Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jim Henson's Fantastic World

We are all Jim Henson's children.

The brilliant creative mind that created the Muppets -- those furry talking animals with lots of attitude and lots of heart who loved to sing and dance -- has literally given generations of children countless hours of joy. Kermit the frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzy bear, Rowlf the dog, Gonzo, Scooter, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Swedish Chef, Statler and Waldorf, Sam the eagle, ANIMAL! -- we grew up with them, and now our children are growing up with them. The Muppets created a world we all wanted to belong to and where everyone was wanted.

Some day we'll find it ... 

It's hard to describe how much I love the Muppets -- in fact, I don't know anyone who doesn't. And best of all the Muppets are back and bigger than ever with a new hit movie and a big exhibit here in NYC. 

At the Museum of Moving Image through January, you can go to see "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" that explores the life and work of the man who left the world too early in 1990. Henson was a puppeteer, a filmmaker, a writer, a singer, a voice over artist, and a visual genius. He worked on Sesame Street in its early years, created The Muppet Show and their subsequent movies plus Fraggle Rock and also made movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. He had a unique vision that the world loves to this day. 

What's great about this exhibit is your learn how much work went into Jim Henson creating his fantastic world. There are countless exhibits of his drawings and notes. Remember the great beginning to The Muppet Show? You get to see the original drawings that Henson did for it, seeing how he storyboarded the shots and the song lyrics to match them. The exhibit teaches you a lot more things about Henson that I'm sure you didn't know -- like that he had four kids, he was nominated for an Oscar in the 1960s, and he created Kermit the Frog as far back as 1955. 

It's a great exhibit about a great man -- one that all us all should be grateful we had for as short a time as we did. He made us all a little bit more innocent, a little happier. He made all of us ... better people.  

The lover, the dreamer, and me.

Monday, November 28, 2011

They come, they see ... they spend money

One of the biggest businesses in NYC is the city itself. This town is quite literally a magnet, snapping  tens of millions of people towards it each year. 

In these hard times, tourism has become one of the few growing sectors of the NYC economy.

And oh boy, do they come. This year the number of tourists flocking into our city will top 50 million for the first time. Yeah, that's a lot of people. That's the population of Australia and Canada combined plus a few million. That's basically the entire equivalent of France. As big as our city is and as huge as our population is, it's virtually impossible to conceive how many people come here each year just to visit.

Here are some of the stats, according to New York magazine:
  • Of the roughly 50 million visitors, roughly 10 million of them are from abroad and roughly 40 million of them are from the USA
  • The typical American visitors stays two days and spends less than $500 
  • The typical foreign visitors stays a week and spends almost $2000
  • Ten percent of all foreign tourists are British
  • Visitors from Scandinavian countries spend the most money here
  • The fastest growing demographic of foreign tourists are Brazilians
As economies around the world boom and the dollar remains weak, foreigners love to come to NYC and drop coin. It's cheaper for them here than at home (if you can believe that). And surprisingly, most of the American visitors to NYC actually live about 30 miles from town.

Obviously, we love tourists. They pour tons of money into our economy and keep up afloat. 

But is this a good thing? 

The obvious answer is yes. Mo' tourists, mo' money. But there's always a dark cloud.

The dark cloud is that tourism is replacing real economic growth. Mayor Bloomberg himself says that in this article, apparently without any worry about it. But I worry. NYC's economy must always been dynamic, growing, evolving. We don't want to become a Venice or Colonial Williamsburg, a once great city existing purely on its historical reputation or famous sites. We want to be a thriving city, a metropolis on the move.  

Also, as this article points out, tourism has boomed in the last several years thanks to a cheap dollar and low crime rates. But what if the dollar strengthens? What if crime goes up or there's another horrible terrorist attack? Then tourism will plunge and what will replace it then?

So when it comes to tourists, I say the more the merrier (and the more money, the much merrier). But let's also not turn into a city of navel gazers, thinking we're so great while the city crumbles about our ears. Let's create new businesses, attract new industries, and keep the city's economy dynamic. Then we'll really be something to see.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How the 1% Lives

Much of the Occupy Wall Street protests have focused anger at the richest of the rich Americans -- the so-called 1% -- and how they don't pay their fair share in taxes. Basically, the argument goes, they don't pay enough and the government goes without much needed revenue to do the things that will improve our society.

"But that's not fair!" the 1% and their defenders shout. "The 1% pay the most in taxes!"

Not really. See today's huge article about how one of NYC's richest men -- Ronald Lauder of the Estee Lauder fortune -- cleverly hides his money from the government in legal tax shelters. It's really scummy and depressing. The loopholes and "donations" to various "charities" and foundations dramatically reduce the amount of taxes that so many rich people like Lauder have to pay. 

Like most rich people, the Lauders of the world get to eat their cake and have it to. It's the best of both worlds really: the rich can boast that they are "oh-so generous" buy giving huge amounts of money to "charity" and earn brownie points with the public for how "good" they are. In reality, they're just reducing their tax burden, moving money around from a taxable entity to a non-taxable one. It's gotta be great to reduce your taxes and get free positive publicity instead paying your fair share and getting no glory. 

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Call it vanity unfair.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Classic Mr NYC

Following up on my post below, I thought it would be cool to re-post a blog entry from last year about secret places in NYC. Needless to say, there's a lot! Enjoy.

An Underground Park?

Ever since the Highline opened in 2009 -- and gave NYC its first park in the sky -- the idea of "re-purposing" city areas for parks or other public uses has become quite the urban vogue. NYC is very big but also very dense -- so making use of every inch of it and making it as great as possible is a very wise indeed.

So what not have a park right under our feet? 

There's a couple of eager young engineers who want to design a subterranean park under Delancey Street. They want to hollow out a long buried, ancient trolley terminal (who knew those even existed?!) and make it into a park using fiber optics to channel natural light for photosynthesis. 

You should check out this article about it and look at some of the designs -- they're quite impressive. This project is still very much in the planning/its-gotta-get-financed stage but, hopefully, it'll become a reality. 

After all, NYC is a place that it's always re-imagining itself so why not?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Robert Moses Redux?

Besides warping this city's infrastructure and destroying neighborhoods with his ill-conceived highways, parks, and other structures, the "master builder" Robert Moses also did this city another great disservice: he made the idea of huge public works scary.

Over the last forty years since Moses fell from power, New Yorkers have looked askance at attempts to build huge, city-altering projects.

Ten years after 9/11, Ground Zero is still a work in progress after years of financial and regulatory problems and squabbles. Recently the Arc Tunnel project connecting NY and NJ was killed and people both in New York and New Jersey don't seem to care. Moynahan Station and the Second Avenue Subway still remain frustrating out of reach. And now there is great debate over the Tappen Zee bridge which Governor Cuomo wants to repair but wants to do on the cheap -- which would mean not including any kind of public transportation improvements like a rail connector or pedestrian walkways. 

Building big or re-imagining our city and our area's physical plant almost seems impossible these days.

Obviously it comes to down to money (i.e. taxes) and public will (i.e. political power). If New Yorkers aren't willing to pay the taxes or tolls for more public works, then our infrastructure won't improve. If we are going to punish politicians who want to raise the taxes and build these public works with electoral defeat, then our infrastructure won't only not improve -- it will degrade. Sadly, not only in New York but around the country, politicians have been getting elected by promising to kill things like high-speed rail and other public works. Clearly, not only in NY but elsewhere too, we're not going in the right direction in terms of our city and nation's physical plant.

This article makes this point and more. And it makes you wonder: do we need another Robert Moses? The man who got things done despite the politicians?

I don't think so but our city does need to get over its fear of building big. We need to clearly and soberly look at what our city's infrastructure problems are, come to a political and financial consensus about the work required and the costs it will entail, and then move forward boldly. We just don't need to do it the way Robert Moses did.

And this is what we need: we don't need more highways or bike paths -- we need more subways lines and light rail links. We don't need more public housing projects and luxury skyscrapers -- we need more affordable housing constructed in a way that compliments and doesn't destroy neighborhoods. We need to re-build our sewers and other hidden but vital infrastructure. None of this stuff is "sexy" but vital.

We need to build in a way that will make it easier for New Yorkers to live, work and get around this city -- and that will ensure our future. 

Henry Rollins Letter to Woody Allen

Woody Allen: An American Master

Tonight and tomorrow on PBS, there will be a two-part "American Masters" documentary on Woody Allen. Premiering at 9 PM each night, it is billed as the most comprehensive look at "New York's mensch auteur", one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. 

I can't wait. 

Anyone who has read this blog knows I'm a huge Woody fan. Perhaps that makes me a typical, boring yuppie New Yorkers but I don't care. 

The breadth of his achievement is truly amazing. He has been making almost a movie a year since 1969, acting in many of them. He has written books, plays, and articles. Before he became a director, he was also a brilliant stand-up comedian. His influence is on generations of filmmakers and comedians is immeasurable -- he's influenced people who have influenced people. Woody Allen is truly a brilliant artist and few ever have or ever will reach his level.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Madoff Speaks!

On yesterday's Leonard Lopate show, Stephanie Madoff Mack talked about her life as a member of the most notorious family in America.  Listening to this woman -- a daughter-in-law of the great Ponzi schemer who was married to his son Mark (who killed himself last year) -- is to listen to a victim trying to make sense of her shattered life. It's really emotional but I give Ms. Mack an immense amount of credit of speaking about it so honestly.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Garbo Walks!

If you love old movies, then you must see the films of Greta Garbo. 

The Swedish beauty was the biggest movie star of the 1920s and 1930s, and the first true international star. She went from being a silent star to the first big star of the talkies ("Garbo Talks!" was the tag line for 1930's Anna Christie, her first speaking part). During the Great Depression, Garbo took Americans out of their doldrums with such classics as Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Camille, and Ninotchka. I've seen them all and they are as entertaining as anything being made today. Not only that, but Garbo's sex appeal has transcended into the 21st century.  

Garbo was gorgeous but also a first rate actress. She had an amazing, magical talent. Often she played in dramas and was the ultimate doomed femme fatal. But in 1939's Ninotchka, she gave what has to be one of the greatest female comic performances of all time. 

She was beautiful, soulful, and funny. Also, she is immortalized in Cole Porter's song "You're the Top":

You're the National Gallery!
You're Garbo's salary!
You're cellophane!

Many have said she was probably the greatest female movie actress of all time.

And then, in 1941, she walked away from it all.  

Garbo quit the movies and chose to live a private life. Occasionally she was tempted to return to the screen but it always came to nothing. Not only did she not act again but she almost never gave interviews, never went on TV, never made public appearances, and never wrote a memoir. Along with JD Salinger, she became one of the most famous of recluses.

In the early 1950s, Garbo moved to NYC where she lived until her death in 1990. Though she fiercely guarded her privacy, Garbo loved to take long walks around Manhattan and spotting her almost became a sport for New Yorkers. 

Garbo's most famous line is from 1932's Grand Hotel where she exclaims, "I want to be alone!" And alone she lived in NYC for almost forty years. 

Garbo spent her final decades in an apartment building on East 52nd street, just off 1st Avenue. It is at the end of a dead-end street overlooking the east river. For a recluse who wants to live in Manhattan, it's the perfect place because it's not easy to get to and is very private.

Recently, I was in the area and remembered that this is where she used to live so I -- having the time and interest -- trotted down the street and snapped a photo of her building. As you can see, it looks just like any upscale Upper East Side building. Elegant, but not as spectacular as its most famous deceased tenant.

And I noted something: considering that Garbo was one of the most famous movie stars in history and lived in this building for almost half her life, you might think there'd be a plaque or something outside the building commemorating her. After all, many other buildings where other famous people lived in NYC have such things. Some even name the street where they lived after them! 

But not here. Not at all. You'd never know this was where she lived. Even in death, the great Garbo just wants to be alone.

Scenes from Occupy Wall Street in Exile

So early this AM, Mayor Mike sent the NYPD to break up OWS and sent the protesters a'scatterin' 'round town. The purpose was ostensibly to "clean" the park but it was really just a power play -- the 1% cracking down on the other 99%. Think Bloody Sunday without the bloody.

But OWS regrouped quickly. 

Around 9 AM, several protesters convened at Duarte Square on the corner of Canal and Varick streets. Yours truly was on the scene -- actually several stories above it at the time -- so I snapped some pics before going down observing it in the raw. So these pics are a Mr NYC exclusive!








This re-grouping turned out to be rather anti-climatic. They chanted a bunch and waved signs. The cops turned out en masse (many of them in riot gear) and intimidated the hell out of the protesters. Eventually, by the early afternoon, the protesters left. By 4 PM, it was as though nothing had ever happened and no one was ever there.

But it was a unique moment in NYC history, like being in Times Square on VJ-Day or at the Stonewall Riots or something. And I was lucky enough to gawk (and photograph) it.

Riot Police Clear Out Occupy Wall Street Camp - Nov. 15th

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Corporate City

The media today is obsessed with the Republican/Democrat, Red/Blue, Liberal/Conservative, urban vs. rural socioeconomic/political/cultural divide. The two America's at war with each other, pushing and pulling the country apart -- one America wanting to make us more like Canada (the liberal urban Democrats) and the other wanting to make us more like Mexico (the conservative rural Republicans). This "divide" is at the heart of the current narrative of American politics, with NYC as the capital of Blue America (and I guess the whole state of Texas being the capital of Red America but there are many contenders for that title I suppose).  

But like so many simplistic generalities, this "narrative" is wrong. For NYC isn't really the bastion of liberalism that the media, the conservatives, and the rest of America think it is. And it's not just that we've just elected Republican mayors for the last 20 years (but that's part of it). It's that NYC has become, over the last thirty years, a corporate city, one where corporations and powerful private interests have acquired huge power over our city's government, dictating policies that affect our lives, all while eviscerating public power and crushing the middle while helping the rich.
Let the Free Market rule! 

Ad increasingly, since the age of Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan thirty years ago to the time of Mike Bloomberg and George Bush and Barack Obama today, the Free Market has been ruling NYC and controlling its destiny like never before.

Private money has never been more powerful than it is today in NYC. Same is true in other "hotbeds of liberalism" around the country like Chicago and Washington, DC. I could go on here and give example after example of how NYC today is a Corporate City and how it's "liberalism" isn't quite what it seems. But the always great Matt Taibbi and the brilliant David Sirota have written about it in such perfect language that I will simply re-post some of things they said about it here.

First, Taibbi writes about Mayor Bloomberg, the ultimate corporate mayor, and how this incredibly reactionary mayor has thrived in "liberal" NYC for more than a decade: 

       [Bloomberg] is a billionaire Wall Street creature with an extreme deregulatory bent who has   quietly advanced some nastily regressive police policies… but has won over upper-middle-class liberals with his stances on choice and gay marriage and other social issues.
Bloomberg’s main attraction as a politician has been his ability to stick closely to a holy trinity of basic PR principles: bang heavily on black crime, embrace social issues dear to white progressives, and in the remaining working hours give your pals on Wall Street (who can raise any money you need, if you somehow run out of your own) whatever they want.
He understands that as long as you keep muggers and pimps out of the prime shopping areas in the Upper West Side, and make sure to sound the right notes on abortion, stem-cell research, global warming, and the like, you can believably play the role of the wisecracking, good-guy-billionaire Belle of the Ball…
Second, David Sirota notes what Taibbi wrote and also looks at the corporate city as a wider American phenomenon. Sirota writes about how Chicago has privatized its public infrastructure, selling off highways and parking meters to private interests. The big city Democratic mayors have been trying to destroy public employee unions with the same zeal as Republican governors (Chicago again, and Denver). The charter school movement that has been funded by big private interests -- including Wal Mart! -- has spread in "liberal" cities like LA, New Orleans, and DC (which gave us the odious Michelle Rhee, the schools head who wants to destroy every teachers union in America). Many "liberal" cities have been slashing city budgets and reducing public services while refusing to raise taxes on the rich but offering huge public subsidies for stadiums, office buildings, and public/private ventures (always making the argument that this will "create jobs" and "raise tax revenues" for cities -- but almost never doing that in reality and in fact costing these cities money in the long run).  

These are corporate cities if there ever were any, and NYC is at the forefront of it. But because our media is so obsessed with cultural issues over economic ones, a city is "liberal" if most of its people support abortion or gay rights or gun control -- not if its leaders are selling their people out to private interests and destroying the public sector. Sirota writes:

Though Taibbi was writing about Bloomberg specifically, his words aptly sum up what the American cityscape has become — yet more scorched earth in the successful assault of Limousine Liberals and Crony Corporatists on Lunch-Pail Liberals and Progressive Populists. In political terms, it represents the broader success of the transpartisan moneyed class in fully redefining “liberal” exclusively as “social-issue liberal” — without regard for economic agenda. 

So when you look at Occupy Wall Street you see a movement that is simply angry at money and the corporate state controlling our lives and our destinies -- and it goes beyond any party, any mayor, any city. It goes to the heart of what NYC and America has become -- and it wants to fight back. 

A good fight indeed. 

Why'd They Call it That?

In NYC, we have lots of bridges, roads, parks, streets, even whole neighborhoods named after historically important dead people. 

But do we know who all of them are? Or were ...

LaGuardia airport is obvious. So is Washington Square. Madison Avenue is named after -- you got it -- James Madison.  Lincoln Center? Take a wild guess.

But who was Van Wyck and why does he have a major expressway named after him? Same with Major Deegan. Who was Bruckner? Kosciusco? Who was the Tompkins in Tompkins Square Park?

Did they really name Astoria after the Astor family? (Yes!) 

Did you know the Holland Tunnel was named after a guy named Clifford Holland who designed the freakin' thing?

Listen to this segment from Friday's Leonard Lopate show that explores the people named after many of the important structures and parks and areas of this town. It's surprising to find out who some of these people were and some of the arbitrary reasons why certain important things were named for them. (Bruckner, for instance, was a Bronx Borough President who used his mojo to give a major road his monicker.)

More surprising are all of the important people in NYC history who don't have stuff named after them. Like me.

As the saying goes, what's in a name?

NYC on TV

There have always been a plethora of TV shows set in NYC. From I Love Lucy to All in the Family to The Cosby Show to Seinfeld, from Barney Miller to Night Court to Law and Order, NYC has had many lives and identities on the small screen over the decades. Like the city itself, there have been many different versions of this multifaceted city.

But how realistic are many of these shows? Is the NYC on TV the NYC in reality?

If you watch shows like Law and Order, NYPD Blue or Mad About You, you get a realistic sense of the insanity of life in this town. If you watch shows like Sex and the City or Friends, on the other hand, you get a very unrealistic, fantasy version of it -- NYC as playground, NYC has an ideal, not a place. 

Don't take my word for it, however. Or don't let me be the last word. Instead, read this article from The Atlantic that takes a look at the shows set in NYC and determines there "realistic-ness" on a 1 to 5 scale. Some I agree with, some I don't but it's an interesting list and you should give it a look. 

Mayor Bloomberg Speaks at Flight 587 10th Anniversary Memorial Service