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Showing posts from September, 2008

Gucci, Prada, and Pucci on Fifth Avenue: Thoughts Outside the Box

Believe it or not, but I can walk into any Fifth Avenue store and not immediately think about the financial markets, class warfare, the history of New York culture, or whatever connection the store may have to literary history. I can walk into Gucci's handsome newly-designed store, like I did this afternoon, hold a $335 wallet in my hand and think good thoughts about craftsmanship.

When I'm in the right mood, shopping becomes a process of critical thinking, an exercise in description, analysis, judgment, and interpretation. I can hold a Gucci wallet in my hand and examine the repeated logos, contemplate its grays, greens, and reds, compare it to others like it, and appreciate the craftsmanship. The wallet I picked up today, one of many nicely showcased as singular objects of desire, felt good. It had heft. The fasteners were heavy and hard, as if the wallet would not relinquish its contents without deliberation and thought. I contrasted the wallet with the ancient alligator An…

Ready to Wear, If I Can Find It: Shopping for My Personal Style

I often think of my personal style like one of those mix-and-match paper doll books of swappable outfit parts, but in my case the cut-outs consist of a variety of blue jeans for the legs and an assortment of classic tailored jackets for the top. As a Texas-born boomer Greenwich Village bohemian, I prefer western-style jeans of the Levis-Wrangler school, but for the jackets I like the look of classic tweed, as if "to the manner born." It's a western saddle-English saddle kind of thing, but the equestrian style works for me, eventhough I look like I just got off a high horse. What this wardrobe means for me in terms of American dollars is that the jeans average out to be about $44, but the jackets I like usually cost about $444. I try not to go there.

My fashion role model is a 40ish woman I saw several years ago walking through a square in the Renaissance town of Conegliano, Italy, just an hour or so north of Venice. The beautiful hilly town, part of a wealthy section of …

Ignoring the News, A Walk Through Little Italy and Soho

An errand on Spring Street took me out of the apartment today and fortuitously away from television, because the worsening financial crisis has turned me into a CNBC couch potato. If I had known in advance that the day would bring non-stop breaking news coverage, I would have never gotten off of the couch.

And a lovely day it was to stroll the streets of Little Italy and Soho. After walking past the shops and bakeries of Spring Street near Crosby and Lafayette (Balthazar, Pylones, Ceci Cela, etc.) and looking into many windows, I continued on to Mulberry Street and roamed south toward Little Italy. A clear day with intermittent clouds rendered the sky a deep azure, and as it was a Monday, the pace was less hectic on the street than during the weekend's usual frenzy. Many diners were taking their seats along the Italian outdoor cafés that line Mulberry, and everyone seemed relaxed. There was a sense of quiet, however, a mood that seemed not serious so much as reflective. Many people…

Weekend Frivolities: The New York Balcony Vegetable Garden

So, maybe this isn't such a frivolity at all. Now that lean times could be coming, urban dwellers looking to stretch the domestic dollar may want to consider a balcony vegetable garden, provided they have some sort of balcony or terrace. I've decided that I enjoy enough mixed salad greens, basil, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and other things generally grown in the earth to try to start raising produce myself. Now that the best restaurants here base their menus on locally grown fresh food, I've embraced that concept also by growing food three feet away from my kitchen. I like growing flowers, too.

My problem is that I'm fairly new to New York gardening, having spent most of my life plowing through southern soil, so I don't know what I'm doing. In places I've lived before, I could grow pretty much anything, and the number of growing days were so many that I could fit in two whole seasons of planting. I also owned a house with a yard and a car that I used to go…

After the Closing Bell, A Protest March Against the Wall Street Bailout

While the gestures of protest were familiar - satirical costumes of billionaires, hand-made signs, numerous bells and horns to draw attention to the cause, some deep-seated anger about an administration and Congress bailout deal for Wall Street was apparent today in a late afternoon protest in the financial district. After a rally on Bowling Green at the lower end of Manhattan, the protesters, drawn from many different progressive coalitions as well as concerned unaffiliated individuals needing the speak their minds, walked up a few short blocks on Broadway and turned east on Wall Street, the scene of so much resentment of late.



I am both angry and sad that the situation has come to this, this predicament with the financial markets. I would like to know more about what went down during the months when people ran into mortgage trouble and the foreclosures began. I'm interested in what we can do about ending the predatory lending practices and how in the future we can prevent the sy…

10 New Books of Interest for the New York State of Mind: On Modernism, Landmarks, the Brooklyn Genius, Pancakes, Pre-Punk History, and more

• New York Dolls: Photographs by Bob Gruen (Hardcover)
by Bob Gruen (Photographer), Legs McNeil (Commentary), Morrissey (Afterword)
Abrams Image. September 1, 2008.
The New York Dolls paved the way for many of the Punk, Glam and New Wavers in the city of the 1970s. Photographer Bob Gruen has compiled the first photography collection devoted to the New York Dolls.

• A Short Life of Trouble: My Forty Years in the New York Art World (Hardcover)
by Marcia Tucker (Author), Liza Lou (Editor)
Not yet released. University of California Press; 1 edition (October 22, 2008)
A memoir by the first woman to be hired as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Tucker changed the way art museums think about contemporary art.

• New York: A Historical Atlas of Architecture (Paperback)
by Alejandro Bahamon
Not yet released. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (October 1, 2008)
This book of 300 buildings arranged chronologically, by ne…

The New York Trattoria

From New Album 9/4/08 10:01 PM
The New York version of the trattoria, an informal rustic dining establishment, seems inviting these days. In the last month, the usual conversation about where to eat for dinner has been happily resolved with the decision to walk over to Gemma. This trattoria associated with the Bowery Hotel provides a comfortable, rustic textured decor of colors I associate with the setting sun. The service is friendly, and the food is fresh and basic. I could easily live off of basic trattoria fare - simply-made pasta with some sort of savory sauce, a white pizza with olives, fresh salad greens, a glass of red wine, and maybe a little warm chocolate something for after.

In my fantasy for post-financial New York, there would be a trattoria on every corner. Informality, friendliness, affordable prices, and a premium placed on farm-fresh ingredients would help provide the needed antidote to the recent frantic pace of New York's latest Gilded Age. This is the kind of pl…

Fractured Fairytales: The Concealed Pastorals of Cecily Brown

I first saw the large and colorful figurative abstract paintings of Cecily Brown (b. 1969 London) in 2003 at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., and I was enthralled by their painterly sensuality and feminine ambition, voluptuousness and exuberance, all words commonly used to described the British-born painter's work. Working through compositional problems associated with the de Kooning tradition and emulating its frenetic energy, Brown, who has long lived and worked in New York, brings to the canvas a bawdy post-feminist touch of porn and more than a wink to the Old Masters. The result is often museum-worthy exhibitions of busy colorful orgiastic canvases that reveal or conceal unmentionable body parts and actions. In earlier works, bunny rabbits saw some action. As would be expected with an artist that can paint with her breasts, Ms. Brown can really hold the room.

When I walked through the galleries at Gagosian to see Brown's many new paintings and several smaller ones, I was …

J.P. Elephant: Drawing Babar at the Morgan

I thought that seeing the exhibition Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors at the Morgan Library and Museum this past Saturday might provide some escape from the financial perils emanating from Wall Street, but the Morgan is no place to do so. Here, after entering the splendid library of John Pierpont himself, elegantly modernized in parts by Renzo Piano's airy glass renovations, and then walking into the main galleries of the Babar series, one focusing on creator Jean de Brunhoff, and the other on his son, Laurent, my eyes landed on the handsome gold gallery plaques acknowledging the ongoing support of the library's activities by the firm Morgan Stanley, an enterprise that was once known as "an investment bank."

Furthermore, one of my companions had just reminded me of Adam Gopnik's piece in The New Yorker, an essay in which the writer takes on Ariel Dorfman's accusations of Babar's complicity in advancing French imperialism. Gopnik argues to the c…

Two Hotels for Foodies and Literary-Minded New York Visitors: The Evelyn and The Library

(Revised June 2015) Just off Fifth Avenue, The Evelyn on E. 27th St. (formerly the Gershwin) is within easy walking distance of Madison Square Park to the south, the Empire State Building to the north, Chelsea to the west, and Gramercy Park to the east. The Evelyn is near some seriously good restaurants including Country, Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Les Halles, and others.

The Evelyn
7 East 27th Street
New York, NY 10016
Website

The refined Library Hotel on Madison at 41st St. wins the high concept award, as this venue near the New York Public Library has organized itself according to the Dewey Decimal System. Each of the ten floors is arranged around one of the categories of the system, and the rooms on each floor are organized by topic. The 9th floor, for example is devoted to History and features rooms devoted to 20th Century History, Ancient History, Oceanography, Asian History, and Geography and Travel Biography. Madison & Vine, a bistro and wine bar, is located downstairs, and a…

Extreme Quotes on Wall Street, and The Mayor's Vision for New York City 2.0

In trying to keep up with the news in the financial markets this week, the reader may conclude that the End Times are near. What follows is a roundup of stories and quotes (accompanied by many parenthetical remarks), though I can barely focus on the computer screen right now after losing my eyesight reading the particularly blinding gold-on-black Bloomberg.com website over the past few days:

• A Selection of Quotes on the End Times

"What we are witnessing may be the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen -- paper losses measured in the trillions of dollars."
- Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, "How to Clean Up a Category 4 Financial Storm," September 18, 2008. MSNBC

"We’re witnessing the passing of more than a venerable firm. We’re seeing the death of a culture."
-Roger Cohen, "The King Is Dead," New York Times, September 17, 2008. NYT

"It's a world in which the Chinese state, if it co-ordinated the investment…

New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map

For the last couple of weeks I've been exploring the architecture and literature of New York City in 1900, paying particular attention to the writings of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Through my architectural explorations I now see the visual inheritance of the years 1880-1920 everywhere I go, and I've come to appreciate the excesses and extravagance of the era. Second, through reading some of the literature, I appreciate how the dazzling growth in New York at the turn of the century created hope and excitement, but in many cases, how the same conditions engendered social anxiety and revolutionary sentiment. As Wharton focused so much attention on Wall Street and the financial speculations of her time, particularly in The House of Mirth, I also came to understand how much the story of New York is tied up with the story of wealth and money. As I walked through this landscape over the past week, the biggest financial story in a generation started to unfold, and so the two stori…

Strolling the Museum Mile (and a Half) and Contemplating the Current Financial Crisis (Slideshow)

Writing about Edith Wharton and New York in 1900 necessarily involves a discussion of wealth and social class, so strolling down Fifth Avenue from E. 104th Street to E. 70th (an area that encompasses Museum Mile, plus another 12 blocks to the Frick Collection) affords an opportunity to examine the manifestations of this wealth. Here's the world of the Carnegies, Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, the Dukes and the Fricks, with their material aspirations on display. Their money came from a variety of sources - steel, stocks, tobacco, or oil, and their wealth was often procured through inhumane means and ill-gotten ways, but along the way, their philanthropic pursuits built many of the finest institutions of the city, or for that matter, across the nation. Think of the Carnegie libraries. Many of the era's industrialists and financiers, such as Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. collected the finest art in the world.

My recent posts on the New York of 1900 have …

Walking Off the Wall Street Bears, Part II: The Crisis at Lehman Brothers, and You

I've been reading the dire financial news breaking today, the precipitous collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and wondering how a potential bankruptcy or breakup of the firm might affect life in the greater New York area. While various news outlets such as The New York Times, Bloomberg News, thestreet.com, and The Wall Street Journal have done excellent reporting on the financial aspects of the collapse of the talks underway downtown, the New York Daily News best addresses the needs of the average citizen with headlines such as "Layoffs in financial market hurt city."

As of this writing, Lehman Brothers, a financial house that dates back to 1850, may succumb to recent stock pressures and be headed for liquidation before markets open on Monday. Barclays PLC and Bank of America (in hard breaking news as I write, in talks to buy Merrill Lynch), two potential suitors, have left the building (as pictured here, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Liberty Street). Th…

New York in The House of Mirth: Social Class, Money, and Speculations on Wall Street

Many people are under the impression that it takes a lot of money to live in New York, and compared to other major American cities, yes, New York is expensive. But the expense is tied to personal values, tastes and social expectations, the same as it is everywhere else. If I felt I needed to buy a lot of designer clothes or frequently eat out at hot new restaurants, then I would find New York expensive. But because I frequent the greenmarkets, make my own coffee, wear blue jeans and black shirts, and seem content enough to blog about movies and wander around looking at art and architecture, I get by fine.

Money, not having enough of it; Wall Street, making it too fast and then losing it; friends, relying on them too much for financial advice; status, buying whatever it takes to achieve social stature - it's amazing how much Wharton discusses money in The House of Mirth. In polite circles of 1900 or even now, it's not something to bring up, but the very frank discussion of Lily …

The New York of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: Introduction to a Walk

From House of Mirth
At the beginning of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, Lily Bart strolls up Madison Avenue on the arms of Lawrence Selden, her most indecisive suitor, but toward the end of the story, she walks alone. It's an important distinction, strolling versus walking. I recently re-read this celebrated turn-of-the-century story of a beautiful 29-year-old socialite's precipitous decline down the New York social ladder by focusing on how much is revealed about the real New York City of 1900-1901, the years the novel is set, and on how the main character walks. It's a peculiar way to read a novel, I know, but whether one strolls or walks in the heyday of the flâneur reveals much about individual fortunes and social class.

Wharton sets most of the novel along or near Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, generally north of Grand Central Station. The novel begins in Grand Central, not the terminal we know today but the station that preceded it. There, Lily, a…

Homage to Pâte à Choux: French Pastry South of 14th Street

I need a little break from New York of 1900, the subject of many recent posts, as I've been deep into research and buried under antiquarian books. So my thoughts naturally turn to pastry. The walking excursions into the École des Beaux-Arts and the world of Henry James have left me with a taste for strong coffee and a selection of tarts, especially those of the French variety. American alternatives such as red velvet cupcakes, while readily available in these parts and fabulous when made properly, carry a heavy culinary baggage of southern poverty and do not seem appropriate for the haute bourgeois topics of which I speak. No, as the subject here will soon enough turn to novelist Edith Wharton, one of the keenest observers of New York high society that ever lived but who late in life gave her heart and soul to France, we perhaps need a tarte aux prunes or something that falls in the pâte à choux category to properly prepare ourselves.

Fortunately, for the Village bohemian and membe…

Henry James' Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square

Henry James (1843-1916), author of many novels on the college reading list - Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, among them, and great stories such as "The Aspern Papers" and "The Turn of the Screw," was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home. During the 1890s, while James was living in Europe, the school pulled down its older main building on the east side of Washington Square to make way for new buildings. In "New York Revisited," James describes his return to the city in 1904 after a long absence, and though he comes across many familiar sights, he's startled by the loss of his home on Washington Place. James, a writer never truly comfortable with a short sentence, sets the scene of "the ruthlessly suppressed birthhouse on the other side of the Square":

"That was where the pretence that nearly nothing has changed had most to come in; for a high, square, i…

The Making of the Monumental Metropolis: New York and the École des Beaux Arts

My mission in writing about New York in the late nineteenth century has been to underscore the changes wrought in Old New York with the arrival of the 20th century and the radical remaking of its built environment, and to wonder, of course, about the parallels with our own time. Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York (1899), which I wrote about in a couple of posts, is the work of an antiquarian, a person with a deep connection to the past and an unease with the present. With such rich real estate below, it's easy to be anxious about the knocking down of familiar landmarks and the erasure of the past. The building boom of the present, with its many tall blue condo-ized buildings of vague modernist architectural heritage, oblivious to the city's narrative arc of historic neighborhoods, and the slow and often imperceptible disappearance of the flavor of certain streets can undermine one's necessary sense of place. We can all start feeling like antiquarians…

More Curiosities from Nooks and Corners of Old New York (1899)

Continuing with a look at Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York, published in 1899, I would like to point out several additional passages of interest.

• Many commemorative tablets described in the book are no longer in place. One exception is the plaque honoring William Bradford, the city's first publisher, who set up a printing press at 81 Pearl. His gravestone in Trinity Churchyard is also in good shape. Considering the crisis in the newspaper business and with new reports circulating this week about the imminent demise of The New York Sun, at least we still have Bradford, the original print guy.

• Hemstreet also directs the reader to the grave of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Churchyard. Charlotte Temple was the heroine of Susannah Haswell Rowson's novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, published in 1794, and so, by definition, this gravestone slab marks the remains of a fictional character. The sentimental story follows a young woman who falls in love with …

An Exterior View of the New York Stock Exchange, On a Day the Dow Dropped 344.65 Points

From New Album 9/4/08 10:01 PM

Looks can be deceiving. While I was walking through the Financial District yesterday, chasing down the Nooks and Corners of Old New York, I came across this festive scene outside the Stock Exchange. Often a celebration is afoot on the steps of the building, and yesterday looked more fun than usual. The National Football League was kicking off its season, and all the New York Giants fans were anticipating the game last night with the Washington Redskins. The Giants won, 16-7, over the Redskins, apparent victims of the incessant Washington bashing at the Republican Party national convention. (Walking Off the Big Apple happens to like Washington, D.C., a great pedestrian-friendly city of fine restaurants, historic architecture, and clean metro system, and will not sit quietly on the sidelines while the city is demeaned this way.) Back to the steps of the Exchange, an inflatable ketchup bottle and beer can contributed to the overall American tableau.

Inside,…

Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York: Lessons in Mortality

Charles Hemstreet's book, Nooks and Corners of Old New York, illustrated by E. C. Peixotto, makes for a curious walking guide to Manhattan, largely because it was published fairly long ago, namely 1899. A few things have obviously changed with the passing of 109 years, so following along with the author's descriptions of buildings, streets and places of Old New York, as I attempted today, became at turns depressing and exciting. After reading one of two colorful anecdotes about a particular place, I would walk to the designated corner only to find it gone, irretrievably lost. As I'm well aware that there have been a few developments in architecture since 1899 and cognizant of the economics of real estate in Manhattan, especially in its lower regions, I began my journey with low expectations that I would find much of anything the author describes. Even the author spends much time waxing poetic about buildings torn down before his lifetime. On the other hand, when I came acr…

Living Now in the New York of the Gilded Age: Inheriting the Built Environment of the Nineteenth Century

Possibly the worst painter I've ever met in my life lived in a gorgeous house built in the thirteenth century in a beautiful town in Northern Italy. It was a cave-like structure with small rooms that spilled into the next, a sequence of charming vignettes. A medieval labyrinth, the house delighted at every turn. The artist liked to cook pasta in his converted Dark Ages kitchen and then set his Renaissance table with a fine selection of wines and fresh salads for his guests. Sitting at the table one could look out the window on a cobblestone road dating from the Roman era and after dinner sit out in the courtyard and enjoy the greenery and water fountain. A rickety staircase near the back of the house led up to his cozy book-lined studio where he busied himself creating garish abstract paintings with a toothbrush. He thought a lot of his "work," and whenever he asked me to comment on a painting, I asked another question about his house.

I tell this story because I've …