Monday, July 28, 2008

Lost in History vol. 70: All Boro Bonanza

Damn you Flux Factory. Are you really that good? Can you truly tell the secret whims and desires, the wants, needs and must haves of a bunch of New York City artists / adventurers / self-proclaimed geeks / cheese-bus aficionados / travelers / cheapskates / and those in the know? It seems that way – and 54 people can prove it.
Two weekends back, Flux hosted another one of their fantastically popular, terrifically peculiar, all-day extravaganzas titled Going Places, Doing Stuff. The premise behind GP, DS is that there’s a whole lot of awesome to see in our city. And yet, people generally take this city for granted. Since Flux lost its lease on their gallery-cum-home in Long Island City (they have to move by October,) lead curator Jean Barberis (full disclosure – a fine friend of mine) realized that one doesn’t need a static indoor gallery to display the art or performance of New Yorkers – one can do just as well in the city itself. So Flux asked a half-dozen writers, artists, historians, and so forth to create an adventure-slash-tour, on board a yellow cheese bus, in which participants would have no idea of where they were headed, just a title, a list of supplies to bring and a departure time and place. Get on the bus and take off to points unknown.

I was asked to lead the first Going Places, Doing Stuff, and we delved, mind, body and soul into weird religious spots in Staten Island. The second GP, DS took us into the wilds of Pennsyltucky, courtesy of artist Douglas Paulson. Two more adventures were led – one by Fluxer Annie Reichert, in which she brought a busload of explorers to her native suburban New Jersey and accompanied her Dad on everyday Dad stuff; another journey called Wandering Restaurant, where Portland, OR artist Gary Wiseman brought people to edible areas in Queens. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend either of those two escapades. But nothing was stopping me from attending the Flux-curated expedition on July 19th. What’s more, it was the only one in which I truly had no clue where we were going.

We went All Boro. Five boroughs in one day. Ambitious? Insane? Brilliant? Check, check, triple check. Flux Factory Senior Team: Jean Barberis, Stefany A. Golberg, Morgan Meis, Jason D. Brown, Chen Tamir & Sebastien Sanz de Santamaria compiled the days’ events as personal favorite of theirs. We met at the Staten Island Ferry terminal at 9am, in order to knock off the most estranged borough first. Also, the SI Ferry is one of the only places in NY where you can drink in public (I’ve done extensive research on the subject.) Once we disembarked at St. George, we boarded our cheese bus (54 adults on a machine that should only hold 40) and the journey began. First stop was a private gallery in the backyard of a home in St. George. Some Chilean sculptor who was related to another, more famous Chilean painter. I had had a few rum and iced coffees by then, so I didn’t quite catch the guy’s name. Following the sculpture gallery we made our way down onto the North Shore, immediately across from Sailors Snug Harbor to discover the coolest spot of the day – a DIY BMX bike track hidden in the overgrowth on the shoreline of Richmond Terrace.
After running around like maniacs on this totally badass BMX track, we returned to the cheese bus to discover – our very own Staten Island cocktail! It was 10:30am, we had 4 more boroughs to tackle, and people were getting nice and soused. All cocktails coutesy of Chen Tamir. Staten Island Cocktail

6 parts coffee vodka

1 part dry vermouth

2 parts fresh lime juice

Maraschino cherry
Combine liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker with cracked ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with maraschino cherry.
Over the VZ bridge to Brooklyn and to our next stop – Floyd Bennett Field, NY’s first municipal airport. Opened in 1931 at the southeastern tip of Brooklyn, FB Field was home to a number of daredevil pilots just as aviation was cruising from the airplane age to the jet engine age. Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes and more all made Floyd Bennett Field a space-age wonder in a pre-World-War-II New York. After a quick tour of Hangar B – home to dozens of out-of-commission Army, Navy & Government aircrafts, complete with septuagenarian Brooklyn boys building a replica of a Jenny bomber out of wood,

we went to the Aviator indoor stall for a picnic lunch and more Brooklyn booze.
Brooklyn Cocktail

2 ounces rye or blended whiskey
1 ounce dry vermouth
Dash of maraschino liqueur
Dash of Amer Picon
Shake all ingredients well with ice; then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Onto Queens! Way up north in Queens – the neighborhood of College Point, and the art gallery and brilliant loft-garage-home of local artist John Norwood, a friend to Flux. Again, more art here, some of which was wonderful and some of which was just weird. I took off to explore College Point Boulevard and score some scrumptious Columbian fresh-fruit drinks called Cholada. The day was long, hot, and brains were addled with liquor and other, more illicit substances, so a nice long respite in Mr. Norwood’s air conditioned home was just the ticket. We watched airplanes take off from LaGuardia Airport, just across from Flushing Bay. We drank a special Queens cocktail that was just as nauseous as the first two.

Queen's Cocktail

1 chunk of Pineapple
I slice of Orange, in the shaker.
Ice
1/3 Italian Vermouth
1/3 French Vermouth
1/3 Booth's Dry Gin
Shake well and strain into cocktail glass.

We soaked in the A/C and tried to ignore the fact that eventually all 54 of us would have to reboard that 40 pax bus, in 92 degree humidity, in the northern-ass-end of Queens, and depart for the only borough that attached to the mainland of America. Which we did. Evetually.

The Bronx. Fort Apache. Burning tenements. Yankee Stadium. Yachts. Lobster shacks . . . quiet, serene, Maine-like fishing villages?!? Welcome to City Island, population 4500. Commonly referred to as New England in New York, this impossibly picturesque spit of land off Pelham Bay is famous for seeming completely outside of NYC, yet within the five boroughs. We parked the cheese bus and wandered around the Pelham Cemetery, purportedly the only final resting place in New York City right next to a body of water. We hiked our way down the 1.5 mile City Island Avenue to the southernmost point which was when we split for dinner. Some went the fried and greasy route, some went the burgers and fries route, I went the whole lobster & clam bake route. It was a well-earned crustacean.
There’s only so much All Boro a New Yorker can handle – so after yet another impossible to swallow cocktail, this one named for the Boogie-Down Bronx, we piled onto that magical cheese bus and slept our way back to the city. They said it couldn’t be done – All Boro in one day. Clearly "they" never messed with Flux Factory.

Monday, July 21, 2008

PERLFEST 08!

I am a lucky New Yorker - I'm blessed with good health, steady income, solid friends, a neverending sense of adventure, cheap rent, and close family. That last one qualifies in both the emotional, tangible sense; IE I get along with practically every member, both near and far, of my local & extended family; but also in the geographical sense IE not only do my father and two brothers live in Brooklyn but my paternal Grandparents live on the Upper West Side; my second cousin Neal lives in Hells Kitchen; and my other cousins and nephews live in Larchmont, Riverdale and other suburban enclaves close enough to the pulsing heart of NYC.

The added benefit of all this local family is the invitation to lots of great parties. You got your basic holiday shindigs like Thanksgiving and Yom Kippur (held at Casa Levy in Flatbush), semi-regular dinners at Gramma's on Columbus and 95th, and the occasional blow-out shindig celebrating large-scale celebrations, such as the mutual birthdays of my second cousin Lee, who just turned 50, and his daughter (my second niece) Shauna, who turned 21. So, in classic Levy fashion (although Lee & Shauna go by the surname Perlman, we know there's a little Levy in their blood) they threw one hell of a party.
They called it PERLFEST 08, thrown a sliver over a month ago on June 20th, and let me tell you . . . it was the cultural / familial event of the season. The event was held in an industrial partyspace on the Far West Side - 31st street between 10th avenue and the Lincoln Tunnel city-bound lane (Dyer Ave!) The only way up to the rooftop soiree was via a massive freight elevator which gave off an idea of dilapidated industry & therefore no hint of the extravagance that was to follow. As the freight creaked and shuddered its way up flight after flight, the other elevator-trapped guests looked slightly frightened for what was to come; I knew better than to believe this tromp l'oeil of rusty mechanics. The party was going to be stunning.

Of course it was. Once the massive steel doors opened, we found ourselves on an outdoor patio 8 stories up, with equally jaw-dropping views of the Hudson River, coastal New Jersey, midtown industry and the skyscrapers of the financial district. Everyone looked fabulous - Shauna was bedecked in a glittering gorgeous silky violet number and Lee (always business even when he enjoys himself) was dressed in a fine jacket and unbuttoned shirt (proof of party - the tie-less uniform.) The remainder of the Perlman family - wife Linda and son Jake were dressed sharp as can be, while still relinquishing premier spotlight position for the birthday duo. The guests were split down the middle from corporate 40 year old couples from Brooklyn, Jersey and CT, as well as Shauna's gal pal crew fresh from college and probably living in Williamsburg, the LES or Park Slope.

Everyone was having a great time. There was an ice luge serving chilled currant vodka shots that us Levy boys had a special moment.
There were waiters serving the indoor / outdoor space, stocked with trays of delectable delights. We plied the fully stocked bar; Jonah and I surreptiously ascended up a ladder in order to snap some shots against the night skyline (note the New Yorker Hotel sign in the back;)
at some point Lee made the call and announced that the whole party was moving one flight down. So off and down the narrow staircase which led to . . . A DANCE PARTY!!! This was the part of the shindig that most closely resembled a Sweet 16, but substantially amped up on booze.
Notice the pictures of aby Lee and little Shauna everywhere.
Another wonderful part of my family is the intergenerational, multi-talented familyness of it all. We all work so well together that not only is there dancing with Gramma,
but there's also dancing with hot 22 year olds. (picture deleted.) At one point Jake jumped onto a table to sing a special Broadway showtune for his sister. At another point Linda presented Shauna with a massive fake Driver's Licence for her to symbolically chop-up.

The whole night was such a wonderful evening with beautiful people in a truly New York setting, and the fact that I not only know the individuals who hosted (and paid for!!) the party, but I am related to them by blood, as well as spirit and soul. That makes it particularly special. Thanks for the great night Perlmans one and all!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lost in History vol. 69: Torch No More!

In our last Lost in History, we discussed why Congressman Anthony Weiner’s proposal to reopen the Statue of Liberty’s Crown and viewing station is a poor idea. To recap, she’s a fire and safety hazard, and any minor malady suffered by an unsuspecting tourist would have enormous and unfortunate ramifications on the multitudes standing in a three-hour line to get to her head. But little attention is paid to the Statue of Liberty’s torch and its viewing platform, and there’s a good reason for that.

Yes indeed, the torch at the tippy-top of the beautiful Statue of Liberty (official name: Liberty Enlightening the World) once had a viewing station, which was basically a circular walkway surrounding the torch and provided spectacular views of the harbor, the skyline and the Atlantic Ocean. Three hundred and one feet up with nothing surrounding you can be a pretty phenomenal experience, and a fellow tour guide friend who shall rename nameless once flirted her way up there with a fellow Parks Service employee. They snuck up at sunrise because he thought he was gonna get lucky. (Did he? No way.)

When the Statue opened to the public in 1886, anybody could head up to the crown. The way up to the torch was only open by special request for dignitaries (although all sorts of people abused this privilege) via a rickety ladder that ran up the length of the armature. With so many pedestrians going up and coming down, the various nuts and bolts in the armature fell loose and the structure weakened. Then came the Black Tom Island Explosion of July 30th, 1916.
Black Tom Island used to exist in New Jersey’s harbor, at the southern point of Liberty State Park. It ceased being an island just before the start of the first World War, once the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, which owned the pier and the island, connected it by landfill to the rest of Jersey. The island got its name from a black fisherman named (surprise!) Tom, who lived on the island in the 1800s. By the 1910s, the island was being used as an ammunitions depot, supplying the Allied powers with shrapnel, black powder, TNT and dynamite. And in the early morning of July 30th 1916, the various barges tied up at the island, carrying (by some estimates) over 2 million pounds of ammo, were set alight. The residents of Jersey City were rocked by a series of ginormous explosions — shrapnel hit the Statue of Liberty, windows were blown out in Times Square and repercussions were felt as far away as Philly. No one could ever ascertain the official cause of the explosion — whether it was a security lapse on the part of the guards, a “spontaneous combustion” event, or German sabotage. The only person accused of the event was Michael Kristoff , a 23 year old Slovak immigrant; it was said he accepted $500 in exchange for starting the small fires that rocked Black Tom off the map. He died in a peasant and was buried in a potter’s field in Staten Island, without ever admitting to the crime.
When the island blew up, it blew out all the nuts and bolts in the Statue of Liberty’s arm, and caused $100,000 worth of damager ($1.9 million today) to her infrastructure. The War Department (which had owned and cared for Miss Liberty since 1901) used the explosion as an excuse to close down the Torch to the public, citing terrorism concerns. This is fascinating: the very same thing happened post-9/11. The National Parks Service was looking for reasons to close the Statue to the public, but the outcry would have been too great. So after 9/11 happened, the NPS said “Whoa! Terrorism! No more go up in here.” (We’re paraphrasing, but yeah, that’s basically what happened.) So, Congressman Weiner we implore you: Don’t open that crown!

Lost in History vol. 68: Statue Arms and Statue Crowns, Leave the Tourists on the Ground

This past holiday weekend was everything a holiday weekend should be: relaxing, rooftop bar-b-queing, all-day boozing, late-night schmoozing and non-stop raining (well, almost everything). We went to Coney Island and rode the Wonder Wheel, we defended American patriotism against some preposterous Brits on a BBC radio panel, we even drove down to Mystic, CT and learned about their oh-so-American historic seaport. But what would a perfect holiday weekend be without some jackass congressman’s report, released perfectly to compliment the nationalism of the Fourth, taking on common sense and inviting disaster — or at the very least impossible hours of lines — down upon us all? (And when I say “us all” I generally refer to the NYC tour guide community.)

I refer, of course, to the 9th District's Anthony Weiner (who is considering a run for Mayor – imagine the headlines if his campaign picks up steam – “Weiner on a Roll!”). Weiner released a report on Friday asking the National Park Service consider reopening the Statue of Liberty’s crown to tourism again. She’s been closed to the public since 9/11; however, in 2004, the top of the granite pedestal on which she stands was reopened to visitors. Specifically, those who don’t mind the additional hour wait on Liberty Island (that’s on top of a two- to three-hour hour wait to board the ferry) and extra security screenings. Weiner claims that to keep the crown closed to the public is un-American. He’s wrong — if not by a mile, then certainly by the 301 feet Lady Liberty stands above Upper New York Harbor.
Her crown and the postcard-size windows that provides miniscule views out onto the harbor simply isn’t worth ignoring the fact that she’s an enormous safety hazard. The 15-story double-helix spiral staircase that runs up where her spine should be doesn’t comply with any city, state or federal safety codes. Imagine the disaster if a fire broke out inside the SOL (as we in the biz call her). Not only would there be a stampede to get people down that staircase and out through the narrow doors at her feet, but since she’s a hollow lady, encased in 470 sheets of copper, then the whole thing could act like an oven, cooking the poor tourists inside. Not only was she never designed to handle the crushing numbers of visitors she receives on a daily basis, but Frederick August Bartholdi, the sculptor, never envisioned people clambering around his most magnificent creation. What’s more, any kind of minor malady suffered by a visitor — claustrophobia, asthma, vertigo, etc. — would cause a major calamity in removing the afflicted from their spot on the walkway up or down.

There are even more fascinating lost histories involving the Statue of Liberty and how her various (sexy) body parts were closed to visitors — in particular, the closing of the arm and torch one long-ago July. We’ll cover that very interesting anniversary in an upcoming LIH, which will include: a black man named Tom, his island in New Jersey’s harbor, its sudden explosion in 1916 and German anarchists. Stay tuned!

Lost in History vol. 67: New Yorkers Go to Hell and Back (by Way of Pennsyltucky, and a 50 lb. Cheeseburger)

Flux Factory did it again. For the second installation of Going Places (Doing Stuff), Flux brought a busload of New Yorkers deep into the heart of Pennsyltucky. Can you imagine 35 funny-looking preposterously dressed, multilingual New Yorkers stuffed onto a yellow cheese bus and dragged into the depths of coal country? Would you believe that they had a hell of a time (literally) exploring an abandoned Pennsylvania town bursting with underground coal fires? You bet your sweet ass they had a blast. We would know — we hosted the first Going Places (Doing Stuff) Adventure to Staten Island event a few weekends ago, and we sure weren’t going to miss this one.
Sponsored by Flux Factory and led by artist (and PA native) Douglas Paulson, the whole idea behind Going Places (Doing Stuff) is as follows: throw a whole bunch of strangers onto a yellow cheese bus. Give them a vague idea of where they’ll be headed, how long it’ll take, and what provisions (bathing suit, nominal cash, water, whiskey) they’ll need. Take off. See what happens. In the last (which was also the first and only) Going Places (Doing Stuff), we spent the day on Staten Island, visiting a bunch of religious, spiritual and historical
hotspots throughout the whole length of the island — and it’s a big goddamn island! This time Doug Paulson took the group to his home state, and then through and beyond Pennsylvania to the difficult-to-describe but easy-to-find Pennsyltucky (a pejorative yet affectionate term to describe the rural parts of the state of Pennsylvania, excluding the Pittsburgh & Philly areas.)
Departure was scheduled for 9am at the southeast corner of Bryant Park this past Sunday, and took off in classic NY fashion — half an hour late. The cheese bus was stuffed with peoples of all stripes — Germans, French, old(er), young(er), Mainers and Californians, native
NYers and two-week greenhorns. After making the rounds and introducing ourselves, we learned about our adventure. First, a PA swimming hole. Then Centralia — host to underground coal fires burning for thousands of years and massive sinkholes in the streets. Afterwards, if we were lucky, the biggest hamburger any of us had ever seen. The stakes were pretty high. And only three hours til our first hop-off.It didn’t disappoint. Waiting for us in the wilds of Pennsylvania was a swimming hole with a 30-foot jumping rock. Visualize the hysteria when a whole busload of New York art freaks offload a bus stacked to the brim with delicious picnicking foods (queso blanco, apples, cucumbers and stuffed grape leaves) and drinks (water, OJ, vodka, the aforementioned whiskey) and descend on a rocky beach with soft water and a bitchin’ jumping rock. You bet it was spectacular. Picnics and rock-jumping ensued.
Another hour or so onwards and we got to Centralia, in the central part of western PA.
Centralia, founded in 1866, was a major coal mining town until the 1960s, when it was discovered that most of the land directly underneath the township was aflame, thanks to rich deposits of coal. Various efforts to extinguish the eternally burning pits were met with failure, and as sinkholes opened up underneath residents’ houses and feet,, the federal government essentially left the place to burn itself out. In the 1980s the Feds relocated the over 1,000 residents to adjacent counties and bulldozed the land. As of the last census, Centralia has seven residents left, and practically nothing to show visitor — except for wreckage strewn-fields and improbably bizarre vents of coal steam issuing up from holes in the ground.
It was impossible to look upon the trash and rubble-strewn lots and imagine houses standing upon them. Even more outrageous was clambering down into the lots and sticking one’s face into a sticky hot vent of coal-fired steam hissing its way out of giant slabs of anthracite. Another unbelievable sight: an abandoned highway, carved off from the surrounding roads because of giant fissures that opened up in the middle of the double yellow lines. Unreal. We finally found something stranger-looking than us.
After two hours of exploring
Centralia and taking more pictures of abandoned landscapes than normal people would put up with, we were tired and hungry. And we had to get out of Dodge and back to the city proper. But it was nearing dinnertime, and we certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop at the Clinton Station Diner in Clinton, New Jersey and consume the Mt. Olympus — a 50-pound hamburger.
That’s 25 pounds of beef, 25 pounds of cheese, tomato, lettuce, ketchup and bun: 50 full pounds of guilt and glory. With a dozen people chowing down, we
couldn’t even finish half the thing. Rolling back onto the bus, there were 35 nutty NYers who had reached their fill of the world outside our city. If the real world consists of smoldering underground coal fires and 50-pound burgers, then I’ll take Manhattan.

Lots more pictures, of swimming holes, smoking crevasses and 50 lb. cheeseburger demolition can be found here on my Flickr set!

Lost in History vol. 66: Art Revival, by way of Queens

On the corner of Onderdonk and Harman streets in southern Ridgewood lies a church fa├žade. As spelled out bilingually on purple canvas, the previous occupant of this space was the Christian Center Sanctuary of Hope, a Roman Catholic Latino congregation. The new occupants of the space are also called the Christian Center Sanctuary of Hope, but with an entirely different bend to their professed spirituality. There hasn’t been a straight-up religious sermon in the Center for years, but this past Saturday night, a different kind of sermon was held, spiritual in nature but preaching art and aesthetics, noise and performance, and the very strange story of a very famous artist and his attempts to buy oddly shaped lots at tax auctions in NYC.
We know the backstory because we are friends with the occupants of the Christian Center Sanctuary of Hope, and they asked us to emcee the evening’s events. The good men who live at the Sanctuary — three literary and visual artists by the names of Matthew Blair, Lech Szporer and Andrew Wingert — have built lofts and incorporated the layout of the former church into a communal performance space. They opened on Saturday with a Revival that featured installation art, sculptures, music, tap dance, mime, an exercise bike that masturbated a man in a lazy chair, feedback noise, preaching, and a mysterious excursion that led to a former piece by the aforementioned very famous NYC artist. Lesser known (but no less serious) artists included yours truly, along with David Button, Trevor Lukert, Superman’s Guestlist, Marisa Mickelberg, Issac Zal, the Buddy Hollyco$t, Amery Kessler, Carrie Fox, Shana Paleologos, Andrew Hurst, Phillip Battikha, Ryan Brown, and Justin Horne. And of course, Gordon Matta-Clark.
Matta-Clark was not present at the opening — he died in 1978, at the age of 35, of pancreatic cancer. During his short but powerful life he was known for various artistic experiments and performances as well as for catalyzing SoHo as an artistic neighborhood during the derelict 70s. His works, called “anarchitecture”, involved removing pieces and slivers of buildings before they met the wrecking ball; he opened a restaurant/ongoing performance piece in SoHo called Food, staffed entirely by working artists; he also purchased tiny, unusable slivers called “gutterspace” of NYC real estate during the city’s regular purging of such lots. Due to surveying, zoning and public-works anomalies, various infinitesimal slices of real estate came to be owned by Matta-Clark, who found in them a perfect bureaucratic extension of his own anarchitecture. Fourteen lots were located in Queens and one in Staten Island. Unfortunately, Matta-Clark passed away before he could do whatever he was intending to do with these lots, and the ownership passed over to his wife, who eventually stopped paying taxes on them; control reverted back to the city. One of these lots — Lot 116 — is walking distance from the Christian Center Sanctuary of Hope, and the evening’s high point included a walk to the Lot, and a sermon about separate spaces.
As the preacher-on-site, we weren’t all that prepared for the crowd of 100 artists, gallery fags, rockers, intellectuals, confused locals, friends and family. We also didn’t know that much about Matta-Clark, or how to talk about this sliver space —2’3” wide by 355’ long – in order to make it applicable to the crowds and the evening’s events. We eventually focused on the relationship between this sliver space and the rest of the alley, and how it reflects the separate spaces inside each of us, and how they relate to the rest of us. It was complicated. Whiskey fueled most of the preaching. But it was intense. We had a few Amens! and Hallelujahs! Afterwards, when the crowd had calmed down, we all returned to the church to continue that perennial method of moving with the spirit — we had a dance party.