Friday, December 10, 2010

Little Italy: A Building Tells a Story

When Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Little Italy became New York’s first basilica last Sunday, all eyes, and camera lenses, were on the church but directly across the street stood an unassuming building that drew my attention. It turns out that 256-258Mott Street has an interesting past.

What is now a co-op building used to be known as the 14th Ward Industrial School. It was built for John Jacob Astor and his wife Charlotte in 1888 to serve, in the words of The New York Times over 100 years ago, “a district of wretchedness, poverty and squalor.” It became a school, run by the Children’s Aid Society, where impoverished immigrant children could receive daily lessons in “industry, thrift and cleanliness" along with hot meals.

The Astor’s bought the lot for $21,000, hired Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park, to design the building and paid $42,000 to have the Victorian Gothic structure built. The little red brick building on Mott Street became a safe haven for generations of children in a neighborhood that used to be part of the infamously violent Five Points district. Today its classrooms are residences and the building stands serene amidst cafes and boutiques.

Every one of New York's oldest buildings has a story to tell and each one seems worth repeating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Central Park West Skyline: An Uncertain Future

Every time a neighborhood loses one of its favorite landmarks – an old bookstore, theater, bar or old-fashioned corner store – it’s heartbreaking for the immediate community. Now development threatens to ruin one of New York’s most iconic skylines – a view that if destroyed might be doubly heartbreaking if measured by the number of people its loss would impact.

The Central Park West Skyline is recognized by millions of local residents and out-of-town visitors as part of the city’s architectural history and a symbol of Old New York but that hasn’t stopped developers from planning changes to it that could permanently damage its familiar appearance. It’s hard to imagine looking out from the rooftop garden at The Met, from the path that circles the Reservoir or from Belvedere Castle to see that gentle skyline interrupted by glass towers but that is exactly what might occur.

“The threat to the Central Park West Skyline is one that emerges over and over again.” said Kate Wood, Executive Director of Landmark West! the non-profit organization that curates nearly 2,700 cultural and architectural landmarks throughout the Upper West Side. We discussed the issue that may become central to Landmark West’s preservation efforts in 2011.

CGW: How real is the threat of development to the Central Park West Skyline?

KW: The Central Park West Skyline is such an iconic part of New York City that everyone would assume that the skyline is safe. Surely you couldn’t build a monstrosity that could mar that skyline. But what we have seen is a consistent pattern to attempt to use the air space hovering above low-rise sites along and near Central Park West.

CGW: But as part of a Historic District aren’t the buildings that line Central Park West protected?

KW: The Central Park District is preserved but it doesn’t mean it can’t change at all.

CGW: What makes Central Park West architecturally significant?

KW: The area is a careful balance of buildings developed over time in three waves of development from the 1870s to the 1930s, from low-rise to mid-rise to the taller luxury apartment buildings with the twin tower-style design. The result is an up and down skyline where your eye can follow different waves through time. We think there’s a special quality there that if a new development is proposed we need to look at what the impact to the landmarks would be.

CGW: How difficult is it to fight the sort of development that would destroy the integrity of the existing skyline?

KW: What we’ve seen again and again is a pitched battle. Hundreds of people need to turn out just to make the point that this can’t happen.
We just can’t keep battling this way on a case by case basis. Through a study (conducted by architecture and planning firm Weisz+Yoes) we were able to investigate the future of development along Central Park West and its impact on the skyline. What the study identified were ten sites where we can foresee these types of proposals coming forward. This study allows us to be prepared to offer alternatives to development. Keep in mind that Central Park West is only one of four skylines. Any tools we come up with could be useful to other parts of the city.

CGW: What are some of the alternatives to development?

KW: Landmark West! and other non-profits are looking at the model of rural land conservation for solutions - The Trust for Public Land, for example. Ideally we should be working more collaboratively with property owners to help them see that they don’t have to build to their maximum allowance in order to reap benefits. Instead they can exchange those rights for some other valuable incentive, taking alternative value from their sites and building modestly within their zoning. That incentive carrot together with the stick of regulation would make all the difference.

CGW: It’s surprising that an organization like the New York Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of history, plans to add a 28-story tower to the skyline in a historic district.

KW: They’re looking at the American Museum of Natural History and seeing high attendance. They want to do something flashy and visible to be noticed and it becomes about marketing in a way that can have long-term destructive impact on the building. They have all these unused development rights on their property and they see this as a potential windfall but if they exploit their air rights there’s no guarantee the money would be spent to increase their endowment or services. In the meantime the city would be dealing with a permanent addition to the skyline. That’s just not a fair trade-off.

CGW: In a worst case scenario, the NYHS tower and a proposed condominium building over CSI would go up. What would be the immediate impact to the area?

KW: There would be the environmental impact. But people would suddenly realize what they had lost - one of New York's most beloved skylines.

(Additional notes from Landmark West!: It could also trigger a “domino effect” along Central Park West and throughout the city. Nonprofit and for-profit developers in each of the five boroughs, eager to exploit their own sites, would recognize the approval of these towers as a precedent opening the door for future development.)

CGW: What is the worst aspect of fighting institutions that are your neighbors right here on the Upper West Side?

KW: These battles are polarizing. People support and volunteer at the New York Historical Society, for example, and take their children there to visit and suddenly you feel like you are on the other side of the battlefield from them and that’s not what anyone wants.

CGW: What can New York City residents do to help ensure the skyline remains as it appears today?

KW: Now that public hearings (for CSI and the NYHS) are over these cases have gone into hibernation but with landmarks, even when they’re ‘saved’ they’re never really safe. Protecting these buildings requires our constant attention. They need a human force field around them and that’s why Landmark West is here otherwise there is no one to organize around these efforts. In January, Columbia University Graduate students in Urban Planning will build on the Central Park West Skyline report. Once we have some solid facts to go on it will be a matter of getting the political support from elected officials and talking with City Planning. Ultimately we have to have buy-in from the mayor. In the meantime we need to build grassroots momentum. Once we have a better sense of what sort of legislation needs to be put into place we will build a constituency.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Year with the Guccione Family

When I read that Bob Guccione died yesterday I thought about his family and wondered how a man who chose to live such an unconventional life will be remembered.

I worked as an editorial and personal assistant for the Guccione family during my senior year in college. During that time I learned there was more behind the Guccione name than what most people tend to imagine.

When I arrived at the Omni offices on Broadway for the first time in the mid-80s I assumed that I'd be interviewing for an internship with the science magazine of the same name. When the elevator door opened and I was confronted with an enormous portrait of Bob Guccione sitting in a gilded chair with a nude woman straddling his lap I assumed I'd gone to the wrong floor. It turned out that I was on the right floor but the interview wouldn't be with Omni. It would be for an internship that would expose me to every aspect of the publishing business while I moved from one publication to another within the Guccione empire.

My first assignment at General Media, Inc. was as assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Penthouse Magazine, Peter Bloch. I was responsible for fact checking a series of long articles on chiropractic medicine while I shivered in a cold, drab cubicle. Opening the mail each day was my only break from boredom. The Dear Penthouse letters that appeared in the mailbag among invoices were either funny or bizarre. They were hardly ever written on ordinary writing paper. I came across letters written on gift wrap, brown paper bags, innersoles, takeout menus, posterboard and even one that arrived written in perfect penmanship on a long stretch of toilet paper.

At the end of that first month of yawns and shivers I was moved to my next assignment, this time at New Look, the first-ever, gear-oriented magazine for men. Bob Guccione invented the format that today is a crowded genre. Critics thought it would fail so there was a gung-ho energy in that office as everyone worked hard to ensure New Look's success. The scene there was active, young and spontaneous.

One morning while I was making calls on a research assignment I was distracted by a sudden flash of movement nearby. I turned to look only to find a kangaroo hopping along the editorial department's grey carpet, it's blue vest emblazoned with the magazine's name. The office broke out into laughter and squeals as the creature was chased around by the wrangler charged with getting him to a promotional event.

I realized after only a few weeks at General Media that the company derided by feminists as being exploitive of women was dominated at every level by bright, powerful women. Later, I discovered that Dawn Steel, of Penthouse's advertising department, had gone on to become head of Paramount Pictures. Editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, launched her career with Bob Guccione as fashion editor of his experimental women's magazine, Viva.

When it was time to leave New Look I was so disappointed to learn that I'd be moving to accounting next. The only compensation was knowing I'd be working with Anthony Guccione Sr., the elder statesman of the family, and Nina, Bob Guccione's quiet, dark-haired sister or daughter - I don't remember exactly. What the experience lacked in thrills it made up for in good company.

During that time I'd walk the halls between dull tasks trying to oxygenate my brain so that I could stay awake. While peeking into offices I found Ori Hofmekler's artist studio and made a good friend. I remember his great stories, many of them fascinating conspiracy theories and the wild political caricatures he painted for the magazine. Every day at some point I would escape to his studio and take a seat on a low stool near a window to visit and watch him paint. He would entertain me with his clever political rants and his tales about his life back in Israel. In return I would make him laugh with my daily observations about the goings-on in the offices below his studio.

Soon my accounting assignment was over and it was onto the next adventure. I learned that I would now be the personal assistant to the formidable Kathy Keeton, co-founder of Penthouse, Omni and Longevity magazines and wife of Bob Guccione. That was exciting yet terrifying news. She was known to all of us lowly assistants as an exacting boss. I was shaking on that first Monday morning as I entered her realm at Longevity Magazine.

The first time I saw Kathy Keeton she was walking down the hall toward her office, accompanied by a chauffer and five Rhodesian ridgebacks. She wore a tiny, pink Chanel suit. I stood to greet her but then sat back down at at my desk with no idea what to do. When she was settled in for the morning she yelled for me with such force that I jumped. I wobbled into her office knowing that dogs sense fear. Her five huge dogs lay by the door looking massive and potentially dangerous so I smiled as I inched past them. I turned to see Kathy Keeton sitting at her desk looking small but equally as intimidating so I smiled even more. I stood at her desk, aware that Rhodesian ridegbacks are trained to take down prey from behind. I tried to focus on my new boss' words rather than on her dogs behind me but it was impossible -they had my full attention.

For the next however-long at Longevity, my responsibilities included participating in the letter writing campaign against the Edwin Meese Commission (the group was attempting to ban Guccione publications from 7-11s) and keeping the Rhodesian ridegbacks well-fed with chopsteaks from a restaurant on Broadway. I also shopped all over Manhattan for Ms. Keeton, picking up holiday gifts for Penthouse Pets. But what I appreciated about my role was seeing the daily life of a publisher - learning how editorial decisions were made, witnessing how major advertisers could be convinced over time to spend their dollars and watching the magazine's founder channel her passion for wellness into a magazine that would not only be successful but generate a new health magazine genre.

After those stressful but fascinating months with Ms. Keeton it was time to change roles again. I moved to the photography and layout department of Penthouse to assist the Director of Photography. My work consisted mostly of administrative tasks and setting photographers and models at ease as they waited to present their portfolios to the director - an easygoing Dean Martin-like man with a great sense of humor. He and his Vice President were best friends. They kept their wives happy by shopping often and genrously for them. They once returned from lunch to tell me about the matching Jaguars they had just ordered for their wives and another time they went out to buy the ladies matching mink coats. I was a struggling student back then and listened to their stories in amazement while eating Cup-A-Soups and eating whatever crackers I could find in empty desks around the office. I think they were the happiest team at General Media.

Next up for me was a brand new magazine called Spin. I'd be assisting the youngest Guccione, Bobby Junior. (The two words were always spoken running together as if they were both his first name.) It was an incredibly busy, exciting time to join the magazine. The only real music magazine then was Rolling Stone and here was this 19-year-old boy ready to take that giant on.

The days at Spin flew by - there were no dull moments like those I experienced in my cubicles in the Traffic or Accounting departments throughout General Media. At Spin there was a constant flow of new ideas, new music and a lot of flirting among the young staff. In the middle of this whirlwind was BobbyJunior, dark curls crowning his head in the style of a young Caesar in his father's empire.

He always had a joke and a friendly remark for everyone even though he was under enormous pressure to prove himself within the publishing industry. At least twice a day he would sit on my desk for a chat but he moved back and forth between casual conversation and actual task-making that I learned to keep pen and paper at the ready at all times. Even during frenetic moments he played the charming host for the staff but the dark circles under his eyes and his intensity made it obvious that this was, above all, serious business.

After Spin I moved to C.B.S. Records to work in publicity for Andy Warhol's protege, Susan Blond but I missed General Media for a long time. I never found out who orchestrated my moves from depratment to department or from Guccione to Guccione throughout that year but whoever did did a fantastic job of showing a journalism student every aspect of publishing.

I never did meet Bob Guccione himself but I was able to learn from the people he loved most at the publications he was most passionate about and from that I have to conclude that he must have been a powerhouse - he ignited tremendous drive in each member of his family and organization. I was in awe of Kathy Keeton. She radiated health, beauty and an incredible focus that made her seem larger-than-life. I hope they will both be remembered as people who lived extraordinary lives.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Walking in the '70s

What was the Upper West Side like during the 1970s?

Ask people who lived here at the time and you're likely to hear conflicting opinions.

"There was room for everyone on the Upper West Side back then. It was an exciting , diverse place to live - part of a city with an edge."
"It was a dangerous, decaying place. Like the rest of New York, the Upper West Side was in crisis."
So much has been written about New York as it was in the '70s that I'm beginning to question my own childhood memories of that time. Was it as pleasant and colorful as I remember or as miserable and dangerous as it has been portrayed in books and movies set during that notorious decade?
I'll describe the walk I took each day to school on the Upper West Side in the '70s and you be the judge.

When I was growing up in New York on the Upper West Side, danger was ever-present but it seemed more like background noise than the focus of our lives. Danger was something we lived with and worked around in order to continue doing what mattered. We were not at home cringing in fear. Well, not all of the time.
The pre-war building where we lived was filled with actors, musicians, ballet dancers, opera singers, playwrights, social workers, activists, teachers, professors, and more. Its hallways echoed at all hours with the sounds that escaped from apartments: singers vocalizing, composers at their pianos and actors running through their lines. There were 12 apartments on each floor with two located nearest to the stairs. Musicians always lived in those stairwell apartments, for the extra soundproofing I assume. Occasionally I would walk down ten flights of stairs just to enjoy listening to the way the music would change from floor to floor, from jazz to classical and back again.

My favorite neighbor was a German author and illustrator, Hilde Hoffman. She kept the door to her sunny apartment open in the afternoons so that her cats could go out to roam the halls and I could come in to watch her work. The occasional muggings and robberies in our building didn't prevent her from enjoying her open door at least a few hours each day. That ended when our doorman, a retired police officer who brought his family to every one of my birthday parties, was shot to death in our lobby during a robbery. After that she stopped keeping her door open and soon moved away. I remember a sense of sorrow marked by fear lasting a long time after the loss of those two friends.

Walks to school along Broadway offered a bit of everything - the good the bad and the crazy.

My mom and I would leave our building, turn the corner and immediately be met by the sight of the transvestitie prostitutes on the corner. Their comments about everyone who walked by them would often make us laugh. We would pass the Chinese laundry, (still there to this day) and I would breathe in the clean laundry scent until we reached the Greek diner, with its eggs and coffee aromas. When we passed the open door of the P&G Bar on the corner I would hold my breath against the smell of stale beer while I squinted into the dark to see who would want to sit in such a smelly place. (Apparently lots of people since P&G re-located only recently.)
After a stop at the donut shop on West 73rd Street across from "Needle Park," we would continue along Broadway, my mom's hand clutching mine a little harder each time we passed what were known back then as "bums" - drunks, drug addicts, weirdoes. One of them scared me the most. He was an odd man who stood on Broadway for years playing a snare drum, his hair and eyebrows painted jet black and his face colored red with strange, oily makeup. Mostly, the people on the street were just ordinary.

On the corner of West 72nd Street, where Gray's Papaya now stands, there used to be a record shop. I remember seeing the album covers in the windows change each week, depending on who was popular. Time seemed to pass measured by the images in those windows - Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Elton John, Doobie Brothers, Rolling Stones, Barry White, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, Donna Summers. My closest childhood friend reminded me recently that for many years there was a woman who stood near that store singing opera. The woman was set on fire one day and died of her injuries.

At the corner of West 71st Street there was a candy store that seemed old to me even so many years ago. The owner seemed to despise children. He watched me with suspicion each I walked in to buy a Chunky bar or anything else, probably because anytime he saw children wearing the school uniform I wore he assumed his store was about to be shoplifted. He was usually right. Groups of children enjoyed visiting his store before and after school only to run out laughing, clutching handfuls of stolen candy bars. After awhile the store owner began keeping a long pole behind the counter that he used to scare off little thieves.

A few doors down from the candy store we would walk by another bar but I remember little about it other than that familiar stale smell and the fact that a Mark Spitz poster was a permanent fixture just inside the door.

On the corner of West 70th Street and Broadway I'd leave my mom and turn the corner to approach my school. Along the way I'd slow down if the warehouse doors to the ABC Television production facility were open. It was fascinating to watch the sets for ABC soap operas being built and rolled in and out of that facility each day.

Finally, I'd arrive in front of Blessed Sacrament School and join the swell of children playing and shrieking on the street and along the sidewalk in front of it. We were a mass of green plaid and flannel. After a few minutes the school principal would come outside to ring the morning bell.
Every one of us at Blessed Sacrament had walked to school. All of us had witnessed scenes along the way that told us what was best and worst about our colorful, sometimes shockingly dangerous neighborhood. But at school we were just children. The only thing that filled us with dread there was the sound of the school bell's first chime signaling the end of recess. We would fall into silence and line up quickly ready to enter the school and its zone That's a whole other blog post.
Now that you've visited the Upper West Side of the past, how would you answer the question, "what was it like?" I suppose it would depend on where you focused your attention - on the frightening and dangerous or on what was beautiful and unique. Just remember that everything that made it an unbearable place to live was overshadowed by countless other details that made it an impossible place to leave. Ask me what it was like and I'll tell you simply - it was home.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back to Nostalgia

What do you do when you've read an article that has shaken you to your core, you've responded with an impassioned Letter to the Editor then come back to your senses? You write a blog rebuttal to your own comments. Crazy, right? But that's what I've done.

The idea for a series re: growing up in New York began after I read two essays about life in 70s New York then re-read my letter to Commentary magazine. In it I quote Myron Magnet about today's New York and Upper West Side:

"Today's peace and prosperity mustn't be taken for granted...know what a heroic effort of philanthropy and policing it took to reclaim what less than two decades ago was a dusty, sterile, graffitti-marred wasteland."

I end the letter claiming that after being reminded of all things negative about my old neighborhood and all things wonderful about it's renewal I'm willing to join John Podhoretz, author of one of the essays, in saying "to hell with nostalgia."

Well, the sentimental Upper West Sider is back. Yes, the old days here were difficult and dangerous but there is much to celebrate about those days that the essays overlooked. The blog post below is the first step in a recovery from unhealthy, unnecessary anti-nostalgia.

Read. Enjoy. Comment. Revel in the new Upper West Side but don't let anyone tell you it wasn't an amzing place even back in the "bad old days."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Upper West Side: More to the Story?

What was it like to grow up in New York?

That's been a difficult question to answer at times but having just read two essays in Commentary and City Journal about life in New York in the 70s and 80s, I'm beginning to understand why: I grew up in more than one version of the same city.

In the first essay, Life in New York, Then and Now, John Podhoretz describes living on Manhattan's Upper West Side during one of "the worst periods in New York's history." That period happens to coincide with the time when both he and I were children in the area. The stories he shares in his essay about those days intersect my own childhood memories. He describes after-school muggings, "airmail" (scraps of garbage thrown from windows) and the "state of constant menace" that was part of daily existence for most of us who lived through that dark period. If you read the piece he wrote (Commentary, May 2010) you'll notice that he finds few redeeming qualities to celebrate about the Upper West Side of that era. The statistics he lists certainly support his view: at the peak of the madness there were over 5,000 felonies reported in one precinct in our neighborhood in a month.

Myron Magnet also writes about a New York I once new. If you loved New York back in the "bad old days" it's actually painful to read what he has to say. In his City Journal essay he portrays the New York of my childhood as a "nightmare peopled by freaks" while drawing readers' attention back to Mr. Sammler's City, a controversial novel written by Saul Bellows and published in 1970. The novel captured life in New York as the city was unraveling. The first sentences in Mr. Magnet's essay brought me back to that time in an instant:

"Fear was a New Yorker's constant companion in the 1970s and 80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of a medieval ironmongery. Nearing our building entrances we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging proceedure."

If you have fond memories of the New York of the past, reading the essays I'm mentioning here might cause you to take offense or make you a little defensive about the city's past. It wasn't all that bad, was it? But as living witnesses to New York's stunning rescue from ruin, both Mr. Podhoretz and Mr. Magnet are telling us the facts as they were not as we wish they had been. Their stories are impossible to deny. Both of them are speaking to today's New Yorker. They resent you if you wish you had lived here when "New York had an edge." You merit a verbal spanking if you romanticize their city's dark past even as you take for granted the privilege of living here today in safety. Mr. Podhoretz warns us all against nostalgia, which can "be a treacherous mistress...(as it) glamorizes the past and downgrades the present in a way that threatens to make them both intolerable." Mr. Magnet directs our attention to the New York of the 70s as evidence that "it is possible to kill a city."

Hard truths delivered with force and accuracy by lifelong Upper West Siders who publish leading literary journals. So why am I left feeling as if there is more to tell - as if these essays have given readers a complete picture of the Upper West Side's past but not the whole story? I believe that it's because they both overlook something important: the fact that beauty co-existed alongside mayhem during those difficult times in a place Mr. Podhoretz describes as "a small city in the midst of a great city."

It's clear that two versions of the Upper West Side existed during its darkest period - the one on the surface that generated bleak statistics and anxiety-producing news coverage,and another just below the radar. The next time someone asks me what it was like to grow up in New York I may just ask a question in return: "Which one?"

In my next blog entry I'll take you on a-day-in-the-life visit to the Upper West Side of those dangerous times that will hopefully shed a bit of light on the sunnier side of the street. Still, you may want to hide your jewelry, hang onto your purse and step lively - it'll be the 70s in New York afterall.