Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Midtown Blues

Change is constant. In life -- and in New York City.

This wouldn't be the greatest city in the world if it wasn't always transforming. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes it's for the worse but change is a perpetual fact of life. Like the passage of time, weather, death and taxes, change simply exists, it just is.

Well, Midtown is changing -- and not for the better.

Currently there are several super-thin, super-tall highrise apartment buildings being constructed in Midtown. Specifically, they are being built in the 50s, right below the southern perimeter of Central Park. A few are also being built downtown, in and around Tribeca. Many of them are close to 100 stories tall. And they are a threat.

They threaten to turn the Manhattan skyline into one overwhelmed by buildings that look like needles. No more iconic structures like the Chrysler, the Empire State, even the Citicorp building -- instead, needles. Manhattan will be turned into the world's most glamorous pin cushion.

They threaten to exacerbate the income inequality in this town. The apartments in these buildings are going to be purchased mostly by wealthy foreigners either as investments or pied-a-terres.

Most of all, these buildings threaten to caste huge shadows over Manhattan, blocking out the sun. And since most of them will be in Midtown, this means that large portions of Central Park could be caste into permanent darkness.

This. Is. Scary.

And it's not even like Midtown is that glamorous or exiciting anymore. Midtown is ... eh. As this article shows, we're a long way from the glamorous Mad Men days of Midtown. The economic and cultural vitality has left Midtown and gone to Chelsea (like Google), or the East Village (like Twitter), or Tribeca (like all the celebrities), or Brooklyn (like Girls). Heck, even Queens is getting more cool. Midtown has become like a boring middle-level Midwestern city's downtown. It's where people work and occasionally get dinner. But it's not where NYC's future lies.

So these new buildings contribute nothing to NYC or its future. This is one kind of change we can do without.    

Classic Mr NYC

In 2008, I did a couple blog posts about the year 1994. One concerned a movie called "The Wackness" that was a piece of nostalgia about 1994 New York. The other was a "cultural nostalgia" trip to that year -- a year when everything changed.

You think I kid. But I kid you not.
A lot happened in 1994. A lot that we're still living with today.
Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan. The OJ Simpson case. Kurt Cobain's suicide. The Rwandan genocide. The Major League Baseball Strike. Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. My So-Called Life, Friends, ER, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and all the big careers that were launched (and re-launched).
And the world we live in today was largely created that year.
The Republicans took over Congress and George W. Bush became governor of Texas -- which lead to President Bush, the Iraq War, and eventually President Obama.
And 1994 was also the first year when this thing called the Internet began to penetrate the popular consciousness. As this clip from the Today show proves, before then, no one really knew what "Internet" was. People still had yet to grasp the concept of this rootless world of information. It would take years before things like Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter would consolidate control over the Internet -- back then, it was an electronic Wild West. But 1994 was the year it broke through -- and changed our world forever.

NYC Etiquette

Interesting segment today on WNYC about how we New Yorkers should comport ourselves in the streets and public institutions of our fair city. Apparently someone wrote a book about it. 

I thought one of the joys of being a New Yorker was that you could be as rude and crude as you wanted to be. If this book is to be believed, however, this is no longer the case. 

The author does make some interesting points, however. Most of all: when walking down the sidewalk, keep to your right!

And my own personal tidbit: when riding the subway, don't eat and don't stand in front of the doors when there are open seats and space available!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Is This Real?

In the late 1990s, I had a roommate with a subscription to The New Republic. One fine summer day, while he was elsewhere, I opened up an issue and read an article called "Hack Heaven." Written by a person named Stephen Glass, the article was about how companies were hiring teenagers who had previously hacked the company's computer systems in order to teach them to avoid future hacking. The article was so wild, the people so colorful, and the things they were quoted as saying so off the wall, that I thought the article was fiction. It had to be!

And it was.

It was all a lie. This article, and others by Stephen Glass, were so sensational, the people and events in them so Monty Python-esque, that it and they defied credulity. Eventually, Glass was revealed to be a fraud, his articles total fiction. A few years later a movie called "Shattered Glass", about this fake article and Glass's deceit, was released. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, sometime not. But truth will always out.

This week, while perusing the new Observer online, I came across an article that again makes you think: is this real? Called "Don't hate me because I'm 10021", it's about how rich people in NYC, specifically those denizens of the Upper East Side, are feeling persecuted and marginalized in Bill De Blasio's New York. Apparently, these rich folks all want to move to Miami -- no taxes, no Democrats, no "class warfare", and better weather. This article wants us to pity the rich and their difficult plight. The poor in this town? They got it made! It's being rich in NYC that's so very hard. Pity the billionaire. Screw everyone else.

Of course, this is Orwellian nonsense but this article seems to believe it. Really.

And yet ... I'm wondering if this article just isn't some big practical joke. I hope so. If so, who's it supposed to be punking? The rich -- exposing them as whiny, pathetic, selfish, greedy, narcissistic, mean-spirited pigs? Or the rest of us -- begging us to feel sorry for them? I can't decide. One of the commentators to this article even writes "This has to be fake, right?" I hope he's right. I just don't know.

If it's fake, it's hilarious, brilliant even. 

But if it's real ... it's scary, truly chilling. It shows how totally detached and out-of-whack the wealthy in this city are. This is a "Let them eat cake", Ayn Randian attitude that once permeated Ancien France and Tsarist Russian and led to revolution. I don't think New Yorkers are ready to storm the barricades quite yet but, when I read articles like this and then hear wealthy New Yorkers compare raising taxes on the rich to a Nazi invasion, it's clear that a class war is brewing, and may get hotter. 

Let's hope it won't. And let's hope this article is a joke. 

It begs the question: is this real or is April Fool's starting early? 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

NYC Streets in Imagination

Cities are only as great as their people. And, of course, many great people have lived in NYC over the centuries. 

In fact, so many notable people have lived here that some of the very streets where they resided have been named after them. 103rd street and Broadway has been renamed Humphrey Bogart Way. The area on the Bowery near where CBGBs used to be has been renamed for Joey Ramone. And numerous streets in Queens have been named after cops and firefighters who died in 9/11. You can find a comprehensive list at NYC Honorific Street Names to see where they lived and are now remembered.  

Talking about remembering, you must take a look at these amazing photographs by legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Although he's become famous for snapping pictures of the rich, powerful, and beautiful, he's also revered for his photos of ordinary New Yorkers walking the streets. He has an uncanny ability to catch people doing interesting, idiosyncratic things. A recently released collection of his photos were taken back in 1968, when NYC was in some trouble. It's an amazing visual record of a city on the brink of crises -- and the humanity it contained. All New Yorkers, at any time in our history, are iconic.

One of the most iconic New Yorkers was, of course, Jackie O. History remembers her as First Lady to President John F. Kennedy, queen to his king, as the two of them reigned over America in Camelot in the early 1960s. Then that tragic day in Dallas in November, 1963 took him away and she, in turn, moved to New York City to live the rest of her life (she died in 1994). But her legacy is not just to be found in her short tenure as first lady or her bravery after the assasination. Living for the last 30 years of her 64 years, Jackie O became one of the city's leading preservationists. She helped restore Central Park after the savage budget cuts of the 1970s. And she helped to save Grand Central Station, winning it landmark status, and preserving a great NYC icon. After her death, the reservoir in Central Park was named after her. Photos from her three decades in NYC have recently been published in a new book and you can see some great samples here

There has been some controversy about name streets and public spaces and institutions after people. But I think it's important to remember that NYC is place where talented and brave people have lived, and naming the streets where they lived, and remembering how they contributed to our city's life and history, is a good thing to do.

Harlem Building Blast

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Where have you gone, Tammany Hall?

In American politics today, the most common complaint is, why can't politicians get anything done?

Of course, our political system of checks and balances was intentionally set up to make it difficult to govern, lest we slide into tyranny. However, in recent years, it seems like our politicians have gone from governing and legislating into simply engaging in deliberate gridlock. It does "We the people" no good.

The people, of course, are at the heart of any democracy -- because here the people rule. At least, in theory. In practice, of course, people powered government is rough and messy business, much like the people themselves. That is why political parties came into existence, as a way for people and groups with similar interests to organize and claim power. It's always why the engines of political parties, i.e. "machines", became so vital in the 19th and 20th centuries: they helped people claim power and use the government to improve their lives.

A machine works like this: the people who work and vote for or finance the dominate political party in their respective city or state get benefits when the politicians they support get into the power. This can be a job or social services or various government favors. It's very much a transactional, back scratching way of governing. It is the "business" side of politics and government. 

Political machines, of course, have long been derided as sources of corruption since they can warp the machinery and priorities of government and leads to bad policies. Government ceases to function properly when instead of being used an instrument to help the population at large it is used simply to benefit the people who run and support it. However, political machines were not always sources of patronage and corruption. Instead, they were mechanisms to help the poor and dispossessed grab away the levers of government from the rich and connected. 

Here in NYC, from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Tammany Hall was the most powerful and notorious political machine in America. Tammany Hall ran NYC like the Vatican runs the Catholic Church: absolutely. The "bosses" of Tammany, like the infamous Boss Tweed and later people like Carmine DeSapio, would handpick candidates for mayor and other municipal offices and they were almost guarenteed victory on election day. At its height, Tammany's power reached to Albany, with even governors needed the backing of the powerful organization to get elected. But Tammany was not just a cease pool of power and corruption. In its early days, before the government granted social services, it was also a place where poor people and immigrants could go to get a job, food, shelter, even winter clothes. It helped the people at a time when the government and the wealthy didn't, and all it wanted in exchange was a vote. For many New Yorkers at the time, this was a great deal. 

In many ways, Tammany became a victim of its own success and power. By the mid-twentieth century, many of the politicians it had supported, like Governor Al Smith, had instituted social welfare programs in New York State that made the services Tammany used to provide people irrelevant. In the 1930s, the New Deal and the election of Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor made Tammany both irrellevant and, for the first time, politically weak. And, of course, corruption went from the "honest graft" of the 19th century, when politicians and bosses helped the people and themselves, into the vile corruption of Mayor Jimmy Walker -- who spent his days and nights drinking and chasing women while his city fell apart, thanks to the Great Depression and incompetency of City Hall. 

By the 1960s, Tammany Hall was dead. Many said and would say today good riddance. But is the city better off because of it? At its height, Tammany Hall was a strong advocate for New Yorkers who had no other. It truly cared and helped everyone. Today, who does that? Unions? The rich? Ha! And when you see ineffective the city, state and federal governments have became at truly improving the lives of ordinary people, Tammany Hall in its glory years seems truly glorious indeed. 

There is a new book that looks to reexamine the legacy of Tammany Hall. Perhaps, it argues, Tammany Hall has been unfairly condemned. And perhaps the people of our city would do better if another Tammany Hall could rise, a political organization that simply looked out for everyone without regards to wealth or connections. 

P.S. Where was Tammany Hall? It was originally located right off Union Square on East 14th street. The original building was demolished in 1927 but then moved to East 17th. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Next Great NYC Movie

Setting a movie in NYC has become so common that it's almost boring. Not that NYC is boring but, as a cinematic milieu, it has become so cliche that I roll my eyes whenever I see another movie set here. Even Woody Allen, the quintessential New York filmmaker, has started making his movies in other places, and it seems to have made his movies better. If you're gonna make a movie set in NYC these days, there needs to be a damn good reason.

Well, leave it to the Coen Brothers to find one.

Although based in NYC, these great filmmakers are originally from Minnesota, and they set their movies in a variety of locales (like Raising ArizonaFargo, the noiry Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski, just to name a very few). But their most recent film -- Inside Llewyn Davis, criminally overlooked at the recent Academy Awards -- is a total New York movie, and a great one at that. Here's what it takes to make a great NYC these days (according to the high rigorous standards of Mr NYC):

1. Time and Place. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place during the winter of 1961, mostly in Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and a little bit in Queens (there's also a subplot with a road trip to Chicago but that's almost a different movie). The Coens do an amazing job of showing how the streets, buildings, and storefronts of these neighborhoods, and, best of all, the subway in really looked in 1961. Back then, these neighborhoods were working class, bordering on poor, and were drab and run-down. The subway was even dirtier than it is now. You see the seeds of the decay that would later be exacerbated by the 1970s financial crises, before the city was "reborn" in the 1990s. This is not a nostalgic, romantic, paper-dollish look at working class NYC in 1961. Watching this movie, you feel like you've been transported back to a specific time and place in NYC, and it makes you see the city again for the first time.

2. Community: Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the folk music scene that sprouted in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, then culminated in the 1960s with the explosion of Bob Dylan (this film is set roughly a week before Dylan first performed at the Greenwich Village club the Gaslight). Like the 1920s American ex-patriot writers in Paris, or Andy Warhol's Factory later in the 1960s, the downtown folk music scene of the late '50s, early '60s has now become legendary, almost mythical, with singer-songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary all getting their starts there. This film shows how hard making a career in folk music was and how, for many, fame and fortune eluded them. This film not only takes you back to NYC at a special time and place but also into a world who legacy continues to this day.

3. Characters: Llewyn Davis is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was a popular Greenwich Village folk singer during this time. Van Ronk was an early influence and friend to Bob Dylan and, although he never achieved that level of fame, he left an amazing legacy and created some great music that is played throughout the movie (including the song "Hang me oh hang me" posted below). Van Ronk's real life was a little different from Llewyn Davis (he wasn't a couch surfer, he was married, and he didn't knock up his friends' wives, for example) but, when he died in 2002, he seemed fated for obscurity. However, the 2005 book about him, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and now this film, have given Van Ronk, a great New York character, his due.

4. "No fakery": as I indicated before, Inside Llewyn Davis is not a nostalgic look at 1961 NYC or the folk music scene. It is, like many Coen Brothers flicks, totally unsentimental, almost brutal in its outlook. This is not a film that shouts "It was so much better then!" Instead, it aims to show you what the city and this community were like, warts and all. You get a feeling that you are watching real people living their day-to-day lives, and they are confronting problems that are recognizable to people today. While the movie is set in the past, it's the present for them. Most importantly, even though it's a period piece, there aren't lots of references to the fact that it's 1961 (except for one very funny scene where Llewyn Davis and two other singers croon a pop balled called "Please Mr Kennedy Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space"). Instead, the film takes for granted that you know what we going on back then -- this a story about people, not a history lesson.

So that's my criteria for making a great NYC movie these day: a story rooted in a specific time,  place, and community in the city without either being self-conscience or displaying any cheap nostalgia. Inside Llewyn Davis does this beautifully, it's a great movie, and deserves to ranked with the great NYC movies of all time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The War on Breasts

It's not easy being a stripper. Not that I've ever been one but I can imagine: literally taking off your clothes in front of a bunch of horny drunk guys, getting hollered at and groped, all for a few bucks here and there. Not an ideal way to earn a living.

Then there are the strip clubs themselves. They iz naaaasssty. (Not that I've been to any but, uh, I've been told.) And they are owned and operated by people who you probably wouldn't want to invite home for dinner. Not ideal workplaces. Not ideal employers.

Then again, life is not ideal. Few people earn a living exactly as they wish. Most people work for people they'd otherwise have nothing to do with. But, in the New Economy, any job is a gift.

Here in NYC, however, strip clubs and the jobs they provide are vanishing. And it's on purpose. Community leaders and politicians are pressuring the NY State Liquor Control Board to deny strip clubs liquor licenses. In the last few years, the number of clubs all over NYC has declined, in some places dramatically. As soon clubs lose their licenses, their business plummets. They try to substitute with things like "mocktails" and other novelties but the reality is no booze, no bidness. Men may wanna leer at breasts, but if they can't enjoy a drink or two while they do it, they have little interest. After all, they can stay home and be pervy on the Internet in private -- for free.

I'm of mixed minds on this. As the father of a daughter, the idea of her working as a stripper is awful. (My mission in life is to prevent this fate. I'm even thinking of starting a support group for fellow fathers of daughters called Keep Her Off the Pole.) And as a homeowner, I wouldn't want a strip club near where I live. But ... I really don't like the idea of legal businesses -- and I repeat legal business -- being harassed out of existence, with the government using a loophole to close them down. So long as they are not near schools and don't disturb the community, why can't they exist? Shutting them down because they offend some peoples' private morality is wrong. After all, if it was up to me, stores wouldn't sell cigarettes and there would be no such thing as a gun shop. But no one's threatening to close them down.

Stop the insanity!

This is just another example of the cultural bleaching of NYC. How the Tyranny of the Boring has taken over what used to be the most exciting city on earth. Okay, we got rid of the hookers in Times Square. Great. We did that for tourists and it helps NYC economy. But attacking strip clubs in Queens and the Bronx? All that does is put bartenders and waitresses and strippers out of jobs. It doesn't protect anyone!

Yet another example of the Bloomberg legacy: working class folks lose jobs while the rich build bigger and bigger highrises.

Eliminating strip clubs in NYC is one of those things that takes us one small step closer to becoming Cleveland. (And no, Cleveland doesn't rock. Otherwise it wouldn't be called Cleveland.)

So join me fellow New Yorkers. It must be stopped. This war must not continue. This war must end. We must stop this War on Breasts!

All we are saying ... is give teats a chance!