Joseph Mitchell’s Regard for Ornament

April 18th, 2014 · Explore New York

Joseph Mitchell possessed a lifelong fascination with New York City’s survivors, both its characters and its buildings, especially ones that often escaped notice. For some 26 years, from 1938 to 1964, his essays in The New Yorker portrayed the city’s inhabitants from the bearded Lady Olga of circus sideshows and the stout Germans carrying their own sets of knives who were the chefs of the old East Side school of beefsteak dinners to the fringe of the fringe who peopled McSorley’s saloon and even the minutiae of the types of rats that populated the city’s five boroughs. Then after 1964, no essay of Mitchell’s appeared in The New Yorker. Yet, through the rest of his time there until his death in 1996, Mitchell continued to go the magazine’s office each day.

Though Mitchell did not submit a word for publication after the mid-1960s, he kept on writing – and walking the city. Mitchell’s walking was an obsession that set in early. When Mitchell first came to the city in 1929, at the age of 21, one of his editors at the New York Herald Tribune advised Mitchell to “walk the city, get to know every side street and quirk and character,” according to an introduction to a Mitchell essay in The New Yorker. He obviously took this to heart, for many decades, and his stories rendered the results of his explorations as he depicted the city’s steelworkers, longshoremen, restaurant proprietors, movie house bouncers, social club operators, and others among the unsung and the oddball. [Read more →]

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Spring Signals: The Songsters Return

March 15th, 2014 · Beyond Gotham

It occurs one dawn, quite beyond our human planning. Open the window or the door, or walk down the street, and you’ll hear it in a way that was absent the week before – birdsong. This isn’t the twitter of the hardy chickadees and juncos that have wintered here through the deep snows and sub-zero freezing temperatures, welcome as those sounds are each day. This is the chatter and song that fill the woods or the city park, turning what was much quieter into a natural amphitheater. It’s one of the early and sure signs of the coming spring.

For anyone who watches closely and delights in how the seasons change, March is never a predictable plot. In the Northeast, even as the snow is melting inch by inch, the March temperatures zig and zag above and below freezing. The icy cold of a couple March mornings is enough to remind us that winter changes into spring on the seasonal cycle’s own time, not by our calendars. Still, the Northern Hemisphere’s lengthening daylight is unmistakable. The migrating birds have arrived and miraculously, to this human eye, found their precise locations of the spring before. Not to worry, they tweet at dawn, spring, spring, spring is on its way.

A house sparrow chirping from a birdhouse heralds spring.
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Pennsylvania Station: Its Glory and Death

February 18th, 2014 · Explore New York

If ever a hallowed place existed for the travel of the common man and woman, it was New York’s original Pennsylvania Station. Yet a magnificent, soaring station that Alexander Cassatt and the Pennsylvania Railroad built for the ages and opened in 1910 lasted barely over a half-century. Two days after workers started tearing down the station on Oct. 28, 1963, a New York Times editorial called the demolition “a monumental act of vandalism” and observed “…we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” Still, the Times’ Oct. 29 news report of the demolition’s start termed Pennsylvania Station “a grimy monument to an age of expansive elegance” and an “anachronism” – its fate as an allowed-for-years-to-dilapidate rail station in an age celebrating the automobile and the jet. This week, the PBS American Experience series is premiering its film on the station’s birth and ultimate destruction in “The Rise and Fall of Pennsylvania Station.”

The station’s elegance and its engineering accomplishments, indeed, had inspired masses of travelers when it first opened and during subsequent decades. Some 100,000 visitors came on Nov. 27, 1910, the grand opening day when the first trains began using the Hudson River tube, according to the Times. The railroad had opened portions of the station in September, 2010, and trains were able to use the new East River tunnels to Long Island.

Crowds on the Pennsylvania Station concourse, 1944 (Photo credit: United States, Office of War Information – From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Those who caught trains or arrived in New York at Pennsylvania Station found a spectacular space that covered eight acres in all. The Beaux-Arts temple to travel that Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White designed had grand archways and dozens of Doric columns, 150-foot-high ceilings, shafts of light through an iron and glass roof, and inspiring sculpture. While it captured the classical grandeur of Ancient Rome, the early 20th century space also drew on the “new tradition of the Crystal Palaces and the glass galleries and halls of Paris exhibitions,” wrote Nathan Silver in his 1967 book, Lost New York. The station also represented the Pennsylvania Railroad’s transformational feat of constructing 16 miles of innovative tunnels under the Hudson and East rivers that would connect the railroad not only to New York City but eventually to New England, as the PBS program recounts. [Read more →]

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The Dazzle of Winter Trees

January 31st, 2014 · Beyond Gotham, Columns and Features

During the howling of the wind, the crunching sound of steps on a frozen trail, or the diamond sparkle of the late afternoon sun, you see it standing there – unmoved, strong, and enchanting to the eye. To know nature’s spirit in infinite variety, get close to a single tree in winter – look at it, touch it, stand back and take it in. Hal Borland, the essayist and author who walked the woodlands and fields for decades and shared what he saw and felt with thousands of readers, wrote of finding “the truth of trees” in winter. He cited particularly the hardwoods of his backyard, the Northeast’s hills, though the experience is in many places. In summer, the trees collectively become lush, vast woodlands. In autumn, they burst with exuberant colors that paint entire hillsides. In winter, however, the clarity of the sunlight most reveals each tree as a unique form, as Borland observed.

“Trees, not a forest or a woodland,” Borland wrote. “Trees rooted in earth, reaching for sun and stars, each in its own way. And each with its own symmetry, its own pattern. Trees that have known ice and storm, have been maimed, have healed, have held fast through more winters than any man will ever know. Trees waiting, as only trees can wait, for spring and summer when they will be a woodland again, a vastness of green and an ocean of shade.”
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Art Deco Jazz in Brooklyn Heights

January 19th, 2014 · Explore New York

Naomi Fatouros, one of three children of architect H.I. Feldman, once wrote that her father “had no pretensions about being artistic.” Still, architects and builders had high regard for Feldman for creating building plans that minimized construction costs and that provided renters and buyers with good views and high-quality apartment layouts, she said in the letter to The City Review. Whatever the merits of each of the thousands of buildings that Hyman Isaac Feldman designed in the New York metropolitan region, The Cranlyn certainly exemplifies artistic beauty and style. This Brooklyn Heights building at 80 Cranberry St., like various high-rises Feldman also designed on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx early in his career, is a handsome Art Deco structure.

Walking Brooklyn Heights, I was particularly delighted to explore this building and several others with David Thompson, an expert on Art Deco and a friend who shares the wonder and inspiration of this style from all over the world on his blog, Art Deco Buildings. As with so many Art Deco structures, The Cranlyn rewards you the closer you look at it (which is a problem for many people who fly by in their walking). Built in 1931, it has what the AIA Guide to New York City calls “jazzy brickwork” in eye-catching bands and some dazzling features on the front and entrance and in the foyer. [Read more →]

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The Enduring Wonder of the Rookery

December 30th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

One could be forgiven for thinking that one of the crows in terra cotta on Chicago’s Rookery building depicts a current leader of the U.S. Congress. Some of our greatest buildings possess an expressiveness that speaks not only of the time period in which architects and builders created the structure but also to today. The Rookery captures this quality wonderfully. The squawking, quarrelsome birds in terra cotta on its exterior, for example, were said to represent the crows and pigeons who perched on the walls of the dilapidated structure that preceded this building at the corner of LaSalle and Adams streets.

They had another meaning as well. The city of Chicago used that old structure for a time as City Hall after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and it became known as “the Rookery” – a name that won out when a company constructed this high-rise on the site. The birds, some say, also personified the shady Chicago politicians of the day. To my eyes, they bring up the interminable squawking and stalemate we have come to know in today’s Congress. Thus, the images are both historic and contemporary.

The Rookery invites contemplation, wonder, and yes, perhaps a laugh or two at those gaping bird beaks. If buildings have life-like characteristics, the Rookery expresses very divergent qualities. Its dark and massively squared-off exterior gives way inside to a very light interior space. Such buildings exist, but the Rookery is one of the most dramatic.

Yet both exterior and interior have a delicacy in decorative detail when you look up-close. The ability to appreciate it today is even more precious given that the structure somehow survived a wrecking ball for generations and that someone then carefully and lovingly restored and renovated the building in the late 1980s. It embodies beauty, engineering achievement, timelessness, varied and rich personalities, and sculptural appeal. [Read more →]

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The Art Deco Pleasures of 29 Broadway

November 15th, 2013 · Explore New York

Their names are unknown, but the fine results of their craftsmanship remain today. On an evening in late February, 1931, the New York Building Congress gave awards and gold buttons to 26 craftsmen for their outstanding work in constructing 29 Broadway. The awards went to William John Delaney, a stonecutter; Louis Materossi, a cement mason; and Michael Cito, a marble setter, among others. All around the city and country people were dealing with the Great Depression’s joblessness and difficulty. A slump in skyscraper construction had set in following the 1929 stock market crash. Thus, it was no small thing that the excellent work of such craftsmen made them “the best salesmen for their contractors and for themselves,” as William Ginsberg of the Adelson Construction and Engineering Corp., said in a speech, the New York Times reported on Feb. 26, 1931.

As this 30-story cream-colored skyscraper was rising in New York, other giant skyscrapers were drawing more attention, especially the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Though lesser-known, the Art Deco structure that architects Sloan & Robertson designed in New York’s Financial District is a fine building with striking features and many exquisite details. What’s more, it’s a survivor to cherish in a city currently undergoing another building boom. [Read more →]

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The Child Who Became Sojourner Truth

October 14th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

In her strong legs and the bare, vulnerable feet; in a long, deep gash on her back; in the upright posture and gaze; and in the sight of the two large jugs she is carrying are the visual reality that children lived as slaves in the United States. This statue is sure to inspire many stories and conversations about what this young girl lived through and triumphed over. The newly unveiled sculpture of Sojourner Truth as the child Isabella, in the Hudson Valley village of Port Ewen, will speak to generations about aspects of slavery in America that do not get enough attention.

The sculpture is likely to generate a greater focus on a woman who rose from her difficult beginnings as a slave to become one of the most prominent activists for freedom in American history. On Sept. 21, 2013, the Town of Esopus unveiled the sculpture of Truth in a ceremony that drew some 200 people. The unveiling capped an ambitious, painstaking initiative of several years by a group of Ulster County residents.

The striking sculpture is believed to be the only statue in the United States to show a slave child at work. It sits in an attractive corner plaza, a tiny place of peace amid many village storefronts and near the often traffic-filled intersection of Route 9W and Salem Street. The memorial doesn’t need to be huge or possess a grand promenade to portray history very powerfully. Instead, the sculpture’s life-like qualities in showing a young enslaved girl and its accessibility – on a short base that allows children to be on the same level as the sculpture – do so. Moreover, the power lies in how it documents a fact that many either do not know or neglect: Slavery existed in the North well into the 1800s.

Sojourner Truth Statue- Port Ewen, N.Y.

Artist Trina Greene created the bronze sculpture, which shows Truth at about the age of 13 during the time that she was a slave whom a local man, Martinus Schryver, owned. Truth spent the first 29 years of her life as a slave in various Ulster County households, before she walked away in the pre-dawn darkness and escaped to her freedom one day in 1826. (See “Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route” on Schryver operated a tavern, and his family lived in a still-standing stone house on Route 9W just a half-mile from where the memorial is located.

The statue captures a child who is soft, vulnerable, and yet strong, not so different from many children her age. This is its power, too, an ability to bring home that slavery occurred to children who are like our children today. Truth, as the child Isabella, is a beautiful girl whose facial expression is open, serious, and perhaps pained in some way, but not defeated. [Read more →]

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Town to Unveil Sojourner Truth Statue

September 16th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

History will never be able to restore Sojourner Truth’s childhood to her. When she was a young girl known as Isabella, growing up as a slave in the Hudson Valley, she worked day in and day out for several owners, sustained terrible beatings, and lost almost all her brothers and sisters because slave owners sold them away. Nothing, however, could extinguish her spirit. Finally as a young adult, she escaped by walking out the door in the pre-dawn darkness one morning and trudging many miles, carrying her infant daughter Sophia and only a few belongings. At various times in her life, she spoke of how others had stolen her childhood from her.

After this month, a new bronze memorial statue is sure to mean that others will know much more about what Truth endured as a child. The sculpture in the Town of Esopus, just south of Kingston, will bring attention to the experiences and hardships of her early life as a slave in Ulster County, N.Y. Moreover, its physical presence and qualities will capture the strength and dignity of this young girl who later escaped slavery and became an abolitionist, lifelong activist, and champion of human rights.

The Town of Esopus will unveil the statue in a ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 2 p.m., at the Sojourner Truth Memorial, located at the corner of Route 9W and Salem Street, Port Ewen. The unveiling caps an ambitious initiative over several years by a dedicated group of Ulster County residents. Truth was born in nearby Rifton around 1897 and grew up as a slave in the Hudson Valley, and this effort aims to increase public knowledge about her beginnings. It also brings home that slavery survived well into the 19th century in New York State. Furthermore, those behind the sculpture intend that it reminds others that children, as well as adults, remain enslaved in parts of the world today.

The goal of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee in Esopus “is to draw attention to her early life in Ulster County,” says Anne Gordon, the Ulster County historian who as head of the local committee has played the leading role in this initiative. “Three out of four people say to us, `We had no idea that she was born here.’ “ As the veiling comes off of the statue, so, too, will the covering fall further from a child’s life that unfolded in several Ulster County stone houses and along its lands and roads. As Gordon explains, “We want more of the story to be out, to be acknowledged, and to be correct.”

“I’m so thrilled that we accomplished this,” Gordon says.

The sculpture is the only statue to show a slave child at work, according to Gordon, who has done extensive research on the subject. As such, it will not only memorialize Sojourner Truth’s life but also educate those who see it. As Gordon notes, “Children will be able to see and know, `Yes, children were enslaved here.’ ”
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Roped In at Madison Square Park

August 12th, 2013 · Explore New York

You cannot miss Orly Genger’s Red, Yellow and Blue art installation this summer in Manhattan. If people say this statement, they may mean, “You have got to see this!” Or, they may mean, “You cannot escape seeing this!” when walking through Madison Square Park. During the late spring and summer, this 166-year-old gracious park has been home to a huge, wavy art installation that takes up three large, separate spaces of its handsome lawns. The Madison Square Park Conservancy commissioned the artist’s installation, which the group debuted on May 2. It will be in the square until Sept. 8, and will then be on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, Mass., in October.

Like many New Yorkers and visitors, I have always prized Madison Square Park for its openness and winding walkways, the shade and respite of its old and graceful trees, and its views of the Flatiron Building, the Metropolitan Life Tower, and other places that speak of a cosmopolitan, historic city. Even with the park’s ultra-now Shake Shack and new playgrounds, its spacious feeling makes it a walker’s delight, like something out of the early 20th century.

Red, Yellow and Blue - Blue

Red, Yellow and Blue - Blue 2

Genger’s gigantic artwork produces another walking experience entirely, foremost because of its vast size and bright primary colors, amid the setting of a leafy, open park. For four months, the installation is taking over a very big portion of Madison Square Park, which influences how people use and enjoy the space. Don’t get me wrong – the initiative to make public art for all is praiseworthy. Many love these installations in cities and towns globally. Still, I wonder about one dominating large areas of a relatively compact urban park for many warm weather months, when people especially embrace their neighborhood square. Some may well appreciate Genger’s art. However, this installation and its bulky character feel in-your-face and so opposing to the square’s openness and views. [Read more →]

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New York’s Dark Days: The Draft Riots

July 18th, 2013 · Explore New York

On July 13, 1863, Chief Engineer John Decker of the New York City Volunteer Fire Department stood before a mob that had ransacked a building and were now intent on setting it afire. It was known as the Colored Orphan Asylum, a refuge for hundreds of black children located on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets. As the rioters set fire to the first floor, Decker scattered the burning pieces and extinguished the flames. The second time the crowd started a blaze in three different places, and Decker and half a dozen others snuffed out the “incendiaries,” as Harper’s Weekly said in its account. The mob became even more incensed.

Still, Decker wouldn’t give up. Despite threats to his life, he pleaded with the angry crowd “to do nothing so disgraceful to humanity as to burn a benevolent institution,” recounted Harper’s Weekly. Those bent on destruction, however, didn’t stop and soon struck up fires that engulfed the entire asylum, burning it to the ground. The asylum’s matron and others led out some 233 children, who somehow escaped with their lives.

Hundreds of miles from the Civil War’s battlefields, with their bloody fighting and horrid scenes of death, New York City 150 years ago this week suffered days of violence, death, and destruction in its neighborhoods. The Draft Riots of July, 1863, first erupted as a protest of Union Army conscription but exploded and then encapsulated so much more – class division and warfare, racism, immigrant unrest, and workers’ grievances. Whatever had been seething for many years spilled over as crowds attacked other citizens, set fire to public buildings and houses, and made scapegoats especially of black residents and those who sought to end slavery. After four days of rioting from July 13-16, federal troops brought order to the terrorized city. When it was through, an estimated 119 people had died (though some put the toll much higher). The rioters lynched 11 black men. The unrest drove hundreds of thousands of black residents from the city and left many buildings destroyed.

Illustration: New York Draft Riots, 1863

This illustration shows a building on fire on New York’s Lexington Avenue. The drawing appeared in William J. Bradley’s The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Appomattox.
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An Iconic Carousel Is Now a Landmark

June 28th, 2013 · Explore New York

To call the Forest Park Carousel a rare work of art is understatement. In an age when we’re so often attached to complex 21st century electronic devices, a simple ride on a carousel still enchants its young and young-at-heart riders, just as it did those who rode carousels a century ago. In the Golden Age of carousels, between 1880 and around 1930, artists and park owners created some 4,000 carousels in the United States, according to the International Museum of Carousel Art. Of those thousands, only 150 are intact today. The Forest Park Carousel is one of those survivors.

It’s not only a rarity numbers-wise, but in beauty, exquisiteness, and handmade artistry. The carousel in Woodhaven, Queens is one of just two remaining carousels that Daniel C. Muller carved by hand out of wood in elaborate, expressive detail just over 100 years ago. Among a group of master carvers during the Golden Age, Muller stood out for his ability to create horses and other animals that have lifelike features, power, and intricacy. Muller and his brother, Alfred, created some 12 carousels through their small company, D.C. Muller and Brother Co. This carousel in Queens and one in Cedar Point, Ohio, are the only two surviving, according to the National Carousel Association.

Given the Forest Park Carousel’s distinction, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on Tuesday, June 25, designated it as a landmark. Capping an effort by fans, local groups, and Queens and neighborhood civic leaders, the landmark designation ensures the carousel’s preservation as a Woodhaven attraction for future generations. It is located just north of West Main Drive in this 538-acre park. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation owns the carousel. [Read more →]

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What Is the Future of Midtown East?

May 31st, 2013 · Be a Mindful Activist, Explore New York

One person’s “beautiful” is another person’s “dowdy,” and someone’s pronouncement of “architectural significance” is another’s “obsolescence.” These are the terms people are using in a clash over zoning and related plans that will likely shape a historic part of New York City for the future. Consider the character and skyline of Manhattan’s Midtown East, where New York icons such as Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, the Lever House, and the Look Building stand out among the mix of old and new buildings. Some say the area is falling behind and is a dead zone for new business development, but others cherish its character and say that quality is integral for its future success.

Now picture this area if developers construct many new, huge glass office towers, of the types we see in the Times Square vicinity and other city neighborhoods. What might the future look like in Midtown East? Would it remain a livable, walkable neighborhood for residents and others if it becomes home to a sea of humongous office towers? Would the changes kill the area’s uniqueness and what has made it one of the world’s most famous neighborhoods?

The makeup and quality of life in a 73-block area of Manhattan’s Midtown East are very much at stake as the Bloomberg Administration seeks major zoning changes before the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term this year. Most everyone involved, from the administration to civic leaders to real estate and construction interests, agree that Midtown East – an area roughly from East 39th Street to East 57th Street between Second and Fifth avenues – needs some dedicated investment and zoning changes. But some say a push for bigger and bigger office towers without significant consideration of the neighborhood’s historic landmarks, transit, public space, and livability is going to create a sterile, congested neighborhood and kill the qualities that made this neighborhood so rich in the first place. [Read more →]

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In Honor of My Mother

May 13th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

Like so many, I woke up on Mother’s Day thinking about my mom. Maybe it’s because of various changes in my life this past year and because of reading so many poignant posts from a Motherless Daughters Facebook group this week, I felt Mother’s Day even more than usual. Our mom, Susie DeMark, was a beautiful soul, the very meaning of the word gentle.

She gave us so much, especially after my dad died and she had four daughters under the age of 15 to raise. As years go on, I am blown away that she was able to raise us as beautifully and bravely as she did. I love both the big and the little things I remember, like how she knew and enjoyed how to keep score in a baseball scorebook or how she trusted us to be clerks in our sporting goods store when I was 12 years old. The sporting goods store, in a narrow storefront in our town of Wampum, Pa., was a part-time business that my father, Charley, and Uncle Luke, brothers and both millworkers, owned. My mom took over DeMark Bros. Sporting Goods when my dad died of cancer, at age 45, and I felt so responsible working there.

What mattered came across more in actions than words. My mother was the first to buy history books for me. She encouraged my sisters and me to learn and explore, something best captured in the trips she planned to Canada, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. She knew beauty, in the flowers she raised, the wonderful meals she prepared, the music she loved. [Read more →]

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Boston: The Grief and Unrelenting Whys

April 20th, 2013 · Beyond Gotham

His face was unforgettable. Twenty-seven-year-old Jeff Bauman looked ashen and bewildered, appearing to be in shock, while three people directed and pushed Bauman in a wheelchair, as a New York Times photo showed. Moments before, he had been waiting to cheer his girlfriend when she would cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Then the bombs erupted, tearing apart Bauman’s limbs. Hours later, his father, Jeff Bauman Sr., confirmed that his son was horribly injured by seeing Jeff Jr.’s photo on Facebook, after being alerted by a family member, the Times article reported. In a hospital, the younger Bauman had both legs amputated. Now, he will have to learn to walk again.

Bauman is one of the many whose lives changed irrevocably, ripped apart in the seconds that the two bombs exploded on Monday, April 15, on Boston’s Boylston Street. In a short and horrific time, the violence killed 3 people and wounded some 175 others, many of whom were maimed and lost legs. Four days later, following a tense approximately 22-hour manhunt, valiant law enforcement officers arrested bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His 26-year-old brother and the other suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot to death in a confrontation with police some 19 hours before, as CBS and WBZ radio reported. The arrest brought a break and enormous collective relief at one of the most difficult times this historic city has ever experienced.

Surely, the bringing to justice of suspects answers important needs of a civil society, as it restores some sense of order. Yet we are left with the deeper whys, the perplexing questions that remain and never quite go away even when authorities capture, charge, or kill perpetrators, and see that “justice is done.”

The suffering in Boston is immense. It’s devastating and heart-breaking, Vigils have honored the victims – Krystle Campbell, 29; Lu Lingzi, 23; and Martin Richard, 8. In one moment, the angelic-faced Richard – a boy from all reports who was full of spirit and loved to play sports and be outdoors – was watching the race with his family. Suddenly, following the bombings, he was dead. Martin’s younger sister, Jane, lost her leg, and his mother, Denise, underwent surgery for a brain injury, CBS News reported. How is the father, Bill Richard, able to stand up and go on? No one can be in his place and know exactly the weight of grief and loss in his heart. Many are reaching out in efforts to support him. [Read more →]

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Grand Central’s Gems at 100, Part II

March 27th, 2013 · Explore New York

If children were to design and build a train station, it might well turn out to be Grand Central Terminal. It’s big, and it has all kinds of cubbyholes, caverns, and passageways; a magical ceiling full of stars; places with models, books, and toys; great food from hot dogs and chili to all kinds of chocolate (and fancy stuff for adults, too); and best of all, trains…lots of them. The terminal contains places to hear echoing whispers, watch dancers, and get up high on the steps and look down. It appeals to all of the senses.

Best of all, it’s easy to carve out various adventures, pleasures, and delights according to the mood and time – whether you have an afternoon or only 20 minutes before a train. In other words, it invites being in the “present moment” – which is, after all, the specialty of childhood.

My own treasures often tend to be of the “just walk around and explore it” variety.

On the occasion of Grand Central Terminal’s 100th birthday – it opened a century ago on Feb. 2, 1913 – looks at some of its fabulous design, architectural history, and treasures. Beginning with an examination of how New York City almost saw the terminal destroyed, Part I focused on a walk around and exploration of Grand Central’s Main Concourse. This segment features five more gems starting at the concourse and in pockets away from it.
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The Treasures of Grand Central at 100

January 31st, 2013 · Explore New York

For many, it may be hard to grasp that where Grand Central Terminal stands today we could have had massive office towers and no magnificent train station. But it’s important to never forget. In the 1950s and 1960s on separate occasions, developers and Penn Central Railroad launched plans that would have destroyed Grand Central. Ultimately, however, after many people – prominently among them, leading architects and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – organized to oppose such plans, and the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission pursued legal battles about its landmarking powers, those who sought to save Grand Central Terminal won. What has this meant to New York City?

Consider that before the threats occurred to Grand Central, another campaign to save a historic and stunning civic structure, Pennsylvania Station, had failed. The then-declining Pennsylvania Railroad began to demolish the station in 1963, a destruction that took three years. After that tragic loss, the City of New York established the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today, when you walk around the current Pennsylvania Station and nearby blocks, you find an area lacking soul and a train station that feels like a poorly planned, crowded suburban mall where people happen to catch trains. At Grand Central, the opposite has occurred.

This coming week, Grand Central turns 100 years old. The terminal opened on Feb. 2, 1913. Tomorrow, Feb. 1, MTA Metro-North Railroad, which operates Grand Central Terminal, and other entities are throwing a huge 100th birthday party, and they will follow up with events and exhibits in 2013.

Today, Grand Central is a vital link through which some 700,000 people travel each day on trains and subways – somehow, in the station’s efficiently and elegantly planned waiting rooms and concourse, not bumping into each other. Moreover, it’s one of the world’s most-visited and loved tourist destinations as well as a place that New Yorkers continue to thoroughly enjoy and prize.

That we have the beauty, function, and rich experience of Grand Central today is not only a testament to those who fought for it and continue to build on and maintain its heritage, but to the genius of its original architects. The architectural firm of Reed & Stern did the overall planning, while Warren & Wetmore designed and executed the spectacular Beaux Arts style and details. Credit the MTA Metro-North Railroad, too, for undertaking a major makeover and restoration in the 1990s to rehabilitate a long-decaying terminal.

To appreciate why Grand Central’s survival matters, let’s adapt a premise from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. What if Grand Central Terminal had not been saved – if this splendid historic building had been, in effect, killed by demolishing all or a significant part of it? Think about the difference it would make to New York City and the world if Grand Central hadn’t survived and wasn’t here anymore. How many grandparents would have missed out on showing their grandkids the Sky Ceiling in the Main Concourse? How many folks would never have experienced the “Whispering Gallery”? How about the woman who savored some slices of Tuscan salami made with fennel before heading back to her Midwest home? What different experiences would commuters departing and arriving on Metro-North trains have had all of these years – almost certainly not having that expansive, welcoming concourse before dashing out onto the city’s hectic streets? [Read more →]

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Silhouettes, Shadows, and the Solstice

December 27th, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

Perhaps the days of shortest daylight create a more intense desire to savor the play of light and shadow. We have just passed the winter solstice on Dec. 21, experiencing the shortest time of daylight for each day. It’s our all-too-human tendency to not appreciate something when we have it in abundance, say, when a June day possesses some 15 hours of daylight in the Northeast United States. Yet the shifts of light and darkness in early winter possess a particular quality, amid that daily prospect of a scant eight hours or so of precious daylight and long, deep nights of tingly cold and moon shadow.

The changes come minute by minute. In the Northeast U.S., our sunsets have been at their earliest point for a couple of weeks and now start to edge later by a minute or two each day. Yet sunrises are slower to shift back and will get later by a small amount until early January, before making the turn toward spring and summer’s very early daylight. But if daylight now is in less quantity, it possesses immense quality – the beauty at the beginnings and ends of the day is often stark and bold.

Flatiron Building In Winter Twilight

The Flatiron Building at twilight

Gantries and Manhattan Skyline

The gantries of Gantry Plaza State Park and the Manhattan skyline silhouetted after sunset

It’s a good time to take a cue from centuries ago. The word “solstice” has Latin origins from words that denote the sun standing, referring to a moment when the sun “stands still” before it moves in the opposing direction, as naturalist and author Hal Borland consistently reminded us. Though the sun doesn’t actually cease movement, as Borland said, we can take its hint to stop and notice the splendor unfolding each day.
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Splashy Art Deco on a Staid Block

December 6th, 2012 · Explore New York

Some musical riffs can suddenly elevate the mood. So, too, can a jazzy building. It can bring your senses alive, make you perk up and pay attention, if even for a short time. Buildings aren’t passive entities; the very good ones generate an active engagement. The best architects know this to the core. In a career cut short by death, Raymond Hood was a master at composing a sudden spark and riff with his buildings.

Such was my experience in walking westward on a street in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and finding 3 East 84th Street, a building that Hood and fellow American architect John Mead Howells designed. Suddenly, I felt my mood lift, and I uttered a little under-the-breath “wow!” The sight put a little pep in my step on a grayish afternoon. Before I knew it, I was engaging and closely looking at this Art Deco treasure. It sits on a block of quite-lovely buildings, on the north side of the street. Yet, without being garish, this apartment house stood out and was somehow brighter in its energy.

As I consider the work of Hood and Howells, I’m guessing that my response would bring them some pleasure. Whether it was their dramatic Daily News Building or Hood’s and André Fouilhoux’s black-with-gold-crowns American Radiator Building (both on 42nd Street), these architects obviously wanted people to engage with their structures, much like a musician creating experiences. The German writer and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed that “architecture is frozen music” – the tone of mind that architecture produces “approaches the effect of music.” This 1920s apartment house personifies this experience, in its sleek vertical lines and its zigzag, playful, and simple yet rich ornamentation. Like listening to a lilting flow of jazz, seeing the building’s decorative flashes feels like sensing that someone went a little wild for a moment but all the while maintained a natural sense of order. The effect can be hypnotic and mesmerizing.

No. 3 - Entrance

Front Door - 3 East 84th Street

The front entrance
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Statue to Show Sojourner Truth as a Child

October 24th, 2012 · Beyond Gotham

Sojourner Truth knew the importance and the power of the visual. One day, as an orator and crusader against slavery, she faced a hostile group of northern students who jeered her. Truth chose a very powerful visual proof of slavery’s horror to confront them. She opened her dress collar and bared her skin to show the scars from the beatings she endured as a child from one of her slave owners. It wasn’t the only time she had shown these scars to an audience.

Truth first had pictures of herself taken in her 60s, and she sold the photographs as one means to earn income. She thought carefully about how she dressed, often choosing traditional Quaker dress as opposed to adhering to the women’s fashion of the day, as biographer Carleton Mabee explains.. Hence, our visual sense of Sojourner Truth is dominated by images of her as an older woman: wearing a Quaker bonnet; a long, flowing, and full dress to her ankles; a scarf lain over her shoulders; and perhaps spectacles. No public monument shows an image of her as a child who was enslaved.

That is about to change. Soon, a small Hudson Valley memorial park devoted to her will have a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth depicting her as a child growing up in slavery here. Born in Ulster County, Truth spent the first 32 years of her life in the county, 29 of them as a slave until she escaped by walking quietly away one early morning from her slaveholder’s home (see “Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route” on

The sculpture will culminate several years of local effort to restore and honor this history. A sculptor is currently completing the statue, in a project with the Town of Esopus and its Sojourner Truth Memorial committee. For the past several years, the committee has been raising funds, which included working with the town government and through Assemblyman Kevin Cahill to obtain a $75,000 state grant to pay for the park, the sculpture, and related initiatives to honor Truth and bring to the public the history of her early life locally and a sense of her spirit. Those involved expect the statue to be unveiled in the first-half of next year as part of a completed renovation of the Sojourner Truth Memorial, on Route 9W in this town along the Hudson River. [Read more →]

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