Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NYC at a Crossroads

"May you live in interesting times." This old maxim has lately become our reality. We certainly do live in interesting times, a period that history will remember -- and it's friggin' depressing.

What makes any period of time "interesting" anyway? That's a tough call. Any moment in the past has points that are interesting. But what makes some periods more interesting than others, I guess, are those times when a society -- be it a city, country, or even the whole world -- is going through a particularly fierce and tumultuous battle for its very identity and soul; when it appears that the future is a complete tabula rasa, a clean slate that the victor in the battle for power will be able to draw on; where the choices are zero-sum and the winner takes all.

In essence, history is most interesting when it is being transformed.

Think of the Revolutionary War. The Civil War. Certainly World War II. Think of the Battle of Waterloo or 9/11. Think of the Great Depression or the election of Ronald Reagan. People were faced with a choice about what kind of country and world they wanted to live in -- and the battle was on. Thus interesting times ensued. And the world was never the same again.

But interesting times must, at some point, come to a climax -- the story must reach its moment of maximum intensity before going into its denouement.

For the last decade, since 9/11, NYC has been going through some very interesting times. We suffered and then recovered from the worst terrorist attack in history. We went through a dreadful blackout. Most recently, the financial crises hammered the city and the country's economy. We took a beating but got back up.

Yet it feels, more and more, that the interesting times NYC has been going through has been leading right up to this very moment. The climax of our story is upon us. Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic but, when I read the headlines, I get the sense that NYC is at a crossroads, a turning point where we may be permanently transformed in ways in which our city's fate will be sealed forever.

The debate over the "Ground Zero mosque" is but one example. If the forces of darkness, of hate and fear, prevent a private entity from constructing a building purely for religious/political reasons, it will be a dark day for our city and a troubling precedent for our future.

But it wouldn't be the first troubling precedent we've seen lately: less than two years ago the city council blatantly ignored the public will and extended term limits for themselves after city voters had twice approved a two-term limit. This outrageous action spawned a city charter commission that has created two "ballot issues" for this fall's election: one where we get to change term limits back to two and another that is so confusing and strange that no one seems to understand it. This charter commission has been regarded, quite rightly, as a disgrace. It failed to do anything about structural reform in our city government and it allows those council members who are currently in office to still serve three terms! The changing of term limits already brought NYC to a crossroads -- and we went down the wrong path.

And yet another crossroads is one that, in years to come, we will be able literally to see outside our windows. The city council has approved, and financiers and developers are furiously working on, constructing enormous big glass box buildings that will change the city skyline. Now, we all recognize that NYC is dynamic and that buildings go up and down all the time. But as this fine article points out, this "cavalcade of skyscrapers" are ugly as sin and the skyline could start to look like any typically overbuilt, anonymous city -- not the NYC of unique architecture and spirit that we all love. Another crossroads and another (apparently) wrong turn.

Then, as always, there's the economy. Apparently the recession in NYC is over -- and we're doing great! But like everything else in these "interesting times", the reality is more complex and confusing. Apparently if you are professional and upper class and/or live in Manhattan, you are thriving. Wall Street is back! Bonuses are huge! We face less foreclosures and bankruptcies than elsewhere. But if you're middle class or poor, the future in NYC is bleak. Non-professionals who have lost their jobs are struggling mightily and wages for those lucky enough to work are declining. Most distressingly, high long-term unemployment is becoming a permanent fixture of the city economy. This really is becoming a city of the haves and have-nots, of rich and poor. Increasingly 21st century NYC is beginning to resemble 19th century Russia. Our economy, our city's very well-being, is at a crossroads as well -- and it appears to be going in the wrong direction too.

So as the long decade since 9/11 comes to a close in NYC, the interesting times of the last several years are playing out -- and this is how the city has been transformed since then; this is the climax to our story. The rich are richer than ever before, the poor are getting poorer. The middle class is becoming but a memory. The city is increasingly starting to resemble Dubai and our government is as rinky-dink as ever. We are allowing the forces of darkness to overwhelm the forces of reason and the city is more polarized than ever.

NYC will always be a great city and I will always love it. But we're at a crossroads now and it looks like we're inching down the wrong path. Let's hope we change course before it's too late.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Borough Tales

This summer, our great public radio station WNYC has been doing a wonderful continuing series called Borough Tales, where they examine the history of each of our city's five boroughs. This includes interviews with historians for each borough along with stories about the culture and secrets that give each one their own unique identity.

There's also a history about how these five odd, very different counties all became the five boroughs of NYC more than a hundred years ago. Today, obviously, we take it from granted that our city has five boroughs, each a little (actually, not so little) city in itself. But why did the city of Brooklyn and New York (i.e. Manhattan) agree to merge with the largely rural counties that became the Bronx (mostly farmland) and Queens (lots of farm lands along with little villages like Long Island City, Astoria, and others). And why did they also merge with Staten Island, that island far to the south of New York harbor that, culturally speaking, was practically in another country? And how has their history, both as unique boroughs and part of NYC, formed their identities today?

This series gives you some insight on this and, if you love NYC as much as I do, you'll want to hear all about it.

Katrina & NYC

Today is the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Category 5 storm that wrecked havoc on the Gulf coast and the city of New Orleans. A vibrant, exciting, wonderful American city was traumatized and nearly destroyed, and five years later it is still struggling to come back -- slowly but surely.

New Orleans had a population of roughly 450,000 at the time and today its population is about 350,000. While nearly the entire city was evacuated during the storm and most residents have returned, some didn't and found new lives elsewhere.

This includes NYC. Many former New Orleanians are now New Yorkers and have success and happiness here. Some of gone back to school, found new careers, made totally new lives. And it just goes to prove that NYC is a place where people can come from anywhere, no matter what their circumstances or the situation that drove them here, and forge new paths. A hundred years ago it was poor immigrants from Europe -- today it's refugees from our country.

Out of tragedy, hope.

That said, some are sad that they find going back to New Orleans impossible and others are thinking about going back someday. I went to New Orleans last year and while the city is still recovering, its magic still remains. Hopefully one day New Orleans will be as amazing as ever, a great sister city to our own.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's Going On?

Oy vey! Has it really been two weeks?

I guess so. I was out of town last week and, in the days just before leaving and after coming back, have been "mad" busy. Thus the blog was out of my mind, if not my heart.

And it looks like much has been going on in NYC since my last post. I almost feel like a stranger in my own town. Besides this "Gound Zero Mosque" controversy that keeps raging (and feels like it will never end), lots of other interesting stuff has been goin' on -- mostly concerning real estate?

Like the new proposed skyscraper for West 34th street that will rival the Empire State Building in size and scope and will alter the city's skyline. Mayor Bloomberg supports it, the City Council just approved it and, besides the owners of the ESB and some community groups screaming about it being an eyesore, most New Yorkers don't seem to have a problem with it. This includes me. After all, this city is already so overbuilt, what's yet another huge building? And considering that Ground Zero remains desolate and unbuilt (proposed "mosques" not withstanding), who can complain about some folks who can actually give this city another big office building?

Talking about office buildings, did you know that some renters and buyers of commercial real estate are demanding that it be feni shuied? No really, they are. New York, New York: If you can make it here, you can feng shui it.

And even though the housing market in the rest of the country still sucks, here in NYC it's apparently doing just dandy. People are still spending fortunes to live in NYC and it's still a boom market.

That's probably good news to some Queen's College students which just opened its first dorm. Saves the rent on an apartment.

One person who's having some trouble affording NYC these days is one of its most beloved icons -- Woody Allen. In a recent interview he said that he's been making movies his movies in Europe the last few years because the city's gotten too expensive to shoot in. Some people are disputing this claim and say Woody's wrong -- and please let's hope they're right, since NYC without Woody Allen would be a sad place indeed.

Yes, as the summer of 2010 winds down, it looks like real estate and money still rule in NYC. So what's going on in NYC? Nothing much new.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where is Hugh Carey when we need him?

Politicians in general, and New York politicians in particular, are not a well-respected bunch. Even in the best of times they are viewed with disdain; during the worst of times they are downright hated. But it is a truism of American politics that most politicians and their legacies are viewed more favorably long after they've left office.

Take, for example, President Gerald Ford. His pardon of Richard Nixon in 1974 was met with universal condemnation and lead to his defeat in 1976. Yet more than thirty years later most Americans agree that it was the right thing to do -- he removed Watergate from the national agenda and put the business of governing the country first. Probably the most famous example post-presidential rehabilitation is Harry Truman. When he left the presidency in 1953, he had the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. He was despised. And yet today he is widely regarded as one of our greatest presidents: the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the doctrine of containment, the desegregation of the military, the ending of the rail strike -- he put America and the world back on track after the Depression and World War II and set for the stage for the eventual peaceful end of the Cold War. (No wonder Republican George W. Bush always compares himself to Democrat Harry Truman.)

Closer to home, and more recent in history, is the case of Hugh Carey. A two-term Governor from 1975-1983, he lead New York through the fiscal crises of the 1970s and saved the city and state from bankruptcy. It was a brutal time in the city's history. During the 1960s and early 70s, Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and Presidents Johnson and Nixon had driven the city, state and country into a godawful fiscal mess -- their out of control budgets and loose fiscal policies had exploded government debt and caused awful inflation, and it was left to the likes of Carey, Ford, and Mayor Abe Beam to clean up the mess.

But it was Carey, most of all, who did it: a master at the art of politics and compromise, he managed to get the federal government to bail out the city by playing the business community against the labor unions and getting them to make concessions that made the bailout possible.

There is a new book out called The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crises of 1975 that chronicles how he did it. I haven't read the book yet but in only two reviews I've learned some fascinating tidbits. One is how he managed to compromise when necessary and stand his ground when vital, and how he built up relationships and credibility with both Republicans and Democrats and was able to work with them to solve the problems. Another is how, of all people, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and President Ford's then Chief-of-Staff conspired to strangle New York by refusing the bailout in an insane attempt to convince the financial industry to leave NYC and move to Chicago. They did this by putting pressure on the Illinois delegation in Congress to vote against the bailout. Fortunately, through Carey's maneuvering, Mayor Daley and this chief-of-staff were beaten and NYC got bailed out and the city was saved.

Today, when our city and state are staring down the barrel of yet another fiscal crises, we could really use another Hugh Carey. Here's hoping that, if he becomes governor, Andrew Cuomo will do his best. At the very least, he should read this book.

Oh, and what was the name of that Chief-of-Staff who didn't want to bailout NYC and had the crazy idea of relocating the financial industry to Chicago: Donald Rumsfeld! Not the first time he had a spectacularly bad idea (and his deputy chief-of-staff was a man name Dick Cheney who was also strongly against bailing out NYC -- as if we needed any more proof that these guys were just pure evil).



Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Steven Slater!

Here in NYC, this biggest new story of the day concerns one Steven Slater, until yesterday an anonymous flight attendant for JetBlue from Queens.

Apparently, as a flight from Pittsburgh he was working landed at JFK airport yesterday, a woman passenger stood up during the taxing and started to get her bag down from the overhead compartment. This is, as anyone who flies knows, a big no-no. Slater told the woman repeatedly to sit back down but she wouldn't heel. Instead this nasty bitch cursed him out and actually hit him in the head with her bag.

That's when it got cool.

Instead of taking her crap, Slater went on the plane's intercom and allegedly cursed her out: "To the f-----g a--hole who told me to f--k off, it's been a good 28 years." Then he opened the plane door, grabbed a couple of beers from the beverage cart, activated the emergency-evacuation shoot, and slid down off the plane. Then he got his car from the airport, drove home, and proceeded to bang his boyfriend silly. It was at that point that the cops surrounded his house and busted him. Talk about coitus interruptus.

And now Steven Slater is on Rikers, facing up to seven years in prison.

This is an injustice! This man, this veteran flight attendant, was literally attacked by a belligerent, dangerous passenger. She started this situation and Mr. Slater decided to end it -- in style. No, he probably shouldn't be a flight attendant anytime again soon, but he was the victim and this woman was the perpetrator -- she should be prosecuted, not him.

No jury in the world will convict him.

Fortunately many others share my opinion. Today, Steven Slater is a hero and there are Facebook pages and comments section galore paying tribute to a man who stood up to the Man, who wouldn't take being treated in a sub-human way and struck back. This dude is awesome. And he should be released right now -- and his attacker should take his place in the poky.

And what I love the most about this guy is that, one his way to the slide, he grabbed a couple of beers. Talk about a cool flourish.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Lady is Not a Tramp


She's probably the hottest name in music today and -- in this increasingly segmented, niche-driven, eclectic marketplace -- she's that elusive White Whale of the music business: a brand new, universally beloved pop star.

She's also a native New Yorker and only 24 years old.

Of course I'm talking about Lady Gaga, the first big female pop star of the 21st century, probably the biggest one to come along since Brittany Spears in the late '90s and Madonna in the mid '80s. Her music is everywhere and her bizarre appearance and outfits are splashed all over magazine covers, TV, and the Internet.

You can't get away from this broad: every single time I'm at the gym, her music is blasting. Every time I'm in a department or grocery store, it accompanies my shopping. I'll be riding on the subway and it'll be bleeding through some chick's IPod headphones. Even my mother asked me: "What is a Lady Gaga?"

I told her I had no idea.

But what I do know is that Lady Gaga is a New York creation through and through. This month Vanity Fair has a huge "tell all" interview and profile of her. You can read a preview of it here and, if you're so inclined, actually buy the magazine to read more. Perhaps the most shocking thing she tells the readers: she's celibate. She eschews the nooky. Considering that one of the lyrics of one of her songs is "I want your disease", I'm shocked. I guess she really is a lady after all.

New York Nonstop

As most New Yorkers know, we have our very own 24-hour cable new station: NY1 has been around since 1991 and has a variety of news and cultural shows along with reliable staples like headlines, community info, traffic and weather.

Did you know that there are now two 24-hour cable new stations? New York Nonstop is a cable offshoot of WNBC TV and is a direct competitor to NY1 with similar programming. Its signature show is New York Nightly News with that veteran local anchor Chuck Scarborough. New York Nonstop also has a useful, interactive website that I've linked to here and that you can now find in the links to this blog.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The TV Tourists

Our fair city appears again and again in TV shows these days -- in fact, there are so many, it would take forever to name them all; it might be easier to name the shows that are not set in NYC.

That said, there are a few shows currently on TV, namely "Gossip Girl" and "Mad Men", that are set in a glamorous version of NYC where the characters spend an inordinate amount of time in hotel bars. And since there's been a huge hotel bar boom in the last few years, some of them are using there appearances on these shows (and others) to lure in customers. You can read this interesting article here about how these hotel bars are using their fifteen-minutes of fame to develop long-term customers.

And for those of you interested in seeing parts of NYC that existed in other TV shows past and present, you can check out On Location Tours for more info.

Elena Makes Four

Yesterday New Yorker Elena Kagan was confirmed to be the newest Justice on the United States Supreme Court. And the magic number for her is four: she is the fourth woman ever to serve on the court and fourth native New Yorker currently serving on the court. I blogged about this a few months ago when she was nominated -- and now the NYC Block is a reality. Hoorah!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A-Rod Hits 600th Home Run

The Speech of His Mayoralty

That Mayor Bloomberg is one tricky SOB. He does one thing after another that annoys me (just read this blog) and that means I bust his balls on here on a pretty regular basis. Then he turns around and gives the most impassioned, sensitive, and amazing speech of his career -- a profound calling for religious tolerance. Wow.

NYC's mayors are not necessarily known as great speechgivers and, in his 8 1/2 years as mayor, our Mike has rarely said anything particularly memorable. But this speech was. Read it here:

“We've come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that more than 250 years later would greet millions of immigrants in this harbor. And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong.

“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it's sustained by immigrants -- by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.

“On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedoms to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams, and to live our own lives. Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that even here -- in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance -- was hard-won over many years.

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter's on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

“This morning, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted to extend -- not to extend -- landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building.

“The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

"For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

"On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' (Bloomberg's voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) 'What beliefs do you hold?'

"The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

"Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. But doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any ways consistent with Islam.

"Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.

"Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Baggers in Our Midst

It's clear to anyone with a brain that the Tea Party "movement" (it's mostly sponsored by corporations and Republican fundraisers) is racist as hell. At your typical tea-bagging event, you'll see ugly depictions of President Obama and many people have overheard the N-word and other racists remarks at them. But the baggers really, really, really, really, really want you to believe that they aren't racist. They love to point to the two black tea-baggers who come to their events; recently some "federation" of these wackos recently "expelled" some guy who wrote a racist editorial to show just how not racist they are.

Seems to me, if you have to go on overdrive to show how not racist you are, then you are probably pretty racist. After all, this whole "movement" was started when that crazy CNBC "reporter" started ranting about the relief program targeted at people whose mortgages were underwater. He called them LOSERS! Again, it was clear to any honest thinking person that by losers he meant poor people ... meaning black and other swarthy individuals. The bankers on Wall Street who wrecked the economy? They apparently were not losers. Get it?

There's an article in The New York Press this week about the tea bagger movement in NYC. And they're constantly trying to convince you how not racist they are. It's a really funny article because it shows how ridiculous and dishonest these people are. What's most interesting, however, is what's NOT in the article. The tea baggers are all against "excessive" government spending but they are never asked, and they never say, what government spending or programs they want reduced or eliminated. It seems that these people just enjoy being angry at everything for whatever reason, and they really hate our President ... who just happens to be black ... but they're not racist. Really. Get it?

We've seen this act before.


Back in 2000, when Bush was running for president, every time he gave a speech there were always a couple of black people standing behind him. They always looked bewildered, like they had no idea what was going on. I can only imagine Bush's advance people saying to each other "We gotta find some blacks and put them behind Bush to show he's not racist." I'll bet it was someone's job to find blacks and bring them to the speeches. These advance people would probably say the following to one another:

"Can you find us some blacks?"

"Ok, how many blacks do you need?"

"As many as you can find!"

Later on ...

"Are these enough blacks for you?"

"Couldn't you find more blacks?"

"No, these were all the blacks that were available.
Are these blacks black enough for you? Or are they too black?"

"No, they're black enough."

Bush in 2000. The Tea Part in 2010. Never forget: they all really love the blacks!

Relief!

This past July was the hottest on record and for the last several weeks we New Yorkers have been suffering in the heat and humidity. Happily, this weekend, the temperature plunged down all the way to the low 80s (yeah!) and the humidity has vanished. The next week promises to be similarly pleasant so it looks like, at least for the next little while, we will have some relief from this brutal summer.

Let's hope it lasts.

Anthony Weiner Rips Apart Republicans on 9/11Health Bill