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3.22.2005

Fresh Fish
The New York Times has a fantastic article on the impending move of the Fulton Fish Market. There are some people who can't wait for the market to move and others who think it's a tragedy. Me? I'm new to town so I keep my mouth shut. But this article does a wonderful job straddling the line between reminiscing about old times and highlighting how the fishmongers themselves are pretty happy about the move - how the market demands it.
Change is hard to take and articles like this, I don't know, they're rare. It's too easy to take one side or the other when writing about urban development issues. And it's especially ridiculous because we all know there's truth to both sides; change always happens for a reason.

3.20.2005

Sonny's
In improvisational comedy they teach you a basic principle. It is called yes-and. Or, to put it more accurately, it is called “yes, and…”
It teaches this: when you are on stage with very little guidelines and you have a brilliant idea for how the scene should unfold - say you want to be a pirate, and your partner should be the parrot who only speaks French and a galleon full of angry Quebecois are on the horizon - if the person next to you trumps you by beginning the scene in a way that completely contradicts what you were intending to do, you say, “yes, and…”
You take what your friend gives you and you roll with it. It may not have been what you wanted, what you intended, or even what you think would have worked best, but you plod ahead.
There are principles inherent to this. One is that you trust the person next to you, which is to say, you trust yourself well enough to know that you would not have placed yourself onstage next to an imbecile. It also implies that when you are looking straight ahead and life takes you on a sharp right turn, you will still be able to navigate. Trust your inner GPS, I say.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that when my friend Adam invited me out for his birthday on Saturday night to the far reaches of New York City, even though I was sick and contemplating an early night, I went. I trust Adam. He’s got the air about him of a guy who knows where fun happens. But he didn’t make it easy. He invited me far. To Redhook. Past Columbia Street, which my friend Danielle claimed was Redhook but which Adam says is really the “Columbia Street District” on the outer edges of Carroll Gardens. Beyond all that.
On our cab ride out there, we passed the rundown brownstones of outer Carroll Gardens and made our way through vacant streets lined with derelict buildings. There were newspaper eddys on the sidewalk: urban tumbleweed. We saw warehouses that may or may not have been occupied and two-story satellite dishes that looked more like the American Southwest than Brooklyn. And then the streets became cobblestone and the air started to smell dank and wet and we were in the industrial waterfront. There were a few homes and empty lots and docks. And there was one building with neon. Just one: Sonny’s.
We had to give the cabbie directions back to Manhattan.
He was lost, but I was smiling.
The bar was dimly lit but warm, with wood walls and crap all over the place: fishnets, model boats, modern art, portrait photographs, mismatched furniture. The stereo in the front room was playing R&B, the same CD on repeat for all four hours that we were there. The back room was cozy, lit with nautical lanterns and with an arced wooden ceiling and rectangular skylights like the cabin of a wide New England catboat. Someone was smoking a cigar outside and we could see his face through a small, smudged window, but he sat so still we thought he was a bad painting or an out-of-focus photograph.
There was a bluegrass band back there. Or not so much a band as a group of people who seemed to know each other. They were circled up around an old wooden table, some in chairs, some standing, most playing but some not. And they ran through songs that most of them seemed to have memorized, but those who didn’t squinted patiently at the guitarists' fingers to see the chords explained.
The fiddler was only okay, but the guitar player could harmonize and there was a really beautiful woman who could sing like nobody’s business. I don’t care for Jesus but her voice sure did.
All of this would have been enough. More than enough – dayenu as they say in the Passover Seder – but on top of this the coup de grace was the pedal steel guitarist. There was a drag queen playing the pedal steel.
I want to write that sentence again, because it makes me smile, because it makes me smile wryly knowing full well that whatever it is I want from life – life will give me something better, something that I never could have imagined. There was a drag queen playing the pedal steel.
So there you have it. I just as easily could have been asleep for four hours by now. And it almost certainly would have shaved a whole day off my recuperation from this cold. But I never would have seen Sonny’s. And I never would have smiled like this.


3.10.2005

Sneak Preview!
Or something like that, anyway. I'm feeling the need to post something today, so here' s a near-final version of next month's column for The New York Spirit. The column, titled "Alternative Side of the Street: A Series on New York Urbanism" will also appear in its final version on their
website.

By now, The Gates are gone, and in its own way that is part of their beauty. They came, they fluttered, they conquered, they left.
We prefer it that way. One of the main principles of New York Urbanism is understanding and appreciating transience. Nothing lasts forever. Even the buildings that outlast you change in meaning and significance as time passes. As you age, you see them in different lights, from different angles. This is where you had that interview for that job you wanted straight out of college, but thirty years later it’s where you met your daughter’s boyfriend for the first time.
The fragments of the city that flicker on and off, those are the catalysts; they encourage you to break routine, open your eyes, and think about how they relate to you and the city – the you and the city of right now. New York Urbanism is a study not only of how things interconnect spatially, but how they interconnect through time. And so we’ll look at The Gates: how they related to the city, what they said about the city, and why they received so much attention.
The Gates exhibition was, as a friend said, “a happening,” an artistic success on a citywide scale. All of New York turned out: politicians, park lovers and park haters, families from all boroughs. The first weekend, while the orange banners were being unfurled by volunteers, Central Park was a madhouse. We saw crotchety grandmothers griping, children asking their parents to explain the installation to them, parents asking their children the same thing, and couples walking arm in arm quietly. Much like a snow knocks people out of their routine and places strangers together, The Gates formed an instant community.
It was art on such a large canvas that people were forced to ask what it meant. Not only “what is this piece about?” but, “what is it about this piece that is causing such a ruckus?” Both are good questions, but we argue that the more important question regarding The Gates – the one that in its own way answers the first two – is, “Why did it happen now?”
First, though, a little about the first two questions. What was this piece about? The Gates were whimsical, exuberant, and, as was overheard often during meanderings through the park, expensive. Forget that the installation was funded almost entirely by Christo. Twenty million dollars was spent on, as a cynic might say, an attempt to make things pretty. And we have no problem with that, especially when the city doesn’t pay for it but manages to reap economic rewards.
Now on to the second question. What was it about The Gates that caused such a ruckus? There are a host of reasons, mostly obvious: it was big, it required extensive planning, it happened in New York, the media was sick of talking about confounding international developments. The last reason may be closest to the truth, which is that people were ready for a vacation from talk of terrorism.
This leads to the last and most interesting question: Why did it happen now? While the average New Yorker didn’t have much of a say about the timing or design of The Gates (“Why so much orange?” Why couldn’t this have been in summer?”), the city approved the project and, like it or not, the city’s government and its agencies, commissions, and bureaucracies represent us. They are an extension of us. We may not agree with all of their decisions, but they represent us well enough to keep us quiet. If not, if they were truly misrepresenting us, we’d change them.
And the political approval process that Christo suffered through was anything but easy. He had to appease quite a few commissions and agencies: The Parks Department, Central Park Conservancy, and the Mayor’s Office. And as frustrating as it is, it is the vetting system our city has created. Strange and flawed as it may be, it is New York’s opinion machine. And after 25 years of trying to get approval from on high, Christo finally succeeded in getting a handshake and a thumbs-up from all the necessary parties.
Many artists kept tabs on Christo’s attempt to install The Gates with a combination of amazement and horror. Why would anyone choose to create art that requires public approval on a regular and stultifying level? It is hard enough to sit down at a canvas and paint. Why would Christo subject himself to such interference? Part of the answer, we suspect, and this is where it gets good, is that the approval process is the art itself.
On the one hand, if Christo were working on his own with no bureaucratic interference, it would allow him to make edgier, more shocking social criticisms. But by embedding his art in the tedious permitting processes that cities such as Paris, Berlin, and New York use to verify the acceptability of art, architecture, and urban design, he transforms the hosting culture into the medium. This is all a complicated way of restating the first tenet of New York Urbanism: It’s all one piece. The medium, the park, the exhibition, the people, the politics, the architecture. All of it. It all reflects back and forth on each other like a hall of mirrors. You think you’re looking at art but you’re really looking at yourself reflected in the city.
By offering New York his idea of beauty in 1979 and waiting patiently until now, Christo effectively said, “I have something beautiful here – a gift – and I cannot give it to you until you are ready to receive it. Until you ask for it." Now, apparently, we were ready. Why?
Predictably enough, it has to do with the recovery from 9/11. The bright colors, the absent-minded fluttering, even the physical shape of the gates themselves all recall springtime and rebirth. What might have read as mere whimsy in 1995 now reads as a proclamation of reconstruction and renaissance, a desire to momentarily forget the last four years, and a wish to return to simpler times. And while it would be untrue to say that the meaning of the installation would have been the same had it been exhibited before 9/11, it clearly means all of those things now.
We can start with the color. Many people grumbled under their breath that the color of the fabric was not exactly saffron. They’re right. Saffron is a yellowish orange and the fabric used in The Gates was remarkably similar to the orange used on construction equipment. It’s not a mistake. It couldn’t be. Too much time and planning went into this installation and too many people worked on it. Somebody somewhere noticed that the color exactly matched the temporary electronic detour signs and approved it. Was the color pretty? Yes, especially when the sun was shining through the fabric (at other times, it looked flat). But was it saffron? No. It was orange, that deep orange that to all New Yorkers symbolizes reconstruction and rerouting. Let’s begin again, Christo said. And we agreed. The siege mentality let up.
The installation also encouraged us to momentarily forget what has happened in New York over the last four years. The sheer number of the gates, which at times muddled their elegantly sinuous paths, allowed viewers to be surrounded by art, blocking views of the skyline and transporting visitors to a new, different place.
But to where? The answer lies in the fact that the gates are overlaid on the pathways drawn in Olmstead and Vaux’s original Central Park plan. It reiterates what New Yorkers know and love, that wandering in the forest in the midst of the city is an acceptable way to, at least for a moment, leave one’s troubles behind. Meandering through the park, the best views were from hilltops. From there, you could watch a solitary path wind its way off towards the horizon – a deeply satisfying image, to see your path laid out before you clearly and cleanly.
So The Gates are gone. For a moment, New York allowed itself to be distracted from the rebuilding tasks at hand and to focus on rebuilding its vibrant spirit. And in the process, it became evident that by looking at our own reaction to the art of which we are a part of, we can understand our roles within the history and future of the city.

3.07.2005

Relative Warmth
I have not been outside yet, but my computer tells me that it is 59 degrees. Fifty-nine degrees. That is deliciously, absurdly warm. It conjurs images of deep summer. Is that the icecream man's truck I hear, or is my mind playing tricks? It will be 59 that feels like 85. There will be people out on the streets wearing shorts, undoubtedly, and pretending that it is a balmy summer day. They will curse themselves next week when it is back down in the 30s and they have a cold. They will be so upset for allowing themselves to be fooled yet again, for the twentieth straight year, by that first break in the weather.
And by other people I mean me.

3.02.2005

The New York Spirit
My first column in the New York Spirit (an every-other-month magazine that focuses on spiritual living) is out. It may seem like a stretch to be writing a column on urban culture in a new agey magazine, but it actually meshes relatively well. The piece didn't make the online edition, so I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy.

New York is not the first place that comes to mind as a spiritual destination (art, theater, maybe the Olympics – but inner peace?). Boulder, Colorado has its mountain views and natural lifestyle. The Northern California coast has crashing waves and towering redwoods. But New York seems too intense, too man-made, and too dirty to be conducive to that inner quiet that people seek. But don’t be deceived. New York, in its own inimitable way, is exactly the type of environment that encourages spirituality.
Of course, being New York, its spirituality is slightly different from that of the rest of Planet Earth. Its subtlety masks a deep strength capable of holding life-long New Yorkers in its grasp and inspiring awe from visitors and commuters alike. It is a spirituality of interconnectedness, based on the quirks of our idiosyncratic, passionate, and deliciously chaotic urban lifestyle and design. The way the buildings intermingle, the constant pedestrian stimulus, the co-mingling of park, waterfronts, and multiple urban cores, all these pieces combine to create an environment that revels in its entwined nature. It is this characteristic that forms the foundation of New York Urbanism and ultimately the City’s spiritual character: our diversity creates one whole city that nobody can tease apart.
This column is written by two people: one a lifelong New Yorker and the other a wide eyed immigrant from the West Coast. As urban designers, both are devoted to studying the intricacies of City life and find ourselves wandering around New York looking with curiosity in all directions. We hope to balance knowledge and curiosity in this effort in order to reveal the nature of New York Urbanism.
It is impossible to live in New York and ignore the fact that all the varying pieces that comprise the urban environment are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. The City is alive. Not one piece stands by itself; New York is its own ecosystem. It is on display everywhere: the dance of the traffic lights, the martini mixer of New York Harbor, the pulsing of the stock market. It never stops working, ferrying people to destinations, enabling market transactions, and carefully choreographing a routine that cleverly reunites old friends from all around the world in chance encounters on our sidewalks. Residents may only admit its success in these areas grudgingly, but they ought to. The proof that the city works is that people only complain about it when it doesn’t – the exception makes the rule.
When it falls apart, when someone or something misses their cue, the results are written across the city in bold letters. Think of the last time it snowed overnight. How was your commute? Probably a mess, regardless of your mode of transport. If you took the subway into the city – subways that run underground and don’t even deal with the snow – odds are you were delayed. Why? Nobody can pinpoint the chain of events, but somehow the arrival of snow on the ground starts a domino effect of delays and miscues that are generally viewed as, well, anything but spiritual. In their own way, however our snowday delays are often the only break New Yorkers get in our busy schedules. It is a citywide understanding that all estimated journey times should be doubled when the snow hits. Bury your chin in your collar, pull on your gloves, and venture out into a city slightly different from the one you left the night before. These delays force us out of our routines and into a different type of interaction where we discover that we have things in common with people we never even knew existed. We see and hear more clearly: when the snow is still fresh, it can silence the City like no other event, calming traffic, eliminating noises and covering up many of the cracks and inconsistencies that otherwise complicate the City. It can be hard to see this intertwining of city elements as anything more than a pain in the neck, especially if it complicates your commute. You. Just. Want. To. Get. To. Work. And you don’t want it to be an adventure, either, thank you very much. Somewhere beyond the hassle, snowdays are the perfect reminder that the city cannot be untangled – cars, people, and trains come to the surface for air before diving back into the chaos below. Tug hard on one loose end and something seemingly entirely unrelated on the other side will flex miraculously. Who knew they were connected? New York is a ball of yarn wrapped around itself.
The challenge is that over time, the inquisitiveness of the tourist gives way to the pressures of daily life, and it becomes difficult and exhausting to pay attention to the interactions that reveal the spirit of the City. So how does one relearn the art of seeing the beauty amidst the chaos? The trick is to step back and remember what it felt like the first time you saw the city. Be a child again for a minute. For many, seeing New York was like seeing a machine – a machine with a mind of its own and innumerable moving parts that seemed, more or less, to operate in symphonic coordination. Who was at the helm of this beast? Nobody. It operated out of habit. It still does, pushing forward, grinding away, and producing god knows what, but it works. People come from all over the world just to witness this infinite series of daily miracles.
Yet for all its concrete and intimidating size, New York is full of small spaces and private interactions that beg further inspection. That’s where architecture and urban design come in. Although they do not always succeed, architecture and urban design have the potential to offer the key to accessing New York’s interconnectedness. By creating spaces and encouraging activities that evoke curiosity and wonderment in New Yorkers, the physical city can help people quiet their inner monologues and be awake to their environment.
We consider curiosity to be a form of spirituality. The logic goes like this: the more questions you ask about your environment, the more you come to understand how the different pieces are connected to one another; the more you understand the nature of the interrelationships, the easier it is to be wide-eyed and receptive to the life of New York.
Over the next few months, we will call out aspects of New York Urbanism– from cultural phenomena to physical design to seasonal rituals – that encourage all readers, residents and visitors alike, to pay attention to the city in a new way, to cock your heads just slightly to the side in order to see things from a fresh perspective. It is our hope that this will make you feel more at home and more alive.
We’ll begin with an obvious place to discuss: the new MoMA. It’s a good place to start for two important reasons besides the fact that it recently opened to the public. The first is the product design exhibit on the third floor. The exhibit features everyday items: cars, mobile phones, cameras, chairs, dining sets, all of which are certainly beautiful but most of which are rarely considered art outside the circle of professionals who design them. But they are art. And the fact that they are now appearing in the museum convinces many visitors so. Walking around the room looking at the items, we saw a gentleman point to a digital camera on display. “I have that!” he shouted and proceeded to pull out the exact same camera from his pocket. Another display case featured a Bic, that translucent pen ubiquitous throughout the corporate and academic world. A seven-year-old with mittens dangling from his sleeves pointed at it and looked up at his mom “Is it really art?” he asked. “Could be. Could be,” she replied, a little confused herself. Who’s to say what is and what isn’t? But then that’s exactly the point of the exhibit and, coincidentally, of this column. The MoMA is the ultimate gift shop, reminding us that we already have art in our pocket, that we’re surrounded by it. Certain products are designed so simply and so well that they become part of our everyday lives and we forget that they even exist beyond their intended function.
The same is true of buildings. People think of them as engineering feats or destinations, and only consider the famous ones as art. The architecture of the new MoMA drives this point home. It is not a spectacular building. It is not the Chrysler or the Empire State Building, but it has simple touches that connect us with the art of the everyday. For example, a 110’ glass atrium wall separates the product design exhibit from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Gardens along 54th Street. Visitors scratching their heads and wondering how they overlooked the beauty of pens, cameras, and pitchers that have been in their lives for god knows how long then turn the corner and are blessed with a streetscape vista of stunning buildings across the street and wonder the same thing. Have those buildings always been there, looking like art? You go places and see what you’re told to see. If you’re not looking at a famous vista, are you able to see it as one anyway? If you’re standing in a museum, is everything that you see art? And when you to go the MoMA and look out past the sculpture garden, are you seeing buildings as they exist merely outside the window, huddled on the street, or are you seeing them as art, carefully designed and preserved behind the exhibit’s protective glass?
Observe all of New York as if it were art.

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