Tuesday, September 13, 2005


the four elements

I remember the artist who used to be here. He worked in spray paint. He painted huge portraits of rappers: 50 Cent, Fat Joe, Ja Rule. They stared territorially out of the front window of the first floor studio, claiming the sidewalk. Across Montgomery Street are housing projects where broke blacks and Latinos live. Two blocks east is Van Vorst Park, surrounded by million-dollar brownstones. Most of the folks who play in the park are white like me. I like 50 Cent, Fat Joe, and sometimes even Ja Rule. But I do not forget what side of the street I live on.

This is the shadow of the Jersey City Museum. It is a low, squat parallelogram, and it does not go far. Our spray paint artist was a neighbor. His work always felt so much more substantial and evocative than whatever happened to be in the window of the city's gallery. During the Studio Tour, he came in to the Cultural Affairs office, asking to be listed on the map. He'd missed the deadline for official recognition.

I am a rap fan who has probably listened to Get Rich Or Die Tryin' hundreds of times. Many of Curtis Jackson's lines have become touchstones for me, words that come to mind involuntarily as I encounter and process the world around me. For instance, on "Many Men", he says, out of patience with the limited interpretive capacity of his listeners, "do I have to spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time?/ You illiterate, niggas?/ You can't read between the lines?" A great couplet for an arrogant cuss; a motto for poets.

Now the spray-paint 50 is gone. The realtor doesn't know where the artist is now. But his departure prompted the property-owner to make his building over. Two African-American handymen are laying carpeting on the steps and painting the hallways. The first-floor studio has been completely restored: beautiful hardwood floors, track lighting, and marble kitchen surfaces. The closets are enormous. A tall, bald, professional-looking artist is here already, talking to his broker on his cellphone, closing in on the space.

I am here to see the duplex. The price is nothing we could have afforded two years ago, but times have changed. The apartment is on the top floor. The restorers scowl at me as I scale the steps. It could be that they live in Greenville, in hovels, and they resent me for living large off of the fruit of their labors. But work such as theirs is highly specialized. It's more likely that they're very well-paid, and that they've got townhouses in South Orange. It's not about class, because it never is.

The space is spectacular, but imperfect. The floors are impeccably done in dark red hardwood; the tub is whirlpool-sized. A staircase leads from the kitchen to a small penthouse with wide windows, overlooking Downtown Jersey City. Hilary has wanted a roof; "roof life", she says, in that little voice of hers that always kills me.
I am sweating under my orange linen shirt. The roof deck is painted silver, and radiates heat; inside the penthouse, sunlight slams through the high windows. All the walls have been painted a soft yellow. I have read that yellow walls make people hostile. At least it isn't yellow wallpaper.

On the street, the sun is insane: it's not supposed to be this hot in September. In Van Vorst Park, there are broke African Americans on the northwest benches again. They smell. We don't hate them, of course, we just wish they weren't there; just like the bums who our City Councilman would like to chase away from the Grove Street PATH Station plaza. Soon the developer of Grove Pointe will rehabilitate the plaza, and the bums will be gone. We will be happier. Our president gets on national television, and, with a straight face, says that race was not a factor in the FEMA's late response to flooding in the Gulf Coast. By now, our spray-painter would have added a canvas of Kanye to his gallery overlooking Montgomery Street. But he's not there anymore. Perhaps we will take his place. Do I have to spell it out for you motherfuckers all the time?

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Oh that wacky joeylane6094 and his crazy comments.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Must you curse all the time? I am so not "down" with it. Besides, it's fucking annoying.
I like pesky mice! And I like Jim Teacher, too.
i don't really see how painting portraits of celebrities, or even heros, is substantial and evocative, especially when the majority of graffiti artists do it as well. i wish graffiti artists would start to break out of the tightly monitored confines that they have (literally) painted themselves into.
usually i agree, but these were pretty hot. you kinda had to see them.

i used to get the same reaction from seeing those faces staring out on montgomery avenue as i do when i hear erykah badu sing "love of my life". moving. hip-hop generates great tributes.
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