summer hiatus

Happy dog days. I’ve been on blog hiatus this summer while on assignment in Europe. Wine travels have taken me to France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania and Portugal. I will post soon.

Stories have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, two design features in amNew York—one on a discerning collector of mid-century chairs and the other on the fabulous Bresnitz boys—plus rethinking Muscadet in Sommelier News, and an almost-blimp ride for this month’s cover story for The Tasting Panel.

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Local passport: Brooklyn

1 May, 2011


IF YOU CAN’T TRAVEL to the world’s celebrated architectural relics—places like the Roman coliseum, Petra, Ephesus or Pompeii—you could probably find some good substitutes closer to home. They may lack the grand scale of say, the Parthenon, or the derelict beauty of Venice, but lots of places on our young soil still evoke fantasy, mystery and loss in their unexplained neglect.

A few examples: Bannerman Castle built on a outcropping in the Hudson River near Beacon, Seaview Hospital on Staten Island, the Richmond Hill Republican Club in Queens, large swathes of Newark.

And, within a short subway ride: the Tobacco Warehouse and Empire Stores in between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

I was on a recent tour of the Empire Stores, a massive complex of former coffee warehouses. David Lowin from the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp., told me there were still coffee beans scattered on the floor upstairs. I sniffed, but couldn’t smell them: The warehouses have been empty more than 50 years. Dating to 1869, they are among the last waterfront warehouses of their type here. Even for buildings of utility, they have elegant bearing: Romanesque Revival—a style frequently seen on civic buildings and college campuses—iron shutters and generous arched windows like so many eyes looking out onto the water. They’ve long captured people’s imagination: they were famously photographed by Berenice Abbott for the Federal Art Project of the WPA and remain a mysterious, hulking sight.

The state issued a request for proposals a few years ago, awarded one and took it back after the selected developer failed to build as promised. Since then, no one has stepped up to the enormous task of renovating this fantastic block—our own monument to Brooklyn’s commercial waterfront history. If you want to know how these could be re-imagined, trek out to Red Hook. The warehouses along the waterfront, also used for coffee storage from the same year, now contain small businesses and artist studios, and are anchored by a Fairway supermarket.

The Empire complex remains in limbo while the city, state and the feds resolve litigation involving this and the nearby Tobacco Warehouse. My story in The Wall Street Journal reports on the lawsuit, which recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who fought to reinstate the buildings in federally protected parkland after the state and city duped the National Park Service into de-parking them.

In the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a striking urban relic, a proposal was granted to a local arts organization to build a theater in the space. It was a gnarly issue. The arts organization is well-regarded in the community—no contest there. But community members didn’t have much regard for the way the city and state took the land away and gave it to a private party without public hearing or solicitation of comment. It also didn’t sit well with the folks who discovered, through the Freedom of Information Act, that the state lied to the parks service about the Tobacco Warehouse’s usability. For six years, the public enjoyed the roofless ruins as picnic grounds, a performance space, and for, as the judge ruled in his findings, “building Frosty the Snowman.”

Photo: Natalie Keyssar

The Tobacco Warehouse could easily have been another derelict relic. But ongoing public use and enjoyment of it fostered a mindfulness of not only its majesty, but its history in much the same way such ruins are enjoyed in Europe, like the Carmo Convent in Lisbon, Abbaye de La Sauve-Majeure near Bordeaux and San Galgano in Tuscany. The Tobacco Warehouse is such a temple in its own way.

St. Ann’s Warehouse, the organization selected for the rehab, would have done a tasteful and mindful restoration. Its proposal had all the right stuff: community space, public access to the roofless courtyard, funding for the ongoing maintenance of the historic walls. Artistic director Susan Feldman told me she envisioned bringing a year-round cultural anchor to the park, and creating an arts hub like other great cultural waterfronts in the world—Avignon, London, Sidney.

“It was easy to combine our needs with the public’s needs,” she told me in a phone interview from London. St. Ann’s has been in a former spice warehouse the past 10 years (I swore I could still smell cardamom when I visited last week), and has to move by next year.

But in the end, the process by which the land became available—as murky as the waters of the East River—raised more suspicions than hopes for the site. The issues of unlawful privatization, secret back-door dealings and the notion that the very governmental agencies who are supposed to protect our lands could be pressured to give them up to developers, rightfully overrode the proposal.

“If they had gone through the process they should have, they would have had to go public and explore alternatives for St Ann’s,” said Peg Breen, the New York Landmarks Conservancy president, and a plaintiff in the suit. “You can’t ignore the breaking of all these federal laws, no matter how nice the group is.”

Until the ruling is final, it’s careful celebration of the almost-victory. The process has vexed all the parties involved. St. Ann’s is without a new home, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corp. is without a much-needed and much-hoped for revenue stream and preservationists are justly leery of local government. The general public hasn’t spoken out yet, but the community groups who monitored the procedure—also plaintiffs in the lawsuit—have been vocal.

Joan Zimmerman, president of the Fulton Ferry Landing Association, which has fought a decades-long battle for a park here, said, “the simple reality and the great irony of this entire situation is that no park would have existed without the intercedence of the public.

“It was a meeting place for art and culture and education and that’s the way the community wants to preserve it.”

Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said the issue has to do with the difference between public and private.

“Public space is public space,” she said. “It’s an incredibly iconic place that shouldn’t be closed in and privatized.” You can find BHA’s vision for the warehouse posted on its web site.

Until the legal proceedings are final, the buildings are on hold. In public view, but not not in public use.

Top photos, L-R: Empire Stores, Berenice Abbott; Richard Scholz, gothamist.com. Above: missus-em

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Local passport: Harlem

Photo: John Weiss

April 10, 2011

THE CORN EXCHANGE BUILDING is one of those sad reminders of what was and what could be. Once a gabled and elegant red sandstone building, circa 1883, it was a symbol of Harlem’s come-uppance. Built as the Mount Morris Bank, later purchased by the Corn Exchange Bank, it always had a sense of prosperity. It was built by Lamb and Rich, the architectural firm that designed Pratt Institute’s Victorian Renaissance main building and other National Register-worthy buildings.

The upper floors were luxury apartments not seen in that neighborhood, in that day. It was Harlem’s own little piece of a Park Avenue lifestyle.

I know this only from pictures. Today the building, at East 125th Street and Park Avenue, is a stump, battered by a fire in 1997 that took off the top floors, then a demolition in 2009 that lopped off another two.

The city Economic Development Corp. is now soliciting redevelopment proposals for the building—or what’s left of it. When I was reporting on this story for The Wall Street Journal (April 9), I asked community leaders what they envisioned for the spot and how to reclaim some of its  glory. There was some nostalgic speculation—how grand would it be to reconstruct something that signaled the building’s past? Most people I spoke with thought that was a pipe dream.

Nearly everyone I spoke with thought it ought to reflect a plan of a few years back—also a pipe dream. Long-time community activist Ethel Bates, credited for the campaign to preserve Marcus Garvey Park,  purchased the building in 2003 with the intention of establishing an nonprofit culinary school that trained and employed local residents. She came under fire by city officials for failing to preserve the city-landmarked building as obligated under the terms of the sale.

By all accounts, Ms. Bates was in over her head. She entered the project with no real estate or finance experience. She had a series of business partners who backed out of the project. She spent $300,000 of her own money trying to stabilize the building and keep city officials at bay. In the end, her plan and the building crumbled.

Community leaders are hesitant to criticize Ms. Bates. They told me she was handed a problem child from the get-go, and then not given the resources to succeed. And, now many are suspicious about what will happen here next; few think it’s going to be a community-friendly development.

Garry Anthony Johnson, an architect whose office looks out at across the street at the blighted building, is familiar with the history. He served on Community Board 11’s economic development committee and is concerned with the rate of development in Harlem and the lack of preservation ethic.

“I dare say there’s nowhere else in the city that a landmarked property would have been demolished with the speed in which it was done [here],” he told me. “Harlem does get ignored in terms of the processes that take place for development.”

Mr. Johnson points out other historic sites in the city that received respectful attention such as the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, properly stabilized while it awaits revitalization in the Southpoint Plan, part of the Trust for Public Land.

He says instead of preservation, inappropriate development—buildings out of human scale and of poorer material—is what’s happening in his neighborhood in the name of progress.

“The population in Harlem isn’t as interested in their environment—it’s more about survival. I think everyone knows that, and  … they take advantage of that,” he said. “Nowhere else in the city does a building go up with a stucco façade and get labeled luxury. All over Harlem, that’s considered luxury. The materials are poorer quality, the idea was build them and people will come.”

Marina Ortiz, founder of East Harlem Preservation Inc., agrees. She said she’s tired of  deep-pocketed developers “bulldozing through our neighborhood” without regard to local history.

“People with money and fortune and resources—those are the ones that will be able to follow the [city] requirements, but what does that do to that corner?

“Many see 125th Street as not just a retail front, but a cultural corridor, it is a gateway to central Harlem,” she said. “We already have plenty of glass boxes on 125th street: we don’t need another. We need something that honors our history and provide real opportunities.”

This is a little of a complicated back story, and it’s only the beginning of an overdue debate.

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Local passport: Lower East Side

7 March, 2011

THE FIRST TIME I VISITED THE LOWER EAST SIDE, sometime in the early 1990s, I followed my guidebook instructions and headed for the Sunday market on Orchard Street. The neighborhood was still ragged around the edges and the short walk from the subway led through gray-ish streets—half the storefronts had closed down and a good portion of the remaining were grayed over with grime. I peeked into a lingerie window: curled up brown leaves and cobwebs laced around the peek-a-boo mannequins. Or more accurately, mannequin parts—a foot here, a headless bust there. Dusty hats sat askew on old hat forms, sun-faded stocking boxes promised control top comfort. It looked like no one had shopped there in 30 years.

I was in search of some bargains on Orchard Street, which on that day was still an open-air market of multi-generational vendors. Leather jackets hung from the awnings, scarves and bras swung crazily in the wind. There was no “merchandising”: every item was on display in haphazard order as if someone dumped the contents of Grandma’s attic out into the street.

My friend and I paused at a table of shoes. Within a few seconds a large meaty hand snatched the shoe from my friend’s hand. We looked up at a small woman swathed in an apron, a dress, and a sweater. Her body was disproportionate to the hand that grabbed the shoe from us. Yelling “men’s shoes, men’s shoes,” she waved us away. We scampered down the street without looking at anything else, turned the corner and ate a fat and flaky rugelach at Gertel’s Bakery.

Today, what’s left of Orchard Street’s market is made in China. That babushka is probably long gone, as are most of the old shops there, replaced by shops and cafes catering to a new generation of more fashionable residents. The Tenement Museum, which opened its doors the same year of my first visit, chronicles that life that’s increasingly hard to detect in a neighborhood of boutiques and bars. I got there just in time to see the last of it.

My story in The Wall Street Journal about the museum’s new visitor’s center looks at the challenge and responsibility of balancing the old and new.

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Local passport: South Bronx

11 February 2011

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE OF THE SOUTH BRONX was sometime in the eighties, as seen from the driver’s seat of a Toyota Celica hatchback packed to the top with my worldly possessions. I was with my older sister, and we were driving from Vermont to Washington, D.C., where I was about to move.

So, the Bronx isn’t really on the way to D.C. But we hit a traffic jam caused by an accident and through a series of ill-advised detours, ended up there, in the pouring rain and on the edge of nightfall. We weren’t too impressed with the neighborhood charms. But a gas station attendant gave us instructions through his Plexiglas-protected booth and my fogged-up car window, and we got back on the highway.

My second experience there was in December 2010. I had been assigned a story on Mott Haven, and trudged up with a friend, notes, map and GPS-enabled iPhone in hand. It wasn’t exactly “bleak” we kept telling each other, but it wasn’t lively, either. We wandered around a lot looking for the heart of the neighborhood.

Many shoes

The antiques district we’d heard about was down to two stores—one that looked like it had a well-heeled but absentee clientele; the other was a secondhand shop. The owner of that was nearly lost in the jumble of junk, but once she caught sight of us, she merged from the stacks and donned a little salesmanship. I was sort of keen to buy something from her, but my goodwill quickly dissipated with her astronomical pricing, which she seemed to pull out of thin air after giving me the once over.

We found a funky community garden—first drawn by its enormous tee-pee, then sort of captivated by its odd caretaker. We walked by a group of people hanging out in a makeshift sidewalk lounge. Someone else attached himself to us and followed us to the subway. We tried not be nervous ninnies but were relieved once on the other side of the turnstile. And disappointed.

I might have been more charmed on my first visit.

I recounted the failed fact-finding trip to my editor, and like all good city editors, he told me to go back and find the story. Argh.

This time, I brought along a six-foot-two friend, an urban planner with better radar than me. We started at the Bronx tourism office, and equipped with a map and recommendations, I felt more intrepid. Having a big guy with me helped.

We snapped shots along the Grand Concourse, the Bronx’s version of the Champs D’Elysee, sans arc, but stately nonetheless.  We found some art galleries and some cool street art. We stopped in on a multi-media group show at the Bronx Art Space that was as fine as anything you’d see in Chelsea. We had a good meal at the Bruckner Bar & Grill (I enthusiastically recommend the turkey burger and sweet potato fries). I met with Juanita Lanzo, the energetic and articulate director of the Longwood Gallery @ Hostos Community College, the premier gallery for showing artists of color.  She was in the midst of hanging a show titled “EYE AM A MAN,” which celebrates “man-hood in the gay-hood by the art-hood.”

Along Lincoln Avenue

This time, when night fell, we were transfixed by the way the light changed. The low-rise neighborhood has a very human scale that allowed us to see large expanses of sky. Structures that looked derelict by day, took on clean silhouettes against the setting sun—a reverse Colorforms of sorts.

We left, and while I had a better idea of what was happening here, I still didn’t have an impression of who was behind it. Mott Haven is in disguise as an artist neighborhood. There are scarce signs of artists at work: few storefront galleries, no art supply stores, frame shops or hangouts.

Juanita recommended a few people to contact, and after a few calls and emails, I had a pretty big list of people willing to talk to me about making art in the South Bronx—in fact, more than I could get on the phone before deadline.

The artists I spoke with all spoke about their sense of place—that unique, organic thing that makes the art community in this borough unlike other “art ‘hoods.” The conversations ranged from pride at making art in a rough and tumble neighborhood to frustration that artists here don’t get the same attention as those in hot art clusters.

Everyone with whom I spoke credited the Bronx Council on the Arts‘ promotion efforts for helping put the South Bronx on the arts map (BCA runs a monthly culture trolley). Everyone here had a local hero whom they cited as an inspiration—artistic or otherwise. And nearly everyone expressed concern over rising rents, which eke up each time a story about “the next Bushwick” appears in print. All of the sudden, I had three very different community stories: urban renewal, an under-the-radar arts scene and the threat (or promise) of development. We merged elements of all in amNewYork’s City Living feature. If you scroll to the end, you’ll see artists in their studios in the terrific slideshow by photojournalist Michael Kirby Smith. PDF download of the print version here.

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Erasmus Hall Academy

1 FEBRUARY 2011

IF I WERE TO ARTICULATE ANY SIBLING RIVALRY towards my younger sister, it would be that she got to attend a true one-room schoolhouse and I did not.

When our parents moved to Craftsbury, Vermont—right about the time the band, Three Dog Night, was popular—the school system consisted of three buildings the divided the grades somewhat democratically. My sister attended the elementary school—a classic one-room schoolhouse with a large multi-paned window fronting the winding road up the hill to “the Common” and a belfry. No kidding. I attended the middle school across the street—an ugly two-room school fashioned out of a former church. Stained glass windows and a mock stage where the altar used to be, but no charm.

But when I graduated to junior high, I attended the academy up the hill and a world away from the little kids’ schools. Founded in 1829, Craftsbury Academy—the oldest continuously operating high school in Vermont—had all the charm my middle school did not. The predominant building on a picture-perfect common, the white, clapboard school was quintessential Norman Rockwell.

Craftsbury Academy

Yet, for all my aesthetic yearnings, I’m not nostalgic about that school. I’ve never been to a class reunion. I don’t send checks. I roll my eyes when I tell people I graduated from a class of 13—in a year when high school enrollment was about 55.  In short, I left memory of that school in some dusty corner of my adolescent brain along with my disappointing first kiss, the hated algebra book and awkward fashion sense.

Fast forward. Two years ago, while walking the streets in Flatbush, Brooklyn for a story, I came across an odd building that reminded me of my old high school. It was nearly hidden from view, enclosed in a green surrounded by fantastic Gothic architecture that turned out to be Erasmus Hall High School. But looking through the gates, I saw a classically proportioned white, clapboard building. I was too far away to see much detail, but the building’s warped roofline and lopsided porches hinted at some romantic dilapidation.

Then I forgot all about it.

A few months later, at the end of 2008, while researching a preservation story on endangered sites in New York, the building reappeared, or more accurately, re-inserted itself into my head.  This time, a few things stuck. The former school—also an academy— dates to 1786 and was first funded by Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and other notables (the grand sum of 915 pounds helped finance the school). Not for nothing, it maintained its A-list standing, graduating Mae West, Eli Wallach and Mickey Spillane, and later, counting Barbra Streisand, Beverly Sills and others among its alumni.

Last year at this time, I was invited to go on a field survey of the building with the New York Landmarks Conservancy. It was a long subway ride from Astoria and it was pouring buckets; my sense of intrigue damped each time I looked out the window. But I also sensed it was a rare opportunity, so I dragged myself out.

If the school looked forlorn from the outside, it appeared haunted on the inside.  Small, sad ghosts of its past lives were everywhere: school memorabilia, mannequins in period costume—some dismembered, others sitting wonky on their Colonial chairs. Strange Spanish Gothic wooden thrones, wooden file cabinets and abandoned band instruments filled parts of the basement: All things that once had a purpose and now were slightly too good for proper disposal, yet not good enough for utility or even decoration.

Members of the alumni association and the principal from the adjacent school accompanied us, alternating shaking their heads, tsking at the ruin and eager to show us the extent of neglect. Their previous outreach attempts were unsuccessful for a lot of reasons—most stemming from bureaucratic frustrations around the Department of Education, which owned, but would not preserve the building.

I was again drawn to the sadness of the building—its undeniable pedigree spiritlessly honored, the discarded mascots, the jumble of cast-off instruments. I walked around on its sloping wooden floors, imagined the quiet country landscape outside its expansive windows, felt its peculiar familiarity. It was almost exactly a year before I could articulate that.

Erasmus Hall Academy. Photo: Natalie Keyssar

Today, my story on Erasmus Hall Academy appears in The Wall Street Journal’s “Greater New York” section.  I hope its alumni are nostalgic.

You can see my homemade video here and the Journal’s considerably more professional effort here. A PDF version of the story is here.

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Hitting the sweet spot

13 JANUARY 2011

When I was asked to contribute a piece on Vinsanto for Sommelier News, I wondered if there was really anything new to say about a wine that’s been made for a couple of thousand years. I mean, the traditional wine-making process for Vinsanto remains pretty much untouched by technology—not a fact Greek winemakers, who want to be known for their huge advances in wine-making, want publicized. But given  wine’s romantic draw, that bit of nostalgia sweetens the Vinsanto story even more. And the fact that it’s made only on Santorini, the beautiful and strange volcanic island that some speculate is a lost Atlantis, heightens the interest.

What was news to me as I wrote the piece is that many wine pros didn’t know Vinsanto is Greek—not Italian. Sure, there’s an Italian version, which you’ve likely sipped at the end of a meal with a dunken biscotti, but the Greek version is enjoyed throughout the day. Many Greeks use it as an afternoon pick up–sort of a classy shot of Red Bull.

You can download the short and sweet version of Sommelier News here, or visit the official web site of the International Sommelier Guild and download the entire newsletter in the lower right corner. There’s tons of good content there—worth the 4.5MB download.

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Local passport: Sugar Hill

29 DECEMBER 2010

I FINALLY HAD A GOOD REASON to justify my Facebook habit. I recently posted a comment about Coleman Hawkins, and Eric Washington, a historian friend, responded with the unusual fact that he lives in Hawkins’ old apartment building in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

His comment, in turn, inspired comment from Kurt Thometz, owner of Jumel Terrace Books, a neighboring antiquarian bookstore specializing in African-American literature and narratives. After some FB correspondence, I set up a time to meet Thometz at his shop, which occupies the handsome, wood-paneled front room of an English basement.

Kurt Thometz, photo by Tiffany L. Clark

Thometz fits into his surroundings quite naturally. Loquacious and slightly distracted, he has the air of a curator-professor without the stuffiness. Flâneur kept coming to mind; that Baudelairian “gentleman stroller of city streets.” Thometz is surely that, whether it’s in his tweeds or in his black 1976 Checker Marathon cab. And from the streets he’s amassed a strange collection of art and religious statuary, the latter arranged in a hearthside tableau.

Add to his eccentric interests: a slight obsession with Madam Eliza B. Jumel, the former resident of the mansion cater-corner across the street and who the New York Times described as a “cultured woman of the world, fond of its pleasures, versed in its intrigues …”

A bookseller and private librarian for 36 years, Thometz has collected not only rare volumes but also rarified friends. His 1891 Queen Anne brownstone, which he and his wife Camilla restored, has been described as “a contemporary re-interpretation of Harlem Renaissance-esque salon culture” for its parties and cultural events.

Business is quiet now—a combination of economic times, the tucked-away location and a turn towards technology. Thometz won’t say the internet killed book sales, but he recognizes the book shelf as a thing of discovery may be a thing of the past.  To help supplement business, he rents out a garden pied-a-terre in back of the bookstore. The teeny hideaway has elegant touches such as the sheets handmade by his wife, a couturier (a word not used enough) who has designed for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion. The iron bed looks out onto the private garden, which I imagine looks even more enchanting after our record blizzard. It seems like the perfect place hunker down with a few books while the snow melts. You can read my account here.

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A return to Provincetown Playhouse

18. December 2010.

FOUR YEARS AGO THIS MONTH I left my staff job at a city weekly magazine for parts unknown. To paraphrase, the Grateful Dead, it’s been a long, strange trip. I’ve delved into community development and also had the good fortune to travel a lot the past two years on the wine beat. And now, my most recent landing: my first byline in the Wall Street Journal.

Recently I covered the reopening of the Provincetown Playhouse, considered the spiritual home of modern American theater in Greenwich Village. Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay were in the founding ensemble in 1918. Along the way, Edward Albee, David Mamet, John Guare, Charles Busch premiered plays here.

The theater’s back story is as sketchy as it is storied. Over the course of interviewing people the past week, I spoke with those who both praised and decried the renovation of the theater (I’d say, in equal numbers), which is owned by New York University, and used for its theater educational program. Preservationists and residents mourn the loss of a community theater—one of number that has disappeared over the years. Those working in the living theater are thrilled to have a functional playhouse that continues the work originated on that spot.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is the former theater’s most vocal defender.  “It’s already a loss—there’s almost nothing left of what they call the Provincetown Playhouse, and if it stops being a theater of any sort, it’s a real diminution of the cultural heritage of the neighborhood.” GVSHP sums it up here.

Berman belongs to a group of community activists who also protest what they see as one more finger in NYU’s long-reaching grip on the Village.  There were plenty of placard-holding protesters at a rally at the theater’s re-opening last week. And, too,  a woman who performed in the playhouse some 60 years ago, and another whose father and grandfather did. Such memories are more than cultural, and makes balancing history, sentiment and progress even more of a slippery slope.

But there are people like Joe Salvatore, a teacher in NYU’s program, who say it’s about having a fully functioning modern theater instead of a cultural relic. The new playhouse, he says, not only recalls its experimental past, but also thrusts it into the future.

“It’s much more in line with the way experimental theaters look in the city and across the country,” Salvatore told me. “A static theater trapped in time does not allow us to carry on the legacy, which is to provide a space for new voices.”

A lot of people think preservation coverage is about dealing with fusty old people afraid to lose the past.  There’s a lot of that. But, I find it full of local heroes, who in preserving heritage, also create new histories. I’m looking forward to getting more of these stories online.

In the end, we kept the Journal story focused on the event that relaunches the renovated playhouse, a panel discussion with Edward Albee and other experimental theater icons. I spoke with Edward Albee for 6.33 minutes on the phone, and am still wondering what the heck he said to me.

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Local passport: Astoria

7 DECEMBER, 2010

MANHATTANITES HAVE A SORT OF LOCAL JOKE about Queens, “Do I need a passport to get there?” Before I moved to Astoria, I made that joke. A lot. And usually added, “And remind me where that is?”

But now, after five years of living in pre-war, tree-lined happiness, I’m  ‘hood-proud. In fact, I don’t want to tell you all the things I love about this neighborhood, because I don’t want other refugees coming here and driving up the prices or driving down the quality of service. So there!

But, recently, I profiled a couple of small businesses for my regular amNewYork beat that remind me all over again why Astoria is unique (but, really–don’t move here!). And in the spirit of holiday giving, I thought I’d share.

OK, so one Manhattan refugee we welcome is chef George McKirdy who opened the simple and delicious Astor Bake Shop in a neighborhood that we politely call “fringe.” It sits on a peculiar junction, cater-corner from an industrial garage (where they very kindly filled the tire on my 1973 Kent Dutch three-speed bicycle—and then asked to buy it). The other buildings are an unremarkable mix of residential and commercial, except for the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” house a few doors down. But even were it not for the uninspired surroundings, the bake shop would stand out with its muted cranberry exterior, large storefront windows and gorgeously restored interior.

McKirdy’s story: a former aspiring ballet dancer turned airline employee turned chef and master baker. Read it and eat.

LAST WEEK I popped into a store on 30th Avenue that I’ve passed 100 times without much consideration. Inside, a jaw-dropping array of kits, tools and accessories for the hobbyist, stacked floor to ceiling and running the entire length of the store (and then some, I suspect), called Rudy’s Hobby Shop. The place was formerly a soda counter circa 1939, and run by Marvin “Rudy” Cochran’s in-laws. “Rudy,” as people know him, and his wife took over the fountain shop. You can still see the faint footprint of counter stools on the deco-styled terrazzo floor, and behind the precarious stacks of models, mirrored walls with swirly accents. After 25 years, instead of upgrading the equipment, Rudy turned to planes, trains and automobiles. He says the shop just sort of evolved from a life-long interest in trains.

Rudy in his wonderous hobby shop. Photo: Celia Talbot Tobin

Over the years, he’s added other merchandise such as religious items, which he picks up at flea markets. People bring their stuff to him, too—volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, some out-of-date text books and some pretty great-looking (if not eclectic) vinyl. My favorites: album art from “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!” (I’m no fan of musicals, but I can’t resist the floaty seduction of Bali Hai.) But you can also get a balsa wood glider kit ($6.29), Lionel trains and all the things to create and populate a village, military models, house models (bungalows and Colonials and such from the “Lovely Ladies Home Series“), and other toys of patience.

Unlike other merchants in the commercial corridor, Rudy hasn’t adorned his store with holiday lights and tinsel. He just figures if you’re a builder, you will come.

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