Miracle on Astor Place

Issue No. 4 | March 11, 2022

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

Last month, New York City’s iconic Astor Place Hairstylists signed a new, 10-year-lease, cementing a comeback that began in the depths of the pandemic. Days away from closing for good, the 75-year-old barbershop was saved in November 2020 by a group of local investors who, like thousands of their fellow New Yorkers, grew up getting their hair cut there. 

 

Why is Astor Hair so important to so many people? Maybe one reason is the way it exemplifies a certain treasured American ideal. Owned by three-generations of Italian-Americans, the shop employs barbers from around the world. As this short documentary puts it: “We have Muslim next to Jew next to Christian. Europeans next to South Americans next to American-born. It’s as diverse as it can possibly get.” The same could be said of the barbershop’s clientele, demonstrating the universal appeal of cheap yet high-quality haircuts.

 

In his  “Cultural Diversity: a World View,”  Thomas Sowell defines “culture” as “living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life.” When different cultures bump up against each other, writes Sowell, they tend to adapt whatever ”ways of doing things” work best. This ultimately benefits us all: “Cultural competition is not a zero-sum game.  It is what advances the human race.”

 

Since its founding, America has confronted forces that seek to divide it. The miracle on Astor Place is a reminder of the kind of freewheeling, spontaneous exchange – united by common values and goals – that has always been our strength.

 

Provisions

Goldbelly, a curated online marketplace for restaurants and food shops around the country, gives even the most geographically isolated among us access to a wide array of American cuisine in all its glorious variety. Crabcakes from Maryland, Detroit-style pizza, Peking Duck from New York’s Chinatown – all these and more can be shipped to you to prepare at home. 

 

A delivery from Goldbelly also makes a unique and practical gift, as we discovered this Christmas, when we substituted a box of ribeye steaks from Flannery Beef for the usual fruit basket.  Try it and see. That you’ll be supporting local, often family-owned business (many hit badly by the Covid lockdowns), is a tasty bonus.

Training

Broad demographic terms like “black,” “white,” and “latino” have their uses, but they fail to capture the complexity of human ethnic and cultural identity. Perhaps a less superficial understanding of our own heritage will make us more likely to appreciate that of our neighbors. One way to get this understanding is through at-home DNA tests. A list is here. These services have become much more accurate and less expensive in the last 20 years, but can also raise serious privacy concerns. Always read the fine print before sending in that swab. 

 

A less invasive way to explore one’s background is via genealogy. The task of constructing an accurate family tree is less daunting than it used to be, thanks to a number of powerful Internet databases. The National Genealogical Society also has a good list of free resources to get you started here.  

Culture

“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” goes a jaunty tune from the 2004 Broadway hit “Avenue Q.” It’s funny because it’s true. Humans are by nature tribal. We tend to mistrust and stereotype outsiders. Acknowledging this can relieve tension and lead to honest, productive conversation. 

 

Spike Lee has spent his career sparking such conversations, nowhere more effectively than in his 1989 film “Do The Right Thing.” Depicting the simmering racial tension of one hot summer day in Brooklyn, Lee’s film at first seems to side mainly with its black characters. As it progresses, however, Lee makes sure we also see the complicated humanity of their white antagonists. They, like everyone else in the film, are just trying to get by and live their lives. They have more important things to worry about than race. 

 

One scene in particular captures Lee’s “we’re-all-in-this-together” approach: different characters – the black protagonist (played by Lee himself), a Korean grocer, a white cop, a Puerto Rican neighbor – address the camera with rapid-fire racial slurs. The creativity and fluency with which each character denigrates another race makes it funny; the genuine anger behind it makes it uncomfortable. 

 

When the tension finally explodes in violence and destruction (which can’t help but remind us of June 2020),  “Do the Right Thing” again chooses to unsettle. Nobody has proven a point; nobody has “won.” The characters, like the audience, are left to ponder the seemingly insurmountable human impulse to scapegoat, and turn strangers into enemies. 

Exemplar

Many immigrants to America arrived with little but the clothes on their back; others arrived in chains. Even as our history bears witness to the horrors of slavery, it also records numerous men who reacted to enslavement with incredible feats of valor. 

 

One such man was Robert Smalls. A skilled boat pilot, the 23-year-old worked with six other enslaved men crewing the Confederate steamship Planter, docked in the Charleston harbor. It was just before dawn on May 13, 1862, and the white captain had left the ship in the care of the black crew, as he often did. It was then that Smalls carried out his meticulous and extremely dangerous plan.

 

Impersonating the captain by wearing his straw hat, and aided by the cover of darkness, Smalls steered the ship out of the harbor and past several heavily armed sentries, as well as Fort Sumter – captured by the Confederates the year before. He made it to a wharf where 16 other escapees waited, Among them Smalls’s wife and two children. From there they reached one of the Union ships blockading the harbor, narrowly avoiding being attacked as an enemy vessel. They were finally free, and had given the Union army one more ship and a trove of munitions. 

 

Smalls went on to fight for the North, reaching the rank of captain. Following the war, he served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, as well as five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

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