Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.


Karma comes home

That’s me, on the left, with WXXI’s Randy Gorbman, reporting live from the jazz fest this summer.

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted…?

Oh, yes. Reporting on the Rochester arts scene. Music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, literature. Dressing up your dog in holiday-appropriate costumes. The stuff that represents the best of humanity. All of that – or, at least my role in it – came to a skidding halt when I was laid off by the local daily newspaper in September of 2017.

But what the Democrat and Chronicle does not value – and I know, I was in the meetings – WXXI understands. I have been doing two stories a month for the area’s public radio station for a little more than year. Covering the jazz fest, the Fringe Festival. Most recently writing about the loss of Rochester Music Hall of Famer Bat McGrath. And exploring the tale of Lesley Riddle, the black country-blues singer who played a huge role working with The Carter Family to popularize country music in the 1920s. Then he was promptly forgotten, before being re-discovered in the 1960s after having lived in obscurity for more than two decades here in Rochester. A Rochester story that parallels that of blues legend Son House so much, it is almost uncanny.

But two stories a month is not enough for a community whose arts scene is so vibrant, so interesting. We face a lot of problems in Rochester. Poverty. A dysfunctional city school budget. Mistaking a plate heaped with macaroni, home fries, hot dogs and meat gravy as cuisine. But artistic creativity is not an issue in this city.

So on Monday morning, I started at a newly created position at WXXI. Arts & Life Editor, Which, I assume, means I’ll have to check my own spelling. And we have plans. Vibrant, interesting plans, although perhaps falling a little short of Oprah giving a car to every member of her studio audience. YOU GET A CAR! AND YOU GET A CAR! Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, and months, you shall be rewarded.

We’ll make it happen as fast as we can. The only things that will hold us up are technical issues. Like, I’m staring at the phone on my desk. It has 28 buttons on it. I don’t know how to use the thing.

The arts scene is equally complex. Our deep cultural scene must be represented by not only telling the stories of our hometown musicians, and artists, but by treating the city as every bit deserving of attention from the biggest names in the arts as any major city receives. The arts is how we celebrate the triumphs, and address the difficult issues, of society.

It’s important to remain on the razor’s edge of culture. I’m your guy, I stopped wearing yoga pants a few years ago.

I tried to make good use of my two years in exile. I had aging-parent issues. The dog got long walks. I read a lot; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is astonishing, he wasn’t anything like the guy you learned about in junior high history class. I had my own book published, “22 Minutes,” the story of a Lake Ontario sailor and a tragic World War II naval battle. 

But here’s the best part: the support I received from friends and strangers was unexpected, beyond what I would ever ask for. My last act before walking out the D&C door for the final time was to post a message on Facebook, explaining I’d just been laid off. I expected a few responses. “Sorry Dude, I’ll buy you a drink if I ever see you again.”

Instead, a tsunami of responses hit. Outrage from hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know. Strangers stopped me everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants – to tell me how much they missed my writing, and how they’d cancelled their subscriptions.

And it just kept on coming. An unexpected support system emerged. At my going-away party – we called it “The Freedom Party” – friends presented me with a beautiful laptop computer and read poems about me. Friends gave me tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. There were lots of dinner invitations at friends’ homes. I’d walk into a bar and a glass of red wine would magically appear in my hand. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant and at the end of the night my friends had quietly paid the bill. I had several friends, suspecting financial hardship, offer to loan us money. Not just a few hundred bucks. I mean a few thousand dollars.

Amazing friends. I’ll never forget their support. I’ve written virtually every day on that new laptop. Blogs, freelance stories, a few songs, a novel about surrealist artists and robots. It’s better than it sounds.             

While cleaning the attic one day, I found a stack of newspapers. Democrat and Chronicles, and the now extinct Times-Union. All dating back to 1989, 1990, and when I first moved to Rochester, as assistant sports editor of the Democrat and Chronicle. I’m not sure why I kept them. The big news in Rochester then was serial killer Arthur Shawcross. But looking at those newspapers, now more than two decades old, I was astonished at how large they were. Not only their dimensions, but the number of pages. And on those pages, dozens of local bylines and photos. There were swarms of young and smart reporters like Steve Orr and Gary Craig. Crime news, sports news, society news, threatening weather, bowling scores. Each issue of those old newspapers was a portrait of a day in Rochester, yellowed, preserved like an insect trapped in amber.

It’s not like that anymore. Orr and Craig are still there, still smart but not quite so young, looking kinda lonely in the dwindling newsroom, the job titles on their business cards now reading something like Craig’s “Murder, Dead Gangsters and Ukulele Players Beat.” And he’s pretty good at it. Yet the baseball team, the Red Wings, is covered only when convenient. And our arts scene is a neglected mansion. One of our local rock bands, to paraphrase the president, “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and you wouldn’t read about it.

But that’s the disaster that’s today’s media landscape. Corporate thinking is silencing one of the most-vital engines of democracy. Today, media properties are junk vehicles being sold for parts.

Robert Siegel, the now-retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was in Rochester two weeks ago, and something he said struck me as the truth. Your local newspaper, wherever you live, is likely owned by some out-of-state corporation. Making decisions not for the community that your newspaper serves, but for the financial benefit of shareholders. Public radio, and public television, is a different business model. It does get some federal money. Sometimes donors step up with a big check: Thank you Betty Strasenburgh, Rochester activist and philanthropist, you’re why I’m sitting in this chair in the WXXI building on State Street. But mostly, WXXI survives through a public that acknowledges it must invest in some kind of media vehicle that stands apart from the forces that have disemboweled newspapers and commercial radio.

Two other D&C newsroom employees were laid off on the same morning as I was, both of whom had been there longer than me; I calculated that nearly 90 years of institutional memory went out the door that day. But WXXI is growing. Monday, my first day here, was also the first day for videographer Max Schulte, who I worked with at the D&C for more than 20 years. Arriving a week earlier, and now working on the fifth floor of this building, is David Andreatta, former D&C columnist, now the new editor of CITY newspaper; it’s a subsidiary of WXXI, so some of my writing will appear there. Denise Young is a WXXI editor, I once worked with her at the D&C as well.

You can see where this is going. The morning I was offered this job at WXXI, September 16, was two years ago to the very day that I was laid off at the D&C. Some folks say karma’s a bitch. But it depends on where you’re standing at the moment. Because karma is often the truth, revealed.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Lidia Bastianich and the rich life of food and culture

Of course Lidia Bastianich shared the secret of authentic risotto while answering a question from the audience. What did you expect? “It’s all about technique,” she explained, making it clear that stirring the simmering grains, like throwing a knuckleball, is not about arm strength.

But the evening also stirred some much-deeper issues. Help for veterans. And compassion for immigrants.

Public Broadcasting Service’s Madonna of Italian cooking shows was in Rochester over the weekend, primarily for a talk Sunday night at Hochstein Performance Hall. And the night before, a benefit for WXXI. There was dinner, naturally, although she wasn’t asked to step behind the stove for this one. Instead, she talked about a series of shows she’s done for PBS, Homegrown Heroes, that connects veterans with the food industry. In a short clip from the show, one of the vets defined the central idea as, “There really isn’t anything more powerful than growing food.” Think about that for a moment. Here are men and women who have come from places where American-made bombs are falling on busloads of school children. That happened in Yemen in August. If you witnessed something like that, wouldn’t it break your soul? For these soldiers, returning from wars that no one can explain, the healing might come from digging into the earth, producing instead of destroying.

Bastianich was also here to talk about her new book, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food. “I came to the United States as a refugee, 12 years old,” she said. She was born in Italy, but following World War II the region where she lived was transferred to Yugoslavia with the formation of that nation, and her family found itself living under a communist regime. “My father was jailed by communists as a capitalist because he owned a couple of trucks,” she said. When Bastianich, her mother and brother were allowed to temporarily re-cross the border into Italy, her father was forced to stay behind, as a hostage ensuring they would return. But Bastianich’s father escaped Yugoslavia and they settled into a refugee camp. Until 1958, when they came here after President Eisenhower opened immigration to people fleeing communism.

Bastianich married at 19, and she and her husband opened a tiny Italian restaurant in Queens. Within a few years, and changes of restaurants, her reputation grew. And, Bastianich recalled, two legendary chefs, Julia Child and James Beard, came to her, wanting to know the Italian secrets of risotto. She in turn was struck by the potential of public broadcasting, particularly as demonstrated by Child. “The intelligent venue of teaching and sharing,” she says.

Now Bastianich is a food empire. Restaurants and namesake food products, including wine. PBS shows. And, she said, 11 books, although she was wrong: My American Dream is actually her 16th.

Unlike her cook books, this one is a memoir, and it’s her story as an immigrant that she spoke of Saturday. She was an eager immigrant. “I wanted to be an American teenager right away, watching American Bandstand,” she said.

Yet, despite the reward of seeing Dick Clark every week, immigration is a painful process. She compared her early life behind the war-shifting borders in Europe – is she now Austrian, German, Slavic, Italian? – to today’s uncertain homelands. Parents fleeing a hostile government, a child yanked from her childhood. “I didn’t say goodbye to my goats, I didn’t say goodbye to my rabbits,” she said of leaving Italy.

It is no less painful today. “The borders are moving and people are fleeing,” Bastianich said. On our southern border we see refugees from the unstable and dangerous countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Elsewhere on the vast refugee trail, people are trying to leave counties such as Syria and South Sudan. By accident of birth, their opportunity in life is limited. All they want is a shot at what you and I have. But we’re closing the doors.

What are we closing the doors to? A richer life for us all. Bastianich’s family fled communism, yet kept its culture alive. Today’s immigrants, many of whom will never find a safe place, are in danger of seeing their culture disappear. “Food,” Bastianich said, “is a way to transmit who we are.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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