Friday, March 21, 2014

Is This Real?

In the late 1990s, I had a roommate with a subscription to The New Republic. One fine summer day, while he was elsewhere, I opened up an issue and read an article called "Hack Heaven." Written by a person named Stephen Glass, the article was about how companies were hiring teenagers who had previously hacked the company's computer systems in order to teach them to avoid future hacking. The article was so wild, the people so colorful, and the things they were quoted as saying so off the wall, that I thought the article was fiction. It had to be!

And it was.

It was all a lie. This article, and others by Stephen Glass, were so sensational, the people and events in them so Monty Python-esque, that it and they defied credulity. Eventually, Glass was revealed to be a fraud, his articles total fiction. A few years later a movie called "Shattered Glass", about this fake article and Glass's deceit, was released. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, sometime not. But truth will always out.

This week, while perusing the new Observer online, I came across an article that again makes you think: is this real? Called "Don't hate me because I'm 10021", it's about how rich people in NYC, specifically those denizens of the Upper East Side, are feeling persecuted and marginalized in Bill De Blasio's New York. Apparently, these rich folks all want to move to Miami -- no taxes, no Democrats, no "class warfare", and better weather. This article wants us to pity the rich and their difficult plight. The poor in this town? They got it made! It's being rich in NYC that's so very hard. Pity the billionaire. Screw everyone else.

Of course, this is Orwellian nonsense but this article seems to believe it. Really.

And yet ... I'm wondering if this article just isn't some big practical joke. I hope so. If so, who's it supposed to be punking? The rich -- exposing them as whiny, pathetic, selfish, greedy, narcissistic, mean-spirited pigs? Or the rest of us -- begging us to feel sorry for them? I can't decide. One of the commentators to this article even writes "This has to be fake, right?" I hope he's right. I just don't know.

If it's fake, it's hilarious, brilliant even. 

But if it's real ... it's scary, truly chilling. It shows how totally detached and out-of-whack the wealthy in this city are. This is a "Let them eat cake", Ayn Randian attitude that once permeated Ancien France and Tsarist Russian and led to revolution. I don't think New Yorkers are ready to storm the barricades quite yet but, when I read articles like this and then hear wealthy New Yorkers compare raising taxes on the rich to a Nazi invasion, it's clear that a class war is brewing, and may get hotter. 

Let's hope it won't. And let's hope this article is a joke. 

It begs the question: is this real or is April Fool's starting early? 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

NYC Streets in Imagination

Cities are only as great as their people. And, of course, many great people have lived in NYC over the centuries. 

In fact, so many notable people have lived here that some of the very streets where they resided have been named after them. 103rd street and Broadway has been renamed Humphrey Bogart Way. The area on the Bowery near where CBGBs used to be has been renamed for Joey Ramone. And numerous streets in Queens have been named after cops and firefighters who died in 9/11. You can find a comprehensive list at NYC Honorific Street Names to see where they lived and are now remembered.  

Talking about remembering, you must take a look at these amazing photographs by legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Although he's become famous for snapping pictures of the rich, powerful, and beautiful, he's also revered for his photos of ordinary New Yorkers walking the streets. He has an uncanny ability to catch people doing interesting, idiosyncratic things. A recently released collection of his photos were taken back in 1968, when NYC was in some trouble. It's an amazing visual record of a city on the brink of crises -- and the humanity it contained. All New Yorkers, at any time in our history, are iconic.

One of the most iconic New Yorkers was, of course, Jackie O. History remembers her as First Lady to President John F. Kennedy, queen to his king, as the two of them reigned over America in Camelot in the early 1960s. Then that tragic day in Dallas in November, 1963 took him away and she, in turn, moved to New York City to live the rest of her life (she died in 1994). But her legacy is not just to be found in her short tenure as first lady or her bravery after the assasination. Living for the last 30 years of her 64 years, Jackie O became one of the city's leading preservationists. She helped restore Central Park after the savage budget cuts of the 1970s. And she helped to save Grand Central Station, winning it landmark status, and preserving a great NYC icon. After her death, the reservoir in Central Park was named after her. Photos from her three decades in NYC have recently been published in a new book and you can see some great samples here

There has been some controversy about name streets and public spaces and institutions after people. But I think it's important to remember that NYC is place where talented and brave people have lived, and naming the streets where they lived, and remembering how they contributed to our city's life and history, is a good thing to do.

Harlem Building Blast

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Where have you gone, Tammany Hall?

In American politics today, the most common complaint is, why can't politicians get anything done?

Of course, our political system of checks and balances was intentionally set up to make it difficult to govern, lest we slide into tyranny. However, in recent years, it seems like our politicians have gone from governing and legislating into simply engaging in deliberate gridlock. It does "We the people" no good.

The people, of course, are at the heart of any democracy -- because here the people rule. At least, in theory. In practice, of course, people powered government is rough and messy business, much like the people themselves. That is why political parties came into existence, as a way for people and groups with similar interests to organize and claim power. It's always why the engines of political parties, i.e. "machines", became so vital in the 19th and 20th centuries: they helped people claim power and use the government to improve their lives.

A machine works like this: the people who work and vote for or finance the dominate political party in their respective city or state get benefits when the politicians they support get into the power. This can be a job or social services or various government favors. It's very much a transactional, back scratching way of governing. It is the "business" side of politics and government. 

Political machines, of course, have long been derided as sources of corruption since they can warp the machinery and priorities of government and leads to bad policies. Government ceases to function properly when instead of being used an instrument to help the population at large it is used simply to benefit the people who run and support it. However, political machines were not always sources of patronage and corruption. Instead, they were mechanisms to help the poor and dispossessed grab away the levers of government from the rich and connected. 

Here in NYC, from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, Tammany Hall was the most powerful and notorious political machine in America. Tammany Hall ran NYC like the Vatican runs the Catholic Church: absolutely. The "bosses" of Tammany, like the infamous Boss Tweed and later people like Carmine DeSapio, would handpick candidates for mayor and other municipal offices and they were almost guarenteed victory on election day. At its height, Tammany's power reached to Albany, with even governors needed the backing of the powerful organization to get elected. But Tammany was not just a cease pool of power and corruption. In its early days, before the government granted social services, it was also a place where poor people and immigrants could go to get a job, food, shelter, even winter clothes. It helped the people at a time when the government and the wealthy didn't, and all it wanted in exchange was a vote. For many New Yorkers at the time, this was a great deal. 

In many ways, Tammany became a victim of its own success and power. By the mid-twentieth century, many of the politicians it had supported, like Governor Al Smith, had instituted social welfare programs in New York State that made the services Tammany used to provide people irrelevant. In the 1930s, the New Deal and the election of Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor made Tammany both irrellevant and, for the first time, politically weak. And, of course, corruption went from the "honest graft" of the 19th century, when politicians and bosses helped the people and themselves, into the vile corruption of Mayor Jimmy Walker -- who spent his days and nights drinking and chasing women while his city fell apart, thanks to the Great Depression and incompetency of City Hall. 

By the 1960s, Tammany Hall was dead. Many said and would say today good riddance. But is the city better off because of it? At its height, Tammany Hall was a strong advocate for New Yorkers who had no other. It truly cared and helped everyone. Today, who does that? Unions? The rich? Ha! And when you see ineffective the city, state and federal governments have became at truly improving the lives of ordinary people, Tammany Hall in its glory years seems truly glorious indeed. 

There is a new book that looks to reexamine the legacy of Tammany Hall. Perhaps, it argues, Tammany Hall has been unfairly condemned. And perhaps the people of our city would do better if another Tammany Hall could rise, a political organization that simply looked out for everyone without regards to wealth or connections. 

P.S. Where was Tammany Hall? It was originally located right off Union Square on East 14th street. The original building was demolished in 1927 but then moved to East 17th. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Next Great NYC Movie

Setting a movie in NYC has become so common that it's almost boring. Not that NYC is boring but, as a cinematic milieu, it has become so cliche that I roll my eyes whenever I see another movie set here. Even Woody Allen, the quintessential New York filmmaker, has started making his movies in other places, and it seems to have made his movies better. If you're gonna make a movie set in NYC these days, there needs to be a damn good reason.

Well, leave it to the Coen Brothers to find one.

Although based in NYC, these great filmmakers are originally from Minnesota, and they set their movies in a variety of locales (like Raising ArizonaFargo, the noiry Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski, just to name a very few). But their most recent film -- Inside Llewyn Davis, criminally overlooked at the recent Academy Awards -- is a total New York movie, and a great one at that. Here's what it takes to make a great NYC these days (according to the high rigorous standards of Mr NYC):

1. Time and Place. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place during the winter of 1961, mostly in Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and a little bit in Queens (there's also a subplot with a road trip to Chicago but that's almost a different movie). The Coens do an amazing job of showing how the streets, buildings, and storefronts of these neighborhoods, and, best of all, the subway in really looked in 1961. Back then, these neighborhoods were working class, bordering on poor, and were drab and run-down. The subway was even dirtier than it is now. You see the seeds of the decay that would later be exacerbated by the 1970s financial crises, before the city was "reborn" in the 1990s. This is not a nostalgic, romantic, paper-dollish look at working class NYC in 1961. Watching this movie, you feel like you've been transported back to a specific time and place in NYC, and it makes you see the city again for the first time.

2. Community: Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the folk music scene that sprouted in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, then culminated in the 1960s with the explosion of Bob Dylan (this film is set roughly a week before Dylan first performed at the Greenwich Village club the Gaslight). Like the 1920s American ex-patriot writers in Paris, or Andy Warhol's Factory later in the 1960s, the downtown folk music scene of the late '50s, early '60s has now become legendary, almost mythical, with singer-songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary all getting their starts there. This film shows how hard making a career in folk music was and how, for many, fame and fortune eluded them. This film not only takes you back to NYC at a special time and place but also into a world who legacy continues to this day.

3. Characters: Llewyn Davis is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was a popular Greenwich Village folk singer during this time. Van Ronk was an early influence and friend to Bob Dylan and, although he never achieved that level of fame, he left an amazing legacy and created some great music that is played throughout the movie (including the song "Hang me oh hang me" posted below). Van Ronk's real life was a little different from Llewyn Davis (he wasn't a couch surfer, he was married, and he didn't knock up his friends' wives, for example) but, when he died in 2002, he seemed fated for obscurity. However, the 2005 book about him, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and now this film, have given Van Ronk, a great New York character, his due.

4. "No fakery": as I indicated before, Inside Llewyn Davis is not a nostalgic look at 1961 NYC or the folk music scene. It is, like many Coen Brothers flicks, totally unsentimental, almost brutal in its outlook. This is not a film that shouts "It was so much better then!" Instead, it aims to show you what the city and this community were like, warts and all. You get a feeling that you are watching real people living their day-to-day lives, and they are confronting problems that are recognizable to people today. While the movie is set in the past, it's the present for them. Most importantly, even though it's a period piece, there aren't lots of references to the fact that it's 1961 (except for one very funny scene where Llewyn Davis and two other singers croon a pop balled called "Please Mr Kennedy Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space"). Instead, the film takes for granted that you know what we going on back then -- this a story about people, not a history lesson.

So that's my criteria for making a great NYC movie these day: a story rooted in a specific time,  place, and community in the city without either being self-conscience or displaying any cheap nostalgia. Inside Llewyn Davis does this beautifully, it's a great movie, and deserves to ranked with the great NYC movies of all time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The War on Breasts

It's not easy being a stripper. Not that I've ever been one but I can imagine: literally taking off your clothes in front of a bunch of horny drunk guys, getting hollered at and groped, all for a few bucks here and there. Not an ideal way to earn a living.

Then there are the strip clubs themselves. They iz naaaasssty. (Not that I've been to any but, uh, I've been told.) And they are owned and operated by people who you probably wouldn't want to invite home for dinner. Not ideal workplaces. Not ideal employers.

Then again, life is not ideal. Few people earn a living exactly as they wish. Most people work for people they'd otherwise have nothing to do with. But, in the New Economy, any job is a gift.

Here in NYC, however, strip clubs and the jobs they provide are vanishing. And it's on purpose. Community leaders and politicians are pressuring the NY State Liquor Control Board to deny strip clubs liquor licenses. In the last few years, the number of clubs all over NYC has declined, in some places dramatically. As soon clubs lose their licenses, their business plummets. They try to substitute with things like "mocktails" and other novelties but the reality is no booze, no bidness. Men may wanna leer at breasts, but if they can't enjoy a drink or two while they do it, they have little interest. After all, they can stay home and be pervy on the Internet in private -- for free.

I'm of mixed minds on this. As the father of a daughter, the idea of her working as a stripper is awful. (My mission in life is to prevent this fate. I'm even thinking of starting a support group for fellow fathers of daughters called Keep Her Off the Pole.) And as a homeowner, I wouldn't want a strip club near where I live. But ... I really don't like the idea of legal businesses -- and I repeat legal business -- being harassed out of existence, with the government using a loophole to close them down. So long as they are not near schools and don't disturb the community, why can't they exist? Shutting them down because they offend some peoples' private morality is wrong. After all, if it was up to me, stores wouldn't sell cigarettes and there would be no such thing as a gun shop. But no one's threatening to close them down.

Stop the insanity!

This is just another example of the cultural bleaching of NYC. How the Tyranny of the Boring has taken over what used to be the most exciting city on earth. Okay, we got rid of the hookers in Times Square. Great. We did that for tourists and it helps NYC economy. But attacking strip clubs in Queens and the Bronx? All that does is put bartenders and waitresses and strippers out of jobs. It doesn't protect anyone!

Yet another example of the Bloomberg legacy: working class folks lose jobs while the rich build bigger and bigger highrises.

Eliminating strip clubs in NYC is one of those things that takes us one small step closer to becoming Cleveland. (And no, Cleveland doesn't rock. Otherwise it wouldn't be called Cleveland.)

So join me fellow New Yorkers. It must be stopped. This war must not continue. This war must end. We must stop this War on Breasts!

All we are saying ... is give teats a chance!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Review: "Waiting for Godot"

Having a small child running around makes it tough to blog and even tougher to get to the theater. Fortunately, the baby-sitting Gods smiled down on the wife and I last week and we finally got to see Samuel Becket's classic "Waiting for Godot" on Broadway.

It stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, those two Knight Commanders of the British Empire better known as the mutant overlords Charles Xavier and Magneto from the "X-Men" movies. In "Godot", they play Vladimir and Estragon, two "tramps" in worn-out clothes who reek of old shoes and garlic, as they wait eternally by a tree for Mr. Godot. While they wait, they are distracted by a riotous man named Pozzo (played awesomely by Shuler Helmsley) who is lugging along his slave Lucky (the great actor Billy Crudup, paying his dues for dumping his pregnant ex-girlfriend) who he plans to sell off at a fair. Contre temps ensue. Vladimir and Estragon try to stop Pozzo from his mistreatment of Lucky, to no avail. At one point, Lucky gives a long, fast, totally incomprehensible speech about nothing at all. Finally, they leave. Vladimir and Estragon go on to sing, dance, and, on occasion, speculate about hanging themselves from the tree. At a couple of points, as night falls, a young boy shows up to say that Mr. Godot will not be coming today but will tomorrow. Vladimir and Estragon need only continue to wait. Then Estragon drops his pants.

Let's get the easy stuff out of the way: this production is excellent. Natch. Watching Stewart and McKellen is to see two master actors at the top of their game. They throw themselves completely into these ridiculous characters, their feeling and depth of character is intense, and they bounce around the stage like two kids in a playpen, so pure is their love of the play and each other. You wouldn't think you were watching two veteran actors in their seventies who do this eight times a week. The real revelation, for me, was Shuler Helmsley, playing the revolting Pozzo. He absolutely commands the stage, stealing almost every moment from Stewart and McKellen -- and that's no easy task! As for Crudup, his performance is one of the most thankless, physically difficult ones that I've ever seen and, no shock at all, he pulls it perfectly. This production of "Waiting for Godot" is Broadway theater at its very best.

Now the not-so-easy stuff. Becket's "Waiting for Godot" is a very silly play about life's most serious subject. In Becket's view, life is just one long wait for death. In order not to get bored by the wait, to get distracted, human beings mistreat each other and fill out their lives with nonsense. Existence results in debasement. And we convince ourselves that we're not waiting for death but, instead, waiting for ... well, you can't spell "Godot" without G-O-D. We're always promised that God will come, that He will "save" us but ... not quite yet. As for the world itself, like the tree, ultimately it exists as nothing but an instrument for suicide. Life is death. The world is our murderer.  

Obviously, Becket's view of life in the world is a little bleak. Some might even say nihilistic. It's less a play and more a meditation. Even though it didn't premier until 1953, Becket wrote "Waiting for Godot" in 1949, a few short years after WWII, when humanity nearly destroyed itself, so his cynical view is understandable if a little outdated. But it's still relevant, and the religious, philosophical, existentialist, and humanitarian themes of the play have been and will be debated for decades. It invites controversy. It asks tough questions and provides no easy answers. That makes it great art.

And if you want to have a great time on Broadway, seeing this production is one of the best of life's distractions of all.