Honoring the Landmark IRT Powerhouse

January 9th, 2018 · Explore New York

It may be the most underappreciated major historic building in New York City. Finally, however, the magnificent powerhouse that generated electricity for New York City’s pioneering rapid transit subway system when it first opened in 1904 is a protected city landmark.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC’s) recent action to designate the IRT Powerhouse (Interborough Rapid Transit Company Powerhouse) means the city has now protected it for future generations. The imposing structure, which takes up a full Manhattan city block from West 58th to West 59th streets and 11th to 12th avenues, is truly a building from another, very different era, with a splendid classical exterior design that heralded its civic importance. At the time of its completion in 1904, the building was the largest powerhouse in the world. Within its massive walls was an engineering, technical, and industrial marvel.

Yet, the IRT Powerhouse was in landmark limbo for many, many years. This limbo ended early in December when the LPC voted unanimously to designate the powerhouse as a New York City landmark, a protection that various groups and activists had sought for years.

Moreover, it’s far from a place sitting fallow: Today, the powerhouse plays an important role in the city’s utility infrastructure, as a Consolidated Edison steam and electric generating plant for hundreds of Manhattan buildings, including the Empire State Building and United Nations, as the LPC noted in announcing the decision.

IRT Powerhouse - Front Arches View
The IRT Powerhouse, now the Consolidated Edison Powerhouse

“We are so proud to be designating this outstanding building that had been on the (LPC’s) calendar for decades,” LPC Chairman Meenakshi Srinivasan said in the announcement on Dec. 5, the day the LPC approved the new city landmark. “This building is both an engineering feat and an architectural treasure that has endured for over a hundred years. Our designation will ensure its long-term presence and enhance the streetscape with the majesty and craftsmanship of this beloved historic icon.” [Read more →]

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Join in Walks of Kingston’s Rondout

October 10th, 2017 · Beyond Gotham

If one personified Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood as a storyteller, you might well be inclined to pull up a chair and listen for many hours. In this compact Hudson Valley neighborhood of city blocks and winding streets, hills and paths, architectural gems and eye-catching details, and waterfront setting, you can see, sense, and discover a microcosm of America’s past and present.

During autumn, I will lead a Mindful Walker-themed walk, “A Walk Around the Resilient Rondout.” The first walking tour will occur on a Saturday in October, and the same tour will be offered on two Saturdays in November. We’ll explore the Rondout and examine its incredible treasure of historic buildings, in the architectural design and details that both convey its varied chapters and are objects of beauty and craftsmanship. They include the former Village Hall and Cornell Firehouse, which villagers constructed after a great fire in 1849 swept through the heart of the Rondout. Today, the building is an inviting commercial space, its flower shop and gallery signifying the Rondout’s regeneration, along with other galleries, museums, restaurants, cafes, and other local businesses here.

Abeel Street Housetop
The gracious top of a Second Empire-style dwelling on Abeel Street

We’ll consider ways to understand the Rondout’s and Kingston’s past and present in walking the neighborhood and waterfront. It was home to Native Americans for centuries. It thrived in the boom times as a canal and river port through an industrial heyday of the 19th century and early 20th centuries. It became the home for various immigrant and ethnic groups who have shaped the Rondout’s history and culture. [Read more →]

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Could Trump Start a War? Speak Up

August 10th, 2017 · Be a Mindful Activist

The last few days have felt to this baby boomer like the extremely tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when the United States and world clung on a precipice that could bring the start of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Yet, in this case, the situation of the two countries’ heads of state involves no adults. To be sure, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is an irrational, cruel, and maniacal ruler of North Korea. However, the United States now has a president, Donald Trump, who is wholly unfit for the job. He’s a narcissistic man who shows little understanding of the rule of law, ignores and doesn’t care to grasp the consequences of what he says and does beyond how it pertains to his own gain, and is highly irrational and, at times, cruel.

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, President Trump, at an appearance in his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey, said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Understandably, his statements caused shock waves globally.

Donald Trump has control over the nuclear codes of the United States. Let that sink in for a moment. A man who exhibits little to no impulse control, bullies to try to get his way, and shows continually that he will ignore facts possesses this most awesome responsibility for the planet. It’s likely, in my view, that behind the scenes Trump is already asking about why he shouldn’t use nuclear weapons. If you have any doubts, watch the interview that Trump gave to Tim Russert in 1999 during which he embraced the possibility of launching preemptive strikes against North Korea, even with potential nuclear fallout over the Korean peninsula. Consider his disturbing responses during the 2016 campaign, when he said, for one, that nuclear proliferation “was going to happen anyway” and saw possible benefits if Japan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea were to have nuclear weapons.

Let’s be clear: A catastrophic war could happen between the U.S. and North Korea. No amount of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cooing that the American people “can sleep well,” following President Trump’s outburst – in effect, seeking to soothe the shocks and make the unreasonable seem reasonable – should allay one’s fears. In the 48 hours since the president’s bombastic, unprecedented presidential threat, the administration has not evinced a cohesive strategy. If your instincts are that this is not right and that strong reasons exist to feel afraid, they are well-founded, in fact wise. Let’s look at why this is the stark reality and what actions we can take. [Read more →]

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Victory in Saving an Underground RR Site

June 3rd, 2017 · Be a Mindful Activist

In a win for those seeking to preserve the history of an abolitionist’s house where escaped slaves found safe passage, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) decided early last week that the owner must abandon plans for a fifth-floor addition and restore the building to its original height. In a city of 8 million people and huge buildings going up, this may seem like a tiny bit of news. However, it’s an enormous triumph for preservation and the witnessing of Civil War history in New York City. It also shows again how citizen activism and a responsive government entity make a difference for future generations.

Led by two women, Fern Luskin and Julie Finch, the group – known as the Friends of the Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District – campaigned persistently for keeping the building’s original roofline. They have worked hard for nearly 10 years, without giving in. They maintained all along that that the owner’s effort to construct a penthouse addition to the 19th century row house at 339 West 29th Street would destroy its historic integrity. The Hopper-Gibbons house, where Abigail Hopper Gibbons, her husband James Sloan Gibbons, and their family lived, holds a truly priceless piece of history of the years leading up to and during the Civil War.

The Hopper-Gibbons house is the only remaining documented Underground Railroad building in Manhattan. Moreover, the roofline that the LPC voted to protect was the site of a dramatic chapter of history from the Draft Riots that occurred in New York City during the Civil War. Committed Quakers, Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her husband, James, were abolitionists who not only opposed slavery but took great risks to shelter and aid runaway slaves escaping northward. [Read more →]

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Spring Exhibits: Noguchi, Photography

April 22nd, 2017 · Explore New York

In the middle of extreme inhumanity, some of us go more deeply and courageously into our humanity and act from this place. The Japanese-American artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi brought the best of his humanity, dignity, and a sense of the capacity of beauty and art to elevate people during a horrendous time. He did so during World War II, when the United States federal government uprooted thousands of Japanese citizens and American citizens of Japanese descent living in the western states and forced them into internment camps. His example shines today, and one can see the fruits of his stance and art in a current exhibit at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens.

While I am a walker in any season, spring in New York City seems to jump-start an opportunity to see new, or relatively new, exhibits. It’s also a season in which many simply look up and around more in the warmer weather and notice street sightings of architecture and art. A great setting-off point to inspire that are the Noguchi exhibit examining the works of an artist dealing with World War II and three photography exhibits that portray New York in the immediate years after the war.

The title of the Noguchi museum’s exhibit tells a startling fact as a place to begin: “Self-Interned, 1942.” Noguchi made an extraordinary decision in 1942 as he saw the government displacing others. He decided to place himself into one of the internment camps, the Poston War Relocation Center, situated in the Arizona desert. He did so despite being exempt from internment as a New York State resident. As Noguchi put it, “Thus I willfully became part of humanity uprooted.” [Read more →]

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A Subway Powerhouse Speaks To Today

March 11th, 2017 · Beyond Gotham

Sometimes a message of resilience can come in an instant, and often not predictably. The IRT Powerhouse on 11th Avenue isn’t giving a speech or waving a flag, and it’s not a talking head seeking to shout a point of view at passersby or boast of its strength. Yet, the sight of this 1904 building on a cold winter day conveys resilience at a time when a nation could sorely use it.

Resilience is comforting, as in a beloved chamois shirt or wool slippers that feel right each chilly autumn as if they are brand-new. Those little things mean a lot. When our lives are unsettled, each of us finds comfort in the resilience of the people within our circles. We find it in various aspects of our lives and surroundings, such as nature; in literature, stories, and poetry; music and art; sports and hobbies; and the healing arts. Many find founts of renewal in our respective faiths and beliefs. Buildings signify resilience in their endurance through the generations, their histories and qualities, their art and iconography. They express something of the era they came from, its values, contributions, and struggles.

During the unsettling days since Donald Trump won the election in November and became president, this is what the powerhouse that the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) constructed has expressed and the meanings it continues to evoke. Walking by the IRT Powerhouse one winter day, I looked up at this towering building and found it affirming, even soothing, and thought-provoking, in its sheer physical durability, beauty, and magnificent character. Moreover, it provides perspective on the important role of immigrants. [Read more →]

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The Power of Facts in the Time of Trump

January 19th, 2017 · Be a Mindful Activist

Finding and stating facts is an act of resistance in the age of Donald Trump. The Trump campaign already had stirred a strong sense that facts were under threat, besieged by a candidate who told untruths in both significant and casual ways, as Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star and others documented and compiled. Since Election Day, the situation has only worsened, as the president-elect’s tweets and statements make clear. Even more is at stake when this man will become the leader of the United States on Jan. 20. So many of us are being assaulted and buffeted by Trump’s statements and tweets that are just plain false or exaggerations.

Still, facts, they say, are stubborn things. In their stubbornness, they form a part of the resilience and the resistance we as people must embrace and act on, if an enlightened democratic republic is to have hope of solving serious problems and meeting challenges. Facts are meant to be shared, too, in ways that will empower citizens to resist. It’s crucial as well when people share real-life experiences that counteract ignorance. We can take specific actions that will strengthen these efforts and, thus, the democracy.

The conflict that arose this past week between long-time U.S. Rep. John Lewis and President-elect Trump epitomizes why it’s crucial in the Donald Trump era to research, find, and confirm facts and to state them boldly. It’s important because Trump inhabits his own reality, and he will soon be taking actions as a president who is misinformed, deliberately misleading, careless, or uncaringly clueless, and captured by that unreality. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd for Meet the Press, taped for the Jan. 15 show, the Democratic congressman from Georgia stated in a calm manner, responding to an interview question, why he believes that Trump is not a “legitimate president” and why he plans to not attend the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day ceremony.

As he has done before, Trump displayed little concern for the storm he would stir up in the way he responded. Lewis is a man whom many in our society revere, a leader who was one of the keynote speakers with Martin Luther King, Jr., at the 1963 March on Washington, whom troopers beat and bloodied at Selma in the 1965 Voting Rights March, and who persisted in nonviolent resistance in the civil rights movement despite dozens of arrests and various physical attacks, as this PBS biography notes. He has been a champion of human rights, health care, and gun control, leading a sit-in on the floor of the House to call attention to the Congress’ inaction on guns. [Read more →]

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Speak Up on the Hudson River Barge Plan

December 5th, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

The Hudson River is a bucolic, beautiful, and mighty river. Yet at various times, human activities have threatened the natural balance, splendor, and sustainability of this vital treasure. This is one of those times to speak up for the river. The shipping industry is proposing that the Coast Guard construct sites on the Hudson River that could hold as many as 43 industrial barges and other commercial vessels, at 10 large sites. These barge anchorages would be located from Yonkers north to Kingston, along one of the Hudson River’s most magnificent stretches, in communities such as Kingston, Port Ewen, Newburgh, Milton, and Yonkers.

Commercial shippers say it’s about safety. But those decrying this huge build-up of barge anchorages say it’s ultimately about oil transport, and they have organized much opposition. They contend the proposed Hudson River anchorages would harm the environment, pose risks to the water quality and wildlife, and upend much progress people have made in recent decades on behalf of the river and the region. Thus, the proposal has set off stiff opposition from town and county officials, many Hudson Valley residents, some members of Congress and state representatives, and environmental and land conservancy groups. On the other side, a regional maritime association and other industry groups are backing the plan.

Now, the public has one last day to weigh in. Tomorrow, Dec. 6, is the deadline to submit comments to the U.S. Coast Guard. It’s crucial that people be heard on a plan many believe would reindustrialize the Hudson River, particularly via efforts to increase crude oil transport.

To Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, the new barge anchorages would make the Hudson River “a superhighway for fossil fuel,” as he testified at a public hearing in October, according to the Daily Freeman. [Read more →]

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Trump’s Danger, Hillary’s Challenge

October 21st, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

Each day, we hear support and rationalizations from Donald Trump’s surrogates and various fellow Republicans concerning his extreme, impulsive, and threatening conduct and speech. What does it say, however, when Trump repeatedly claims that the election is rigged due to “widespread” voter fraud and then refuses to say if he will accept the results if he loses? Yet, he offers no solid evidence, instead forming his own reality. What does it mean when reporters, correspondents, and political writers have been receiving and chronicling unprecedented levels of death threats from Trump supporters and right-wing extremists, and some have had to employ police escorts and bodyguards? What does it portend when Trump’s campaign has inspired followers to wear T-shirts full of foul and violent language and rallies in which they chant “Lock her up!” in unison for many, many minutes, demanding that the government jail his opponent?

It means, primarily, that the United States is facing one of the most consequential presidential elections in the country’s history. Make no mistake that the very rule of law and constitutional functioning of the United States federal republic are at stake.

The third presidential debate of Trump versus Democrat Hillary Clinton on Wednesday night, Oct. 19, encapsulated so much of what is troubling about the Republican candidate and about his campaign. He again displayed a disregard for the truth, as when he said he didn’t know Vladimir Putin, which PolitiFact has rated false (a “Full Flop“) given his prior statements. Most disturbing, Trump made clear that his own ego comes above the peaceful transition of governmental power: He refused to say he would accept the election results, and instead told moderator Chris Wallace, “I will keep you in suspense, OK?” This is a response suitable for a TV reality show, but it’s an irresponsible, perilous stance for a presidential candidate in a democratic election. His statements in questioning the bedrock principles and the integrity of the election have reverberated across the country. Historians noted that Trump’s contentions in advance of an election may well be unprecedented, according to the Washington Post.

Mindfulwalker.com joins many publications nationwide in urging the sound defeat of Trump and the election of Hillary Clinton as the 45th U.S. president. With Trump, this country risks having an extremely ill-suited, xenophobic, misogynistic, authoritarian, and damaged person assume the highest office of the land, with the power of the presidency and the nuclear codes in his control. [Read more →]

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A Newburgh Church Embodies Resilience

August 26th, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

In the center of Newburgh is the oldest church building in the city. In good times and bad, particularly through the turmoil of the 1960s and the demolition of more than a thousand buildings in the city for so-called urban renewal in the early 1970s, St. George’s Episcopal Church on Grand Street has remained steadfast. It stands today as a spiritual home and one of the Hudson Valley’s and New York State’s most historic sacred sites.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the people channeled the determination of the minister who originally led St. George’s in the building of this striking sacred structure nearly 200 years ago. Are people guided by the spirit of a sacred place’s spiritual ancestors? How much can such resilience shape a community around it in good times and in bad? This church makes one weigh such possibilities and impact.

In the disorder and disturbances a half-century ago, some members of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Newburgh believed that the congregation should move from Grand Street, where it had been since the early 19th century, to the suburbs. But the parish did not relocate. The congregation’s vestry, its committee elected to administer such matters, decided that St. George’s should hold fast in its historic place, in the center of this Orange County city.

Some might think it farfetched that a 19th century minister’s spirit would influence the church many, many decades later. However, even in 2016, the Rev. Dr. John Brown’s determination and influence feel relevant, in the history, spiritual presence, and elegant simplicity of this Federal-style building, its artifacts, and the prominence in church literature. The Rev. Brown was all of 26 years old when, two years after he was called to become St. George’s rector, he led church members in erecting this picturesque church, which the Right Rev. John Hobart, New York diocese bishop, consecrated on Nov. 10, 1819. [Read more →]

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Women Who Made the Way Before Hillary

July 29th, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

“We the people” finally became much more of a reality for women when Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States yesterday. She is the first woman to secure a major party nomination in the Presidential election.

To say that this moment has been a long time coming is understatement. It has been 240 years since the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which set off a revolution against the rule of monarchy and signaled the creation of a new nation with the ideals of freedom, liberty, and individual rights.

At the nation’s birth, however, the reality was far from the ideal. Originally, the right to vote was left up to the states, and it was deemed a legal privilege that most states at first reserved almost exclusively for white Protestant males who owned property. In each generation, many people have fought and sacrificed much to expand this limited definition and to have the founding documents of the United States of America and the expression of ideals live up to the promise of “we the people…” Yet, it took women 144 years after the nation’s founding to secure suffrage, in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Surely, Hillary Clinton is as cognizant as anyone, if not more, of the sacrifices that so many women have made over the generations – including her own – to break the barriers. She arrives at this place in the middle of a Presidential election full of heated, at times frightening, rhetoric; a promise by the other major party opponent, Republican Donald Trump, of mass deportations of groups of people, among other dangerous threats; and many indicators of a nation of sharp divisions. Life and history move on day to day as the country works so imperfectly, but at times in inspiring ways, to confront the issues and challenges.

Still, consider that singular moment on Wednesday evening, July 27, after President Barack Obama delivered a stirring address to the Democratic Party convention endorsing Clinton. She came on the stage, and they embraced and stood there for some time. We were witnessing the first African-American President standing with the first woman to be a major party nominee and have a real opportunity to become President. It’s worth stopping to understand and appreciate how far the country has come and how much each generation has had to be vigilant to ensure we do not go backwards.

Yes, it has been a long time coming, nearly two-and-a-half centuries. As Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party nomination on Thursday, July 28, it’s important to remember and honor the women who paved this long, arduous pathway, with toil, blood, and suffering, through injustice, indignities, and setbacks. We don’t know the names and lives of many of those women, most of whom are now gone. Many citizens aren’t even aware of what others have done to get to this day, or they take the passing of this threshold for granted. [Read more →]

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Stonewall: The Power in History’s Places

June 26th, 2016 · Explore New York

If you ever for a moment doubt the importance of declaring a site as a landmark, preserving at least some part of it, or placing a sign at a spot of historical significance, go to The Stonewall Inn this month, in New York’s Greenwich Village. There, hundreds have converged in vigils and left remembrances such as flowers, after a gunman opened fire early Sunday morning, June 12, at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, murdering 49 innocent souls and injuring 53 others. Places imbued with meaning from the past continue to maintain a powerful pull in the present.

The Stonewall Inn, in the days since this horrible massacre, has been a peaceful place, drawing throngs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and supporters. Its role at times of celebration and grief personifies the power a place holds when history occurs there and as it continues to represent meaning, a haven, or presence for subsequent generations. There, one can reflect that in 1969, law enforcement targeted gay people for arrest and harassment, while in Orlando earlier this month, police risked their lives to stop the violence of a shooter armed with assault weapons to kill many, many people.

Historical places show us how far we have advanced as well as the deep fissures and obstacles that still exist. We live in a different, better world, we might say. Yet in some moments, we question how different.

Unfortunately, too many neglect the history and either do not know or grasp its significance – how others have endured death, wounds, emotional scars, jailing, and both setbacks and victories in various places across the land to win what some take for granted today. We need to be vigilant about that history, about all of its painstaking, brutal, hard-won steps. [Read more →]

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Sacred Sites Open for Exploration

May 20th, 2016 · Explore New York

New York’s sacred places of worship possess countless life stories and historical chapters as well as inspiring and magnificent art, architecture, and design. Jacob Riis, the social reformer and photographer whose works brought to light the suffering of the poor living in New York City tenements, was one of the early parishioners of the Church of the Resurrection, the oldest church in Richmond Hill, Queens. In the 1990s, those restoring the façade of the 1844 Gothic building of the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn found the original oyster shell mortar and matched it. The building contains splendid Tiffany stained glass windows. In the Lower East Side, thanks to the dedicated efforts to save a structure once in decline, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a space that long ago provided inspiration to newly arriving Jewish immigrants arriving in America from Russia and Poland, still survives.

That each of these places remains standing and vital to their communities personifies resilience and a miracle. That this weekend New Yorkers and others can see and tour various sacred places of New York City and State is a priceless opportunity. This weekend, May 20 and 21, the New York Landmarks Conservancy is holding its 6th annual Sacred Sites Open House, during which more than 170 churches, temples, synagogues, and meeting houses in New York City and State will be open for exploring the architecture, art, history, and cultural programs of these places. In 2016, the New York Landmarks Conservancy is also marking the 30th anniversary of the group’s Sacred Sites Program, a statewide initiative to foster and support, through technical and financial assistance, preservation endeavors for these historic places.

The Open House encompasses a wide variety of religious congregations, time periods, and architectural styles, from the architecture of a unique Ukrainian Catholic Church that drew from the wooden churches of the Carpathian Mountains to structures of the Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and Shingle styles. Geographically, a significant number are in New York City, yet the open house includes worship sites eastward to the tip of Long Island, upstate and westward to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and northward to the historic village of Monroe in the state’s rolling farmlands just south of the Canadian border. [Read more →]

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Goodbye to the Greenwich Street Tree

May 3rd, 2016 · Explore New York

The tree wasn’t a towering oak on the rolling landscape of a New York City park, a magnificent elm with big-shouldered limbs, or a bright, showy dogwood welcoming the spring on a village street. It was, in fact, the most unlikely of survivors, sort of scrawny, alone, between city buildings and flanking some very inhospitable pavement and metal. But survive and hang in there? Yes, it did.

In fact, this highly unusual tree on the block of Greenwich Street between West 10th and Charles streets was like no other I’ve seen in New York. It adapted to survive while chain-link fence impinged on it, to the point of the trunk having the fence’s pattern carved into its surface, as documented in a Mindfulwalker.com photo essay in 2011. (See “A Tree Grows in Chain Link.”) If this tree ever heralded anything, it might have been the message that life can be tough but don’t let it defeat you.

It survived this way for quite a while. I made periodic walks to this block of Greenwich Street to check up on this tree and say hello, usually during early spring or fall. Even when not visiting, I thought of the special, feisty tree on Greenwich Street. As this winter was giving way to spring, I decided to pay a visit. However, as I was walking the blocks of the West Village, I had a sense that it was like a friend with whom I lost touch for too long. Something could be amiss, and it was – the tree was gone. The fence and driveway looked cleaner and tidier, yet emptier and sadder to this visitor who had felt a bond with the tree. [Read more →]

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Spring’s First Sightings: A Meditation

April 8th, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

Turn off the clock and look at those tree branches, and feel the wind blowing through them. The outdoors provides the lungs of life. Each day what is outdoors vitalizes my life, with breath, space, and an exhalation into a wider world. That is so much why it beckons one to walk, to feel my feet upon the earth, my eyes to what is near and what is at the horizon.

Every day its show unfolds. We miss so much if we simply walk past the life before us…the peace, beauty, the manifestation of time and seasons. Recently, I walked at the college campus I’ve come to think of as one of my central parks. Suddenly, the sight apprehended me, the bright yellow of a flowering bush along the big pond. It caught me by surprise and created delight. I looked closely at each yellow bud-burst, shooting with abandon and order, simultaneously. The bright yellow was my first sighting of the spring flowering. [Read more →]

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The Grief and Questions Over St. Agatha’s

February 27th, 2016 · Beyond Gotham

As they dismantle the stones, roof, and interior of the former St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church, the demolition crew is taking apart memories, history, art, and part of a community’s fabric, to be replaced by a nondescript pharmacy in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. At the corner of Spring Avenue and Fifth Street in the downtown, the CVS Pharmacy will be right across from another national-chain drugstore. The demolition company isn’t to blame. It’s doing the work of a large corporation. But if stones could wail, these surely would.

During this past week, a crew using a jackhammer, aerial boom, and other equipment has been taking down a structure that a congregation built nearly a century ago and dedicated in 1918. Italian immigrant stonemasons shaped the stones of the building and an outdoor grotto.

It’s one place in a town of 7,740 residents in Western Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles away from dozens of properties in New York City that have been facing their becoming vulnerable to the same fate – including a church in the Bronx; a cemetery that dates back more than 250 years in Staten Island; the monumental building on Manhattan’s West Side that first powered the New York City subway in its first days; and an 18th century farmhouse in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Earlier this week, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) considered a backlog of 95 sites, prioritized 30 of them for historic landmark designation, and took most of them off its calendar without judging the merits. (Mindfulwalker.com plans to follow up on the ramifications of the LPC’s decisions in a separate post soon.) They had been on the LPC’s backlog list for years, 85 percent for more than two decades while the commission considered other places for designation.

The historic and beautiful church building in a Western Pennsylvania town and dozens of places in a city of 8 million are connected by meaning, memory, significance, and art. Once someone razes them, they’re lost forever to a neighborhood and city or town, alive only in recollections, historical documents, and images. On a day when I was researching about the New York City hearing, I saw a photo of St. Agatha’s that an Ellwood City resident had taken when the crew had ripped off part of the bell tower, leaving a jagged edge on the tower. It set off a feeling of deep mournfulness.

Since then, as I’ve learned, I’m far from alone in that mourning for a place that is disappearing in my home area. It doesn’t mean that every older building should be saved, but many people know intuitively, quite deeply, and, most of the time, correctly when some interests in society have gone too far in destroying what should be saved and allowed to live on. In the face of huge commercial interests, such as a national drugstore chain, citizens can feel powerless. Still, they know, in their minds and souls, that an incalculable loss is taking place. [Read more →]

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Art Deco’s Wisdom of the Ages, Part II

January 29th, 2016 · Explore New York

How many schoolchildren over the decades glanced above the doorway to see a woman reading to a boy while a girl nearby is working on an abacus? It is a simple, beautifully sculpted panel, attentive to detail, as the architectural historian William Rhoads writes, “down to the shoelaces.” The scene is one of two on the carved stone panels on the Marlboro Middle School in the Hudson Valley, an Art Deco-style school completed in 1937. Today’s school buildings are far smarter, in using energy efficiently and caring more for the environment, but they aren’t as full of the wisdom of storytelling in their exterior design. In those historic panels, the designers imparted the value of learning.

Like the reliefs of the Marlboro school, the architectural panels of another Art Deco-style structure, at 20 Exchange Place in Lower Manhattan, hearken to know-how. They, too, tell stories intended to elevate mankind, in this instance on the exterior of a major bank. Although City Bank Farmers Trust Company had to scale back its ambitious plans to be the “world’s tallest” skyscraper when the Great Depression ravaged the economy, the bank still invested much in the exterior’s decorative elements that look not only to the present but to other eras for meaning. The building’s splendid, ornate doorways exemplify this best, showing both historic means of transportation, like sailing ships, and the newest of that era, in airplanes. [Read more →]

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The Tree as Artist and Art Form

December 30th, 2015 · Explore New York

To Paul Klee, a tree embodied the creative process. In a public lecture, the artist likened the artist to a tree. The artist is deeply rooted in the world, while the artist’s work is similar to the tree’s crown, as the book Art and Phenomenology explains. “Standing at his appointed place, at the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths, ” Klee observed. “And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.” In Klee’s conceptual view, the manifestation of the human body into artistic creation and the tree’s shaping are intertwined.

Examine a branch or trunk or crown, feel the tree’s presence and qualities, and it will speak to you or move you in some way. A single tree is one of the most soulful, persistent, and expressive of nature’s creations. Trees speak to us, energetically and visually, on a deep level.

The human body and the body of a tree are in kinship. The About Trees Exhibition at the Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland, seeks to explain this connection. The roots, trunk, and crown correspond to the feet, body, and the head. We can only wonder at their strength through the seasons and weather’s vagaries. On the whole, trees outlive humans, their lives spanning the generations. The glorious American elms on the Central Park Mall looked at children playing and the Sunday strollers at the turn into the 20th century the way they do the drummers, skateboarders, and walkers today. This is not to say that trees aren’t frail or vulnerable. [Read more →]

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Symbol and Story in Art Deco Panels

November 18th, 2015 · Beyond Gotham

Buildings possess energy that can at times elevate or depress the people who view and inhabit them. Like other art, architecture can both be in and rise above its times. Talking about the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, bandleader and jazz singer Cab Calloway once said that people really needed entertainment when the bottom fell out of the economy. “It’s one way to get out of the gloom,” he said, as the book New York Deco quotes Calloway as observing. The same could also be said of what people saw in the Art Deco buildings of the late 1920s and 1930s.

Art Deco’s energy, artistic beauty, pizzazz, and ebullience are striking, given the boom-to-bust economic climate that the era spanned. Art Deco was enthralled with technology, progress, machinery, inventions, and worldwide travel, which its designers captured in decorative elements such as soaring airplanes, streamlined automobiles, and luxury liners. Its symbols, ornamentation, and shapes spoke that language in the bubbly times before the market crash and even after the Great Depression battered the economy as well as the living situations of millions.

Yet, Art Deco drew from the history and myth of yesterday as well as looked forward, which is part of what makes it fascinating. The approach newly imagined forms from the past and borrowed from visions of the future, blended into a wholly unique look. As historian Richard Striner, who has focused extensively on Art Deco in a number of books, has observed, Art Deco inhabited a middle range between antagonistic design ideologies – the militant traditionalists and the radical modernists, who waged an “architecture war” during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some sought solidity in the forms of the past, while others focused on the ultra-modern. Art Deco did both. The style was streamlined, eclectic, and flamboyant, signaling the modern, while also hearkening to traditional symmetry and hierarchy. Its creations juxtaposed ancient imagery with futuristic visions, and in doing so, they encapsulated the tension and anxiety of the era, according to Striner. [Read more →]

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Sweet Summer Days, Moment by Moment

August 25th, 2015 · Beyond Gotham

Very few summer-twilight evenings go by without a thought of playing hide-and-seek games decades ago. We grabbed every moment of fun out of the evening’s dwindling daylight. We tried to trick each other by switching jackets and sweaters in the dusk in order to fool the one who was “it” in hide-and-seek into calling the wrong name of who was hiding where. Sometimes, it actually worked! This was our play with the light and dark. These evenings afforded primary lessons in getting the most out of each day and savoring the summer’s light and the beckoning outdoors.

Those small-town summer evenings in Western Pennsylvania – which friends and dear ones who grew up in cities have their own versions of – were delicious and seemed forever-lasting. In such hours – the long baseball games at the ballpark; the falling asleep after a swim, feeling the breeze while dreamily seeing the full-green leaves outside my bedroom window; the catching of worms during the evenings for bait we would use to fish the next day – the days felt never-ending. Nothing else existed outside of these moments. What we possessed was enough. This was summer abundance. [Read more →]

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