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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sure, you've traveled everywhere worth going, but have you been to -- North Korea?

You haven't been to Mount Myohyang (and its scenic parking lot)?

"A lot of people don't know they can even come here, and then when they get here they say it's not what they were expecting. They think it's going to be all doom and gloom and death and sad faces."
-- 27-year-old Australian Rowan Beard of Young
Pioneers, a pioneering tour operator in North Korea

by Ken

If planning your next destination fills you with dread because you've been to everyplace good, and especially everyplace your friends have been to, take heart and think of these magic words:

North Korea

What? you say. Nobody can go to North Korea, and even if they do, they get arrested and put on trial, don't they?

Apparently that's the old North Korea, except for the part about being put on trial, which is ripped from the headlines. You remember the old North Korea, the surviving Communist outpost that functions as a sort of lockup in the strangling authoritarian grip of a thuggish dynasty of crackpot Kims, a land where the elites live swell and everyone else counts themselves lucky to live, and where, especially, prying eyes are kept out.

No, we're talking about the new North Korea, which is pretty much identical to the old one except that now, Washington Post Tokyo bureau chief Anna Fifield reports from Mount Myohyang ("a beautiful hiking spot about a two-hour drive north of Pyongyang"): "Under a new policy, North Korea has set a goal of luring 1 million tourists, although it has not set a time frame for doing so."
A growing number of Western tourists — called “Europeans” in North Korea, even though they more and more often include Americans — are coming here to see whether this last remnant of the Cold War really is as bad as it’s made out to be.

“I wanted a new experience and wanted to see this place with my own eyes and to form my own views,” said Victor Malychev, a Russian-born telecommunications expert who has lived in Washington for 13 years.

“And I guess I wanted to have a kind of check mark next to it, too,” he conceded while on a tour organized by Young Pioneers, one of the newer travel companies operating in North Korea.
The pioneering tour operators, Fifield reports, "are offering an increasingly diverse array of experiences -- including skiing, cycling and golf." Just think of it, golf thrill-seekers: playing a course that may have been personally enjoyed by the world's least charismatic dictator, Kim Jong-Un.


Mostly, however, it appears that your North Korean funfest will involve a good deal of "traips[ing] around monuments to the Kims and their communist dynasty."
Take Mount Myohyang, a beautiful hiking spot about a two-hour drive north of Pyongyang. The main attraction here, a regular stop on the tourist trail, is the “International Friendship Exhibition” — a six-story marble-floored building constructed to house the 100,000-odd gifts given to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who remains its “eternal president” even two decades after his death.

It’s a real rogue’s gallery: Stalin, Mao, Assad, Gaddafi, Castro and Tito, and the tchotchkes they gave Kim. All of them show how much the world adores Kim and his heirs, or so the official tour guides say.
Plus you'll enjoy the special excitement of having your shoes "encased in special covers so they don’t come into contact with the hallowed floors." I bet you're getting goose bumps already!

The million-tourist mark -- over whatever time frame it's projected -- looks to be something of a stretch.
Even those working with North Korea’s tourist industry say this number is “aspirational,” estimating that the country has 100,000 outside visitors a year. The vast majority of them are from neighboring China, which has the advantage of being not only geographically close but also not far removed from communist ways.

Furthermore, tour operators report that the number of Americans visiting the country has dropped noticeably since two American tourists, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, were detained in April. Both have been charged with “hostile acts” and Miller is set to go to trial Sunday.
And apparently progress is being made:
Official figures are not available, but Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper in Japan, reported that there has been a 20 percent increase in foreign tourism in North Korea in the first half of 2014 compared with the previous year, although it did not give numbers.

Simon Cockerell, the British general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the first Western travel companies to start tours to North Korea, estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 “Europeans” a year are visiting North Korea.
Among those who believe increased Western tourism is good for North Koreans is none other than Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours (who, Fifield notes, "is about to make his 140th trip to North Korea") With reference to the long history of propaganda to which North Koreans have been subjected demonizing foreigners, he says, "The value of exposing as many North Koreans to as many foreigners as possible is inestimable because their image of foreigners is so negative."


Of course it doesn't seem likely that reeducating its citizens is among the motivators for the North Korean regime's sudden new enthusiasm for foreign tourism. What, then, might those motivators be?

How about, say, money? Here's Anna Fifield again:
Tourism is something of a risky proposition for North Korea. The regime has survived for decades by shutting off the country from the outside world, strictly controlling the information its citizens receive so that it could uphold the notion that North Korea was paradise on Earth.

But it also brings in much-needed revenue for the state. Although North Korea is one of the poorest countries, tours here don’t come cheap. An eight-day cycling trip organized by Uri Tours this month costs $2,850.
Andrei Lankov, described by Fifield as "a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul," sees the regime's logic: “For decades, the North Korean leaders have been engaged in a hectic -- and usually unsuccessful —-- search for some ways to get easy money without changing the system and/or creating political risks for themselves." But he doubts that there will be enough demand among foreign tourists to stay in what he describes as an "uncomfortable ghetto" to register a significant payoff for the regime.
“So far, the major attraction of the country for the Westerners is its political weirdness: It is a place to go and then boast to their buddies about this exploit,” Lankov said. “But I do not think 1 million admirers of this extreme tourism can be located every year.”
For the moment, they'll have to be recruited from the ranks of tourists like Young Pioneers tour-taker Victor Malychev, the Russian-born but now Washington-based telecommunications expert we heard from above explaining to Fifield that he wanted "to see this place with my own eyes" -- and maybe "have a kind of check mark next to it, too."

As Fifield points out, on your North Korean jaunt you can expect to be closely minded by official minders, and "tourists are never going to see labor camps where as many as 120,000 political prisoners toil, or the villages where children don’t get enough food because it has been diverted to the military." Still, another taker of that Young Pioneers tour, 26-year-old Felicity Bloom from Madison, Wisconsin, says, "I think I've seen part of North Korea."
I think the idea that we have in the States is that everyone you interact with will be an actor, but it’s not true. We traveled six stops on the metro, and we interacted with school children who were just as curious about us as we were about them.
So what are you waiting for? Get those bags packed, 'cause it's North Korea or bust, right?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Curiosity (Plus news from OHNY, MAS, the NY Transit Museum, and Jack Eichenbaum, including another trek on the No. 7 train)

On Saturday, September 6, Norman Oder leads the MAS walking tour "Long Island City, Queens in Flux: Court Square and Hunters Point." I've done at least six or seven tours with Norman now, and they've all been tremendously rewarding.

by Ken

If you look among the newly announced September, October, and November walking-tour offerings of the Municipal Art Society at the description of Francis's Morrone's September 28 tour, "Then and Now: Jane Jacobs and the West Village," you'll see that it --
looks at the life and work of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities so sharply and logically articulated many people's inchoate misgivings about the city rebuilding of the preceding decade and the orthodox notions of city planners. (The book, not least a literary masterpiece, is highly recommended reading for this tour.)
I think the tour should be pretty much self-recommending. I've already registered. (And contrary to the incessant complaints about certain MAS tours, like Francis's, being impossible to book, the fact is that if you take the trouble to look at the schedule early in the registration period, they're all available.) In addition, since I'm embarrassed to say that I have never in fact read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I've ordered myself a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition.

Which I bring up because of that phrase Francis uses in the description: "highly recommended reading for this tour." This is a stepped-back version of a formulation Francis experimented with awhile back, which again I'm embarrassed to say I flunked on my very first opportunity. It was a tour, naturally down in the Old Seaport region of Lower Manhattan, devoted to Herman Melville's and Joseph Mitchell's New York, and I must have decided to register for the tour without properly reading the description, which contained a notice that two pieces of the legendary New York-centric New Yorker writer, at least the opening section of "Old Mr. Flood" and the story "Up in the Old Hotel," both of which bear directly on what we now think of as the South Street Seaport area.

Francis mentions Joseph Mitchell pieces frequently on his walks, for the obvious reason that Mitchell explored New York City the old-fashioned shoe-leather way, and listened to the people he met -- in places that fancy writers rarely venture to -- for a sense of who they were, who they had been (and where they had come from), and who and what they wanted to be.

Not long afterward, while doing another walk with Francis (Greenpoint and Williamsburg open spaces, as I recall), I confessed my guilt but told him I had been doing my remedial Joseph Mitchell reading and brandished my copy of the lovely immense Mitchell anthology -- four books in one! -- whose name was taken from none other than Up in the Old Hotel. Which prompted a story from Francis. I've never seen anything yet that didn't prompt a story from Francis.

He mentioned that for his upcoming tour of Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, which has seen barely imaginable gentrification since the '70s, he had included more required reading in the description which had simply vanished from the published version. A couple of us who were registered for the Boerum Hill tour asked what that was. It was, he told us, two Joseph Mitchell pieces, "The Mohawks in High Steel" (from 1949, when the neighborhood included a packed enclave of those Native American daredevil ironworkers from upstate New York, whose union had its headquarters on Atlantic Avenue, on the northern edge of the district), and -- are you ready for it? -- "Up in the Old Hotel," plus a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

We'll come back to the Lethem novel in a moment, but having just read "Up in the Old Hotel," which deals primarily with the proprietor of a humble South Street eatery that, much against his will, had come to be called Sloppy Louie's, I puzzled initially at the Brooklyn connection. And then I remembered Louie's story of the restaurant in Brooklyn where he had learned the business as a waiter, and been drawn into the social history of the city.

As to the Lethem novel, I had to trust to memory, despite the enormous risk of trusting to my memory these days, since that day I wasn't carrying anything to write with. So imagine my chagrin when, back at the computer, I discovered that Lethem, whom I'd never read, is a Brooklyn boy, and the novel in question could have been either of his early novels Motherless Brooklyn (1999) or The Fortress of Solitude (2003). I figured it wouldn't kill me to read both, and naturally -- since this is the way my mind works -- I attacked them in chronological order

I loved Motherless Brooklyn, a grisly story told from the perspective of a grunge-level detective who suffers from Torrrete's syndrome, which is built into the fabric of the book and the way the story unfolds. But I had a feeling it wasn't "the" book, since the office out of which the narrator worked was in the sort of no man's land between Boerum Hill and adjoining Cobble Hill. It's a sensational book, though, and I was delighted to have been led to it, however accidentally. The result, though, was that by the time the tour came round, I was only about two-thirds of the way through Fortress of Solitude, which does in fact deal directly with Boerum Hill pre-, mid-, and post-gentrification.

(And the Francis story about Jonathan Lethem? When a German TV company was doing a piece on Brooklyn, they choose as their experts on the subject -- Jonathan Lethem and Francis Morrone! And I gather they've kept in touch.)

Do I have to tell you how much those readings enhanced my sense of what we saw on that Boerum Hill walk? Because the tour description hadn't included the "required reading," Francis took the time, while we were standing opposite the site where the restaurant Louie had worked in once was, to read a passage from "Up in the Old Hotel," which gave a sense of what the location and the people had meant to Louie while he worked there and took his lunch breaks in the area.

Later still, when Francis scheduled his Cobble Hill walking tour, he included as required reading a novel whose name and author I've forgotten, but which I bought and read, even though while I was deciding whether to do that walk again (I had found the Cobble Hill tour one of my most enjoyable with Francis, but as a result I thought maybe I remembered it too well for the time being), it sold out! So I wound up doing the required reading without doing the tour -- but it was a remarkable book, and not just an on-point Brooklyn book, with a chillingly icy slant on our supposedly closest relationships. (I'll think of the name.)

On a tour not long ago, I finally asked Francis what had happened to those reading assignments. The problem, he said, was that nobody was reading them. He reflected a moment, then said he should probably get back to that.

And he should. I've come to understand that it isn't so much the tour leaders' knowledge that I'm looking for on these tours, although the good ones are overflowing with it. It's their curiosity I treasure -- the curiosity that has driven them to acquire the knowledge they've acquired and the ways they've found to satisfy and further stimulate it. They're very different people, people like Francis and Matt Postal and Justin Ferate and Jack Eichenbaum and James Nevius, but in the few years I've been doing this, I've tried to walk in the path of their curiosity -- and learned more than I could have imagined on my own about the world around me.


It's the time of year when everyone is announcing fall plans.

Before we get to actually announced plans, I should mention that the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend is scheduled for October 11-12. "More than 300 sites and tours. 75,000 visitors," the Facebook page says. The website says:
Celebrating the city’s architecture and design, the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend will once again unlock the city, allowing New Yorkers and tourists alike access to hundreds of sites, talks, tours, performances and family activities in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. From private residences and historic landmarks, to hard hat tours and sustainable skyscrapers, OHNY gives you rare access into the extraordinary architecture of New York City, while introducing you to the people who make the city a vibrant and sustainable place to live, work, and play.

Please note: Sites and tours for the 2014 Open House New York Weekend will be announced in early October. Be sure to check back in October for the 2014 list or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.


As I mentioned up top, the September-November MAS schedule is posted now (or you can just go to and click on "Tours"). I have it on the authority of a source whose judgment I respect immoderately that this is the best MAS schedule he's ever seen. That's not quite my response, but then, that's just me. No doubt you'll find an enormous range of offerings covering a large chunk of NYC. And the last time I looked, every one of them was still available for registration.


The fall schedule of programs and off-site tours is here. As always, there's a two-day pre-registration period exclusively for NYTM members, on August 20-21, beginning at 9am, with registration thrown open to all on August 22.

Remember that two popular tours are open only to members:
• The visit to the long-abandoned, ornate old City Hall subway station ("The Jewel in the Crown: Old City Hall Station," offered at 1:30pm and 3:30 pm on Sunday, October 12)

• And a walk through the old subterranean space, now contemplated as a possible underground version of the High Line, that once housed a busy trolley terminal leading out onto the Williamsburg Bridge ("Trolley Ghosts: The Terminal Under Delancey," offered at 6:30pm on two Thursday evenings, October 23 and November 6).
Yes, you can register in time to use the early-registration period. For membership information, check here.

Among the tours open to all are:
An evening fall Nostalgia Ride, for Halloween season, to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx

• A look at the Flushing Meadows site of the 1939 and 1964-65 World's Fairs considered from the standpoint of their transit options, with the always-interesting Andrew Sparberger, whose Transit Museum offerings I try never to miss (Sunday, October 19, 1pm, or Saturday, November 15, 2pm). Note: Andy will also be doing a free program at the museum on Wednesday evening, December 10, 6:30-7:30pm, in connection with the publication of his new book, From a Nickel to a Token ("a microhistory of New York's transit system," which "examines twenty specific events between 1940 and 1968, book-ended by subway unification and the creation of the MTA").

• A "behind the scenes" visit to the Bergen Sign Shop, "New York City Transit's only locale for sign production (Saturday, October 18, or Sunday, December 6, at 10am or 12n either day)

A Staten Island bicycle tour, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to Fort Wadsworth and the anchorage of the bridge, with a stop-off at the Alice Austen House (Saturday, September 13, 11am-3pm)

• "Power Play: Steampunk and the Transit System," an after-hours event at the museum on Thursday, October 2, 7-9pm, held in conjunction with Atlas Obscura, in which "we examine the marvel of engineering that transformed the city from steam to electric at the dawn of the twentieth century"
Among the mostly free (but reservations recommended) programs at the museum are:
• A "Bus Bonanza!" clustered around NYTM's 21st Annual Bus Festival (Sunday, September 28), held in conjunction with the always-lively Atlantic Antic on nearby Atlantic Avenue, 12n-6pm, celebrating its 40th anniversary, and including $1 museum admission

• "The MTA's Next Big Thing: Fulton Center" (Wednesday, October 29, 6:30pm; $10, $5 to NYTM members)

And several conversations with authors of bound-to-be-interesting new books:

• With former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch (Thursday, October 9, 7pm), author of So Much to Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises

• With power super-whiz Joe Cunningham (another longtime NYTM tour favorite, Wednesday, October 15, 6:30pm), author of New York Power

• As mentioned above, with Andy Sparberger (Wednesday, December 10, 6:30pm), author of From a Nickel to a Token
Again, for the full list of events scheduled, check the NYTM "Calendar of Events" page.


I've written about Jack's "World of the #7 Train" a bunch of times, and was signed up to do it again on May 31, when disaster, aka New York City Transit, struck, with a last-minute announcement of the shutdown of the western half of the No. 7 line for that date. Jack was able to reschedule the outing for June, but I wasn't able to do the makeup date. I've already sent in my check for September 20!
Saturday, September 20, 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 with a great variety of Asian restaurants. Tour fee is $40 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.
You can keep up to date on Jack's event plans on his website -- where you can also sign up for e-updates. The tour-info page is here. For his upcoming MAS tours, you'll be directed back to the MAS site for registration information. To bring this full circle, I've mentioned that Jack was the person who turned me on to MAS, when I took his "Three Transit Hubs" for NYTM!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Watch: In the course of a 6000-mile trans-Eurasian horseback journey, a technological time warp changes lives

Central Mongolia is where Tim began his 6000-mile westward horseback journey across the steppe to the Danube. With both Russia to the north and the Chinese "autonomous" province of Xinjiang to the south closed to a foreigner in 2004, he continued into giant Kazakhstan, the second-largest of the former Soviet republics (after Russia). There he met Bakhetbek, a Kazakh born near the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi who had fled back to ancestral Kazakhstan because of anti-Kazakh violence (the murder of his brothers) tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by the Chinese regime. Bakhetbek's wife reveals to Tim that her husband learned only a year before that he still had a niece alive and living in Urumqi.

by Ken

Basically, I was drawn to Tim Cope's On the Trail of Genghis Khan -- the story of his 6000-mile horseback odyssey from Mongolia to the Danube, begun in the fall of 2004 when the Australian adventurer was several months shy of his 26th birthday -- because I thought it might plug a geographical gap in my mental geography, the vast Eurasian steppe sprawling more or less between Siberia to the north and the rest of central and southern Asia to the south.

Oh, I had no expectation of the book making me an expert on the subject, just giving me, well, something to occupy that space a little more specific than sheer blankness. In other words, the sort of thing that Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia for the gaping expanse of taiga (that is taiga, right? of course giving way to tundra farther north -- I have a sort of general notion about the geographical entities steppe, taiga, and tundra, but they're not exactly crystal clear in my head) to the north). It gave me some places and people to fill in what had been not much more than a map blur with a sprinkling of familiar place names.

To be sure, I'm learning (and probably soon forgetting) a lot about the many ethnic groups -- starting with the Mongols to the east -- who over the millennia have practiced the nomadic way of living across the enormous expanse of the once-largely-borderless steppe. Tim himself was fascinated, or more likely obsessed, by the nomadic way of living, built around herding animals over these inhospitable lands, living a pack-up-and-go life based on horse transport. (It was, after all, in what is now northern Kazakhstan that men are thought to have first domesticated horses, somewhere between 3700 and 3100 BC.) But, not surprisingly, the journey -- and therefore the book -- engages Tim on a host of levels.

I came to this anecdote I have to share. It comes in the second leg of Tim's trip, in today's Kazakhstan. In Mongolia Tim had had the company of a girlfriend, Kathrin, but according to plan she then headed back to Germanys to take up a new job, leaving Tim to travel alone -- or, early on, in the company of a guide. At this point, he's traveling with Aset, a Kazakh villager, and a puppy belonging to Aset's young cerebral-palsy-afflicted son which Aset has insisted on bringing along. (When they part, Aset insisst that Tim take Tigon with him for companionship.) In terrible weather they have been given shelter by Bakhetbek, a 50-something Kazakh householder who promptly passes a test of Aset's (p. 129)
Aset pulled me aside. "Trust him and watch carefully -- a sign of a Kazakh host who respects his guests is that he will feed the guest's dog before his own."

True to Aset's words, Bakhetbek fed our ribs-on-legs dog a pot of lamb innards and stale bread, sinking his boots into his own dogs when they tried to join in.
The next day Tim wakes up to find that they're snowbound. "What I had assumed to be bright sunshine through the small window of our window was the glare of a snowdrift creeping up the windows." Which gives him a chance to get to know the family better. From pp. 131-32:
Bakhetbek had been born near Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province, and fled to Kazakhstan after his brothers were murdered in the 1960s. Later, his nephews, who remained behind, were also murdered. At his wife's gentle prod, Bakhetbek began telling his story himself, hesitantly, but was swiftly overcome with emotion.

"They killed us simply because we are Kazkahs," he said. "Back then, and even now, Chinese authorities don't protect Kazakhs. Actually, it was probably the police who did the murdering."

There was a bitter irony in Bakhetbek's return to Kazakhstan that he was well aware of. His own grandparents had originally fled to China among two hundred thousand others when the Russian imperial army violently quashed the 1916 Kazakh uprising. At the same time, though, Bakhetbek acknowledged that the tragedy of his family had been the experience of his ancestors through the ages -- whenever the Kazakhs found themselves under oppression or attack, they would historically flee to Chinese Turkmenistan, Sibera, and other parts of Central Asia, only to find themselves under another oppressive regime.

After telling his story, Bakhetbek looked spent, but there was a sparkle in his wife's eye. "Actually . . ." She looked over at her husband. "We still have one relative alive in China. She is Bakhetbek's niece, and she is studying in Urumqi. She wrote to us one year ago, but we have never met. She gave us a phone number, but we have never been able to call."

It was dark by the time everyone assembled outside in winter coats and fur hats. I pointed the satellite phone aerial to the sky and experimented with a few prefixes until the call went through. A woman answered. After a brief initial silence, all of Bakhetbek's family members took turns talking, struggling to hold back tears but smiling.

The occasion called for a feast, and after the phone calls it was all hands on deck. Bakehtbek's brother, who due to his bald head was nicknamed "the Kazakh Gorbachev," raced to get a sheep. In an outbuilding the men gathered with cupped hands to say a prayer before its throat was cut. Had I been of the Muslim faith, I would have been asked to bless the sheep, since traditionally guests were required to ask permission from the animal's spirit to partake of its flesh.

Late into the night we sat around gorging on meat and being plied with vodka. A dombra, the traditional two-stringed mandolin of the Kazakhs, was passed around. When Bakhetbek played there was a fire in his eyes, and he sat with his back even straighter and prouder than usual. Strong fingers moved instinctively up and down the instrument's neck. In Kazakh they say a good player can make the dombra sing. I was sure I could hear the beating hooves of horses. It was as if a stoic, unfaltering rhythm prevailed through the harsh realities of life and the land. I looked across to Aset, who was welling up with pride. The last beat ended, and Bakhetbek looked at me. His eyes arched into crescents; from the tears spread into the many channels of his weathered face and disappeared.

Kazakhs believe that when a guest walks through the front door, luck flies in through the window. It is a good omen: the sheep will give birth to twin lambs in the spring. Looking back on this occasion, the magic of this belief was embodied by my meeting with Bakhetbek.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Movie/Museum Watch NYC: Coming up at the amazing Museum of the Moving Image -- "2001" in 70mm!

For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick tapped both of the supreme Strausses. For the approach to the space station it's Johann II (the Waltz King) and his Blue Danube; it'll look (and sound) way better in 70mm at MoMI. Below we'll hear (the unrelated) Richard S.

by Ken

For months now I've been meaning to write an update to the piece I wrote last September about the Museum of the Moving Image, to catch up on the large number of terrific experiences I've had in the last half-year. No, the museum isn't convenient for me, since I live in Far Northern Manhattan and work in Far Downtown Manhattan. But I've been to a whole bunch of special-event screenings, including a number of pre-release screenings, often with terrific guests and panels. And they've been so consistently rewarding that I now give Chief Curator David Schwartz close to carte blanche when a new event is announced.

Oh, I couldn't be dragged to the thing about kung-fu films, but I gulped hard and plunked down my modest member's fee for Particle Fever, a riveting documentary directed by physicist-turned-moviemaker Mark Levinson dramatizing the work of some of the physicists connected to the supercollider in Geneva, during the period of the discovery of the Higgs boson, work that wound up overturning physicists' understanding of the universe, to be replaced by they-still-don't-know-what. It was presented in conjunction with the World Science Festival, being held then in NYC, and the panel that followed included some of the physicists we'd seen in the film! I can't claim to have really understood the physics involved, but the basic issues at stake were explained clearly enough that I got a powerful sense of the personal and scientific stakes of all those brilliant physicists.

Among other MoMI screening events I can think of:

• Alan Alda being honored for his work in comedy on TV's M*A*S*H, talking about those years, with appropriately selected episode clips, proving as smart and funny and charming and passionate as you might imagine.

No kidding, I left the MoMI evening with Alan Alda -- in conversation with Jeff Greenfield -- feeling like I was walking on air.

* Jason Bateman speaking with predictably charming incisiveness, candor and (again) passion -- he was, if you can imagine such a thing, even more charming than Alan Alda, which means astoundingly charming -- following a screening of his first film as a director, the wickedly hilarious Bad Words, a sleeper hit at the Toronto Film Festival; he explained, though, that he had been preparing himself this "first" his whole career, having earned his SAG card in his teens while working on the TV series The Hogan Family -- in the audience was Hogan Family cohort Steve Witting, who has remained a lifelong friend and plays a juicy role in Bad Words. (Jason explained that nearly all the adult roles in the film were cast with friends; it's nice to have such friends!)

• Griffin Dunne appearing with writer-director Justin Schwarz after the screening of their new film, The Discoverers, followed by a screening of his most famous starring vehicle, Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours (yes, a double feature!).

• an extraordinary evening, which I wrote about in May, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who had subsequently outed himself as an undocumented alien, presented his powerful film Documented.

• another double feature, of wildly different films directed by Bobcat Goldthwait in his second career, so different from his screaming-comic first career, again a new one, Willow Creek, and an earlier one, World's Greatest Dad (with Robin Williams).

"An Evening with Bobcat Goldthwait" in early June, featuring two of his films and a conversation with Bobcat himself, was just one of the many riveting and delightful evenings I've spent over the last year at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.

• another far-more-absorbing-than-expected documentary, Life Itself, which director Steve James was making in cooperation with Roger Ebert (based on his memoir of that name) and his wife (now widow, of course), Chaz, at the time of Roger's death, followed by another great panel, which naturally included the remarkable Chaz Ebert.

• a pre-release screening -- just a screening, with no added frills, but free for members -- of Darren Aronofsky's highly entertaining and stimulating epic Noah, shown in conjunction with, naturally, regular museum screenings of all of Aronofsky's earlier films!

• and, of course, the memorable evening -- memorable despite torrential rains that didn't dampen audience spirits -- when creator-mastermind David Chase was on hand for screenings of the first and last episodes of The Sopranos.

Jason in Bad Words
(I should note, by the way, that when the discussions are opened to audience questions, MoMI audiences ask the best questions I've ever encountered, questions that are often quite perceptive in their own right but more important trigger all sorts of information and revelations. For example, the night Jason Bateman talked about Bad Words, a questioner asked if he had always planned to play the not terribly sympathetic lead character, and it turned out that he originally assumed he wouldn't, and didn't reconsider until he'd sent the script to three "very well-known actors, all better than me," who told him to go fuck himself. However, once he made the decision to play the role himself, he found it a considerable saving of time from not having to direct his lead actor -- time he desperately needed for all the other things he was dealing with as a first-time director.)

Clearly curator Schwartz has an extraordinary eye for -- and ability to snag -- films that are not only of unusual interest in their own right but lend themselves to "events" those I've mentioned. At the Sopranos event I learned that he had in fact been the curator who arranged MoMI's 2001 screening of the complete first two seasons of The Sopranos, on the big screen, with eight episodes a weekend -- free to members. You better believe I became a member, and had my first exposure to the show (I didn't have HBO then), and therefore knew from the outset how terrific it looked on a big screen.

And I've focused on "events," touching on in the case of the Aronofsky series on the museum's vast series of "regular" screenings (free to members, who can pre-reserve tickets by phone). Or the museum's extensive permanent and rotating collections and exhibitions (which I did touch on in my report last September).

Since I've been mostly attending those "event" screenings, which I have to get to straight from work, I haven't had much recent opportunity to explore the museum's current offerings, so I'm hoping to arrive early enough tomorrow to do so before I settle in for the first of a series of six screenings this weekend and next of a 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey.


"Sunrise" from Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA, recorded Mar. 8, 1954

Which is, er, that this weekend and next MoMI is offering six screenings of 2001 in 70mm. You'll note below that regular members can get one ticket free. Since I booked mine as soon as I received the e-announcement, as I've come to do with most MoMI events (I still kick myself for missing out on the December screening of American Hustle at which director David O. Russell appeared for a discussion), I have no idea what the ticket situation is like. But I don't want anyone to say I didn't tell you about it.
2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 5, 3:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 5, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 3:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 12, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Don't miss your chance to see this classic in glorious 70mm! As brilliantly engineered as the space program itself, Kubrick’s mysterious and profound epic—“the ultimate trip”—is about nothing less than the beauty and banality of civilization, blending cool satire, an elaborate vision of the future, and passages of avant-garde cinematic inventiveness.

Tickets: $12 ($9 seniors/students, free for Museum members). Ticket includes access to the Museum's galleries and other screenings on the same day. Order online or call 718 777 6800 to reserve tickets. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.

Brainstorm in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 thriller about a device that can record thoughts and dreams features stunning visual effects to portray telepathic experiences, cutting between widescreen and standard size. It also features the last performance by Natalie Wood, who died during the making of the film. Brainstorm has not been shown in 70mm in New York for more than 20 years.

Free with Museum admission on a first-come, first-served basis. Museum members may reserve tickets in advance by calling 718 777 6800. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Is this or is this not a gorgeous photo? Take a gander at Mitch Waxman's beloved Astoria at twilight

You can click on the photo to enlarge it, but better still is to look at it a photographer Mitch Waxman's intended size and resolution on his Newtown Pentacle blog.

by Ken

I've written before about my happy tramping around NYC with Mitch Waxman (like this June 2012 piece about a visit to the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek, at just the time when Mitch was the subject of a big feature piece in the New York Times, "Your Guide to a Tour of Decay," including video). I've done walks with Mitch from Staten Island to the urban wilds of the basic surrounding Newtown Creek (Mitch is the official historian for the Newtown Creek Alliance), and just recently had the pleasure of rejoining Mitch and his frequent tour colleague Mai Whitman (whose tireless blogs for the Working Harbor Committee blog we frequently eavesdrop on here) for another walk to what is now known as the Plank Road clean-up site on Newtown Creek's eastern reaches, in Maspeth, Queen. (When we got to the site, I realized I'd already been there, on an earlier, more extensive walk with Mitch -- and Mai.)

One thing you learn quickly when you walk with Mitch is that he's never without his trusty camera. In a former life he was, as he describes it, "a comic-book guy," and that visual sense seems to have heightened as he's taken to walking the city -- especially parts of it that not a lot of photographers frequent. The result is an amazing quantity of amazing pictures, like the, well, amazing Astoria-at-twilight photo I've poached above. (Again, do check it out in Mitch's own posting.) I should note that this gorgeous photo accompanies a blogpost in which Mitch laments the fatiguingly high background-noise level in "my beloved Astoria.")

One happy result of reconnecting with Mitch (for ages now when I've known about an upcoming walk he was doing, I always had schedule conflicts) was a reminder about The Newtown Pentacle, which among other things is a great place to start to see some of Mitch's pictures. (It's also the best place to get current information about his tour plans with the various organizations he works with.) One photo that really caught my eye, even before I had any idea what indeed makes it so unusual among Mitch's pictures, was this one (click to enlarge):

It turns out that this was indeed a rare vantage point for Mitch -- it was taken while riding in a car over "the high flying Kosciuszko Bridge" over Newtown Creek. As he explains in this post (and again, you should really look at the version of the photo there):
Not once, but twice, have I been invited to ride along with people in their automobiles in the last week. Motor coaches were once a significant part of a humble narrators life, when jaunts and journeys would carry one across the megalopolis, but my current incarnation is that of the pedestrian so when an opportunity to hurtle along in a steel motor box comes along – I take it. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from waving the camera around. Pictured above, the Penny Bridge section of my beloved Newtown Creek as witnessed from the high flying Kosciuszko Bridge captured while traveling at about 30 mph.
For reference, here's a pair of shots of Mitch's of the Kosciuszko Bridge itself, taken from opposite directions (again, click to enlarge):

These photos were included in a Newtown Pentacle post from April 11, 2011, "Happy Birthday, Kosciuszko Bridge," in which Mitch offered "a virtual guarantee" --
that this is the only posting you will see today commemorating and wishing the Kosciuszko Bridge a happy 72nd birthday. Some 26,298 days ago, Robert Moses saw the first link in a crazy idea of his which would one day be called the “Brooklyn Queens Connecting Highway” open for business.

The Meeker Avenue Bridge opened on August 23rd, 1939 (renamed in 1940 as the Kosciuszko Bridge) –- some 631, 152 hours ago. It was promised to allow easy egress to the World’s Fair, and was a showpiece project for the Great Builder.
This poor bridge has taken varous sorts of poundings, not least from its heavy daily traffic volume, and is now scheduled for replacement, known the the NYS Dept. of Transportation as the Kosciuszko Bridge Project, which at $550 is described by the NYSDOT as "the largest single contract NYSDOT has ever undertaken."

Friday, June 06, 2014

Here's your chance to name the Governors Island composting goats -- plus notes on the 2014 Governors Island season

You have till June 11 to tweet your suggestions for names for the four-week-old female goats who will be in residence this summer on Governors Island.

"The goats are a great way to bring attention to the importance of composting. Food scraps are a resource, not garbage."
-- Marisa DeDominicis, director of Governors Island's
Earth Matter Composting Learning Center

by Ken

"A pair of cute kids living on Governors Island this summer need some help — with their names," declares DNAinfo New York's Irene Plagianos in the lead of her report today, "Help Name Governors Island's Composting Baby Goats"

We'll get back to the baby goats, but let's take a moment to note the progress of Governors Island, the small (but much less small thanks to lots of landfill) island off the southern tip of Manhattan Island, across Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn. Since the island -- once home to various government entities, including most recently the U.S. Coast Guard -- was opened to the public for summer weekends, each summer has brought a major increase over the previous one in facilities and activities.

Decisions remain to be made about actual development in the northern half of the island, the part that has traditionally hosted the headquarters of whoever was using the island, which includes a large number of buildings that are already landmarked or otherwise targeted for retention and repurposing. But the range and quantity of exhibitions and activities, which has been increasing significantly each year, has seen one of its largest-ever increases. And this year marks the opening of a good deal more of the park -- some 30 new acres -- that's being constructed in the southern (i.e, landfill) half of the island. The park's rolling hills have started to take shape, with some serious elevations, in recognition of the island's flood-prone position, sitting barely above sea level in the heart of New York Harbor.
The new 30 acres of park include Liggett Terrace, a sunny, six-acre plaza with seasonal plantings, seating, water features and public art; Hammock Grove, a sunny ten-acre space that is home to 1,500 new trees, play areas and 50 hammocks; and the Play Lawn, 14 acres for play and relaxation that includes two natural turf ball fields sized for adult softball and Little League baseball. In addition, new welcome areas have been added at the Island’s ferry landings, as have key visitor amenities, including lighting, seating and signage throughout the Historic District.

Trust for Governors Island caption for this construction photo: "Detail of Hammock Grove, with The Hills rising in the distance. Over 1,500 trees have been planted in the first 30 acres of new park." (Yes, there are actual hammocks for visitors to use.)


Probably the biggest development this year is that for the first time Governors Island is open to visitors seven days a week, with additional ferry service in place. In addition to the ferries that have been running for years on weekends from both Manhattan's Battery Maritime Building (a bit to the east of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal) and the Brooklyn ferry slip at the Atlantic Avenue end of Brooklyn Bridge Park, regular Monday-Friday ferry service will be available from Manhattan. For the first time there will be a charge for the ferries -- a whopping $2 round trip (no extra charge for bikes), with kids under 12 riding free (and everybody riding free in the morning) and seniors riding half-price. There's also a new program in place for making free bicycles available to visitors on a limited basis. (Bikes have long been available for rental, and many visitors bring their own.) Given the spectacular views of the harbor, it's a great place to bicycle.


They're a pair of four-week-old female goats, a dark brown Nubian and a white Alpine-Saanen mix, on loan from Long Island's Goodale Farms, which last year supplied two goats who were named Patches and Cream. The Trust for Governors Island is inviting tweeters to suggest names for the new goats, who will be in residence at the island's Earth Matter Composting Learning Center this season, where they will be dining on visitors' food leavings.

"Tweet name ideas to @Gov_Island by June 11," Irene Plagiano writes in her DNAinfo New York report, "and a winner will be chosen by the end of that day, the Trust said."
So far, suggestions for the 4-week-old goats — a dark brown Nubian and a white Alpine-Saanen mix — include Ebony and Ivory, from @TheGitch, as well as Sansa and Arya, a pair of sisters from the show “Game of Thrones,” and Hop and Scotch. . . .

The goats will join two bunnies, 15 chicks, 40 chickens, worms and bees at the Earth Matter Composting Learning Center, said Marisa DeDominicis, the center’s director.

This is the third year the center is housing goats, which like to chow down stray branches, leaves and weeds — which helps the Trust maintain the grounds — along with leftover food.

The young goats are still being fed with milk bottles, but they have already starting chomping on food scraps and greenery as well, DeDominicis said.

Visitors to the center, which is located just off the newly opened Play Lawn, can pet and help feed the goats every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

“The goats are a great way to bring attention to the importance of composting,” said DeDominicis. “Food scraps are a resource, not garbage.”

DeDominicis said there are 15 brown cans throughout the island labeled for composting, which are collected for the goats.

After the season, the yet-unnamed goats will head back to the farm, where they’ll be used as dairy goats, for education about farming — and for visitors to pet.



Sunday, May 25, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Jack Eichenbaum's "World of the #7 Train" is rescheduled for June 14 -- plus Jack has interesting evening tours in June

Flushing's big New World Mall is the meeting place for Jack Eichenbaum's June 25 walking tour of "Flushing's Chinatown" (see below).

by Ken

I guess I can say that I don't do well when it comes to event reschedulings. On the plus side, my bad luck (or whatever it is) could be an opportunity for you if you thought you were closed out of this year's edition of Jack Eichenbaum's "signature tour," "The World of the #7 Train."

We'll come back to that in a moment, or you can just skip down to it while I tell the sad tale of my last mandatory rescheduling. It was for what sounded like a really interesting coffee tasting offered by a

I bet I was the first person to register, and also the most eager person to register. Three dates were offered, and I could only do one of them, the last, so naturally that was the date I registered for. Then came the news that there hadn't been enough demand for the event (what's wrong with people? they'll sign up for all kinds of godforsaken crap, and then something really interesting comes along . .  .), so it was going to be offered on only one of the three originally announced dates. Which of the dates, we were asked, could we not do? Naturally I answered promptly, saying that I couldn't do either of the other dates. I don't know whether the Vegas odds-makers heard about this, so I don't know how much you would have won if you had put money on the thing being rescheduled for one of the other dates, but of course you would have won.

Oh, I was sorely disappointed. If you don't count all the crying and whining I did over the next several days, I took it pretty well. After all, what're ya gonna do? And even here I managed to find a bright side of sorts: Do I really need to be looking for ways to up my coffee consumption? In any event, I could still have gone to the place to check out what they offer. I never did, though.

Anyway, back to "The World of the #7 Train. It was scheduled for this coming Saturday, May 31, and it was sold out. I first did it a bunch of years ago, and since then I've done Jack's J train and Q train tours, and this year I decided I was ready to do the #7 tour again.

Jack was keeping close watch on developments coming out of New York City Transit. For a while they weren't going to run the #7 train into Manhattan that weekend, which would have been an inconvenience but really wouldn't have affected the tour itself, but in any case that service advisory was subsequently dropped. This close to the event, Jack thought we were home free.

And then NYCT struck, in the form of a casual announcement that on "our" weekend the #7 would be shut down west of Jackson Heights. That would have knocked out half of the scheduled mini-walking tours along the route. No way we could proceed on the 31st.

Jack sprang into action, sounding out us tour registrants with a list of possible rescheduling dates, asking us to let him know which each of us couldn't do. To my surprise, there were a bunch of dates I actually could have done. Maybe my luck was turning?


Okay, this is where you come in. Apparently there were a fair number of other people who couldn't do the newly decided rescheduled date, Saturday, June 14, and our misfortune creates openings for others. if you want to do the tour and can do it on June 14, I suggest you e-mail Jack (at and make your interest known and see what's what, and be ready to shoot him a check for the paltry $40 cost. (You can tell him I sent you, which is true after a fashion.). If you can snag one of those newly opened spots, you won't be sorry. It's a great tour.

(For me, it looks like "maybe next year.")


You can always check out Jack's upcoming events on his website, where you can also sign up for his mailing list.

In the summer Jack usually schedules a number of evening walks of his own, and the June schedule he has announced looks really interesting.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 6-8pm

In what is a most remarkable transition from wealth to poverty, the grand apartments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan yield to the tenements and projects of East Harlem in just a few city blocks. The slope where this transition occurs actually stretches from the Hudson River to the East River and historically, has always marked a change in land use. The Dutch colonists in Nieuw Nederland began this process when they established the agricultural community of Nieuw Haarlem in the Harlem Valley in 1658.

Tour meets NE corner 86 St/Lexington Ave (4,5,6)  Fee $15

Wednesday, June 11, 6-8pm

The core of the ethnic diversity under the “The International Express” has visible commercial concentrations of Irish, Mexican, South American, South Asian, Filipino, and Thai cultures. Some domestic gentrification has occurred at both termini. The train and the constantly evolving eats are always in focus.

Meets at Manuel de Dios Unanue Triangle 83 St/Roosevelt Ave (#7 local to 82 St.) Fee $15

Wednesday, June 18, 6-8pm

We’ll walk from Queens Plaza to the East River waterfront.  Rezoning and demographic change stemming from Manhattan spillover spark revitalization in this once stagnant industrial neighborhood. A lively arts community and restaurant scene has developed. The Plaza, where transit lines intersect, has been rezoned for hotels, condos and offices. Gantry Park, on the East River, is the perfect place to view the midtown Manhattan skyline at sunset. Restaurants abound on nearby Vernon Blvd.

Meet at the fare booth on the lowest level of the Queensboro Plaza station (N,Q,7) Fee $15

Wednesday, June 25, 6-8pm

This immigrant destination and commercial center has come to rival its Manhattan antecedent. Taiwanese rather than Cantonese at its core, Flushing’s Chinatown plays host to a variety of overseas Chinese groups. Rezoning and greater land availability support unusual real estate developments including office buildings, hotels, residential condos, specialty shops, cultural institutions, and malls. Dine in more than 100 Asian restaurants.

Meet near restrooms on second floor of New World  Mall. (Enter on Roosevelt Ave between Duane Reade and Macy’s; uphill from Main St. (#7.) Fee $15

Friday, April 18, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Coming up -- Wolfe Walkers spring walks, World of the #7 Train, Jane's Walk Weekend

The No. 7 train to Flushing here has its most dramatic head-on view of the Manhattan skyline. Jack Eichenbaum is doing this year's version of his "signature tour," the all-day "World of the #7 Train," on May 31 (see below).

by Ken

I mentioned recently that I did a pre-Passover tour with Justin Ferate to the heart of Chassidic Brooklyn -- to the worldwide nerve center of Chabad Lubavitch, on and around Kingston Avenue below Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights South. It was the first tour on Justin's Wolfe Walkers Spring 2014 Calendar. (You can download the Spring 2014 brochure here.) When our utterly engaging tour guide from the Chassidic Discovery Center, Rabbi Beryl Epstein, asked us all to introduce ourselves and explain briefly how we had come to take that day's tour, I was tempted to offer as my reason that Justin had scheduled a tour there, and if Justin thinks it's worth visiting, the odds are awfully good that it is.

Which is pretty much my governing principle in attacking each Wolfe Walkers brochure when it becomes available. Next up on the schedule (and I don't know if there's even still space) is:
Walking Tour with Queens Food Specialist Jeff Orlick
Saturday, April 26, 2014, 1:30pm-approx. 5pm
(Note: The start time is a half-hour earlier than is indicated in the brochure. Justin just sent out this change of time late tonight, as requested by Jeff, "to ensure that we are given ample time to savor the experience.")

Here’s the tour you’ve been asking for! Join the noted Queens food specialist Jeff Orlick on this very special food discovery tour of perhaps the most diverse area in the world: Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. Experience the cultural enclaves of Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Elmhurst in one afternoon. Get an insider’s view to as many as nine cultures such as Tibetan, Nepalese, Filipino, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Colombian, Thai and more in one afternoon. In neighborhoods noted for their complex array of cultures and ethnicities, we’ll taste our way across the globe to demonstrate Jeff’s ultimate premise: Food is the greatest medium for communication and connection.

On this special 3-hour tour, created just for the Wolfe Walkers, we'll travel from Little Manila to Little India, then the Himalayan Heights to Bogotá through Bangkok, exploring only the most authentic foods not made for tourists. In between bites, we'll stop at some of Jeff’s best-kept secret shops for clothing, jewelry, and other authentic ethnic wares while we work up our appetites. The tour will be tailored to our needs and interests, so we’ll share our interests with Jeff and be ready for an amazing afternoon. This promises to be a one-of-a-kind experience – unlike anywhere else in the world. This isn't a lecture; it’s an insider’s experience to the most culturally rich and diverse place in the world.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages are included. The world is ours!

Limited to 15 participants. Fee: $75, advance registration only (includes tour guide, food, and non-alcoholic beverages)
There's usually an all-day bus extravaganza on the Wolfe Walkers schedule, with lunch included. For Spring 2014 it's a trip up the Hudson River to the Gomez Mill House Museum (the house, built in 1714, is the oldest Jewish dwelling in North America and the oldest home in Orange County), then back for lunch at the Buttermilk Falls Inn ("a delightful country hideaway that includes a renovated 1680 home on a 70-acre estate on the banks of the Hudson River"), stopping next at Wilderstein ("a remarkable 1852 house and estate that was owned by three generations of the Suckley family"), with a final stop at the bridge across the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie, the old Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, whose 1.3-mile span was reopened a couple of years ago as a recreation area, the Walkway Over the Hudson, now "the world's longest (and tallest) elevated footbridge," with "expansive vistas" over the river.
Bus and Walking Tour with Justin Ferate

Saturday, May 10, 2014, bus leaves promptly at 8:15am, returns approx. 7pm

There's a much more detailed tour description in the brochure.

Limited to 40 people. Fee: $115, advance registration only (includes bus, admissions, guided tours, luncheon, and gratuities)
Farther along the schedule are:
Saturday, May 24, 10am-1pm,
$25 in advance, $28 on-site

Sunday, June 1, 10am-3:30pm (from and to Manhattan),
$25 in advance, $28 on-site, plus bus fare
Tour led by John Simko, director of the Nutley Historical Society Museum (a splendid tour guide who led us through the museum on our Wolfe Walkers visit to Nutley last year)

Saturday, June 15, 10am-1pm,
$25 in advance, $28 on-site
Wolfe Walkers advance registration (which you'll note is required for some tours) is by mail only, by check only -- you can download just the registration form here; of course it's also included in the PDF of the complete spring brochure.

I have no idea whether there's still space (it's limited to eight people), but there's also a (free) bicycle tour with the Belgian journalist Jacqueline Goossens, who has lived in New York for a couple of decades now and is one of the smartest and most charming and funniest people you'll meet. The spring ride is CENTRAL PARK, HARLEM, AND A BIT OF THE BRONX, and it's Saturday, June 21, from 10am to about 3:30pm.


I've mentioned this famous tour a lot, but it's been a few years since I actually did it, but I'm doing it again this year. Jack, an urban geographer who for some years now has been the Queens Borough Historian, has been talking about updating some of the mini-walking tours that make up the whole adventure to take note of changes that have been taking place in those areas, so it should be even more interesting.
Saturday, May 31, 2014, 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 $40 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.
Jack's public tour schedule is here, and there's also a link to sign up for Jack's e-mail list. One walk I'm especially looking forward to is a Municipal Art Society tour that has been rescheduled from last summer, when Jack wasn't able to do it. It's of WILLET'S POINT, the patch of terrain in northern Queens between Citi Field (home of the New York Mets) and Flushing, a sort of Land That Time Forgot. Jack describes it as "a sewerless, hardscrabble area of auto junkyards and related businesses that has twice beaten back attempts at redevelopment." Now, with developers lurking again, Jack aims to help us "understand the area’s important setting, confront ecological issues and learn why “Willets Point” is a misnomer." It's Sunday, May 25, 4pm-6pm, $15 for MAS members, $20 for nonmembers; for more information or to register, use the MAS link above.


The birthday of that late great urbanist Jane Jacobs provides a good clue to the timing of each year's celebraton of her visions of cities that work for their inhabitants, now celebrated widely around the world -- you can check online to see what festivities (free!) may be offered in your area.

In New York, since the Municipal Art Society took over the planning and operation of Jane's Walk NYC, it has become one of the great urban gadding weekends of the year. This year it's May 3-4, and I'm itching for the schedule of events myself. You can keep track at MAS's Jane's Walk page, where you can also sign up for updates.


There are still a fair number of tours that have space in the remainder of the March-May schedule (or just remember and click on "Tours"). The new schedule should be posted sometime around May 15, and while it's true that some tours will fill up well before they take place, if you start doing your registering when the schedule comes out, you'll be able to register for any tour you want.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Food Watch (national): Don't forget to celebrate National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (April 12)

For National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, all post offices and banks operate on normal Saturday schedules. Check your municipal authority for information about trash collections. In NYC, alternate side of the street parking is suspended. (Note: That last part is a joke. Our lawyers say you can get into big trouble misrepresenting regulations on alternate side of the street parking.)

by Ken

Who can keep track of all these holidays? Apparently not only is tomorrow, April 12, National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, but the whole danged month is National Grilled Cheese Month. I haven't read the legal paperwork, but this could mean that we're supposed to be eating a grilled cheese sandwich every damned day of the month.


The Zillion Dollar Grilled Cheese, available only this month at Chicago's Deca Restaurant + Bar, is served with lobster mac 'n' cheese -- "because of course."

From HuffPost's Joseph Erbentraut ("This $100 Gilded Grilled Cheese Might Actually Be Worth It"):
Meet the "zillion dollar grilled cheese" available only this month at Deca Restaurant and Bar at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Chicago. Its price tag? $100.

The sandwich features thin slices of black Iberico ham sourced from acorn-fed free-range pigs living primary in southern Spain, Ellis Family Farms heirloom tomatoes, 100-year-old aged balsamic vinaigrette and Oregon Perigord white truffle aioli, according to a press release. Even the bread -- artisan country sourdough cooked in Laudemio Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi extra virgin olive oil -- is fancier than most.

And the kicker, of course, is the cheese: 40-year aged Wisconsin cheddar infused with 24k gold flakes. Yes, 24k gold flakes.

Finally, this grilled cheese is topped with Hudson Valley foie gras and a sunny-side-up duck egg, plus lobster macaroni and cheese on the side. Because of course.


Unfortunately we can't identify the family on account of they're currently in witness protection. (Oops, we probably weren't supposed to reveal that.)

The Hearty Mariner

Sardines, guacamole, piquillo peppers, tapioca, and port wine cheese, on 17-grain bread

Lox 'n' Stuff

Smoked salmon, peanut butter and mint jelly, eggplant medalions, roasted garlic, and Velveeta, on a bialy

The Italian

Genoa salami, pickled pork snout, Nutella, hot peppers, and lemon-flavored mascarpone, on foccaccia

Baa-baa Black Sheep

Lamb shanks, stewed rhubarb, dandelion honey, and roquefort or gruyere cheese, on either brioche or croissant
(Note: we have substituted the dandelion honey for the original recipe's Vicks VapoRub, which is not recommended for internal consumption. Sometimes candlewax was used, but that's probably not recommended either.)

And try this vegan treat:

Cauliflower ribbons, sprouts, flax seeds, hay, and pumpkin-seed fake-cheese, on crusty gluten-free alfalfa bread


However you like it -- licorice and eggs, licorice-and-chive mashed potatoes, sea bass poached with licorice, licorice crumb coffee cake, etc. -- enjoy! (Yes, the picture is in color. Can't you tell?)

Monday, April 07, 2014

Urban Gadabout: New from the people who brought us "Inside the Apple" -- "Footprints in New York"

An 1847 view up Wall Streeet to the third (and currrent) Trinity Church, completed just the year before, distributed as last week's "Postcard Thursday" offering from the Inside the Apple blog. [Click to enlarge.]

by Ken

Last week's "Postcard Thursday" e-mail from the Inside the Apple team of Michelle and James Nevius (viewable as a blogpost here) had special significance for me, even though we were told that it's "not, technically, a postcard." The view at right gives some feeling of what it looks like today. It's a streetscape I haunt virtually every day, and two of the 1847 view's most conspicuous features still stand in forms not wildly different from what's depicted here. The view enlarges surprisingly well; I've tacked it up, with the relevant text, on the outside of my cubicle at work.

Looking west up Wall Street we see the then-new third Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn, the one that still stands today -- and as you begin to investigate the history of New York City, you quickly discover that it's woven around Trinity Church, the breathing heart of Episcopal New York, which is to say the spiritual home of NYC money.

(The first Trinity, built in 1698, was destroyed in the great fire of 1776, which destroyed so much of the New York City of that time, still huddled at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The second Trinity, built in 1788-90, "was torn down after being weakened by severe snows during the winter of 1838–39," per Wikipedia.)

The building with the flag on top is what we know as Federal Hall National Memorial, the successor to the building, the actual Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated. Since I work half a block away, and my gym in fact is right next door to FHNM, I can vouch for the fact that FHNM is a site beloved of tourists, in even the raunchiest weather, partly because diagonally opposite it is the site of the New York Stock Exchange.

Behind FHNM (as we're viewing it), Nassau Street runs to the right (north) and Broad Street runs to the left (south). The area has been associated with stock trading at least since May 17, 1792, when 24 stockbrokerrs gathered outside 68 Wall Street, farther east, under a buttonwood tree, and signed the Buttonwood Agreement, which laid the groundwork for the New York Stock and Exchange Board, later shortened to just the New York Stock Exchange. The site at the southwest corner of Wall and Broad Streets now houses a cluster of NYSE buildings, including the landmark 1903 headquarters at 18 Broad Street.

Since I work in the adjoining building, 20 Broad, and in fact my gym is in the building directly to the east of FHNM, this 1847 view has had me mesmerized it since the Inside the Apple team of Michelle and James Nevius circulated it last week. Their "Postcard Thursday" offerings are one of the highlights of my week, and you never know what may turn up on the Inside the Apple blog.

Michelle and James's Inside the Apple is one of the great books about New York City, breaking down many of the city's historic areas geographically but telling their story historically, since the history of any site is the story of the people who lived, worked, and/or played there over time -- in most cases many layers of time, since nearly every part of the city has been undergoing change almost from the very beginning. (There are splendid links to tie people and places together.)

I wrote about Inside the Apple on July 3, 2011, after I had the considerable pleasure of doing one of the Neviuses' occasional public walking tours (most of their tours are arranged directly with clients) -- this one with James, of "Revolutionary New York." As I wrote at the time: "In an introductory note, Michelle and James explain":
The goal of Inside the Apple is to give you a different pathway into the city's long and rich history. While there are many books that focus on New York's notable events and famous people, ours is instead organized around the places where those events took place. By grounding the narrative in sites that you can see and visit, we provide concrete, tangible, connections between the city of today and its intriguing past.

People have long tried to answer the question: What makes New York unique? We feel the answer is deceptively simple: more than any other American city, it is primarily experienced on foot. . . .


. . . because today I got my pre-ordered copy of Michelle and James's new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, which they've been previewing on the Inside the Apple blog for months. The new book is a further step in connecting the geography of the city with the stories of the people who have been connected to places.

James and Michelle "en route to Paris"

As Michelle and James explain in the preface:
The concept of this book is simple: We wanted to build a time machine.

Since our grasp of particle physics is weak, we decided on the next best thing, to tell the story of New York City by having each chapter transport the reader to a distinct historical era, from the Dutch village of New Amsterdam to the modern city of skyscrapers that's been built along the very streets the city's Dutch founders once walked.

As our goal is to, literally, walk in the footsteps of the New Yorkers who've come before us, each chapter is linked to a person (or, sometimes, a group of people) whose story is emblematic of that era. Some people -- like Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln -- are universally famous. Others, such as Gertrude Tredwell or Stephen DeLancey, will only be famliar to a few. But all of them played an important role in the story of the city.

New York is so chock-full of intriguing sites that it's a historian's dream. We've been leading walking tours of the city for nearly fifteen years, and in that time we've searched out forgotten byways and journeyed to unexpected corners of the city. It's those places -- from the city's oldest house to a small synagogue on a stretch of Broadway that most people don't even know exists -- that paint a vivid portrait of New York. We talk about famous sites in these pages too, but we hope when you're reading about some of the more off-the-beaten-path sites, you may want to seek them out yourself.

The greatest joy of leading tours is the moment when a client -- often someone for whom history has always been dry recitations of names, dates, and battles -- makes that real, personal connection with the city of the past. It can happen in unexpected places -- a walk down the streets of Little Italy can evoke childhood memories. Examining gun placements in the old fort in Battery Park can suddenly illuminate the importance of the War of 1812 to someone who'd never before been able to get a handle on it. Simply walking from Battery Park to Soho -- the same path that Alexander Hamilton walked during the Revolution with his artillery company -- can do more to reveal the contours of the war for American independence than any textbook. It's our hope that the New York stories in these pages will uncover some of those hidden histories, too.

You can buy the book from your regular bookseller or via this link on the Inside the Apple website. For information about receiving Inside the Apple updates, or to contact Michelle and James, go to this webpage. Or subscribe to the e-mail list by simply sending an e-mail to with the word "SUBSCRIBE" in the subject line.