Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"On the avenue, Fifth Avenue": Remembrance of Mansions Past

Fifth Avenue is one of the wealthiest, most beautiful stretches of NYC. Nestled on the eastern side of Central Park, it's a gorgeous array of beautiful apartment buildings, museums, houses of worship, department stores, and much, much more. It stretches nearly the entire length of Manhattan, ending majestically at Washington Square Park. Like its more populist sibling Broadway, it one of the great thoroughfares of NYC.

And 5th Avenue used to be even more grand.

Back in the 19th century, before Manhattan became a city of big buildings, 5th Avenue contained a huge number of mansions (in fact, it was nothing but mansions). They were built by the richest families in America, monuments to their great wealth and achievements, radiating power. Intricately designed, breathtaking in their beauteous construction, they were the ultimate symbols of the Gilded Age.

But like the Gilded Age, many of them were short lived. Their size and expense were too much even for the robber barons to maintain, and many of them were destroyed (those that still exist are either museums, like the Frick, or serve some other function). 

One such example was the Vanderbilt mansion that used to exist where Bergdorf's does now. It's a fascinating saga of wealth run amok and example of people with (at the time) unlimited wealth and power who lived and spent like the good times would never end -- until they did. It's an apocryphal story for today.

If you want to learn more about the vanished mansions of Fifth Avenue, check out this fascinating link. And read my previous post about the history of mansions in NYC. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

1989 in NYC History

If you lived during the Cold War, the idea that the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe would one day cease to exist seemed impossible. The Cold War, the literal and metaphorical Berlin Wall, the great divide between East and West, between capitalism and communism, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, was the status quo. It just ... was. It existed as a fundamental, unalterable reality of our world.

Another world seemed impossible, thinking about it pointless. For nearly 50 years, the status quo prevailed. 

Until, one day, it didn't.

Between 1989 and 1991, Communism collapsed in Europe and the Soviet Union broke up. And another monumental change, the end of apartheid in South Africa, happened at the same time and just as quickly. A world transformed indeed.

So what does this have to do with NYC? 

At the very same time, the city was transforming in ways we couldn't have imagined.

The thinking goes that the monumental changes in NYC over the last thirty years are due to the crash in the crime rate -- crime went down, the population and housing market demand went up, foreign money flooded in, gentrification ensued, etc. etc. etc. But at the same time this was happening, the city government was fundamentally changing, and this has had massive ramifications in how we live today.

How did this happen? Simple: in 1989 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional.

What was the Board of Estimate?

It was basically like the city council (it controlled the budget, land-use, and many other great powers; the city council was more of a constituent services group) except that it was un-elected and unrepresentative -- the city-wide elected officials and borough presidents each appointed members and they literally met in back room, hashing out the city's business like mob bosses. They were deeply connected to the political machines, took bribes from contractors, and basically turned it into a racket 

Until, one day, it ceased to exist.

The Board of Estimate was older, a lot older, than the Cold War -- it came into existence after NYC consolidated into the 5 boroughs in 1898. For nearly a century it ruled the city, undercutting mayors, sidelining the council, ignoring the public. The city was basically being run in secret by a kind of Politburo (to use another Cold War example) until it didn't. Now we have a strong mayor and city council and live in a much more democratic, less corrupt city.

So how did this happen?

Read this fascinating history about the end of the Board of Estimate and how it dramatically changed the city government and life in NYC. It's a history that we live with every day but know little about. It's amazing to think how long the BOE existed, how powerful it was, and how quickly it fell into the ash-heap of history.  

 That 1989 was a hell of a year! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gotta Love New Yorkers

If you want to see what it means to keep your cool -- and the NYPD performing at its best -- check out this video shot by a Brooklyn man who was just driving down the street and found himself in a tricky situation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Art of the Bad Deal

Donald Trump touts himself as a great deal maker ("the art of the deal" and all that) and, when he ran for president, he promised to make "great deals" for the USA on a wide variety of issues, particularly on trade and in world affairs.

This has resulted in him alienating countries like Canada (Canada! How do you piss off Canada?) -- and blowing up the West alliance which won two world wars, the Cold War, and brought billions of people peace and prosperity for three-quarters of a century. 


And, after angering Canada, Trump when to have his "summit" with his new buddy, the Dear Leader of North Korea. The result of this summit? Nothing! They signed a meaningless agreement to maybe agree of things in the future. Some deal! 

This is nuts. But it's not surprising. Decades ago, Trump made a disastrous deal to buy the Plaza Hotel -- he paid over $400 million for it and then was forced to sell it years later for less than $350 million, taking a huge loss. It was an idiotic, embarrassing failure -- the art of the bad, really stupid, deal.

And now he's going to bring North Korea to heel? 

He truly is a conman -- and it's amazing that so many people in this country are falling for it. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Robert De Niro @ The 2018 Tony's

Gotta Love New Yorkers

The news constantly reminds us about the worst of human nature -- and the recent suicides of  two prominent New Yorkers reminds us about the complexity and fragility of life. 

But people really are, on the whole, wonderful, and we should value the best of human nature when we encounter it.

If you doubt that, if your heart is hard, if your feelings are cynical, then you must real this amazing story

It's about the passing of a man who dubbed himself the "Mayor" of West 83rd Street, and it'll lift your spirits and make you cry the same time. The "mayor" was a real New York character (dare I say, he was an "only in New York" type?), a buoyant spirit who brought joy to many people and warmed their hearts. 

And, oh yes, he lived a lifestyle that was, shall we say, exotic. 

Then he passed away very suddenly, to the shock of everyone. But, in their sadness, his neighbors got together and paid him a lovely tribute

I've noticed in life that things that are sad are often beautiful at the same time. 

And, as it's been said before, grief is the price we pay for love. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

My Brief Anthony Bourdain Encounter

This morning I learned the shocking news that celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain died in France, allegedly from suicide but the complete facts of the matter are unclear at the moment. 

The point is, he's gone, suddenly and shockingly. The tributes are pouring in, social media is abuzz, and people are tying to make sense of the senseless. Sometimes things happen, and people do things, that defy the ability to comprehend. We have to leave it at that. 

I never read any of Bourdain's books but I loved his TV shows where he traveled the world ate exotic foods with fascinating people. At a time when so many people, in so many countries, are looking inward and trying to shut out the world, Anthony Bourdain literally showed us what a huge, amazing, complex, and tasty place the globe really is, and how lucky we all are to live in it. Not for nothing, many people, myself included, aspire to emulate his adventures.

And I met him once.

For a man who lived an exciting life, my extremely brief encounter with Anthony Bourdain has to be one of its most boring events.

Believe it or not, for a time, we both lived in the same building -- in fact, he and his first wife lived in the very building I grew up in. At the time I was running a small notary business, notarizing legal documents for people who lived in the building, and one night I got a call to come down and notarize legal documents for Anthony Bourdain and his wife. I went into their gorgeously decorated apartment, notarized one document for his wife, and then his wife roused Anthony so I could notarize another document. Bourdain stumbled out of his bedroom, looking more exhausted than I'd ever seen a person, and he collapsed onto his couch. (He had just returned from Asia and was seriously, seriously jet-lagged; this was around the time he was becoming mega-famous). He grunted, signed the document I prepared, and then stared at me with bloodshot eyes, clearly hoping that I'd clear out ASAP. I did, and I never saw him again but I remained a fan of his work over the years since.

I hope his family finds peace in this sad time. 

And I hope that his legacy -- his life of travel, food, people, and riches they bring to us -- will live forever.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Fairness Fight

Nearly 500 years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

This has been true in history, particularly in American political history, since the founding. And it's happening today in NYC.  

Mayor DeBlasio and his new Schools Chancellor recently announced a plan to change the admissions process to NYC's elite public schools (places like Stuy, Bronx Science, etc.). In short, this plan would phase out the "all-in-one" admissions test and instead expand something called the "Discovery" program that would increase enrollment of low-income (i.e. black and Hispanic students) to these schools. It would use a variety of criteria including state exams, grades, and formulas to determine admission (read the details here).

Needless to say, the folks who think their children would lose out under this plan, and the politicians who represent them, are violently opposed to it. They're demonstrating, rallying, and denouncing it with venom. The mayor and schools chancellor are promoting this plan, along with a few allies in the state legislature, but the NYC media, the governor, and many other politicians and special interest groups are either against it -- or punting ("Well, we'll see," "This might not be the right time", "I don't know if there's an appetite for it", "We still need to see the details", etc., etc., etc.).

This is why reform is hard. This is why things don't change for the better. People and politicians are scared of change because they feel they'll be disadvantaged, that they'll lose out, that someone "less worthy" (i.e. poor or brown) will benefit at their expense. 

But sometimes things do change. Sometimes reform is achieved. And what's funny is that, when history is written, the enemies of reform always end of up looking bad.

I hope that's the case here. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

SATC @ 20: True Confessions

Since today marks the 20th anniversary of the first SATC episode, the New York Times has done a massive story about the people who saw the show and were inspired by it enough to move to NYC to live out their fantasies of spending all their time not-working-brunching-yentering-drinking Cosmo-and-shtupping.

Some stayed, and some left. These are their stories.

And then, of course, there are those of us who were already here and saw how this show and the subsequent gentrification of NYC changed the city into something many of us don't recognize today.