07/18/07 12:00am

This past Wednesday wasn’t just any old sunny summer middle-of-the-weekday, not at least for this intrepid urban historian and journalist. It so happened to be the 27th birthday of yours truly. As befits a Brooklyn-born birthday boy, I continued a fine personal tradition of spending the day at Coney Island, enjoying the surf, sand, clams and a world-class Roller Coaster. Enough has been written about the impending erasure of Coney’s working-class culture and its blue-collar atmosphere — this column will not contribute to the ongoing miasma. The truth is that Coney is a third-class recreational resort that is operating at a fifth of its capacity. It’s run-down and dingy. A new year-round water-park and shopping center will bring employment, fortunes and visitors that will directly affect Brooklyn’s economy for the greater good; it’s just a genuine heartbreaker that all the original, nitty gritty clam bars and dive spots will be erased for Applebee’s and TGIFridays. A quick moment of silence for Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar and Grill, soon to be RIP.

On Riegelmann Boardwalk, near West 17th street and just before Keyspan Park (home of the Brooklyn Cyclones) is . . . a parking lot. But before it was a parking lot there stood one of the most gloriously run-down, magically decrepit wood and steel structures one could hope to dream up after falling asleep reading Edward Gorey. This was the legendary Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, designed and built by John Miller, the man responsible for the basic science of today’s modern high-speed rollercoaster, and erected  in 1925, two years before its still-operating sister coaster, the spectacular Cyclone. Miller worked with La Marcus A. Thompston, the man who invented the damn things. Miller advanced on Thompson’s designs by including an extra set of wheels underneath the track and attached to the car, which prevents the car from flying off at any of the turns, swoops and spins.

Although the Thunderbolt stopped operating in 1983, way before this Coney Island baby could get a chance to ride it, I was always a fan of wandering past the massive hulking shell and double-looped turns. There also used to be a building under the Thunderbolt, the Kensington Hotel, its construction predating the by thirty years. The Thunderbolt was actually built on top of and over the hotel — the steel support beams of the coaster were driven down through the hotel’s infrastructure. “You don’t tear down buildings in Coney Island if you can help it.” quoted Kensington Hotel owner George Moran in the papers of the day (what a glorious and ill-forgotten agenda nowadays). The Thunderbolt got its star turn in Hollywood as being the house where Alvy Singer, nee Woody Allen, grew up in his ode to the New York neurotic romance, Annie Hall. In fact, at last year’s Billyburg Short Film Festival, we watched a magnificent and heartbreaking short film, called Under the Roller Coaster, about the lovers, friends and family that lived under the coaster; the trailer can be seen here.

How did the Thunderbolt meet its ignominious end? At six a.m. on November 17th, 2000, Mayor Giuliani called in the wrecking ball. The claim was that the coaster was in danger of collapsing and damaging people around it (it wasn’t, and the entire perimeter was fenced off to interlopers.) as well as declaring that the coaster stood on city property (according to city maps, it didn’t). In fact, the city needed to take it down to make room for the up-and-coming Keyspan Park. Before sunup the wrecking balls tore into the dilapidated frame, and it came down within a few hours. Not coincidentally, preservationist Charles Denson and the Friends of Coney Island had submitted a claim for the Thunderbolt to be recognized by the Landmarks Preservation Society, but it was all too late. The Thunderbolt was no more. As the future of Coney Island emerges from its cotton candy haze, it’s important to realize that as much as things change, they might not stay the same, they might emerge drastically different, but we will always have the Coney Island of our minds.

07/18/07 12:00am

After a month abroad, it wasn’t long before this native New Yorker was reminded, with a burst of steam and a deafening roar, that Our Fair City will always be exploding with events, or at the very least, steam today, and something much more sinister and deadly from our past.

The steam pipe explosion on 41st Street and Lexington Avenue last Wednesday was, luckily for us and Manhattan, just a “failure of the city’s infrastructure” (Mayor Mike, who apparently went Indy while I was absent!), resulting from cold rainwater seeping in during a morning shower, and coming into contact with the hot steam pipe, causing a pressurized reaction. The pipe dates from 1924 and was briefly inspected Wednesday morning after the rainstorm, but Con Ed, which owns and maintains the hundreds of miles of steam pipe-work snaking from Lower Manhattan to the Upper West and East Sides, found nothing wrong with it or the thousands of other pipes crawling just under the tarmac. As a result of the blast, one woman died of cardiac arrest, and about thirty were injured. However, things were a lot different at an explosion downtown almost a century ago . . .

Minutes before the noon lunch-rush on September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon, loaded with dynamite and heavy iron sash weights, pulled into the intersection of Wall and Broads Streets, immediately outside the New York Stock Exchange, and exploded. The sash weights acted as propelled shrapnel that tore into the House of Morgan building, leaving pockmarks and indents the size of a fist in the marble. (The pockmarks are still visible, on the Wall Street façade of the building, across from the Federal Hall National Monument.) Thirty were killed instantly and over three hundred were injured, most of them messengers and stock-boys, starting their lunch break by crossing the street to grab a bite. The death toll would rise to forty from the various maladies incurred. One piece of shrapnel was blown to the 34th floor of the nearby Equitable Building; windows a quarter-mile away shattered from the force of the explosion. The only intact parts of the horse or the wagon that the police could locate were two charred hooves, which landed in the cemetery at Trinity Church, three blocks west. Later, in an unsuccessful attempt to attach the horse to an owner, hired detectives would take the hooves to over 4,000 blacksmiths up and down the Atlantic seaboard in order to find one that could identify the horseshoes, and possibly an owner or accomplice to this heinous crime.

Terrorism tensions ran high during the 1920s, a fervent period of American Capitalism. Along with various fears of Italian Anarchists and Russian Bolshevists, the city and country had to beware of homegrown terrorists, such as the American Anarchist Fighters, who claimed responsibility for the 1920 explosion on the morning it happened, mailing out a round of circulars between 11:30 and 11:58 stating: "Remember / We will not tolerate / any longer / Free the political / prisoners or it will be / sure death for all of you / American Anarchist Fighters." What’s more, these American Anarchist Forces were probably responsible for the mail-bomb scare of 1919, in which thirty-six packages loaded with nitroglycerin and concealed in Gimbles gift-boxes were mailed to prominent Americans, intending to be opened on May Day. Sixteen of these packages were detained at the Main Branch of the Post Office on 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, and the rest were, luckily, defused before any loss of life.

How did Wall Street respond to these attacks on our very American way of life? Quoth the New York Sun on September 17th, 1920: "Like a strong man who sticks to the line after binding up his wounds and sewing on his wound stripes, Wall Street, from its lowly office boy to its most stately financier, went to work yesterday morning with head up and teeth set, determined to show the world that business will proceed as usual despite bombs."  In a city with a history of downtown acts of terrorism, an accidental midtown steam pipe doesn’t look so bad.

06/06/07 12:00am

The lights were low, the crowd was drunk, and some woman in a low-cut, high-slit skirt was slicing through the gathering handing out tiny, multi-colored blinky-light rings, the type that induce epileptic seizures in small children and senior citizens. There was a couple in matching purple thongs doing the neon-lit hula-hoop sexy-dance; another couple in a nightmare of an outfit, an amalgam of Alice Through the Looking Glass and a low-budget Matthew Barney ensemble character, with a liberal slathering of black-and-white BDSM; and there was a giant projection of an indie-porn on the wall. Everywhere people were hooking up. “Don’t you love my new fake tits!?” a buxom peroxide-blond exclaimed. Everyone did.

This was not just another night for Porno Jim and the poly-amorous community of New York City — it was a celebration.

The official reason for this sexy/dorky scene was the DVD release of Porno Jim’s new feature-length porn, Hookin’ Up. It was shot and produced here in Brooklyn, and features local actors: real-live girls- and guys-next-door types. Tattoos, multiple piercings, fauxhawks, vintage t-shirts and ironic scowls intact, these young men and women fucking and sucking away are the very people you might see getting coffee in the morning on Bedford Avenue, walking their dogs along Brooklyn Bridge Park, or struggling through a hung-over brunch in the Slope. But in no way should Hookin’ Up be considered the hipster version of “I’m here to fix your pipes, Ma’am” pornography: Porno Jim is an auteur, an artiste, and a man with a mission. But in order to appreciate his agenda, it’s important first to understand the people who might attend a Porno Jim party.

Too easily classified as “Burners” or “Poly-amories,” these are regular people — teachers, nurses, animators, accountants — who would rather get their kink on through sexual means as varied as masochism and foot fetishes. The poly-amorous community believes in multiple lovers and multiple orgasms, just not always at the same time — although there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as those involved in a poly-amorous relationship are honest and straightforward, everyone’s happy, as the various makeout sessions across the room, all night long, would attest. Various members at the party concurred — it was just another normal night, albeit one with a tremendous wall-sized projection of two guys and three girls going at it in a DUMBO loft space.

Odette (not her real name), an attractive young woman lounging on the couch discussing the merits and demerits of porn, was featured in the film, though not naked, and certainly not in any questionable positions. Her band, Bettie After Midnight, was the house band at the art-loft where many of the stars would meet before their late-night rendezvous. As an actual member of the adult industry, Odette has worked on and off for the last decade as an art director for various pornography magazines.  “It’s just another business, pretty easy going. What’s cool about it is that I get into trouble if I’m not looking at porn during work!” Someone face to face with tits and ass all day should have a well-formed opinion on Porno Jim’s production, and Odette agrees. “Porno Jim is making porn that he and other people want to see, but what’s more, is an improvement on what’s out there. It focuses on natural breasts, on womens’ orgasms, on regular people. It’s the antithesis of the LA porn scene, with all that fakery.”

Jessah (also not her real name), the hair and makeup artist on set agreed. As her first porn, she wasn’t sure what to think about the indie production values. “But everybody was very professional, very nice. It’s a very New York City type of porn — these are the people you see at loft parties, the people you fantasize about hooking up with. Alfred, her boyfriend and a friend of Porno Jim, chimes in. It was his bedroom where most of the shots were taken, of which he is clearly proud. “This kind of porn makes people think differently about the oeuvre. It is made through a community of trust, a group of people who respect each other — you don’t see that in other porn flicks.” Just then, the squeals of multiple orgasms drown out the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster. Jessah throws her arms around her boy and proclaims, “Look honey! It’s just like the sex we have!” Alfred demurs, “Yeah, but where are the animals?”

Lisa, undressed to the nines in a bustier, fishnets and pageboy haircut, came to the party with a friend and didn’t know that it was a release party for an art-indie-porn; she just happened to be dressed for the part. Not entirely interested in porn, whether as spectator or participant, Lisa nevertheless considers herself adventurous, if a bit vanilla in the sex department. “I’m currently sleeping with an ex-porn maker — you should see the kid get around — but I’m mostly into normal sex. You have to get the basics down before you can get subversive.” Her take on Hookin’ Up? “It’s a step in the right direction for pornography. But it won’t change the system — it takes a whole new movement of films to change the language. I like watching the film and seeing the girls get off as much as the guys — that’s how porn should be made.”

Porno Jim is finally available for some Q&A. The 44 year old is dressed in a pinstripe suit with red Christmas lights strung around his shoulders, and doesn’t look a day over 35; he looks like your downtown I-banker with a naughty secret, his being that Hookin’ Up is the first live porn he’s made. Porno Jim started out mostly shooting still nudes ten years ago, but has always been interested in live, hot action. As should be expected from someone with a nom de guerre that wouldn’t be welcome at a cocktail party, Porno Jim is emphatic about his message. “America needs better porn,” as he thumps his ginger ale to the tabletop (Jim doesn’t drink or do drugs). “The volume of crappy porn that the country consumes is disgusting; what’s more, bad pornography impacts men’s sexuality in a negative way, which in turn leads to shorter erections, weaker orgasms, unsatisfied women, and a domino effect that impacts the entire sexual world. Porn should facilitate an orgasm, should improve everyone’s sexual life, whether alone or with another human being. I want people to watch Hookin’ Up on a date; I want people to get good ideas from it and to try those ideas out.” Porno Jim’s intended audience? Most certainly urbanites, hopefully more women than men, hipsters, artists, and performers, anybody who wants to get off. After a few more beers, and watching a few more people slobber all over anyone near them, this porn party has run its course, and we saunter off into the night, looking for something both more wholesome and more lascivious, unsure whether we’ll find either. This is New York City, after all.  

06/06/07 12:00am

For a city completely and totally surrounded by water, one would expect that the ability to drink the stuff shouldn’t cause much of a problem. We are, in fact, one of the few cities in the world with a natural deep-water harbor. Critical problem is, all that wash-up around us is salt water, and therefore not too tasty. New York City gets its drinking water from the Croton Reservoir upstate. The Reservoir gets filled by rainwater and snow melt-off that runs down the Adirondack Mountains, into strategically placed basins and upstate reservoirs, then through an intricate series of pipework, down through the Bronx and into your sink. This works fine and dandy for the modern-day metropolis region. But what about back in the day? Specifically, what about Brooklyn, pre-1898? Back then it was a whole different story.

Those of you with a modicum of knowledge regarding the various municipalities of the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs know that Brooklyn was its own city, as was the City of New York (now Manhattan Island). They were twin cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, or San Francisco and Oakland. New York was the burgeoning economic and financial powerhouse, and Brooklyn, although not small by any means (the fourth largest city in the country, at the end of the 19th century), was split down the middle, in parts a sleepy farming community with churches (therefore the nickname “City of Spires”), and in other parts a hectic bustling industrial and shipping powerhouse for the Northeastern seaboard. In fact, more shipping came from Brooklyn than from New York in the 1880s and 1890s.

But what comes with municipal independence is the financial necessity to keep the city up to date: paved streets, bridges, tunnels, railways, electricity, and clean water, to bathe in, to drink, to wash, to do all the lovely things necessary to run a functioning society. And with 86 square miles, Brooklyn just didn’t have enough money to maintain its city-ship, and especially didn’t have enough money to bring in water for its constituents to use. While New York had water coming down through the Croton Aqueduct, Brooklyn had to get water from a different location — namely Long Island. So the city of Brooklyn built a series of expensive and not terribly useful water-pumping stations and reservoirs out on Long Island to bring water to the city. Why were they so useless? Well, a group of intrepid bicyclists set out on Sunday to figure that out firsthand.

The ride was called Explore Brooklyn’s Water Works System, and was cohosted by the Five Borough Bicycle Club and Michael Miscione, Manhattan Borough Historian. The concept was a 35-mile leisurely bicycle ride from the easternmost reservoir, in Massapequa, vaguely tracing the line of the old Waterway Supply system back to the abandoned reservoir in Ridgewood, Queens. It was a lovely day for a bike ride, and the 25 history geeks and bicycle enthusiasts that attended were in concurrence. We met at Penn Station, jumped a 9am train out to Massapequa, and hoofed it back, stopping en route at the assorted water pumping stations and what was left of the reservoir systems between Nassau and Kings counties, from the Massapequa reservoir to the Old Brooklyn Water System Pumping Station at Milburn Pond to the Baisley Pond Park in Rosedale, Queens, all the way back to Ridgewood. We learned that the critical problem of transporting water from Long Island lies in its flatness — whereas all the water coming down from upstate is powered by gravity, not a single drop of H2O coming from Long Island moves downwards — it all has to be pumped, and running those steam-powered pumps 24/7 to bring water to the city is an expensive endeavor, and not one that solves any long term problems. That was the downfall of Brooklyn’s independence and eventual consolidation into the municipality of New York City. In a 1896 non-binding referendum, the for/or against vote for Brooklyn to join the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs had a majority for it of 277, out of 129,000 ballots cast. It was about the water back then. Clearly, there was more to it, but for that story, you’ll have to ask Mr. Miscione at his upcoming lecture. All in all, a wonderful day, a glorious bike ride, some pretty geeky and fascinating history, and exercise! What more could one ask for? How about a glass of delicious New York City tap water? Ahhh.

05/23/07 12:00am

Ah, the sun, the surf, the sail. The only slightly choppy waters of the East River (not a river at all in fact, but a tidal estuary) and the brilliant pre-summer sun charging down on us like so many armies of ultraviolet rays. The views of the isle of Manahatta from the middle of the river: the density and skyscrapery of the city vs. the space and enormity of Brooklyn. One doesn’t normally allow for this type of altered viewpoint, what with the constant move and shake and demands of our urban lifestyle. However, sometimes it is absolutely critical for one to get away from it all, even if “getting away” means boarding a schooner built in 1885 and sailing out into the middle of the harbor for two hours, listening to the poetry of Walt Whitman on his 188th birthday, which coincided with Memorial Day, last Monday.

Walt Whitman was an iconoclast, a true poet of Democracy and a chronicler of a newly burgeoning America, an America  shuddering and shifting with waves of immigration and radical industrial and economic changes. Born in 1819 to practically destitute parents (Mother was barely literate, Father was a carpenter and died while Walt was a child), Whitman received only six years of formal education while bouncing back and forth between Long Island and Brooklyn. At the age of thirteen he became a printer’s devil (the precedent to the intern) for the Long Island Patriot and started to fill in open passages in the paper with bits of “sentimental” material (read: sensationalist and fiercely patriotic articles); this was Walt’s first experience with the majesty of the printed word. Whitman bounced around more than a dozen papers and publications in New York and on Long Island through the 1840s, including the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1846 and 1848.

Without a doubt, his most famous scripture is the poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, but constantly revised and edited throughout the remainder of Whitman’s life. The most important edition was published abroad in 1860, where it was an enormous success — especially in France, where Whitman’s Naturalist descriptions of the human body and the celebration of life encouraged the naturalist revolution in French letters. Leaves of Grass wasn’t such a success in the States upon its publication, standing as it did as a direct rebuke to the Victorian social mores of America at the time. Charles A. Dana, the book critic for the New York Times, wrote upon its publication that Leaves of Grass contained language that was “too frequently reckless and indecent … quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society.” Charles Elliot Norton wrote in Putnam’s Monthly that the slim volume of poetry was “superficial yet profound … preposterous yet somehow fascinating … mixture of Yankee Transcendentalism and New York rowdyism.”

Although he was hardly accepted by the mainstream press and readership, Whitman was justly elevated to near mythic status (his Christ-like beard and semi-obvious homosexuality helped) by a number of international poets and writers, both during his life (Oscar Wilde, Anne Gilchrist) and well after his death (Hart Crane, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see Whitman’s work as a rare, stupendous accomplishment: words and ideas liberated from the severe public construct of the era and standing for all time as a celebration of the human body, spirit and soul over politics, economics, war, and all the other day-to-day happenings of the topical and mundane. Whitman died in 1892, and his works have been in constant publication since.

So, how best to celebrate Whitman’s beauty and poetry? Why, on board an 1885 schooner, courtesy of the South Street Seaport Museum! The Museum, located on Fulton Street, a fish’s scale from the old Dutch Clipper Ships in the East River, celebrates New York’s mostly forgotten maritime culture, and proudly features a number of ships, some docked in the harbor as well as some that set sail on daily excursions. The Peking (1911), Wavertree (1885), and Ambrose (1908) are all permanently moored off of the piers at South Street and are open as museums to the public. Those that cruise out around the harbor include the Pioneer (which Dad Levy and I boarded last Monday, on one of our notorious New York City geek dates), the Lettie G. Howard (1893), and the W. O. Decker (1930); these three ships, along with making multiple public sails a day, can be rented for chartered events and training opportunities. The Seaport Museum is always looking for volunteers, so anyone interested in the ages-old science of mooring, masting, and shouting “Leeward wind off the starboard side!” can and should sign up for a sail or three. Those interested in just going for the ride, it should be noted, can do so with a bottle of wine and a picnic lunch on board the 2-hour tour. While on board, bring a copy of Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and read it to yourself or your honey (or your father). Close your eyes, listen to the gulls, and thank Walt for bringing the experience alive for the ages.

05/09/07 12:00am

Yes indeed, what does make a healthy downtown? A pertinent question for New Yorkers, now more so than ever. Everywhere you look is construction, renovation, building, rebuilding, and burly union men in hardhats and orange flak jackets. There are 16 acres at the World Trade Center site that are slowly, stodgily, infinitesimally progressing towards something resembling a functioning commercial hub; the city is tearing the shit out of Fulton Street and lower Broadway to create a transit hub; a secondary transit hub is happening down in Battery Park, merging three different lines and stations. And don’t get me started on the lux condo-ification of Manhattan, specifically in the financial district. But, is there a precedent to all this construction? How have other cities redeveloped their downtowns? We set out to glean some answers at a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council-sponsored roundtable discussion, held last night on the 60th floor of One Chase Manhattan Plaza.

The roundtable brought together five established city planners slash urban designers from Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, London and Singapore, and each had their own take, understandably, on how to redevelop a downtown. The difficulties, descriptions, conversations and conclusions were pretty fascinating, as each urban designer was adamant that their city, and their model for redevelopment was the de facto answer for cities that are, on the whole, organic and permutable creatures. David Emil, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, moderated, and kept things from veering out of control, especially considering the presence of wild card Peter Rees, City Planning Officer for London since 1985, who started his description of London’s downtown with the memorable line “London has the best free sex in the world!” Rees then went on to explain that within London’s one square mile of commercial Downtown, you have 8,000 people living, 350,000 working, and a newly restored cultural and financial world that is mostly driven by testosterone and the allure of sex. On his watch, London’s downtown went from a 9-5 district to existing as a 24-hour commercial and cultural destination. “It’s not the same type of work in the morning as the evening, well, not yet at least.” Another notable quotable from the feisty Brit: “Families kill cities.” Rees then went on to detail how London’s downtown is not the place for children and strollers — it’s hardworking by day and hardpartying by night. Families belong in the residential parts of London, most certainly not downtown.

Kairos Shen, the Director of Planning at Boston’s Redevelopment Authority, pushed the idea of rediscovering land downtown, through enormous public works projects that shift space and reintegrate previously disparate communities. Most notably through Boston’s Big Dig, an ongoing 20+ year project that has been tearing up Beantown’s downtown to bury the confluence of highways underground. Notoriously behind schedule, massively over budget, and dangerously faulty (a steel panel from the ceiling of the Big Dig crushed a Bostonian two years back), the completed project will, in essence, bring forth rediscovered land above ground as all those expressway go subterranean. Rediscovered land for parks and playgrounds (and condos) is all great, but at what price? Billions and billions, apparently.

Other speakers included Brent Toderian, Director of Planning for downtown Vancouver, who asserted that embedded property rights, “the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness shtick” has no place in Vancouver, where all city planned space is discussed by a very vocal public. Vancouver is one of the world’s few major cities that have zero freeways running through downtown. This bucolic cultural capital puts the pedestrian first and foremost when discussing street use. Following the pedestrian, cyclists, bladers, joggers, and recreational users have control of the road, then light-rail public transit systems, commercial vehicles like delivery trucks, and, a distant fifth, the passenger car. In stark opposition to London, Toderian asserted that “Downtown and cities that work for kids (and families) work for everybody else.” A true city by public design, as opposed to private corporate interest. And with a 4% vacancy rate, not to mention the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver seems to have figured something out. Robert Freedman, the Director of Urban Design from Toronto, was on hand, discussing cheap residential land availability up north ($375 Canadian a square foot! That’s cheap! Even with their dollar kicking our dollar’s ass!), as well as one of the world’s most liberal immigration policies. This makes Toronto one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities for families to raise their kids, with a strong and colorful public school system, vibrant culture, exciting public art, etc. Rounding out the panel was Cheong Koon Hean, from Singapore, who talked about her blue and green city — blue because Singapore is a city-state island in a tropical weather zone, which makes for pleasant living, and green because of the three enormous botanical gardens and parks located right downtown, which makes for healthy recreation. She didn’t mention that you can get arrested for chewing gum or spitting on the sidewalk.

The general conclusion from all this downtown talk was, in essence, different strokes for different folks. Because of all the various uses a city and its downtown carry – residential, commercial, industrial, recreational — each city has to develop its downtown accordingly. There’s no master plan for Downtown. Although we liked London’s agenda a whole lot. And as we sipped scotch and gingers from the open bar and gazed out at our magnificent city through the floor to ceiling windows, 60 stories up, we considered the future of NY. We don’t know what it’ll be, but we’ll be here to enjoy it.

04/25/07 12:00am

Fat-bottomed girl or not, that’s exactly what you should be doing now as the weather gets gorgeous-ier, the budding flowers and blooming trees freshen up our stale city air, the skirts get shorter, the legs get longer(did we mention that last week?), and all around the vibe turns to frivolity and excitement that it is outstandingly, exhilaratingly, finally springtime. New York doesn’t have any definitive harbingers of spring, even less so this year as we didn’t really have any textbook examples of winter. It’s more a social change, a group exhalation into the sparkling atmosphere that announces that we’re all ready, goddamnit. One of the most obvious social cues that we are in the full-fledged glory of May and springtime is the Five Boro Bike Tour, which just rampaged across the city yesterday.

In its thirtieth year, the Five Boro Bike Tour is a citywide ride that covers forty-two miles across Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, in that order. People ride in costumes, on track bikes (we hear those fixed gears are all the rage nowadays), with boom boxes strapped to their backs. We’ve seen tandems, tall bikes, tall tandems! We even once saw a wedding party, bridge, groom, maids and guests of honor, all on tuxedos, all on bicycles. It was badass. People really get into the Five Boro.

It starts at Battery Park and carves its way up through the canyons of Midtown, into Central Park, up through Harlem, then over the 145th Street Bridge into SoBro (the South Bronx, of course). With less than a mile clocked in the only borough attached to the mainland of America, the ride continues back to Manhattan over the Third Avenue Bridge, and down the FDR Drive towards the Queensboro. One of the greatest thrills of the Five Boro is that it allows you to ride over bridges and highways where bikes aren’t allowed — even on those unruly Critical Mass rides.

Over the QB and up through industrial Long Island City and past the Socrates Sculpture Park into bucolic Astoria, filled to the brim with families, elevated trains and hipsters wishing they were a) living in Williamsburg; b) fit and un-ironic enough to bike forty-two miles in one day. Back down through Queens and over the Pulaski Bridge to Brooklyn, where the route zigs through Williamsburgs of the Hipster, Hispanic and Hasidic variety. Up there with the glory of biking down the FDR is the stretch of the ride through Hasid-land on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, where it seems as if every Hasidic family is out on the sidewalks, cheering and waving and shouting at the phalanx of bicyclists zooming through their normally staid neighborhood.

Once the cyclists have conquered Hasid-land, it’s down through the Navy Yard and DUMBO, and then over the Gowanus Expressway and the BQE — as thrilling as the ride along the FDR. The BQE takes the group up to and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1964 — so long that the tops of the towers are a few feet farther apart than the bottom, because the curvature of the earth had to be taken into account when the bridge was built. This part of the ride is always a bitch, because the bridge is so long, and the incline so infinitesimally incremental, that it feels as if one is biking across the bridge in perpetuity, forever. The crowds of over 30,000 people on bikes can both help, as psychic reassurance, as well as hurt: so many bikes! So easy to crash and cause a pileup! However, once your tired little legs have pushed you over the crest of the Verrazano, you’ve never been happier to see Staten Island, and the finish line. Forty-two miles, five boroughs, 30,000-plus bicycles, all getting home on the Staten Island Ferry. But not us. We didn’t ride this year — had too many tours to give and we were just too damn tired. Ce la vie!

04/25/07 12:00am

In case you’ve been living wrapped up in a web for the last few months, there’s been a bit of Spidermania going on around town, as we brace for the arrival of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Vinyl banners hung from lampposts declare this to be “Spider-Man Week” for New York City. A preposterous collection of retail shops are all clamoring for a chance to cash in on the endless cross-marketing blitz of Spider-Man Week. Any redheads out there? Stop by Supercuts to take advantage of their “special surprises” to the genetic sisters of Mary Jane Watson. Feel like exploring the gorgeous gardens of the Bronx at the New York Botanical? Learn how to pot a baby spider plant and what webs are built out of. At least they’ve got the right kind of equipment at the Chelsea Piers Rock Climbing Wall so one doesn’t have to depend upon homemade web slingers, which aren’t always that reliable. All this for a hometown hero that was an average kid, growing up in Queens . . .

Everyone knows the basic gist of the spider-saga. When we meet teenage geek Peter Parker, we know that his parents are mysteriously deceased and that Peter lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a quaint clapboard house in Forest Hills, Queens. One day while on a school trip, Pete gets bitten by a radioactive spider and the rest is web-slinging history.

One of the truly remarkable facts regarding Spider-Man is that, from his creation by Stan Lee, in August of 1962, Spidey was always intended to be a product of New York City. No other major comic book hero was grounded in such a geographical definitive. Superman’s Metropolis was intended as a New York City mixed in with Chicago and stuck in the Deco 1920s. Batman’s badass Gotham City was drawn the nadir of New York in the deep, dark 1970s, but amplified, exacerbated, overwhelmed with awfulness (or at least it was after Frank Miller and Tim Burton got their hands on it). But Peter Parker and his supporting cast live, work, breathe and fight crime right in our own city. So when Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead genius) started filming the Spider-Man trilogy, it only made perfect sense to shoot on location. In case you were wondering . . .

  •  The Daily Bugle is located in the world-famous Flatiron Building, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street.
  • Harry Osborne, son of the Green Goblin (and future Goblin himself) lives in Beekman Towers, a magnificent Art Deco complex at First Avenue and 49th Street.
  •  While Peter and Harry are still students at NYU, they live in a preposterously magnificent loft on Broadway at Waverly Place, across the street from the Tisch school of the arts.
  • Uncle Ben gets shot right in front of the Main Branch of the New York City Public Library at 42nd Street.

Now, to attempt some basic intellectualizing for this week’s column, instead of just glossing over the basic filmed-in-New-York claptrap, we visited the American Museum of Natural History to see some real live spiders and inquire about Peter Parker’s superhuman abilities: for instance, do spiders have a real live Spidey-sense? Not in any capacity, no. But the Pinkfoot Birdeater Tarantulas from Venezuela were covered in tiny fibrous hairs that acted as ultra-sensory nodes to help the arachnid find its way around a darkened rainforest. Not unlike trying to make your way through a darkened movie theater without stepping on toes, really. Enjoy the opening weekend, everyone!

04/11/07 12:00am

Ah, Spring! Birds and green grass, skirts and bare legs. Cleavage on inline skates! Shirtless men slinging frisbees in the park! It seems as if the harsh, cold, freezing slush of winter was… well, it didn’t really happen this year. Seems like Al Gore was right, and winter is on its way out for good, and that means… well it doesn’t mean good things in any capacity, but let’s enjoy the weather while we can. Let’s stop and smell those flowers. What flowers are they? Why, they just happen to be Daffodils — the newly anointed Official Flower of the City of New York! Why, you might ask, are Daffodils the Official Flower? Well, that’s why we’re here: to clear up any and all confusions about this complicated, confounded city of ours, and its silly Officializing of such things as flowers.

This past Friday, Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed "The daffodil has been selected as the official flower of the City of New York. This flower has earned the distinction, the Daffodil Project makes the City a more beautiful place every year, and bring us all together by serving as a living memorial to the victims of September 11th." But before we get to the Daffodil Project, lets go back to the Dutch and the shipping colony of New Amsterdam. The Daffodil is not native to the lowlands of Holland, but rather the Mediterranean. It was first studied and brought to Europe in the 1570s by the Flemish botanist Charles de l’Écluse, considered by many as the Godfather of Botany, who brought the seeds back to the Netherlands, and through cross-pollination developed thousands of hues of Daffodils and Tulips, from common yellow to the rare hot pink. Early Dutch settlers brought Daffodil bulbs to New Amsterdam, and fields of Daffodils can be seen in early landscape paintings of the hectic shipping colony here, on display at the New-York Historical Society.

More recently, Daffodils became a citywide statement of healing and remembrance through The Daffodil Project, an ongoing, non-profit “Living Memorial” in which volunteers, aided by the Parks Department, would plant millions of Daffodil bulbs throughout the five boroughs.  Started just one month after 9/11, the Daffodil plantings became a brilliant living symbol of New York’s resiliency and capacity for healing. As part of the outpouring of international support, Hans van Waardenburg of B&K Bulbs in the Netherlands, representing an international group of well-wishers from across the ocean, donated over one and a half million daffodils and tulips to the NYC Parks Department, which were planted in our parks. Three years on, Waardenburg has continued to donate half a million bulbs to our city each year. In another touching moment of individuals reaching out to show some love to NYC, a Minnesota handyman and Holocaust survivor, Joseph Temeczko, upon his deathbed, willed his entire estate of $1.4 million to planting tulips and daffodils in the city, as well as renovating the small Chinatown green-space of Columbus Park (once the notorious Five Points).

So we find it sweet-smelling that Mayor Mike decided, once and for all, to raise the Daffodil to its illustrious place among the fiefdom of New York State Officials: the Bluebird (State Bird), Garnet (State Stone), Milk (State Beverage) and Bay Scallop (State Shellfish). Hold up . . . according to the I (Heart) NY website for kids, the Official State Flower is the Rose. What? What?! Sounds like there’s going to be a RUMBLE IN THE BOTANICAL!

04/11/07 12:00am

The fact that New York City, the world capital of cosmopolitan business, culture, media and fashion is such a sports-wacky city still boggles our mind. Don’t sports belong to the South and Midwest? Aren’t they the pastime of smaller urban, suburban and exurban areas with nothing else to do?  What’s more, as a youngun’ not even alive when Jackie Robinson passed on to the great Second Base in the sky in 1972, are we allowed to cheer and reminisce about his Major League debut, 60 years ago yesterday, April 15th? Especially as it took place in our hometown, the superlative borough of Brooklyn? You better damn believe we are entitled to celebrate that brilliant man. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a column this week.

As even a non-sports fan in a surprisingly sports-zany city can attest to, it is a source of pride that Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers right on Court Street, facing Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn. The space today is (what else, but) aCommerce Bank, but back in 1945, when Robinson first signed his contract. was a media outlet for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson had always been a superstar, and one accustomed to speaking his mind when he was involved in racial injustice. Not only was Robinson the first student at UCLA to earn four letters – one each in baseball, basketball, football and track — but he was almost court-martialed during World War Two when he refused to play on Texas’ Fort Hood football team. The school forced Robinson to stand at the back of the Army bus, along with the other colored students (per Encyclopedia of New York City), and this is what got the sweet-tempered mean hitter into hot water.

Following the war, Robinson played in the Negro League for the Kansas City
Monarchs, and then the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team, the. Dodger president Branch Rickey was a savvy PR manager and understood the one-small-step-for-black-men, one-giant-leap-for-African-Americans mentality that surrounded his move to integrate baseball. And it was only in a city like Brooklyn where a black athlete like Jackie Robinson could fearlessly and fearfully join his fellow white players, like Pee-Wee Reese, Pete Reiser and Johnny Podres. When Robinson took to the field on April 15th, wearing number 42 (Douglas Adams was right!), there were 26,623 fans in the stands, more than half were black. (Per Brooklyn! An Illustrated History)

Robinson wasn’t the first major step towards integration for society in general — in 1941 the Government awarded African-Americans defense jobs, and President Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948. What’s more, the ethnic makeup of northern cities had been changing over the past few decades, so the old-school segregationists couldn’t ignore the movement of people of color for much longer. Although Robinson was a phenomenon in the sport, neither the entire game nor its individual players welcomed him. Unruly, narrow-minded fans hurled insults and trash. Vicious players from opposing teams tried to dig their cleats into his shins as they rounded second. However, modern society itself was thrilled with Jackie. He starred on comic books, pop magazines, newspapers, ads, even played himself in a movie, The Jackie Robinson Story, alongside Ruby Dee as his wife Rachel.

To celebrate the historic marking of the end of one era and the beginning of another, last night’s games across the country had players donning number 42. Some entire teams are proudly displaying 42, including the Astros, the Brewers, the Pirates, and of course, the LA Dodgers. Up in the Bronx, Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano of the Yankees are both fronting 42 – Rivera is the last active player wearing it (the number was retired a decade ago) and Cano is named for the baseball great. Although the game certainly has changed, with steroids and super-stadiums, with more luxury boxes and less nosebleed bleachers; the intrinsic sense of patriotism and history in that signing 60 years ago is a true moment to celebrate. So, our caps are off to Jackie Robinson.