Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Stan Lee Passes On & Spider-Man Takes Off: A mural & more coming soon!

 By Michael Perlman

Stan Lee at the Phoenix Comicon, Photo by Gage Skidmore

Spider-Man lands at Forest Hills High School
America is paying tribute to an icon, Stan Lee, who left his mark on the comics industry as a writer, publisher, and editor. He actively shaped Americana from 1939 until his passing on November 12 at age 95, and will continue in spirit. 

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 in Manhattan, he was the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant father. He was raised in Washington Heights and was an early graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. At 19, he launched his career, and today is remembered as the creative tour de force behind Marvel Comics’ Silver Age as a co-creator of everything from Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (Manhattan headquarters) to Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, and Daredevil (Hell’s Kitchen residence), which continue to influence young and older generations alike. His accolades include being inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, and being an NEA National Medal of Arts recipient.

The humble photojournalist Peter Parker is the alter ego of Spider-Man who was raised at 20 Ingram Street in the Forest Hills Gardens, as featured in the June and July 1989 issues of Marvel Enterprises’ “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Parker even attended Forest Hills High School from 1962 to 1965. How coincidental that the home’s true residents were noted as Andrew and Suzanne Parker, along with their two daughters. In 1989, the family began to receive fan mail addressed to Peter Parker. 

Peter Parker's House from Amazing Spider-Man Annual, Volume 1
Forest Hills culture continues with “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Spider-Man 2” (2004) starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, which were filmed at Camille Iorio Finamore’s childhood home on 69th Road between Metropolitan Avenue and Sybilla Street. She recalled, “It was filmed outside of the house and in the yard. It was very exciting, and still is a great conversation starter.” 

Locally, much dialogue is underway by residents who are deciding on how to commemorate Stan Lee and particularly Spider-Man. Within days after his passing, Forest Hills resident Jonathan Vick began conducting outreach to Marvel’s PR agency. He said, “I poked them to show some interest in honoring Stan Lee in Forest Hills. He was a great storyteller, and I worry about how many are left in a world of sound-bites and tweets. He clearly had fun at what he did.”

Coming from Queens, he identified with Peter Parker. “It may have influenced my studying journalism, and to this day I can't help but think I am walking among superheroes somehow. Their superpower is putting up with the subway every day and not snapping.” He continued, “I think because of Stan Lee, Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Forest Hills will always be connected, and that is gift beyond measure. Forest Hills is associated with American folklore for many reasons, but Spider-Man is a special part.” He recommended a mural at minimum and a street co-naming, and then said, “Maybe Forest Hills will have a ‘Spider-Man Day,’ which would be a hoot, and Stan might find that a hoot too.”

“Stan Lee, the ‘Father of Modern Comics’ showed the world that comics could make a difference, and he created a universe filled with superheroes , super villains and countless wonders,” said Kevin Manheim of Rego Park. “Our heroes had the same problems as us regular people such as falling in love, illnesses, and homework, etc. Our heroes were vulnerable yet they saved the universe time and again.” Looking ahead, he said, “Every time I pick up a comic, I will be reminded that no matter what comic it is, it was inspired by Stan Lee.” Manheim likes the ring of “Peter Parker Place.”

“Spider-Man is the most human superhero ever created and it's awesome,” said Kew Gardens Hills resident Phil Landsberg. “He was just a kid with kid problems, and as an adult they're just adult-sized. Even his relationships don't go perfect.” As for his vision, he explained, “A mural would be amazing and a street sign equally so. If a statue is commissioned, it should be ‘The Ditko Spidey’ as a way to honor all three of the major ‘men in his life’ and both of Lee's main collaborators.”

“Stan Lee left an incredible mark, just as Charles Schulz and ‘Dr. Seuss’ has,” said Jackeline Canedo of Kew Gardens, who will always be grateful. She reminisced, “When I came to the U.S. in 1971 at age six, I knew very little English and learned by watching not only Sesame Street, but the Spider-Man cartoons. I would get home from school and finish my work as soon as I could. I loved Spider-Man and imagined being in the adventures with him.” Among her favorite Spider-Man quotes is “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside of us, we always have a choice. It is our choices that makes us who we are, and we always have a choice to do what's right ~ Let love and forgiveness reign.” Canedo’s shared her first choice for a tribute. “A statue of Stan Lee and his wonderful characters would stand out just as his talent and love of life, where he gave so much joy and adventure for the world to enjoy.”

Numerous residents’ prayers may soon be answered. “I am planning a local mural with Spider-Man on it, and it is expected to be painted in the near future,” said Forest Hills resident Carlos Pesantes, a familiar face in community affairs, particularly as founder of The Compost Collective. He will always remember Stan Lee as a “creative genius.” “His messages were classic Americana, that even if you were considered funny, odd, or a nerd, you too mattered, and maybe even more so than the rest because there is beauty and strength in that difference. That belief that we all contribute is the glue that binds us together, even through dark times of anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiment. Good ol’ Stan was all for punching Nazis.”

Pesantes often reflects upon the classic Spider-Man phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” “It has always reminded me to stay humble and serve others. When I was deployed by the city last year to Puerto Rico after the storms and their devastation, I channeled my inner Spider-Man who I loved as a kid, and tried my very best because that is all we can do in the face of adversity.” He continued, “Spidery is a Queens kid, as some of us are; a Forest Hills boy who is far from perfect but who loves his family, his neighborhood, his country and who is all about inclusiveness. Now I always remember my dad with his comics and passing that love for comics on to me.”

A similar version of this feature appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Landmark Historic African Burial Ground in Elmhurst - Endangered by Development Plans

By Michael Perlman

The original Union African Church on African American Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
Every community has distinctive resources which are sometimes forgotten, but rarely buried and rediscovered. The African Burial Ground in Elmhurst, once known as Newtown, is a 19th century property that has been long-forgotten, and was even de-mapped by the city in 1931. It may soon undergo a five-story residential building at 47-11 90th Street, if developer Song Liu’s plans materialize, but “not so fast” according to the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS). This non-profit is spearheading the initiative to have this culturally significant site landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and has submitted a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form on October 1.

Newtown was one of the first three free African American communities, and it was a pivotal time in history for its residents who owned land and properties including a church, cemetery, and school, as well as homes and shops. The African American Burial Ground originated in 1828, a year after the abolition of slavery in New York, and is rumored to date even earlier. 

Recent aerial view of former African Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
“The first step is to protect the burial ground as is, so it can be officially recognized for its sensitive and important history, as well as a respected final resting place of the freed and free African American community of Newtown,” said EHCPS President Marialena Giampino. “We are also nominating the site for the State & National Register of Historic Places to be considered as a State and National Landmark.” The list of supporters is on the rise and includes local residents, the Historic Districts Council, Queens Preservation Council, Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, and Queens Community Board 4. “Only landmark designation can protect the historical integrity of the site in perpetuity,” said Mitchell Grubler, Queens Preservation Council President. “The local community should have a voice in what happens to the property.”

The congregation was founded in a Newtown carpenter shop by four freed African Americans. The site once contained a church and parsonage for St. Mark’s American Methodist Episcopal Church, originating as the United African Society, but in 1928, when the church had plans to relocate when the city planned to widen Union Avenue (now Corona Avenue), their permit to transfer all burials to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth was denied. As a result, Mount Olivet records show that twenty burials were transferred to two of their plots. There is an estimate of over 300 burials on the African Burial Ground as of 1886, when the church requested assistance in conducting repairs and enclosing the site.

In 1929, the congregation decided to sell their property and relocated in 1930 to North Corona, now East Elmhurst. Despite the political decisions at play during the 20th century, the church remains a symbol of perseverance at its current location in Jackson Heights. 

Body & coffin fragments after excavation, Identified as Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
Fast-forward to 2011, a time when it can be said that the dead teaches the living. The remains of Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady” were discovered on site in a high state of preservation, despite succumbing to the smallpox epidemic in 1850. Giampino explained, “When the site was being prepared for construction, the backhoe dug into something that made a loud noise. The construction crew saw human feet exposed from the ground and immediately called 911. If it wasn't for the Martha Peterson discovery, the public would not be aware of the site and a direct link to Newtown history. She has been a revelation for so many and we thank her.” The crew originally suspected that it was a recent homicide. Peterson received a proper burial in 2016 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. 

Mummified remains of Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
On October 3, 2018, PBS aired “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.” The airtight iron coffin originated in 1848 by a stove manufacturer named Almond Dunbar Fisk, and due to its high cost, it was typically used by the wealthy. She was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, well-respected African American figures in Newtown.

EHCPS Vice President James McMenamin recalls feeling “emotionally lifted” by the research and care, as well as the human aspect. He said, “Who was she? What was her life like? How did the area function in 1850 when she passed, and how were the relationships between people? Based on the evidence, she was much cared for by her extended family, the community at large, as well as her employers.” 

African Burial Ground now with dumpsters, Courtesy of EHCPS
Giampino said, “It appears to be vacant land, but human remains are still interred on this property. The burial ground became the final resting place of the founders of the historic church, former slaves who settled in historic Newtown.” She feels that paving over this property would be “highly insensitive to NYC’s African American community.” “Those buried are their ancestors, and they have a history and story to tell for present and future generations. It would set a very bad precedent for other historic cemeteries, big or small.” As for the developer, she said, “They pre-filed their plans on Sept 13, 2018, but as long as they do not have an agreement with the church, they cannot proceed legally with anything.”

The property became a highlight for walking tours and lectures. EHCPS contacted Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants in spring 2018, and their analysis furthered the site’s significance. Looking ahead, Giampino explained, “We would recommend Precision Radar Scanning to learn what lies beneath, not to disturb the graves, and we would also like to see what St. Marks AME Church wishes to learn about their ancestors. We would recommend a beautiful monument with known names that are buried, and of course dedicate the unknown, as well as designate it an official memorial park and cemetery site.”

McMenamin said, “I pray that this site can serve as a memorial and an educational opportunity, where students among the public can view artifacts and a slideshow, and have a garden to meditate and reflect. It was re-discovered for a purpose, hopefully not to be covered with concrete, and forgotten, but to embrace as a bold reminder, of the human experiences that struggled and thrived here, when in other parts of the country that was an impossibility.”

“Greed has become the hallmark of progress and success” according to EHCPS Secretary Jennifer Ochoa, who witnessed various un-landmarked local sites undergoing demolition. “The formation and development of African Americans’ self-identity as individuals, as a race, and as Americans has been stalled, and it is our moral obligation to honor their ancestors, as they were also part of our nation's history makers. We must confront the truth and learn from our history.” The site offers valuable lessons, especially for children. “Martha Peterson was my catalyst to explain the history of my family tree to my son, as in how diverse our tree is having blood from Native Americans to Africans to European. It is more important today to teach our children about our history and acceptance; not fear and ignorance.”

Ochoa called the site “sacred land on so many levels.” “The act, practice, and belief of burying our departed, in part, make us ‘humane beings’ with an advanced civilization. Furthermore, for our history and self-development, we must recognize the lives and achievements of those buried there. Elmhurst is rich in history, including the Native American experience that is always overlooked. If we want today’s accomplishments to be recognized, we must first resort to the past and preserve.”

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: http://foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27612697/article-Development-endangers-historic-burial-ground 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

“Walter Becker Way” Unveiled in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Walter Becker Way unveiled, Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Becker signed headshot offered at the ceremony, Photo by Annalisa
On October 28th, it was history-in-the-making for a couple hundred Steely Dan fans who attended the “Walter Becker Way” street co-naming ceremony on 72nd Drive at 112th Street. The event was not to be missed, as proven by fans ranging from Forest Hills to Europe. After a series of speeches by host Jim Kerr of the Q104.3 FM Rock & Roll Morning Show, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz who nominated Becker for this honor, and Matt Kerns, Howard Rodman, and Cindy Mizelle who shared personal memories and professional affiliations, the much-awaited street sign was uncovered. Throughout the event, items from Becker’s personal collection were distributed and prioritized for trivia buffs. The event took place outside The Balfour apartment building at 112-20 72nd Drive, which is where Becker was raised. 

"Before," Photo by Michael Perlman

"After," Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Carl Becker (1950 – 2017) was a guitarist, bassist, and co-songwriter of the jazz-rock band “Steely Dan.” In 1967, he befriended Donald Fagen (born 1948), the band’s lead singer. Their first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released in 1972 under the self-titled “Steely Dan,” and they toured the U.S. and Britain in 1973. “Two Against Nature” won four Grammys in 2001, and Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some well-known hits are “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Deacon Blues.” 

Ronnie Croce with Councilmember Koslowitz, Photo by Michael Perlman
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz referenced her role in “The Ramones Way” street co-naming at Forest Hills High School, as well as local musicians including Burt Bacharach. She said, “You know, Forest Hills is very famous. Today it’s my pleasure to be able to unveil the name of Walter Becker. He lived in The Balfour, so his name will live here forever.” 

Host Jim Kerr of Q104.3 FM, Photo by Michael Perlman
Jim Kerr asked, “What song on Circus Money did Walter sing to a woman who was gone perhaps even on a distance star?” A contestant named Lisa from Bristol guessed “Paging Audrey.” He responded, “What we have for you is the actual chart used by the tracking band when they recorded that song.” Among the other questions was “For many years, Becker used guitars and basses made by his favorite luthier. What was Becker’s favorite make of guitar and bass?” A contestant guessed “Sadowsky.” He continued, “Your prize is a guitar strap used by Walter.” He was given a choice and selected his on-stage strap over the one he used at home. Then he said, “You’re also going to get some very rare guitar picks.” 

Longtime fan Matt Kerns, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guest speaker Matt Kerns, co-creator of a database of Becker’s famous “Hey 19 Raps” said, “When I was first asked if I would speak, my instinct was to say no. It’s hard to say something about someone who so often expressed things better than anyone else.” He continued, “When Walter passed away on September 7th of last year, music magazines rushed on Walter as the silent partner of Steely Dan. The irony would not be lost on Walter. Anyone who knew him to any degree knows that Walter Becker was anything but silent. Walter spoke, and he spoke loudly with a voice unique in popular music”… “He was literate without being pretentious, sophisticated with a splash of sophomoric humor, was jazz and rock, mentor and learner, professor of infectious vibes, and student of rhythm and soul… “Walter inherently knew that if he didn’t try to write songs for everyone, he could write music that reached someone. Often in songs about less than savored characters, Walter managed to find the profound in the profane, all without resorting to troves or clich├ęs. He told tales of the world both dark and real.” 

Howard Rodman, Longtime friend of Walter Becker, Photo by Michael Perlman
Another speaker was Becker’s closest longtime friend, Howard Rodman, who first knew him at age 10. “Like many of the friends and comrades with us, we went to PS 196, whose anthem I can still sing.” “We are left with glorious memories, and we’re left with the music which is indelible; music which was never quite in sync with its time, and because of that we’ll never grow old.” “They sold 40 million records, not by reverse engineering which an audience might like, but by being deeply and obsessively true to themselves. The success of Steely Dan was because and not in spite of the celebration of the marginal.” He later continued, “It took Walter Becker to look out at this suburban landscape of postwar 6-story housing, and recognizing it for what it was. Not a bedroom community, not a bridge or tunnel, or an E train away from Manhattan, but something grand and glorious in and of itself – ‘Forest Hills,’ a place he saw as the capital of the 20th century, and then made it be so.”

Singer Cindy Mizelle, Photo by Michael Perlman
Singer Cindy Mizelle, a guest speaker explained, “Walter is such a champion in my eyes. He always treated me with love and respect, as I did he and his family, and wow, it’s such a great honor to have a street named after him. It’s so cool to take a walk down Walter Becker Way… He took me under his wing and really showed me that I can relax in the person that I am to sing live and egging me along to do more, and invited me on his album, ‘Circus Money.’” 

Guitar tech Orick Salazar, Photo by Michael Perlman
In recent years, Orick Salazar was Becker’s guitar tech. He said, “Walter was more than just a music genius. He was very smart and an amazing human being that helped a lot of people. I am very grateful for his advice.” 

Walter Becker's childhood home at The Balfour, Photo by Michael Perlman
Attendee Ben Larah, a Balfour resident takes pride in being a huge Steely Dan fan since 15. He said, “Their music sounded so different to anything I heard before; an amazing blend of jazz, blues, pop and rock, with a focus on virtuosic musicianship and clever lyrics. Aja is one of my favorite albums of all time. Walter Becker apparently had a lifelong fondness and pride for Forest Hills, so having his old street corner named after him was a fitting honor.” 

London resident Darren Hirst holds a Steely Dan leather jacket, Photo by Michael Perlman
Darren Hirst traveled from London to document the ceremony, and ended up winning a round of trivia, walking away with Becker’s leather jacket. “Walter along with Donald Fagen have a unique view among writers of the period from the 1970s onwards. Their sardonic and skeptical take on modern society coupled with a cool jazz vibe leaves few who can be legitimately compared to their composing and performance skill. I bought their first album in the 1970s, but at that time they had ceased touring. I caught their show when they resumed in the 1990s, and have seen all their tours that have come to Europe and many in the U.S.”

Steely Dan and their music as soloists has been a soundtrack to his life. “I have always found their lyrics intellectually challenging and the musical rhythms and composition so innovative,” he said.

Laura Tommaso made the trek from Italy, and praised it for being a sincere, personalized, and informal ceremony. “Don and Walt are just some of the best music NYC experienced since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Steely Dan are part of that tradition that starts with Dion and goes on with Frankie Valli, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Talking Heads; simply the heart and soul of the Big Apple popular music. They brought the passion for jazz, psychedelic music, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles into a unique music outfit called Steely Dan, and there was nothing like it before or after.” She continued, “What made him memorable was being himself.”

Upon hearing the news of the ceremony, fans began to reminisce and think ahead. Richard Adler of Monroe, NY reminisced, “Walter attended Stuyvesant, but I knew Walter from Halsey. Walter, Randy California, and I had a band called Newport News when we were in high school. Walter was our lead singer and harmonica player, and we mostly played the blues. Randy and I helped Walter learn to play guitar.”

Middle Village resident Ira Nagel said, “At Halsey JHS 157, he was Valedictorian, and we would play music at his grandma’s home across from Yellowstone Park. I remember his horn rim glasses and Squire briefcase. Maybe we can recognize him at Halsey with a plaque, ceremony, and a musical tribute.”

A fan holds up "Can't Buy A Thrill," Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27610255/article-Forest-Hills-street-named-for-Steely-Dan-founder