Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

HakPakSak Resumed: Four Months, Four Books, Four Subjects, and the Fight for Energy Efficiency

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 17, 2010

Since late August, I’ve neglected to post to this site and to my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org (which has been offline intermittently while I search for a new server to host it).  The cause : a constitutional inability to take the keyboard equivalent of a “bus-driver’s vacation,” i.e. to write for pleasure while also editing, translating, and re-writing long-copy texts embodying the thoughts, intents, and foibles of others rather than my own. Thus, as a first step towards reviving both weblogs, I’ll mention the publication of two new volumes in the realization of which I played peripheral but work-intensive roles as well as the surprise republication of a third volume and the rediscovery of a fourth. For those who follow the “professional” (i.e. corporate and institutional, consultancy and communications) sides of my work, I should also write that I spent much of October editing and revising the presentation of a major financing agency of the European Commission for the Copenhagen climate change conference. A good part of the presentation focused on opportunities and strategies for cutting energy consumption and improving energy efficiency in urban contexts and the movement of people and goods, matters relevant to other research I am doing while attempting to navigate my way through the present “crisis.”

Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed


The first of the four volumes alluded to in the title of this entry is Meijer de Haan: A Master Revealed, published by Editions Hazan and edited by Jelka Kröger of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. The book gives an illustrated overview of the life and work of De Haan, a minor impressionist painter best remembered, if at all, as a pupil of Paul Gauguin and a friend and correspondent of Theo van Gogh, the brother of the famed painter Vincent. De Haan, born and raised in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, was one of the first Jews to enter the mainstream of Dutch art and one of the first Dutch painters to follow Vincent van Gogh into the avant garde of European art. My own role in the project was that of Dutch-to-English translator/editor of most of the essays comprising the volume, a task valued by the better contributors but stubbornly resisted and resented  by authors of contributions in need of serious fixing. More rewarding was the opportunity to recast into English De Haan’s letters to Theo van Gogh and selected correspondence between Theo and Vincent. Most upsetting was to trace the stories of all of De Haan’s Dutch-Jewish associates and pupils up to their deportation and murder by the Germans and their willing Dutch sycophants during the Second World War. In all, it was a pleasure to work with Jelka Kröger and her indefatigable understudy Sara Tas to articulate the story of De Haan and lend background to his work. The volume was compiled and published to accompany the first-ever major exhibition of De Haan’s work. The exhibition has been on view at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam and will move to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris sometime early in 2010. Selected pages of the book can be seen in Issuu format on the website of the volume’s designers.

Mapping Istanbul


Last October I had the pleasure of joining the staff of Garanti Gallery (an art foundation supported by Turkey’s Garanti Bank) in Istanbul for several days of marathon work sessions evaluating and revising sections of text for the gallery’s latest publication, Mapping Istanbul, a cartographic translation of a range of socio-economic data attempting to give overview, shape, and updated definition to the ever-growing and increasingly amorphous megalopolis that Istanbul has become. The maps themselves embody  the input of a score of contributors including the decade-long research, data-crunching, and mapping  efforts of social geographer Murat Güvenç of Bilgi University, Istanbul (more on Prof. Güvenç and his work, including his upcoming exhibition presenting in cartographic form the demographic, economic, cultural, and physical transformation of Istanbul over the last 100 years in a subsequent entry). Maps for the present volume were designed and produced by the Istanbul-based architectural and design practice Superpool, with whom I am happy to be collaborating on other studies related to urban growth and change. Texts accompanying the maps were written by a host of contributors (me amongst them) and range from the explanatory to the highly subjective. Mapping Istanbul is the third in a series of books portraying and redefining Istanbul conceived and published by Garanti Gallery. The first, Becoming Istanbul, is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-serious, and all too often erroneous glossary of things, places, concepts, and impressions that comprise Istanbul– from the rings and tweets of the akbil (electronic bus, ferry, tram, and metro token), to the customs of the hamam (traditional turkish bath), to the one-time cluster of popular film production companies along a street call Yeşilçam, and the long-ago and very brief flight of a Zeppelin over the city’s historical peninsula; the second, Tracing Istanbul, portrays the changing, sprawling, and ever-expanding city through aerial photography.

The End of a Love that Never Began


On a recent visit to Sofia, I discovered that Krayat Na Edna Nezapochnata Lyubov (The End of a Love that Never Began), a volume of autobiographic reflections by Bulgarian acoustical scientist, cinema sound-man, and humorist Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, has been republished. The book first appeared in 2001 and contains amongst its many illustrations masterful photographs of Sofia and its inhabitants taken in the 1920s and 30s by Johnny’s father and a number of somewhat less masterful candid and posed portraits I took of Johnny and associates at Johnny’s 60th birthday celebration in 1993 — a memorable event that Johnny has promised to reprise in 2053 and again in 2113 — and during Bulgaria’s winter crisis of 1996-7. The book also contains a reproduction of a 1950s Bulgarian secret police report on Johnny, obtained years later under what passes as Bulgaria’s version of the U.S. “Freedom of Information Act.”  The report, by the way, concluded that Johnny posed no dangers to the Bulgarian state and society.  Soon after the initial publication of Johnny’s book, a friend, R., skimmed through my autographed copy. R.’s father had entered Bulgaria’s secret police at the top of its hierarchy at the founding of Communist Bulgaria in 1944 but, due in part to his pride in his Jewish identity and his discomfort at obligatory participation in ritual denunciations of Israel and Zionism, later fell through the ranks and out of the police and ended his work life as a porter at the metal smelting plant at Kremikovski just outside of Sofia. (Kremikovski, a relic of the application of Stalinist-style shock industrialization to the traditional agricultural- and food processing-based economy of Bulgaria, now stands idle if I am correct). R. paused when he came to the photo of the secret police report in Johnny’s book . He pointed to the signature at the end of document and said of its author: “Ah, Uncle X., a dear man, he always brought us gifts and helped when my father was in trouble.” Might Johnny’s seeming persecutor really have been his angel?

The Macedonian Dialects of Western Sofia


When in Sofia, I rarely have to phone people. Sofia has more than doubled in population over the last 20 years (from one million to about two and a half) and much of its economic life has moved to its periphery but, nevertheless, the center of the city is sufficiently frequented and sufficiently compact for one inevitably to encounter acquaintances, whether one wants to or not. One long-time acquaintance who I inevitably (and gladly) bump into within days of my arrival  is Angel Angelov, a present-day professor of linguistics at Sofia University and a popular underground folk and protest-singer during the last years of communism and the first chaotic years that followed. Long ago, when I first applied for a Fulbright grant to Bulgaria, Angel went far out on a limb to officially vouch for my competence in spoken Bulgarian. In the late 1990s, Angel published a study on the lingering of linguistic influences of the early-20th century Macedonian refugees who settled at the western edge of Sofia (Pravilata na Ezika v Stolichniya Kvartal) and, for some reason, chose as its cover illustration a photo of an oddly windowless and door-less balcony of an early 20th century Sofia residential building that he had seen at an exhibition of my photographs (Note: The photo is a sufficiently worthy metaphor for Bulgaria that I submitted it — tongue in cheek — to the competition for a new national symbol and coat-of-arms prior to the country’s entry into the European Union. Needless to say, my entry was not accepted. The winning design? A traditional comic-opera imperial lion and shield affair, the stock symbol of 19th-century contrived nation states in search of a pedigree and European identity.).  Coincidentally, I had come across my copy of Angel’s book only days before running into him during my most recent visit to Sofia. Also coincidentally, Angel and I encountered each other in the Sofia University station of the Sofia Metro, which now unites the traditionally disparate eastern and western sides of the city. The very same Metro and its transcendence of a more than century-old invisible barrier between two halves of a city is one of the subjects I have been writing and photographing about in my spare time these last months. An attempt at a humorous precis will appear in an upcoming post here or at Bubkes.Org.

Posted in Books, Bulgaria, Cities, Environment, Istanbul, Jewish History, Sofia | 8 Comments »

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

Posted in Books, Infrastructure, Innovation, Internet, National Identity, Telecommunications | 2 Comments »

Strolling with Obama and Sadat and Reading Rather than Browsing

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 1, 2008

In Obama: The New Sadat? on Atlantic.Com, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama as saying: “Actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”  Goldberg reports the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat lived by the very same principle, taking time out each day for a long stroll along the Nile.  Indeed, Goldberg suggests, it was on one such walk that Sadat envisioned his peace mission to Jerusalem.

I am proud to find myself in the company of Obama and Sadat both.  Wherever I may be, I try to make hours-long urban strolls part of my routine most days of the week.  The walks provide opportunities for self-reflection, for plotting out and articulating thoughts, for envisioning images to photograph, and, not least, for observing urban realities, absurdities, and change.

In each of the cities along my well-trodden path of work and projects, I have my favorite habitual routes: In New York: Westward across the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges and then through lower Manhattan or eastward out to Brighton Beach, either “cross-country” from Prospect Park or via Sunset Park to Bay Ridge and from there along Brooklyn’s seemingly endless waterfront.  In Istanbul, as often as not, my strolls take me from Tophane through now-fashionable Cihangir and Beyoglu down to the conservative quarter of Kasimpasa and finally back to Taksim or along the Golden Horn from Karakoy across the Galata Bridge to Eminonu and then via Fener and Balat to Ayvansaray. In Sofia, Bulgaria, I invariably wander along the romantic tree-lined side-streets of Iskr and Exarch Iosif, into the Women’s Market, past the late-19th-century shopfronts that line Pirotska Street, through the one-time Jewish quarter of Uc Bunar, and finaly through the Ilenden and Zakharna Fabrika quarters to the Zapadna Park at the city’s western extreme.

Long walks occassion long thoughts, not unlike the leisurely unfoldings of plots and intertwined ideas one experiences when one reads long books.  Also in the current edition of Atlantic.com, Nicholas Carr revisits to the oft-asked question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” with a fresh take on linerar reading vs. associative surfing and on the difficulties many of us experience when switching from one form of thought and attention-span to the other.

Posted in Articulation, Books, Cities, Media | Leave a Comment »

Patterns of Human Trajectories, the Essence of Cities, Jacobs vs. Mumford

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 7, 2008

Via JP Rangaswami (Confused of Calcutta) this link to an article on the website of Nature Magazine, entitled Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race: Tracking study proves that humans are creatures of habit. The essence of the story:

“By monitoring the signals from 100,000 mobile-phone users sending and receiving calls and text messages, a team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, has worked out some apparently universal laws of human motion.

The results could help epidemiologists to predict how viruses will spread through populations, and help urban planners and traffic forecasters to allocate resources.

Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues show that most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, are creatures of habit. They make regular trips to the same few destinations such as work and home, and pepper these with occasional longer forays such as vacations.”

The article was especially interesting to me — in small part because I am a similar creature of habit, satisfied by, but also mildly embarrassed about, clinging to comfortable routine trajectories between and within New York, Sofia, and Istanbul, the three cities amongst which I divide my time — and in large part because of my interests in examining and clarifying the nature of cities and of the infrastructure of the exchange of knowledge.

As the decades pass, I continue to examine and debate the dichotomy best expressed by the polarity between Lewis Mumford’s epic “The City in History” and Jane Jacobs’s 1960s urban manifesto “The Life and Death of Great American Cities.” In essence: Are cities composed of great monuments and the products of ambitious physical plans or are they more a function of the aggregated trajectories, intentionality, and intersections of their inhabitants? To express this in terms of New York’s ambiguous struggle with the legacies of master builder and politico Robert Moses: Which view will triumph, the critiques of the displacements and damage to the human fabric of the city Moses’s grandiose road-building projects caused, this as expressed in Robert Caro’s epic biography of Moses “The Power Broker,” or the admiration for the art deco industrial styling of the great bridges and other infrastructural monuments Moses pushed through to realization, this as per the series of “revisionist” museum exhibitions and academic publications on Moses’s achievements that surfaced in New York two years ago?

At present, I am involved in writing and photography on the changing nature of the city of Istanbul and the bifurcation over the centuries between that city’s great monuments and the trajectories of its inhabitants. More on this if/when the project is authorized to proceed. In the meanwhile, though, in the context of Istanbul, I include this link back to a past posting the second half of which treats an Istanbul photocopy shop and how its function as a node of knowledge exchange is shaped by its location and the physical trajectories and intentionality of its patrons.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Links, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

Posted in Books, History, Language, Links, Popular Culture, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Conquest by Infrastructure Roll-Out: The 14th-Century Ottoman Advance into Europe, Neglected Monuments of Northern Greece, and a Fascinating New Book

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 1, 2008

Click on A Published Coincidence, an entry just posted on my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, for a few words on “The Shaping of the Ottoman Balkans 1350-1550: the Conquest, Settlement, & Infrastructural Development of Northern Greece” a new book by Heath W. Lowry, Atatürk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University.

Apropos of the subjects treated here at HakPakSak, “The Shaping of the Ottoman Balkans” treats the centrality of the building, financing, and maintenance of the physical and social infrastructure of trade, travel, hygiene, and worship to the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire. The book is also a fascinating and richly illustrated guide to out-of-the-way and oft-ignored monuments of northern Greece.

My thanks to Professor Lowry for including a number of my own photographs in the volume and for his citations from, and kind references to, my stand-by article The Ottoman Architectural Patrimony of Bulgaria, the partial output of a past Fulbright grant.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Links | Leave a Comment »

42nd and 5th: Architectural Photography, Global Cities, and Working Class New York

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 5, 2008

Last week, in this weblog post, photographer Brian Rose described our recent chance late-winter-afternoon meeting on the corner of 42nd St and 5th Ave. and our follow-up conversations some days later. Brian Rose is a superlative large-format photographer (click here for an overview of his work) with a unique understanding not only of buildings but of the natures of the cities they comprise and of the people who create them, use them, and imbue them with meaning. Our meeting was laden with coincidence. We are both die-hard “analogue” photographers. Brian has lived most of his adult life on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the place where I grew up and that shaped me indelibly — and we both spent years working and living in Netherlands. By chance, I had seen an exhibition of Brian’s work more than two decades ago at the Henry Street Settlement House and had also chanced upon his masterful photographs of the Essex County Courthouse, embodiments of the ways I’d but imagined portraying the interiors of Islamic monuments during the several periods of my life in which I have been involved in documenting the Ottoman architectural patrimony of southeast Europe (see numerous entries on Bubkes.Org).

Brian’s stunning day-end photograph featured in his blog post also comprises a coincidence. In it, Brian attempts to visually anchor the glass and steel corner store of a the international clothing retailer H&M into an iconic “signature” New York location, the corner of 42nd and 5th. His photograph combines end-of-day light, the delicacy of large-format negative film, and an impeccable composition placing the store between trees adjacent to the Public Library in the foreground and the towering spire of the Chrysler Building in the background. The task Brian confronts in his photograph is one that I have been trying to deal with conceptually as I try to locate the continuity of what had once made New York unique in the increasingly bland and seemingly cloned international shopping-mall-, tourism-, and chain-store-like nature of much of (Manhattan’s) retail sector and entertainment and night life.

As a starting point in tracing this uniqueness, I’ll begin with this quote from the introduction to Joshua B. Freeman’s “Working Class New York” (New York 2000) a penetrating examination of the unique ethos, economic history, and social and physical infrastructure of the City from the shaping of its one-time entrepot- and specialized-manufacturing-based economy in the 19th-century, through its creation of America’s only social-democratic society in the 20th, and through the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of the so-called financial and information economy from the 1980s on. This winter, Freeman’s book helped me begin to articulate a vision of New York that had been up until now beyond my reach, this despite my one-time education in “Urban Affairs” and my visceral, indelible knowledge of New York work and street life. At the outset of his book, Freeman eloquently anchors New York in the intangible, in the collective tone of its people:

“Endlessly frustrated by its difficulties and brutalities, try as I may I find it difficult to imagine living elsewhere. What keeps me in New York is neither the high culture of museums and concert halls nor the unrivaled opportunities for working, eating, and spending that New Yorkers revel in. Rather it is a sensibility that is distinctly working-class — generous; open-minded but skeptical; idealistic but deflating of pretension; bursting with energy and a commitment to doing.”

More on the interplay of New York’s people, economy, infrastructure, and unique sensibility — as well as on Freeman’s powerful book — in future entries.

Note: For the next several weeks I will be in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of the Turkish ban on WordPress.Com I might not be able to post to this site while there. I will certainly be posting to Bubkes.Org, so do look for new material there.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Photography, Work | Leave a Comment »

Dizzy Gillespie, Ignacz Paderewski, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vito Marcantonio, and the Benjamin Franklin High School Riots of 1946

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 6, 2008

Further to “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Dizzy for President

During the 1964 US presidential election, I spent a few days handing out leaflets urging voters to bypass Democratic and Republican candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater and write in the name of be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as their choice for president instead. Promoting “Dizzy for President” was a late-beat-era fringe protest against the the dryness of mainstream politics but, as I look back, Dizzy’s beret-in-the-ring might well have augmented the political field. A brilliant innovator, a disciplined and inspiring orchestra leader, and an African -American whose adopted Baha’i faith strengthened his inherent humanism, Dizzy had much to offer.

Should musicians run for president? Legendary classical pianist Ignacz Paderewski, the only musician I am aware of ever having been a head-of-state, served only a single year, 1919, as the premier of newly-independent Poland before he was pressured to resign — but Paderewski was a soloist and not a seasoned band leader like Dizzy.

For me, a musician in the White House would be no less unthinkable than an aging B-movie actor as president or a one-tine professional body-builder as governor of California. In contemporary Russia, even former chess grandmasters entertain political careers. Musicianship, like other endeavors, can generate requisite empathy and responsibility. My friend Ben Salzano — himself one of the generation of young Italian-American jazz musicians that flourished in the 1950s in the Rochester, New York — relates the following anecdote about how jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins discovered the social responsibility of musicianship while a high school student in New York in 1946.

East Harlem 1946

1946 saw the opening of an immense new high school building in working-class Italian East Harlem just north of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The school, Benjamin Franklin High School, like much of the infrastructure and services of East Harlem, was a product of the perspicacity and idealism of the neighborhood’s long-time congressman, Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio’s power-base was rooted in East Harlem’s insular Italian-American community and also in the neighborhood’s growing Puerto Rican and African American populations. A socialist, an egalitarian, and a political realist, Marcantonio ensured that Benjamin Franklin High would admit both local white students and black and Hispanic students from throughout Harlem, in the process accelerating racial integration of schools city-wide. Residents of Italian East Harlem, however, thought otherwise. When the first black students (Sonny Rollins among them) showed up at Benjamin Franklin for the start of the school year they were greeted with catcalls and a rain of bricks, bottles, and garbage thrown from the roofs of neighborhood tenements. Fracases erupted between Italian and black teenagers and the atmosphere remained tense for weeks. To calm the situation, Marcantonio and the principal of Benjamin Franklin High invited Frank Sinatra to perform at the school.

Sinatra and Nat King Cole

In 1946, Frank Sinatra was not yet the cynical rat-packer and Nixon hanger-on of later decades. He still had the crystal-clear voice and dark good looks of a young working-class urban crooner. He also had ideals and didn’t hesitate to express them. He had just recorded and performed in a film short of him singing “The House I live In,” New York City leftist school teacher Abel Meeropool’s ode to an egalitarian vision of post-war America, a country-wide hit that came to be an unofficial second US national anthem in the years between the defeat of fascism in Europe and the chill of the McCarthy era back home. From the stage of the auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High, Sinatra told the students, white and black, to knock off the violence and learn to live together, advising, as Sonny recalled it: “… you don’t have to love everybody but you don’t have to kill them either.” A few days later, according to Rollins, Nat King Cole showed up at the school to give a concert of his own and make the same appeal for peace. The violence soon ended and integration of Benjamin Franklin High School was underway. This, Rollins claims, taught him what musicians can and should accomplish.

Coda

Recently, Ben Salzano told me that he had recounted Sonny Rollins’s tale to a fellow musician, a native of Italian East Harlem who attended Benjamin Franklin High School at the same time as Sonny and who remembered the 1946 disturbances clearly. Was Sonny Rollin’s narrative accurate? Salzano asked. His colleague answered in an accent and tone once characteristic of the neighborhood: “Sonny? Nah! Sonny’s full-a-shit; Sinatra and Nat played Benjamin Franklin on the same day.”

More…

Additional entries on Vito Marcantonio and on the social, economic, and ideological roots of the ethos and infrastructure of New York will follow in subsequent postings.

For more on the life and music of Sonny Rollins including, I am told, a tighter retelling of his recollections of Benjamin Franklin High School anno 1946, see Eric Nisenson’s “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

For a timely posting by my friend and colleague Doc Searls, a long-time independent-voter, on his decision to support Barack Obama in the present primary elections click here.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Music, Politics | 6 Comments »

Post-Hiatus Notes: Kudos and Quixote, Markets and Soup-Kitchens, Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits, Podcasts and Dante

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 10, 2007

During the September to October hiatus in my postings to this site (see Turkey’s Ban on WordPress), I was unable to respond to a number of links and comments …

Kudos and Quixote

In a September 28 posting to his weblog, Doc Searls delved into the dichotomy between individuals’ and society’s passive acceptance of manipulative “marketing” and the possibility of “consumers” actually raising their voices and marshaling emerging technology to turn the tables on corporations and “marketeers” by articulating, broadcasting, and demanding responsiveness to their own needs and desires. Doc ended his post by pointing to our conversations and collaborations over the past four decades. In Doc’s words:

“By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.”

My thanks to Doc for this acknowledgment. Doc has always been generous in his references to me. In a piece he penned seven years ago, he compared me to both Raul Julia and Lenny Bruce, an honor that I still try (albeit ever more quixotically!) to live up to.

Markets and Soup-Kitchens

At the moment, Doc and I are examining the human and infrastructural aspects of traditional markets and marketplaces as models for using the internet to reestablish the modes of interaction and responsiveness that were once the hallmarks of face-to-face commerce. Traditional markets were tangible physical places, powered by the integrity and quality of goods and running on reputations and trust. In the modern age, however, the word “market” become a metaphor for statistical abstractions and the word “marketing” for the artificial creation of demand and the manipulation of the economic behavior of individuals and groups. Doc dug into this theme in his contributions to the 1990’s business bestseller Cluetrain Manifesto. For the subjective underpinning of my own take on the issue look at Markets and Marketing, Fishes and Faces on my alter ego weblog Bubkes.Org.

My part-time studies and work at the fringes of the field of Ottoman history has kept me close to the vision of markets as accretions of individual interactions, conversations, and trust. Over the course of more than a half millennium, the Ottomans evolved physical infrastructure and institutions that enabled commerce and information exchange as well as conquest. One facet of this infrastructure was the Imaret — a publicly- or foundation-financed combination of travelers’ lodge and soup kitchen — a veritable “internet” of which dotted the roadways of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Middle East and North Africa. Those interested in this aspect of the dynamics of Ottoman infrastructure, travel, and trade should turn to a newly published volume of essays edited by historians Nina Ergin, Christoph Neumann, and Amy Singer: Feeding People, Feeding Power; Imarets in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul, 2007).

Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits

In a comment on this post, hip-hop commentator Rafi Kam expressed surprise at “being on my radar.” As they used to say in the Bronx in the 1970s: “What can I tell you?” I may prefer Louis Jordan to Fifty Cent — and certainly have more of a weakness for Borsalino hats and zoot suits (reat-pleat, stuff-cuff, drape-shape and all) than for sagging jeans and baseball hats worn backwards — but I am still open to new music, ironic humor, good writing, and all that cuts through common wisdom and accepted ideology.

Apropos of both Kudos and Markets above, Rafi Kam’s and Dallas Penn’s YouTube clip Bronx Bodega (which I have mentioned previously on this site and on Bubkes.Org) is not only disarmingly humorous but in its 7-minute length portrays exactly the same point that Doc Searls and I are trying to examine in our far more pedantic styles, i.e. that marketing in its extreme is a one-way affair that targets people’s’ weaknesses rather than strengths. Marketing reduces people to “consumers” and attempts to dictate what they can buy and limits their access to competing outlets, goods, and services — a demographics-driven twist on plain old imperialism.

The same combination of wit and debunking that go into the Bronx Bodega clip also characterizes the weblog of Rafi’s fellow self-styled “Internet Celebrity” Dallas Penn. Dallas Penn’s blog lights up the integrity of street-driven hip-hop and pinions the marketing-driven cynicism of the music industry; his takes on the marketing of political “personalities” (e.g. US Republican presidential “wannabe” Giuliani) are delightfully unsparing. Most remarkably, Dallas Penn seems to have the rare talent of being able to write exactly as he speaks (or is it the other way around?).

Podcasts and Dante

To close: A confession. I have not always been as kind to Doc Searls as Doc has been to me. Three or four years ago, I was vocally skeptical when Doc was amongst the first to enthuse about the Copernican revolution podcasting was about to occasion by liberating content from limits of time and geography and by enabling listeners to choose and pull broadcasts rather than having them pushed at them. At the time, I saw podcasting as technology without worthy content. Events proved me totally wrong; I now live from podcasts. I reload my I-Pod daily, supplementing my usual mix of Bartok, Turkish and Armenian Oud virtuosi, Monk and Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland, and the like with the latest podcasts from the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg, PBS’s Bill Moyers, the New Yorker magazine, NPR’s Car Talk Plaza, and WNYC’s Sara Fishko, Leonard Lopate, Brian Lehrer, and John Schaeffer. A few days ago, I admitted to Doc that if there isn’t a special circle in the Inferno for those of us who doubted podcasting, there should be. With magnanimity, Doc offered to release me from such a fate if I posted my confession on this site … thus this entry!

Posted in Books, History, Infrastructure, Markets, Media, Music, Podcasting | 1 Comment »

America’s Labor Day, The Right to Be Lazy, the Photocopy Shops of Istanbul, and the Democratization of Knowledge

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 9, 2007

Last Monday was Labor Day, the annual U.S. holiday marking the end of the summer season. The origins of Labor Day date to the early 1880’s when a New York City carpenters’ union proposed a day honoring the city’s craftsmen and laborers. In 1882, New York was the site of the country’s first Labor Day parade, sponsored by the Knights of Labor, a forerunner of the AFL-CIO. Labor Day was soon taken up in other US cities and states and in 1894, in the aftermath of the breaking of the great Pullman and railway workers’ strike, was declared a nation-wide holiday — possibly as a bone thrown to the less radical side of the nascent U.S. labor movement.

Labor Day vs. May Day

In the 20th century, Labor Day celebrations were contrasted with their more radical European equivalents, the enthusiastic and often explosive mass rallies and demonstrations held on May 1. In the U.S., Labor Day was touted as the non-revolutionary workingman’s holiday and May Day as radical, foreign, anti-American. Ironically, however, May Day had been declared the official holiday of the world socialist movement by a convocation of the Second International in Paris in 1890 in tribute to the victims of a purely American tragedy: the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886 and the subsequent round-up, show trials, and execution of local German-American craftsmen and anarchists. While European May Day celebrations reflected their radical origins well into the last third of the 20th century, America’s Labor Day celebrations ground to a halt and the holiday devolved into a wistful day off in the fading warmth of summer … and, more recently, into another occasion for the retail store sales and compulsive shopping that accompany most American celebrations, secular and religious.

The Right to Be Lazy

Some weeks ago, a friend who I knew from the 1960s asked me whether four decades after I’d first read Marx — in the process squandering an irreclaimable chunk of the sexual revolution to wade through Das Kapital — I could consider myself a Marxist. My response was to ask: What kind of Marxist? A Stalinist? No way. A Trotskyite? Out of romantic fantasy and ethnic solidarity, maybe. A Western-European-style democratic socialist? Most certainly. A La Fargue-ist? With enthusiasm and a smile!

This Labor Day, I blew the dust off of one the most treasured volumes on my bookshelves, one of the most underrated social and economic manifestos of the 19th-century, Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy. And, in the spirits of Labor Day and May 1 both, I took the leisure to reread it.

Cuban-born Lafargue (1842-1911) was Karl Marx’s very own son-in-law but family ties did not prevent Lafargue from giving Marx’s work a needed tweak. Whereas Marx rails about the necessity of transferring ownership of the means of production from capitalists to the proletariat, Lafargue takes aim at production itself. The real enemy of all mankind, according to Lafargue, is its own senseless compulsion to produce, the self-destructive compulsion to work. Forget about fighting for the right to work, Lafargue argues, one should struggle for the right to be lazy!

Marx’s famed Communist Manifesto begins with the warning that the specter of class-based violence is haunting Europe but the opening paragraph of Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy warns us against a more insidious danger from within, our own supposed industriousness:

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway. This delusion is the love of work. The proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nations, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment! All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.”

For Lafargue, work is, at best, a mere prelude to leisure and to the creativity, inventiveness, and satisfaction that only leisure can yield. To portray the benefits of leisure over labor Lafargue asks us to consider two horses, a pampered and groomed racehorse from the stables of the Rothschilds and a worn dray horse that spends its days pulling endless heavy loads. Which creature, he asks us, is more magnificent, more worthy of emulation?

The Three-Hour Day

Lafargue uses a complex set of calculations to prove that three hours of labor per person per day would suffice to satisfy the needs of most individuals and all of mankind. More than three hours, he cautions, is detrimental to ourselves and to the world at large, leading to overproduction, wasting of resources, adulteration of goods and services, imperial and colonial adventures, and, worst of all, economies that are driven by what we would now call … marketing.

I would dispute Lafargue’s results. Almost a half century of work has taught me that daily bursts of four to five hours of labor are more than sufficient, providing one is rested and relaxed and at least somewhat motivated and dedicated. Additional hours are padding — needless meetings, gossip and make-work, real and virtual trips to the water cooler (including the contemporary equivalents of compulsive email checks, web searches, and online gaming), avoidance of going home, or expressions of managers’ sadistic desires to make employees endure needlessly long days as punishment for being paid. And, padding is not without cost, compromised quality and declining productivity being among the obvious over the long run.

Lafargue is oddly prescient. He foresaw the near suicidal overwork that characterized sweatshops, Soviet idealization of “Stakhanovites,” U.S. misadventures in “scientific management,” and the expansion of the American workweek over the past few decades from a hard-won forty hour week back up to a nerve-fraying fifty to sixty hours or more. Lafargue also anticipated the waste and environmental damage of economies based on continuous expansion of production, the conflicts caused by continuous seeking out of new markets, and the torpor and perennial dissatisfaction occasioned by cajoling existing markets into ever-increasing consumption. His model also provides insight into the short-sighted moves of the present-day newly elected right-of-center government of his adopted country, France, against its 35-hour work week and strong social services and towards the American model of lower pay, less security, and longer hours for those not at the top and tax breaks for those who are.

Syphilis and Production

The Right to Be Lazy, by the way, merits a reading not only for Lafargue’s analysis and prescriptions but also for his (and 19th century translator Charles H. Kerr’s) delightfully ironic style, another way in which Lafargue sets himself apart from his father-in-law. For example, in the midst of a pointing out how the middle-class moved over the centuries from industriousness to a life of indulgence built upon the overwork of wage earners Lafargue posits this paradox:

“Today every son of the newly rich makes it incumbent upon himself to cultivate the disease for which quicksilver is a specific in order to justify the labors imposed on the the workmen in quicksilver mines.”

The Photocopy Shops of Istanbul

The full text of The Right to Be Lazy is available on the internet but I prefer to read it in hard copy, a medium more conducive to a leisurely afternoon on a park bench or a peaceful coffee or beer at an outdoor cafe. My own copy of The Right to Be Lazy is hardcover, bound in embossed imitation leather and gold-stamped with the title and author’s name. It even has a ribbon (more of a shoelace actually) sewn into the binding for marking one’s place.

My personal edition Lafargue’s book is one of many volumes that I have bought over the years at a category of institution that occupies a minuscule but important niche in world’s information infrastructure: the photocopy shops of Istanbul.

Istanbul’s photocopy shops copy are crowded storefront affairs crammed with photocopy machines, bookshelves, and hundreds or thousands of bound and unbound volumes. They smell of paper, xerox toner, bookbinder’s glue, and cheap take-out lunches and are usually silent but for the shuttling of photocopier lamp heads, the rattling of automatic collating racks and the occasional ringing of old fashioned telephones.

A typical photocopy shop works as follows: A customer comes in to have a book photocopied. The shop photocopies and binds the book’s pages but also produces as second set of photocopies that it keeps as a master for preparing additional volumes for shelf display or for order from the shop’s catalog (as often as not available in pamphlet form or on 3.5″ floppies as a grudging concession to the digital age).

The shop I patronize is located in the warren of streets bounded by the immense Byzantine-period underground cisterns of the Yerebatan Saray and by the Divan Yolu, the ancient main thoroughfare and axis of old Istanbul. The shop is just around the corner from the Turkey’s central archives housing the tens of millions of documents that are the administrative patrimony of the Ottoman period and only minutes from the tourist magnets of Haghia Sofia and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. The shop’s stock varies from historical and literary works in Turkish and Islamic religious volumes to an erratic variety of historical and lingusitic arcana in English. A small sampling of my own purchases over the years reflect the scope of the shop’s usual contents: Gibbs’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry, F.W. Hasluck’s classic Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Mason’s Passion of Al-Hallaj, Millingen’s books on Byzantine Constantinople and its churches, Galante’s 1930s monograph on the synagogues of Istanbul, and a number of memoirs by now-forgotten 19th-century Protestant missionaries to Anatolia and the Balkans, as well as, of course, Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Photocopies and the Democratization of Knowledge

At first glance, Istanbul’s photocopy shops appear to be involved in blatant copyright violation and theft of intellectual property. But the situation is far more complex, an analogue precursor of contemporary issues facing the internet, libraries, and the publishing industry. Many of the works available at photocopy shops at $10 -$20 per volume are long out of print and otherwise available only through antiquarians or in low-run limited-edition reprints at prices in the $100 – $200 range, via high-priced subscriptions to online data bases, and, of course, to those with the credentials and sufficient leisure, at specialized libraries. The effect of this is magnified in Turkey, a country in which income distribution is decided unequal and most people’s disposable incomes are far below Western European and even American levels.

Photocopy shops also provided a physical and spatial means for expanding one’s knowledge of the world and of the millennia of discourse examining it. Photocopy shops offer the curious an opportunity to browse through categories of books — volumes at the edges of mainstream of knowledge and rarefied areas of specialized research — and thumb through titles they most likely would not find in Istanbul’s otherwise excellent Turkish- and English-language bookstores and would not otherwise encounter unless they have the luxury to be involved in full-time studies or research.

As haphazard as the collections of photocopy shops maybe, they do have their logic. In the case of my own favorite shop, that logic is a function of its spatial location, which serves as filter for its stock. What photocopy shops offer for sale is determined the books that are brought it for copying in the first place and the tastes and interests of the people who bring them. The location of my favorite shop, only tens of meters from the Ottoman archives and a little more than a kilometer from Istanbul University, gives it an academic and Ottoman-period focus. This reflects the intellectual lives of its copy service and book buying customers and their daily trajectories, through their inner selves as well as through the physical complexity of Istanbul. It also forms a case study in the dynamics of traditional cities and is an analogue mirror of concepts of community and social networking that we now associate with the internet.

Afterthought: Lafargue, the Future of the Copy Shop, and Reclaiming the Leisure and Focus to Read

The photocopy copy shop in which I bought Lafargue’s manifesto in praise of the three-hour workday is open eleven hours a day, seven days a week — a function of low margins, high rents, increasing paper and toner costs, skyrocketing cost of living, and, maybe, as Lafargue would have it, a dose of misplaced industriousness as well. Most of the shop’s customers work equally long days. In a more Lafargue-ian world would the store survive and its customer’s reclaim the leisure and focus to read more? I’m willing to gamble on it.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Marx, Work | 4 Comments »