Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hudson Camera Memories

The picture of Boyd Gaston is tacked on the side of a shelf, near the doorway to the back room of Hudson Camera. He looks a nice guy, Jersey City guy. He was an amateur photographer, camera buff although Pete, sounding like the life long Jersey City shop owner he has been his entire life (he was born in 1950), called him a PATH guy. He took the PATH every day to work, which was at the World Trade Center. He would buy his photo supplies there but nearly every day, he would come in, after the PATH took him back to Grove Street, on his way home and smoke a cigarette and talk with Pete.

“Talk with you about camera stuff?” I asked.

“No, life,” Pete replied. “We mostly talked about life and Jersey city.”

After 9-11, Boyd stopped showing up. He was among the missing. Several months later, his family, having gone through his belongings brought in this picture for the store and Pete tacked it up, not some kind of memorial, just a remembrance – aren’t all photographs a record of a moment, a document that a memory exists? – of this customer, this PATH guy. He just likes thinking about him sometimes.

Pete is closing Hudson Camera. His father opened the store in the 1940s; Pete, who was born in 1950, has run the store since the mid-1960s. I wasn’t as surprised when I read the article in the Jersey City Reporter that the store was finally shutting down for good as I was that he stayed open this long.

They way I heard the Boyd story also has to do with 9-11 and Hudson Camera. On 9-11, I took pictures with an old Minolta – 2001, digital photography was still in its infancy and film was still a good business – I had purchased the Minolta in the 90s from Hudson Camera because I needed a good camera for some gigs as a freelance writer. On 9-11, I got a new battery and some rolls of color film and took pictures, like anybody with a camera in town did. Exchange Place was the major staging point for the recovery and rescue effort. The day of the attacks, phones, ATMs, credit card machines, were not functioning. Pete took people on their word so they could document that dreadful day.

“We wrote out dozens of credit card slips without scanning any of the cards. When the phone lines came back on, there was one card that was declined and I called the person, who came in the next day. There was a journalist from Taiwan who just happened to be here on 9-11, he bought $600 worth of film. I remember he came back a year later to thank me for basically trusting him.”

Here is a link to some pictures I took on 9-11. Here is a link to some 9-11 black and white pictures; I kept this roll of film that camera for an entire decade; on the anniversary of 9-11 I got it developed. This has made me the last person to get Black & White film developed at Hudson Camera. I am proud of this distinction.

Pete has probably seen more pictures of the World Trade Center than anyone else. It was still before every camera had a phone. Everybody was taking pictures and getting them developed there, “not only that,” he told me, “everybody went through their old pictures looking for the World Trade Center.”

For months, the majority of the pictures he processed were of either of the Twin Towers, or the destruction of those buildings and its local aftermath. Thousands of pictures of the major historical turning point for America; inundated just doesn’t seem to do that experience justice.

Stephan Schulz, a buddy of mine, amateur photographer and Hudson Camera customer, ran down to exchange place that morning and got one of the most dramatic pictures of the incident taken. Remember that fire departments from throughout New Jersey came to Exchange Place, where they were ferried across the Hudson to help dig through the pile. Hudson Camera reproduced thousands of prints of these pictures, gave them to everybody who asked, word got around among the workers.

On the wall behind the counter are the long empty racks for film rolls. A young woman came in with a roll of film hoping to get it developed. Pete had to inform her he was no longer taking film. She was sad to hear the news. Pete reassured her than in he was planning to open a custom framing shop nearby, and would still process film. But that wouldn’t be for about a month. She wondered where else she could get film developed.

He had switched to selling mainly frames and the shelves are getting near bare. Hudson Camera is open until the ides of March, selling off the rest of the inventory at steep discounts.

I went into the backroom, dozens of cameras and various photography apocrypha, piled on shelves and counter tops, in boxes. The backroom was a workshop, for camera repairs and custom framing. Camera repair and reconditioning had been part of the business and in fact, my famed Minolta was a reconditioned model.

Why so many old cameras?

“I keep them for screws,” he explained.

“Film cameras may not have appreciated in value, but they did not depreciate. You bought a film camera and had it for a few years, you cold still get a pretty good price for it. There was a trade in value and they were repairable. With digital cameras, you just get a new one, the technology keeps getting better.

There was no organizational methodology to the chaos – it looks as if a camera museum was at the epicenter of an earthquake – but the reality was this was the storage and backroom area of a niche store in business for decades. The backroom – I had not seen it before I took these pictures – is the accumulation of all the flotsam and miscellany of film photography, a way of picture making that is now almost entirely gone

He points to a wall of camera charges, the edges of the packages yellow with age. “With film cameras, you keep supplies to service cameras you’ve sold over the years ,with digital cameras they change so fast everything is obsolete in six months

I tried to get some memories of the city, the rise and fall, but he felt the urban blight mythos that spurs gentrification seemed false to someone who has spent his life in Downtown Jersey City. “There was always a core of people in Jersey City that didn’t leaveLike book stores and record stores and other retail establishments unable to resist the changes in technology, Camera shops are fast filling up the dustbin of history. Nonetheless, any Jersey City retailer has it tough. New York is so quickly accessible and such a large proportion of our population works there, every store here competes with some of the best stores in the world. The 3 percent sales tax is an insufficient incentive to spend more of your disposable income here.

Camera stores have closed in N.Y. as well, the few holding on are large independents who mainly target professional photographers and their more exclusive and expensive equipment. Hudson Camera’s business was essentially in cambers, camera supplies, film and picture frames. The digital revolution eliminated film processing, changed the supplies that needed to be inventoried and altered consumer picture tastes so that prints (and framing those printed photographs) is now a retro novelty. There are probably more pictures being taken every day than in the heyday of the film world, but they’re being shared and distributed electronically.

These trends did not happen over night, but their pace accelerated post 9-11, and when combined with the downturn in the economy that began at the beginning of Bush’s second term, business finally became too rocky to weather. “I’ve seen bad economies, but this is the worse because the things have been bad for a long time, things have been bad before, we’ve had ups and downs, but this is the longest that things have been bad

He owns the building and is leasing out the Hudson Camera space to a bar. The nay-sayers may be right, we are getting just like Hoboken: more bars and no camera stores

Some solace can be taken however. “I will be making more money renting the space out for a bar than by running a store in the space.”

About 18 months ago, it looked like Hudson Camera had closed, I wrote this blog.

But it was a mere blip, and soon reopened. I wrote this blog.

This time, history will not repeat.

According to Stephan Schulz, an amateur photographer, friend of Pete’s and regular Hudson Camera customer, he went to Hudson Camera minutes after the first plane crashed into the WTC, Pete “virtually threw the film at me.” Thousands of copies of this photograph by Stephan, Pete gave away for free, mainly to all the rescue workers who came to town to help with the recovery effort across the river.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dream Stasis

Reignite Regenerate Renew says the sign, metal, bent, broken off its post and laying on the ground. In the distance another sign, Danger Construction Site. Brush, some of it shoulder high, surrounds a portion of the decaying brick. Some of the large, cathedral like windows has been covered with plywood, painted yellow, mimicking the rendering on the sign still standing, bright and blue, klieg lights, Art Festival on the marquee. We can dream and if we’re going to dream why not dream big – Preserving Jersey City’s Past for Future Generations promises a quote on this sign. Certainly not for the present, construction hasn’t occurred on this site since the sign was put up.

The irony of the scene amuses. Sure, someday why not, only a couple blocks away the Trump Plaza stands, ostentatious and uninspiring named after a particularly unappealing celebrity; may not be the past but something is preserved for future generations. Factories and warehouses, good paying blue collar unionized jobs that are what used to be here now there are signs in empty lots promising retail stores and art festivals, holes in the exterior where bricks have fallen out. Fallow smokestacks, fewer and fewer who remember the actual work that used to be here. Developers dreams and their dreams are now our official and apparently only hope. There’s a fence, a sign, a rendering.., the only thing missing from this construction site is the construction.

Norwegian Gem

Norwegian Cruise Lines sails away. I’m guessing  ever since the tragedy just a little while ago where a cruise ship captain abandoned ship  preceding a fatal shipwreck that cruise ship tickets are at bargain prices. Some people just like cruises, I’m not one of them but I like seeing the ships. One of the most fun things living in J.C. and taking walk down along the waterfront is when one these huge boats glide by, a voyage ending or beginning, depending on which direction the bow is pointing. Instant surrealism the juxtaposing of the Manhattan skyline and the large ship, thousands of passengers and crewmen, leaving for an adventure even if that adventure consists of lounge music, all you can eat buffets, cash bars, all the glitzy fun you imagine cruises can be but who really knows unless you are there in the moment. On the docks, the Jersey Side, you wave and imagine some friendly stranger waving back, a mutual wishing of safe passage. You think about them looking the statue of liberty from the deck of the ship, reenacting the penultimate American immigrant experience. I wish them Bon Voyage. Watch out for Ice Bergs.
 Quick Wiki facts:
Norwegian Gem is a Jewel class cruise ship of Norwegian Cruise Line.  Norwegian Gem utilizes the "Freestyle" cruising concept, which allows guest to dine in any number of restaurants, in casual attire, at times of their own choosing.
Length: 965 ft.  
Decks: 15
Passengers: 2384
Crew:   1154

Between Two Trains

I tried to get more information from the NJT worker in charge of this vehicle and the task for which it was designed but while good natured he seemed to be taken back some, who is this guy with a camera interested in trains?  I didn’t get all the details.  It’s a mini water truck; the large plastic container on the truck bed contains water. Two trains were in the station, the vehicle was on the cement platform between the two trains. Cables were attached from the vehicle to both of the trains, and to the same portion of the train, mid-car. On viewing the picture it is apparent that one cable looks like an electric cable, the other “cable” is a water hose. The worker told me he was filling up the bathrooms with water. Both trains were the older models, not the new “blue” NJT trains, but reconditioned cars from Metro-North. I surmise that the cables were using electricity from one train to run the pump used to fill with water the bathroom tanks of the other. The time was morning, just after the rush hour, just another of the dozens of procedures necessary for a mass transit infrastructure to operate.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

State of the (Jersey) City (speech)

“Jersey City is a leader in the State of New Jersey on nearly every front, whether it be in public safety, economic development, sustainability, the arts, or entertainment.”
Mayor Jerramiah Healy

State of the City speech … a good speaker, the Mayor, who highlighted many accomplishments including an impressive amount of green initiatives. He seems justified in taking credit for J.C. not laying off any police officers or creating several youth (or as his J.C. accent tended to say, “youft” as in Paftmark) programs or filling in 92 pot holes. The council room was filled to standing room only capacity. Many in attendance were city employees, such as the woman near me, who told me she worked there, meaning city hall. She loudly applauded at the conclusion of the speech then declared “now I can go home.”
The speech is worth reading not for its rhetorical flourishes (which were mainly absent) but how it highlights lots of local stuff you probably don’t know about. I know I didn’t. If this link doesn’t work just google.
Politics… America… this year there’s the presidential election, next year Healy is going to run for reelection and his main opponent is Councilman Steve Fullop. Everybody expects a mud fight and judging by the nasty comments about the Mayor Fullop supporters are prone to making and the fact that Healy is a seasoned, experienced politician well adept at battle in muck and mire, expectations will be filled well passed flowing. Forget about the brim; we’ll be knee deep before we know it. This speech is one of the last hurdle-free victory laps our oft beleaguered Mayor can take.
What role will our city politics play in affecting the national and state situations? I guess by definition, a State of the City speech must be myopic, so as a means to gauge larger implications it is quite inadequate.
Low voter turn out, in large part due to a sting operation on bribe taking politicians, resulted in the election of that disgrace in Trenton, Republican superstar, Christie. Obama’s second term is not assured, progressives feel short changed on change and the Republicans are in a frenzy with a panel of scary crazy candidates the likes of which I have never seen (Gingrich, really?).
We live in polarized times. I believe in America, I believe in Justice, Godfather. I believe that the Democratic Party is our only political hope and the reliable stalwarts of the New Deal dream were, for better or worse, city political machines, unions and voter turn out. The 99 percent of yester year made FDR’s policy and the hope they embodied a reality, imperfect at best and in the scheme of history, sadly short lived.
 In New Jersey, the Dems are in disarray after the debacle that was Corzine. What Democrat will run against Christie – who is now a celebrity, you can’t deny he has attained that status even if you like me find it offensive; proudly overweight, arrogant, and anti-intellectual, it’s as if the inner, aging frat boy of the Republican party has come to life – or for that matter, what N.J. DEM replace Lautenberg, who is a great Senator but is now about 120 years old. I wasn’t looking for hope at the State of the City, and I didn’t find it. I felt better about thinking locally but was disappointed when I thought globally.
The most enthusiastic applause came for the paving of Christopher Columbus, which is sadly telling about our true residential priorities. Development and construction defines any aspirational hope in the local economy so all sorts of new projects, mainly residential, were cited. Goya Beans was a standout – best damned can of beans at C-Town! – They’re moving their plant here and promise 500 permanent jobs. There’s talk of a re-industrialization of America, and maybe a new cannery in our fair city can be taken as an early harbinger of such a dream becoming true.
Mayor Healy spoke of Jersey City becoming a World Class city. World Class is such a way overused phrase that one must wonder what does it really mean. I’m not exactly sure how a city which is world class should be defined but I suspect a World Class city is not one with only one museum and that museum is closed down, ownership of its collection in doubt and has been sold; or a city whose one live entertainment facility, a beautiful but only partially restored former movie palace, is closed every summer, holds one, maybe two events a month the rest of the year and is still waiting for seats in the balcony. Well, he did talk about the live music ordinance (New Orleans – J.C. has a fee structure for licensing in place – watch out!).  Maybe I love Jersey City because it can never be World Class; but our leaders think it can be, in spite of themselves, their priorities and the facts of circumstance. Hope springs eternal, or least the espousing of such hope with such sound good phrases as World Class. Who would truely want to be World Class anyway, have you seen the world lately?
The Mayor, who seems like a good guy, is focused on keeping his position. Unlike Schundler, he seems uninterested in taking his act on the road to the hinterlands to fulfill grander ambitions. Healy doesn’t seem to have an appeal beyond Hudson County; he is too much of here.
Everybody takes it (wrongly I believe) for granted JC/NJ will vote blue come November, so why talk more broadly about Democratic ideals? This speech was not the place for that. Healy cited environmental issues, anti crime initiatives and public/private partnerships that have spurred economic development that are essentially progressive solutions to specific issues, which can be take as separate components of our needed paradigm shift even though they fall short of being the shift. Still…
Most people prefer to complain than act. J.C. artists here are justified in claiming that City Hall is not as artist friendly as it should be, and yet the representatives of those constituencies  were nowhere to be seen at City Hall to hear the state-of-the-city speech. Other one-issue constituencies, like anti-crime activists, school officials, fire fighters were in abundance. I’m an observer, not an activist. Just saying, it’s easy to whine, to bitch and moan or make clever sarcastic remarks about the way things are politically. Political change and involvement in quality of life issues, especially on the managerial level of a city, is not just about rhetoric (although that is important), it is about enduring tedium and assessing details then making decisions so change and the infrastructure necessary to support that change can occur. If the artists want more city hall support, might want to consider making yourselves better integrated into the structure of government beyond the random council meeting when your issue is being debated.  
Dismiss all politicians as corrupt, but if you want change and don’t become involved, than how much intellectual integrity is contained in your dismissal.  I do not like his Jersey Shore decision, but it is not an impeachable offense, and those opposing the spin off filming did not feel the need to make their presence known at this space at this time, the first public appearance by his honor since he did what Hoboken would not.
Healy comes across as smart, competent and someone who genuinely cares about our city and its people. I have no reason to believe that impression is false. Is that enough to vote for him next year, well you can decide that for yourself in the voting booth and your decision will likely be based on everything that happens from now until then. I’m not a prognosticator, my sole prediction (and recommendation) is that the sky will remain above the ground.
The 2013 Mayoral election occurs six months after what (right now) I hope is the re-election of President Obama. The segment of the population that will (most likely) determine the winner in the national election is the same constituency that will be just as decisive in our local race, the Gen Yers, aka, millennials (I abhor that term). In J.C., the hundreds (maybe thousands) of new residents mainly fall into that bracket – folks well under 40, the majority of whom live in Downtown, Fullop’s ward.
They may not be enough to make any candidate a sure thing by themselves, but they will be the group most likely to mean the difference. The closer those vote tallies are, the bigger difference they will make. If other candidates run, which the official media prognosticators predict will occur, votes will be siphoned off, and the chasam between Fullop and Healy becomes exceedingly narrow. Those young (mostly white)  people in Downtown – the very voting block who were barely represented in the audience at the State of the City speech – will be the makers of the next king of our would be world class fiefdom. In 2008, this population has been credited for getting the first African American in the white house and compared to Gen X or Baby Boomers: they have a much higher voter turn out percentagewise. Yet, in 2009, many of these young jerysities (including Hudson County) and Obama supporters, stayed home on Election Day. Their unwillingness to make an effort and vote Corzine gave us Christie. In 2010, nationwide, they also stayed home and we got a tea party congress. So following this admittedly weak analysis, whether they vote or not vote, Gen Y determines our political future, nationally and locally.

As with other complex issues, this too was not addressed in the State of the City speech

Monday, February 13, 2012

Snow Peas

Drivers passing the time at local a Chinese take out restaurant removing tips and stems from snow peas. They’re waiting for take out orders that they’ll take to residents. The more orders for pick up, the more snow peas that will be ready for stir fry or steaming.

Familiar Face, Fenced In

 He’s a familiar face you see around town. One of our local street artists uses this floating visage, discombobulated eyes, nose and lips, as a tag to several buildings and unusual exteriors but this is probably the most unusual, not to mention, inspired and clever. Not only does the visage float here, which is on Newark Avenue west of Monmouth, a 3-D effect is simulated: the eyes and brow are on the tarp and the nostrils and lips on the tar sidewalk. This visage doesn’t just float, it seems to undulate.

Whatever was here was torn down months ago and the lot is now a construction site. The Rent-A-Fence fences went up, equipment has been parked behind the fences and workers are here during the week days.

I like the eye. This plastic tarp is on a fence-like temporary barrier which is behind another fence, so not only is the fence fenced in but the entire lot itself is enclosed by a fence. No entry point is visible where the tarp can be easily reached. The street artist had to climb the fence to work on his chosen canvas. Devotion to the street art cause! Sooner or later, construction will progress to the point where both fences are torn down and this face will be gone. We know this art is temporary we just don’t know how temporary so might want to take a look.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Final Farewell of Star Video

 The last video store in downtown will soon be gone. It is on Newark Avenue Star Video

Star Video sign still says they rent DVD-VHS, I didn't ask if VHS rentals were still available I didn't even know the store was opened still, but they are, and just in time for a closing sale that is going on through March 5th amazing it lasted this long, been here for 20 years or so. Lee, the owner, told me he was the 5th owner, "always Vietnamese people." It's next door to a Vietnamese Bodega and across from Miss Saigon, a very good restaurant (I love their summer rolls!). But families are moving away, Lee says a bar will replace the business. "Going to be just like Hoboken."

That's a common concern, as the long hoped for Restaurant Row on Newark more fully takes shape, given a big boost by a bar whose selling point are 80s video games and a recently passed JC ordinance allowing live music in the hoped for bars, with an official licensing fees the bars, I mean, a-hem, cabarets, must pay (although no legislative definition of acceptable audible levels at outdoor concerts seems pending so concert interruptus will again plague summer entertainment). The next Hoboken... bemoaned by some, encouraged by others.
Change is inevitable and like I said, I thought video rental stores were already indeed a thing of the past, but this one hung on, the last one left in a neighborhood that once claimed half a dozen, at least that many in the 90s. Think about that for a moment: there were enough film enthusiasts and glad-to-rent customers to support that many shops all within a half-mile radius. I assume they are still watching movies, and there are (I think) at least a few thousands more residents in downtown than in the 90s. All that business isn't gone –  the stores are, the owners and their employees are gone, those video Clerk jobs and small business investment job opportunities are not coming back –  but people are still watching movies at home but now all the profits go to one monopoly.

I used to belong to two video stores during the height of my rental career, but I was mainly a loyal (never returned a movie late) customer of Video Rent All, a reminiscence of which can be found here.

I wasn't a Star Video customer, it is a little off the beaten path for my typical routine routes, plus it was one of those Video places that emphasized new releases. Most new releases I want to see I see on the big screen, and few are worth seeing twice. Not that I never rented new releases, I did all the time, but I tend to seek out off-beat films, foreign films, independent releases, low budget and obscure as well as classic movies (Video Rent-all had an entire shelf devoted to Humphrey Bogart).

I noticed last month new construction on this block. Development marches on and has now finally trampled our last video rental store.
Going inside was like being transported back in time. It was like a loyal recreation of an actual DVD rental store, except that it was still in business and had been for years, way after all the rest were long gone. I was filled with nostalgia for a way of life –  browsing film titles in a physical, actual space not the cyber efficiency by which we browse online inventories –  that is rarely possible under the New Order.

Racks and racks of DVDs, narrow cases the width of a hard cover Novella. Most of the films were within the last 15 years or so, the titles without any organizing principle, unintended juxtapositions. Did I see that one; if I did was it any good? A mini-eruption of pop culture stream of consciousness occurred; accompanied by random references slipping in and out of grasp at the edges of my memory. I used to love going to the video store to rent a movie... didn't you? remember... remember... stop at the video store, rent a movie, get some take out and a bottle of wine. There was something special about the limited choices of the video rental place. You had to decide if they had something right for that evening –  even it wasn't a date night of sorts, just some alone time –  what would fit in the mood.

Remember that decision making process? Sure, many times you knew exactly what you wanted, if it was a store you were loyal to, a quick call and they would reserve the copy. But other times, it was like what will work, what's best for your current state of mind or the evening that was planned and who was coming over to spend it with you.

VHS was never really a product made for sale, while DVDs can be bought for usually reasonable prices and there is Net Flix, which has every DVD ever made but the spontaneity of the visiting the store, realizing what your mood is and then finding something among the limited but creative choices that will fit the mood is completely lost.

The real rental experience was VHS. Every once in a while I'll be trying to find some obscure flick and do a search on Amazon and see that they still sell a VHS, used, because it has to yet to be revived on disk. Now when we want to find out about the video store experience, we watch Clerks, a document of a bygone era that was not long ago at all but is still gone.

Star Video reminded me of all those special video rental store moments: have you ever seen this? No subtitles tonight, please. Discovering some groovy film that you had no preconceptions of whatsoever. Or going on a film jag, watching a bunch of Woody Allen all weekend, trudging to the video store through the snow. That's all gone now, sure movie nights still happen –  video stores made the movie night at home a reality, before VHS you just had television and commercials to watch –  but you already know what you ordered from Net Flix and regardless of your mood, that's what you will watch on movie night. The film determines your mood instead of the other way around, something about that change makes me long for the past.

But, see, I thought that around the middle of the previous 00 decade –  seems so long ago now –  that video rental experience was already in the dustbin of pop culture history. Seeing the Star Video inventory and getting that blast from the past, was uplifting. The last hold out had still held out. The joyous fact that Star Video lasted this long entirely overwhelmed the anticipated sad reverie about things that I like that are no more.

Independent stores, like Video rental places once flourished in inner cities as well as strip malls. Sure, chains, like Block Busters or Hollywood Knights challenged these entrepreneurs, but the independents had a strong hold on this market. Movie companies catered to them, especially when it was VHS. How did the independents grow? By being knowledgeable about films and knowledgeable about their customers. That knowledge and skill set is no longer relevant in the New Order.

So, somehow progress is one company instead of thousands of business owners and semi-professional film buffs and another piece of spontaneity disappears from our lives. With that spontaneity hasn't another piece of our humanity also been erased?

Like his long gone colleagues, Lee rode out the transition from VHS to DVD, eventually replacing all the tapes with Disk. "We got rid of the VHS, invested in DVDs, then Net Flix killed everything."

He showed me his computer. "Still working, 20 years old, original computer for the store."

He said it still works. It was a pre-windows machine –  MS-DOS –  I could only marvel at this genuine artifact.

He is selling off the inventory –  $5 per disk, 3 for $10 –  through March 5th.
When was the last time you rented a movie?

"I still have customers, I'm still renting. I will rent movies until I close."