings around the door and windows and the elegant porch columns express the period of this small Greek Revival house on Huron Street, one block south of the house shown above. I wonder however about the absence of a pediment, and the fluting on those Tuscan columns is a rather peculiar touch for the era. The house may in fact be older than its 1830's or 1840's fancy dress; I don't know how to explain the fluting.

Both of these survivors are located only a short distance from the original eastern shoreline of the East River, with Midtown Manhattan on the other side. In the nineteenth century this waterfront was an important site for shipbuilding and its related trades.

she's busy (Quinn sharing with the Police Chief and the Mayor)

Over the past several months I've written repeatedly about my frustration and disgust with Chistine Quinn's attack on our First Amendment rights in her role as City Council Speaker.

She remains completely tone-deaf on the issue, positioning herself somewhere within the cold heart of the NYPD/Republican establishment.

But I'm not a single-issue agitator, and if Tip O'Neil was right when he said "all politics is local", Quinn's office should be very worried.

During this same period and starting well before, as one of her local district's constituents I have been trying to get her office's attention on the kind of ordinary small-scale problem neighborhood representatives handle all the time - and resolve.

In response to my inquiry about the construction of an invasive animated commercial advertising sign on a public sidewalk next to our home I was eventually told by Quinn's office that the City authorities had determined that the offending business had no permit for it and could not have been granted a permit had they applied for one because it threatened public safety. The installation would have to be removed within 30 days.

That was March 2, over five months ago, and it's now eight months since I first made inquiries.

I have been following up with my Council Member's office ever since to see why nothing has been done. Each time I've had to call, and I've been told the assistant forgot about it once again but would look into it right away. That has been repeated perhaps eight times.

On July 9 I learned directly from the Department of Buildings that the violation associated with the complaint number I had been given in December had somehow mysteriously disappeared months before. When I asked Quinn's office if they could get some explanation I was told the person to whom I had been talking over all these months was in a meeting but would call me later that day. On the day after someone else called and said that my file was second from the very top of the first assistant's priorities and I would hear back from her that very day.

I've not been called, and of course the offending installation (a spot-lighted giant revolving cupcake on top of a sidewalk canopy built too close to a hydrant) hasn't been removed.

For all his transgressions, and they were many, at least New Yorkers can remember Al D'Amato as someone who could get a pothole filled - "Senator Pothole". What are we going to call Christine Quinn?

[image by Julia Gaines from Newsday]

crowd before an animated Norm Siegel at July 27 First Amendment rally

The Mayor's office has backed off from its outrageous set of proposed rules for people using photography anywhere in New York City. It's a great victory for a free people alert to the threat of arbitrary government and willing to oppose it, but I'd advise against relaxing any guards.

They'll be back. City officials said they would redraft the rules

In the end any proposed regulation absolutely must be held to a standard that freely permits photography anywhere in the city so long as people are not interfering with anyone else. Beka Economopoulos, the co-founder of Picture New York said it best:

I already have a permit for my camera; it's called the First Amendment
Corporations and governmental units of every size have their own surveillance cameras trained on me willy-nilly virtually everywhere I go in this city and at all times of the day and night. I don't recall their ever applying to me for a permit. I should not have to consult their directives or ask their permission to flip a shutter when I wish to do so myself.

under arrest

securing the acorn

This story had legs from the start, sea legs. Barry and I were watching it on line as it grew all day yesterday, and apparently it's still going.

I would say that this late and abbreviated post were redundant except that I want to broadcast the respect for Duke Riley that we both share, and also to refer to our early immersion in the larger story of his remarkable art, including a wide-eyed visit to the first solo show at Magnan Projects in January last year. Then there was also the excitement of being able to share my own personal connection to and love for Rhode Island, the School of Design, Newport, and the little bicycle shop down my block on the corner of Brook Street, all sites associated with the still-unfolding story of the "Acorn" submersible project.

Don't miss the slide show or the video on the NYTimes site.

My favorite take on the reaction of our guardians of public safety to the artist's marine intervention? Libby and Roberta:

The Coast Guard and police didn't think Riley's floating bobber was so amusing and the boat was confiscated and he and his accomplices were charged with "marine mischief." Talk about hammering a fly! Nobody seems to have a sense of humor or whimsy anymore, especially when it comes to imaginative art outside the normal channels. Now that's a crime.

[images by Damon Winter from NYTimes slide show]

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