Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Youth Palace

Owner Chen dancing with partner. Photo by Will Yakowicz 

6. The Palace of Memory

I didn’t stumble into Doyers Street, just off Chatham Square on the Bowery. I didn’t really find it myself either. I was told about the elbow-shaped street, which has a violent history of Irish and then Chinese gang wars, the opium trade, and illegal gambling rackets, by a friend of mine who throws parties. He gave me a card that read: Youth Palace, Inc. with an address: 11-13 Doyers Street. I walked slowly into the street, with its moldy Post Office, dim sum joints, barber shops and beauty parlors, and listened. I heard a faint beat. I continued to walk and the beat got louder and then I heard the high pitch of Mandarin. I looked up to a purple curtained window and knew I was there.

The long wide room smells of cigarettes and nostalgia. he lined faces of the dancers, all middle-aged Chinese couples, are illuminated green, red and yellow by lights that spin and pulse. An elegantly dressed sixty-year-old man bows and extends his hand to a forty-year-old woman in an evening gown. “May I have this dance?” his wordless gesture says. She accepts. He gently pulls her hips close and leads with assertive yet delicate steps. To an outsider, the music that propels them is an intriguing mixture: dance-inducing bass beats, and wildly exotic, pop-infused Chinese folk music layered with a fetching wistful serenade of Mandarin vocals.

Youth Palace, Incorporated on Doyers Street is the only dance studio in New York that specializes in the five traditional dances from the Fuzhou Province, which many of New York’s Chinese immigrants once called home. Xi Chen, the owner, is a Fuzhou native. Wearing a blue blazer, blue slacks and dancing shoes, Chen has a light moustache, a youthful bounce, and nearly perfect rhythm. At age fifteen in his hometown he learned the traditional dances: the Manshan, Manshi, Quaishan, Quaishi and the Chinese cha-cha, all consisting of fancy footwork, spins and twirls. He immigrated in 1997 and built his dance studio in 2005. “The Chinese are always working, working, working,” says Chen. “So I figured I’d open a dance studio so they can relax and be healthy.”

His words echo the message of the orange and black banner in Mandarin, posted above the wall-to-wall mirrors: “Through dance is energy, culture, health and happiness” is the rough translation. All the studio’s members are Chinese immigrants, so when an outsider walks up the stairs, the one or two who speak English ask outright: “You immigration officer?”

Sherri Chen (no relation to the owner), dressed in a blue evening gown and a matching choker necklace, says she works long hours at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and comes to the studio to unwind and enjoy her culture. Her lean shoulders flex as Chen twirls her. She explains her philosophy: “Life is stressful, but dancing is not.”

The floor is covered with baby powder to help the dancers glide across the surface, but it takes more than powder to pivot elegantly while retaining one’s footing. Sherri, who has soft graceful steps and fluttering fingers, says, “When you dance you must be very light. Be like a fly in the sky, to the rhythm: bom, tah, bom, tah.”

According to owner Chen, the music consists of traditional Chinese folk songs transformed into dance remixes with synthesizers and bass. To some patrons, it brings back memories of home and the passion of youth. Dancer De Lan has movie star looks and walks as if he’s waltzing. He recalls the first time he went to a dance studio, at home in Fuzhou, 20 years ago: “…I thought, ‘the music is exciting my body.’” For the past two years at Youth Palace, he dances three hours at a time, five days a week and attributes his intensity and commitment to the music itself. “The music makes me wild,” he says. “Everyone, when the music is on, goes wild.” The wildness, however, is tempered by grace. There’s a controlled formality to the sound of synthesizers, bass and soothing vocals, sending the room into a rhythmic circular motion.

De Lan dancing away. Photo by Will Yakowicz

Dancing is more than entertainment at Youth Palace. Chen says he started his studio to help his fellow immigrants feel less lost in New York City. “We wish to transplant a bit of Chinese culture to America,” Chen explains. “This studio helps migrants who just arrived and do not speak any English connect with their hometown and culture.”

To gain entrée to Youth Palace, one only needs an unassimilated Chinese identity and a pair of dancing shoes. “We don’t dance to forget, we will never forget where we came from,” Chen proclaims. “We are Chinese and this studio is Chinese culture.” 

The name, Youth Palace, is rather ironic for there are almost no young members here. “People come here to hear the music they grew up listening to,” Chen says. “Dancing to their music rejuvenates them, gives them energy and makes them feel young again.” These dances, he warns, may die out with his generation for they are of a past era.

Notwithstanding, the two daily sessions (2-5 p.m. and 8-11 p.m., seven days a week), typically draw ten or more couples. During the break between sessions, members sit around smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, while others dance before the mirror to put the finishing touches on their waltzes. Chen points out that the dancers in his studio are not competitive; no one boasts of being superior and no one has anything to prove. He says that most members are good dancers, but gallantly insists he cannot pinpoint the best one. Here, a woman named Zhong playfully interjects: “I don’t know who’s the best, but I am the worst!”

As the night’s final song draws to an end, De Lan pops his leather jacket over his shoulders with a flick of his wrist. He knows the secret to the dance, to youth, to Youth Palace. “You have to feel the music,” he says. He takes his dance partner by the arm and they glide through the curtained door, in a cloud of baby powder.

Many thanks to my translator and friend, Winston Woo, for his help.

This article can also be seen at:

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A Woman With The Right Shot

(Photo thanks to

Piper Carter is a woman of many distinctions: the first black female photographer for British Elle, technician, artist and a storyteller. The quality of Carter’s pictures suggests she’s been a photographer all her life, but the truth is she’s only been shooting for 16 years.

For most photographers, such a late start would doom a career, but not Carter. She first picked up the camera as a junior at Howard University majoring in dance and musical theatre. She became bored with the major and decided she wanted a change. Carter explains, “my friend said, ‘Hey let’s flip a coin’ and he flipped a coin and it was heads and that decided I was going to study photography.”

Carter suggests flipping a coin to determine her studies is just another unexpected happening that characterizes her life. She believes in balance, give and take and of course— Murphy’s Law, what can go wrong will go wrong—which further characterizes Carter’s life. She breaks down much of her career with this theory:

“Photography, in general, is very much like Murphy’s Law, you gotta be flexible, because things happen. You might have a shoot planned and you wanted to go on location, and then for some reason you can’t. Or [the weather reports will say] it’s not gonna rain for five days, but then it starts raining. The insurance doesn’t come through so you can’t shoot for as long as you wanted, you wanted to shoot from high up, but the model is afraid of heights…it’s all these things and it’s always gotta be flexible.”

As flexible as Carter is she is personally attached to her work, and for that she won’t bend. According to Carter she doesn’t shoot a picture for the hell of it. She says each shot comes from within, comes from her body. Carter describes her first photograph at 21-years-old as a birth of a child, and even a rush, a high that she is still chasing today.

From then on she pursues her passion and succeeds to make her name into a brand. She was on VH1’s “The Shot,” and is heavily involved with her own private projects. Carter balances her work between art, math, and the science that is behind photography while getting an interesting shot with creative lighting and a story she’s trying to tell.

“My first image was some friends of mine sitting on a bench, they were just sitting there and I saw them and I said, ‘Oh that’s a great photograph right there’ but now I look back I go, ‘Oh man!’ It wasn’t as great as I thought it was [laughs]. At the time it was pretty advanced for a beginner to notice something like that.”

“I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. That was in the 80’s, the height of the crack era. I ran to and from school everyday [laughs].”

“Not me, I was a good girl. I was what you would call a ‘cool nerd.’ I was captain of the cheer team, class president, and National Honor Society. I wasn’t a street kid. In Detroit there’s only two kinds of kids in the street: he’s either running the street or he’s dead. I definitely wasn’t the one running the streets, definitely didn’t want to be dead—so I kept my butt in the house! [laughs].”

“As a kid— Yea, that was me— as a kid. I used to act and dance, but I decided, I really wanted to do this photography and film thing, it’s my passion.

“Steve Klein, he’s my main influence. I love his work; he’s incredible. I also love The Northern Renaissance, I love the light and style; I’ll probably have to give that up to Vermeer. I have different influences for what shoot I’m doing and the story I want to portray.

“I’m very much a story teller, my stories are not necessarily linear with a starting point or an ending point, but there is the evidence of a story there. I usually think of the story first [before I shoot] like who is she, what is she doing, where is she from, what season is it, what colors do I want?

“Yeah definitely, every time I close the shutter.”

“It’s a little of both. I’ll have an awesome shoot where everything works. Then sometimes it just sucks— everything went wrong and it’s not like I wanted. This just means I have to get back on the horse and do the thing again.”

“I am, I get really quiet. I’m really fun and bubbly [usually]— but I get really serious, and intensely focused. Some people say I’m a little mean, but I’m still crackin’ jokes, I’m not aggressive with the camera, I’m more of the type of photographer who wants a little more from the model. If I gotta bend a little that’s fine they have to too, either way we’ll get a good picture. It’s like a dance.”

“Definitely, the model is an equal contributor. Every person there is an equal contributor and you need all those elements. It’s like a stew— you need all those elements to make it taste good. Without one you got too much of the other.”

“Sometimes I get sucked in too. I meditate, I talk to my friends, I talk to my mom and grandmother, they’ll keep you right on point. I watch Oprah, she’ll keep you lined up [laughs]. I read a lot of spiritual books, if I’m not reading a technical manual, which I’m a huge fan of.”

“Actually I have a couple, but they reflected who I was at that time. And they also reflect certain qualities that are still true about me now, but I think right now I’m changing and developing new work and I would like for my work to go, not necessarily a different direction, but, I think I want to do work that’s a little more abstract. So I’m working on a little more abstract concepts at this point. I don’t necessarily have work that reflects where I am going.”

“Right now I’m working on this idea for Wonder Woman as a Jihadist. I’m doing a lot of research about that, I don’t know what the final image will be, at the end she might not even be a Jihadist, that’s just what I’m starting with now. I’ve been doing research about women wearing hijab, and women covered in 3/4’s, things like that. What I’m doing now is checking out what her costume will be. That’s what I mean when I said I want to do more abstract. This is more towards my personal work, not my fashion work.”

“Making images honestly, just the idea of making great images, and seeing great images. When I see amazing images, it inspires me and motivates me, to go out there and DO.”

“One thing that I was proud of for a long, long time was being able to shoot Erykah Badu. I think she’s so incredible. She was really sweet and giving with herself. When it came to shooting she had a great attitude and I got a great picture out of it [published in Spin Magazine]. She respects you as an artist.”

“I am in my dream job now. I’m only at the beginning though. I’m not at the pinnacle, but I’m happy. I haven’t reached my material success yet. I’d love to shoot for Visionaire magazine. I’d love to shoot for Italian Vogue. I’d love to shoot for W. If I could do a Gucci campaign or Valentino, that’s where I’d love to be and where I see myself. On my own I’ve done a lot of underground designers, but this year I think I want to shoot mainstream.”

“Other things I’m doing are portfolios for models and ‘look-books’ for designers. And also I’m doing video as well. I make videos for designers’ shows and I also started doing what I call web-based ‘fashion film.’ I’m not doing the film in the traditional sense with interviews; I’m doing something more creative. It’s like a magazine editorial in Italian Vogue— a twenty page spread of dresses, coats, boots whatever, I’m doing that just as a video. It’s a little more creative and abstract. No talking, no dialogue, there are no stories, and it’s not linear [featured on YouTube]. You just see a girl running through the forest, she’s got a dress on with no shoes, or we’re walking to a house and opening the door, just abstract moments where each piece goes together but not in the sense of a traditional story.”

There she is: Piper Carter, a well-balanced artist with a serious technical side to her. For, in her words, “It’s a mathematical job…photography in general is all about math and science.” Piper’s pictures are balanced stories that evoke the looker’s mind and eyes. Laden with light, confidence, and intellect her shots urge one to stare and think.

Piper has just finished her first campaign for Vanilla Star Jeans featuring Nastia Liukin USA Olympic Gold medalist; which will be on buses in NYC, and in most teen magazines like Teen Vogue. She also just finished an editorial in Trace Magazine featuring the model Georgi. She expects to re-launch her brand as beauty and fashion photography in September and has been working in NYC, L.A., Philadelphia and Detroit. To get the real thing go to her website: , she has a FaceBook and myspace account with more of her photographs and videos to check out.

Link to Carter's website:

To see where this article was published go to:

Running Towards a Goal

Twenty-five years ago Wyckoff resident Paul Scire was accepted to LaSalle University on a Division I athletic scholarship for cross-country and track. He was a promising runner, but illness and multiple injuries plagued his college years and he was forced to quit running altogether.

Two years ago Scire picked up his running shoes again and started to train. Now, at age 46, Scire has found that he still has potential. Through running, he says, “In some way, I now want to recapture what was lost so long ago.”
He seems well on his way. Last April he ran the New Jersey Marathon, his first ever, in 3:06:37, which is impressive for any runner, let alone a 46-year-old.

Scire, the Director of development and alumni relations at Dwight-Englewood School decided to train again, only this time he wanted to run faster. Last Sunday (Dec. 05. 07) Scire approached the starting line of the ING NYC Marathon with a goal to run below three hours, and he did with a time of 2:58:28, perhaps gaining a little of what was lost. “I think I’m moving in that direction, I still have a long way to go. I’ve only been running again for two years, I’m still trying to get back into the sport, I still have some room for improvement,” he said standing in Central Park after the race, with an air of accomplishment.

Scire’s decision to chase after his lost running career was aided by a unlikely running companion, Chancy, a Hungarian Pointer. Two years ago in January Scire was walking Chancy in a winter coat and snow boots. The pup began to pull yearning to go faster. In snow gear on that frozen winter night Paul started to jog with Chancy. He ran a half a mile and headed back home. The next night he ran Chancy for a mile. “Little by little, night after night, I added distance. When I worked my way up to three miles, I decided it was time to buy running shoes and some workout clothes,” Scire recalls.

Scire then realized that he still had potential, but he doesn’t hesitate to give credit to the dog: “She definitely got me off the couch and out the door on some cold winter nights that you’d rather stay inside and have a cup of coffee.”
Eventually Chancy wanted to stay in on the cold winter nights. “Now I put my running shoes on and she crawls under the table, I guess I go too far and too fast for her,” he said with a laugh.

Scire then joined the North Jersey Masters and the New York Road Runners Club and found that his favorite aspect of running are the friends and training partners. Scire and his friends work together, support, and inspire each other to get through tough workouts. They even stuck together during the New York City Marathon. Running partner Tony Galka ran past the finish line just eight seconds behind Scire.

But training for this past Sunday’s marathon wasn’t all dog walking and socializing on the track—Paul runs 60-70 miles a week, weight-trains and works with running coach Joe Pasternak. He has come to realize that the most important element of training is perseverance. Unlike basketball, baseball and football, running requires minimal skill, although he doesn’t deny that people can be born runners. He says, “What you put in is what you get out of it. If you work hard you are going to be good at it.”

That attitude helped him when Crossing the 59th Street Bridge at mile 16, Scire got a bad cramp. He said he contemplated stopping, but his “desire” and “non-quitting” attitude prevented him. He kept pushing and ran miles 16 to 20 hunched over. Luckily, for him “the wall” didn’t come till mile 24. But by then “it was just a matter of gutting it out, make sure you don’t stop, keep moving forward” Scire said.

59th Street Bridge
(Photo thanks to

Scire wasn’t only holding himself up during his second marathon. With each step forward he was thinking about a boyhood friend he lost in the World Trade Center Tom Cahill. “I was carrying a friend of mine,” he said. Scire explained Tom was an athletic guy, and running the marathon in the city reminded him of his good friend. “I was thinking about him quite a bit today, I miss him,” he said.

Now that he reached his goal Scire is going to start training “in earnest” starting in January for the Boston Marathon this April. There he hopes to run a 2:55:00 or better. After that it’s off to Chicago in October 2008 hoping to run below 2:50:00. He opened the door this Sunday to accomplish his first goal. Now he’s setting a new one and running to catch it.
Reaching a goal requires discipline, training, correct mindset, and a healthy diet. However, after the race Scire bought a bag of peanut M&M’s. “All through training you eat the right stuff, and I promised myself after the race I’d get a bag of peanut M&M’s,” he explains. It looks like one bag of candy and a couple days off running till he starts training again is the only break he will allow himself. After the race he went back to New Jersey for a meal with his wife and kids, an ice bath and then, he said with a smirk, he would “take the dog for a walk.”

The Man Who Found the World's Oldest Subway Tunnel

One Sunday morning in December, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn, Bob Diamond, founder of the Brooklyn Historic Railroad Association (BHRA), sets up a red electric generator and waves to the line of 60 people wearing boots and carrying flashlights on the sidewalk. His business partner, Gregory Castillo, lifts a manhole cover and steam rises, filling the air with mystery, history and urban mythology.
The group is preparing to descend into the world’s oldest subway tunnel, built in 1844 by the Long Island Railroad. One by one visitors climb down a ladder poking out of the manhole into a narrow seventy-foot long earthly and jagged entranceway. The crags of dirt and rock on either side are shoulder height and naked light bulbs dimly illuminate the steamy earth. A brick wall with a crudely cut entrance opens into a dark half-mile tunnel six stories deep —a subterranean locale.
The tour attracts many—from high school students to “strange New York” site seers. This year the tour has welcomed 3,000 people according to Diamond. For $15 per person, Diamond, a 48-year-old retired apartment complex manager in New Jersey, gives tunnel tours once a month. He has a long-term lease on the tunnel that is privately owned by New York City and the Department of Transportation.

Diamond rediscovered the tunnel in 1980 while he was a 19 year-old engineering student at Pratt in Brooklyn. In 1988 the city budget promised Diamond $2.6 million to transform the tunnel into an official museum. To pursue his dream he abandoned everything from his education to a career in electrical engineering. However, he never received the money nor went back to school. Instead he devoted 27 years to pursue his dream, only to find a dead end.

The tunnel itself is a steamy, earthy and dank lair that leads to a brick wall. Diamond set up a wooden staircase and lights along the four-block cavernous stretch, but some areas maintain a sinister darkness. Diamond’s Brooklyn accent bellows informatively and historically with comedic interjections. He says, the tunnel’s story is, “A history in the sense that everything I talk about [during the tours] was written in a newspaper at one time or another—so if you believe in what’s written in the newspaper it’s history. If you don’t believe in what’s written in the newspapers it’s urban mythology.”

Before the tunnel, Atlantic Avenue had a steam locomotive running on above ground tracks. Lacking good brakes it would routinely kill pedestrians according to articles in the Brooklyn Eagle dating back to 1844. The half-mile tunnel, from Boerum Place to Columbia Street, put an end to the accidents and street congestion. In affect, it was the first subway tunnel ever built.
In 1979, Diamond heard a radio program about a book that mentioned the tunnel and its mythical history. This sparked his interest and he began to rigorously collect information. He found a map in the Brooklyn Eagle from 1911 that confirmed the tunnel’s existence. However, city engineers and city transportation officials who tried and failed to find the tunnel urged Diamond not waste his time.

But that only fueled Diamond’s unrelenting curiosity. He refers to the seven-month long search not as an obsession, but more like a challenge. He said, “The more people, so called experts, that told me not to look for the tunnel because they couldn’t find it got me more determined to find it to prove they’re wrong.”

During the tour of the humid cave Diamond drips memories and adventure stories, relating his discovery to the “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In December of 1980 he went to the Brooklyn Borough President’s office and found a map of the city from 1850 and followed a blue dot—it led him to the manhole in the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Diamond convinced the local gas company to block off traffic and he says, “With an air tank on my back, a gasmask and a 7-foot long crowbar I found the lost tunnel.” He says his main triumph wasn’t finding the tunnel, but doing something people said he couldn’t.
He created the BHRA to preserve and protect the tunnel soon after its discovery. The tunnel was registered in 1982 as a National Historic Place and Diamond has been giving tours since.

According to Diamond, “The tunnel being there is a monument of corrupt New York City politics.” Diamond and the Brooklyn Eagle affirm how the tunnel was supposed to be filled in completely in 1861. Urban developer Electus Litchfield, building in Park Slope, was paid $135,000 to do the job. Instead, Litchfield corked it off at both ends, sealed up the airshafts and took the money, leaving the tunnel intact for Diamond to find 118 years later.
The tunnel was soon forgotten and after a while people began to doubt its very existence. It became the subject of urban myths: a place for river pirates in the 1890’s to stash their gold and booty or in 1916 for German spies to mix mustard and surprise attack America. Diamond has been the only person in the tunnel since 1859, besides the FBI in an attempt to find the supposed German spies in 1916.

Despite his discovery, Diamond carries a half defeated air. He feels strongly about his hobby, which quickly turned into his life and job. Looking back on his decision to focus his entire life and efforts on a tunnel he says, “It is worth it when I see the looks on people’s faces when they come in the tunnel and they ooh and awe and say how wonderful it is.”

Although Diamond’s project didn’t receive money it was promised, the rough and rubble look of the tunnel might benefit him. Ross Mernyk, a “strange New York” buff, said he was taken by the tunnel’s roughness. He described the tunnel, “a scary, oppressive place, but historically fascinating.”
Despite the disappointments Diamond suffered from his life’s project he is positive. He said, “You don’t get anywhere with a pessimistic attitude. You have to be hopeful.” This attitude seems to be the light at the end of Diamond’s tunnel, or at least what’s been holding him up.

Regardless of Diamond’s disappointments he manages to inspire crowds. Karen Karbiener, a New York University professor, was moved by Diamond’s subterranean tunnel. Karbiener said the experience, “Reminds you that the city is a big place but also it’s a place that has a little corner, like a secret niche for everybody. Maybe a true New Yorker, the definition of that, is the person who finds that niche, and maybe it’s a café, but for other people it’s a tunnel that no one has been in since 1859.” Bob Diamond certainly found his own niche—a warm quiet mysterious niche that he can call home to his dreams.