About That Research Department
It’s Sunday so your humble Blaster is going to start the first full week of March with a short piece that is not political but, hopefully, amusing. It is “March Madness” time, of course, and as a devout (college and high school) basketball fan, I watch a lot of games. This past Monday I traveled to The Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York (above, left) to watch the Section One Class B boys’ high school basketball championship semifinals with my dear friend and coaching colleague, Jim Spano. Fittingly, one of our former players was an official in the first game. That was emblematic of the quality of the players we coached: they knew the rules but weren’t quite the athletes that would go on to play at “the next level” (college). But the coaching was always fun and, 38 years later at County Center (where we actually did coach in a championship game in 1979) we had a great time watching hoops, eating hot dogs, and spotting old coaching compatriots and former players. The County Center itself has undergone a huge renovation because it is now the home of the Westchester Knicks, the NBA D-League (development league) team for our hometown Madison Square Garden heroes. As a result, the old arena is not only “cleaned up” and replete with a very (loud) professional sound system, the place is rife with advertising! And that’s where I want to get back to March Madness and watching college games on television.
There is an ad I have seen several times now --- and only during college hoops games --- from the Guinness Brewing Company. Apparently the enterprising Irishmen have decided that while their dark ale may be a well-liked novelty here in the States, it is not the kind of “seller” they need. As a result, they are now pushing --- through the ads I’ve seen --- their “Blonde American Lager.” They’re rolling their brewing dice on a lighter, less full-bodied beer in hopes of securing a greater share of the U.S. market --- better to compete with Bud and Sam and the rest, I guess. Fine. Their ad, entitled “Time to Brew an Irish American Beer” (you can check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGxijJVFiSw) starts with a black and white photo from early Lower East Side New York (a Jacob Riis picture, in fact) and then tells a tale of how the Irish came --- and contributed –-- to America (even a President!) with quick-cut black and white film footage, segueing to more modern shots as they explain bringing their beer (Guinness Draught) with them. The commercial logically concludes with the notion that the Irish are now so assimilated, and so much a part of America, they need to create their own version of an “American Lager.” It’s an okay idea and makes a mild political statement about the value of immigrants, given our current political climate. BUT, the Jacob Riis photograph that opens the commercial (and is used in a second ad I saw last night while watching the UNC-Duke game --- go, Tarheels!) is problematic for me and for any other student of history familiar with the picture.
If you don't know about Jacob Riis here’s a quick summary. Riis was a Danish immigrant who became a journalist in New York City in the late 1800’s, gaining notoriety for writing How the Other Half Lives, a photographic expose of the squalid conditions immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York were subjected to. The book contributed to the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, with Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge. Among Riis’s most photographed areas was “The Five Points” (the setting for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), particularly around Mulberry Street. And that’s where the Guinness commercial comes in. The photograph (above right) that Guinness is using in their commercial is Riis’s shot of an alleyway known as “Robber’s Roost,” which was “at 59½ Mulberry Street. The building on the right was a “stale-beer dive” where drinkers could stay all night if they bought a few glasses.” (https://shrineodreams.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/pictures-i-like-robbers-roost-jacob-riis-1888/)
Most significantly, of course, is that the place is named “Robber’s Roost” and that the “gentlemen” in the picture are, in fact, part of a well-known criminal element in the Five Points. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see that the two men on the right, closest to the camera, seem to have weapons at the ready (something in one man’s pocket and a shotgun or shillelagh next to the other fella). So, the question becomes: Why does the Guinness Brewing Company want to promote their product using Irish immigrant criminals (“bad dudes” who would be deported in 2017)? What they’re counting on, I'm guessing, is that most people will see the photo as a quaint depiction of early immigrants “hanging out” in an alley in ye Olde New Yorke. Or --- and this is always possible --- their Research Team just looked at the picture without checking its subject matter and thought it was “appropriate” for the ad campaign.
Whatever the case, watch for the Guinness Blonde commercials, basketball fans, and see if you spot “Robber’s Roost.”