The Common Good
April 2010

Beauty from Ashes

by Onleilove Alston | April 2010

The BQE, by Sufjan Stevens. Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Though many know multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens for his proposed 50 States Project (recording an album about every state), the subject of his most recent release is not a state, but the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). At first glance The BQE may appear to be a departure from Stevens’ usual themes of faith, family, and geography, but it continues his tradition of transforming the mundane into the magical.

In 2007 Stevens was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to compose a piece inspired by Brooklyn for the 25th anniversary of the Next Wave Festival. Instead of choosing the iconic Brooklyn Bridge or hip Williamsburg, Stevens choose to create a home-movie style film and accompanying orchestral piece about a deteriorating expressway that causes stress for nearly 300,000 commuters a day. Controversial urban planner Robert Moses supervised construction of the BQE, which stretched from the late ’30s to 1964. Moses designed expressways with no regard for the low-income neighborhoods that they tore through. Writing in The New York Times in 2007, Michael Powell noted that “half a million people were displaced and neighborhoods broken to realize [Moses’] vision.” As a native Brooklynite I know this to be true—these communities are still struggling to heal. (For more on Moses, read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro.)
Last October I attended the premiere screening of Stevens’ The BQE on DVD at the 92YTribeca arts venue, excited yet skeptical that anything beautiful could come from this source of urban pain. I was very interested in how Stevens would handle the BQE. Stevens was born in Detroit and is no stranger to urban neglect and its effects, as you can hear in his song “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!).”
I was delighted to hear in the film a 40-minute, beautifully dizzying piece played by a chamber orchestra. In this project Stevens examines what occurs when the pursuit of “progress” converges (or clashes) with the needs of humanity. The accompanying film featured bright lights, colors, and three women known as the “Hooper Heroes,” mythical characters Stevens created to take on “Captain Moses.” The Hoopers are woven in between scenes of traffic on the BQE and Brooklyn scenery.
At one point, the ugliness of a trash transferring station is juxtaposed with the beauty of Stevens’ grandiose composition. In many cases trash transferring stations are intentionally placed in impoverished communities with scant resources to oppose them. This scene challenged me to see the potential for redemption even in what has been a source of pain for my community. Stevens utilized art to perform the prophetic act of calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17) by taking what many deem ugly and transforming it into an occasion of beauty.
Ironically, a few blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, another consequence of urban “progress,” the highly contested Nets arena, is beginning construction. It is the cornerstone of the massive Atlantic Yards development project, which is sure to displace thousands: The battle for Brooklyn’s soul continues. Fortunately, prophetic artists such as Sufjan Stevens remind us that “progress” is not always progressive and that beauty might yet be created even from ashes.
The BQE is a double-disc format (CD/DVD) and includes the original film and the motion picture soundtrack, along with a 40-page booklet with extensive liner notes and photographs.
Onleilove Alston, a Sojourners contributing writer, attends Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. She works at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
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