Closing Rikers: Competing Visions for the Future of New York City’s Jails

Anakwa Dwamena

Audience members at the New York City Council hearing on the closure of the Rikers Island Jail and the building of four borough-based jails, New York City Hall, September 5, 2019

At this moment in the country’s history, an unusual alignment has taken shape—of investment in and activism around criminal justice reform; widespread recognition of the failure of systems currently in place; political will from all levels of government; and an abundance of successful programs for change backed by policy research. Yet the de Blasio administration is still hiding behind logistics and bureaucracy, repeating past mistakes and reluctant to do more to address its role in the perpetuation of an unjust system. The debates about the closure of Rikers have revealed how the city, circumscribed by what it feels it can get away with politically, is unwilling to look beyond what seems acceptable to what might be possible.

How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis

Anya Schiffrin

Jacqueline Breton, André Masson, André Breton, and Varian Fry at the Villa Air-Bel, near Marseille, France, 1941

During the year he spent in Marseille, from 1940 to 1941, the American journalist Varian Fry and his colleagues created a rescue network that saved at least 2,000 people from the Nazis—including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Arthur Koestler, Max Ophüls, Anna Seghers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and scores of other writers, artists, and philosophers. Fry was tenacious and creative in his means of getting people visas and onto boats in a desperate rush against time. Because of his extra-legal methods, Fry was shunned by the US Consul in Marseille. But the refugee rescue organization that Fry and his helpers built has been credited with saving from annihilation a crucial piece of European culture.

Capturing the Ephemeral Beauty of Improvisation

Adam Shatz

Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell

The drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey has a lovely phrase to describe the practice of improvisation: “the adornment of time.” It’s the title of his gorgeous new album with the pianist Marilyn Crispell, recorded live in the fall of 2018 during Sorey’s residency at The Kitchen, a performance space in Chelsea. The music begins in near silence, punctuated at first by what sounds like knocking, or maybe hammering. It’s followed by thudding noises, strokes of a piano’s strings, a drum roll so subtle it might be an aural illusion, a crash of cymbals, the tapping of a glockenspiel, the pattering of piano keys. Over the next hour—there’s only one track—the collaboration’s architecture comes into radiant focus, gradually acquiring such physical power that you feel a kind of shock, and even sorrow, when it ends.

Stopping in Vilna: Encountering Stendhal on the Holocaust Trail

Daniel Mendelsohn

A Jewish cemetery in Vilna, 1922

I was traveling a great deal throughout Central and Eastern Europe—Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus—researching a book that had to do with the Holocaust. My visits to local and regional archives, my tours of mass graves and abandoned shtetls would, I hoped, shed light on the lives and fates of certain relatives of mine: my mother’s uncle and aunt and cousins, Jews living in eastern Poland who had perished during the war. In Vilna, after three years of traveling in search of my family’s story, three years of interviewing people about the worst imaginable things, I couldn’t take it any more. Two things broke me.

The Ghosts of Elaine, Arkansas, 1919

Jerome Karabel

Frances Hall, one of the few victims of the massacre who can be identified by name, thanks to the journalists Robert Whitaker and Ida B. Wells, Elaine, Arksansas, October 1919

Given the magnitude of the Elaine Massacre, its absence from standard narratives in American history is striking. But it is important that we remember the Elaine Massacre today, for it encapsulates two fundamental and often interconnected problems that still plague America today: the vast disparities in wealth and power between black and white, and the enormous and growing inequalities between employer and worker. Far from being relics of a distant past, the two forces at the heart of the Elaine Massacre—white supremacy and a huge asymmetry in power between employers and workers—are very much alive.

The War Stories of Evacuated Children

Aubrey Nolan

Eighty years ago, in September 1939, Operation Pied Piper—a World War II effort to evacuate Britain’s most vulnerable citizens from areas deemed most vulnerable to German attack—was put into effect. In the first three days alone, 1.5 million people, most of them children, left their homes. As trains roared out of the station every day, every nine minutes, for nine hours, parents said their goodbyes, wondering if it would be the last time that they saw their children. The loss of a parent or separation from family is a trope in children’s literature, but in the decade following the war, several children’s writers drew particular inspiration from their wartime experiences.

When Fathers Die: Remembering Robert Frank

Danny Lyon

Robert Frank and Mary Frank, at their home on West 86th Street, New York City, 1969

In 1967, I was part of a “happening” with the Park Place Artists in Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square in New York. Standing up in the balcony with the sculptor Mark di Suvero, we looked down at a crowd of people milling about the lobby as the event ended. In the middle was a short man with dark curly hair and a taller, good-looking woman. “That’s Robert Frank and Mary Frank,” said Mark, pointing down at them. “Would you like to meet him?” In early 1969, I moved into Robert and Mary’s apartment on West 86th Street.

Jimmy Hoffa and ‘The Irishman’: A True Crime Story?

Jack Goldsmith

Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa testifying at a Senate hearing on labor racketeering, Washington, D.C., August 11, 1958

Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman, purports to do what the FBI and others seem unable to do: tell us who killed Jimmy Hoffa, and how. The film is based on a 2004 book whose central claim is that Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran murdered Hoffa in 1975. I have a personal stake in the veracity of Sheeran’s confession to being the hitman. Sheeran also repeats the public conventional wisdom that a man named Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien drove the car that picked up Hoffa from the suburban parking lot in Detroit and delivered him to his killers. O’Brien was Hoffa’s closest aide for decades. He is also my stepfather.

Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort: The Ukraine Scheme

Murray Waas

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaving his arraignment on multiple felony charges in Manhattan Criminal Court, New York, June 27, 2019

The allegations that President Trump improperly pressured the head of state of a foreign government to improperly investigate the son of his potential Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential race, and even withheld $250 million in military aid to that country, have become grounds for an impeachment inquiry. The new disclosures in this story underscore how this scheme originated in the long-running coordination between Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort to frustrate the Mueller investigation. This began with an earlier endeavor to obtain information that might provide a pretext and political cover for the president to pardon his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. 

Beyond Afghanistan’s ‘Graveyard for the Living’

Alex Thier

An Afghan security officer on duty outside the Karte Sakhi mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 20, 2019

It was Afghanistan’s well-heeled foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, the son of a famous jihadist leader, who first used the V-word with me. “I’ve been reading accounts of the Paris Peace talks, and the secret deal that was made by Kissinger with North Vietnam,” he said. “Kissinger said that they should wait a ‘decent interval’ before taking the South.” The unpopularity of the war and political challenges at home exerted pressure to conclude a weak agreement. Was the US negotiating strategy with the Taliban really just to secure a “decent interval” between the withdrawal and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban?