10 April 2008

8+

"Happy Suicide" by David Byrne which clocks in at 9:45

Last night marked the premiere of "Under African Skies", the second of three programs comprising Paul Simon's month-long residency at BAM. As you most likely know by now (or at least can guess by its title), "Under African Skies" focuses on the Afro and Brazilian-tinged pop sounds that informed Simon's immensely popular 80s albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. For these performances, Simon is joined by most of his Graceland-era backing band in addition to other special guests, most notably fellow World Music aficionado David Byrne.

In Byrne's well-known personal blog, he recently chronicled the experience of working with Simon for these shows. Apparently, the two started meeting up a few months ago to casually discuss the songwriting process, and while Byrne candidly admitted that Simon's writing techniques didn't necessarily jive with his own, he still found these "meeting of the minds" quite helpful, writing:

Our discussions yielded more about what might drive an artist to continue creating than they did songwriting advice. What does one do when confronted with a problem? And how can an artist remain passionate and interested in writing little songs?

What does one do when confronted with a problem? Needless to say, this question transcends the songwriting process and could well have been in reference to any number of fields or professions. And in the most literal sense of "fields" (awful segue alert), here I want to bring up the well-chronicled and publicized problems the food vendors at the Red Hook ball fields have faced - and seemingly conquered - over the past several years.

A big leap here, yes, and you're probably wondering how this even begins to relate to David Byrne?

Well, on a personal note, I happened to see Byrne at the Red Hook fields last August. Now, I'm not one to get star-struck** but seeing one of my favorite artists in such a casual and relaxed setting - he had on shorts and flip-flops and was casually sampling a pupusa - was incredibly surreal. This revered figure I had built up seemed so....normal.

Sure enough, a few days later I check his blog and noticed that he had written about the whole experience. He also took some tasty food shots:

David Byrne's pupusas


David Byrne's huarache


What I learned from this blog post - in addition to the fact that Byrne and I have similar taste in pupusas - was the constant trouble the city of New York have given the Red Hook vendors.

For those not living in New York or unaware of the Red Hook fields (though by now it seems everyone knows about them, my rationale being that if I know about them, the secret's long been out), definitely check out The Porkchop Express' incredibly illuminating piece from August 2006, aptly titled "Everything you always wanted to know about Red Hook, but were afraid to ask".

In the meantime, allow me to give the abridged version of the fields' genesis: over 40 years ago, a Guatemalan soccer league began playing weekend games at the then-remote Red Hook ball fields. Impromptu barbecues and concessions gradually sprang up, first to feed the players and in time to cater to onlookers, and over time other Central American teams (and subsequently other Central American vendors) joined the festivities and added to the fields' diversity (and growth). By the 90s, the fields were a veritable weekend destination, with foodies and soccer fans alike crowding the premises and downing tacos, papusas, ceviche, grilled corn etc etc, all while drawing attention to the vendors from the watchful eye of the Department of Health.

Lax regulations became increasingly tightened, and in 2000 a Dominican vendor named Cesar Fuentes stepped up to assume the voice of all the vendors in dealing with the City (the Jimmy Hoffa of Red Hook?). Under Fuentes' leadership, the vendors became more organized and scored permit renewals, which allowed them to continue operating until the Fall of 2007. By this point though, Johnny-come-latelies like myself had descended upon the fields like locusts, drawing even more attention from various bureaucratic arms of the city. As the Porkchop Express piece put it:

All of which raises a logistical problem: how to maintain what makes this such a great spot (Latin flavor, low-key familiarity, under-the-radar appeal), while encorporating new patrons into the fold. Josh (Fuentes' half-brother) expressed mild (and justifiable) concern with a possible turista effect, an over-saturation of folks jumping on a new fad. But at the same time, he (like even the most skeptical of vendors I spoke with) welcomed the growth, and relished the untapped potential of an exciting future.

Indeed, the Red Hook fields seemed poised for a "Happy Suicide" of their own, foiled by the exposure their own success had brought. In Byrne's piece about the fields, he mentioned how the Parks Department wanted to open the fields up to concession bids once the hard-fought permits had expired, a dicey proposal that would in effect give these coveted vendor spots to the highest bidder. Of course, this move would destroy the very ethos of the fields - to offer authentic homemade cuisine in a festive atmosphere at a reasonable price - but the City undoubtedly had dollar signs in its eyes.

So, for much of the winter it seemed as though the Red Hook fields wouldn't even be allowed to open this summer; their permits had expired, they had drawn increased ire from both the Departments of Health and Parks, and a massive new Ikea would be opened just down the street by then, increasing the "value" of these vendor lots if a bidding war were to ensue.

Then last month came some fantastic news, which I (naturally) first saw in Byrne's blog: the City granted the vendors a reprieve! And according to the blog Save Soccer Tacos, this reprieve comes in the form of a six-year extension on their permit. Hooray, right?

Well, not entirely. As Byrne also noted in his bulletin, the vendors now must raise an estimated 30k among themselves in order to meet the stricter health code measures imposed upon them. Until then, they will not be allowed to open. Fuentes addressed this in a recent email (here lifted from Save Soccer Tacos), writing:

It is important to understand that while this is a tremendous victory for us, we are still facing tremendous challenges ahead before we can consider an official opening date this summer. These challenges affect every vendor as he\she needs to be in full compliance with DOHMH standards & be able to afford costly equipment in order to operate legally. I intend to keep you updated on this.

Add to that the insane traffic that will undoubtedly materialize upon Ikea's opening and it becomes clear that the vendors' struggles are far from over. Another excellent local blog, The Gowanus Lounge, put it best in a post from last fall:

When the season rolls around next year, however, Red Hook will be a very, very, very different place. The Ikea will be open, attracting up to 50,000 cars to the neighborhood every week and the parks where the vendors work will be in the middle of thousands of cars going to and from Ikea every weekend[...]That part of Red Hook won't so much be a community as a place that people from all over the city drive through to get Ikea furniture.

And yet, with the sun shining brightly this afternoon (it is beautiful in Brooklyn today), a new six-year permit in place, and the fervent support of everyone from David Byrne to Senator Schumer, I can't help but get excited for the re-opening of the ball fields this Spring. Here's to another six-year reprieve from a "Happy Suicide".

*above photo from HERE

**Okay, that's pretty much a lie, I get star-struck very easily. I almost walked into a pole after spotting Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) in Midtown a few years ago and even more recently became disproportionately excited at the prospect of seeing Mikey from Season 2 of Top Chef down in Austin (and it wasn't even him).

Buy the Blue in the Face soundtrack on Amazon/on iTunes.

EAR FARM's 8+ is a weekly feature that showcases songs longer than 8 minutes. In the recent past these songs were featured on EF's 8+:
Fleetwood Mac - "Oh Well"
Phish - "You Enjoy Myself"
Green Day - "Homecoming"
Billy Bragg - "Joe Hill"
Van Halen - "Year to the Day"
Kraftwerk - "The Telephone Call"
Neutral Milk Hotel - "Oh Comely"
George Gershwin - “Rhaphsody in Blue"

To see a full list of every song featured in EAR FARM's 8+ click HERE.

9 comments:

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2menEwurdz said...

but nice lookin foodz

Anonymous said...

What a great post Mike. Like how you tied it all together. Bring on the sunshine, the booze and the taco's.

Anonymous said...

whatever a huarache is, i need one!

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