Monday, May 02, 2005

East Village and the Curse of the Single, Thin, Young and Beautiful

How does a neighborhood grow up when no one older than thirty sticks around?

In the nineties, the East Village became a magnet for young people seeking an endless urban party. This turn of events came about when the neighborhood was made safe because police cracked down on drug dealing and other intimidating behaviors that had reined the streets.

The Times recently published an article by Dara Mayers who has lived in the East Village for ten years. When she arrived, we are told, “regular folk” were still commonly seen on the streets. She characterized them as, “Families. Fat people. The old lady with the dapper boyfriend. Ugly folk.”

She was speaking of the indigenous urban populations who, having lived through the era of urban decay, were invaded by the single, thin, young, and beautiful.

The writer saw the local bodegas close down and the boutiques and sushi bars take over. The regular folk dwindled to the point of extinction. East Village became populated by the narrowest slice of demographics.

So it went until the writer came to an East Village epiphany. “A friend put it this way: She hated seeing versions of herself 10 years younger, walking down the same streets she had walked down 10 years before.”

For her, this meant the party was over. She will be moving out of East Village, leaving it behind to…the single, thin, young, and beautiful.

How quickly the first wave of newcomers became relics in this modern incarnation of East Village. Yet I am struck by the feelings she expressed for her home, like someone who had put down roots.

“I will miss the old neighborhood,” she wrote, wistfully adding, “I don’t regret a moment of it.”

It was not a hopeful article on the future of East Village. A hopeful article would have been about a different sort of epiphany. One that would perceive that the true value of living in the East Village for ten years would come from a deeper engagement in the neighborhood. One that would reflect upon the idea that a decade of experience would be a precious tool to use for building a community that matters.

Such a hopeful article would have held out the promise of an East Village that was nurturing diversity. But that is not the article she wrote. What was written implied she was the last of her kind in East Village. In an oddly resentful description of her volunteer decision to leave, she wrote, “I'm the final sweep in the cleanup of the neighborhood.”

It is the tone of someone who feels she has been treated like debris from the past. As if she is a repository of a community never given the chance to find its own voice—except in this one final moment in the Sunday Times.

What will become of East Village without her?

If indeed, she represents the “final sweep,” then she belongs to a generation that came and went in the East Village without leaving any footprints behind, replaced by the next wave indulging in the fantasy of an endless Manhattan party.

How does a neighborhood grow up if no one older than thirty sticks around?

I really don’t see how it can.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Finding Patina in Soho

I went window shopping with Dianne in Soho. We strolled pass the rows of buildings uniformly painted in a shiny cream color, glistening like jewelry. We saw lingerie displayed sparsely in the window spaces where metalworkers once rolled out their fabrications in the brief era of cast iron architecture.

On Greene Street we saw something unexpected. The next handful of buildings were vacant and worn out. One of them was hidden behind a cocoon of netting and scaffolding. The others had a hundred years weathering.

We had taken our time weaving in and out of the cobblestoned streets. I had little doubt these were the last collection of neglected cast iron buildings in Soho. It was like finding a pair of Levi’s torn and stained from cattle roundups untouched in a turn-of-the-century trunk.

Soho—the name was coined during the district’s revival in the 1970s—was a nineteenth century manufacturing district. New York’s era of prefabricated building materials began with metal products used as façades. Buildings adorned with art nouveau scrolling and Greek temple columns demonstrated how cheap fabrications could replicate any craftsmanship or style.

Prefabrication techniques steadily moved on to change almost everything about the built environment. The muscular era of concrete and steel arrived and never really left. Builders built grandiose projects that pierced the sky: the Flatiron, Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State—all took a turn as world’s tallest building.

By the post-World War II years, manufacturing changed. The old district south of Houson was a relic before its time. It didn’t have the floor space, parking lots, or truck access found across the river. Property values fell as the long-term manufacturing tenants moved out. The neighborhood of buildings dressed up in metal ornamentation sunk into disrepair. From the number of fire calls, the Fire Department took to referring to it as Hell’s Hundred Acres.

In the Robert Moses era of the 1950s, urban planners favored only one approach for dealing with these kind of changes that were happening to little old New York: fund a bloated public works project to do the double duty of obliterating the problem away. Plans were drawn up for the old neighborhood to be razed and ten lanes of expressway cut through to be connected to Long Island and New Jersey.

Yet Soho survived. In the 1960s, communities were learning to join together. In Soho they did it with the zeal of a community under siege. Greenwich Village resident Jane Jacobs, who understood the importance of the attachments people make to a place, saw a cause which gave practical expression to ideas in her The Life and Death of American Cities. She became the leader to save Soho. Once, she led a march inside a meeting room during city proceedings. The voice of the community was not to be ignored.

The expressway plans were finally scrapped in the 1970s.

By this time the small neighborhood had been around for two important urban movements. The first was when it was built as a collection of innovative demonstration models ushering in the new age of prefabrication. The second was when it became the rallying cause for community planning. Big gains were made for unwieldy public processes by Jacobs and her crowd, and the undemocratic practices of managerial planning took a heavyweight beating.

Soho was soon zoned as a historic district, a risky idea for the old manufacturing district. This approach was known to turn around New York’s residential neighborhoods, where a homeowner could restore a dilapidated brownstone with the comfortable knowledge that the neighbors would not be issued permits for cheap vinyl siding. The risk in Soho was, unlike residential areas, its historic uses were all but over and done with. For a historic district to work, tenants were needed for the manufacturing spaces.

Meanwhile, quietly at first, the veteran neighborhood of buildings incubated another urban movement. The lofts with open floors and sunlit windows were custom fits for artists. Doubled up and used as mixed work and living spaces, rents were even affordable to this struggling class. Greenwich Village was becoming too pricy anyway. Artists moved into the vacant buildings.

Things moved quietly at first because the work-living arrangement wasn’t legal. Zoning rules didn’t allow people to live in spaces built for manufacturing. But, in the spirit of community planning, changes can be made. The artist pioneers and the gallery owners that supported them were recognized as forging a new urban model. In the upcoming years, other cities would turn to the experiences of Soho for the solution to the depleted manufacturing districts in their own urban cores.

Relationships among the newcomers grew close from working and living in a tight urban space and the art scene got hot. Artists sent new art pieces down the old elevator lifts to the galleries below, and yuppie investors took the short cab ride to the galleries after a big day on Wall Street—of which there were many—to pay bloated prices for freshly painted pieces.

Sensing his opportunity, the unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat introduced himself to Andy Warhol at an outside table in Soho, selling him a print for one dollar. In his artwork, Basquiat, like his personality, would pry open opportunities from his own mix of experiences and abilities. Seven years later, Basquiat overdosed on heroin a millionaire 500 times over.

In Soho, contemporary art was spectacularly marketed as never before. In narrow streets and mixed-use buildings, people tapped into a wellspring of creativity and entrepreneurship. Once more this small neighborhood saw the power of the spirit of public association.

When the frenetic art scene bubble was over, its artists and hanger-ons moved on. “Neo-expressionism” and other catchy marketing faded from use. Today, galleries and boutiques are posh and homes in loft spaces are precious. Soho has stepped into the gentrified phase of whispering money.

Of course, on that day on Greene Street I took a long hard look when Dianne and I unexpectedly came across the last collection of neglected cast iron buildings.

The cast iron, left alone to age, seemed peculiarly defiant to the battery of time’s brutalizing forces. It didn’t crumble, chip, rot away, sag, or break apart. The cast iron darkened with red and brown smudges of color, a weathering process that deepened into its own shadows. The buildings held their unique patina like the testimony of aged beauty.

Twenty-eight Greene Street was the building hidden behind netting and scaffolding on that day. My guidebook says it’s the queen of the cast iron architecture in Soho. Next time I’ll check out it out.

As for the rest of the last collection of neglected buildings—next time I expect to see fresh coats of cream colored enamel paint.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Subway City #2: Civics and Threats of a Public Good

My faith in government is strengthened by public officials who follow the creed of handling the public’s money like a sacred trust. My faith fades rapidly when they act without a strategy to long-term fiscal health. MTA seems to be a government agency run by those with a bad habit of borrowing money—the kind of borrowing that leads to more borrowing.

Currently, 12 percent of MTA’s annual budget is for interest payments on carry-over debts from previous years. By 2008, interest payments are projected at 21 percent. Planned capital investments for 2005-2009 will cost $27.8 billion, including $10 billion for new projects. Outside of a $5 billion federal subsidy, no revenue sources yet are identified for these investments.

To me, this feels like a looming threat to this nation’s most intrinsically efficient metropolitan transportation system. Fewer new subway cars and station-upgrade projects would be bad enough. But the system’s problems are deeper. It operates on equipment that is obsolete, unreliable, and hazardous. Furthermore, the system remains frightfully vulnerable to terrorist attack. It is vital that the New York subway system be “brought up to code” and become fiscally solvent.

The obvious approach to slashing operating costs would be to turn operations over to a private contractor. MTA chairman Peter Kalikow should openly discuss this idea at the public forum. The experience of other cities that adopted this approach, such as London and Copenhagen, suggests remarkable savings can be achieved.

In addition, MTA revenue must increase. Raising fares would be the obvious revenue enhancer. But the subway system, like most public transit systems, has built-in limits to fare rate hikes. This is primarily because an individual’s choice to take public transit often comes after weighing clear, obvious advantages over taking a private car. Substantially hiking up fares tends to diminish the consumer’s assessment of public transit. At worse, high fares could mean fewer riders and more cars in the traffic lanes, a result contrary to public transit’s mission.

Effective systems of public transit like New York’s subway system are public goods because they increase possibilities for public association in the urban landscape. Maintaining lower fares does not mean that affordable public transit is a civil right—there’s no such thing as an inherently endowed right to a cheap ride downtown. Rather, it is a policy goal that conforms well to the wider purpose of a free society which thrives upon human exchanges which drive the forces of creativity and entrepreneurship.

MTA should look to other sources for new revenue by identifying other beneficiaries of the subway system. For example, retailers and food establishments are beneficiaries because the subway delivers much of their customer base. However, these types of businesses already pay their share into the system by collecting state and local sales taxes on all the prepared food and goods they sell.

Employers who are not retailers—businesses that rely on commuting office and industrial workers—are a different story. In several ways public transit is sized and operated chiefly according to their needs. Most working people commute during morning and afternoon peak hours so that businesses can schedule their operations during the same busy timeframe. In this way, rush hour is a good thing from the perspective of business. Operating during the same daily hours as other businesses is essential for efficient commerce.

New York’s subway system has remarkable flexibility to increase and decrease service to efficiently correspond to busy and slow periods of usage. It is a transit system designed to the task of moving rush hour traffic quickly. But the subway’s value to Manhattan’s businesses goes far beyond moving workers back and forth when it counts the most.

In most cities, new floor area for growing businesses happens only by also turning over additional real estate for parking. Sometimes the developer might pay a parking mitigation fee to a public agency to furnish public parking. Subsequently, public parking might happen only by eminent domain condemnation of a neighboring landowner’s property. This Darwinistic development cycle is one way that cities outside New York struggle with the overabundance of parked cars.

In Manhattan, on the other hand, subway riding employees don’t need parking facilities upon arrival. Manhattan real estate remains available for development rather than for vehicle storage. The vertical heights of Manhattan were built upon the network of subway lines in more ways than one. Business development reached skyward because workers left their cars at home. A scale of urban density was achieved to allow a level of public association and business activity that befits New York’s global stature.

MTA has a deplorable habit of borrowing to meet expenses. New York’s array of global, national, and local businesses relies on MTA’s ailing subway system. It is time for MTA to turn to this thriving business community for a serious discussion about how both can better meet their civic responsibilities.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Subway City: Making Plans for Rush Hour

The 2000 Census projected that New York will experience a population gain of two million over the next twenty years. Nationally, the 2000 Census projected a population gain of 60 million. To the urban planner, population growth and rush hour traffic are issues that go hand in hand.

From what I can observe, if the MTA subway system is kept running well in 2020—if public moneys are spent along the way to maintain and improve the system appropriately—the subway system should be able to absorb the added riders with little negative effect to the rush hour commute.

Nationally, however, it is a far different story. The nation’s growth will occur primarily in places that rely on private vehicles. The subsequent increase in vehicular traffic from growth will further bog down the lines of vehicles already in a crawl waiting in rush hour traffic.

It may seem odd to people who daily face the aggravation of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, but not every transportation system operates on the basis of saturated levels of congestion at rush hour. In New York, the world’s second oldest subway system actually moves people along faster during rush hour than any other time of day. (London, by the way, has the world’s oldest subway system.)

When I enter a busy subway station in rush hour, I find that navigating on foot through the station is usually no more time-consuming than at other times. Teeming commuters deftly weave and dodge each other around me with a flexibility of movement not possible in vehicular lanes of traffic. Subway cars arrive at a pace designed to avoid unmanageable levels of build-up of the burgeoning crowd. When I arrive at the platform, the frequency of oncoming subways is from 90-second to 10-minute intervals.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority subway system is composed of 468 stations along 660 miles of track. It has a fleet of 6,400 subway cars that moves 1.4 billion passengers a year. Total annual distance traveled amounts to over 347.1 million miles. In terms of energy, the subway system uses 1.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to operate for one year. Using an online conversion table, I found that the kilowatt hours amount is the equivalent to less than 49.2 million US gallons of gasoline for a year's operation.

The New York’s subway system is capable of providing peak efficiency during rush hour for moving vast masses of commuters with relatively small energy consumption. This is quite a contrast to my experiences as a consulting planner dealing with growth issues outside New York.

As a consulting planner, I have served public and private interests. Either way, it was often important to discuss the development proposal under consideration in terms of its effects on rush hour traffic patterns. I would find myself meeting with a developer, consultants, staff members, or project neighbors to turn over questions related to the local rush hour phenomena. Many of us would arrive at these meetings from our own rush hour commute.

If a formal traffic study was involved, we tended to talk in terms of peak-hour trip generation numbers, intersection counts, circulation requirements, capital improvement plans, sensitive noise receptors, cumulative future scenarios, and so forth. Lacking a formal study, discussions might be more qualitative, sometimes led off by technicians with balanced skepticism of their own opinions. Perceptions from past experiences were shared. Cost considerations were mentioned whenever hopes for one or another expectation needed to be trimmed back.

As a planning issue, rush hour traffic is typically treated like peak storm water runoff, in which an overloaded system requires a technical explanation and a design and schedule for responsive capital improvement. Somehow, though, drain system problems tend to fade away after improvements are made while traffic problems only worsen.

My experience was that board members who publicly and sincerely face indecision on a development proposal want to be illuminated from the fundamental principles they feel drawn to in their public role. Consequently, when it came to the issue of rush hour traffic impacts, I sought to find simple explanations that cut through the methodologies and statistics, quasi-legal interpretations of significance thresholds, and the rest of minutiae covered up and down in the typical traffic meeting. A traffic meeting usually proved its worth if I gained simple explanations that helped build persuasive and ethical conclusions about the development proposal’s effect on the rush hour’s commute.

The developer was in luck if a simple explanation was available that convincingly portrayed the development proposal as either not appreciably slowing down the flow of commuters during rush hour, or, given minor ancillary improvements, the transportation system’s capabilities could be tweaked to serve the project. Developers who were out of luck usually were left facing the prospects of a scaled-down project or a scaled-up transportation system.

I doubt many of us consider rush hour traffic to be the symptom of healthy social behavior, yet that is how I view the wider picture. During rush hour, our transportation systems are filled with people going to work, kids going to school, and people on errands or going to their appointments. Our way of life is synchronized to our daily routines for being together within the same timeframe. I can’t think of an alternative to this way of life.

Rush hour is a source of aggravation to people caught in the routine of inefficient transportation systems. However, in the wider picture, a lesser rush hour would indicate lesser public association. People cannot easily meet up with each other and interconnect without getting out of the house at the same time. Rush hour results from the inevitable crosscurrents of people and institutions pursuing patterns of social routine in the daily mix of public association.

Thanks to an urban form that is largely based on ,as well as served by, the template of a 101-year old transportation system, New York should be able to move capably into the period of growth ahead. Whether the MTA will meet the challenge only seems to be a matter of political will.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Times Squared #2: Crossroads of Desire

Times Square Alliance is the business improvement district which has guided the reintroduction of Times Square as a family-friendly tourist destination. Recently, it commemorated the whole, sweeping, hundred-year Times Square story with a major gallery exhibit at the AXA Gallery on 51st Street.

Crossroads of Desire was the name of the show, which closed recently after a three-month run. I don’t know who named this alternate take on “crossroads of the world,” but it aptly acknowledges that Times Square always belonged chiefly to the night. Crossroads of Desire could also be named as a subtle tribute to a certain Broadway play in which Marlon Brando gave an emotionally raw performance. The influential 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire marked the approximate end to the era when Broadway would contain nearly all the staged entertainment that New York had to offer.

In its first half-century, Times Square knew the best and worst of economic times, but through it all Broadway was where everything took place—whether it was vaudeville, burlesque, musicals, melodrama, serious theater, or movies (Lowe’s on Broadway was the nation’s first movie theater). In the post-war years, important parts of the theatrical world splintered into off-Broadway and then off-off Broadway, finding homes in outside venues scattered in lower Manhattan. That’s how things still stand.

When Dianne and I ventured out to the theater last month, we didn’t go near Times Square. Instead, we went to Soho and, on another occasion, to St. Mark’s Place for sold-out, weekday evening shows in venues with about one hundred seats. Tickets were fifteen to twenty dollars, about the same as a movie with a stop at the concessions. This is affordable entertainment which can be stimulating, odd, or astounding.

I don’t think the theatrical world gains anything from this geographic separation of small theater from the hub of Broadway. Creators, performers, and theater entrepreneurs benefit from knowing each other, and more crosscurrents would occur if they lived and worked in the same neighborhood. Also, theater goers might get more easily hooked into the delights of sampling theatrical variety. Proximity is the opportunity of the compact urban place.

In Crossroads of Desire, stunning posters and artistic neon from the first half-century of Times Square gave way to porn shop artifacts and crime statistics as Times Square slid famously into urban decline. By the 1980s, each successive police report showed that assaults and batteries were an untreated epidemic in Times Square. For years, the tattered reputation of the nation’s recreation center continued to spiral downwards.

As the Crossroads of Desire displays inched closer to the 1990s, a display made from planning department survey data indicated that the community of residents and tenants displaced by redevelopment were more diverse than was widely perceived at the time. To me, this taunting evidence of a wider community within the boundaries of Times Square gnaws into my feelings that something socially dysfunctional took place in the renewal of Times Square. These were people disassociated from the perennial civic embarrassment of criminal activity but swept away along with it. Their voices were not heard in Crossroads of Desire.

Other voices I noticed to be missing from Crossroads of Desire were the politicians, developers, and planners who put into motion the redevelopment program for Times Square. During the years of urban decline, civic leaders and local property owners pondered and deliberated over the fate of Times Square. Eventually, put together the mix of urban renewal, selective historic restoration, zoning densification, and required electronic signage, that became the design for our own millennium era of Times Square.

These civic leaders belonged in a comprehensive gallery installation of the Times Square story. They spent hundreds of millions of public money to spur the private investment that followed. Instead of directing efforts to put buildings back into useful service, they moved tenants out and demolished rows of old buildings to make way for something new. The revival of Times Square was finally assured when Michael Eisner was lured in and committed large amounts of economic capital and corporate identity to the cause. After Disney was in, others came running. Today, with over 30 million visitors expected this year, Times Square is once again the happy picture of audacious signage and abundant entertainment.

Was this the inevitable strategy for success in a democratic society? More importantly, was a greater social good served through this style of redevelopment of Times Square than if a more community based approach had been tried? What if fiscal seed money had been put into housing and into special grants to nudge New York’s splintered theater community back into one single Times Square neighborhood? Who’s to know how adding another depth to the pool of creativity and entrepreneurship within Times Square might have rippled through the cultural life and economy of New York.

After spending a couple of hours absorbing the old Times Square at the Crossroads of Desire, I walked out into the new Times Square evermore mindful of how high it had flown in its heyday and how burnt out and depleted it was when it hit bottom.

I walked over to Eighth Avenue just outside the west edge of Times Square. This area was skipped over by the redevelopment of Times Square. According to a recent Times real estate piece, rents here are comparable to any local Manhattan neighborhood. It has a hotel or two where plenty of people come and go, and adult shops, bodegas, drug stores, and bars. It clearly retains some seediness.

Could a vision for incubating small theater coupled with affordable housing to help support the theater community take hold here? It’s not likely to happen. The planners at the Times Square Alliance already have a vision for Eighth Avenue. They reportedly hope that Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and the rest of the rest of the package of chain stores commonly found in the neighborhood business districts will move in next door to the crossroads of desire.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Time Squared: Chromium and One-Eyed Midgets

I keep a permanent spot in the limited bookshelf space of our one-bedroom apartment for a tattered, oversized volume that came down to me from my parents. It is called The Face of New York and was published in 1954. Here is what it says alongside photos of Times Square:

“New York’s theater district is not hers alone, it is a recreation center claimed by the whole nation. The crowds moving up and down the street have come from all sections of the county and form a great part of the audience, be it a cheap movie or an expensive stage production….Today it’s a world of chromium, neon lights, cut-rates, and crowds.”

The first time I saw Times Square I was a small child. It was the place described above. My parents took us kids out of Long Island to see The Ten Commandments on the Cinerama screen of the Criterion Theater. After the intermission, I remember feeling confused as we went back to our seats, thinking the movie was already over.

Mostly, though, I remember walking in Times Square itself. It was dusk and we blended in with the teeming crowd to get some dinner, stopping momentarily with shameless awe to watch the perfect smoke rings from the huge Camel sign—a miracle of special effects that surpassed Cecil B. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea.

Recently, I made room for another permanent entry on my bookshelf, Bob Dylan’s new memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1. I don’t know if it was his idea or someone else’s—but I was intrigued by the photo of Times Square on the dustcover. In the book, Dylan recalls his first impressions of New York with a sharpness for detail that seems almost photogenic itself. New York had a powerful influence on Dylan’s fertile imagination, and the Times Square cover pays tribute to that.

Last week, I saw on a gallery wall a different, well-known photograph that had the same big electric sign for Admiral TV I recognized from the photo on Dylan’s book. In this photo, the neon lights of Times Square shimmer in the background as James Dean, his hands dug into the pockets of his overcoat, walks towards us in the cold night air. Most any other photo of James Dean will focus on him alone, but not this one. It had a feeling of a wider, more sweeping Cinerama epic story, captured in the gait and face of an actor who happened to be out on the sidewalks of Times Square.

The James Dean photo was taken in 1954, the same year as The Face of New York, and also, coincidently when Times Square itself was exactly 50 years old. Longacre Square.was renamed Times Square in 1904 to help promote the newspaper which moved into its new office building that year. The Times saw a promotional opportunity from the new subway system about to begin operation, and wanted the stop at 42nd Street to be named “Times Square Station.”

Times Square, the area generally from 42nd Street to 51st and from Eighth Avenue to Seventh, became the story of different eras tumbling one on top of the other, astounding chapters to one of the great American Dream stories. For fifty years it served the highest functions that a city can in a free society, allowing the catalyst of democratic communities to build upon the capital of their extraordinary human potential for creativity and entrepreneurship.

By the 1920s, the American cultural landscape was forever changed from the activities and cultural changes that took place there. Eugene O’Neil took American theater far beyond the confines of melodrama, the women of the Ziegfried Follies displayed new attitudes towards sexuality and fashion, advertising was displayed at cathedral heights using electric light and dazzling graphics, and nightclub culture was created by Prohibition’s underclass of gangsters and their speakeasies.

At the end of the Depression another wave arrived with 1940’s Oklahoma and its blend of popular arts into a new type of American musical. In the years ahead, Tennessee Williams deepened the scope of themes for American drama, and Marlon Brando put new emotional edge to acting on stage.

By the time Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles from a theater soundstage on Broadway and 53rd Street, only a year or two remained for the Times Square which was effusively described in The Face of New York. A mix of urban forces that would eventually be felt in almost every American city was shifting Times Square into a different kind of social era, one in which Times Square became known to the world through the backdrop atmosphere seen in Midnight Cowboy, Shaft, and Taxi Driver.

One day, in the twilight period of the earlier The Face of New York era, I was walking with my father in Times Square when he paused a few feet from a blind man who was dressed like an ancient Viking.

“That’s Moondog. He’s here everyday,” my dad said, who worked at the New York Times. “If you want, I’ll introduce you.”

I asked Moondog if he was a real Viking. He answered with a line of poetry. We had a conversation and he offered me to take a tract of his poetry with his photo standing a grassy hill. Times Square was still the kind of place where a blind musician might somehow help stretch out the world of a young teenager passing through with his dad.

Many years later, I would read that Moondog eventually became known as an avant-garde jazz musician with an avid cult following. Back when he was known as the Viking in Times Square he also musically accompanied various performers using his array of homemade instruments. Tiny Tim was mentioned as one of the performers who sometimes played with Moondog.

In Chronicles, Dylan recalls Tiny Tim was one of the performers who helped orient him to the New York scene. Dylan recalls that Tiny Tim sometimes performed at Hubert’s Performing Fleas Circus on Times Square. “I would hear more about that later,” Dylan writes.

Hubert’s was originally established during the Depression in the heart of Times Square on 42nd Street and Broadway. Visitors paid at a booth and descended to the basement to watch a show by unusual performers on one of several small raised stages. In The Devil’s Playground, Jim Traub wrote:

“Hubert’s became for a new generation of alienated souls the One True Place, an underground fastness of the marginal and the grotesque hidden away from the all-devouring world of consumerism and plenty. Lenny Bruce worshiped at the altar of Professor Heckler. And Diane Arbus passed countless hours photographing the midgets and the fake magicians and Congo the Jungle Creep.”

As to whether Dylan made it down those steps at Hubert’s, perhaps the following lines from Ballad of a Thin Man offer a clue:

“You hand in your ticket / And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you / When he hears you speak…

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you / And then he kneels
He crosses himself / And then he clicks his high heels…

Now you see this one-eyed midget / Shouting the word "NOW"
And you say, ‘For what reason?’/And he says, ‘How?’…”

Today Madame Tousand’s occupies the space once occupied by Hubert’s Performing Fleas Circus. I am told that visitors to Times Square especially like to get their picture taken next to the replica of Donald Trump.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The World’s Transcendent Home

The Times has put out the call for a better new slogan than “The World’s Second Home,” the catchphrase currently being used to sway the Olympic Committee to New York. The main problem is that it doesn’t relate to the eight million people who actually live here. Second Home? Right, and my other car is a Cadillac.

However, there are a couple of things about it that do work for me. I appreciate the economy of words—even if Big Apple and Helluva Town nailed something about New York even more succinctly.

What doesn’t work is the word “second.” It just plain doesn’t fit here, unless used to convey time, preferably speed—but then we already have “in a New York minute,” which, I recall Johnny Carson once defined as the amount of time it takes in New York for the car behind you to honk after the light turns green.

“World” is a good fit. Just how worldly is New York? Along with London, New York received the highest ranking of world cities in a study by the Globalization and World Cities Study Group & Network. The study ranked world cities using criteria such as “first-name familiarity”—no one says of a world city, where’s that?—international influence, global participation, and so forth. After New York and London, the next ranked world cities were Chicago, Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Milan, Los Angeles, and Singapore. In all, 55 world cities were listed.

“Home” also fits. Home is about security beyond mere shelter and comes close to the essential of what any city should strive for. Home is where ever the internal city’s compass points: where you hope to find, or make for yourself, friends and family, a roof and plumbing, sidewalks and wifi, a stranger to help out or to exchange pleasantries about the weather. One of a city’s promises is to deliver on our dreams associated with our inalienable rights that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Life leads the list in this nation’s founding document, but, unlike the others, is rarely cited as the source of American dreams. Nevertheless, each of us has to belong somewhere—life just isn’t possible without taking up space. Home is a state of mind with a place on the map.

This takes me to seeking out a new modifer for “the world’s home,” something that holds up to the kind of home the world has in New York. So, how about “The World’s Transcendent Home?”

Subtract points for its lack of the common touch; transcendent is not like the word “big” in big apple, it needs dictionary support. According to the American Heritage, transcendent has several meanings. Two involve concepts about “the unknowable” and “being” which I’ll pass on. Another meaning is “preeminant or supreme.” But the fact that New York is only almost preeminant among the world’s cities, based on its tied ranking with London, doesn’t lend itself well to that meaning. Finally, transcendent means “lying above the ordinary range of perception.” Here I find an appealing truth about New York.

The idea of New York as transcendent was engraved in the world’s memory most profoundly by the attack of 9/11. God knows how many hidieous acts of war were perputated on the world’s cities throughout history. Even the 9/11 attack on Washington came from the ordinary perceptions of extremists with hostile ideas about US imperialism. But why attack the people in the Twin Towers? Certainly, as a symbol of global trade, but also as something else. The Twin Towers belonged to a city where 38 percent were foreign born and 140 languages were spoken on its sidewalks—we know this from the 2000 Census. Bin Laden hit the New York skyline as a sneering pronouncement to take nothing for granted anymore.

And yet, since the attack, New York has proved itself to be truly far above the ordinary. It remains a city friendly to the world, arms wide open, especially to the immigrant on the first step to a new way of life. As if to say, welcome to New York—the world’s transcendent home.