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Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Have airlines cut service to the point that no one wants to fly anymore? Some travelers say yes" (Christopher Elliott, WaPo)

by Ken

The Q-and-A in the post title above, which comes from a recent piece in the Washington Post by Christopher Elliott ("consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United"), probably won't be of interest to readers unless: (a) they have flown before, or (b) they may ever be forced to fly again. In the piece, "Gripes about air travel have some people swearing off certain carriers," Christopher asks: "What’s your breaking point? When do you say 'That's it — I'm never flying again!'?"

This is, he adds, "no academic question for America’s airlines." The airlines, he says, "continue to provoke passengers with new fees, surcharges and rules. They want to know when passengers would rather stay home."
As another summer winds down, maybe they’re a little closer to finding an answer. Airline consumer complaints rose more than 20 percent for the first six months of the year, the Department of Transportation reported last week. From January to June 2015, the government received 9,542 consumer complaints, up from 7,935 received during the first six months of last year. DOT complaints typically represent a small fraction of total complaints.

At the same time, amid a government investigation into collusion, fare-watchers predict that air ticket prices will drop to record lows this fall because of lower fuel prices and, most important, decreased seasonal demand.
To put the question another way: "Have airlines gone too far? Have they cut service to the point that no one wants to fly anymore?"


"Some travelers say yes" -- the airlines have gone too far.
Crystal Stranger, an accountant from Honolulu, reached her breaking point when United Airlines — which she describes as “the worst airline ever for traveling with small children” — first charged for her checked stroller and then dinged her for overweight baggage as well.

“We had to take all our bags apart and re-pack” for being a couple of pounds beyond the limit, she remembers. “We were still charged an overweight baggage fee.”
"Airlines are fixated on collecting more money for your luggage," Christopher says. "Last year, they pocketed more than $3.5 billion in fees, and this number is on the rise." But it turns out that United was only No. 2 in the baggage gouging derby, at a mere $652 million. The champion? Would anyone be surprised to learn that it's . . . Delta? Delta's haul: $863 million.


And "the undisputed industry leader" at hiding the fees, says Christopher, is Spirit.
Taylor Murray recently booked a flight from Las Vegas to Denver on the discount carrier and was surprised at the airline’s fees, which seemed even more extreme than the ones you’d find on one of the major carriers.

For example, Spirit charges for carry-on bags, and if you want a reserved seat, you have to pay extra for it. For Murray, a sales manager for a Las Vegas call center software company, it felt like a bait-and-switch. He says Spirit offered a low fare but then added hidden fees.

“At the end of the day the price came out to be the same as a known-name airline,” he says.
"A recent survey," Christopher reports, "estimated that about 40 cents out of every dollar you spend on [Spirit] will be a surcharge." And just to prove that up is really down and left is really right, "In a recent ad campaign, Spirit claimed airlines that include items like checked bags or seat reservations in ticket prices are dishonest about their pricing."

This "dishonesty" apparently extends to airlines that, nefariously, will actually give you a cup of coffee, just like that -- the fiends. For some reason a fellow named Matt Foley was surprised when he asked for a cup of coffee on a Frontier flight from Washington to Denver and was asked for a credit card.
“A buck-ninety-nine for coffee?” he says. “Really? To charge for nonalcoholic drinks almost made me scream.”


Take this whiny Foley fellow, who --
says he’s baffled by the way airlines gradually removed legroom and then tried to charge extra for it in an effort to profit. At some point, he figures, either the airlines will run out of things to charge for, or passengers will run out of things they’re willing to pay for. But for him, that time has already come. He refuses to fly Frontier no matter how low the fare.
Asking "Have we reached the limit?" Christopher notes that Frontier has "caved in to customers such as Foley" -- that is, assuming you would call this solution Frontier recently came up with a cave-in. "In August, [Frontier] began bundling several extras, including one checked bag, one carry-on, the 'best available' seat and no fee for changing the ticket later, into a package it calls 'the Works.' " Why, this is practically philanthropy! (Matt Foley has probably noticed that "the Works" doesn't include the cup of coffee. Maybe Frontier will add a "Works Plus" package that includes the coffee -- but probably no more legroom.)

One reason the game continues, it seems, is that "passengers keep buying low fares." Says Spencer Carlson ("who runs a travel company in Kansas City, Mo."), "Most travelers take the cheapest fares and are then disappointed when they do the traveling." But, he adds, "Some airlines are figuring out this threshold."

"Seems the question isn’t whether airlines have gone too far," Christopher says. "They have, and they know it. It's more a question of which direction they've done it in. In an effort to eke out a little extra profit, are they more willing to anger their customers or their employees?"


Although Christopher doesn't go into it, I think it's safe to say that we could have gotten a whole other report on the many ways in which the airlines are squeezing money out of the hides of their employees. If you know anyone who works (or worked) for one, you've undoubtedly heard a smattering of the horror stories.

Instead, Christopher merely offers us this curious case. I hope he doesn't mean us to be inspired by this sort of counter-example offered by Spencer Carlson, the Kansas City travel guy.
Norwegian Air, a low-cost European carrier, offers one-way tickets from New York to Oslo at about $180 but has still figured out how to exceed expectations. Yes, it was extra for luggage, but Norwegian didn’t charge for in-flight movies, the food was good and the seats were comfortable, Carlson says. “I was blown away at the professionalism of the staff and the cleanliness of the aircraft. The overall experience was fantastic.”

Norwegian is an interesting example, because American carriers have been trying to stop it from operating in the United States. The reason? Instead of cutting back service, Norwegian found creative ways around high labor costs. Instead of using European or American flight crews, for example, it reportedly hires Bangkok-based crews through a Singapore employment agency who are governed by Singapore labor law.
Because having to pay flight crews a living wage is what's driving the cost of flying so high. Do you suppose Singapore labor law has anything to say about high-level execs having to make do with a few dollars less? (And as a matter of fact, yes, it is dollars, even in Singapore, where the Singapore dollar is the actual currency. I looked it up.)


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Urban Gadabout NYC: Exploring Calvary Cemetery and the L train -- plus fall schedules from the NY Transit Museum and MAS

First Calvary Cemetery occupies a commanding position on the Queens side of the borough's western border with Brooklyn. (Click to enlarge.) Mitch Waxman will be leading a Calvary walking tour on Saturday, August 22, 11am to (approx.) 1pm.

by Ken

Awhile back Mitch Waxman devoted a Newtown Pentacle post to Queens's First Calvary Cemetery ("ordinary interpretation," August 5), when he called it "my favorite place in Queens." That post has taken such root in my head that I was delighted when he mentioned during his recent walking tour of Newtown Creek's Dutch Kills tributary that he'd cleared a date for a walking tour there: Saturday, August 22. The date left me with a bad feeling, and sure enough, when I was able to check my calendar, I was reminded that that's already my date from scheduling hell.

I'll first be LIRR-ing it out to Port Washington, on the eastern shore of Long Island's Manhasset Bay, for a 2pm "Great Gatsby Boat Tour" with the Art Deco Society of New York, which you better believe I signed up for as soon as I saw the announcement. (And wisely so. ADSNY has a waiting list for the event.) I have been to Port Washington, and fairly recently; it was our lunch stop on a bus tour with Justin Ferate, en route between visits to two noteworthy Long Island estates. But I've never been out on a boat in Manhasset Bay.

Where things get crazy is that from there I absolutely must catch the 4:39pm train out of Port Washington, which, if everything goes right, should get me to the LIRR Woodside (Queens) station in time to get to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for a 6pm screening of Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. (Lawrence is also being screened at 4pm Sunday the 23rd, but in order to do that I would have to leave an MAS tour of Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza with Francis Morrone after an hour or even less.)

If I were really crazy, I could top the day off with a wild overnight (10pm-1am) Obscura Society of New York outing to "a hidden Chinatown den of iniquity" for "The Cheaters Party -- A School for Scoundrels," where participants will be given demonstrations in the art of card-playing sleight of hand, including, yes, full-fledged cheating, with opportunities (and, yes, permission) to try out this newly acquired, er, skill, not to mention indulging an open bar dispensing "Rat Pack-inspired cocktails"! Actually, what's holding me back isn't so much a lack of craziness as a lack of any known gambling instinct. And even that open bar isn't the lure it might once have been. Also, music is promised, and I would expect that to be both deafening and horrible.)

First Calvary Cemetery, with a view! Photo by Mitch W (click to enlarge)

By the way, Mitch -- wearing his hat as official historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance -- will also be participating in a pair of Open House New York boat trips up his "beloved" creek, along with NCA program manager Will Elkins and representatives of the NYC Department of Environmental Preservation (and I think I read somewhere of the EPA) on Thursday, September 3, at 5pm and 7pm. Scroll down to "Newtown Creek Boat Tour" on the OHNY programs page, or go directly to the ticket and booking info.


The L train has a fascinating history -- and a booming present and near-term future, as ridership has been undergoing huge increases. (Click to enlarge.)

As regular readers are aware, one of my favorite genres of NYC tours is Jack Eichenbaum's day-long single-subway line explorations -- most famously his "World of the #7 Train" (the Flushing line), which he describes as his "signature" tour, and which he does pretty much every year. Over the length of the route, Jack has picked out half a dozen stops as sites for mini-walking tours of neighborhoods that not only are enormously different from one another but have rich and various histories unto themselves, all scheduled around a long lunch stop at the Flushing end of the line, with all the dining options of Flushing's flourishing Chinatown and Koreatown.

I was delighted finally to get to "do" the #7 train again in June, at which time Jack noted that by the next time he does this tour, it will undergo major changes, starting with the incorporation of the under-construction extension of the #7 from Times Square to the Javits Center at 11th Avenue and 34th Street. (Completion dates have come and gone fairly regularly since the days when then-Mayor Bloomberg liked to terrorize NYC Transit with phone calls demanding to know when it would be done. Mayor Mike really didn't have much interest in improved transit as such, but he wound up deeply immersed not just in the #7 expansion but in the massive East Side Access project that will bring Long Island Rail Road passengers into Grand Central Terminal -- because they're both crucial to multi-zillion-dollar area redevelopments, something our billionaire ex-mayor was very interested in.)

Jack does other subway lines too, though, in that same basic format: usually a half-dozen mini-walking tours along the route, visiting enormously contrasting neighborhoods with even more contrasted histories. In recent years I've had the pleasure of joining Jack in explorations of the J line, which runs from Lower Manhattan across to Brooklyn and on into Queens, and Brooklyn's Brighton Line (now the Q), the descendant of one of the original steam railroads to the resort haven of Coney Island. During the June "World of the #7 Train," Jack announced that he would soon be doing the L train, which actually functions as a crosstown subway in Manhattan, running across 14th Street from Eighth Avenue to First Avenue, then under the East River to Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Bushwick and onward, till it comes to rest in Canarsie, within bus reach of the shore of Jamaica Bay.

Somehow I missed Jack's announcement of the actual date -- Saturday, October 17 -- and by the time I learned the date, I had a schedule conflict, and now that MAS tour prices have increased to $20 for members ($30 for non-members), I'm not as quick to blow off the tour I've registered for as I might once have been. (Besides, I want to do that tour!) So it looks like I'm going to miss:
Saturday. October 17, 10am-5:30pm

The L train has a complex history: first as a steam railroad line, later as an elevated BRT train, eventually integrated into the subway system with its expansion to Eighth Avenue in Manhattan in the 1930’s. Beginning in the 1950’s the L train has stimulated artist-spearheaded gentrification along its route. We’ll explore the West Village and meatpacking district— including a portion of the new Highline Park— and then on to the East Village, Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood, noting the status of transformation in each of these neighborhoods.

This tour is limited to 25 participants and requires registration by check of $42/pp to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St #6C, Flushing, NY 11354. For a prospectus and any questions, contact Jack at
These days, owing in good part to its Williamsburg (and now Bushwick) connection, the L train is the city's fastest-growing, ridership-wise, and has gone from being a stepchild of the system to its proudest prodigy, with much-improved service finally catching up to the dramatic increase in use.


I should mention too that both the New York Transit Museum and the Municipal Art Society have announced and begun booking tours for September and October.

As noted, the fall MAS offerings come with the price increase (I mentioned earlier, from $15 to $20 for members, and from $20 to $30 for non-members). On the plus side, tour registrants now get nearest-transit information for the meeting point (not exactly an innovation, since this used to be included in all tour descriptions) and also -- and this is new, and most welcome -- approximate tour end-point information.
All of this was mentioned in a covering e-mail to MAS members. What was not mentioned, and I didn't in fact learn until I registered for five tours that I knew I wanted to do and didn't want to get closed out of, is that tours have been shrunk from two hours to 90 minutes.

Of course we don't buy tours by the minute, but if we did, then the member price has increased not by 33 percent but by 78 percent, and the non-member price not by 50 percent but by a full 100 percent. It's not the price that concerns me, at least not so much, as what represents a radical change in format. A 90-minute tour isn't just shorter than a 120-minute one; it's really a different animal, especially when you consider how long it takes any tour to actually "get going." And while there are undoubtedly tour subjects that are better-suited to a 90-minute format, and would have to be padded out to fill two hours, a two-hour tour that was a proper two-hour tour to begin with is probably going to have to be reconceived to make the cut, and I can't help thinking shrunk in ways other than just time.

In fact, the two-hour format, which has become a much more rigidly enforced time limit since I began doing MAS tours not that many years ago, was really more like two and a half hours back then. I gather, though, that MAS received enough complaints to start cracking the whip about the time limit. This boggles my mind, that people would complain about getting more than they paid for. But there you are.

Clearly the people in charge believe that this is what people want. (I'm pretty sure that I don't count among the "people" they're concerned about.) And the September-October list contains lots of interesting-looking offerings -- I jotted down 17 tours I was interested in, after allowing for known schedule conflicts. As I mentioned, I've already registered for five, and it was when I downloaded my tour info that I discovered that what I registered for are 90-minute tours. Suddenly I found myself thinking that maybe the five tours I've registered for will do it for me.

Like I said, at some point we should probably talk about this. But not now.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

NYC Watch: "See It Big! 70mm" at the Museum of the Moving Image. Plus an Urban Gadabout note: "I Remember NY"

Coney Island (this Sunday, August 9) is one of two neighborhoods tour leader Joe Svehlak will be revisiting this month in his Municipal Art Society series I Remember New York. Also coming up is Downtown Brooklyn (Sunday, August 30). See below.

by Ken

As I mentioned recently, I wiped out most of a day of potential Jane Jacobs Weekend walks to catch a 70mm screening of Robert Wise's 1965 film version of The Sound of Music, which as it happened I had never seen in any form, at the Museum of the Moving Image. These days, as digital projection takes over for theatrical showing even of movies that weren't made digitally, it's getting harder and harder to see films on, you know, film, and the 70mm jobbies -- forget about it. At the MoMI Sound of Music event, though, Chief Curator David Schwartz mentioned that the museum would be showing a 70mm print of West Side Story -- the 1961 film musical Wise had already directed which established him as candidate for the Sound of Music film when, apparently, nobody else wanted to direct it -- in an upcoming installment of its See It Big! series, this one devoted to 70mm films.

Well, See It Big! 70mm is here! Eight films, ranging chronologically from 1961 (West Side Story) through 2014 (Interstellar), each being shown either two or three times between August 7 and August 30.

As the introduction to the series notes:
With a higher resolution and more light hitting the frame, 70mm film offers a bigger, brighter image than 35mm. It also offers richer sound, with more space on the soundtrack. It is the ideal film format for ambitious cinematic spectacles, yet with the transition to digital filmmaking, 70mm movies have become increasingly rare.
But, as the introduction goes on to note, 70mm hasn't been entirely abandoned.
Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan are keeping the tradition alive, with films that were surely inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Douglas Trumbull, and Robert Wise. From West Side Story to Interstellar, here is a selection of great 70mm films, including adventure, comedy, drama, musical, and science fiction -- and all indelible experiences.


In the listing below, culled from the museum's listings, it occurred to me to include the films' running times, because so many of these are really big time-wise in addition to film-format-wise. Four of the eight are over 2½ hours, and a fifth, Interstellar, is only six minutes short. Two, in fact, are over 3 hours, and one is over 3½ -- Lawrence of Arabia, of course. Although director David Lean has been dead for 24 years, there are people who'll swear that the movie still hasn't ended.

It's a wild mix of films. I'm taking a pass on 2001, which I just saw at MoMI in 70mm -- but if you haven't seen it in 70mm, you should. It doesn't solve the film's problems or plug its gaps, but for the considerable effect it makes nevertheless, it really should be seen in full format. But I'm hoping to get to all the others -- some that I haven't seen, or seen theatrically, since they were new, and four that I've never seen at all.

It's the usual MoMI deal: Screenings are free for members at the "Film Lover" level and above; for others it's $12 ($9 for senior citizens and students), which includes museum admission for that day. Both members and nonmembers can book ahead; go to the link below and if you prefer follow it to the alternate date(s); then click on the "Order tickets online" link. I would be especially careful with the films that are only being shown twice.
See It Big! 70 mm

August 7-30

With a higher resolution and more light hitting the frame, 70mm film offers a bigger, brighter image than 35mm. It also offers richer sound, with more space on the soundtrack. It is the ideal film format for ambitious cinematic spectacles, yet with the transition to digital filmmaking, 70mm movies have become increasingly rare. Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan are keeping the tradition alive, with films that were surely inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Douglas Trumbull, and Robert Wise. From West Side Story to Interstellar, here is a selection of great 70mm films, including adventure, comedy, drama, musical, and science fiction -- and all indelible experiences.

See It Big! is an ongoing series organized by Reverse Shot editors Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert, Chief Curator David Schwartz, and Assistant Film Curator Aliza Ma.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968, 159 mins)
Friday, 8/7, 7pm; Saturday, 8/8, 2pm; Sunday, 8/9, 2pm

(dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1983, 106 mins)
Saturday, 8/8, 6pm; Sunday, 8/9, 6pm

(dir. Steven Lisberger, 1982, 96 mins)
Saturday, 8/15, 7pm; Sunday, 8/16, 7pm

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
(dir. Stanley Kramer, 1963, 205 mins)
Saturday, 8/15, 2pm; Sunday, 8/16, 2pm

West Side Story
(dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961, 151 mins)
Friday, 8/21, 7 pm; Saturday, 8/22, 2pm

Lawrence of Arabia
(dir. David Lean, 1962, 217 mins)
Saturday, 8/22, 6pm; Sunday, 8/23, 4pm

(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014, 169 mins)
Friday, 8/28, 7pm; Saturday, 8/29, 6pm; Sunday, 8/30, 6pm

The Master
(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012, 144 mins)
Saturday, 8/29, 2pm; Sunday, 8/30, 2pm

MAS "I Remember New York" walking tours

This month Joe Svehlak, the total sweetheart among NYC tour guides, a lifelong New Yorker who pours passion as well as charm into his tours, and has always given a generous sense of historical development in his neighborhood walking tours, has two more tours coming up in the wonderful "I Remember New York" series he's been doing for the Municipal Art Society: Coney Island this Sunday, August 9, 10:30am-12:30pm, and Downtown Brooklyn.

These will be more personal versions of popular tours Joe has been doing for some time, tracking changes in these much-changing neighborhoods. His tours have always been personal, but in this I Remember New York series he's undertaken at age 75, he has been unabashed in sharing his history with the places he's leading us through. It says something about Joe that I run into him all the time taking other people's tours; his enthusiasm and curiosity seem if anything to have continued growing with time.

On the first tour in the I Remember New York series, Joe mentioned that at his age he doesn't know how much longer he'll want to continue leading tours, and for anyone who appreciates the value of experience and memory, the walks in this series so far have been treasures. On those my schedule has enabled me to do, there was a special warmth to this walk through Manhattan's Financial District, where he had his first job and later worked for a considerable time; and then in the two-part traversal of Brooklyn's Sunset Heights, where he did much of his growing up and later returned as a first-time homeowner and pioneering preservationist. I really should have posted something about the series sooner. Sorry!

Not to mention that Joe is just good company. Again, there are links for online registration for both members and nonmembers. I'm embarrassed at how long it took me to find my way to MAS; now I can't imagine not being a member.
I Remember New York: Coney Island, Brooklyn
Sunday, August 9, 10:30am-12:30pm

Join tour guide and preservation activist Joe Svehlak who still swims here, to reminisce about Coney Island in his younger years when Steeplechase Park was still a great amusement attraction before it was demolished in the 1960s. Hear Joe describe the thrill of the Parachute Jump and the Steeplechase. In addition to Steeplechase Park, Joe remembers four rollercoasters, merry-go-rounds, and an assortment of other rides, sideshows and games of chance. Both the Cyclone rollercoaster and the Wonder Wheel are New York City landmarks and a testament to Coney Island's illustrious past and resilience. We'll also view a new amusement park, a restored carousel, and two poignant memorials by the ballpark. Stroll the boardwalk as Joe remembers family outings, amusements, bathhouses, and other facilities and attractions by the sea. On our walk we'll learn about Coney Island's honky-tonk past and issues of preservation and planning for the future. Coney Island has seen many changes in Joe's lifetime. He's happy to see it coming back with new amusements, activities and restaurants. Stay for a swim and treat yourself to a Nathan's Famous! Please note that this tour has been offered before with a slightly different theme, and there may be significant overlap in content. Cost: $20 / $15 Members
I Remember New York: Downtown Brooklyn
Sunday, August 30, 10am-12n

In his lifetime, tour guide and preservation activist Joe Svehlak has seen major changes Downtown Brooklyn. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Joe remembers Brooklyn's Downtown as one of New York City's premier shopping and entertainment centers, with grand elegant department stores, specialty shops, fine restaurants and magnificent movie palaces. He would look forward to the special holiday shopping trips Downtown and the occasional treat of a movie in one of the great theaters. By the 1970s economic decline, the days of the grand department stores were over. The Fox and the Albee theatres were demolished for other commercial purposes. The Paramount became part of Long Island University and the Metropolitan is now the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Fifteen years ago Joe moved Downtown and is now witnessing dramatic high rise construction all around him. New streetscapes and plazas are adding to Downtown Brooklyn's new livability. New Hotels and shops are opening and even a new park is planned. Joe's thoughts and memories will guide us through his neighborhood as we view old civic buildings, new commercial development, designated New York City landmarks, the revitalized Fulton Mall, redesigned Flatbush Avenue, Metro Tech expansion, and even some surprising religious edifices. End by the landmarked monumental Dime Savings Bank and Junior's Restaurant, noted for its cheesecake. Please note that this tour has been offered before with a slightly different theme, and there may be significant overlap in content. Cost: $20 / $15 Members


The new walking-tour schedule, likely to cover September, October, and November, should be coming out in the next week or two. Meanwhile there are still a whole bunch of really interesting-looking walking tours that can still be booked for August. Check them out here -- or go to anytime and click on "Tours."

Saturday, August 01, 2015

As Mitch Waxman prepares to tramp around his beloved Newtown Creek, we look at a blogpost that shows what blogposts can do

As recently as two years ago, when binary_bob took the top photo, posted on Reddit (click to enlarge), the once-mighty but long-doomed-following-abandonment Domino Sugar plant on Brooklyn's once-industrial waterfront still retained a large measure of its grandeur. The lower image, is a rendering of the redevelopment plan (click to enlarge), courtesy of SHoP Architects, looking east and slightly southward, with the Williamsburg Bridge at the right. Quick: Can you find the refinery building itself?

"One cannot help but drop his jaw whenever the former Havemeyer or Domino Sugar plant site comes into view. It is being redeveloped as a residential structure – more luxury condos for the children of the rich to dwell within. The question of what will happen to these structures when NYC slides backwards into an era of degeneracy and decay is one few ask."
-- from Mitch Waxman's Monday Newtown Pentacle post, "last stages"

by Ken

All week I've been meaning to talk a bit about our pal Mitch Waxman's Monday Newtown Pentacle post, "last stages," which seems to me a textbook-worthy demonstration of what the blog format can do when it's crackling. A blogpost, after all, has two fundamental resources: pictures and words. (Videos seem to me for the most part less a resource than a brain-draining abomination.) And Mitch has a way with both. You may recall that he's a compulsive NYC urban wanderer and photographer with a deep connection to place and time.

In terms of "place," he's based in Astoria, Queens, and along the way has developed a special connection to legendarily pollluted Newtown Creek, which forms the western part of the boundary between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and which once was the industrial heartland not just of the New York City but of the U.S.A., which after all is how it got so polluted. So before we get to that blogpost, I thought I would mention that there are two immediately upcoming opportunities to take advantage of his obsession with his "beloved" Newtown Creek for anyone who might be in the New York City area tomorrow (August 2 -- kind of late notice on this one, I know; sorry!) and/or next Saturday (August 8), when Mitch is doing two of his signature Newtown Creek-related tours:

Bushwick and Maspeth walking tour

Sunday, August 2, 10am-12:30pm

Join Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman for walk through the industrial heartlands of New York City and along the Newtown Creek. Following the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens, we will be exploring the colonial, industrial, and environmental history of the borderland communities. We will encounter century old movable bridges, visit the remains of a 19th century highway, and explore two of the lesser known tributaries of the troubled Newtown Creek watershed. For the vulgarly curious, Conrad Wissell's Dead Animal and Night Soil wharf will be described.

Meet up at the corner of Grand street and Morgan Avenue in Brooklyn. Map: The L train stops nearby at Bushwick Avenue and Grand Street, and the Q54 and Q59 bus lines stop nearby as well. Check the morning of for last minute transit changes.

Be prepared for rough terrain and possible heavy truck traffic. Dress and pack appropriately for hiking and hot weather. Closed-toe shoes are highly recommended. Bathroom opportunities will be found only at the start of the walk.

Long Island City walking tour

Saturday, August 8, 10am-1pm

In 13 steps, Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman will be showing us the then and now of Dutch Kills tributary, once known as the "workshop of the United States."

A central maritime artery of Long Island City, Dutch Kills is surrounded by hundreds of factory buildings, titan rail yards, and crossed by century old bridges - and it's found just a few blocks away from Queens Plaza. During this three hour tour, we will cover three miles of Brooklyn and Queens to see where the industrial revolution actually happened. Bring your camera, as the tour will be revealing an incredible landscape along this section of the troubled Newtown Creek Watershed.

Be prepared for rough terrain and possible heavy truck traffic. Dress and pack appropriately for hiking and for weather. Closed-toe shoes are highly recommended. Bathroom opportunities will be found only at the start of the walk.

Meet up at the Albert E. Short Triangle park found at the corner of Jackson Avenue and 23rd Street in Long Island City, Queens. This is the Court Square MTA station, and served by the 7, G, and M lines. Additionally, the Q39 and B62 buses have nearby stops. Drivers are encouraged to leave their vehicles near the Pulaski Bridge in either Greenpoint or Long Island City.


Now about that blogpost. I was talking a moment ago about Mitch's sense of "place, and for this post, our pal Mitch Waxman he was ensconced in one of his recently favorite places for wandering, the East River Ferry, taking some great shots of what's left of the once-teeming working waterfront of New York City's East River. Note that he hastens to clarify what he means by "a working waterfront," which is to say one "that is engaged in the production of something other than artisanal pickles."

However, he notes that observing "the modern day East River bums me out." And the quote at the top of this post is Mitch deep in bumnation, contemplating the finally-taking-place transformation of the Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg, just north of the Williamsburg Bridge. Here are two photos he took, one with the bridge and one without (click to enlarge):

Not long ago, Open House New York -- as part of a new series, "Projects in Planning," which aims to "explore the design and planning process of a single project during its early stages of development," to give us a window on the process of a major development project still in the development stage -- offered members a presentation by Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP Architects on the "Domino Sugar Refinery Redevelopment" (see the photo above), for which redevelopment plans have been kicking around almost since the plant was shut down in 2004 Here was the description (scroll way down, to April 8, in the "Recent Programs" section of the OHNY programs page):
OHNY members are invited to a presentation of SHoP Architects' master plan for the redevelopment of Brooklyn's iconic Domino Sugar Refinery. With a renovated refinery building as its "nerve center," the project is expected to create a 24/7 mix of creative office space, market-rate and affordable housing, retail shops, community facilities, and public open spaces. The distinctive buildings, which will create a new skyline for Brooklyn, are designed to allow light and air to penetrate through the site into the neighborhood beyond.
Now Vishaan Chakrabarti is one heckuva presentation presenter. After all, while in this instance he was talking to a bunch of people whose only standing came from having ponied up OHNY's modest annual membership fee, he's accustomed to giving presentations to people who are contemplating spending zillions of dollars, or perhaps have the power to turn thumbs up or down on other people's expenditure of said zillions of dollars. And as he described the process that had brought the project to its present state, he persuaded me, at least, that as large-scale development projects go, this one -- which includes an array of new buildings as well as open spaces surrounding the old plant itself (which is one of three buildings on the site that have landmark protection) -- has been planned with unusual sensitivity to the site's history and to the current needs of the nearby community.

Nevertheless, it looks to be a blight on the waterfront (don't you just love that "doughnut hole" building?), and it doesn't matter, because in the end it all comes down to what it all always had to come down to: the triumph of money. Williamsburg, after all, is now NYC's hippest and perhaps also hottest neighborhood, and the whole point of hipness, at least from the commercial standpoint, and it's hard to think of any other standpoint that can be said to matter, is to create hotness, in the real-estate sense, of course. So if the shores of Long Island City (Queens) and Greenpoint (Williamsburg's Brooklyn neighbor to the north) are to be lined with sky-high and sky-high-priced giant glass boxes, and they are, you can be sure that Williamsburg is getting them even glassier and boxier. (The one concession that city has extracted from developers is parkfront development along the riverfront proper and free access to it, which is certainly very different from the waterfront in its old industrial stage.)

Now here's Mitch ruminating on the old Domino site:
Williamsburg is officially lost as a point of interest for me. Bland boxes of steel and glass will extend all along the East River soon enough, stretching from the former industrial heartland once called “America’s Workshop” in Long Island City all the way through the Gold Coast of North Brooklyn to the Williamsburg Bridge.


First, speaking of this span of high-priced glass-and-steel boxes rising above the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront north of the Williamsburg Bridge, he notes:
Criminals are already beginning to focus their attentions on this area, just as they did in the age of industry. Why? Because predators go where the prey is.
Then he adds another characteristic touch -- a touch, one might say, of bumnation: "It’s cliché to even comment on it anymore, one realizes."

Except that Mitch has a comment on this redevelopment of the Domino site "as a residential structure -- more luxury condos for the children of the rich to dwell within."
The question of what will happen to these structures when NYC slides backwards into an era of degeneracy and decay is one few ask.

Any historian will tell you that it’s a cyclical thing here in the megalopolis, one that flips back and forth on a roughly forty year cycle which can be directly correlated to rates of crime, and that the City’s current upswing began in the late 1990’s – reversing a decline process that started shortly after the Second World War.

Rich people tend to move away from the City center when things get hairy. The rest of us are kind of stuck here.
This, I think, is sweet. Finally, here's Mitch's sendoff for this post:
Scenes long familiar, lost. The wilderness of the oligarchs is upon us, and deep in the woods – wolves howl to celebrate and delight. The nobles will be safe in their keeps, but the peasants – we’re on our own.


On his ferry ride, Mitch observed "the Alice Oldendorf bulk cargo ship at work, making a delivery to a concrete plant at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The ship hosts a series of cranes and conveyors which unload her holds, producing the cyclopean mounds of sand and gravel witnessed above." (Again, click to enlarge.)

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."