11/07/07 12:00am
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11/07/2007 12:00 AM |

Some of you might be familiar with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. You might have seen the blond pompadour’d preacher spitting verse about the evils of capitalism in the midst of Times Square, that hedonistic Disney orgy. You may have passed cash into the collection plate (donations support the non-profit church) at a performance in St. Marks-In-The-Bowery church; we hope you raised your hands and shouted AMEN, BROTHER! during any of his year-round sermons. You may have been trapped inside a Starbucks while the good Reverend was attempting to exorcize the cash register, much to the dismay of the baristas and police officers — Billy has been arrested over 40 times; there is also a cease and desist order that bars him from within 100 feet of every Starbucks in California. You may have found him inspirational, irritating, arrogant, ostentatious, ear-splitting, or all of the above. You might think he’s being ironic or insincere. If you’ve never heard his message or just don’t get it, there’s an opportunity for all sinners and spenders this Friday when the Reverend Billy documentary What Would Jesus Buy? opens at Cinema Village.

Reverend Billy (real name: Bill Talen) is a street performer and spectacle maestro who found his calling in 1999 when he realized that the road to damnation is paved with 17% interest credit cards. Having developed his persona in San Francisco, Reverend Billy moved his portable spectacle to NYC in the 1990s, right in the midst of Giuliani’s sanitization and homogenization of Times Square. The church has grown: from street-corner speeches decrying the soullessness of Disney to a thirty-four-member choir in matching red robes, an eight-member band (The Not Buying It Band) and a choir conductor and choreographer, savitri d, Talen’s wife and collaborator. Through the expansion, Reverend Billy’s message has stayed direct and deep-hitting: we’ve replaced personal interactions with over-consumption, and we’re losing our souls in the process. Not to mention destroying the planet.

The documentary truly drives home the sincerity of the Reverend’s mission, while striking fear as well as warmth into the heart of all who view its ever-pertinent message. Prepare thyself for the Shopocalypse! Broken into humorous chapters with witty animated title screens (“Baby Bling” has the requisite Madonna suckling Baby Jesus, the baby playing with an iPhone,) we follow the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country tour, singing in malls, preaching on early morning television shows, visiting colleges and singing Christmas carols in front of McMansions in Texas, in the thirty days leading up to Christmas, 2005. What’s important is that each liberal, upbeat, idealistic congregation shot is interspersed with hard numbers about America’s shopping problem. We meet American families and see their mountains of debt; there are interviews with Shopping Addiction therapists, religious leaders, American Depression survivors, a stressed-out human rights lawyer and a fantastically unconvincing Wal-Mart religious preacher, who can’t spout one good thing about the Wal-martization of America. In the middle of the film the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir bus gets into a pretty terrifying accident, and this only emboldens the choir as well as the audience — no force of man or act of God can slow their mission. The Reverend and his folk reach the holy grounds of Disneyland on Christmas Day, for one final action.

Upon first viewing, one would think it a film that preaches (pardon the pun) to the converted, but during a post-screening interview, director Rob VanAlkemade beamed as he informed us of conservative Christian groups across the country applauding the film and calling it a bastion of true Christian values. At the advance screening, we were also treated to a special performance, by the Stop Shopping Choir, of two original songs that they perform while on tour: the title track of “What Would Jesus Buy” and “Shopocalypse.” You may think Reverend Billy a genius or an asshole. Regardless, he’s a true New Yorker, one with a message for the masses that, if taken to heart, would result in a lot less post-holiday heartache and a lot less crap for the closets.

10/24/07 12:00am
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10/24/2007 12:00 AM |

In no way would we consider ourselves runners. We’re hardly even walkers — we’d much rather travel via our trusty, speedy bicycle. We do too much walking in our employ as NYC tour guides to think of the activity as a hobby. So, to run long distances through the city for some sort of charity or personal goal strikes us as, if not demented, certainly peculiar. But run they do, and yesterday was, if not a perfect early November morn for an excruciating, exhausting 26.2 mile spandex parade, at least one that turned out teeming crowds cheering support for the over 39,000 runners as they pounded the pavement.

In 1970, New York City held its first ever marathon. The New York Road Runners hosted a 26.2 mile race looping around Central Park. One hundred twenty-seven runners each paid a buck to race it, and just under half of the racers crossed the finished line. The marathon as we know it today is courtesy of Frank Lebow, who redrew the map in 1976 so that it stretched the 26.2 square miles throughout the five boroughs. That was the year that the marathon truly went global — by uniting the different residents of all five boroughs, Lebow in essence united the world, because if the various nationalities found in our city don’t represent the global experience, we don’t know what does. From 2,090 participants in 1976 to 9,000 runners two short years later, the New York marathon became the road race upon which all others were based.

Along with being a marvelous metaphor for life in general, a picture-perfect postcard for ethnic diversity and all-in-it-togetherness for New York City, the marathon acted as a natural platform for the injustice of Apartheid. In 1992, the international sanctions against runners from South Africa were lifted, and racers soon proved their substance and stamina on the streets of New York. The wheelchair division was added in 2000, and a very special, very patriotic race was held less than two months after 9/11. The prevailing color scheme of that particular race? Stars and Stripes, of course. ING Banking took over sponsorship in 2003, and that brings us to the race of today.

With over two million proud New Yorkers lining the streets, and a television viewership of 315 million, the New York City Marathon is certainly something special. Special for us in that we have a friend who owns an apartment just a few miles from the finish, on the corner of 92nd Street and First Avenue — close enough for the runners to listen to our cheerful and positive hollering out her living room window. But we wouldn’t deprive ourselves of hollering on the street — so that’s what we did, with spiked apple cider in hand, supporting every Grandma, Penguin, Elvis, Blues Brother, papier mache lighthouse, tourist and local. Go! Go! Go! You’re almost there!

10/10/07 12:00am
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10/10/2007 12:00 AM |

As one would expect our brilliant borough of Brooklyn has complicated needs that vary as we travel from neighborhood to neighborhood. Of course, each ‘hood should have access to public schools, houses of worship, libraries, public transportation, and commercial districts for all the staples — groceries, clothes, what have you. Rarely do under-serviced neighborhoods receive all the necessities that comprise a healthy life; what’s more, our municipal government has an unfortunate tendency to ignore the plight of the minority and the working class — expect another newspaper article about the high rate of asthma in the South Bronx any week now. Count the Weeksville–Crown Heights neighborhoods about the constantly troubled regions of Brooklyn. And it was a hard pill to swallow when St. Mary’s Hospital, on St. Marks and Buffalo Avenues, closed in 2005.

St. Mary’s was the last Roman Catholic hospital in Brooklyn; it was funded by the Catholic Church and operated by the St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers, which also recently closed their midtown branch, this August. St. Mary’s in Brooklyn laid its cornerstone in 1879 as a 241-bed complex in what was already established as one of America’s earliest free black communities; St. Mary’s is just east of the Hunterfly Road Houses. Once the tree-lined carriage boulevard of Eastern Parkway — the first parkway in the country, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux — had been completed in 1874, the gorgeous, shade-filled street allowed an auspicious inroad to the neighborhood, with its new mansions and limestone row houses. Crown Heights was one of the locus points for the well-to-do black gentry of New York’s financial classes as well as the established white upper class. The original St. Mary’s complex was done in a Second Empire architectural style, and was well received when it opened in 1882, a year before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The declining story of New York’s urban hospitals is a long, transparent and heartbreaking one. St. Mary’s had been operating on a deficit for decades, but its history of declining revenue had only been documented by its parent company since 1999, when St. Vincent started following the hospital’s inpatient occupancy. Since a number of Crown Heights’ residents have little to no health insurance, most of St Mary’s services had come through the Emergency Room, as is the case in densely populated minority neighborhoods without much, if any health insurance. The hospital’s inpatient occupancy had balanced around the 50-60 percent range between 2000 and 2004, which simply wasn’t enough to cover the bills. “In the northeast section of Brooklyn, where St. Mary’s is, 27 hospitals (not counting St. Mary’s) providing a total of 3,689 beds have closed since 1936,” said the Times, two years ago. (NY Times article 10/16/05.) St. Mary’s was losing $10 million a year, and there was no financially equitable solution other than to close.

I had first noticed St. Mary’s while on bicycle, adventuring along different paths between the house I grew up in, in Ditmas Park, Flatbush to my current apartment in East Bushwick. I noticed that the main building of St. Mary’s, Shevlin Hall, was derelict and disused, but hardly crumbling or sealed off from the sidewalk. So, along with an intrepid lady friend, we decided to pick up some West Indian salt fish for breakfast and have ourselves a picnic inside St. Mary’s. The perimeter scaffolding and fence weren’t the most difficult to dodge around and once we found ourselves inside the grounds, it simply took some more adventuring until we found a way inside the complex. The renovating company had been cleaning from the top-down, so the fifth through third floors were cleared of debris, rotted furniture and hospital detritus, and the walls had been repainted. As we made our way back downstairs, each successive floor got grimier and grungier, with drywall and concrete littering the floors, whole rooms crammed with file cabinets and papers, holes in the ceiling (but luckily for us urban explorers, not the floor) and walls, and a foreboding sense of what had been here and was now destroyed.

The future of St Mary’s is uncertain — it seemed that the rooms and floors were being redeveloped for assisted living, but adjacent to the old 1882 building were brand new two-story pre-fab houses waiting for plumbing, insulation and the works. What was certain as we wandered from ghost room to room and from empty floor to floor is that the sensation of being in an abandoned hospital — once the pulsing heart of a vibrant community, now a shell of its self amidst the poor and working class — leaves one with the impression of unfairness, of an underserved community. And there’s no easy prescription for this social malady.

For more photos of St. Mary’s, see my flickr page:

10/03/07 12:00am
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10/03/2007 12:00 AM |

We New Yorkers aren’t known for giving much thought to what lies beneath our feet. Either we’re far too busy to give presence of mind to the tarmac, cement, packed earth, pipework and occasional subway line, or we honestly don’t give a damn. Anyways, it’s not much to talk about — sewage lines, steam pipes, fiber-optics, electricity, the IRT, nothing very pretty. But in some cases, the sidewalk is just above some incredibly hallowed ground. All it takes is an accident for the history to come flooding out; that’s exactly what happened in Foley Square in 1991.

During a routine excavation for the Ted Weiss Federal Building on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan, the cranes started digging up some very old bones. Over 400 skeletons, some men but mostly women and children, were discovered on the 6.6 acre plot; clearly, it had been some kind of mass burial site. Construction was put on hold. The historians and archaeologists who studied the dug-up bodies determined that the skeletons were only a fraction of the 15,000 to 20,000 bodied interred throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, in a mass gravesite for freed Africans, half-freed slaves (under Dutch rule) or enslaved blacks (under the British). Whole families were discovered on the site, along with a few personal talismans and belongings buried with some bodies, as per particular African rituals. It is the oldest and largest burial site in the nation, and last year it was declared a national monument.

So what better way to enshrine these forgotten humans, toiling and striving like all New Yorkers, than with a public memorial and monument to their hard work. It was slaves who built the Wall on Wall Street and who land-filled out Manhattan to Water and West Streets. And it was the slave community of ancient New Amsterdam that proved the nascent spirit — through the Dutch distinction of “half-slaves.” The half-slave title bestowed upon the slaves an ability to live in their own homes, pray in their own churches and, most importantly, be buried in their own graveyards. In fact, the Africans of New Amsterdam had it far better before the English arrived, and then threw the blacks into shackles again, and deprived them of their churches and cemeteries.

The African Burial Ground National Monument underwent a massive decade-long historical excavation, and the pictures of the discovered bodies, as well as their stories and a view of the to-be-built memorial, were posted on a fence around the perimeter. Not anymore — on Friday, with great fanfare, the City of New York unveiled a $5 million granite-and-reflecting-pool memorial, complete with a sunken circular court, wall-inscribed symbols and archeological notations, and an Ancestral Liberation Court. Detailed on the granite slab ground is a map of the world, its center on West Africa. There are seven grassy mounds detailing the seven burial spots where bodies were re-interred four years ago. The memorial was designed by Rodney Leon, 38, a Brooklyn-born architect for the Manhattan firm of Aarris Architects.

This new memorial is spitting distance from another important memorial to the abused slaves of our common history: Triumph of the Human Spirit, by Dr. Alonzo Pace, an austere black marble statue right in the center of Foley Square. This one resembles both an African slave ship as well as the headpiece to an Egyptian headdress, noting another powerful symbol of the birth of mankind. Next time you make your way downtown through Foley Square, stop a minute as these two powerful works of remembrance, and pay some respects. And never forget: under the streets, history.

09/12/07 12:00am
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09/12/2007 12:00 AM |

What’s green and curvy and bumpy and briny and delicious? No, not a soused, alcohol-sickened hipster stumbling to the L train on a Sunday morning at 4am — why, it’s pickles, of course! That crunchy, tangy, tubular complication of cucumbers, brine, spices, seasonings and love. Really, truly, if you can pull it out of the ground, it can be pickled: tomatoes, crab apples, beets, carrots, onions, bell peppers, potatoes and more were all on hand for puckered mouth-goodness at the 7th International Pickle Day, held yesterday on Orchard street on the Lower East Side. Pickles from different cultures and various slices of society were proudly representing: Korean kimchi and Indian curried slaw (served on slivers of Matzoh bread, no less!), half-sour and full-sour, kosher dill, organic, pesticide-free and locally produced, all up for sampling. There were lines down the block for free pickles from Guss’, that avatar of Lower East Side pickle nostalgia; a bunch of new and old restaurants on Orchard between Grand and Broome that were selling pickle-related eats and drinks (pickle pizza! A pickletini!), and the one, the only, Mr. Pickle on hand for pictures and kisses (ladies, he’s single!); yes indeed, it was a veritable pickle-topia of green glorious goodness. But how do pickles fit into the history and heritage of the Lower East Side? Well, ladies and gents, that’s my job, to explain away.

It’s common knowledge that the Lower East Side of the mid-19th to early-20th century was the stepping-stone for millions of immigrants, washed aboard these shores.  The original neighborhood, from 14th Street down to Canal, and from the Bowery to the East River, was chock-a-block with entire communities who deftly recreated their home villages in the rows upon rows of tenements — whole blocks were given over to small towns from Italy, the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Germany and so on. As the immigrants made their way into this vast, frightening, yet promising new world, they found comfort as many of us nowadays do: in the pleasures of food. In order to set a trepidatious homesick immigrant at ease, just stick his or her face into a steaming bowl of (fill-in-the-homemade-ethnic-dish-here). Linguini Carbonata, stuffed cabbage, cold borscht, bratwurst, kielbasa, you name it, it did the trick and saved the soul of a saddened greenhorn, fresh off the boats.

There aren’t many foodstuffs that translate from culture to culture and continent to continent. Bread, milk, eggs, cheese — all these staples can be found across the oceans, but in terms of specific dishes, cross-cultural –culinary concoctions are hard to come by. Dumplings are one fine example — dim sum to the Chinese, pelmeni to the Russians, gyoza to the Japanese, pierogi to the Polish. Pickles, and pickled products, are another. In the era before easy refrigeration, food had to be preserved for long-term storage. Brining and squirreling away pickled meats, eggs, vegetables, and the like was a practice utilized by many families in the old world, and across the Atlantic in the new one as well. Regardless of ethnicity or religion, from Jew to Catholic to Chinese to Muslim, all these new citizens of America were consuming (some of) the same pickled products when lean times swung around.

What’s more, due to the basic economy of the pickle — they’re cheap and easy to produce, they have a long gestation period (which means the same pickle for sale in January can be bought and eaten in July), as well as a practically infinite shelf life, and can be devoured almost instantly — the pushcarts streets of the teeming Lower East Side were packed with pickle pushers. And since the pushcarts vendors were free (at the time) of governmental regulations, anybody could load up and push pickles — this allowed for vendors to eventually become owners and make their way up capitalism’s ladder. Originally, the pickle pushers used wooden barrels with steel bands — talk to any old time New Yorker from the LES and they’ll fondly remember the wooden barrels swimming with pickles, one for a penny. But ask a modern day pickler what happened to all those romantic old-school wooden barrels, and they’ll say good riddance! The wooden barrels were heavy, rotting with termites and overuse, full of holes and broke apart easily. The new modern ones (such as in use at Guss’ or the Pickle Guys) are one hundred percent plastic, and do the job one thousand percent better than the old wooden barrels. So next time you chomp down on a pickle, understand that you’re not just having a snack, you’re experiencing New York history! Viva la pickle!

09/12/07 12:00am

And just like that it was over. With the hard thwap of a leather-strapped red-stitched sphere, thrown by pitcher Danny McDevitt, which landed quickly in Joe Pignatano’s catcher’s mitt, the Brooklyn Dodgers had shut out the Pittsburg Pirates 2-0, and the game, and a lifetime, ended. Not even six months later, the team decamped for the other side of the world — the empty, desert-like “sprawling, public-transportationless anti-Brooklyn of the New World," Los Angeles. Here in the artificial expanses of Southern California, the Los Angeles Dodgers would go on to inhabit their own field and enjoy a rousing and successful afterlife, yet retaining just enough of the iconography of their old soul to jab at the hearts of old Brooklynites. Some of the same players, all the same team colors, an identical cursive logo — but new fans, new merchandizing, another universe entirely. Less than three years after that, the beloved and much mythologized home turf of Ebbets Field would be demolished to make way for a public housing complex named after one of the team’s greatest assets, Jackie Robinson. The team that had once stood for “the meltiest part of the New York melting pot” — the textbook example of old-world immigration gone gloriously good, — vanished, poof, like the once-ubiquitous trolley cars that the team had stolen its name from; as in dodging the trolley cars that would deliver fans of every color, stripe, nationality and vitality to their hometown baseball nirvana.

It was 50 years ago today that the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game, right in the heart of Brooklyn, at the intersection of Empire Boulevard and Bedford Avenue in today’s Crown Heights. But the last game was hardly the last anything, not in this city of arrogance and borough of aggrandizement. Brooklyn is brilliant at forever mourning a better time, a land of free-flowing egg creams and never-ending games of stickball, with nary an automobile or adult in sight. The departure of the Dodgers spawned a million mythologies, not least that the loss of the Dodgers was the death of Brooklyn itself. For an excellent, and affectionately grandiose de-and-re-mythologizing of Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and the impending Atlantic Yards fiasco, read last week’s New York magazine article Exorcizing the Dodgers, by Sam Anderson, from where the above quotes are plucked.

The mythology of the Dodgers still runs rampant. Even with the obverse events of “post-mythic Brooklyn,” in which our lovely 81-square mile home becomes overrun with high-rise condos and rampaging chain stores, turningBrooklyn into the new Manhattan and shoving affordable, working class communities even farther out on the subway lines. Even with the planning of a new stadium and housing complex that stands in direct opposition to the borough’s aesthetic, building up only yards from where Walter O’Malley would have moved the Dodgers had Robert Moses and a mountain of bureaucracy made it impossible. Even with all of these factors dangling like a piano over our tax-paying heads, the Dodgers are still there. Breaking color barriers and race relations and sending baseballs over the stadium wall. At the Jackie Robinson apartments, on a low-lying retaining wall on the Western fringe of where the stadium used to stand, is a sign over the parking lot. It reads, in no-nonsense terms: “No Ball Playing.”

08/15/07 12:00am
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08/15/2007 12:00 AM |

It’s a funny thing, this New York City of ours. There’s so much to do, so many places to be, that many of its far-off phenoms are forgotten. Due to the sheer size and scale of each borough (Brooklyn clocks in at 70 square miles, Queens at 110), the outermost reaches are often impossible to schedule into our hectic lives. Why check out Marine Park, at the southwestern fringe of Brooklyn, when Prospect Park is so close by and so comfortably familiar? Why head to the Rockaways in Queens when Coney Island has so many cute hipsters, “slumming it” on the Boardwalk? What’s more, New York City is and always has been a city surrounded by water; we were born as a Dutch shipping town in 1626, and for the next 350 some-odd years, this metropolis made its money through the shipping trade. As the shipping trade collapsed and the system went to railroads in the 1950s, we moved steadily away from our waterfronts and waterways.

But sometimes, on a gorgeous August Friday, with the temperature floating in the 80s and the sky speckled with cumulus clouds, all of this urban grandiloquence is gratuitous, and all one needs to do is hoof it to the beach. Which is what we did, at the start of last weekend. By “hoof it,” we mean riding our bikes through deep Brooklyn neighborhoods of which the aforementioned hipsters have never heard, like Mill Basin, Remsen Village and Marine Park. And by “the beach,” we mean our favorite beach of all time ever, the beach our grandparents would take us to in childhood: the spectacular Riis Park, in the Western stretch of the Rockaway Peninsula, a good forty blocks past the Terminal Station at 116th Street. Happy birthday Riis Park — because it turned 75 this July!

The Park is named for the crusading photojournalist, city reformer and Tammany enemy Jacob Riis, a Danish-born immigrant who chronicled the life of the indigent and destitute poor in New York City during the 1870s, primarily by snapping their picture and showing the rest of the world How The Other Half Lives (the name of his groundbreaking book). Riis Park, which was opened by the National Parks service in 1932, is a 262-acre beach right on the Atlantic Ocean. It was designed by that master of beaches (and destroyer of urban communities), Master Builder Robert Moses, and modeled after the highly successful Jones Beach, opened three years earlier. Riis Park’s most recognizable architectural wonder would be its two massive towers, looming over the Boardwalk; they’re built from tapestry brick, cast stone and tile, in a Byzantine/Moorish design. The original complex included 8,100 lockers, washrooms and a medical station, a glass-enclosed solarium, two restaurants and cafeterias, and beach chair and umbrella rental facilities. The New York Herald crowed over the newly opened beach, on May 7th, 1933: “Riis Park has been designed for the quieter enjoyment of the seashore without any artificial devices. In atmosphere, it is not unlike the English seaside resorts. The facilities provided all contribute to restfulness for the many and amusements of the out-of-door life.”

Of course, nowadays the Bathhouse is just a former shell of its beach-going glory. That’s why we came prepared, with heroes (from Landi’s Italian Salumeria, a Mill Basin original since 1927!), cheap Polish beer, a Frisbee, a kite, towels, bathing suits and a healthy sense of adventure. The waves were eight feet high, the kind that you don’t bodysurf so much as bodycrash; we had to drag our towels, etc. back three times, due to the high tide. It was an exquisite summer day, the likes of which are few and far between. As the sun started to set and the late August breeze picked up, we made our way towards the abandoned hospital complex just at the end of the beach; those tales of urban exploration (and the resulting eleven stitches in your urban historian’s left shin) are best left for private conversation. Shoot me a line and you’ll hear all about it.

08/15/07 12:00am

We like to think of ourselves as forward-thinking New Yorkers, who appreciate the intrinsic historical value of our city, but understand when and where it comes time to move on. We think that we are modern and without superstition. But in certain specific cases, it’s hard to argue against a more nefarious and otherworldly presence intermingling with our own. And in case of 130 Liberty Street, still known as the Deutsche Bank Building, forever damaged on September 11th and, just this Saturday, the site of a fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters, well, we think it’s fucking cursed.

Never one of the prettiest buildings in lower Manhattan, the 41-story Deutsche Bank Building was built in 1974 as the Bankers Trust Plaza, amid the frenzy of construction surrounding the construction of the Twin Towers (built 1971-73, with the additional five buildings and WTC Plaza finished by 1975). The Bankers Trust Plaza was done in the gridlike, stolid and unceremonious International Style of architecture, the legacy of Modernists like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. As the name implies, International Style high-rises can be located anywhere in the world — and wherever one is located, it will look exactly the goddamn same. That is, butt-ugly and depressing. Which brings us back to the Deutsche Bank building.

On September 11th, 2001, plummeting debris from the South Tower sheared a 15-story gash in the north face of the Deutsche Bank, destroying 158,000 square feet of office space. Furthermore, the gash acted as a type of vacuum, sucking in asbestos and dangerous chemical compounds, such as dioxin, lead and chromium, from the incinerated Twin Towers. The building was rendered completely uninhabitable, and was in the midst of a years-long, top-down dismantling process,  as an implosion would shatter the already fragile infrastructure of lower Manhattan. The arrangement was plagued with frustrations from the start: from an initial 3-year gap between the events of 9/11 and the final agreement between Deutsche Bank, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and two separate demolition companies; to the discoveries, in 2005, of bone fragments in the rooftop gravel (eventually over 760 fragments of 9/11 victims were found scattered throughout the building). The Deutsche Bank loomed like a cursed widow, wearing a black veil of demolition, standing silent over her sixteen-acre hole in the ground. The danger and cursedness continued: in May of last year, a 22-foot metal pipe fell from the 35th floor and crashed through the roof of Ten House, the FDNY station on Liberty Street across from the World Trade Center Site; luckily, no one was hurt. And then the fire on Saturday.

Information on the fire’s causes is as of yet inconclusive, though the specific tragedies of the fire are becoming clear. As firefighters were stuck in the maze of decontaminant plastic sheeting and airlocks, it was practically impossible to get water up a building with no working pipes or faucets; additionally, firefighters on the ground were attempting to use a dead standpipe to bring water up to the 17th floor, wasting time and energy when no water could make it to the fire. When this failed, they hoisted the hoses up via ropes and pulleys. Two firefighters perished: Joseph Graffagnino, of Brooklyn, and Robert Beddia, of Staten Island — both from Engine 24 and Ladder 8 on Sixth Avenue at Houston Street, a firehouse that lost eleven men on 9/11. It turns out that the widow with her black veil was a Black Widow spider, bringing down two more NYC heroes. Let’s hope those are the last victims of the never-ending black-clad nightmare in Lower Manhattan.

08/15/07 12:00am

One reward, among many, for keeping alert and awake in this city is the abundance of hidden street-art. Not necessarily graffiti, although various quality-of-life arguments have been made in that direction. Not throw-ups or tags or wheatpasting or the hideous new plague of scratchiti — the definition of which is scratching one’s name into a subway-car window with a key or pen-knife. No, we mean hidden street art, over your heads and blending in with the surrounding ‘hood, because by its very existence it is slightly invisible. We are talking about our favorite pair of street-artists and pranksters, Skewville, and their city-wide multimedia art installation, whimsically and perfectly titled When Dogs Fly.

Ad and Droo Deville, twin brothers and Queens natives (and with matching New York accents so thick you could spread them with a butter knife), started this project, in which they flung handmade painted wooded sneaker replicas over telephone wires and electrical lines throughout the city, in 2004. They expanded their sneaking-flinging empire to include Philadelphia, Seattle, Orlando, and that’s just the cities listed on their homepage. The faux-sneaks are painted to resemble the classic Converse kicks, but in far-ranging colors and styles. The image of sky-born sneaks reach back to the 50s and 60s, when shoes were required footwear for private and some public NYC high schools. When school was let out at the start of summer, the exuberant children would fling their shoes as high as possible, in a brilliant moment of liberation never to be worn again. At least, that’s how my Dad, a Bronx native, tells it.

Other explanations involve houses of ill-repute that could be identified by the hanging dogs; or drug spots; or, as the Skewville twins so aptly put it, that when their kicks were absolutely worn through and through, they’d just send them upwards, as a territorial claim. “It’s all about representing. Leaving your mark in the hood.” These sneaks are so lovely because of their ephemerality. As a native New Yorker, we became well aware of hanging shoes in our teens, going into the Village for the midnight Rocky Horror show. The first time we caught a pair of Skewville’s shoes, suspended over Sixth Avenue at West 4th Street, and watched the wooden imposters turn in the wind to essentially disappear (a plywood board being far more two-dimensional than canvas and rubber). To take a piece of New York’s iconography and twist it as such, in the wind, out of reach, is a thing of wonder, a piece of beauty, and a constant reminder of our still kicking history. Just look up.

07/18/07 12:00am
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07/18/2007 12:00 AM |

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.