Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Politics of Landmarks

Last year, there was a heated debate about the proposed building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. You probably remember that it turned into a big brouhaha, fueled by loathsome Republican fear mongers who used it as a wedge issue in order to help them win the 2010 elections. (Amazingly, after the elections, their strident opposition to this project died out.) At issue was whether or not a very old building at this site should be razed or given landmark status which would have made it impossible to get this Islamic project built. 

In NYC, landmarking is about political and economic power.

Case in point are some buildings on the east side of Manhattan that currently have landmark status but that the owners are trying to get stripped so that they can demolish the buildings and put up luxury high rises. The current tenants of these buildings want to keep the landmark designation -- but not because they really care about the history of these buildings but because they don't want to use their homes. I remember several years ago that some developers wanted to tear down a building near my parents' place and my parents and the people in our building got involved and got this building land marked -- and the proposed construction (which would have killed the  sunlight and views from our apartments and thus their resale values) never took place.

Land marking is one of the only ways for otherwise regular people to curb the greed of big developers and to preserve our city's beauty and history.  But it's also a way, as the Ground Zero case or my parents' own situation or the current east side case shows, for people with other agendas to prevent construction that would directly impact them. 

As someone who loves this city and its history, I'm all for saving old buildings of interest. After all, would we want to tear down Fraunces Tavern or the Dakota? But as much as a sentimentalist as I am, I'm also a realist. Just because a building is old, doesn't make it historic or worth saving. Land marking should not be a political or economic tool. At the same time, once something is land marked, that designation should stand and people with other agendas shouldn't tinker.

When it comes to preserving the history of New York City, merit and not politics and money should rule the day. 

Mr NYC in Phoenix

One of the reasons for my lack of blogging lately has been that I've been out of town -- most recently to Phoenix, Arizona. We were there for a short weekend and greatly enjoyed this city in the sun.

It isn't going too far to say that Phoenix is about as different a city from NYC as an American city can be. Unlike our city of islands, Phoenix is an enclave in the desert. It's surrounded by gorgeous mountains and, at sunrises and sunsets, provides stunning views. Also, unlike our highly dense, concentrated city, Phoenix is spread-out and sprawling. Instead of the trees and occasional flower beds that decorate our streets, those in Phoenix are dotted with palm trees and cacti. And while many buildings in NYC are 100 years old (or older), in Phoenix a building over 50 years old marks it as ancient.

One thing that NYC and Phoenix have in common, though, is size. NYC may be the largest city in America but did you know that Phoenix is the fifth largest? In the last twenty years, its population has exploded. In the last decade alone, it has grown by a third. Wow.

Our time in Phoenix was limited but our host was amazing and she showed us some of the the best parts. 

First up, we went and got some lunch at In'N'Out Burger. My wife and our host rolled their eyes at my enthusiasm for eating this but these are truly some of the best fast-food burgers in the country. Sadly, In'N'Outs are located only in the southwest (California, Nevada, Arizona and a place in Utah) so any trip out west demands a visit. Amazingly, we were able to get three burgers, three orders or fries, and three cokes for ... drum roll please ... $17! Only when you leave NYC do you realize how much cheaper the rest of the country is.

Next, we went to the Desert Botanical Garden. This is a huge and beautiful spread of cacti and desert plants and I really learned a lot about the nature of the desert. Contradictory as that might sound but the desert really is an amazing ecosystem. Did you know that cacti really aren't plants -- they're more like trees? That cacti have bones and, when they decay, you can see their bones? Most amazingly, is the (sad) fact that cacti can get cancer. We even saw a cactus with a giant bulge of cancer and it was fascinating. If you ever get to Phoenix, you must visit this place and experience a whole new terrain.

The next day we visited Taliesen West. This is a foundation/museum/architectural school founded by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It's a beautiful compound designed by the master himself and it is a western extension of the place called Taliesen that Wright originally built in Wisconsin (Wright and his family and students spent the fall and winter in Phoenix and then he spring and summer in Wisconsin. Smart guy.) We took the hour and an half tour and walked around the grounds and through the buildings that are like no other architecture I've ever seen before. It was amazing to sit in a real Frank Lloyd Wright living room and I even got to sit on the great man's bed! We also got to visit a screening room that Wright built where he would watch movies with visitors like John Wayne and Ann Baxter (the Oscar winning actress who was in All About Eve -- and was also Wright's grand-daughter). I really loved this place.

The rest of our short visit was spent doing what you can only do in the West -- swimming and luxuriating in a hot-tub. 

Phoenix is a great town to visit -- it's very pleasant -- but, obviously, as the summer gets closer, it's really, really hot.  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Remembering the Greats

During my hiatus, the great movie director Sidney Lumet died at the age of 86. His career spanned decades and decades, and he made many classic movies, several set in NYC: 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict (and many many more). A number of the actors and actresses in his movies were nominated for and won Oscars and actors like Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Sean Connery, and Paul Newman gave some of their greatest performances in his films. He was a real New York great, a legend, and he made the cultural tapestry of this city all the richer.

And that's one of the great things about NYC: not only do we have amazing buildings and institutions in this town, we also have amazing people -- characters -- who go on to become what you might call "the greats." Boss Tweed, Fiorello LaGuardia, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, heck even that nutjob Donald Trump -- people whose personalities and work give this city its edge. The id and ego of this town.

The New York Press this week has two articles about two New York greats that you might not know much about but they definitely rank as greats. 

One was George "Ginky" SanSouci who died last month and who many revere as one of the best pool players this city has ever had. I don't know much about the game of pool but apparently he was a dynamo -- think Tom Cruise in The Color of Money only real.  

Another is Candy Darling, one of the first transgendered New York personalities whose was a part of Andy Warhol's Factory back in the 1960s. Candy was a flamboyant, outrageous figure in the downtown art scene -- the kind of person who knew everybody, went everywhere, did everything (and everyone) and did a whole lot of living in her short life. Candy is the subject of a new documentary and she has become a gay icon over the last several decades. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground dedicated a song to her called "Candy Says" and she's an important character in the 1996 movie I Shot Andy Warhol. Candy was a real New York great whose spirit still lives on and forms our city today. 

Dog Day Afternoon (Directed by Sidney Lumet)

Absence Makes the Heart ...

... oh, you know. 

Anyway, apologies for the two-plus weeks radio silence -- it was most unplanned and is most unforgivable but life, sadly, has the way of getting in the midst of blogging. This included attending many social events and even a trip out of town (which I will blog about at some point soon). All this  "life" interrupted my usual flow of online musing but I'm back! 


I know you've been waiting with bated breath! Wll, now feel free to breath ... and read again!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Friends in Small Places

One of the sacrifices we make in order to live in NYC is space. Or the lack thereof. Property in this town is at a premium and people pay lots and lots of money to live in teeny tiny spaces. It's crazy if you think about it -- the USA is one of the biggest countries on earth and yet 8 out of our 300 million citizens choose to live in these five, relatively small boroughs. Just goes to show you how great this town is since so many people are willing to pay up for the privilege of cramming themselves in here.
After all, there's tons of cheap space available in Nebraska ... but then you'd have to live there.

So it's probably appropriate that, this week, New York magazine has dedicated an entire section to the New York City apartment. As the magazine points out, the apartment is the organizing unit of NYC and defines the experience so many of us have living here. People who move to New York often reminisce about their first apartment. If you're like me, a native, then the apartment is the equivalent of the old family home, a place of the (metaphorical) heart and hearth. There are several interesting short articles about New York apartments by several distinguished authors and there's even a section on growing micro-neighborhoods -- small but distinct areas in otherwise established 'hoods.

Like apartments in NYC, it looks like the future neighborhoods in this town are gonna be small. 

Talking about a New Yorker living in a small space, you should read this article featuring a jailhouse interview with disgraced Police Commissioner and former Mayor Giuliani's right-hand man Bernie Kerik. It's a hilarious read. He's so pathetic. Oh, jail has changed him, for the better. He's learned "so much." There are things that only people on the "inside" understand that those of us on the "outside" don't. And this former tough law and order guy now wants to advocate for prisoners' rights. Jail, he opines, destroys the families of inmates as much as the lives of the inmates themselves. Oh yes, Bernie wails, there has to be a better way. Wonder if he'd feel this way if he wasn't in jail?    

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Donald Trump: A Playa' Playin' the Playas y'all!

Okay, so here at Mr NYC, we're gonna get all ghetto for a minute, layin' our smack down and hookin' with da' jive (I have no idea what that means but it sounds "funky").

Anyway, have any of you noticed in the last few weeks that New Yorker extraordinaire, our city's very own fine court jester, Mr. Donald Trump (of real estate and reality TV show fame), blitzing up a media storm, blabbing about running for president? Trump has even joined the lunatic fringe, going all "birther", screaming about President Obama's supposedly non-existent birth certificate (which in fact exists and has been proven multiple times to exist).

Trump is clearly having a good time. And why shouldn't he be? He's been doing this crap for decades, mugging to the camera and the press, saying outrageous stuff, promoting his various corny businesses, all in an attempt to shore up his shallow, narcissistic ego. 

Personally, I love the guy. He's a real character, he's never boring, and he's an only in New York type of guy. But the idea of him as a serious presidential candidate is clearly nonsense, and he knows it and we all know it. What's surprising to me, and probably surprising to Trump, is that the media seems to be taking him seriously.

As in, fo' real.

You would like to believe that, in the richest and most powerful country on earth, we would have a sophisticated and shrewd media. That the "playas" in the media world would check and balance the "playas" in the political, business, and entertainment universe. But they don't. They fail miserably. The media in this country continues to get played and made to look foolish.

Think back to when the Bush administration played the media into hyping the threat of non-existent Iraqi WMD that led to one of the longest and most disastrous wars in our nation's history.

Think about the cast of the "Jersey Shore" and all the attention they get for ... doing what exactly?

Think about Charlie Sheen and his insane rants ... and all the attention he gets.

And think about Donald Trump, a bored rich guy, a veteran self-promoter, talking emptily running for president ... and getting all this attention. 

I don't blame Trump. He's a playa'. I blame the media -- for letting him play them again and again and again. As foolish as he is, the media is just as foolish for paying him all this attention and taking this clown even semi-seriously. He's an object of ridicule ridiculing the press -- and the press, in its masochistic manner, seems to be enjoying it. As unbelievable as the idea of Donald Trump as President is, the press going gaga over him is equally unbelievable -- and depressingly real.

As the rappers and the pimps might say: either you're a playa or you get played. Donald Trump is a big time playa playin' the playas and they're getting played while he gets paid and gets laid and they don't get paid and probably not laid as much as him.