Saturday, November 30, 2013

4-Alarm Grove Street Fire

No one needs a reminder of how fleeting life can be, of how security and what you know are illusions, or at least temporary. Your reality and expectations can disappear without notice, less than a second. What you know is gone. Life was one way for you, now it’s another.

We don’t need a reminder that any plan making is potentially futile.

We get that reminder anyway.

Jersey City was a gelid mess on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Residual cold rain and sleet from a Nor’easter that we mostly avoided made for  damp and chilly afternoon. A four alarm fire broke out. I got there about two hours, missed the blaze but the smoke was thick, the acrid stench still on the clothes hours after I got home.

Four Alarm fire, Grove Street. Streets were closed off, you could only get so close. Fire trucks were parked on Newark, which runs perpendicular, and a ladder stretched to the roofs, fire fighters climbed the rungs across the street to the backs of the buildings, the sides not facing Grove.

On Grove,  the hoses were going full-force. Everyone was still serious. Water was everywhere. Hoses were hooked to the fire hydrant, over-flow was streaming from the pumps on the truck, mixing with the cold rain and icy splinters of sleet. The smoke hovered around us like a wad of cotton, commuters walking home slipped their scarves over their mouths. You could taste the smoke.


Three days ago… pizza was being eaten, nails were being manicured… 22 people had homes and beds to sleep in… today, two buildings now rubble… the work went on all Thanksgiving night, Black Friday morning… police just standing guard… “we don’t want people messing with the rubble, it’s dangerous… they come looking for pipes, metal parts, they’re professional scavengers.

So, some firemen and police got some overtime. About eight in the morning, the Boun Appetito awning is on the sidewalk, the Tender Shoots produce bodega proprietors tell me they were working all night putting out the fire.

Come back to town after visiting with Mom for Turkey Day around Six, they’re working still. Big spotlights s on full incandesce, so bright you could read, the Buon Appetito building is entirely knocked down, the cherry picker gizmo was maneuvered between the drooping phone and electrical cables draped between the poles, the few spectators were saying they have to knockdown that building too.

I noticed the shelves were empty in J Nails, the nail salon; the first place I ever had a pedicure, a very rare indulgence, really nice folks, clean, in between customers the owners, Korean, would read their bibles. Their workers were all young women, some Korean but mainly from Central America, they made me feel comfortable. They were sweet. Thick accents, poor English skills, communication was an amusing chore.

Buon Appetito made above average pizza, it was an above average place. I loved their calamari and they would do grilled asparagus and zucchini and a broccoli rabe with sausage. Clean, good food, real friendly staff.  What a great place.
These neighborhood joints, you discover them, go frequently for a while and for no real reason beyond whim and circumstance, the frequency fades. Yet, these were good businesses, they were down-home and affordable, like the old neighborhood this part of Jersey City used to be, and yet were not out of place in the new, more exclusive neighborhood emerging, in spite of any resistance. You think of them fondly and when you had a chance to again partake of their business, it was a pleasure.

The day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday, maybe you’ve heard – both buildings reduced to rubble. The businesses in the adjacent buildings were closed, in the apartments above the businesses the lights were off. The effects of this local catastrophe may still be determined.  

It’s shocking to see, the pile of charred rubble. The view from the back of the buildings, more wreckage.

 The actual fire was extinguished in an hour to two, under control in about four, but was enough time for the flame to make these old buildings unstable and uninhabitable. You sense the abrupt loss, the aftermath of destruction. The disaster contained, one moves on. When the disaster is in your neighborhood, that feeling of loss is more tangible and constant. It tarries.  You get a daily taste of anguish, and you know that for at least 22 others, it’s more than a taste. We’ll think of this now every time we pass this hole on the 300 block of Grove Street. The rubble will be carted away, new buildings erected, a process that will take more than a year for sure. We will have the memories of what was here and of the day what was here was suddenly gone. Remember the Thanksgiving of 2013?

No lives were lost, just businesses and homes and possessions. Hundreds of others experiencing lesser digress of inconvenience, from the firemen and demolition workers who had to spend Thanksgiving on the job to the more minor detours people who walk this stretch of Grove Street now must take.  Life is shared in a city. Something like this happens, were all affected even though we are all affected differently. You pray for your neighbors affected more severely.

You read about a tragedy somewhere else, you have some empathy. But when it’s where you live, that empathy is more inescapable. You just want to help if you can, you’re compelled to express support or comfort.

These 22 people were being helped by the Red Cross. Without warning, without explanation, Thanksgiving plans erased and they were immediately turned into refugees. By mid-day Black Friday Facebook newsfeeds had announcements of fundraisers for the victims of the Grove Street fire. Living in a city, it is not as eBay and often not even possible to escape the feeling of loss, or the reactions to that loss,

Small businesses are lifelines. They give city dwellers quality of life, the ordinary respites of our day-to-day. A manicure, a slice of pizza with sausage and suddenly the moment you are in turns perfect even if just for that moment. But that can be enough, that can be all that is needed to endure certain days.

That potential of a perfect moment has been burned away. Not forever, just for now.

Those owners and workers in these business, those who lived in the apartments above those businesses, seeing this same rubble we all are gawking at, we can only taste the anguish they have, help if we can, let them know they’re not alone.
Friday night a paper handbill was taped to a parking meter in front of the once buildings now massive pile of debris. Customers were alerted that J Nails will be in a new location soon. They were being directed to a Facebook I could not find.

Somebody showed up for the mani-pedi appointment, probably get them everybody Friday and they saw this.

We don’t need these reminders. But we get them anyway.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Urban Realism Building Windows

Blair Urban participated in the Art Activates Alley MuralProject blogged about here. Her website is here.

She painted this water/sky/earth/city mural on Newark Avenue.

Seeing bodies of water always induces a kind of dreamy tranquility. All rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not filled says Ecclesiastes, a line I never tire of quoting. Murals recently popped up on buildings throughout Jersey City, a city-sponsored project that I am still catching up with and that brought together bare building exteriors with artists and making available municipal cherry-picker vehicles so artists could reach the heights necessary to make their vision a reality.

This vast uncanny, deceptively realistic mural is on the western side of an edifice on the northern side of Newark Avenue.

Water dominates the image, that substances that covers most of our planet and from where our protoplasm-souls crawled out to evolve into our now urban-souls passing by this mural that demands to be noticed as go to work or love during what we call linear time.


The water is forefront, yet is essentially blank, a simple suggestion yet lots of room for our minds to freely roam, lots of a sort of nothingness as the obvious focal point, which is clever in and of itself but then nothing about this mural is obvious. It’s not just water but also the equally blank sky that occupies its center-point, a seemingly lack of detail compels our attention, just like looking at real water and seeing the empty sky as your field of view expands seeking the horizon.

That horizon though is a city, the geometric skyline of rectangles, a far away life we assume is more exciting than ours. The foreground is lonely but just as crucial in the framing of the central liquid/sky emptiness – a thicket of tall marsh grass, gently swaying in an invisible breeze. In one corner (often a car is parked here, dammit!) are faintly visible railroad tracks.

In the upper corner is a branch, reddish-pink leaves – we’re in forever autumn and where we are sitting we see the city but also another similar shore to the one we where we now sit, stark and rustic and definitely not urban like our horizon that divides the greenish, overcast sky from the bluish water. What a subtle yet astonishing artistic choice – the sky has a hue of a water, the water the hue of sky, each reflecting the other.

Then you realize, this setting pictured on the wall is a place in Jersey City, the fading tracks are those abandoned Central Jersey Line, unused for more than half a century, those vestiges of our nation’s glorious railroad past, you see along outlying inland areas of Liberty State Park, where closes to Hudson bay there are stretches of grassy shores, from which the view contains both Manhattan and Bayonne, the other rocky inlet. This mural depicts the view of we looking out from our Jersey City Isthmus. What is seen tells us as much about who is doing the seeing as it does about the physical visage that is viewed.

Then we get to the windows, the actual real windows of life as we know it on this building that now and before this painting was a building doing what a building always does, housing occupants for whatever reason its occupants require this housing. The object is as indifferent to the art as the art is to what it depicts and the feelings, thoughts and notions that depiction invokes in those who see it. Here, the artist uses these windows as part of her expression. She doesn’t avoid them or ignore them, she seems to paint around them but in such a way that the windows become surrealistic entities within this watery pastoral of sky and shoreline and distant city. They recall Salvador Dali as they give us an interior doubt that protests against our acceptance of an unqualified faith in the ultimate truth of an exterior reality. The windows have a functional purpose for the building, but the artist incorporates this medium in her message. They are transmuted from functional to the aesthetic, they now seem designed into the whole of the visual. It’s as if the windows only exist because of this painting. The windows new reality is for us to ponder our own assumptions of what is real.

Windows show us things we would never otherwise see, but those places are where we happen not to be. Whether we hope to go there or whether seeing the distance makes us happier with where we are has nothing to do with the window, and ultimately more to do with us – and the unknown future that is part of our burden or mortality – than the there in the distance. Windows show us where we are not while also reminding us we are where we are.

The Windows float in the sky, are incorporated in the city skyline and as part of a distance imaginary heavens above a city of buildings. The windows allow us to dream away the loneliness of the tall grass and tree and abandoned railroad tracks.



Paint the Car

The story, according to Ray Schwartz and his wife, Beth, is that the car drives like a dream but after a couple of accidents, one involving a NJ Transit bus, it was dented and bland. They offered it to Uta Brauser, founder and proprietress of the oft-beleaguered Creative Grove as an art project.

Throughout the year, Uta has taken refrigerators and used them as canvasses, inviting people to paint whatever, sort of taking graffiti and street art, and the general inclination of visual spontaneity into a public space. Ray & Ben decided why not do something similar to the family vehicle. It doesn’t look that great to begin with, they said, why not turn the beat up automobile into art instead?

So, on the last Creative Grove before the Christmas Sales season is in full swing, the public art project of Paint the Car was held.

Interactive Art?


Performance Art?


I was reminded of those contests where people take turns destroying a car, hammering it with a sledge hammer, or they win prizes, often the car, when people keep their hands on a car and whoever can keep it on for the longest is the winner.

This was about endurance, it was just about passing inspiration. I went early in the event, saw the first squiggly line effacing the freshly washed paint job. Came about back an hour later. More artists were working. Everyone was strangely solemn, not in a overly serious or sad way; but they didn’t want to just create meaningless lines. There was a focus and intention by each person who picked up a brush.
The project was open to everyone, but it seemed most of the folks not only had some talent, but wanted to apply a worthwhile image, no matter how simple or fleeting. A visual idea had formed in their minds and they wanted to express that idea as accurately as possible given the spontaneous nature of the event and the imperfect canvas of an automobile. The process of paint expressing barely deliberated thought was fascinating to watch.

Art argues against conformity. What is more conformist than a solid color car, so bound by design and traffic laws, Paint the Car was a fun art event, but maybe it spoke to an inner desire many of us share. Why must all cars look the same mono-color? Why can’t a car be as unique as its driver?