Monday, August 31, 2009

The Satisfactions of Stillness

As you probably know, I ride the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and then back again almost every day. It is usually very noisy on the ferry. Among the sounds I often hear are the chattering of hundreds of tourists, boisterous natives arguing loudly about some controversial issue, the ferry's chugging engines, foghorns blaring periodically, the ripples in the harbor bumpingly resisting the surging boat.

Yesterday, however, as the boat was very slowly positioning itself to return to its slip in Manhattan, and its engines had been reduced to little more than a murmur, I was suddenly aware of how absolutely hushed everything had become. For one thing, I heard no voices at all, in part because there were so few people on board and virtually all of them sat alone in some remote corner of the deck. The usually ubiquitous crew was nowhere to be seen, no walkie talkies were barking, the loud speaker system was silent. Outside the air was utterly still; the water in the harbor did not crawl at all. All that I heard, even when I strained to listen, was the creaking of the wooden walls and pillars of this old boat, some version of which I ride every day. Those creaks made me think, not of age, but of venerability, of a machine that was designed to do its job reliably and dutifully, day in, day out. Somehow, there was something comforting and endearing in that sole, lingering groan, which seemed to say all this may take its toll but it is good, solid, uncomplicated and absolutely necessary work.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

23rd Street Pseudonyms

Welcome back! The pseudonyms of the three people imprinted on the 23rd Street Subway wall and referred to at the end of the previous post are revealed today. They are: Harry Houdini for Erich Weiss, the escape artist and magician; O. Henry for William Sidney Porter, the short story writer; and General Tom Thumb for Charles Sherwood Stratton, the 25-inch dwarf who gained notoriety as one of the stars of the circus produced by P.T. Barnum (also noted on that wall) to much acclaim throughout the mid to late nineteenth century.

What a bizarre trio, huh!? In some crazy sense, they represent the diversity and the sheer nuttiness of New York. The first figure - Houdini - was such a remarkable and convincing escape artist that at least one astute observer (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) believed he had the ability to dematerialize and rematerialize at will. O. Henry is still the best known short story writer of all time for his surprise endings. In fact, he spent only the last few years of his life in New York City, during which time he wrote close to a short story a week, though only a handful are still regularly read and remembered. And then there's Tom Thumb, who actually weighed over 9 pounds at birth and just plain stopped growing after six months (he began to grow again very slowly later on in his life). He went on to become one of the most famous people of his time, despite having no real talent, simply because P.T. Barnum convinced millions that he was worth seeing.

If anything unites these three it is probably that the American public came to believe they were something more than what they really were. Which, to the extent this is true, nicely captures one of New York City's most endearing qualities as well. It is the dream, the fantasy of New York that arrests so many. But like so many dreams or fantasies, they can rarely be fully realized or understood and often lead, in the end, to some degree of disappointment. Those who know this but seek after the dream anyway are less disappointed than others when the dream goes unfulfilled. They may even experience some sort of wry pleasure in knowing that part of that great quest is chimerical, something like an unendingly diverting mirage that is admired and appreciated for its beauty but is ultimately as insubstantial as gossamer.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

23rd Street Celebrities

One sunny summer day, as I descended to the 23rd street stop on the N-R-W Subway line, I heard the rumbling of an arriving train which induced me to dash down the rest of the stairs in hopes of catching it. I fumbled for my metro card, burst through the turnstile, and raced toward the beckoning open doors of the train, only to miss my ride by the length of an arm. Disappointed that I wasn't likely to catch another train for at least 5 minutes, I glumly wandered down the long waiting platform. As I strolled, my attention was drawn to the white ceramic tiles that lined the subway walls and were intermittently stenciled with the names of people and their professions. As I looked more closely, I realized these were the names of New York celebrities, some very well known and others quite obscure (at least to me), all of whom, as it turned out, had lived or worked in this part of Manhattan that stands in the shadow of the Flatiron Building.

Built in 1902, the Flatiron was not the tallest but probably the most distinctive of the first wave of steel-based skyscrapers. Its triangular shape was ingeniously fitted to the intersection at Broadway, 5th Avenue and 23rd Street, and its limestone facade with appealing embellishments were so attractive that it helped to make the area that surrounded it one of Manhattan's most fashionable and elegant turn of the century neighborhoods. Even today the Flatiron is one of the city's most recognized and iconic structures. As the wall of the 23rd street subway station suggests, the variety of people who were drawn there included: Florenz Ziegfeld, the enterprising founder of the dazzling Ziegfeld Follies; Stanford White, the influential architect who was killed in 1905 on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden, a building he designed, for allegedly having an affair with the great beauty Evelyn Nesbit (also noted on the wall); and Nellie Bly, one of America's first celebrity journalists, who gained fame for pretending to be insane to expose the horrors of mental institutions and for reporting on an around the world trip that took an astoundingly brief 72 days in 1890.

But these were just three of dozens of names on that wall from a panoply of professions. I became so enthralled that I missed the next train, too. By the way, there were also these three names: Erich Weiss, William Sidney Porter, and Charles Sherwood Stratton - the real names of three New Yorkers from roughly this turn of the century period (one actually died in 1883) who were much better known for their pseudonyms. Can you name them? The answers will be in tomorrow's post.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Merman and the Broadway Indelibles

I recently went to see a one-woman show about Ethel Merman, the great Broadway musical comedy star. It was a lot of fun to listen to a few of the songs she made famous and to hear of some of the old stories that burnished her legend. For instance, did you know that she premiered in George and Ira Gershwin's hit Broadway musical Girl Crazy in 1930 at the age of 20, introducing the song I Got Rhythm? And even if you did know that, I’ll bet you didn’t know that George Gershwin was conducting in the orchestra pit on that show’s opening night and that among the musicians in the band that evening were – are you ready for this? – Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller!

One of Ethel Merman’s great distinctions is the unique stamp she left on certain roles. Even today when you think of those roles you think of Merman. In two cases, I think, she gave definitive, unforgettable performances: As Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and as Mama Rose in Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. It is arguable that no other Broadway star has left such a memorable imprint on two great roles. Here is my list of the top ten performers who are indelibly associated with a particular role in great Broadway musicals (no films please). I invite you to critique, add, or subtract, in other words, to offer up your own list. By the way, I have even attempted (foolish man that I am) to put these roughly in the order of the strength of the performer's identification with the role in question. The stronger the association of the performer with the role and the show, the higher he or she appears on the list.

1. Yul Brynner as the King in The King and I

2. Robert Preston as Harold Hill in the Music Man

3. Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl

4. Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly

5. Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady*

6. Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof

7. Ethel Merman as Mama Rose in Gypsy**

8. Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun**

9. Vivian Blaine as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls

10. Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific

*Is anyone thinking that Richard Burton as Arthur in Camelot should be included (who learned from Harrison how to perfect the talking/singing that became a kind of trademark)? It's a tough call, but I have omitted him primarily because Camelot itself does not really compare, to my surprise, to these other musicals in terms of popular success (873 performances) or for being as widely or as fondly remembered. By the way, I don't really get this, as I love the show, but these are the facts and my sense. Hey, do you think the appalling movie adaptation from the mid-60's had a negative impact on the collective memory of this show?

**Some of you may be thinking that Merman shouldn’t be on this list at all, because Patti Lupone recently gave the definitive performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy and Bernadette Peters a few years back turned in the ultimate performance as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. You may have a point, but this is a post, for heaven’s sake, about Ethel Merman, so delete her only after careful and respectful consideration.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Miracle at Lincoln Center

I've been walking around with this huge smile on my face and no matter what happens I continue to grin irrepressibly. I am calm, contented, pleasantly placid, stubbornly serene. I have just seen the film Miracle on 34th Street for the 27th time or so, but for the first time on the big screen and in the commodious, cushy auditorium of the Lincoln Center Film Society to boot. It was terrific.

For the uninitiated, Miracle on 34th Street is the story of a Macy's Santa Claus who goes by the name of Kris Kringle and claims to be the real thing. At a hearing to determine whether or not he should be committed for being insane, his lawyer, who has become a dear friend, must prove that he is, in fact, who he says he is - the one and only Santa Claus. There is something about the clever script that makes all of this plausible, and the whole effort is helped enormously by the skill and charm of veteran English actor Edmund Gwenn, playing the Santa. Gwenn's performance is unparalelled for this kind of picture, though Hollywood did have the termerity to attempt a TV remake with Sebastian Cabot many years later that only reinforces the superiority of Gwenn's performance.

It may be of some interest to know that I saw this film as part of a retrospective celebrating the performances of Natalie Wood, who was only eight at the time and plays the little girl who becomes convinced that this Macy's Santa is for real. She is quite wonderful in it and very convincingly plays a girl who begins as a skeptic and is eventually won over by Santa's kindness and sincerity. And, indeed, it is those qualities of the Kris Kringle character in this film - his gentleness, decency, love of life, and knack for bringing people together - that make me, anyway, smile and, yes, cry whenever I see it. Especially when the Natalie Wood character is still doubting Kris and happens to witness him greet a little Dutch girl as he sits on his throne in Macy's. She is a non-English speaking refugee from a bombed-out city in Holland and has just been adopted by American parents. The American mother brings the Dutch child over to Santa and apologizes that her adopted daughter is unable to communicate with him. But before the Mom can finish, our smiling Santa pulls the little girl to his lap and begins speaking cheerily to her in perfect Dutch. This also gives the girl a chance to communicate to her new mother through this Dutch-speaking Santa how much she loves her. We see Natalie Wood's eyes popping with wonder as she watches these exchanges, while the new mother in the film and Steve, the appreciative viewer, pretty much dissolve in tears of joy at the same time. It never fails.

And to see this perfect little New York-based fantasy on a big screen at one of New York's great cultural institutions. Well, that is like a minor miracle in itself and why I wanted to share a few comments about it here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

MoMA Dust-up

I went to MoMA the other day during their pre-opening hours. I love going at this time because most of the galleries are utterly deserted and there is something about being present with these great pictures and sculptures in this immense silence - the kind where all you hear is the air conditioning whistling through the vents - that is beautiful and calming.

I was on the fifth floor in the room where all those amazing Matisses are hanging - the Piano Lesson, an improvised version of the Dance, the Red Studio - when my looking was interrupted by a young woman walking swiftly through the gallery with a dusting brush in one hand and a bottle of cleanser in the other. She stopped periodically whenever she came to any flat surface where one of a number of Matisse's sculptures was sitting. She dusted each surface, while carefully avoiding the artwork itself. I watched her leave the Matisse room and walk just as deliberately into another, stopping only when encountering some kind of flat surface to free it of dust, always conscientiously keeping her duster from brushing up against the art objects themselves. I couldn't help being struck by the juxtaposition of what we consider to be great, transforming art with the simplest, most quotidian of tasks. Truth and beauty may be eternal, but, hey, dusting is important, too. And need I add that even in an art museum you can’t escape the fact that cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Funniest Words

By themselves, the words – Fuck You – are really not that funny. It is only after those roaming street guys have lured you into a second rate comedy club promising you a big discount and a wonderful time and you are sitting there counting on someone to be funny that those words become, well, hilarious. I know this because the last time I was in such a club those words were used many times in many contexts and every time they were uttered they elicited a big laugh. In fact, I heard those words in a comedy club for the very last time when I used them myself as I exited the club with a surprisingly public flourish. It all came to pass innocently enough.

There I was sitting in this comedy club, having been lured there only hours before, actually laughing, as I had off and on for seventy minutes during the course of four half-way decent stand up acts. But when the fifth and last comic got up, you could tell almost immediately he was going to be the worst. The number of expletives increased alarmingly and the amount of humorous material declined precipitously. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but during a pause in his tedious routine, I happened to say out loud how great it would be to hear something that was actually funny.

Needless to say, this unfunny fellow took great offense at my remark and retorted angrily and predictably: “The fucking old fart sits there through everybody’s else’s act and never says a fucking word and now suddenly he’s got a fucking problem with my fucking jokes.” As you might expect, this tirade did get him some hearty laughs, so he kept returning to it, particularly trying to taunt me with the phrase “the old fart,” invariably preceded by some variation on the ‘F’ word.

Finally, I decided I had heard enough. I stretched and yawned elaborately indicating how monotonous this had all become and then got up to leave. As I made my way out, he insisted on asking me where I was going, that nobody walks out on his act. I didn’t say anything but just keep moving when he inquired quite suddenly if I had anything to say for myself. With that kind of opening, how could I resist? I paused for a moment, looked over at him, peered at the audience and then back at him. I carefully formed the letters in my mouth, preparing to respond with sincerity but also with great deliberateness so that it was almost as if I was spelling out those ugly but inevitable words: “F-u-c-k Y-o-u!” Blowing him a kiss, I quickly departed the club with the surprisingly raucous laughter of the audience following me out the door.

I could say those two words tomorrow and nobody would laugh. But at that time and in that place, I guess judging from the reaction of the audience, they were the funniest words I’ve ever said.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saratoga Summer

Where do lifelong New Yorkers go to get a break from the noise and fast pace of the city? Well, a few that I know who have lived on Staten Island all their lives go to Saratoga Springs, the upstate New York resort town that offers a first-class horseracing track, casino gambling in the evening, and some solid steak and potatoes chow all day long. I spoke recently with a 60-year-old Staten Island native about his plans for a vacation and he explained that he would be going away for about 4 days with 7 male friends he has known for well over 40 years. They have been taking this same trip every year since they all graduated from Middle School, or something like that, and it struck me that this sort of thing may be part of the recreational routine for a lot of late middle-aged White males residing in the outer boroughs.

The trip apparently always begins with rounding up the best New York deli food the group can find and then heading for Saratoga with a good 2-day supply of hearty New York cuisine in tow. Of course, there are still those steak and potatoes joints that need to be patronized, but the deli stuff sort of tides you over in the meantime. The first and most noteworthy stop after settling in at the local Hampton Inn is the Track, a world renowned site for horse races, people watching, and wholesome gambling.

Most days, the track opens at 11 a.m. and the races begin at 1. So you can imagine the boys gathering around the oval close to Noon, looking over their tout sheets, and figuring out which horses they are going to favor, even as they somewhat uneasily digest their pastrami sandwiches. To my surprise, incidentally, the racetrack does not actually open for business until July 29th and then only accepts paying customers until September 7th. However, when you take into account how much is squeezed into those 41 days, then you begin to realize that maybe 41 days is as much as any town can handle. Before you know it, for instance, July 31st brings Hats Off to Saratoga Festival day in which all things Saratoga are feted. Please note that a hat is required attire. If you’re not wearing a hat, you really can’t participate fully, so don’t show up without the obligatory headgear. Then there’s Mid-Summer St. Patrick’s Day on August 5, for the folks who regret not being able to bet on horses while gulping their beer on March 17th. You have to wait over 3 weeks for the next big event, but on August 28th “The Battle of the Brews” celebration takes place. This day is marked by some of the leading beer distributors in the country creating an event in which you feel almost unpatriotic if you don’t drink a lot of beer. Which leads us seamlessly to the final celebration to be noted here. It is none other than “Proud to be an American Day” on September 2nd in which some of the great achievements of Saratoga’s most noteworthy residents – past and present – are recognized, Among those being honored this year are Paul Kim, one of the top 24 finishers in the 2009 American Idol competition.

After taking full advantage of the Saratoga racetrack, you return to your room at the Hampton Inn for a quick nap and freshening up before heading out for a full night of casino gambling. You lose money each night, but never a lot, and then you go home, with fewer coins jangling in your pocket, but thanks to the steak and potatoes, with another pound or two comfortably added to your already ample frame. The days and nights were full and satisfying, punctuated by a chance to catch up with good friends. What more could one ask for from a summer vacation?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Streets

You probably heard that a few blocks along Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square (near Macy’s) have been permanently closed to automobile traffic to make way for two pedestrian thoroughfares. The city has also contributed outdoor furniture to these areas so that people can stay for a while and really savor this unique vantage point on the city. I think this is a terrific move, but it doesn’t have me nearly as excited as a different initiative, though temporary, that the city has just finished experimenting with for the second year in a row. It is called Summer Streets, and for three Saturdays in August, from 7 am to 1 pm, Park Avenue and the continuation of Park Avenue below 14th Street, primarily Lafayette Avenue, were closed to traffic from 72nd Street all the way down to City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge, a distance of about 4 miles. Not only that, but because the city recognized that most intersecting streets also had to be closed to really make this initiative worthwhile, there were only a handful of times when you had to slow down for crossing traffic. To travel the wide boulevards of Park Avenue is a special treat, and like so many of these efforts to make the city more pedestrian friendly, you are afforded a perspective on the city that makes you see it and experience it in a whole new way.


Yes, that's true, I did not take advantage of Summer Streets yesterday. There was too much rain. I appreciate this opportunity to set the record straight. In fact, I headed for the far reaches of West Chelsea to go to 4 galleries, all between 10th and 11th Avenues, featuring photographs of New York City. Not ONE of these galleries turned out to be open. Which brings up a completely new topic: the New York Art World. I really feel they're playing this game with a whole set of rules from which I have been systematically excluded. All of those galleries should have been open on a Saturday, I think, but not one was. How do you find out about these things? How is one supposed to know? I am at a loss. I will end this post, then, with that note of sadness that comes from missing Summer Streets, being misinformed about the galleries, and my tendency, not easily shaken, to shade the truth just a bit. My sincerest apologies. However, I am obliged to add in self-defense that all previous posts about the future turned out to be almost entirely true.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

New York Performers

Sometimes it seems every other person in New York City is a performer. Which, in a way, isn't too surprising, as there are probably more professional performers per capita in New York than anywhere else in the country. You also notice them more in New York than in other places. For one thing, there is a lot of impressive, professional performing going on in the city. There are scenes for movies, TV shows, and advertisements being shot all the time. I think everyone who lives in New York has run across these film crews repeatedly. There are also the musicians, some of them quite good, trained at Julliard and other fine schools, who station themselves wherever people gather – parks, subways, busy sidewalks. There are singer-songwriters and string quartets and percussionists and one-man bands and acappella singing groups, the list goes on and on. We encountered an unusual group of 4 musicians in Central Park recently – 3 cellos and a drum – called Break of Reality. They were so good we bought both of their CDs! So there is a lot of genuine talent on display in all parts of the city.

But there is also a lot of bogus talent out there. People who think they are entertaining you and want to entertain you but who really don’t. Just the other day I watched a threesome on the train who were recounting stories and cracking jokes just a little louder than necessary. They seemed to think they were the cleverest thing going and that everyone around them was looking for the kind of diversion only they could provide. But I swear not only were the passengers not laughing, they weren’t even smiling.

Or I’m thinking of those five black guys who always appear where the biggest crowds are gathered – the steps of the Met, certain sections of Central Park, where the ferry to the Statue of Liberty disembarks – and who use their charm and their outlandishness to cover up the fact that they really have only thing to show off, the fact that one of them can leap over the other four while they’re all standing in a line. Everything else is patter, come-on, time wasting, to make this 5-second thrill seem like a 10-minute event.

But I think my favorite bogus performers are the ones who somehow scratch out a living by not doing anything at all. I am referring, of course, to those fine folks who in some cases attract large audiences by dressing up in funny costumes and then proceed to sit, stand or kneel in perfect stillness - the human statues. The challenge they pose to their audiences is the waiting game – how long can they actually hold their pose without stirring? Those with the most talent (?!) are the ones who can hold still for minutes, hours (who has that kind of time?), or even days (wow!) without twitching an eyebrow or quivering a muscle. Of course, there’s no world record for this, because, after all, no one ever really holds themselves entirely still. No way to say how much movement is okay, etc. There would be endless disputes about who was still the longest. That’s a shame, though, don’t you think? These people who work so hard doing nothing to attract our nickels and dimes should at least be eligible for the Guinness Book of World Records. Say, speaking of the Guinness Book of World Records, did you know that there’s a record for the longest ear hair? Yup, that’s right. The record is held by Anthony Victor of Madurai, India. His ear hair grew to a length of 7.12 inches, which, you have to admit, is really a spectacular amount of ear hair. You know, if I could choose between two New York street performers – one a frozen statue and the other flaunting his excessively long ear hair, I just might go with the latter. What do you think?

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21st

Today is my birthday, so I thought it would be appropriate to investigate what else happened on this day, and to see, just for fun, if any prominent people breathed their first on August 21st. The answer is absolutely extraordinary, downright breathtaking in its nullity. This day is a great void in the history of humankind, for nothing of consequence, even if we stretch the meaning of consequence, happened on this day. Go to the Wikipedia site for August 21st and feast your eyes on that great inventory of nobodies who were born on this day. Oh, you know, I could single out a couple of noteworthy people, Count Basie, Wilt Chamberlain, sort of, but the pickings really are strikingly, shockingly slim.

I have always had this sense that August 21st was a remarkably ordinary day in history, you know, with the exception of my birthday. Now I know with certainty that it is an uncommonly inconsequential day and since my birthday no longer makes any difference to me, I guess I will just have to join everyone else in accepting it as one of the dullest of those very dull dog days of August.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Harlem Children's Zone

The evidence is now overwhelming that children who acquire a large speaking vocabulary when they are young and are encouraged to raise questions and to talk at length with their parents and other significant others about what concerns or interests them during their early years stand an especially good chance of being successful in school and going on to a stable and productive career as adults. Ensuring that children enjoy such an advantage, the kind that most middle class parents take for granted, is why the innovative social reformer Geoffrey Canada created the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) in 1997.

Yet, Canada’s vision for the HCZ hardly stops there. He wants to do more than just help individual children gain advantages they have never had before; he has set out to re-create a culture in a 97-block zone of Harlem, containing about 10,000 mostly poor children, where a commitment to learning is everywhere in evidence, where you can't escape the fact that the kids and the adults in this section of Harlem are engaged, curious explorers who are actively involved in acquiring new knowledge. Canada theorizes that the more children and their families are infected with this love of learning the greater the benefit for the whole community. Building on the pioneering work of James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, Canada seeks to provide what Harlem parents and children have always lacked: The resources, the training, and the continuous support that at last will grant Harlem’s young people "access to the same kind of nurturing, stimulating, language-rich early home life as every other American child."

Part of the challenge of this work is that there has been an entrenched cycle of violence in places like Harlem, a legacy of slavery and oppression, in which many adults, often the victims of punitive parenting themselves, have come to regard harsh physical punishment as a legitimate, even desirable way to discipline children. Working closely with Dr. T. Berry Brazleton, one of the country's leading experts on early childhood development, Canada and his team developed what became known in the Harlem Children's Zone as "Baby College," a series of intense, demanding but non-threatening classes to teach young parents both how to converse with their children more openly and flexibly, and how to discipline their children less punitively and more positively.

As Canada has envisioned it, Baby College is only the beginning. It leads directly to HCZ’s Pre-Kindergarten Gems Program for 3 and 4 year olds, then to HCZ's painstakingly designed Kindergarten that, in turn, introduces young children to the Promise Academy, their state of the art elementary and middle school, all strategically sequenced to consolidate and make the most of the advantages gained at each level. The lesson learned from Heckman’s research and many others is to start early and to continue to introduce new programs that build on and enhance the results from earlier efforts. As Paul Tough says in his new book about Geoffrey Canada and the HCZ, referring to Heckman’s findings, “If you intervene in a child’s life early, later interventions will have more to build upon, which means that they will pay off more as well.” Or as Heckman himself says in a 2007 paper written with Dimitry Masterov, “Skill begets skill; learning begets learning. Early disadvantage, if left untreated, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years. Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.”

The achievement outcomes for children who experience these HCZ programs, what Canada has called "the conveyor belt," have been exceptional. There is consequently more reason to believe than ever that the future for the very young residents of the Harlem Children’s Zone is especially bright. They are increasingly guaranteed the advantages that so many middle class children have viewed as their birthright. President Obama has praised the HCZ and has said that something like it should be replicated in 20 other cities. Similarly, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed his strong support for such comprehensive, early intervention, community-wide models.

In the meantime, the HCZ’s greatest current challenge, explored in some detail in the second half of Paul Tough’s Whatever it takes, is how to best help the Harlem older children, now in the Promise Academy middle school, who never got the chance to benefit from Baby College, Gems Pre-K, or the kindergarten, and are struggling academically. Ultimately, how this challenge is addressed is a telling part of Geoffrey Canada’s story. Canada is a man who takes every misstep and every failure to progress personally, and who goes all out to reach his goals. His total commitment obliges him to search out every possible strategy to help lagging kids catch up. He regularly rallies the staff at the Promise Academy to do more, and he eventually replaces some competent, well meaning people who, despite their abilities, seem to lack the fire in the belly persistence that Canada believes must accompany their shared quest for educational renewal. True, it’s also a story about overreliance on test scores as a measure of progress and success, and one that may ultimately focus too much on teaching to the test to pull those scores up. But skeptics beware. For Geoffrey Canada everything is at stake, nothing less than the very lives and livelihoods of the children who so dutifully attend Harlem Promise Academy, often for 9, 10, and 11 hours each day. And like any man on a mission, he will do whatever it takes for these children to thrive in school and to look forward with confidence to a happier and more productive future.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun...Education

One of the most remarkable social reformers in America is a gentle but deeply passionate and committed man named Geoffrey Canada. Back in 1997 he began the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a community-wide effort designed to transform the lives of Harlem’s youth through a geographically-focused, comprehensive program of schooling, parental coaching, and social and medical services. As Paul Tough says in his superb new book about Canada and the HCZ called Whatever It Takes, Canada wanted to use the HCZ to initiate large-scale social change. “What would it take," he repeatedly asked, "to change the lives of poor children not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in a programmatic, standardized way that could be applied broadly and replicated nationwide?” More about this in the next post, but for now I want to focus on Canada’s personal journey.

In 1995, even before the emergence of the HCZ, Canada wrote an unsettling memoir about his early life growing up in New York titled Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A personal history of violence in America. Born in the South Bronx in 1952, the third of four sons that arrived in quick succession, Geoffrey was part of a family that struggled daily to get by. Abandoned by their father and supported by public assistance and whatever his mother Mary could pick up as a seamstress, the boys subsisted on a diet of rice and beans, powdered milk, and government surplus cheese and peanut butter. In one important way, their mother was different from many others in the neighborhood, however. She had been to college for two years in North Carolina before dropping out to support her family. She cherished her days in college and she still loved to read. She read to her sons every night, and as they grew, she tried to make up for the food she couldn’t afford to feed them by supplying them with a rich menu of offerings from the public library.

Thanks to his Mom, Geoffrey did become a proficient reader and school did matter to him. When he was in sixth grade the standardized test that he took indicated he was reading on a 12th grade level. But the constant action on the streets of the South Bronx was much more exciting to him. He joined the gang the Young Disciples, and not only learned to fight with an assortment of weapons, but saw the friendships that he formed there with fellow gang members as the main thing that gave his life meaning and purpose. In 7th grade, Geoffrey went to an accelerated school and did well, but as he himself has said, his heart was in the streets and over time his focus on school became less and less. He was now carrying a knife regularly and quite prepared to use it. When it came time to go to high school, he didn’t do well enough on the tests required to enter an elite school like Stuyvesant or the Bronx School of Science, which meant that his only choices were dead-end schools, known for grinding kids up and spitting them out. He wanted something better, despite the enduring attraction of the streets, so he followed his brothers somewhat reluctantly out to Wyandanch, a fairly prosperous Black suburb of New York, to live with his grandparents and to go to high school there.

Wyandanch was a very different world from the South Bronx, though also mostly black. You didn’t impress anyone with how well you used your fists or wielded a knife, and academics mattered. Canada did reasonably well and impressed people with his intelligence and relational skills. He became the president of the senior class and served as captain of the football team. He rarely applied himself, though, and was happiest smoking dope and partying through the night. College seemed distant and unimportant. Canada did send applications to two colleges: SUNY – Stony Brook, near Wyandanch, where he expected to go, and to Bowdoin College in Maine, about which he knew nothing, but applied because a school secretary had told him he should do so. He had his heart set on going to Stony Brook, a known party story, but when a mix-up occurred, it turned out Stony Brook was no longer an option. The Vietnam War was raging and he had no intention of going to war. He needed to go to Bowdoin and successfully convinced the admissions staff, though by this time it was August and school was about to begin, to admit him for the 1970-71 academic year.

His experience at Bowdoin was a rocky one, at least at first. Academically, he was well behind his white peers and struggled to keep up. He felt alienated, unwanted, like a token member of the Bowdoin community, and he resented the fact that doing well in a largely black high school did not translate into achievement at a mostly white elite college. His salvation, at least at first, was the other 30 or 40 black students who had been admitted with him and who met regularly at the Afro-American Center. Now he felt some of the same rush he had enjoyed as a Young Disciple. As a black man, he felt like an outsider in this all-white environment, and when he and the other black students that congregated at the Afro-American Center tried to organize the college to make it more hospitable to black students there was constant resistance. Still, Bowdoin eventually became home. His grades improved dramatically, and he learned that the professors, though almost all white, wanted to talk to him, actually sought HIM out, and really did care. In the end, Bowdoin helped him become the person he wanted to be.

Also, Bowdoin opened doors, no question about that. It led to graduate work at Harvard’s School of Education, teaching at the Robert White School working with emotionally disturbed youth, and eventually to executive positions at the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, where in a relatively short period of time he rose to the Presidency. But Canada wanted to go where the greatest need was for African Americans and to do something that went beyond helping just a few dozen kids here and there stay in school. He realized that what he had to do was to support the neediest kids in all aspects of their lives and to stay with them as long as they needed his help, even if that meant working with them right through college. He knew the greatest need was in Harlem and that he needed to go there to do something dramatic and transformative, something that could completely alter the social equation for Harlem youth. That’s how the Harlem Children’s Zone was born.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Far, Far Rockaway

The other day I traveled by subway to Far Rockaway, that distant, peninsular outpost in Queens that owing to its miles of beaches, soothing sea breezes, and remote location was once the summer destination for celebrities like W.C. Fields and Mary Pickford. Now quite a few people live there but very few come to visit. It is depressed economically and is still thought to be somewhat difficult to reach. In general, Far Rockaway doesn’t appear to have a whole lot going for it, except maybe the beach. In my case, I was making the trip to visit a teacher I know. I personally did not find it to be a particularly long journey. You can get there via the A Train in less than an hour. That is, if you don’t continue north to Lefferts by mistake, because you forgot to transfer at Rockaway Avenue (there’s a Rockaway Boulevard, too!! And neither have anything to do with Far Rockway!). In that case, it takes a whole lot longer.

I enjoyed myself, though. The last third of the trip goes out across Jamaica Bay and you feel like you’ve entered into a different world. You can just about reach out and touch the water as the train goes rumbling by, and you can’t help but notice that you are traveling on a little sliver of landfill and bridges constructed just for the purpose of extending the subway to this far flung, slightly exotic place.

As you may have heard, Flushing, Queens is now one of the most diverse areas in the world. Something like 150 languages are spoken there and the streets are lined with a huge variety of ethnic restaurants that reflect the tastes of the residents. Far Rockaway, too, has become known for its diversity and boasts a large Orthodox Jewish community, a burgeoning African American population, and a variety of relative newcomers from Guyana, Guatemala, Russia, and the Ukraine. The housing market was hit especially hard in Far Rockaway, but a new day may be coming as some beautiful beach front condominiums can now be had for real bargains. As I walked from the train station to the school where I was expected, I was struck by the tranquility of the place but also by how many energetic conversations could be overheard on the street and on people’s doorsteps. Something tells me that, like Flushing, Far Rockaway is a comer and may yet return to its former glory. And, really, it’s not that hard to get there as long as you can keep your Rockaways straight!

Monday, August 17, 2009

One Bad Movie and One Great Painting

Regular readers will no doubt recall I am a proud member of the Museum of Modern Art. Recently I doubled the pleasure of my membership by seeing a movie and touring a gallery. The film I saw was Night Nurse made by William Wellman. It stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck and, according to IMDB, was made in 25 days between April and May of 1931 and then released three months later in New York. It is not a work of art, though the opening tracking shots do indicate a desire to try something inventive. You get the feeling, though, that as the Depression worsened, they ran out of money to finish it as planned. Wellman was a renowned director who had done Wings earlier, a big silent hit, and just weeks before Public Enemy with James Cagney. Night Nurse, which has something to do with good bootleggers and bad bootleggers and good doctors and bad doctors all battling it out, ends with Stanwyck, the Night Nurse, helping the good bootleggers to go straight and working with the good doctors to guarantee that the bad doctors never practice medicine again. When the film was over and the lights came on again, I overheard a very old man in the audience exclaim with refreshing disdain, “How did they ever get away with inflicting that piece of junk on the American public in 1931?” Oh, one other thing. Clark Gable is one of the bad bootleggers in this film and it is one of 12, yes 12, films that he made in 1931. He’s not wearing a mustache and he does nothing at all to distinguish himself.

Having sampled the charms of MoMA’s cinema collection, I thought I’d give a gallery a try and experiment with my own idea of concentrating on just a few works of art during a visit. In fact, I settled on one – Picasso’s monumental “The Girl Before a Mirror” painted apparently in one day on March 14, 1932. I decided to stand there as long as I could to try to understand the whole composition better but also to overhear what people said about it. The painting is a portrait of a young girl, based on Picasso’s beautiful mistress at the time, who is looking at her reflection in a mirror. It uses a kind of complex, neo-cubist style, but most of it is quite representational. You can clearly make out the girl’s face, with her lovely oval eyes, red lips, and softly slanting nose, and you can discern the reflected face as well, much darker, drawn with dark purples and a coarseness that is absent in the girl herself. The reds that are part of the girl standing before the mirror are strong primary reds, but the reds in the reflection are browner, much less radiant, and just a bit menacing. There is one slash of reddish orange in the reflection that is like a scar across her face. As I gazed at this work, one of the things that occurred to me is that Picasso has always been rated a lesser colorist than his rival Matisse, and, I guess, for the most part he was. But this painting is so arresting in its use of color; the purples and lavenders and striking shades of green and blue are all put to extraordinary use.

The rest of the portrait shows a girl who is dressed in some kind of striped green dress which sets off her prominent and rounded breasts. She appears to be quite pregnant, though in the reflection, her bulging stomach seems shrunken and elongated. The wallpaper-like background of the painting is made up of colored diamonds that in my humble opinion undermine slightly the overall design. The girl is reaching out to her reflection in an intriguing way, and her extended arm seems to be reflected back onto her and somehow continuous with her actual arm as well.

There is much more to be said about this work, including all its Freudian and mythological implications, but I don’t know how to go into any of that. As for the people who looked at the painting, quite a few lingered for a minute or two. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand what the German couple observed or follow what the Italian twosome shared so animatedly with each other. However, among the comments I could understand included a father explaining to his wife and two sons:

“Do you see how he shows us both profiles simultaneously? That’s very characteristic of Picasso.” His wife responds: “Is she pregnant?” He says: “I think so, but it may be a pregnancy in Picasso’s own mind.” One of the sons says: “Well, that’s really helpful.” Then they wander away.

I also watched two women walk up to the painting to see the wall label then step back to take it all in better. One says: “Is she wearing a swimming suit?” The other doesn’t respond to this, but comments: “Do you see how everything is skewed? It’s all part of the crazy, mixed-up world of Picasso.” The first asks: “Did he go mad eventually?” The second answers: “I think so.”

Finally, I observed another couple as they approached the painting and the woman stopped short, “Look at this one!” They check out the wall label and say the title aloud. The man doesn’t say anything, but tilts his head to get a better look at it. As they move onto another section of the gallery, the woman smiles broadly and exclaims: “I like the big belly!”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Visiting Teedie's Home

As promised, I report today on my visit to the birthplace of Teddy Roosevelt. Some people refer to this site as a “recreation,” because the original house was torn down in the early 1900s. According to the ranger, however, it is really a “reconstruction,” modeled meticulously on its neighboring twin at 26 E. 20th Street, which remained standing and had been the residence of Teddy's uncle. It is thus quite an authentic reconstruction.

At 10 AM on Saturday, August 15, 2009, eleven visitors (counting myself) were invited to climb the stairs to view the reconstruction of the two-story home (later expanded to three, though the third floor is not open to the public) that the family of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. occupied from about 1855 to 1872. It is an impressive house, but by no means a luxurious one. On the first level, there are three large rooms - the Library, the Dining Room, and the Parlor. Teedie, as he was known as a youth, hated the library because it had no windows, the furnishings were dark, and the chairs were upholstered in horsehide which made his knickered legs itch. The ranger showed us a small velvet chair which was said to be the chair Teedie favored whenever he couldn’t take the horsehair any longer.

All the rooms are high-ceilinged – about 15 feet – and each seems typical of a well-to-do Victorian home. The second floor is quite a bit smaller, with only a Master Bedroom, a nursery (later converted after the children were older), and a smaller room that might have served as a very small bedroom. Most likely, after Teedie was born or perhaps after his brother Elliot arrived two years later, the third floor was added. The ranger didn’t say this, but I couldn’t help wondering if it became possible to expand the home because of the riches that were pouring into New York City as a result of the Civil War, a war, by the way, that Theodore Sr. managed to avoid through the common practice of hiring a substitute for a fee of about $300. Years later, apparently, Theodore, Sr. still lamented the decision not to serve, and his son, it is said, never quite got over it either, which may account for his fervent need to prove himself as a warrior in the Spanish American War.

As I left this tour, I couldn’t help wondering where Teedie found the room to establish what was jokingly called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History, but which became a very real and extensive collection of live and stuffed animals. Perhaps in the servant’s quarters or in some shed on the grounds? Or could it be that his permissive parents found a corner in the library to stash all this stuff? It certainly didn’t have a place in the parlor, as even Teedie was rarely allowed to enter that formal room where distinguished guests were greeted.

My last image was of Teedie just a bit frustrated by this increasingly urban environment he found himself in. As Teedie matured along with his knowledge of natural history, the city he inhabited also grew with geometric acceleration. The population of Manhattan alone doubled between 1850 to 1870, exceeding a million people about the time Teedie’s family moved to 57th Street in 1872. It couldn’t have been easy finding the sort of natural environments he needed to feed his curiosity and deepen his passion. Of course, he was lucky, for down the street from his new palacial home, one of the most acclaimed urban parks in the history of the world had just been completed. You can imagine how he must have reveled at the age of 14 in the wonders of that place, that seemingly natural but brilliantly landscaped contrivance of Olmstead and Vaux, then commonly called The Central Park.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt - New Yorker

Few people exemplify the vast energy and dazzling versatility of New York City as much as Theodore Roosevelt once did, the youngest man ever to rise to the Presidency and the 26th President of the United States. He was born in Manhattan on October 27, 1858, at 28 East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue, and lived there until he was 14 years of age and his family relocated to their resplendent custom-built mansion at 6 West 57th Street. Interestingly, Roosevelt is the only U.S. President born and raised in New York City.

TR was famously meek, dangerously asthmatic and thoroughly unathletic as a child, and only later built himself up through a self-imposed regimen of intense exercise and recreational boxing. But in those early days he was rarely idle, filling his days investigating the natural world, practicing his increasingly extensive taxidermy skills, writing academic papers about insects and, becoming, by his early teens, one of the nation’s leading authorities on ornithology. He was also an incredibly avid reader from a very early age and was soon consuming mountains of books, especially histories. His first book, about the Naval War of 1812, was issued to great acclaim just after he graduated from college in 1881 and he went on to write many other widely read works. In 1912, nearly four years after he stepped down from the Presidency of the United States and the same year he ran unsuccessfully as the standard bearer for the independent Bull Moose Party, he somehow found the time to preside as President over the American Historical Association.

Like New York, TR was noisy, arrogant, and in your face, while also being brilliant, daring, and passionate about a hundred different subjects. He believed in and led what he called “The Strenuous Life,” and as Douglas Brinkley is demonstrating so exhaustively in his new book The Wilderness Warrior, he was a great naturalist who did more to preserve the environment than any president before or since. Naturally, like New York, he was also full of contradictions. He extolled the nobility of the American Grizzly Bear, sang praises to his power and beauty, and yet wielded his beloved Winchester repeating rifle with glee, never hesitating to use it to obliterate any bear that came his way. He was deeply moved by Jacob Riis’s great tract How the other half lives on the New York’s urban poor and collaborated with Riis in passing legislation to eliminate the worst tenements, but he was also all too quick to denounce the lower classes for their savagery and debauchery. He read a book a day and was a world-class scholar in at least three different fields, but he was also naïve and sheltered about a dozen everyday routines. He was menacing and even belligerent when it came to conducting foreign policy as President, but in 1906 he won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Like New York and that other great New Yorker, Walt Whitman, he was large and he contained multitudes. His contradictions marked him as much as his accomplishments.

Today I am going to visit a recreation of his birthplace on East 20th Street. I will report here what I learn.

Friday, August 14, 2009

No Mosquitoes in Manhattan

Ian Frazier’s reflections in a recent issue of The New Yorker on the excruciating futility of combating the concentric swarms of mosquitoes that plague people on the swampy flatlands of Western Siberia has brought to mind the surprising scarcity of such pests on the streets of New York City. In the summer, especially, the City abounds with outdoor diners. Why is it that the problem of pesky mosquitoes and invasive flies never comes up? This finding has received corroboration, incidentally, from the legendary Frank Constanza, George’s father on Seinfeld, who has famously said, “You know what I like about Manhattan. No mosquitoes.”

I can think of only two plausible, but ultimately unpersuasive explanations for this low incidence of mosquitoes. First, the City’s built-up environment of asphalt, concrete and steel girder skyscrapers is simply not terribly conducive to the survival of lots of flying insects. There aren’t many trees or shrubs, not much in the way of soil and dirt, and relatively few flowers and plants. That just doesn’t leave a whole lot of places for mosquitoes and flies to go. On the other hand, New York is a damp, humid place surrounded by water! Wouldn’t you think those conditions would attract a few annoying bugs? But, no, even down by the water, there may be a few more mosquitoes, but definitely not significantly more. As a regular rider on the Staten Island Ferry for a solid year, I have never been bitten or even bothered by a mosquito. And yet, who are we are kidding? This isn’t enough to stop mosquitoes.

Which leaves us to consider the more persuasive and yet still mildly unsatisfying answer. The city’s line item for extermination of pests remains large, so there is every reason to believe that regular and fairly intense spraying is a high priority. There is considerable evidence to support this claim, judging from the number of lawsuits that have been filed against the City for harmful overuse of pesticides. Usually, the explanation that is given is to protect city residents from mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile Virus, but the persistence of these lawsuits suggests that we are talking about something much more insidious, maybe even a covert understanding between the City and small businesses that benefit from pest-free environments. And yet, somehow I doubt that even a highly intense spraying of insecticides could control pests to the extent that it has.

My final thought on this is that as a resident of the Financial District, I am living a sheltered existence. I have limited experience with mosquitoes in New York, because there are so few parks in the area where I live. Despite being near the water, the conditions for breeding are otherwise so limited by virtue of all the tightly fitted, skyscrapered, non-green spaces, there just aren’t many bugs around here. At this point that is the best I can do to explain my lack of encounters with mosquitoes in Manhattan, which apparently don’t match the experience of many others in the city. In the meantime, as I continue to try to figure it out, it is nice to sit on a terrace or on a park bench as the sun is setting and to know that you can be pretty certain to enjoy an evening free of buzzing and stinging.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

People, People Everywhere

Some morning rush hours when I arrive at the foot of a long and narrow fenced-in entryway that leads to the front door of the Staten Island Ferry Station in Manhattan, I am confronted by this great, onrushing wave of commuters who have just arrived from Staten Island. They come at you so quickly and in such a thick, relentless mass of churning legs and arms that you doubt whether you can ever get by them. But the thing is, and I’m really not overdoing this, you must, if you want to be sure to board the departing boat on time.

I think I have figured out how to overcome this difficulty, but before revealing my solution, let me share with you two other strategies that have proven to be utter failures.

The first is to plow straight up the middle of the surging crowd and to stride as immovably and confidently toward them as they do toward you. Not advisable. You either bang right into someone who is just as determined as you, or, more frequently, you successfully make it through but not before bruising both shoulders and nearly cracking a couple of ribs.

The second is to appeal to a deeply ingrained, almost atavistic turn-taking impulse. In this case, you venture cautiously into the crowd, graciously attempt to set an example by patiently letting a few people rush by you, and then make a grand gesture indicating that your turn to proceed has arrived. The theory is that by modeling courtesy and politeness, others will see you and follow suit. This is, of course, a bonehead tactic of the first order to which New York settlers are especially susceptible. They have completely forgotten that they are now living in New York City and that no New Yorker is going to step aside for you. These are the same people who while facing down red traffic lights dare careening cabbies to beat them to the intersection!

So, how does one get through the crowd to the waiting ferry boat? As in so many competitive sports, you make prudent use of the extreme sidelines. Short passing plays in football, sacrifice bunts in baseball, that jump shot from the corner in basketball, all make strategic use of the sideline. Come to think of it, perhaps the best sports example of all is the jockey who steers his horse toward the rail to shorten the distance and to squeeze through the crowded field. Anyway, as a sporting pedestrian desperate to get to your waiting boat, you stay to the extreme left or right (actually I have a distinct preference for the left), and then you slink almost invisibly but steadily ahead. Works like a charm just about every time. The exceptions are those cases when there are so many commuters coming off the boat that the extreme sides are just as jammed as the rest of the entryway. In that case, your options are exhausted. Wait patiently until the mob has passed and then run like hell for that blasted ferry!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Great Bridge

I live near the Brooklyn Bridge, and while I stare at it quite a bit, particularly as the Staten Island Ferry is pulling out of its slip, I don’t walk across it nearly often enough. I appreciate the Bridge and recognize it as one of the icons of downtown, but almost certainly I don’t grant the Bridge its due as that most practical of the world’s greatest monuments.

To get an idea how much it is revered, a writer I deeply admire, Philip Lopate, compares the Brooklyn Bridge to the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Acropolis, and the Colosseum. And he’s hardly the first. According to Lopate, when the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Bridge was celebrated in 1983, at least one nearby shopkeeper proudly displayed the following sign on his storefront: “Babylon had her Hanging Garden, Egypt her Pyramid, Athens her Acropolis, Rome her Atheneum; so Brooklyn has her Bridge.” But for Lopate, as for others, the Bridge is less a monument to be venerated, and more a myth to be loved for maintaining a kind of timeless equilibrium between “old and new, handmade and industrial, granite and gossamer.”

For those who don’t fully understand why this bridge has meant so much to so many, it is profitable once again to consult Mr. Lopate. His point is that the Bridge is especially “lovable,” that it somehow has an ability far greater than its East River mates – the Manhattan or the Williamsburg - to “inspire tenderness.” This is attributable to the beautiful curves of its immense steel cables that clash so appealingly with the Gothic style of its enormous base towers, and the fact that a unique elevated boardwalk was set aside for pedestrians, which has allowed millions, not just to see the Bridge but to experience it directly as well. Surely, this invitation to walk the bridge, to take full advantage of its spectacularly expansive view of the city has warmed hearts and inspired poets (who tend to be great walkers) like no other bridge before or since.

So as beautiful and inspiring as it may be, the Bridge’s accessibility and inseparability from everyday life in New York are ultimately what make it so endearing, so lovable. Although the Bridge is sometimes a distant object that is gazed at longingly from afar, it is just as often a real, solid presence in the city that anyone can enjoy without difficulty or cost. Like so many other pleasures of the city, the best way to see it and to be a part of it is to walk it. Your two feet treading on a kind of hallowed surface that still offers a breathtaking view of a great city, while also conveying you, quite conveniently and directly, from one borough to another.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Independent Bookstores

A few days ago, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was going to tell you about independent book stores in New York. There is only one truly great and mighty independent store still thriving in Manhattan; all others are cheap imitations. That store is the Strand at Broadway and 12th, one of the largest bookstores in the world. If you can’t get it there, you probably can’t get it anywhere, though, of course, that isn’t strictly true with the advent of the internet. But for those who still like to browse non-virtually, the Strand is the mother lode for all browsing. Its three floors are bulging with books, vomiting with volumes, are stuffed with shelves that torture you with their torrents of tomes. Some of the books are new; most are used, and the deals are uniformly unbeatable. The problem with the Strand is that it’s too big for its own good. After a while you get woozy craning your neck to scan the top of their towering twelve-foot high shelves, or scouring the unalphabetized paperback rows for that perfect and impossibly cheap must-have yarn.

So once I have given the Strand a good going over, I sometimes like to retreat to a much smaller, quieter, and impossibly charming place sitting on the border between Soho and the Village on Crosby Street. It is called Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, and is part of a chain of thrift stores in Manhattan that are run to benefit the homeless and people with AIDS. As the name suggests, it includes a place to sip a cappuccino or enjoy a glass of wine while you peruse the fruits of your browsing, and with its high ceilings and the spiral staircase that leads to its wonderful second floor cat walk, you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s fantasy of a second-hand bookstore. Housing Works resembles a library at times. People often speak in hushed tones and sit at tables for many hours at a time. It is a peaceful, unhurried place where you can go to escape the rush of the city, and, unlike the library, stay pleasantly caffeinated at the same time. On every trip, it seems, I also recover a book I had forgotten I needed, often at a surprisingly good price.

I get an inordinate pleasure out of finding the right book at the right time. When I was a graduate student, this was often a necessity. Now, many years later, it still remains important to me, perhaps as much as anything as a kind of metaphor for the real possibility that some book is just waiting for me to pluck it from the shelves. And, hey, if that meant-for-me volume can be unearthed in a pleasant bookstore where they also serve double espressos, well, so much the better.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New York Pigeons

For some reason, I need to say a few words about New York pigeons. They are ubiquitous and fearless. That’s pretty much it.

With respect to being fearless, the other day I was walking along a lightly traveled portion of 7th Avenue and I watched a trucker bearing down on a large flock of pigeons that must have been feasting on something particularly good – maybe a bagel or some pizza crust, or, I don’t know, maybe even a dried out piece of meat. Do pigeons like meat? Well, anyway, this truck driver is coming along and he is really thumping his horn, but do those pigeons scatter? They do not. The humans were holding their ears and cowering with fear, but the pigeons just kept nibbling away on those scrumptious discards. The truck driver, who was proceeding on a two-way street, actually had to let the oncoming traffic pass before he could get around them. Pigeons in New York! They’re like those immovable sheep you always see in movies blocking the unpaved roads on the Italian countryside preventing you from getting to Milan or Florence!

The same thing happened to me recently when I was walking along the sidewalk minding my own business and a bunch of pigeons appeared up ahead. As I approached them, I became convinced they’d fly away as I entered their space. Even as I got very close, though, they still did not stir, obsessed, most likely, with some tidy morsel. They just kept pecking and shuffling around in circles. So I moved right up to them and they’re still circling and I’m afraid they’re going to fly up into my face or something and get tangled in my hair like bats. I step toward them, then back again. At last, there I am in the street, giving them a wide berth. Outmaneuvered again! By pigeons!

As for being ubiquitous, well, of course, they’re everywhere. But I’m not sure you quite know the extent of it. Yes, they cover the playgrounds and roost on every rooftop, but they also love to ride the Staten Island ferry and walk under your feet and fly over your head and sometimes even perch on the seatbacks. I swore I had one pigeon follow me into the bathroom the other day, but when I headed for the urinal he waddled over to the stall, flew up on the toilet seat, and if I’m not mistaken, actually closed the door. It couldn’t have been for privacy, knowing pigeons, so he was probably harboring some really choice piece of garbage. Those New York pigeons! Like the city they rule, they surprise you at every turn.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Sadly, the director John Hughes died the other day. Best known as the 1980s’ leading auteur of teenage angst, he also made another movie about adults in that decade some people believe was his best. That film – Planes, Trains and Automobiles - is barely mentioned in an appreciation of Hughes by the chief NY Times film critic A.O. Scott in the August 8th issue of the Times, yet is the very film Lawrence Downes wants to pay tribute to in an almost apologetically positive editorial in the same issue. What neither of them mentions is that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only Hughes’ film that one of America’s leading movie critics, Roger Ebert, has included in his quite fine Great Movies volumes. What does that film do that Roger likes so much and why is it being discussed in a blog about New York City?

Dispensing with the second question first, Planes opens in Manhattan, two days before Thanksgiving, and focuses on two men who are stranded there, desperate to get to their Chicago homes to enjoy a holiday dinner with their families. They couldn’t care less about Manhattan. All they want to do is find a way to get out of it so that they can make their way home.

The two men, a hard driving advertising executive played by Steve Martin and a loquacious traveling salesman, played by John Candy, who agreeably promotes the best shower-curtain rings in the world, are the whole show. Of course, the characters they brilliantly inhabit are entirely Hughes’ creations, but without the pitch-perfect performances of the stars, the film cannot work. Predictably, the two characters are studies in contrasts. Neal is all business, doesn’t talk much, thinks he can maintain control with his influence and his credit cards. He just wants to return to the peace and quiet of his Chicago home. Del revels in companionship, regardless of the circumstances. Being stranded with a stranger, however unresponsive, gives him a new person to talk to, someone to whom he can tell his silly jokes and relate his long-winded stories. But as Ebert points out in his review, Del is also an empathetic man who genuinely cares about Neal’s plight. He is also sensitive and easily hurt. When Neal explodes with frustration in the Wichita, Kansas hotel room they are forced to share together and tells Del that he would rather be trapped in an insurance seminar than listen to another of his insipid jokes or stories, Del is crushed, and as Ebert notes, later recalls how his beloved late wife “once told him he was too eager to please and shouldn’t try so hard.”

This scene becomes the turning point in their relationship and the one that Ebert singles out for special notice. As Del sits glumly, feeling rejected for being too eager to please and trying too hard to be accepted, it is not only Del who recognizes his folly, but Neal, too, who sees his life in a new way. Like Del, Neal, also “is a lonely soul, and too well organized to know it.” He has lived his life in a kind of cocoon of privilege, isolated from the ordinary, happy-go-lucky existence of people like Del. He develops a new appreciation for the Dels of the world, and in the process becomes a little fonder of himself as well. “Strange, how much poignancy creeps into this comedy,” Ebert concludes, “which only becomes stronger while we’re laughing.”

I haven’t seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles for a long time, but I doubt very much I would call it great. Still, I wanted to share these reactions, partly because I respect Ebert so much as one of our most lucid and perceptive writers on film, and partly because I do think there is something universal about this film that can be easily overlooked as we get caught up in the chaotic silliness of it all. I never want to underestimate the entertainment value of films, but for me the best ones also offer us a glimpse of another version of ourselves that can sometimes be not only illuminating, but, in rare cases, change us a little, too.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


As I was thinking about a post on independent bookstores in New York, the five that immediately came to mind were all in Manhattan. This seemed ridiculously manhattancentric to me, but then it occurred to me that although I occasionally leave Manhattan to go to Brooklyn, I almost never go to any other borough, except when I ride the ferry to Staten Island to go to work. There are a lot of obvious reasons why Manhattan has this hold on me, but one of the less obvious ones has to do with its underlying order best exemplified by the GRID.

Ah, the Grid. This was one of two transformational reforms pushed by New York City Mayor and State Governor DeWitt Clinton back in the second decade of the nineteenth century (the other being the Erie Canal) that utterly changed the face of the City. The grid plan, approved in 1811, was part of the effort to develop the northern four-fifths of Manhattan. By laying out an entirely predictable rectangular pattern of numbered East-West and North-South streets, extending from Fourteenth Street all the way to Washington Heights, a process was established for expanding Manhattan in a relatively orderly manner. No circles, ovals, rotaries or diagonals to confuse residents and developers. Rather, as The Encyclopedia of New York City explains, the plan for 12 long north-south avenues was combined with the plan’s “signature” – “155 cross streets placed only two hundred feet apart, producing a grid of about two thousand long, narrow blocks.” Although this plan was tinkered with over the years, including the addition of great thoroughfares like Lexington and Madison and the introduction of the one street that did not follow a predictable route – Broadway – the grid survived largely intact and contributed invaluably to the rapid development of upper Manhattan.

For ordinary folks like me, though, the grid is a safety net, a way to orient myself so that even if I go in the wrong direction for a block or two, I can always find my way back again. Paired with the incomparable subway system, the grid makes the whole borough accessible and navigable to pedestrians. That is something that often goes unrecognized and makes Manhattan such an inviting place to explore. Phillip Lopate, writing in his wonderful Waterfront: A walk around Manhattan, comments that those who deride the grid as boring have overlooked the grid’s “power to invoke clarity, resonance, and pleasure through its very repetitions.” It is that underlying structure, then, that solid, reliable base of comprehensible quadrilaterals that help to make possible Manhattan’s endless creativity and inventiveness.

In the meantime, back on the level of my mundane Manhattan existence, it would probably do me good to get lost more often, but while I contemplate that little notion, I can take solace in the fact that when I’m in Manhattan above Fourteenth Street, I can’t possibly lose my way (unless I venture into Central Park, but that’s another wonderful story). Which means I am freed to go places and try things without fear of becoming hopelessly disoriented. There is something, both literally and figuratively, incredibly liberating in that.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Looking at People Looking at Art

When I go to an art museum, I often spend almost as much time watching other people breeze by some works of art, while choosing to linger over others, as I do looking at the art itself. It thus came as a pleasant surprise when the front page of the August 3rd New York Times included a story by the cultural critic Michael Kimmelman, writing from Paris, regarding how people experience the Louvre. Kimmelman’s understandable bias is to go to museums with an open mind, without concern for historical context or wall labels, or at least not before steeping oneself in the works. Of course, that works for someone like Kimmelman who is already steeped in these traditions, but may be less effective for someone without his extensive background knowledge. Still, Kimmelman’s agenda - to encourage people to experience and enjoy art without preconceptions or worries about critical assessments – seems like a good one and worth keeping in mind the next time you visit a museum. He also urges people not to try to cover everything, but rather to give just a few works ample time for close consideration. This is another habit worth adopting, though not always feasible for everyone. Let me add that one of the reasons I like to have memberships to art museums is to give myself permission to look at just a handful of works during a visit, even if I’m only there for 15 or 30 minutes. Without that membership, you are going to feel obligated to stay for many wearying hours to make that admission price of 10 or even 20 dollars worthwhile.

So what do I notice when I am noticing other people notice the art in a museum? For one thing, if I’m in some place like the Met, I see that the closest observers are often speaking French or German or Italian or Japanese. My extremely inexact and informal survey of art patrons In New York suggests that more than half do not speak English as their first language. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it does prompt me to wonder how dependent museums like the Met are on international tourists to keep them going. Kimmelman made no mention of possible differences between Americans and others in his article, and I probably shouldn’t either, but I have observed that non-Americans seem to talk a lot more about what they are seeing. Visiting a museum seems to be more of an occasion for reacting to art, particularly for those speaking French. But then when you think about French café society and the like, perhaps such a penchant for dialogue and analysis is exactly what you should expect. In short, on the whole, the non-Americans seem to be having more fun than the Americans, and somehow, at the same time, taking it more seriously, too.

One of the many other things I have observed as I watch people wander through art museums is how hard parents work to get their children interested. They point out the beautiful colors or the background story for a particular picture or how heavily the paint is applied in another, trying anything to keep the kids engaged. I admire the efforts of these parents, but it feels like a losing battle to me. No matter what, especially if the children are young boys, there is no way to keep them engaged for very long. Which returns me with a bit of a jolt to Kimmelman’s ideas. If you do have a membership to an art museum and live fairly close by, try turning your visit into a very specific quest to stop by three specific works you want to view together for, say, ten minutes each. And vary them, too. Pick one from 19th century Europe, one from ancient China, and another from Polynesia, or whatever choices make sense for you. And then spend the time looking and talking about what you see, without resorting, at least right away, to evaluations of what’s good and what isn’t, or as Kimmelman has suggested, without concern about how they fit into the history of art. Something tells me that such a focus might stimulate all of us to think about art more deeply and, at the same time, enjoy it more fully, too.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

William Kristol is a Big, Fat, Idiot

Okay, so the title isn’t original, and doesn’t even describe Kristol accurately (I am referring strictly to the words “big” and “fat”), but just as this title sought to capture how abhorrent Rush Limbaugh had become to Al Franken, so it expresses my surprisingly strong antipathy for one of the Right’s most respected strategists and intellectuals (now there’s an impoverished political movement for you).

Last October, with these unlovely thoughts regarding Kristol permeating my very being, I traveled to the 92nd Street Y, New York’s top site for stimulating lectures and panel discussions, to hear a group of pundits and politicians address the question “How Should Jews Vote” in the 2008 presidential election. On the panel was Kristol, of course, joined by former New York Mayor Ed Koch, the Rabbi and Tikkun Editor Michael Lerner, and Jane Eisner, Editor of the Jewish Forward newspaper. It was moderated by former CNN Anchor Aaron Brown.

After about 60 minutes of a fairly dull and uneventful program (the whole thing can be viewed on YouTube), the conversation got around to a consideration of race. As the other participants referred to race as a taboo subject, one that Americans are very reluctant to discuss, an irritated Kristol broke in and said that when it comes to race “all we DO is talk about it.” He seemed to be saying that race is no longer important and added that the “huge majority of Americans are not racially bigoted.” The crowd stirs and someone shouts something from the front of the audience which is barely audible, but if you strain to hear, you might catch it. The voice is mine (from the second row this time) wailing, “How can you say that?!” Mr. Kristol is so piqued by this rude eruption that he glares down on the front rows (presumably me) and barks impatiently, “I can say THAT because 65 million people are about to vote for Barack Obama.”

I get so riled by his cluelessness and condescending tone that I’m sort of bouncing up and down in my seat, and the guy next to me thinks he has to settle me down by patting my arm and whispering soothingly, “Calm down, calm down, it’s only William Kristol. You know, he really doesn’t matter that much.” This brings me up short. I turn to my right and stare at the profile of this wise and gentle man and am reassured that, of course, he’s correct.

Afterwards, everyone is milling around in the lobby outside the auditorium at the Y and there, right in front of me, is William Kristol standing by himself with what looks like a derisive grin on this face. I have a chance to say hello and perhaps offer my apologies for getting so worked up, but I don’t. I just stand there, a bit embarrassed and trying to take his measure. It is a very cool October night and I watch him pull on his simple overcoat and stroll out onto the streets of the Upper East Side. I still feel angry with him and myself. With him, for taking ideological positions that are selfish and out of touch, all while being so arrogantly sure of himself; and with myself, for lacking the capacity and perhaps even the will to understand him, grant him some slack, and, I guess, for acting on a desire to put him down in public. I’m heartened by the fact that he doesn’t matter all that much, but, of course, am also painfully aware that compared to him I don’t matter at all. And, given his access to media outlets of all kinds, even that little bit of mattering can change people’s lives for the worse. This thought reignites my fury, as I, too, abandon the 92nd Street Y and stomp out into the cold night.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Julie and Julia at the Paley

One of the least known but most satisfying places to visit in New York is the Paley Center for Media on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. Here you can watch thousands of old television shows or listen to a wide variety of radio programming, dating back to the 1920s. Their mission is to preserve these media, to make them widely available to the public, and to screen showings of special programs that celebrate milestones in the history of TV and Radio. At more or less the push of a button you can relive the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan or savor the joys of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts or critically analyze a recording of the original Apollo moon landing to confirm, once and for all, the undeniable authenticity of that remarkable feat.

Each week the Paley features different programs from their archives that they think people might want to see. I have had the good fortune to view Elvis BEFORE he appeared on Ed Sullivan and was still being shown on TV from the waist down. I have literally choked from laughing too hard while watching that most famous of all Seinfeld episodes entitled “The Contest.” And I have sat in amazement once again as Dick Cavett employs his quick wit to keep Norman Mailer from punching Gore Vidal in the nose during their famous debate on Cavett's old talk show. As a member you can go in anytime and see these special screenings or request anything in their general collection and watch it on a small television set. It’s a hoot.

Last night, in honor of Julia Child’s groundbreaking French Chef, we saw an advanced screening of Julie and Julia, with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. DO listen to the critics when they praise Meryl. Do NOT listen to the critics when they pan the Julie/Amy Adams’ segments. They are charming, too, and help to make the rest of the movie work. Introducing the movie at the Paley was none other than the real Julie Powell, who cooked all of the recipes in Julia Child’s original French cookbook and blogged for exactly one year about all of her experiences doing so. Julie seems, well, just a bit awkward, like she is embarrassed by all the attention she has received and somehow doesn’t feel worthy of it all. And, frankly, not that it matters, she seems nothing like Amy Adams. Whereas, as you probably know, Meryl Streep doesn’t just do an imitation of Julia Child; she nails her, she inhabits her, she breathes the very air that Julia Child breathes. That greatest of all American actors turns in another stunning performance. And we got to see it all for free, as members of the Paley Center for Media.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Love Affair

Before there was Sleepless in Seattle there was An Affair to Remember, and before there was An Affair to Remember there was Love Affair. These are all quintessential New York movies by virtue of the fact that their plots turn on a meeting that either does or does not happen at the top of the Empire State Building. Of the three, Sleepless in Seattle is certainly the best known, and by making liberal use of the earlier Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr vehicle – An Affair to Remember – released in 1957 – new attention came to that film as well. But it is arguable that the best of the lot is Love Affair released in 1939 (that amazing year for movies) starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

I saw Love Affair recently at the screening room of the New York branch of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and what makes Love Affair stand out are the performances of its stars. Not even Cary Grant plays the charming, elegant, understated playboy as well as Boyer does, and he has the distinct advantage of speaking English in that delicious French accent of his. But for me, the revelation is Irene Dunne. I mean, really, it is just a bit sad that this marvelous actress, comedienne, and singer, is now nearly forgotten by most American movie fans.

Recently, I came across something in which some comedian mentions that virtually all funny people are also musicians. Although there are a lot of exceptions to this, you sort of know what he means with such noteworthy examples as: Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, etc. Irene Dunne was a trained opera singer who flunked her audition at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1920 and then took up musical comedy. She signed a contract with RKO (the studio that starred Fred and Ginger and, of course, took a risk with a guy named Orson Welles) in about 1930 and went on to be a huge star for the next twenty years before retiring to do work for the Republican Party (okay, nobody said she was perfect, though in those days working for the Republicans was like working for, say, Arlen Spector today).

She WAS glorious, though, with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth in 1937 and again terrific with Grant in the 1940 comedy My Favorite Wife. Ironically, she also played Anna in the 1947 Anna and the King of Siam, the non-musical basis for the King and I.

But it was in comedy that she really shined, and I suspect this had something to do with her musical training. Watch her interact with Cary in the Awful Truth or with Boyer in Love Affair, especially in the ocean voyage scenes, and you see that much of the source of her humor isn’t in her lines at all, but in her silences, in the pregnant pauses between words. Those silences, or rests, if you will, punctuated by funny looks or shy, downward gazes, and other times joined with outrageous mugging, are what make Dunne so funny and charming. Sometimes she’ll utter a few nonsense syllables or just say “yes” in that hesitant manner or giggle gently, then a beat intervenes before she speaks her lines again. This sort of speak-don’t speak-shy look-exasperated look pacing (of which Cary Grant is the ultimate master) always made bad lines better and good lines great. Somehow, too, when you get to the end of Love Affair and she has to do all that solemn hedging about her real situation (she is lame from a pedestrian accident that left her unable to meet Boyer in the Empire State) and can’t really be funny, her ability to pace the scene with just the right amount of silence keeps the situation from seeming overly maudlin.

So the next time you hanker for a movie like Sleepless in Seattle or An Affair to Remember, give Love Affair a try as well and pay special attention to the delights of Irene Dunne’s perfectly timed performance.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jon Stewart is Not Tall!

I ran into Jon Stewart and his family at the Tribeca Whole Foods the other day. Yup, there was the great man with his wife and young family quietly and slowly making their way through the broad aisles of one of Manhattan’s most fashionable and uncrowded grocery stores. They seemed to be having a wonderful time, browsing, snacking, and joking together. I didn’t get close enough to hear how funny the jokes were, but there was definitely a lot of laughing.

The thing that surprised me, though, is that Jon Stewart is not tall. Not at all! At one point, as he surveyed the large supply of organic and cage-free eggs, I tried to get close enough to him to gauge his height against mine. I almost asked him if he’s partial to the cage-free kind but just didn’t have the nerve, but as I sidled toward him I saw that the top of his head reached no higher than the rack where the unsalted butter was lined up, just as mine did. I was so intrigued by this that I unobtrusively followed him over to the breakfast cereals and noticed that as he walked down the aisle, his well coiffed hair was at the same level as the top of the Rice Krispies boxes, whereas my unruly mop was level with the slightly taller packages of Honey Nut Cheerios, making me at least a half inch taller than Jon Stewart!

You see a lot of celebrities in New York City and it’s always sort of fun to recall these sightings, but this one was special. Not only was I able to hobnob with Jon Stewart, I made the delicious discovery that I am taller than a famous person who has always seemed quite tall to me. Thanks to this encounter I now seem taller to myself. Which makes me think that I should be seeking out famous people all over the city who seem marginally thin, smart or funny to me. By systematically comparing myself to them, I may discover that I am thinner, smarter and funnier than they are, thus becoming thinner, smarter, and funnier to myself than ever before. What a great New York way to build my self-esteem!

: The very next day I’m walking down Hudson Street on a Sunday and the street is almost deserted except…for Jon Stewart and his family, quite far from the Whole Foods and taking an inordinate amount of time to tuck their toddler daughter into the baby carriage they’re pushing. As I pass by, I go into my Groucho Marx walk with the stooped-over strut to amuse them, and although they take no notice of me, I am thunderstruck by what I discover. Even as Groucho, I’m taller than Jon Stewart!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Life of a Doorman (2)

By popular demand, we return to the topic of New York doormen. The July 30th blog referred to an anonymous interviewee who was the source of that entry’s information. Today we reveal the identity of this doorman, with his permission, and offer an up close and personal profile of his professional experiences. His name is Alan Bearman and he has been the doorman at 85 John Street, a luxury rental building in Manhattan’s Financial District, for the past eight years. Alan loves his work and that love comes through in everything he does. He has a way of relating to the tenants at 85 John which makes life when he is around that much more enjoyable for everyone.

I spoke to a few of the residents at 85 John and, without exception, they praised Alan for the services he provides. Some observed how efficient and responsible he is when it comes to ensuring that they receive the items that he is holding for them, such as packages or dry cleaning. Others noted that they feel especially secure when he is on duty, because he takes the security part of his responsibilities so seriously. Still others commented that he maintains an upbeat, smiling presence at all times, and that a cheerful hello from him in the morning helps to get their day off to a good start. A few added that the pleasant comments he makes which arise from his continuing effort to get to know people in the building personally are also a nice touch and always welcome.

There are a few residents whom he loves to tease and who enjoy teasing back in kind. These are the people that bring a huge smile to his face and that he especially looks forward to seeing every day. Alan didn’t quite say this, but those people who are willing to trade jokes with him add something special to his sense of satisfaction on the job. At least one resident, whom I know quite well, exits each day laughing heartily, all because Alan has found still another creative way to taunt her.

No one at 85 John, by the way, has accused Alan of being “excessively happy,” though a few have complained that he is “unnecessarily tall.” Well, actually I’m the only one who has complained about this. Still, can you blame me? Every morning as I leave the building Alan not only concocts a new insult about my ill-advised color combinations, he insists on towering over me with his 6 foot 4 inches of height to my 5 feet 10 inches (if I stand up really straight). It’s enough to give a guy a complex.

As I said, though, all of it for Alan is a labor of love. Sure, occasionally the air conditioning stops working on the hottest day of the year or someone’s dog has an accident in the lobby or the April Fool’s joke about the water in the building being turned off for the day rubs some tenant the wrong way. But these minor setbacks are nothing compared to the pleasure he gets everyday by gently brightening the lives of the hard working residents at 85 John Street.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

555 Hudson Street

One of the most charming sections of New York City is the West Village, especially as you walk along the North-South streets of Hudson, Greenwich, and Washington, which feel like a small town but also quicken with the energy and variety of the big city. It is worth remembering, though, that without the herculean efforts of an unassuming free-lance writer named Jane Jacobs, this whole neighborhood would most likely have been demolished years ago. In addition to being the author of the still-in-print Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which changed forever how planners understood urban development, Jacobs organized relentlessly to limit automobile traffic in the city and to maximize the place of small scale neighborhoods like the West Village. The long and enervating struggle to accomplish this, never more than a partial victory, pitted Jacobs against New York’s great Power Broker and urban planner Robert Moses.

For decades, Moses, who, like Robert McNamara, was obsessed with making systems work, regardless of the damage they might do, had always wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square Park, which was and still is, the center of Greenwich Village communal life. Moses knew this plan would destroy the Park’s main appeal as a gathering place for residents, but traffic flow was Moses’s main concern, not how people related to each other. Time and again his efforts were thwarted, but it was Jacobs and her team of organizers who finally defeated him for good in the late 1950s.

Much to her surprise, as Jason Epstein points out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Jacobs was submitting her manuscript for Death and Life to Epstein, her publisher, at about the same time that she learned Moses and his henchmen had decided to turn their attention to a new project that would have an even more direct impact on her. What Moses envisioned was a major new highway that would have cut through the heart of the West Village, and bulldozed Jacobs’ very own house at 555 Hudson Street into oblivion. It didn’t happen. But the fight to defeat this project took nine years and left her weary and disillusioned and unsure whether she wanted to remain in Manhattan. Moreover, she despised the Vietnam War, which was then raging, and refused to allow her two sons to be drafted. She moved to Toronto in 1968 and never lived in New York again.

It is humbling and instructive to return to the site of Jane Jacobs’ West Village home – 555 Hudson Street – the structure that was almost destroyed by Robert Moses’s bulldozers. When I stopped by the other day, I wondered if it looked the same as it did in 1961. Three simple storeys of red brick on the same corner as the White Horse Tavern, which still thrives (and where it is said Dylan Thomas regaled the customers with stories and, unfortunately, also drank himself to death), and now surrounded (as perhaps it was then) by a variety of little shops, cafes, restaurants, and convenience stores. When Jacobs lived there, I think she resided in the two upper floors, while a candy store occupied the ground floor. Today, the whole building is vacant and the asking price is 3.5 million dollars! It is a lovely, inviting area. But it is also a bit ironic that owing to crusaders like Jacobs who worked tirelessly to retain the small scale of New York neighborhoods in all their diversity, that the demand for housing has grown so high now only the wealthy can afford to live there. Residents who know something about the history of their neighborhoods must be grateful to Jacobs for having saved such fine places, but must wonder, too, about their sustainability, with everyone but a tiny elite priced out of the market. Will the absence of the very diversity that Jacobs most admired and worked hardest to preserve prevent such neighborhoods from continuing to flourish in the future?