Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Day the Music (Sorta) Died: The Short, Bizarre Life of Jack FM

On Friday June 3 2005, at around 5 PM, as the afternoon drive was getting under way, listeners to WCBS 101.1 FM turned on their radios and got a nasty shock -- their beloved oldies station, the home of legendary DJs like Cousin Brucie and Don K Reed and shows like the "Doo Wop Shop", suddenly switched formats to a creepy thing called JACK FM.

JACK was strange beast -- a pop music station but without any DJs. Instead, the music was punctuated by snarky comments from an anonymous, pre-recorded voice named JACK. JACK was a very weird, very cruel, and very unpopular commentor. It was impersonal -- in fact, that was the entire point. This station without DJs was trying to be an IPod on the radio -- and the city was outraged.

Mayor Bloomberg used obscene language to register his displeasure with the format change. The Internet blew up with complaints. Cousin Brucie himself even called into WNYC radio to exclaim how music radio was different, special, and an experience that no IPod could replicate. Outraged reigned.

No one liked JACK. JACK was wack. All boring music and no DJs made JACK a dull boy.

The ratings tanked. NYC firmly rejected JACK. The station didn't get JACK in the ratings. And, finally, in 2007, they decided to take JACK off ... the radio. (To paraphrase Fight Club, "I am JACK's total lack of ratings."). Soon enough, WCBS FM returned in all its oldies, high ratings glory.

JACK FM was an attempt to do something "cool" and "cutting edge" and it failed completely. Just a reminder that different isn't always better or more popular. And today, more than a decade, no one in NYC remembers -- or wants to remember -- JACK FM. It's like that embarrassing person you dated years ago that you want to forget and you want everyone else to forget. JACK has gone into NYC radio infamy -- gone and almost forgotten ... but not completely.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Could NYC Become a Ghost Town?

Huge, looming apartment buildings conquer the skyline ... and almost nobody lives in them ...

Retail and store space occupy some of the most famous streets in the world, highly valuable locations ... and much of it is empty ...

That is the reality of NYC today -- it's rapidly becoming a ghost town.

The reason is obvious: the city has become so expensive that many people can't afford to live here and many businesses can't afford to set up shop here. The result is that some of the most desirable real estate in the world is actually empty. You walk by these buildings and storefronts and you're looking at extremely expensive shells that house and cater to no one. 

And it's not just in Manhattan. Go to parts of Brooklyn and Queens and you'll see the same thing: huge swaths of commercial and residential real estate that everyone wants and no one wants to buy (because they can't afford to).

Of course, NYC is not a really ghost town -- more people live here than ever before. But in one of the many paradoxes of this paradoxical times, the vast majority cannot live and cannot shop in many of the locations where they would like to and where geographic logic would dictate that they should. Neighborhoods that are desirable are canniblizing themselves, making them, ironically, less interesting. 

Increasingly, neighborhoods aren't really neighborhoods -- they're strip malls of chain stores and, when a business closes and/or a landlord jacks up the rent, storefronts remain vacant in order to attract another chain store or business that'll pay exorbitant rents. But if they don't ... the spaces remain empty, further degrading the neighborhoods that more and more people can't afford. 

It's a vicious cycle of economics, a death rattle for a once great city. It can't go on like this -- or the kind of NYC that we love will be lost forever.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Interview: Tama Janowitz, Legendary New York Novelist

If you’ve read this blog long enough you know how much I love the work of Tama Janowitz, the author of Slaves of New York and other New York novels. Her writing is funny, quirky, and brutally honest. She explores the loves, lusts, ambitions, and anxieties of people striving to be successful and happy – and how it’s almost impossible to be either in this super-competitive world. 

Tama has been publishing books for over thirty years, a literary survivor. Describing herself as a “depressed person who laughs a lot”, she has lived an amazing life. Tama was kind enough to tell Mr NYC readers about her life’s journey, her work, her writing process, her memories of NYC in the 1980s, what it was like to know Andy Warhol -- and about the future. 
 
Very briefly, who is Tama Janowitz and where did she come from? What made you choose a crazy career like writing -- or did it choose you?

I wanted to be a painter but my mom was single, unemployed (for the most part) and we lived very, very marginally. Paints/materials cost money. You could write with a pencil and paper (although in my case I had a manual typewriter!). I just was very determined and even in high school I wrote and wrote and wrote. Plus, me and my mom were huge readers, we read avidly, all the time, we discussed everything we passed back and forth. We got books at the drugstore with the covers ripped off, they cost a quarter; we went to the library every week. Reading to me was being allowed to visit another planet; to enter into someone else's head. If you are reading something you are absorbed by, you are THERE, and then you put down the book and you are NOT there, you are back in the world, but as soon as you pick up that book again you are right back teleported onto that other planet, other time, other people. The actual writing was far harder than I imagined. My mother was very encouraging. She never said, 'You are great!' she just said, 'Good work, keep going, I am enjoying this.' She was never shocked by anything I wrote, just supportive and encouraging. Painting for me was fun; writing was work, but I expect that had I continued to paint as a 'career' or 'life path' it would have eventually turned into 'work'. My mother told me, 'You don't wait to be 'inspired,' you just put words down on paper and when you have enough pages, you can start revising, which is where the work really begins.

You became famous for Slaves of New York in 1986 -- a book about struggling artists and hangers-on in early 1980s Manhattan. Did you still feel like a struggling artist when you wrote it, and even after you became successful? Does a professional writer always need to feel like he or she is struggling in order to stay good?

Oh I don't know. I never made much money from the whole thing, I always say had I started at McDonald's I would now have made more, plus I might be a manager or own my own franchise AND have health insurance. I know rich people who are writers, or look at Edith Wharton! She not only never struggled financially, she never -- apparently -- struggled with getting words on paper, and she is a great writer! Or, William Styron, he struggled with depression but he was married to a wealthy heiress, at least he didn't have to worry about money! Ultimately all human beings are pretty much struggling with something, from what I can see. However, I really, really want to win a BIG lottery so I can fully understand what it is like to not worry or struggle financially. Indeed, winning might prove to 'blight' me. It might be dreadfully burdensome. However, I am WILLING to accept the prize money, if for no further reason than to STRUGGLE with the outcome.

One of the things I like about your books is that the characters are complex and messy. They have very real but also contradicting motivations, just like people in real life. For instance, Eleanor in "Slaves", Florence Collins in A Certain Age, and Peyton Amberg are women who want to be successful in their own right but also feel dependent on men. Is that a good way to describe your characters or, as a man, am I missing something?

Again, I don't know. I think in A Certain Age Florence wanted the societal conveniences and acceptance that come -- at least in my experience, in NYC -- from being married to/associated with -- a wealthy man. (And, these days, same sex is also a status thing). I don't think she felt dependent on a man -- not for love, really -- but for status. She felt like she had waited too long, at 32, the game of musical chairs was ending and she didn't have a seat. Peyton Amberg was different than Florence, it was in a sense a study of a nymphomaniac, she had a void she kept trying to fill: adventure, excitement, basically she was looking for love but since she did not understand what love was, the hunger was all consuming. I can't explain further, I don't think. Both books are in a way about desperation, despair, wanting and an inability to find an inner peace.

When you write, are you more interested in advancing a plot or exploring the lives of your characters?

I don't think plots are my forte. I always think of E.M. Forster's advice 'the king died and then the queen died' is different than, 'the king died and then the queen died OF GRIEF' the latter is a plot. I'm paraphrasing Forster now of course. How does real life work? Dickens was heavy with the plot. And the coincidences too. Most of 'real life' is not a plot. You are born, you go to school, your parent’s divorce, you go to college, you get a job, you get married, you have kids, your parents die, whatever -- it's a string of events. How do you turn a string of events into a plot that, in so many ways, is NOT real life? Even W.G. Sebold, who one reads for the purity of the writing, manages to put a plot into the work of some sort, however un-plot like. The novel: there are suspense novels, mystery novels, horror novels, family sagas, historical novels etc. the person living her or his life may or -- more probably -- doesn't see their life as having a plot. There's very little way to understand much more than waking up in the morning, eating breakfast. Let's say you have a bad night's sleep and in the morning you are irritable with your child and so that child goes to school that day and gets in a fight with another kid and gets suspended and during that time hangs out in the park and burns down a nearby house, killing an elderly woman and her grandchild and blah blah blah. To see the 'plot' on the part of the person who was irritable that morning with their child, would take an outside observer. Because otherwise, we'd all go crazy, just because we got irritable with someone the entire planet is destroyed? Or, you're very kind to someone and give them five dollars and that gives them just enough to buy some bullets? What I'm trying to say is, just because you as a person are irritable at breakfast, you're not taking part in a plot.

How do you go about creating characters in your fiction? Who are some of your personal favorite characters that you've created?

I can't even remember my books. I struggle writing, sometimes it is more of a struggle. When I am done I have a good feeling for about five minutes. If my book gets accepted, published, I feel good for about five minutes. I can't feel so good for more than five minutes. And there are some fun moments in writing but they are rare and then I do feel good for five minutes. Sometimes I write a line or so that I can still feel good about. Or the moment when a character starts doing stuff I didn't know they would do, that is a good feeling.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've published 12 books, including a memoir. Has it gotten easier or harder to keep writing over the years?

Yes, I wrote about that many and I did write more that never got published. And it got harder over the years with nasty reviews 99.9 per cent of the time and I mean that seriously, and no money, and fewer brain cells. And I used to wake up determined DETERMINED I would write 1,500 words a day like a job, just DO IT good bad indifferent until the book took off on its own recognizance or there was enough of a finished book to get an actual idea and start re-writing (like my mom would say, 'gee, this book really starts to take off on page seventy, throw out the first seventy pages and start from there'). I'm not complaining, I had a lot of fun. But if you do something and you don't make money and you don't get good reviews and it's not that much fun to do it most of the time, you get tired out.

In the 1980s, you were part of the glamorous party, art, and literary scene in NYC. What was special about the city and that time to you?

I had so much fun then and met people and traveled all over the world and ate in all the restaurants and went to openings, nightclubs, theater, ballet, opera, openings. And back then you could pretty much create your own outfit, even if you didn't have the same cache as rich people buying Hermes and Valentino etc. one time a magazine made me over to look like a rich person and, wow, did I command respect and was ushered into the V.I.P [. board members club at the opera. free champagne, for sure! Other times I went to Three Roses on Canal Street back when NYC was ROUGH. In retrospect, had I been more confident, had I had any self-esteem, had I been less scared, had I had any financial cushion/security to fall back on (other than scrambling to apply for grants/awards, writing a story that possibly The New Yorker might buy for 3k that would pay my rent for 3 months) had I been prettier, had I not been treated with hostility, well, gosh! Things might have been different.

You and other popular young writer in the 1980s became known as the "Brat Pack." Did you resent that label or is it a badge of honor?

It did not bother me because it had nothing to do with me and other people I barely knew/met. It was odd to be lumped together, but the media sure liked it.

You also knew Andy Warhol in his final years. What was he like -- and what's was it like knowing someone who was already a legend?

Now I wish I had written down everything he said when I would get home every night because he was so so so funny and in a really brilliant way, dry, observant, witty and I did not write down what he said and he had me howling with laughter every night and now I can't remember what he said. and he was so maligned at the time, by critics, by a lot of people, they were so snarky about him - a has-been gay aging pop artist - but he did not let it get to him, at least outwardly, and he always told me, 'gee Tama it doesn’t matter what they say about you in a column, it's how many inches they give you' but he said it in a much better way. but, the difference is, he loved going out and going to the places and seeing the celebrities and the latest play, show, opening, club, whatever, and he loved the attention = good, bad, indifferent -- and I just can't stand it. I just feel invaded, accosted, scared. There is no fun in that for me. That's why I left the city, I like to see some plants growing and my horse and the seasons, and in NYC if you are a success you don't have a second to realize it before you are rated a SECOND CLASS HAS-BEEN TOAD. Which is how they treated Andy, but he didn't mind. 

You're a female writer in a male-dominated field. How did you deal with the sexism that came from that? And what do you think about #MeToo?

I don't think people realize the level of contempt that men have for women (I'm generalizing now) but until recently women were no more than something held 'a little higher than my horse, a little lower than my dogs' anyway life is so so short, I know I am lucky there is dental care and antibiotics and it is strange first you are young, as a female, and considered a sex entity or just plain and valueless, and then you get old and you become invisible as a female, but if you are an old guy, you are still esteemed. But that's my opinion. 

As someone who has lived in and written a lot about NYC, what do you think about how the city has changed over the years? 

It is not the same place where thirty years ago although that time was almost over, you could come to NYC and survive, you did not need to have money, you just needed to escape where you came from, you needed to have desire, dreams, ambition, you needed a community with which to identify, you needed to go there because you wanted to 'make it'. You could find probably a cheap apartment, you could find a job that was in a copy shop or a waiter position that would pay for the rent, if you were young you could go out at night and find other lunatics of your ilk. now it is a city of young P.R. people paid for by their parents and anxious to get a ticket to a P.R. event on a rooftop where the crowd is composed of other P.R. kids. 

You eventually left NYC for upstate New York. What was that transition like and do you miss the city at all? 

I don't miss NYC but it is so grim bleak and dreary here six months of the year it is mud, cold, darkness, there is no delivery of food, it is hunting season, they go bang bang bang with the guns, they shoot anything they want and the roads are icy. And it is bleak here but it can be bleak in the mountains of West Virginia and many, many other places but it is not that cold there! then six months a year it is beautiful and there are leaves on the trees, although there are many flies and things, we have horse flies, deer flies, green flies, bot flies, mosquitos, ground bees, wasps, no, I would not choose to come to this area. No no no. I think Hawaii sounds really nice, away from a volcano. Maybe the mountains of Tennessee? Mountains of Arizona? What about, parts of Oregon? I would like to move to one of those places. But I have applied for many, many teaching jobs. I applied for a job at the community college of Laramie, Wyoming but they did not even trouble themselves to respond and say, 'Sorry, Tama Janowitz, you did not get the job.' What do you hope to accomplish in the future, either personally or in your writing? I am trying to learn how to ride a horse. I have a horse, she is a 16 year old quarter-horse I purchased from my teacher, Stasia Newell at Newell Farm. I have been riding this horse for five and a half years now. So far, I am not a good rider. But, my dream would be to LOOK good on her. Plus, my mare Fox is, like, my closest friend! I know that sounds silly but we just love each other. 

Finally, tell us something about Tama Janowitz that we don't know! 

There's nothing I can tell you; really. I am a depressed person who laughs a LOT.

Couldn’t have said it better myself! That said, when you look at the great works and amazing life she's had, I hope you feel some joy! Thanks!

You can find all of Tama's book on Amazon.com here


Friday, October 12, 2018

Pump Up the Volume: The Rise and Fall of Pirate Radio in NYC

As a young'un, one of my favorite movies was Pump Up the Volume. It's about a miserably lonely teenager who starts a pirate radio station out of his bedroom/parent's garage that becomes a sensation in the desolate, boring Arizona town he's just moved to with his family. 

Operating under the name "Happy Harry", he speaks directly to the emotional pain and tumult of his fellow teenagers. Unlike his regular shy, reserved self (named Mark), "Harry" is funny, outrageous, profane; he plays wild music, calls kids who write confessional letters, and even prank calls the high school's guidance counselor. His craziness quickly becomes a target by the town elders and eventually the FCC -- and it all ends dramatically. 

As a teenager this movie "spoke" to me. It was and remains the most realistic, most accurate look at what it was like to be an early 1990's teenager. And the idea of creating your own pirate radio station seemed amazing to me at the time.

Of course, these days, we'll all pirate radio broadcasters thanks to the Internet. We can create YouTube channels, Facebook Live, or podcasts -- and, of course, blogs! Pump Up the Volume reminds you of a time where the idea of young, regular person reaching hundreds, thousands of other people to broadcast their lives was a truly novel, totally strange concept.

But pirate radio was a real thing! In Brooklyn, back in the 1990s, there was an amazing pirate radio station called WBAD, a hip-hop station that quickly become a local phenomenon (I remember a guy in one of my SAT prep classes talking about it). Eventually, of course, the media and the FCC got wind of it and pursued it to its grave.

Listen to this amazing Studio 306 segment about WBAD, a piece of NYC history, and remind yourself of another time when the idea of regular people broadcasting to the masses was a truly revolutionary idea 



Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Life and Times of Tim" Revisited

Eight years ago I blogged about a hilarious, obscure cable cartoon show called "The Life and Times of Tim" about a sad sack who lives with his girlfriend in NYC, has a crummy job and awful friends, and finds the world totally bewildering and scary and overwhelming.

As I said at the time, it felt like this show had been created just for me. It's viciously funny, its sense of humor is, well, like mine, and Tim even looks like me! 

The show only lasted for about three seasons and vanished into the cultural ether but it's great to see that, years later, this classic show is getting some revisionist love.

Best of all, you can find many of the episodes on YouTube so click here if you want to laugh your ass off about a guy who is, in too many painful ways to count, a lot like your friend, Mr NYC. 


Salvador Dali & Rikers Island - A Story Too Bizarre to be Believed

This is a story that's too bizarre, too weird, too only-in-New York to be believed.

It begins like this: Salvador Dali -- yes, that Salvador Dali! -- painted a picture for Rikers Island ... and that's not even the strangest thing about this very strange story of an inside-job art heist that went wrong ... or did it?

Read it and wrap your mind around how small decisions plus bad decisions plus bad luck plus dumb good luck can lead to some people's lives getting ruined and others prospering. It's a reminder of why life, and this world, is so unfair.

And what ever happened to the painting? We still don't know! 

Postscript: here's a clip from a documantary about Salvador Dali in NYC in 1965, the same year he painted this picture for Rikers Island.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

'Tis the (Cultural) Season

This fall the culture of NYC is richer than ever.

We recently went to the just-closed Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Met (the fashion show of Catholic Church and Catholic Church-inspired garb) and I'm itching to see the New York at Its Core exhibit at the Museum of the City of NY (it tells the story of NYC through the lives of important individual New Yorkers and 450 objects). 

Also this fall, if you can afford the tickets, is a booming season on Broadway of original plays. For the last several years Broadway has seen an influx of "blockbuster" musicals, many based on movies, and original straight-plays have become scarcer and scarcer. But this season is different. There's a bunch of new plays featuring great actors like Kerry Washington, Bryan Cranston, Daniel Radcliffe, and Cherry Jones that should make any fan of great acting and original drama salivate.

But what's got moi really salivating is this: the new Velvet Underground Experience exhibit. This a massive multi-media show of films, pictures, "projections", special events, and lots of other stuff that not only is about the band and its music but also about the late 1960s music and artistic scene in NYC that birthed and nurtured it. I cannot wait to see this!

So, this fall, as always, the cultural life in NYC never disappoints. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Wall Street *Hearts* Democrats

Okay, not really, but lots of people in the financial industry are pouring huge amounts of money into Democratic campaigns to help the party win control of Congress next month.

Normally the financial industry gives way more money to their employees in the Republican party but, this year, it seems that all bets are off.

"Bet" is the operative word. A lot of this money is probably being given so that the financial industry will get access (and favorable regulations, etc.) from a Democratic congress, assuming the Democrats win. But it appears that raw greed and self-interest isn't the only thing motivating this giving: it seems that even people in the brutal, cut-throat world of Wall Street have some decency and don't like seeing their country slide into fascism.

If only the maniacs in DC had the decency of the people on Wall Street. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Memo from NYC

To: Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia
From: The People of NYC

You are both disgraces to humanity and, specifically, women everywhere.

History will judge you both harshly.

I hope that neither of you ever enjoy a moment's peace and that people boycott your states.

We will never forget!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Power vs. Hope: Where Do They Lead?

We live in anxious times. Actually, times have always been anxious but especially now.

We have a distorted economy that works for an elite few and not the many. Foreign powers are trying to corrupt our democracy. Men are scared of being accused of sexual misconduct -- and women are even scared of accusing them. Social media rules our world in scary ways. The threat of terrorism is never far from anyone's mind.

More and more, NYC is being sold off to the highest bidders. And, oh yes, and the president of the United States is insane.

Lots of reasons to be anxious. The only thing that seems like a Balm in Gilead is that TV is better than ever. That's about it.

If you want to understand why, structurally, our society is so warped, read these two very different, but ultimately interrelated NYC tales. One is about how Donald Trump and his family used out-right fraud to increase their wealth. Another is about the bad decisions made by clueless rich people who drove the New York City Opera out of business. In both stories, you read about the arrogance of wealth -- the indifference to consequence, the belief that they can do no wrong even when they very wrong things, complete insouciance to the people who work for them or the society they live in. It makes for depressing, rage-inducing reading -- but explains a lot about how greed and willful blindness inflict so much damage.

But hope is always somewhere, glimmering on the horizen. It was true in the past and it's true today.

Read the original 1967 review of the Velvet Underground, predicting that this was an important band (indeed it was, it revolutionized music). And read a short interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the soon-to-be-Congresswoman who's bravery and brilliant political instincts will, hopefully, lead to a revolution in how this country is governed -- and how we might unwarp our society. There's always hope somewhere, fighting against the dominant paradigm, fighting against the power, always something good boiling beneath the surface, creating inevitable, positive change.

Full Van Morrison Concert - NYC, 1978



Tuesday, October 2, 2018

"Nighthawks" -- The Eternal NYC Noir Enigmatic Masterpiece

Some paintings are breathtaking for their beauty or dazzling in their imagery (think Vermeer or J.W. Turner or most Renaissance paintings).

Some paintings tickle our brain with their complexity (think Jackson Pollack or George Seurat).

Some paintings are iconic for what they represent (think the romance of the “Mona Lisa” or the fiery political passion of “Guernica”).

And some paintings are memorable for their mystery.

No painting is more memorably mysterious than Edward Hopper's 1942 masterpiece “Nighthawks.” 

It's the painting that defines New York City noir. It's haunting, beautiful, and simple. “Nighthawks” depicts the exterior of a coffee shop on an anonymous downtown street, most probably Greenwich Village. Light emanates out of the window onto a dark, empty sidewalk. Through the window we see two men in suits sitting at the enormous counter along with a woman in a red dress. A uniformed man behind the counter bends over.

What is the man doing? What is he getting under the counter? What are the man and woman sitting next to each other talking about? Why is the other man sitting at the counter alone? Where is the door that leads from the street into the coffee shop -- and why don't we see it? What time of the night is it? Why is no else around? What’s going on?

The picture is nothing but mystery -- unanswered, unanswerable questions, an eternal enigma. Its simplicity -- the chromatic uniformity of the people’s clothes, the street, the buildings, all of the images -- gives us little to go on. All we know is that the coffee shop is called "Phillies". And each cup of coffee costs five cents (the going rate in 1942).

That's it. That's all. 

That's genius.

When Edward Hopper painted “Nighthawks” in 1942, the world was at war. New York was still a city of factory workers, tenement dwellers, and average Joes. The city was recovering from the Depression along with the rest of the country. It was a time when the future seemed uncertain (much like now). The mystery of those times, the spirit of those times and the haunting the New York that captured it, is reflected in the painting, and that's what makes it masterpiece.

I've blogged a lot about my love of NYC at night -- the jazzy, sexy, mysterious, dangerous feel of it. There's a hint of crime, of secret transgression about it. “Nighthawks” not only captures that mood perfectly but defines it. Not for nothing this painting has become an American icon, parodied and lionized throughout American culture (for example, The Simpsons or TCM's Open All Night intro).

How did “Nighthawks”, this ultimate NYC painting, come to be? Why has it endured?

Listen to this extensive segment from Studio 360 about the painting's creation and amazing legacy. In many ways, it asks more questions than it answers -- much like the painting itself. Sadly you can't see Nighthawks in NYC -- it belong to the Art Institute of Chicago. So if you're ever in the Windy City, perhaps drop in and see this ultimate piece of New York lore.

Monday, October 1, 2018

NYC = Great Citizens

NYC has great citizens.

Whether it's all the people rocking at Global Citizen in Central Park this weekend (yes there was stampede but, hey, it's NYC) ...


... or just one person, Astoria-native Ana Gualy, who boldly confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, shaming him into calling for an FBI investigation of Brett Kavanaugh. 


If this investigation results in keeping Kavanaugh off the court, than this one woman from NYC, this one citizen, might have just saved our country.  

New Yorkers truly are great citizens of their city, their country, and the world. 

Goodbye to Good Old New York

Lord & Taylor is closing -- sort of. 

The iconic department store is following the other legendary department store, Henri Bendel, and will vanish from Fifth Avenue at the end of the year. Starting this Thursday, L&T will have a closing down sale and, this winter, it'll display its legendary Christmas windows for the last time. Then it'll close and become a WeWork. Interestingly, Lord & Taylor's 45 outlet stores will stay open but its flagship will be gone. 

How goddamn depressing.

Lord & Taylor is over 100 years old, it's an iconic NYC department store, and for it no longer to astride Fith Avenue feels just ... wrong. 

But this part of old New York feels right: beautiful photographs of everyday life in Harlem back in the 1950s. They are touching, human, and bring a smile to your face. It's a reminder that people, even though living in supposed "slums", also live lives of joy and community. They're a reminder of how great this city is.

So goodbye to good old New York -- but we'll never forget it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Ghosts of Tammany Hall

I've blogged over the years about the once mighty Tammany Hall, the political machine that ruled NYC for over 100 years.

Ostensibly just the Manhattan Democratic Committee (located in the aforementioned "hall"), Tammany ruled the city and state of New York with nearly unbreakable power from the early/mid-19th century well unto the 20th century (Tammany was just a local party committee the same way Tony Soprano was just a "waste management consultant"). But the Great Depression and reform politicians killed it, and the power of the political machine waned. 

But not completely.

Today, no one machine rules the city or state. But local machines, local county committees in highly Democratic or Republican counties, still have enormous power in who gets elected to city and  county councils as well as the state legislature. The machines still rack up the money, endorsements, and turn-out operations behind preferred candidates -- and usually win. They operate quietly, behind the scenes, and their power is enormous -- they decide who the voters get to vote for, and all of us live under the policy decisions those machine-backed candidates/elected officials make. People with that kind of power are the godfathers, the ghosts in the machine of our  city and our lives.

For example, Marcos Crespo. Who's he? He's a State Assemblyman from the Bronx and heads the Bronx Democratic Committee. His power over the borough and the city is huge -- and most of us don't know who he is. 

But we may be seeing the twilight of the machine. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez defeated the machine boss of Queens in the Democratic primary in June. The IDC State Sentors overwhelming lost their primaries in NYC to non-machine candidates. And now a reform city councilman is running for District Attorney. The machines can't stop these candidates or stop the voters from voting for non-machine backed candidates.

More and more, the political machine is becoming a quaint relic of another time and another NYC.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

"Around the Town in 26 Hours and 36 Minutes"

In 1974 a very brave Daily News reporter took a marathon ride across the NYC subway system -- and wrote about the entire journey.

Reprinted here for the first time anywhere, go back in time and take the trip of a lifetime around a very different NYC.
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AROUND THE TOWN IN 26 HOURS AND 36 MINUTES 

New York Sunday News March 31, 1974 

The Lefferts Blvd. Station at four in the morning could be the loneliest place in New York. Or maybe just the coldest. Wind blows across the elevated tracks. I look out the train – suspended here – waiting for the return runs to Manhattan. Outside the night is dark except for some metal lamps on the deserted platform. Bare light bulbs form little circles of heat in the cold air. I am absolutely alone. Reflected in the train windows are its baby-blue walls splashed magenta and orange with graffiti. Beyond them I can see the black tops of trees, the low buildings of Queens stretching west toward Brooklyn. Far off, a yellow glow indicates Manhattan. Shivering, I cross to the open door and step out onto the platform. It is very still. A quarter moon hangs over Ozone Park, where all sensible people are asleep.

It might be warmer below near the token booth. Perhaps there is even a candy machine. But if the train should suddenly pull away…? No, I decide. Even if there is a machine, it won’t be working. There are some 6,600 vending machines in the New York Subway System. I know of four that work. The Interborough News Co. owes me eighty-five cents. Dear Sirs … I begin composing a letter in my head – then stop. If I give the locations of all the stations where I lost coins yesterday, they’ll think I’m mad. Some of those stations are 50 miles apart!

It seems to me that I have been here an eternity. I look at my watch: 20 minutes. This wait could ruin my chance at the world record. It stands at 21 hours and 8 minutes.

The first subway riding record – traveling the entire system of routes for a single fare – was set October 27, 1904: IRT Opening Day. The subway, an historic 9.1 miles, extended from City Hall to Grand Central, turning west across 42nd Street to Times Square, and then up Broadway to 145th St. After an official opening trip by city dignitaries – with Mayor McClellan holding a silver controller – followed by several hours of invitational rides, the subway was opened to the public at 7 p.m. 111,881 passengers paid a nickel each to ride that day. Scheduled time for an express was 26 minutes; the local took 46. Although those early riders were conscious of making history, it is doubtful that they had any thoughts of setting track records. It was just too simple.

The new subway generated appendages almost yearly. It reached Brooklyn via tunnel in 1908. The success of the IRT encouraged more construction. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit (after 1923, the BMT) began operations in August 1913, and the city-operated IND was opened Sept. 10, 1932. Under the dual contracts by which the city had financed construction of the privately operated IRT and BMT, it had also retained the right to purchase them. In 1940 both were acquired for $326,248,000. The three lines were unified under city control on June 12 of that year.

Two days before unification, Herman Rinke, a curious and still indefatigable electric railroad enthusiast, decided to tour the existing system for a single five-cent fare. He had no thought of setting a record. With unification, the IRT-operated 9th Ave. El was scheduled for demolition. His trip was a 25-hour sentimental gesture. It turned out to be the first recorded try. Since that day, 66 people have ridden the entire system in 24 recorded trips. These records are kept in an unofficial file at the TA Public Relations Dept. No one knows how may kids have done it just for fun. The 1961 subway map cited the example of a Flushing youth who had ridden all the routes in 25 hours and 36 minutes for a single token. The TA’s aim may have been to point out the scope or convenience of the subway, but that record – set Jan. 25, 1957, by Jerome Moses, 16 – instead seemed to invite competition. During the 1960s, subway derbies became a fad with urban students; 11 of them were completed during the peak years of 1966 and 1967. On April Fools Day of 1966, the M.I.T. Rapid Transit Club began a highly publicized ride. They had used a computer to route their attempt and informed the newspapers. On April 2, they were feeling foolish by 1 hour and 1 minute. And Geoffrey Arnold, who had held the 24 hour, 56 minute record since 1963 when he was 17, remarked “Pacific St. was a ridiculous place to start.” That June, nine boy scouts from Troop 290 in Queens further shamed the computer by logging 23 hours and 18 minutes. And on Aug. 3, 1967, 16-year-old James Law, with six buddies, rode from 168th St., Jamaica to Pelham Bay Park in 22 hours 11½ minutes; a time cited in the current Guinness Book of World Records.

When the Bronx Third Ave. El was closed in August 1973, subway route mileage was diminished 5.5 miles. On Oct. 8, Mayer Wiesen, 35, and Charles Emerson set a “modern record,” riding over 230.8 route miles, changing trains many times, and passing through the 462 operating stations, in 21 hours and 8 minutes. A record which looks as if it will stand unless I get out of the Lefferts Blvd. Station.

At 8 yesterday morning, I am just starting out, entering the 168th St. terminus of the Jamaica spur, an old elevated line taken over and extended by the BMT. The 1893 span between Alabama Ave. and Cypress Hills may be the oldest el track still in continuous use. The train I board is one of the oldest also: rolling stock built in the mid- 1930s. Sixty-watt bulbs light the cars. Hanging down from the ceiling are fans with black blades. I make my way to the front car, intending to ride looking out the window next to the motorman’s cab, but a handsome black kid, about 13, has got there first. He stands, hands in his pockets, nose to the glass, alert, ready to “drive the train.” At 8:03 we head toward Manhattan – looking down long streets of old houses, over expressways clogged with morning traffic, rattling past Cypress Hills Cemetery where miles of tombstones cast small, neat shadows in the early light. At Broadway-Myrtle, I change to the M train, yoyo-ing up and back to cover the Myrtle Line – past houses whose third-story windows, with pulled blinds, are often no more than six feet from the train.

9:15. Manhattan comes into view from the Williamsburg Bridge. The huge building blocks that pile its shore jut powerfully at the sky. Below, the East River is gray. It is a postcard approach. The train “zooms-in” like a 1940s movie – so familiar that I almost expect to see titles flash across. No matter. The Manhattan skyline still makes me gasp.

10:00. I am changing trains in Brooklyn when I see the kid from the Jamaica el again. We grin in recognition. “Hey,” I shout, “Are you doing the system too?” As the train doors shut, I see him nod. He swings off to Coney Island, while I race up in search of the Astoria train. On the DeKalb overpass I spot a snack bar and buy a Coke for breakfast. Aside from some coins in my jeans, a notebook and map, I have decided not to carry anything – sort of an urban Camp Fire Girl.

11:12 – En route to Flushing on a blue World’s Fair train. To my left Shea Stadium passes; while off to the right lies Flushing Meadow. The ribbed Unisphere and skeletal towers of the ’64 Fair rear up out of the flat landscape – fossilized like dinosaurs.

12:05. Returning to Manhattan, I change at Jackson Heights for the newer IND. On the underpass is a Nedicks – coffee and a hot dog – breakfast is shaping up. I am wiping mustard off my fingers when I reach the underground Roosevelt Ave. platform. On May 2, 1970, this was the site of the first subway fatality due to collision or derailment, in 42 years; two GG trains collided during evening rush hour, killing two passengers and injuring 71.

1:55. The F train to Coney Island is one of the new, longer R-44 models: pristine and elegant, with seats of muted orange and yellow. Panels of fake wood are set into its walls and fluorescent lights line the ceiling. Just before the doors close, a chime sounds – rather like the Avon doorbell. The advertising cards, color transparencies lit from behind, glow. These are the poshest cars to travel the subways since No. 3344, “The Mineola,” rolled through in 1904. No. 3344 was the private coach of financier and IRT organizer August Belmont. His car had real wood, mahogany, with velvet-draped picture windows so that guests could enjoy the flashing signals while white-coated stewards broiled steaks in the galley and served iced champagne. Above them, Empire ceilings arched, pale green and gilt; the washroom windows were stained glass. If one cares to make a comparison, the Mineola can be found in the Branford Trolley Museum at East Haven, Connecticut.

I am about to succumb to the quiet style of these long, air-conditioned cars, when I notice that the doors between them are kept locked. Existing subway tunnels were built for 60-foot cars, more the size, if not the d├ęcor, of the Mineola. These new, 75-foot units do not mesh properly on curves; the space between cars becomes dangerous. Motormen, conductors, and presumably transit police, have keys, but New Yorkers are naturally leery. Many feel that being trapped in one car could become a risky situation.

The IND Coney Island line becomes elevated for a brief span entering Brooklyn; the highest point in the system, 87.5 feet above street level, is at the Smith and Ninth St. Station. Here the view is open in all directions: back toward postcard Manhattan, out into the harbor. Little automobiles crawl over the arched expressway ahead; below, the Gowanus Canal and Red Hook. Too soon, we are underground.

At Church St. the line ramps upward again, joining the 1919 BMT el track at Ditmas Ave., where it emerges and begins the long approach to the ocean. Coney Island, cold and closed, decorates our passage. Orange and green spokes of the Wonder Wheel circle blue sky; flags and bits of banner blow. A deserted but honky tonk air prevails. We pass the roller coaster, webbed and delicate in the afternoon light. The air is bracing.

2:54. The Brighton Line heads back to Manhattan, for a while paralleling the sea. Short views down streets end in ocean. The pastel acres of Brighton Beach Baths stretch, patterned, toward the sand. We stop at Sheepshead Bay before heading northwest, traveling over the old ground level tracks of the 1890s Brighton Railroad, widened in 1907 to cut through the tree-hung backyards of Victorian mansions facing Buckingham Road.

3:15. At the Prospect Park Station hundreds of high school kids mill, going home. Cops range the platform and one accompanies us onto the Franklin Shuttle. The kids are wonderfully natty; boys and girls stride aboard wearing platform shoes that defy balance, pants with big bells, hats, lots of jewelry, elaborate hair-dos. While I am aware that teenagers in groups are responsible for a fair amount of subway crime, I cannot imagine this stylish group doing anything to muss their clothes. Subway history is full of accounts of rampage and vandalism. Two days after the 1904 opening, eight youths armed with buckshot blowers boarded the new subway at 145th St. and proceeded to shoot out the electric lights while doing gymnastic stunts on the straps. Two were arrested at 96th St., the rest escaped. But this was not the first subway crime. That occurred opening night. During the crowded ride north from Brooklyn Bridge Station, someone lifted the $500 diamond stickpin that had been holding down the tie of Harry Barret of W. 46th St. When he reached Grand Central, his necktie was flapping.

3:50. The return shuttle is almost empty. As it approaches Prospect Park again, we pass near Empire Blvd. In November of 1918 it was still called Malbone St. The name was changed after the Brighton Beach Special, jammed with evening rush hour passengers, failed to make a curve at the tunnel there. Five wooden cars, taken over from the old Brooklyn Union Railroad, were dashed to bits, and passengers thrown rapidly along the tunnel walls, literally had their faces rubbed away. Ninety-seven lost their lives, 150 were injured, and for days the accident drove World War I right off the front pages, When motorman Edward A. Luciano gave himself up, he was found to have had only two hours of instruction before being given the controller at Park Row in Manhattan. Earlier that morning – before motormen walked out in a dispute over unionization – Luciano had been a yard switchman. His promotion was sudden – this was his first run. He was acquitted, and the union made its point.

5:02. I am picking up a few stray miles under Rockefeller Center when evening rush hour begins. While I know the total 3.8 million daily subway riders cannot all be taking the D train tonight – it feels as if they are. Jammed shoulder to shoulder, passengers have nowhere to look but up. Above our heads, “Miss Subways” stares out of her poster, giving us a strained smile, “hoping to do some modeling.” Since 1941, when the contest began, over 200 New York working girls have become “Miss Subways.” In the early years, a new face showed up every month. Currently, two winners, out of six finalists, are chosen every eight months by passenger vote. Miss Subways receives a $40.00 charm bracelet dangling silver tokens, and her picture decorates the 6,700 subway cards for a three-month period. I ride standing all the way to 205th St., Bronx. Sheer endurance does not win a girl the title.

6:10. At 168th St. and Broadway, I change trains again, and descend into the IRT on a hot automated elevator to ride the Seventh Ave. local to Van Cortlandt Park. The ride is through the deepest section of track in the whole system: 180 feet below street level at the 191st St. and St. Nicholas Ave. station.             

7:00. Moving under Harlem on the No. 3, a rather splashy train with big graffiti – mustard yellow and pink predominate. Despite $10 million spent to remove graffiti and 1,562 arrests in 1972, the TA is losing the “spray can war.” I read off the names: Supreme King 219, Snake II, Lopez 138, and amuse myself trying to think up my own subway logo – in case graffiti should become legal. Outside the stations pass, dingy, written all over. Two Black Muslims move in and out of the strap-hangers selling Mohammed Speaks. On this line, I am a “token white” – the pun lifts my spirits.

8:02. TA police range the E. 180th St., Bronx platform where the No. 2 pauses. One boards, walkie-talkie mumbling at his waist. He will be riding until 4 a.m. Since May of 1965, a uniformed transit patrolman has been assigned to every train during these hours.

10:30. I stand in the first car, face pressed against the glass, speeding through a dark, underground world, the lighted coach behind me forgotten, as the black tunnel comes on. Tracks in perspective lines rush, disappearing under my feet, crossing, converging ahead. Signal lights change: yellow – “proceed with reduced speed,” green over yellow – “on diverging track.” Express lines mount, as local tracks sink in the dark. In the distance, tiny orange lights flicker above the tracks, then disappear where track-men carrying lanterns dive into the sidings. Now the square, metal-pillared cut rounds into a tube; we approach the old, 1908, Battery-Joralemon tunnel. Green lights signal us through. I make myself useful peering intently at the dark curved walls, checking for leaks.

1:12. The Wilson Ave. station on the Canarsie line is a narrow, double-decked curiosity: one track occupies each level – the eastbound track emerges, briefly elevated, traveling above the underground westbound span. We pass the deserted platform in half light. It faces – a single track away – the Cemetery of the Evergreens. No one in his right mind would get off at Wilson Ave. at 1:12 in the morning. No one did.

2:30. The A train heads out over the waters of Jamaica Bay, leaving behind the huge glow of JFK that arc-lights the eastern sky. I have made the Rockaway Round Robin on schedule and can relax. Only between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. is it possible to cover the entire Rockaway peninsula on a single train. This 19th century summer beach resort was linked to the L.I.R.R. until 1956, when service was transferred to the IND. The train moves further out across the vast, dark bay. Only feet below on either side, water laps the narrow trestle. Far out, a crescent of lights veers gently inward on the long railroad stem. Beyond that brilliant curve, the ocean pounds. For miles around the night is black and cold, the water deep. A strange place for a New York subway train.

4:00. And farewell to Lefferts Blvd.

5:30. Waits are long now. The work trains move slowly underground through nearly empty stations, picking up trash and cleaning out tunnels. The New York bars have closed, and some standees on the Hoyt St. platform bear witness to this fact. A heavy black woman joins me; she walks as if her feet hurt, and I suspect she has just got off work. The trains always take a while at this hour, she tells me. We stand together on the platform, unacknowledged sisters, re-enforcing each other. In 1907, the Hudson Tubes were still running Women Only Cars with guards aboard to insure protection. I guess we have come a long way.

At 6:26 the sun rises over Greenwood Cemetery where I am passing, for the second time, over an elderly bit of track known as the Culver Shuttle; 1.1 miles still bear tribute to Andrew Culver, who built a steam railroad to Coney Island that passed over this site in the 1880s.

7:00 – Coney Island for the second time in two days! Crossing the Stillwell Terminal overpass, I go by the employees cafeteria and smell breakfast. On the Sea Beach Line, morning rush hour is just beginning. This is the third rush hour I have ridden through without leaving the subway. The poignancy of that situation might be enough to make one who has dined off Zagnut bars, peanuts, and Lucy Ellen orange slices for two days, get a cramp. I try not to think of hot coffee.

8:10. Changing trains at Union Square I am especially careful, warned by history. The first subway passenger accident occurred here Opening Day, 1904. A Miss Sadie Lawson, 26, of Jersey City, who had been riding north and south for several hours, fell getting off the southbound train and broke her hip. I grab a metal strap and hang on tightly all the way to 42nd St. 

8:25. Times Square. The 42nd St. shuttle contains 2,700 feet of original 1904 IRT track, now isolated. In 1928, the second worst accident in New York subway history happened just south of here on the Seventh Ave. line. A defective switch broke as the ninth car of a 10-car theater rush-hour train was passing over it. The rear wheels switched to a diverging track and the ninth car, running suddenly at right angles to the others, was sheared in two by the steel pillars between tracks. This mechanical “crack the whip” killed 18 passengers and injured 100.

9:30. The Lexington Ave. Express emerges into bright sunlight just before the old Yankee Stadium. Once, under a glaring blue sky, its lacy wood trim gleamed white like decorative icing – a great hollow cake with a short right field. Now, under the ungentle touch of the renovators, the place is growing unrecognizable. At the Woodlawn terminus, the leaves have lost their Fall colors, but on the golf course below, lucky men tee off across rolling fairways. It is a splendid day for riding elevated trains.

10:39. Pelham Bay Park. I have made the trip – on 67 different trains – in only 26 hours and 36 minutes. 26 hours and 36 minutes! The thought that I may be the first woman to complete the ride does not console me at all. But the sun is shining. And I have my logo: Ms. Subways 114.
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You can read this essay and other great ones just like it in How the Camp Fire Girls Won World War II by Rebecca Morris. 

Also, read more 1970s subways coverage from the Village Voice here

Friday, September 21, 2018

Local Reporting in Winter

Newspapers are under attack -- and not just from the orange buffoon in the White House.

They're under attack from major forces, both technological and economic, from the Internet wiping out paid-for print publications and destroying classified ad revenue, to wealthy owners buying up newspapers and either turning them into vanity vehicles or shuttering them completely. Never before have newspapers been in such perilous decline.

That said, online news outlets are stepping into the breach, and some big name legacy papers  (The New York Times, The Washington Post, for example) have done a good job monetizing and re-inventing themselves online.

But what's really being lost is super-local coverage, and high-quality "guerrilla" or "underground" journalism -- the kinds that the Village Voice produced. This kind of in-depth, on-the-ground, in-the-streets, down-the-back-alley reporting is vanishing -- and online coverage isn't replacing it.

NYC has always had great super local papers in every borough but, even though they still exist and have strong web presences, they have virtually no staff and money to do in-depth reporting. As this lengthy article points out, Brooklyn is a borough of 2.5 million people, bigger than most American cities, and the papers and news outlets that exist there have minute staffs and budgets, unable to cover the plethora of stories and controversies that occur in Brooklyn every day.

Reporting is not the same as writing, it's hard work -- interviewing people, looking over documents, making calls, piecing details together, etc. As much as I love blogging and aggregating and commentary, these things can't replace the importance and power -- not to mention  the democratic necessity -- of shoe-leather reporting. 

One such reporter was a guy named John Wilcock who was the ultimate New York "underground" journalist who did brilliant trailblazing work back in the 1960s and 1970s (he recently died at the age of 91. He was a journeyman reporter, a shoe-leather pioneer, and we'll probably never the likes of him or the papers he wrote for ever again.