Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Journey to the Broken Angel

As it progresses, any developing cultural or social movement invariably discovers its own identity through a variety of unique and distinguishing characteristics. Most of these developments include inventions and evolutions in apparel and fashion, language and lexicon, dietary patterns, musical styles, and so on. For me however, the most enduring, most compelling, and most tangible cultural symbols involve the landmarks and locations of pivotal and momentous events in a culture’s history.

There's nothing like being there; and it's just that. Being. There.

If you're a rock n' roll junkie, then it's The Dakota or the Riot House. If it's jazz that turns you on, there's nothing like the Cotton Club. For the gearheads of the world, the Bonneville Salt Flats or the Nürburgring is your Mecca. And political aficionados should never turn down a trip to The Watergate Hotel or Dealey Plaza. It's about seeing, touching, feeling it for ourselves or else it will only exist in theory.

Hip hop culture has a few of these places as well, like D&D Studios (although you ain't NEVER gettin' in there) or Rucker Park. And a few months ago I took the chance to visit what I feel is arguably the newest on the list of hip hop cultural landmarks, The Broken Angel.

It is one erie place.

The Broken Angel was the home of Cynthia and Arthur Wood from 1972 through 2006. It's located at the intersection of Downing Street and Quincy Street in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Its legacy in hip hop history was cemented in 2004 when it became the backdrop of a concert/block party that was organized and hosted by Dave Chappelle, and documented by Michel Gondry in the 2006 film Dave Chappelle's Block Party. In the film, Cynthia and Arthur invite Dave and his camera crew into their home to show them the inner workings of the building. It's one of the most entertaining parts of the film as we witness the couple's compassionate, albeit slightly eccentric, quality and demeanor. Towards the end of the film, there's even a shot of Cynthia in the window of the Broken Angel waving a peace sign to the crowd, which I've always felt was one of the indelible images of solidarity in the movie.

So I'll leave it to you to look up more on Cynthia, Arthur, and the Broken Angel. This is the story of how I got there.

Mariana had to leave. The needle on her record player had broken and we needed to head over to J&R Audio by the WTC because that was the only place she thought we could pick up a new one. So by the time I reached her brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant she was perched on the stoop, demanding me to hurry my a$$ up because the bank was about to close. So I shuffled into her place to set down my bag, she locked the door, and we hustled our way to Fulton Street.

After handling her business at the bank and "politely" assisting a young lady find her destination on Fulton St., we got on the C train to Manhattan. We got off at Chambers Street a few blocks north of Ground Zero and made our way down to J&R, which is situated at what's essentially Park Row and Broadway.

Everything is huge in New York, including this audio store. It took us two or three tries to enter the correct section of the building, and even then we really didn't find it without help. And one would think an audio store in New York would and SHOULD have everything under the sun, but alas Mariana's needle was not in stock. So dejectedly, we exited the store and decided it was time to eat.

Now, Mari had a pregnant-woman's craving for cheese fries right about now, even though she hasn't had a boyfriend in a while. However, I would assume this is purely by choice because a woman as beautiful as Mariana can be in a relationship almost anytime she wants. I can only deduce all the men she's encountered recently have been woefully sub-par. C'mon NY...

She suggested we head to Madison Square Park to get burgers and cheese fries at a well-known spot called The Shake Shack. While standing in the quarter-mile long line (it moved fairly quickly, so don't be discouraged) we continued our usual discussions on all things hip hop. We're both huge fans of artists like The Roots, Black Star, Common, J Dilla, and Kanye West. And as we sat to enjoy our slightly overpriced but incredibly delicious burgers, our conversation shifted to Block Party. As is the nature of these exchanges, one thing led to another and we mutually agreed to seek out the location of this magnificent day in hip hop history. We finished our food, scared off the giant attack squirrels, and hopped back onto the subway.

We got off at the N/Q/R stop at DeKalb Avenue and opted to take the bus down Fulton towards Downing Street. It seemed we were on the bus for an unreasonably long time and we worried that we had missed our stop. So we got off somewhere between St. James Place and Grand Avenue to hoof it from there. We approached a huge laundromat with some cool-a$$ middle-aged cats hangin' outside and asked them if they knew the way to Downing Street. Personally, I was hoping we didn't get the same "politeness" that Mari had offered the young lady from earlier in the day. But they were truly friendly and pointed us in the right direction. We got to the block about 10 minutes later.

There are very few places in New York as quiet as the corner of Quincy and Downing in Brooklyn. It's one of those spots that seems to exist solely on its own; as if arriving there means departing the rest of the city. We walked up to the impressive red door of the Broken Angel, with the name of the building and the address adorning it in a grayish-white hue. There was very little traffic. I don't think we saw one car round the corner the whole time we were there. We read the sign on the bulletin board just to the right of the Angel's door and discovered Cynthia Wood had unfortunately passed away due to complications with cancer. We stood by the daycare center where Dave and the others had visited, using the roof as an observation area. We took turns imagining the stage and quoting unforgettable lines and verses from the documentary. We made sure to take some time making fun of Common's role in the show, because we've always been puzzled as to why he seemed only to serve as everybody's hype man. Weird...

I've often wondered if the people that live on that block are getting tired of folks showing up and doing that type of stuff. But in the moment, we didn't care about any of that. We were just a little late to the party, that's all. We wanted to have our fun, too.

We left just before the streetlights starting coming on and walked the almost-two miles back to Mari's apartment in Bed-Sty. We were glowing. We touched the history of our own culture, and it was a really good feeling. Somehow, we felt more firmly connected to the inspirations that have been fueling our lives for quite some time now. When we got back, we threw in Block Party and watched a bit of the concert footage. I suppose it was our way of "double-checking."

But really, there wasn't any need. We knew what it looked like.

Due to the fading light, these were the only pictures that were decent. We took these with Mari's iPhone.



  1. Your storytelling arouses old romantic feelings for NYC and brooklyn. The photos turned out well. I don't know anything about Block Party or the significance of Broken Angel, now I'm curious to know more.

  2. go to the video store and find this cover:

    you will not be disappointed.