May 2nd, 2013
April 23rd, 2012
I’m pleased to be featured this week in Google’s interesting Meet Your Google Neighbor program, which gives denizens of New York City and other locales an opportunity to share their enthusiasms for restaurants, merchants, music venues, bookstores, and urban activities. From the outset of this blog I’ve designed the site to span “urban life, books, music, culture, current events” so it’s very gratifying to see this blog gain more recognition via Google’s promotion. Happily, the feature includes this neat photo my wife Kyle Gallup recently took of our son Ewan and me on a boat ride around Manhattan with the Statue of Liberty as backdrop, a trip I blogged about in A Spring Sailing Around Manhattan.
April 16th, 2012
My wife and son and I had been wanting to see New York’s five boroughs from the water, so last Friday we took the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan, which does offer views of each borough. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment. We arrived 45 minutes early for the 11:30 AM sailing, only to find that all outdoor seats on our boat had already been taken. Worse, the guide on our boat was a pompous jerk who droned on ceaselessly during our 3-hour circumnavigation of the island. He had no feel for the history of the city; scolded passengers like a control-obsessed school teacher (“Don’t stand there!”) and was fascinated only with money. (“An apartment in that building sold for $20 million last year.”) Fortunately, about halfway through the cruise, I found us three seats on the open deck, and Kyle, Ewan, and I escaped the guide’s physical presence, if not his amplified voice. From this perspective, we were able to view Upper Manhattan, Sputen Duyvil, the waterway that connects the Harlem River to the Hudson, and the little red lighthouse as we sailed beneath the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge. We also were able to ID our own apartment building from the river, a neat trick.
The best part of the afternoon came when we got home and downloaded the photos each of us took turns snapping during the cruise. Even if the boat ride regrettably didn’t feature much of the timeless magic we identify with New York’s waterways, harbor, and shoreline, such as that seen in the 1920s short film “Manhatta,” it was a grand day and we took away some great images, many of which are included here. // many pictures following . . .
March 2nd, 2012
Riding my bicycle uptown on Riverside Drive in Manhattan on Wednesday, parallel to the Hudson River at around 119th Street, I was surprised to see a convoy of vans all parked on the sidewalk adjacent to the road, where one usually sees dog walkers and strollers. I pulled over to ascertain why this posse of vehicles might be there, and then heard voices and shouts from overhead. I looked up and saw men in hard hats with ropes tied around their waists way up in the high limbs of the trees. There must have been ten of these guys, all a good 40 to 50 feet above the ground. They were wielding handsaws and trimming limbs which then fell to the earth below. Over the past couple years, New York City has suffered some tragic incidents where tree limbs have fallen on pedestrians and killed them, so I figured I was witnessing the trimming of dead limbs for public safety. The amazing thing was there was no cherry picker at hand, or FDNY vehicle that had helped them attain those heights–these guys all looked as if they had rappelled up in to the trees, or somehow hauled themselves up to where they could stand on those distant limbs. I took out my IPod Touch and against the backdrop of the late afternoon sky, took a couple pictures, hoping I would be able to view them later and assure myself that I had not just seen a New York apparition. After taking those shots, I got back on my bike, marveling that the New York City I love is always capable of presenting me with another unexpected sight. I never know where the next one might come from, right in front of my eyes, or up above me in the trees.
APRIL 29 UPDATE: Recently saw a sign in Riverside Park, near where the above photos were taken last month, explaining the tree-trimming is standard maintenance; at least no mention of a particular blight like ash emerald bore that the commenter below this post, Art Plotnik (author of The Urban Tree Book, which he published with me in 2000), feared could be the case. I’m going to have to check out the book Art recommends, Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees. The man knows his tree books.
A few days after I saw the sign in the park, working at my desk in my home office one afternoon, I was surprised to see outside my window a tree trimmer aloft in the limbs directly across the street. I grabbed my camera and got some up-close shots of him, marveling at the agility and strength required in the job. As with my sight of the tree work last month, this up-close view confirmed once again that I just never know what sight may next be in store as I go through my day, even while ensconced at my desk.
January 4th, 2012
Longtime NY Times CEO Janet Robinson is leaving the paper, according to most accounts forced out by Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger. Notwithstanding her forced departure, she is also reported to be receiving a $15 million severance package, and a fully-funded pension in retirement. Robinson’s package is among the things that have outraged the Newspaper Guild, a union with many members among the reporting and editorial staff at the Times. Under the banner of www.saveourtimes.com this group has taken the in-your-face step of sending a critical letter to Chairman Sulzberger. In part, they write,
Dated Decembers 23, 2011, the letter was at first signed by the Guild president and some staffers, with a note at the bottom, “(List in formation)”. Since then, it has continued garnering more and more signatures from Timespeople, past and present, with the count of signatories as of January 4 now up to 561.
Since I’m an optimist, I’ll offer a hopeful observation that this labor conflict at the Times ought to make the paper’s coverage of the #OWS Movement more respectful and less dismissive, as so much of their reporting has been over the past few months, like this snarky article by Ginia Bellafante from last September. I’ll be watching for any change of tone, even as I realize my optimism is probably unwarranted.
December 23rd, 2011
How did New York ever countenance the demolition of this splendid building? As an urbanite and a train enthusiast, it hurts my heart to view these photos and contemplate what we lost when the old Penn Station was pulled down for a miserable modern building. H/t to Dina Spector for publishing her article with these beautiful photographs.
December 14th, 2011
The show at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom last Friday featuring The Weakerthans with Rah Rah was special in many ways. Before anything is even said about the music and the performances, consider that it was the seventh night of what by any measure must be considered an extraordinary bi-coastal residency that The Weakerthanshad undertaken over the previous two weeks. Talk about ambitious!
Though they’d done this residency last year in their hometown of Winnipeg, this time they did it in entirely in the States, starting in San Francisco, then moving on to NY, playing their four studio albums for live audiences on consecutive nights in each city. It was an affirmation of the band’s accumulated popularity. Tickets for the NY shows had gone on sale last summer, and were sold out by October. Some people went all four nights, or multiple nights, or like me, one night. With the Bowery Ballroom’s capacity of about 400 people, you can figure that the NYC shows attracted between 1200-1600 fans, and even more than that in SF, where the venue was larger. That strikes me as a helluva lot of fans in the States for a band hailing from the Canadian prairies.
With the Weakerthans playing their third night in Gotham, there was quite a cohesive vibe to the crowd, perhaps owing to the presence of folks who had already been in the club the previous two nights. Most of the crowd seemed to be New Yorkers, or at least Yanks. There were also Canadians in the crowd, but not a predominant contingent. It was reminiscent of when I heard the veteran Halifax rock outfit Sloan during their 20th anniversary tour at the same venue last summer. Being used to Canadian shows that often don’t draw a full house, I was surprised to see the big U.S. crowd that night sing along to every Sloan song. The same would prove true this night.
I had met and heard the members of opening act Rah Rah in October when they played a 35-minute showcase during the CMJ festival. I was eager to re-connect with these friendly folks and hear them play a full set. The six young musicians from Regina, Saskatchewan had since remained in Brooklyn, writing their next album and beginning to record it. Before the show kicked off Friday night, I joined a conversation at the center of the ballroom floor that included Rah Rah guitarist Leif Thorson; keyboard player Vanessa Benson; their manager from Hidden Pony Records, a nice fellow with the handle Parkside, who not only works with Rah Rah, but also the amazing bands Said the Whale and Imaginary Cities; and producer, Gus Van Go, who’s worked on albums by The Stills and Hollerado. Lief and Vanessa were very relaxed, and showed no nerves at the prospect of opening in a few minutes for the Weakerthans.
Just before Rah Rah struck their first chords, a fellow near me–clearly on hand for the Weakerthans and impatient at having to wait through an opening act–asked me if I was familiar with the openers. I assured him they were great and that the Weakerthans had curated everything about the week’s shows, including the choice of opening acts for each night. He seemed placated, at least for the moment.
In a pleasant change from the male-dominant norm, the six pieces of Rah Rah are divided equally among the genders–with three women and three men variously playing their two guitars, bass, keys, violin, and drums. And at key points, four or five of them began creating homemade percussion, banging with drum sticks on spare amp surfaces and tom-toms. They deftly moved across the stage, handing off instruments and parts to one another with great alacrity. Benson, on keys normally, slid way over to the other side of the stage to pick up the bass which Joel Passmore had been playing. Joel then took a seat at the drum kit while his sister Erin, normally the band’s drummer, moved over to the keys. In another well-choreographed move, fiddler and accordion player Kristina Hedlund moved to the keys and Erin played bass and sang lead. The two members who didn’t change up much were Thorseth, a gentle giant of a lead guitarist and the angular and interesting Marshall Burns, who on many tunes sang lead vocals. Though Burns often took the vocal lead, on many songs he was joined by virtually all his mates who would sing a verse on their own or comprise a full-throated chorus. The band makes rapid starts and stops with abrupt changes of tempo. Among my favorite Rah Rah songs is “Arrows,” with its great, purposeful, optimistic chorus: “I feel just like an arrow/I feel just like an arrow/Shooting high, shooting high and away”. Another favorite is “Duet for Emmylou and the Grievous Angel,” with its memorable chorus “It’s fashionable to be single in big cities but not in small towns/In Regina Saskatchewan I fell in love with her frown.” These are fun songs for them to play, and fun songs for a crowd to listen to and sing along with.
Rah Rah are a boisterous band on stage, full of animated gestures, quick moves, knowing looks and nods out to members of the audience. They have a lot of fun on stage, and it transfers directly to the crowd.
The latter moments of their set featured two neat bits of showmanship: first, they unleashed balloon-like mylar coated letters in the letters R-A-H, which bounced above the heads of the crowd; second, fiddler Hedlund bashed a pinata suspended above the heads of the band and candy splashed all over the audience. My floor neighbor who hadn’t known of Rah Rah fifty minutes earlier was clearly bowled over and flashed me a thumbs-up before he headed to the merch table to buy their CD, where I later went myself.
The interlude was brief and the Weakerthans were soon on stage, launching into the songs from their 2003 album, “Reconstruction Site.” Lyricist and lead vocalist John K. Samson is a published poet and has helped start a progressive publishing house. He writes songs that carry a deceptively light touch in melody and words, while actually packing a hidden wallop. A good example is the song, “Please from a Cat Named Virtute,” surely the only rock ‘n roll song I’ve ever encountered whose narrator is a feline personality. The cat is perplexed by his owner’s lassitude, even depression: “Why don’t you ever want to play? I’m tired of this piece of string. You sleep as much as I do now, and you don’t eat much of anything. I don’t who you’re talking to–I made a search through every room, but all I found was dust that moved in the shadows of the afternoon. And listen, about those bitter songs you sing? They’re not helping anything. They won’t make you strong. So, we should open up the house. Invite the tabby from two doors down. You could ask your sister, if she doesn’t bring her basset hound. . . . . All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV, and frankly that doesn’t really interest me.” Samson revisits the cat in another song, “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” Virtute reminds me of the notable cat in Don Marquis’s classic book of comic verse “The Adventures of Archy & Mehitabel”; Archy is a streetwise cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat convinced she was Cleopatra in a previous lifetime. There’s a definite existential bite to Samson’s songs.
Instrumentally, the Weakerthans are a guitar-based five-piece, with Samson playing rhythm; Stephen Carroll on tasty lead and pedal steel; Daniel Ledwell on guitar and keyboards; Greg Smith on bass; and Jason Tait drumming. Samson’s mates left the stage briefly when he played the signature song “One Great City!, with its oddly upbeat lament, “I Hate Winnipeg.” The crowd sang it with him, as if they all came from Manitoba, though I’m pretty sure they hailed from parts much farther south. As the Weakerthans launched into their second encore, I threaded my way through the packed floor and found the members of Rah Rah relaxing downstairs. We shared some drinks and the night wrapped up as it began, in friendly conversation.
December 12th, 2011
As with other key pieces of New York City’s infrastructure–like the George Washington Bridge, which opened in 1931 and which I recently blogged about here and here–the Henry Hudson Bridge also began carrying traffic in the 1930s, Dec. 11, 1936, to be exact. Reading Michael M. Grynbaum’s City Room item in the Times, I’m fascinated to see again, whether it was at the beginning of the Depression, or midway through that difficult decade, the city maintained its commitment to creating new and necessary infrastructure. It is regrettable that Robert Moses–never a friend to common folks or to New Yorkers who didn’t own automobiles–rammed this bridge through the last stand of virgin forest in Manhattan, but at least seventy-five years later, we do still have the bridge carrying travelers in and out of the city, hundreds of feet above the body of water known as the Spuyten Duyvil.
Contrast that willingness to build, to see social need and respond to it with civic improvements, with the timidity of many public officials today. Gov. Christie of New Jersey canceled the ARC tunnel that would have brought trade and goods into the city under NY Harbor and the Hudson River, to be paid for with bonds and the contribution of federal money. The right-wing claims that we’re “broke” should be interpreted as them saying they really have no vision for what the city and region will need a half-century or 75 years from now.
As odious a public official as I find Robert Moses to have been, I would vastly prefer someone like him to the visionless so-called leaders we have today. Yes, it’s a pity that Moses didn’t ultimately uphold the progressive ideals to which he subscribed early in his career, as shown by Robert Caro in The Power Broker, but at least he left something behind that remains useful to denizens of the region today. All that Gov. Christie is going to leave posterity is a lot of hot air.
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