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College Walk
Taps for the Beats?

For a town that enjoys its liquor as much as New York does, the list of iconic bars is a short one. Longstanding establishments that are widely loved and even more widely known include McSorley’s, the “wonderful saloon” on East Seventh Street immortalized by Joseph Mitchell in the pages of The New Yorker, and the White Horse Tavern, the West Village gin mill favored by the poet Dylan Thomas, however much to his detriment.

One could make a strong case, too, for including on such a roster the West End — “that dim waystation,” in Diana Trilling’s words, “of undergraduate debauchery on Morningside Heights.”

On the latter count, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are surely the first among equals where the West End is concerned. The 90-plus-year-old café is invariably mentioned in any discussion of the Beats at Columbia, and it has displayed their photographs on its walls in recent years. Kerouac’s debut novel, The Town and the City, drew heavily upon its habitués, and his Vanity of Duluoz specifically mentioned its “smell of beers and smoke.” In 2001, when Christie’s auctioned the manuscript for On the Road for $2.43 million, it hosted a party the evening before at the West End;  students and alumni have celebrated Ginsberg’s Howl with readings there during each of the last two Homecoming weekends. In large part because of its association with the Beats, the bar even has its own entry in Wikipedia — a distinction that neither McSorley’s nor the White Horse can claim.

For all its particular history, it was for a different reason that the West End made the papers most recently, in early April. As the Spectator and then The New York Times reported, the bar was sold to the owners of a pair of Cuban restaurants downtown; it is scheduled to close for renovations on July 1 and to reopen several weeks later as Havana Central at the West End.

The news occasioned a rhetorical rending of garments in the Spec, and even the Times pieces hinted at the end of an era. But whether the sale in fact represents the end of “the ’Stend” any more so than previous changes remains to be seen. Indeed, the new owners (one of whom is a graduate of the business school) have pledged to preserve much of the décor and some of the menu; they seem to be taking pains to alienate the clientele as little as possible.

Change could be a good thing. By most accounts, the quality of the food at the West End has been, shall we say, uneven, and few visits were necessary to conclude that the tap lines could stand a good flushing.

Of course, the West End was never intended to be terribly upscale. What it aimed for, and in this it succeeded through the years,  was to be inexpensive and friendly. As alumni of somewhat recent vintage report, Thursdays and Fridays are still big nights at the bar, and even if it was not one’s primary destination for an evening, the West End remained a good place to convene for a nightcap and check in with friends on the way home. One might also note in passing that, despite exhortations from the University and more muscular efforts by New York’s Finest, patrons under the age of 21 managed to enjoy a beverage there from time to time, and were presumably grateful for the opportunity.

Even so, it has been a long time since the West End was considered the place to go by the student body at large. But as other neighborhood watering holes came and went — thanks to the University’s benevolent influence, more the latter and less the former — the West End hung on.

But not without alterations. Over the years, the bar’s footprint has expanded, and the kitchen has been relocated from the basement to the ground floor. Somewhere along the way, the original bar was removed. Heck, in 1988 it even closed for more than a year before being revived by the departing owners.

All that time, it endured, along with the ghosts of Kerouac and Ginsberg and thousands of others who ate and drank and talked away their Columbia days and nights. If the spirit of that time is gone, well … it was probably gone a long time before April. But if the spirit is still there, it can certainly survive this.

— Marcus Tonti



Auld Lang ’Zine

“Ginsberg came up to me once outside Butler Library and handed me a typed sheet with a sonnet,” John Rosenberg ’50CC told an audience of around 80 people in Low Library earlier this spring. “It was a very traditional English sonnet and didn’t yet sound like Allen Ginsberg, but I had the judgement to recognize that it was well done. And so Ginsberg appeared in one of the earlier Reviews during my editorship.”

Rosenberg, who is the William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, was part of an eight-member panel of past and current editors of Columbia Review, which claims to be the nation’s oldest college literary journal, having been founded in 1815. The gathering was organized by former Review editor Les Gottesman ’68CC, who got the idea after running into an old Review colleague, Alan Feldman ’66CC, at an MLA conference in California. Feldman suggested they have a reunion of Review staffers from the 1960s, and Gottesman expanded the idea to include those who came before and after. The result was a lively multigenerational assemblage of editors, writers, poets, scholars, and, especially, raconteurs.

“It was truly an astonishing constellation of gifted undergraduates, poets, and young critics,” Rosenberg said of the 1949–50 Review. In addition to Ginsberg, Rosenberg cited John Hollander, Richard Howard, and a teenage Norman Podhoretz, who, Rosenberg recalled, had the “chutzpah” to write a critical review of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination. “We were a wonderful, nervy lot,” said Rosenberg, laughing. “I mean, we sort of thought that we invented the world.”

Novelist Hilton Obenzinger ’69CC, who edited the 1968–69 Review with Gottesman and Alan Senauke, joked that he hadn’t been back in Low Library since he and his friends occupied President Grayson Kirk’s office in 1968; National Review cofounder Ralph de Toledano ’38CC claimed he hadn’t been on the Columbia campus in 50 years, when Newsweek transferred him to Washington. Both men recalled editing  Columbia Review during times of great literary ferment.

“Paul Auster would wander around in his long overcoat,” said Obenzinger, to a murmur of knowing chuckles, “clutching French poems and translations of Tristan Tzara.” Obenzinger also touched on the inspiration of Professor Kenneth Koch, and of the “exhilarating and nerve-racking” experience of being a classmate of David Shapiro, “already a major poet.”

The 90-year-old de Toledano counted Thomas Merton and Herman Wouk among his Review contemporaries and recalled the thrill of Senior Colloquium, headed by Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun: “When they began arguing with each other,” de Toledano said, “the sparks would fly.”

Norman Kelvin ’48CC, a World War II veteran and Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, discussed the war’s anxiety-producing impact on the student body and paused to mention a fallen comrade and classmate, Marty Rosenberg (John’s brother), a navigator in a B-17 who was shot down in 1944.

“Those of us who were veterans and joined the Review were looked up to by those who were entering in ’46,” Kelvin went on. “But that passed very quickly, and rightly so. It was a life of the mind, it was talent, it was ambition to write that absolutely took over; and, in a curious way that people do not seem to remember, a kind of egalitarianism replaced this hero worship of veterans in just a matter of a few months.”

Author and essayist Phillip Lopate ’64CC related a controversy from the pre-Vietnam era of 1963, when free speech was the cause célèbre on college campuses: an entire issue of the Review was censored by the dean of student affairs over a poem containing the word shit. The magazine’s staff, which included Lopate, Ron Padgett, Mitchell Hall, Jonathan Cott, and Richard Tristman, quit in protest, though Lopate eventually rejoined what he called the “quisling” or “Vichy” Review, hoping to “change the system from within.” He was soon elected editor and went on
to publish a 128-page Columbia Review, the largest ever.

The 1970s were evoked by writer Luc Sante (editor in 1974–75), who described the “confusion” and “void” of that decade (“We came to Columbia feeling that we had missed all the fun”), while Jennifer Glaser ’00CC referred to the “less glamorous” 1990s, during which the financially strapped Review staff resorted to such desperate moneymaking ploys as appearing as a paid audience on a short-lived TV show called Forgive or Forget.

The panel was rounded out by the Review’s current editor, Max Norton, who arrived at Columbia the year Kenneth Koch died and whose first memory of any campus poetry event was of going to Koch’s memorial service. Norton also introduced the latest Review, a reunion-inspired compilation of old and new pieces entitled “The Auld Lang Syne Issue,” which includes works by David Shapiro, John Hollander, David Lehman, Alan Feldman, Les Gottesman, and Norton himself, as well as a poem by Allen Ginsberg that appeared in a 1946 Review and was never republished.

When Norton finished his remarks, concluding the program, Ralph de Toledano spoke up.
“May I interject?” he asked, and the crowd settled back down. “During my tenure Columbia Review was a very serious publication. But I would like to quote a limerick that we ran in one of the 1937 issues:
An erotic neurotic named Sid
Got his ego mixed up with his id.
His errant libido
Was like a torpedo
And that’s why he done what
   he did!

And, thus, in a roomful of egos the wisest among them got the final word.

— Paul Hond



Electrical Overload

In a SoHo gallery last May, Daniel Iglesias, a second-year graduate student in Columbia’s music department, presented a video showing a horde of bicyclists in London and transposed what he called a “look-back matrix” of fractaled pixels over part of a screen. The video within the matrix was delayed up to four seconds, creating a kaleidoscope effect that was, if nothing else, cool.

Following the bikers, Iglesias presented another piece. This time, he used customized audio-editing software that “spliced, morphed, and reconstituted” various sounds, including Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” to create a song he called “Lonely Steps.” In a third and final project, Iglesias had programmed a computer to play snippets of songs from his iTunes library. The program simultaneously plugged file names of the songs into a Google image search and flashed the songs’ album covers in a continuous and random montage. The computer had become both VJ and DJ.

Iglesias was “doing strange things with electricity,” the motto of a group founded six years ago in Pupin Hall by Douglas Repetto, director of research at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center. He called it dorkbot, a neologism combining the words dork and robot, which was coined by a friend. “I wanted a broad-minded, inclusive way to describe it,” Repetto says. “I didn’t want to say ‘artists’ because that’s self-selecting, and I didn’t want to say ‘engineer’ because people would just think, ‘Oh, that’s boys with toys or something.’” Repetto, who is gentle and down-to-earth, presented the group’s first project, a software program he had been developing for Columbia that he called a “kids’ interactive music thing” that would allow children to edit music and video. Within a few months of launching, geeks, artists, engineers, and curious onlookers came from across the city to share their strange electric projects.

The group met at Prentis Hall, the five-story former dairy on 125th Street, where an underground stream still runs through a metal trough into a drain in the basement. The building is full of remnants of large transformers, switches, and danger warning signs, reminders of the building’s role in earlier high-voltage experiments with electricity, the Manhattan Project, the government’s nuclear fission experiments begun in part at Columbia in 1939.

Dorkbot quickly outgrew its small space on the third floor of Prentis Hall and moved to Location One, a SoHo gallery. Iglesias performed his three works-in-progress at a meeting there in May. Following Iglesias was a group whose creation employed a low-tech use of electricity, and its contrast with Iglesias’s presentation reflected dorkbot’s mission of casting a wide geek net. In the spirit of dorkbot’s relaxed vibe, Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus brought their daughters, Rama, 4, and Dodo, 20 months, to help them demonstrate the Coat of Embrace, a homemade electronic device they described as a “sculptural modular analog audio/video synthesizer.”

The Coat of Embrace is a hand-painted, oversized plastic lunch box with knobs, switches, and an abundance of colorful cables connected to a video projector. Standing before the audience of about 150 people, Lapidus, with his long black beard, explained the synthesizer’s origins, while Hinkis nursed Dodo. Lapidus and Hinkis then strapped on the boxes as one would a guitar. They used the knobs and switches to project a pattern of colorful horizontal lines on a screen with a pink backdrop. The effect was psychedelic and, doubtless for some, sublime.

“Our music is harsh, but our work is tactile and romantic,” Hinkis says.

Dorkbot communities have spread beyond New York City through word of mouth. Dorkbot “overlords,” the name given to anyone who starts a dorkbot chapter, have spawned meetings in 60 cities, including Stockholm, Bogotá, Bucharest, and Cleveland. Repetto tries to attend as many as he can, and says that there are regional differences. The Bay Area is much more machine-oriented: “You know, big-things-shooting-fire kind of stuff,” he says. Seattle has a small but active group of engineers, robotics experts, and hackers.

“London is fun because it has lots of kooky, mad-inventor types,” Repetto says. “Like Granddad in the back shed inventing some strange device. There seems to be a lot more cultural support for crazed scientists there for some reason.” Though dorkbot has since become an international phenomenon, Repetto would like to keep it true to its modest origins at Prentis Hall. “It’s really important to me that it not become the forum where ‘it’s your chance to present your ideas to the world,’” he says. “Instead, it’s like, if you’re doing some dumb thing, some hopeless thing with no future, this is exactly where I want you to show it.”

— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN

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