Daily Archives: September 23, 2020

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Alice Barker: Dancing the Harlem Renaissance

I came upon this piece on YouTube, and found it truly touching. From the description:

Alice Barker was a chorus line dancer during the Harlem Renaissance of the the 1930s and 40s. She danced at clubs such as The Apollo, Cotton Club, The Zanzibar Club, and on Broadway—with legends including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Although she danced in numerous movies, commercials and TV shows, she had never seen any of them, and all of her photographs and memorabilia had been lost over the years. After years of searching we found three “Soundies” Alice appeared in and were finally able to show them to her—she had never seen herself in motion in her life!

You can learn more about Alice at the little website we’ve set up for her: All of Alice’s films from this video are collected here. For more info about the dancers of the Harlem Renaissance, we recommend the lovely documentary “Been Rich All My Life”—several of the women in the film danced with Alice back in the day! A little more about the who’s who here: “We” are friends of Alice who searched for the films and made this video. I’m David Shuff, a volunteer who visits the home with my therapy dog Katie, and have known Alice for 8 years. The woman in the video is Gail Campbell, a recreation therapist (and an amazing one at that!). She never gave up on finding Alice’s films, and uncovered the first piece of the puzzle that lead to us finding them—which was Alicia Thompson; a historian of black female performers who had been looking for Alice for years. … She told us that Alice was in films called ‘soundies’. Using that clue I found jazz historian Mark Cantor and he was able to send us three of Alice’s soundies from his collection. Shortly afterwards Alicia got us a few more films. This video was filmed on cellphones (and almost as an afterthought!) by my friends Darin Tatum and Tom Hunt.

Alice passed away peacefully on Wednesday, April 6th, 2016. She spent the last day of her life in good spirits, enjoying listening to music and having her mail read to her. Thank you to all the thousands of fans who sent in cards, flowers, and art. You truly gave her deep joy and meaning in the last years of her life!

Can’t Spell “Anarchy” Without N-Y-C !

I’ve made it a point of not stepping into the raging political debates that are going on as we near Apocalypse Day, uh, I mean “Election Day.” Folks on either side of the divide are warning of Armageddon if either of the two major-party candidates gets elected to the Oval Office. Sorry, I’m not getting dragged into this brawl. Have fun!

In the meanwhile, I just wanted to address one thing, not about the country or the world but specifically about my hometown: New York City. I was born in Brooklyn, I have lived here all my life. And I’ll be buried here, hopefully not for many, many years.

The Big Apple has gone through quite a bit in 2020 (Who hasn’t!?). Laura Nahmias tells us about “The City’s Grief, By the Numbers“:

Each year, New York City releases data in a Mayor’s Management Report, intended to detail how well city agencies are performing. This year, more than any in recent memory, that report helps make sense of what’s happened and still happening to New York. The statistics form a snapshot of our collective anguish — a sense of the extraordinary breadth and scope of what we’ve lost to coronavirus.

“The report shows that 65,712 New Yorkers died between July of 2019 and June 30, 2020 — 34,748 more deaths than the previous year. The death rate in New York City increased 112%. In a single year. The virus is the “largest mass fatality incident in modern NYC history,” the office of the chief medical examiner officially declared.

Cremation requests increased 62%. The medical examiner received 16,115 such requests between March and June this spring — a number nearly equal [to] the total number of cremation asks received in the prior year.

Only (only!) 23,767 of our fellow New Yorkers were officially killed by confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases, which leaves 10,981 additional deaths unaccounted for.

What killed nearly 11,000 extra New York City residents between July 2019 and June 2020?

The MMR shows the number of 911 calls for cardiac arrest or choking increased 25% in fiscal year 2020 — 32,831 calls. New Yorkers’ hearts were breaking.

And in the midst of this very human tragedy, the city, like many cities across America, saw an uptick in protests and riots in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. For a variety of reasons, over this past summer, there has also been an uptick in shootings and murders — nothing remotely like the 2000+ murders a year that were once an annual benchmark around these parts, but very troubling nonetheless.

Though my family personally suffered many tragedies over these many months living in this great city — the loss of loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, and even a beloved neighborhood proprietor — and though the future remains uncertain, I’d like to tell the naysayers: DON’T COUNT THIS CITY OUT! As Stefanos Chen writes in the New York Times: “Five months after Covid-19 crippled the city’s real estate market, sales across the city are down, but the boroughs beyond Manhattan are faring better, in some rare cases even exceeding pre-pandemic expectations.” And there are other hopeful signs that the city has turned a corner. The hospitalization, infection, and death rates from the pandemic have been crushed. Indeed, the infection rate remains below 1% at this stage (I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks), and only one New York state resident died from COVID-related causes yesterday. That’s quite a difference from the horrendous numbers we saw back during March, April, and May.

Still, put in perspective, despite some enormous uncertainty — and a mayor so universally disliked, he couldn’t win a campaign for dog-catcher — I’d just like to say to the U.S. Justice Department, which has recently declared my hometown an “anarchist city“: WTF?

This is so obviously tied to feuds over federal funding, so I think we can chalk up much of this debate to pure politics.

But puh-lease. I have lived in this city my whole life; even during these crazy times, I remain in a working-class / middle class neighborhood and can walk outside my home at any hour of the day or night without concern for getting hit by a stray bullet. I’ve been fortunate to have never been a victim of a single crime in my 60 years living here: not a mugging, not a robbery (unless you want to count getting tickets for that age-old insane practice of “alternate-side-of-the-street parking“, a crime if ever there was one!). Yes, key neighborhoods have been affected by this tragic uptick in violence, but “anarchy” (which is being used here as a synonym for “disorder”)? Not quite.

In truth, however, this city became the greatest city in the world — yeah, my arrogant, unreconstructed, unequivocal New York values are clearly on display here — precisely because it has always embraced a touch of “anarchy” as part of its tapestry. By that, I mean, it has drawn strength from the spontaneous, innovative, unplanned, entrepreneurial, and creative powers unleashed by all those individuals who have come here seeking a better life. It is a city of remarkably diverse neighborhoods, each of which brings authenticity to the fabric of its culture.

This city is not dead. It will survive. It survived the Great Depression. It survived the antiwar and civil rights unrest of the 1960s and the urban blight of the 1970s and 1980s. It survived 9/11. It survived Superstorm Sandy. And it will survive this pandemic, the lockdowns, and the systemic instability unleashed by the most recent series of tragedies.

One thing is for sure: New Yorkers have not lost their sense of humor. Reacting to this designation of the city as a haven of anarchy, residents responded with a Bronx cheer. Here’s a sampling of some of the sarcastic comments from folks across the city:

“I was able to document the ‘anarchy’ in NYC yesterday after my 5 mile bike ride with my son and wife yesterday. … Truly terrifying.”

“If NYC has anarchy, is alternate side parking still enforced?”

“NYC’s anarchy on full display,” another person tweeted, along with a picture of eight well-behaved dogs out for a walk. “Won’t somebody put an end to this violence? Law and order is desperately needed.”

But my favorite came from a New York native, who accompanied their tweet with a picture of a sun-dappled city park: “Can’t spell anarchy without NYC!”