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Cuba’s Artists Wary of Looming Changes

Article and photos by Brad Williams

Many performance artists in Cuba earn more than most engineers, teachers, dentists and others. They enjoy higher government salaries, are free to travel to perform and are eligible for performance visas. Visual artists, on the other hand, often have trouble finding a government job and must rely on selling their works to foreigners in order to earn a living.

As Cuba-United States relation warm up and policies change, many artists are uncertain how they will fare. Visual artists are preening at the possibility of an influx of American art enthusiasts with stuffed pockets and empty suitcases. Performance artists fear the pay system that favors them may change.

Maykel Armenteros, 34, earns a living restoring cars for a private car service. He also sculpts and paints; he belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos, or Heart and Eggs, and shows at exhibitions. (In fact, he spent six years at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and graduated with a degree in sculpting.) Still, he has yet to earn much of anything from his art.

Maykel Armenteros, 34, earns a living restoring cars for a private car service. He also sculpts and paints; he belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos, or Heart and Eggs, and shows at exhibitions.

Maykel Armenteros, third from left, earns a living restoring cars. He also sculpts and paints and belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos (Heart and Eggs.)

“I’m always creating,” said Armenteros. “It’s hard to earn a living from art, and I have a family to support.”

Armenteros said that he enjoyed his job at the garage and that it made good use of his artistic skills. But he wishes he could make money from his art, and fears that his style might be a tough sell in Cuba’s current artistic climate.

“My art is critical, and not very pretty,” he said. “It’s purely expressive. It’s ugly.…The only art that really sells here is kitschy.”

While one member of his collective has had success selling to foreign collectors, Armenteros has not. He said he thinks about doing a cultural exchange program to the U.S., but doesn’t expect to do that any time soon.

“It’s hard to travel to the U.S.,” he said. “My mother has been denied a visa four times.”

According to Nelson Herrera Ysla, a Cuban curator and co-founder of Havana’s Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, artists like Armenteros struggle not just because their personal style is not popular but because so few Cubans have money to spend on art for their homes and workplaces.

“Cuba doesn’t have an art market,” said Herrera. “It has hundreds of thousands of talented painters, sculptors and performers that must often leave to make a living on art alone.”

While it is not uncommon for foreign art collectors to visit Cuba, more often Cuban artists go abroad in search of exposure and income.

Herrera said he thought improved relations with the U.S. would immensely benefit Cuba’s artists. In just the few weeks since President Obama has initiated changes in American policies, Herrera said some American collectors had come to Cuba to shop.

“They’ll buy anything,” said Herrera. “Most don’t care what it is so long as it’s Cuban, but serious collectors will pay extreme prices for critical and stirring pieces.…Our art is exotic to them.”

Randy Moreno, 24, does not welcome the changes. Moreno said he earned a comfortable living from completing commissioned work on behalf of government-funded foundations and events, in a good month as much as 800-1,000 CUCs, or Cuban Convertible Pesos, each more or less equal to $1.

Randy Moreno says blahblahblah

Randy Moreno said he feared that changes in government policies would jeopardize his income.

“I’ve been fortunate to make the money I do without leaving the country,” said Moreno. “My brother is a respected dentist, but I support him with my work. It’s crazy!”

Moreno attributed his financial success to two factors. First, his most profitable medium, video mapping, is relatively cutting-edge technology in Cuba, and doesn’t require a canvas or even a gallery. Second, the government’s support for the arts and the respect that Cubans accord to artists.

“Here, being an artist is one of the most honorable jobs you can have,” he explained, forming a triangle with his thumbs and index fingers. “It’s like we’re at the top of the triangle. Other people, like salesmen and farmers, are somewhere down here,” he said, wiggling his thumbs.

Then he slowly inverted the triangle.

“In America, it’s like the triangle is upside down. Lawyers and other professionals are at the top, and the artists are at the bottom,” he said. “American artists are left to be poor and disregarded unless someone rich sees them, or they get lucky.…I don’t want it to be like America here.”

Moreno has yet to sell a single piece to an American collector, he said, and has reservations about selling in galleries, because in Cuba galleries are private, often foreign-owned and operated.

“The public will never see your art if you hang it in a gallery,” said Moreno. “I want everyone to see my work, even if they don’t like it. That’s why I do video mapping.”

Performance artists are in a sort of limbo as they wait for the embargo to be lifted.

Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez play and sing for tourist crowds around Havana.

Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez play and sing for tourist crowds around Havana.

Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez are a multi-instrumentalist duo who massage melodies from their instruments on an intimate, cubby-like stage before droves of tourists. They play at the Gran Anejo five nights a week, in the main lobby of the famed Melia Cohiba hotel in the Vedado district of Havana, alternating among vocals, piano, flute, viola and small percussive instruments.

Both women are graduates of the University of Havana. Moreno, who has been playing music professionally for 15 years, sings in three languages and has performed in Canada, France, Italy, Mexico and Portugal, she said, earning $500-3,000 a month, all under contract with the Cuban government.

“You get paid more overseas,” said Moreno. “But it’s important to know that I have this job when I’m home.… Jobs are very hard to find here.”

In Cuba, Moreno and Rodriguez each receive a daily wage of 7 CUCs, and, with tips can make $20 a day each, 30 times as much as the average salary of a state employee. Rodriguez, a professional musician for five years, said she was content with her wages but welcomed the changes that may soon come.

“I can’t wait for the reforms,” said Rodriguez. “More people in Cuba means more places to play. It’s very good for us.”

Moreno, though, is concerned with what policy changes could mean.

Magia Lopez of the hip hop group Obsesion.

Magia Lopez’s hip hop group Obsesion has been together for nearly two decades.

“The pay rate here is antiquated,” said Moreno. “But I am grateful to do this for a living. Changes could be for better or worse.”

For performers who aren’t under government contract, the impact of possible policy changes is a gray area.

Obsesion has been crafting its style of hip hop since 1996. Its two members, Alexey Rodriguez and Magia Lopez, have supported their work through individual earnings, foreign funding and community projects, not government salaries. Her state support consists of a third-floor apartment in Old Havana that was deeded to her family by the state after the revolution granted ownership to Cuban citizens who rented their homes. She also benefits from the low, subsidized utility rates.

“We are currently researching to see how those changes will affect us,” said Rodriguez. “We cannot say if they are good or bad yet.”

New Rival for Soccer’s Red Bulls

Article and Video by Kishan Singh

New Yorkers are used to and thrive on local rivalries – baseball’s Yankees and Mets, the NBA’s Nets and Knicks (however pathetic the Knicks are this season), the NFL’s Giants and Jets (ditto) and, and in the National Hockey League, the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. However, since its inception in 1996, only one soccer team has represented the New York area in Major League Soccer. Originally known as the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars, the team eventually evolved into what is now the New York Red Bulls – even though its home stadium is in Harrison, N.J. When the MLS season starts in March, the Red Bulls will be sharing their territory with the newly formed New York City Football Club.

The teams will meet on May 10, in Harrison.

The new team has already earned a great deal of publicity, because it is jointly owned by the New York Yankees and the renowned Manchester City Football Club, the current English Premier League champion. NYCFC was able to land two of the world’s best-known players, England’s Frank Lampard and Spain’s David Villa.

The Red Bulls are well established. Though the team has never won a major championship, it has a very recognizable brand, Red Bull, since it is partially owned by Red Bull GmbH, the Austrian company that sells the energy drink. This club is and was home to some of the world’s most famous players including Thierry Henry, the French forward who has played at some of Europe’s largest clubs. Currently playing for the Red Bull is Australia’s leading scorer, Tim Cahill, and Bradley Wright-Phillips of England, who led the MLS in scoring last season.

So will NYCFC be able to gain a fan base in what has been Red Bulls territory?

Being in the Bronx will certainly make the team easy to visit. And its big names are sure to help.

“NYCFC is getting Frank Lampard and David Villa, big-name players, to attract a lot of people, and in the New York market you need to get big-name players that people will recognize,” said Brad Hill, an avid Red Bulls supporter.The Lampard deal has been something of an embarrassment for the new team; after a good deal of publicity about Lampard’s arrival, the player said at year-end that he would finish the English season with Manchester City and join NYCFC only then, in June, not for the season’s start, as anticipated.

“I feel like the Red Bulls are more of a New Jersey-based club; a lot of the fans seems to be from there.”

Paul Brooks, a former player for the New England Revolution and coach at New York Soccer Club, said, “Logistically, it is easier to be a NYCFC fan; they are signing some big-name players, but I just hope that they will reach out to the local product of players, and mix them in with the high-profile professionals.”

Will the two star players be enough?

The MLS has a salary cap that limits a team’s total salary, the idea being to keep wealthier teams from outspending the less wealthy. “MLS is tough,” said Jason Puckett, a devoted Red Bull supporter. “You can only have three players above the salary threshold, so you can’t come in and buy the MLS championship.”

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In NYC, Russians Cast Wary Eye on Sochi

By Jason Javaherian, Emma Kazaryan, Milena Kozlowska and Rebecca Ungarino

At Kebeer Draft Bar and Grill in Brighton Beach, in the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian community, every television was tuned to the XXII Olympic Winter Games hosted in Sochi, Russia on a recent Sunday evening.

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Kebeer’s Russian patrons feel indifferent during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Photo by Emma Kazaryan

Notwithstanding that men’s cross-country skiing—not a popular spectator sport—was the focus of the evening’s telecast, enthusiasm for the games appeared scant. Patrons at Kebeer, which is at the intersection of Brighton Beach and Coney Island avenues, glanced briefly at the screens to catch results, only to quickly return to their conversations.

“Russia did not need these games,” said Sergey Zinoviev, who was standing at the bar with several friends, alluding to the estimated $51 billion cost of the Sochi games, more than seven times the cost of the winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, four years ago, and larger than the $44 billion of the 2008 Beijing summer games, the next most expensive. “I think they could have spent money on more important things, like schools.”

Zinoviev, a banker, said he is not indifferent toward his native Russia. “Every time I watch the games I feel proud for Russia, especially when our sportsmen are winning,” conceded Zinoviev with a smile.

“I don’t cheer for Russia,” said Igor Galiakhmetov, 60, an owner of a Brooklyn moving company. “I cheer for good sportsmen.”

For Galiakhmetov, who moved to New York 14 years ago with his family from Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea, 176 miles from Sochi, the distrust he feels for the regime of Valdimir Putin, who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister since 2000, colors his view of the Olympics. “Knowing the Russian government, I am pretty sure that after the Olympic games, the region as well as the newly built infrastructure, will be abandoned,” he added.

As Russian émigrés follow the Sochi games from their new homes in New York, they are experiencing divided loyalties to two countries—the Russia they left behind and their adopted U.S. For many émigrés, whether they fled the former Soviet Union or Putin’s Russia, their view of the Olympics is colored by the corruption they associate with both regimes.

“Many people come to cheer for the U.S. rather than Russia,” said Rassul Massimov, an employee at Kebeer and a student at ASA College who is from Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.

“We are American and are rooting for America!” agreed Matwiej Dommith, 85, also of Brighton Beach via the U.S.S.R, who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years and has grandchildren born and raised here.

Meanwhile, on Staten Island, at the NetCost Market, on Amboy Road in the Richmondtown neighborhood, the sentiments toward the Olympics were much the same.

“I am rooting for Russia, Estonia and America, but mostly for America because they are my home,” said Igor Shurygin, who was stocking the shelves at the store, which is part of a chain popular among the community’s Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian residents; the store carries traditional Eastern European specialties, such as pierogi (potato or cheese dumplings), plov (a hearty rice dish), and kotlety (breaded meat cutlets). Shurygin, who moved to Staten Island two years ago from his native Estonia, said that when he was not working he watched the Olympic games at home, and especially enjoyed the snowboarding competitions.


Ella Pil, a barbershop owner, sympathizes with Sochi residents who were relocated to make room for Olympic development.
Photo by Jason Javaherian

Rachel Mickley moved to New York from Ukraine nearly 38 years ago and said that she, her children and U.S.-born grandchildren were all rooting for the United States. Mickley said she watched the Olympics on Channel One whenever she gets the chance; Channel One Russia, the Russian Federation’s first television channel, is available via local cable companies.

“My husband and I, we don’t want Russia to win medals,” said Ella Pil, a 39-year-old barber in the Floral Park neighborhood.

“The Olympics are a show for Putin and his friends,” said Pil, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Uzbekistan, and reflected the animosity that many residents of former Soviet satellite countries still feel toward Russia.


Board Bashing: The Long and Short of It

By Brad Williams    

The hum of four soft urethane wheels gliding over abrasive asphalt has become a common addition to the noises on the streets of New York, as longboarding continues to grow in popularity. Far from the stereotype of skateboarders (teenage boys, or young men with long hair and tattoos), the people riding longboards range from businessmen, to young mothers, and even young children. They often ride together in groups of three or more on long-distance cruises. They can be seen nonchalantly whizzing by traffic and pedestrians on the city’s streets without doing a single trick, on boards of various shapes and sizes but longer than three feet in length. One rider might be 5 years old, and the next rider might be 50.

Photo by Brad Williams

Photo by Brad Williams

Many people refer to these boarders as skaters – and that leaves those on the other end of the skateboarding spectrum – trick skaters – fuming. While outsiders might see longboarders and shortboarders as two families of the same clan, the participants see themselves as rivals.

In the past five years, longboarding has reached new heights in popularity. As more and more longboarders coast through the streets of New York City, many shortboarders frown in disapproval.

The basis of the dispute is the style of board used by the rider. In general, there are three types of skateboards:  trick boards (also referred to as “regular” and “short” boards) used primarily for executing numerous tricks; longboards, mostly used for transportation and riding at high speeds, and cruisers, a varying mixture of both.

Longtime skater and Roll America skateboarding instructor John Jackson is displeased with the increase in longboarding. “It feels like they outnumber us now,” Jackson said. “When I would skate around 10 years ago, I’d see skaters everywhere, riding in groups, now I just see a bunch of longboarders clogging up the bike lanes.” Founded in 1988 by Joel Rappelfeld, RollAmerica offers rollerblading and skateboarding lessons and says it works with more than 50 elementary and middle schools to teach students.

Longboards, significantly longer than trick skateboards, require less effort and can reach much faster speeds. Most longboards have wheels twice the size of regular skateboard wheels, to handle rough surfaces and add momentum when in motion. Longboards are primarily used for transportation.

Jackson said beginners were the “most annoying thing” about the rise in longboarding.

“As an instructor, I encourage my students not to start out with a longboard. It’s too easy to reach high speeds, and beginners can’t keep control,” he said. ”It’s like driving a Corvette the very first time you drive a car, you’re a danger to yourself and everyone near you.”

“I can count four longboarding deaths in New York City since 2012. I can’t think of a single person dying from trying a trick here,” Jackson said. “And we skate all of the ramps and rails that most people think are so dangerous! It’s all from a lack of experience and comfort on a board.” According to the Web site Skaters for Public Skateparks, two skateboard-related deaths occurred in New York City in 2012.

By Jackson’s definition, the majority of the city’s longboarders should not be referred to as skaters because they have not spent countless hours bettering their skills through trial and error.

“What can you fail at as a longboarder?” Jackson asked. “Riding down the street? Outside of the hardcore longboarders, who have complete control at speeds above 15 miles per hour, longboarding is not a demanding activity.…Is anyone who rides a bike considered a cyclist? No. They should only be referred as longboarders.” he added, “Longboarding is more like surfing or snowboarding than skateboarding.”

Jeff Gates, an avid longboarder and the founder and owner of Uncle Funky’s Boards in the West Village, said there’s not just a link between longboarding and board sports such as surfing and snowboarding, but that the latter are “the root of all skateboarding”– meaning that skateboarding as a whole evolved from surfing.

“Longboarding is as simple as riding,” Gates said. “You can get the gist of it in a matter of hours, while street skating requires a lot more practice and dealing with injuries.”

Gates said that trick skaters embrace skateboarding as part of their identities, and aren’t happy to see people who just bought longboards being referred to as skaters.

“When a dude who’s been doing tricks for 15 years sees a guy in a suit riding a longboard to work on Wall Street, he’s pissed,” he said.

Unlike Jackson, Gates believes that a longboard is an ideal choice for newcomers for a multitude of reasons: “It’s longer and wider than a standard board, so it has more room to stand on and is more stable. Its wheels are much larger, so riders don’t have to worry about tripping over every crack, twig or pebble, and it’s just easier to turn on.”

Gates admits that the ease of reaching high speeds is a potential danger, but advises that all riders should do their best not to skate outside of their abilities. In addition, he suggests a change in philosophy: “Everybody can skate, everybody should skate. It’s fun, and it’s easy…And I think skaters have tried to keep that secret for too long—to protect it like it’s their own. But it never was their own, and it never should be their own: it’s for everybody.”

A Skateboard Entrepreneur Draws Inspiration From New York Food Trucks

By Sean Creamer

Tre TruckSkateboarding has enjoyed a boom in New York City during the last decade, as the Bloomberg administration has doubled the number of skate parks.

With new parks in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan new businesses have emerged to meet the rising demand, among them the so-called Tre Truck. On any given day, outside the parks, you’re likely to spot the plain silver-sided self-proclaimed “World’s Finest Mobile Skateboard Shop” parked at a nearby curb.

The Tre Truck is owned by Alex Ritondo, 21, a skateboarder and entrepreneur who drew his inspiration from the food trucks that can be found throughout the city. The Tre Truck travels from the Lower East Side skate park under the Manhattan Bridge to the newly constructed Far Rockaway skate park and to points in between.

The goal is to bring hard goods — the skateboard decks (the platform on which the boarder stands), trucks, the turning apparatus and wheels — directly to skaters at prices comparable to those in a moderately priced skate shops. At an average skate shop, decks usually go for about $60 and trucks for $40.

“Skateboarding has always been my passion,” says Ritondo, his brown shaggy hair tucked under a baseball cap. “I originally wanted to open a shop. Me and my friends always talked about it.”

With skate shops, as with many businesses, location is a key element. And “a good location for a skate shop is going to cost a lot of money,” adds Ritondo.

Rent on the Lower East Side, a popular skate location — the Lower East Side skate park, on Monroe Street, is a regular stop for Ritondo — ranges from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, according to Tungsten Properties, a commercial real estate company in Manhattan. (Most local skate shops pay $25,000 to $100,000 a year, or roughly $2,000 to $8,000 per month, according to ReferenceUSA.)

Then, too, in the last few years a few skate shops have closed, in part because of a weak economy, but also because gentrification has pushed the shops’ customer base—typically young 20-somethings—to other neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

A graduate of Borough of Manhattan Community College with a degree in entrepreneurship, Ritondo skateboarded daily while at school and decided to reimagine the idea of the traditional skate shop to make his dream a reality.

A traditional skate shop acts as the headquarters for a community of skateboarders. The shop typically purchases merchandise wholesale from larger suppliers who supply similar shops all over the country.

The Internet has taken some business away from brick-and-mortar retailers. But for die-hard skateboarders, the local skate shop/hangout is still the preferred locale for buying equipment and accessories, including skateboard brand shirts, shoes and other items that define the lifestyle.

While Ritondo couldn’t afford to open a skate shop, he saw opportunity in the proliferation of new parks.

“I don’t think that Tre Truck would have been sustainable without the creation of all the skate parks,” says Steve Rodriguez, a skateboarding legend in New York City who also owns Five Boro Skateboards. “Tre Truck needs that concentrated audience to do enough business to make it worth it.”

Ritondo bought a used truck from a friend on Long Island with savings and help from his family. He also got help from some of the bigger players in the city’s skateboard industry.

For example, Michael Cohen, shop manager of the Shut Skateboards brand and flagship store in the Lower East Side, agreed to let Ritondo open an account to sell Shut Skateboards.

“It is a win-win situation, people will buy from the Tre Truck and then come to the store,” says Cohen who has known Ritondo for several years. “At the same time we get kids who come here and we will tell them to check out the Tre Truck at their local park.”

The Tre Truck, which has been operating since September, has brought in about $10,000 in revenue so far. Ritondo knows that he will need to increase sales substantially in order to stay in business. He is hoping one day to franchise the operation and have trucks operating throughout Long Island.

Then too, skateboarding is seasonal and there isn’t much business in the winter.

Despite these challenges, Ritondo wins praise from both competitors and customers. “We offer a lot more variety, but what they are doing is a cool idea,” says Lennon Ficalora, the owner of Wampum skate shop on the Lower East Side.

Skaters like Frank Nicado, a regular at the Chelsea Piers 62 skate park, are often on the lookout for Ritondo. “The Truck just always has what I need,” says Nicado. “When I lose a bolt or a bearing they are always willing to hook me up.”