Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Middle Class Dream

Much has been made in the last few years of the divide between rich and poor in NYC and around the country. After all, that was what Occupy Wall Street was all about in 2011 and it's what propelled President Obama to a second term in 2012. 

Now, as we conclude 2013 and go into 2014, Bill De Blasio assumes the mayoralty of this town promising to make NYC an affordable place to live. But how?

A great new article in New York magazine offers some solutions. Some of them are much more achievable than others, but here's a thumbnail:

  • Raise taxes on the rich to give the city more revenues
  • Build lots more affordable housing, particularly in underdeveloped parts of the outer boroughs
  • Increase public transit, including more late-night bus service and new subway lines
  • Improve schools: universal Pre-K, longer school days, smaller class size
  • Focus on the homeless and starving
  • Bring back manufacturing jobs
  • Reform property taxes
  • More access to health care
  • Help people afford college
  • Establish an infrastructure trust
Some of these proposals are things De Blasio has promised to pursue, others he hasn't said if he will or not. But these sounds like good ideas to create a more aaffordable city. 

Farewell to Funkytown: A Tribute to Ed, Lou, Al and Stan

As 2013 ticks away into 2014, our city is poised to get its first new mayor in over a decade. At the stroke of midnight, the Bloomberg era ends and the De Blasio era begins.

WNYC radio has had a great series of reports called New York Remade: Before and After Bloomberg. A lot has happened, both in the city and beyond, during these past 12 years. As the series' website explains:

On Jan. 1, 2002, when Michael Bloomberg was sworn into office, these things barely existed: iPods, Blackberries, pocket digital cameras. These things didn't exist at all: the Barclays Center, Citi Field, One World Trade, or the Gehry NY building.

People smoked, all the time, in restaurants and bars. Almost no one rode bikes, and T.V.-less yellow cabs drove down Broadway right through Times Square. Back then, a market rate apartment in Harlem was about $1,200 — about half of what it is today. Pizza was $1.50 a slice, same price as a subway token.

Carrie Bradshaw lived in a Manhattan brownstone, drank cosmopolitans and typed onto a black and white computer screen. The High Line was a rusted and weedy hulk, not the locale for furtive kisses for the "Girls" crew before they head home to Brooklyn. Adlai Stevenson High School still existed. The Success Academy and six hundred other schools did not.

You could be anonymous in 2001. Now, not so much. We are watched, everywhere, if not by security cameras, then by each other.

New York has been transformed in the last 12 years, in ways that are wrenching and huge and intimate.

Might I add: the city was also still reeling from 9/11. Ground Zero was a smoking hole with clean-up crews moving away the rubble of the old World Trade Centers and still finding bodies.

Back then, our city's biggest fear was getting hit by another terrorist attack. 
Now it's being able to afford to live here.

The first decade of the 21st century has been a profound transitory time for our city. I don't recognize the town I was born in the 1970s, and grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. The 20th century is but a faint memory now, another time that is both feared and fetishized in our collective memory. If you go back and watch movies made in NYC back then, movies like "Taxi Driver", "Do the Right Thing" and "Bad Lieutenant", it made NYC look like a nightmare. Now we go to movies like the recently released "American Hustle", set in the late 1970s, and you'd think the city was simply "funkytown" back then.   

Perhaps it was better, perhaps it was worse. Perhaps what we've gained in public safety, health, and schools has been lost in a sky-high cost of living, a bleaching of the culture, and a loss of communal spirit. The debate rages endlessly on. But one thing is clear: maybe we don't actually want to live in Funkytown anymore but we still want to talk about it.

And in 2013, four notable New Yorkers died who lives embodied the late 20th century city, who rode high during the era of Funkytown: former mayor Ed Koch, rocker Lou Reed, pornographer Al Goldstein, and news reporter Stan Brooks. They were four very different men, occupying quite different spheres in this city's life and imagination, but their lives and careers are essential to understanding that time in our city's life that is now so definitely over.

Ed Koch was mayor from 1978 to 1989. In his time, he improved the city's disastrous finances and built affordable housing. He had a proud legacy but was also very divisive. He was famously irrascible, screaming at anyone who disagreed with him, and he seemed to relish conflict with anyone who wanted it. Koch's natural successor was not his actual successor, David Dinkins, but Rudy Giuliani: both men polarized the city, setting black against white, rich against poor. The Bloomberg era has been markedly different both in tone and governance: race relations have greatly improved and he has openly supported gay marriage. As for the poor, Bloomberg hasn't played rich against poor: he's simply forgotten about the poor and forced them out of the city. (Problem solved.) So a governing style of quiet ruthlessness and embracing diversity has replaced the divisive, rough-and-tumble governing style of Funkytown -- and the man who embodied its spirit left us in 2013.

Lou Reed made his musical career in the 1960s and 1970s writing songs about drugs, death, bondage, and drag. His music was about the dirty and dangerous city -- and it was brilliant. As NYC changed and Lou Reed got older, his music became legendary not only for its great experimentation but also for its memories of the vanished city. The city of "Sally Can't Dance" and "Dirty Boulevard" is gone and now, sadly in 2013, is Lou Reed. But we'll always listen to his music and remember that time and its poet, a man who made lyrical beauty out of the decay of Funkytown.

Today, anyone can get porn on the web. My generation was the last that had to work hard to get its porn (usually by begging an older friend to buy a magazine from a creepy vendor and then hiding it under the bedroom mattress, stressing out that mom would find it when making the bed or discover us reading it when she called us to dinner -- let me tell you, it was stressful) but today's "yutes" can simply go online, search vast amounts of naughty content, and then hit the "Clear History" tab on their browsers when mom calls. The man who represented the mattresses-hiding time of porn was Al Goldstein, the foulmouthed pornographer and provocateur and New Yorker extraordinaire, who founded "Screw" magazine in the 1960s and then, from 1974 to 2003, hosted the racy cable show "Midnight Blue" on Channel J. He was gross and offensive and wanted you to know it. He was "the man" during the time when Times Square was a bastion of porno theaters and drug dealers. Al Goldstein became the symbol (for many) of everything that was wrong with NYC back then, the filth that Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" so desperately wanted to wash away. Giuliani started the scrubbing in the 1990s with raids and new blue laws but, in the Bloomberg era, it was washed away by the Internet and gentrification. Goldstein's magazine and TV show didn't survive, and he literally became homeless as a result. But his recent death is a reminder of that time, of the sleaze of Funkytown, when the city was a wild place -- fun for some, revolting for others -- that is now clean and, for many, very boring.

And finally, Stan Brooks. You might know his name: he was a reporter for 1010 WINS radio news for decades. He had a great voice, one that was born for radio, and he reported on everything from the 1971 Attica Prison riots to the recent election of Bill De Blasio as mayor. Any history that was made in NYC over the last 50 years, Stan Brooks reported it first. If you ever saw the movies "Goodfellas", it's his voice that reports on the Lufthansa heist made famous in that classic film. Stan Brooks was the memory bank of this city, the man who explained what was going on in Funkytown to its residents. Now Stan Brooks is gone, along with the city he reported about for so long. We've lost a great reporter, a great New York voice, and a living link to our city's past.

As another great New Yorker, novelist Don DeLillo wrote: "It's all falling indelibly into the past."

The song "Funkytown" was a one-hit wonder released in 1980, a year when the city was deep in the era of Ed Koch, Lou Reed, Al Goldstein, and Stan Brooks, and when yours truly was just three years old. The song was written by a guy named Steven Greenberg for a band called Lipps, Inc who were all from Minneapolis and dreamed of moving to NYC. The song was an open love letter to the dream of this city, to its spirit and danger, to why people wanted to live here, even back then, the so-called bad old days. Just remember the first few lines:

Gotta make a move to a
Town that's right for me
Town to get me movin'
Keep me groovin' with some

You can't be funky without some energy, and energy was the essence of the Funkytown era -- the era that the Bloomberg years have so definitively vanquished

Now our city moves into a new era. Sadly, these four great New Yorkers won't be there to see it. But they made NYC an interesting place in the last decades of the 20th century, they gave the city its unique energy, and for that we thank them. 

Now, firmly in the second decade of the 21st century, and the dangerous energy of that time has been replaced by a safe apathy. We may not be going back to Funkytown anytime soon, but we need to shed the apathy and re-find its energy. That's the way we'll honor their legacies in the new era that's about to begin.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas NYC Redux

As I've written before, there's nothing more magical than Christmas in NYC. A couple of years ago, I blogged about a guy to the holidays in our fair city and here's another one called "The Untouristy Guide to the Holidays in New York."

Some of the suggestions, if you're celebrating the city here: go to the big tree at Rockefeller Center, ice skate in Central Park, see "The Nutcracker", the creche at the Metropolitan Museum, and window shop at Macy's.

Frankly, I think these suggestions are pretty touristy but they're fun all the same. My favorite spot for Christmas in NYC is standing at the corner of Grand Army Plaza at night, looking at the Plaza Hotel and lower edge of Central Park ablaze in lights and covered in decorations. It's a very New York, very Christmas sight to see.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Memo from NYC

Pope Francis rules.

Literally -- he rules the nation of Vatican City and the worldwide Roman Catholic church.

But he also rules.

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected the 266th Supreme Pontiff in March, he made history as the first Pope from the Americas and the first non-European Pope in almost
1000 (that's right, a thousand) years. First thing he did: paid his hotel bill before moving into the Vatican full time. Then, instead of the lavish papal apartments, he took up residence in a dorm room. Instead of eating in his own private dining room, he eats in a cafeteria. But it's not all symbolic: he has said that his goals as pope are to focus the church's work on helping the poor, sick and elderly. Since then, he has said that he will not judge gay people, wants to reach out to atheists, and help single mothers. Also, he has said that the church shouldn't spend all its time obsessing over divisive social issues like abortion. Oh, and he's also rooting out the corruption in the Catholic hierarchy and bank.


In less than a year, Pope Francis has shaken up the world's oldest organized religion and is refashioning it for the 21st century.

Recently, he published a "papal exhortation" which brilliantly dismantles the argument that raw capitalism is a force for good. Specifically, he says that no economic system should practice exclusion but be geared towards inclusion i.e. everyone should benefit from it. Better than President Obama or Mayor-elect De Blasio or any other politicians, Pope Francis brilliantly sums up the problem of economic inequality:
"Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality."

He also makes an appeal to the essential nature of the Christian faith, that we must not worship anything else besides God and our fellow man. Money, in his view, as become the new idolatry:

"While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule ... Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to a generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings."

(If President Obama said stuff like this, he'd probably be a whole lot more popular.)

What amazes me and so many around the world is that this Pope not only preaches his faith but also lives it and uses it as the compass for his work. He walks the walk while he talks the talk and is getting the job done. Like a truly great communicator, he is striking back at a world where money rules and insists that only our common humanity must rule.

Naturally, conservatives hate him. Oh man, they are out there calling this Pope a Marxist and all sorts of mean nasty stuff. But in doing so, they expose their true nature. They are not really religious, they are not truly people of faith -- they worship money, power, materialism, and themselves. They see religion as a tool to divide people, to acquire power and riches, not to improve humanity.

Case in point: former President Bush. Supposedly the most openly religious president we ever had, he always droned on about how much he loved God and how He had saved him. But his presidency exposed his true loves: war, tax cuts for the rich, eliminating worker protections, denying people health insurance, screwing up disaster relief, politicizing the justice department. This is a man of faith? This is how his faith led him to govern? He was never really a man of faith, he was a man of power. I always remember that annoying smirk on his face proved to me, more than anything else, what a fraud he was. What kind of a man of faith smirks?

Not this Pope. Whenever you see Pope Francis smile, you see a man genuinely motivated by his faith. When you're the real deal, you don't have to fake it. His manner of living and his work prove it. He's an inspiration.

Now I'm not Catholic or particularly religious. I still disagree with the Catholic Church's doctrines on gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and the role of women. Pope Francis isn't changing any of this and it'll probably be generations before any future pope does. But Pope Francis is talking about the most important issues facing the world right now and he's doing it brilliantly. He is showing what a true man of faith is all about. And in these trouble times, it's amazing to see.

Gotta Love New Yorkers

There are certain New Yorkers who aren't household names but whose work make an impact and leave a legacy on the city.

One such person is Caroline Hirsch.

No, I've never heard of her either but you've probably heard of Caroline's, the famous comedy club, that she founded almost thirty years ago. And you've definitely heard of the comedians who got their start at her club and who still perform there today: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Andrew Dice Clay (amongst many others).

Thanks to her, our culture is a little bit richer -- and a whole lot funnier.

We can't all be geniuses, we can't all be the star of the show. But sometimes we can be the Guy or Girl behind the genius, behind the star, the person who makes it possible for genius to flourish and stars to shine brightly. And that's what Caroline Hirsch has done, which makes her a great New Yorker. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Memo from NYC

A few years ago, a website called Stuff White People Like enjoyed an Andy Warhol moment and gained lots of buzz. Basically, it was a blog that listed and analyzed the various things that we white people supposedly love.

Problem is, the blog was inaccurate. It said that white people love things like The Wire and grinding their own coffee beans. Perhaps some white people living in Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas or San Francisco and parts of NYC like this stuff, but let's be realistic: most white people could care less about these things.

Stuff White People Like has been dormant since 2010. I wonder where it and its creator, Christian Landor, have gone? Oh well, as a tribute to him and his creation, Mr NYC presents a short list of the Stuff White People REALLY Like:

The Tea Party
Sarah Palin
Natural Light beer
More guns
Unborn fetuses
Country Music Television
Invading Arab countries
Confederate Flags
Fox News
Even more guns
Jesus fish
Wal Mart
Government shutdowns
Even more guns
Glenn Beck
Mega churches
Pick-up trucks -- with gun racks
Voter ID laws
Vaginal probes
Saying "y'all"
Shooting defenseless animals
Movies by Mel Gibson
The 700 Club
More and more guns

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Wolfe in Library's Clothing

The New York Public Library has just acquired writer Tom Wolfe's personal archives for $2.15 million.

It consists of almost 200 boxes of manuscripts, interviews, correspondence, etc. that covers Wolfe's almost six-decade long career. 

Apparently it will be available for interested parties sometime next year. As a big Wolfe fan, I look forward to looking at it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Mansions of NYC

In a city of 8-plus million people, New Yorkers live in every imaginable kind of home: single rooms, basements, attics, townhouses, penthouses, apartments, regular houses, libraries -- one friend told me his sister even lived in a boiler room. Most of us are struggling either to pay the rent or beat it. Even those of us lucky enough to be owners gotta cough up a mortgage payment each month.

Oy vey.

But there are those few -- very few -- New Yorkers who are lucky enough to live in mansions. Not apartments or homes but actual mansions! Back in the day, millionaires and billionaires in NYC would build huge stand alone mansions for themselves uptown. If you ever saw the movie Gangs of New York, there's a scene where the characters escape Five Points, go uptown, and rob a mansion. Many of these mansions were built in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and were torn down over time (the building I grew up in used to be the sight of such a mansion). Some survived and were taken over by businesses or non-profit organizations or museums (like the Frick
) or schools (one of the schools I went to as a kid used to be an old family mansion).

This slide show of Gilded Age mansions will blow your mind and there's currently an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York about them as well.

Today there are almost no stand alone mansions left in NYC. Even Mayor Mike's mansion is next to a school and an apartment building. In fact, as far as I know, there are one three fully-detached mansions left in NYC where people actually live: the Steinway mansion in Astoria, Gracie mansion, and the Schinasi mansion.

The Steinway mansion is a beautiful home but its located in an industrial wasteland. The owner died a few years ago and, beautiful as it is, its cost and location make it almost uninhabitable.

Gracie Mansion, of course, is the residence for the mayor of NYC and has been vacant ever
since Bloomberg became mayor since he has his own (although De Blasio might move there).

The only fully detached, privately-owned mansion in Manhattan is the Schnasi m
ansion. Interestingly enough, it's not located on Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue or somewhere like that. It's on Riverside Drive, nestled up on 107th street (near where yours truly grew up actually). It was built about a hundred years ago and has been sold and re-sold and left vacant over the decades. For years I would walk by it and wonder if anyone was living there. Recently it was on the market for $31 million but, allegedly, found a buyer for around $15. That's a pretty good deal for the only fully detached mansion in NYC. 
If you're interested in the historic mansions of the Gilded Age that still populate our city in one form another, this very cool web site is worth checking out. It's a reminder and legacy of another time, a living history of NYC in stone and granite.