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Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

PHILOSOPHICAL AMERICANA: BRONX, PHILLY AND WEST ORANGE

  • Projects in South Bronx
    Projects in South Bronx
  • Me at the Kool Herc graffiti close to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where the first hip hop party ever was organized
    Me at the Kool Herc graffiti close to 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where the first hip hop party ever was organized
  • Bushwick mural culture
    Bushwick mural culture
  • Nathan's historical hot dog stand in Coney Island
    Nathan's historical hot dog stand in Coney Island
  • The heart of the Philadelphia skyline
    The heart of the Philadelphia skyline
  • Joy Tsin Lau: if you are in Philly, eat dim sum here!
    Joy Tsin Lau: if you are in Philly, eat dim sum here!
  • Greyhound to Philly
    Greyhound to Philly
  • The lovely Will Rawls performing
    The lovely Will Rawls performing
  • Anti-Trump art at the Whitney
    Anti-Trump art at the Whitney
  • Hip hop wall of fame in Spanish Harlem
    Hip hop wall of fame in Spanish Harlem
  • 1520 Sedgwick Avenue
    1520 Sedgwick Avenue
  • Food in Joy Tsin Lau. Warning: you don't always get what you want, the waiters don't speak English very well. On the other hand: everything is good.
    Food in Joy Tsin Lau. Warning: you don't always get what you want, the waiters don't speak English very well. On the other hand: everything is good.

I spent my early childhood in the suburbs of Stockholm (Rinkeby, Upplands Väsby) where the 1970s were an overtly politicized period. We were trained for political demonstrations even in Kindergarten. There was not much that we kids would have been united against, so in the end we walked around the building with self-made posters against diarrhea.

 

One of the main things in my domestic Marxist and modernist education (my parents were semi-proletarian cultural workers) was that I was not (for some time) allowed to consume ‘imperialist culture’ (i.e. American popular culture).

 

I think it was, in the end, a good move. Although it was a bit black-and-white, this way of thinking made kids like me listen to Chinese opera, collect Russian comics and read African children’s books. To be truly international, not just a shadow of Anglo-American (/French/German) culture, you need to walk an extra mile. Otherwise you just get what the mainstream brings to you, and that’s a very one-sided smorgasbord. Dogmas can be helpful.

 

In academic culture and the arts I have already a long time ago said bye bye to the imperialist dominance of the US (and its little brother Great Britain). I have a dogma to not read or follow anything American, if not a close person who I respect will say: hey, read this. This way a lot of the best Anglo-American stuff comes through, but anyway, I keep ALSO finding things which are outside of the mainstream. I suppose it is the same kind of dogma that many people have when they do not read books written by males, white people or heterosexuals.

 

To the point: I really love North American mass culture. Although I have this deep love for it, I never planned to live in the US and I never even thought that I’d visit the country until the Academy of Finland gave me a PhD grant for staying in Philadelphia for one term in 2002. One of the key figures of my philosophical research, Richard Shusterman, was at the time a professor at Temple University Philadelphia.

 

I was in deep problems at the time, as I had chosen a marginal discipline (aesthetics) and I was even marginalizing myself even inside of the discipline as I was methodologically into (really marginal) Italian philosophy with a window open towards Asia. Worst of all: I was doing aesthetics of popular culture, which at the time was totally untrendy. Finding a funding was hard, but for some reason I received a grant to travel to the US. I lived together with two analytic philosophers, read a lot of American thinking (James, du Bois, Nagel) and spent time trying to understand how the socio-economic system worked. I recall that there was a huge demonstration against the Iraqi war in centre city and there was nothing in the news about it - only that there had been a pro-war demonstration in San Francisco. People were incredibly rich. And people were incredibly poor - as I noticed on my risky walks to North Philadelphia.

 

Me and my wife, we often try to combine our travels, so that when one of us gets into an interesting destination, the other ones joins as a tourist. This time it was Riikka’s time to take the lead, as she traveled to Montreal for a harm-reduction conference. I joined her in New York, where she changed plane.

 

We had spotted a nice-looking (and here’s the key: cheap) Airbnb in Mott Haven (pic 1), South Bronx. It was a room in the apartment of a visual artist, with a roof view over the Bronx river to Harlem.

 

I had been in New York only one or two days in 2002, so I was happy to just walk around on Manhattan the first day, watching skyscrapers and parks. We did some cultural archive work too, though. As I have lately been obsessed with the Astor Place Riot (where the pop Shakespeare mob attacked the highbrow fans of the playwright) and the cultural life of the Five Points (where e.g. tap dance was invented), we went to find the main places of the historical slum which is also portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York (2002, based on the great popular history book with the same name by Herbert Asbury in 1927). This made us happily drift into Chinatown, where we found some cheap and great dim sum.

 

We took it easy all days, but of course when you have two active culturally minded people visiting a city, a lot happened. To get behind the façade I had asked one of my students, David Popa, to tell me where I could find some good street art, and he pointed me to the Bushwick direction (Brooklyn). On the way we went to check the monoculture (as our host Tracie called it) of the hipsters in the central areas for the new upper class lifestyle, but soon we were already close to the central places for the murals. The house of the Bushwick Collective, at the corner of Troutman St. and St. Nicholas Avenue, was all painted – and so were the streets and the buildings around it. I have never seen the famous Mexican and South American murals, so at least for me this was the top of street art so far (take a look at pic 3). I wonder what the speciality was, but maybe it was just the combination of the technique, the poppish style and the size of the paintings which touched me. We finished with two truly delicious Neapolitan pizzas just in the neighboring building (Union Pizza Works).

 

As two friends of Americana we also traveled to the end of Brooklyn to see Coney Island. I had been dreaming to find there the ruins of the fake-Venetian canal system which the amusement park had in the early 20th Century, but it turned out that there were no remarkable remains of it around anymore. What I did enjoy was the trash food, more than anything else Nathan’s Hot Dog (pic 4). The place is famous for its eating competition which has been organized since 1916. How great that Americans are proud of their trash food! We would need the same in Europe, but the classical highbrow system in food (mainly a bad influence from the French) has been grabbing popular food by the nuts for centuries.

 

We saw some institutionalized highbrow too, of course. One day we went to the Whitney Museum, and took a look at the museum’s collections and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Luckily Will Rawls (pic 8), who I spent some quality time together with in Latvia two years ago in a boot camp for dance writers, was performing with a fun piece about a performance which did not exist. We made it in in the last minute, but got hooked on the act immediately. First we all agreed that we were talking about a performance ‘we had seen’, and then we discussed it. People did not parody art talk, at least not in the performance where we were at (Will had a series of them). We actually created together a vision of a performance, a visual mindset of what we had seen (including goats). I still have my visual memories, although we just discussed it.

 

Otherwise, the Whitney was quite much into commenting on politics. There were a lot of Trump commentaries. Some of them I felt to be aggressively middle class, portraying the working class right-wing in a disturbing way. But some of the new political work, less ‘trumpified’, was also presented. There were some absolutely great dance videos by Maya Stovall. The Liqueur Store Theatre was a set of films were dancers were dancing in poor, badly treated neighborhoods of Detroit, outside of liqueur stores. Locals were interviewed (some of them were in a pretty bad shape), and although I often react to this kind of works as class-tripping or class-pornography, for some reason here I just felt that both the neighborhoods and the people were given dignity. How and why? This is a question I spent a lot of time thinking about. We often use a lot of energy on explaining why a work had it or did not have it, and then there are always people experiencing it differently. This is not to say that some works would not be abusing people or the other way around. The work just made me think that I am often not that sure why I react the way I do. It is very very subtle what feels good and what feels bad in this respect. It was anyway beautiful to see Stovall and her group moving and spending somatic time outside of the uncanny liqueur stores, in areas which the raw capitalist system had abandoned. I nearly cried. After the biennial - and the permanent collections - we had a beer with Riikka's sociological colleague, Pia Jallinoja and her husband Jari. What a pleasant intellectual end for a highbrow day in New York! And I never mind meeting other Finns abroad.

 

One day we went to do the Hush, the hip hop history tour. It was the heritage experience of my life. I love rap music and it has had a central role in my cultural self-formation. Here we had Reggie Reg from the Crash Crew taking us – rapping half the way – through Harlem to Bronx, were the culture originated. We saw the place were Kool Herc held the first breakbeat party (see pics 2 & 11) and we saw the most classical graffiti and hip hop sites, like the Graffiti Wall of Fame (pic 10).

 

The tour was well planned and it was interesting to see how people from all over the world and from all ethnic groups – it was not just a white middle class trip – had joined to study the heritage. The bus stopped in a dozen of places, including Malcolm X’s mosque and the Apollo theatre, before it hit the historical sites. Sedgwick Avenue is already in the process of becoming Hip Hop Avenue, so I suppose this kind of heritage thinking is getting stronger. In the Museum of the City of New York we met a break dancer and in the end we all had to perform something: I rapped a couple of sentences (there was an open mic), and I have to warn everybody and say that on this tour you have to participate (Riikka had to dance). I really mean to PARTICIPATE, not the lame ‘who do you think lives in that cabin in that painting?’ type of activation which I am used to. Here you had to study the whole culture by trying it out. Once in a while Reg asked us: "Was you on a Hush tour?" When he got his "Yes", he continued: "Who won the Amateur Night of the Apollo theatre in 1934?" (Answer: Ella Fitzgerald.) And so on.

 

The South Bronx neighborhood was nice, and as one can guess, the huge rental buildings of South Bronx (which look like the towers in the Wire, pic 1) were hotbeds of laidback culture – although one morning when we were enjoying our breakfast at the Dunking Donuts close to the underground, we also saw the Police chasing men who were trying to beat up someone. Close to our quarters we also had the Ghetto Film School, but we had no opportunity to get into this institution, which has featured teachers like Spike Jonze and Jim Jarmusch spending time with ghetto kids - and of course the area is not anymore that much of a ghetto. It was anyway interesting to see the corners where it was situated, and how they were now slowly becoming a satellite area for Manhattan.

 

The last full day in the US was reserved for getting out from New York, into the ‘real America’. To make Americana perfect we took the Greyhound (like all poor protagonists of American movies) and headed to Philadelphia (Pennsylvania).

 

I didn’t leave many central memories to the city although I stayed there for one term, but I felt a good vibe about it, especially the food in Chinatown and some of the Italian-Greek restaurants, which mixed Mediterranean cuisines in a bold way. We hit first the Reading Terminal Market (now better than 2002), bought some Amish cheese and headed then to one of my all time favorite restaurants, Joy Tsin Lau (pics 6 & 12) in Chinatown: the dim sum there is just psychedelic - too good to be true.

 

We had no Philadelphia cheesesteak this time, but we were lucky that Keri Knowles, media artist and nowadays also a restaurant entrepreneur had time for us. Keri, who I have known for 11 years, studied in Philly like me, but a longer period, although at the time – we lived for a moment in the same city – we did not know each other. She was our residence artist for six months in Pori (Western Finland) when the Visual Culture MA program was still situated there in 2006 (this has later become ViCCA). Keri took us around in Philadelphia with her car, and then we headed to New Jersey, through the New Jersey Turnpike made famous by Bruce Springsteen! It was incredible to drive around in West Orange NJ and to take a look at the upper class houses and the beautiful restaurants – some of them managed these days by Keri. From the 911 memorial you could see New York like a distant mountain. A sight resonating well with German idealism! Damn what a joyful 5 days of philosophical Americana! America, you are rogue state and an international bully, but I'd rather live in a world dominated by you than by Russia or China, and I love your culture, without even mentioning how many great friends I have there. I hope you survive your hard years with Trump! I seem to visit you only when you have an unpopular president (last time it was George Bush Jr).

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