Thursday, July 19, 2018

Summerhill & The Battle for the Soul of Brooklyn

Gentrification is a big topic these days, in NYC and elsewhere, but it's such a general term that it's hard to identify what it is exactly.

Rich people moving into previously poor neighborhoods -- who are they?

They're changing the "character" of the neighborhood -- how?

Much of this gentrification is academic -- so how about an example?

Here's one: Summerhill, a bar/restaurant that opened in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn and became a flashpoint -- even inspiring protests -- between black residents and the white owners. It got heated and nasty until ... it didn't.

The story of how Summerhill came to Brooklyn and was at first resisted, then accepted, was recently made a segment on the great public radio show This American Life. You can listen to that hear, and you can also read some of the coverage about the controversy and its aftermath.

This is a great example of how gentrification disrupts and then consolidates itself in NYC. You might take away from this example that resistance is futile -- or that maybe resistance isn't really the solution for the unending ramifications of gentrification. 

And you'll never think of bullet holes in quite the same way. 

Flatiron Steam Pipe Explosion!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Interview: Amy Sohn, NYC Columnist & Novelist

Back in the late 1990s, as the world was falling in love with the fictional Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, and their fictional friends’ dating adventures (in a mostly fictional NYC), a real columnist named Amy Sohn was writing about her real dating adventures in the real NYC.

First at the New York Press, then at the New York Post, then at New York magazine, Amy wrote with a blunt, hilarious honesty about the vicissitudes of not only sex and romance but also about the challenges of being a human being in a city that worships money, power, and vanity. I first discovered Amy in 1999, right after I’d returned to NYC from college, and her original New York Press column, “Female Trouble”, was an eye-opening look at the NYC single life that I was entering into. More than just entertaining and funny, her column was educational.

Amy’s work has evolved from those days, and she is now a successful novelist. Along the way, she’s also become a wife and mother. Amy was kind enough to share with Mr NYC some background about her life and work, as well as her thoughts and feelings about #MeToo and relationships and life in NYC today.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what made you want to become a writer?

When I was 19 I was a summer-camp counselor and my boyfriend at camp, the cook, turned me on to Bukowski, Fante, and Algren. I started writing autobiographical stories, mostly about dating and sex, in the vein of Buk, my hero, in a big unlined notebook. Around 1994, when I was a junior at Brown, I began performing the stories downtown at a performance space called AS 220, at open mics and variety shows. It was a vibrant scene filled with music and provocation. I felt I fit in really well there. I always wrote for the purpose of reading my stories aloud.

Your New York Press dating column "Female Trouble" from the late 1990s was shocking and groundbreaking. It was honest and raw, very personal and intimate, and I don't remember reading anything quite like it at the time. Then came along "Sex and the City", blogs, etc. and shocking became mainstream. What made you want to write this column back then and do you view "Female Trouble" as the precursor to a change in the culture?

I was a temp and actress (temptress) living with my parents right after graduating and my dad used to bring home this weird paper. I got into it and was taken by the first-person columns, especially Howard Altman and Jim Knipfel. The stories felt real and honest and they were painfully funny. I wanted to get published. I think my first actual published story was in Playgirl but that’s another story. I sent a piece to John Strausbaugh at New York Press and he sent it back with a note in the margin that said it might be right for SWANK or Penthouse. I had never heard of SWANK but I got the idea. I tried a different story, “The Blow-Up Boyfriend,” and sent that one to John. It was about my fantasy of having an inflatable boyfriend that I could deflate whenever he talked about his band too much. They bought that one, and one or two more, and a few weeks later they offered me a column. I wanted to call it Maidenhead, a terrible title. Sam Sifton, John, and Russ Smith convinced me to call it “Female Trouble.” Of course they were John Waters fans, Russ and John having come from the Baltimore city paper. (They later taught me what a "Baltimore round" is.)

I agree that the term “sex and the city” was very shocking at the time. Just the word “sex” was arresting. The nineties were very odd in the mainstreaming of sex. In my column I tried to be honest and self-deprecating. When I was grandiose it was done with a big wink. Behind my pathetic stories there was really a lot of rage. I didn’t understand why men my age were so cruel and disinterested in love and connection. But I picked very bad paramours. Thank God no one I was obsessed with in the 90s reciprocated. It would have ruined my life. I would be mother to a lot of elusive rocker boy babies and figuring out how to deal with my co-dependence. Did I really want to be a member of any club that would have me? Probably not.

“Female Trouble” had good timing. I think women my generation, dating in the recession, in the “reality bites” scene, were frustrated with these narcissistic guys. I can’t speak for why “Sex and the City” the column came along when it did. She was chronicling a different demographic but I think we were both struggling with a feeling of anger and powerlessness. Why did men control the stories? Why did men always get to pick? Why didn’t women get to pick?

You went from the New York Press in the 1990s to the New York Post and New York magazine in the early 2000s. What did you do at those jobs and what was it like working for those publications as the Internet was changing the journalism business?

I was at New York Press for 3 1/2 years, sometimes writing weekly, sometimes biweekly, and at one point also writing an advice column. I left for the New York Post, thinking it could be a chance to do more pop-cultural writing but it was a very bad fit. They wanted the sentences short because the typeface was big. I also made the mistake of posing in a nightie, lying on my stomach, feet kicked up behind me, with no shoes, and even though I have wide, flat feet I got fan letters from foot fetishists for years. I quit after about four months. I had also published my first novel, Run Catch Kiss by the time I left New York Press and wanted to devote time to writing a second novel.

At New York my column was first called “Sex Matters,” then “Naked City,” “Mating,” and “Breeding.” In it I interviewed New Yorkers about their sexual predilections. I learned not to judge people. I also learned that under the cover of anonymity people will tell you almost anything. Some of the people I interviewed are really famous now in their chosen fields - composers and stylists. They would talk to me about how there were no bottoms in New York or what it’s like to date two people at once. I enjoyed the chance not to write about myself but I also felt that the short length allotted to the column made it hard for me to dig deep with my subjects. The magazine was never quite sure where the sex fit in, I remember the column moved around, from the back near penis-enlargement and personal ads (when New York had its own personals) and later to the front when I was writing more about marriage and kids. I was at New York from 2001 to 2006.

You've published five novels (Run Catch Kiss, Motherland, My Old Man, Prospect Park West, and The Actress) about relationships, parenthood, and the challenges of life in NYC. Do all of these novels relate to your experiences that came with the stages of life in NYC, i.e. going from single woman to wife and mother?

Some of my books are less autobiographical than others. The Actress was mostly set in LA and I did a lot of research for it. I wanted to break away from social satire and try melodrama. It didn’t really work because the novel needed a murder and my editors and I did not agree about that. I also learned that modern novels about marriage and divorce are troubled and troubling because divorce is so widely accepted, even if upsetting and expensive.

What does feminism mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist and does your work relate to it in any way?

I have called myself a feminist since I was a teenager. I grew up in the progressive Jewish Reform movement and progressive values went hand in hand with religion. I attended a big pro-choice rally around 1992. I never thought “feminist" was a dirty word. Years later, in the 90s, I interviewed a celebrity who was uncomfortable when I asked if she was a feminist and I found it absolutely bizarre. That was another era, when the word itself was something women feared.

What do you think of #MeToo?

My feelings are incredibly complicated. It’s important that women are sharing their stories and bringing sexual harassment and rape into the national conversation. As a strong believer in due process, I'm concerned about the cases in which men have lost their jobs based on extremely limited evidence, sometimes just one story that has two sides. I worry that we are in a moment of sex panic. None of us know the ultimate outcome of the movement. I also think about women who need to be mentored by men to advance in their professions (because men still hold the vast majority of the power) -- and men who are now afraid to spend one-on-one time with them for fear of false accusations. As with so many things, women are the ones who pay the price for that. What do you hope to write about in the future? I’m now writing narrative non-fiction (historical) for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done but my book deals with women’s rights in the 19th century and I find the stories deeply gratifying. This was a time when marital rape and forced pregnancy and childbirth were the norm. It was just called “marriage."

How do you feel about how NYC has changed over the years? Do you ever get nostalgic for the old days?

Of course I do - I’m a native New Yorker! The money bums me out. The people bum me out. The phones on the subways. The phones everywhere. The corporate stores. But when I get depressed I walk up and down Church Avenue in Brooklyn. New York is still alive, you just have to know where to find it.

Finally, tell us something about Amy Sohn that we might not know.

I was a child actress and got my Actors Equity card at age 12.

Thanks Amy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Cultah', cultah', cultah': Part Deux

Okay, we live in scary times but, when it comes to culture in NYC, it has never been a better time to be in the cultural capital of the world.

Whadda we got? 

Well, in NYC, the amount of culture is head spinning, we got SO MUCH STUFF, but here are a few choice things you might not know about: we got an exhibit about Rebel Women at the Museum of the City of New York, we got superheros saving Brooklyn, and we got so many great coffee shops that you could spend the entire summer doing nothing but going to them and drinking great coffee and eating tasty treats.

Best of all -- or should I saw BEST BEST BEST OF ALL -- a huge swath of NYC culture is now  available FOR FREE!!! If you have a public library card (issued by either NYPL, Queens Public or Brooklyn Public Libararies), you can now go up to 33 cultural institutions in this city FOR FREE! It includes some great places like the Frick, the Whitney, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Intrepid, the Transit Museum, the Noguchi, and so much more! This is an amazing gift to the people of this city.

And, of course, culture in NYC is given to us by people, including some people we might otherwise call amateurs (I consider this blog a gift of amateur culture). There was a guy named Les Lieber who just died but who hosted a weekly event called Jazz at Noon where musicians, amateur or professional (including Lieber, an amateur musician), could come and jam. Lieber hosted this event for 45 years and ended in 2011. More amazing, Lieber died at the amazing age of 106 so, as culture lovers, we should be thankful for his long life and the huge cultural gift he gave this city.

Yes, the times are troubling but, in NYC, our culture is thriving as never before. And, when a city and a nation's culture thrive, it should give us a degree of hope for the future.

P.S. You might be wondering why I entitled this post as "Part Deux" -- it's because I wrote a post originally entitled "Cultah', Cultah', Cultah" back in 2011 where I blogged about a weekly TV show called Sunday Arts about culture in NYC. Well, Sunday Arts is now NYC Arts and, sadly, the other show I mentioned, Vine Talk, is no longer on the air. 

Cultah' in NYC is forever changing but it's always great. 

Memo from NYC

Remember when we had a real president?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Dead or Alive. Or both?

NYC has "died" or "fallen" many times.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the "death" of NYC in the 1960s, Annie Hall declared that it was "a dying city" in the 1970s, and Robert Caro blamed NYC master builder/planner Robert Moses as contributing to its "fall" in The Power BrokerNYC keeps dying and falling and then revivifying and getting back up all the time.

Today, it seems to be doing both, depending on who you ask -- or, more importantly, read.

I turned your attention to two MASSIVE articles that examine this "dead or alive" debate. One is called The Death of a Once Great City and the other is New York City is alive and well.

Once interesting is that these two articles agree on a lot about the current malaise that afflicts NYC. Namely, the city is hostage to market forces, jacking up rents and the cost of living, and changing the face and character of the city for the worse i.e. rich and boring as opposed to working class and fun -- and that the state and city government needs to do more to stop this. But the "death" article seems a tad myopic since it seems to confuse Manhattan with NYC while the "alive" article rightly states that most of NYC is NOT Manhattan and is actually thriving. 

While I understand the feelings in the "death" article, I think the "alive" article is more correct: NYC is still a hot bed of excitement but its been moving out of Manhattan for a long, long time. The city has, in fact, been changing forever (another things both articles agree on) so declaring that the city is "dead or alive" is a pointless argument: it's changing, in some ways better, some ways worse, now and forever. And the government can and always should do more to help its citizens. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mrs Maisel Goes to the Emmys

The fun NYC-centric Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel just scored a bunch of Emmy nominations -- and they were richly deserved. 

It's a great show, very funny, beautifully written and acted.

And, of course, I especially love it since it takes place in the neighborhood I grew up in.

Good luck! 

Perils of Food Tech

I just read this piece about how farmer markets that serve low-income neighborhoods are set to stop accepting cash-free payments later this summer.

That's bad because SNAP benefits are now electronic, and recipients get credits when they buy healthy foods.

This is due, unfortunately, to nothing less than changes in technology and it will prevent people from buying the freshest, healthiest food, or make purchasing it harder (i.e. shlepping to supermarkets in "food deserts").

This is another example of how government needs to do more to help the neediest among us and not become too dependent on the private tech sector.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Bizarre 1980s Today

If you're a Netflix junkie like moi then you're familiar with the comedy show GLOW (about the bizarre 1980s female wrestling show), and Wild Wild Country (about the bizarre cult-commune in Oregon during the early 1980s). 

What's most bizarre is the fact that these shows exist at all. Why, after thirty-something years, are these otherwise completely forgotten 1980s phenomena back and more popular than ever? They were small relics, minor curiosities of a long-gone decade, and suddenly they're big-time today.  

The Internet -- specifically streaming services -- are really amazing things. They manage to dredge of parts of the past we didn't know still existed. But they're part of something broader, I think, an attempt to try to understand the past in order to understand our bizarre present. And the past, it turns out, was truly bizarre.

One such forgotten story now being resurrected (although not on Netflix, not yet) was the story of Bess Myerson -- the Bronx girl who became the first (and only) Jewish Miss America in 1945, then became a political and cultural doyenne of NYC in the 1960s and '70s until she became sleazy tabloid fodder in the late 1980s when she went on trial for trying to bribe a judge. Her case was, and the cast of "only in New York" characters were truly ... bizarre. 

And now her daughter, of all people, is mounting a play about her mother out in California, about their relationship and what it was like to be the daughter of a woman who was once admired, then admonished, by the world.

It's yet another once forgotten bizarre story from the 1980s now suddenly remembered again. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

NYC Comebacks

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "there are no second acts in American lives" but that's not really true -- Americans love a good comeback.

So I'm very happy that two New Yorkers who looked like they were destined to be forgotten are reemerging.

First, Leonard Lopate, the brilliant radio interviewer who was bizarrely and unfairly fired from WNYC radio last year. Next week he'll be back on WBAI with a new show. I can't wait to hear it!   

Second, John Liu, the former City Comptroller who is challenging Trump Democrat State Senator Tony Avella in the September primary. Liu challenged him in 2014 and came close to beating him so, hopefully, this time he'll win. Avella was responsible for keeping the GOP in charge so he richly deserves defeat and Lie would be a great replacement.

What a great town this is! 

Migrant Children in NYC

The Paris Review Today

Growing up, always clustered on one of my parents' many bookshelves, were myriad copies of The Paris Review, the literary magazine founded in 1953 by the late George Plimpton.

Plimpton was a larger than life character, a bon vivant extrodinaire, whose parties were almost as famous as his magazine that published such luminaries as Samuel Becket, Jack Kerouac, and Philip Roth. Plimpton not only edited the magazine and hosted the parties but he also wrote books chronicling his one-shot experiences as a football player and a boxer, as well as his friendship with Robert Kennedy (with whom Plimpton was with when RFK was killed). Plimpton also died suddenly, in 2003, and since then the editorship of The Paris Review has passed through a few hands, sometimes with troubling results.

This year a young woman named Emily Nemens has become the editor and she is promising to make the ultimate good-'ol-boy, Old New York swinging literary journal into a fully "woke" #MeToo multi-media enterprise. How this will unfold remains to be seen but it's a tribute to the magazine and Plimpton's legacy that it has survived fifteen-years after his death, and that someone like Nemens, as different form Plimpton as one can be, can take the helm. 

And maybe she'll discover the 21st Century version of Jack Kerouac (who won't necessarily be a man). 

Monday, July 9, 2018

... you know it ain't easy

Challenging power isn't easy -- power, after all, is called power for a reason: it's the ability to direct or influence the behavior of others and the course of events. It's the ability "to do" vs. "to want." We all "want" but few of us can "do" because we lack the ability. 

To challenge that ability, to try and take that ability away from someone, is brutally difficult and often fails. Power armors itself, ready to defend and strike its challengers at all times -- but sometimes, just sometimes, challengers find a chink in that armor, then defeat and capture it.

Such is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did last month. Such is what Elizabeth Holtzman did in 1972 (Ocasio-Cortez beat a twenty-year incumbent and Holtzman beat a fifty-year incumbent). Such is what Julia Salazar is trying to do in September. Finding the chink, defeating the power, taking it over -- power doesn't yield without a fight but it can be beaten ... sometimes. Cynthia Nixon is trying to do it to Andrew Cuomo but it'll hard.

And what are the results from who has power vs. who doesn't?

Take for example, the "arc tunnel" that Governor Christie killed back in 2010 and that President Trump is trying to kill today. They don't want it for political reasons and used and are using their power to stop it. They people who do want it don't have the power -- or not enough. And so nothing gets done (for now). 

Same with the "pied-a-terre" tax that would apply to rich people who own but don't live in their NYC real estate as their primary residence. This tax would generate massive revenue for the city to fund affordable housing. But rich people, powerful people, don't want it so it's not happening (not now, at least).

That's why it's very important for us not only to give power to people we believe in but also to people who have the ability (that buzz word again) to find the chink in the armor of those other powerful people who impede progress and the common good.

Power isn't just about winning elections -- it's about having the ability to see where you can find it or steal it and, most of all, use it. What else is power for?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Public Servants

The problem with politics these days is that the media covers it like sports: who's "up", who's "down", who's "winning", who's "losing", who's raised the most money, who's this-that-or-the-other thing. It's always about the horse race, the fights, the personalities, the next election, etc. etc. etc. 

Political coverage is never really about policy -- or, just as importantly, service.

Politics is, ultimately, about getting and keeping power (i.e. winning elections and getting re-elected). But service is something else -- it's about helping people, whether in elected office or not.  For politicians, service is supposed to be their jobs, the thing they were elected to do, that stuff they're supposed to do between elections. Some politicians are great public servants (like Obama). Some politicians are horrible public servants (like Trump). Yet service is, ultimately, what the sorting process of politics is supposed to be all about. 

Unfortunately, for the media and many in politics today, they have no interest in service since the sorting process is all they care about. 

Service is something that my family has, for generations, engaged in. We believe in helping others -- full stop. None of them have ever served in public office -- instead, they've served in humanitarian organizations in counties in Africa and Asia and South America, they're doctors, teachers, counselors. No power, no money, no fame -- just the work. 

But some politicians are great public servants and deserve that recognition. They actually do the work -- and have committed their lives to it. 

Here in New York State we have two great examples: Charles Rangel, who served in the US House for 46 years, and Richard Gottfried who has served in the NYS Assembly for 48 years. It's easy to classify them as "lifetime politicians" but, when you look at their careers, as they do in these interviews, it's wonderful to see how much and for how long they have served their constituents, state, and country.

They are true public servants, and New York is lucky to have them -- and we may night ever see their king ever again. 

P.S. Here's another public servant who, until now, was totally unknown to the public and who we didn't even know existed -- the person who updates the MTA website and social media with announcements (often about delays). Talk about a thankless job -- and a real servant of the people. 

P.P.S. And talking more about public servants (this one hits close to home): did you know that right after World War I there was a hastily constructed "Arch of Triumph" in Madison Square Park (right across from the Flatiron building) that soldiers returning from the war marched under in 1919 (the war ended in November 1918, nearly 100 years ago)? The arch didn't last long and was never replaced. And it hits close to home because one of those soldiers was my grandfather. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Interview: Michael Alig on Clubland, "Party Monster", and Building a New Life in NYC

The story of Michael Alig is complex. His life has been one that is amazing, tragic, and hopeful. He was the ultimate NYC “club kid” of the 1980s and 90’s, who made club and party promotion into a recognizable art, and he became famous for it. Then he became involved in a brutal crime and spent many years in prison (you can read more about that here).

Since his release, Michael has returned to NYC, adjusting to a life of rebuilding and redemption in a changed city.  He was kind enough to answer some of Mr NYC’s questions about his past, present and future. Whatever one’s feelings about Michael’s life, his story deserves to be heard.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what attracted you to the downtown club world/party scene of the 1980s and 1990s?

I grew up in Middle America, came to NYC on a scholarship to go to college and was fascinated with the amazing mix of different kinds of people, different races and sexual orientations, all living together in one city. Clubland offered for me a more concentrated version of this, with an even more extreme mix of people. 

You were known as the ultimate party promoter. What made you so good at it? What makes someone a good party promoter?

I think I am a good party promoter because I love doing it so much that I would do it even if no one paid me. Anyone who loves their job--I don’t care what kind of job it is, from being a bartender to a garbage man--if you love doing it, you're going to be successful at it. 

What were some of your favorite clubs and parties back in the day -- and what are some of your favorites now? 

Probably my all-time favorite club of all times was Area, a giant warehouse in lower Manhattan that changed themes every six weeks or so--a concept that was cool and exciting at the time because no one had really done it yet. This club also massified the idea of selecting people, one by one, to come into the club the way a florist chooses flowers while making a bouquet. I always had goose bumps when approaching this club, worried I'd never make it past the doorman. Danceteria, Palladium, Red Zone, The World: all super fab. Today there is nothing even remotely comparable to any of these spaces, but The Box, the House of Yes and a place in Brooklyn called Members Only are perhaps the closest thing you'll find to what once was.

What are some of your best memories of the club scene back in the 1980s and 1990s? 

My fondest memories of the club scene from back in the day mostly involve outlaw parties, after hours clubs and other events skirting the edges of what was legal or acceptable. There were clubs like the World that didn’t even have working electricity, we had to attach wiring to the electric poles in order to have lights and heat. Places like Save the Robots would serve alcohol to underage kids at all hours--in complete disregard of the law. You won’t find anything like this happening in today's NYC.

Personally, downtown NYC doesn't feel very "downtown" anymore. The funky, dirty, mysterious vibe of the Village, Soho, and the Lower East Side is gone. Do you agree?

I do agree, not only Downtown Manhattan but all of NYC has become more Normalized and has lost most of its edge. It’s something that's happening not only here but all over the world, as things like the rising cost of real estate causes edgier, mom and pop-type shops to close down and get replaced by big box/chain stores, and the Internet makes it impossible for there to be any real "Underground" scene. You were in prison for many years. What did you learn from that experience and how what kind of perspective on life did it give you? Probably the biggest thing I learned while away was patience. Before going to prison, I was impossibly spoiled and impatient. Demanding, even. If someone didn’t have what I wanted when I wanted it, I would find someone else who did. Spending time in solitary confinement had an amazing effect on this, in that nothing there happens very quickly or without waiting patiently. A book you might want from the library can be had--but only after writing letters to the library clerk--that may take ten days to get a response to. There is something about waiting ten days for a response about a book from the library that will tame even the most jaded and impatient club kid.

Has it been hard to re-enter life in NYC and the club world?

I feel actually very fortunate that people have made it so easy to re-enter both daily life and Clublland in NYC. Not that I have much desire to get back into clubbing--Keoki did ask me to help promote a weekly Monday night event, which I did as a favor for an old friend--and I have done one-off parties here and there. But for the most part I'd like to do daytime work. I have a clothing line called SkroddleFace I’d like to get started; I do a daily web show with Ernie Glam called The Peeew; I’ve been writing and painting. I feel extremely fortunate being given the opportunity to work on so many things, especially considering the difficulties some of my fellow recently released inmates face on a daily basis trying to find work or a place to live.

Can you tell us what you thought of the movie made about you, Party Monster?

I was surprisingly pleased with the way the movie Party Monster turned out. Given the circumstances, things could have turned out a lot worse. If I have any complaints at all I guess I'd say I wish the characters in the movie had been fleshed out a little more, as they seem sort of one-dimensional. It’s possible that my feelings are a result of being so close to the storyline, however, as many young people I speak to say they love Party Monster, that it’s one of their all-time favorite movies. I see that you're writing a book.

Tell us about your upcoming book Aligula.

I suppose the question I get asked the most is “When am I going to release my own version of the story?”, and my answer is always, "I’m working on it." Truth is, I’ve written my own book, the problem is, I tried telling too many stories in one book. Between my own story, the story of post-disco NYC Nightlife, of the introduction of ecstasy and techno music, the rise and fall of Peter Gatien, the Superstar DJ Keoki story, the rise of RuPaul, Moby, Chloe Sevigny and other Clubland Celebrities--there is way too much content here for one book. I need to separate my biography from the other things, and make it into two books. So far, I seem to have been too distracted to get this accomplished. Hopefully this year will be different, and I will get these books done. 

Thanks Michael.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Can We Do it Again?

Back in 1985, when Donald Trump was still an actual developer in NYC, he wanted to build a sprawling complex of buildings on the far west side of Manhattan that would become known as Trump City. In those days, The Donald had dreams of permanently changing the the landscape and skyline of NYC, making him into a new-fangled Robert Moses.

Trump failed. His city never got built. He faced massive opposition from the city government and community boards, and his dreams of Trump City evaporated. 

He never became Robert Moses. Instead, he became president. 

It's frightening that the same kind of opposition that defeated this weak narcissist thirty-plus years ago doesn't exist today while he destroys our Constitution and America's standing in the world. But, if we're lucky, hopefully voters across America this November will be the new city government and community boards that hand Trump another massive defeat. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dan Ingram, RIP

Basquiat Forever?

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the NYC street artist who became one of his generation's most acclaimed painters.

The child of a broken home, of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents, he migrated from Brooklyn to Manhattan, living on the streets, spray-painting "SAMO" all over town (short for "Same Old Shit"), and was soon discovered by Andy Warhol and the NYC downtown art world. Almost overnight he was displaying his work at P.S. 1  (in 1981) establishing him as a hot young artist. By the mid-1980s his work was in high demand, and he became a bona fide art world celebrity. His work was wild, unconventional, a little dangerous, a little dirty, but always colorful. And he was young, black, beautiful, and he even dated Madonna. He was "It."

And then, tragically, he died (from a drug overdose at the age of 27). He passed from man to myth, a person to a legend (a movie was even made about his life.) Since then, the value of Basquiat's work has grown astronomically. Last year, his painting "Untitled" sold for $110.5, the highest amount of money paid for an American painting ever (and the sixth most paid for any painting in history). Basquiat's reputation as a great talent, that shone brief and bright, is assured.

But is deserved?

This a hard, hard question. When people spend that kind of money on a painting, when a man is remembered, both for his life and work, for a time longer after his death than he lived, it seems like the answer is an easy "Yes." And, yes, he was young and black and he worked very hard in his brief life, so one is mindful of his tough background that he overcame with genuine accomplishment. But his work was ... not necessarily that great. It wasn't bad but not truly deserving of the hype. At least that's what "some people" say, both then and now.

When Basquiat died in 1988, a critic named Robert Hughes published a rather controversial article that argued just that: Basquiat was a talented but not really great artist. He was, Hughes posited,  more a product of marketing and celebrity. In fact, by the time Basquiat died, his art was falling out of favor. It wasn't selling as briskly and was already, by 1988, regarded by the art world as a bit passe (such is the shelf life of trends). But Basquiat's death changed all that. Since there would be no more work, he instantly became an icon, a collector's item, his reputation frozen in time, now forever timeless. Hughes pondered, "The reputation may survive, or it may not."

Clearly, it has -- if present day sales figures mean anything. But it's not unquestioned. Now, almost 30 years later, as the anniversary of Basquiat's death arrived, and as the price of art goes ever skyward, the question remains: was he a better celebrity than artist? Does the work match the hype (and money)? 

A more recent article examines that same question and comes up with a much more complicated answer than does the reputation "survive" or not -- it obviously survives, but not because the work itself is so great but because we need to believe that Basquiat was great -- certainly his (short) life story was until its tragic end, and the fact that his life gives all starving artists (no matter their race or background) a rooting chance. We value Basquiat because of what he means to us, as much as his work, and he'll endure, as this article makes clear, because "the market will bear" it. That, in America, it what always rules but it also reflect that he and his work are still valued.

The life and work and legend of Jean-Michel Basquiat -- both beloved and highly rewarded and, at the same time, unsettled, both then and now -- reflects the enduring vissicitudes of art and our attitudes towards it, and also how we can both love something and someone (living or dead) and question whether their popular reputation (good or bad) is deserved. Like life, it's a complicated, ultimately unanswerable question. 

That constant conflict, within the self and between people, between how we feel about people and their work, will most certainly survive, no matter what the market will bear. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Future is Here

Sometimes history has a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. 

Last night were the Congressional primaries in NYC and, shockingly, Congressman Joe Crowley -- Chairman of the Queen County Democratic Committee and the 4th highest ranking Democrat in the House -- lost to a 28-year old newcomer (who's half his age) named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (until last year she was a cocktail waitress -- you know, part of the REAL working class).

No one expected this.

Crowley has been safely entrenched in this seat for two decades and, in NYC, incumbents in both parties are generally safe from such challenges by upstarts (all of the other incumbents won).

But last night, not so much.

Ms. Oacsio-Cortez ran a smart, articulate, very organized campaign and out-maneuvered Crowley in ways he obviously never anticipated. It was a victory for pure democracy and for the next generation -- a sign that, if you work hard and smart, you can beat seemingly insurmountable odds. 

The old-guard, the machine-driven, mostly white office holders o the past. The future is here. 

Ocasio-Cortez joins a growing number of Democratic women running and winning in primaries this year. Their energy, their enthusiasm, their moral clarify is infectious. Hopefully all of them will be elected and make Trump and the Republicans suffer for the nightmare they've inflicted on this country. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Devils We Don't Know

If you read the previous thing I just posted, it's about how the horror show that is the Donald Trump presidency -- the lies, the racism, the corruption, the incompetence, the gaslighting, etc. etc. etc. -- is only sustained because ... guess what, people voted for him! Because we the people -- at least enough of us (not me and, hopefully, not you but enough) voted for this monster, enabling his rise to power, serving as conduits for this gas bag of vileness to stream its way into the highest reaches of American power.

He didn't do it alone -- quite the opposite! 62 million people helped him by knowingly casting their precious vote -- the only thing that separates us from tyranny, the only real power we hold over our government -- for an evil man. They did this. We did this. Trump is not the ultimate monster -- the 62 million who supported him are.

And that's what's most scary -- the people who assist monsters to make their reigns of terror possible. These shadowy people, these devils we don't know, and they're more frightening than the devils we know.  

In criminal law, we call people like that accomplices and they are considered just as guilty as the perpetrators of the crime. If only we could impeach, not only Trump, but the tens of millions of wretched people who voted for him.

Here's another example of a devil we didn't know (until now): one of the people who enables Harvey Weinstein to rape women. He's a prominent, respectable person, a big time businessman. What's especially chilling about this story is how people like this made abuse so institutionalized, so structured, so ... business-like. And how the devils we know get so much help, so much support, from the devil's we don't. 

We have met the enemy ...

... and he is ... them ... 

NYC Pride 2018

Friday, June 22, 2018

All Politics is Local -- and Timely

Next Tuesday, June 26th, are the Congressional Primaries in NYC. Most are quiet and not that competitive (in fact, most of NYC's congresspeople aren't facing primaries at all) but there are a few that are interesting as this overview shows.

But the most competitive, and nastiest, primary in overwhelming Democratic NYC is the Republican one in Staten Island.

It's between current Congressman Dan Donovan and his predecessor Michael Grimm. What's interesting about this race is that it's not really about policy (that's true about most primaries) but about the personalities of the candidates and their loyalty to Trump. For Donovan, his record and candidacy is about doing what's best for his district, first and foremost, even if that meant voting against the GOP tax and health care bills (which he did). For Grimm, it's all about Trump, blindly voting for his agenda no matter what. Also, Donovan is a quiet type while Grimm is full of bombast. So it comes down to loyalties and attitude, policies vs. cult of personality, thoughtfulness vs. anger. 

On Tuesday we'll find out which view prevails.

And taking about a "view prevailing", it'll be interesting to see how NYC treats Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump once, or if, they ever come back home. Will this hideous couple, scions and scion-in-law of this hideous president, be welcome back with lovely arms or will their hometown revile them? I hope it's the latter but, as people note, in NYC, anything can be bought with money -- even respect when none is deserved. 

All politics is ultimately local -- and personal.

P.S. This stuff, however, is short-term. Long-term, much longer-term, generations from now, historians will want to know what it was like to live in America in 2018. 

How to describe it? I know: think of that scene from "Apocalypse Now" where Martin Sheen is stuck in a bamboo cage, helpless and bewildered, while Dennis Hopper gives him water and rants about Colonel Kurtz:

"You know something, man? I know something you that you don't know. That's right, Jack. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad ... I mean, what are they gonna say when he's gone? 'Cause he dies when it dies, when it dies, he dies! What are they gonna say about him? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bull shit man! And am I gonna be the one that's gonna set them straight? Look at me! Look at me! Wrong!"

That perfectly encapsulates it: we live in a world controlled by a madman, having this fucked up situation either reinforced or explained to us daily by bizarre characters, and the rest of us are trapped, staring out at this mess, helpless and bewildered, thinking, "What the fuck is this?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Interview: Barbara Nitke, Legendary NYC Photographer

Great photographers don’t just take pictures – they capture the soul of their subjects, their pictures summon up emotions and thoughts, their lenses pierce into the fourth dimension. Photography is magic – it captures a physical moment in time but leaves a timeless, spiritual impression.

Barbara Nitke is one such magician, a New York-based fine arts photographer whose work concentrates on the sensual, the beautiful, the kinky, the romantic, and the unusual. She has photographed many human bodies in their most intimate, transitory of moments and has found, in her pictures, their deeper and perennial beauties. In addition to her amazing photographic projects, Barbara has worked as an on-set photographer for NYC TV shows and movies, and, most intriguingly, for the NYC adult movie and BDSM scenes. She has also taught at the School of Visual Arts and is a much accomplished, widely admired artist whose work is constantly in demand. She even took on the Attorney General of the United States in court over "indecency" -- and won!

Barbara was kind enough to answer some of Mr NYC’s questions about her love of photography and her career, and she shares her memories of being an on-set photographer during the last days of the NYC adult film world of the 1980s. She also gives some great advice for aspiring photographers, what she’s working on now, and why NYC will always be a great place to be a photographer.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a photographer.

I had originally wanted to be a writer, but found that I don't like the process of it. Staring at a blank page, figuring out what I want to say, struggling to find the right words - all that. I was in my late twenties when I first picked up a camera and started taking pictures for fun. I loved it immediately. And I realized I could explore all the fascinating little nuances of people much better through pictures than I could ever do with words. So photography became my medium.

You worked as an on-set photographer during the last days of the Golden Age of Adult Film. How did you get involved in that business?

My ex-husband produced a famous porn movie called Devil in Miss Jones in the 1970’s. When he made the sequel in 1982, I had just taken up photography and asked for the on-set stills job. I was such a beginner that I’m sure no one else would have hired me. Fortunately the director, Henri Pachard, liked my work and started hiring me for all of his shoots. That was a great break because Henri was highly regarded in the industry and worked all the time. When I was working on my second movie, Nasty Girls, I saw the opportunity to do an art series of behind-the-scenes photos of that world. It totally ignited my passion, and that was what decided me to become a fine art photographer.

What was the adult business in NYC like back then? What made it a "golden age" – and why did it end?

It’s hard to imagine now, but back then we shot real 35mm film on big movie cameras. Home video cassette players had barely been invented. There were no DVD’s, no home computers, no Internet. People went out to old-fashioned downtown movie theaters and actually stood in line to watch sex movies. A lot of craftsmanship went into making the movies. There were scripts, script supervisors, lighting technicians, sound technicians, hair and makeup people and even wardrobe supervisors.

Looking back, that was pretty amazing! We made porn movies the same way that arty, independent features were made. All of that would be unheard of in today’s world, because now anybody with a GoPro or even an iPhone can make a porn movie. But at the time, that was all normal to us. We only realized it was a Golden Age later, when we looked back to how the industry had changed after cheap video productions took over.

What is the art of being a good adult photographer – and what was it like shooting people having sex right in front of you -- exciting, boring, weird, or something else?

Actually, I don’t think I ever was a good adult photographer. I’m a great observer of people, and I’ve been on a decades long mission to humanize what might be called the dark side of the sex world. But more on that in a later question. I always had a lot of mixed emotions working on the porn sets. The days were very long - often 12-16 hours - and at the end of a day I had experienced so many emotions that it would seem like a year had gone by. There were long boring stretches, followed by excruciating moments when I wanted to reach out and save someone from - I’m not sure what. From being exploited? From their drug habit? From their personal demons? The deeper I looked into that issue, the harder it was to define.
And then an hour later, someone like Miss Sharon K. Mitchell would sashay across the set, gloriously naked and unequivocally proud. Which would confuse me even more.

You memorialized a lot of your pictures from that era in your book American Ecstasy. Tell us about this book and why you wanted to publish it?

American Ecstasy is my personal memoir, in pictures and words, of the twelve years I spent working as a still photographer on porn sets in New York in the 1980’s. It was important to me to publish the work because of my conviction that porn stars, and all sex workers, should be valued and treated with respect. Our culture creates the need for them, and then trashes them for fulfilling that need. I think that’s wrong, especially having known so many of them, both men and women. They deserve a lot better from us.

I see that the introduction of your book was by the legendary art critic and "philosophical aesthete" Arthur C. Danto (who lived in the same building I grew up in!). Was he an influence on your work?

Wow, I can’t believe you lived in the same building! Arthur was not an influence on my work, but he should have been. He was a witness in a lawsuit a filed against Attorney General John Ashcroft back in 2001. I was incredibly honored when he agreed to write the introduction to American Ecstasy. A great man, and a great mind!

And talking about aesthetics, adult work is often accused as being "male-centric"? As a female photographer in that business, is this a fair accusation – and how was your work different?

I guess adult work is male-centric in that the intended customers are men. At least that was true back in the 80’s and 90’s when I worked in the industry. But I don’t think that’s because there’s any conspiracy against women or female sexuality - it’s just harder to figure out what visually turns women on, while making them feel safe at the same time. Women are a much more difficult audience to target. If someone could figure out how to make porn movies that turn women on, they’d probably make a fortune.

As a female working in the business, I realized from the beginning that my view was different from what was considered good porn photography. There was some cross over - some porn moments that I really did think were hot - but overall I thought the scenes were obviously fake and sophomoric. (Although I did get a big kick out of the really campy ones.)

I was much more interested in capturing the complex emotions both the male and female stars were experiencing than I was in making them look like heroic sex machines. I found that it was pretty easy to identify just the right angle that would work as a good porn shot. Once I had the shots the producers needed to sell their movie, I considered myself free to roam around and get the moments that I wanted for my art series. For example, I loved it when somebody would yawn and look at their watch during a lens change in the middle of an orgy scene.

How has the art of adult photography changed or evolved in the digital age?

I honestly haven’t kept up with pornography in the digital age. From the little I know, it’s a lot more niche oriented and features much more extreme acts. What we thought was really badass back in my day, would probably be considered quaint today.

You photographed some of the most intriguing NYC stars of that time like Ron Jeremy, Vanessa Del Rio, Jerry Butler, Siobhan Hunter, and others. What are your memories of them and who were some of your favorite stars to shoot?

I loved them all! I always thought Ron Jeremy was a lot more complex and a lot smarter that his public persona, but that’s true of a lot of public people. Vanessa was really, really a STAR. She was probably the last true big time porn star. What people probably don’t know is that she has always been extremely down to earth, and has a wonderful sense of humor about herself and her stardom. Truly refreshing. Jerry Butler was horribly conflicted about his choice to be a porn star, to the point that it was sometimes painful to watch him on the set. And Siobhan Hunter was a medical school student, and is now a practicing doctor. But it would take days to tell all the stories. Of course, there are some really good ones in my American Ecstasy book.

You were also the on-set photographer for the acclaimed film Three Daughters directed by the legendary Candida Royale. What are your memories of that movie and Candida?

Three Daughters was a milestone movie in the industry, and it was a great attempt by Candida to use porn in a very positive way. For one thing, she wanted to educate the viewers on better ways to have sex. She was a pioneer in exploring female sexuality from a porn perspective. My memories of working on the show, however, were conflicted.

Siobhan Hunter was cast in the lead role, and the role brought up a lot of bad memories from her childhood. Because we were friends, I was aware of the personal pain she was going through during the shoot. But in the end, I believe Three Daughters might have served as a catharsis for Siobhan, and I’ve always hoped it turned out as a positive experience for her. In mainstream movies, it feels like there are less and less "big stars".

It seems like in the Golden Age there used to be some big stars too (come to mind). Like the big movie star, is the "adult star" in decline today?

Yes absolutely! I’m not sure why, but that does seem to be the case.

Have you seen "The Deuce"? If so, any thoughts?

I could probably come up with little things to quibble about, but overall I LOVE The Deuce. Love Maggie Gyllenhaal, and have loved her all the way back to The Secretary. She is brilliant and utterly fearless!

You also used to photograph the BDSM scene in NYC. How did that differ from your earlier work -- and what did you learn about BDSM that "square" people don't understand?

What was really interesting for me was coming from the been-around-the-block, sex worker world of porn into the real BDSM scene, where people are inhabiting their own sex lives. They aren’t acting, they’re really falling in love and expressing their love for each other. It was so different to see, and I knew right away that I wanted to understand what they were feeling and express that in photographs. They taught me that everyone expresses love differently, but it’s all love, no matter what it looks like from the outside.

Do you feel like society has gotten less "prudish" -- and do you feel like your work contributed to that (or is it just the Internet's fault)?

Well, of course I would like to give myself lots of credit for changing society! But I think there’s really just a natural progression of people becoming more sophisticated as they are exposed to more imagery and different ways of thinking. Overall, I think that’s a good thing.

You also worked on mainstream movies and TV shows in NYC like Law & Order, The Producers and, a personal favorite, Slaves of New York. What are your memories of working on those and other mainstream projects?

When I worked in porn, the crews were made up of young people fresh out of film schools like NYU. It was the first jobs they could get, and they were all excited and eager to prove themselves. There was a great spirit of enthusiasm and pride in craft back then, which I hope still exists today in the porn world.

Slaves of New York was a lot of fun! And so was Law & Order and all the other shows that I currently work on. The work conditions are much better - union rules and all - but I do sometimes miss that youthful exuberance of the New York porn world back in the day!

You've also taught photography, including at the School of Visual Arts. What do you try to teach your students about photography and what are the best lessons an aspiring photographer can learn?

Here’s my biggest tip - take a lot of pictures. And I also think that boring as it is, you can’t avoid learning the nuts and bolts of f.stops and shutter speeds, lighting ratios, ISO and white balance, and all the other technical things that beginning photographers sometimes try to skip. Digital cameras make taking reasonably good pictures very easy, but to really be a photographer you have to know the craft. With your camera set in manual exposure mode!

As a professional woman, what do you think of the #MeToo movement? Considering your work, you must have an opinion!

It’s so hard to have an opinion on the #MeToo movement. Sometimes I think things have gone way too far, when anyone can be publicly called out for a bad date or a passing remark. And then I think of women being drugged and raped by guys who are powerful enough to get away with it, and I’m very glad for the brave women who have come forward.

Tell us a little bit about what you're working on today and your hopes for the future.

I moved up to Harlem four years ago and built a run down motel room set in my living room. I’m creating a series of work featuring all the different people who show up to stay in the room. We make up a character and a little story, and the people act it out. It’s been an amazing experience so far. Most of my characters are actually crew people who I’ve worked with for many years on the reality show, Project Runway

Finally, what makes you love NYC -- and is this still a sexy city worth photographing?

How can I count the ways that I love New York? It’s such a great city! I love all the tremendous energy, diversity and raw humanity that you can reach out and touch 24 hours a day. It really is the city that never sleeps, and always comes up with something new to inspire me.

Thanks Barbara!