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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mark the dates for this year's Open House New York Weekend: October 17-18 -- and check out these upcoming OHNY events

by Ken

Open House New York is probably still best known for the mid-October weekend that is one of NYC's great events, Open House New York, where the general public is offered rare, often this-time-only access to sites of all sorts in all five boroughs, and to talks, and to tours of projects of every description that are planned, or under construction, or recently completed -- always guided by people intimately involved with the site or project.

The full schedule isn't announced until shortly before the great event, but bits of information may be dribbled out earlier, so you want to keep checking the OHNY website. (It couldn't be much easier to remember: ohny. org). OHNY members get a slightly earlier peek at the full schedule, but come the start of registration everyone's thrown into the same online maelstrom -- the saving grace being that there are so many events of such diverse interest that for most tastes some of the most interesting ones aren't among the most popular.


I said above that OHNY is "probably still best known" OHNY Weekend, but the OHNY schedule is now so jammed with fascinating events that I've come to think of OHNY Weekend as almost the least of it. We'd be here all night if I tried to list the places I've been and the things I've done in my year and two-thirds as a member.

Most events are open to non-members, but members get the advantages of prompt e-announcements of events and significant discounts -- or even free admission, especially in the case of lecture-type events like the new series of presentations on projects still in the planning stage, like the redevelopment of the highly visible former Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) waterfront. And there are members-only events. (Note the "special combo" package of event-plus-membership offered for the Gowanus Canal Boat Tour.)

You'll also get to see most if not all of the hard-working OHNY team at most every event. They're good people -- you'll like them. If you're curious about past events, many of which are parts of still-ongoing series, you can find listings of "Recent Program" following the "Upcoming Programs" section of the website "Programs" page, and reports on many of them on the OHNY Blog. For information about membership, click here. In case it isn 't obvious, this is an exceedingly worthy organization to support.

Now let's get to those upcoming events.

A boat trip up Brooklyn's, er, historic Gowanus Canal

I can't believe these won't fill up pretty quickly. If you think you might be interested, you should check it out pronto and see if there are still places.

Gowanus Canal Boat Tour
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Tours at 5 and 7 pm

Following the successive openings of the Erie Canal in 1825 and Brooklyn's Atlantic Basin in 1841, the Gowanus Canal grew to become the busiest commercial waterway in the United States for almost four decades, from 1915 through the early 1950s. Today, the Canal is contaminated from this past intensive industrial use, as well as ongoing dumping from the city sewage system, but there are ambitious plans for its restoration and redevelopment. Join David Briggs, director of Gowanus by Design, and Andrea Parker, director of Gowanus Canal Conservancy, along with representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency working on the canal's cleanup, for a boat tour along "Brooklyn's coolest SuperFUNd Site" to learn about how one of New York City's most polluted waterways is being reimagined for future generations as a model for 21st century urban planning.

$30 OHNY Members
$40 General Admission
$75 Special Combo: 1 General Admission + 1 Friend Membership

Registration is in progress here.

And the next two events in OHNY's "Final Mile" series

We've done with the bus pilgrimages to the Hunts Point peninsula in the Bronx, where we had the amazing opportunities to tour the operations of: two of the three public wholesale markets operated by the NYC Economic Development Corp., the New Fulton Fish Market (for that one we had to meet in front of OHNY's office by 3:45am for a 4am departure!) and the Hunts Point Produce Market (the Hunts Point Meat Market, we were told, is differently structured and doesn't offer tours); and two enormous distribution operations, Baldor Specialty Foods and Food Bank NYC. It was four one-of-a-kind events, but the "Final Mile: Food Systems of New York" series is a year-long project, and these next events look pretty darned interesting too!

Registration is in progress here.

Registration begins Monday, July 20 (normally at 10am).

There's also this note concerning upcoming installments of the "Final Mile" series":
Fifty percent of the food that New Yorkers consume every day is supplied by the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. But what about that other half of the food we eat? This summer, Open House New York's year-long series The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York will continue its exploration of how food shapes the urban environment through visits to a mix of typologically diverse sites where food distribution is integrated more directly into the multi-use urban fabric of the city.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Urban Gadabout: Last call for the latest incarnation of Jack Eichenbaum's "World of the #7 Train" extravaganza

The route of the #7 train, from Times Square at the western end (pending the still-unfinished expansion to the west and south, to 11th Avenue and 34th Street), across 42nd Street in Manhattan, through the Steinway Tunnels under the East River to Queens, and on to Main Street, Flushing -- click to enlarge

by Ken

It looks like this time NYC Transit has no last-minute obstacles to throw in our path, and so this Saturday, June 13, urban geographer (and Queens Borough Historian) Jack Eichenbaum expects to do the latest incarnation of what he always refers to as his "signature tour": the all-day "World of the #7 Train" extravaganza.

I've written about this famous trek a number of times, and have been eager for an opportunity to do it again, especially since I know that Jack has done some revamping of the tour to reflect ongoing changes in the neighborhoods covered, most of which have been heavily influenced (if not actually created) by the coming and continued operation of the #7 train. But the last time he scheduled it -- or was it the last two times? -- fate, or rather NYCT, intervened. We gather in Manhattan at 10am and stagger to the finish line around 5:30pm at the 74th St.-Roosevelt Ave. megastation of the #7 and the E, F, and R lines. I think Jack may be able still to handle late registrations, but you should contact him ASAP -- e-mail him at

Here's how Jack describes the event on his website, "The Geography of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum":
Saturday, June 13, 2015, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing’s Asiatown. Tour fee is $42 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) The full day’s program and other info is available by email

The tour is limited to 25 people.
Imagine, all this for a paltry $42! In the information-and-itinerary sheet for the tour, Jack adds this:
Long Island City-Sunnyside-Woodside-Elmhurst-Jackson Hts-Corona-Flushing

Your tour leader, Jack Eichenbaum, Queens Borough Historian, maintains a storehouse of researched facts and biased memories of bygone eras. I hold a Ph.D in urban geography, teach Geography of NYC at CUNY and have been riding the #7 for six decades. My expertise lies in historical geography and ethnic and technological change. I focus on what the #7 train has done to and for the surrounding neighborhoods since it opened in 1914. The #7 has been designated a “National Millennium Trail” for its pioneering role in transporting people in what is probably the most demographically diverse cityscape in the world.
See you Saturday!


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Urban Gadabout: Is Jane's Walk Weekend coming up where you are? Plus some additional NYC-centric gadding notes

No, you can't click on anything here, or type anything in. But you can by going to

by Ken

Just some quick updating, mostly occasioned by the upcomingness of a favorite weekend of the year in this space, Jane's Walk Weekend. For us in New York it means, once again, a generous calendar of incredible walks (and also some bicycle rides) -- free events -- overseen by the Municipal Art Society, which knows a thing or two about walking tours, except that this year the calendar includes a pretty full schedule on Friday as well as Saturday and Sunday, May 1-3.

New Yorkers can go directly to the New York City page. In theory there are filters that should enable you to sort the total schedule to fit your particular needs and wishes. I guess it's my contrariness that make those filters really not terribly helpful for my purposes, making it necessary to scan repeatedly through the whole schedule. But then, wouldn't I have wanted to peruse the whole schedule anyway? (New Yorkers may also check out the recent MAS blogpost, "Jane's Walk Weekend Is Back -- and Bigger than Ever.")

I know we're getting close to the actual dates. All the more reason to find the appropriate Web page for your locality and see what whets your exploring appetite. It's a great tribute to that great urbanist Jane Jacobs, one of the foremost champions of cities and one of the most revealing students of the way cities work, or don't.


One other Urban Gadding note I can pass on is that urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian, has scheduled a new edition of what he calls his "signature" tour, The World of the #7 Train, an all-day extravaganza that consists of six mini-walking tours along with an exploration of the #7 train from Manhattan to its terminus in Flushing, Queens. Here's how Jack describes the outing on the "Public Tours" page of his website:
Saturday, June 13, 2015, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing’s Asiatown. Tour fee is $42 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) The full day’s program and other info is available by email: The tour is limited to 25 people.


As it happens, I've just done a couple of MAS tours with Jack: a couple of weeks ago a fascinating walk along Woodside Avenue in Queens, and just yesterday the East Side version of his Manhattan "Conforming to the Grid" tour, which focuses on the disruptions to the Manhattan grid created in the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 caused by pre-existing development of the area north of present-day Houston Street between Broadway and the Bowerie. Jack will be doing Part 2, the West Side version, looking at the grid disruptions caused by the pre-existing settlement of then-"suburban" Greenwich Village along the Hudson River, is coming up Sunday, May 31, at 11am. The day before, Saturday, May 30, Jack will be doing Part 2 of his MAS series "What's New (and Old) in Long Island City.

For more information on both, and to check out the rest of the current MAS schedule, go to and click on "Tours" -- or this link will take you directly to the "Tours" page. Right now MAS is coming up on the final month of the current March-May MAS schedule. Watch for the announcement of the next schedule -- which one might guess will cover June-August -- sometime in mid-May. It's worth checking for the new schedule in a timely fashion, because for some time after it's announced, it's possible to register for any darned tour you want, including the ones that are "never available." Well, they're not available if you wait till they're filled!


Registration has already begun for non-members as well as members for the Transit Museum's busy summer schedule. For more information go to the "Programs" page of the Transit Museum website, and click through to the link for any date that looks interesting to you to see what the current availability is.

I was going to recommend the two additional outings of a tour that Mike Morgenthal offered for the first time in the last schedule, "Ghosts of the Elevated: A Walking Tour," a walk through the Lower Manhattan risings of the old Second and Third Avenue els, which I enjoyed enormously. But I see that both dates are sold out! On the plus side, this suggests that the tour will continue to be offered!

One thing you know will be available is the Transit Museum's 2015 schedule of ever-popular "Nostalgia Rides," which happen on tenderly cared-for vintage equipment from New York City Transit's collection. Two outings are scheduled for summer: "Beach Bound: Coney Island," on Saturday, July 18, and "Orchard Beach by Rail and Bus," on Saturday, August 8. I can recommend both from personal experience, and may do the Orchard Beach outing again, hoping for better weather than we had the last time we set out there. In addition, we have advance news of another outing I can recommend from personal experience, a fall "Evening Ride to Woodlawn Cemetery," on Saturday, October 24.


Again there's a new schedule in progress, but there are still a lot of terrific-looking programs to come: "Summer Mansions of Astoria" (Saturday, May 9, 10am-12:30pm), "Kleindeutschland in the East Village" (Saturday, May 16, 1-4:30pm), "An Offbeat Day in Staten Island: Tottenville and Conference House" ("by ferry, foot, and overland railway," to the southern tip of Staten Island; Sunday, May 31, 9:15am- 3:30pm, "possibly later"), and two of Justin's famous grand bus outings: "Hyde Park: Val-Kill, Springwood, FDR Library, and Vanderbilt Mansion" (Sunday, June 7, 6:45am-7:30pm) and "New Paltz and Hurley: 17th and 18th Century Stone Houses of the Hudson Valley" (Saturday, July 11, 7:45am-6:30pm).

I'm doing all of the above except the Tottenville excursion, and that's only because of a schedule conflict. The first tour I ever did with Justin was a version of the all-day Tottenville outing he did for MAS some years ago, in admittedly dreadful weather -- looking out over the Arthur Kill, which separates southern Staten Island from New Jersey, we could barely make out the city of Perth Amboy opposite. What's more, we weren't able to go inside Conference House itself, which has now been refurbished and just been reopened to the public.

But my abiding memory of the Tottenville trip is that as soon as Justin got our group safely organized on the Staten Island Ferry he started talking, and about eight hours later, on the return trip, he took a breath. My official policy became that if Justin thinks there's something worth seeing someplace, I'm going, as long as I don't have a schedule conflict. In the case of the above-mentioned "Summer Mansions of Astoria" tour, I'm going even though I had a schedule conflict. As I've mentioned I've been reading Edith Wharton, including the Old New York quartet of novellas, and I'm not going to miss that!

Download the Spring 2015 Wolfe Walkers brochure for more information, including the registration form.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A grand tour of NYC art deco sites includes a close encounter with the All American strain of Talibanism

"Recent restoration efforts, most notably the uncovering of the interior mural 'Flight,' have further enhanced the architectural significance of the building, which is not only a major example of a new building type in the 1930s, but also a superb example of the Art Deco style."
-- from the November 1980 LPC Designation Report on the
"Marine Air Terminal, LaGuardia Airport" -- designated
that year as both an individual and an interior landmark

by Ken

NYC's Mr. Art Deco
I don't usually go looking for trouble across the decades, but sometimes the trouble finds you. So it was for me Sunday at one stop on a monumental all-day art deco hunt promoted by the Art Deco Society of New York as part of its contribution to the celebration of the 50th birthday of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which as it happens happened on Sunday. It hardly seems necessary to add that presiding over the epic journey was architectural historian Anthony W. Robins, because while Tony put in 20 years at the LPC (serving as director of the Survey department and deputy director of Research), and among his many writings are books about the World Trade Center (both the original 1987 edition and an updated 2012 one) and Grand Central Terminal (2013), to a lot of people he's NYC's Mr. Art Deco. (I myself have done a bunch of deco-themed Municipal Art Society walking tours with him.) For Sunday's odyssey he had plotted art deco targets in all five boroughs, which we reached by bus.

It was an undertaking that by its very nature was bound to enmesh us in a clash of decades, since while all of our sites dated back to the art deco heyday of the '30s, in the history of buildings time never stands still. We saw some that -- some with and some without the benefit of landmarking, and with various combinations of stalwart upkeep and committed restoration -- have stood proudly over those decades, notably apartment buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the West Bronx, in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn (including the vast Brighton Beach Gardens complex, which offered hot and cold running water not just of the regular kind but of saltwater as well, via pipes tapping into the nearby ocean), and even on Staten Island (the Ambassador Apartments, sitting not just surprisingly but comfortably on the slopes of St. George).

This eye-catching entrance graces the modest-size but beautiful art deco apartment building at 711 Brightwater Court in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

We also saw the really fine recent rehab and rebuilding job done by the Parks Department on the sprawling McCarren Play Center and swimming pool in Brooklyn, one of 11 such centers built citywide in the '30s by then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. It was finally landmarked in 2007, but by then had suffered decades of neglect -- before being restored to glorious function in 2012 servicing the Williamsburg and Greenpoint communities.

But we also saw buildings that had endured only unkindness at the hands of time, like the former Knickerbocker Laundry building in Woodside, Queens, once proclaimed the most beautiful industrial building in Queens, of which a section remains visible buried under a monstrosity of a building erected on top and around it as a headquarters of the Korean Presbyterian Church of New York.

Even more poignantly, we saw the surviving shell of the once-beautiful Fire Service Pumping Station on the northern (i.e., land-facing) shore of Brooklyn's Coney Island, abandoned by the Fire Department in the early 1970s and never repurposed by the city. It was actually calendared for landmark consideration by the LPC in 1980, but before its hearing time came it suffered a siege of vandalism so extensive that the commissioners were left with really nothing landmarkable -- though it was at least possible to rescue the stone lions that had once watched over the entrance, which despite damage were intact enough to warrant safe removal from the site and are now housed in the Brooklyn Museum, forlornly awaiting a likely never-to-come return to their home, which seems doomed to continue deteriorating to the point where there's no practical alternative to demolition.

The wretched wreck of Coney Island's abandoned Fire Service Pumping Station

It was a wonderful trip through time as well as geography, and also through urban values and priorities. But the site that left the most indelible mark for me was the interior of the Marine Air Terminal of LaGuardia Airport, on Flushing Bay in Queens, home at the time of its opening to the might Clipper planes that crossed the world's oceans in added safety thanks to their design as seaplanes. It's a beautiful little art deco building in its own right, the Marine Air Terminal, well worthy of the landmark status it received in 1980. But at that time it was designated not just as an individual landmark but also as a much rarer interior landmark, largely on the basis of the wonderful WPA-sponsored murals called Flight, painted by James Brooks in 1939-40, the last mural project commissioned and completed under the WPA, filling almost 360 degrees' worth of the second level of the interior wedding-cake-shaped main portion of the building.

The art deco exterior of LaGuardia Airport's Marine Air Terminal

Which brings us to a clash of decades that is first appalling and later somewhat hope-restoring, though it's the appalling one that has lodge in my memory, because it's the sort of Tallibanesque act of official vandalism that seems to me quintessentially American and perfectly in tune with the Talibanesque impulses of the American Right of the 2000s. Here's how Harriet Baskas tells the story in an October 2013 post based on Glenn Palmer-Smith's then-new book Murals of New York City: The Best of New York’s Public Paintings from Bemelmans to Parrish:
Flight was the last and largest mural produced under the auspices of the WPA and is 237 feet long by 12 feet high and, appropriately enough, tells the story of the history of flight.

Here’s Palmer-Smith’s description:
The narrative flows from the mythology of Icarus and Daedalus to the genius of da Vinci and the Wright brothers. Pre–World War II aerial navigators are shown plotting their routes with paper maps and rulers. The culmination of man’s dream arrives at the golden age of the "flying boat," when glamorous Pan Am Clipper seaplanes would land on water after a flight from Lisbon, Rio, or any city with a sheltered harbor, and taxi up to the Marine Air Terminal dock.
In 1952, after being on the wall for just a decade, the mural was painted over. It was the height of the McCarthy era and officials at the Port Authority thought the imagery somehow looked too socialist.

“In particular, these self-appointed art critics took exception to the mural’s suggestion that air travel would be available one day for ordinary people and not just the military and the rich,” notes Palmer-Smith.

Lucky for us, the mural had been sealed in varnish and was eventually discovered, restored and finally rededicated in 1980. It’s now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
When I shared a hasty, hashed version of this story with Howie, he brought up the famous case of the Diego Rivera murals originally installed in the lobby of Rockefeller Center's grand skyscraper, 30 Rock, which were destroyed on orders of John D. Rockefeller Jr. This was appalling too, especially since discussions were underway to remove the murals, which John D. Jr. found so upsetting (for understandable reasons, he really did find them communistic), and relocate them offsite. But it's also different. John D. Jr. had commissioned and paid for those murals, as part of the large quantity of art he commissioned for display around Rockefeller Center, a totally private site. No, he didn't have to destroy the murals, but the fact is, they were his property, and it wasn't hard to see why he didn't want them displayed on his premises.

The WPA murals, however, were paid for by the public and belonged to the public, and were displayed in a public space. Yet some gutless ignoramus of a bureaucrat saw fit to "improve" the Marine Air Terminal by blacking out James Brooks's work. Does anyone believe that such a course of action would be displeasing to the titans of imbecility and intolerance who now constitute the thinkers and seers of the American Right?

The redeeming part of the story came as the Marine Air Terminal was slogging its way through the landmark consideration process. Largely by dint of the efforts of a heroic advocate, aviation historian Geoffrey Arend, and then with the help of money from Laurance Rockefeller -- yes, a Rockefeller! -- and Reader's Digest's DeWitt Wallace, it was determined that the Flight murals could be restored, and by gosh they were restored! By great good fortune James Brooks was still around four decades after he finished the murals, and after a quarter-century in which his work was presumed gone for good, he, along with Mayor LaGuardia's widow, Marie, was able to attend its rededication on September 18, 1980. (In the photo Brooks is seen between then LaGuardia Airport manager Tim Peirce and Geoffrey Arend.)

It's an unexpectedly, even miraculously happy ending to an awful story that for me has deeply disturbing relevance to the America of the 2010s.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Urban Gadabout: Check out the Spring 2015 schedule of Justin Ferate and Wolfe Walkers

This time Justin's hardy Tottenville explorers will get inside Conference House. (Click to enlarge, and download a pdf of the Wolfe Walkers Spring 2015 Brochure here.)

by Ken

Just about every time I take a walking tour (or bus-and-walking tour or train-and-walking tour) with the amazing Justin Ferate, I have occasion to tell the story of the first tour I ever did with Justin, back when he still occasionally did tours for the Municipal Art Society. It was a pretty much all-day affair to Tottenville, at the southern edge of Staten Island, and it was, well, amazing. As I always say, as soon as Justin got us grouped on the Staten Island Ferry at the Manhattan terminal, he started talking, and all those hours later when we arrived back at the end of the ferry terminal terminus of the Staten Island Railway, he came up for breath.

The weather was dismal, raining on and off, with mist so heavy that when we got to Conference House Park, at the southern tip of the island, we could barely make out Perth Amboy, New Jersey, across the Arthur Kill. Nevertheless, the whole day was magical, and I was inspired to return to Tottenville on my own. And of course I was inspired to take as many tours with Justin as I've been able to.

Nowadays those tours are mostly in spring and fall seasons of the Wolfe Walkers, the venerable band of urban gadders originally gathered together by Prof. Gerard Wolfe when he was teaching at NYU. As Justin noted last year, though, he sudenly realized that he has now been doing the Wolfe Walkers walks longer than Gerard.

And in the brand-new Spring 2015 Brochure that Justin just passed along, I see that he's doing a new verson of the Tottenville expedition on May 31, which I would have signed up for in a heartbeat if I didn't have a schedule conflict. (This time the group is promised access to the inside Conference House.) I had a couple of other schedule conflicts with dates on the Spring 2015 schedule, but one of them I'm blowing off, in order to do the ever-so-Edith Whartonesque Summer Mansions of Astoria, Queens. (I've been reading a lot of Edith Wharton, including the Old New York novellas, for which the tour should practically be a required field trip. I had my registration form and check -- for both bus tours, the "Titanic Memorial Tour," "Summer Mansions of Astoria," and "Kleindeutschland" -- sitting in the mailbox across the street in time for the next pickup after I received the brochure.

Dear Friends,

Another Spring Season awaits! Responding to several requests, we are offering a walk of Spiritual Sites along Central Park West [Sunday, April 12] that will include (among other locations) a private tour of Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue. Three tours celebrate the New York waterfront: Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights with a tour of Plymouth Church [Sunday, April 26]; Summer Mansions of Astoria, Queens [Saturday, May 9]; and the charming waterfront village of Tottenville, Staten Island [Sunday, May 31] -- including a tour of Conference House, where attempts were made to resolve the issues of the American Revolution. (Needless to say, the Conference was unsuccessful.)

We’ll explore the history and remnants of “Kleindeutschland” or “Little Germany” on the Lower East Side [Saturday, May 16]. On our bus trip to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hyde Park [Sunday, June 7], we’ll travel to Springwood, the Roosevelt Mansion. A special treat will be a visit to Eleanor Roosevelt’s unusual snuggery, Val-Kill Cottage as well as the FDR Presidential Library. The Hyde Park trip will also include a tour of the Frederick Vanderbilt Mansion, designed by McKim, Mead and White.

A very exciting offering this year will be a day of 17th and 18th Century Stone Houses in the towns of New Paltz and Hurley [Saturday, July 11]. The New Paltz houses form a National Landmark district and the houses are maintained in a protected museum environment. The houses of Hurley date back as far back as 300 years and are currently residences today. This is the only day of the year that these private homes are opened for public visitation. A rare treat!

Come join us for another exciting season!

In addition to the above tours, all led by Justin, there's a Saturday-evening Titanic Memorial Tour (April 18) led by Dave Gardner, "a gold member of the Titanic Historical Society."

You can find a pdf of the Spring 2015 Brochure here. The brochure includes the registration form (it's page 2), but if you want to download just the registration form, you can find it here.

And while you're on Justin's "Tours of the City" website take a look around, and if you have any interest in what's going on in and around New York, you should sign up for Justin's mailing list, which will land you an ongoing cornucopia of information. As I always say, I always read Justin's pass-alongs, and have been tipped to all manner of fascinations.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Stepping back into NYC's "club era" -- the Yale Club today, the University Club in March

McKim, Mead and White's University Club, at Fifth Avenue and West 54th Street

by Ken

This morning I made sure to get enough of my day's posts posted so that I could go out and play, notwithstanding the arctic weather here in the Big Apple. Today that meant a special of the historic "club" districts of Midtown Manhattan, including a visit to the largest of them all, the Yale Club (which survives in part by sharing its facilities with a bunch of other clubs, like that of my alma mater, I was surprised to be reminded).

Matt Postal has been doing a series of tours for the Municipal Art Society of some of the surviving clubs, namely those that have responded at all positively to his entreaties. He has explained that when he was attending graduate school at the City University of New York in the '90s, he was involved in a massive project into the clubs built during the great era of clubs in Midtown, the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. It was a natural project for the CUNY Grad Center when it was located on the block north of the New York Public LIbrary, on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a virtual stone's throw from the graet club blocks -- 43rd and 44th Streets between Sixth and Vanderbilt Avenues and -- opposite the south side of the library and its neighbor to the west, Bryant Park, 40th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. But before the project could be completed and brought to whatever form it might have taken, the grad center moved -- not that far, to its present location in the gorgeous, landmarked former B. Altman building at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, but far enough that the "club district" was now judged to be out-of-neighborhood. The project was shelved, leaving Matt with all that work expended and all those reams of files.

On earlier MAS tours with Matt, I've gotten to see the inside of the Players Club (on Gramercy Park South) and the Century Association (on 43rd Street just west of Fifth Avenue). A number of the city's most prestigious architects designed those club buildings, and setting foot inside them also carries the feeling of stepping into another era.


On a recent MAS tour with Francis Morrone, part of a series exploring the "side streets" of Midtown, our group had spent time at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, onl partly sheltered from the rain, looking at the extraordinary pile of a building on the northwest corner, McKim, Mead and White's University Club of 1899.

Which gave Francis the opportunity to mention that on March 3rd he will be giving this year's 14th Annual McKim Lecture, co-presented by the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art and the University Club (in the form of the 1 West 54th Street Association), in the club itself. It was a date he suggested we might mark on our calendars, though he warned that they charge a really lot of money.

I actually remembered to do some Web searching, and was able to confirm the March 3rd date, but for details and reservations In was instructed to check back later. Perhaps inspired by the upcoming Yale Club tour with Matt P, I remembered to check back, and sure enough the full information is now available, including this:
The topic of the lecture will be “The City Beautiful and the Urban Landscape in America.” The talk will explore the movement to beautify America’s cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact and legacy of that movement, its relevance today, and the many misconceptions about it (including that of Jane Jacobs). All of this will be discussed with specific reference to the contributions of McKim, Mead and White.
I know from my recent experience of (finally) reading Jane Jacobs's storied Death and Life of Great American Cities, and from doing bunches of tours with Francis where her writings have come up, including one last August devoted specifically to "Then and Now: The West Village of Jane Jacobs," that he's one of the few people who invoke her work who's actually familiar with what she wrote. So I'm especially psyched for the promised corrective to her view of the City Beautiful movement, which could most politely be described as scathing.

Beyond which, in my experience Francis takes his public presentations very seriously. Like when his latest book, Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes (written with Robin Lynn), had a festive do of a public book-launch party in the historic chapel of Green-Wood Cemetery, at a time when many authors would coast on the labors of book-writing now comfortably behind them, Francis seemed to have devoted as much effort to the presentation he gave as most people would devote to actually writing a damned book. The way he tied Green-Wood itself into the first of the successive eras of NYC urban landscapes it had a lot to do with settiing in motion (starting with two of the city's still-greatest urban landscapes, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park and Prospect Park) was, in a word, masterful.

Beyond that, there's the sheer thrill of penetrating the mighty exterior of the University Club. Here are a few paragraphs from a post by Scott on the IWALKED Audio Tours website:
As it is likely that most of us will never see the insides of the University Club let me share what I have been able to learn of its interiors from my research. The highlight of the building is the library on the second floor which you can sometimes get a glimpse into from street level. The library is said to contain vast vault ceilings with murals painted atop its ceiling by Henry Siddons Mowbray that emulate the Vatican Apartments. Also amongst the interior is an extensive art collection, including a series of portraits by Gilbert Stuart, and a series of swimming pools allowable for usage with either swimming or birthday suits (at least in the male-only pool).

Speaking of male-only, the University Club underwent an overhaul of its membership policy in 1997 due to the passage of the New York City Public Law 63. Public Law 63 required all fee-collecting clubs with members greater than 400 (of which the University Club has over 4,000 members) to begin allowing the membership of women, or else the club would be forced to alter its charter.

The University Club has been located within this nine-story Italian High Renaissance Revival building since 1899. The Club which took on a series of temporary homes since its founding acquired a lot that was formerly owned by St. Luke’s Hospital to build on this site. They then hired the famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to construct themselves new quarters for the sum of $1 million. McKim, Mead and White’s unique design integrates pink Milford granite on its exterior, along with a series of twenty-five feet columns that grace each side of the front entrance. Also integrated above each of the building’s windows are crests that are representative of various prominent universities. Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is the deceptive appearance of the building’s exterior. By glancing at the outside of the building it seems apparent that there are no more than three levels, when in actuality the interior maintains nine.
You'll notice that phrase of Scott's, "as it is likely that most of us will never see the insides of the University Club," well, that's what I was thinking too, that day when we stood in the rain looking at the building's exterior. Well, I put that all together, swallowed hard, and -- reminding myself that a good part of the money goes to the worthy causes represented by the prsenting institutions -- shelled out the $75 they're asking for just the cocktail reception preceding the lecture and the lecture itself. That'll get me inside the building and into Francis's lecture. I didn't give serious consideration to the higher-priced option, which adds on a dinner following the lecture, at a jacked-up total of $150. It occurred to me afterward that maybe I should have really gone hog-wild, if only to see the dining facilities of the club.

I know enough from my club tours with Matt to know that the dining facilities of these places are a key feature of their design. Maybe I should have thought of the extra $75 as a fee for on-site inspection, with the meal as an added bonus. I'm not sure I could have sold myself on that, though, and anyway it's done, though I suspect an upgrade wouldn't be entirely impossible. Probably if I called the phone number listed for reservations, and mentioned that I've already registered for the recpetion and lecture, and wondered if I might still be able to tack on the dinner. . . . Oh no, now I've planted a bug in my head!

These are, of course, decisions each of us has to make for him/herself. And I just thought some of you might want to know about this. There aren't a lot of people I'd seriously consider shelling out the basic $75 for, but put Francis in a package with the University Club itself, and I'm already kind of glad I overcame my habitual cheapness.

For information about current and future Municipal Art Society walking tours, go to the MAS website,, and click on "Tours."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Are You Ready For Cuba? Is Cuba Ready For You?

The U.S. airlines don't have their shit together when it comes to the lucrative market opening between the U.S. and Cuba. This morning, the NY Times reported that the major airlines are missing the initial rush. initial: first year on the lifting of the travel restrictions.
[B]efore airlines can schedule direct flights to Havana and other airports, the two countries must still negotiate a new air service agreement.

Until that happens, travelers will have to rely on charter flights booked through specialized travel agencies, and that is not expected to change for the next 12 to 18 months, according to travel experts and industry officials. The timeline could be further complicated by opposition in Congress as well as the presidential election next year, which could delay matters in unpredictable ways.

...About 100,000 Americans already visit Cuba each year, a number that has surged since more flexible travel rules were introduced in 2011. Cubans living in the United States make an additional estimated 400,000 visits a year.

Still, the new policy means that those numbers are certain to increase. Travel agencies have already reported a jump in interest since the Obama administration announced that it was restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba last month, and they are increasing charter capacity in the coming months to address the expected growth in demand.

“This will make a huge difference in the numbers of people who can go,” said Bob Guild of Marazul Charters, a travel agency that has been organizing trips to Cuba for 36 years. “This opens up a chance for the American people to go to Cuba that they didn’t have before.”

Outside the United States, many airlines already serve Cuban destinations. Travelers can also go to Canada, Mexico, or several Caribbean countries first and take connecting flights there, a loophole that many Americans have taken to circumvent restrictions imposed by the United States, since Cuba does not ban Americans from entering.

The biggest carriers, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, among others, quickly signaled interest in Cuba after the new policy was announced, but so far have not made plans to fly there. “We look forward to expanding service into Cuba as more opportunities become available,” Delta said.

JetBlue operates charter flights from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., while American Airlines has been operating charter flights booked by travel agencies into Cuba for 15 years from Miami and Tampa, Fla. Neither is expected to schedule its own commercial flights until a new air service agreement can be established to replace an agreement dating to 1953.

“We are reviewing the changes to the Cuba travel policy and will continue to be guided by the laws and policies of the U.S. government and the governments of the countries we serve, as they evolve,” American Airlines said in a statement.

United said on Thursday that it planned to seek approval for regular flights from Newark and Houston.

...While specific trips for tourism remain officially banned, the government will no longer be able to enforce any direct oversight. The new rules therefore represent a momentous change, and there is likely to be a major touristic rush to Cuba in the coming years, according to travel specialists.

“The floodgates have opened,” Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer’s travel guide series, wrote on his blog. “Starting now, any determined American will be able to travel, without hindrance, to Cuba.”

Travelers will also be permitted to use credit cards, spend more money in Cuba, and bring back more souvenirs, including up to $100 in tobacco or alcohol.

Mr. Frommer added, “It’s obvious that Americans who honestly believe they fit within 12 permitted categories of travel for Cuba can simply pack up and go.”
Americans have been traveling to Cuba for years but the new rules that went into effect today make it much easier. Here's now:
You no longer have to chose between applying or a license or sneaking into the country

there are no longer restrictions on how much money you can spend in Cuba

U.S. credit cards and debit cards will be allowed to be used in Cuba

Americans will be able to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 worth of cigars
But is Cuba ready for Ma and Pa Kettle? Can typical American tourists hack the realities of Cuba? Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodrigues, reporting for the Associated Press, say Obama's new travel policy will depend more on the availability of hotel hand towels than the deranged howling of Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez.
Not just hand towels, but working air conditioning, breakfast waffles and the hundreds of other amenities that American tourists will demand when they flood to Cuba in numbers that travel experts expect to double this year, thanks to the loosening of travel restrictions on Friday.

U.S.-based Cuba travel companies say there's simply no more room in the handful of top-end Cuban hotels that meet international standards. That means that if visitors come in numbers as great as expected, they will have to find lodging either in grim, lower-end state facilities or one of the most vibrant parts of Cuba's small, new private business sector: family-run guest houses that offer independent sources of private income to thousands of Cubans.

That scenario is exactly what Obama said he hopes to achieve. When he announced the policy on Dec. 17, the president said that the U.S. wants to be "a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous."

The first test of the new U.S. approach may come down to where new American travelers choose to lay their heads at night.

"A significant increase in U.S. travelers would overwhelm the system and overwhelm the availability of the Cubans to keep tabs and keep controls on these travelers," a U.S. official involved in the execution of the new policy told The Associated Press on Friday. "The hotels aren't going to be able to handle it. You're going to see a spillover into the private sector, which is a good thing."

Juan Hernandez Rabelo, 65, is taking English lessons three times a week to help him communicate with future clients at Casa Vitrales, an immaculately restored high-end colonial guest house he runs with his son in Old Havana.

"This is going to help our business and the country," Hernandez said of Obama's new policy. "It opens new opportunities for guest houses to absorb a greater number of tourists."

The new Treasury Department rules that went into effect Friday eliminate a burdensome and costly requirement for specially licensed tour groups to obtain federal permits to take U.S. travelers to Cuba on trips with educational itineraries that needed approval in Washington.

Most U.S. travelers still will be required to go on supervised group trips, but now virtually any U.S. company or organization can offer such trips without the paperwork and inspections that discouraged past expansion of travel to Cuba. Some tour operators, already seeing unprecedented interest in legal travel to Cuba, expect some tourists to simply ignore the restrictions.

Companies that have been organizing travel to Cuba for years say they expect legal travel to Cuba to at least double this year, from a figure of roughly 90,000 American visitors annually over recent years.

And any significant surge, they say, is guaranteed to overwhelm Cuba's travel infrastructure.

"Even with 90,000 Americans going a year it's a nightmare to get the hotel rooms," said Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel. He said his company he's seen booking double over the last three weeks, to about 1,000. He said that he, too, expected Cubans to begin investing in more guest houses that are legitimate lodging options for visiting Americans.

"You've already started to see that," he said. "In the last few years, all of a sudden you've seen people who realize if I invest a little more, increase the water pressure, then you're actually competing with a four-star hotel."

Cuban state authorities say they are confident that the country can handle a surge in tourists and that they have already been getting ready for at least 1 million Americans a year, a number they expect to come after the U.S. embargo is ended by Congress.

"The country has enough hotel capacity to absorb an increase of this magnitude. We've prepared ourselves for that day," said Jose Manuel Bisbe, president of Havanatur, one of Cuba's main state-run tourism companies.

U.S. experts say that may be overly optimistic, particularly because the U.S. ban on pure tourism means the most developed high-end destination, the Varadero beach resort about 80 miles east of Havana, effectively remains off-limits to U.S. visitors. And even Bisbe acknowledged that some of Cuba's current offerings are sub-par.

"In terms of quality of service it's certain that we have a series of problems that we have to solve," he said.

The restrictions on Cuban travel have made the island either a surreptitious destination for young people who go illegally through Canada or Mexico, or an expensive, boutique product for older and better-off Americans.

Barbara Dresner, the retired owner of a New York of clothing stores, joined a five-day Havana jazz tour that cost about $5,000 per person and said she was unpleasantly surprised by some aspects of the five-star hotel where she stayed.

"There are no washcloths," she said Thursday night. "In American hotels, they always have washcloths."

Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How many of the "World's Best Places for 2015" do you plan to hit this year?

Pretoria Square, Palermo
Recitative, Giovanni da Procida
Palermo! O my country!
Country so regretted!
The exile greets thee after three years of absence!
On thy enchanted shores I had my birth.
I discharge my debt toward thee.
Here is liberty!
Aria, "E toi, Palerme!" ("E tu, Palermo!")
And thou, Palermo, o beauty that's outraged!
Thou, always dear to my enchanted eyes,
ah! raise thy face, bowed under servitude,
and become again the queen of cities!
Everywhere on foreign ground
I went seeking avengers for thee,
but, insensible to thy misery, each said:
"Rise up against your oppressors,
and you will be supported: Rise up!"
And I come -- there I am!
And thou, Palermo, etc.

Samuel Ramey (bs), Giovanni da Procida; Munich Radio Orchestra, Jacques Delacôte, cond. EMI, recorded April 1988

[in Italian, as "O patria! O cara patria" . . . "E tu, Palermo"] Nicolai Ghiaurov (bs), Giovanni da Procida; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. Decca, recorded January 1969

[in Italian, compressed to fit one 78 side] Ezio Pinza (bs), Giovanni da Procida; orchestra, Rosario Bourdon, cond. Victor, recorded Feb., 17, 1927

[in Italian, compressed to fit one 78 side] Tancredi Pasero (bs), Giovanni da Procida; orchestra. Odeon, recorded 1936

by Ken

Okay, it's possible that I was motivated to share this feature from AARP, "World's Best Places for 2015," because two of the designated places have inspired such memorable musical effusions, starting with the one we've just heard, the emotional return of the exiled Sicilian patriot Giovanni da Procida to the Sicillian capital of Palermo, his hometown (No. 6 on the list) at the opening of Act II of Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes" (The Sicilian Vespers).

Our other musically rhapsodized destination is China's Hunan province (No. 10), the much-missed home of the imperial lord chancellor Ping in Puccini's Turandot, who sings so rhapsodically about his house there on "a little blue lake all surrounded with bamboo." I suppose I might have tried to slip in something from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth (The Pretty Maiden of Perth), except that the Perth there is the original one, in Scotland, not the namesake capital of Western Australia (No. 3).

No guidance beyond the individual recommendations is provided as to what makes these places in particular the 11 "best places for 2015," but it's certainly an, er, interesting assortment. The number is convenient -- you can hit all 11 and still take a month off from vacationing. And of course you'll want to hit all 11, because while these may be the "world's best places for 2015," who can say they won't suck for 2016?

1. Albanian Coast

Albania, tucked between Greece and Macedonia, offers a European feel at palatable prices. Sunbathe on limestone-ringed beaches on the Adriatic Sea, explore ancient ruins and abandoned forts, and kayak past Cold War submarine tunnels. Dine on fresh fish as you watch the tide come in.

2. Faroe Islands

You're in for a treat any time of year when you visit these beautiful islands northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. Boating and hiking are stellar; wildlife abounds. And here, on March 20, is one of the two places on Earth where you can witness a full solar eclipse.

3. Perth, Australia

Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is known for its beaches and aboriginal heritage. But now it's catching up, with trendy cuisine brought by international chefs to repurposed venues such as stables and cottages, and neighborhoods filled with cafes and boutiques. A riverside project is infusing the eastern side of the city with parks, shops, housing plazas, posh hotels and restaurants.

4. Yorkshire, England

England's largest historic county is well wortha visit these days. There is the state-of-the-art National Media Museum in Bradford, the sumptuous Victorian spa town of Harrogate and Haworth, of Brontë-famly fame. News flash: Yorkshire has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other English county outside London.

5. Istanbul, Turkey

As one of the few cities in the world to span two continents, Istanbul has always been a place where myriad cultures mix. What's more, its colorful history stretches back so far that even the ancient Greeks considered it old. Today, it's also one of the most affordable cities to visit, with amazing shopping in bazaars -- where bargaining is a must -- and reasonably priced, authentic accommodations and mayhanes (traditional restaurants). It's also become known for its cutting-edge fashion, art and nightlife.

6. Palermo, Italy

Been to Rome? Perhaps it's time to sample Sicily's capital city, Palermo. It's a European destination on the rise, with sophisticated wine-tasting venues, markets with some of Italy's best street food, the idyllic seaside village of Mondello and many low-key, independent hotels. You can get around the rest of the island by rail, but the best way to explore is by car -- to sample fragrant orange groves, majestic ruins, incomparable blue skies and moonrise over Mount Etna.

7. Bangkok, Thailand

Its reputation as a booming, bustling capital sets this Asian city apart, as does its delicious, wildly inexpensive and remarkably fresh food. Transportation and glorious Thai massages are consistently cheap -- and usually high quality -- enabling you to explore Bangkok on a shoestring while still enjoying the high life.

8. Tulum, Mexico

Mexico is a large country with many wonderful cities and towns worth visiting, but there's something about this small beach community that makes it especially appealing. Mexican culture and laid-back attitudes abound, as does deliciously simple food. It's hard to imagine the rustling palm trees, warm breezes and calming Caribbean waves not leaving visitors enchanted and renewed.

9. Cordoba, Argentina

For those taking a new interest in Jesuit history with the election of Pope Francis I, there's no better place for an exploration than in Argentina, his birthplace. And the center of the city of Córdoba, named a UNESCO World Heritage site, is splendid with 17th-century Jesuit structures, including Argentina's oldest university, and the tolling from more than 80 bell towers and churches. When you're done with history, take tango lessons or slip into the student scen in a lively bar or two.

10. Hunan, China

A river town in Hunan
At the start of Act II of Puccini's Turandot, the trio of Chinese imperial ministers -- the baritone Ping (the lord chancellor) and the tenors Pang (the major-domo) and Pong (head chef of the imperial kitchen) -- prepare yet again for the latest in the endless series of suitors for the hand of the beauteous Princess Turandot, subjecting himself to her infamous trial-by-riddles, meaning a feast if by chance the latest victim succeeds (which, if history is any guide, he won't) or more likely a funeral. Lamenting the draining nature of their imperial service, Ping longs for his house in Hunan "with a little blue lake all surrounded by bamboo," prompting Pang and Pong to dream of their home turf.

PING: I have a house in Honan
with a little blue lake
all surrounded with bamboo.
And here I am, wasting my life,
wearing out my brain
over the sacred books.
When I could go back there
to my little blue lake
all surrounded with bamboo!
PONG: Go back there!
I have forests, near Tsaing,
than which none are lovelier,
but their shade is not for me.
I have forests
than which none are lovelier!
PANG: To go back there!
I have a garden near Kiù,
that I left to come here,
that I’ll never see again!
THE MINISTERS: And here we are,
wearing out our brains
over the sacred books!
PONG: And I could go back to Tsaing . . .
PING: And I could go back there . . .
PANG: And I could go back to Kiù . . .
PING: . . . to enjoy my blue lake . . .
PONG: Tsaing . . .
PANG: Kiù . . .
PING: Honan . . .
all surrounded with bamboo!
PONG: . . . and I could go back to Tsaing!
PANG: . . . and I could go back to Kiù!
-- English translation by William Weaver

Mario Sereni (b), Ping; Piero de Palma (t), Pang; Tommaso Frascati (t), Pong; Rome Opera Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 3-11, 1959

Mario Borriello (bs), Ping; Renato Ercolani (t), Pang; Piero de Palma (t), Pong; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 9-15, 1957

Fernando Corena (bs), Ping; Mario Carlin (t), Pang; Renato Ercolani (t), Pong; Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Rome), Alberto Erede, cond. Decca, recorded 1955

Vicente Sardinero (b), Ping; Rémy Corazza (t), Pang; Ricardo Cassinelli (t), Pong; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Alain Lombard, cond. EMI, recorded 1977
The Chinese government is planning Sky City, the world's new tallest skyscraper (almost 33 feet taller than Dubai's Buri Khalifa). A network of superhighways, high-speed trains and a host of direct flights all bring the cities of this province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, within easy reach of travelers. Take in the stunning scenery, rich cultural attractions and fine food.

11. Cape Town, South Africa

The Mother City of South Africa has gradually been cultivating its cosmopolitan side. it underwent a major makeover in time to host the 2010 World Cup but has since seen a dip in its tourist trade -- making it a great destination for travelers keen on bargains and real-deal local experiences, And worth any traveler's time, a ferry to Robben Island to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.


AARP has also offered "15 Under-the-Radar Vacation Destinations" chosen by Michael Alan Connelly of Fodor's Travel. You'll have to double up on these if you want to get to all 15 of them this year, but again, who knows if they'll be any good for 2016?

1. North Stradbroke Island, Australia ("less than 20 miles from Brisbane")
2. Hainan Island, China ("popular with Chinese and Russian tourists, but mostly unknown to other travelers")
3. Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio ("most notable for its waterfalls and dramatic rock formations")
4. Koh Lipe, Thailand ("island paradise in the Andaman Sea")
5. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska ("home to the Brooks Range and six rivers")
6. Kobarid, Slovenia ("picturesque town in the Soča Valley . . . surrounded by majestic mountains and green pastures")
7. Schönau am Königsee, Germany ("popular for health resorts and winter sports")
8. Rangiroa, French Polynesia ("essentially a strand of coral surrounding a beautiful lagoon")
9. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia ("approximately 20 lakes plus breathtaking caves, forests and waterfalls")
10. Ulan Bator, Mongolia ("a good place for exploring one of the world's most beautiful and hospitable countries")
11. El Djem, Tunisia ("well-preserved architecture from the days of the Roman Empire")
12. Anguilla, the Caribbean ("a decidedly low-key escape")
13. Sanliurfa, Turkey ("Turkish legend has it that Abraham was born in a cave here")
14. Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda ("acive eight-volcano chain . . . with incredible views and . . . wildlife")
15. Lombok, Indonesia ("the splendor of Bali without all of the crowds")

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, The Airlines WANT You To Suffer-- And Make Sure You Do

Airlines are making tremendous profits by selling their customers misery

Friday, The New Yorker ran a piece by Tim Wu, Why Airlines Want To Make You Suffer. It's not a comedy piece. Like us, he was disgusted with Jet Blue going over to the anti-customer dark side, lamenting now the airline had previously "distinguished itself by providing decent, fee-free service for everyone, an approach that seemed to be working: passengers liked the airline, and it made a consistent profit. Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.” In November, the airline, under new management, announced that it would follow United, Delta, and the other major carriers by cramming more seats into economy, shrinking leg room, and charging a range of new fees for things like bags and WiFi."
It seems that the money was just too good to resist. In 2013, the major airlines combined made about $31.5 billion in income from fees, as well as other ancillaries, such as redeeming credit-card points. United pulled in more than $5.7 billion in fees and other ancillary income in 2013, while Delta scored more than $2.5 billion. That’s income derived in large part from services, such as baggage carriage, that were once included in ticket prices. Today, as anyone who travels knows well, you can pay fees ranging from forty dollars to three hundred dollars for things like boarding in a “fast lane,” sitting in slightly better economy-class seats, bringing along the family dog, or sending an unaccompanied minor on a plane. Loyal fliers, or people willing to pay a giant annual fee, can avoid some of these charges; others are unavoidable.

...If fees are great for airlines, what about for us? Does it make any difference if an airline collects its cash in fees as opposed to through ticket sales? The airlines, and some economists, argue that the rise of the fee model is good for travellers. You only pay for what you want, and you can therefore save money if you, for instance, don’t mind sitting in middle seats in the back, waiting in line to board, or bringing your own food. That’s why American Airlines calls its fees program “Your Choice” and suggests that it makes the “travel experience even more convenient, cost-effective, flexible and personalized.”

But the fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience. For one thing, as the Wall Street Journal has documented, airlines have crammed more seats into the basic economy section of the airplane, even on long-haul flights. The seats, meanwhile, have gotten smaller-- they are narrower and set closer together. Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Boarding for non-élite flyers has also become a miserable experience. There are far more efficient ways to load planes than the current back-to-front method, which is actually slower than random boarding. The process takes longer still thanks to the practice of letting flyers with status board out of turn and thanks to luggage charges, which compel fee-avoiders to cram their bags into overhead compartments. Airlines lack a real incentive to fundamentally improve boarding for everyone-- by, for example, investing in methods such as filling both ends of an airplane at once. It would make life better and also defeat the status racket."

And Tim was just talking about America, where airlines at least make some token gesture to concepts of vestigial democracy. Imagine what it's like in a traditionally authoritarian or feudal society like South Korea. In fact, don't imagine. Earlier today DWT carried an apocryphal post about KAL and feudalism in the 21st Centuries skies.

Too big to fire

My favorite part of the on-going Korean Air scandal is how it exposed the relationship between the plutocracy and the working class. First, meet Cho Hyun-ah, an heiress-- daughter of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho. Part of her patrimony, apparently is an executive vice presidency at the airline-- and an attitude towards the little people that would make Leona Helmsley blush. As for her very own little people, Cho flew to Hawaii last May to give birth to twin sons so that they would have U.S. citizenship-- something wealthy South Koreans like to do... just in case something goes wrong (and so that they kids don't have to serve in the Korean military).

OK, first the facts in the more recent scandal that has led to Cho be fired by her embarrassed father. She was flying-- first class, of course-- from JFK back to Korea on December 5. She flipped out when a flight attendant handed her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of in a bowl. People in first class get their macadamias in bowls, while the peasants get their bags of peanuts in bags. She went nuts! She summoned the senior steward in charge and demanded an explanation, which didn't satisfy her. So she ordered the plane back to the gate so the flight attendant could be thrown off the plane. And the plane's captain obeyed! Ah... the power and arrogance of Korea's chaebol (family-run mega-conglomerates). Cho's family is especially hated in Korea, and Hanjin, the parent company of Korean Air, got its start serving the U.S. military in the 1940s. Several years ago, Cho's brother, Won-Tae Cho, another spoiled brat and another executive vice-president of the airline and other Hanjin subsidiaries, was investigated by police for shoving an elderly woman who confronted him about his reckless driving. Earlier the patriarch himself, who is a well-known crook, was convicted, along with his own father brother, of tax evasion.
The abused flight attendant who was attacked and berated by an airline executive when he failed to serve her nuts in a bowl on a flight from New York to South Korea is sharing his story.

Screaming Cho Hyun-ah, a senior vice-president at the airline and daughter of the airline's chairman, angrily demanded the removal of the crew member, Park Chang-jin, from the flight when he gave her macadamia nuts in a bag.

She then forced the Incheon-bound flight to taxi back to the terminal at New York's JFK Airport to kick the junior flight attendant off the plane.

Now, Chang-jin has revealed that several officials from Korean Air asked him to deny the incident ever happened.

'People who haven't experienced will not understand that feeling of being insulted and shamed,' Chang-jin told a South Korean television station on Friday.

He said after being berated by  Hyun-ah, he and a fellow flight attendant actually dropped to their knees in front of the woman begging for forgiveness, this as she 'poked the back of his hand with a corner of the flight manual book several times.'

Because she is the daughter of the chairman, he says he had no choice but to follow her orders, returning the plane and deboarding, taking a separate flight home.

  When he got home however, 'five to six officials from Korean Air came to visit his home every day and asked him to give a false account to authorities of what happened.'

What's more, they 'asked him to tell investigators that Cho did not use abusive language and that he voluntarily got off the plane.'
There was talk about Cho being arrested and the family firm did all it could to paper over the whole incident and contain the damage. The Straits Times was eager to give their side of the story.
While it is easy to write her off as another hoity-toity power-abusing chaebol heiress, the hotel management-trained Ms Cho undertook initiatives to improve Korean Air, which she joined in 1999.

Under her charge, the airline had a major image overhaul, complete with new uniforms, redesigned cabin interiors and improved inflight service and duty-free offerings. In 2005, it achieved US$158 million (S$207 million) in duty-free sales, reportedly the highest-ever by any airline at that time.

This figure is expected to hit US$190 million this year, according to travel retail magazine The Moodie Report, which described Ms Cho as a "highly driven individual by her own admission" in a 2006 interview.

Ms Cho was also credited with revamping the inflight magazine and giving it a much-needed feminine touch. She also spent three years convincing La Mer to join the airline's duty-free offerings-- a first for the luxury skincare brand.

"I try to be an ambassador to introduce new and great brands to Koreans who travel," she told Moodie Report.
Cho hasn't been arrested yet but... that could actually happen. A transport ministry official has been arrested for helping with the family coverup. I'm sure he assumed that was part of his job. He's in jail now. The relationship between government functionaries and the families that run the chaebols is, at best, unhealthy and the Cho incident is an opportunity for reform groups to shed light on the sleaze that permeates the whole system.
A local civic group asked the prosecution Friday to look into suspicions that government officials got free upgrades from the country's top airline, Korean Air Lines Co., which is at the center of controversy over an air-rage incident.

...The civic group's move came after allegations surfaced that several ranking transportation ministry officials were bumped up to business class regularly for free.

"Such allegations could be interpreted as bribery," People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said in a press release, adding that Korean Air executives suspected of giving such privileges to ministry officials could face breach of trust charges.

The ministry said it will launch an internal inspection into the mounting allegations and will take appropriate disciplinary measures against those who received free upgrades.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Heaven And Hell: Hawaii’s Magnificent Volcano Hotspot

- by Sally Fensome

Ah Hawaii… (let’s cue the tranquil wave soundtrack for a moment) a place which has a place in all our hearts, which lives in our dreams and usually sits in the top 10 of places to see bucket list. Hawaii-- that great tropical paradise which seemingly bursts with wildlife from the lush forests that cascade down from rugged cliffs all the way to the turquoise shores, lined charmingly with picturesque huts, cafes, and fishing boats. Yes, Hawaii-- that captivating archipelago that was once under the reign of Kamehameha-- would be the next stunning destination where I’d take my kids and get in some down time as well as revel in cultural delights. But most of all, I would be watching fire meet sky, when the ashes of Hawaii’s luminescent volcanoes unleashed their fury into the night.

The Idyllic Choice

There are a myriad of reasons why I chose Hawaii for my next port of call. One, it’s warm. Two. It’s absolutely, mind-bogglingly beautiful. The other reasons gravitated around my kids. As an adventurer/travel writer/mother, I’ve always believed in getting my kids to see as much of the world as possible, opening up their minds and imaginations to the endless possibilities out there. Hawaii is a great choice because I could show them part of the United States that would be completely different to anything they experienced before, and I could also show them not only the distinct and eclectic cultural scene which makes Hawaii so remarkable, but help them to garner a true appreciation for one of the most fragile and important ecosystems in the world. I’m about fun, yet responsible travel – and we all delighted at the prospect of exploring its dreamlike shores in leisure, not to mention fit in some whale-watching (my youngest is a huge fan of marine life). The remaining reasons are probably most resonant in my mind: My love affair with volcanoes is the thing which brought me closer to this geological hotspot.

Hawaii’s Spectacular Volcanoes

Hawaii’s giants of fire and magma have a lot to reckon for; about 70 million years of tossing and churning from the angry earth have carved out a place in the Pacific like no other, giving life to more than 150 ecosystems and some of the rarest species and land formations on the planet. These breathing monsters, these omnipotent and sometimes unpredictable takers and givers of life, are truly stunning. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was my ultimate stop for witnessing the spectacle of these seemingly impossible structures, responsible for sculpting out Hawaii’s intricate geological shapes; Kīlauea and Mauna Loa continue to carve out the land with their busy activity. As an avid fan of volcanoes (I had watched the National Geographic specials with the beloved Kraffts) I was interested not only in the shape of the land, but the environments given to flourish within them and even pay a visit to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

There is an incredible sense of anticipation in the region. I’ve lived in what I’d call vulnerable environments for a numbers of years-- the tornado-ridden Midwest, the flooding and hurricane-prone southern coasts and the heavy snowfalls of the Rockies which have shut down even the hardiest of places. But to be within the vicinity of such great bastions of power was something else altogether, and I felt myself in a kind of reverence to nature’s fire chambers. I could understand the sentiment behind the cultural followings of these beasts, once worshipped as gods – and I also felt almost a kind of gratitude and true appreciation for the beautiful wildlife which they created, or at least laid down the framework. My kids were particularly interested in the names of the gods like Pele, goddess of volcanic fire, and the festivals and celebrations associated with it (mythology has always been their passion). Like many natural wonders, the stories behind them would tell much more about the respective cultures which followed them, revealing a fascinating aspect of society, just as the incredible species which flourished within these environments have disclosed to us some of the earth’s deepest secrets and surprises.

I only had time for just a day’s worth in the national park, but it was more than fulfilling. It opened up my eyes to something which before only existed in my mind as a dream. But more than ever, my own pilgrimage of sorts to one of the most vital volcanic hotspots in the world has made it to the top of my bucket list-- not check marked, but underlined to do again.