Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Ghosts of NYC

Did you know we live in a ghost town?

Yes, NYC is a place where ghosts live. Not literally of course -- ghosts don't exist -- but the lives of past New Yorkers have shaped our city, literally and figuratively, and the spirit of New Yorkers past still haunt our collective memories.

And, to find them, all you have to do is a take a walk.

First, go to West 44th Street. This one block of Manhattan is one of the most fascinating in this or any part of any city in this country. This is where the Algonquin Hotel once existed, and in its restaurant, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Edna Ferber and George Kaufman and all sorts of literary legends formed the Round Table -- perhaps the most famous American salon in history. West 44th Street is also where the Harvard Club is located, a place where New Yorkers at the pinnacle of wealth and power came and still do come to congregate. It's where The New Yorker used to have its offices. Under the decades long leadership of William Shawn, this magazine launched the careers of countless legendary writers, including JD Salinger and John Updike. And, much more recently, West 44th Street is the location of the Sofitel Hotel, where a certain former IMF chief got nasty with a maid and thus upended French politics. 

This long, fascinating article from Vanity Fair gives a general and personal history of West 44th Street and how the people who worked, drank, and screwed there formed our city's cultural and political history forever.

Second, walk up to Fifth Avenue and 72nd street and pop into Central Park. And stare at Rumsey Playground and then close your eyes. Then open your mind and imagine a gorgeous Beaux Arts building standing right there. And imagine it's nighttime, and men and women in beautiful suits and dresses are getting out of limos and going inside into what used to be casino. Yes, such a place used to exist right there. It was a building designed by Calvert Vaux in 1859, one of the original architects of Central Park, that was originally called the Ladies Refreshment Salon. By the turn of the century it became a music hall and then, in 1929, under the infamous Mayor Jimmy Walker, it was turned into a Casino -- a sign of the wretched excess of Roaring Twenties New York. Walker's corruption, and the casino he helped build, became hated symbols after the Great Depression began. Walker was forced to resign in 1932 and Robert Moses, in a rash act of thoughtless anti-Walkerism, tore this beautiful historic building down. The ghosts of Walker and Mosesstill  exist in this empty space -- a symbol of the price of corruption and zealous self-righteousness. (If you ever read The Power Broker, Robert Caro writes a lot about this.)

So today, people who visit Central Park, never know that such a building used to exist there. But the ghosts still do.

The Power and the Money

Did you know that Mayor Bloomberg is worth around $20 billion? 

And that he has eleven homes?

This weekend, the mayor's office released his taxes in a classic late Friday afternoon holiday weekend document dump. Whether you like the mayor or not, it's fascinating to look at how the 0.0001% live -- the amount of taxes he pays, how much he pays his domestic staffs (!) (around a quarter mil a year), how much he donates to charity. It's a revealing look at how the super rich live and spend their money. 

Of course, if Mitt Romney becomes president next year (scary thought that that is), his taxes will obviously become a feast of rich person rubbernecking. Let's just hope he doesn't, so that it'll spare the country as well as Romney's family.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

SuperPACS in NYC

Two years ago the US Supreme Court handed down a decision, popularly known as Citizens United, that allows individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in American political campaigns. Many people, myself included, shuddered in horror at this ruling because it basically allows very rich people to essentially buy elections. 

Now the rules of campaign finance on the federal, state, and local level are varying and complex. What this ruling doesn't mean is that a rich person or company can totally bankroll an individual candidate. For example, the Koch Brothers cannot 100% bankroll Mitt Romney nor George Soros totally bankroll Barack Obama. The Romney and Obama campaigns still have to raise money in limited amounts if they want to, for example, move the candidates around the country or run ads with the candidates in them. But what this ruling does mean is that companies and very wealthy people can spend millions or even billions of dollars on superPACS (i.e. political action committees) that will in turn spend the money on attack ads against candidates they don't like. They can, I believe, spend huge amounts of money on get-out-the-vote operations and other "grassroots" efforts as well. And whoever wins (probably Republicans since wealthy people are much more likely to spend their money of Republican candidates) will be totally in hock to the financiers of these superPACS.

And now these superPACS are having unintended consequences. And, even worse, they're coming to NYC.

First, the unintended consequences. You may have head this week about a conservative billionaire who was planning to run a very racist campaign against President Obama via his superPAC. When word got out, this billionaire abruptly announced that the campaign wasn't going to run at all. However, yours truly found out that this man is the founder, believe it or not, of a website called DNAInfo that provide local news in NYC. Recently I had added a link to DNAInfo but, when I found about this, I promptly removed DNAInfo from the list. So the unintended consequences of these superPACs is that, when people find out who is funding them, there will be a backlash against the companies and businesses that these funders run. 

Second, it looks like these superPACs will play a role in next year's mayor's race. NYC has a very good public campaign finance system where contributions to candidates are matched by public funds in limited amounts. This means candidates don't have to raise or spend huge amounts of money. But with Citizens United and these superPACs, wealthy people are going to be able to spend huge amounts on on next year's mayor's race. That means that whoever is the Democratic candidate for mayor will have probably $100 million in vicious attack ads run against him or her. This means next year's mayor's race will become toxic and will probably mean that we'll have yet another Republican mayor after Bloomberg leaves office. 

Don't forget, you read it here first. 

Memo from NYC

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The World's Most Economically Powerful City

Perhaps this comes as no surprise, but a new survey of the most economically powerfully cities in the world pegs NYC at #1.

This survey is the work of the great social scientist Richard Florida who wrote about it here.

So what makes a city a global economic powerhouse?

Three main things: economic output (i.e. money be created and spent), innovations (i.e. patents being created) and financial (i.e. how much trading is going on). In short, in this city more than any other in the world, people come here to make and spend money and find new, creative ways of doing it.

Our nearest competitors are the usual suspects. Right behind us is London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Chicago, Singapore, Shanghai, LA, and Zurich. There are a few surprises on the list too. Who knew that Boston, Osaka, Shenzhen, and Toronto were economic giants as well?

But NYC beats them all. We are the greatest money machine of the world. 

We are a socially tolerate city with amazing diversity, low crime, the greatest culture, and excellent public transportation. Great minds want to live in places like that and NYC does it best. 

So it's no surprise that our investment in the public has reaped great financial rewards. Let's hope we keep up the good work. 

Look Closer

Most mornings I emerge from the subway on my way to work at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street. It's not exactly the most gorgeous speck of NYC, but in this town you get to see all sorts of interesting things that might not fit the textbook definition of beauty -- but that have a beauty all their own.

Take, for example, this corner of Canal and Broadway early on a weekday morning. 

One day I saw this tall building next to the old Bank of New York building bathed in fog. I imagined all of the people at the top of that building, their magnificent views blocked by muddy grey plumes of air. I imagined their frustration, and perhaps shock, at looking out the window and seeing ... nothing. 

Nature had its own ideas that day.

It was an interesting site: a great, proud man mad object being swallowed up by nature, by a force more powerful than itself. To me, it was a simple but direct example of the power and indifference of nature.

But nature need not always be cruel. Sometimes, it can be exceedingly kind.

Like the very next day! 

The next morning, I saw the great building again -- bathed in sunshine, those great views (I imagine) being all the more glorious still. 

Nature had its own ideas that day as well, and this day it was more than kind.

Nature is like NYC -- kind, cruel, crazy, and amazing. The two go always go together -- sometime like gasoline and fire, sometimes like milk and cookies -- but it's always wonderful to see. 

As they said in the movie American Beauty, look closer.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Book of Mormon - You And Me (But Mostly Me)

Review: "The Book of Mormon"

Recently the wife and I hired a babysitter (also known as grandma) and headed out to see "The Book of Mormon" i.e. that Broadway musical by the South Park guys (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and one the of the Avenue Q guys (Robert Lopez). It opened last year to great reviews and won 9 Tony Awards. Since then it's become the hottest ticket in town, with a nearly $40 million advance. Fortunately we were able to get tickets and, I'm happy to report, it's as good as the hype.

Set in the present, "The Book of Mormon" concerns two young, rather dull witted 19 year old Mormons named Elder Price and Elder Cunningham sent on their two-year mission to Uganda. Idealistic, naive, and not really understanding the word of God they have been sent to propagate, the two missionaries find themselves trying to save the souls -- and lives -- of a group of Ugandans in a tiny village who are under siege from a horrible warlord. Racked by doubts and insecurities, Price and Cunningham do all they can to convert the poor Uganda while also questioning the very faith they have been raised in and sent to spread. Needless to say, much hilarity ensues and the show has a sweet, very satisfying ending. 

While a send-up of the Mormon religion, "The Book of Mormon" is not an anti-religious screed. Quite the opposite. It is an exploration of the nature of faith, what it means to worship something bigger than ourselves, and how this gives us the power of love, understanding, and forgiveness.

"The Book of Mormon" is big hearted show, one that loves and respects its audience. It has an amazing cast and great, hilarious songs. Josh Gad stars as Elder Cunningham, an awkward, shy young man who has problems with the truth. Elder Price is played by the amazing Andrew Rannells who begins the show as a cocky missionary but undergoes a most humbling transition. Also great is Nikki M. James who plays Nabulungi, the young Uganda girl who falls under the spell of Price and Cunningham. Her loving, protective, and gut-bustingly funny father is played by Michael Potts who I had the pleasure of seeing a few years ago in Grey Gardens. The rest of the supporting cast is great too, their singing and dancing skills the best I've probably ever seen in a show (and I've seen the original A Chorus Line and The Producers). You can tell that the cast loves the show and the joy they produce is infectious. 

Some of the show's best songs are "You and Me (But Mostly Me)", "Hasa Diga Eebowai", "I Believe", "American Prophet", and "Spooky Mormon Hell". You can find them YouTube.

The show came under some scrutiny when it opened last year because it is, in a word, a little dirty. There's some cursing, some very un-PC humor, and some disturbing subject matter. But, if you can handle that, "The Book of Mormon" is well worth seeing.

And remember, tomorrow is a Latter day. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ghosts of Past and Future

Two fascinating articles from this week's Times illustrate how life in NYC both changes but also stays the same.

First, an article about people who have lived in their apartments or in the same neighborhoods for decades -- and, in the case of one woman, for 100 of her 102 years of life. This woman has lived on East 84th street since 1911 and has, to say the least, seen her block and her city change quite a bit. She is a living, breathing memory bank. 

As someone who has lived in two different places in this city in my life, I've seen both my neighborhoods change -- for the better (cleaner, less crime) and for the worst (mom and pop stores going out of business, rising rents and prices) -- and it's always fascinating to see the new up against the old. That, in many ways, is the story of NYC and all great cities -- new and old people, new and old buildings, new and old businesses, living side by side; lifelong New Yorkers existing along with recent transplants and immigrants, preserving old traditions and practices while creating new ones, the old timers giving lessons to the "new" timers, the new timers teaching the old timers a thing or two. 

My mom has lived in the same building for over 40 years. Her friend has lived in the same building for over 50 years. Growing up, I remember elderly residents telling me about living in the same building since the 1920s and 30s. When you live in an old building in NYC, you can feel the ghosts of the past living with the occupants of the present -- who are, after all, the ghosts of the future. A little creepy maybe, but also kind of magical. 

What isn't magical, however, what is rather kind of tragic, are when old school businesses disappear. And I'm not just talking about the aforementioned mom and pops, the decades old drug stores and restaurants that gave neighborhoods their character and that, when they vanish, lessen the neighborhoods character. I'm talking about big businesses too. 

Remember Pan Am? If you're under the age of 20, probably not. Pan Am used to not only own the American airline industry but the Pan Am building on 42nd street used to rise proudly in the NYC skyline, the worlds PAN AM visible to anyone within miles site of the building. Today, Pan Am is long out of business, and the Pan Am building is now the MetLife building. When Pan Am went, it was like a part of Americana vanished. Part of the NYC skyline certainly did. It was the first big airline (it was for a long time) and most people took their first flights on Pan Am. Heck, being a Pan Am stewardess (now called flight attendant) was such a glamorous job that they even made a TV show out of it recently (called Pam Am but, like its namesake, the show went out of business too). And when a piece of Americana goes away, it can never really be replaced. 

Here in NYC, a huge law firm called Dewey and LaBoeuf is on the verge of collapse. It used to be called Dewey, Ballantine and this isn't just some law firm. This used to be the creme de la creme of NYC law firms, the kind of place where any lawyer dreamed about working at. It was big, rich, represented powerful clients and companies, and had cache to burn. What it also did, in recent years, was burn through all its money. An ill timed merger in 2007 (hello 2008 financial crises) along with ridiculous compensation packages and mismanagement has not only put the firm on the brink of extinction but has also opened it up to criminal investigations. The firm was named after Thomas Dewey, who used to be a governor of New York and was twice the Republican nominee for president in 1944 and 1948. This firm history had a proud, fine heritage, and was a solid piece of the NYC legal firmament. But greed and stupidity by otherwise smart people has wrecked it. When Dewey goes away, it will dishonor the legacy of a great New Yorker and diminish a part of the NYC legal and business community. Ghosts will be dishonored by its future ghosts. And that is something that can never be replaced.

So I hope that we New Yorkers will preserve as much of our past as possible while, at the same time, smartly look to the future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A President in Springtime

President Obama has to have the most fascinating upbringing of any of the forty-three men who've served in that great office. 

Born in Hawaii (yes, he was born there), his mother was a white woman from Kansas and his dad a black guy from Kenya. The president has lived all over the country and the world: Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, and, more recently, Chicago and Washington, DC. Obama has to be one of the only presidents who has lived on both coasts, in the American Midwest, and one of our country's two non-contiguous states. Unlike the morons who say he's not an American, Obama has probably lived in, and knows more about, our country than any of them.

And one of the places that Obama has lived was NYC.

He came here in the early 1980s when he transferred to Columbia University. After graduation, he worked for a time at a company near the United Nations. He lived on the upper west side (in my old neighborhood actually) and enjoyed eating in local diners, including the famous Tom's, as well as going to dinner parties. For a time, he had a very serious girlfriend and contemplated life as a New Yorker. Eventually, he would decide to head to Chicago where he would start his career, meet his future wife, and eventually forge a path to his historic presidency. 

But once upon a time, about a quarter of a century ago, he lived here and it shaped the identity of the man who know is the most powerful person in the world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rudy and Willard: Partners in Douchiness

This you gotta see. First, some background. 

Today is the 1st anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's, death and President Obama is taking a well deserved victory lap at having ordered the assassination of the world's worst terrorist. Well, the Republicans are up in arms: how dare he politicize national security! Of course, a Republican president would never politicize national security. 

Cough cough cough.

Anyway, Republican presidential candidate Willard Mittens Romney and the most overrated NYC mayor ever, Rudy Giuliani, thought they'd be clever and visit some firefighters today -- and so they did, even bringing some pizza along. It was a nice photo opp. A Republican presidential wannabe and a fellow GOPer bringing some needed eats to New York's Bravest, the men who were the first responders on 9/11. Take that President Obama!

So there were Willard and Rudy today, walking into the firehouse with their boxes of pizza, looking so happy to be meeting with the firemen, happy to be bringing them the grub. Problem: as soon as they were inside the firehouse -- and, so they thought, out of site of the media -- Willard and Rudy handed off the pizza boxes to their aides. 

They liked be photographed bringing the firefighters pizza but, when they thought the public wasn't looking, suddenly lost interest.

This tells you everything you need to know about the man who wants to be president and the man who was mayor. It shows you how empty and worthless they are. And let's pray neither man ever serves in public office again.  

Check it out for yourself