Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Manhattan in the 1970s - A Novel Reveals Another Side of the Story

Dirty Old 1970s New York City is a Facebook page that perfectly captures the city as it was in its bad old heyday - scary, rough, dirty but also spontaneous, authentic and brash in a way that was irresistible to the millions who lived and flocked here despite the danger. It's a page that celebrates the old New York that everyone recognizes and many of us miss.

A new novel invites you into a very different 1970s New York City - a hushed, elegant Manhattan that continued to thrive even in the middle of the mayhem that defined that era. A Very Good Life reminds you that there was more than one version of New York City in the 1970s. You could switch between them just by choosing to walk several blocks in one direction or by walking from one avenue to the next.

It's worth remembering that the New York you might catch a glimpse of while watching Tony Randall in The Odd Couple was the same city you watched Al Pacino move through in Serpico and Panic in Needle Park.

Stepping into Lynne Steward's debut novel, A Very Good Life, is much like walking into the legendary New York department store, B. Altman, in which so much of the story unfolds. It's classic, subdued and reveals its facets moment by moment. A Very Good Life isn't focused on the hard edges. Instead it sheds gentle light on the classic city.

Ms. Steward's novel takes the reader away from today's touchscreen existence back to a time in New York when telephones rang and typewriters clacked on cluttered desks. A time when stand-up ashtrays were part of office decor and dry martinis were ordered with each business lunch. A time when customers dressed up to visit New York's grandest store then shopped for hats, scarves, slippers, gloves and more - each category of item displayed reverently in its own dedicated department.

But there is nothing old fashioned about this novel. The characters in it navigate marriage, career and New York's stratified social scene in a way that resonates across the decades.

A Very Good Life invites you to revel in the New York of the recent past. If you are a native New Yorker it also allows you the satisfaction of recognizing the people, places and concerns that were the focus of Manhattan attention during those gritty yet glamorous years. But the characters are what linger with you long after you've finished the book. Lynne Steward brings them to life with spare, masterful strokes.

This is a New York story told in genuine New York style in voices that ring true. It's now been several weeks since I read A Very Good Life. (Ms. Steward shared her book with me after she read my post about my childhood memories of the great B. Altman department store) What is a bit funny is that I remember it not as a book that I read but as a movie I watched - the experience of reading it was like watching one of the great films of the 1970s, the ones that featured female leads that you immediately got caught up with and fell alongside them in their journey from the first scene - An Unmarried Woman comes to mind. The novel is available everywhere including online and in one of New York's leading independent bookstores,  St. Mark's Bookshop.

Photos: The subway and Park Avenue images above do not belong to me. If you are the copyright holder, please contact me so that I can add your copyright information and a link to your site or delete the images from this post. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The National Cherry Blossom Festival: Pink Even Off-Peak.

Timing is everything when it comes to The National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., a lovely, lively, month-long springtime event that marks the official end to winter doldrums. 

But our timing was off. 

My mother and I coordinated our schedules and planned our trip to D.C. to match predictions for peak blooming. We imagined ourselves enjoying a sunny, warm weekend surrounded by color and blooms. We arrived in D.C. to cold, gray and pouring rain. Most trees were at the "peduncle elongation stage" - trying hard but not quite flowers yet. Could this trip be saved?


Hints of pink just steps from The White House.

Washington, D.C provided plenty of reasons to smile.

A Japanese Magnolia abloom in The White House Garden. 

The scent of fresh spring was in the air, the hiss of wet city streets muted D.C.'s bustle and there were no crowds.

Rose-tinted skies above The Capitol Building.

Even making restaurant reservations was a breeze. And if you looked carefully, there was a rosy glow with hints of pink everywhere.

A Treasury Department visitor brought a touch of pink to a gray day.

If you're on your way to The National Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, you're in for something special. Over 70% of the cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin are now in peak bloom! Join the festivities then wander - Washington, D.C. is at its seasonal best right now, rain or shine. Happy Spring!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

See NYC Like a Local: A Genuine Slice of New York Life

You've seen Times Square, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center but you know there is still so much more to explore and experience in New York City. So, isn't it time that you enjoyed an authentic slice of city life? There is one walk I love sharing with friends and family that does just that - it brings you into the fabric of daily life in one of New York's most-beloved neighborhoods. That neighborhood, the Upper West Side, just happens to also be one of the city's most beautiful locations.

The Dakota is an Upper West Side architectural gem. Photo by briannac37.

Ready to take that lively walk on your own? Follow (and improvise along the way!) this self-guided walking tour and you'll be ready to craft your own day of genuine New York moments the next time you have two hours to spare in Manhattan:

Getting Started

Hop on the IRT subway line (you can pick it up in many locations including Times Square) and take the 2 or 3 Uptown Express. One stop later exit at West 72nd Street. This landmark subway station is known as the Gateway to the Upper West Side. Begin heading north from West 72nd Street toward West 74th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

A peek at the West 72nd Street subway station and Verdi Park. Photo: J. Zeldman

In only moments of strolling the area's sidewalks you may begin to realize that while Times Square may be the epicenter of New York to the world, the Upper West Side is the heart of Manhattan to everyone who discovers it or calls it home.

Listen as you stroll between 73rd Street and 74th street - that is the sound of New York quiet: a muted roar interrupted rhythmically by the sound of delivery trucks and cabs bouncing along potholes, their sound magnified into deep, echoing booms by the elegant Florentine Renaissance palazzo landmark building you see to your left, known today as the Apple Bank for Savings, and by the pre-war landmark building standing above you on your right, previously known as The Berkeley.

The Ansonia - scandal, a rooftop farm, a notorious nightclub are only half the story. Photo: J. Zeldman

Peek in each storefront you pass. Restaurants. Elegant shops. An old fashioned barber shop. When you reach the original neon sign of a Chinese laundry, recognize that this family-owned business has been a mainstay of this Upper West Side block for decades - its comforting scent of clean, starched steam has billowed onto the sidewalk for over 50 years hinting at neighborhood continuity in a city of constant change.

Make a right turn at West 74th Street to enjoy two Upper West Side delights - sweets eating and stoop sitting - before we move on toward a Central Park adventure, Columbus Avenue sightseeing, the delights of Lincoln Center and...

This is just the start of your lively walking tour - experience it, complete with images, helpful links and directions to a rewarding, scenic grand finale in my post at Ask a New Yorker. Follow me on Twitter for daily city tips, travel photos and "Best of ..."  updates. Happy Travels!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Experience NYC Like a Local - Let it Surprise You

What I love about New York is how it can take whatever you thought would be the highlight of your day and turn it into just one more event in a string of incredible moments.

The New York Travel Show was supposed to be my highlight one March weekend. Instead New York itself became my main focus.

New York always has a surprise waiting for you on the way to your plans.

A sight that can make you stop in your tracks...

A carriage waits  near the W. 37th St. stables to be readied  for the day.

or a scent that can lift your eyes from crowds and concrete to a piece of old city history.

Tavola is a Hell's Kitchen favorite that stands where landmark grocer Manganaro's opened in 1893.

New York rewards intuitively.

After a day at the travel show walking exhibits from around the world, what luck to find rest and lunch in a quiet little Turkish restaurant.

Deciding between hundreds of 9th Avenue restaurants in NYC is delicious fun.

New York asserts its number one-ness especially when your attention is drifting elsewhere.

After a day of being tempted at the Travel Expo by what the rest of the world has to offer, New York’s mightiest monument to culture drew my thoughts closer to home with an unexpected pleasure - an evening visit to uncrowded galleries and dinner accompanied by live music.

The Met is open until 8:45 PM each Fri. & Sat. eve - ideal for uncrowded galleries, dining and live music.

New York also makes inconvenience irrelevant.

Take a taxi to a train when it’s time to leave town? Not in New York. This city makes it seem reasonable to roll your suitcase blocks out of your way toward transportation  - even in winter cold - just for the pleasure of seeing,

Central Park West is home to architectural gems like The Dakota.


Imagine, catching a wedding in progress. Lovely!

Columbus Circle - a smartphone camera does it no justice.

What do you love most about New York? What makes it the city you just can’t leave or the one you keep returning to over and over again? I’d love to know. Please share your comment below or connect with me @CityGirlWrites on Twitter. Also, treat yourself to Pauline Frommer’s Easy Guide to New York City 2014 – whether you’re a native New Yorker or have never been to NYC, you’ll find it’s packed with useful information and insider-y insights – it's a valuable companion.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Beatles and Frank Gorshin: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Ed Sullivan Show

Fifty years ago today, in a small New York City theater, in front of an audience of 728 people, Ed Sullivan launched The Beatles, ignited a cultural revolution and unleashed the desire to create music in countless artists. The audience of 73 million television viewers included children like Steven Tyler, Richie Sambora, Tom Petty, Nancy Wilson, Billy Joel, Chrissie Hynde and Bruce Springsteen, all of them reportedly inspired by what they witnessed on The Ed Sullivan Show that night.

Everything that happened after The Beatles took the stage at CBS Television Studio 50 (later known as The Ed Sullivan Theater) on February 9th, 1964 is now part of pop culture history but another event took place on that stage in between the two sets The Beatles played that night. It was a pop culture moment-turned-funny-footnote by the presence of the Fab Four.

Frank Gorshin was an accomplished fine artist  who enjoyed drawing caricatures.
It’s also a favorite family story.

Frank Gorshin, remembered best as Batman’s “The Riddler,” was among Ed Sullivan's guests on the show that night. Comedians, a trapeze act, Georgia Brown and the cast of Oliver! plus Tessie O'Shea were there too but how many people remember those performances? She Loves Me, All My Loving and the thrilled, screaming audience in Studio 50 were the ones destined to make history’s highlight reel.

Still, the feeling was optimistic that Sunday before the show when Frank, accompanied by his fiancĂ©, Christina, manager and an agent, arrived at The Essex house on Central Park South.  He’d been invited to perform his impressionist routine, featuring uncanny impressions of Kirk Douglas, Boris Karloff, Richard Widmark and Burt Lancaster, on the longest running variety program on television. Ed Sullivan had a reputation for spotlighting promising new talent while raising the profile of even the biggest acts in show business. Elvis Presley had only been recognized as “The King of Rock & Roll" after his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Frank Gorshin as The Riddler in Batman.
This was a make-or-break moment.

Frank had already appeared in American B-movie classics like Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Invasion of the Saucer Men and the comedy feature film, Where the Boys Are, by the time he was scheduled to be on Sullivan so he was used to a fair amount of attention but still, the screaming fans below his hotel room window took him by (mock) surprise. “How did all of those gals and guys know I’d be here?” he joked looking out over the growing crowd on the sidewalk. In fact, he was seeing spill-over from the general mania taking place further down the street at The Plaza Hotel where The Beatles were rumored to be staying.

This was a sign of things to come.

Pandemonium had broken out on the sidewalk in front of the theater on Broadway from which The Ed Sullivan Show would broadcast. Frank took the scene in stride but comedians Mitzi McCall and Charles Brill, also scheduled to appear on the show that night, saw the massive crowds and were floored. “I swear to you, I turned to Mitzi and I said, ‘I didn’t know Frank Gorshin got so famous!’” Charles Brill recalled years later.

Once inside the theater it was clear the excitement was being generated only by The Beatles. Trying to control the crowd (and protect the egos of the other performers standing in the wings that night) Ed Sullivan jokingly threatened to “call in a barber” to shave off the Beatles famous mop tops if the audience didn’t give each act a warm welcome.

Performances went well. The audience was kind. The Beatles killed.

After a thrilling but slightly bruising night, Frank, Christina and their friends headed to Sardi’s to have dinner. Everyone in the restaurant, mostly show business industry people, had either witnessed or heard about The Beatles stealing the Sullivan spotlight even before they arrived. Still, spirits were high: that night’s show had become the talk of the town, the focus of the entertainment industry and the center of attention for millions of fans around the country – not bad for one night’s work.

Soon after his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Frank was cast in the Walt Disney classic comedy, That Darn Cat, and won the role of The Riddler on Batman for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also played The Riddler in the movie Batman and became the first impressionist to headline in Las Vegas showrooms for many years after the series ended.

Frank Gorshin with Gene Barry, Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson.
Throughout the 1970s he appeared in almost every television show that defined that era – from The Munsters, Hollywood Squares, S.W.A.T., The Untouchables and Hawaii 5-O, to Charlie’s Angels, The Carol Burnett Show, The Bold and The Beautiful, General Hospital and The Naked City.

During his long career he performed in hundreds of films, plays and television series. His role in an episode of Star Trek as Commissioner Bele, the black-and-white-faced alien, became another cult classic character he became well-known for during his lifetime. During his last year, while fighting lung cancer, he starred in Tony-nominated Broadway hit and one-man-show, “Say Goodnight, Gracie” and continued making television appearances. His last performance was directed by Quentin Tarantino, a fan of cult classics in all genres. He directed Frank in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The master impressionist played himself in that last role and died only days before it aired.

Frank Gorshin in a scene from 12 Monkeys.
Tonight CBS will air a two-hour special, The Beatles: The Night That Changed America – A Grammy Salute. Peter Frampton, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Maroon 5, Alicia Keys and John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., Joe Walsh, Stevie Wonder and many more legendary artists will bring their formidable talents to a celebration of 50 years of music. But who will remember those performances once Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr take the stage? There’s a good chance everyone there will be beautifully overshadowed by The Beatles. It’s okay. It happened once before - 50 years ago today. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Back to School, NYC Part 2 - The Fun, Creepy, Cool 1970s

I ran into a friend on Columbus Avenue. We hadn't seen each other in over twenty years but we dropped into comfortable conversation after a few minutes the way people sometimes do when they have been linked through school, neighborhood and family for a lifetime. After catching up on each other's news he suggested I bring my family to Sunday mass at Blessed Sacrament. He would be reading the Liturgy. Afterwards he would take all of us on a tour of our old school.

For years I had walked by the catholic church on West 70th street without bothering to step inside. At first I was always in a hurry so I would put off visiting Blessed Sacrament the way I might postpone spending time with a relative who would forgive my neglect. Later, when business took me out of New York and often out of the U.S., a stop at Blessed Sacrament never seemed like a priority during Upper West Side visits. I had spent years marking every Sunday, holiday and special event in that church. A visit could wait another week, then another. Suddenly it was decades later and I was walking up the main steps of Blessed Sacrament for the first time since my eighth grade graduation. This time I was accompanied by my then 12 year-old son and his proud grandmother. My husband lingered over coffee and e-mails at a nearby cafe.

I'm almost certain the line of statues that stand to the left of the church steps (Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, John Vianney, John the Baptist de la Salle) shared a bemused glance with those that stand to the right (Alphonsus Ligouri, Francis of Assisi, Charles Borromeo and Vincent de Paul)when they saw this "bad Catholic" showing up at church for the first time in forever. Once inside, I'm pretty sure my old friends Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena glanced my way with raised eyebrows. As a child I had gazed up at their stained glass images through many church services.

We walked down the center aisle toward our seats. The familiar creak of the pews, the thud of kneelers falling into place before mass, the scent of incense and warm canldewax and the glorious architecture that I had all but forgotten overwhelmed me with memories. Even as the service began I whispered to my son about these things but I stopped, remembering that at any moment, if this had been long ago, a nun would have stopped my rudeness with a poke on the shoulder and a glare that meant lunch detention. I straightened up, looked forward and let my mind drift just like in the old days.

I remember when we were children walking into Blessed Sacrament for mass each Wednesday morning. The rule had long been "no taps allowed" on shoes. The small metal pieces that mothers had attached to the soles of shoes to reduce wear were noisy and damaged floors but we loved the sound. The taps had come off only to be replaced by us children with flat, metal thumbtacks. The moment our shoes touched the terracotta tiles of the church each Wednesday we sounded like we were on our way to a tap class not confession. Teachers would stop lines of students to have them pull thumbtacks out of their soles. Most of them would find their way, face up, onto church pews instead.

Back at our desks we would take notes in class in the neat cursive of all Catholic school students while passing notes in graffitti-style bubble letters. "Do you like me? Yes. No." Despite being distracted, hormonal middle school-aged children, our teachers managed to suffuse our minds with ideas that mattered - about world history, classical literature, our roles in society. The undisputed heroes of that time were the ultimate teaching team, Mr. and Mrs. Gavila. They didn't lecture, they led discussions, brought passion to every lesson and encouraged informed debates about current events and politics. The respect they extended to us alerted us kids that we were on our way to adulthoods that could matter. We reciprocated their attention with worship.

But not all was serious study. There were bigger issues to contend with like what to wear to birthday parties and which sleepovers to attend. These events were always a little more special when classmates lived near celebrities. A sleepover on West 77th meant you might run into Henry "The Fonz" Winkler on his way in or out of his parent's building. A visit to a friend on West 73rd meant a possible brush with CHiPS star Erik Estrada. But the Holy Grail was an invitation to a playdate anywhere along West End Avenue in the West 60s - Robbie Benson territory!

Afternoon visits to a friend's apartment at The Dorilton on West 70th Street were memorable, even without celebrity sightings. Architecture historian Andrew Dolkart has described The Dorilton as possibly "the most flamboyant apartment house in New York" but I knew it then only as the best place in my neighborhood to play hide-and-seek. My friend was the daughter of a conductor who traveled with a symphony orchestra. The apartment where she lived was enormous - and it seemed so especially at the time. We would take turns hiding under heavy furniture in endless rooms. We counted to 10 draped in lace, crouched under a table that stretched the length of a formal dining room. We dressed up Barbies by towering windows that showcased the landmark building's "opulent Beaux-Arts style limestone and brick exterior, featuring monumental sculptures, richly balustraded balconies, and a three-story, copper and slate mansard roof." (Oh, if I'd only known then what I can Google now.) The Dorilton, with its elaborate decor and interiors thick with velvet and silence, impressed me only as peculiar.

The Dorilton may have been my favorite place to play hide-and-seek but The Danielle, a short building that shares a wall with Blessed Sacrament Church on West 70th Street, was my home-away-from-home. All of my best friends lived in The Danielle. We would thunder up and down its stairs and run through its hallways carrying board games and gossip between apartments. Our moms shared stories about child-rearing and rent control. The Danielle echoed with the sounds of families living their stories out loud in so many languages. Its architecture may not have left a mark on history but every one of its unremarkable details is etched in the memories of the children who grew up there during the 1970s.

The only time of year more thrilling than back to school at Blessed Sacrament was the week before summer break. We would bend over our books, foreheads moist with sweat, trying to focus on school work that already seemed too distant to matter. On the last day of school, West 70th street would come alive with the screeching of joyful children pouring out of the school for the last time that year. A final round of "Saluci!" might be played, one last run to Vinnie's Pizza for a slice might take place then the summer could begin.

That's as far as my memories went that day at mass. The church service was over quickly and soon our little group was on its way along the left side of the church toward the marble steps that lead into the school. On the way we passed an area where a statue of St. Lazarus used to stand. I remembered how one of its feet had been worn down by decades of reverent touch. An unblemished statue now stood in its place. That was the first sign that much of the Blessed Sacrament I was about to see would have changed but I had a feeling the original spirit of the school had endured.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Back to School, NYC - The Fun, Creepy, Cool 1970s

The School of the Blessed Sacrament began welcoming New York City children in the early 1900s when Manhattan's Upper West Side was still tranquil open country. The stretch of land between West 70th Street, where the school stands today, and the upper reaches of Broadway was so rural that Blessed Sacrament Church held its first Easter Sunday Mass in a stable that once stood on the corner of West 72nd Street. What a difference seven decades make.

By the time I entered first grade at Blessed Sacrament, the Upper West Side had long ago completed its transformation from countryside to residential area. At first glance it might have seemed that little of the past remained in the area or in the school but if one looked closely there were clues all around.

On the first day of school I stood on the sidewalk waiting with knocking knees for the school bell to ring. My mother stood at a distance catching my nervousness and curiosity on Super-8 film. I had plenty of time to look around and wonder why my school looked like a church. It's interesting to read now that both Blessed Sacrament church and school were designed by an architect who borrowed inspiration for his plans from Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a small gothic chapel built by Louis IX in the 1240s.

My years at Blessed Sacrament coincided with New York City's peak crisis years, the 1970s, so crime and mayhem had become part of the day-to-day experience of living on the Upper West Side. At times those tensions, sensed at home and experienced on the streets, burst at school, erupting in brutal fights and violent words, but those moments were always extinguished quickly. Strong teachers and tough-love nuns ensured that our days behind Blessed Sacrament's gothic facade would be ruled by order, learning, caring and discipline no matter what was going on outside.

Recess at Blessed Sacrament took the form of simple games on the sidewalk or dodge ball and basketball in the gymnasium. Our school didn't have room for a playground but we didn't need one. Just being away from our desks and books was enough to send us pouring out of the building each day after lunch eager to create fun out of just being in open space. On rainy days, rehearsing plays in the auditorium, working on macrame crafts or playing "7-Up" were favorite activities.

Another pasttime was more eerie. It involved sneaking into the school's "creepy basement" where chipped and otherwise damaged statues from Blessed Sacrament Church were housed. The basement was dim, low-ceilinged and seemed ancient to our eyes since its appearance hadn't changed since the school opened in 1919. The statues, with hands articulating emotion and eyes looking heavenward, seemed to come alive in the semi-darkness. We would take turns daring each other to see who could last the longest in the ghostly darkness before running up the stairs giggling and screaming.

As the years passed at Blessed Sacrament School, my interests changed along with those of my classmates. By fifth grade, going outside meant time to gossip, a chance to apply Bonne Bell lip gloss and talk about the latest cover of Tiger Beat magazine. We would style each others hair into flips or the Farrah. The boys were busy with Kung Fu moves, playing Star Trek and discussing the Knicks or they could be found making up songs about beating the Mets. All we really had in common was our fear of 8th graders and our shared fascination with things like Wacky Packages, the science behind Mood Rings (and Killer Bees, and the coming Ice Age and of course Big Foot) and being en pointe with the fashion trends of the era.

Even in uniform, green and plaid, we found ways to showcase our fashion savvy. Lucite "candy rings" were especially popular as were platform shoes with names like "Buffaloes" and "Marshmellows." That's where I failed miserably. In a fifth grade school picture I'm smiling through braces, hair hennaed bronze, aviator glasses tinted rose and I'm wearing a two-piece corduroy suit in rust. My turtleneck was a coppery shade.

Sixth graders at Blessed Sacrament enjoyed the privilege of moving between classes at each period. The windows of one classroom faced the back of West 71st apartment buildings and a portion of Blessed Sacrament Church. The other classrooms faced a seedy hotel on West 70th Street.

Classroom periods in the back of the building were peaceful, focused times. Open windows brought us sounds and aromas - choir practice, pigeon warble, conversations in echo, incense from morning mass. Classroom periods in the front of the building were punctuated by scenes and sounds far more distracting.

Before the Hotel Embassy became a magnet for shady characters and the eyes of curious children it was known as The Ormonde, an elegant residence designed in 1899 by Robert Nicke. It was once described as, "A soldier in the battle of Broadway, bringing substance and scale to the boulevard." By the time I reached the middle school years at Blessed Sacrament it was a hotel that offered us ringside seats to life on the fringe. Drug busts, arrests, attempted suicides were all part of the show accompanied by the whine of sirens. The Hotel Embassy is now rehabilitated and has settled into a proper old age as a doorman building with a roof deck and pet-friendly policies.

More recollections in Part II of Back to School in 1970s New York.