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From L.A. to Brooklyn and the Majesty of New York

I went to New York City on Friday September 14, 2012 to feature at a poetry event and catch up with my old friend Phillip Martin. After flying into JFK I took a train to Phil's place in Brooklyn. Shortly after I arrived, we took the train to Manhattan to visit the Whitney Museum. The energy of New York City is kinetic. When we exited the subway we entered the street to a street chef smoking up the sidewalk with a grill full of sausages. Sirens off in the distance accompanied the grill's sizzle. "Sirens and smoke," Phil said. "Welcome to New York." My stomach was empty after a long flight, I couldn't help myself. Perhaps the best $4 I've spent in my life, it was really delicious.

We hopped in a cab to the Whitney Museum. The speeding cabbie raced north on Madison Avenue. Block after block of shiny storefront facades reflected an almost blinding light as the taxi went faster and faster. I had no idea what I was in store for on the fourth floor at the Whitney. The prolific Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama filled several rooms with wall to wall art in multiple mediums: large paintings, sculptures, collages and environmental installations. The exhibit floored me to say the least.

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Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama came to New York in the early 1960s and quickly became a seminal figure in the Pop Art Movement associated with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. Her collages and installations utilizing polka dots and naked participants characterized the counterculture art of the New York avant-garde. In 2008 Kusama sold a work for $5.1 Million, a record for a living female artist. The exhibit at the Whitney demonstrated how she could command this figure. It may have been the best art exhibit I have ever personally seen.

Phil and his wife Theresa have always known their way around art exhibits. Before he moved to New York in 2008 we would always hit the L.A. gallery scene. Knowing that I love historic architecture he immediately took me to the Flatiron Building in Manhattan after we hit the Whitney. Designed by Daniel Burnham in 1902, the iconic building with its triangular shape is New York royalty. Burnham is especially known as the vanguard behind "the City Beautiful" architectural movement from the Chicago Columbian Exposition at the close of the 19th Century. His Flatiron Building holds up to his idea that epic architecture builds civic loyalty. I was thankful to Phil for showing me the Whitney and Flatiron Building within my first few hours of the trip. Even in the midst of all that concrete, it really is a beautiful city.

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As much as the field of L.A. Letters and historical scholarship on Southern California increases daily, the field of New York books, movies and songs is even larger because NYC has a century head start. Over the years I've read many books on New York and enjoyed countless songs about the Big Apple. Ironically, my favorite New York song of all time was written by a native Angeleno.

Roy Ayers' song "We live in Brooklyn, Baby" is one of the most sampled songs of our time. I first heard the song in the 1994 Spike Lee film "Crooklyn." The song's deep soulful tone coalesced perfectly with the cinematography. Soon I began noticing numerous artists, like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Mos Def, Pete Rock and countless others, sampling this track and other Ayers songs like "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," "Running Away," and "Searchin'." These songs are all still in frequent rotation three decades later. DJs say that many of Ayers lesser known songs like "A Touch of Class" and "A Tear to a Smile" are even more incredible.

As famous as Ayers is for his song about Brooklyn, he was born in Los Angeles in 1940. Ayers plays vibes -- short for the vibraphone. He got his first sticks at age five, from another Los Angeles legend: Lionel Hampton, the king of the vibraphone. His parents were supportive of his musical dream. He took lessons in piano, guitar, flute, drums -- Ayers played it all, even as a teenager. He was a graduate of Jefferson High School, a music factory off Central Avenue, led by the legendary music teacher Samuel Brown.

Roy Ayers graduated from Jefferson in 1958 a year before my parents, who went to Washington High School a few miles south on Normandie down past Century. Ayers and my parents came from the last of the 1950s Cold War Baby boomer "Leave it to Beaver" simpler generation. The '60s brought Motown, the Beatles, JFK, the Civil Rights Movement, MLK, Malcolm X, Vietnam, acid, the Black Panthers, Woodstock, Hendrix; times changed quick. So did the music. Roy Ayers changed with the music and helped change the music.

He joined Gerald Wilson's band as the vibes player right out of high school, cutting his teeth with the band for several years. Ayers' solo debut in 1964 was called West Coast Vibes. As the '60s went on, he played with heavyweights like Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Hubert Laws. Playing with renowned flutist Herbie Mann took him to New York City in 1966. Ayers played on Mann's smash hit album from 1969, Memphis Underground. Popular folkore cites this as a favorite record of Hunter S. Thompson. By 1971 Ayers was on his own, recording epic songs like "We Live in Brooklyn, Baby."

OUR TIME IS NOW,
WE GOTTA MAKE IT BABY,
WE LIVE IN BROOKLYN BABY.

After living in Brooklyn and working with Herbie Mann, Ayers stayed in New York. His band Ubiquity formed in 1970. They made music nonstop for the next decade, averaging 2 annual albums for 10 years on the soul label Polydor. Their band was an extended family of players and vocalists -- a family soul band like Earth, Wind & Fire. Ayers was the conductor, primary songwriter and leader, like Sun Ra with his Arkestra or Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. He also produced many side projects like RAMP, known for their 1977 song "Daylight." He became known for his warm heart, teaching his musicians the spiritual language embedded within music.

Ayers' music echoes the sentiments of Martin Luther King, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott Heron & of course James Brown. His intergalactic sound celebrates love, respect, self-determination, Blackness & Pan-Africanism. Brits call him the father of acid jazz. Ayers started with straight ahead jazz in the early 1960s that gradually evolved into Psychedelic Soul Funk Rock. Disco simultaneously. He did it all: rocking the wah wah pedal, layering the vocals, mixing the levels, he pioneered electric soul, foreshadowing Detroit electronica. When walking around Brooklyn, I can't help hearing his infectious groove in my head.

"We live in Brooklyn baby."

There have been so many eloquent works on New York. From Walt Whitman to Hart Crane, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat poets, Frank O'Hara and the New York School, the rise of Hip Hop and Punk Rock in the 1970s -- just the tip of the iceberg. A name I'd like to add to the list is Lewis Mumford. Though he's known as an architectural critic, his work is just as poetic as the just mentioned voices.

Mumford was the author of over 20 books, written over a long life between 1895 to 1990. His almost 40 year tenure as the architectural critic at the New Yorker set the standard for 20th Century architectural criticism. His "Sky Line" column in the New Yorker during the 1930s captures the golden age of art deco and the construction of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. Mumford was there to witness it all. His column captured the mad dash construction of skyscraper after skyscraper.

In 2000, Princeton Architectural Press compiled the best of Mumford's 1930s New Yorker columns into the book, "Sidewalk Critic." While looking at the block after block of New York buildings, I thought of Mumford's words and his firsthand accounts on the rise of modernity. When I first read Mumford as a UCLA undergrad nearly two decades ago it was quotes like these that made me read more of his work: "The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity."

I'm sure Mumford would not be surprised to know that New York City's social creativity is more alive in 2012 than ever, especially in Brooklyn. Phil and his wife Theresa took me to the busy Brooklyn Flea Market and it was packed with vendors, food trucks and artists. Earlier in the day we walked past the brand new Barclays Center, the 18,000 seat multi-purpose indoor arena for the Brooklyn Nets. Nearly completed, the new arena will be christened with performances by Jay Z beginning on September 28, 2012. We ran around so many New York neighborhoods that there wasn't enough time to see all the bookstores, but we did visit Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.

Black Bird by Brand USPhil and his wife Theresa O'Neill Walsh are very active in the New York art scene. They complete paintings together as Brand Us Art. One of their biggest projects in 2011 was with the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He writes, "As a DJ samples and remixes musical pieces to create something new, our collaborative paintings transform and remix our lives through the making of art. Drawing from hip hop as a jumping off point for the love of all music cultures, a love of fine art, a love of literature and storytelling, vintage advertising and modern graphic aesthetics, we strive to convey a sense of drama and the poetry of existence."

Phil is also an award-winning soccer coach. He was recently flown to South Africa to conduct several workshops and training camps. Though he now focuses almost exclusively on painting and soccer coaching, he is also an exceptional poet. We did over 1,000 poetry performances together over 15 years before he moved to New York. Last time I was in NYC three years ago we read with the writer Livingroom Johnston off Clinton Avenue.

Another painter-poet in New York City is Jane Ormerod. Born in England and now a veteran of the New York City poetry scene, Ormerod epitomizes the NYC literary scene with her mix of avant-garde poetics and charismatic live delivery. Fusing Gertrude Stein, John Cage and Sylvia Plath, Ormerod performs nationwide and is one of the founding editors of the small press Great Weather for MEDIA. Her newest book, published by Three Rooms Press, is titled "Welcome To the Museum of Cattle." Like Phil, she brings the composition skills of a painter into her poetics. She also released the spoken word CD "Nashville Invades Manhattan" last year. Great Weather for MEDIA is releasing their new poetry anthology in the coming weeks. I was their featured poet on Sunday night September 16 at the Jujomukti Tea Lounge in the Lower East Side.

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Brooklyn and the Lower East Side are brimming with small presses and literary events. It was great to see the community of writers in full swing. Before closing out this account, I'd like to mention three other writers with brilliant writing on New York: Ada Louise Huxtable, Jane Jacobs and Colson Whitehead. Huxtable is still alive and close to 90 years old. She was the New York Times architectural critic for close to 40 years, and still writes architectural columns for the Wall Street Journal. Her 1971 book, "Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Blvd," won the Pulitzer Prize. She's credited as one of the leading voices of the preservationist movement.

Jane Jacobs' work on New York City is equally monumental. Her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," changed the field of Urban Planning with its emphasis on what makes a city great, like walkability, diverse streetscapes and pedestrian neighborhoods. Her astute observations called out the intellectual arrogance of midcentury urban planning and demonstrated how theorists like Le Corbusier's ideas worked better on paper than they played out in New York. She also mobilized the community of Greenwich Village and prevented Robert Moses from building his freeway through her neighborhood. Her knowledge of New York stemmed from her firsthand experience of always walking around the city. Towards the end of her life she moved to Toronto, but she will always be known for her groundbreaking and provocative writing on New York City.

Another book to add to the list is "The Colossus of New York," by native son Colson Whitehead. Published in 2003, the work is 13 chapters of prose that reads like one long prose poem. Chapters like "Morning," "Subway," "Broadway," "Central Park," and "Brooklyn Bridge" mix his personal memories with vignettes, meditations and observations. Whitehead is an award-winning novelist, but this highly creative nonfiction account on the place of his birth captures the verisimilitude of New York with the same grace as Mumford, Huxtable and Jane Jacobs. In passages like the following, he captures the infinite angles of the city:

There are eight million naked cities in this naked city---they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City; how could it be? This place multiplies when you're not looking... Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot of neighborhoods... Your favorite newsstands, restaurants, movie theaters, subway stations and barber shops are replaced by your next neighborhood's favorites. It gets to be quite a sum. Before you know it, you have your own personal skyline.

Whitehead captures the spirit of the ever-changing city, and this statement is equally true for my hometown Los Angeles. Times change, streets change, buildings change, some stay the same and the ever-changing landscape of the city presses forward. This edition of L.A. Letters moves from L.A. to Brooklyn and pays homage to the majesty of New York.


Top: Mike and Phil in New York. Photo by Theresa O'Neill Walsh

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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