CHANGING THE WORLD, SEVEN BOYS AT A
TIME with Michael Rosen, Ph.D
Following the lead of his racially color-blind son, Michael Rosen and his
wife found themselves adopting a group of underprivileged African American
boys within the context of their very privileged Caucasian world. What began
as a kids' baseball game in the park, became a commitment that would bridge
the racial and cultural divide, introducing the youngsters to Nintendo,
their first dinner at a nice restaurant, a book store, and ultimately
providing the guidance and support to get them into college. Not surprising,
the Rosens gained as much as they gave, including an education in the real
impact of racial and socioeconomic discrimination. Dr. Rosen explains, "I
don't understand what needs to be done to change this massive level of
oppression. But I do know that unless there are types of mentoring where
people reach across those divides, then that very tragic aspect of our
society is never going to change." This tender story of how one family grew
to hold the dreams of young men, who might never have escaped that
oppression, will bring you a new perspective on what's possible, when we
live as though everyone really does deserve an equal chance to succeed.
Michael Rosen holds an M.S. in social anthropology from the University of
Pennsylvania, and an M.B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from its Wharton School. He has
been a real estate developer and investor, a C.E.O. on Wall Street, an
assistant professor at New York University, and is now a community
organizer. He is the author of Turning Words, Spinning Worlds (Routledge
2000) and What Else but Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the
Projects and the Penthouse (Public Affairs 2009). To learn more about the
work of Michael Rosen go to www.MichaelRosenWords.com.
Topics Explored in this Dialogue:
What holds underprivileged young people back even more than racism
How our society ignores the issue of class
How love, trust, and commitment can change the course of a life
The years after my business was destroyed have become "What Else But
Home: Seven Boys and an American Journey Between the Projects and the
Penthouse." Before that, I wrote pretty okay academics (I'm proud of
"Turning Words, Spinning Worlds"), a hard novel and poetry...
What Else But Home
I began What Else But Home without knowing. September 11, 2001
destroyed my business; we were safe, physically, but our office was
a block and a half south of the Towers, facing Rector Street and the
path of the second plane; perfect views of the tragedy and
destruction. Our elected officials visited "Ground Zero," made daily
pronouncements, certainly helped families of those who perished and
promised aid to those of us whose businesses and livelihoods had
vanished. But if you worked in or had a small business there--a shoe
store, small restaurant, magazine shop, a small design or law firm,
you received absolutely nothing. And your business was gone.
Except I received a lesson... in love & responsibility: after the
TV news is finished, the video of some government person saying
"We're here to help" is over, it's our responsibility to take care
of each other. Our families, our friends, our communities. Whether
it's September 11 or Hurricane Katrina, we put each other back
I started writing a book then, about the front room of a
restaurant down the block. Neighbors came there to be with each
other. Ripton, Morgan, Kindu, Carlos, William, Juan, Philippe,
Leslie and Mr. Jenkins used to stop by--it is a French bistro, the
owers didn't think puppies were dirtier than us--to play cards and
spend time also with my friends; John Howard, Butch Morris, Blue,
Dimitri, Daniel Bell. My friends brought friends.
I started including my sons and the bigger boys (who were also
becoming "sons") in that book, and suddenly they seemed the most
important part of it.
Which I still couldn't see till Gidon Kunda and Ileene Smith said
The most important things are often here already--maybe we're
already touching them--the things we love and are responsible for.
That was my lesson, in what I've come to understand as compassion,
judgment and spirituality.
This book came as a surprise. I'd left academics to become a real
estate developer; our office was in an old factory in Soho before
that neighborhood became fashionable. It had rough wooden floors,
brick walls, arched windows and tall ceilings to fit the looms. We'd
find sewing needles between floorboards, the ones industrial
machines used. A fire emergency sign was still nailed up in the
stairwell, baked enamel on steel, in Yiddish. My great grandfather,
his brothers and sisters could have worked there.
We'd plugged our computers into dialup modems, state of the art
then, and started using email. I wrote with some of my old professor
friends, people in California, Israel, England, and got nearly
instantaneous emails back. It's hard now to imagine how
extraordinary that was. It's like our younger son Morgan, some years
ago, asking me, "Dad, when you were young, was the Internet in
I received an email from a professor in Sweden, asking if she and
her colleagues could publish a collection of my academic
writings--pieces that had come out in journals and edited books. I
was overjoyed; in my academic career, I'd pursued publication of
each piece like pushing a rock up hill--no one ever came asking. Oh
my, my work was good, I was smart... then, oh no, I'm academically
dead. Because a collection of an academic's work is published once
he's passed on.
That's okay. I'm happy at what academics allowed me to learn; for
the teachers, colleagues and students I had.
One of the prefaces to the book says: "This collection represents
Michael Rosen's encounter with an 'ethnography of the center'-the
study of cultural orders in the heart of the metropolis. Considers
occupational worlds from finance and advertising to the subworld of
COSPONSORED by New York City Housing Authority & Lower East Side
People's Mutual Housing Association - my Hometown Book Launch:
Reading, Discussion & Reception
August 13, Thursday - 6:30PM
108 Orchard Street
Tel: 212.982.8420 Tenement Museum...
University of Pennsylvania Bookstore - Philadelphia, PA
returning to Penn after, ummm... LOTS of years
Reading, Signing & I sure hope someone asks me something !
September 16, Wednesday - 6 PM
3601 Walnut Street, University Square (there was no "University
Square" in my day)
University of Pennsylvania Bookstore...
The National Arts Club - Manhattan, NY
Reading, Signing & Reception
September 17, Thursday - 8 PM
15 Gramercy Park South
Tel: 212.475.3424 The National Arts Club...
The Amyotte Home - Darien, CT
Reading, Discussion & Signing
September 20, Sunday - 4:00 PM
Thank you Kathryn and Harry
University of District of Columbia - Washington, DC
Distinguished Lecture Series - with William, Philippe & Juan
November 12, Thursday - 2:30 - 4:00 PM
4200 Connecticut Avenue, NW. Building 38 Suite A-03
Tel: 202.274.6098 University of District of Columbia...
Miami Book Fair - Miami, FL
Panel and Discussion
November 14, Saturday or Nov 15, Sunday ~ we're not yet sure which Miami Book Fair...
Joseph-Beth Booksellers - Cleveland, OH
Reading, Discussion & Signing
November 17, Tuesday - 7:00 PM
Legacy Village, 24519 Cedar Road, Lyndhurst
Tel: 216.691.7000 Joseph-Beth Booksellers...
Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side
all of the hype and drama that goes into the New York art world, it's
easy to forget that much of the creative energy in the city actually
comes from lessor or unknown artists making art on the community level.
This is why we loved seeing
this article on Clayton Patterson.
photographer and filmmaker, has spent much of the past 25 years
obsessively documenting the artists, drag queens, heroin addicts,
rabbis, dealers, and new immigrants of the Lower East Side.
Originally from Canada, Patterson and his wife came to the Lower
East Side in 1978, after fleeing the "too suburban" Brooklyn (one can
only imagine what he thinks of it now). Once there, Patterson opened the
Clayton Gallery in 1986, where he has shown everything from work by a
Hasidic Jew to work by the leader of the Satan Sinners Nomad gang. He
even started a "Wall of Fame," where he would take pictures of local
kids from the tenements or the nearby projects who came by the gallery,
and then display them in the gallery's front window.
During this same time, Patterson was also busy documenting the
rest of the motley community around him, as well as participating in the
activist politics around him by filming police interventions in the
area. This political documentation eventually led to 13 arrests, he
claims, "just for taking pictures."
There is a ton of other interesting stuff in the article, but we have
to say the ending hit home in a particularly depressing way:
"History" is the key word, he said. "For
over a hundred years, the Lower East Side was a magic crucible where
people were inspired to great art and ideas. The Lower East Side
probably changed the history of America five hundred times."
In just the last decade, he
believes, he has seen the end of that era, as soaring real estate prices
have largely emptied the area of its artists, bohemians, radicals and
immigrants. The third annual Howl! Festival of East Village Arts, now
through Sunday, seems to him as much a nostalgia trip as a celebration
of current artistic and intellectual life.
"What we have here now is bars and
college students vomiting on the streets," Mr. Patterson sighs. "Nothing
will rise out of it. It's all vacuous and lacking substance. When I go
out my door now, I don't see anyone I know. I see the loss of a
Some of Patterson's photographs can be seen in "Captured: A
Film/Video History of the Lower East Side," a collection of interviews
and essays documenting the neighborhood's role in the history of film
and video. He is also working on a book about the political history of
Clayton Patterson at his graffiti-covered front door
on Essex Street.
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
Published: September 24, 2009
IN the window of a small storefront art gallery on Rivington Street
called Alife Presents, a plasma screen scrolls through a portrait
gallery of the Lower East Side of Manhattan as it used to be. More
photos hang on the walls inside. Black and Hispanic schoolchildren
smile. Crips and Bloods flash gang signs. Dope crews and drag queens
posture. Homeless men, hookers, bikers, punks, eccentrics, artists and
the postman grin and pose.
An image taken in front of Clayton
Patterson’s graffiti-covered door, now on view in “Clayton
Patterson: L.E.S. Captured.”
The photos are part of a crowded exhibition (through Nov. 8) called
“Clayton Patterson: L.E.S. Captured.” Although none of the photos are
more than 25 years old, Mr. Patterson says he considers them historical
documents. The Lower East Side has changed a lot since he took most of
them. A real estate boom pushed out many of Mr. Patterson’s subjects and
brought in a new, affluent population.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was capturing the last of the
wild, free, outlaw, utopian, visionary spirit of the Lower East Side,”
he said recently.
With his companion, Elsa Rensaa, Mr. Patterson came to New York from
Calgary, Alberta, in 1979. In 1983 they moved into 161 Essex Street,
over a Hispanic dressmaker’s shop, and Mr. Patterson began obsessively
documenting his adopted neighborhood.
With his long goatee, biker-black outfits and camera bags, he became
a fixture of the neighborhood himself. He shot on its streets and in its
nightclubs and rock clubs, now vanished.
He recorded police battles with squatters and anarchists, most
notably the clashes around Tompkins Square Park in 1988. He was arrested
more than a dozen times by camera-shy police officers, one of whom
knocked out a couple of Mr. Patterson’s teeth with his baton.
Over the years he has amassed a huge archive that he estimates
comprises hundreds of thousands of photographs, some 2,500 hours of
video and 300 audiotaped interviews, plus a large collection of heroin
bags he picked up off the streets, graffiti stickers he peeled off
walls, books, articles, posters, postcards, tattoo art and other Lower
East Side ephemera, “much of it rare because it was underground or
“It’s empirical history, immediate history,” he explained. “I go
where my nose leads me. It’s a wealth of material, but it’s one guy’s
view of it. The history of the Lower East Side is dense, multicultural
and diverse. There are multiple layers within the community. You had
Jews, Asians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, avant-garde filmmakers, tattoo
parlors, the gay clubs, the art scene. It takes having documented all
these different circles to get how they connected.”
In recent years Mr. Patterson, 61, has begun to edit books about some
of those circles. “Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East
Side,” edited with Paul Bartlett and Urania Mylonas, was published in
2005, and “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,” edited with
Mareleyn Schneider, will be published next year. (Both are from Seven
Mr. Patterson waxes elegiac when speaking of how his neighborhood has
“The Lower East Side was a crucible for creativity. Artists and
intellectuals were drawn here because they could afford to live and
create here. When
Lou Reed moved here from Brooklyn in the ’60s, he rented an
apartment on Ludlow Street for something like $38 a month. Now it’d be
$3,000. I don’t think there’ll be any more Lou Reeds on Ludlow Street.
All of the geniuses who were here because of the cheap rents are gone.”
He doesn’t disapprove of all his new neighbors however. In 1999 he
came upon a group of young people hanging the walls of their new Orchard
Street shoe store with more than 300 small-scale graffiti panels, called
tags, by artists from all over the city. The store was called Alife. A
shared interest in the art forged an intergenerational bond between
“I wrote graffiti coming up,” Rob Cristofaro, one of Alife’s
founders, said recently. Growing up in Yonkers and White Plains, he had
known little of Mr. Patterson’s Lower East Side. “I came to eat and hang
out once in a blue.”
Pushed off Orchard Street to make way for a new hotel, Alife
relocated, and its owners opened the Rivington Club, selling high-end
sneakers, and the A.R.C. Sports Store. Alife Presents is a new addition
to the block. Mr. Patterson’s is the second exhibition in the space.
Mr. Patterson rejected the idea that a boutique offering Commes des
Garçons T-shirts and $200 sneakers might be an example of the hipster
upscaling he says killed the old neighborhood. He said he respects Alife
as a small, independent business that has hired staff members from the
neighborhood. It’s not so different, he said, from his own Clayton Caps,
a line of ball caps hand-embroidered by him and Ms. Rensaa, worn by art
and film celebrities like
Matt Dillon and
Gus Van Sant.
Along with Mr. Patterson’s photographs the show includes “Clayton
Patterson’s Front Door Book,” recently published by O.H.W.O.W., with
more than 100 pages of portraits Mr. Patterson snapped of neighborhood
residents and visitors posing in front of his graffiti-covered front
door. (In another indication of how things have changed, Mr. Patterson
recently received a notice from the Sanitation Department ordering him
to clean the graffiti off his door. It’s the first such notice ever, he
said.) Also, an excerpt from the film “Captured,” a 2008 documentary
about Mr. Patterson, will be screened.
Alife produced the show with Kinz & Tillou Fine Art, a Chelsea
gallery that exhibited some of Mr. Patterson’s photographs in 2007. As
he helped to hang the Alife show, Lance Kinz said that in his opinion
Mr. Patterson’s work sits comfortably in a tradition of “other New York
street photographers and artists-slash-journalists” like
Jacob Riis, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
“Clayton calls it documentation, not fine art, but it’s done with an
artist’s eye and mind,” he said. “And to me his archive is a fascinating
conceptual art project, one he’s dedicated his life to.”