Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Façade Beneath The Façade


They are real friendly at Grove Street News. They’re from Pakistan. I used to buy my cigarettes there. It’s a convenience store, sells a fine line of beverages and snack items and a hodgepodge of other items, like umbrellas and head phones and perfume. There is often a line at the lottery machine, but only one or two deep usually.

A local who knows everything and everyone saw me taking pictures. I didn’t see the clawing off of the façade, I thought there had been a fire. The building dates to 1840, he said.

“He’s putting in a whole new façade. They covered up the original façade with alumni sheeting. He’s going to recreate the original facade.”


The original overhang looked rotted, was there some fire or other calamity that caused such damage, such decay? Downtown is getting all SoHo  -- there’s chain frozen yogurt shop is due to open next door – and construction projects are all 21st century, sleek and chic, even when cozy. But there was a time and one not so long ago, within the lifetimes and everyone reading this now, where we were inner-city and developers had no interested in rebuilding. An overhang of a façade is damaged, why replace and repair – just cover up with materials that are cheap and safe and utterly lacking in aesthetic appeal. Of course, that lack soon becomes part of the charm of the place, but that charm is only apparent after you call the place home. Home is the place that you have gotten used to and that has gotten used to you.

But what was underneath is more than just protruding debris.  Ornate, design details, emblematic of the rise of American urban life, a gilded age belief that frills and decoration enhanced quality of life.

“Look at those details,” he said pointing to the newly revealed façade. “You see that kind of work up and down Newark Avenue. It’s been covered up all these years.”

“The city was putting pressure on the owner of the building.”

“Safety violations here and there. They persuaded him. This building was holding down the block. But the owner got some of pictures of the original building from the New Jersey Historic Room at the Public Library. He’s going to recreate the original façade, he’s going to bring back those original details.”

“I go back to the 1960s here and it was always a newsstand type store, but originally it was a bar, a tavern.”

A pre-prohibition bar?

“Certainly pre-prohibition, I guess it was too out in the open to become a speakeasy.”

We looked at the newly exposed overhand, the decayed shards in between the geometric filigrees, and all evidence of not just the past, but different phases of a city’s history… just beneath the surface connecting now to the previous forever.  
Notice the covered overhang on the  façade facing Grove Steet in the above picture, the next day that façade was removed, uncovering what we see now, below.

We looked at the newly exposed overhand, the decayed shards in between the geometric filigrees, and all evidence of not just the past, but different phases of a city’s history… just beneath the surface connecting now to the previous forever.  


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Kayt Hester: Summer & the Magicada

The most anticipated August art event in Jersey City is the annual summer solo-show by Kayt Hester, one of the most original artists to emerge out of the Jersey City art scene.  Kayt was one of the first Dislocations about Jersey City Art, and three years ago played with perceptions with a clever window exhibition.

Group shows and solo gallery exhibitions feature Hester’s distinctive tape-creations throughout the year, earning her a following that now includes New York City and Philadelphia, but for her hometown crowd, summer cannot conclude in New Jersey’s 2nd largest city – which possesses one of the fastest growing communities of artists in the United States – until Hester showcases her latest creations.

 The 17 Year Cicada – New Art Work by Kayt Hester – opened August 24th at Port- O Lounge, one of the handful of downtown Jersey City restaurants/art galleries that, by presenting to new audiences, up& coming and established local artists, are transforming the New York Metropolitan area Art World. As the title of the exhibition suggests, this edition of the yearly Hester Summer Showcase coalesces around the theme of Magicada Cicadas – the species of cicadas that only appear every 17 years.
Dozens of friends, followers and denizens of the downtown scene made their appearances to connect with Kayt, and see her latest iterations, which ranged from near obsessive explorations of the magicada to young woman, clad in weather-appropriate garments, sometimes wistful, sometimes playful.

The 17 Year Cicada, a Sirelo Entertainment curated production and her first exhibition at the Port-O Lounge gallery, includes a selection of art suggesting  summer scenarios – a scantily clad Kate Moss (a doppelganger study of the super-model that requires double canvases); – but the bulk of the show features Magicada-inspired images – from detailed portraits of the famed summer flying insect to more subtle portrayals: a woman enjoying a cup of tea against a web-like background that, gradually to the viewer, becomes apparent, is a Magicada wing.

Cicadas, with their bulbous-shaped heads and translucent wings, emit an eerie techno-like drone – in reality, the mating call of male cicadas – and like ice-cold lemonade, sweltering humidity, and driving down the shore, these seasonal sonics instantly signify summer. “I love summer, it’s my favorite season,” admits the artist. “I love the hot weather, the sounds and taste and feel of summer. I love fresh fruits and vegetables. I love working in my garden. The sound of cicadas are summer, you hear their sound and you know it’s summer. You only hear and see them during the summer. I loved summer as a kid and everything about summer reminds me of when I was a child.”

Hester grew up in Flemington, a town located in a semi-rural stretch of central Jersey near the Pennsylvania border and such bucolic enclaves as New Hope and Yardley. When summer arrived in these hills and forests in all her glory, like nature’s own symphony, the mating call of cicadas echoed. Hester has a particularly vivid memory of a childhood summer, when, like now in 2013, the Magicadas once again materialized after their more than decade and a half gestation.

“They seemed to swarm and they were loud too, it was almost scary,” she remembers. “And then they were dead, but their shells were everywhere, like hatched eggs. I remember some kids collected the cicada shells, kept them in big jars. They looked different than the usual cicadas.”

Late in the spring, when the news media reminded everyone about the 2013 return of the Magicada, a flood of childhood summer memories made the artist realize she had discovered a fresh muse. “The cicadas that are babies this year, the next time we see them they’re going to be old enough to drive.”


The 17 Year Cicada, a self-curated production and her first exhibition at the Port-O Lounge gallery, includes a selection of art suggesting summer scenarios – a woman in a 50s-style 2-piece, floral-print bathing suit; a scantily clad Kate Moss (a doppelganger study of the super-model that requires double canvases); men playing chess on the hood of a car – but the bulk of the show features Magicada-inspired images – from detailed portraits of the famed summer flying insect to more subtle portrayals: a woman enjoying a cup of tea against a web-like background that, gradually to the viewer, becomes apparent, is a Magicada wing.

While a gigantic insect wing juxtaposed behind an otherwise unadorned domestic scene is a surrealistic touch Hester can be prone to, for the most part her depictions are realistic – direct and honest, playful yet moving. At first glance, her stark, expressive lines appear to be thick black ink on white. But the reality is she works in black tape. Her art is also a craft, as akin to sculpture as it is to sketching. Her one-of-a kind pictures combine photo-realism with collage.

Each hand-crafted piece is the result of a labor-intensive process. Hester delicately tears tape into the details she envisions, meticulously accumulating by layer upon layer, the shards and fragments onto the canvas, until the image she desires is formed. Afterwards, she coats the surface with a varnish that permanently protects the picture. Earlier in the summer, when she began hearing about the 17-year return of the Magicada and pondering the themes of youth, bygone days and the passage of time they inspired, the cicada imagery started possessing her mind. Beginning in June and well into August – “and up to the very last minute,” she confesses – Hester created a series of Cicada pictures. “They’ve totally captured my imagination. Cicadas are beautiful and weird and can have so much meaning.”

Her more recent work also expands her use of texture and color. Augmenting her black masking tape are new, extraordinary details made of brightly colored, metallic tape. She also has incorporated embroidery to canvases, essentially embedding 21st century needlepoint within her tape illustrations. This mix of materials indicates a new direction for Hester, now embarked on a particularly productive career phase. “I’m very inspired right now, experimenting with new mediums. The ideas are coming very fast and I’m very excited to show these new pictures.”

She adds, “Ironically, while the 17-year cicadas are everywhere in the northeast, they are not really appearing in urban areas like Jersey City. I feel like I’m bringing to Jersey City the Magicadas we’re missing.”






The 17 Year Cicada – New Art Work by Kayt Hester opens August 24 at Port-O-Lounge in Jersey City  runs August 24th – October 11th. The exhibition is a featured stop for the September 6th JC Fridays, Jersey City’s quarterly celebration of art and artists, and the Jersey City Artist Tour, October 4-5, the annual city-wide art and cultural festival


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Feast: 2013 Random Glimpses


The Rice Balls at La Festa Italiana are phenomenal. I sometimes say I started this blog just to write this specific blog.
Those with discerning eyes with an eye for detail and a mind for memory noticed a lineup of new fryers for the Rice Balls. Last year’s record breaking number of rice balls sold broke the fryers. “They shorted out,” one of the rice ball women told me. “We keep one as a spare, which we had to break out on Friday and Saturday Night. We were so busy.”
The Rice Balls were great again this year at “The Feast” – the community bacchanal where Jersey City celebrates Italian American food and culture as well as the turning of mid summer to late summer.


Kind of a Drag. It’s song by Chicago, a sort of white-soul, horn heavy pop band that had a bunch of hits when I was growing up that I was of course way too cool to appreciate, or least admit to liking. I would turn the dial when it came on the radio, whether it was Cousin Brucie or Scott Muni. One of the many human juke boxes to perform a range of familiar songs during the hot summer nights pulled the song out of their archive.
I was drinking a wine and peaches and singing along with the gang at the wine and peaches and lemencello booth, when I realized I would never have sung along when this song was popular, yet I knew every lyric and sung along with glee, wallowing in the nostalgia and community that is this annual event in Jersey City.

I’ve written about it a few times and really wonder what there is to say about it. The food is awesome, and you see just about everybody you know in town when you go. The Feast has been on a roll in the last few years, attendance and revenues grow each summer. There’s more people in town, social media efforts are showing positive results. This year, judging from the packed street and the revenues – the big 50/50 drawing was more than $12,000, higher than last year’s by several thousand. By Sunday they even ran out of lemoncello.
The Feast accomplishes something the other events in town do not quite achieve. It cuts across the board. Yes, it is a celebration of everything Italian but the “millennials” the Gen X/Y hipsters, the artist types newer to town attend in droves along side the born and breders, baby boomer and older Jersey City – ites; Few events draw from all these various pools. Our city is culturally diverse, and no group holds a dominant position, either by age or by ethnicity. Multiculturalism – by age, race or creed – is liberating. Widely sharing tolerance enriches us all, but it can be disparate. All these clubs get along but they mostly travel in separate orbits. We’re more often than not, segmented, by choice, happenstance and custom.
But La Festa Italiana draws everybody. I met just about everybody I know in town there at the Feast, some folks I haven’t seen for years. Social segmentation seems an irrecoverable outgrowth of identity. Suddenly – at least it seems so – summer starts drawing to her end – and everybody migrates to Sixth Street to hang out, eat, drink, gab and dance. We all have more than one identity – we share different parts of our self with different people, depending on what the situation merits – and the segmented group (I’m a hipster, I’m Spanish) we identify with is just one of those exteriors that the world knows us by and that we show to the world. We’re all human, that’s what bonds us. But in-between our census board classification and the ultimate bond of species, there is place. We all have Jersey City in common. We all like living here – and if you’re like me, you’re not entirely sure why – but it is here that we feel most comfortable. I can think of a dozen or so gripes I have about this little piece of America and New Jersey.  You got your list and I got mine. Yet, here we are because whatever the gripes, our reasons to stay, even if those reasons elude articulation, are far more compelling. So, in August we share our sense of place with each other on Sixth Street. Whether an acquired taste or something you were born to, here we live and that fact alone melts many a barrier away.
Somehow The Feast connects with that shared feeling of place. Maybe it’s been here so long – 110 years in 2013! – growing organically from a group of immigrants in a city of immigrants into an annual event attracting citizens citywide. Then as the second and third generation of those immigrants experience the diaspora, casting them hither and yon from J.C., those offspring return to Sixth Street. Is it the Italian thing – it is the best food after all – or is that Italian-American culture has made its most lingering imprint on the New Jersey culture we all share? It’s no accident that the Sopranos was set in New Jersey or that the state has more pizzerias per capita than any other state in the union (I totally made that up.)
The Italian Feast remains almost completely free of commercialism, and even though most of the food vendors are local, the quality of the cuisine is as professional as it gets. Foodie delight, local, freshly made. The Sausage, Broccoli and Cavetti at Deliano was insanely great and the broccoli rabe, at the Mozz Boss, with garlic and oil was the best I ever had. You get your money’s worth. The food is authentic – it is the same your Italian grandmother made and if you happened not have one it is the same you remember from when you ate over your Italian friend’s home. And if you grew up in New Jersey, you had one of those.
The authenticity of the food is not the only reason wny this feast is embraced by multiple generations. Regardless of your own heritage, Italian-American culture dominates New Jersey culture like no other single influence. At the Feast, you get that culture in its most unadulterated form. Not Italian culture. No. Italian-American culture, like all immigrant groups, is a new heritage, forged with equal parts of the old and new world, redefined by each ensuing generation. That special hybrid flourished in New Jersey and is something all of us if not fully identify with, certainly recognize and appreciate. That’s my hypothesis as to why The Feast has remained, gets more popular, and attracts people from across the spectrum. Authenticity… unadulterated… quintessentially New Jersey.
What are you gonna do? We’re here. We made it through another year. How you doing? Good to see you too, what are you eating? What have you tried tonight?

The Feast of Saint Rocco mass concluded with a procession, the Red Mike Festival Band played Italian songs. Of course, my reference point is The Godfather – the band even has a cameo in III – but as Jersey City tradition dictates, when the procession concludes in the back area of the church, where pastry and coffee is served, and the statue is brought in, the band plays the theme from Rocky.

Everyone relaxed, talking to the band – they played a Lady Gaga song they were working on. “This is our big season, the festival season. We always play Holy Rosary. We’ve been playing a lot of funerals in China Town. We’ve been learning a lot of protestant hymns.”

“Do you know Speak Softly Love?”

The very idea they wouldn’t know it was so preposterous the band laughed at the suggestion. It’s his big solo said one of the members, pointing to the trumpet player. You may know Speak Softly Love by its more mainstream name – the Theme of the Godfather.

Isn’t this sort of cliché, Godfather songs at the Italian festivals? Do not get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite films and was the first R rated film I saw in a theater. I’m old enough to remember some italian-americans resenting the stereotype it seemed to promote, all Italians as part of the mafia. By the time of the Sopranos everyone made peace with the cliché.

“This always makes me cry,” said the woman who made the request.

The Godfather’s theme song?

“Yes, I used to watch this movie with my parents all the time.”

For good measure, the band then played I Have But One Heart, the song Johnny Fontaine sings at Connie’s wedding. Listening to the Red Mike Festival Band jamming on Italian esoteric a in the back courtyard of Holy Rosary Church on a sunny August Afternoon, now that indeed is something only happening in Jersey City.




To fully appreciate “The Feast,” you really should avail yourself of some of the heart-felt, often moving religious activities related to the four day street fair. These services include a novena – a 9-day seriesof special masses and prayers – and longer vigil masses for Our Lady of the Assumption, a feast day, holy day of obligation service and a mass for the Feast of Saint Rocco. This year, the Saint Rocco mass featured a relic of the Saint, which was venerated after the the mass but before the procession.

 Each of these longer masses is followed by a procession through the street. This same routine has been enacted every year for more than a century. You hear sniffles during the masses, especially when the familiar Italian hymns echoed from the church’s organ – they have that aural encompassment this sacred music tends to generate but also a kind of calliope sound too – mournful yet life affirming at the same time.  People hear this, they remember their parents or grand parents no longer with us, they remember coming to the feast as a kid – some of their earliest memories – and this event has crossed so many generations that it’s pretty easy to think of those memories connecting with the memories of those no longer here. This Jersey City Feast brings many feedings of memory and community to the surface.  The Feast is also about the Feast. Every year you connect with the Feast of every year before, and all the Feasts yet to come. This block of Sixth street, nestled between the railroad trestles known as the embankment and the cluster of church buildings that make up the entire block seems to stretch far into the future, and far into the past. You return to The Feast and so do they.  





Blue and White are the colors of Our Lady of the Assumption. Each ballon has the name of a parishinor who has past away, and since they are a parishinor of Holy Rosary, they attended The Feast each year. After the feast day mass, the ballons are released.


The New Mayor Steve Fullop came by to recognize the committee that made the 2013 La Festa Itiliana Possible.


The Feast was so crowded that by Sunday Night, the Lemoncello ran out.