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!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"On the avenue, Fifth Avenue": Remembrance of Mansions Past

Fifth Avenue is one of the wealthiest, most beautiful stretches of NYC. Nestled on the eastern side of Central Park, it's a gorgeous array of beautiful apartment buildings, museums, houses of worship, department stores, and much, much more. It stretches nearly the entire length of Manhattan, ending majestically at Washington Square Park. Like its more populist sibling Broadway, it one of the great thoroughfares of NYC.

And 5th Avenue used to be even more grand.

Back in the 19th century, before Manhattan became a city of big buildings, 5th Avenue contained a huge number of mansions (in fact, it was nothing but mansions). They were built by the richest families in America, monuments to their great wealth and achievements, radiating power. Intricately designed, breathtaking in their beauteous construction, they were the ultimate symbols of the Gilded Age.

But like the Gilded Age, many of them were short lived. Their size and expense were too much even for the robber barons to maintain, and many of them were destroyed (those that still exist are either museums, like the Frick, or serve some other function). 

One such example was the Vanderbilt mansion that used to exist where Bergdorf's does now. It's a fascinating saga of wealth run amok and example of people with (at the time) unlimited wealth and power who lived and spent like the good times would never end -- until they did. It's an apocryphal story for today.

If you want to learn more about the vanished mansions of Fifth Avenue, check out this fascinating link. And read my previous post about the history of mansions in NYC. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

1989 in NYC History

If you lived during the Cold War, the idea that the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe would one day cease to exist seemed impossible. The Cold War, the literal and metaphorical Berlin Wall, the great divide between East and West, between capitalism and communism, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, was the status quo. It just ... was. It existed as a fundamental, unalterable reality of our world.

Another world seemed impossible, thinking about it pointless. For nearly 50 years, the status quo prevailed. 

Until, one day, it didn't.

Between 1989 and 1991, Communism collapsed in Europe and the Soviet Union broke up. And another monumental change, the end of apartheid in South Africa, happened at the same time and just as quickly. A world transformed indeed.

So what does this have to do with NYC? 

At the very same time, the city was transforming in ways we couldn't have imagined.

The thinking goes that the monumental changes in NYC over the last thirty years are due to the crash in the crime rate -- crime went down, the population and housing market demand went up, foreign money flooded in, gentrification ensued, etc. etc. etc. But at the same time this was happening, the city government was fundamentally changing, and this has had massive ramifications in how we live today.

How did this happen? Simple: in 1989 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional.

What was the Board of Estimate?

It was basically like the city council (it controlled the budget, land-use, and many other great powers; the city council was more of a constituent services group) except that it was un-elected and unrepresentative -- the city-wide elected officials and borough presidents each appointed members and they literally met in back room, hashing out the city's business like mob bosses. They were deeply connected to the political machines, took bribes from contractors, and basically turned it into a racket 

Until, one day, it ceased to exist.

The Board of Estimate was older, a lot older, than the Cold War -- it came into existence after NYC consolidated into the 5 boroughs in 1898. For nearly a century it ruled the city, undercutting mayors, sidelining the council, ignoring the public. The city was basically being run in secret by a kind of Politburo (to use another Cold War example) until it didn't. Now we have a strong mayor and city council and live in a much more democratic, less corrupt city.

So how did this happen?

Read this fascinating history about the end of the Board of Estimate and how it dramatically changed the city government and life in NYC. It's a history that we live with every day but know little about. It's amazing to think how long the BOE existed, how powerful it was, and how quickly it fell into the ash-heap of history.  

 That 1989 was a hell of a year! 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gotta Love New Yorkers

If you want to see what it means to keep your cool -- and the NYPD performing at its best -- check out this video shot by a Brooklyn man who was just driving down the street and found himself in a tricky situation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Art of the Bad Deal

Donald Trump touts himself as a great deal maker ("the art of the deal" and all that) and, when he ran for president, he promised to make "great deals" for the USA on a wide variety of issues, particularly on trade and in world affairs.

This has resulted in him alienating countries like Canada (Canada! How do you piss off Canada?) -- and blowing up the West alliance which won two world wars, the Cold War, and brought billions of people peace and prosperity for three-quarters of a century. 


And, after angering Canada, Trump when to have his "summit" with his new buddy, the Dear Leader of North Korea. The result of this summit? Nothing! They signed a meaningless agreement to maybe agree of things in the future. Some deal! 

This is nuts. But it's not surprising. Decades ago, Trump made a disastrous deal to buy the Plaza Hotel -- he paid over $400 million for it and then was forced to sell it years later for less than $350 million, taking a huge loss. It was an idiotic, embarrassing failure -- the art of the bad, really stupid, deal.

And now he's going to bring North Korea to heel? 

He truly is a conman -- and it's amazing that so many people in this country are falling for it. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Robert De Niro @ The 2018 Tony's

Gotta Love New Yorkers

The news constantly reminds us about the worst of human nature -- and the recent suicides of  two prominent New Yorkers reminds us about the complexity and fragility of life. 

But people really are, on the whole, wonderful, and we should value the best of human nature when we encounter it.

If you doubt that, if your heart is hard, if your feelings are cynical, then you must real this amazing story

It's about the passing of a man who dubbed himself the "Mayor" of West 83rd Street, and it'll lift your spirits and make you cry the same time. The "mayor" was a real New York character (dare I say, he was an "only in New York" type?), a buoyant spirit who brought joy to many people and warmed their hearts. 

And, oh yes, he lived a lifestyle that was, shall we say, exotic. 

Then he passed away very suddenly, to the shock of everyone. But, in their sadness, his neighbors got together and paid him a lovely tribute

I've noticed in life that things that are sad are often beautiful at the same time. 

And, as it's been said before, grief is the price we pay for love. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

My Brief Anthony Bourdain Encounter

This morning I learned the shocking news that celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain died in France, allegedly from suicide but the complete facts of the matter are unclear at the moment. 

The point is, he's gone, suddenly and shockingly. The tributes are pouring in, social media is abuzz, and people are tying to make sense of the senseless. Sometimes things happen, and people do things, that defy the ability to comprehend. We have to leave it at that. 

I never read any of Bourdain's books but I loved his TV shows where he traveled the world ate exotic foods with fascinating people. At a time when so many people, in so many countries, are looking inward and trying to shut out the world, Anthony Bourdain literally showed us what a huge, amazing, complex, and tasty place the globe really is, and how lucky we all are to live in it. Not for nothing, many people, myself included, aspire to emulate his adventures.

And I met him once.

For a man who lived an exciting life, my extremely brief encounter with Anthony Bourdain has to be one of its most boring events.

Believe it or not, for a time, we both lived in the same building -- in fact, he and his first wife lived in the very building I grew up in. At the time I was running a small notary business, notarizing legal documents for people who lived in the building, and one night I got a call to come down and notarize legal documents for Anthony Bourdain and his wife. I went into their gorgeously decorated apartment, notarized one document for his wife, and then his wife roused Anthony so I could notarize another document. Bourdain stumbled out of his bedroom, looking more exhausted than I'd ever seen a person, and he collapsed onto his couch. (He had just returned from Asia and was seriously, seriously jet-lagged; this was around the time he was becoming mega-famous). He grunted, signed the document I prepared, and then stared at me with bloodshot eyes, clearly hoping that I'd clear out ASAP. I did, and I never saw him again but I remained a fan of his work over the years since.

I hope his family finds peace in this sad time. 

And I hope that his legacy -- his life of travel, food, people, and riches they bring to us -- will live forever.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Fairness Fight

Nearly 500 years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

This has been true in history, particularly in American political history, since the founding. And it's happening today in NYC.  

Mayor DeBlasio and his new Schools Chancellor recently announced a plan to change the admissions process to NYC's elite public schools (places like Stuy, Bronx Science, etc.). In short, this plan would phase out the "all-in-one" admissions test and instead expand something called the "Discovery" program that would increase enrollment of low-income (i.e. black and Hispanic students) to these schools. It would use a variety of criteria including state exams, grades, and formulas to determine admission (read the details here).

Needless to say, the folks who think their children would lose out under this plan, and the politicians who represent them, are violently opposed to it. They're demonstrating, rallying, and denouncing it with venom. The mayor and schools chancellor are promoting this plan, along with a few allies in the state legislature, but the NYC media, the governor, and many other politicians and special interest groups are either against it -- or punting ("Well, we'll see," "This might not be the right time", "I don't know if there's an appetite for it", "We still need to see the details", etc., etc., etc.).

This is why reform is hard. This is why things don't change for the better. People and politicians are scared of change because they feel they'll be disadvantaged, that they'll lose out, that someone "less worthy" (i.e. poor or brown) will benefit at their expense. 

But sometimes things do change. Sometimes reform is achieved. And what's funny is that, when history is written, the enemies of reform always end of up looking bad.

I hope that's the case here. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

SATC @ 20: True Confessions

Since today marks the 20th anniversary of the first SATC episode, the New York Times has done a massive story about the people who saw the show and were inspired by it enough to move to NYC to live out their fantasies of spending all their time not-working-brunching-yentering-drinking Cosmo-and-shtupping.

Some stayed, and some left. These are their stories.

And then, of course, there are those of us who were already here and saw how this show and the subsequent gentrification of NYC changed the city into something many of us don't recognize today. 

"Colossal Snoopy": 70 Years of NYC Photos

New York City, like the world itself, evolves over time. 

Year by year, street by street, building by building, it grows and changes. 

When you look at pictures of NYC over the years and decades, you see how the city  literally transforms itself, sometimes by erecting new structures or tearing down old ones, sometimes by rehabbing the old and making it new again -- and sometimes by keeping things just the way they are while everything else around it changes.

This amazing photo galleryfrom 1931 to 2000 shows the physical evolution of NYC.

Lots of stuff you'll recognize, lots of stuff you won't -- but it proves that the only thing constant in NYC is change.

P.S. Go thru it and you'll understand what "colossal Snoopy" is. 

Kate Spade, RIP

Friday, June 1, 2018

SATC & TV & NYC @ 20

Twenty years ago this week marked a key moment in the history of television.

And it happened on HBO. 

On May 31, 1998, the comedy The Larry Sanders Show aired its final episode. The creation of brilliant comedian Garry Shandling about a narcissistic talk show host, Larry Sanders was one of the great, defining shows if the 1990s. More than that, it looked more like what is on TV now than then: it broke down the barrier between reality and fiction, it was single camera, its humor had more "cringe" and less punchlines, it was funny but also dark, it was deeply human. Today, most comedies on TV are like this but, in a time when wild, hyper sitcoms like Seinfeld and Home Improvement were ruling the air, Larry Sanders was quietly revolutionary -- and influential. 

Then, on June 6, 1998, along came Sex and the City.

The show about four female NYC friends -- a sort of East Coast, female-centric Larry Sanders -- easily became one of the most popular shows about NYC but, more importantly, one of the first great "Golden Age of Television" cable shows. Six months later The Sopranos hit the air and the "Golden Age" had officially begun.

As this article indicates, without SATC, the culture as we know it today would be quite different.  

Think about everything that SATC influenced. There would have been no Girls, no Broad City, and a whole universe of shows and culture dedicated to the professional and romantic lives of women. It was a cultural trailblazer. Also, without SATC, there's be no Cynthia Nixon for Governor, no cupcake culture -- and, arguably, less gentrification in NYC. 

TV as we know it was largely shaped in that week back in the spring of 1998 -- and, today, we live in its wake -- as does NYC.