Local passport: Sundry City

BACKSTORIES ARE IN SUPER-ABBREVIATED forms as I give the blog a rethink and a revamp. The past few weeks have taken me all over the city for WSJ sussing out hidden neighborhoods (and content to be so), those that are about to blossom, and new things happening in old places. A few brief summaries:

Manhattan Valley, the Upper West Side’s long-overlooked neighborhood. Until now.

Sugar Hill, where life is still sweet decades after the neighborhood’s name was at its most popular.

JFK Worldport: A terminal case.

Long Island City gets its own Food & Flea. So there, Brooklyn!

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Local passport: Lower East Side

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I CUT MY TEETH ON COMMUNITY JOURNALISM  and this week’s story in Wall Street Journal is proof that even in the midst of a huge metropolis, you can still find a little village.

I followed filmmaker Michael Levine through Streit’s Matzo Factory, where the same family has been making flatbreads since 1925 on the Lower East Side (actually since 1916, but that’s another story to be revealed).

One reason the story interested is because I like old stuff.  Also, I have a huge fondness for the old Lower East Side, ever since I was chased down the old Orchard Street market by a Russian babushka who wouldn’t let me buy men’s shoes (don’t ask: 20 years later, it’s still a mystery to me). I was fascinated by the foreignness of the neighborhood and how time stood still on some blocks. I ate many a knish at Yonah Schimmels (still standing at 137 E. Houston St.) and rugulah at Gertel’s Bake Shop, an institution since 1914 on Hester St., now, sadly, closed.

I need little encouragement to join the lamentations of what’s happened there. And so that’s why I was happy to discover the film, which celebrates not only the resilience of a fifth-generation immigrant business, but the ongoing small stories within the story. This is either why anyone becomes a journalist—whether it’s discovering the contents of Aron Yagoda’s desk or that the silent sullen guy on the package line is a 1964 Olympic boxer.  Oh, back to Yagoda’s desk. One of three cousins who now run the factory, he sits at the same desk as his grandfather. He opened a drawer to show me a set of ancient false teeth (ID unknown), an old passport and some family ledgers dating to the 40s. He says he’s too superstitious to remove the stuff—especially the teeth. And so the vestiges of his ancestors, along with tradition, remain.

You can read about why the Streit family preservers here [PDF].

But, just as extraordinary was the adjacent story of Mrs. Isabella Lee, who lives in the house formerly occupied by the matzo factory from 1916 until 1925. Mrs. Lee, her husband and another couple bought the abandoned matzo factory—complete with oven—in 1953, and renovated it to suit their particular living arrangements:  Each couple had their own floor and they shared workshop and studio space.

Mrs. Lee still occupies the apartment she and her husband, an educator, artist and cookbook author, fashioned out of found objects.  Levine found her while researching the film, contacted her caretaker who lives on the premises and suddenly, one golden morning we all found ourselves there.

Mrs. Lee, 91, has dark coppery hair, doesn’t see, and has a Ph.D in education. She spent a lifetime teaching and consulting in what was quaintly called “Industrial Arts.” She also worked as a proofreader and illustrated her husband’s cookbook, which is still widely considered one of the most authentic and approachable Chinese cookbooks written. She lives in a light-filled, art-filled apartment with handsome wood paneling—much of it salvaged from grand teardowns back in the day. She’s sharp as a tack, has an even sharper humor and a critical sense of politics, war and a rapidly deteriorating society. I’d nominate her for a Cabinet post.  Mrs. Lee told us about finding the house—how she and her friends arrived from Detroit, holed up in a tenement at 3 Baruch Place ($27 a month for four apartments) and scoured the neighborhood—from Central Park South down to the Battery—by foot and bike, looking for a both a communal house and a community.

“They were in terrible condition, some walls were broken through, the window were broken and the floor was torn up,” she recalled. “But, we were poor kids from Detroit and we’re from automobile country and we’re used to taking old things and fixing them up.”

vintage streitsThat experience prepped her for the work ahead in her current digs. Mrs. Lee said she fought to keep the matzo oven so they could always remember what the house had once been.

“We could have torn it out, but it would have been a tremendous undertaking, and for what? It’s a wonderful old momentum of what was going on here,” she said. “To me, it’s wonderful to think we have this history that on the deed goes all the way back to the time when was this was part of the Delancey farm.”

Of the notion that the Streits had recently “discovered” the place of their origins, she said, wryly, “Isn’t that typical of New York? They’re half a block away!”

Her caretaker (actually the daughter of the other couple once living there: she lives in that apartment), Linda King, had taken us through the labyrinth of the house and its adjoining back house where Mr. Lee had a garret-like painting studio. The two buildings are separated by the three-story-high matzo oven, and wending through the basement level maze is a trip through time. Everywhere you looked, there was something to see.

The unintentional electronics graveyard housed a few IBM Selectric typewriters, a photo enlarger, stereos throughout the years (I’m sure there was an 8-track player there somewhere). An old brass cash register in need of polish still showed it intricate ornamentation through decades of dust. We saw stacks of photos Mr. Lee printed himself, more stacks of his paintings, bicycles, encyclopedias (encyclopediae, if you want to be fancy).

But aside from all the nostalgic chaos, it told the story of people’s lives, well-defined by layers of past learning, outmoded trends and long-abandoned hobbies.

Above ground, too, you knew who Mrs. Lee was. An early painting of her hangs above the fireplace: a Matisse-inspired muse with short, dark hair. Not copper, but if you squinted, you could see the resemblance.

streitsLevine is producing the film with New York born- and raised Michael Green, a culinary expert. They have a few days left on their crowd funding campaign. (And I am obliges to make the disclaimer that this is not an endorsement by me or the WSJ.)

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Local passport: Photo city


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IT’S BEEN A WHILE since I took out my camera and even longer since I printed in a darkroom. So, I’ve exercised my  photographic curiosity in other ways, mainly reporting on a few major photo events in the city.

I wish I could say it was a pleasure to interview William Klein, whose work I hugely admire. But the infamously cantankerous photographer, a native New Yorker who has lived in Paris most his life, seemed disinclined to talk to me. Maybe it was jet lag. Or, maybe he thought the WSJ represented what he once called NYC—”a monument to the dollar.” Or perhaps he was simply displeased to be back in his hometown, which he told me was a sh*thole–within the first five minutes of our interview. Any way you slice it, he was a tough customer. And waving that cane at me did little for my confidence. [Photo:  Andrew Hinderaker]

NYKLEIN

On a more cheerful note, I spoke with Jeff Rosenheim, the curator responsible for the exuberant William Eggleston show at the Metropolitan Museum. The small show include 36 dye-transfer prints, which nearly vibrate with their color energy. Textural, velvety, nuanced, painterly, the prints are other worldly—an irony of sorts, as Eggleston was all about the earthly and ordinary.

I have long admired Aperture and was thrilled to go behind the scenes of the magazine’s redesign. The revamp brings the magazine back to its roots as a long-form critical look at photography and, at the same time, considers the insistent forward thrust of the industry.

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Local Passport: Sundry City

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I’VE BEEN GIVING THE SHOE LEATHER a good workout these past months, covering community development for WSJ. A few TripTiks here:

You can still catch a vestige of the old Lower East Side at Moscot, one of the original immigrant-family businesses and only one of about five still remaining here. The store will relocate across the street after 77 years in the same spot. You won’t trip up the lopsided wooden stairs into a bespectacled world of wacky frames and memorabilia any longer, but the new space, across Delancey, will continue the store’s quirky brand of hip.

In the Wallabout, storefronts are brushing off the Navy yard grit and gearing up for what could be Brooklyn’s next “it” neighborhood. Where you used to get cheap drinks and lap dances, you’ll soon have Brooklyn-roasted coffee; illegal lofts are becoming legit and soon you won’t even grumble about the lack of public transportation.

Lower MacDougal Street is the last place in SoHo you’d expect to find peace and quiet. One block still tells the story of a neighborhood that’s all but vanished under the siege of national chain stores and trendy restaurants.

In the shadow of the George Washington Bridge lies a small strip of a neighborhood that, with its leafy trees and trellised stone staircases, seems more Parisian than New York. Here, mom & pop stores thrive, neighbors know each other, and the scale remains human.

FIKA, a Swedish specialty coffee house is one of a few gourmet food purveyors reclaiming the historic roots of TriBeCa’s food manufacturing base. The new chocolate production kitchen expands the operation and brings a sweet spot to an emerging neighborhood.

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Local passport: Midtown

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I SPENT ABOUT EIGHT YEARS working in Midtown, most days making the commute by foot from my apartment in West Chelsea. I mapped walking routes based on sights that always made me glad I lived here: the reflected sun on the Flatiron Building, the lovely ring of gotham-esque buildings around Madison Square Park, the Academy of Dramatic Arts, where young actors-in-training in edgy fashion hung out on the stoop, smoked cigarettes, read their lines.

Over the years, I saw the evolution of many buildings: the Toy Building into an über Italian-food temple, the B. Altman department store repurposed into the NYPL’s Science, Industry and Business Library, the Hotel Roger Williams awakened from a frumpy sleep and transformed into the now sleek [simply] Roger.

But rarely did I pay much attention to the ordinary streetscape: solid stone buildings in tones of grays or tans or browns that sometimes seemed like an muddy landscape—maybe broken here and there by a graceful limestone or terra-cotta confection.

Now, it seems that’s how the city planning office sees much of Midtown: a blur of out-of-date buildings that no longer serve the needs of today’s business world. If approved, the city’s plan for “Midtown East” would lift height restrictions, put air rights into a grab bag for developers and tromp all over the ugly old buildings that keep Manhattan from competing with the likes of Dubai and Shanghai.

The thing is, though, they’re not old and they’re not ugly. For my story in the Wall Street Journal [PDF here], I spent a couple of days walking the corridors around Grand Central Terminal with a hit list of endangered sites provided to me by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The conservancy (and others) are concerned that a wholesale redevelopment of the area will erase the architectural language of the neighborhood. Should the plan go through, a lot of great old buildings, built by the star architects of their time—yet unprotected by city landmark designation—could tumble.

Among those: the Yale Club and others around the periphery of the train station, once part of a matrix called Terminal City. Archival images from the time—around 1913—show a handsome streetscape of uniform skyscrapers and Beaux-Arts buildings with heroic and whimsical sculpture, bronze medallions, ornamental tiles, Venetian-Gothic style ornament. Though diminished, you can still see a coherent plan. Look up and you’ll see amazing details.

But what you cannot see are the Commodore and the Biltmore hotels, long-covered with modern skins, their heritage and glamor erased.  You can still see the Biltmore clock, referenced in literature by J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the lobby of the Bank of America building now on that site, but there’s no meeting under it. The Hotel Roosevelt, the last of the triumvirate of Terminal City hotels, still stands, but preservationists agree it has a big red X on it.

Along Park and Lexington avenues, serviceable office buildings and charming old-world hotels may disappear, including the former 1924 Shelton Club at 525 Lexington Ave., where Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz lived and worked in residency. You wouldn’t take out such a building in say, Paris or London.

There’s even speculation about the unthinkable: new high-rise development subjugating the Chrysler Building, the undisputed jewel in the Manhattan skyline.

A lot of people are asking the right kind of questions. Why are these structures “unsuitable?” Who, exactly, is served by the new proposal? What is the logical market for these buildings? At what cost do we become a futuristic city? And more poignantly, why would you rip out the heart of Manhattan?

These buildings are not out of date, but what they do lack are out-sized egos.

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Weathering the storm

WITH MOST OF THE CITY in chaos after Hurricane Sandy, seeing a play is probably the least thing on people’s minds. Understandably so. Let’s hope the city gets back to normal, not only for the sake of all of us who live, work and play here, but so businesses can begin to mitigate their losses.

When you do resume play-going, an interesting small piece recently opened at the Duke on 42nd Street, an adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s essay, House for Sale. So far, reviewers have not loved it, but if you’re a language lover, and want to support experiemental American theater, it’s worth the affordable ticket. On the surface, it’s a quiet memoir of grief and loss—physical and emotional. Underneath, it explores the splintering of hope, confidence and relationships.  It’s dark, but beautifully written and interestingly presented. The online “hurricane edition” in today’s WSJ is here and the PDF is here.

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Local Passport: Prospect Park

IF YOU GROW UP IN RURAL VERMONT as I did, you really can only love it or leave it. I grew up in a remote corner called the Northeast Kingdom, and though I have a distant appreciation for its isolated beauty, I couldn’t get myself to a city fast enough after university. I left my rural identity behind with my Bean boots and puffy down jacket.

Now. after living in NYC for nearly 20 years, I have a much better appreciation for the rural, since I don’t have to contend with it every day. And after speaking with Charles Beveridge, a scholar in all things urbanely rural and rustic, for my story on Prospect Park’s renovation, I have some enlightenment.

Mr. Beveridge is the series editor for the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, a 19th century landscape architect, who along with Calvert Vaux, designed Prospect Park (and earlier, Central Park). I spent a rainy morning tromping around the muddy grounds of the newly restored section, so when Mr. Beveridge spoke to me about the designers’ vision for the park, I had a pretty good visual on that.

What was fascinating to me (and which ended up on the editorial cutting room floor) was Olmsted’s deliberation on not only how the park was to be used, but why. This got sort of shriveled down to a sentence in the story about man’s organic relationship to nature … but Mr. Beveridge explained the experience of the park was intentionally psychological, sociological and even theological.

“Every city needed to have one large park where you would have a removal—not just from the city— but an immersion below the level of consciousness and to a more powerful experience. … a necessary and universal experience based on human psychology in the urbanization of that period.”

On the surface, the intention was restorative: a respite among greenery and water features. But the designers were the community organizers of their day, believing in the power of the people to restore each other through shared experiences. They created places where diverse populations could gather, leaving their egos, occupations and troubles behind. And quite a lot of that happened at the restored area, the most formal part of the park, which includes the cove, concert grove and promenade.

It was a deliberate setting that gave visitors a democratic outdoor salon of sorts, leaving the rest of the park as a meditation between man and nature.

“It was designed for a political purpose—the creation of community in shared place—[and] the formality of the Concert Grove was inserted as a place where that kind of plural display could take place without imposing on the rest of the park,” said Mr. Beveridge.

But it’s the other, wild landscape that’s quite individualistic. This is where Olmsted, “took the picturesque and added psychology to it.” In Central Park, it’s the darkness and mystery of the Ramble, perhaps a reflection of the challenging and isolating urban environment.

In Prospect Park, it’s sublime pastoral landscapes and graceful long terrain of the Long Meadow, a natural shaping of the land and flow of paths. What this says about 19th century Manhattanites vs. Brooklynites, I don’t know, but Olmsted’s vision for these two types of parks, serving their respective communities has uncannily endured. My story is online at the WSJ here, or you may see the PDF with glorious photos here.

 

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