Linking thoughts of NYC's Chelsea neighborhood with my travels in Beijing

The scary news from NYC over the past few days drew the attention of many Americans, myself included. Beyond thoughts of "new normal" urban threats, it also brought to mind a dual set of personal memories. I feel fortunate to have gotten to know that part of Manhattan somewhat over the last handful of years. I've walked the streets of Chelsea where the bombing took place and where the other pressure cooker bomb was discovered nearby. What drew me there was the fact that the old garment center and the concentration of manufacturing of what had sometimes been called the "fur district" not so long ago occupied many of those blocks. 

 One of many crossroads in what had been NYC's "fur district" within the historic Garment Center near Midtown.

One of many crossroads in what had been NYC's "fur district" within the historic Garment Center near Midtown.

It isn't easy to cover my understanding of the long and fascinating history of that part of Manhattan in a quick blog post, so please excuse the gaps in my reasoning. But this unfortunate current news story also brought me back to what I saw five years ago today on the streets of Beijing, where what some call the "skins trade" is currently present. In a nutshell, what formerly was seen all over NYC's Garment Center is now a hard to find but active part of Beijing's street trade. I went back through some old photo libraries to offer the following pics to summarize what I'm referring to.

 One of many storefronts in the skins trade district in Beijing.

One of many storefronts in the skins trade district in Beijing.

 A typical showroom floor for a merchant selling the raw commodity of pelts to manufacturers.

A typical showroom floor for a merchant selling the raw commodity of pelts to manufacturers.

The overly-simplified next step in this trade sees those raw skins enter the manufacturing process. For an up-close example of this, I was taken by our tour bus to a factory outside Beijing where dozens of Chinese workers do the work of turning that commodity into a finished product. Once again, here's a few examples.

 Garment cutters at work.

Garment cutters at work.

 Notice the strips sewn to fit the pattens pieces that will become part of a larger garment.

Notice the strips sewn to fit the pattens pieces that will become part of a larger garment.

In the days ahead, I will better explain what I learned of this garment manufacturing process. For now, I thought it might be a worthwhile introduction as we all grapple with what happened in NYC over the weekend. Beijing is a long ways from Chelsea. Yet they are connected by this trade's history and the basic human element of real people doing real jobs. No matter what people may think of the manufacture of these goods, either then or now.

Connecting censorship (in China) and uncensored storytelling (in Norway).

The combination of this week's 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Evan Osnos's engaging new book Age of Ambition drew me back to an old photo library. I made my first (and thus far only...) visit to China three years ago this September. Since I'd embargoed most of my photos from that trip, I choose now to share a few (click through for a handful of images from around that central part of Beijing).

The most thoughtful things I've read to help understand this dark anniversary opened a bit more the tiny window I saw through while there. Massive overstatement alert ---> China moved on quickly and changed massively after events in 1989. Yet when I look at pictures of the aftermath, I'm shocked in many cases for the first time by the scale of it all. If the events of "liu si" (the term for June 4th) come up, most people feign ignorance or look for a polite segway elsewhere. Here, there, or anywhere. The best advice I was given before visiting China was simple - "don't talk politics." Whether or not that sounds cowardly, the coping mechanism worked well. 

Since I still don't know what to say...I'll dramatically spin the globe to recap a lit event I'm still digesting. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this week. The release of the 3rd English-translated book in Knausgaard's six volume autobiographical "novel" (more on that in a bit) drew him to the United States for a brief tour - just L.A., Seattle and NYC stops before returning home in a week as he told me in the book signing line after his reading. This rare event kicked me square in the brainpan. Leave it to a somewhat reluctantly self-aware Norwegian to offer a powerful glimpse of how much we all stand to still learn about our skills and motives.

To drill down a bit...Knausgaard offered a disarming, great reading. He proved that banality can be deeply meaningful. He uttered a beautiful mantra in passing that I will borrow and try to use with attribution for some time to come - "self-criticism kills everything." He gave insights great and small, personal and universal, hopeful and darkly prescient to a standing room only crowd in a sweltering basement. Knausgaard's opus is called "My Struggle" and in the original Norwegian would not have been called a memoir. Because there is no such literary category in Norway. In American, we call it "Fiction" because we get all weird and wonky about storytellers manipulating their memory. Some call his work boring - he joked about it in fully owning up to the characterization. It is also deep, rare, and written in a twisting stream-of-consciousness. Hypnotic might be a great description. But I should stop there, because I have much more to read of his "Struggle." Needless to say, I am an immediate admirer and fascinated empath with respect to what Knausgaard has done in this work.

Seattle gets more than its share of authors with real star power jaunting across the stage. Knausgaard's appearance was something quite otherwise, however. This was a Salinger moment. If he comes anywhere in North America when Book 4 gets translated, I suspect Seattle may once again float up near the top of a very short list. But I would not count on him coming back, America. If you have the rare chance to see Knausgaard, do not let that pass without taking great pains to get there. No matter what happens with his work (or his personal struggles with success and happiness), I am quite pleased to have spoken with him briefly while he sat at what looked like the loneliest signing table imaginable...all while a line of dozens and dozens of fans waited for their chance to also thank him for doing us a solid by swinging through town.