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 :

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Roseland Ballroom

Its been a few weeks since I saw some live music so I thought I'd check out a show.

I went to the old Roseland Ballroom on 52nd street to see one of my favorite acts Martin Sexton. I have reviewed him before on an old blog of mine here.

The Roseland has always been one of those great music venues...and isn't hasn't changed much since the Dave Letterman Show moved in next door. But it wasn't built for just music. It used to be a dance hall. It has also been used for ice skating (the rink is still beneath the floor boards) large dinners and political events.

I have a feeling that the venue is on its way out soon with all these new corporate venues spending like crazy to get the big acts, but as long as musicians still want to play the old spots, it will be there.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

5-Pointz...Queens Graffiti Mecca

There is a building in queens, that is as you can see from the image above covered from top to bottom with some of NYC's finest street art. I have heard about it for some time and a few days ago while transferring from the 7-train to the G-train i saw it like a beacon in the distance. I'm not sure how long it has been there, but i lived a half block away from that building in the fall of 1997 and certainly don't remember it looking anything like that.

The building is privately owned and used as a art enclave. Once used as the Phun Factory, the project is now called the 5-Pointz, The Institute Of Higher Burning. It is a project run by a writer called Meres. Over the years, the building has been bombed by some of the worlds most famous graffiti artists and street taggers, with permission of the project and with the landlords full blessing.

The pointz is a must see for all urbanites and a place to enjoy an amazing form of art forever ensconced in controversy. A nice bit of NYC paradox is the proximity of this building to the large Citibank building looming 2 blocks away.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Cold Day In Queens

I had a big plan for Saturday. I was going to start at the Throgs-Neck Bridge and see the waterfront from there all the way out to Nassau County. I also wanted to check out the Alley Pond Environmental Center and watch the sunset over the bridges from Douglaston. But boy, it was cold!

I mean really f*@#ing cold.

I took the 7-train all the way out to flushing, then took a bus to its last stop. I walked to the end of Powell's Cove Road, but there was no opening to the water. After a half hour of walking around and finding no public water views, i made my own and found myself right under the bridge overpass. It was a very clear day and made for some good photography, but it was COLD.

My compass/thermometer on my bag said 19-degrees...but the wind was blowing at over 25 miles an hour, making it nearly unbearable. I walked along the rocks on the water with my camera and wrapped around Cryder's Point in Little Bay. I found some nice urban decay and a broken pier, but after 5 minutes i couldn't take the temperature. I had taken my gloves off to snap some photos and my fingers were numb and could no longer act like fingers. My face was purple and the tears coming from the corners of my eyes were starting to freeze.

Needless to say, my day ended a bit premature. If i can find a warmer day, i will go back to see all the other things on my list.

Here is a little about the Throgs Neck. It was another Robert Moses project built in 1961. It was built by Othmar Ammann, the same guy that planned the GW, Whitstone and Triborough bridges. It is the only major East River crossing that is not connected to the beltway system of highways.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Orchard Beach

The "Riviera of New York". That's what Robert Moses called Orchard Beach when he created the crescent shaped beach. That's right...he actually built a beach where one didn't exist before. In his forever large scale urban planning behemoths, Moses wanted to build a beach on the beautiful waterfront along the Long Island Sound in the north Bronx and found new groundbreaking ways to create urban landscapes.

For this one, he imported 1.2 million cubic yards of sand that he dredged from Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Rockaway in Queens. He dumped it in the water around Rodman's Neck (now used as a police firing range). In doing this he connected mainland bronx with Hunter's Island and Twin Island and in effect tripled the size of Pelham Bay Park. Quite a feat.

This was in 1935. 70 years later, it all looks like a natural landscape that is among the most Serene places in NYC. Serene at least in November as the temperatures start to dip close to freezing. On my walk through the northern part of the park, there is nobody else around. there is something a bit satisfying about walking around in NYC and not hearing cars and hoards of people bustling about.

As you can see in my previous post about City Island, there are dozens of varieties of birds in this area and the lands around the open picnic areas are very wild and used as wildlife sanctuaries. Outside of all the bids and a great number of black and grey squirrels, I saw one of the reported 5 white tailed deer in the park. I must of startled him as he was hiding in the brush near the trail I was on. He leaped out and ran away. He was absolutely magnificent. The other bit of fun nature i witnesses was watching a seagull scoop down, grab a clam or an oyster, fly up about 20 feet up and drop it on the rocks. It cracked open as planned and the giant well-fed bird had some breakfast.

The beach itself was very quiet. There is a boardwalk around the 1.2 mile long half circle beach. A few others were out there enjoying a brisk walk under the blue skies. During the summer, this beach is packed and the pavilions and food stands are all operating. So is the environmental center on the east end that was unfortunately closed yesterday. I bet it would be fun to take a boat out and circle around the beach and up to the Westchester side of the park. Maybe next warmer weather.

As a sidenote, i am noticing with much excitement that this is the perfect time of year to explore all these waterfront parks. The air is colder but the colors are fantastic and you get much of the time by yourself.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

City Island

If you have never been to City Island, be prepared for a very UN-NYC experience. Although a part of the Bronx, the island located in the Long Island Sound is a thing unto itself. It is aptly described in the bible of NYC urban explorers, Forgotten New York like this:

City Island looks like a transplanted fishing village seemingly dropped into the New York Metropolitan area. Its street grid is arranged much like a fish skeleton with City Island Avenue as the spine and the twenty four streets intersecting it as the bones, making foot exploration easy.

As far as my explorations are concerned, this is the furthest away from my home in Clinton Hill that you can get and still be in NYC. I planned on an early morning jaunt, so i left work at 5 a.m. and took the 6 train from 1st stop to the last stop. From there, in the early morning chill of late November I waited for two separate buses that never came. After waiting at two clearly marked bus stops for an hour, (the BX-12 and Bx-29 city island) i was tired of having the buses pass me by and went into the subway station and asked what was up. They told me that those stops don't get used this time of year. thanks for telling me MTA!!! (cover up the bus stops polls or put a new sign up).

One good byproduct of waiting so long on the Pelham Bay Park side of the Bruckner was that i got to watch the sunrise over the park with giant flocks of birds covering the sky(check out this photo)

Finally, i got on the bus and off i went through the park. On the bridge over the Eastchester Bay, i saw an incredible sunrise that makes me want to go back a few more times and shoot some film or bring other people to show. I had the bus drop me off at the southern end of the island so i could walk back and see it all. At the end are a few seafood restaurants that weren't open at 7 in the morning, but if they were i could have gone out to there viewing decks and look out at the Throggs Neck Bridge and Execution Rock Lighthouse (named for ruthless torture and killings by British soldiers during the revolutionary war).

I did get to see some of that from the end gate on City Island Avenue and still got the tail end of that sunrise. For the next hour and a half i walked up the island and out to the water on all the side streets. Most of them had locked gates for community use only (still controversy over the legality of that). I found a very oddly calm air while walking the streets. It really is a small village. Most of the buildings are houses close to the street with small yards and I felt almost like i was intruding on people privacy walking around with a camera. That doesn't happen in most, if any, place in NYC.

I found a few nice openings along the water and felt good about being on the beach in the early morning. Here are a few facts about this island:

  • At last count (2000) there were less than 5,000 people living on the island.
  • City Island was privately owned, most notably by Thomas Pell and later Benjamin Palmer.
  • Palmer renamed the Island, originally called Minifer's Island, in hope that is could compete with Manhattan's shipping businesses.
  • The history of the island was chronicled by Alice Payne in Tales Of The Clamdiggers.
  • There are a series of smaller islands, or some better described as uninhabitable rocks in the area. The largest and most well known is Hart Island which since 1869 has held the graves of New York's unknown dead...this is the famous Potter's Field.
  • There is a tremendous bird population stemming from the vast wetlands and land preserves of the nearby Pelham Bay Park. If you are so inclined, you can find Yellow-rumped warblers (in fall), Song Sparrow, Peragrine Falcons, Blue-capped Chicadees, Barn Swallow, willow flycatchers, Night Heron, Ring-necked pheasants and turkeys.
  • You can also see a healthy but oddly placed population of Monk Parakeets. It is thought that they once escaped from a crate at JFK and has since made homes in a few bird friendly neighborhoods in New York and has adapted beautifully.

My trip to City Island was relaxing if a bit too cold. The only negative i have to report is the ongoing noise of guns that can be heard at all hours of the day. The NYPD firing range is on a piece of land just west of City Island and is a bit of a nuisance and more than a bit eerie to hear exactly how many bullets are flying through the air.

One final thought...for years, i visited City Island once a summer with NYPIRG for our annual mini-golf tournament. I won twice!!!