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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kabul's Very Historic Garden Of Fidelity

2 paintings of Babur laying out the gardens

I was lucky I got to travel through Afghanistan when I did, in 1969 and again 1971. After that the whole thing blew up and today when Westerners think of Afghanistan, they think of off an ugly, dusty, crumbling, violent landscape. When I think of the "best" countries I ever visited, Afghanistan is always high on the list. And countries get on that list because of the people more than anything else. The Afs were always incredibly friendly and hospitable, even when I got thrown into jail for trying to smuggle 50 kilos of hash out of the country in my van.

Unfortunately, in the last decades Afghanistan hasn't been a place for foreign visitors. A Taliban spokesman a few months ago: “It is part of our war strategy to target any foreign citizen whose country has a military presence in Afghanistan and enters our country without permission from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." A few tourists go anyway, maybe 100 a year, fewer than when I was first there in 1969. A Canadian couple disappeared and haven't been heard of since. Another two were a wealthy Russian couple, who hired an armored car and bodyguards at $1,500 a day, stayed in the $356-a-night Kabul Serena Hotel, toured the Panjshir Valley, and went home on schedule.
Like tourism industries anywhere, Afghan tourism does have its boosters. “The security situation is fairly stable, and tourists who visit are fairly comfortable and they are pleased when they see a hotel of this standard,” said Shahryar T. Khan, the general manager of the Kabul Serena Hotel, which has five stars and “world-class security measures.”

The 177-room hotel runs at 64 percent occupancy, Mr. Khan said, and tourists make up an increasing share of the guests. “Of course, from zero it’s gone up to 1 percent.” The Serena has twice been attacked by terrorists, and in 2008 Taliban insurgents killed six guests in an attack aimed at the hotel’s health spa.
Ghulam Nabi Farahi, the deputy minister of tourism says “Afghanistan is a country very suitable for attracting tourists. It’s a place where tourists can have all their wishes come true.” And he insists that there have been no recent cases of tourists attacked or kidnapped. The WikiTravel site for Afghanistan has a bold warning on top telling would be visitors that travel there "is extremely dangerous, and independent travel/sightseeing is emphatically discouraged."

But this week, a friend turned me on to a blog by Barbara Wells Sarudy who expresses a beautiful historical appreciation for Afghanistan-- or at least for the Afghanistan of the 1500s-- and from a unique perspective.
The Bagh-e Vafa (Garden of Fidelity) was Babur's first garden in what is now Afghanistan. He wrote in his memoirs, "In 1508-09, I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-i-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adianapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citroens and pomegranates."

What is known about its design also comes from Babur's memoirs, "There oranges, citrons and pomegranates grow in abundance...I had plantains brought and planted there; they did vedry well. The year before I had had sugar cane planted there; it also did well...The garden lies high, has running water close at hand, and a mild winter climate. In the middle of it, a one-mill stream flows constantly past the little hill on which are the four garden plots. In the southwest part of it there is a reservoir ten by ten, round which are orange-trees and a few pomegranates, the whole encircled by a trefoil meadow. This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take color."

This type of garden, called a charbagh, was described earlier in an account from Sir John Mandeville’s travels into the East, c. 1370, “And this Paradise is enclosed all about with a wall…and in the most high place of Paradise, even in the middle place, is a well that casteth out the four floods that run by divers lands. Of the which, the first is clept Pison, or Ganges, that is all one; and it runneth throughout Ind or Emlak, in the which river be many precious stones, and much of lignum aloes and much gravel of gold. And that other river is clept Nilus or Gison, that goeth by Ethiopia and after by Egypt. And that other is clept Tigris, that runneth by Assyria and by Armenia the great. And that other is clept Euphrates, that runneth also by Media and Armenia and by Persia. And men there beyond say, that all the sweet waters of the world, above and beneath, take their beginning of the well of Paradise, and out of that well all waters come and go.”

Charbagh is a Persian-style garden layout. The quadrilateral garden is divided by walkways or flowing water into four smaller parts. In Persian, "Char" means "four" and "bagh" means "garden." Chahrbagh originated from the time of Achaemenid Persia. Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Xenophon, give extensive accounts of Cyrus the Great's palatial city of Pasargadae and his four-gardens.

The Gardens of Babur, also called Bagh-e Babur, is today a historic park in Kabul, Afghanistan, and also the last resting-place of the first Mughal emperor Babur. The gardens are thought to have been developed in the early 1500s, when Babur gave orders for the construction of an "avenue garden" in Kabul, described in some detail in his memoirs, the Baburnama.  Today, many species chosen for replanting are specifically mentioned in the Baburnama, including walnut, cherry, quince, mulberry and apricot trees.

The Baburnama was the first autobiography in the Muslim world. It is the memoir of Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), founder of the Mughal Empire & a great-great-great-grandson of Timur. It is an autobiographical work, originally written in the Chagatai language, known to Babur as "Turki" (Turkic), the spoken language of the Andijan-Timurids. Because of Babur's cultural origin, his prose is highly Persianized & contains many phrases & smaller poems in Persian. By 1590, the autobiography was completely translated to Persian by a Mughal courtier, Abdul Rahim, in AH (Hijri) 998 (1589-90). Babur & his successors introduced a level of Persian sophistication into Northern India, founding the last dynasty of India, the Mughal Dynasty.

Babur begins his story at age 12. His father had died, & he had inherited & lost a kingdom in the lush Ferghana Valley north of Afghanistan. As a teenager, Babur captured Samarkand, only to lose it. In his early 20s, Babur seemed to strategize more. He took to the forests, where he lived for 3 years, slowly building & training an army. He had an Empire to establish.

When he was ready, he crossed the Hindu Kush mountain range, & captured Kabul, a city he grew to love. In his autobiography, he described Kabul, “It is a pretty little province, completely surrounded by mountains. This province is a mercantile center. From India, caravans of 10, 15, 20 thousand pack animals brings slaves, textiles, sugar, & spices. Many Kabul merchants would not be satisfied with 300 or 400% profit! Goods from Iraq, Antonia, China, [& beyond] can be found in Kabul.”

While in Kabul, he designed a garden. Gardens were part of his homeland, which he missed. There, they tended to be walled enclosures with water channels which ran at regular intervals, cross-sections. And that’s what he recreated, a garden with terraces & running water. The water adds background noise & the fragrance from blossoms, as it cools. When he brought water to the dry, dusty landscape, it became fertile. Water transforms the land into an image of paradise. The Garden of Eden, the Promised Land.

Despite his adoration of Kabul & his garden, Babur was not ready to retire. He conquered Kandahar, another wealthy city along prosperous trade routes. He crossed the Oxus River & conquered his ancestral lands of the Ferghana Valley. He then set his sights on India. He used the newest technologies; & his battalion of 12,000 was able to defeat an army of 100,000. He sacked what is today Northern India. He & his descendants ruled the subcontinent for 3 centuries, instilling a legacy of Persian culture & Islamic faith.

"If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!" reads the inscription on Babur’s tomb in his Kabul Garden. Babur died in Northern India, but was later brought back to Kabul & was laid to rest in his beloved garden.
I don't recall ever seeing it. Now I want to go back to check it out!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Vietnam "Pet Food" Has A Whole Different Meaning Than It Does Here

I haven't been in Vietnam for years but I don't remember any restaurants serving dog meat in Ho Chi Minh City or anywhere else we went. A report this weekend in The Guardian makes it clear that eating dog meat is a very common occurrence there and that "every year, hundreds of thousands of pets are snatched in Thailand, then smuggled into Vietnam, destined for Hanoi's top restaurants and street stalls. Demand for dogmeat is so high that supply has become a highly lucrative-- and brutal-- black market." When I first started traveling in Asia in 1969, the first important survival lesson I learned was, don't eat the meat.
Down the leafy streets of north Hanoi's Cau Giay district, not far from Nguyen's family business, sits one of the city's most famous restaurants, Quan Thit Cho Chieu Hoa, which has only one thing on the menu. There's dog stew, served warm in a soup of blood; barbecued dog with lemongrass and ginger; steamed dog with shrimp-paste sauce; dog entrails sliced thin like sausage; and skewered dog, marinated in chilli and coriander. This is just one of a number of dogmeat restaurants in Cau Giay, but it is arguably the most revered, offering traditional dishes in a quiet setting along a canal.

"I know it seems weird for me to eat here when I have my own dogs at home and would never consider eating them," says Duc Cuong, a 29-year-old doctor, as he wraps a sliver of entrails in a basil leaf and takes a bite. "But I don't mind eating other people's dogs." He swallows and clears his throat. "Dog tastes good and it's good for you."

No one knows exactly when the Vietnamese started eating dog, but its consumption-- primarily in the north-- underlines a long tradition. And it is increasingly popular: activists claim up to 5 million of the animals are now eaten every year. Dog is the go-to dish for drinking parties, family reunions and special occasions. It is said to increase a man's virility, warm the blood on cold winter nights and help provide medicinal cures, and is considered a widely available, protein-rich, healthy alternative to the pork, chicken and beef that the Vietnamese consume every day.

Some diners believe the more an animal suffers before it dies, the tastier its meat, which may explain the brutal way dogs are killed in Vietnam-- usually by being bludgeoned to death with a heavy metal pipe (this can take 10 to 12 blows), having their throats slit, being stabbed in the chest with a large knife, or being burned alive. "I've got footage of dogs being force-fed when they get to Vietnam, a bit like foie gras," says John Dalley, a lanky British retiree who heads the Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation, which works to stop the dogmeat trade in south-east Asia. "They shove a tube into their stomach and pump solid rice and water in them to increase their weight for sale." Nguyen has a simpler method for bumping profits: "When we want to increase the weight, we just put a stone in the dog's mouth." He shrugs, before opening up his cage for another kill.

The government estimates that there are 10 million dogs in Vietnam, where dogmeat is more expensive than pork and can be sold for up to £30 a dish in high-end restaurants. Ever-increasing demand has forced suppliers to look beyond the villages where dogs have traditionally been farmed and out to towns and cities all over Vietnam. Dog-snatching-- of strays and pets-- is so common now that thieves are increasingly beaten, sometimes to death, by enraged citizens. Demand has also spread beyond the country, sparking a multimillion-pound trade that sees 300,000 dogs packed every year into tight metal cages in Thailand, floated across the Mekong to Laos, then shuttled for hundreds of miles through porous jungle borders, without food or water, before being killed in Vietnamese slaughterhouses.

This is a black-market industry, managed by an international mafia and facilitated by corrupt officials, so it is little wonder activists have struggled to curb it. "At first it was just a handful of small traders wanting to make a small profit," says Roger Lohanan of the Bangkok-based Thai Animal Guardians Association, which has been investigating the dogmeat trade since 1995. "But now this business has become a fundamental export. The trade is tax-free and the profit 300-500%, so everybody wants a piece of the cake."

...In Hanoi, dog restaurants generally huddle together, with signs bearing a dog's head, or a roasted dog's torso hanging from a large metal hook. Along Tam Trinh, a stretch of road south of the city, dozens of roadside stalls sell roasted dog to customers arriving by motorbike and on foot, with lines sometimes 10 deep. Teenagers in basketball shorts chop up the dogmeat with heavy butchers' knives, sprinkling on a potent seasoning of curry powder, chilli, coriander, dill and shrimp paste, before skewering the meat to be barbecued. In the shop run by Hoa Mo-- a 63-year-old woman who has spent her entire life selling dogmeat-- a man is handed a plastic bag containing 12 dog paws. "My wife just gave birth but she's having trouble lactating," he explains. "There's an old recipe that calls for boiling the paws in a soup; we'll use that to help get her going again."

Each stall owner buys from suppliers who provide as many as 100 dogs a day, yet none of them knows where or how the dogs are sourced. Only one worker, Sy Le Vanh, a boyish 18-year-old slicing up carcasses at a family-run stall, says the dogs "must be Vietnamese". "I'm pretty sure our supplier used to get dogs from Thailand and Laos," he says, "but they were always so scrawny."

Pet ownership is still relatively new in Vietnam-- dogs here have traditionally been reared for either food or security purposes-- so campaigners have chosen to scrap the "cruelty" argument in favour of emphasising dogmeat's effect on people's health. It has been linked to regional outbreaks of trichinosis, cholera and rabies, a point activists underscore as the region looks to eradicate rabies by 2020. At the first international meeting on the dogmeat trade in Hanoi in late August, lawmakers and campaigners from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam agreed on a five-point plan, including a five-year moratorium on the cross-border transportation of dogs for commercial purposes, in order to research the impact on rabies transmission.

...[R]esearchers stress the historical human-dog bond and point to dogs' intelligence, using examples such as Chaser-- a border collie whose vocabulary includes more than 1,000 English words-- to prove their mental capacities are comparable to those of two-year-old children. But apologists say it is hypocritical for a culture that eats sheep, cows, pigs and chickens to draw the line at dogs. Pigs, for instance, do as well as primates in certain tests and are said by some scientists to be more advanced than dogs, yet many of us eat bacon without a second thought.

This is circuitous reasoning, as Jonathan Safran Foer has argued in his book Eating Animals. He points to dogs as a plentiful and protein?rich food source, and asks: "Can't we get over our sentimentality?" He continues: "Unlike all farmed meat, which requires the creation and maintenance of animals, dogs are practically begging to be eaten. If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame."

His is an argument unlikely to win over many fans in the UK, the world's first country, in 1822, to make laws protecting animals from cruelty. It is a confounding issue, in part because it involves comparing cross-cultural mores with no clear answer. As the Australian philosopher Peter Singer put it in his 1975 work Animal Liberation: "To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbours not to sell their houses to blacks."

Curious as to how this philosophy might play in Vietnam, I ask Duc Cuong, the doctor eating at the dogmeat restaurant, if it makes any difference to him that his meal could be someone's pet. "No," he says. "It's not my pet, so I don't really care."
Other countries where you might find dog on the menu include China, South Korea, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria... and both Canada and Switzerland!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Urban Gadabout: World Tourism Day is this Friday -- so go someplace! (I have some NYC thoughts)

by Ken

No, I don't know anything more about "World Tourism Day," and I'm not interested enough to research it. But I do know what it means to me, and one thing it doesn't mean is booking a $10K fancy-pants trip to some exotic destination.

For reasons that probably wouldn't interest anyone but me, regular travel-style tourism isn't terribly workable for me, but as "Urban Gadabout" readers know only too well, I've become a firm believer in the "tourist in your own city" approach, and if I did have occasion to travel, I would probably try to do it the way I've been doing my local gadding. I expect that in more and more places there are more and more opportunities for walking and other kinds of tours that explore an area's past and present, appreciating what's there now and understanding how it came to be there.


As I mentioned in my recent post "Catching up with Jack Eichenbaum," Jack -- who's the Queens Borough Historian -- had to postpone this tour from its original July date. People are probably more familiar with Jack's more or less annual "World of the #7 Train," a day-long trek along the subway line that goes from Times Square to Flushing. Awhile back he brought back his "Day on the J train," to Brooklyn and Queens, and now for the first time in a decade or so he's doing Brooklyn's Brighton line.
Brighton Line Memoirs meandering off the Q train

Saturday, September 28, 10am-5:30pm

This is a series of five walks and connecting rides along what was once the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island RR dating to 1878. Walks take place in Prospect Park, Brighton Beach, along Avenue U, in Ditmas Park and Central Flatbush. Lunch is in Brighton Beach where you can picnic on the Boardwalk. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) Get the full day’s program and other info by email The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!
As I also reported in that post, although the last I heard Jack still had a fair amount of space, "The way it often works is that there's a flurry of registrations as the date closes in, and people wind up getting closed out. You don't want that to happen to you, do you?"


I still don't know of any better place to start exploring the city than MAS's tours (what's posted now is the schedule through November), and while a bunch of tours for the coming weekend are already sold out, the last time I looked there was still space in:

Harlem Hike: 145th Street from Hotel Olga to Sugar Hill
Eric K. Washington

Saturday, 11am-1pm

Prowling the War of 1812 Seaport
Kathleen Hulser

Sunday, 11am-1pm

Note: I've done Eric Washington's 145th Street "hike" and loved it -- and also his "Harlem Grab Bag," of which there's another edition coming up Saturday, October 12.


I worried that I jumped the gun in providing a link for the fall 2013 Wolfe Walkers brochure, which I'd unearthed while doing my own Web rummaging, but Justin Ferate (who has been organizing the Wolfe Walkers program for some years now) finally attached the brochure to a list e-mail. (And if you're not on Justin's list, you're missing out on a wealth of information. Sign up now.) As it happens, there's hardly any time left till the first event on the agenda, "57th Street: Art! Music! Culture!," this Saturday the 28th at 1pm ("to approximately 4pm").
57th Street has long been a treasure trove of artistic, musical, and cultural delights. We discover the history, legends, and lore of this fascinating thoroughfare. Among the various sites will be Trump Tower, Tiffany’s, the Fuller Building, the Solow Building, Carnegie Hall, Steinway Hall, the Art Students’ League, and a selection of art galleries. Rediscover old friends, discover remnants of the street’s residential past, and view high-end new buildings. Tour will include several special interior visits.

Meet: Inside the entrance of Trump Tower, located on the east side of Fifth Avenue, between East 56th and East 57th Streets. A coffee restaurant and restrooms are available inside the building.

Fee: $23 on-site (by check to Hermine Watterson)
I've spent a lot of time on various stretches of 57th Street, and I'll bet it would be special to be able to see it through Justin's eyes, not to mention those promised "special interior visits." During the ominous weekend last October when the Northeast was girding for Hurricane Sandy, and the Municipal Art Society prudently canceled its tours, I found myself suddenly free to hook up with Justin's Halloween Greenwich Village "ghost" walk. I don't have much interest in ghosts, but I realized I'd never done a walk in the Village with Justin, and his view was bound to be different from any I'd experienced. It was, it was.

As it happens, this walk is scheduled on the same day as Jack Eichenbaum's "Brighton Line Memoirs," so I can't do it, but I'll bet that people who do won't ever look at this grand old street the same way. It's too late to take advantage of the discount for advance registration, so just show up at the meeting place (see above) with that check for $23 made out to Hermine Watterson.

Tomorrow Justin's giving a lecture at the Merchant's
House Museum on "The Real Gangs of New York"

It's a "19th Century Lifeways Lecture," "marking the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots, the bloodiest urban insurrection of 19th Century America," tomorrow night, September 26, at 6:30pm. Justin will "examine the social pressures and misguided public policies that led to the powder keg that exploded in the streets of New York in July of 1863."

The Merchant's House Museum at 29 East 4th Street is a unique destination in its own right, not just for the survived 1832 Federal-style house itself but for the remarkable circumstance that a house worth's of furnishings and possessions from the family that lived there for almost a century has also been preserved. The lecture is free to museum members, $15 to others. For more information and registration, go to the museum's Calendar of Events.


One of the sites planned for Saturday's "Far Side" tour

Green-Wood is a reminder of the days before we had major parks, when cemeteries on the outskirts of the city were places where harried urbanites went for a day's outing in nature, and Brooklyn's Green-Wood was in fact the prototype for New York City's first great parks, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park (Manhattan) and Prospect Park (up the Terminal Moraine a piece in Brooklyn). Green-Wood has an active tour and events schedule, and while Sunday's "Historic Trolley Tour" is sold out, on Saturday at 1pm there's an intriguing-looking trolley tour called "The Far Side of Green-Wood," which will visit "sites not included on many other Green-Wood tours."

*     *    *

That's just some off-the-top-my-head thoughts, and just for the coming weekend. Don't neglect to check these folks' ongoing schedules -- including that of one of my favorite tour sources, the New York Transit Museum.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Another Consideration for Environmentally Friendly Living-- Tips for Traveling Green

-by Cliff Barre

Implementing different strategies and practices in regards to eating, using products, and living are all fairly simple ways to adopt and adapt an environmentally friendly lifestyle. However, when it comes to other aspects of living such as traveling, the options may not seem so straightforward. Nonetheless, taking a few simple travel tips as well as eco-friendly travelling locations into  consideration can simplify this aspect of healthy living too.

Before You Leave

One of the initial considerations you can make regarding green travel includes your preparation for travel. Implementing some savvy living and planning techniques will help you make the most of your eco friendly travel endeavors. To avoid an excess of paper waste involved with your travel, cut down on paper consumption by utilizing ebooking. Most hotels, lodges, and travel sites facilitate online booking that requires no paper consumption. Plus, even flights offer electronic servicing and ticketing to eliminate waste. Using an e-ticket also makes travel less stressful at check-in.

To add to your green considerations in planning your trip, be sure to “vacationize” your home prior to leaving. Turning off the water connection as well as adjusting appliances including the icemaker and water heater are safe ways to reduce use while you are gone.

While on Vacation

Two travel favorites for any family or individual include experiencing the culture and taking in the sights. While typical vacationing practices are not necessarily green, being conscientious of choices revolving around eating and touring helps transform an otherwise environmentally hazardous situation. When eating and shopping at a new location, consider the concept of “Think global, buy local.” Making local choices for dining options as well as shopping venues supports the local community and cuts down on the global footprint. Many areas have locally owned and sourced restaurants that offer a great taste of the local cuisine.

Likewise, if you are looking to tour some of the local area attractions, consider greener options such as hiking, biking, or walking. Some areas even feature tours that are managed by environmentally friendly companies that consider the carbon footprint of different venues and even offer community giveback programs.

Green Destinations

Visiting an environmentally friendly travel locale is also a great way to make the trip a little greener. Upstate New York is a particularly interesting location. This travel destination offers a variety of green attractions such as The Finger Lakes that are known for their calm, clean waters; locally owned wineries; and Destiny USA, the world’s largest “green” shopping mall.

If Upstate New York is not quite your style, consider visiting Vermont, another exceptionally green locale. Known for its beautiful scenery and comfortable atmosphere, Vermont offers a relaxing escape from any busy lifestyle. In addition, Vermont features the renowned Ben and Jerry Ice Cream Factory as well as many other fun and friendly attractions.

Whether you’ve been living an ecofriendly lifestyle for years or are just making the shift toward green living, choosing green travel options is a necessary addition to your considerations and will only make the time more enjoyable.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Catching up with Justin Ferate's New York

The previously scheduled visit to Staten Island's in-development Freshkills Park had to be postponed because of Superstorm Sandy damage. The tour has been rescheduled for November 9.

by Ken

A couple of days ago I promised an update on the fall tour schedule of the Wolfe Walkers, now programmed by the peerless tour guide Justin Ferate. The brochure is available online now, with this introduction:


Dear Friends,

This Fall, we have an exciting selection of touring options. Our first tour of the season will view and explore a diversity of important and well-loved 57th Street landmark buildings and will also include brief tours of several art galleries. Our Autumn bus trip will take us up to Hartford, Connecticut. Here, we’ll take a private boat tour along the Connecticut River on the romantic old- time excursion boat, the Hartford Belle. (Reserved just for the Wolfe Walkers!) We’ll lunch at the highly acclaimed Italian restaurant Salute and end our visit to Hartford with a guided tour of the beloved Harriet Beecher Stowe House. To celebrate the Fall season, our intrepid bicyclist Jacqueline Goossens will be leading a special bicycle trip to Upper Manhattan and then will travel along the Hudson River toward Columbus Circle. We are also offering an often-requested walking tour of the “Mile Square City” of Hoboken, New Jersey. An unusual and special new tour will discover the multi-layered histories of Nutley, New Jersey – strolling the treasured waterfront greenbelt of Memorial Parkway (including a number of 18th and 19th century historic structures) with the Nutley Museum Director, John Simko. Speaking of greenbelts, we’ve also rescheduled the bus trip to Freshkills Park in Staten Island. Spaces are limited, so be certain to register right away! Finally, at our annual Holiday Brunch, Justin will present a lecture celebrating The Centennial of Grand Central Terminal. There are lots of options. We look forward to seeing you all!
The Wolfe Walker Committee

Here are abbreviated descriptions of the tours.

57th Street: Art! Music! Culture!
Walking Tour with Justin Ferate
Saturday, September 28, 2013, 1pm to approx. 4pm
57th Street has long been a treasure trove of artistic, musical, and cultural delights. Join noted Tour Leader Justin Ferate as we discover the history, legends, and lore of this fascinating thoroughfare. Among the various sites will be Trump Tower, Tiffany’s, the Fuller Building, the Solow Building, Carnegie Hall, Steinway Hall, the Art Students’ League, and a selection of art galleries. Rediscover old friends, discover remnants of the street’s residential past, and view high-end new buildings. Tour will include several special interior visits.

$20 in advance, $23 on-site

Hartford Belle Boat Cruise & Harriet Beecher Stowe House
Bus & Walking Tour with Justin Ferate

Saturday, October 5, 2013, 7:45am to approx. 7pm
Delight in the brilliant colors of autumn as we travel by motor coach through the leafy landscapes of Connecticut en route to the capital, Hartford. We’ll begin our visit with a private guided boat cruise up the Connecticut River on the intimate riverboat Hartford Belle. beautiful intimate riverboat reminiscent of simpler times. She has a mahogany-trimmed enclosed cabin. Our ever-gregarious Captain Brad Fenn likes to keep the windows open on sunny days to capture the autumn breezes. There is ample seating or some may want to stand on the bow to get the best views along the majestic Connecticut River! After lunch at the Italian restaurant Salute, a stone’s throw from Hartford’s centrally located Bushnell Park, we will travel to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House – an historic house and National Historic Landmark in an artistic neighborhood known as Nook Farm -- which was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for her last 23 years. We will take a special guided tour of the home.

Limited to 40 participants. Advance reservation only, $135 (no on-site registrations)

Upper Manhattan/Hudson River Bicycle Ride
Biking Tour with Jacqueline Goossens
Saturday, October 12, 2013, 10am to about 3-3:30pm
Join the Wolfe Walkers and the enthusiastic leader Jacqueline Goossens for our free autumn bicycle tour. This tour is conceived for those who want to take a leisurely ride to experience the varied New York environments through which we’ll travel. Meeting at Columbus Circle, we will ride along Central Park West to 110th Street. Continuing north along Frederick Douglas Boulevard, we’ll travel west to the Hudson River bike path. We’ll stop at Fairway Market to purchase lunch, which we can eat in Riverside Park. After lunch, we’ll ride south along the Hudson River, Riverside Drive, and south toward the Hudson River Boat Basin at 79th Street. The tour will end at 57th Street – near Columbus Circle.

Limited to 8 people, free

Hoboken -- "Mile Square City" or "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken!"
Walking Tour with Justin Ferate

Sunday, October 27, 2013, 9:30am to about 1pm
Just a short trip across the Hudson River is the very vibrant and desirable suburb of Hoboken, New Jersey. New waterfront developments and immense loft conversions add a new vitality to this former working class Victorian community. Join our popular Tour Leader Justin Ferate as we rediscover the “Mile Square City.”

Take PATH to the restored Hoboken train station originally designed by architect Kenneth Murchison. Examine the new riverside housing and stroll the streetscapes of gracious 19th Century architecture. Learn of Hoboken’s history: from baseball to Stephen Foster; from steam railways to the first American brewery; from Maxwell House Coffee and Lipton Tea to “ol’ blue eyes,” Frank Sinatra.

$20 in advance, $23 on-site (plus PATH fare)

A Walk in the Park: Nutley, New Jersey
Walking Tour with John Simko (and Justin Ferate)

Saturday, November 2, 2013, 10am to about 12:30pm
A century ago a magazine editor living in what is now known as Nutley, New Jersey urged his friend Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) to pay him a visit. ''There isn't much that is prettier than this end of New Jersey,'' he wrote. ''It is all upland, tumbling into shallow valleys and bright sunny reaches along the Passaic River, and hillsides white as snow with daisies, and everywhere trees.''
Today, the Empire State Building is clearly visible from some of Nutley's highest points, but the pastoral serenity is preserved in the township's 100-acre park system that is sprinkled throughout this suburban community – a park system that is considered to be the “crown jewel” of all Essex County. We’ll walk about a mile, with many stops along the way. A list of possible luncheon destinations will be distributed on the tour. Celebrate Nutley history with a walking tour led by John Simko, the Nutley Museum Director.

$20 in advance, $23 on-site (plus bus fare)

Discover the Creation of Freshkills Park
Ferry & Bus Tour with Justin Ferate

Saturday, November 9, 2013, 9:15am to about 12:30pm (Manhattan to Manhattan)
Join Justin at Manhattan’s Staten Island Ferry Terminal to begin this discovery tour of the new Freshkills Park! In Staten Island, we’ll meet a special bus and a member of the New York City Parks Department who will take us on this very unusual adventure. At 2,200 acres, Freshkills Park will be almost three times the size of Central Park and the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years. James Corner of Field Operations, the same firm that created the stunning landscape designs for the High Line, produced the master plan to guide the long-term development of Freshkills Park.

All tour participants will be required to sign a Department of Sanitation liability waiver. $20 in advance (no on-site registrations)

Holiday Brunch & Slide Lecture by Justin Ferate
Brunch at Pete's Tavern, E. 18th St. at Irving Pl.
Slide Lecture: Groundbreaking for a New New York City!
The Centennial of Grand Central Terminal

Sunday, December 15, 2013, 12n to 3pm
Share an end-of-the-year meal with other Wolfe Walkers at our long-time holiday venue, Pete’s Tavern. See the table where O. Henry wrote his beloved Christmas classic, “The Gift of the Magi.”

In 1903 – a little over 100 years ago – the New York Central Railroad was legally obliged to either “Electrify or Leave Town!” In response, the train company made an impressive and nearly inconceivable decision. Blasting an immense trench down the center of stony island of Manhattan -- from 42nd Street to 97th Street -- the railroad placed their newly electrified trains underground. Above the railroad tracks, the railroad then created an elegant, luxurious new thoroughfare named PARK AVENUE -- transforming one of the ugliest places on the planet Earth into one of the most world’s desirable residential addresses, which still remains exceptionally chic 100 years later. The centerpiece of this great “makeover” was Grand Central Terminal, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year! Justin Ferate shares a photographic history of the creation of Grand Central Terminal, Park Avenue, and the invention of Midtown Manhattan!

Brunch features an array of selections from which to choose, and includes one drink. Limited to 38 people. $25 in advance, $30 on-site if space permits

Registration is by mail only, and since it's handled entirely by volunteer labor, you don't get an acknowledgment. If you're unsure about whether you're registered, you can always call Mickie Watterson to check. Warning: The big events like the bus trip and boat ride to Hartford always book up, and usually pretty quickly, so if I were you, I wouldn't delay. Also, I did the Holiday Brunch at Pete's Tavern for the first time last year and had a swell time; people tend to remember about it as the day approaches, so again, it's wise to book ahead. -- Ken

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Is Egypt Ready For A Primetime Tourism Redebut?

Roland and I had such a beautiful house picked out to rent in Damascus's old city, Beit al Kamar. I hope it's still standing. I doubt we'll ever see it-- and I'm happy the owners are living in Nashville. But, right now I would say Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan are probably not places you should consider going on vacation-- not unless your idea of a vacation includes gunfights and staying out of the way of Predator drones and chemical weapons attacks. But what about Egypt? Is it time to start thinking about a nice holiday along the Nile? Most travel agents will say no. CNN says no, Condé Nast says no and the international tourism industry says Egypt's tourist sector is on the verge of collapse.
“Four million Egyptians are employed in the tourism sector, millions of families live off of this, the bread to feed their children is at risk,” said Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, Hisham Zaazou, addressing around 30 Italian journalists hosted in Sharm El Sheikh, (to witness and report that it is a safe place for tourists) as he struggles to convince the Italian and European governments to reconsider their travel advice.

"We are appalled at the position of the European governments that do not recommend travel to Egypt,” the Minister said. “We are moving full steam ahead towards democracy. Riots in Cairo are in decline; we are a people who love peace. The decision of the EU to limit the financial aid only to the economic and social sectors does not help foreign visitors to come to us.
Now even Roland has given up advocating that we go to Damascus or Yemen. But he's gotten it into his head that now would be the right time for another vacation in Egypt. He has a feeling there are lots of good deals now and that the main sites won't be as crowded. Remember two things, last time we visited the Pyramids, Zahi Hawass himself closed the whole thing down so we could tour the Great Pyramid all by ourselves while hundreds of Belgians and Italians sweltered on line in the sun. And, last time we were there, the country nearly emptied out of tourists because a bunch of scimitar-wielding religious fanatics slaughtered, beheaded and disemboweled 60 or so foreign tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut across the Nile from Luxor. We had a huge cruise ship to ourselves (plus a couple of elderly Brits returning to London after a life in Oman). So, we really did get to see everything there was to see without any annoying crowds of tourists to spoil it. I say, let's not push our luck. Roland insisted I read this account which, makes revisiting Egypt now sound attractive... at least to him. (Apparently Chinese tourists, who we noticed are starting to dominate Europe, are also dominating Egypt. The travel in huge groups and hold everything up at every conceivable bottle neck.
The lone tourist bus curved through the desert past the limestone-topped Pyramid of Khafre, leaving the camel handlers and postcard sellers trudging through its dust. It rounded one last turn, then settled atop a plateau overlooking the pyramid and its two mammoth siblings.

The bus door flapped open, unleashing a dozen Chinese tourists into the empty parking lot. They strolled toward the plateau's edge, cameras and parasols in hand, just ahead of the vendors scrambling at the prospect of a few paying customers. For a moment, the scene was perfect-- the solitary caravan approaching from the desert, the heat shimmering off the stone blocks, the majestic desolation.

It helped that we were mostly alone that hot, late-August morning in the heart of one of the world's best-known tourist destinations. I was in town to help cover the troubles that had seized Egypt over the past two months and had found a calm morning to make it out to the Cairo suburbs, where the pyramids mark the start of the vast brown desert. I didn't expect to find the usual crowds there, but still the emptiness and quiet were a surprise. Closer to the pyramids, the crowds weren't much thicker: a British family, a scattering of Arab couples, Somali women posing for pictures in flowing headscarves, everyone easy and unhurried.

Years ago, before the 2011 revolution that started Egypt's political roller coaster, visiting the pyramids could quickly become a two-hour flight through clouds of tour groups. Visitors, guides and vendors jostled in front of the ancient marvels, as a steady line of buses emerged from the brown blocks of the city.

Now, after a summer of coup, protests and massacres, the flocks have flown to other spots, abandoning such draws as the Egyptian Museum, the ancient ruins of Luxor farther down the Nile and, of course, the pyramids of Giza. In mid-August, arrivals at Egyptian airports dropped by more than 40 percent after the military brutally cleared two sit-in camps protesting the July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

That has devastated the country's all-important tourism industry, which makes up more than a tenth of all economic activity. But it's proved a boon for travelers willing to defy official warnings from the U.S. and other countries against coming to Egypt.

Hotel and restaurant prices have dropped, sometimes by half, as has the Egyptian pound, making the already affordable country even more so. Once at the sights, travelers find themselves usually alone with some of the world's greatest treasures, be they gold death masks of pharaohs or the sublime centuries-old mosques soaring above old Cairo. Tourist sites have become forlorn, even serene-- more befitting these dignified survivors of the millennia.

Australian Mary Hill said she had been traveling across Europe with a friend over this summer and hadn't kept up on the news from Egypt. However, they had already booked a visit, and were set on going, even after they heard about the bloodshed.

"We were at a stage in our trip where we had to take a chance," Hill said as she stepped out of the child pharaoh Tutankhamen's exhibit at the Egyptian Museum. "And in the end, it's been positive."

"From the country's perspective, of course, it's not good."

The dearth of business has driven already predatory vendors and guides into a frenzy, with the U.S. Embassy in Egypt even issuing an alert in June about "over-aggressive vendors." Visitors had come across "angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles," the embassy reported, "and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle's doors."

On my pyramid trip, one young guide jumped onto the back of our car and clung to the rear window, while our driver abruptly braked and zoomed ahead and wove from lane to lane to try to shake him off. Only a block later did the driver convince the guide's friends to keep the young man off the bumper.

Then came the vendors inside the pyramid complex, who tried out their usual pitches before moving onto more desperate Plan Bs.

"There's no business here, there are no more tourists," one camel rider said, the ache in his voice sounding genuine. "I have a family. We need to eat."

In the winding alleys of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in old Cairo, merchants tried to physically stop what rare visitors they spotted walking through as they hocked limestone miniature pyramids and bright cotton fabrics.

Shop owner Mohamed Hafez said his sales had fallen by "100 percent" since Egyptians first took to the streets 2 1/2 years ago.

"There used to be a lot of tourists, a lot of nationalities," Hafez said, while cooling down in the air-conditioned inner sanctum of his souvenir shop. "Now, it's nothing. We just want safety, no more revolutions."

Wooing back those visitors has become a top priority, even with all the military vehicles and checkpoints in the streets. Dallas-based college student Deniz Mustafa had, in fact, flown into Cairo as part of a volunteer project inviting youth from around the world to visit and tout Egypt's top tourist sites.

Two weeks after his arrival in July, however, Morsi was violently removed, and the volunteer project was cancelled. Mustafa responded by hitting the road and seeing Egypt, flying down to Luxor and up to the Red Sea resort of Dahab, where empty restaurants were offering 50 percent discounts on entire menus.

Mustafa and a fellow volunteer from China had since moved onto the Egyptian Museum, where they were studying the ancient granite statues of Egyptian nobles and the small wooden ships buried with pharaohs.

"Any time you go to a temple or climb Mount Sinai, you have a more personal experience now," Mustafa said. "It's just you and the tour guide up there."

That peace was without a doubt a fragile one. The city still goes dead every Friday afternoon in anticipation of Muslim Brotherhood protests that can turn violent in an instant. Nighttime curfews were also in effect while I was there, effectively shutting down Cairo's buzzing nightlife.

Everyone was nervously waiting for the Brotherhood's response to the repression and expecting the worst. On one night in the bar of my hotel, the pops of explosions outside immediately silenced all conversation, as we wondered whether the violence was indeed back. A quick check out on the street confirmed they had only been fireworks.

For visitors, it all made for a rare glimpse into a proud country trying to figure out its future and also a chance to see Egypt free of many of the usual hassles. The dangers were real but mostly manageable.

The threat of a U.S. strike on Syria, however, made some Americans nervous about revealing their nationality. And if the political troubles flare up again in Egypt, even the bravest traveler will have to think twice about coming.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Catching up with Jack Eichenbaum

One of NYC's great buildings: the New York Public Library building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street

by Ken

It was a big commitment last weekend, especially for someone still recovering/rehabbing from knee-replacement surgery, but I couldn't resist signing up for Municipal Art Society walking tours with four of my favorite tour leaders -- on Saturday, Matt Postal ("Upstairs Downstairs" in Manhattan's East 60s) and Jack Eichenbaum ("From Forest Hills to Corona" in Queens); on Sunday, Joe Svehlak (the half-mile expanse of Nassau Street in downtown Manhattan) and Francis Morrone (three very different urban landscapes in Brooklyn -- the Robert Moses-era Metro-Tech, the c1990 Metro-Tech campus, and still-in-progress Brooklyn Bridge Park).

It was especially good to see Jack back in action, since he'd had to cancel a couple of tours this summer after banging up his knee. And the Forest Hills-to-Corona walk amply demonstrated his emphases as an "urban geographer" -- the way contrasting geography influences development. As I've mentioned a number of times, when Jack asks you on a tour which direction we're walking in, he usually doesn't want to know from north or south, east or west; he wants us to be aware of up and down. ("Up" tends to be the good dry land where rich people gravitate; "down" tends to be marshy or mucky land that floods easily and is much tougher to develop.)

Tomorrow I'm doing another tour with Jack, for the Municipal Art Society, which is really a two-in-one, focusing on the Midtown Manhattan corridor of East 42nd Street. The year 2013 has been a blockbuster year for Grand Central Terminal, because February marked the centenary of its opening, and that opening gave a huge impetus to the development of the neighborhood. But already in the neighborhood, a couple of blocks to the west, was one of New York's greatest building, the New York Public LIbrary, begun in 1902 and finally opened in 1911. Here's how Jack describes the tour:
Maps, Realities and the People’s Palace
Saturday, September 14, 11am-1pm

Marking the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, we’ll tour the (external) GCT and Bryant Park vicinities, planned areas greatly altered since before the Civil War. Then we will see how historical cartography captures the changing urban landscape in the splendidly restored Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division of the New York Public Library.
Jack does tours under various auspices, including his own, which is why it's important to sign up for his e-mail list, which you can do on the "Public Tour Page" of his website, "The Geograhy of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum," for advance notification of what he has in the works. Coming up is one of his Queens specialties. (Remember, Jack is Queens' official borough historian.)
What’s New in Long Island City?
Sunday, October 6, 4-6:30pm

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. After the tour, enjoy restaurants and LICAO events which abound in the nearby Vernon/Jackson area. >This tour is self-sponsored with the support of Community Board 2 and the Long Island City Partnership. Meet at the fare booth on the lowest level of the Queensboro Plaza station (N,Q,7) Fee $15
For MAS Jack has two more of his Queens specialties coming up:
Flushing’s Koreatown
Saturday, October 19 11am-1pm

Koreans are the premiere small businessmen and church builders of contemporary immigration. Their center of gravity has migrated away from Central Flushing and is now sprawling east along Northern Blvd and to “Korean Villages” at LIRR stations. See surprising shops, supermarkets and unusual houses of worship. Eats include “BBQ“ and “KFC ” (Korean versions!) Be prepared to walk briskly.

November 23 11am-1pm

This demographically changing neighborhood is opposite Manhattan‘s Upper East Side. Italians and Greeks are being replaced by Arabs, Bosnians, Brazilians, Mexicans, and yuppies. We’ll explore Astoria from its important transportation arteries: Steinway St (a former trolley route), 31 St (under the elevated train), the Grand Central Parkway which bisected the neighborhood 70 years ago, and 30th Avenue, its café-lined promenade. Be prepared to walk briskly.

One of the things Jack is best known for is his daylong series of mini-walking tours organized around a single subway line -- most frequently "The World of the No. 7," the Flushing line, but more recently "A Day on the J," which runs from the Lower East Side through Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Bushwick and on into Queens. This summer Jack announced a tour built around my (and Howie's) old Brooklyn subway line, the Brighton line, now designated the Q train. (The line's original destination as a regular railroad was Brighton Beach, but it was eventually extended on to Coney Island.)

The tour was originally scheduled for July, but Jack banged up his knee and had to postpone it. Now it's scheduled for September 29, when it should be cooler, and also more people will have an opportunity to sign up.
Brighton Line Memoirs meandering off the Q train

Saturday, September 28, 10am-5:30pm

This is a series of five walks and connecting rides along what was once the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island RR dating to 1878. Walks take place in Prospect Park, Brighton Beach, along Avenue U, in Ditmas Park and Central Flatbush. Lunch is in Brighton Beach where you can picnic on the Boardwalk. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) Get the full day’s program and other info by email The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!
The last I heard from Jack, on the "Forest Hills to Corona" walk, there was still a fair amount of space in the Q train tour, but the way it often works is that there's a flurry of registrations as the date closes in, and people wind up getting closed out. You don't want that to happen to you, do you?


Justin, who for some time now has programmed and led most of the Wolfe Walkers tours (originated by Gerard Wolfe way back when), hasn't mentioned it as far as I've noticed among the vast quantity of tour news items he passes along to his mailing list, "Tours of the City with Justin Ferate," but the fall Wolfe Walkers schedule is in fact up. I've gotten my registrations in the mail. We should talk about them soon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Taliban Seems To Have Captured A U.S. Base Near Herat And Is Attacking The Consulate In Town Now

I can't imagine that many tourists go to Herat in western Afghanistan anymore. I don't know if they ever had that many tourists there. The first time I was there was in 1969. It was my first real glimpse of legendary Afghanistan after months of slow trudging through Eastern Europe, Turkey and Iran. I recall a lot desert wasteland in eastern Iran and the same over the border in Afghanistan until we got to Herat. And Herat is-- or at least was-- a garden city. I remember it as a kind of urban oasis, although the gardens were pretty much exclusively behind high walls. I think it was the third biggest city then, after Kabul and Kandahar. Kandahar has been so decimated-- while Herat was relatively immune from the nightmare that Afghanistan has been in the last few decades-- that I think Herat is now the second biggest city.

After spending several months in Afghanistan, I realized Herat was one of the richest cities in the country. Later I had a business partner, the postmaster of Kabul, who was the son of Herat's governor, a relative of the king. When I was arrested with 50 kilos of incredible Mazari hash built into the panels of my van a year or so later up near the Russian border, the postmaster's father got me out of prison in a few hours-- and got me back my van (with the hash) the following day.

The first time I got to use the really strong hallucinogenic-- hallucinogenic like an acid trip-- Mazari hash was my first day in Herat. My sparkling new red VW van rolled into town and every rich merchant in the city was all over me. I soon found myself sitting alone-- where were my friends?-- in a huge airy room with a dozen Herati merchants... smoking. Hours later I was not just still high, I was still getting higher! I loved Herat and I loved Afghanistan. I stayed a long time and started losing rack of who I was-- other than this stoned guy in a strange, strange world unlike anything I had ever experienced. So what brought Herat back to my mind tonight? Taliban insurgents attacked the U.S. consulate. The video up top, from earlier today, purports to show a U.S. base near Herat overrun by the Taliban. The attack on the consulate came later although details are still sketchy.
The Taliban told the BBC a suicide bomber had detonated explosives outside the building before dawn on Friday.

Other fighters then opened fire on the consulate. Several Afghan police are reported to have been killed and injured in the gun battle.

It is the latest in a series of attacks ahead of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

An Afghan army spokesman told the BBC that the initial explosion had damaged outer defences of the US consulate, allowing the attackers to breach the perimeter and shoot at the consulate buildings.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Return to the Museum of the Moving Image: From "The Sopranos" to "Breaking Bad" (by way of "Rear Window")




                              G. B.

by Ken

Maybe if I'd had any idea it was there, I wouldn't have been so taken aback. But suddenly there I was, standing in front of the glass case, with a pair of headphones on listening to the audio of one of the exhibit video displays, and it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at The Book!

Tell me these things don't all fit together! It was just last week in TV Watch that I wrote about the book -- the fateful copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass inscribed so affectionately to Walter White by the late Gale Boetticher! For a while I thought it was just some sort of mockup or something. But I kept looking and gradually grasped that no, this was the actual book. Okay, it's possible that the Breaking Bad props department cooked up more than one copy to cover themselves when the book was shot in Walt's bathroom, where it produced one of the series' more dramatic moments. So maybe there was another copy, and perhaps even another, on display in other museums. But there was no doubt that this was the real thing.

And then the museum guard was tapping on the glass, signaling that there was only five minutes to closing. I hadn't really left myself much time for browsing. Mostly on Thursday I had just wanted to actually get out to Astoria (Queens), taking advantage of my Rosh Hashanah PTO day (God will just have to understand) to present my about-to-expire Groupon voucher for membership in the Museum of the Moving Image, comfortably situated in part of the old Kaufman-Astoria Studios complex (part of which has for some years once again been a working studio, probably New York City's premier TV and film production studio, where shows like Cosby and Seinfeld have been filmed).

The young woman at the desk cheerfully attended to the paperwork, and when I asked if I could make a reservation for Friday evening's screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which I don't think I'd ever seen on a big screen, she did me one better: She produced an actual ticket, so when I made the return trip to Astoria from work last night, I could head straight to the theater.

I had meant to make the first trip on Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, when I could also have availed myself of the opportunity to see two of the last films in the summer series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75,: Milos Forman's first American film, Taking Off (1971), and from the same year his countryman Ivan Passer's Born to Win. I don't think I'd ever seen Born to Win, but I sure had seen Taking Off, when it first came out, and as best I recall hated it. The museum description calls it "the sweetest of generation gap movies," but I remembered it as the hamfistedest of pseudo-parodies of '60s-'70s counterculture. But I didn't remember it as an especially New York movie, but the blurb recalled that it "was shot in and around New York during the summer of 1970," and that "the director discovered his 16-year-old star in Central Park hanging with the hippies around Bethesda Fountain." For all that New York-itude alone it might be worth another look.

Well, I didn't make it. And Sunday, when the series concluded with the classic Panic in Needle Park (also 1971) and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975, which I remembered more fondly, I wasn't available. I had a walking tour in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge scheduled, which I wound up missing. The trip from Washington Heights took me an hour and three-quarters (complicated by weekend transit changes, which I thought I'd worked around cleverly, but turned out to be not so clever), and while I'd planned to allow a full two hours, I wound up compressing that to an hour and 35-40 minutes -- close but no cigar. My time management lately has sucked. Add the hour-and-three-quarters return trip, and it was one of my longer trips to nowhere.

So my Rosh Hashanah trek to Astoria represented a comeback of sorts. I hadn't left myself a lot of time to wander around the museum, though, which is how I wound up being caught short when I stumbled across the exhibit "From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White's Transformation in Breaking Bad." That "startling transformation," the museum description says, "with costumes, props, selected scenes from the series, and behind-the-scenes footage." The costumes and props were on loan from Sony Pictures Television -- including, of course, The Book. The exhibit runs through October 27, so I will definitely have to get back. I see that I missed an evening with series creator and mastermind Vince Gilligan when the exhibit opened in late July. I would gladly have forked over the $12 member price.

Then again, the interviewing was done by Charlie Rose, and that I could live without. By coincidence, in my quick wandering through the museum, the first thing I encountered, which I watched for a while before finding out what the heck it was, was an exhibition called "Cut Up" (running through October 14): "From supercuts to mashups to remixes, Cut Up celebrates the practice of re-editing popular media to create new work, presenting contemporary videos by self-taught editors and emerging artists alongside landmarks of historic and genre-defining reappropriation." I had just sat down and watched for a while, and while most of the "cut-ups" I saw seemed to me more facile than clever, there was a hilariously surreal several minutes, called either "Charlie Rose, by Samuel Beckett" or vice versa and featuring Charlie Rose interviewing Charlie Rose, with interviewer Charlie asking pompously incoherent questions and interviewee Charlie providing mostly mute but even more incoherent replies. The short was credited to Charlie Rose as executive producer, but I had a feeling that was part of the cut-up piece.

Although nothing about the joint looked even vaguely familiar, this wasn't my first membership stint at the Museum of the Moving Image. I had joined way back when, when the museum screened the first two seasons of The Sopranos, which at the time was all there was, with Season 3 still in the works -- I'm guessing it was the summer of 2000. The schedule was intense: eight episodes a weekend, two in the morning and two in the afternoon both days. And since at the time I didn't have cable, let alone HBO, this was my first direct exposure to the series, which of course I'd been hearing about endlessly. And it played simply incredibly on the big screen. Since Seasons 1 and 2 of The Sopranos comprised 13 episodes each, the series must have filled three eight-episode weekends and overlapped into a fourth. It was one of my all-time great viewing experiences, and it was a great relief to me that I was able to rearrange my life circumstances so that I was able to watch Season 3 (and subsequent seasons), albeit on a mere 31-inch conventional CRT TV.

But again, these things come around. As I believe I also mentioned last week, I just replaced my Sopranos Season 1-3 VHS tapes and Season 4 DVDs with the complete-series DVDs, which I've just begin watching on my first-ever HDTV, bought shortly after my knee-replacement surgery in April -- as a reward of sorts for my old bedroom TV having conked out just a week or two before the surgery, so that I had no TV in the bedroom in the early weeks of convalescence. (Well, it sure got me out of bed! Like I can live without a TV.) It's not quite re-creating the experience of those first two seasons, but as I've written here frequently, every time I dip into The Sopranos, whether for a bloc of episodes or an isolated one or two, the show just keeps playing better. And on DVD on the 42-inch HDTV, it looks pretty darned fine too.

Oh yes, I had a swell time at Rear Window last night. The 35mm print looked kind of grainy to me, but it was a pleasure to be able to watch the unfolding of the ongoing minidramas staged in all the "rear windows" the Jimmy Stewart character is reduced to watching all day and most of the night during his confinement to a wheelchair with a broken leg. And memory impairment can be a blessing. It can't be that long since I watched the picture on DVD, but I mercifully remembered the later plot unfoldings sketchily enough that I was able to be caught up deliciously in the final build-up.

Ah yes, Miss Torso -- the most scenic of the "rear window" vistas viewed compulsively by shut-in photographer "Jeff" Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

Urban Gadabout: New palm trees for the World Financial Center's breathtaking Winter Garden

The Winter Garden, the breathtaking public atrium in the World Financial Center, is one of New York City's most beautiful interior spaces.

by Ken

[NOTE: This post was written to be posted on August 21, but I don't seem to have actually posted it. The time frame has changed a bit, but otherwise it seems to me still worth looking at -- especially the pictures.]

Amid the devastation of 9/11, the fate of the Winter Garden, the majestic and much-loved 10-story atrium of the Cesar Pelli-designed World Financial Center, adjacent to the World Trade Center, may not have been uppermost in many people's minds, but in fact it was pretty much totaled.

The relatively quick and genuinely masterful rebuilding of the Winter Garden correspondingly became one of the city's most heartening symbols of revival. And the center's proprietors have continued to maintain the space rigorously and lovingly -- right up to Superstorm Sandy, when the space took another hit. By then, though, the complex's owners, Brookfield Properties, were preparing to announce a substantial renovation that would mark the WFC's conversion into "Brookfield Place" (not exactly a "Eureka"-style naming inspiration; Brookfield already had Brookfield Places in its home city of Toronto and in Perth, Australia), in hopes of drawing non-financial tenants to the considerable space the company has to market.

Meanwhile, the Winter Garden is for once undergoing some transformation that is both (a) planned and (b) owing to natural causes. The grid of 16 palm trees which has been probably the atrium's most conspicuous feature is in the process of being replaced. It seems that the old trees, which in fact were new trees when they were planted in the 2002 rebuilding of the Winter Garden, had grown to 60 feet, too large to allow for further growth in the space.

So last week the old trees were chopped down, to be converted to mulch for use in gardens at local hospitals "to honor their role in the Winter Garden that made it both a place to meet and a place to rest," according to a Brookfield statement, and this week 16 new trees, about 35 feet tall, have been planted to take their place.'s Julie Shapiro reports that the new occupants "will all be Washingtonia robusta trees, the same type as the previous trees," according to Brookfield.

Long life to the young(er) trees -- or at least as long as their new habitat allows.