The carcass is still alive, or why you won’t see me at City-Wide Open Studios this weekend

First a shirt factory, then a newspaper, now a newspaper and an art gallery, at least for the weekend. Photo: Thomas MacMillan/New Haven Independent.

City-Wide Open Studios is New Haven’s annual (15th) autumnal art cornucopia, where dozens of artists throw open their doors, literally and figuratively, to thousands of visitors over three weekends in October.

And for the first time in nine years, the prodigal daughter, returned from California, was able to partake in CWOS — the L.A.M.P. Festival, whose pretty lights lured the moths of the art world to downtown the first Friday night of the month; and some of last weekend’s gems at one of the festival’s anchor sites, the studios at Erector Square. (Let’s just say you sometimes appreciate things more when you move away, then return …)

But I’m taking a pass on this final weekend (Oct. 20-21), the traditional Alternate Space portion of their program. No way in hell am I going. (Apologies to Colin Burke, who did his damndest to try to get me to see his camera obscura, which will be in an old delivery truck in the parking lot.) Too painful for me.

This year’s alternate space happens to be the New Haven Register building. The artists have pitched their figurative tents and canvas and other media where — until March, when the Journal Register Company contracted its printing and distribution to The Hartford Courant — the printing press and the mailroom were situated and people were gainfully employed.

It’s the place where I crammed at least 25 years’ worth of work into 11 1/2 years, producing the Weekend section and interviewing hundreds of legendary and not-so-legendary performers as the entertainment editor/music writer. (It was two and a half full-time jobs in one 55-to-60-hour week for one wretched paycheck.) It’s a place where I worked my ass off, a place where I did a damn good job for too long despite a lot of obstacles, a place that almost killed me, literally. (In this case, a brutal case of sleep apnea that started percolating in New Haven and exploded three years after I moved to California.)

And now, it’s being used as an alternate art space for CWOS. That’s usually reserved for buildings where the business is dead and gone — say, the Smoothie Building, in between its days as an undergarment factory and an overpriced apartment building; or the Armstrong Building, the striking, stilted, early-’60s structure along Long Wharf, after its days as headquarters for Armstrong and Pirelli Tires and before becoming a vacant ornament at the entrance to the Ikea parking lot.

In this case, though, the carcass’ heart is still beating, if ever faintly. As someone who gave her all to newspapers for three decades — and most especially in that place — I don’t know whether this weekend saddens me or just plain pisses me off.

*****

Of course, knowing my history, I realize that this is a repurpose of a repurpose. The Register moved out of its Orange Street space downtown and into the former Gant shirt factory along Long Wharf in 1981, 11 years before I was hired there.

Now, on its second ownership — and second bankruptcy — since I left in 2004, the current ownership of JRC, working under a “Digital First” mantra that it believes will revitalize what “conventional wisdom” says is a dying industry, is selling the building and planning to move back into a smaller space downtown (where I hope there’s plenty of parking).

(And oddly enough, the focus on the Register building comes the same week we heard about interesting doings at another Register on another side of the country. The new owners of The Orange County Register are banking that newspapers aren’t dying, and are hiring dozens of reporters under a print-first philosophy that runs counter to JRC’s thinking.

As for this writer, who endured several fillet jobs at the original JRC and a mass whack by McClatchy, including my layoff from the once-proud, once-robust Fresno Bee in 2009, I’ve always believed that you have to spend money to make money; you don’t entice people to read your paper by offering them less news, less paper and less quality — and charging more for it. That the newspapers that are indeed dying are doing so by a thousand cuts, most self-inflicted. I still believe newspapers are important and can be vital, if they’re run right. Not everyone owns a computer, let alone is chained to one.)

But the thing is, it’s still alive. There are still people working there, though a lot fewer than when I started there in 1992 — which is a lot fewer than in ’90, when JRC’s infamous first CEO, the evil and tyrannical Bob Jelenic, took over the foundering company and waged a war of internal vandalism, rape, pillage and gutting in the name of maximum profit that somehow became the template for the entire industry. And, in the months before his death in 2008, sent it careening toward its first bankruptcy. But it’s still surviving.

Many of the people who still work there are or were friends of mine, and have been through more than any employee deserves to endure, between the constant cutting and reshuffling and, now, philosophical shifts.

I attended a friend’s going-away party a couple weeks after moving home, and there was definitely a divide between many of the people working there and the ones not working there. Many of the ex-colleagues who’ve since left looked a hell of a lot happier than many of the ones still fighting the good fight on Sargent Drive. (Yes, even the unemployed ex-entertainment editor writing this. Then again, at that point, I was still basking in the glow of moving home.) That night, in catching up with my former colleagues, I saw the stress on their faces as I heard several variations of “You know, I just go in, put my head down, do what they ask and get out of there.” A battleground mentality in the name of self-preservation.

And now, they have to endure a horde of art-lovers trampling through the building before it’s abandoned — not the newsroom, of course, but that’s not the point.

I realize that the Artspace folks, who put on this great event every year, weren’t thinking this way — their M.O., as event organizers, is to find the biggest available open space in the city as an alternate space for the event, then utilize it in the best way possible. No qualms with that.

But there’s still a business operating in there, one that has been very, very good to Artspace and CWOS, and the New Haven arts community as a whole, in its pages — most definitely by the arts editors in charge since the event’s inception, and certainly by this entertainment editor during her time there.

It just seems like feasting on the corpse while it’s still trying to breathe. It’s as if the art community is implicitly saying “Newspapers are dead.” Jesus, let the thing die or move away first before you throw the party, y’know?

As for me, besides the alternating sadness and anger, I think it would be an insult to my friends who are still fighting that fight there, day-in, day-out, and to the great many people who’ve had and lost jobs there, if I attended. Anyway, enjoy it …

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