Sunday, January 31, 2010

"It's all falling indelibly into the past"

When I started this blog almost three years ago, it was never meant to be a nostalgia blog, a "those were the days" kinda thing. It was meant to be a dynamic forum capturing life in the world's most dynamic city. I still think it serves that purpose but, increasingly, it's turned more and more into a nostalgia blog.

Perhaps it was inevitable. And I'm the first one to dismiss people who carp about the old days being better than the present. But recent events make it seem like the city has accelerated in a direction that I don't recognize. And as a life-long New Yorker, I'm scared.

Last week I wrote multiple entries about how Old New York Charm (the closings of Tavern on the Green and Cafe des Artists, the ruination of the Plaza Hotel) and Old New York Grit (the cleaning out of Canal Street, Frank Serpico) are disappearing. Then this past week, JD Salinger died (a great NYC writer) and the sale of Stuy-Town officially became a debacle. Also, the great New York movie studio Miramax closed last week, now basically a studio in name only but not practice (remember the Miramax hey-dey of the 1990s? The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, Chicago. Gone now.).

I feel like I'm looking out the back window of a car gaining speed as the city I once knew and loved is shrinking and disappearing into invisibility.

And what are we heading to? A city of soulless wealth, boring glass buildings, bad Yuppie taste, super-expensive real estate prices, and pockets of poverty and despair. At this rate, in twenty years, New York will be like Cleveland. Egads.

"It's all falling indelibly into the past." Don Dellilo wrote this as the last sentence of the opening chapter of his 1997 book Underworld. Indelibly -- not easily moved or erased. But increasingly the past is being erased and replaced with a new scary future. Instead of "indelibly" I would say it's inevitable. It's all falling inevitably into the past. Where do we go from here?

Talking about NYC in the past, there's some new books about the city during WW2. They sound interesting.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

JD Salinger RIP

This week the great writer and notorious recluse JD Salinger passed away at the age of 91. A native New Yorker, he wrote stories about human foibles and dysfunctional relationships with a raw honesty that pulled at readers' emotions like few writers can. He also wrote about this city with an attitude that was both critical and snarky, but ultimately reverential.

Obviously Salinger is most famous for his one novel, The Catcher in the Rye, about teenager Holden Caulfield. Many people consider him the Huckleberry Finn of the 20th century, an iconic figure more real than most real people. Kicked out of boarding school, Holden escapes to New York and gets into various adventures and mishaps. Published in 1951, it became an almost immediate bestseller -- and highly controversial for years afterward. Not only was this a book about a not-so-sympathetic kid but -- told in the first person -- Holden talks openly and frankly about sex and humanity in a way that was shocking for a very conservative country at a very conservative time. He curses, he lies, he does all sorts of mean, nasty things -- and we're supposed to like this kid. Just consider the opening lines of the book:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Nobody was writing quite like that back then -- until Salinger. Some people found his frankness refreshing while others thought it was crude. Whatever people's opinion, his literary voice certainly was different for 1951. Salinger was rock'n'roll before rock'n'roll was even invented.

Even if he hadn't written Catcher (considered today to be one of the greatest American novels ever written), Salinger would still be remembered for his wonderful short stories. He published a lot of them both in The New Yorker and printed collections. He published "Nine Stories" in 1953 (which includes, what my mother says is one of her personal favorite short stories ever, "For Esme, With Love and Squalor"). Other story collections include "Franny and Zooey" and "The Glass Family" (about a Jewish family on West End Avenue). His last published story was "Hapworth 16, 1924", published in The New Yorker in 1965. After that, he hid the fruits of his brilliant pen from the world.

Salinger escaped to New Hampshire, living in seclusion, almost never giving interviews, and never appearing in public. The world only knew he existed when, from time to time, he'd sue somebody or other who he thought was abusing or misusing his work or name. Rumors abounded that he was still writing and now, with his passing, speculation is rampant that his post-1965 work will be published. But that is all wait and see.

So farewell JD Salinger -- writer, New Yorker, voice of America's disaffected youth. Thank you for your timeless works and for being yet another great New Yorker of letters, a real attribute to this city's culture.

If you want to learn more about the New York of Salinger's day, The New York Times has some wonderful information about it.

A Walk Through JD Salingers New York
Salinger's Last Known Manhattan Home

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Luger's Haus "Rules"

The following comes courtesy of my father-in-law. Enjoy.

To maximize your dining experience it is IMPORTANT to follow these simple rules of behavior and dining at Peter Luger's in Brooklyn. Note: these rules do not apply if you are dining in the Great Neck location.

1. Never ask for a menu.

2. If a waiter offers you a menu - ask management for a more qualified waiter.

3. How to recognize a qualified waiter:
a. He must have a proper Germanic name - Wolfgang, Hans, Schmitt or Gunter.
b. He must be over 60 years old and have a nasty disposition.
c. References by him to his childhood days as "stumpfenkinder."

4. Never ask for a special order, never order items that are not on the menu.

5. Do not order soup. Soup is for "zustanzabes", they don't ever sell it.

6. Do not try to act like a pro by asking for items not on the menu like red onions or scalloped potatoes.

7. To look like a pro, I suggest the following openers:
a. Bermuda onions and Steakhouse tomatoes
b. Bacon strips and
c. Wet and dry Gorgonzola dressing. Never combine it with Peter Luger's sauce, in fact, avoid using the special Luger's sauce that is only for tourists and rookies.

8. Never offer to pick up the tab. They do not accept credit cards.

9. No matter how big your fancy stretch limo is or how hot and expensive your brand new sports car is, do not try to bribe the attendant to park in front of the establishment. That space is reserved for a "special" customer and only that customers - it is always left vacant.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Stuy Town Blues Part 2

Last August I blogged about the growing debacle of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village -- the housing developments on the Lower East Side that were sold to the real estate company Tishman Speyer in 2006.

This was the single biggest real estate deal in history, with Tishman Speyer paying over $5.4 billion for the 80 acre property.
Their goal was to shove out all of the middle class and rent-controlled tenants and replace them with rich NYU students and wealthier residents paying market rents. In order to make money on the deal, the new owners were going to have to evict more than 30% of the current residents and charge the new tenants close to $4000 a month. Needless to say, the real estate and economic bust of the last couple years blew that plan to hell. Plus the longtime tenents were rebelling at being evicted.

Tishman Speyer, apparently, was surprised by this. Wow.

Now the deal has gone bad -- really bad. Tishman Speyer is officially in default and they've turned over control of the properties to the creditors. Stuy Town and Peter Cooper now have a market value of less than $2 billion so this is a huge, huge financial disaster. Several investors, including some pension funds, have lost hundreds of millions.

It's a tale of greed and stupidity run amok. The smartest guys in the room proved to be the biggest morons of all. What a mess.

If there's any silver lining in this situation, it's that hopefully Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper residents will stop being evicted and remain in their homes. Hopefully they'll come out the winners.

And that will be a small victory for middle class NYC.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ya Done Good, Jets

If today's vicious rain and winds weren't enough misery for New Yorkers, it was a blow upon a bruise that was the New York Jets' defeat in last night's AFC Championship Game.

Yes, sadly, our beloved guys in green went down 17-27 to the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning et al. overwhelmed Mark Sanchez and the boys, admittedly playing some top-notch ball. The Jets did well, however, racking up point and taking the lead during the first half of the game. They played hard, fast, and in control -- until the second half when the Colts, like a group of surgeons, went deep in took the game away of our hometown team. That said, Sanchez has had a pretty darn good rookie season and has a bright future. Considering that he's a full decade younger than Peyton Manning, with enough hard work, Sanchez may prove every bit his equal with time.

So let's dry our collective eyes, New York. We can't be greedy. The Giants won the Superbowl two years ago (thanks to Eli, Peyton's bro) and the Jets just finished their best season since 1969. All in all, not bad. There's always next year.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Night Court

In my continuing salute to vanishing New York grit, here's a clip from the great 1980s TV show Night Court.

Set in a Manhattan court, it followed the hilarious hi-jinx that ensued each night when hookers, public nuisances, and petty thieves were "prosecuted" and "defended" and then "justice" was served. The show was excuse to show off an array of wacky New York characters being prosecuted for "crimes" that were really more extension of the human condition (no rapes, murders, or extortion cases were ever decided).

As this clip shows, it had a great cast, hilarious writing, and razor sharp performances. And while it could be raunchy, it also had a wry intelligence and, best of all, it had something so few shows have these days: a kind heart.

It also launched careers: Michael J. Fox (during Family Ties but before Back to the Future), Michael Richards (before Seinfeld), and Brent Spiner (before Star Trek: TNG).

Night Court ran on NBC from 1984-1992. Along with The Cosby Show and Cheers, it helped establish the dominance of the NBC Thursday night line-up ("MUST SEE TV!"), long before Seinfeld or Friends or shows like that. It won numerous Emmys including four for John Larroquette as the sleazy but funny Dan Fielding (after his four consecutive wins, Larroquette famously declines to submit his name for nomination again, saying someone else deserved a shot at winning).

They certainly don't make shows like this anymore. Specifically, NBC doesn't make shows like this anymore. Night Court premiered back when NBC still knew how to create hit shows and nurture talent, not squander it like today. And NBC, like that old New York grit, is fading fast. So lets at least remember the good times.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Serpico Speaks!

While gritty old NYC certainly has its charms, it also many downsides -- like massive police corruption. In the early 1970s, honest cop Frank Serpico became world famous for blowing the whistle and exposing the NYPD as basically being a criminal enterprise. His story and what he did became justly famous, leading to the Knapp Commission and reforming the city's police department. It also lead to the great 1973 movie Serpico starring Al Pacino, hot off The Godfather, in one of his greatest roles.

The New York Times has a wonderful article about him today. Serpico is still alive, living in the woods upstate. Our city was lucky to have him and owes him an eternal debt.

That Old New York Grit

Where, oh where, has it gone?

Across the eons, what made NYC such an endlessly fascinating place for native and visitor alike was that our fair city always managed to encompass both glamour and grittiness in such abundant, gorgeous, and squalid quantities. Men in tuxedos and women in gowns, walking in and out of the Metropolitan Opera, was a part of the New York identity as much as some creepy guy with a folded up newspaper going into a porno theater in Times Square.

The rich and the poor, debutantes and street kids, glamour and grit, existing side by side. That was the New York way.

But now the porno theaters are gone from Times Square and newspapers are fast disappearing. This city is no longer hospitable to the poor and middle class. This is a rich person's city now. Bit by bit, that old New York grit (yes, I know it rhymes) is vanishing. And not just by market forces alone. The powers that be (more precisely, Mayor Bloomberg) has declared war on grit. Like Rudy did to Times Square, now Mike is doing to Canal Street.

Glamour is vanquishing grit.

The New York Press this week has a great article on what is going on in that last frontier of gritty New York, Canal Street. Long thought of as the "Counterfeit Triangle" or the place where hot merchandise was fenced and sold to tourists, Canal Street has been one of the few places in Manhattan where small businesses and immigrants could thrive. But in the last year there have been numerous crackdowns, not only on the counterfeiters, but also on legitimate businesses. The city wants to drive the mom-and-pop shops out and "clean up" the neighborhood. They want to totally change Canal Street, turn it into another enclave of the wealthy.

And why? Real estate prices of course. Developers want this. They want this area to be more "desirable" so that their real estate holdings will be more valuable. Not only that, but a couple of huge new hotels are scheduled to open this year near Canal Street, and the city wants to make the neighborhood more hospitable to tourists -- not New Yorkers.

I work in this neighborhood and have seen these changes first-hand. I've seen the building of that monstrosity known as Trump Soho -- technically a hotel, not an apartment building. A new Hampton Inn has been constructed right near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. A giant new hotel is going up where the old Moondance Diner used to be. And walking along Canal Street most mornings, I see all these signs stamped on doors indicating that this or that business has been shut down for selling illegal or fake merchandise.

But sometimes I wonder -- are they all crooks down here? Or is something else going on?

At the Canal Street stop on Broadway, there's a little store between the staircases that sells things like water, candy, newspapers, etc. A few months ago, during one of these raids, this store was shut down. Each morning, I'd walk by it and see it dark and chained up, one of that nasty signs affixed to its front. But now it's open again. Hmmm? Maybe it was a victim of circumstance. Maybe the city (cough, Bloomberg) overreached? We shall never know.

Yes, that old New York grit is going, going fast. The rich are unleashing their fury on the poor. On Canal Street, old apartment buildings are being replaced by glass condominiums and high-rise hotels. The bridges and tunnels were built for a reason (thank you Robert Moses) and the rich are telling the poor to cross them. For all they care, the poor could go jump in the river. Before we know it, Canal Street will join Times Square and Astor Place and Harlem as gutted, soulless, gentrified areas. And that old New York grit will be just a memory.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Plaza in Winter

It's now old news that the sale, a couple of years back, of the Plaza Hotel to an Israeli investor has turned out to be a disaster. Vanity Fair wrote about this in December 2008 and I did a small post about it then.

Now things have only gotten worse.

This classic hotel -- a New York institution immortalized in film and literature (including The Great Gatsby, the single greatest American novel of the 20th century), a place where manners and taste still mattered, the epitome of Old New York charm and all that is classy and cosmopolitan in this city and world -- the Plaza was turned into a bunch of badly constructed, ugly condos, most of which were sold at outrageous prices and that lead to immediate, collective buyer's remorse. Now these buyers are selling them at huge losses, embarrassed at having been snookered by the idea of "owning" some of the Plaza.

One of the "brilliant" ideas of the new owners was to open a shopping center in the basement, mostly a bunch of luxury retail stores. That's right: these new owners took one of the most beautiful buildings in New York City and turned it into ... a mall ...

And why would anyone shop at these luxury boutiques when the Plaza is just blocks away from Fifth Avenue, the single greatest shopping district in the entire world?

Stupid. Nowadays when I see the Plaza I feel a twinge of sadness. A great New York institution has been wrecked. Needless to say the real estate crash and economic crises have done their share of damage to the place as well.

Oh yes, as this article in today's Times indicates, the rich and famous still eat and drink at the Oak Room and the Oak Bar. The Grand Ballroom is booked almost every weekend. "'The Plaza is the Plaza'" someone is quoted as saying. But the Palm Court is closed, the Edwardian Room is closed, and everyone who goes to the Plaza these days agrees that it just isn't the same anymore. It's lost something, some degree of cache, and it's probably gone forever.

Along with the closings of Cafe des Artistes and Tavern on the Green -- as well the loss of things like rent stabilization, corner delis, neighborhood diners, and several subway lines (or so it is threatened) -- it feels like more and more of the city that so many of us grew up in and love is slipping away before our very eyes.

And even though places like the Plaza are for the rich, when it goes into decline, it makes all us New Yorkers just a little poorer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eddie Izzard @ Madison Square Garden

Last night Eddie Izzard kicked off his Big Intimacy tour here in NYC, and I had the pleasure of seeing it last night at the Garden.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Izzard or his work, I'll give you a brief sketch: he's a British comedian/actor/occasional-transvestite who has done numerous award-winning comedy shows over last several years (most famous: Dressed to Kill and Glorious, a clip of which appears below). He's also appeared in a bunch of movies and had a series a few years ago on FX called The Riches.

Being British, Eddie Izzard's comedy is quite different from that of most American comedians: whereas our comedy is mostly "observational" or "satiric", Izzarad's comedy is "fantastical." It's full of whimsical thoughts and free-association (last night he did a whole bit about imagining a chicken with a trumpet stuck in its mouth) and goes off in numerous tangents; think less "Saturday Night Live" and more "Month Python" or "Kids in the Hall." He's not big on one-liners, mostly making interesting conclusions.

The show last night started off really strong. Eddie came out and said "Tonight I'm going to talk about everything that's ever happened." He called Bush bonkers and how the "European Dream" is a lot like the "American Dream" but of course with more espresso. He cast doubt on religion: of course not every kind of animal in existence made it onto Noah's arc. How do we know? Just try! He also said how a thousand years ago, when weavers were putting pictures of war on fabrics, that they were the photojournalists of their day.

And how about Latin? (Yes, that's right, he did a bit about Latin.) "It's a silly, silly language."

The audience loved him. I enjoyed him too, although occasionally I found his tangents less than interesting and sometimes his jokes became a little too obscure. However, in this era of anger, Eddie Izzard's comedy is great because he shows you just how ridiculous some much of humanity is.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Reservoir in Central Park

Right in the middle of Central Park is a body of water commonly called "the reservoir." Officially it is known as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onanssis Reservoir, named after the late First Lady, and it supplied the city with lots of its drinking water until 1991.

It really is a sight to behold. The reservoir covers 106 acres and stretches from 85th to 96th streets, more than half a mile. At whatever angle you view it from, you see a gorgeous lake with a forest of trees behind it, then the buildings of the city rising behind them. It really is the ultimate meeting of Mother Nature and Mankind, the best that both can produce. An amazing site.

So why is it, every time I see the reservoir, I get scared? What is it about the reservoir that almost fills me with dread?

Simple. In high school, during gym class, we were sometimes forced to run around the reservoir as part of the "President's Physical Fitness" program. We would go out there dressed in our sweats and sweatpants, usually in cold weather, and have to run for thirty minutes around the damn thing THREE TIMES A WEEK! By the end of each "session", I would be so tired that I was practically falling down. Our gym teacher would run ahead of us, yelling at us to keep up, yelling at us if we flagged or started walking, and yelling at us at the end of each class that our running times were lousy and we should be embarrassed. Oh, it was fun.

Those are my personal conscious reasons for finding the reservoir a little scary. But another has to do with the movies.

See, I recently saw two movies where nasty things happen at the Central Park reservoir. One is the 1997 movie The Devil's Advocate where a character is running around the reservoir and gets beaten to death by two thugs who turn out to literally be demons from hell. Then last night I finally saw Marathon Man, the 1976 thriller about international intrigue. As the title indicates, it is about a young man (in this case, a very young Dustin Hoffman) who is training for a marathon while also pursuing his PhD at Columbia. He gets caught up in all sorts of nasty stuff involving a scary Nazi war criminal played by Laurence Olivier, and the climatic scene between them occurs in the boathouse (although no real boats dock there) on the reservoir. It's a hell of a scary movie and the reservoir has never seemed so frightening.

So now, thanks to my exhausting high school experience and these two freaky films, I have a Pavlovian fear of the reservoir: I see it -- and get scared for no reason. I see what so many New Yorkers see and think "ahh" and instead think "AHHHH!"

Sometimes life just isn't fair.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Time Doth Fly

Oh. My. God.

Has it really been more than two weeks since I last blogged? Guess so. It goes without saying that life has been, in these two weeks, "mad busy, yo." Since my last post, I entertained friends visiting from out of town, then went out of town myself for New Year's, then came back and spent the last week working like a dog, doing shopping and errands galore in between, planning some upcoming trips, and just basically taking care of life stuff. Mad, mad busy.

So what's been going on in and with NYC during my cyber absence? Eh some good stuff, some bad stuff. On January 1st, Mayor Bloomberg began his historic third term, state government continues to implode, and there lots of political jockeying going on. (Will Governor Paterson run? Will AG Cuomo muscle him aside? Will a former Representative from Tennessee challenge Senator Gillibrand? Why is Rick Lazio running for anything again? Why isn't Pataki running for anything? Why is your state a hopeless laughing stock?).

And not to mention that the weather in NYC has been cold, cold, cold. I mean like really, really COLD.

But I'd rather light a candle than curse the darkness. Some good political news: my state State Senator, George Onorato of Queens, is retiring and Assemblyman Mike Gianaris is running to replace him. This is great news! Onorato is a reactionary fossil who voted against marriage equality and is basically on the wrong side of many important issues. Gianaris is a fresh, exciting candidate, a good guy with a strong work ethic, progressive politics, and oodles of charm. I've met him and seen him speak and he's got The Thing. Mr NYC heartily endorses him.

And another piece of good news: the Jets! After lucking their way into the AFC Wild Card game, they went ahead and actually WON IT! I watched the whole game on Saturday and they played a good, steady game against the Bengals, winning it 24-14. Now they go into the AFC Divisional round against the San Diego chargers. And hopefully, after that, the Super Bowl! Mr NYC's fingers are tightly, tightly crossed.

So I promise to blog a lot more frequently in the days and weeks ahead. That is, if you still care. Thank you for your patience.