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Thursday
Aug092012

Urban Velo

Pittsburgh based Urban Velo, a monthly magazine focused on bikes and bike culture, captures the essence of bicycle life in the modern city. Urban Velo catalogues repair shops, community groups, counter cultural hipsters championing the throwback simplicity of fixed gear bikes, designers, bike messenger life, weekend warrior types, and seekers of things vintage to high tech. The magazine showcases the urban bike front on a global scale, giving the reader a sidewalk view of a Beijing repairman tinkering from the perimeter of a movable cart with hardscrabble tools such as an oil stained hatchet and an ancient screwdriver, greased thumbs and all. Or might profile a rider in St. Petersburg, Florida, or an upstart South Side of Chicago repair shop. Pithy and sometimes harrowing tales of urban biking escapades and tribulations. Kind of a National Geographic of bikes in the city.

As the landscape of urban transport morphs and adjusts to rising fuel costs, a greater awareness of things “green”, and an increased drive of “do-it-yourself” ethos, the bicycle moves to the front of the pack. Urban Velo Magazine captures the modern city bike culture. The bike, a simple, yet effective mode of transit and recreation, has held a spot in urban mobility since its inception. Now – with resurgences in “fixed gear bicycle” purity, and even mobile Dr. Seuss-like sculptures tack welded and ground and fashioned by artists evoking the arcane “high wheeler” bikes of the late 1800’s – these artistically flourished bicycles functioning as transportation devices catch the eye, draw attention, and in a way act like flag bearers of the urban bike movement.

Urban Velo also functions as a sort of trade magazine, offering ample ad space for niche specific makers of things such as panniers, splined cranks, and hold fast straps – furthering and reifying the urban bicycle culture.

Wednesday
Aug082012

Black & Denim

James Dean. The epitome of American cool, period.

It is a fact that merits little rebuttal, as the man who strolled along the Boulevard of Broken Dreams was emblematic of an aloof “it” factor, an avatar of rugged, gritty American spirit. It is a lofty and ambitious undertaking to employ James Dean as the unofficial human mission statement of a company. The boys at Black & Denim would have it no other way.

The Tampa based Black & Denim is a high end clothing line that specializes in T-shirts, bags, button up shirts and, naturally, jeans. Inspired by that aforementioned iconoclast and spurred by a rebirth that gave denim a casual/formal duality, the unlikely dream began in a down economy with nothing more than an insatiable hunger and a hustle that would make Rocky Balboa jealous. The dreamers: Roberto Torres, a recent college grad addicted to the bio lines of successful men he aimed to rub shoulders with; Chris Findeisen, a jobless graphic designer who would make his own luck through a die-hard moxie that began while most were still asleep; Luis Montanez, a digital marketing/web guru with a finger on the pulse of our culture and the direction he would help guide it. Together this trio developed Black & Denim (motto: “American inspired, American made”) into a singular, streamlined operation that runs on a communal passion of traditional artisan craftsmanship and future world industry change.

The goods: Handcrafted pieces, with military and music themes; Authentic collections that express individuality through casual yet upscale garments; Quality driven stitching and attention to detail, enduring as both a classic throwback and contemporary couture.

Black & Denim buys American and fabricates American. And by doing so they are creating jobs in America. Stores in NYC, Chicago and Tampa are showcasing the hip young brand, as is Epcot Center at Disneyworld. Aside from a Patriotic bloodline that pumps like it is about to explode, the company also thrives on a global theme that affects us all-the environment. Their Three R concept (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) helps give the world a fighting chance against the generations that have failed it. Unlike their inspiration, it seems that these rebels in fact do have a cause.

With an undeniably pure aesthetic and early flashes of a brilliant legacy, the James Dean thing makes perfect sense. And though it took the fellas three lifetimes worth of ballsy chutzpah and unbridled determination to actualize their brand, a client only needs to slip into a Black & Denim pair of jeans or cardigan to achieve effortless cool.

Kinda like some eternally fashionable young actor we know.

Friday
Aug032012

Monday Night Raw

It was in the mid 80’s that Hulkamania ran wild. For fellas like myself, little more mattered than watching the larger than life strongmen, cartoons really, (which they would later go on to be, along with action figures, ice cream bars,etc) beat up the bad guys. In those days the Saturday morning ire fell upon the cheaters, rule breakers, and of course the dreaded commies (when the Cold War thawed, enemy combatants were replaced by any perceived threat to Uncle Sam-talking to you, Iran). Life was simple then, if not a bit sheepish with the profiling. Right and wrong was a showcase on those early weekend mornings, after roller derby and before The Smurfs. And the heroes usually won, conveniently just as the program was reaching its closing credits. It was real to us.

Whatever happened to the age of innocence and spandex? The case could be made that we grew up and found out it was fake. Our lives were pulled into sports, girls, pop culture. It was time to get real. The (then) WWF was child’s play. Child’s play for the drag racing, spittoon carrying backwoods types.

So what would spur someone in his mid 30’s to attend an episode of WWE Monday Night RAW, the longest running weekly episodic program of our times? Nostalgia? The opportunity to judge others? Investigative reporting to determine why the Vince McMahon traveling carnival is a financial and ratings juggernaut? All of the above, likely. And before I knew it, I was sitting in the nosebleeds at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati. It was episode 1,001. It was a balmy and busy Monday night downtown. It was RAW. It was about to get loud.

We waited outside amongst thousands of fanatics until five minutes before the program aired live on the USA Network. We, being myself and a twenty year closeted fan who was both the only willing participant and someone convinced that he was too old for this, which did little to inspire confidence in my own seasoned eyes. The fanatics in question were a melting pot diverse in age, gender and creed; most carried signs, almost all wore shirts of a favorite grappler. It was like Comic-Con for nerds carrying a mutant testosterone gene, the manliest take on cosplay I have ever witnessed. And we all made a mad dash to our seats so close to the opening bell because the pyro check from earlier had set the building ablaze. I suspected The Iron Sheik, before realizing he must be closer to the next world than the current.

Inside was a four cornered ring, dressed in bright red tones and minute in size in comparison to its television counterpart. TV adds fifteen pounds to humans, 1,500 pounds to padded battle domes. In a flashback that seemed too real, I found myself strolling towards the ring as if I were to live out a boyhood fantasy. Security in these parts is tougher than the tag team champions; I was escorted to my seats, along the clouds.

Foregoing the seven dollar sodas and thirty dollar T-shirts, I watched as little kids cheered their superhero; I frowned as grown adults booed the children on behalf of their chosen star. I wanted to tell them that this was fake, but the reality is that they already knew. It is insulting to even suggest this. Does anyone truly believe that Jack Bauer really saves the world on 24? Suspension of belief is no different here.

Chants broke out into the arena, reminiscent of an English soccer match. They were preset, the continuation of a trend carried over from weeks prior. In the ring, two men appeared to froth at the mouth, anxious to tear into one another. Instead, they simply taunt, an odd choice given the venue. I watch as the scripted boss is hit with a chair; the uniformed police surrounding the ring think not of pressing assault charges. I watch as a villain pins his man, illegally tugging at his tights; I wonder how they have not instituted instant replay. And I watch as the finale happens, tying no ends and leaving a myriad of unresolved questions behind. I think I’ll tune in next week.

I sat next to that twenty year old, who turned into a ten year old halfway through the card. As for myself, I’ll plead the fifth as I wear my new plastic championship belt replica. To my right sat a lawyer; behind me a middle class family of four; a fraternity field trip to the front. A man who must have graduated with my grandfather passed me in the hall. A woman decked in business casual strolled beside us as we attempted to locate the car. As it was on our way in, in our seats and throughout the show, we were tempted with merchandise as we exited. Nice, bright pastel gear that would only be suitable at this very event. Still, I felt that I had to have it. Stockholm Syndrome? No. Sleeper Hold Hysteria, perhaps.

The players change but the game is constant. The themes are the same as in literature, a Shakespearean performance, scripted by wordsmiths and portrayed by hybrid thespian warriors. These days, it is common for the full transition, as guys like The Rock command hefty salaries in Tinseltown, but for most of the performers they are living out a dream that guys like myself swore we one day would. We are parents now, understanding why our own patriarchs would not purchase every doll or trinket when we were the young demographic to the squared circle. They came in a flash, accompanied by production trucks and jumbo jets, stayed for a few hours and hit the road to the next town, nomads of entertainment.

Even a pyrotechnic incident during rehearsal at Cincinnati's U.S. Bank Arena couldn't stop episode 1,001.

But they promised to return in a year, and I will wait in my ridiculous garb until they do, because the magic is back-it never really left, I did. From the days of Bobo Brazil selling out Madison Square Garden to the red and yellow express that was Hulk Hogan, professional wrestling is as strong as it ever was now. A social media maestro that offers fan interaction and accessibility like no other venue of entertainment, it is our embarrassing, loud uncle that we hold dear. It is, for better or worse, an American tradition.

Just don’t try it at home. And don’t tell a soul.

Wednesday
Aug012012

The Lack of Team Handball 

There’s one sport with a noticeable void in the Summer Olympic lineup for the United States. With ratings governing what is shown (via taped delay), most of the fare disseminated to American prime time television audiences includes gymnastics (proffering more eye glistening close-ups than most soap operas), swimming, bikini clad beach volleyball, and, as medal rounds approach, a goliath-like montage of highlights from USA Basketball dominating the world on an International court (replete with the oddly configured trapezoidal “paint” area).

Team handball, for some reason, has not been effectively fielded by the United States since world competition in 2006. The sport seems accessible enough. An indoor court or field oriented team game. Six on six, with a goalie – nearly matching the uniformity of hockey and indoor lacrosse. The naturalness of handling a ball with one’s hands – be it pass, dribble, shoot – producing a scoring game with exciting shots on goal, complex passing and defensive plays, and ultimately a fast paced spectacle of athleticism. Seemingly, team handball emerges as simply a logical evolution of having a ball between two teams.

Well ensconced in Europe, and elsewhere, with professional and club leagues entwined in the culture, team handball enjoys legacies of success as both a grassroots youth sport, and as national flag bearers on an international stage. In the United States team handball is most often relegated to a sequence of phys-ed class – where the rudimentary rules are discussed, and reluctant teams clad in the dour greys and blues of gym class garb are counted off in odds and evens. The universality, and simplicity of the sport makes it an activity well suited to the diversity of a gym class – but somehow the sport never made it out into the larger American Culture.

Perhaps the confusion of the name “handball” evokes the racquetless cousin of racquetball played in nearly every park in New York City, and term “handball” immediately gets devolved and denatured in that confusion, and any discussion of the sport falls on deaf ears. And, perhaps, the well established sports of baseball, football, and basketball fill most athletic needs, while sports like soccer and lacrosse have struggled for decades to gain prowess.

Tuesday
Jul312012

Emil Erwin 

Nashville continues to be a bastion of American pride, through its legendary music scene, artistic outlets and general way of life. So it is without shock that designer Emil Congdon, brainchild behind the leather line Emil Erwin, has always called it home.

As a young man, Congdon did not set his sights on a Park Avenue life. Fashion Week was not something circled on his calendar, couture was not something he lived and breathed. The breakthrough? A simple hole in the pants. Give a man a pair of khakis and... he is wearing pants. Teach a man to sew (or self teach, as in his case) and he is wearing those pants for a long time. This accident and an early disapproval of the lackluster quality of goods spurred Emil Erwin, a small heritage shop rife with American values. Founded in 2008, Emil Erwin is a company proud of its craftsmanship. With the renaissance of smaller organizations hell bent on resurrecting the American manufacturing legacy, Emil personally hand crafts, sews and designs his wares in his Nashville shop. The line is based on quality and function with impeccable attention to detail. The meticulously strewn and immaculately detailed heirlooms are comprised of American materials (hides from Chicago’s Horween Leather, waxed canvas from New Jersey’s Fairfield Textile) and an undeniably patriotic approach to fabrication. Essentially, the totes, mailbags, satchels and cases are classic enough to accompany the tastes of our grandchildren’s grandchildren-and durable enough to last that long as well.

Never taking on more than his small operation can handle (quality reigns here), Emil Erwin provides a unique experience. Though available at Barney’s NYC, as well as his Nashville roots, Congdon is personally invested. His lifetime guarantee comes handwritten. His cell phone number is included to further illustrate this point.

How many times has Inspector #7 from a Chinese factory offered such a thing? That would be one expensive phone call.

At Emil Erwin, its just another day at the office.

Saturday
Jul282012

Gleason’s Gym

In Brooklyn there is a simple gym with a simple sign. From the poet Virgil it reads: “Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.”

Gleason's, a boxing gym brushing against the Brooklyn waterfront, has had more than its share of warriors lace up their gloves. Since its inception in the Bronx in 1937, Gleason’s has served as a gym and virtual hall of fame for the sweet science. In the annals of boxing, nearly every iconic moment seems to share DNA with the gritty Gotham training grounds. From “The Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta and his celebrity status, the tragic final rounds of Benny “Kid” Paret or the mystifying displays of championship drive from Roberto Duran, Gleason’s Gym was a home away from the ring. The early development of an enigma named “Iron” Mike Tyson was born amongst the aged, worn speed bags of the gym; Gerry Cooney spilled his infamous blood on Gleason’s floors, joining the plasma of thousands of others. And before his legendary knockout pose, before he ever towered over a defeated Sonny Liston in all of his boisterous bravado, a young Cassius Clay and his buckets of sweat could be found in a corner, slugging away at a heavy bag for the millionth time.

Image J.Merson

The gym was founded by Peter Gagliardi, a onetime welterweight who changed his name to Bobby Gleason in an effort to appeal to the Irish community that surrounded him. It made a brief stop in Manhattan before reaching its final Brooklyn residence. Gleason's is now owned by Bruce Silverglade, and remains a throwback to an era where boxing belonged to the Big Apple and Madison Square Garden, though these days it is a common sight to witness accountants and bus drivers plugging away alongside Olympic hopefuls and championship contenders.

And next to all of them are ghosts, dancing in the shadows, bobbing and weaving eternally in boxer heaven.

Saturday
Jul282012

Sideshow Sign Co.

Luke Stockdale is perhaps more important to letters than the alphabet.

Maybe that’s a stretch. But the man behind Nashville’s Sideshow Sign Co. has certainly made his case.  As owner and Senior Designer at Whiskey Theater Design Co., he has spent more than a decade working with vintage typography and print design. As he sees it, he is bringing the print off of the page now with Sideshow Sign Co. Specializing in giant, handcrafted retro prints and vintage marquee letter light ups, Sideshow Sign Co. is equal parts old world fabrication and inspired artisan creation. Each piece is wired with an expert’s touch, every item meticulously aged and born of salvage, bent steel, wood or fine art canvas. The customization can be of minimalist simplicity or complex beauty. Whether for the home or office, the builder/graphic designer hybrid Stockdale and his crew are onto something-the stunning pieces from Sideshow are enough to sidetrack, so the client might be better off not staring at the wall during the workday

.

Sideshow Sign Co. donates 5% of its proceeds to EJI.org, a nonprofit organization which provides legal counsel to those in need. Servicing clients from all walks with the same attention to detail and creative lean that is catapulting the company into an esteemed status, Sideshow Sign Co. is also becoming a living reminder that art is in everything, even such a presumed utilitarian concept as signage and letters.

The writing is on the wall and it is a beautiful thing.

Wednesday
Jul252012

Missouri Meerschaum 

For better or worse, few things are more implicitly American than a corn cob pipe. These relics from an antiquated time speak of things culled and hewn from the land, when nature was mastered in the most immediate of ways. Calloused hands chopped trees into planks, drew on leather straps bridling horse or oxen, or something. Bears shot, perhaps. Whittling occurred. Dippers and ladles were used for drinking water, and lead was melted and poured into bullet molds. Old timey activities and occupations now merely anthologized as myth, and harkened upon as instructive and curious things from history.

The simple pleasure of tobacco smoke was looked upon as a rare treat, to sum up a day in the evening, as a frontiersman or farmer might gaze out on a tract of land, and chuff meditatively. The corn cob pipe, being fashioned from, obviously, a corn cob, a prevalent resource on the frontier, found its way into the American vernacular. In 1869, the Missouri Meerschaum company in Washington, Missouri began the manufacture, and eventual mass production of these smoking devices. Legend has it that Dutch immigrant and local handyman Henry Tibbe was asked by a corn cob smoking farmer to turn a couple of prototypes out on his lathe. The result was so good; he parlayed the tinkering into a mass producing company.

An obvious play on the clay stone material, meerschaum, often used in pipes, the “Missouri” version of the meerschaum, being corn cob, is almost a tongue in cheek referent. Jeff Foxworthy’s bit “you might be a redneck if…” might owe a debt of gratitude to this Missouri tobacco pipe maker. Missouri Meerschaum also carries a small line of hardwood pipes, but the bulk of their product is dedicated to the corn cob models, offering a well-crafted, but inexpensive alternative to traditional meerschaum, or briarwood pipes.

Sunday
Jul222012

Hinged Strung Stitched

Image Carlie Armstrong

There is a studio in the history-laden Olympic Mill Commerce Center in Portland’s southeast neighborhood that crafts products as rich in heritage as the community itself. It makes perfect sense; the creative forces behind Hinged Strung Stitched are about as in sync as it gets. The purveyors of old world artisan books and boxes operate in a simple chain of production. Molly Lewis, a seventeen year professional of the noble craft of bookbinding, continues to ply away with a reverential respect to aesthetic strength and minimalistic beauty, an artist in awe of her art. Michelle Johnson, also a bookbinder (with design and retail stationary management chops) designs and pushes the Hinged Stung Stitched vision to the authenticity minded demographic in search of such classic and worldly requirements. Together they are bringing their mastery of an age old art form back to its rightful, esteemed place.

Hinged Strung Stitched hand crafts their one of a kind snowflakes to the refined specifications of the client. It is a cocktail of high grade materials, archival nuances and a rugged, quality driven endgame when undergoing the experience of securing a Hinged Strung Stitched book or box. Longstitch albums and protective clamshell boxes are all in a day’s work for the ladies. The soon to be enamored client chooses the colors, perhaps opting for a gallant letterpress printed plaque for his or her future heirloom; other tailor made customizations are available upon request. Until it is perfect it remains unfinished.

Such a simple yet seemingly lost art, Hinged Strung Stitched stands as a lifejacket to an endangered era, an era where lifelong products were not a tagline, but the standard. The company also seems to be one of the chosen few, tasked with the responsibility of bringing traditional American bespoke service into the future, not as a new idea but as a continuation of what we were always meant to be.

We might be in danger, though; if such fleshy craftsmanship continues at organizations such as Hinged Strung Stitched, people might just start turning their computers off.

Sunday
Jul222012

The Lemon Ice King of Corona

We’ve said it before. Occasionally, a business becomes iconic of the community it inhabits. This little corner of Americana remains emblematic of a neighborhood forged around a culture. Directly across from the so called “Spaghetti Park” at a crossroads of the long time Italian American bastion Corona, Queens, sits The Lemon Ice King of Corona. Featured in the opening montage of the sitcom King of Queens, this frozen treat shop has been at it for over six decades, and their simple delivery of Italian ices in corrugated cups remains a winning formula.

At over forty flavors, including, of course, lemon – The Lemon Ice King of Corona distinguishes itself from other purveyors of Italian ices by creating their concoction with real pulp and bits of fruit. The little scoops, in vivid pastels burgeoning over the lip of the paper are dabbed, licked, gnawed till tongues and teeth bear the tale of the flavor, as the creased pleats of the paper cup are slowly unfurled and peeled back. “Businessmen” in looming black limos have been known to, on occasion, double park, and partake of The Lemon Ice King, as customers hush into a reverent pall, averting the urge to stare. They’re here, like everyone else, because the ices are that good. This establishment remains one of the nodes of the Italian American community in the NYC area.

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