Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lost in History vol. 60: A Big Fat Greek Art Installation.

For those of you in the know, another role we are proud to fill is that of Events Coordinator and Official Tour Guide for the City Reliquary Community Museum and Civic Organization in Williamsburg. We’re essentially a collection of collections of NYC stuff, from vintage Brooklyn seltzer bottles to the “2nd Ave” sign from the original 2nd Avenue Deli. The founders of the home-grown museum, Dave Herman and Bill Scanga, are two collecting-obsessed NYC nerds (god bless ‘em) who wanted to share their personal collections with the rest of the world. It started as a window-front museum on the corner of Grand and Havemeyer streets in 2003 and has since moved into a storefront space just around the corner, at 370 Metropolitan Avenue. Every so often, another city organization learns about the CR, and has Dave and Bill out to give a mini-lecture about the stuff in our museum. So it was that we found ourselves in Bay Ridge last Wednesday night, giving a talk to the Bay Ridge Historical Society.The talk went smoothly, as it generally does, in a room full of senior citizens who were eager to hear anything about their New York of old. We talked about the Croton Reservoir while showing off a brick from pipelines; we told the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, and passed around some U-bolts from the underside of the walkway; we related the history of the Statue of Liberty and displayed a book of vintage SOL postcards. Afterwards, VP of Collections Bill Scanga and I took off by bike for old-school red sauce Italian joint the New Corners Restaurant (open since 1936). But we were sidetracked, fortuitously enough, by the massive art installation of the island of Crete, by local artist George Kortsolakis, on 79th St between Ridge Blvd and Third Ave.For the past twenty years, Kortsolakis, an immigrant from Greece, has been living and working on his dream: rebuilding a miniature version of his homeland in the front yard of his Bay Ridge home. Sheltered in an ornate gold-painted shack, Mr. Kortsolakis’s Crete is a majestic, multi-hued thing, with cobalt blue pebbles making up the ocean, broken chunks of cement for the roads, plants for trees, little Lego men and toy ships in the harbor, even a miniature Icarus, with wax and feather wings, lounging on the beach. His island of Crete is just seven feet long, but within it lives an exhaustive universe of houses, cars, and creatures, including the krikri, a wild goat-type creature that is said to leap from sheer mountainside to mountainside.
Although it was nearing 10pm on a weeknight, we walked up to Mr. Kortsolakis’ front door and rang the bell. A tiny, stoop-shouldered old man, complete with glasses, thinning hair and a bushy white moustache came to the door. We inquired if it was his artistic creation, and he resoundingly replied “Yes! Is mine! You want to see? Wait, I turn on the lights for you!” Five minutes later, the installation was awash in blinking Christmas lights. Mr. Kortsolakis proceeded to give a history, in his thick Greek accent, of his ever-evolving obsession. We tried to tell him that we run a museum in Williamsburg where this would be a perfect fit, but there was no getting a side word in between his excited life-and-art story and explanation the incomparable model below. Just as well — to remove the model from the man’s front yard would be as foolish as a certain mythical figure flying too close to the sun.

More pictures from the evenings events can be viewed here.

(originally published on on 4/23/08)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lost in History vol. 59: Happy Birthday, Mr. Teletrophono!

Celebrations come and go in New York City. With so much history, so many events to commemorate and remember throughout the five boroughs, it’s easy to forget a brilliant human being or their spectacular accomplishments. That’s why we weren’t all that surprised to learn that we were some of the only people who arrived at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Rosebank, Staten Island yesterday to celebrate the 200th birthday of Antonio Meucci, the true inventor of the teletrophono in 1849!What the hell is a teletrophono? A teletrophono is an invention, resembling two tin cups attached via an electrically charged wire that enabled two persons to communicate while standing in entirely separate rooms! Mr. Meucci discovered this incredible modern marvel while living in Cuba and treating sick patients through “electrophonic” experimentation, where he would send small electric shocks through charged wires from his mouth to the mouth of the afflicted. Once, while standing in a separate room, he heard & felt the shout of pain inside his own mouth, coming from the gentleman in another room being treated, Meucci realized he’d discovered something great – namely that sound can travel short distances through electric wires. In 1849, as Meucci started work on what would become the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell (booo!) celebrated his second birthday.
In 1850, Meucci and his wife emigrate to New York, settling in the bucolic farming community of Rosebank, Staten Island. Meucci patents smokeless candles and produces them in a little factory in his backyard.
Slowly, Ester Meucci’s body succumbs to arthritis, and she is relegated to her second-floor bedroom. So Meucci creates a mini-telephone system hooked up around the house in order to speak with her as he continues his candle production and works on various inventions. In order to keep up rent on the property, the Meuccis take in boarders, most legendarily Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Hero of Two Worlds” and subject of a previous L.I.H.Over the next 20 years, a series of extraordinarily bad luck, fraudulent investors, popular anti-Italian sentiment, court cases ruling against his inventions and one steamboat explosion (the Westfield, in 1871) prevent Antonio Meucci from renewing patents and holding onto important documents proving him the true inventor of the telephone. (After the Westfield explosion, Meucci was so badly burned that Ester had to sell the original teleptrophono models to a second-hand dealer for six dollars in order to pay the hospital bills.) In 1872, Meucci submits his plans to the District Telephone Company of NY for assistance in proving his invention; after two years of persistent visits to the Company, he learns the papers are lost. Twenty days after this injustice, Bell applies for his patent in the creation of the telephone. Meucci’s remaining years are spent in his cottage in Staten Island, tinkering on inventions and engaged in futile court cases trying to prove his primacy in the telephone patent. He dies penniless in 1889, ever confident that “the telephone, which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me.”
Although popular culture and the history books tell us about Bell’s invention as the first telephone, there is a marvelous little museum, owned and operated by the Sons of Italy, chock full of artifacts and displays proving otherwise. So when better to go, then on the man’s 200th birthday!? We sang “Happy Birthday Dear Antonio,” watched an inspirational film about his life and times, took a private tour of the collection with the wonderfully informative (S.I. native) Robin Cocozza (and her awesome Staten Island accent), and we snapped pictures like crazy. Highly recommended for any fans of homegrown museums and / or teletrophonos.

(first published on 4/14/8 in

Lost in History vol. 58: A King of a Theater, Awaiting a New Court

Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn in the 1980s and ‘90s had left me with some serious envy of previous eras. I missed (by more than a generation, but who’s counting?) Brooklyn’s heyday of the 1940s through the 60s, when the borough had it all: blue-collar employment via the Navy Yard and North Brooklyn’s ubiquitous factories; multi-cultural down-to-earth heroes, by way of the Brooklyn Dodgers; a world-renowned epicenter for the birth of live rock and roll with Murray the K’s concert extravaganzas at the Fox Theater on Flatbush and Dekalb avenues. Now most of these venues are long gone: – the The Brooklyn Navy Yard was closed as an active shipbuilding yard in 1966,; the Dodgers left for LA in 1957 and the Fox theater is now part of Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. But every so often I would bike past a shuttered part of history and wonder about its future.This would happen most frequently when zooming past the abandoned, derelict Loew’s Kings Theater. Built as one of the NYC region’s’ five “Wonder Theaters” in 1929, the Loew’s Kings was considered to be the most extravagant and opulent of the five (the other four are the Valencia in Queens, the Jersey Theater in Jersey City, the Paradise in the Bronx and the 175th Street Theater, uptown) and was designed by the distinguished architecture firm of Rapp and Rapp. Built in an over-the-top French Renaissance style on the bustling commercial stretch of Flatbush Avenue between Tilden Avenue and Beverly Road, the Kings was said to be inspired by the Palace of Versailles and the Paris Opera House. At capacity, the Kings held close to 3200 movie-goers, the majority of whom enjoyed orchestra seating, which was unusual for an urban movie theater. Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler and Barbara Streisand were all high school ushers (but not at the same time). The lobby paneling was carved out of Mahogany Oak and the entire place had extravagant art deco etchings, details and accouterments, which helped ticket-holders escape the dreary Depression.Through declining attendance, the Kings lasted lasted into the ‘50s, at which point its attendance declined until the ‘77, when it was locked, shuttered, sold to the city and left for dead. Which is how I always zoomed past it, wandering the exterior, searching for a way in, legally or not. But with the renaissance of the Paradise in the Bronx, now a live music and events venue, as well as the resurrection of the 175th Street as a live concert hall slash Evangelical House of Worship, we might very well see the return of the Loew’s Kings to something like its former glory. The NYC Economic Development Corporation held an open house and invitation for RFPs to turn this majestic, ghostly wonder palace into a living performance space once again. Although I don’t have the $70 million that the city is asking as a leasing price, let alone the cost it would take to rehabilitate the thing, I showed anyway, to take pictures of the decaying monstrosity. The massive velvet curtain was sagging, the plastered walls were crumbling and the seats were rotting away, but the ornate-ness and grandiosity were very much intact. Whatever questionable future the Kings has, and however long it takes, there is a very good chance that it will be royalty once again.
(originally published on on 4/8/8)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Lost in History vol. 57: Double your Cantilever, Double the Fun!

What’s worse than a NYC-obsessed nerd who gets super-excited about a slideshow lecture on the building of the Queensboro Bridge, held Monday at the Parks & Recs building on East 54th Street? An NYC-obsessed nerd who can correctly point out that the roof tiles used in the underside of the QBBridge, in the open-air marketplace underneath the Manhattan approach, are the exact same tiles used in the ceiling of the room where the lecture was taking place. To be fair, we’re talking about some pretty amazing tiles: Guastavino to be precise, the same kinds used in Ellis Island and Grand Central Terminal. But this lecture wasn’t about tiles (although you have to check out the Whispering Corners in Grand Central!), it was about bridges. Specifically, the Queensboro Bridge, built between 1903 and 1909 as the third of four bridges to span the East River.

The lecture was presented by the NYC Parks and Recs department, with Robert Singleton of the Greater Astoria Historical Society providing the first thirty minutes of history (essentially the bridge’s first hundred years); following Mr. Singleton, Judith Berdy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society spoke for an additional half-hour on the subject of trolley cars and railways from the Manhattan side of the QBBridge to points east.

The mighty Queensboro (note: first called the Blackwell’s Island bridge; then the 59th Street Bridge until after WWII: the dropping of “ugh” from “boro”) happened sometime in the 50s) is the only East River bridge that isn’t a suspension. This was because of the length that needing crossing (3700 feet, not counting the approaches, almost three times the length of the Brooklyn bridge), as well as the price (cantilever is cheaper than suspension, and the bridge was built during a rare moment of anti-Tammany honesty) and the space allowed (thinner too!). When the bridge was opened — 99 years ago from Sunday — it tremendously catalyzed the wide-open spaces of the decade-old borough of Queens, which until (and after) Great Consolidation of 1898 was simply a collection of outlying farms and local villages, strung together by postal and shipping roads. Once this bridge was opened up to the masses, the immigrants came soaring over to plant their feet in the rich Queens soil. Old timers (really old) from Queens will remark that the borough only has two time periods: B.B. and A.B. (Before & After Bridge).

A work of industrial beauty (unlike the hideous Williamsburg Bridge), the QBBridge used to have a mess of trolley cars running across the thing. At the start they were part of the elevated rail system, since the Second Avenue El ran right up to and across the bridge. There was a smaller looped system that brought passengers to the middle of the bridge, at which point they could take a passenger elevator down to Blackwell’s-cum-Welfare-cum-Roosevelt Island. This all changed with the construction of the “Upside-down Building,” placed immediately next to the bridge so that vehicles could drive straight onto the rooftop, and take freight elevators down to the island. The “Upside-down Building” was demolished in 1970, well after the Welfare Island bridge was built in 1953, establishing a direct land-link to the sad little island in the middle of the East River. There’s more story to tell about the QBBridge, but this is only the 99th anniversary – as they said in Ebbets Fields, “Wait Til Next Year!”

Lost in History vol. 56: Armchair Exploration

Urban Exploration – that is, the art of adventuring inside of abandoned, derelict and forgotten spaces – is a super cool, only-for-the-gung-ho type of human activity that breaks boundaries, proves its subversion in and of itself, and is a perfect antidote to the over-commodified lifestyles so many of us are chained to. UE is the type of exciting hobby that everyone wants to get involved in, but hardly anyone follows through on, because it’s preposterously illegal, and in today’s Secure Homeland, it can easily get you incarcerated for a long, long time.

Last night, Anthology Film Archives hosted a one-night-only screening, Report From Ghost City, in which The Disembodied Theater Corporation, hand in hand with Ars Subterranea, presented a few short films and multimedia presentations on the subject.

The first was a PowerPoint-styleslide lecture about some friends adventuring atop of the High Line freight rail in Chelsea, narrated by Ross Lipman and featuring the pre-recorded screechy abstract noise compositions of Laura Steenberge. Following the story of youthful indiscretion, we ventured to abandoned insane asylums, where we followed the half-invented, half-autobiographical storylines of mental patients, displayed in graphically altered photographs so as to mimic a graphic novel, page by page. The miscreants of Ars Subterranea starred, in storylines by Julia Solis and Tom Kirsch, the couple that run A.S. Following three short stories in this vein, we had an extended adventure through an abandoned hospital complex, titled Met State, by Brian Papciak, the filmmaker who documented the A.S. trips.

The High Line production, No Way Out But Onward, was an unfortunate dud. What could and should have been a B&E101 lesson was instead a dead boring narrative, illustrated by lukewarm amateurish photography and narrated in mellifluous tones and impossibly clichéd metaphors about finding oneself and choosing paths whilst avoiding a beat cop above the High Line. It was trite and overwrought and infuriatingly long. The three Ars Subterranea psych ward photo-sets were all very pretty and fun to watch, if a bit gothy. Reports from the Sanitarium had an engaging storyline buried within the greater (unfinished) plot; Funeral Play felt like an intricately unfolding set of dead Russian nesting dolls; Irma, excerpts from a postmortem diary

Without a doubt, the most professional production out the evening was Brian Papciak’s Met Life. It’s a smaller, self-sustained piece of an ongoing documentary titled American Ruins, and the cinematography, the space and sounds, the stop-motion animation of wheelchairs raising each other down an abandoned Hospital ward, the time-lapse photography — all of it was masterful and majestic. One felt the creep of desiccation and atrophy while simply sitting in those plush East Village theater seats in the East Village. This is why enjoying UE in the confines of a movie theater is infinitely preferable to tromping through the insane asylums themselves. Unless that kind of thing turns you on. In which case, I have some new friends to introduce you to.

(originally published on 3/25/08 on