We Need To Talk…

 

Really?

Really?

Sit down.

Yeah, you…

Alright, I get it. You can’t because you’re busy in the heart of Midtown and you still need to be cleaned before thousands will flock to you come daybreak.  Fair enough.

It came to my attention last week that you were showing off, right in the middle of the city for everyone to see. I don’t know if it was for Easter or Passover or because the warm weather finally made a return to our neck of the woods and I also know that it wasn’t the first time I caught you doing this either. After having you distract enough of my passengers and even myself as I made way up up 6 Ave. several times during the night, I felt that it was finally time to have a little heart-to-heart talk with you.

I love you. Really, I do. It goes way back to when you were one the few remnants of old New York that I could behold in pristine shape when much of your surrounds were in battered, ragged, and tagged shape. I got goosebumps the first time you came into view as I rounded the bend on Route 3 and could see you and your spire off in the distance, beckoning me as if I dropped in from a Kansas Tornado and had to make my way over to Oz off in the distance. Although you weren’t the most prominent landmark in the city since the early 70’s, there wasn’t anything that could compare to you. Not the lady in the harbor, nor your nirosta-topped cousin on the corner of Lexington and 42 St could match your soaring verticality, ornate lobby, or grasp that you held onto the collective psyche of this country. It came as no surprise that in classics such as Fail Safe and Independence Day, that it was you that the filmmakers ultimately chose to destroy when it came time to give the Big Apple its death blow. Although the accounts were fictitious, I still cannot bear to look at those scenes on film, and this was long before the real thing came to pass on 9/11.

Unfortunately, I *did* have to look at you putting on one of your luminous extravaganzas recently, and it wasn’t by choice. Let’s face it, even in 2014, you’re still out there by yourself. Nothing over 50 stories stands close to you and it will be quite some time before you’re unseated as the King of Midtown. A pile of “pencils” that will house the world’s super-rich is still taking form up on 57 Street and the supertall glassy spire that’s going to open in Lower Manhattan later this year still does not have the charm, bravado, and zeitgeist that you do, even though it’s been growing on me more now that it’s been topped off and the scaffolding is finally starting to come down the side of it. Your isolation and prominence makes you easy to see (as well as an easy target), which was proven when a few of my passengers looked at you too and asked me what was going on, as if I didn’t have enough to deal with now that the jaywalkers and tour buses are back out in full force.

Yeah, really

Yeah, really

Never mind that, though. I know that this will probably go in one ear and out the…um, make that window. Yeah, in one window and out the other. I’ll say it anyway for the record.

You’re a better than this.

A *lot* better than this.

All those hypodermic skyscrapers in Times Square put on a light show nightly and even the old New York Central Building on Park Ave. has gotten in on the act, showcasing the latest in LED and timing technology in some hyperactive bid to outdo each other to be the baddest, hippest, and coolest presence on the skyline at night. You don’t need that though.

Did you need it when a giant Ape climbed up you in 1933?

Or when a plane accidentally hit you in 1945?

Or when a steel column was hoisted up 100 stories in Lower Manhattan in 1972, taking away the title that you graciously and confidently held for 40 years?

No, and you don’t need it now either.

I anticipated watching your lights come on as dusk settled into night, but that was when you had one scheme that stayed on until you shut down for the evening at 2. On the dot, I could watch it happen as I crossed a bridge or caught you in between the gaps of the other towers, knowing that you were calling it a night and that in 3 hours, I would be doing the same. Now, I look forward to that moment so I don’t have to plant a face palm when I’m sitting at a red light, wondering what visual cacophony I will be subjected to as you luminously scream for my attention.

And you know what? It shouldn’t be like this.

All those tacky souvenir shops in Midtown have lots of kitsch in them but besides the lady holding the torch in the harbor, it’s you that they feature the most. Anything else that they display from your era has only aged gracefully – take a look at the towers involved in the race to the sky in the early 20th Century. They’ve been cleaned, modernized, and in some cases, converted to apartments but they’re still grand dames and they don’t have to resort to the lower common denominator to grab everyone’s attention.

Know what’s guilty of that, however? All those towers popping up in those Asian Tiger cities, as they attempt to assert themselves without having any of the romance or bravado that made Manhattan the place to be during the peak of American hegemony. Every year, there’s another glass monolith that takes away the title away from its predecessor and I read recently that a building in Saudi Arabia is going to stretch a kilometer into the sky. Do I care? No. Why should I? Skyscrapers, like everything else in life, are what they are because of the stories behind them. I may not like what’s rising at Ground Zero but should I ever lose it and decide to have kids of my own someday, I will cherish the opportunity to tell them about what used to be there, their untimely demise, and our resolve to rebuild and make the site a better place for future generations.

That’s what New York is all about, and so are you. Admit it – you’re the face of this town as much as Gabe Pressman, the rush of air from a subway grate, the lower East River Bridges, a giant sandwich from Katz’s, and yes, even the vehicle that I drive. You’ll never be the champ again when it comes to touching the clouds but you’re still the King of Gotham, no matter how much you’ll get bumped down the list in the coming generations. Yes, I understand that it’s the 21st Century and that the old way of manually changing the lights on you is gone for good but that doesn’t mean that you have to be a show-off on major holidays or on New Year’s; which was a spectacle unto itself and beyond words.

No matter, though. I still love you and always will, even if no one sees the goosebumps I get every time I approach the city every day for work.

Still the King

Still the King

 

 

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Tagged

Tagged - Long Island City

Tagged – Long Island City

“Hey there, where to?”

“30 Ave. in Astoria.”

“No problem – we’ll take the Upper Level of the Bridge and down 21 St. Is that alright?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“I’m guessing you work over at NBC since I picked you up right in front of it.”

“That would be correct.”

“What department are you in?”

“I’m in news.”

“Well, since you’re in news and I’m taking you home to Queens, I’m sure you heard about what happened earlier today over at 5 Pointz.”

“Actually, I do international. What went on there?”

(I proceeded to hand her my phone, with the pictures I took on my way to the garage of the building.)

“Really?!?!???”

“Yeah, really.”

Planes, Trains, and changes - Long Island City

Planes, Trains, and changes – Long Island City

It came quite a shock to New Yorkers a few weeks back when they woke up one morning and saw the reports that 5 Pointz had been whitewashed over in the middle of the night. I actually worked that same night and nearly went right by it on my way back to Greenpoint, after getting the junk washed off of my cab at 4:30 in the morning. Because that section of Long Island City is nearly dark after hours, I had no idea of what went on there until my alarm went off, I pulled up Twitter, and saw that it was trending. At first, I was hoping that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had finally designated the building hands-off to developers but the first image that came up edifice completely painted over in white, done under the cover of overnight darkness.

Artists, preservationists, locals, and New Yorkers who had followed the saga for years where shocked at what was considered by many to be an artistic crime. Sure, it seemed likely that the building was going to come down sometime early next year, another victim of the gentrification’s relentless pursuit into the Outer Boroughs. This was different than battles of the past though, since 5 Pointz had a facade that was exclusively turned over for the use by graffiti artists from around the Big Apple as well as around the world.

There was a big gathering there over the Summer to celebrate 40 years of Hip Hop as many DJ’s, artists, dancers, and those from the Boogie-down Bronx back in the day made their way over to celebrate a musical movement that rose up out of the decay of postwar New York and redefined what Americans coast-to-coast listened to and ultimately, embodied in their dress, manner, and style. There were rumors at the time that the complex’s days were numbered but it wasn’t until a few months later that another rally was held at the same place, This time around, it was with the specific intent of gathering support to landmark the building and send a message to developers that they had to look elsewhere to sink their capital when it came to upgrading former (and sometimes still) industrial neighborhoods.

Jammin' - Long Island City

Jammin’ – Long Island City

Yours truly went to both rallies – partially because of historical interest, partially out of curiosity, and partially to do whatever was possible to save 5 Pointz from the wrecking ball.

“So what do we have here?”

“Signed subway maps, a petition, shirts, have a look…”

“This one’s big enough – I like mine baggy. What lines do you have?”

“A and 7, both in black and white.”

“I’ll take the 7 since runs right by this place.”

“That’s what most people say. It’ll be $25.”

“Here you go. What’s your name by the way?”

“Panic.”

“Well, thanks for signing this. Good luck with everything!”

A few minutes later, turntables 1 and 2 stopped for some speeches by anyone who wanted to express how they felt about the impending decision on the sites fate. I couldn’t say to listen to them since call time at work beckoned but all I can remember was the disgust at all of the “glass tissue boxes that were popping up around the City” and a mantra that Yogi Berra would have been proud to hear:

“It’s ain’t over until we say it’s over!”

The crowd cheered  in a scene somewhat reminiscent out of The Warriors, but it turns out to be short-lived as I passed by it a few days later.

Most of the building was whitewashed that first night and the Police said that anyone throwing up a tag on it from there on out would be subject to arrest. Sure enough, a few teenagers learned that the hard way later on that week as they attempted to put their name on it with a simple writing utensil. A Pyrrhic victory was the last thing that anyone who danced, laughed, and snapped away that afternoon would have described what took place but once the writing wasn’t on the wall anymore, that’s when it was truly over.

Hendrix - Long Island City

Hendrix – Long Island City

The owner said that he wanted it cleaned up so when demolition started, no one would have to bear the sight of watching years of tags, murals, and illustrations meet their demise. Instead, it was done in the same manner as so many heists over the centuries – in the middle of the night while no one had any advance notice. No, it wasn’t Washington crossing the Delaware but one could make the argument that the British were just as surprised as I was when they woke up and realized that their cause was for nothing.

Or was it?

Opponents of the works that were applied over the last 20 years would make the claim that graffiti is *not* a true art form, as its very anti-authoritarian and method of application ensures that its days are extremely numbered, before a piece is painted over or cleaned up. While no one will ever see anything from Panic hanging in the Met, that doesn’t take away from the significance of what was there. 5 Pointz was famous because of where it was, what it represented, and what it challenged artists to do:

Which would be improving their craft.

Most graffiti that popped up overnight in the 1970’s was just a simple tag, that everyone wanted to leave behind. It wasn’t art as much as it was a signature – a way for those without a voice to leave one, if only for self-satisfaction. Real art took time and space, which usually ended up on the side of a building or on a Subway car that would make its way to Manhattan for the oppressors to see. The greatest works of graffiti that are in my New York History books or on Youtube clips are only there now and not in actual existence anymore, washed away as part of a relentless assault on quality-of-life crimes that culminated with the election of Rudolph Giuliani in 1993.

 

Work in Progress - Long Island City

Work in Progress – Long Island City

 

That wasn’t the case at 5 Pointz. Artists took their time planning what they created, and executed their work as painstakingly as possible, knowing that being to be able to display their work there was one of the highest achievements that a street artist could boast. One of the biggest lamentations after the whitewashing of the facade was that thousands of New Yorkers who took the 7 train in and out of Manhattan every day would no longer see the newest pieces as the Subway rose and fell out of the Steinway Tunnels. That was one of my fondest memories of attending the nearby Taxi School, broke and desperate for money as my loans from Columbia were coming due.

No, graffiti didn’t die with the demise of 5 Pointz but its role with the City at large has been re-examined as the site is prepared to make way for luxury condo towers. The British artist Banksy put a piece up a night a few months back, sparking off a frenzy as to where he would strike next and how much his creations were worth. Real artists were not down with his schtick though, as they merely painted for the love of the end result. While I never fully understood some of the angst and anger behind what was drawn, I could appreciate something that they poured their heart as soul into, just as much as I loved and will always admire the works of Money, Mondrian, and Warhol.

Rest in Power - Long Island City

Rest in Power – Long Island City

The greatest tragedy was that the art forms that came to prominence one night at a time under the cover of darkness took its greatest blow in the same conditions as well. Whether anyone questioned the legitimacy of the art itself only had to look at all the Police that were there at the Save 5 Pointz rally and in the weeks afterwards, as it turned from a Mecca of art to one of mourning. Like everything else in the city that has been a victim of creative destruction over the generations, the community will find a new cause, a new rallying point and maybe, a permanent home where a museum can flourish for future generations. 5 Pointz will probably serve as a smaller and more poignant reminder of what Penn Station did for the greater Metropolitan region 50 years ago. While the mistakes made on the West Side of Manhattan are finally starting to be undone, it’s not too late to learn from what took place in Long Island City a few weeks back. Graffiti is as much an art form in New York as the music that came out of Tin Pan Alley or the Swing that flourished in Harlem during the Jazz Age and needs to be commemorated just as much as those places were as their respective neighborhoods changed during wave after wave of capital and demographic renewal.

The real tragedy will be if 5 Pointz suffered an ignominious fate without helping to win the war of urban artistic preservation.

Whitewashed - Long Island City

Whitewashed – Long Island City

Brooklyn’s Finest

The Oculus - Barclays Center

The Oculus – Barclays Center

“I can’t stand it.”

As I made my way down Flatbush Ave. time and time again, I asked anyone and everyone that I was taking home to Brooklyn what they thought of the building pictured above, as it was under construction. Doctors, teachers, parents, artists, office workers, waiters – nearly all of them had an opinion on it and it wasn’t good. They were afraid of the crowds, traffic, loss of character in neighborhood, and the rise in property values. With much fanfare last fall, the Barclays Center finally opened and the long-awaited redevelopment of the Long Island Railroad yards finally had some concrete results that people could see and judge for themselves. Of course, I was one of them since I attended one of Coldplay’s concerts there right before New Year’s.

I’m not a huge fan of stadiums and arenas from an economic development standpoint. As much as I love my sports teams and the facilities they play in, it’s more of an aesthetic and design standpoint that I judge them from, and not whether they can bring a neighborhood back from a decline. As any New Yorker could attest to, the centerpiece of the greater project known as Atlantic Yards was more than just an arena for an NBA team. It was supposed to be a Frank Gehry-designed sports facility with loads of housing behind it and a skyscraper that would have been dubbed “Miss Brooklyn”, since it would have been the tallest in the Borough once completed. Most of those plans were scrapped in favor of the arena that SHoP ended up designing (to rave reviews) while the housing is still in limbo. What the final appearance of the yards will be remains anyone’s guess but the site already had a story that could be seen underneath the LED lights and exterior.

For starters, there’s been a huge re-branding of the team that formerly resided in my home state. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that their primary color was chosen to be black since it’s a timeless color that doesn’t go out of style. The concourses and seats inside were this hue as well, leading me to believe that it was a done deal long before the team announced their new name and color scheme. Along with that was a huge proclamation that professional sports had returned to New York’s most populous Borough, long after the Dodgers had bolted for the West Coast half a century earlier and left Brooklyn without its own team to root for. Unfortunately, pro sports *had* returned to the Borough a few years earlier, just not at the Major League Level.

The irony of the Nets rechristening as “Brooklyn” was the tale of the Dodgers and how they left the East Coast in the first place. Nearly everyone knows that Walter O’ Malley wanted a new Stadium for his team to replace the aging Ebbets Field. Robert Moses, who controlled nearly every City and State development agency in New York in the late 1950’s had a site ready for him…but it was in Queens. O’ Malley nixed the idea, packed up everything, and the following season, the Dodgers were playing their games in Wrigley Field (no, not that one in Chicago) before Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. Two years later, the expansion Metropolitans moved into a facility on the same Queens property that Moses had envisioned for “Dem Bums” and by then, there was a whole world of excitement next door with the World’s Fair going on in Flushing Meadows Park.

What many don’t know is that none of this would have happened had O’ Malley had his way. As hated as he remains to this day, he wanted to keep the team in Brooklyn. His goal was to have a concrete, state-of-the-art Stadium built right in the heart of the Borough, on the largest undeveloped parcel that remained in Brooklyn. The team would have only moved a little over a mile away, the Dodgers would have stayed in New York, and maybe Horace Stoneham would have sought a simliar replacement for the Polo Grounds. The new field would have been built on top of the railyards just beyond the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues…

…which is precisely where the Barclays center opened 55 years later.

This isn’t a lesson on how the blackmailing of cities over sports venues can come full circle but rather, one in urban planning. Much like the MTA yards on the West Side of Manhattan, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn represents the aspirations of a place looking to move into the future on one of the last blank slates in its cityscape. Cultural attractions, improved mass transit connections, housing, parkland, and open space are seen as the magnets that will draw the professional and affluent residents that 21st Century Cities will need in order to survive and maintain the tax base. Naturally, someone will end up being displaced and dismayed at the whole environmental and review process, which will ultimately turn out to be the residents and drivers (including yours truly) when all it said and done. Much of the traffic patterns around the new Arena were screwed up for months during the construction of it, which had to be done on time for the Jay-Z concert that marked its opening. There still isn’t anywhere good for Yellow drop-offs and pickups, although the black cars have their own space for those functions. After all, Brooklyn is an Outer Borough!

The locals who decried the monstrosity that arose over the railyards have no choice but to live with it now, and the high rises that are planned to go on the back side of it. Even if the entire project was cancelled, the wave of development that has crept over the Lower East River Bridges and settled in Downtown and Boerum Hill has already changed the appearance of the Borough forever. Rents are closer than ever to those in Manhattan and more people are commuting within Brooklyn now for work than ever before. As evidenced by the high ticket prices and cost of concessions at the Barclays Center, it’s not the only way that Manhattan has reared its ugly head in the former “Outer Borough”.

As I’ve said before, a cabdriver told me once that when he used to drive people to Brooklyn, cops would tell him where Manhattan was and how to get back there since they thought he was lost. That’s no longer the case and as more people want to call the Borough home, the onslaught of high-end apartment towers, chain stores, and cultural amenities geared towards the rich will only continue to proliferate. Even though the Barclays Center is largely clad in weathered steel designed to invoke the surrounding industrial past, there’s no doubt that the building on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues is from the future, and a harbinger of more change yet to come.

Barclays Center from across Flatbush Ave

Barclays Center from across Flatbush Ave