Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Warm Winter Bike Ride Through Bed-Stuy!

I had a fun day. I had my whole afternoon planned to sit at my computer and edit my book newly titled "Drink This Book", but as i walked outside late this morning to grab a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin I was overwhelmed by a sunny 65 degree day. Since the weather has recently kept me away from my normal rounds, I decided to scrap the editing (for a while) and go for a bike ride.

I didn't want to go too far because i really did have work to do, but since Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heartland of Brooklyn is just blocks away and I haven't really done it much there on my tour, it sounded just about right. 2 hours and 100 pictures later, I was a very happy urbanite. I wended my way through street after street of old buildings, new developments, empty lots, a slew of great urban art, Gothic churches, parks and thousand of people outside enjoying the day.

Bed-Stuy is a wonderful neighborhood. It, possibly more than every other neighborhood with the possible exception of Coney Island has influenced the world's opinon of what Brooklyn is. That is both good and bad. During the Holidays i watch the PBS special a Walk Around Brooklyn with David Hartman and Barry Lewis. I remember being a little put off by the fact that all they showed was beautiful homes and old historic buildings and none of the real everyday life of the communities that live there. But given more thought, i think that might have been on purpose. The outside reputation of Bed-Stuy and most of NYC is not the best. I realized that if someone called Bed-Stuy the Harlem of Brooklyn it would be very accurate. But I think the biases that most of the country has developed on NYC neighborhoods, the reference to Harlem would not inspire visions of a vibrant community but instead of a bad neighborhood with a lot of crime and dark alleys...and that is unfair at best and racist at worst.

Bed-Stuy is very much like Harlem. It has a long proud history and sense of itself that can only be compared to Harlem. When the subway system grew into the area in the 1930's a lot of residents of an over-crowded Harlem moved to Bed-Stuy. Bed Stuy still has the largest concentration of African-Americans of any neighborhood in the U.S. This unfortunately has had a negative effect on the reputation of the area as well as a real economic effects like bank redlining and lack of city sponsored investing and basic city serivice and upkeep. There has been a rashes of crime and urban decay, but no more so than any other neighborhood has at some point during its history.

The new renaissance of the neighborhood has brought a balance of throw-back architecture, a reinvigorated pride in its history and of course real estate driven gentrification. But for now, its a nice place to take a few hours and aimlessly ride a bike, go for a walk, check out some of the local museums, historic houses and grab a slow cup of coffee in one of the corner cafes.

Well, back to work. I'll check back soon.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Drunken Pizza

As my plans for the future start to heat up, my tour is slowing down. But not before a visit to my all-time favorite pizza joint.

Big Nick's

When I moved to NYC in 1994, I barely left the upper west side. I would go to school on 85th, work at Lincoln Center and go back home on 79th street. Occasionally (only occasionally mind you) I would frequent a great bar on my block, The Dublin House. (More on my favorite bars later this month)

After hoisting back a few choice pints of the best Guinness in town, i would get a bit hungry. Almost always I would go for a late night slice of pizza. Now, there is good pizza, great pizza and even gourmet pizza that you would list with even the best high-end cuisine New York has to offer. But you know the pizza is good when you are drunk and need something in your stomach, and you still pass by 4 other pizza joint just to get that one slice that you crave above all others. This is Big Nick's pizza on Broadway and 76th.

They are a burger and pizza greasy spoon type of spot that claims to be open 23 hours a day...although I have never found that one hour they weren't. I always promised to try their other food, but never got past the smell of their one-of-a-kind tomato sauce that fills your nose as you approach the store front. It looks like regular NY style pizza, but it tastes amazing.

As I moved around NYC the last 14 years, I found other great pizza joints and almost forgot the first of the bunch. Its hard to accurately recollect taste, so any memory of food is never quite genuine. Every once in a while you need to re-spark those memories. Last week while up at the Beacon Theatre, I arrived early and took my buddy for his first slice of Big Nick's and my first in 5 years. Damn! It was better than ever.

I have been to a few dozen of the "Best slice in NYC" places over the last few months and some of them might be fancier, and maybe even better food. But Nick's will always be my favorite. And for anyone who lives up there knows, it will always be the "Best Drunken Pizza" anywhere.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Beacon Theatre

The Beacon Theatre, my favorite music venue in NYC, maybe the greatest working theatre left in New York, once again hosted a great night of music...And once again, I was there to see it.

For the 4th straight year, Gov't Mule is playing a run of sold out shows for New Year's at the famed upper west side music center. Unfortunately, I have to bartend on Monday night for the big bash, so I could only attend last night's show. Since this is not a music blog, i will spare you the music critic rundown, but the highlights were the 1st set ending covers of Lou Reed's Waiting For My Man, and The Who's My Generation that Mule jammed through with Josh Clark and Trevor Garrod of the nights opening act, Tea Leaf Green. The second set finished with legendary bassist George Porter coming out to celebrate his birthday with a joyous Spanish Moon/Hey Pocky Way.

Back to the Beacon. Anyone who has ever been there knows just how beautiful it is. Built in full Grecian regalia, once you pass under the Marquee on Broadway, you enter into one internal design vista after the next; marble vestibule, giant golden proscenium, Terra Cotta moldings, full-wall murals, etc. Of course, the point of a theatre like this is not what it looks like but how it sounds. As anyone who knows the basic concepts of acoustics knows the more stuff sound waves have to bounce off of the better the sound. The sound in most of the three levels is as rich as anywhere I have ever been. The only dead spot is in the orchestra, underneath the mezzanine overhang. These seats are actually very bad for sound.

As far as the history of the Beacon goes, there are enough historically land-marked features in the theatre to ensure that it is not soon destroyed. In fact, in 1986 there was a court ruling that stopped a group from turning it into a nightclub. It was built in 1928. It was a project put together by famous NYC theatre impresario Sam Rothfeld (AKA Roxy), and acted as the uptown smaller partner to Rothfeld's other baby, Radio City Music Hall. Throughout it's history, the Beacon has been home to vaudeville acts, political debates, HBO comedy specials and at once was home to its own orchestra.

It was on the downside as a rock venue in the eighties, but has since gained an upswing, much like its most famous clients, The Allman Brother's Band. Last year it was bought by Cablevision, who signed a 20 year lease. They promise to keep the spirit of the Beacon in tact, but that scares the shit out of any music lover who has ever set foot inside of a Cablevision property to watch a show (MSG, and the fore mentioned Radio City). Last night, there was no indication that major changes were on the way, although some did notice an increase of security and seat policing.

Back to the show. I had high hopes for last night. I had some free tickets that included on-stage laminates with backstage access...the tickets came through but the venue pulled all non band stage access last minute. boooo. Then there was a great after party at the newly renovated Blender theatre at Gramercy (old movie theatre). This was hosted by legendary New Orleans blues men Porter-Batiste-Stolz (all members of The Meters). And once again we were temporarily shut out by the notorious "list". We eventually got in because 4 people that were with the bands and PR company knew us and knew that we were supposed to be on the list. At this point, we missed almost the whole first set. Gotta love the music world. Sometimes this business is really like the movie "Almost Famous"... only sometimes.

When all was said and done, we had about 8 hours of music in two venues and it ended at 5 a.m with me helping the guitarist from Soulive catch a cab on Lexington ave.

NY, NY..its a wonderful town.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Low Life!

As I have already written about here, there have been many great, and even more not so great writers that have made NYC their muse. There have been books that cover everything from the high Aristocracy of 19th century NY, the drug culture and hard living of the 50s and 60s poets, the unqualified love of Walt Whitman and even the subculture of living in the subway tunnels. I have read more about NYC than almost any other topic and there is only one book I would recommend to absolutely everyone:

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante. Sante is a Belgian immigrant, long denizen of the lower east side, writer, professor, photographer and the greatest social historian of the people of NY this side of Jacob Riis. He has gained recent acknowledgment for this last part since writing Low Life in 1991. His name reached international exposure after he was used by Martin Scorsese on the set of Gangs Of New York to add historically accurate details to the movie (if like many, you don't like this's not his fault, the historic details were dead on).

I read this book for the 1st time ten years ago and just recently completed my 5th reading of it. The first time I read it, I read it like a story and it read amazingly well. Sante claims that it is not an academic book. Well, i dare anyone to find an academic book of the same topic that holds as many well researched details and dead-on historic anecdotes. What this book does better than any non-fiction book I have ever read is treat the topic with a genuine love and respect. It is not a cold telling of history but a verbal painting of a time that has been an enigma in the History of America's Urban past.

The book covers Manhattan exclusively from 1840-1920. Sante outlines the neighborhoods and ethnicity of New Yorkers and how they evolved, devolved and morphed over that time. He spends a great amount of time telling the notorious stories of the Bowery, 5 Points and all the "Low Life" hot spots of the NY degenerate underground. He touches on all the personalities we know like Boss Tweed and P.T. Barnum but also on a host of unsavory characters that seem too cartoonish to be real.

Like other great books that have outlined the political landscape of NY (Power Broker, Gotham, etc.) Low Life doesn't pull punches on the abject corruption and free dealing that the policy makers used to build their empires. However, what this book does that all the others barely touch on is that the true power of NY always came from the masses and their habits. One of my long time favorite political slogans has always been "If the people lead, the leaders will follow". Well in NY for most of its history, the masses even while being pushed into the lowest slums this world has ever seen, had more effect on what the corrupt politician did than in almost any other city.

If you have ever lived in loved or visited Manhattan, Read this book. You will find Sante's stories relevant still and find his view of our history around every community garden, dive bar, and historic graveyard that you walk past every day.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Gowanus Canal

First of all, I'm sorry for the brief hiatus from this blog. The flu hit me pretty hard last week, and I was completely out of commission. But I'm back on the trail and to celebrate, I took the advice of a good friend of mine and took a trip to the Gowanus Canal. Yummy!

I have many times passed by, crossed over and at times purposely avoided NYC's most infamous waterway, especially during my intense 5 month look at New York's underbelly. But yesterday, I took a trip to explore it in its entirety. From dirty start in Carrol Gardens through Industrial Redhook and out to the Gowanus, and New York Bays.

The neighborhood around the canal has one of the oldest recorded histories in Brooklyn. The residents of New Netherlands bought the land from the Dutch Government in 1639 and could be the first official real estate deal in the New World. Because of its access to water and its rich soil, it was to be used as a tobacco farm (if they could see it now). Throughout this period, the land was farmed and the waterfront used for the areas first boom business, oyster exporting.

During the next century, because of the increase in settlers (or gentrifying usurpers if you will) there was a big need for docks and shipping ports, and the area now known as Redhook and its tidal creek were the perfect place to start. Not to jump ahead, but over the next 200 years the Brooklyn waterfront was turned into the world's largest shipping hub and the Gowanus neighborhood was at its epicenter. So much for the lush farmland!

Now, the canal is among the countries dirtiest creeks and the rundown industrial land surrounding the canal remains as a skeleton of what it once was. Its a filthy reminder of what a society built on commercial backbone looks like. As an urban explorer I love the endless fields of large rusty broken down structures, crumbling walls of graffiti and old buildings being slowly reclaimed by the stubborn plant life growing up from cracks in the cobblestones. As a person seriously concerned about the state of the environment and the lasting effects that our shipping and shopping industries have piled upon our landscape, I am saddened to see what we have been left to clean up.

As I traveled through the neighborhood, I tried to cross over all the small bridges and overhangs, like the ones on 3rd street and 9th street (reminding of an old nearby warehouse that was used for a meeting space for a protest in days past). I also went to the edge of the canal at the tips of all the dead-end streets that ran into the canal.

There is no end to the things that I found interesting to see along the way: Rusted cranes leaning into the water, garbage barges filled to capacity and illegally allowing the overflow to fall into the canal, a small group of kayakers paddling their way through a guided tour of the area (possibly from the Gowanus Dredger's Canoe Club), and countless flocks of bloated seagulls and pigeons feasting on the tons of trash washed up along its banks.

On my bike I found less access to the water, as the canal got closer to the bay, but I found a great old structure near the Redhook Recreation Area (its really called that). What probably was an old train terminal, i found a hole in a rusty fence and climbed in. There was a maze of cement walls and large stone blocks completely covered with street art and great graffiti work. Check out one picture I took here. It was endless, and after about an hour inside, it was getting too dark for me to continue, but I will be back.

As for the Canal, i have just read some research put out by the Department of Environmental Protection and even though the area is in gross violation of the Clean Water Act, they continue to OK the use of the canal for awful practices like sewage dumping without sufficient flushing pipes and reckless garbage transfer. As the efforts to turn the neighborhood into another Williamsburg continue, the calls for cleanup get louder. NOT LOUD ENOUGH.

For anyone who continues to mutter hollow liberal mantras like "Its slowly getting better", keep this in mind: this past April, a Minke Whale after seemingly suffering from serious breathing problems due to water pollution was found dead after beaching itself on an oil slicked embankment along the canal.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Quest for the Birds!

A few months ago a buddy of mine told me that I should go out to see the parrots in Brooklyn. Then he showed me a picture he took of these green warm weather birds making a nest next to a power line transformer. They were in Bensenhurst, I think. I was amazed. Are there actually parrots in Brooklyn living wild? I put it on my list of things to do and went on with my farewell tour.

As I wrote here a week a few weeks ago, i found some of these little suckers in City Island where they have made their largest home in New York. I did some online reading about them and then went out this weekend to snap some photos...if I could.

Before I tell you of my bird watching, here is what i know about these immigrants. It seems that some unknown time ago a crate of green monk parrakeets was accidentally left open and all the birds escaped. Also known as Quaker parrots, they came from Argentina and were to be sold in NYC pet shops. The pet shop connection continues to be ironic in that from time to time it is thought that the NYC tropical bird population has been heightened due to illegal release of unsold "products" from these little stores.

In a tale of great bird courage, the flocks have managed to survive and actually thrive in unnatural conditions. They have made home in waterfront wetlands preserves in All boroughs except Manhattan. They also nest in City Island, Brooklyn College, Greenwood cemetery and at least a half dozen other locales. In harsh winter conditions, they huddle next to warm power stations and have been a source of neighborhood pride and a company pest for Con Edison. There are bird watching clubs and photo communities based solely around these little creatures.

So, I wanted to document their existence all on my own. My buddy who started me on this adventure could have told me where exactly he took the picture and I could have gone out and duplicated his find...but what fun would that be? So I went out on a cold Saturday with my bike and my camera and went to search the 2 most well known sites in Brooklyn. Brooklyn College was not very fruitful so i moved quickly to Greenwood Cemetery where flocks have be known to dive bomb the groundskeepers at regular intervals.

I have never been on a bird watch before, and i can tell you now that it doesn't look like bird watching is anywhere in my future. I can wait on very long lines at a bank, sit in gridlock traffic, deal with an inept waiter without much trouble...but it takes a special kind of patience to look for a specific type of bird in a place like Brooklyn when there is absolutely no real starting point with which to look. I circled around the large cemetery for about an hour and a half, looking up at every tree and turning my head quickly at every chirp I heard.

After all this I have exactly ZERO pictures of the green parrots I came to see. I am not ashamed to say that I gave up the search after a total of 2 hours. Not very long in terms of bird watching time, but 2 hours is very valuable to me on my attempt to see everything i can in NYC in 5 months.

I have a feeling that seeing the birds would have been anti-climactic anyway. After all, Its the story that excited me, and that's more valuable than a picture, ain't it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


In the history of this country, many a bad person in a position of power has used weak, vaguely worded laws to exercise their own prejudice and hatred. This is why I was out on a cold Sunday afternoon in Herald Square holding a sign that said "We are all terrorists now".

I know it comes as a giant shock that I would be attending a protest...haha...but this is a very important issue. Trying to legislate against ones opponent's political views is nothing new I suppose, but never before has their been such a landslide of laws and proposed laws targeting political dissent. The Patriot Act is in full force and thousands of victims can already testify to its evil teeth. Many people know about that one as well as the onslaught of illegal or immoral phone tapping and government spying programs. But there is a new bread of attack that has been making its way through congress with remarkable ease.

Specifically, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) that allows for prosecution against anyone who causes, in the name of an "extreme" agenda, monetary losses to a corporation of more than $10,000. This may sound somewhat reasonable to some (not to anyone I know..but). But imagine if their was a successful boycott against a company doing animal testing, and that group was listed as a radical organization, or even a bad publicity camapign by a "fringe" group that did nothing but buy advertising space in a newspaper.

Or better yet, imagine if a group of people put information on a website about an action against a company, lets call it Huntington Life Sciences, and then they got arrested and put in jail for as long as six years...for doing nothing more than running a website. Actually, this one already happened, and that was BEFORE AETA passed.

The second piece of legislation is called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act. This one has already passed the House with only 6 dissenting votes! This piece of shit legislation allows for extended prosecutorial weapons against activists with "extreme belief systems" who wish to enact "political or social change." Under this bill it is not a stretch to see that people like Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Rosa Parks or any other social activists that you might know would indeed been considered by law, a terrorist (even if they were already considered this by the governments at the time).

Like I said in my opening paragraph, in most cases, its not what the legislation says now, its what it can be used for this case, its both. Fot those of us who have had friends or family put in prison for their political beliefs, this is not a "what if" type of discussion. This is not the first step and it won't be the last. Take action now!

Here is a small article about today's action :