Sunday, May 24, 2015

181. Nonprofits and What They're Up To

     Their appeals clog my mailbox.  To get me to open their envelopes, they stamp them with every imaginable type of message:

·      Time sensitive – official documents
·      Time sensitive – second notice (or third, or fourth)
·      Match opportunity enclosed
·      Petition enclosed
·      Check enclosed
·      Two free totes inside
·      Your signature urgently needed
·      Save the whales
·      Save the baby seals
·      Save the rain forest
·      Urgent: time is running out

     Sometimes the letters are addressed to me in real or simulated handwriting.  Sometimes they send a survey ostensibly to find out what my priorities for action are, and at the end of the survey beg for a donation.  And sometimes there is no return address on the envelope, though the words NON PROFIT ORGANIZATION next to the postage tell me all I need to know.  Worthy causes, but how many can you give to?  And how do they get my name?  Those I already give to must sell or trade my name to others, for to give to one is to invite appeals from many.  Yes, I give to some of them – small sums once a year, not otherwise.  So what do I do, when assailed by this storm of requests?  With rare, very rare, exceptions, I throw the letters out.  Even the ones that say “check enclosed” and especially the ones with no return address.  But if they give me, as a “free” gift, some address labels that I deem acceptable, I keep them and use them.  And if they include a few coins to cover the postage for my reply, I pocket the change without a speck of shame.  In self-defense, I’m ruthless.

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Nina Paley
     What is a nonprofit?  An organization whose goal is not to earn a profit but to serve society.  Many are classified as 501 (c) (3) organizations, meaning that the IRS recognizes them as charities and therefore exempt from federal income taxes, in which case donations to them are also tax-exempt.  Their work can involve charitable, religious, educational, literary, or similar activities.  Their earnings must not go to any private shareholder or individual, and they must not try to influence legislation or campaign for or against political candidates.

     Given their worthy goals, I cannot hate nonprofits; they’re a peculiarly American phenomenon and serve a useful, even vital, purpose.  If they didn’t exist, they’d have to be invented, to deal with certain problems not otherwise being dealt with, and to ease the burden of those often ill-gotten millions – or today, billions – afflicting the heirs of ruthless capitalists, if not the capitalists themselves, who late in their careers may experience a twinge of remorse.

     Once, long ago, just after I retired, I did volunteer work for a small nonprofit here in New York and got a glimpse into their very special world.  My nonprofit, the Whole Foods Project, advocated a nutritional approach for the treatment of AIDS – then a raging killer – and cancer, and as a cancer survivor I was especially attuned to their mission.  (See vignette #8, May 20, 2012.)

     Money and how to get it is a perennial preoccupation with nonprofits, and my first Whole Foods Project assignment was to go to the Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue for instruction in how to approach foundations for a donation.  At the library I and other initiates learned a lot, and in the process we got a glimpse as well into the very special world of foundations and the purposes they serve.  There are literally hundreds of foundations, ranging from the giants that everyone has heard of – the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and so on – down to tiny, obscure ones, many of them based in New York and only funding very specific causes operating within the city or its immediate vicinity.  During the library’s instruction sessions two principles were immediately drilled into us:

1.    Foundations rarely give money to individuals unaffiliated with some organization, so if you’re looking for a handout for yourself, forget it.
2.    By all means read each foundation’s mission statement, but then compare it with what they actually do; what they do may not match what they say.

     After several days of research at the library I left armed with a list of possible donors that we immediately contacted.  Donations did result, though never enough to fully fund the Project.  To raise more money we compiled a long list of possible donors: friends and family of members, and people and organizations who had approached us for information on our vegetarian approach to healing.  The result was mass mailings that involved writing addresses on envelopes till your hand was cramped, and sealing the envelopes until your tongue was dry.  (Yes, I licked the envelopes, though other volunteers dabbed them with a sponge.)  The mailings brought in more money, dribs and drabs that were never enough.  And once a year we staged a fund-raising carnival with food from some of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants, stilt walkers, an auction or a raffle, a string quartet, and a lesbian and gay gospel choir.  The participants volunteered their services and the carnivals raised money, but to put them on took money.  Always, always, always, the need for money.  So I know why my mailbox is jammed with those appeals.

File:Into the wild, Local news nonprofits and their search for sustainability - Flickr - Knight Foundation.jpg
Knight Foundation

     Here, in the form of a map showing a hike into the wilderness, is an account of a local news nonprofit's perilous quest for sustainability.  Included are these features:
  • Bottom center, a sign, "Ignore web and community," leading to a cliff and a plunge.  The other sign reads, "Forge new path."
  • In the center, a sign, "Beware / Donor dependence," and a crumbling ladder.
  • To the right, where a hiker gets water, a sign, "Big donor falls / Early resources to help get you started."
  • On the far right, a sign, "Content Swamp / Don't get bogged down spending all your resources here."
  • In the center, at the end of Content Swamp, a sign, "Path to experimentation / Explore new revenue streams."
  • Top center, a sign, "Data and platforms / Create new ways to tell engaging stories."
Finally, in the upper right, a hiker who has survived these perils and followed the better path heads out toward the next frontier.

     The Whole Foods Project vanished long ago, so let’s have a look at some other small nonprofits based in New York City today.  I’d never heard of any of them, so how did I find their names?  I Googled them.

     Albanian Roots is an organization of young Albanian professionals seeking to strengthen the Albanian community by integrating Albanians with each other and with their adopted countries throughout the whole Albanian diaspora.  It was created in 2008 by young Albanian college students in New York eager to promote Albanian culture and heritage, and now sponsors an annual parade as part of the Immigrants Day Parade in New York.

     My comment: I didn’t know there was an Albanian diaspora, much less an Albanian community in New York, much less an Immigrants Day Parade.  Albanians – some 9,100 of them -- live in the Belmont and Morris Park sections of the Bronx. 

     Common Cents began when Theodore Faro Gross, a writer, was walking down Broadway and his four-year-old daughter saw a man crouching against a newsstand and said, “That man is cold.  Why don’t we bring him home?”  Her question made him uncomfortable, so to soothe his conscience he began asking his neighbors if they had any pennies for the homeless.  One had several goldfish jars filled with pennies, and another a cookie jay full of the same.  Encouraged by their synagogue and others, in 1991 he and his wife created a nonprofit whose volunteers harvest pennies from their Upper West Side neighbors and donate them to Coalition for the Homeless, a well-established nonprofit dedicated to feeding the homeless.  Each contributing household now donates an average of $13 dollars in coins.  But today the nonprofit, which has school kids collecting pennies in an annual Penny Harvest, is at risk of vanishing, since its expanded efforts need close to $1 million a year.  “We cannot pay the trucking company to pick up the pennies,” Mr. Gross explains.  “I’m down to four staffers and calling people for donations to keep the doors open.”  But the city may help.  As always, money, money, money.

     My comment: A brilliant idea!  Stuck with a ton of pennies that my partner Bob had let accumulate and never disposed of, I once gave them to a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street.  But the Grosses took it one step further, with impressive results.  Let's hope their nonprofit survives.

     Sing for Hope was founded by opera singers Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora in 1995 in an effort to bring all the arts to schoolchildren, hospital and nursing-home patients, and seniors in underserved communities that otherwise have little exposure to art.  Today over 1500 professional artist volunteers – opera singers, actors, jazz musicians, dancers, puppeteers, and visual artists – participate.  For two weeks every year the Sing for Hope Pianos program installs pianos – at last count 88 -- in public spaces in all five boroughs for anyone and everyone to play – a program that reaches some 2 million New Yorkers and visitors.  To walk by a park in a noise-ridden neighborhood and hear an unshaven pianist in shorts and sandals play Schubert in an expert impromptu performance is, as the New York Times journalist who witnessed it reported, an “only-in-New-York experience.”

     My comment: During the last two summers, on warm weekend evenings the faint tinkle of piano music would infiltrate my apartment in the West Village.  Peering out a window, I could just barely make out a piano planted in the middle of a little park diagonally across from my building.  Was this a Sing for Hope performance?  Probably not, since one weekend afternoon I saw the pianist in action and, as I recall, he had a bowl on top of the piano in hopes of donations.  Still, it was a delightful encounter, worthy of classification as an “only-in-New-York experience.”  And the subway and sidewalk entertainers whom I chronicled long ago (vignette #6, May 6, 2012) were also hoping for donations, but their presence was welcome just the same.  In this city creativity spills out all over the place.

     Project EVIE was founded in 2009 by John Azrielant and some friends to promote the adoption of electric vehicles worldwide.  “We want to reframe the conversation about EVs [electric vehicles], to change the way the world thinks about them,” said executive director Azrielant, whose photos reveal a dynamic young man, dark-haired, with an engaging smile.  “They’re still seen as glorified golf carts for San Franciscans and pious tree-huggers…. Maybe we can frame them as the vehicle of the American dream, representing freedom and independence.”  To realize this goal he and his colleagues in 2010 planned to send a vehicle around the world, crossing six continents and seventy countries in six months, starting in New Zealand and ending in New York, for a total of 70,000 miles.  The trip was planned carefully, with a list of charging stations in every country to be visited, and Mr. Azrielant was hopeful.  But with a half-million-dollar budget, the newly created nonprofit had money problems from the start, and when the needed funds didn’t come through, the project had to be canceled.  Since then, no trace of Mr. Azrielant and his nonprofit.  The Facebook page of “Project Evie” reveals a creative home designers outfit helping people renovate or remodel their home, which surely has nothing to do with Mr. Azrielant’s Project EVIE.  I fear that the noble project to promote electric vehicles may have collapsed for lack of funds. 

     My comment: Once again, money, money, money.

     The Honey Bee Conservancy works to educate people about the alarming decline in honey bees and what we can do about it.  This may at first sound a bit outlandish or eccentric, but if you find out how many common fruits and vegetables depend on pollination by honey bees, you’ll realize that this affects you, too.  The causes of the decline are many, but pesticides are one of the culprits.  And what does this have to do with New York?  The honey stand at the Union Square Greenmarket announces proudly that its honey is a New York product.  Since the city’s ban on beekeeping was rescinded in 2010, the city’s rooftops – including (of all places!) the legendary Waldorf Astoria – are abuzz.  

     My comment: More power to those rooftops, their buzzing visitors, and the conservancy that works to preserve them.

     The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) is a nonprofit that I have long since known about and that I am now a member of, since it is especially relevant for me, a longtime Village resident and a history buff as well.  Founded in 1980 by local residents, it seeks to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village and two adjacent neighborhoods, the East Village and NoHo (the district north of Houston Street).  Much of the Village was designated a historic district in 1969, but many old buildings outside that district’s boundaries are exposed to insensitive renovation or outright demolition, which GVSHP works to prevent.  It gives lectures and walking tours, school programs, and consultations, and promotes the expansion of landmark protection.  Appropriately, it is headquartered at the Neighborhood Preservation Center in the historic former rectory of St. Mark’s Church at 232 East 11th Street in the East Village.

     I endorse GVSHP’s activities because the Village area – my neighborhood -- still has numerous people-sized buildings, old buildings with six stories at most, which was as much as residents could manage back in those days before the elevator.  Even the Village’s larger buildings – the massive Archive Building on Christopher Street or Westbeth, the equally massive artists’ residence on Bethune Street near the Hudson River -- seem like squatting giants, earth-bound, unpretentious, and antiquated, compared with the super-modern high-rises now towering up in Midtown Manhattan and other “hot” neighborhoods now given over to the latest mania of development.  (For more on them, see post #178, “Manhattan Real Estate: a Bubble?”)  Personally, I don’t ever want to live in a building where I can’t manage the stairs in the event of a power failure.  Those high-rise and high-cost apartments with breathtaking views of Central Park won’t be so pleasant, if the city is plunged into yet another blackout; how many of the tenants will care to negotiate 70 or 80 flights of stairs?  Maybe someday we’ll find out.

     So what specifically has GVSHP accomplished?  In 2014, the following:

·      Designation of the South Village Historic District, protecting 250 buildings and more than a dozen blocks south of Washington Square: the largest expansion of landmark protection in the Village since 1969.
·      A report on how the Landmarks Preservation Committee has let unscrupulous developers destroy great pieces of the city’s history before they could be landmarked.
·      A favorable ruling from a State Supreme Court justice putting the city’s approval of New York University’s massive expansion program on hold, pending an appeal.
·      Review of more than 100 applications for changes to landmarked properties, advocating preservation of human-scale buildings and sensitive design.

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GVSHP in action: opponents of NYU expansion at a June 2012 rally at City Hall.

 Andrew Berman

     GVSHP’s antagonists include New York University and its perennial need to expand; the Real Estate Board of New York (again, see post #178); developers; and the city of New York.  Which is taking on quite a load, but GVSHP is used to fighting, and fighting hard, for preservation.  This year, and every year, the fight continues.  No wonder the New York Observer, a weekly commenting on politics, media, and real estate, has named GVSHP’s executive director, Andrew Berman, one of the 100 Most Powerful People in Real Estate, and New York Magazine has named him one of 100 “Influentials.”  He is.  And with him in charge, the never-ending fight between preservation and development, the old and the new, human scale and bigness, continues.  In this city it will never end.

     Here now are two more New York-based nonprofits that I will simply mention in passing:

·      The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island (FACSI) promotes the beautification and rehabilitation of neglected or abandoned cemeteries on Staten Island.  Never heard of them till now, but no matter.
·      The Gowanus Canal Conservancy works to clean up the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in Brooklyn, and to create green space and park along its shores.  I have to applaud their effort, since the Gowanus, a 1.8-mile-long stretch of foul water that I have glimpsed only fleetingly from a subway train or automobile in passing (who would want to go near it?), is my favorite polluted site in the area, a victim of industrial waste and sewer overflows from surrounding neighborhoods.  If the Gowanus can be cleaned up, anything can be.

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The Gowanus Canal as seen from an expressway bridge.  From a distance, the pollution is invisible.

I could add more, but the list would go on forever.  Each organization was created by someone who saw a need and, instead of lamenting how things were, decided to do something about it.

     The Internet is full of information about nonprofits.  Here are a few common misconceptions:

1.    Only rich kids need apply.  False.  Most nonprofits rely on paid staff in addition to volunteers.
2.    People who work in them are invariably upbeat and pleasant.  False.  You’ll may find just as many grumpy characters, egomaniacs, and office politicians as in any other field.
3.    Nonprofits are inefficient, waste time and money.  Half true.  Some are inefficient, some aren’t.  Since nonprofits lack clear bottom lines and profit margins, their efficiency is hard to measure.
4.    Nonprofits support only left-wing causes.  False.  Politically they are all over the place – left, right, and center.
5.    Nonprofits provide no upward mobility, are a dead end for your career.  False.  You can have a lifetime career in a nonprofit, and many of them offer young people more leadership opportunities than other sectors do.

     Are there disadvantages in working for a nonprofit?  You bet.

1.    Lower pay.
2.   Results that are hard to measure.
3.    Antiquated technology, and having to do more work with fewer resources.
4.    Bureaucratic red tape.
5.    Endless fundraising.
6.    Irregular hours: evening and weekend obligations, and having to take work home.
7.    Burnout, resulting from all the preceding conditions.
      So why work for a nonprofit?  Again, the Internet lists advantages:

1.    Meaningfulness: as a result of your efforts, human lives will be transformed.
2.    Many hats: you won’t be locked into one job, but will probably serve in many, and so acquire a wide and varied experience.
3.    Creativity: you’ll be challenged to find new ways to fulfill your mission and reach people in faster, cheaper, better ways.
4.    A casual work environment.
5.    A culture of like-minded people, inspiring teamwork and collaboration, rather than internal competition.  (But see misconception #2 above.)
6.    Benefits: health care insurance, dental plans, retirement plans, flexible hours, long vacations.  (Some nonprofits, not all.)

As regards #5, an acquaintance who works for a large nonprofit agrees about like-minded people and hasn’t himself experienced office politics or grumpy coworkers, though he also agrees that burnout is a risk.

     But what if a nonprofit fails and declares bankruptcy?  Because it does happen, and the results can be messy.  A case in point: FEGS Health and Human Services, founded in 1934 to help the unemployed find work.  One of New York City’s largest and oldest social service agencies, it filed for bankruptcy in March 2015.  How could it happen?  Mounting costs, dwindling revenues, and the departure of key employees, including three chief financial officers in just two years.  Among the mounting expenses: administrative costs, including salaries, that made up 30% of the agency’s budget, far exceeding industry standards.

     The result:  The agency's 120,000 poor and disabled clients have been handed over to other agencies, and its employees are scattered, some in new jobs, some still jobless, and others struggling to get by in jobs that pay less.  Meanwhile hundreds of unpaid creditors – furniture and security companies, banks, and former workers waiting anxiously for severance pay – are preparing to fight it out in bankruptcy court for whatever scraps remain. 

     But that’s not all.  Gail Magaliff, the CEO presiding over FEGS as it collapsed, has filed legal papers in bankruptcy court claiming that she is owed $1.2 million in deferred compensation.  Ms. Magaliff, who earned $638,880 in base salary and additional compensation in fiscal year 2012, insists that FEGS promised her the compensation for her “services as a valuable executive employee” – a claim that rings hollow for the agency’s former workers, many of them still looking for a job.  How it will all turn out is uncertain, but it’s messy.  Is this messiness peculiar to nonprofits?  Hardly.  For-profit companies, big and small, go bankrupt all the time.

     How livable is New York City?  The May issue of the Bulletin of the AARP, the giant nonprofit dedicated to enhancing quality of life for geezers like myself, features lists of the most livable places for seniors in the U.S., based on interviews with 4,500 golden oldies.  Given New York’s reputation for noise and congestion, I feared the worst but was pleasantly surprised.  In a list of the ten most livable neighborhoods, a neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, was #1, but right after it came the Upper West Side of Manhattan, because of its restaurants, culture, easy access to gyms and Central Park, and cheap and convenient mass transit.  More power to the Upper West Side!  Personally, I think that the West Village also merits such a rating, even though both neighborhoods are afflicted with high rents, but I’m glad that my city snuck in there even so. 

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Handsome old brownstones on the Upper West Side, not far from Central Park.  Yes, livable.

     From the list of ten most livable big cities, New York is, alas, conspicuously absent, the top three being San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle.  Not that I put down the winning trio.  I lived in San Francisco once long ago, when it was still cheap, and loved it, and rate Boston after New York as the place I most want now to live.  As for Seattle, I have heard good things about it, and am willing to forget my one brief visit long ago, toting luggage up and down those hills, before taking an unscheduled flight to Alaska for a summer job.

     Still, there’s hope for the Big Apple.  In the list of the ten big cities where it’s easiest to get around, New York ranks #3, after San Francisco and Boston. But for staying healthy, it doesn’t make the list at all.  San Francisco is the healthiest, with a low obesity rate; maybe traipsing up and down all those hills pays off, though I insist that my four-flight walkup amounts to the same, and my PCP (primary care physician) has casually mentioned living in a six-flight walkup.  Besides, we have MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re #4 among the best ten big cities for dating, after Nashville, San Francisco, and Washington.  Nashville?  Well, if you like the Grand Ole Opry…  It takes all kinds to make a world, so let’s be gentle and tolerant, and maybe Nashville will tolerate us.

     Coming soon:  The History and Mystery of Names.  How did Gansevoort and Horatio Streets get their names?  And the Battery, Governors Island, and Bowling Green?  Plus a crouching bull, and a locked garden where eating a sandwich is verboten.  And then, Landmarks: Saving the Old from the New.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 17, 2015

180. Walking in New York

     A recent magazine section of the Sunday New York Times had as its theme “Walking New York” and included accounts by seventeen New Yorkers of walks in the city that for them had been especially significant.  Concluding the accounts was a poem by Steve Duenes entitled “How to Walk in New York” that begins

         Don’t text.
         Don’t smile.
         Don’t be injured.
         Don’t break stride.
         Don’t hum what’s in your headphones.

and finally concludes

         Don’t be an obstacle.
         Don’t be sick.
         Don’t be old.
         Don’t stop.
         Don’t look back.

     Mr. Duenes’s poem needn’t be taken literally.  It would be well not to text when walking, but smiles and old age are permitted, and so are stops along the way.  But other advice of his is quite appropriate, as for instance “Don’t talk on your phone” and “Don’t carry a giant umbrella” – two sins that walking New Yorkers often commit, causing peril to themselves and others.

     Yes, as the Times article insists, in spite of all those vehicles that jam the streets, New York is a city of walkers.  Walking is often the quickest way to get somewhere, given the slowness of ground transportation.  Walking in congested Manhattan, I have often overtaken a crosstown bus stopped by a red light or a traffic jam, and when, resuming its trip, the bus overtakes me, often as not I will overtake it again and again.  And if New Yorkers stride purposefully, intent on getting somewhere, in less pressured moments they also slow down to a stroll and enjoy the ever changing sights of the city. 

File:Traffic in Manhattan.jpg

     I have always liked walking in the city, even undertaking long walks that few New Yorkers would want to invest the time and energy in, and I’ll recount a few those here, with the surprises they yielded.  But I’ll start with a short recent walk from my West Village apartment to the new Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District, a neighborhood in the northwest corner of the Village once characterized by huge carcasses of beef hacked up in messy packing plants.  Typical of this ever-changing city, today the district has been utterly transformed by that insidious process known as gentrification.  Which means bloody carcasses are out, trendy bars and restaurants are in, and especially “in” is the new museum.  (For more on the gentrification of the Meatpacking District, see post #138, August 3, 2014.)

     Going up Washington Street to Gansevoort, I found the museum there, cheek by jowl with the downtown (southern) end of the High Line, the  elevated park that these days has become another “in” thing to do.  More of that anon; for now, let’s have a look at the museum – the outside, that is, since I have yet to venture into it.

     (Gansevoort Street: who or what was Gansevoort?  I’ll do a post in the near future on the mystery and history of place names; the mystery of “Gansevoort” will be unraveled.)

     The new Whitney, best seen from Gansevoort Street, looms impressively, the work of veteran museum architect Renzo Piano, one of the creators (or perpetrators) of the Pompidou Center in the Paris market district, a vibrantly modern edifice that wears its plumbing on the outside and strikes viewers as either a monster or a dazzlingly new creation.  And the Whitney?  Seen from the south or Gansevoort side, it looks like a stack of boxes piled on top of one another but not aligned.  It looms, it juts, it overhangs.  Whether you like it or not, you won’t forget it. 

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The Whitney, almost completed, in November 2014.  Seen from the west -- the view
I couldn't get on foot.

     From the west or Hudson River side I couldn’t get a good impression of the museum, since the West Side Highway keeps you from getting a little distance away from it for a better view; a Times reporter describes the museum, when seen from that side, as vaguely nautical, perhaps a ship on blocks.  Before trying for views from the east and north, I relaxed in a chair the museum generously provided on a little deck outside the glass-walled gift shop, which was crammed with visitors eager to buy books and souvenirs.  Sitting with my back to the museum, I had a good view of both the highway, whose roar caressed my ears, and also, at the curb nearby, Call Ahead, an installation offering facilities to both sexes, except that it was shut up tight.

     To see the museum’s exterior from the east and north, I mounted the stairs to the High Line (the elevator being “temporarily” closed), that narrow strip of green projected north from there one story above the city streets.  There is no good view of the Whitney from the east, since the High Line obtrudes, but as you walk north along the High Line you can get a view of the north or uptown face of the museum, which the Times reporter describes as resembling a factory or hospital, with a wall of windows and a cluster of protruding pipes.  To my eye it looks like two boxes: a big box on the right rising sheer and clunky, and next to it a lower box on the left with protruding spikes and, far above this box, several tiers of catwalks thronged with visitors. 

     All in all I would call the Whitney an assemblage of masses, an oddity not meant to soothe the psyche, but jolt it.  Original it certainly is, but for many – like the Pompidou, or even at one time the Eiffel Tower, in Paris – it may take some getting-used-to.  As one French paper said of the Pompidou, “love at second sight.”  The adventure of the interior still awaits me, but those catwalks a-crawl with visitors make me just a bit nervous, as do the glass walls and plunging perspectives of the new MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

     I harbor no mixed feelings about the High Line, that strip of greenery built along what was once an elevated spur of the New York Central Railroad; the park is a sheer delight.  As I strolled a short distance north, I encountered a grove of birch trees planted along the abandoned railroad tracks, and also, side by side, a dogwood and a redbud, both in bloom.  There were visitors everywhere snapping photos of each other and the greenery, or lining up at snack bars, or stretched out on benches and soaking up the sun.  The walkway passes under several soaring modern buildings whose huge windows offer views of the High Line and add to the super-modern and trendy new look of the Meatpacking District, though the High Line cannot escape the whining and grinding noises, horn blasts, and siren wails rising from the street.  Still, it’s an inspiration, a wonder.

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The High Line, passing under the Standard Hotel.
La Citta Vita

     Every walk offers surprises.  Leaving the High Line at 14th Street, I walked south along Washington Street and realized that the area is still a work in progress: on the left or east side of the street, trendy shops; on the west side, distracting construction noises and meatpackers’ trucks parked at loading platforms – proof that the Meatpacking District still, to some extent, lives up to its name.  And then, as I walked along Horatio Street toward Greenwich – a walk I had never done before – I discovered a row of Greek Revival houses on the north side of the street: either well-kept homes from the nineteenth century, or inspired replicas.  Doubt as to their genuineness vanished when I spied, on numbers 11 and 13, plaques reading “1836,” the date of their construction.  So it is in the Village, as in other old sections of the city: charming Federal and Greek revival houses and brownstones, well preserved, where you least expect them.  The rage of modernity has not reached – or shall I say infected – all the city.

File:Marble Church NYC.jpg     Another walk I used to do took me from the Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street down Fifth to the Village.  I was usually doing research in the library and chose to walk home around 5 p.m. to stretch my legs and avoid the crowds in the subway.  For me this was a familiar walk, but two surprises awaited me.  First, at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street I passed the Marble Collegiate Church, an impressive marble structure built in 1854 in what is designated Neo-Romanesque Gothic style with a soaring steeple.  And there, posted on the building, was the name of its pastor: Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.  I had no idea that the renowned author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a 1952 best seller selling in the millions, was the minister of a church right here in Manhattan.  No, I wasn’t tempted to attend services or read the book, but for years I looked for his name on the church.  Then, one day in 1984, I discovered a different name there and realized that the famous Dr. Peale had retired.  Another surprise, and a reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even the author of The Power of Positive Thinking.  Dr. Peale died in 1993, but his presence still inspires the church in the form of a life-sized bronze statue installed in the churchyard in 1998.  (For more on Dr. Peale, see post #149, where he appears in the company of Fulton J. Sheen, that other rock star of devotion.)

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 Dr. Peale in 1966, looking fatherly and benign.  And what a smile!

      And the second surprise on my walk downtown on Fifth Avenue?  Minnie Mouse.  Yes, there she was on the sidewalk, along with other beloved Disney characters and related species, welcoming buyers flocking to some event on the Avenue just above 23rd Street and across from Madison Square.  I never quite grasped what the occasion was, but the arriving visitors must have been buyers from out-of-town stores coming to New York in July – and a hot July at that – to place orders for goods to be sold during the Christmas holiday season.  It’s a hardship of the profession that buyers have to guess, months in advance and in the heat of summer, what will sell at the chilly onset of winter, but Minnie and her cohorts were there to make their decisions easier.  Maybe it was a toy fair for wholesalers, one of those annual events open only to the trade.  But it was a fun moment for me, and a surprise, to see Minnie and her friends in action, though I didn’t envy the humans sweating inside those costumes in July. 

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     Another trip took me uptown from the Village to do research in the library (what a scholar I must have been in those days!), and then on farther uptown to the Whole Foods Project lunch in a church on West 73rd Street.  En route I often found myself in the midst of the Flower District, which today runs along West 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, an amazing jungle of greenery where plant wholesalers and retailers set plants out on the sidewalk: tubs of flowers, shrubs, even orange trees and palms, sometimes so thick and tall a growth that you almost forget you’re in a city.  And there’s more inside the shops, whose shelves are crammed with every kind of plant conceivable, and pots and vases and gardening tools, and even imitation fruits that from a distance can’t be told from the genuine article.  But this is a place to buy in bulk – for a wedding, for example – since the flowers and plants are sold in bunches, but it’s also a place to buy cheap.

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The lobby mural of the Empire State Building.
     Once past that special district, the greenery disappears and the reality of city life – the crowds, the noise, the congestion – presses hard upon you.  But usually I would approach the Empire State Building along 33rd Street, enter it (this was before 9/11), and walk the lobby’s dim but spacious  corridors past an aluminum relief of the skyscraper, and exit at the Fifth Avenue entrance to continue up the avenue to the library.  Just walking through that building gave me a special, indefinable thrill.

     Later, leaving the library after a bit of research, I would enter an arcade that took me from 42nd to 43rd Street, and then another arcade from 43rd to 44th Street, coming out on 44th near the renowned Algonquin Hotel, where writer and critic Dorothy Parker and her accomplices once convened for the famous Algonquin Round Table to trade opinions and gossip and mordant wit.  (For more of that renowned but bitchy clique, see post #166, February 11, 2015.)  From there I would proceed up one of the avenues to Central Park, and then up Broadway past Lincoln Center – not at its best in broad daylight – to my destination on 73rd Street.  And after that longish trek, did I have an appetite for lunch!

     Another walk took me from the Village to the lighting and lamp district on the Bowery.  Needing a lamp for the living room, I decided to walk to the Bowery and in the process discovered – or rediscovered -- one district after another in this endlessly diverse city.  Crossing Houston Street, I entered Soho (or SoHo), a trendy district south of Houston now known for artists’ lofts, galleries, and boutiques, but once a neighborhood of commercial buildings with cast-iron façades housing small factories, sweatshops, warehouses, and printing plants.  By the 1960s these operations had moved out, and artists began moving into the abandoned buildings offering low-rent lofts with large spaces, high ceilings, and big windows admitting natural light.  Then, by the 1980s, gentrification set in like a creeping disease – or a marvelous enhancement, if you like – following which the neighborhood became “hip” and “in” and high-priced, and a mecca for tourists.    

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120-126 Prince Street in Soho, two buildings with a common façade made of brick, stone, and iron.  Built in 1892-93 for stores and light manufacturing, on the ground floor they now house trendy
shops and a gallery.

Beyond My Ken

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One of the last Radio Row stores on Canal Street.
     Crossing Canal Street, I left Soho behind and skirted Little Italy, now a shrunken remnant of its former self, its presence announced here by a handful of Italian restaurants.  (Many Italians moved out long ago to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the fair suburban pastures of New Jersey and Long Island – another familiar pattern in the city, as immigrants prospered and crept into the ranks of the middle class.)  By now I was close to my destination, with signs in Chinese announcing Chinatown’s expansion northward across Canal Street, and nearby, on the north side of Canal Street, the remnants of Radio Row, a stretch of the street once lined with radio and electronics stores.  And at Canal Street and the Bowery I also encountered the Downtown Diamond District, from which merchants once migrated to create the better-known Uptown Diamond District on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 

     But I wasn’t looking for diamonds or a radio or a Chinese meal, I wanted a lamp.  So I turned north on the Bowery and discovered shops selling lamps and lighting fixtures on both sides of the street between Grand and Broome Streets.  Any kind of lighting fixture you might desire is available in these shops, their wares displayed in bewildering profusion.  Fortunately, I found just the lamp I needed in the very first shop I entered, though I checked out several others before returning to buy that lamp.  But this district too, a shadow of its former self, is in danger, thanks in part to – you guessed it -- gentrification.  Even the Bowery – once the city’s notorious skid row – is getting trendy and upscale, so higher rents and the rise of online shopping are causing the lighting stores to close.  As for the flophouses that once characterized the street, there are very few left.  Also threatened is another nearby district, the wholesale restaurant- and bar-supply district along the Bowery just south of Houston.  (For more on the Bowery, see post #90, "The Bowery: From Bhoys to Bums to Condos," October 2, 2013.)

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The Bowery Lodge at 81 Bowery, one of the last skid row flophouses.  The signs
 in Chinese show how Chinatown has spread north of Canal Street.

Beyond My Ken
     Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Radio Row, the Downtown Diamond District, the Lighting District, and the restaurant- and bar-supply stores just to the north – not a bad succession of sights in the course of a twenty- or thirty-minute walk in Manhattan.  Only on foot can you savor the rich mix of the city, register its endless succession of surprises.

     Sometimes the city surprises you during a walk that you have done a hundred times or more.  Though I have often visited Union Square and its greenmarket, only recently did I notice an impressive building on the northeast corner of East 15th Street and Union Square East, a high building fronted by four soaring Corinthian columns that made it look like a bank of another time.  Going closer, I read the words FUERZA BRUTA in big letters above the columns.  “Fuerza bruta”?  “Brute force”?  What was this all about?  Going closer still, I saw a sign announcing the Daryl Roth Theatre, a theater I had never heard of.  So was this a movie theater offering a Spanish-language film to Latinos?  A theater that looked like a bank that looked like an ancient Greek temple?

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Beyond My Ken

     By the time I got home, I had forgotten the name of the theater, but “fuerza bruta” stuck in my mind, and the Internet, that vast repository of useful and useless facts, led to me the theater and finally to the building’s history.  Fuerza Bruta – translated as “Brute Force Wind” (though where they got the “wind” I’ll never know) – is advertised as a “hit off-Broadway interactive experience” that has returned to New York with WAYRA, a new show that will “flood your senses with heart-thrashing fun, pulse-pumping live music and breathtaking aerial acrobatics.”  Which makes it sound like a multimedia event combining jazz, circus, and I’m not sure what – “environmental eye candy,” as one reviewer put it.  Just reading about it wore me out, but I’m sure it finds its audience … somewhere.

     But this is irrelevant; my interest is in the building itself.  Completed in 1907 as the new home of the Union Square Savings Bank, it had (and still has) a façade of white granite whose classic Greek temple style was meant to convey, to a public still unnerved by the financial crisis of 1893, an impression of order and sobriety -- in other words, a safe place to deposit your goodies.  (Bad timing: in that same year 1907 there was another financial panic, and a bad one.)  As for the spacious interior, it was outfitted in marble and bronze and lit by stained-glass skylights far above, while depositors could tread on black-and-white mosaic tiles made of (of all things!) rubber.

     The bank survived various panics, including the Great Crash of 1929 and the lean years that followed, and underwent a merger and a name change, before being acquired by the American Savings Bank in 1982.  Under this rubric it entered into a series of bad real estate loans, foundered, and was  closed by state regulators in 1992. 

     What becomes of an elegant Greek-temple-like bank, after it ceases to be a bank?  It sat empty for several years and then in 1996 was acquired by award-winning theater producer Daryl Roth, who converted it into a theater modestly named for herself.  But that same year the building became a New York City landmark, so the monumental exterior remains intact, no matter what wild happenings are raging inside.  How I could have overlooked the building all these years, I will never understand.  In my opinion, it is the handsomest, and architecturally the most interesting, structure facing Union Square.

     A mystery surge:  Last Tuesday, May 12, coinciding with a surge in bug activity in my apartment (I slaughtered dozens), there was a surge in page views of this blog.  Normally there are between 80 and 150 views a day, and if, rarely, the number rises to near or slightly above 200, I’m surprised and delighted.  But last Tuesday the number surged mysteriously near noon, and the final total for the day was 336 – an unprecedented figure.  Why?  I have no idea.  An invasion of foreign hackers?  No, most of the views were – as usual – from this country.  And of course the day’s total on Wednesday sank  back to normal.  Hopefully, the number of bugs will likewise diminish, though I’m not counting on it.  And which posts got the most hits?  The top five:

1.    #89, Who Really Runs America?  David Rockefeller?
2.    #179, The West Village Then and Now (the most recent post)
3.    #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo (usually gets the most)
4.    #141, Hell House and Christian Terrorism
5.    #136, Francis J. Spellman, the Controversial Cardinal (another perennial favorite, posing the inevitable question: Was he or wasn’t he?)

Clearly, favorite topics are sex, politics, and (as long as it’s not bland) religion. 

     Banks:  Viewers of this blog know how I love banks – the big ones, that is.  Goodness gracious, five of the biggest – Barclay’s, Citigroup, the Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS, and my own dear J.P. Morgan Chase – are reportedly about to plead guilty to felony charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department.  The banks are accused of rigging the price of foreign currencies and will pay billions in fines.  But surely no one will go to prison, since that might upset the whole financial world unduly.
     Coming soon:  Nonprofits and What They’re Up To: Cemeteries, Old Houses, Pianos, Pennies, and the Gowanus Canal.

     ©   2015  Clifford Browder