Blue Notes, March 2014

Who owns the air? This philosophical question is painfully real for some, including DJ Fresh Kid (aka Sean Bruce, 40) who was arrested last July in Brooklyn for operating a pirate radio station. The Fresh Kid was a regular DJ on the Fire Station (104.7 FM), which broadcasted Caribbean music in the outer regions of Brooklyn without a license. Because of a change in New York state law that designated unlicensed broadcasting as a class A misdemeanor, both the Fresh Kid and Solomon Malka, a Fire Station employee, could face jail time.

Fire Station’s collapse marked a shift in the decades-long battle between pirate radio and its legal competitors. Supporters of “big radio” and the Federal Communications Commission claim that unlicensed stations interfere with broadcasts, while pirate radio backers counter that they provide an essential service in underserved communities: only 51 percent of New Yorkers speak English at home, yet 86 percent of FM stations are in English. And besides, they argue, the air should be free. But the threat of jail time has forced many pirate radio operators into hiding, or online streaming.

A Freedom of Information Act request sent to the FCC revealed that WKCR, Columbia’s radio station at 89.9 FM, is not spared from the interference of pirate operators. In the northern reaches of Manhattan and pockets of Brooklyn, some would be WKCR listeners instead complained of hearing “Quisqueya FM”—a station aimed at Dominican listeners broadcasting from the Bronx at 89.7 FM—or “Love Gospel Radio”—a Caribbean gospel station run by Grace Assembly Deliverance Temple on Boston Road. Attempts to contact these unlicensed operators were unsuccessful; perhaps they fear becoming the next DJ Fresh Kid.

Nonetheless, pirate radio remains a presence on the New York soundscape. Turn the dial just past the static, and a world of tinny music awaits. Walking around New York with a portable radio reveals the depth of unlicensed transmissions: the drone of Hebrew prayers in outer Brooklyn; the mellifluent tone of a French Creole talk show in upper Manhattan; the sticky urgency of patois on the streets of the Bronx. In a city of a hundred tongues, the pirate beat goes on.

— Luca Marzorati

On the southeast corner of 119th  and Amsterdam stands a neo-Romanesque gatehouse of granite. Its entrances are sealed shut, its sublevel filled with sand. Finished in 1885, the structure was once part of the extensive Croton Reservoir Aqueduct, which supplied clean water to New York City until the 1950s. It is one ofMorningside Heights’ many arcane historic landmark—solitary and deteriorating.

The aqueduct ran from the Croton Dam in Westchester down to a reservoir on 42nd  Street, where Bryant Park now stands—an impressive forty one miles under the streets and structures of the swelling city. It provided a reliable source of clean water and the means to extinguish the frequent fires that sprung up with New York’s rapid development. Prior to its construction, the city’s system of water collection was a great deal more primitive and haphazard. Rainwater was caught in barrels, and wells had to continuously be dug and decommissioned due to contamination. The aqueduct was a revolutionary development, drawing up to thirty million gallons of water into New York each day. Underground, the gatehouse contained pumping equipment and facili ties to regulate this flow of water until final termination of functionality in 1984.

Facing liquidation by the city as a result of its obsoletion, the structure was designated a landmark of historical significance in 2000. (Another gatehouse down the avenue on 113th met a disparate fate. It was sold and repurposed as part of a senior center.)

Though the gatehouse on 119th is an important stop on a historical trail tracing the aqueduct’s path, it is not and has never been accessible to the public. This significant relic of the city’s early infrastructure is surrounded by raffish metal fencing all the way round and flanked by an active community garden. It, indeed, has been saved for posterity in a lonely decline, sui generis, in a NYC Parks Department cage.

— Nia Brown

With the arrival of this year’s eager Barnard first-years came a kaleidoscope of varying philosophies and viewpoints. The most opinionated campus character, however, sits outside of Barnard Hall, proclaiming aphoristically: ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE and MURDER HAS ITS SEXUAL SIDE. The bench that bears these phrases is American conceptual artist and Barnard Medal of Distinction honoree Jenny Holzer’s work “SELECTIONS FROM TRUISMS (Abuse of power comes…)” —or, as dubbed by a smattering of students, the “Douchebag Bench.” And it always has something to say.

That an artwork bearing the phrase “STUPID PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BREED” sits in a cozy patch of grass at an institution of higher learning gives some students pause. “These are lofty, complacent, self-righteous absolutes…[and] many are even potentially incredibly damaging,” the Columbia sophomore who originally coined the sobriquet claimed. Other students embrace the heady sting of the piece’s austere, all-caps legends. “At first glance, Jenny Holzer ’s piece shocked me and I was taken aback,” shared one Barnard firstyear, who finds the statements “seductive and some what inappropriate.” She grew to see the bench as consonant with her experience of the ethos of the Barnard Woman: “to push boundaries and to state the facts that others won’t.”

Bret Silver, Barnard’s Vice President for Development, proudly touts the bench as “an important piece of art that invites debate and critical thought, which are central to Barnard’s academic mission” and is confident the work will be “considered and appreciated by generations of Barnard students” for years to come.

Since the late 1970s, Holzer has emblazoned her inflammatory statements on surfaces as quotidian as t-shirts and condom wrappers, as vaunted as the Louvre and the Guggenheim. She aims to question oppressive paradigms, represented in these “truisms.” Whether or not institutional art is really conducive to “critical thinking,” on a campus otherwise decorated with stoic lions and reticent men, it’s comforting to know that Holzer’s bench will dependably be there to startle us.

— Alexandra Warrick

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