‘New York City’ Posts

This View of Life… Or That One

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Dotting the fields by the road around the Caribbean island of St. Kitts are hundreds of white birds. Marveling at the beauty of these graceful, long-necked animals, we asked Solomon, our hotel's driver, what they were.

"Egrets," he replied. "They look pretty, but they're damn nuisances. They shit all over my pool."

It's all relative. Here in New York we've got open-air double-decker tourist buses all over the place. When I'm walking, I like to see the buses. It's fun to watch the tourists gawking at the skyscrapers and famous sights that to me are just part of the everyday scenery. It's useful, and enjoyable, to be made aware of different points of view.

When I'm trying to drive downtown, though, the buses are a nuisance, clogging up the intersections like mis-oriented vitamin pills in your throat. So: another point-of-view shift, this time all within one person, pedestrian vs. driver. Every conceivable point in space or time is (theoretically) somebody's point of view, and all those points of view are out there criss-crossing and opposing, separating us from one another and dividing us internally too.

Somewhere, terrain-wise, between a small, underdeveloped Caribbean island and the heart of Manhattan is the suburb I grew up in. It was a good place to be a kid. A few years later, it was a boring place to be a teenager. It hadn't changed; I had. Now I've shifted yet again, looking down my nose at suburbs altogether.

Yet even though I haven't lived in one in decades, when I visit suburbs in other areas I feel superior and defensive about my own home town: we had sidewalks, why don't you have sidewalks? What if someone wants to go for a walk? Who planned this town? Meanwhile someone from that sidewalkless community is probably driving through my old town thinking: how can people live in a place that doesn't have any hills?

It's amazing, when you think about it, that we function and get along as well as we do. Sure, there are always wars going on, and people stereotyping, despising, and oppressing other people, countries, races… suburbs. But countries survive for centuries. And we have not blown up the planet, nor wiped ourselves back to the Bronze Age, despite well over half a century of capability.

We may have point-of-view problems, but we did evolve as social animals. That gave us the smarts we constantly use to both help and hurt ourselves individually and collectively. The fact that people can live in small groups or large ones, in every kind of terrain, and within a wide variety of social institutions, tells us something important:

There's hope for humanity. There's hope for the Earth. There's even hope for some of the beautiful creatures we share the planet with.

Just as long as they don't shit in my pool.*


*Metaphorical. I don’t have a pool.

A Historical Exploration and Musical Performance of Six Franco-Flemish Déplorations

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Lately I've become something of an Early Music Deadhead, checking the Gotham Early Music Society newsletter and seeing all the pre-Classical concerts I can around town, especially the free ones. One such happened the other night at the beautiful, grottoed Church of Notre Dame, in Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan, where some fourteen members of the vocal group Pomerium sang a program of six Franco-Flemish Déplorations.

What are Déplorations, you ask? Heck if I knew. Fortunately Alyssa DeSocio was on hand to explain. She's a student of musicology who told us that back in the day — the Renaissance, that is — French/Flemish court composers would write pieces lamenting (hence déploration, deploring) the death of an older composer who had mentored or inspired them. The result was some exceptionally beautiful and interesting choral music.

The program ranged from the 14th to the 16th centuries, and included chansons (with words in the French vernacular), motets (in Latin), and motet-chansons (which combined the two). The music referenced medieval Gregorian chant but used polyphony, dissonant suspensions, and all the latest compositional developments of the time. The choral director helpfully pointed out a number of these features by having the chorus sing them in isolation before performing the whole piece.

Pomerium

The lyrics were poems written for the particular occasions. They mixed Christian and Classical allusions: Jesus, of course, but also Jove, Apollo, and Atropos, the Fate in charge of dispensing death. They also mentioned the deceased composer by name, glowingly praising his divinely inspired musical prowess and sometimes other qualities as well.

…Atropos, terrible satrap,
Has caught your Ockeghem in her trap,
The true treasurer of music and master,
Learned, handsome in appearance
and not at all stout…
Put on the clothes of mourning,
Josquin, Pierrson, Brumel, Compère,
And weep great tears from your eyes…

Josquin des Prez, one of the composers mentioned in the next-to-last line above, became the greatest of his time, and the program concluded with three Déplorations written in his honor.

Often part of the fascination of Early Music concerts is the proliferation of old-fashioned instruments that you don't normally see or hear anymore, instruments with names like sackbut, theorbo, and shawm, not to mention my favorites, the viol family. But this concert made purely vocal music from the Renaissance not just beautiful, but almost as interesting as a consort of curious antiques.

Signs o’ Spring in New York City

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Daffodils, of course. (These are in Madison Square Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

A robin, of course. (Prospect Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

And it certainly wouldn’t be spring without a game of Flags ‘n’ Pigeons. (Ah, that brings me back…)

From Signs o' Spring

A Consort of Viols, a Bevy of Blooming Trees, and a Living Room Choir

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Saturday we visited Wave Hill, a gorgeous public garden and cultural center near the Hudson River in Riverdale, The Bronx.

Wave Hill House

Flowering trees were just starting to bloom and the air was full of scents. It’s a sublimely beautiful place in spring.

Wave Hill

Then yesterday night I experienced a musical equivalent. I’d seen the viol quartet Parthenia and its music and poetry programs before, but this time they were in a proper concert hall, the Dweck Auditorium at the Brooklyn Public Library with its warm acoustics. Viol The audience was enraptured by the tones of the viols, by the actor Paul Hecht reading poems by Donne and Shakespeare, and by the voice of mezzo-soprano soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, better known as a member of Anonymous 4.

Mr. Hecht’s readings made me want to go back to college and major in English all over again, but this time with him by my side to read all those poems aloud. Hearing great poetry in the trained, sonorous voice of an intelligent (and funny) stage actor gives one a whole new appreciation of the works.

Meanwhile, thanks partly to Parthenia, I’ve contracted a case of viol envy — I’d like to learn to play one of those ancient things. The viols are a family of fretted stringed instruments that predate the “modern” violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The sound is softer, less like a human voice heard through the air and more like what I imagine a mother’s voice sounds like to a fetus in the womb, soothing and humming.

They played works by Dowland, Byrd, and other composers roughly contemporary with Donne and Shakespeare. The second half of the program was all about aging and dying. Yet I left the concert walking very slowly and calmly, as if I were balancing a large object on my head, not wishing to tilt in any direction or elevate my heartrate past meditation speed.

Luckily I arrived home to a rehearsal of angelic voices preparing for my friend Meg Braun‘s CD release concert. With Amy Soucy and Elisa Peimer harmonizing, the three sounded like a whole choir in the living room. That’s the magic of well-crafted counterpoint: it makes the brain fill in parts that aren’t there.

But before Meg’s concert, in which I am also playing, Elisa and I will be back at Wave Hill. We’re getting married there in less than two weeks. Holy crap.

Viol photo: Copyright © 2000–2009 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

No Place Like Home: Digging New York

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Dorothy was right. There really is no place like home.

I've been to some of the great capitals of Europe — London, Paris, Copenhagen, Madrid. I've been to Jerusalem, the ancient spiritual home of three great religions. I've been to beautiful and fascinating old towns like Toledo (Spain), Copenhagen, Heidelberg, Montreal. Yet my own town, New York City, in whose suburbs I grew up and in which I now spend almost every day of my life, remains more deeply and endlessly fascinating to me than any of them.

You'd think it would become old and tired, boring and same-old. But it doesn't. And I think I've figured out why.

The great cities and historic towns I've visited, especially in what we used to quaintly call the "Old World," tend to have a powerful dedication to their pasts, avidly preserving their monuments. Roman ruins, medieval castles, royal palaces and estates, historic sites and neighborhoods are all right there for locals to take pride in and tourists to ogle. The great metropolises may spread out and become super-cities, but their "old town" neighborhoods remain.

New York, on the other hand, is constantly being torn down and rebuilt. Its 400-year history is there, but you have to dig for it, literally or in museums and books. You have to push aside the heavy crust of present-day culture, commerce, and architecture to reach the lower layers of the past. Otherwise you could walk the city for days and see precious little that predates the 20th century.

New York has been a center of commerce for its whole history. Before landfill extended lower Manhattan several blocks into the rivers that frame it to the east and west, Wall Street ended at Water Street, at the river's edge, and here stood the Meal Market. nyc But grains weren't the only commodities sold here – the Meal Market was also the Slave Market.

Few of us think about the heavy presence of slaves in our city's history. In fact, slavery wasn't completely abolished in New York until 1827. A major exhibit at the New-York Historical Society helped educate a lot of us about that a few years ago. But how many Wall Street wizards – many of them now walking the streets looking for work, but hardly in danger of being sold at auction – think about the evil trade that was conducted at that very spot for two centuries?

Less than a mile to the north, in a section of lower Manhattan not frequented by tourists, a smallish square of concrete called Collect Pond Park sits ringed by tall, cold-shouldered buildings. Centuries ago, there was an actual pond here, fed by an underground spring that still runs somewhere deep beneath the streets. (The name "Collect" is a bastardization of a Dutch word – nothing was "collected" there.) The pond was a major source of fresh water for New Amsterdam and early New York. You'd never imagine that now. nyc Now it's owned by pigeons, pecking in puddles.

Nearby was the Negro Burial Ground. In 1741, some 30 men, mostly African slaves, were executed – some hanged, others burned at the stake – during a witchhunt-like panic after a rash of suspicious fires. Some of the bodies were strung up and left to rot on an island in the Collect, a warning to other slaves not to participate in any further uprisings.

Today, you could live or work in this neighborhood your whole life and never know about the grisly things that happened here in those days.

By the 1800s the Collect had become a cesspool of industrial waste, so it was filled in with land taken from a hill that used to rise nearby. (We New Yorkers happily obliterate our geography along with our history.) The notorious Five Points neighborhood then evolved beside what used to be the Collect.

The book and movie Gangs of New York and the novel A Winter's Tale both made good use of legends of the Five Points, but the average New Yorker can easily be forgiven for failing to make a connection between those tales and this actual part of town. nyc You have to read up on its history to find out just where the Five Points neighborhood actually was, and when you go there, it's practically impossible to imagine it. Almost nothing remains of the history, the culture, even the buildings that defined the area in the time of Bill the Butcher and Jacob Riis. Now it's just another part of Chinatown.

Good riddance to the Five Points, of course. It was a neighborhood of poverty, brutal crime, and terrible odors. But wouldn't it be great if we could still walk those streets and picture what once was? We can't. The very layout has changed. And this is characteristic of New York as a whole. Blink and it's gone, replaced by something new – maybe something better, but too often not. A shame? Yes. Having bulldozed so many of our monuments and buried so much of our history, we've lost much.

But at the same time we have, in a sense, created something: we've made the city into one giant archeological site – a physical one, and also fertile ground for a kind of archeology of the mind. Precisely because we can no longer visit so many of the sites our history teaches us about, we are prodded to dig further, even if it's only to read a book, watch a documentary, or go on a walking tour. Take an organized walking tour in New York and chances are you'll find as many locals as visitors.

Sure, there are plenty of New Yorkers who breeze blithely through their day paying no attention to what's around them now, much less to what used to be there. But there are a good many of us who feel the tug of an endless fascination with our city, who have a persistent need to dig, who insist on blowing away the dust and sniffing out the layers of history that underlie the pavement we walk on every day.

As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. But for us New Yorkers, home is also where the best stuff is. And a lot of that stuff is down below, buried deep in the past. It calls out to the curious souls walking above, beckoning us to plunge a spade down through the centuries.

Kevin So

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Here’s Kevin So playing “Brighter Day” at Spike Hill in Williamsburg on Jan. 31, with me on bass and Robin Lai on drums. Video courtesty of Sitcom Serf.

Winter in New York

Friday, January 30th, 2009

A few snapshots thereof. Berries, birds, and the like. The berries and birds are from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The fence below is from farm country in upstate New York.


nyc

nyc,nyc

Winter Scene

It Really Is a New Day Dawning… You Know How I Know?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Got a LoJack warning tonight: “Your vehicle may have been moved without your authorization.” Rushed out through the freezing cold to check on the car: gone. Street lined with TV-shoot signs: No Parking Wednesday. Usually they put these signs up a couple of days in advance, but I guess not this time.

But right there was my friendly neighborhood NYC tow truck driver, busy hooking up another vehicle, so I talked to him. Turns out that when you’re towed because of a movie shoot they don’t take you to the pound and make your life miserable and charge you a lot of money. Instead, they tow you around the neighborhood until they find another spot for you, park you, and put a sticker on your car exempting it from being towed or ticketed for 48 hours. When – hopefully within 48 hours – you discover your car is gone and call the cops or the pound, they tell you where it is. Mine had been moved just to the next street over. I checked and there it was, not only safe and sound but in a perfectly legal spot.

I choose to attribute this surprisingly not-so-awful circumstance to the ascension of Barack Obama.

Freddy’s Still Rules

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

One of the negatives of moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan is the serious reduction in opportunities to hang out at Freddy’s, the best bar in the known universe. That was remedied the other night courtesy of my gig with the Kings County Blues Band at which an awesome time was had by all. Starting the musical festivities were The Walkers, pictured below, with a set of story songs that were also performance art pieces, with titles like “The Mayor’s Boyfriend” and “The Devil is a Man.” This is the kind of group you have to experience; simple hearing would not do the trick. It was only their second gig ever. Hope they have more.

music

Now here’s us – well, two of us anyway, Laura Stein and myself – with the KCBB. Below the photo is an MP3 from the show, of me singing Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars.” I can’t do it like JT, of course, or like my old bandmate Michael Brewster from whom I learned the song, but I think it’s not too bad for a Jewish kid from Long Island. Anyway, let no one say The Bagel and the Rat is not a hip, multimedia blog.

music

Oh, and of course: long live Freddy’s, and down with Bruce Ratner and Atlantic Yards.

First photo by me, second photo by Elisa Peimer.

Opera Review (NYC): Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by The Dido Project at the Samsung Experience

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

Henry Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas was one of the earliest English operas and is considered one of the composer's masterworks. It runs only an hour but is a true opera. Though the story, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, is a tragedy, Thursday night's performance at the Samsung Experience in the Time Warner Center was a joy, and one of an unusual sort.

The Dido Project comprises a group of singers and the Sybarite Chamber Players under the sparkling direction of Pat Diamond. They've transposed Purcell's Baroque opera about the Queen of Carthage and the hero Aeneas, with its libretto by the Irish poet and playwright Nahum Tate, to the modern boardroom. This Dido is the CEO of a major corporation, while Aeneas, rather than literally shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, is a tycoon on the verge of economic collapse and in need of a business partner to merge with.

A bit surprisingly, the tale lends itself quite well to the updated setting. One reason is the story's resonance with the modern-day capitalist themes of independence and overwork, particularly for women. This opera is, and always has been, all about women. Indeed, its only major male role is Aeneas himself.

Another factor was the physical setting and the use of technology (I use the past tense because this was a one-time performance, though the group has plans for further events). Many modern theatrical productions use video to enhance or comment on the live action, but usually the screens or projections are fitted after the fact into a space designed mainly for live performance. The Samsung Experience at the Time Warner Center, on the other hand, is a showroom for the company's technology, particularly its screens and other video kit – a "10,000-square-foot interactive emporium of virtual reality experiences and technology."

You are surrounded by video. You walk through video to get to the performance space. You pass computers with interactive displays. Bright lighting and shiny equipment give a science-fictiony sheen to the whole environment. Everything is by Samsung, of course, including the two large screens that framed the stage displaying CNN-like "news" and commentary on the story we were witnessing. The backdrop too consisted of a large multi-panel screen, showing an image of the globe, slowly changing color like a Christmas display, reinforcing the sense that we're in a universe of nonstop worldwide news and action.

The video commentary, complete with a news crawl, was clever and funny and helped to both carry and clarify the story (I liked the novel use of the Windows "blue screen of death"). Its only disadvantage was that it replaced what in some opera performances would have been a display of supertitles. Even in an English-language opera like this one, the words can at times be hard to understand, given the strong vibrato of the female voices and the sometimes unexpected (to modern ears) phrasing of a 17th century libretto.

Still, though the audience may have missed some lines, the singers, with their top-notch voices and fine acting, made the essentials quite clear. And it is a story of essentials.

Dido loves Aeneas, but is reluctant to declare it until her sister (here an executive assistant) Belinda prods her. But three witches who hate Dido and want to ruin her life trick Aeneas into leaving town to fulfill his destiny of founding Rome (here, he is starting a new business venture without Dido). He changes his mind, but too late – Dido's heart has been irreparably broken and, more to the point, her pride fatally wounded: "To your promis'd empire fly/And let forsaken Dido die."

Blythe Gaissert conveyed Dido's sadness ("Peace and I are strangers grown") and precipitous fall with solemn, queenly magnetism. Her voice is strong, supple, almost buttery, and in the famous death scene, which was effectively video-assisted, she was moving and a little funny at the same time. Elena O'Connor as Belinda seemed slightly tentative of voice at first but quickly claimed the full measure of the role, singing beautifully while at the same time clowning divinely.

Alex Loustion was winning as the Second Woman, a more important role than its generic name makes it sound; she did a beautiful job with the lovely aria "Oft she visits this lone mountain." David Adam Moore brought a smooth, strong baritone, impeccable diction, and excellent acting skills to the relatively thankless role of Aeneas (this is a play about women, remember). Sarah Heltzel and Annie Pennies made fine witches, and Jessica Medoff-Bunchman was perfectly spectacular as the Sorceress (the head witch) – if she doesn't have a fan club, someone should start one.

The small Sybarite Chamber Players orchestra played with heart, precision, and even at certain moments a smoky intensity. Purcell's wonderful music lost nothing in the translation of the action to a setting of cutting-edge technology. Along with the musicians themselves, conducted by William Hobbs from the harpsichord, Daryl Bornstein's sound design must get some credit for this.

No more performances of Dido and Aeneas are immediately scheduled; I'm sure they'll be posted at the Dido Project's website when they are. As for the Samsung Experience, you can check it out any time you're in New York – it's right in the upscale mall at Columbus Circle known as the Time Warner Center.  A visit to a bright, shiny, holiday-dressed mall in the heart of the greatest city in the world is surprisingly cheering in these tough times. The next live event in the space is an appearance by comedian Mike Birbiglia on Dec. 10 from 4-6 PM.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Speaking of creatures of New York, you can just see in the upper right section of this photo a red-tailed hawk that spent a while circling over Manhattan – somewhere around the 20’s – this morning. I don’t have the kind of camera that could really capture it, but there is was, red tail and all.


Red-Tailed Hawk

Creatures of New York, Pt. 4

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

The theme of this edition of Creatures of New York is:

The Abandoned.

First, here is an abandoned bear, hung from a fence in Madison Square Park.

Bear

Similarly, this poor donkey or horse was abandoned in Cooper Square.

Donkey

Traffic cones are surprisingly loaded with personality. This poor guy – or girl, it’s hard to tell in its crushed condition – has ironically collapsed into the hole it was put in to warn against.

Cone in Hole

This Lion Brand Yarn store is about to re-open on 15th St. Gotta love their lion.

Lion Yarn Lion

Finally, an aftermath shot I like to call, “The Madder Hulk Gets…”

The Madder Hulk Gets...

The Sound of Victory

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

This is an MP3 of the sound out our window just after 11 PM when CNN called the election for Obama. There was no crowd in the street, no rally, just the sound of people yelling from their apartments on an average New York City street.

Voting

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

The TV news is carrying stories about poll problems in some locations around New York City, but voting was pretty well organized and non-problematic this morning for us. We had to wait about 40 minutes. One celebrity sighting at the polls: Tim Robbins.


Voting - Nov. 4 2008

Update: Gothamist explains why Tim Robbins was sitting in a folding chair looking annoyed.

Laura Vecchione and Chris Trapper

Friday, October 10th, 2008

More live music: again at the Living Room last night for Laura Vecchione‘s CD release show. Laura’s first CD made my “Best of 2006” list, and now she’s touring the country Laura Vecchione, Living Room, 9 Oct 2008
and shopping a brand new disc which, if last night’s show was any indication, is superb. (More on the CD in a future post.)

I complain that some of my favorite artists rarely if ever come to NYC. That’s because some of them are relatively obscure and tend to live in places like Texas and Oklahoma.

Still, I wouldn’t trade NYC for any of those places. So often I go out to see a band or a singer-songwriter and discover that somebody else really great Chris Trapper, Living Room, 9 Oct 2008 just happens to be playing that same night at the same club, or just around the corner. Last night we arrived for Laura’s show and found that Chris Trapper was playing right after her.

Elisa introduced me to Chris’s music (with the Push Stars) not long ago and I was hooked. So we stayed for his solo set. I laughed, I cried. (Seriously – some of his songs are very sweet and sad, and one of them was so sweet and sad it made me tear up.) If you’re not familiar with Chris Trapper’s music, what are you doing here? Go listen.

Malcolm Holcombe and More

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Live Music

Our live music treasure hunt continued on Saturday at the Living Room, where we heard Malcolm Holcombe, a gravelly-voiced, almost scarily intense singer-songwriter from North Carolina. Elisa described him as “transformational” in that he pulls you completely into the world of the song he’s singing, and that’s a rare thing. Malcolm Holcombe He attacks his guitar like he’s kneading a recalcitrant loaf of bread, then turns around and picks with hushed sensitivity; with vocals like Tom Waits and songs recalling John Hiatt, he’s a force of music not to be missed. Here’s a recent profile on Holcombe in the Wall Street Journal.

Last night was our monthly Whisperado’s Mud Room event at Kenny’s Castaways. It was an especially special night of specialness because it brought together Whisperado (my original band, with David Mills and Patrick Nielsen Hayden), my old musical friend Jon Kolleeny, my upstate buddy John Scarpulla on whose debut CD I recently played bass, and the latest project in which I have become involved, a new Byrds tribute band called Eight Miles High, led by the indefatigable Roy Goldberg. A bleeping good time was had by all. My only problem was that since I was singing in two different bands over the course of the night, I needed to avoid the drying effects of alcohol consumption. Someone needs to invent an alcoholic beverage that doesn’t dehydrate the body. Perhaps it’s time for a Manhattan Project along these lines. Maybe DARPA should get involved. The economy needs the boost, doesn’t it?

A Visit to Fort Totten

Monday, October 6th, 2008

New York City Parks Department tours kick ass.

A few weeks ago we had a special bus tour of Fresh Kills, the huge Staten Island landfill, now closed, capped, and being planted in preparation for eventual conversion to parkland, but not generally open to the public at this point. This weekend, another Urban Park Ranger took us through the old fort at Fort Totten, a Civil War-era granite fortress on the Willets Point peninsula on the north coast of Queens.

A short distance across the water from Fort Totten, on a spit of land jutting south from the Bronx and now in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, is Fort Schuyler, which dates from the 1830s and is now the SUNY Maritime College. The two forts were built to defend against a British naval attack on New York City from the east via Long Island Sound.

In the War of 1812 the British had burned Washington, DC, not New York. But the former New Amsterdam was too important a mercantile center to risk leaving vulnerable. During the Civil War the North feared a British alliance with the Confederacy. Hence the sense of urgency. Fort Totten was hastily built – as far as it went – in 1862.

New York City's basic character – tolerant, money-centered, socially and ethnically polyglot – hasn't changed since the 1600s. It's still the financial nerve center of the nation, for one thing. That makes it target number one. The feared British attack never came, but Osama bin Laden took up the gauntlet in 2001, with nightmarish results.


Old Fort Totten Archways
Archways at Fort Totten are made of huge granite blocks quarried in Maine. The white "drippy" stuff is limestone. The floor is made from the same bluestone as you can still see on some sidewalks in neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn.

We bounced back from that. But today Wall Street has dug itself another grave, this time by outsmarting itself with smart-ass credit tricks. (Good thing we rebuilt DC after the War of 1812 so the Feds could bail out the financial firms in 2008.) New York will climb out of this hole too, of course – we always do. Four centuries of history say so.

So old Fort Totten was never used. In fact, it was never finished. Though it was a state-of-the-art fort at the time, military technology was changing very fast. The invention of rifled cannons made even the thick granite walls of a fortress like Fort Totten penetrable. Like a 21st century electronic device, Fort Totten was out of date before it could even go online.


Fort Totten Officers' Club
The old Officers' Club, almost completely restored, is now the home of the Bayside Historical Society.

However, the site became extremely important for defense and research. Underwater mine technology, for example, was developed there. (Mines were deployed off Fort Totten only once – during the Spanish-American War.) During World War II, Fort Totten became the headquarters of the Anti-Aircraft Command of the Eastern Defense Command, and later the HQ of the North Atlantic region of the Air Transport Command. During the Cold War, it became headquarters for more than half the country's Nike missile sites.


House at Fort Totten House
This old house… not so restored.

Today an Army Reserve Command remains, and the Fire/EMS department uses part of the site for training, but much of it is a park. Some of the buildings, like the Officers' Club, which dates from 1870, have been restored to glorious condition, but on the whole the site has that tumbledown, half-abandoned feel of a left-behind presidio. It has grand officers' houses, humbler dwellings, a chapel, and named streets, and people are working and playing there, but no one really lives there anymore, so it feels half-abandoned.

Over time, if will and budget allow, Fort Totten Park will be fully repurposed for recreation. But in the meantime it stands as a half-ghostly monument to the culture and achievements of the United States Military, and at the same time a demonstration of the way the human animal will instinctively repopulate and re-use a patch of land whose old function has passed.

Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part II

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

We picked up right where we left off yesterday, which was in Renaissance Spain. The Sephardic Jews are those who lived in Spain and Portugal and were forced to leave, or convert, at the end of the 15th century. Helping to keep the traditions of Sephardic music present and vital five centuries later is singer Mor Karbasi, who played her first ever New York concert this afternoon at Spiegelworld. The music resembled Arabic music at times, flamenco at times, and everything in between. She mixes new compositions with ancient tunes, accompanied by guitar, violin, and percussion. She has a beautiful voice and beautiful moves to go with them.

It was also a good excuse to finally see a show at Spiegelworld, in the big round tent with the round rows of seats and the trapeze hooked on the ceiling. The murky, humid weather kept the South Street Seaport crowds relatively light, although nothing fazes our beloved tourists. The auditorium for the concert was full, though. So hopefully Mor Karbasi will be back again. Meanwhile, British readers have plenty of chances to see her.

Stars Honor Bill Withers and Our Time, an Artistic Home for People Who Stutter

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Possibly the most inspiring course I took in college was a study of W. B. Yeats. The professor, Jack Kelleher, was knowledgeable, but more important, he was passionate about the subject. But he had a severe stutter, and sometimes sitting in class listening to him lecture was a painful thing.

Professor Kelleher's stutter vanished when he recited the poetry. He even sang for us once or twice (some of Yeats's verse was written to go with traditional melodies). Our Time 1Reciting and singing he had no trace of a speech impediment. Later I learned that many stutterers don't stutter when they sing.

Last night's star-studded Our Time gala honoring Bill Withers brought this, and many other lessons about stutterers, home to a big happy audience of family, friends, and donors.  Our Time Theatre Company is a performing arts organization for kids who stutter. Most of us at some point in our lives have met someone who stutters, but stuttering kids who don't get emotional support often shut down and stay quiet, so we might not know when we see them. An estimated one percent of the population stutters.

Bill Withers is famous for his hits: "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lovely Day," "Use Me," and more. It turns out he also stuttered badly as a youngster. A lot of entertainment royalty turned out to honor him and to celebrate the achievements of Our Time. Providing "an artistic home for people who stutter," the organization has enabled and inspired many a kid to literally find their voices.

Some of the kids who took the stage to speak, emcee, recite, sing, or rap had mostly overcome Our Time 2their stutters, but many had not. Some had been in the Our Time program for years, but Our Time is not a therapist. To the contrary, it's a place where stutterers are given all the time they need to express their thoughts – hence the name "Our Time."  No one will interrupt them, finish their sentences, make fun of them, or assume they're stupid because they're slow to speak.

The love and energy on the stage proved what a good cause it was. The gala raised well over $200,000 for the organization. A whole bevy of stars took the stage together with the Our Time kids, performing songs of Bill Withers (who made a grand speech towards the end) along with songs and poems written by the kids. Rosie Perez, Ed Sherrin, Sam Waterston, Jesse L. Martin, Mandy Patinkin, Lauren Ambrose, Daryl Hall, Daphne Rubin-Vega, cast members from Spring Awakening, and other notables made appearances.

With all that, the most affecting thing was a rather humble and quiet speech made by a teenager named Andre Gillyard, who told a story – Our Time 3echoed by Bill Withers himself – of giving up, shutting down, just figuring he'd never amount to anything – and then having a fateful moment of discovery. 

For Gillyard, it was seeing something in the newspaper about Our Time, which has been active for seven years now. For Withers, many years earlier, it was meeting a local shopkeeper who simply showed patience and compassion. But look at that simple noun in the first sentence of the previous paragraph: "speech." Mr. Gillyard, a teenager with a still distinct stutter, made a moving and extremely well-written speech any high school valedictorian would have been proud of. He made a speech. We listened, we heard, we cheered. What more needs to be said?

Find out about Our Time's theater program, and their new summer camp, at their website or call (212) 414-9696.

PHOTOS:
1. Mandy Patinkin, Ed Sherrin, and Sam Waterston with Our Time kids
2. Bill Withers with Our Time kids and Spring Awakening cast members
3. Daryl Hall leads celebrities and Our Time kids in a rousing rendition of "Lean On Me"

Stad Amsterdam

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

Took a walk over to the Hudson River today, and lo and behold, what do we discover right behind Chelsea Piers but a huge modern steel-hulled three-masted clipper ship, the Stad Amsterdam, moored there for a corporate event and open to the public. All we had to do to board the ship was to sign a waiver that we wouldn’t sue in the event of falling overboard or being murdered by pirates. Photo of Stad Amsterdam They even offered us drinks on board.

The ship is a beautiful mixture of old and new, with gigantic masts and sails, all the modern technological trimmings, in pristine condition (it’s only eight years old) and wood, wood, wood everywhere. And wood trim. The inside is like a restaurant. It’s available for parties and events – although you’d have to be in the right part of the world at the right time to book it.

It’s from Amsterdam, and it plies the seas of the world, spending April and May on the East Coast of the US. Right now you can see it – just hike over to Chelsea Piers and walk around back of the ol’ driving range.

On the way back you can check out Frank Gehry’s IAC Building. This is one of the few pieces of newfangled New York architecture that doesn’t look out of place – because the place it’s in is an old seafaring district that didn’t have any architectural identity to begin with. The IAC Building is perfect right where it is – in its own space, making its statement without ruining anything else.