Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The City at Night (Havana)

Becket, December 25, 2013

Before the triumph of Castro's revolution in 1958, the night of Havana was the stuff of legend and fantasy. From the hotels and casinos run by American mobsters--such as Santo Trafficante's Capri and Meyer Lansky's Riviera--to the nightclubs and cabarets like the legendary Tropicana, the city after dark was often portrayed as a place of vice and debauchery.

But no picture of Havana's nightlife in the 1950s could be complete without mentioning the "Teatro Shanghai". Unlike the glamorous hotels and nightclubs, the Shanghai was a rather rundown building in Havana's Chinatown (it was originally built for traditional Chinese theater,) just west of Old Havana behind the National Capitol Building. Its nightly shows included raunchy comedy acts, hardcore burlesque and pornographic movies.

And the greatest star associated with the Shanghai (although he may have performed mainly at the Mambo Club or other places) was a monumentally endowed male performer known as "Superman" (in Santo Trafficante words "His cock is supposed to be fourteen inches long.") This colorful character appears in many accounts of the period. Frank Ragano, Trafficante's lawyer, mentions Superman's sex shows with awe, but Graham Greene writes that his performance was "as uninspiring as a dutiful husband's." He even has a brief appearance--seen from the back with a cape--as a character in Francis Ford Coppola's second Godfather movie.

For the later chapters in the life of the Cuban Superman, there is a fictional--I presume--encounter in "Dirty Havana Trilogy", Pedro Juan Gutierrez's hugely successful 1998 book, where the main character in the stories finds Superman during the "Special Period" (following the fall of the Soviet Union) on a sidewalk of Centro Habana, as a reminiscing 80-year-old bound to his wheelchair, diabetic, the lower part of his body gone.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The City at Night (Cairo)

Becket, December 15, 2013

If you look at a map of Cairo from the second half of the 19th century (*) you'll easily recognized the Ezbekiya Gardens, a large rectangle with chamfered corners to the northwest. These gardens were a centerpiece of the transformation of the city during the rule of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-48) and his grandson Is'mail Pasha Khedive (1863-79.) Right to the south of the Esbekiya Gardens is Opera Square marked by the equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pasha, the eldest son of Muhammad Ali and father of Is'mail. The monument was erected shortly after the completion of the great Khedivial Opera House completed in 1871.

In spite of the rather highbrow origin of this district, by the 1880's the whole area around the Ezbekiya Gardens became the heart Cairo's nightlife. It was populated by "salat" (nightclubs or cabarets,) such as El Dorado Café, where singers, dancers, acrobats and other entertainers performed for both local and foreign patrons. By the early 1920's, the most famous of these entertainers was the legendary Badia Masabni, a Sirian dancer credited with the transformation of  belly dancing into an art form. In 1926 she opened her own nightclub, Casino Badia, the first of a string of hugely successful venues that culminated with the famous Casino Opera, along the southern edge of Opera Square. It included a nightclub with a circular stage, a restaurant, a dining terrace, a cafe, a bar and a cinema. Masabni's Casino Opera opened in 1940 with great fanfare and for the following decade was the undisputed cornerstone of Cairo's nightlife.

(*) You can find an image of the 1874 "Grand Bey" map of Cairo in an earlier post:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The City at Night (Venice)

Becket, December 14, 2013

Canaletto (the great 18th century artist Giovanni Antonio Canal) painted countless vedute of his native Venice, but only two of them show the city at night: "La Vigilia di San Pietro" and "La Vigilia de Santa Marta", both painted after Canaletto's return from London in 1755.

The paintings depict two of just a handful of local festivities held specifically at night. The first shows a frontal view of San Pietro di Castello, a church designed by Andrea Palladio in the island of Olivolo, at the eastern end of the city. The other painting shows a line of houses adjacent to the church of Santa Marta, on the southwestern end of Venice, facing the Canale della Giudecca. Both of the scenes are lit by the moon, either directly or, this being Venice, by its reflection on the water. Other than that there are much smaller light sources associated with the festivities, with very little light coming from the interior some of the buildings.

The figures in front of San Pietro, either on the gondolas in the foreground or further back on the banks of the canal, are caught in rather genteel positions, standing, seating or strolling. The other painting shows a rowdy crowd of musicians and dancers. These paintings give us a rather vivid record of the different kinds of scenes one would encounter in the night of 18th century Venice.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The City at Night (Istanbul)

Providence, December 12, 2013

How do you draw the map of the city at night? Technically speaking, a map is a horizontal projection "looking down" so the sky doesn't appear in the drawing. Yes, astronomical charts are maps of the night sky and recent satellite photographs show cities defined by their lighting of streets and roads at night, but I'm thinking of a different kind of night map.

For example, there is a wonderful map of Istanbul depicting the appearance of the Great Comet in 1577. On the lower part of the image there is a more-or-less conventional map of Istanbul depicting the historic peninsula to the right, Üsküdar to the left and Pera at the bottom, with the Bosporus running vertically and the Golden Horn horizontally. Then, just to the south of the peninsula (north in this map is down,) instead of the Sea of Marmara, the map introduces the night sky with the starts, the moon and the comet trailed by its long tail. It's a rather ingenious way to turn a horizontal projection into a vertical view. It seems as if the mapmaker chose this particular orientation--I can't remember any other map of Istanbul oriented this way--to be able to superimpose the sky over the expanse of the sea. And that is only the beginning of this question about orientation, since it triggers all sort problems. Just look at the Galata Tower towards the bottom of the drawing, shown in elevation but upside down.

(With thanks to my friend Elif Özgen that introduced me to this and other amazing images of Istanbul. Also, I must confess that I not only know preciously little about this map, but I have a low-resolution image so it's not so easy to look at it in more detail. And needless to say that I can't read the text at the top. Any help would be much appreciated.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The City at Night (Beijing)

Becket, December 3, 2013

In the last few years astronauts at the International Space Station have been producing an  extraordinary collection of images showing large cities at night. Surprisingly, they often show different patterns from the ones shown in maps of even daylight satellite images.

For example, the foundational north-south axis of Beijing (north is at the top-right corner in the image) is barely apparent, while the east-west line of Chang'an Avenue becomes dominant in the night image. you can recognize it particularly in the center where is brighter and thicker, with elongated rectangle of Tian'anment Square to the south. The image shows the concentric ring structure very clearly, all the way to the 6th Ring Road more than 10 miles away from the center.

But the night view shows another urban pattern emerging, with a series of radial extensions, almost as if they were the legs of a spider. Not so much to the west and north where growth is limited by the Xishan and Yanshan ranges but certainly to the east and south, as the city seems to be on its way to connect with the cities of Lanfang and Tianjing, all the way to the to the sea port on Bohai Bay.

(By the way, the combined population of the three cities is currently something like 40 million, so allowing for even a modest growth we will be soon looking at an urban agglomeration topping 50 million people!)