Monday, March 08, 2010

Census of Places that Matter, art opening, and the (upcoming) "vanished site" of Freddy's

Someone asked me if Freddy's Bar & Backroom, fated for demolition after a court approved eminent domain, could be landmarked, and the answer is, of course, no: it's not a building of particularly architectural merit inside or out and, if the terra cotta Ward Bakery couldn't be landmarked, Freddy's sure can't.

But Freddy's, which in its Backroom last night held an opening for an art retrospective over 13 years, does deserve a spot--anyone can enter it--in the Census of Places that Matter, the very democratic list published as part of the Place Matters project created by the cultural organization City Lore and the Municipal Art Society, a design/planning organization.

(Photos by Steve Soblick. Most of the pieces in the collection are not related to Freddy's, but these two--a photo by Dan Sagarin at left and a mixed-media piece by Steve de Seve--do portray Freddy's.)

Origins of the Census

The project came out of a 1997 conference called History Happened Here, organized at the Museum of the City of New York by City Lore and the Municipal Art Society:
We learned from the conference that many people shared our concerns about the places of value disappearing around us. Since few strategies existed for promoting or protecting such places, our two organizations decided it was time to mount an initiative dedicated to such aims.

The Place Matters mission is to foster the conservation of New York City's historically and culturally significant places. These are places that hold memories and anchor traditions for individuals and communities, and that help tell the history of the city as a whole. We are convinced that such places promote the well being of New York's many communities in ways that too often go unrecognized.
At the HDC conference

I was reminded of the census on Saturday at the annual preservation conference of the Historic Districts Council, this year focusing on the next generation.

At one panel Mariana Mogilevich, of Place Matters, discussed the concept of cultural landmarks. The census, she said, may seem arbitrary; rather than scientific, it is humanistic.

The census includes places that matter to history and tradition, but are not necessarily architecturally distinguished, she said. Given that anyone can nominate a place, with no firm criteria, "the result is a really big, bottom-up survey."

The census, however, is just that, and it recognizes some places that no longer exist and would have been hard to preserve. "How can we landmark lunch, or ice cream, or hanging out?" Mogilevich asked. "It's a really difficult question, not only for us."

But if Freddy's is reestablished, as its manager hopes ("I think Freddy's is an idea, not an address"), then the some of the spirit can move, too.

(Money clearly isn't the only motivation at the bar. More than once I've asked bartenders--who don't know me--for a club soda and they refused my cash. Arena prices are a tad higher.)

In Prospect Heights

I checked the Census to see if any place in the AY footprint had been entered. Freddy's was absent, but someone had written up 24 Sixth Avenue:
This was the former factory of the Spalding Company, where they used to make spaldeens, the pink rubber balls that were an iconic presence in urban America. Everywhere kids used to play games like stickball with spaldeens. Anyone who grew up in New York up to the mid-80s probably remembers them. There's a Spalding banner painted around the building along with words like football, basketball, etc.
That banner was removed when the building was renovated into loft condos earlier this decade--and now the sturdy handsome building is also slated for the wrecking ball.

Vanished sites

So the Spalding Building and Freddy's (should it be entered) seem fated for a category known as vanished sites.

(At left, a photo of a poster in the Backroom that asks, "Are You Cuff Enough for the Freddy's Eviction Day Chain-In?" a reference to the planned resistance.)

One place in that vanished category is Nkiru Books, the oldest black-oriented bookstore in Brooklyn, once on St. Marks Avenue in Park Slope.

That space is now Flatbush Farm, but the Nkiru Center for Education and Culture was reestablished in Prospect Heights (though its web site is down).

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