Friday, December 29, 2017

Artists, Gangsters, Strippers, Subways & Seawalls: NYC Past and Future

As 2017 recedes into history, we are thrust into a period of time I like to call Weird Week -- those strange days between Christmas and New Year's that are a kind of temporal No Man's Land (sorry, in the #MeToo era we should call it a No Person's Land). Now that the crush of the holidays are over, there's a general sense of looseness among people, a sense of fun aimlessness, lots of folks taking time off work or traveling, indulging in all the things they didn't have the time or energy for during the year. It's a short window to "chillax" until the demands of the New Year arrive.

It's also, of course, a time to ponder the year gone by and the one ahead. Here in NYC, a city that's always changing and making history, that's an especially fun thing to do.

So here's a post that's totally Weird, Loose and Aimless, a fin de l'annee medley of links to stories about the people and places that shaped our city (for better or worse, depending on your opinion) and a couple about our city's future.

First, read this absolutely fascinating story about the life of Lorenzo de Ponte. If this guy's story was a movie, you wouldn't believe it. He was like an Italian Forrest Gump but with a higher IQ and far less morals.  He knew Casanova, Mozart, and Clement Clark Moore, and he worked and scammed his way into European and NYC history.

Then jump ahead to the 1960s. Here's a brilliant sequence of photos featuring the singers and artists of Greenwich Village, including a young Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. If you've ever seen the great movie Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a wonderful companion piece showing you the spirit of Kennedy-era NYC, a time of excitement and creativity -- before Vietnam, crime, Watergate, and stagflation washed it away.

And, talking about time, we move into the 1970s. If you know about the mafia in NYC, then you know all about the Italian, Irish, and Jewish gangs that roamed and ruled the city for most of the 20th century. There was also, at the same time, a powerful black mafia located in Harlem that for decades ran numbers games, etc. while also taking care of the most vulnerable people in the city. But the war on drugs made it come crashing all down. If you've ever seen the movie American Gangster, then you know the story of how Harlem drug kingpins Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes rose to unprecedented power in the NYC crime world before being brought low. And this article tells the true story behind the one you see in the movie.

The Eighties: if the 1960s were exciting and the 1970s were scary, then the 1980s were sleazy -- really sleazy. Back then Times Square and Midtown Manhattan were populated by strip clubs and porno theaters. You couldn't walk around these areas without seeing them, they were ubiquitous. There was no adult entertainment space more famous or popular in 1980s NYC than Show World, the great sex palace where adult actors came to perform and New Yorkers and tourists went to ... enjoy themselves. Show World had stage shows, peep shows, and sold all sorts of movies and ... equipment. Show World's days as a pleasure palace are long over and, thanks the Internet and blue laws, has been reduced to a small store that, in addition to naughty items, mostly sells tourist chotchkies. These links here, here, and here (NSFW) tell the story of its glory days -- and end of days.

And now we turn to the future. 

On January 1st, 2017, the long-awaited multi-billion dollar Second Avenue Subway opened -- three brand new stations along the Upper East Side. As this article indicates, it's been downhill for the subways and MTA since then. This past "Summer of Hell" consisting of train delays and detours lead to furious squabbling between Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio and MTA Chairman Joe Lhota about who really runs and finances the MTA. Cuomo and Lhota lied, saying that the mayor runs the MTA which led De Blasio to accurately retort that it's simply not true (the state leases the MTA from the city, finances its, the governor appoints the chairman, the chairman runs the organization, and no one really disagrees with that except the people who run and botched the subways this summer). If Cuomo runs for president in 2020, his mishandling of the MTA might come back to haunt him or, pun intended, "derail" his ambitions -- and might therefore affect the future of this nation.

Finally, the fun stuff! NYC is being affected by climate change and a swelling population. This article explores the most amazing ideas by city planners of what NYC might look like in the future. Imagine: the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn/Queens being drained and replaced by a park; sidewalks in the sky; elevated bike paths; whole parks on rooftops of buildings; massive seawalls protecting the harbor. These visions for NYC are, at best, fantastical but, if even one of them comes to fruition, the face and life of the city will be very different ... and the past will seem more distant than ever. 

Fire in the Bronx

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Frank Zappa on SNL in 1976

In 2017, a musical appearance like this one would be outrageous and offensive. In 1976, it was cutting-edge. Zappa was banned from SNL in 1978 for an even more off-the-wall appearance. But this moment is classic.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Dynasty NYC Style

Another young man who'll be a big player in 2018 NYC will be AG Sulzberger.

Scion on the mighty Sulzberger dynasty that owns and run the New York Times, he'll be the latest member of his family to run the "Newspaper of Record" as Publisher.

It is easily the most powerful job in NYC media and the country at large. And now a millennial (he was born in 1980) will wield all power. A new day indeed.

Meet the New City Council Speaker

His name's Corey Johnson and, if this article is any way accurate, he seems to be a young man in a hurry.

Interesting side note: he'll be the first male City Council Speaker in over a decade. Come 2018, we'll be hearing a lot about him. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Power City

The USA in 2017 is a scary place for reasons that are all too obvious. Currently the Federal Government is controlled by unhinged, racist, plutocratic lunatics.

What's ironic is that, at the same time, NYC has never had more power at the Federal level. More New Yorkers than ever are serving at some of the highest levels of the US Government. 

Here's where it gets wacky: the top guy (Trump), unquestionably the ringmaster of this insanity, is from NYC. But the main people standing up to him (Senator Schumer, several members of Congress, and three Supreme Court Justices) are too.

In many ways, the battle for the soul of America is an internal-NYC battle made national. Let's just hope that the good men and woman from NYC can eventually defeat the one bad one from NYC soon.  

More Good News!

The Trump Soho is no more.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Good News!

Business at the the Trump Golf Course in the Bronx is down 11%.

Thank you golfers for your decency. Let's get that number down (or up?) some more! 

NYC & Venice: Sisters Forever

Some of you may be familiar with the so-called Sister Cities concept, the idea that certain cities share enough qualities to make them sibling-like entities. This movement began, like so many global initiatives, after World War II, and is run by a group called Sister Cities International. It might not come as a surprise to you that NYC's main sister cities are, among others, London, Beijing, Cairo and Madrid, big international cities all, that set the world's socioeconomic and political agendas.

Makes sense. But I have a different take: if NYC has a real bosom-like sister city, then it can only be one place -- Venice.

Dig this. 

Right now I'm reading (and also watching the Netflix show) about Marco Polo, the famous 13th century adventurer. In 1271, at the age of 17, he traveled from his hometown of Venice deep into the wild world of the Mongol Empire. This was the largest land empire in history to that point, swallowing up all of Mongolia and China and much of what became the Russian Empire (and later the Soviet Union, etc.). Marco spent two decades in service to the empire's great ruler, Kublai Khan. Marco's duties took him all over China, Mongolia, and Asia, including modern day Indonesia and Japan. He was one of the world's first global citizens and his book Travels set imaginations ablaze of distant worlds to be discovered (this book became Christopher Columbus' inspiration and personal bible). Without Marco Polo, history would have unfolded very differently.

And why did Marco hike across Asia, the so-called Silk Road, and into history? What motivated him? 

Money. Business. Trade. Marco came from a family of merchants in a city of merchants (The Merchant of Venice anyone?). 

Unlike other great cities, Venice was not founded primarily as a political or military capital: it was founded for commerce. It's primary raison d'etre was economic, financial, and commercial, not domination and power. It was literally built on water to facilitate the export and import of goods. Traders from around the world could easily land in and depart from this archipelago of trade. And from Venice, Marco Polo found a new world.

Sound familiar? Remind you of someplace else?

Unlike other big international cities, NYC is not a political capital (only temporarily more than two hundred years ago). NYC is and always has been a city of business. A city of commerce, not power. A city more interested in productivity, not ruling. 

And what made NYC the New World's business capital? Same thing as Venice -- water. 

Without the vast harbor, New York would never have become a business leader and America's economic engine. Even today, in this age of airplanes and the Internet, the harbor is one of the city's greatest economic asset. Cargo and cruise ships, and all sorts of commercial vessels, come and ago every day, a whole other city floating off the waterfront. 
And NYC is also not only a place for business but a point of entry and a point of departure: for centuries, into the current day, people come to America through NYC and then out into the rest of the country, the Wild West, to discover their futures and fortunes. Manifest Destiny, and so on.

And so I think it's fair to conclude that NYC and Venice have more in common, are more sibling-like, than any other two cities in the world. They are cities of islands, business built on water, beloved by their inhabitants, visited by millions every year, that people come to and sometimes leave to discover the wider world, motivated by the adventurous spirit of these cities. 

They are also, not surprisingly, cities of culture (think of the Met and the Tintorettos), cities of great architecture (think of the Empire State Building and the Doge Palace), cities of lust (think of old school Times Square and Venetian Seduction masks), and cities of diversity (think Chinatown and the Jewish Ghetto). They are cities built upon imagination, yearning, ambition, personal accomplishment -- and, ultimately, hope for a better world.  

So without NYC and Venice, without the drive and determination of their people and the people they've inspired, without creating a culture where human initiative is its primary purpose, the world would be a different, lesser place. These two great cities fit each other perfectly. 

Sisters Forever. 

And I'm sure Venetian Marco Polo would have loved NYC. 

P.S. Here's all my Venice related blog posts from years past. As you can see, it's a city that's always captured this New Yorker's imagination and interest.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Punishing Success

The GOP Congress and their five-digitted accomplice in the White House are about to pass a horrible "tax reform" i.e. POS that will radically re-work the US Tax Code. 

It's a full-scale horror of upwards wealth redistribution.

NYC will be hit hard -- really hard -- by this awful plan. NYC is already a "donor city", meaning we send vastly more money to the Federal Government in tax revenue than we get back. Most of our hard-earned dough goes to the rest of the country. This bill will take away even more Federal dollars from NYC.

Why? Because NYC doesn't vote for the GOP. So they're robbing us to give away our money to their supporters in so-called Red States. This is thievery. Nothing less. NYC is being punished for its success -- and values. 

If you want to get a full idea of what's about to his NYC, read this. And weep. Then vote!

Monday, December 18, 2017

"Moonstruck" @ 30

Thirty years ago today two of the best movies of the 1980s, and two of the greatest romantic comedies in recent cinematic history, were released: Moonstruck and Broadcast News.

The latter is one of my favorite movies ever: a prescient expose of how news was becoming entertainment, how standards of professionalism were slipping, how looks were becoming values over substance. It's a movie as relevant today as it was back in 1987.

The former, however, is an NYC romantic comedy classic: the story of a middle-aged Italian woman in Brooklyn finding love with a baker who loves opera is a beautiful and heartwarming. Cher gave a legendary, Oscar-winning performance and it stands the test of time.

Yes, times are tough (more like scary) right now but love makes us endure. As she would say, don't be sad, juts "Snap out of it!"

Loving NYC in 2017

Here are lot, and lots, and lots of reasons why -- by month and date.

See, this year wasn't all bad! NYC will always having something for someone to love about it. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ghosts of NYC Past

As we hurl towards Christmas Day with colored lights and wreaths displayed everywhere, perfumed trees for sale on every other block, Sidewalk Santas ringings bells for charity, we reminisce on the year coming to a close (what a bizarre year it's been!) and think about the year to come, that big blank slate ahead. 

I don't know about you but, whenever a New Year begins, I think "I made it. Another year! Another year added to my headstone!" Such lovely thoughts I have.   

But ghosts haunt us. Memories of people and places gone by. They're gone, in some cases long gone, but they imbue our thoughts and souls, never fully leaving. We remember, not always because we want to, but because we can never forget.

This is all a big fancy way of saying that you should really check out these two big articles that summon up the Ghosts of NYC Past.

One is about the relationship between the great pop artist Andy Warhol (who died 30 years ago this year) and his "Factory Girl" muse Edie Sedgwick. Was it love? Sort of. It was complicated. And sad. Very sad. One thing is sure: in these politically correct times, we shan't see their likes again.

The other is a 30-year retrospective on the great Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Set in a nightmarish NYC, it's a tale and a document about another city in another time. Some things are still relevant (racial tensions) but the idea of this city being a boiling cauldron of rage seems totally dated. I shared my thoughts about this book ten (10!) years ago and it seems more distant than other.

NYC will always have these ghosts and, in my opinion, they are a crucial part of our identity and our future.  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Memo from NYC

To: The People of Alabama

Re: Special US Senate Election

From: The People of NYC

Thank you! Thank you! A million times thank you! You've restored a shred of faith in decency in America! 8.5 million people (or least most of them) can't thank you enough! 

We are all Alabamans today!

Roll Tide!

NYC's Other Finest

The NYPD is (a few notable exceptions aside) an outstanding organization. They keep 8.5 million people safe every day, not to mention an uncountable number of other millions visiting from around the region, the country, and the world. And when incidents like the explosion in the Times Square subway happen, they're on the scene. 

But they have brothers and sisters in arms: the Port Authority. On Monday, when that dope detonated that bomb, four Port Authority cops rushed into the passageway where it happened, captured the suspect who literally had wires coming out of his clothes, and secured the area. They did lightening quick and, as a result, a near-catastrophe was averted, the bad guy arrested, and life in NYC went on as (almost) normal. It was an amazing feat of professionalism and courage. 

The Port Authority has had a rough few years, mainly thanks to the shenanigans of the can't soon-enough-to-be former Governor of New Jersey (Bridgegate anyone?). But that black-eye was due to the corrupt political leadership of the Port Authority that uses the public utility as a patronage mill and cash cow. When it comes to the lifers that actually work for the organization, however, professionalism reigns, and we can all go to sleep at night thankful that it does and safer for knowing it. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Beyond the Green Light

Over the years I've blogged about my love for F. Scott's Fitzgerald's novel 1925 The Great Gatsby.

Yes, it's the Great American Novel, one of best in all of American and world literature.

Yes, it's a beautifully written snapshot of life in Roaring Twenties NYC -- the parties, the bootleggers, the indulgent affluence leading to the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Yes, almost everyone reads it in school and either loves it or hates it (or, more accurately, either "gets it" or doesn't).

Yes, it's been made into movies, including the 1974 version with Robert Redford and the 2013 with Leonardo Di Caprio, two of the biggest stars ever.

Yes, it's the final word on the promise and tragedy of the American dream.

And that's where the novel's "greatness" lies. It shows that the American dream lies betwix and between tragedy and promise, between hope and loss, that both are true at the same time. After all, we're the same nation that declare freedom and human happiness the keys to human dignity in our nation's founding documents -- yet affirmed slavery at the same time.

Jay Gatsby, poor boy from North Dakota, reinvents himself as a Long Island millionaire (thanks to bootlegging) in order to win the heart of his lost love Daisy. But it all goes horribly wrong and he dies. He hope, as Fitzgerald writes, to recreate the past and, even though he fails, the hope endures. It is symbolized by the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby stares at, night after night, his hope of winning her love back never dying. Love endures, hope endures, even when tragedy is everywhere.

Another thing that attests to the greatest of Gatsby is that you don't have to be an American to appreciate or be moved by it. Australian Baz Luhrman, who directed the 2013 Great Gatsby, writes movingly here about his love for the novel. Best of all, he reminds us that, as free people, as hopeful people, we should all "live for the green light."

F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn't have said it better. And these days, like the novel itself, it's more relevant than ever. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Whaddya' Know About Da' Restaurant Business?

Like Paulie Cicero, the mob boss, asked in Goodfellas, "You know anything about this fucking restaurant business?"

Me neither.

Want to open a restaurant in NYC?

This is an eye-opening expose of what it takes.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Woody Allen at the Oscars 2002

Today is Woody Allen's 82nd birthday. The legendary filmmaker has been nominated for and won numerous Oscars but has made it a habit never to present or accept Oscars or any awards. He has said he doesn't believe that awards should be given to art because quality is all basically subjective. 

However, in the months after 9/11, Woody made his one and only Oscars appearance where he encouraged filmmakers to keep working in NYC. He also presented a tribute film. As usual, Woody was brilliantly funny and one only wonders how much better Oscar shows would have been had he gone to them more often.