Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Marc on the City

“There was always something of interest going on in the streets, but rarely anything of special importance except life itself.”  
                                            Michael Parenti                                                                                              
Speaking from the House well on Aug. 3, 1939, Rep. Vito Marcantonio identified himself as: “one who was born in the slums, who was raised in the slums, and who still lives in the slums…”

Alan Schaffer wrote in “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress” that, “Few men in public life have been so intimately linked with a particular urban neighborhood.”

Born and reared in East Harlem," Schaffer noted, “Marcantonio’s permanent home was never more than four city blocks from his place of birth, and for 14 years he represented the district and its people in Congress. 

“In many ways the man was the product and personification of the neighborhood.” 

Salvatore LaGumina, in “Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician,” envisioned Marc, “either as a three-year old riding his tricycle on the crowded sidewalks, or as a young teenage boy swimming in the garbage-polluted East River.” 

All images from "In the Street," 
by Levitt, Agee and Loeb.
“The streets of a poor quarter of great cities are above all a theater and battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer and in his innocent artistry he projects against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence.”

So reads the inter-title of “In the Street," a short film by Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb, which captures the sidewalks of Marcantonio’s East Harlem, his boyhood turf, his congressional district. 

Filmed in 1948, when Marc was still in office, the landscape of “In the Street” is, “haunting because it is at once part of the banned city as well as intensely used by the residents,” wrote urban planner Vojislava Filipcevic. (“In the Streets of Harlem: Race and Textures of Space in Helen Levitt’s New York Photographs and the Levitt-Agee Documentary Films,” Columbia Journal of American Studies). 

Said Filipcevic, “The East Harlem block is anagitated social space’ and an ‘immobile physical space’ of abandonment left to decompose as an area of urban blight.” 

The Abandoned City

The film, she said, is set in what could be termed “an abandoned city,” defined by political theorist Herbert Marcuse as, “the ‘place for the very poor, the excluded, the never employed and permanently unemployed, the homeless and the shelter residents where crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating housing, the domination of outside impersonal forces, direct street-level exploitation, racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation, the stereotyping of women, are everyday reality.'” 

Yet Marcantonio’s biographers note how East Harlem was humming with humanity and buzzing with small scale commerce; not all ghetto darkness. 

“In the Street,” is a roving, secret camera that captures peddlers’ carts, meaty armed Italian “mamas,” toddlers in rough-hewn gowns, roving cool-dude dogs, mean and gamboling boys, gossiping grandmas, fedora-sporting gangster types, disconcerting Halloween masks, and children and children and still more children. 

From "In the Street." 
“In the Street,” stated Filipcevic, reveals the slum as, “a place of camaraderie and a space of creativity — a set of neighborhoods in which children felt impelled to make various marks upon a given world…”

This claim upon the streets —  the same claim Marcantonio made with his tricycle —  results from, “a lack of space — for playing, growing up, and learning; the activities of children are displaced on the street as a form of appropriation of space,” said Filipcevic. 

Michael Parenti recalled his East Harlem childhood in "Waiting for Yesterday": 

“In whatever way we could, we tried to accommodate ourselves to an unaccommodating environment… We kids lived in the neighborhood’s interstices, constantly inventing and reinventing spaces of our own: empty lots, stoops, cellars, backyards, street corners, and the fronts of abandoned stores.” 

Visualizing the street as “theater” and also a “battleground,” the film showed the East Harlem dwellers’ assertion of urban existence through everyday expressions of uniqueness, said Filipcevic.  

East Harlem was a cheap labor reservoir from which people issued forth, each day in the manner depicted in this passage from Thomas McGrath’s, This Coffin Has No Handles”: 

“A million workers charge down the dusty shutes of the cold water apartment houses, are siphoned off and sucked away into the subways. The bottom has fallen out of the barometer of sleep. Adjustments are made: in the fur district the pressure of industry is rising; and through the fog of bricks and stone, the steel bones of the skyscrapers downtown, you see the thin red line of humanity and profit rise in exact ratio to the falling line on sleep’s soiled glass. Up and down.” 

Marcantonio slid those dusty shoots, was as much a part of larger Gotham as he was of East Harlem. As Schaffer observed, “Each school day for four years, young Marcantonio made his way across the city to DeWitt Clinton Hight School at 59th and Tenth Avenue." 

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Gerald Meyer stated that Marc, and the only other kid from East Harlem going to high school, generally walked the four miles to save a nickel trolley fare.
From "In the Street." 

Marc’s first foray into active politics was a tenants’ rent strike in 1920. Perusal of his collected speeches in I Vote My Conscience, or the “New York Times” of his day, reveal a consistent concern for housing and the urban environment. 

Housing Links

The “New York Times,” for March 12, 1936, headlined a piece with “Tenants’ Strike Urged,” in which Marc asks members of the City-Wide Tenants League to show their sympathy with the striking building service employees by going on a rent strike.” 

Marc called for action against “the Bourbons and Tories,” linking the issue of housing with wages; the people who lived in buildings with those that cleaned them.  

The “New York Times,” for December 4, 1948 ran the headline: “Harlem Dirt Laid to Many Causes” above an article covering a conference addressing the garbage patch that East Harlem could be in places.  

“Mr. Marcantonio,” the article reads, “declared that the overcrowded tenements in the neighborhood fundamentally were at fault. 'Nothing more can be expected… while people are compelled to live in these tenements.’” 

The “New York Times,” for Nov. 30. 1950, trumpeted, “18 Families Shiver in Mass Evictions,” and recorded the congressman’s response to the sudden, and forced displacement of his constituents.  

“Three of the families,” the article said, “went last night to the office of Rep. Vito Marcantonio at 1455 First Avenue. They brought with them a total of 18 children. There they were told that might remain until they could arrange for more permanent shelter and food was prepared for them.” 

From "In the Street."
On March 16, 1948, he railed in Congress against a bill reducing rent controls. “Speak about property rights; how about the property rights of the 50,000,000 tenants who are going to lose, as a result of this bill, whatever small protection they have heretofore had?”

And so on. 

East Harlem became the starting point in America for successive waves of immigrants that boosted the population, spiced the ethnic mix, and overwhelmed existing housing stock. Modern block towers in park settings were considered the solution and the wholesale wiping out of what many considered “perfectly good housing” was unleashed under the rubric of slum clearance. 

Wrote Nathan Glazer in “City Journal"(Autumn 1991), “A speech from New York City’s greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, in 1944, captures the enthusiasm of a whole generation of urban reformers:

“‘Tear down the old,’ he said. ‘Build up the new. Down with the rotten, antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels. Down with disease. Down with crime! Down with firecraft. Let in the sun. Let in the sky. A new day is dawning. A new life. A new America!’” 

On March 3, 1940, “The Times” ran the headline “Housing Project In 1st Avenue Started,” about the groundbreaking for the East River Housing Projects, secured by Marcantonio and the Harlem Leadership Council, with an assist from his mentor, La Guardia. 

Marc, it was reported, described the occasion as significant not only as an extension of low-cost housing in Harlem, but as “a victory of the citizens of East Harlem in their fight to preserve their riverfront,” thereby linking housing and the communal right to stability. 
 Marc at the dedication of
Benjamin Franklin High School.

There is a foreshadowing of things to come in the critical voices quoted in the article, raising questions about the wisdom of placing such projects in “outlying areas” and potential pitfalls associated with crowding too many people into block towers. 

Dramatic Urbanism

The renewal of East Harlem has been deemed as, Glazer noted, “one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of postwar American urbanism.” 

The myriad empty lots documented by “In the Street,” Filipcevic wrote “recall the cinematic city ruins of the bombed European cities [after World War Two].” 

Indeed, urban activist Jane Jacobs observed that, “The war brought with it a tabula rasa that was an essential exercise of modern planning.” 

According to Glazer, East Harlem has been a competing ground for schools of urban planning and subjected to waves of fashion in that field. “For years,” he said, “public housing was not just another social program but part of a utopian vision — the embodiment, in stone and mortar, of the good society.” 

In the 1930s and ’40s, the tight grid of streets typical of New York City was replaced by the “superblock,” and the houses were set at an angle to that grid, in a form of protest.

“The reasons for this unusual site placement were partly ideological,” opined Glazer. “[architectural critic] Lewis Mumford had denounced the uniform grid, indifferent to features of topography and landscape, as the soulless invention of commercial capitalism, interested only in creating fungible plots to buy and sell.” 

Soon enough, Le Corbusier’s vision of towers nestled in green parkland fell out of favor. 

The Italians of East Harlem initially welcomed the projects, then became violently opposed, claiming they drew Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Many blamed Marcantonio for destroying the old neighborhoods. 

The critique of public housing was that, as planned “community units,” the projects were built as large as possible and divorced from the neighborhood surroundings, dramatizing the segregation of charity-case families. 

Formulaic “minimum standards” for decent, safe and sanitary housing didn’t necessarily generate homey abodes. Shunting the poor into towers condemned them to a beehive-like existence of which few were enamored. 

As urbanists moved on to other planning models, each wave has left a layer of fabric over the East Harlem that eventually emerged, rife with projects, but healthy in other forms of city living. 

“Perhaps,” concluded Glazer, “there is room, along with the bustling tenement row, for the well-run housing project, for the verdant expanse and sparkling tower as well as the crowded, row-house grid.”

Marcantonio’s life was cut short, denying him a chance to see what the mid-century notion of community confection finally produced, and of another chance to continue developing policies that might improve the lot of his people. 

Marcantonio might have made the new mix work for him. If the buildings were his, as many concluded, so then, might the people living in them be his, too. 

Living on into his 50s and 60s’ and ’70s, he might have worked to make things right with the early projects, rather than leaving them to the devices of minds different than his own. 

He might have spent his old age, stooped and gray, reading a book on a bench in one of the green spaces he'd created, that he'd thought so important, looking up for a moment, contemplating his own Marc on the City. 

Fourth Installment of Stone's "The Untold History of United States"

Artwork by Adam Milat-Meyer.
The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) will resume its screening of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” on Saturday Nov. 3 at the Mulberry Street Library, 10 Jersey Street (between Mulberry and Lafayette streets), New York City. 

The VMF has screened three prior installments of the ten, one-hour episodes that make up Stone’s documentary. Each was followed by an open discussion and drew large, engaged audiences. 

The fourth installment is entitled, “The Cold War,” a period which saw U.S. foreign policy make a 180 degree turn from cooperation with its recent ally, the Soviet Union. 

At home, the federal government and much of civil society turned on the Left, which was largely extirpated through ruthless persecution. Stone’s interpretation of this period proposes that the United States, in an alliance with Great Britain, was largely responsible for the hostilities that ensued. He also shows how the accompanying havoc at home wrecked the New Deal coalition. 

Stone’s interpretation eerily mirrors the positions Rep. Vito Marcantonio presented from the floor of the House of Representatives, on radio, in Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and at countless street-corner rallies throughout New York City. 

The VMF's website can be found at http://vitomarcantonioforum.com