simple is beautiful
New York Daily Photo: October 2008
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Friday, 31 October 2008


There are barometers and signposts. Things that tell you about a place. If you can find constants you are familiar with, they can tell you much. Like independent bookstores or natural food stores. I used to visit as many as I could when traveling - the differences would tell me a lot about the people and the community.
And then there are things which are uniquely about a place, like San Francisco's cable cars. The New York City subway system is one of those places that lets you know without question where you are. Something virtually unique in the USA, certainly so extensive and heavily used and depended on by millions daily. Here, everything that is good and bad about the city is concentrated - literally and metaphorically. More of everything, whether rats, garbage, graffiti, people, hustlers and opportunists.
Looking over that list and reflecting on it makes me want to amend my former statement. In fairness, it really isn't too accurate to say that all the good of New York is concentrated here. There are not an inordinate number of smiles or acts of kindness down below. This is really about the business of getting where you want to go and like visiting a dentist, most patients just want to expedite the process.
So when a good thing happens, it really warms my heart. Melts the ice that separates us and brings a moment of humanity to an underground world of steel, concrete and noise. What better thing than music to fit the occasion? Many see the wandering minstrels of the subway as an intrusion - a violation of space which is already a toxic overload of sensory stimuli. But for me, a little good music is a welcome break on a short ride. Perhaps if I was encamped (i.e. comfortably seated) with a good book on a long ride, as many commuters are, I would find the sudden appearance of musicians nearby to be an unwanted and unwarranted irritant, like second hand cigarette smoke. And of course if you are a musical snob, there is the issue of quality - you will not find concert level musicianship here, so your standards do have to be appropriately scaled.
On this ride, I found the two Latin guitarists with their singing to be just the antidote for the crowded conditions. And my $1 contribution to the arts was well received ...

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Fisherman's Widow

Yes, this is New York City and yes, we have fishing too. On my recent excursion to Coney Island, we made the requisite trip to the pier from the Coney Island boardwalk (I have seen it referred to as Steeplechase Pier).
There are actually many spots around the city, even Manhattan, where fishing is permitted and with the waterways becoming progressively cleaner, much of the fish is now edible. This catch of Porgies was being sold for $10.
I see that it is a relaxing way to spend a beautiful day amidst the natural elements - sun, sand, sky, water and fresh sea air.
Although the sight of dying fish is not the most pleasant one, this is perhaps more shocking to the city dweller who is very divorced from the entire process of bringing fish and meat to the dinner table. After all, fish don't just appear filleted on a dinner plate - they need to be caught, cut and cleaned. Many urbanites have probably never even witnessed anything other than fish being cooked and served. Baiting is part of the process too and the pier was dotted with fishermen cutting fish for bait or putting their catches into plastic pails - see photo here.
I am not a fisherman but my father was and over time I have learned to understand the passion for this activity - for some it becomes an obsession, occupying virtually all of a fisherman's mind. I recall traveling with my family and seeing some beautiful vista which had a body of water and my father's first thought and immediate comment was that there was probably good fishing to be had there. At one extreme there are men so addicted to fishing that many of their estranged wives have become known as "fisherman's widows" ...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Bygones be Bygones

Horse drawn carriages in Manhattan have been the center of controversy as of late - the COALITION TO BAN HORSE-DRAWN CARRIAGES has spearheaded a campaign to put an end to what they and many others consider an outdated concept that no longer is appropriate. From the Coalition's website:

Carriage horses are out of place in midtown’s congested streets and belong to another century when there were far fewer vehicles and pedestrians. When hansom cabs are mixed with cars, taxis, buses, pedestrians, bikes and emergency vehicles – fire trucks, ambulances and police cars – they are a recipe for disaster.

Business is involved here and where there's money at stake there's bound to be bitter conflict. The carriage industry and owners paint a different picture, stating that the the animals are well cared for, have a long life and are happy. Investigations have shown conflicting reports. An audit by the City Comptroller in 2007, however, did show some horses being maintained in substandard conditions. The fate of the 68 licensed carriages in the city is still in limbo. Mayor Bloomberg defends the industry and the continuation of the carriages. Some have proposed a stabling area inside the park - this seems like it would be a good compromise.
The romance of the past is a powerful force and of course visitors love the idea of a horse drawn carriage ride through Central Park - this is one of those New York City signature activities that many feel compelled to do at least once in their life. But unfortunately, history and romance, no matter how compelling, do not alone justify the continuation of a practice. The circumstances and standards of a society change and I think we all like to believe that our consideration of other humans and animals improves over time - in the final analysis, we me have to let bygones be bygones ...

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

In My Book

I remember hearing someone once say that there is an illusion that everything in the past was better, with the quality of antiques cited as evidence and that this perception is because we only save the best and discard the rest. There was plenty of junk made. Occasionally we even champion the junk, to be sold and seen as charming kitsch and somehow better than today's kitsch. I have heard the same type of thing said about books from those that have a good historical knowledge of the world of publishing - that plenty of crap has been written and published, but only the classics remain.
Certainly, looking at the landscape that is New York City, I would be hard pressed to romanticize the 1970s. I am not a fan of over gentrification or the encroachment of chain and big box stores but I also have no fond memories of graffiti covered trains, Bowery squeegee men insistent on washing car windshields, "no radio" signs in cars adorned with broken glass or running for your life in the East Village. I had a friend that was actually mugged three times in one week in the vestibule of his East Village flat.
There were good things too, of course - especially the affordability which allowed virtually anyone with desire and intestinal fortitude to get a foothold in this city and stake out their claim. Apartments could be had cheaply (in relative dollars). You could work yourself through a private university and support your yourself in your own place.
This environment really allowed all manner of things to survive and flourish - one of those things were the booksellers along 4th avenue, a row of 30 used book dealers in the space of 6 blocks from Astor Place to Union Square known as "the book row of America." I love books and perusing the wares of those dealers on a Sunday afternoon was one of my pleasures and pastimes. The Strand, still operating today on Broadway, had its roots there. The other survivor is Pageant Book Shop, founded in 1946 by Sidney B. Solomon and Henry "Chip" Chafetz as a used and rare book shop in New York City. Sidney's daughters Shirley and Rececca Solomon now run the shop. Pageant had its home in several locations along Fourth Avenue for 35 years before moving around the corner to East 9th Street. In the 1990s it moved to West Houston Street; recently it moved to its current location at 69 East 4th Street.
The current shop is much smaller than previous incarnations and unlike its predecessors, sells primarily antiques prints and maps with a smaller selections of books. I can't say this place exudes that rustic charm with musty smells of the early 4th Avenue booksellers. But no matter, because it is a book store and in my book, that is always welcome ...

Film buffs: The shop and its books have appeared in numerous movies filmed in New York City including Neil Simon’s "Chapter Two" with James Caan and Marsha Mason and Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" where Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey went browsing for a copy of e.e. cumming's poems.

Related Posts: Better When, No Radio

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Day's Work

As I wrote in Being Trumps Doing, when I leave my home on a beautiful day for a stroll in the city, I frequently have some small agenda. For the workaholic, this helps justify recreation, turning fun into something of a small task, in keeping with the Protestant work ethic of my New England background. After all, play is for children, not adults.
The problem with this approach to life is that a small agenda item, if planned for a later part of the day, can become a nagging irritant. And so it was on Sunday, when, after a few errands, I intended to take a walk to Tompkins Square Park and see what activities may be at hand and to procure some fruit from the small farmer's market there.
However, while walking down Broadway, I come across a block party - the barricaded street had Park Rangers, children's activities including rides on a shetland pony, re-enactments, cavalry horses, bales of hay, a Gatling gun and Hotchkiss gun - I had unknowingly stumbled upon the 150th birthday celebration of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. Unbeknownst to me, Roosevelt was born in a NYC brownstone at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan. The home is now open to the public as a museum. It is a National Historic site and is administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
The home, typically not open on Sundays, was having a free open house as part of the celebration. This was a great opportunity for my first visit - visitors were allowed to roam the property at will. Typically, period rooms can only be seen via guided tour. The staff is quite accommodating. From their website we learn:

Not all Presidents were born in log cabins. One was actually born in a New York City brownstone! Visit the birthplace and boyhood home of Teddy Roosevelt and see what it was like to grow up in the "gilded age."

Forty percent of the furnishings are original. One that caught my eye was a beautiful original gas-illuminated lamp with panels known as a lithophanes. A lithophane is a translucent porcelain, etched or molded, with varying degrees of thickness. The result is a three-dimensional image which changes depending on the light source. It disappears and reappears when backlit or not. Typically credited to Baron Paul de Bourging in France, 1827, although evidence indicates that similar work was done in China one thousand years before in the Tang Dynasty.
A swing through Union Square provided other distractions - what appeared to be a Christian rock group and an assault by some variant on the Zombie Con which I witnessed last week - see here. It soon became clear that it had become too late for Tompkins Square Park. A shame in a way, because although it had been a great afternoon punctuated by a surprise landmark event, somehow I felt that the day's work had not really been done :)

Friday, 24 October 2008

Moveable Feast

There are healthy measures (and medicines) one should take. But most are not enjoyable - they all involve some degree and elements of deprivation, denial, restriction, discipline and holding one's nose. One of the great joys of living in this city is that many of the things one should do or see are very enjoyable. It's like waking up one day to the New York Times and reading that the American Medical Association has just found that the healthiest thing you can do is eat Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream every day.
Here is why we do it - the answer to what is so perplexing to many visitors - why would we endure such hardship to live here, where ordinary tasks can become such large endeavors. The answer is that living here can be like being a boy or girl in a candy store with its plethora of culture, activities and all so convenient, typically a walk or short subway ride away. And like any good shop, there are new products and the old standbys.
Visiting Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is to sample one of those delectable confections New York has to offer. As many an old standby (the Plaza dates to 1907), traditions remain and one is the afternoon tea which has been recently been brought back to the Palm Court - a magnificent room with a European flair.
Welcome to a world with harp and classical guitar, tables with the finest linen, crystal, Bernaudaud-Limoges china, Christoffle silver, outstanding floral arrangements, high backed blue velvet upholstered chairs and memories of fictional character Eloise (who lived in the hotel). Ellen Easton serves as tea consultant and pastries are made by Executive Pastry Chef, Nicole Kaplan - named as one of the top ten pastry chefs in the USA.
Dine under the Palm court's recently recreated stained-glass laylight while surrounded by palm trees. The Palm Court tea menu will set you back $60 - If you don't have a desire to finance a meal here, at least drop in and feast your eyes ...

Related Posts: The Plaza, Stairway to Heaven.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

It Behooves One

When we passed this statue of Jesus holding the Twin Towers, we were quite surprised - we brought our car to a halt, reversed and parked briefly to get a real good look, less our eyes had deceived us the first time around. But they had not - Jesus was holding the Twin Towers in front of St. Ephrem's Church at 929 Bay Ridge Parkway in Brooklyn. On a plaque below the statue there was a passage from Isaiah in the bible:

"I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of My hands
I have written your name;
Your walls are ever before me."
Isaiah 49:15-16

I am not adequately schooled in the bible to explain the meaning of this passage and its relationship to Jesus holding the Twin Towers. Also, the word order of this biblical passage appears differently everywhere else I have read it.
There was a realization that this sculpture was not a casual or whimsical thing - it was obviously planned, commissioned in some way, designed, created and installed. And it is not hidden from view at all but prominently placed in front of the church on a major thoroughfare.
It certainly has created controversial remarks by those who have seen the statue live or in photos. A photo featured in the Gothamist, which was posted on Flickr, shows a broad range of sentiments in the comments.
The Twin Towers disaster of 9/11 is a very delicate subject. I believe it behooves the prudent person to leave the subject alone if at all possible - I had reservations in doing this posting at all. On this one, I am just the messenger ...

Personal Confession: I love the word behooves, find it underused and am always looking for an opportunity to use it.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


The butt of many comedic jokes is the cliched man who is afraid to ask for directions or information. I am not that type of man - perhaps lax at times to ask if it is inconvenient to find someone. I certainly value the process of discovery and doing things for oneself, but how far does one want to go to learn things already known? How many wheels do you really want to reinvent.
The building in the enter of the photo with the distinctive top has been an enigma for some time - I have an older photo which I wanted to use previously on this website, however I tired of trying to identify it using online searches and printed references in my library. I resigned myself to a future trip where I would just visit the building itself rather than ferret out its name via GPS or triangulation.
So I forgot about it until my recent jaunt to the Plaza Hotel when I saw it haunting me in the distance once more while chatting with the doorman who had worked there for two decades. This type of person can be a great source of information in the city - seasoned doormen and older taxi drivers have the luxury of meeting thousands of individuals from all walks of life over years of time. They also become acquainted with the details of places and things with nuggets of info and insider gossip. So as I walked away it occurred to me that a quick jog back to the doorman and a quick query might easily settle the identity of this building. And it did.
The Four Seasons Hotel at 51 E. 57th Street was completed in 1993 and designed by world renowned architect I.M. Pei and Frank Williams. Pei's resume includes projects like the glass pyramid at the Louvre museum in Paris. This 54-story building is the city's tallest hotel. It is clad in French sandstone and capped with the spectacular Ty Warner penthouse, a nine-room suite with 25-foot ceilings and cantilevered glass balconies, occupies the entire top floor with wraparound 360-degree views of the city. Amenities include a butler, fabrics woven from platinum and gold, a personal trainer and a private chauffeur with a Rolls Royce Phantom.
The lobby has marble floors and a soaring, back lit translucent onyx ceiling. If you are in the neighborhood, drop in for a peak ...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Curriculum Vitae

Intellectually I understand the consumption and love of hot chili peppers. I have read that the ingredient responsible for a pepper's heat, capsaicin, will release endorphins, explaining the euphoria that many pepperheads have attributed to the consumption of chills. And I imagine like any drug, one can develop a tolerance and desire for a stronger drug.
But at a gut level, I can not understand how people actually enjoy peppers so hot that they can entirely numb one's mouth and lips or require special handling. There are cases where unchewed chilis have been known to perforate the bowel.
There is a Scoville scale that rates the hotness of peppers by the level of capsacicin (based on parts per million) from 0 to 15,000,000 units (pure capsaicin). Habanero peppers are extremely hot and have a Scoville rating of 100,000 to 580,000 units (Red Savina Habanero).
In 2006 the Ghost Pepper (Naga Jolokia or Bhut Jolokia) was discovered in India. Testing revealed a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000 units making it the hottest chili pepper in the world.
This is fascinating but does any one need a chili pepper three times as strong as the average Habanero? In a country that loves to quantify and where bigger is better, I suppose it would be a badge of honor to have this chili in your curriculum vitae ...

Photo Note: This photo was taken at the Union Square Greenmarket at the Eckerton Hill Farm produce stand - they always have a tremendous array of chili peppers. See more Union Square Greenmarket links in my posting on Heirloom tomatoes.

Monday, 20 October 2008


This was the fourth annual Zombiecon, a celebration by the living dead. There is very little information about the event on the official website. The dearth of info, either pre or post the event, is reminiscent of a Flash Mob. One observer called Zombiecon a "weird hybrid of flash mob, pub crawl, and “Thriller” video." However, it is not truly a Flash mob because of their spontaneous, unplanned nature, but the loose structure of this event does give it the feel of one. I wrote about Flash Mobs and Smart Mobs in my articles on the International Pillow Fight and the Silent Rave Part 1 and Part 2. To be notified and involved in these events, you will need to be in the loop or connected and the same appears to be true with Zombiecon.
The New York Times said "this loosely organized spectacle will roam the streets of Manhattan, dressed in their best grave-defying fashions and gaping wounds, spending the afternoon scaring children and shopkeepers and hunting for brains (and beer)"
It appeared that Zombiecon 2008, which is a loosely structured "parade" around Manhattan, terminated in Union Square, where I happened upon it by accident. The group was hard to miss. As typifies many NYC events of this nature, there were many creative, clever and inventive costume concepts. I used one of the more benign participants for my photo choice - most were much more ghoulish and bloody and the thought of a photo starting the week on a Monday morning (not to mention being on this site in perpetuity) was not an appealing prospect. For more photos of the macabre, you can see hundreds of galleries on Flickr.  For me, I prefer a milder image before lunch ...

Friday, 17 October 2008

Rhinelander's Dream

This is easily the most exquisite and elegant retail interior space in New York City. It's a must see for any visitor with a little extra time. Located at 867 Madison Avenue on the south east corner of 72nd Street, it has been occupied by Ralph Lauren/Polo since 1986.
I was shocked to learn that this huge neo-French Renaissance limestone palace was actually unoccupied in the first 23 years of its existence. It was designed by Kimball & Thompson and built in 1898 for Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo, a wealthy socialite who dreamed of a French Loire Valley chateau. Rumored that she ran out of money before completion, the property was first occupied in 1921. Since that time it has had various tenants - the auction house Christie's of London, Zabar's, the Olivetti Brothers, and photographers Edgar de Evia and his partner Robert Denning. De Evia's mother, pianist Miirrha Alhambra also resided there. 
By the mid 1950s de Evia and Denning had formed Denvia Realty which held the net lease on the entire building. The top three floors were used as their studios and residence; offices were rented to the interior decorators Tate and Hall and on the street level shops were rented to various merchants including a corner pharmacy and Rhinelander Florists. 
It was purchased in the 1960s by a nearby church. In 1983, Ralph Lauren acquired the net lease. The building's ownership has changed hands numerous times also. TMW bought the building for $36 million in 1997 and in 2005, it was sold to an Irish investment group (Sloan Capital) for $80 million.
The gothic tile-covered mansard roof is spectacular with oriels, dormers and chimneys.
I know it is fashionable to bemoan the hegemony of large retailers on the American landscape, but one needs to give credit where it is due, and Ralph Lauren has done the Rhinelander mansion justice with a $14 million dollar renovation - absolutely everything in the interior is just perfectly appointed. Even members of the sales staff are impeccably dressed and groomed - I actually mistook one for a haute couture mannequin.
The interior is an architectural masterpiece complemented with superb interior design. Crackling fireplace, sculpted vaulted ceilings, a magnificent stairway graced with paintings, antiques, furniture upholstered in cashmere, Lalique paneling, Persian carpets and Baccarat chandeliers. To enter this place is to really leave the city behind and enter another time and place and one woman's dream ...

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Stairway to Heaven

Carrying a professional looking camera can be an asset or a liability depending on time and place. It is an asset when in a situation where being a photographer is either a rite of passage or perhaps when it offers credibility that you are a pro and belong there - important if you are looking for stairways to heaven. However, there are many situations, especially post 9/11, where having a large camera is a real problem - a virtual branding where you will be observed, supervised and forewarned that there is "no photography."
So I was extremely surprised in my last visit to the Plaza Hotel to get free access to a stairwell and various adjoining rooms. See here for photos of stairwell. It appeared that a rehearsal was taking place - camera and video crews were scattered about - see photo here. Perhaps I was seen as one of the crew. When properly outfitted and with an attitude that you belong, even security will frequently let down their guard.
I have been to the Plaza numerous times - this was the first since it was newly renovated - see my posting on the hotel here. The public rooms on the ground floor have been beautifully done. Around the perimeter of the central Palm Court, there are many small boutiques. In touring this area, I was startled when I came across this huge ornate mirror in a stairway. The reflection actually afforded one of the best views and ways to capture the stairway photographically. So if you act like you belong and with a little luck, you may find a stairway to heaven ...

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Unexpected

You do the expect the unexpected in New York City, but when I overheard a conversation about waterfalls which were built and installed in the NYC waterways, I was quite astounded.
On my recent excursion to Coney Island, we took the back roads and ran across a pair of these waterfalls unexpectedly. I had completely forgotten about their existence. The lighting conditions were awful - shooting into direct sunlight in the afternoon is generally a photographic taboo, but duty called and I was fortunate that one of these photos actually added to the drama of the situation.
The setting for this waterfall was the Brooklyn waterfront - with the metal framework the entire scene had a very industrial tone. Not a touch of humanity or dramatic nature one would expect from a waterfall. I did not dwell there long - my compatriots were waiting in a car as I jockeyed into the best position for this photo op.
This is one of four waterfalls along the East River ranging from 90 to 120 feet tall - a $15.5 million art installation by artist Olafur Eliasson. New York City Waterfalls was done in collaboration with the Public Art Fund. They are on from 7AM to 10PM and illuminated after sunset. You can read more about them at the official website here - there is video and photos of the falls with an interview with the artist. When visiting or living in this city, the unexpected will happen and it's more fun when you are not expecting it ...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Hot Dogs and Fries

As a child, I loved hot dogs. In fact, if it were not for dietary concerns, I would still be eating them. And as you descend the slippery slope of fast food and stratospheric calories, you might as well throw in some French fries. On my recent pilgrimage to Coney Island, which I wrote about yesterday, four of us decided to stop by the original Nathan's Famous on Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Brooklyn, started in 1916 by Nathan Handwerker. I wrote of Nathan's in 2006 - you can read it here.
We had decided to snack only and ordered French fries and fried clams. For myself, since I eat fries so infrequently, there are only good fries or very good fries.
What's more American than hot dogs and fries? Eating to excess, so a hot dog eating contest is the perfect American sport. Since 1916, Nathan's has been sponsoring a hot dog eating contest. In 2007, the Japanese hegemony was finally broken by Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, eating 59 dogs in 10 minutes, beating Takeru Kobayashi who had held the record for 6 years straight.
I learned today that competitive eating is actually an official sport with an organization - International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). They sponsor more than 100 international eating events. Personally I find eating contests rather disturbing - at a time where health consciousness, obesity and food related illnesses are paramount, I do not see embracing a sport like like this to send the right messages to society. But perhaps if it were found that eating large amounts of French fries or ice cream was actually a health benefit ...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Partial Remission

If you want to taste neglect over a period of decades, New York City has a good menu selection. I imagine many beaten down areas have resistance to change and wholesale renovations do not necessarily see the type of lasting transformation that was initially planned. There just is enormous inertia when it comes to areas which have had a long history of decline. However, NYC has not really put quality of life or beautification at a priority - managing this large city and just getting things (like the subway system) to work is an achievement and most residents learn to be satisfied with this. 
We have many areas that have deteriorated for decades. Times Square is a perfect example. Although substantial improvements were made, the immediate surrounding area still has a seedy feel to it. It's just like a cancer with only a chance of partial remission - we irradiate the problem but cancer just creeps back.
Time will tell whether we see the same effect at Coney Island - 2008 saw the final closing of Astroland and other amusements, with big plans for redevelopment.
Coney Island was a world class resort at one time with millions of visitors annually. It was the world's largest amusement area between 1880 and World War II. There were numerous competing amusements parks - the three largest were Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. I recommend viewing photos and films of these parks in their heyday - they are shockingly beautiful and spectacular. Luna Park burned down in 1944.
In my visits over the last several years, I have found Coney Island rather depressing, excepting for the annual Mermaid Parade. This last Saturday, however, I found it pleasant - absolute perfect weather, spectacular blue skies, good company with three spirited friends including a former NYC Brooklyn resident (see Friday) all conspired in a great day. See the series of photos here. 
A stop at Nathan's required a greasy snack - we shared French fries and fried clams. Chain link fences and vestiges of former rides and games made for good photo ops. The boardwalk was pleasant, particularly with the few isolated merchants. They were actually attractive set against wood, sky and sea. Partial remission?

Friday, 10 October 2008

New York Moment

Sometimes everything just clicks. My best friend from college called me earlier this week to let me know that he would be in NYC at 5:30 AM, today, Friday. I cleared my day for him - he is fun incarnate and is usually up for doing just about anything. This man is one of those people that is immediately likable.
He was my first friend and college roommate in New York City - a Jew from Brooklyn. He taught me the ins and outs of this town and how to bankface my money. I learned what bagels, delis, egg creams and greasy spoons were.
With no specific agenda, we started with breakfast at a diner - Joe Jrs. He said he wanted to visit a OK Cigars at 383 West Broadway in SoHo. Perfect, because he has a rental car, we are both ex taxicab drivers and we love an adventure. I don't smoke, but a cigar store sounds like an interesting visit. The weather is absolutely perfect.
But we arrive 30 minutes before this shop opens. As we ponder what to do, the owner, Len Brunson, arrives early and welcomes us in. Our luck just seems to be getting better. I ask about his policy about photos and he just loves the idea - not the case with every store. We both agree how puzzling it is to have such restrictions and how antithetical it is to a business venture.
There is a loft in this small, wonderful shop. Am I allowed to go up the treacherous ladder to take photos from the small loft area? A resounding yes. I get some great vantage points for shooting from above while my friend makes a purchase of $288. It certainly was worthwhile for the owner to open early.
Ok Cigars, opened in 1997, is a high end cigar retailer. They also have an extensive selection of one of a kind antique smoking accessories. The shop has a tremendous woodsy, antique ambiance and is worth a visit, even if you are not a smoker. You can take a virtual tour of the store at their website. Len Benson is one of the nicest, most congenial and accommodating stores owners I have met.
The whole experience was a New York moment and at 11 AM, the day is just starting. We are going out to Brooklyn and will investigate Coney Island in its current state. Stay tuned for a recap next week of this outing :)

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Jungle Gym

What I love about this city is the adventure and discoveries. New York is like a real jungle and walking though the dense thicket of things and people is like a safari, revealing surprises at every turn. While walking through the East Village and passing by the island that is home to the Astor Place cube, I discovered a jungle gym, with an assortment of unusual steel forms (that appeared to be bike racks) anchored to the ground. My immediate thought was to get a photo and my focus primarily about composition and other photographic concerns. See second photo with cube here.
It never occurred to me to question why these objects were here or why the collection was so disparate. The extreme variety of shapes and sizes should have tipped me off that there was more than meets the eye.
I had essentially forgotten the photos - a quick scan of them on my flash card made me question whether this motley crew of bike racks were blog-worthy. However, the forms were rather attractive and a quick online search revealed a pleasant surprise - these were the nine finalists in the "CityRack" Design Competition for New City Bike-Parking Standard by the New York City Department of Transportation. See the nine designs and information about the competition here.
The competition drew over 200 entrants from 24 states and 26 nations. An international jury of six will decide the first, second and third place winners. The winning design will be announced at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum during National Design Week (October 19-25, 2008). The first place winner will receive $10,000 and transfer design rights to the City of New York which intends to use the winning sidewalk bike rack design as its new prototype for bicycle parking. There are currently more than 5000 racks throughout the city with a design that is over 10 years old.
As I have written about before, the overriding considerations in this city for things in public spaces is their ability to withstand vandalism, abuse and heavy use. For better or for worse, these things supersede all others and utility rules. See my posting Very Practical here.
What I love about these designs is that it is clear that the entrants really understood the harsh NYC environment - all the designs are minimalist and look like they would survive.
I am sure it will be quite an honor and a thrill for the winner to stroll the jungle that is New York City, discovering his or her design on the streets ...

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Plaza

A number of readers have inquired why I have not done a posting on the Plaza Hotel in the two and a half years I have done this site. It may come as a surprise to those who know this city and it should - the Plaza is one of the most important landmarks in the entire city.
So why I have I waited? The primary reason has been the ongoing construction with exterior scaffolding since 2005. This property has changed hands a number of times, briefly owned by Donald Trump (from 1988-1995). It was then purchased by the current owner, El Ad Properties for $675 million. $400 million has been invested in renovations. All the rooms along Central Park are now residential condominiums. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark - the only other hotel with this status is the Waldorf Astoria.
It is difficult to do this hotel justice and communicate the importance of this structure. Its stature is enormous, both physically and symbolically. The Plaza sits at the crossroads of two of the most important thoroughfares in New York City - Fifth Avenue and Central Park South.  Any property located on Central Park immediately gains importance and caché. The same is true for Fifth Avenue, particularly where it flanks Central Park from 59th Street to 110th Street.
The current property is the second to be built on the site - the first in 1900 and the second was rebuilt in 1907, designed by Henry Hardenbergh in the style of a medieval French chateau. The name derives from Grand Army Plaza, the public space adjoining the front entrance of the hotel along Fifth Avenue. The plaza is the site of Pulitzer Fountain, Abundance, by Karl Bitter.
At one time in the 1950s and 60s half of the hotel rooms were occupied by residents living there full time like Frank Llloyd Wright and Marlene Dietrich. many clebrities have grace its rooms - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alfred Hitchcock, Truman Capote, the Vanderbilts etal. The Beatles performed there on the first USA visit in 1964.
One could name drop all day and certainly there may be "better" hotels or rooms in the city, but for any New Yorker, one name says it all, the Plaza ...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Morphic Resonance

There is something called the hundredth monkey effect - a phenomenon where supposedly a learned behavior spreads instantaneously from one group of monkeys to another once a critical number has learned it. This idea was popularized by Ken Keyes in his book The Hundredth Monkey. On the Japanese island of Koshima in 1952, macaques were observed to have learned to wash potatoes - this behavior was passed on to others on neighboring islands, supposedly without any direct contact between monkeys. The paranormal effect was reported to be evidence of morphic resonance, a theory of Rupert Sheldrake, a former British biochemist. According to the theory, the repetition of similar acts and/or thoughts creates morphic fields which have effects on others.
The whole concept is extremely fascinating and very compelling - perhaps accounting for its popularity amongst new age thinkers. However, morphic resonance is not supported in the scientific community and the hundredth monkey effect is largely considered to be an urban myth.
I have always been interested in treehouses - at one time several years ago, my interest became so acute I decided to search for existing books on the subject and surprisingly, a new text had just been published. Subsequently there has been a proliferation of other books and articles - a number have appeared in the New York Times.
I was both surprised and excited to see this display of tree houses in Madison Square Park, juxtaposed against the New York cityscape - see another group shot here. This is a public art project called Tree Huts by Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata. If you don't mind a bit of artspeak, you can read about it here at the Madison Square Park website or here at the Tree Huts blog.
Although I realize that all the recent interest in tree houses is almost certainly due to cross pollination, I just love the idea that it could be morphic resonance :)

Note about the photo: The gold topped building in the background is the New York Life building - you can read my posting and see its spectacular night time illumination here.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Guilty Pleasures

This past weekend was the 6th annual Open House New York. I have been very enthusiastic about this event and have attended the past three years - see the links for my previous articles and photos below. This year I decided to take a journey to the Ukrainian Institute, owing to its description as "ornate, French Renaissance-style mansion, once owned by oil tycoon Harry F. Sinclair, now houses the Ukrainian Institute." After all, who doesn't like to visit a mansion? See photos of the interior here.
The French Gothic house, known as the Fletcher-Sinclair mansion, was built in 1898 by Isaac D. Fletcher and designed by architect C. P. H. Gilbert. Read about it here in an article by Christopher Gray of the New York Times.
At one time there were a myriad of mansions in Manhattan. Those who find displays of opulence disturbing because they may have been built on the backs of others, will perhaps find comfort that most of these were abandoned as private residences. I must confess, that for me, mansions are guilty pleasures. According to the aforementioned article by Christopher Gray: "Death and Taxes'' in Fortune magazine of July 1939 remarked that the Fifth Avenue mansions had become ''symbols not of power but of decay'' -- of the 72 private houses then left on Fifth Avenue, 33 were closed. The article reported that even a moderate-sized house required 10 servants at a yearly payroll of $14,000, with $4,000 alone in food for the staff. The bare minimum for keeping a house open was $30,000 a year."
These mansions have been converted to other uses such as embassies, museums, institutions and high profile retailers. Whether one sees these uses as more socially acceptable is one issue; certainly it is nice that most of these can now be used and enjoyed by the populace.
The Ukrainian Institute of America took over this property in 1955. Their function is to develop, sponsor and promote through activities a greater awareness, understanding, knowledge and appreciation in the United States of the art, literature, music, culture, history and traditions of Ukraine.
Their current usage of the mansion allows me to better enjoy a guilty pleasure :)

Related postings from previous Open House New York weekends: Masonic LodgeSecret Rooftop GardenTerrapin Chelsea Art Gallery, Stairwell, Cold Stone

Friday, 3 October 2008

Love Affair

Why would anyone have a love affair with a sporting goods store? It's simple. Let's say you just moved to NYC to go to college and it's 1969. And let's say you never left home before in your life - everything is new, exciting and scary all at the same time. Winter is coming and you need a warm coat. You have virtually no money but fortunately your mother gave you money to buy one. Where do you go and what do you buy?
Those who know things say go to Tents and Trails or Paragon.
Tents and Trails was on Park Place - virtually no man's land at the time. It was a real destination retailer with a virtual cult status and a quality reputation - I have purchased many things there. But it wasn't that big. I needed a place that felt overwhelming like the city itself. Paragon just felt like the right place. At the time, Northface was the brand of choice. So that is my first memorable NYC shopping experience - Northface at Paragon. That coat lasted years and I saw it and Paragon as responsible for providing protection from harsh
There's a wave of comfort that comes over you when you enter a place like this - a feeling of confidence that you need look no further. After all, this is the leading sporting goods store in NYC - the preeminent city in the country. This is a no-nonsense new york place. All the quality brands with a experienced sales staff that can be brutally honest.
Paragon Sports, 867 Broadway at 18th Street, has been in business since 1908 - many consider it to be the finest worldwide. It has an enormous product line (50,000 products), cutting edge equipment and clothing - many products are unique, carried exclusively at this store. It has only one location, much like a handful of other unique, iconic, legendary NYC stores like B&H Photo and J&R Music World. There's an intensity about these stalwart, single location shops - no dilution of expertise or product. Everyone and everything is under one roof.
Be forewarned - if you visit you may fall in love too :)

Suggestion: If you visit, make sure to see all three floors and all the rooms on the ground floor. While in the area, visit ABC Carpet and Home and nearby Union Square - see here. If you work up a hunger, grab a meal Republic - see my posting here.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Pumpkins Too

The display in this photo may appear to be somewhat early, but that is the state of the current retail environment. Business is so much more sophisticated and competitive. The general increase in foreknowledge of holiday sales has lead to an enormous expectation on the part of businesses. So now retailers extend holiday periods as much as possible in hopes of driving more sales. Historically, the Christmas season has begun on black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. However, we now see many retailers with Christmas displays and ornamentation well in advance of Thanksgiving.
For many retailers, profit or loss for the entire year depends on Christmas sales, so I am sympathetic to a degree. But on the other hand, the overly aggressive marketing, advertising and promotion can become distasteful, turning holidays into nothing but commercial events - soon we risk having a perennial Christmas I am not against celebration, but one must be careful or the spirit and meaning of holidays can be easily lost.
Autumn and Halloween are very much times defined by nature and the outdoors - pumpkins and straw are visual treats for city dwellers - much needed reminders that there is a world apart from concrete, asphalt, glass and steel. The city has to put its own spin on many holidays, keeping as many key elements as we can and improvising the rest. Trick or treat at Halloween is one holiday activity that is severely curtailed.
But we have pumpkins - wonderful eye candy for triggering memories of shuffling though fallen leaves or the excitement of making the neighborhood rounds on Halloween ...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Joe Jr's

Many New Yorkers enjoy comfort food as much as their suburban brethren and in America, the restaurant of choice for comfort food is the diner. These places appeal to Americans for so many fundamental reasons - large portions, low prices, long hours (many are open 24/7), fast service and typically an enormous, extensive menu of virtually every staple in the American diet - even breakfast items can be had all day.
Of course in New York, we just love those legendary places and iconic diners are no exception with places like the Market Diner in Chelsea and Moondance in SoHo which made big news when it was sold and completely moved to Wyoming in 2007.
Food reviews at diners are mixed - much depends on individual tastes and also the type of dish ordered - food quality can vary more than in a typical restaurant - a place may be good for burgers and breakfast but not great for filet of salmon. The safe bet is to go with simple, low risk, "standard" fare.
Joe Jr's Restaurant gets rave reviews with numerous patrons calling it the "best diner on earth" and other superlatives. I have only eaten there a couple of times so I leave you to be the final arbiter. Joe Jr's has two locations - the one in the photo is at 482 6th Avenue; the second location is at 167 3rd Avenue in the East Village. These establishments have been around since the 1930s and have stood the test of time ...