Also at MCNY

There was a lot of other stuff at MCNY besides Aids at Home. I spent the most time in the NY at its Core rooms familiarizing myself with the city’s history and the way it’s chosen to present itself.

It’s clear to me that in addition to the city’s myths the museum is actively addressing the blind spots in those myths. This is especially true in the first half of the exhibition which focuses on the growth of New York as a port city. So while I get to see all the big names I remember from my history books—Henry Hudson to Alexander Hamilton to Boss Tweed—I also get to read about the original Lenape inhabitants and how, by being a port city, New York was also integral to slave trading.

It’s also very interesting to see how small New York was—both geographically and by population—and how recent its growth and development into New York™ actually is. The exhibition chronicles the advancement of the grid across Manhattan, the transformation from farming to housing and skyscrapers, and the way that New York (before consolidation) wanted to emulate Brooklyn by building large public parks.

It’s good that the museum notes how New York only became THE American city after the Civil War and THE world city after World War 2. It’s important to be aware of how external events have benefitted New York, especially once we get close to the end of the 20th century and the museum gets to cover both New York’s decline and September 11.

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

Robert Gerhardt. Children Playing Cricket in the Park, Brooklyn, NY, 2011

There was a small exhibition of photographs around the subject of being Muslim in New York. These were good in how they reference a lot of the tropes of New York photography while updating them to reflect Muslims as everyday New Yorkers. Cricket instead of stickball. Halal street vendors instead of Hebrew National or Sabrett stands. These photos don’t challenge stereotypes as much as they treat Muslims as the everyday people they are, showing them working, praying, playing, and growing up.

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There was also a gallery of World War I posters. I don’t have much to say about these except that, while I’ve seen many of them in books and online, it’s always nice to see them in person and get a sense of what their actual sizes and colors are.

I particularly enjoy looking at how these are printed. This information which was sadly lacking in the wall text but I really like being able to distinguish between lithographs and silkscreens and trying to figure out how many inks were used and how certain effects were achieved.

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One wall was full of multi-lingual posters. It was weird for me to not see Spanish among them but the wall served as a reminder that, while one of the myths about America is that it’s an English-only country, we’ve had to deal with multiple languages for a long time.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin's Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

Todd Webb. Mr. Perkin’s Pierce Arrow, New York, 1946.

The last room I checked out was a gallery of Todd Webb’s photographs. I’d seen these before as part of one of The Online Photographer’s book sales* but the photos, while nice enough, didn’t really grab me. I liked them much better the second time around because the museum did a wonderful job of locating them within the city.

*One I jumped on because of Dorothea Lange and George N. Barnard.

I’m not a New Yorker. I’ll never be a New Yorker. And for me, the appeal of most of Webb’s photos required a level of knowledge of the city which I just didn’t have. So it was great fun to get, in essence, a tour of the city through this photos.

AIDS at Home

Between visiting the Polo Grounds and going to The Met I ducked into the Museum of the City of New York. I’d never been before and while I planned to see the the permanent exhibition, I couldn’t help but go straight to the special ones.

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Of particular interest was the AIDS at Home show. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1980s, my sense of the epidemic is very much centered on the way that it ripped out the heart of the San Francisco gay community. It’s not a sense that the Bay Area owns the trauma, just that the sheer number of stories I grew up with—and still hear—about friends my parents lost, as well as all the similarly heartbreaking community stories make this a subject which I’m particularly sensitive to.

This is one of the first shows I’ve seen which actually addresses the role art plays in responding to the epidemic. I’d thought about this previously but while one of the critiques of modern art is that it’s often too academic, the AIDS epidemic resulted in art which is intensely personal as it dealt with personal fear and loss and anger.

With every piece I found myself checking first to see whether the artist was still alive.

Much of the art in particular—especially in the earlier rooms which deal with the beginning of the epidemic—is focused on care taking and support. The artists in this case are recording the way that end of life care works or just saving the last precious moments with loved ones. While the horror of AIDS is especially awful, much of the artwork also serves as an indictment of the general quality of both American medical care and the way we treat our elderly and infirm.

People get cut off and alienated from society. Medicine is a beacon of hope which few people can either afford or access. Thirty years later I’m still outraged by the idea that much of America ignored this issue because gays “deserved” it. Thirty years later I’m even more incensed to see the logic used to ignore AIDS being applied to all medical care.

As much as it angers me, where this exhibition is strongest is in how it ties the community response to AIDS to the current struggles to make America support its marginalized and victimized communities in general. It’s explicit in making this connection—especially in terms of gay rights and expanding the definitions of family and marriage.

The true tragedy of the AIDS epidemic is in how many people got cut off from everyone who they thought the could trust. The silver lining is that the resulting fights—which I know didn’t start in the epidemic but certainly came to a head because of the for letting partners be added to leases and medical benefits and the legal ability to make decisions for each other paved a lot of the way for the advanced we’ve made today. And while things aren’t there yet. We have made advances which, while worth celebrating, need to be defended and improved upon as well.

Of note

A few specific items caught my attention. I enjoyed the dive into the AIDS Quilt and framing it as nostalgia and an extension of the previous artworks about caregiving and housing rights. While that’s not how the project frames itself, I love the idea that the quilt, in addition to being a patchwork celebration of everyone who we’ve lost to AIDS, also reflects the sense of comfort and home and caregiving that any homemade quilt represents.

And Kia Labeija’s photography is worth a special shout out. For a show which has to deal with so much loss, it’s important to see what the following generation—in this case an artist who was born infected with AIDS—is dealing with too. Her project of photos with her moms stuff is both a powerful statement about survival as well as a remembrance of her mother—both in terms of loss and dealing with the fact that what her mother left her goes beyond material items.

April backlog

Continuing from March.

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Atlee

Being mixed race means that I grew up constantly being put into different “what are you?” boxes.* Society likes to sort us and I often describe my maturation in terms of which box I was most-likely to be sorted into—my standard description is along the lines that I was “chinese” when I was in grade school, “mexican” as a teenager, and only became white as an adult. But I was never actually any of those things. I only use those descriptions as shorthand for being aware of how society types me, what triggers that identification, and what behavior I may need to modify for my safety in that situation.

*I’ve written more about my background but my thinking has evolved a bit on that in the past four years.

I preferred to identify myself as not having a box at all. Even though I was lucky to have many mixed-race friends in school I never really thought of them as my group. None of us had identical racial backgrounds and, so while we could discuss a lot of common ground in terms of experiences we shared, we all had very different identities.

It was only in high school when we had stars like Dean Cain and Russell Wong that the idea of a “hapa”* box became feasible. I wasn’t interested but I could see the appeal. There were people like us in mass media and yeah, while they had to play either completely-white or completely-asian roles, at least they sort of existed. By then though I’d also already embraced my non-categoriness and absorbed the idea that I would always have to defer to someone else who was more of whatever part of my identity I was partaking in.

*I’m using “hapa” in this case specifically because of its extremely-limited half-asian/half-white meaning which the multiracial asian community jumped all over in the late 1990s/early 2000s because of the gaping absence of any other term to self-identify as. It’s no longer a term I use to describe any group of people even though I do still use it to self-identify—with family from Hawai‘i, I feel like it does capture some of my specific story. But the fact that it all-too-often loses its Hawaiian context is a big problem. As is the fact that it all-too-often is limited to just asian/white people.

It’s not that being mixed-race means that I’m insufficiently anything. It’s that I’m aware of the limits of my experience of my culture. I know that there’s always more to learn and more family history to uncover. I know that my culture and experience is best described in terms of where my ancestors came from rather than who I am.

Sometimes though I wonder if things could’ve been different. I’ve seen my sons’ friends ask if mixed-race parents like me are the parents of his similarly-mixed-race friends. It’s not just that there’s a cohort of mixed race kids. Many of the parents are also mixed race now and, while kids are still grouping by type—it’s amazing how engrained that idea of what a family unit should look like is—I get the sense that much of my sons’ generation has a much different understanding of how culture works and that there is a benefit to being typed into a box which kind of fits you.

Representation is always good. But it’s more than that. What seems to be a lot of the driving force in this though is that they understand what they might grow up to be like. Which is really where the family-unit typing seems to come into play. Kids learn early on that they’ll grow up to look like their family. A lot of the “what about the kids” panic with mixed race couples stems from the fear that the kids won’t look like their parents. And while that’s bullshit, I have seen that as kids learn how race works really early and that, once that view is in place they see racial differences as overriding any other similarities.

So it‘s a good thing that my sons’ generation is growing up where mixed-race adults are common. I’m kind of jealous. I’m glad I had peers but I can see how different things are to just see what you could look like as a grown up.

It was only in getting back into baseball cards that I realized that there were a couple of years in the late 1980s when my classmates had accurately identified a mixed-race adult for me to look like.

Atlee Hammaker 1983 Topps Atlee Hammaker 1984 Topps All Stars

When I was ~10 everyone started calling me Atlee. I was a Giants fan and I supposedly looked like our pitcher, Atlee Hammaker. He’d been a star, of sorts, a few years earlier but by the time I was a fan injuries had kind of derailed his career. As a result, he’d developed a bit of a reputation as being a headcase—specifically the type of pitcher who’s great when no one’s on base but loses his composure as soon as anyone reaches base.

I hated that nickname and being told that I looked like him—mostly because, in my view, he wasn’t that good. Looking at his stats now gives me a better sense of it. He was in the midst of going from a decent—albeit injury-prone—pitcher to a replacement-level one. A decent career with a few high points—just not the trajectory any kid wants to be associated with.

Getting back into cards though has involved me googling around about players whose cards trigger my memories. In Hammaker’s case, I discovered that he was mixed-race, specifically German/Japanese—very close to the same thing I am. I’d had no idea when I was a kid—no one else did either—but finding that out kind of softened my memories. Rather than seeing his cards and having a visceral “oh god I hated being called Atlee” reaction, I’ve warmed to him and begun to wonder how I would’ve reacted if I’d known as a kid.

Would I have latched on with the same sense of ownership that I latched on to Scott Erickson—who grew up a stone’s through from my house—a few years later? No idea. But I suspect I would’ve been more supportive instead of rolling my eyes each time he got the fidgets when someone got on base.

And no, I didn’t grow up to look like him. That’s not how any of this works. But as someone who rarely smiles in photos, I am enjoying looking at his cards from the 1980s and being amused at how he never smiles and always has the same deadpan expression on his face. I’d like to think that his special 1984 All Star card is a reflection of his disastrous appearance in 1983 but it’s just the way he always looks.

March backlog

Continuing from February.

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Polo Grounds

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A large part of my growing up as a Giants fan involved learning about and embracing the Giant’s New York history. The Giants themselves encourage it. It’s not just that players like Willie Mays were stars in both places or that the 1951 Bobby Thomson home run or 1954 World Series win were two of the few high-water marks we had to hold on to during too many seasons of mediocrity. That the Giants had John McGraw, Christie Mathewson, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, and Carl Hubbell’s numbers retired* meant that the franchise claimed its place as one of the first, founding Major League clubs and wrapped its history up with the history of baseball in general.

*Monte Irvin is a relatively recent addition whose absence used to confuse me when I was little.

So I read about baseball history and mentally highlighted every place where the Giants got mentioned. I delighted in highlights like the 1905 World Series or Carl Hubbell’s 1934 All-Star game. And I felt a some of the shame about things like Merkel’s boner.

It wasn’t just the history either. While I’ve yet to visit 16th and Bryant to see the location of Seals Stadium, I did visit Cheney Stadium in Tacoma fully aware that the seats there were the old Seals Stadium seats. Even as an adult, visiting the location of the Polo Grounds has been on my to-do list since I moved to New Jersey.

After four years I finally got my act together and made the trip. I took the subway to 155th and walked up Edgecombe to the top of the John T Brush Stairway. Just passing the Coogan’s Bluff playground sign and seeing those words representing a real place was kind of a thrill, but standing at the top of the stairs was an experience. Even with the apartments it’s wonderful to get a sense of the geography and think about what it meant to look both down into the stadium and out across the Harlem River toward The Bronx.

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Walking down the stairs isn’t as evocative but it’s fantastic that everything’s restored and looks good. I’m glad it’s not a ruin and is preserved as something that matters. Athletic teams, despite being privately owned, are in many ways part of the public trust and exist as deep-seated tribal identities for their fans. As fans, we get taken advantage of with regard to public stadiums and the fact that our loyalty is a one-way street. And then if/when a team changes stadiums, the old stadium is often destroyed leaving, maybe, a plaque marking the location of home plate.

The stairway does a much better job at anchoring the Polo Grounds in my mind as something that physically existed. I can picture where it was and how it fit in with the land. I don’t have to guess that I’m in the right location nor spend a lot of my visit searching for the plaque.

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Because of the stairway I had a very good idea where the plaque should be. The hardest thing was finding a way to get to it. You have to cross another road then kind of wind your way downhill into the housing projects while keeping in mind which building, and what side, looked like the proper location of home plate. I had the location about right but the most-direct path was fenced off.

As with walking down the stairway the plaque didn’t move me too much. It’s on the side of a massive tower of apartments and is fenced off so you have to learn to get a proper view. I found it amusing that it claimed the 1904 World Championship given how the Giants snubbed the American League that year. I also like how the Yankees and the Mets are kind of an afterthought.

The plaque, more than anything else, gives the impression that the Giants are no more—something which feels much more in-line with the way that franchise moves exist today. It’s weird, most franchise moves now involve making a break with the past—whether it’s the new location starting history anew or the old location being unable to forgive the pain of losing their team. But it doesn’t feel like this happened with the Giants. Reading about their last game in New York makes it clear that emotions were high—I remember growing up with stories of everything being ripped up and taken home—but many New Yorkers accepted the move and kept rooting for their team.

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Because I planned to visit The Met later in the day, I wandered back to the subway and transferred to a Manhattan-bound train at the 161st-Yankee Stadium stop. I didn’t know what to expect at this station but I was pleased to find that it was an elevated platform which gave me a view back across the river showing me both the original Yankee Stadium location and the Polo Grounds towers.

I’m familiar with the photos showing how close the stadiums were but seeing the locations from the platform was both a nice reminder and good way to take my leave of the location.

Easter

Visiting cousins in Pennsylvania.

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