Monday, October 15, 2007

Open House New York | Sunday, October 7

I spent the second day of my Open House New York (OHNY) weekend in an area about 1/2 square mile large, maybe even smaller.

First, I worked my volunteer shift from 10-2 at Brooklyn Lyceum. I'd been there last year for a haunted house, which means that my perception of the place was completely different this time: for example, I wasn't getting buried alive or in completely dark, claustrophobic spaces (which is, indeed, what I do sometimes for fun).

The Brooklyn Lyceum is a former bathhouse turned community arts center. The amount of activity that happens at the Lyceum is amazing. During OHNY, about 40 people showed up to rehearse an opera that was going to be performed onsite that Wednesday; dads and sons were showing up to use the batting cage upstairs; and Fiona Apple and Yo La Tengo had performed there the night before as part of The New Yorker Festival.

Owner Eric Richmond gave an incredibly fascinating tour; he has conducted extensive research on the building and the neighborhood's history. I told him a couple of times to put some of these stories down on paper, because they'd make a great book. (Think disease & death, the mafia, and gentrification.) I spent the majority of my time telling people to sign the OHNY guest book and talking to Eric's sister, Laura, who was very nice. The Lyceum is a great example of a private individual restoring a landmark building and turning it into something positive for a "marginal" neighborhood.

After the Lyceum, I headed to the Gowanus Canal to sign up for a self-guided canoe tour with the Gowanus Dredgers. The wait was about two hours long, but another lone OHNY attendee convinced me to to visit sculptor Tom Otterness' studio while I waited. His tours were completely booked, but everybody present at the start time was invited in, so we lucked out. If you're from NYC, you probably recognize his work from the A, C, and E subway stop at 14th Street & 8th Avenue, my neighborhood stop for 8 years when Ed and I lived on 14th Street.

Otterness' work is very playful yet politically challenging. His cartoon-like metal works make the crankiest New Yorkers smile. Beyond a glance, though, his work is anti-establishment. After several questions about his technical process, I asked about the political aspect of his work and how his style helped make the medicine go down, so to speak. He reminded us that the story of Humpty Dumpty worked the same way and that he had contemplated the idea the previous evening while watching a Richard Pryor video. Otterness also said that the MTA has only restricted his work on one occasion, when he created rats wearing police uniforms. One of the rats is permanently on view at Max Fish, a Lower East Side bar that one of his friends runs.

Children and adults can climb into the head of this sculpture and have a moment to themselves.

Otterness with a work that he is giving to his child's public school.

Otterness' studio was full of warm vibes, but it was time to get back to the Gowanus Canal for my canoe tour. News earlier in the week of the Canal having gonorrhea did nothing to dissuade hundreds of people from wanting to paddle in the Canal's waters.

I was by myself, so I was grouped with two others for the trip. Since I had talked about kayaking, I was put into the steering position of the canoe. Although it took me a few minutes to get the hang of it, it was fun being the steerer. (I would not have wanted to sit in the middle, and I'm sure that my forceful paddling would've irritated anybody else in a steering position.)

The last several times I was in a kayak or rowboat (which seems to be happening almost frequently now), I was surrounded by nature. In Newfoundland, there were Bald Headed Eagles above us; and, yes, City Island looks like a national park compared to the Gowanus Canal. But being surrounded by industrial ruins while canoeing was almost just as enjoyable as being surrounded by natural beauty. Too bad our tours were only 15-20 minutes long; I could've stayed out there for a while.

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