Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Fight for A Philadelphia Gem

When you veer off into unknown territory you're likely to find the unexpected. That's exactly what occured yesterday as I left the commotion of a busy Philadelphia street to explore a charming little alley. Red brick townhouses framed by shutters and ivy lined a narrow brick cartway strewn with autumn leaves. The noise of the city fell away as if muted by years of history. I explored tentatively, wondering how residents in the area might react to a stranger photographing and gazing about the area. I found my answer readily in an informative flyer prepared for all who might happen by.

It turns out there is a power struggle taking place in that hidden little gem of a side street in Philadelphia - between residents who would like to see it privatized and those who believe that Irving Street, after 200 years in the public domain, should remain open to all. Since Irving Street was never put on the Philadelphia City Plan back in the 1800s, residents can easily move to deny public access. Instead, one small group of Irving Street residents has organized to protect the public's right to enjoy it.

What incredible generosity that residents of this intimate space are willing to share it with others instead of gating it, hiding it from view and using it for personal interests as has been suggested. Some might argue that they are fighting against their own interests - afterall, they could eliminate potential nuisances like noise, litter and loitering just by closing it off. But the residents who have come together to form Save Irving Street see those issues simply as part of vibrant city life - problems that should not justify privatizing a historic street. This is where I want to stand up and cheer! Count me amazed by the residents of Irving Street and a big admirer of a tiny sliver of Philadelphia.

For complete details and updates regarding the future of Irving Street please visit

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mornings Go to The Dogs in Central Park

Every morning from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., Central Park goes to the dogs...and it's delightful to watch. Every dog enjoys a good romp but New York City canines, who spend so much of their day padding around apartments and napping, take to the open spaces of Central Park with special gusto.

For three hours each morning, and five each night (from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.), dogs rule...and they seem to know it!
On a recent morning, one stood above the rest, inspired by Central Park's famous statue of Balto The Sled Dog no doubt.
Others met new friends...

while others joined old pals at Bethesda Fountain for a morning gab fest.

Not all areas of the park welcome unleashed dogs - the Bridle Path, Shakespeare Garden and Strawberry Fields for example - but these playful pups don't seem to mind a bit.

On this morning, a woman crossed the Bow Bridge surrounded by dogs. She carried herself so regally that I wondered if she might be the queen of Off-Leash Mornings. She stopped to watch me take pictures. "You know, off-leash hours used to be a courtesy...then dog haters tried to get rid of them. We fought back." With mischief she added," Now it's the LAW." She continued her stroll across the bridge, leash in hand, a commanding presence in a doggy domain.

She may have been Central Park royalty afterall or perhaps she was one of the thousands of New Yorkers who make their way to Central Park each week to delight in seeing it go to the dogs each morning. Either way it seems that our dogs' rights to frolic are well-assured.

You can review off-leash rules, find useful numbers for dog-related issues and join Central Park Paws, a program of the Central Park Conservancy for dog owners, by clicking here:

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Autumn Walk on the Upper West Side

Manhattan is beautiful year-round but it seems at its best in Autumn, especially on the Upper West Side.   

The morning sun gilds these Upper West Side brownstones.  

It's misty and peaceful only along West 73rd Street. The roar of Columbus Avenue nearby seems muted.

Autumn colors are at their peak along Central Park West.

A lovely morning or splendor in the park? Daniel Webster seems lost for just the right words. 

 Signs of hurricaine damage but it's more fun to think this tree, in delight, eased down its limbs to touch the dew.

A pedi-cab driver commutes accompanied only by the rustle of leaves and a gentle whirr of wheels.

An Autumn in New York view through a canopy of color.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Last Candy Store in NYC

If you grew up on New York's Upper West Side in the 1970s, there is a name that might bring you back to good memories of your old neighborhood and a New York that is long gone: Joe's Candy Store.

A chain store now stands at the corner of West 75th Street and Columbus Avenue where Joe's commanded the block for almost three decades. Peel back the years, tear up the floors and strip away the many coats of paint, wallboard and fixtures and you might see what this little storefront was like thirty years ago.

Everyone made a stop at Joe Leibowitz's candy store at least once a day and everyone left with a lot more than just a sweet snack. It was the place to rush into for a newspaper then linger around the stacks of Daily News editions and New York Posts to catch up on neighborhood gossip with Joe and Mrs. Leibowitz. You might get updates about who died, news about a rent-controlled apartment being sublet for cheap, hear a joke, learn about someone's graduation, someone else's promotion. If you bought a new car, this was the corner to park and let regulars at Joe's, "The Neighborhood," ooh and ahh and maybe tease you a little bit: "A Jaguar, look at the big shot. Can I borrow a few dollars." "A Fiat! You mean a fix-it-again-Tony. Good luck!"

If it was a hot day it was the place to cool off at the magazine racks while getting yelled at - "What is this, a library." Egg creams were sipped at the formica counter lined with battered red stools. On rainy days neighbors would duck in, complaining about the weather, while shaking out umbrellas on the chipped tile floor. Damp newsprint filled the air on those days along with the scent of bubble gum, violet candies, rubber bands and everything else that made an old candy store feel so familiar.

In one way the corner of West 75th Street hasn't changed - it's still about communication. Today's version involves Verizon employees addressing your cell phone issues. A few decades ago it was Joe helping neighbors stay connected. Neighbors would leave messages for each other at the store and Joe made sure those messages were picked up. The old wooden phone booths in the back were filled with yellowed phone books and received a steady stream of crank calls but they also helped store patrons stay in touch. Someone might call to see if a friend was in the store. When Joe answered the caller would get a straightforward answer. If one of the neighborhood teens that made Joe's their hangout answered between rounds of playing street hockey, the caller would get an earful of silliness. Those boys - Joe, Louie, Jose, Meatball, Kenny, Jocko and more - loved, argued with, joked with and protected Joe Leibowitz and the old man returned it all with gusto.

The bartering system was alive and well along that strip of Columbus Avenue when Joe's Candy Store was around, a fact I discovered while helping my high school sweetheart fill in for Joe and Mrs. Leibowitz on occasional weekends. Simple things, like holding keys, providing change for laundry or holding that special parking space on the corner for a neighbor would be returned generously. Cheescakes from Miss Grimbles arrived with frequency as did gourmet sandwiches from the cheese shop a few doors down, pints of ice cream from the first Haagen Dazs in NYC, free t-shirts from a boutique on Columbus Avenue and an open invitation to borrow rollerskates any time from a sliver of a storefront next door.

Joe's Candy Store couldn't survive the commercial rent increases that gentrification brought to the Upper West Side in the 1980s. Efforts by Ruth Messinger, councilwoman for the Upper West Side at the time, were furiously backed by neighbors and fans of the Leibowitz's but in the end the store's rent jumped 300%. The Upper West Side lost it's last candy store and a neighborhood lost the simple little store that held its heart.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Little Rain, Much Architecture: The Highbridge Bronx Tour

When was the last time you strolled in the rain around a Bronx neighborhood looking for architectural gems within a few blocks of Yankee Stadium? A group of 12 weather-proof preservation conference attendees did just that last weekend, basking not in the sun but in the company of likeminded "history buffs and detail geeks." William Casari, assistant professor at Hostos Community College and a Bronx resident, was accurate when he defined himself and our group as such. He led us on a tour of Highbridge in the West Bronx that offered a close look at a borough's past and present through the prism of architecture.

The tour included a stop at Macombs Dam Park, which is now the site of the new Yankee Stadium. Next, we enjoyed an informative talk about Jerome Avenue’s finest buildings then a visit to Park Plaza Apartments, a building rich with Art Deco details and Mayan motifs. A climb up Jerome Slope offered a panoramic view of Highbridge plus the opportunity to explore the area further.

Every step seemed to offer an architectural detail to capture in a photo or a nuance about life in the Bronx. A stop at a “step street” became even more interesting when a man at Diaz Superette mentioned that an out-of-control car had once launched down its full length, landing in a pile on the sidewalk below. At Noonan Plaza, a series of 7-story apartment buildings designed by Horace Ginsbern and Marvin Fine, residents carried groceries and children past a group of visitors talking about what seems like an ordinary building. In a window a little girl sat peering down at a bare quadrangle that once boasted a waterfall, a reflecting pool, swans and a Japanese-style bridge.

Several times, neighbors stopped to ask with curiosity what we were looking at then offered hospitality – by opening a locked door or by offering permission to enter a lobby. Local residents seemed unaware of the not-so-obvious treasures in their communities but Morgan Powell, a guest on the tour, is making an effort to change that: he leads walking tours in the Bronx especially designed to inform and inspire residents with updated local history.

The variety of architectural styles found on every street in Highbridge was a source of constant delight during the tour as was the element of surprise. Again and again, behind the facades of worn buildings, Mr. Casari would reveal elegant marble vestibules, Art Deco mirrors, antique signage, terrazzo floors and, in one case, the luxury of open space in a double height lobby.

Rain and high winds didn’t hamper 12 intrepid New Yorkers last week. Our enthusiasm was well-rewarded in a borough whose significance and beauty are frequently overlooked.

The following are images from that tour. Enjoy then visit and for details about upcoming tours and events.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Robert Plant and Band of Joy in the Perfect Setting

The moment Robert Plant and Band of Joy appeared on stage at the Beacon Theatre on Saturday Night the air went electric with a charge that ran both ways. They hit the boards beaming and visibly jazzed for a night of playing great music while the audience rose to greet them in a spontaneous, all-at-once movement that seemed set off by a shockwave of ardor. In America’s favorite rock room, American roots music was about to be re-interpreted by the finest blues singing, gospel belting, country swinging and soul rendering artists of the day.

First up was a mightily rearranged “Black Dog”, inflected with mike stand flourishes and loose-limbed dancing, that left the audience enthralled and out of their seats throughout most of the evening.

When the rumble of “Down by the Sea” brought Robert Plant to the words, “When I get older, will you come down to the sea,” the crowd roared their hearty vows. Drummer Marco Giovino delivered a rolling beat for the song that moved seamlessly from the realm of Native American warrior dance to intricate tabla territory. Multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott coaxed sitar accents from his guitar, providing the first hint of his mastery over all things stringed that he would reveal in each song. (Later, switching between guitars, mandolin and banjo, he pulled Jimmy Page’s signature reverse echo effects from a pedal-steel.)

“Welcome to an unexpected, scintillating evening with Band of Joy,” said Mr. Plant, looking across the audience and around his circle of musician friends with genuine pleasure. Buddy Miller raised a wall of twang and fuzz tone, filigreed with Darrell Scott’s mandolin, for “Angel Dance”. Riding high on steady currents of appreciation from the crowd, Plant said, “I think we’ll be alright tonight, Patty,” before leading into a harmony duet with the astonishing Patty Griffin on “Please Read the Letter”. A cover of “Houses of the Holy”, refurbished into a stately country home that rocked nonetheless, was one of many evening highlights. “The great, superlative leader of the band, “Buddy “Hoochie Coochie” Miller,” is how the golden god segued from “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, where bass player Byron House added profound bass vocals to his bass lines, right into “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”. Miller’s solo on the song revealed him to be a fearless virtuoso.

The swagger of “Rich Woman” and the hunger of “Silver Rider” rose into the heavenlies upon Darrel Scott’s pure mountain voice in “Satisfied Mind”, a spine-tingler that generated an ovation. “House of Cards” and “Move Up” confirmed for the audience what Robert Plant and a legion of fans have already discovered: Patty Griffin can belt out and wail every song with grit, power and majesty.

And so it went for the rest of the night – Band of Joy moved with assurance between gospel, bluegrass and genre-bending selections from Robert Plant’s decades as a solo artist, to re-imagined covers of Los Lobos, Low and Led Zeppelin tunes before doubling back to venture even further into diverse musical landscapes. Such brilliant meandering made for a fascinating evening for all.

Band of Joy is exactly that – a circle of authentic artists who derive unabashed delight from each other’s music. Throughout the evening they played in a loose circle, grooving to each other’s improvisations and responding to each other’s subtlest cues. Band of Giants is another name that might have done them justice – each of the six artists is a standout – but then the chance to pay homage to a pre-Zeppelin era would have been missed.

Robert Plant hasn’t left behind Led Zeppelin – he’s bringing the influences that fueled that once-in-a-lifetime collaboration into the present moment and racing forward with them in exquisite company. Plant and Band of Joy are on a quest to reach deeper and stretch further into all musical territory – a journey no music lover will want to miss.