Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Studio 54@40


The legendary disco club Studio 54 opened in NYC forty years ago. Here is its story.

The Facelifts of NYC

The definition of plastic surgery is, "the process of reconstructing or repairing parts of the body ... either in the treatment of injury or for cosmetic reasons."

As this definition indicates, sometimes plastic surgery is necessary -- when people get disfigured, it helps them restore their appearance and improve their lives. But most of the time, plastic surgery is just tinkering, an attempt by people to "improve" their appearance even if they look fine to begin with. And, of course, the fact that it's plastic surgery means that they look less than natural, their appearance is no longer organic. The reality is that people who get plastic surgery usually look worse than they did originally. Most people who get plastic surgery do so because they want to look younger than they are -- but, in reality, they don't look younger, just weirder.

NYC has never been this boring -- or this weird. 

Boring, because the city is getting gutted and homogenized, the businesses and buildings that made them unique are being destroyed and replaced by mega chains and uninteresting glass constructions. Weird, because there's something unnatural about this transformation, about how the city no longer feels like a special place but some kind of McCity. We talk a lot about "gentrification" but really, in my mind, it's the equivalent of urban plastic surgery -- tinkering with the face of NYC in an attempt to improve it but that really just ruins it.

And there's a reason for this beyond the usual complaint about gentrification -- tourism. As this exhaustive article from VICE indicates, the bending over backwards to tourists in NYC is one of the reasons why this city feels less and less like it belongs to the people who actually live here.

Of course, the face of NYC has always been changing -- just in a more organic way.

Once upon a time, on Riverside Drive, there used to be amazing mansions lining this most beautiful of boulevards. However, as these mansions became more and more expensive for their residents to maintain, and as the demands for housing exploded, these mansions were torn down and made way for apartment buildings (the building I grew up in used to be the site of an old mansion). This article is about one of those mansions that, before it was destroyed, was touted to become the official residence for the Mayor of New York City (the plan fell through when Mayor LaGuardia quashed it and, instead, Gracie Mansion was chosen). So the face of NYC has always changed -- but it used to be for the benefit of the people, not the visitors.

That said, some wrinkles of the past still appear on the face of NYC today. Take, for instance, the Ear Inn, the watering hole in Lower Manhattan. It's over 200 years old and still in business. I recently went there with a friend and it's still a vibrant, busy place. We quite enjoyed ourselves and felt, for once, at home in our hometown.

As long as we preserve some aspects of the past, NYC won't be entirely plastic -- and its soul will never die.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Fate of Diners in NYC

I love diners. Always have. I've dined at Per Se, Jean Georges, Nobu, and 11 Madison Park -- some of the fanciest restaurants in NYC -- but a good diner will always be my favorite place to eat in this town. If heaven had a restaurant, it would be a diner: phone book menus, big portions, refills, padded booths, you name it, I love everything about the taste and feel and vibe of diners. 

How can you not love a place that serves breakfast all day?

But like so many old-school institutions in NYC, places that provide comfort instead of glamour, diners are vanishing. They are being displaced, as is common now, by flashier "cafes" -- if they are being replaced at all (many are simply being closed down and replaced by retail stores). A great diner is like what NYC used to be -- affordable and inclusive -- and, as diners are pushed out by high rents and gentrification, they are replaced by what it's become -- expensive and exclusive. There are still some diners in NYC here and there but, more and more, they are becoming curiosities of the past, not stable parts of our present. As the current President might Tweet, "Sad!"
The withering of diners in NYC has not gone unnoticed. Grubstreet recently published an article and WNYC recently had a segment about the vanishing diners of NYC.  

And this is not a recent development. Back in 2007, in 2007, during the first months of this blog, I noted that the old Moondance Diner on lower 6th Avenue had been sold and literally moved out to a small town in Wyoming (this is the same diner where Jonathan Larson, creator of the musical Rent, used to work). I worked right near the Moondance in 2007 and I remember seeing this once thriving diner close, get uprooted out of the ground, and disappear. (Now some fancy building with an expensive restaurant exists there.) Anyway, I did a little research on what happened to the Moondance in its Western incarnation and it appears that it closed in 2012 and went up for sale. I can't find any more info about whether or not it was ever bought for the $300K asking price so, if you have any further info on the fate of this NYC institution, let me know! 

As for some of my favorite diner in NYC: the Neptune in Astoria. It's right on the corner of Astoria Boulevard, right after the Grand Central, next to the N/W train station. Everything about it's great: the location, the layout, you can always get a table, the service is great, the portions are big, and it's open 24 hours. It's still there and, for the ultimate NYC diner experience, the best place to go. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Forty years ago tonight NYC was plunged into darkness and the city was never quite the same again. Here are some memories that historic night.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Ford to City: Drop Dead" Redux

If I didn't have two little kids to raise, I would probably be spending every night this month at Film Forum. Until July 27, you can see some of the greatest movies made in NYC during the 1970s in a series called Ford to City: Drop Dead (inspired by the infamous 1975 Daily News headline).  

NYC in the 1970s has become an almost mythical place: a cauldron of crime and sleaze and deterioration but also a wellspring of excitement and creative activity, especially when it came to movies. The movies made in that decade and in this town are extraordinary: Panic in Needle Park, Serpico, The French Connection, Klute, Saturday Night Fever, Dog Day Afternoon, Where's Poppa?, Shaft, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Warriors, Super Fly -- and that's just some of them! 

Almost all these movies are playing in this retrospective and it's truly a New York and movie junky's dream. Go see it and be immersed. 

Here's an article about the real life August, 1972 bank robbery that inspired the 1975 movie Dog Day Afternoon and the infamous line "Attica! Attica! Attica!"  

Friday, July 7, 2017

"Leaving New York" - Now only $0.99!

You can now download your copy of Leaving New York for only $0.99! Get it today!

Only on Amazon!

 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The WNYC Municipal Archives

If you want to know what NYC looked like in earlier eras, there are countless photos you can find online and elsewhere of the city in the 19th and 20th century. You can see pictures of workers building the subways and the city's famous buildings, you can see the old-fashioned streets and lamp posts and street cars, you can see the old storefront signs and billboards, you can see famous New Yorkers of the past like Fiorello LaGuardia or Robert Moses, you can even watch old TV shows set in NYC like the original Tonight Show. When it comes to NYC's past, its visual legacy is secure. 

But what about the sounds? Old pictures can show was what the city looked like but what did it sound like?  

Well, WNYC has the answer. You can check out its amazing vault of radio broadcasts from the 1920s to today. You can hear famous New Yorkers giving speeches, getting interviewed, debating, and so much more. Listen to William F. Buckley debate Ramsay Clark. Listen to Ed Koch host a forum on drugs in 1969, long before he was mayor. Listen to a broadcast from January 1, 1950, where people wonder what the next 50 years of the 20th century will be like. Listen to a pastor bemoan the tawdry state of Times Square.

It's all here at the WNYC Municipal Archives website. Listen to the past, then contemplate our future.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

For City & Country

What's the difference between a city and a country? The answer to this question is obvious -- and not. Both are places of some geographic size with boundaries (either natural or not) where people live. The main difference is that a city is an urban, somewhat-to-very densely populated area that usually is no more than several miles from end to end while countries are (or can be)  vastly larger spaces with various and multiple geographies and populations living in it.

A lot of this affects how they're governed. Cities are usually run by mayors, people who run their governments to deliver basic services to their populations, a day-to-day manager who keeps a going-concern going (some cities don't even have mayors, they have "city managers"). Countries, on the other hand, are led by people for whom the day-to-day delivery of services of part of the job but mostly a county's leader is to shape its future and establish its place in the world. In short, mayors play small ball but a country's leaders necessarily play large ball. Small picture vs. big picture, mirco vs. macro, etc. you get the idea.

So what happens when a man with a small ball, small picture, micro mentality assumes the leadership of the greatest nation in the world?

That brings us, inevitably and depressingly, to Donald Trump, currently inhabiting the White House as the 45th President of the United States. As this article notes, Trump is not treating the White House and the Presidency with the reverence and sense of overarching mission that most presidents do -- he's treating it like a jumped up City Hall.

In order to assert their authority and get stuff done, mayors spend a lot of time, as we in NYC politely put it,  "breaking balls" -- of the press, of political opponents, of the bureaucracy, of anyone holding up, or making the business of, the city more difficult. Presidents, on the other hand, leave the ball breaking to others and spend their time leading the government and the people into a vision of progress.

If you look at a mayor like Ed Koch, he was effective because he constantly broke balls. But could you have imagined him the White House? Would you want to? Similarly, presidents like Reagan or Obama successfully inspired and led their nations -- but could you imagine them dealing with the day-to-day nastiness of leading NYC? Me neither. Don't think so.

Trump is a very bad president because he thinks that he can somehow lead the government and his country by breaking balls, like he's the mayor of a city of 300+ million people -- and this just doesn't work. Never has. Think of the presidents who inspired America, like FDR and Reagan, and how effectively they motivated and led the nation. Then think of someone like Rudy Giuliani, who broke balls constantly as mayor and was effective at it but failed to translate that into the presidency. The job of mayor and president are very, very different, and Trump just doesn't seem to understand that.

There's a reason why we want our presidents to be "presidential", why we hold them to a higher standard in terms of comportment, why their vision and leadership is so important -- it's about our future as a nation and our role in the world. Mayors aren't expected to do that or be like this; if anything, we like that they're people on the ground who get us through the day -- and hey, if they gotta crack a few skulls, so be it.

But there's another very interesting thing in this article comparing the Trump presidency to a mayoralty. Unlike previous presidents, mayors in the past have had no problem being, like Trump, openly racist, hate-mongering vulgarians who sparked division and fostered an atmosphere of ethnic tension. Ethnic politics, after all, has been the staple of city politics since the beginning of time but presidents have, mostly, avoided ethnic politics. But Trump doubles down on white racist ethnic politics.

Why?

Because, in the past, Trump-like mayors usually exposed the death-rattle of white ethnic dominance. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, cities like LA, Chicago, Philadelphia and, of course, NYC, had openly racist, hate-mongering vulgar mayors like Sam Yorty, Frank Rizzo and our own Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. In their day, they represented and governed in the interest of white voters who were petrified that their cities were "changing" i.e. becoming less white, more tolerant, more progressive, etc. etc. etc. These racist mayors aimed to protect the white population and spent all their time talking about "fighting crime" (i.e. arresting blacks), "ending dependency" (i.e. welfare for blacks), "restoring order" (i.e. more arresting blacks), trashing the media (i.e. Jews), protecting our neighborhoods (i.e. keeping non-white people out) -- you get the idea.

This kind of politics worked for a while but, in the end, it failed. As the saying goes, demographics is destiny. These mayors went away and  were replaced either by black mayors or by a new generation of white mayors governing in very different cities in very different times and in very different (i.e. less racist) ways. The cities changed and the politics followed. Today, in big cities, white ethnics are still around, they still make noise, they vote, but they simply don't have power they once did because they are outnumbered by non-white (I'm a white guy in NYC so I know). Most big cities are majority-minority now. Bloomberg and De Blasio, as different as they may be, simply could not be the same kind of hate-mongers like Koch and Giuliani were and expect to stay in office. The USA is expected to be a majority-minority in the next few decades so, one day, a president like Trump will be impossible. He'll simply be a curiosity of history, a to another time and place, a man of the past who fought but ultimately lost the battle to keep the future away.

P.S. Here's another great article about that time and place where Trump came from, namely the NYC of the 1970s and 80s.