03/28/07 12:00am

The lights dim. Somewhere, an obviously faked New York accent booms through the cavernous rotunda, originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair and used as the U.N.’s first General Assembly Hall until 1951. “Once upon a time, in the year 1626, in a land not too far removed from where you all stand, there was an island. It was long and skinny and had many hills and it was called Manahatta. And yea, it was good. And the Dutch settlers arrived, and they slaughtered the natives, and feasted upon their bounty. And then the year was 1898. and there was a tall proud man, a hero to many, who thought the unthinkable – the consolidation of the greatest city in the world into the Greater New York City of Five Boroughs. And yea, it was great.” Some geographical geek hollers out “Get to the game!” And our host, Freddy Five-Boroughs, complies. “Welcome contestants, to THE PANORAMA CHALLENGE!” Cheers and merrymarking ensue.

In order to understand the Panorama Challenge!, one must first understand the Panorama of the City of New York, the largest architectural scale model in the world. In order to grasp this, one must get a glimpse of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows Park, Queens. We could get into Robert Moses and his crumbling empire circa the late 60s, but that was touched upon, oh so briefly, in LIH vol. 24. Let’s start with the World’s Fair. Held on the same site as the 1939-40 World’s Fair, this modern fair was not sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, although Moses forged ahead in order for NYC to host it anyway. The fair was utilized as a blank check in order for Moses to widen the Grand Central & Whitestone roadways, and extend the Van Wyck, not mention build Shea Stadium as well as a number of still-standing buildings and structures. The Unisphere stood in the center of the Fair, and symbolized its theme – “Peace Through Understanding.” Inside the GM pavilion, titled Futurama II, dioramas and sets depicted the city in 2064. The Belgian waffle was introduced to the world at the World’s Fair! But one of the most visited attractions was the Panorama of the City of New York.

The Panorama was and still is a 9,335-foot scale model of every single building in the five boroughs, in a ratio of 1:100. It exists in a massive rotunda, with a cantilevered walkway that descends from a third-story platform to ground level, as it circles the boroughs clockwise, from the Bronx to Manhattan. The sheer immensity of it astounds. There are 895,000 handmade structures, and 60,000 of them are unique; the whole thing is flash-frozen in 1992. There are the Twin Towers, as if nothing went wrong. There is the despised Coliseum, currently the site of the Time Warner Center. We can see the house in Flatbush where we grew up, as well as the loft in East Bushwick where we currently reside. The Panorama recently underwent a year-long renovation to repair busted buildings, bring the lighting and sound systems up to date, as well as draw more visitors to the often overlooked and absolutely delightful Queens Museum of Art, where it resides.

Which brings us to the Panorama Challenge! In tandem with celebrating the reopening of the Panorama, and with the goal of raising some direly needed operating cash for the City Reliquary, a community museum and civic organization (full disclosure: we sit on the Board of Directors as the Events Coordinator), it was time for the World Premier of the Panorama Challenge!, a geographical trivia-based game night developed by Mark Levy of the Levys’ Unique New York (further disclosure: our business partner and, um, father).

Here’s how the Panorama Challenge! worked: individuals and teams congregated at the QMA this past Saturday, April 7th and formed teams of ten. Each team of ten split off into three small squads of three and four, and, armed with a clipboard and spreadsheet, they scattered themselves about the Panorama at the East, South and West quadrants. Freddy Five Boroughs (brother Gideon Levy) and celebrity judges (including Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione) resided up North. In addition, three game controllers (the aforementioned Mark Levy, IMDB Ultimate Film Fanatic 2005 and independent filmmaker Jordan Hoffman,  and yours truly) were stationed at the E, S and W portions, and were armed with laser pointers. Freddy then commenced to read off 85 different clues and geographical regions, and each appropriate Game Controller highlighted a park, neighborhood, waterway, landmark or structure. It was then up to the teams to identify the various structures for prizes and prestige.  Some were easy, some were moderate, and a couple were for the hardcore geographical geeks. “This park in Eastern Queens was a former industrial site!” (Alley Pond Park, duh!) Did we mention there was suggested/mandatory beer consumption? IE, with the purchase of the $25 fundraising ticket, two complimentary brews, courtesy of Brooklyn Brewery, were pressed into each Challenger’s hand. Have you ever been in a scale model of every single building in New York City with 100 drunken, rowdy geographical geeks? No? Well, it was glorious, and you’ll get another chance come September, where the Panorama Challenge! will return to eastern Queens with a new round of inquiries and even more beer to guzzle. Congrats to the two winning teams, with 83 of 85 questions correct: Kevin Walsh’s (of Forgotten-NY fame) The Destroyers, and the Dead Rabbits, a motley crew of Challengers from near and far (but including members of NY’s Parks Department.) And huzzah for geography!

03/28/07 12:00am

You can’t drive a mile in this city without veering onto Robert Moses’ terrain. The man responsible for (deep breath here) the FDR drive, Henry Hudson Parkway, the BQE, Cross Bronx Expressway, Belt Shore Parkway, Gowanus Expressway, the LIE, the Grand Central Parkway, The Major Deegan Expressway, Prospect Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, the Interboro Parkway, the Northern and Southern State Parkways, Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Coop City, Jones Beach, and countless more inter-city highways, byways, parkways and big-building construction projects has recently been the subject of a revisionist history to the revisionist history. Or, as Brian Lehrer so aptly put it a month or so ago on his self-titled WNYC talk show, “It seems that New York City is finally awakening from its Robert Moses hangover!” But what does this all mean?

To start with, it means that our great metropolis is finally shaking off the bad vibes incurred from the Master Planner’s ramrod method of destroying and building anew. That NYC is no longer afraid to tackle massive projects that encroach upon public-use land that will affect all bodies involved (ahem, Atlantic Yards, cough). That we can, with a clear eye towards the past, assemble the various benefits and detractions of the man who, over almost half a century, shaped this city like no one before or since. We are in no way going to attempt to define Moses’ stranglehold on this city, nor are we going to provide a comparative study on the three concurrent exhibits on this titan’s work (Remaking the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York, through May 28th; The Road to Recreation at the Queens Museum of Art, through May 27th; and Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, through April 14th). No way is that possible within this space. What’s more, we read Robert Caro’s 1200 page masterpiece The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the original revisionist history on Moses, and it only took us a year.
No, what we plan to do here is to get down and dirty describing a tete-a-tete last week up at Columbia, a war of words between two men who hadn’t spoken in 50 years. Enter Phillip Schorr — a lawyer working for Moses and who was in charge of relocating on-site residents during the Lincoln Square and Fordham projects of the 1950s. On the other side of the ring, Harris Present, a vocal community leader who mobilized residents against Moses’ Title 1 Housing Slum & Clearance projects and wrote excoriating letters to Moses which were widely reprinted in the Times Editorials pages. As one would expect, the two men were cordial, gracious, and stood staunchly in their respective camps with the intellectual battle for the hearts and minds of the audience. However, we were no fools. Although Schorr was clearly the superior speaker and crafted far more salient points, and although poor Present came across as a bumbling, repetitive, old-script reader, murmuring about how “the primary purpose of government should be: ‘What can we do to provide housing to New York City’s poor, from slums?’” we savvy New Yorkers in the audience were not to be fooled. Schorr’s giveaway was the line “ We got two things going for us – Robert Moses and eminent domain.” Us in the crowd didn’t like that one.

It wasn’t until the final twenty minutes that these two men really ripped into each other, cutting each others’ sentences short, with rebuttal following rebuttal, and a peculiar Schorr lording physically over the perplexed Present. Schorr made a stronger case for the greater good of the city trumping the individual rights of its citizens, but that methodology, in its very essence, cuts off the nose to spite the face. What good is relocating tens of thousands of people if the end product is shabbier, more dangerous, less enticing places to live that the original, long since torn down?

Moses is most certainly a tough cookie to crumble. As a licensed NYC tour guide and native New Yorker, I know full well the battles of traffic congestion horrors and under-funded public transit systems mostly already taxed to the limit. However, on the flip side of the coin we have this past Sunday morning. I was hungover on four hours of sleep and had a 2-hour student tour from ten to noon, meeting the group at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I also had my father’s car, which required a return to Dad that afternoon, following the tour. My plan was to drive the car from my apartment in East Bushwick to Williamsburg, where I would park, then ride the train into the city making good time all around. It wasn’t until I got to the ‘burg at 9:25am that I realized the tour wasn’t starting at St. Pat’s, but rather the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in Morningside Heights, Amsterdam and 110th. And there was no motherfucking way I would have made it on the subway. So, I drove. Over the Wburg bridge, onto the FDR drive, and I made it, from Houston to E 125th street, in eight minutes flat. No fucking exaggeration. I was pushing 70 mph the entire way, no cops, no traffic, no nothing. I made it to St John the Divine with 10 minutes to spare, from East Bushwick to Morningside in 40 minutes even. So on the blast up the east side, I found myself shouting GOD BLESS YOU, ROBERT MOSES!

03/14/07 12:00am

Ever wonder about those yellow four-wheeled marvels of modern science that get us from point A to point B, quickly, simply and safely without undue physical or psychological duress while leaving enough cash in the wallet for a late-night slice? Ever gawk at the serendipitous beauty of a rain-slicked cab as it veers towards the sidewalk and up to your soaked, extended arm, as if it were invented just that minute to whisk you home? Ever have a cabbie flat-out refuse to take your sorry drunken ass out to East Bushwick or wherever it is you kids are living these days? Yes, yes, and most certainly. The yellow cabs in our great city are — if no longer curvaceous and Checkered Cab Company-built (in Kalamazoo, Michigan!); if hardly ever helmed at the wheel by a tough talkin’ native Brooklynite named Sal with a mouth like a bluefish; hell even if they never come when you need them — still embodiments of the mythic aura of the New York City Taxicab. Hush dear readers. Shortly, all your cabbie questions will be answered.

First and foremost: why are cabs yellow? The iconic color comes courtesy of John Hertz(if his surname sounds familiar, it should: this is the same gentleman who founded the rental car company of the same name), who founded in the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago in 1914. In an early example of color-branding, yellow was picked because it is the easiest color to spot in a crowded city.

All right: now, how many yellow cabs are there in the city? The Taxi and Limousine Commission (everyone needs a little TLC) — the city-owned regulating board that licenses medallion cabs (the yellow ones) for-hire vehicles (those ubiquitous black Lincoln Town Cars,) commuter vans (airport shuttles, et al,) ambulettes and certain luxury limos — noted that as of March 2006, this city has 12,779 yellow cabs on the streets. One year earlier, the TLC licensed 942,000 drivers — either new drivers or existing one reapplying for the yearly “hack” license — in order to legally operate a cab in the city.

Finally, but most interestingly, the most expensive thing on the cab isn’t the rooftop ad, nor the license plates, nor the gas, nor the driver (he’s generally the cheapest). It’s the tiny aluminum plate, half-semi-circle, stamped down on the hood of each and every taxicab. Those thin pieces of metal are called Medallions, and the price and resultant ownership of each and every Medallion in this city is a source of ire amongst cabbies.

Taxi and Limousine Medallions are the official license of cabs — they’re what allows drivers to stop and pickup passengers and charge them fares from point A to point B. No medallion, no fare meter, no cab. The medallions were created under the Hass Act of 1937 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (is there anything he didn’t do?) to impose regulation on an outrageous and highly unorganized system in the 1920s and 30s. Back then there was no licensing process, so not only were drivers taken advantage of by labor unions and Tammany Hall, but the passengers were also unfortunate victims of price gouging. Things had spiraled so out of control that Mayor Jimmy Walker was receiving plentiful payoffs from the Checkered Cab Co. to keep things in disarray.

Once The Little Flower got the medallions in place, the city could keep closer tabs on the limited number of cabs cruising around. In 1937, the maximum allotment of cabs was placed at 13,566. During the 1960s, due to great white flight and the mass exodus to the ‘burbs, Medallions were limited to 11,300. It doesn’t take a math whiz to calculate that within a timeframe of 70 years, the medallion fluctuation has only varied at most, 2,266 cabs. That’s not a lot of rides for a lot of people, especially as New York’s population has exploded again in this new millennium.

Because there are such a limited number of medallions, and since the TLC owns the majority of them and licenses them out on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to cabbies, the simple law of supply and demand keeps the sale price of the medallion so high: the average sale price of a medallion in 2007 was $414,000. Which doesn’t include the two-year license for the medallion ($1,100), or the two-year inspection fee ($300), or the price of that thin sheet of aluminum to stamp down on the hood ($10). That’s why most of the Medallions are in fact owned by the TLC, and rented out to drivers who can’t out-and-out purchase them. Say a cabbie hit the Lotto jackpot and wanted to keep driving out of a genuine love for the city — well, he’d be crazy. But he’d be able to purchase the Medallion, and purchase the cab, and from that point on, every cent he earned he’d keep. As it stands now, most of the cabbies only make a living from their tips — the rest goes to Medallion licensing and gas. So tip those cabbies well!

02/28/07 12:00am

Happy Purim! Commonly oversimplified as the “Jewish Halloween,” this boisterous festival has in its roots a radically subversive agenda that most would be surprised to discover as the basis for a holidayGrowing up a cheeseburger- and-shrimp-loving Jew in Brooklyn with Orthodox grandparents who lived in Borough Park, I always accepted the holiday as the most uncomplicated of traditions. We’d go to a reform shul  in Park Slope, where we’d join up with other liberal Brooklyn Jews attempting to reconnect with our heritage. Everyone went in some ridiculous homemade costume (I was a repeat Pirate), there’d be a lot of noise made from the graggers upon each of the 54 mentioning of Haman’s name. This was also the holiday where we got to throw small bags of candy at the front of the shul, for what reason I couldn’t possibly elucidate. There was lots of dancing and general hoopla, and then we’d go back home to a Purim feast. Sounds like a simple holiday, huh? A fun one too, especially for the ultra-conservative Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who recognize the true significance of the day as one of the only days in the year where they get to break free of the strict dress and social codes they adhere to, and let their collective peyes down.

Leave it to the radical New York community to break the tradition of simple celebration and inject a hearty dose of politics into the fray. New York has always been a home for old left-wing politics, a safe haven for Communists, Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists, Wobblies and other assorted ilk that shouldn’t find themselves comfortable in Mayor Bloomberg’s capitalized city. But they’ve been here, and they’ve made inroads into social circles with their fiery grandstanding and political screeds. The north side of Union Square, site of the Greenmarket and Critical Mass meetings, was a historically significant meeting spot for left-wing rallies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And established organizations, such as The Workmen’s Circle, at 45 East 33rd between Park and Madison, have always been proponents of the “better red than dead” political leanings. The Workmen’s Circle was started as a mutual aid society for Jewish laborers with socialist tendencies in 1892, then restructured as a national order in 1900. For a long time located in the Forward building on East Broadway in the formerly Jewish LES, The Workmen’s Circle utilized its skills in providing material assistance to new immigrants off the boat, as well as participating in the labor movement, cultural projects to define and defend Jewish heritage, and opening Jewish schools that taught Yiddish and socialist principles alongside math, geography and history.

Which brings us back to Purim. Specifically, the rockin’ Purim party we attended Saturday night, at the Workmen’s Circle in midtown. Sponsored by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and in collaboration with a coalition of left-leaning organizations, this particular Purim party was titled “Roti and Homentashn: The Palace Workers Revolt!: A Purim Carnival Spectacular” and, as one can imagine, was filled to the brim with not only Jews and Gentiles looking to boogie, but crazy costumes, enormous papier mache puppets courtesy of Great Small Works, families and babies packed in with the specialized hipster crowd, the spectacularly loud and always lovely Rude Mechanical Orchestra (a 20+ member political marching band), Romashka (a five-member Gypsy Muzica band), a table loaded with West Indian food, a secret keg, a not-so-secret bar, and enough political rhetoric to make you moved to open up a printing press and mass-distribute red tracts to the unorganized workers of the world.

We had a blast. The two major problems with the evening, aside from our wholesale consumption of whiskey, were the size of the venue (WAY too small for the HUGE crowd that attended); and, as much as the stage-show was delightful and informative and funny and celebratory, it occupied far too long a slot in the evening’s line-up. After all that political juu-juu, most of the Purim partyheads just wanted to dance. Which was relegated mostly to the intermissions, where RMO and Romashka pounded out drinking and dancing songs. Which, when partying in a historical venue noted for its straight-laced political machinations, is a sort of radical subversion in and of itself.

02/14/07 12:00am

Ah, the good old days. Cobblestone streets and pre-war tenements filled to capacity, housing thousands of the indigent poor. Fourteen-hour sweatshop days and six-day work weeks for every last member of the family. A culture of production, as opposed to consumption. And how about those pushcarts, clogging the arteries and viaducts of the single most densely packed neighborhood in the world — the Lower East Side? Those pushcarts defined New York’s’ inherent bustle and schema — our everything-is-for-sale mentality, our get-it-anywhere-even-on-the-streets attitude, and most certainly our appreciation for the hard work of the immigrant classes. You know, the more we think about the past that we weren’t alive to experience, the more we lift the sepia-scrim of nostalgia from our hangover headaches, the more it seems that those lost and lamented affections of the LES were pretty shitty. Including the pushcarts.

Everyone’s seen the pictures. You all should watch Milos Forman‘s iconic film Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, and everyone should go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. We’re expressly describing the black and white still shots of street scenes with hundreds of pushcarts traversing any given intersection on any particular weekday. Pushcarts — essentially a wooden stand and storage space on wheels — were one of the easiest incomes for the immigrant poor. They were hardly regulated in the 19th century, they were mobile, they were cheap to build and repair, they could be tailored to provide both goods (fruit, silverware, clothes, household supplies) and services (tailor, knife-sharpener, barber, shoe-repair), but most critically of all, they were rent-free. So explains the abundance of pushcarts in the city at the turn of the century.

However, they were reviled, looked on as an aspect of a backwater European village, and they contributed to an overcrowded, filth-ridden, congested city that was attempting to modernize itself. In 1940, a cooperative of merchants set up the Essex Street Market, as part of Mayor LaGuardia’s overall agenda to remove the pushcart presence from the LES. These are two low-lying Art Deco buildings, on Essex just north of Delancey; one is abandoned, but the other is seeing spectacular days, as it sells an interesting complex of items to both immigrants and bobos from the surrounding neighborhood. You’ve got fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, non-food services as well as gourmet dining items, like fine cheeses and French pastries. The Market even has its own art gallery: the Cuchifritos Gallery nestled inside nearby Schapiro’s Wine stand. (Manischewitz, anyone?)

A number of these markets exist all over the city — the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx is beloved by the Italian community up there. One of New York’s lesser-known markets is the Moore Street Market, servicing the Mexican and Latino communities in the increasingly gentrified Southeast Williamsburg. La Marqueta, as it is known amongst its clientele, has been at the corner of Humboldt Street for almost seventy years — it opened the same year as the Essex Street Market — and although it is half the size of that market, its 26 customized stalls are cozily crammed together, proffering everything a Latino- (or any-) heart and stomach could want.  No matter: last week the city made clear its intentions: it wants the vendors out by June so the building can be razed or developed into much-needed housing.

From the NY1 website: “The Market has been in Williamsburg for more than 65 years. It was designed to give pushcart owners a clean, safe space indoors at below-market rents. Residents say it has become a cultural mecca, where they can get their hair cut, buy Latin music and religious items, eat pastelillos, and drink café con leche.” The city claims that the market is a loss-leading enterprise, but the vendors inside La Marqueta cry that you can’t put a price tag on the epicenter of a cultural community. The Economic Development Corporation of the city is helping the vendors find a new place to move to, but in our litigitious society, there certainly will be lawsuits pending and protesters chanting LA MARQUETA in the months to come. Get your Spanish pigs-blood sausage now, while you still have a chance.

02/14/07 12:00am

Ah, New York in February. It’s cold, grey, windy, slushy and shitty, and if that’s not enough to bring on the hate, well smack in the middle is Valentine’s Day to kick you when you’re down. Coincidence that this second month is also the shortest? We doubt it. But back to that unfortunate V-word. We weren’t going to let the pink and flowery ruin our own loveless Valentine’s. We knew of a party happening — a Balkan dance party, held by Gemini and Scorpio in the legendary East Village Russian Bathhouse. Open Vodka bar. Free pierogies. Live music by the incomparable Luminescent Orchestrii. Dance floor maintained by the ridiculous DJ Shotnez of Balkan Beat Box. And, in case one were to miss the environmental aspects of the party as implied by the name, let’s reiterate: a Russian Bathhouse. It was on. But before we spill the secrets of this particular shindig, of course first we’re going to edify and enlighten all you Lost in Historians on the importance of the Public Baths in NYC, circa 19th century.

The importance of bathing wasn’t acknowledged here in America until late in the game, in the mid-1800s, and even then it was mostly considered a luxury for the wealthy. Microscopic germs had yet to be discovered, and the linking of health with cleanliness was almost unheard of. Prior to the Croton Aqueduct’s opening in 1842, there wasn’t even enough water to clean with. In 1849, there began a nation-wide movement towards cleaning the (not yet multitudes but enough to take notice of) immigrant poor who were living in tenements throughout the city. That was the year that the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor built the People’s Bathing and Washing Establishment at 141 Mott Street, the first public bathhouse in the country. It was a huge success, though the five to ten cent prices were still not yet affordable to the destitute.

After the Civil War and the huge waves of immigrants started, ahem, washing up on shore, the city realized that more adequate facilities were needed in the slums of Lower Manhattan to combat dirt and disease. In 1870 the Department of Public Works developed Floating Baths — enormous wooden structures installed in the Hudson and East rivers that essentially utilized the free — though not very clean — waters of the tide to clean all participants. Use was free and fifteen such pools in the city attracted approximately 2.5 million men and 1.5 million women a year (per the Encyclopedia of New York City). Advances in science lent credence to a new germ theory, and something had to be done, more than public floating baths in the already filthy rivers surrounding the city.

Finally, the physician Simon Baruch convinced the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor to build a spiffy new public bathhouse on the Lower East Side, which was done with donations from various civic organizations, as well as eighty pounds of soap from Colgate. Opened in the early 1890s, this was the first Public Bathhouse in America, and the new model for scores of other public bathing arenas across the country. Utilizing showerheads instead of tubs and built out of concrete and iron as opposed to wood, some of the bathhouses that still exist, like the Asser Levy Public Bathhouse on East Houston Street, are remarkable architectural accomplishments.

As the immigration population doubled, then tripled, then quintupled, more bathhouses were built to accommodate the masses. Attendants controlled the temperature and timing of the water, and each customer had 20 minutes to clean him- or herself. After the Tenement Housing Law of 1901 required that every building have running water to each story, this helped the decline of the bathhouses’ popularity; the last one was built in 1914. Still, some private bathhouses, run by the ethnic immigrant communities of each neighborhood, survived the tenement laws, the modernization of plumbing, the nail salons and the facialization of our beautiful society.

So we come full circle to the Russian Bathhouse: 268 East Tenth Street, Opened in 1892, they specialize in Russian and Turkish Saunas — your choice of steam room, dry sauna, wet sauna, and super-hot sauna. The vodka flowed. The Orchestrii wailed. The Pierogies were scrumptious, if a bit soggy. The DJ was killer. The rooms were hot, the women and men in their hipster skivvies were hotter. As to your glorious Historian? He rocked the casbah in nothing but a Speedo and flip-flops. There was sweat involved, but it wasn’t coming from the steam rooms.

01/31/07 12:00am

It was a Friday night in NYC, and regardless of the temperature (a brisk 23 degrees), the month (brutal bastard February) and budgetary constraints (NYC tour guides have lean, mean winters), well hell, it was Friday night and we had a date! We started the evening with a bottle of wine and the 1927 silent film classic The General, starring Buster Keaton, in the mallish, but still marvelous Winter Garden at Battery Park City. Accompanied by the always excellent Alloy Orchestra, a trio playing junk instruments and found objects, the free flick was a blast. Following the movies we made our way to The Patriot, Lower Manhattan’s only cheap, loud, rude and blatantly redneck watering hole, and knocked back a few $4 whiskeys. Lubricated both by the liquor and the flirtation, my date and I proceeded our way uptown towards the Metropolis in Motion 24-hour dance-a-thon in Madison Square Park. In February. In 23 degree weather. Dancing. God bless this city.

Metropolis in Motion is an organization that has dedicated its mission to stamping out the arcane, outrageously ineffective and outlandishly idiotic cabaret laws of the early part of this century. The cabaret laws, passed into effect exactly one year before Keaton made his Civil War film, were conscripted in response to the widespread carousing during Prohibition, not to mention the immoral and lewd intermingling of races at some of the bawdier nightclubs of the day. This 1926 law was crafted so that any operating establishment in the city with either

a) three or more musicians playing
b) if any instrument is percussion or brass
c) three or more persons “moving in synchronized fashion”

would require a cabaret license from the city. These licenses were difficult to obtain thanks to convoluted bureaucratic red tape, and they required complicated registration and constant renewal fees to keep said nightclub in good standing. In short, it was a ruse by the (pretty corrupt) city government, led by notorious Night Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker to minimize the number of legitimate nightclubs in the city, which in turn would generate fines for the Mayor and Tammany Hall, both fond of living large.

In 1961 the cabaret law is amended to allow for dancing and live music performances in commercial and industrial districts, which essentially makes it illegal to dance in any residential neighborhood in all five boroughs. In ’67 it gets amended again to allow performers playing clubs “of good character” to do their jobs. In the late eighties, NYU Law Professor Paul Chevigny, on behalf of the Musicians Union, gets the city legislature to drop the first two restrictions of the law. No change is made for the third. Mayor Giuliani also takes umbrage at the various nightclubs in the city and during his Quality of Life Campaign in the late 90s, he forms the Nightclub Enforcement Task Agency that slaughters a good dozen clubs, including the legendary Coney Island High, on St. Marks Place. In a city where there are (as of 2002) 4,811 liquor licenses, only 276 have cabaret licenses. Any rockin’ jukebox, any outdoor patio party, any semi-underground club — all illegal dancing joints.

Which brings us to Metropolis in Motion and their wonderful approach to repealing the cabaret laws: dance dance dance! They’ve held a dance-off in front of the Mayor’s home on 86th Street, they’ve held a mass hokey-pokey in front of City Hall, and this, their most complicated endeavor to date — a huge 24-hour dance-a-thon in Madison Square Park. When my date and I arrived shortly after midnight, it was a little slow and a little quiet. Just in front of the William H. Seward statue, and accompanied by a tiny boom box, about a dozen people were doing the electric slide. So we jumped in — boogie woogie woogie! Following the slide there was some waltzing, some square dancing and a lot of free-for-all-ing. About 15 minutes into the good-natured humorous shivering dance party however, two not-fun-looking cops walked up and demanded the music get shut off. There were noise complaints from the residents in the building just south of 23rd Street.

The Metro in Motion kids were incredulous. This tiny little boom box was making enough noise to be heard over the rush of traffic, honking cabs and general insanity of New York City on a Friday night!? No dice coppers — and here the head dancers pulled out their permits. The officer took a look, saw that we were in the right, and asked (as opposed to demanded) that the music be turned down so as not to bother those sleeping. It was a fair trade. And the dance dance revolution started up again.

01/31/07 12:00am

Last week we had the magnificent pleasure of participating in the madcap catastrophe of the Idiotarod. For those of you too ironic to participate/spectate/understand: the Idiotarod is an annual race that closely — but not exactly — mimics the Iditarod, the grueling 1,000 mile dogsled race across the frozen tundra of Alaska. Replace Alaska with Brooklyn, replace the dogs with idiots, replace necessary life-sustaining tools (like warm clothes and food) with alcohol and instruments of sabotage, and replace the sleds with shopping carts, and you’ve got the Idiotarod. We raced, we drank whiskey, we kicked ass. As evidenced in the accompanying photograph, we went as Team Silent But Deadly – but not that kind of SBD. We were silent film archetypes from the 1900s through the 20s. Yours truly went as the evil moustache-twirling villain. My roommates went as various cops, robbers and the requisite elderly lady. We got ourselves a street urchin, a hobo, an ingénue, and a hero dressed in white. Although we didn’t come anywhere close to first prize, we won the Best Presentation of Theme award! The judges loved our black and white costumes, our train-constructed cart, our giant title-card signboards (“OUT OF OUR WAY YOU SCOUNDREL!”), and our silent-movie music. Apparently, we tapped into a highly appreciated but totally forgotten subconscious cultural experience — the silent film/ragtime oeuvre. So what better place to bring such information to the surface than this week’s Lost In History column? Ladies and gentlemen, the curtain rises on our hero, Scott Joplin, living in Tin Pan Alley and composing music unheard of before his time — Ragtime.

    Ragtime, which enjoyed its peak of popularity between 1899 and 1918, is considered the first truly original American musical style, preceding jazz by a full two decades. Defined as “specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents fall between metrical beats” it is often unfairly simplified as a synthesis between African-American syncopation and the classical waltzing music of old-world Europe. The 19th century predecessor to Ragtime was found scattered throughout various Northern cities with large black populations — variations on the African-American jig and march. Into the twentieth century, the Ragtime sound developed mostly in southern cities such as St. Louis, where Scott Joplin wrote his most famous tune, “Maple Leaf Rag.” You know the song. In almost every black-and-white chase scene, in almost every bank heist, in almost every tied-to-the-railroad tracks rescue — that’s the tune. With its inception in 1899, Ragtime had an anthem, and most importantly, a sale.

Joplin was born in East Texas in 1867 and came of age in a comfortable middle-class background, complete with a piano in the parlor. A prodigious musical student, Joplin (who was black) received free training from Julius Weiss, a German teacher, who trained the young boy in European classical progression. Joplin was further inspired by the concerts of John Phillip Sousa, who performed daily at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. After traveling extensively with performance groups and performing in black gentlemen’s clubs, Joplin moved to St. Louis. In an era before prerecorded music, the only way for a musician to make serious money off of his compositions would be to inscribe them to paper and sell them as showtunes or as shingles for any sort of marketing move.So, Ragtime tunes were popularly used to sell Player Pianos. Joplin sold “Maple Leaf Rag” to John Stark and Son, a Sedalia, Missouri publisher who paid Joplin a one-cent royalty on each copy sold, plus ten free for his own use. Before any of that were to happen, however, Joplin would, in the great tradition of American geniuses, move to New York City to strike it rich, fail miserably, then die in obscurity. I 1907 he moved here to write music for Tin Pan Alley — then located on West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, and so-called because of the racket created by hundreds of pianos being pounded by struggling musicians trying to come up with a commercial success, Tin Pan Alley was considered the locus of popular music in America. Song composers, music-ans-for-hire, hacks, pluggers, and assorted others would show-up on the block and scramble together a trio, quartet or mini-orchestra and bang out a tune, which could be sold by assorted producers hanging around waiting for a genuine hit. Also understand that this was the period before comprehensive copyright control over intellectual property — so the same tune (or a slight variation thereof) could easily be spun off in a matter of minutes to capitalize on the musical crush of the moment. Traveling Vaudeville performers would show up as well and snatch new tunes for their shows. Joplin worked for a short while in Tin Pan Alley but never achieved his true dream:  finding a sponsor for his unrealized Ragtime opera, Treemonisha. While in town, Joplin lived and performed at a few addresses, including 252 West 47th Street and 163 West 131st Street, where he died, in 1917, of syphilis. Needless to say, Joplin hardly received the recognition or fame in his own lifetime, although posthumous tributes were generous: aside from a Pulitzer in 1976, for his significant contribution to American music, you may remember the arrangements of his tunes from the soundtrack of the 1973 Depression caper film The Sting, or E.L. Doctorow’s great (and New York-set) 1975 novel Ragtime, which Joplin’s spirit hovers just above. And of course, his spirit lives on every summer, in the thousands of ice cream trucks looping his composition “The Entertainer” like some suburban pied piper.

01/17/07 12:00am

Why is a column that regularly sticks to emphatic descriptions of sub-cultural historical phenomena in our superlative city beginning with an invocation of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant, Oscar-winning black comedy Dog Day Afternoon? The simultaneous answers can be found here: on a sweating, disgusting, setting August sun over the Ocean Parkway neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1972; in a spare, chilled, practically prop-free black box theater on the fourth floor of West Fifty-fourth Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues; and finally, most comfortably, in the privacy of your own home and with the immediacy of Netflix to summon the movie mentioned above.

Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalized but close-to-home retelling of a failed bank heist that occurred on August 22nd at a Brooklyn Branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, at the corner of Avenue P and East Third Street in the Flatbush neighborhood (full disclosure: born and bred in Flatbush, REPRESENT!). The robbers, John Wojtowicz, 27, and Sal Naturile, 18, were loners, outsiders, uncomfortable around others. Wojtowicz and Naturile grabbed $213,000 but were then barricaded in by hundreds of cops, thousands of spectators, and an increasingly frenetic media circus that only grew more ferocious when it  was revealed that Wojtowicz was holding up the bank in order to give the money to his gay lover for a sex change operation. The relationship between the robbers and their hostages, the attention-grabbing Wojtowicz and the dimwitted but combustible Naturile, the back-and-forth between the robbers and the cops, the cops and the Feds, the Feds and the crowds all made for six o’clock news highlights across the country. From The Boys in the Bank, a Life Magazine article by PF Kluge and Thomas Moore, Bank Manager Robert Barret  recalls: "We had a kind of camaraderie. Every time he’d stress a point he’d walk around the floor three times gesturing, speaking in a real Brooklyn accent. He’d spot a police sniper outside and say, ‘What d’ya think of that sonofabitch! He really wants me, he wants me in the worst way.’ And I’d laugh and say, ‘Yeah, John, I guess he does.’ "

In the film, Wojtowicz became Sonny, and is played to the hilt by a young, vibrant, kinetic Al Pacino. Sal’s name stays the same but his age is upped so that John Cazale can destroy audiences with his trademark blank eyes charged with manic panic. Frank Pierson, the scriptwriter, wins the Oscar for best original screenplay. We won’t spoil the conclusion, but suffice to say, it sticks true to history, like the sweat down the backs of the tellers held hostage.

Lastly, and unfortunately least-ly as well, we come to the black box live performance of this piece of local history. The Barefoot Theatre Company, directed by Frank Solorzano, who placed himself in the lead as Sonny, decided to recreate the drama for the live stage. An impressive undertaking, but one that fell short of achieving true catharsis that great theater can make. The lines were all there, and then some:  the adaptation utilized the article as its primary text; the actors double- and triple-played themselves (Pizza Boy / Murphy the Fed Agent / Sonny’s Disgraced Dad, etc.) and most of the men and women in this production carried a striking resemblance to the actors from the film, the Squirrel and all. In the end, even with the hard work and diligence, the atmosphere simply wasn’t charged enough. Too many things were missing — the eyes of Cazale, the fury of Pacino, the flirtation of the tellers, the exhaustion of Barret. What’s more, when dealing with such a beloved and embraced text as the original movie, too much of the stage work felt predetermined. Everyone knew what they were going to say next — they just needed their cues.

Here’s a thought, to shake loose new accounts from the confines of fidelity: Dog Day Afternoon On Ice! A bladed, leotard-clad rock opera for the film geeks and irony-lovers of today’s Brooklyn. Imagine the theatrics — Sonny performing a triple lutz while screaming “ATTICA! ATTICA!”; a quadruple pirouette by Murphy, right on the tarmac at JFK. Since this classic film is already built around the topsy-turvy hidden homosexual life of Wojtowicz, it only seems like the next logical conclusion to stage an adaptation on the skating rink. We smell a cross-marketing promotion here — produce the spectacular in Prospect Park’s own Wollman Rink, and afterwards the audience can hop on the Brighton Avenue Q train down to Ocean Parkway, to the corner of Avenue P and East Third, and visit the bank. Someone get my agent on the phone!

01/17/07 12:00am

Who doesn’t love a parade? The cheers of approval from the pedestrians, the smell of the open city on a beautiful Friday night, the humanity bursting at the scenes, the $85 ticket for running a red light . . . wait a second. If this sounds familiar, then you are either a bicycle-riding participant in one of the Critical Mass bicycle “protests,” held on the last Friday of every month at about 7:30; or you are a New Yorker, out and about the city on your errands and businesses, cheering (or cursing) the phalanx of bicycles that descend upon your neighborhood at the same time every month. Taking into account the general readership of this column and The L Magazine at large, we’ll safely presume that the majority of you fall into the first two categories — no cursing please, this is a family-oriented column.

Critical Mass, a leader-less group ride that “focuses on the rights of bicyclists and the rights of pedestrians on our own streets” has been around in San Francisco since the early 1990s, and made its arrival in our city shortly thereafter. Drawing hundreds of bicyclists on all sorts of wheels (rollerblades, strollers, unicycles and more) the rides existed in relative peace and exuberance until the 2004 RNC protests, during which our boys in blue exhibited a series of nasty and overly aggressive tactics: illegal use of video cameras as well as infrared helicopter shots, plastic orange netting used to capture bikers, billy-clubs, even the horrific attack of “dooring” bicyclists — the act of opening an automobile door to directly impact a cyclist in the way. Two hundred sixty-four bicyclists were arrested during the Mass in August, and since then, scores of riders in the monthly Mass have been detained, handcuffed, placed in paddy wagons and brought to nearby precincts, although lately, the NYPD has just been handing out fat tickets, mostly for minor charges such as improper lighting on bikes, riding on the sidewalk, even straddling a bicycle while standing still.

Problem for the cops though — those pesky legal groups, arguing for civil rights and freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. The ACLU, as well as bicycle advocacy groups like FreeWheels, Times Up and Transportation Alternatives, has, on numerous occasions, stepped in to defend bike riders as well as take the cops to court. In February, 2006, State Judge Michael D. Stallman ruled that the NYPD was acting too harshly; from his 24 page ruling: “Mutual de-escalation of rhetoric and conduct, and a conciliatory attitude, may help the parties and the Critical Mass riders resolve the litigation and arrive at a workable modus vivendi.” Bike riders took this as a victory, but took it a bit too soon — the NYPD only needed to re-write the rules governing public processions in the streets of NYC. That’s why there’s been so much noise lately about permit rules and regulations between the cyclists and the powers that be.

On Friday, the NYPD released a new set of rules (the third or fourth revision of such regulations, after previous versions were deemed too narrow a restriction — permits required for a procession of two?!?) that clearly states that any collection of fifty or more pedestrians and/or cyclists, traveling together with the intention to defy traffic laws, need a permit from the city to proceed. The rules become law within thirty days, unless some lawsuits can be thrown into the system to halt the process. Regardless of whether this city becomes a bike-hating, freedom-of-assembly-crushing no-go zone, there will always be bicyclists, always be critics of the police force, and rest assured, this isn’t the final stop sign on the parade permit regulations.