Sunday, January 31, 2016

217. Mystery Buildings of New York

      New York City is full of mystery buildings, buildings that pique your curiosity but at first elude you.   A prime example is – or rather was – a little one-story brick building near the corner of West 11th and West 4th Streets in the West Village, but a block from where I live.  I passed it for years, always wondered what it was and who, if anyone, lived there or, more likely, who used it as an office or studio.  One-story buildings are rare in the city, where real estate is so valuable, so it must have been an old structure dating back many years.  It had a skylight, suggesting its use as an artist’s studio, but the taller buildings around it would have robbed it of much of the light.  Always firmly shut, its door was flanked by a window on either side, but the whole façade was covered with a thick growth of ivy that all but masked both windows.  I never saw anyone go in or out, nor did I ever see a mailman delivering mail. 

     This went on for years, but then, last year, scaffolding suddenly sprang up around the little building and the three-story brick building next door on the corner, which only added to the mystery.  But occasionally a door in the scaffolding was left wide open and I could glance inside, where I saw the little brick building more than half demolished and obviously destined for complete demolition.  Since then the scaffolding has remained, as the neighboring structure at 282 West 4th Street, combined with another building at 280 West 4th Street, is being converted into a huge single-family residence – luxury housing with a vengeance.  The little mystery building, evidently a part of the 282 West 4th Street property, is gone forever, and I will never know its story.  Of all my mystery buildings, this is the one that haunted me the longest, but it never yielded its secrets. 

File:District Council 9 Building 45 West 14th Street.jpg
Beyond My Ken

     Another mystery building was one on West 14th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, that caught my attention as I rode past it many times on the bus.  The five-story structure flew two large flags, one the American flag and the other a mystery, on poles projecting from the third story, and boasted a façade such as I had never seen anywhere in the city, seemingly all metal with not a brick in sight.  Curved roofs stuck out above the windows like arched eyebrows over gaping eyes, and poles ran vertically from top to bottom with no apparent function other than to further clutter up the façade.  I categorized it as Art Deco on steroids, or maybe Cast Iron run wild.  It startled me but didn’t repel me; it simply made me curious.  Since the bus always zipped past it, I could never get the address or acquire any other information about it.  Finally, while doing errands in the neighborhood, I made a detour to see the building up close, and in so doing learned the address -- 45 West 14th – and the identity of the ground-floor occupant: District Council 9, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, whose name appears on the mystery flag displayed alongside Old Glory.

     Even armed with this information, I had trouble learning the history of the structure, finding only scraps of information here and there.  It was evidently built as a townhouse in 1875, and in 1960 underwent a radical transformation that produced the present façade, which has been described as a modern interpretation of the historic cast iron buildings on the street.  Maybe, but the cast iron buildings I’m familiar with have simple lines and never give the impression of clutter, as this one does – interesting clutter, highly original, but clutter nonetheless.  The current AIA Guide to New York City describes it thus:  "Bronze and glass, paper and trash.  In 1967, this Guide said:  'Hopefully, this witty and elegant refacing of a tired façade will inspire its neighbors to follow.'  They didn’t."  Which is why the building stands out today.

File:874 Broadway MacIntyre Building top from south.jpg
Beyond My Ken

      Another mystery building that I have glimpsed repeatedly from a 14th-street bus towers impressively just north of Union Square, its summit a spire-topped golden sphere that shone radiantly in the sun.  It was that splash of gold that caught my eye, for it made the structure stand out from other tall buildings in the neighborhood.  Finally, one day when I was visiting the Union Square greenmarket, I walked up busy Broadway to no. 874, on the corner of East 18th Street, where I discovered, to my surprise, that the building in question wasn’t a tower, but simply one section, the westernmost, of a massive twelve-story Neo-Gothic structure of brick and stone, richly adorned with rows of rounded arches framing the windows, its summit – the “tower” I had  seen from the bus – bristling with spiky little spires, one of them crowning a gold sphere that caught the rays of the sun.  I stood there for quite a while, dodging the bustling passers-by while gaping like a tourist.  The ground-floor level on Broadway is occupied by Sleepy’s, the Mattress Professional, with a sign outside:


     Online research informed me that the building was built in 1892, financed by a chemist and apothecary named Ewen McIntyre.  While laying the ornate tile floor in the Broadway lobby, the craftsmen mistakenly added  an A to his name, so that the building became known as the MacIntyre.  Today it survives as a co-op with 25 apartments, 4 of which are currently up for sale at a median price of $840,000, and none of them available for rent.  In 2000 the resident owners had the façade cleaned of a century’s grit and grime, which may explain why its radiant patch of gold caught my distant eye. 

     Another mystery building, a recent construction at Spring and West Streets by the Hudson River on the edge of trendy Tribeca, baffles passing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.  A gray hunk of faceted concrete five stories high, a box with a huge door, windowless, it is massive by day, its slanted walls looming out over the sidewalks menacingly, while at night those same walls have been likened to huge chunks of ice breaking off from the edge of a glacier.  Unique, obviously, but what is it? 

File:Spring Street salt shed 2015-11 jeh.JPG

     It is city’s new $20 million salt shed, whose door, 34 feet high and 25 feet wide, opens into a vast interior where 5,000 tons of de-icing salt will be stored, to be used on streets sheathed in wintry ice.  Unlike most of the city’s salt sheds, which are little more than shacks, it was designed by architects to be a singular sculptural object, and in this they have hugely succeeded.  Gray to some, it is described by others as glacially blue, which helps it enhance the neighborhood.  This last concern is no small matter, for local residents opposed its construction, fearing more gentrification, while luxury apartment developers opposed it, fearing less.  The developers predicted that the value of property in the neighborhood would plunge, only to see it soar.  Once again, gentrification triumphs, though in this instance it would be hard not to applaud.

     But this marvel of a salt shed is only half the story, for just across Spring Street is another architectural wonder also vehemently opposed by neighborhood residents, who once christened it the Tower o’ Garbage: a massive garage where sanitation trucks can be parked, fueled, repaired, and cleaned, but where garbage will most definitely not be deposited.  A five-story, block-long structure costing $250 million, it is masked by a sound-blocking glass curtain wall masked in turn by 2,600 custom-made perforated metal panels designed to reduce heat and glare, and oblige finicky neighbors by blocking views of the trucks inside.  Thanks to the finlike panels, the garage has the appearance of a shiny, sleek machine.  The upper glassed-in stories sit atop a dark-brick ground floor that is set slightly back, making the garage seem to almost float on its base.  (An effect I have yet to check out personally, which I hope to do.)  A green, sloped roof not open to the public catches rain water to clean the trucks.  Illuminated at night, with “DSNY” (Department of Sanitation, New York) in huge letters on the side facing the river, the structure then acquires a magic all its own.


     Never were two utilitarian edifices designed and executed with such care and flair.  The once critical neighbors should celebrate their recent opening, and be glad that no towering luxury high-rise blocks their view of the Hudson River flowing majestically just beyond West Street.

     Finally, a cluster of mystery buildings that I have only recently learned of and that I will probably never see: structures in an advanced state of ruin, covered with graffiti and hemmed in, even strangled, by thick vegetation that is slowly and relentlessly reclaiming a remote forested site where humans once imposed the geometry of architecture now long since abandoned and forgotten.  Here and there in the greenery – or among the wintry skeletons of trees – façades loom like ancient mausoleums or untenanted pagan temples, their interiors desolate and often littered with debris and the bristling splintered boards of collapsing walls and ceilings, not to mention banisters at crazy angles and gaping elevator shafts.  Suggestive of  pre-Columbian ruins strangled by jungle, this Surrealist site weirdly mixes architecture and vegetation, the hand of man and the hand of nature.  And all this within the bounds of New York City.

     These ruins were once the Farm Colony of Staten Island, a 96-acre site that officially is a part of the New York City Farm Colony-Seaview Hospital Historic District, which in itself is proof enough that being part of a historic district does not necessarily ward off graffiti artists, vandals, decay, and neglect.  The Farm Colony was originally founded in 1829 as the Richmond County Poor Farm, an asylum for the elderly who were looked after with dignity by nurses and attendants, and who were required to work on a vegetable farm to earn their board – a requirement eliminated in 1925, in view of the residents’ frailty.  The last residents were moved out in 1975, and neglect and decay then followed.
      The Farm Colony achieved notoriety of a kind when Eddie Lynch, an orderly in wards 27 and 31 in the late 1940s, turned out to be Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, who for several years following a 1947 prison break found refuge at this remote location and worked quietly there, professing a love for the colony and its residents.  Willie endeared himself to posterity by answering the question “Why do you rob banks?” with the simple response, “Because that’s where the money is!”

     If the long-forgotten Farm Colony now claims my attention, it’s because it is newsworthy again: the City Council has approved a plan to sell 45 acres to a Staten Island developer who will renovate five buildings, demolish five others, and preserve a 112-year-old men’s dormitory as a stabilized ruin.  He will also build three six-story apartment buildings and fourteen multiple-unit townhouses for a total of 344 condominiums.  Units will be available only to applicants 55 and older, with some units reserved for those with incomes of $130,000 to $155,000, which by today’s standards rate as modest, not affluent.  All in all, a satisfying resolution involving rehabilitation of a dangerous property, housing for older adults, renovation of several historic buildings, creation of 17 acres of landscaped open space, and construction of new roads and utilities.  For these mystery buildings – at least some of them – a happy ending.

     Tumblr and the book:  My latest coup: Sexcuddlyhot is following me!  And among the “likes” of my posts are teacup 12, goodmorningawfulgoodbye, victimofyourwords, yourkittenhajk, and z3ng33kgr7.  Meanwhile and inevitably, there is still the book, available from  Amazon and Barnes & Noble, though Tumblr continues to steal my time.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  Women of Mystery: Wise Ones, psychics, healers, and frauds of yesterday and today.  Before paying to have your fortune told, read this.  Likewise, read this before dismissing with scorn the claims of female healers; you may be surprised. 

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder


Sunday, January 24, 2016

216. Sexy

     This post originated in a poem I wrote for Tumblr, and that poem was inspired by two comments from long ago.  Many years ago I heard an interview on WBAI (where else?) with a New Agey author and visionary named Jean Houston, who said with fervor, “We’ve got to make peace sexy!”  Because, like it or not, for many people war is sexy.

     The second comment came more recently from a friend who had done social work to combat homelessness in this country.  After years of effort she saw no progress, no indication that the Powers That Be were going to devote ample resources to alleviating the problem.  Burned out, she finally quit.  "Homelessness," she sadly observed, "isn’t sexy."

     Obviously, “sexy” in these two anecdotes is not being used in the narrow, sexual sense, but rather in a broader, more metaphorical sense.  In my poem I describe something or someone as sexy if it is “hot, new, exciting, or compelling.”  Notice that I say “or,” not “and”; in other words, to be classified as sexy something need satisfy only one of these requirements, though the more of them it satisfies, the sexier it is.  So with this in mind, who and what do I call sexy in 2016?  These are purely personal opinions; viewers should feel free to disagree and to dispute my pronouncements with passion.

     Since this is an election year in the U.S., let’s have a look at the candidates.  Like it or not, the sexiest candidate of the moment – loudmouth, braggart, liar, and fool though he may be -- is the irrepressible Donald.  Yes, Mr. Trump has been leading all other Republican presidential wannabes in the polls because his flamboyant personality and outrageous statements make him, in the eyes of many, sexy.  And does he get the media’s attention!  They may not love him, but they love his sexiness, his newsiness, his ability to excite, inspire, and raise hackles.

File:Donald Trump 2016 Campaign Song Kevin Kline.jpg

     And Hillary?  No way.  She’s cautious, sane, and reasonable, but she isn’t sexy.  But hubby Bill is sexy, and then some.  He is, always has been, and always will be.  And sexy too in the literal sense; there’s something about him that gets to the girls, and in the past he certainly obliged by getting to them in turn – too much so, needless to say.  Also, you can tell that he loves campaigning, he loves getting out there and mixing with ordinary people, something that Hillary is simply not comfortable doing.  As a presidential candidate she is one of the most capable we’ve ever had, combining domestic with foreign experience, but she simply is not, and probably never can be, sexy.

File:Hillary Clinton official Secretary of State portrait crop.jpg
Her official portrait as Secretary of State.  A broad a smile, but alas, not sexy.

File:Bill Clinton.jpg
Watch out for this guy.  A White House portrait of him as President.

     As for the other presidential candidates, Dems and Repubs alike, I haven’t been exposed enough to them, having no TV, to have a fixed opinion.  Bernie Sanders has sexy ideas, but whether he exudes this elusive but necessary quality I simply don’t know.  Among the Repubs, Mark Rubio, being young and good-looking, may well qualify, but I’d have to see him in action more to be certain.

File:Rubio SQ.png
Mark Rubio: one to watch.  And even a red, white, and blue tie!

     As I pronounce boldly in my Tumblr poem, Pope Francis is sexy, but the Vatican is not.  Pope Francis makes the grade by virtue of his humility, his warmth, his compassion, and his willingness to break a few rules; he’s not a revolutionary, but as Popes go, he is, in my sense, eminently sexy.  The proof: his vast appeal to Protestants and other non-Catholics.  Yes, a spiritual leader can be sexy; think of Pope John XXIII and, today, the Dalai Lama.  A sexy spiritual leader has an appeal that is truly international.  As for the Vatican, rare is the governmental body or bureaucracy that could be termed “sexy”; “sexy” has little to do with paper shufflers and regulators, however necessary they may be.

File:187 países unidos contra el crimen campaña de Interpol, TurnBackCrime (14166382397).jpg
Participating in a Turn Back Crime campaign in Columbia.
Policia Nacional de los columbianos

     In my Tumblr poem I assert that God is sexy, though His worshipers are not, though Her worshipers would be for sure.  Of course this is a gross simplification.  Whether or not God is sexy depends on how his (or her) worshipers describe the deity in question.  Because I opt for a dynamic, forceful, vigorously benign deity, full of humor and surprises, I see the Guy (or Girl?) as sexy.  And the idea of a female God is, for me, immensely exciting, therefore sexy.  But alas, worshipers so often define their God in the narrowest terms and project onto Him (always, in this case, a Him) their own prejudices and savage intolerance.  They belittle Him, cheapen Him, clog Him up with rules.  So to round the discussion out, in the poem I add the possibility of It, a God that is neither male nor female – a reminder of how we reduce to petty human terms a concept that is immense, awesome, and far beyond our mortal facilities to fully fathom. 

     Going back to the poem (it seems I can’t get free of it), I find these statements:

·      Death is sexy, dying is not.
·      Comfort is sexy, health is not.
·      Stupid is sexy, wisdom is not.

Death, being a dramatic transition from this known world to an unimaginable – or richly imaginable – Beyond involving radical change, is sexy.  How could it not be, involving as it does a fearful but fascinating journey and, for us humans, the supreme mystery?  But dying, since it entails pain, suffering, bedpans, bloody interventions, pills, enemas, robotic machines, and a general messiness, is anything but sexy; it’s simply a necessary interlude, long or short, bearable or unbearable, and always  diminishing, that precedes the ultimate adventure of Death.

   Yes, comfort is sexy, because compelling; we simply can’t do without it.  It’s vastly sexier than health, which requires discipline and sacrifice.  For many people, getting healthy means following a fierce set of rules from on high:

·      Thou shalt not eat red meat.  But red meat, they protest, made this country, gave it grit and pizzazz, let it conquer the wilderness and win the West, and become the biggest, best, most democratic democracy in the world, the immigrants’ dream, the City on a Hill that multitudes look up to.  So give us our wienies, our hamburgers, our steaks; they fuel our hearts and feed our souls.
·      Thou shalt not eat dairy.  But we crave milk and scrambled eggs and tangy cheeses.  Tofu and tempeh don’t cut it.
·      Thou shalt not drink Pepsi and Coke.  And drink soy milk and organic apple juice instead?  No way!  Pepsi and Coke are as American as Old Glory.
·      Thou shalt avoid sugar like the plague.  Meaning that granular white stuff on every lunch counter in America?  C’mon, a little sugar won’t hurt anyone … will it?  Or a little candy? 
·      Thou shalt not eat pizza.  Our favorite take-out! 
·      Thou shalt consume vegetables and fruit.   Okay, maybe some mashed spuds with lots of gravy.  But not parsley, that limp bit of green; that’s just a bit of garnish, so we push it to the side of the plate.  And spinach?  Ugh!  Kale?  What’s that?  Collards?  That’s for the folks down South, isn’t it?  Apples?  Well, maybe, a good chomp now and then.  But broccoli?  Yuck!

No, health is most definitely not sexy.  Comfort is; we snuggle down into it like into our favorite armchair, our nest, our warm, snug home.

     As for stupidity vs. wisdom, I’ll simply cite the Donald yet again.

     Another health commandment might be added: Thou shalt not smoke or drink.  But smoking and drinking have been viewed as sexy since the beginning of time.  As a friend once pointed out to me, there are literally hundreds of poems and songs in all languages celebrating the joys of smoking and drinking, and none extolling abstinence.  True enough.  But in the last few decades smoking in this country has seemed less and less sexy.  Back in the 1930s and 1940s, when I was growing up, most of the sexy movie stars were seen smoking; you can’t imagine Bette Davis without a cigarette at hand.  But today, amazingly, smoking for most Americans is unsexy, not “in” or “with it,” the sign of a loser.  So these things can change with time.

File:Muratti Ad 1902.jpg
Sexy for Germany in 1902.  But she herself isn't smoking.

     My poem deals only with the present and the immediate, but it’s instructive to glance back as well at the past.  Which Presidents within living memory – my living memory – can be classified as sexy?  FDR for sure; in his radio speeches and fireside chats he exuded a patrician charm that captivated the working class voters whose causes he championed; a good speaker, he has been described as both a lion and a fox. 

FDR during a fireside chat.  Here, more fox than lion.

     A tough act to follow, but Harry Truman pulled it off.  He wasn’t the charmer that Roosevelt was, but his feistiness got to people and won them over, making him robustly and gutsily sexy.  His opponent in 1948, Thomas Dewey, though he had been an excellent governor of New York, was a bit too cool, too distant, too dignified, too much the “little man on the wedding cake,” to be politically sexy, and so he lost twice, first to Roosevelt and then to Roosevelt’s vice president and successor, feisty Harry.

     Dwight Eisenhower, whom millions took to as to a father or grandfather, flashed a broad, winning smile that was sexy.  John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was sexy on all levels and in every sense of the word, inspiring the public while carrying on a bit of clandestine hanky panky on the side.  His opponent in 1960, Richard Nixon, was a shrewd politician, but hopelessly unsexy; other qualities and circumstances would vault him into the White House in 1968.   Ronald Reagan, flashing a warm smiling and proclaiming “It’s morning in America,” was the conservatives’ supreme embodiment of sexy—again, a tough act to follow, and his successors don’t match him in this one essential quality.  Not until Obama, who when he first appeared on the presidential scene was vigorously and refreshingly sexy.

File:John F Kennedy Official Portrait.jpg
Kennedy's posthumous official portrait, looking more
presidential than sexy.  But when campaigning, or when
reporters weren't looking … !

     Now let’s have a look at a few honored Presidents of the past.  George Washington was a statue in cold marble, hardly sexy by our standards today.  But he captivated everyone in his own time, and as a military commander was capable of volcanic anger.  But what let him win the Revolutionary War was a combination of judgment, patience, and persistence – not qualities we tend today to think of as sexy.

     The same could be said of Abraham Lincoln, whose great qualities were judgment, patience, humility, and a knowledge of human character – invaluable assets, but not sexy.  As for his appearance, by his own admission he “wasn’t much to look at,” though today we see his features as stamped with character and wisdom and therefore venerate him.

     Teddy Roosevelt, racist and imperialist though he was, was gutsily, boisterously sexy, and as such stormed up San Juan Hill and into the White House, first as Vice President and then as President.  The guy just oozed a macho brand of sexiness, and it went over big with the public.

File:Theodore Roosevelt laughing.jpg
Not an official portrait --  too gutsy, too alive.

     As for a prime example of sexiness masking mediocrity, one can’t do better than Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920 with the rallying cry of “back to normalcy,” the word normalcy being his own invention (he had trouble with suffixes).  His photographs show a remarkably handsome man, but his administration was riddled with corruption, though he himself was honest … and forgettable.

File:Warren G Harding-Harris & Ewing.jpg
Warren G. Harding, looking thoughtful and profound, which by all
accounts he was not.

     So what is sexy today?  “Green” is sexy: retailers are eager to label their products “green,” whether the word is relevant or not.  The Internet is sexy, as witnessed by Tumblr, the subject of my previous post.  Among foods, kale, once unknown to most Americans, has become sexy, though these fads rarely last.  To live in a towering high-rise, one of those cloud-scratching needles now proliferating in midtown Manhattan with a stunning view of Central Park, is sexy, though only a few can afford it.   And on and on.  Add your favorite candidates for sexy at this point and let me know what they are.  Feedback is sexy, and so are those who do it.

     The Big Apple vs. Ted Cruz:  Senator Ted Cruz, the presidential wannabe, has lashed into front-runner Donald You-Know-Who as a -- gasp! -- New Yorker embodying -- gasp again! -- "New York values."  Yes, the Donald is indeed a New Yorker, and an extreme expression of New York brag and push, though hardly a beloved native son.  But Senator Cruz's comments have aroused a firestorm of wrath and indignation, and a fiery assertion of New York values, for New Yorkers are not ones to take an insult quietly.  Far from turning the other cheek (their cheeks are rarely turned), they are passionately proclaiming their tolerance, spunk, open-mindedness, ambition, energy, diversity, and feistiness.  The Daily News blazoned the headline DROP DEAD, TED and a picture of the Statue of Liberty making a gesture that I prefer not to describe.  The moral: kick a beehive and you'll probably get stung.  Not that the Senator from Texas minds; he knows he'll get  even fewer votes here than the Donald.

     Tumblr and the book:   121 posts, 110 followers, am following 227 blogs, and continue to get reblogged.  Meanwhile there is still the book, available from  Amazon and Barnes & Noble, though Tumblr steals my time.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     Coming soon:  Mystery Buildings of New York.  The little red-brick building that disappears; Art Deco on steroids; the golden sphere; a windowless glacier-like hunk; and Willie Loman's hiding place.

     ©  2016  Clifford Browder