Saturday, December 24, 2011

Visiting Doc for the Holidays

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, THE BERKSHIRES, MA – If you’re lucky enough to afford to travel during the holidays one of the highlights is always meeting up with family and old friends. We were able to take a drive up the mountains in Western Massachusetts to visit Doc. We met Doc years ago in Albany, NY at the now closed Half Moon CafĂ© where he was playing a gig. Bernie and Doc became fast friends. They got together often to jam, and Doc always had a new complicated riff to teach Bernie. Listening to their music made the drudgery of dissertation writing almost bearable.

Doc grew up in Harlem during the 1940s, honing his chops playing rent parties. After serving in Korea he moved around picking up gigs wherever he could and making ends meet as an auto mechanic. He had been in Albany for quite a long time when we met him in the 1990s and by the early 2000s was thinking of retiring to Paris. Going to Paris was a dream he had always had. In 2005 he was sponsored by a musician’s association to spend time there doing what he loves best: playing the sax. But his enthusiasm for Paris dampened as he witnessed the riots and so he came home, ending up in Western Mass, with a bio diesel fuel business on the side. Not too long ago he had to get dentures, but they made playing sax difficult so now he has two pairs, the latter that he chiseled himself and uses to play.

There’s something else conveyed in these photos worth noting during this holiday season: deep respect for the elder mentor and the knowledge that there will always be more to learn. In our youth-obsessed society where older people are dismissed as not being relevant anymore, watching Doc and Bernie jam -- and the look on Bernie’s face as he learned yet another new riff -- made me think about how important experience is and how it comes with age. So America, instead of worrying about a few more lines are your face and another gray hair, why not reflect on this for the holidays. And Doc, thanks for everything. Keep on playin’ that sweet smooth tasty jazz.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Houseboat Living

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – Along Amsterdam’s elaborate canal system are 2,400 houseboats – some occupied by long time owners, and others by long and short term renters. There are even houseboat hotels. Although they are relatively small at about 25 meters in length, Amsterdam’s houseboats have all the amenities of off water dwellings, and about 750 are moored downtown.

Houseboat living emerged during the city’s post World War Two housing shortage that was matched by an overabundance of old, empty cargo ships moored along the canals. It reached its peak in the 1960s and 70s. While it may have been a relatively inexpensive way to live back then, it certainly isn’t now because the City Council limits the number of mooring permits. In fact, in recent years no new mooring permits have been released. This has resulted in higher rental and purchase costs, as well as increasing numbers of houseboats being converted to hotels by entrepreneurs eager to cash in on a growing tourist niche.

A good place to learn more about the history and present living conditions of Amsterdam’s houseboats is the city’s houseboat museum.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Saturday, December 10, 2011

There Goes the Pawn Shop

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, ATLANTA, GA – According to a recent Wall Street Journal  article, pawn shops are THE place to shop this holiday season.  These establishments take us back to a different type of American city -- one where neighborhoods were truly mixed use.  Ms. Owen, a 65 year-old lady I met not longer ago showed me her old coin collection, one that she keeps in old Dippity Do jars. She had all sorts of valuable coins and I asked her where she got them. “Pawn shops,” she said. Although she isn't as happy about all the electronic stuff present-day pawn shop have, she still thinks they are places where you could find some really good deals. “Better than Walmart, and you never know what you’ll find!” Yet such places have been vilified by gentrifying-eager developers and residents. Indeed, one doesn’t have to look very far for factually inaccurate but alarmist media accounts about the perilous presence of the pawn shop. For example, here’s a particularly dramatic one entitled Hookers, Pawn Shops Threaten Brooklyn Gentrification. While there really isn’t much empirical evidence to support the perceived negative impacts of pawn shops, many are moving out of (or not moving into) gentrifying neighborhoods anyway. North Side Loan Office recently moved from Atlanta’s hot new Old Fourth Ward to the southwest side of the city, an area decimated by the 2008 housing bust and pervasive mortgage fraud. The rents are cheap there and space is abundant for any legitimate business. So, if you’re going to do some pawn shop holiday shopping this season, plan one going to the ‘other’ side of town. I’ll bet it’s worth the trip.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Back to Alphabet City

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, NEW YORK, NY – In the late 1980s and early 1990s I lived in New York’s Alphabet City at 166 Norfolk Street, which is off of East Houston between Avenues B and C. Back then it was a pretty rough neighborhood littered with vacant buildings, empty lots, and dirty needles.  But the rent was cheap, and residents looked out for one and other. Lewis, an older gentleman who lived on the first floor, told me when I moved in to paint my bicycle my own colors so it wouldn’t get stolen. I took his advice and no one stole it.  Well, not until I moved to Albany, NY for graduate school.

I have fond memories of my old neighborhood and the people who lived there but don’t get to New York City much. So when I was there recently I decided to go back to the Alphabets. However, when I reached the corner of Bowery and East Houston I thought I was lost. On that corner, where there used to be an empty lot was a sparkling Whole Foods, and a little farther east, a luxury hotel surrounded by what looked like luxury condos. Maybe I’m not remembering exactly where I had lived, I thought. After all, I hadn’t been back since the mid-1990s. Still, I kept walking east and came upon the famous Katz Deli which looked exactly how I remembered, except for the modern glass apartment complex looming over it. Yes, I was definitely going in the right direction. Only everything looked different. The neighborhood had gentrified.

Things hadn’t completely changed, though. In fact, sporadically sprinkled in between the luxury condos were old dilapidated but inhabited buildings, some public housing which looked in pretty good shape, as well as plenty of mom and pop store fronts. It was almost as if the Old Alphabet was fighting back and I wondered how the more wealthy, newer residents interacted with the older-time, less wealthy ones who managed to stay. And more important, I wondered about where the residents went who could no longer afford to live here -- like the people I used to know at 166 Norfolk.

Right then a city worker called out to me: “Hey hon, why do you look so sad?” I stopped to talk to him and told him I used to live here. “Aw, you like it old school!” he said. I asked how much a studio would cost to rent these days and he thought it would be around $1,200. I asked him where the people went who couldn’t afford such a high rent. He thought Queens probably or perhaps even Atlanta. “It’s not like it used to be,” he said. "So when do you think Starbucks is moving in?" I asked. He shrugged and said "We need more grit not more Starbucks." I couldn't have agreed more.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be reached at