Sunday, December 16, 2007

Raise your hand if you want to live in a place called "DUMBO"

I DO!! I DO!!

DUMBO is the unlikely name for one of the coolest still-emerging artsy/funky/hipster neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I won't call it "the next SoHo" because that's probably Chelsea, which is a bit grittier, much gayer, art gallery-filled neighborhood on the lower westside of Manhattan, in the former cold-storage and meatpacking sort of area. Also, it appeared to us that most of the people who live in DUMBO (clever marketing name for an unlikely neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass- get it?) are probably better characterized as affluent Yuppies who appreciate art, but earn a paycheck on (nearby) Wall Street, rather than starving artists eeking out a living in illegally converted loft spaces. (Although I think the starving artists have simply been priced-out of the area, at this point in its evolution.)

The grossly-simplified, thumbnail history of DUMBO is as follows: In the late 19th century, it was an industrial/manufacturing zone- Brooklyn's industrial waterfront- that produced things like the first corrugated cardboard boxes (that enabled mass-production of pre-packaged food), Yuban coffee, liquor distribution and storage, etc. As manufacturing in NY declined over the early 20th century, the place emptied out and left hulking industrial buildings behind. By the 1960s and 70s, artists had begun to creep in (the SoHo effect).

In the 1980s, a guy named Walentas discovered the area and pegged it as a natural low-priced landing spot for artists priced out of Manhattan. He bought up a big chunk of the long-abandoned industrial buildings, gave it a sassy new name (it was formerly known as Gairville or Fulton Ferry), enticed artists across the Hudson River (it's just 1 stop from Wall Street on the A train) with cheap rents and lots of art space, fostered a sense of community, upscale specialty retail followed, yada yada yada . . . he held strong to his vision (reminds me a lot of Tom Gilmore's downtown L.A. Old Bank District neighborhood) and, 20 years later, he is cashing out with million dollar condos converted from buildings that had sat empty, in some cases, for nearly 100 years!

It's such a cool area, nestled under the bridges with (sometimes deafening) cars roaring overhead. It achieves that trick that urbanites often forget- the best views of the city are had from just outside the city, and the views of lower Manhattan from DUMBO simply kick butt.

Just curious . . .

What other kind of food is there?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Down a dark alley in the Bowery you'll find . . . NYC's coolest restaurant?

Let me state one fact from the outset, in case there is any doubt: I am NOT cool. Occasionally, however, I mingle with those who are, and, being the sponge I am, a bit of it rubs off on me. Thanks to a suggestion by my in-the-know former-Manhattanite colleague Delphine, my dinner in NYC at Freemans Restaurant is a great example.

Last weekend, we went to NYC to meet up with John's dad, his brother, and a couple of his cousins in from Indiana and Albany. Friday night was "ladies night out" and these fun, adventurous ladies were trusting enough to follow my lead to . . .

All of the above photos were taken in a dark, scary alley in the Bowery (yes, The Bowery- historical Skid Row of NYC), at the end of which is uber-hipster restaurant, Freemans (named after its location, since it is so cool it doesn't even have a proper mapquest-able address.) The place feels more like a speakeasy than a restaurant, since my online efforts to pinpoint its location consistently led me to places that were decidedly wrong. (I'm apparently not alone, since the NY Times called it a restaurant "hiding in not-so-plain sight.") Even the website is only 1 page- when was the last time you saw a one-page website? It's almost retro- like a yellow-page listing. And nary a map or menu in sight, you'll note.

So who gets the bright idea to put a restaurant in such a daunting location? Somebody with a nose for marketing, apparently, because the place has been open for 3 years and it's still HOT HOT HOT. The story goes that even the Bush twins had to endure the requisite never-ending wait for a table.

To give a sense of how too-cool-for-itself the place is, here is an approximation of the conversation I had at 6:30 pm (so early it's practically lunchtime, by NYC standards):
Me: "How long is the wait for 3 people?"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "It would be obnoxious for us to have that conversation." (his exact words)
Me: "Huh? Would you translate that please?"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "We can start to think about taking names again in 30 minutes."
Me: "Annie, party of 3"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "Come back in an hour-and-a-half."

What are we going to do in the Bowery for an hour-and-a-half, you ask? Aha! Follow me!

It's not every week that a world-famous, important new museum opens up, but one opened this month in, where else, the Bowery! The New Museum is the generically-named museum housed in a decidedly non-generic, cutting edge building that is worth a visit in itself. In fact, the building is about the only thing worth a visit, because the art is really crap- all that modern stuff that gives "modern art" a bad rap in the eyes of the average Joe. Times like that, I always try to remind myself that somebody has to push the envelope, otherwise we'd all still be looking at portraits of old, dead, rich people.

One of my favorites was a "performance art" piece by a lady who walks around the City, spouting random things, reading old letters, etc. as she stomps around the neighborhood. Wow, in my 'hood, we just call that a wacky, screaming, homeless person, but maybe it's "the new Warhol"- who knows? Only time will tell, and that's the exciting part.

NYC: Making big $$$ underneath bridges and down dark alleys (and not by selling drugs!)

I recently wrote about an incredible space we found on a recent trip to NYC - an upscale grocery store set underneath the amazing vaulted underside of the 59th Street Bridge.
That expedition prompted a certain father-in-law of mine, who shall remain nameless, to (rightfully) razz me about my unusual taste in "tourist attractions." I proved his observation correct when we were in NYC together last weekend and- where did I take people?- among other places, to a restaurant located underneath the Park Avenue Viaduct and second, to another hipster restaurant located at the end of a scary, dark, graffiti and razor-wire covered alley!

The first place is called Pershing Square, and it's directly across the street from Grand Central Terminal in mid-town Manhattan. (If you are reading this and wondering whether I was drawn to the place because it shares a name with Downtown L.A.'s most famous park, you are correct!) The first photo, above, shows the entrance to the place, and the second photo gives an idea of the crazy context- the joint is shoved into the right-hand-side armpit of the viaduct where Park Avenue has to jog around Grand Central (look for the bright lights under the viaduct- that's the "Pershing Square" sign).

The cool thing about this bizarely-located restaurant is that it is actually housed in prime retail space, where literally a hundred thousand people must pass by each day. The thing that is really striking about NYC is that real estate prices are so sky-high, particularly right now with the strong economy, that they are making use of every nook and cranny, no matter how odd it would seem. The New York Times gives this thumbnail history of the disused Pershing Square Restaurant under-the-viaduct space:

"The viaduct site was once home to a trolley barn. Later occupants included a U.S.O. center and the city's first Convention and Visitors Bureau. Its last incarnation was as a discount store, which closed in 1992." Sounds like an enticing spot for a fine dining establishment, right??

Next example of this hermit-crab theme: Freemans Restaurant. I think I'll move this one to a separate entry . . .

Yes, it snows in Binghamton

Unlike last year, when it hardly snowed at all, we got a great dumping last weekend, with a big "Nor'easter" expected again, starting tomorrow.

This was the view out of my 7th floor, Downtown Binghamton office window this week, overlooking the Courthouse. Beautiful, huh? We even closed the office early one day- I cannot believe I live in a place where "SNOW DAY" is in my vocabulary!

Friday, November 30, 2007


For the past two years we have found ourselves in Europe on Saint Patrick's Day: laughing through the world's lamest Big City Parade in London in 2006, and watching zillions of pink-faced fat guys in huge green and white striped, stuffed hats and rugby jerseys bumbling around Rome after the Italy/Ireland rugby game (some even plunging into the Trevi Fountain) in 2007. March is a great time to travel because the weather is nice but the place isn't overrun with tourists yet, so we decided we should make a tradition of our annual St. Patrick's Day Europe Trip. Plus, while we're on the East Coast, we figured we should take advantage of the relative proximity to Europe. So there you have it- we decided on an annual St. Patrick's trip to Europe.

We spent months debating where to go in 2008: the former Yugoslavia was the frontrunner for over a month, but it was too darn hard to plan since no American airlines fly there and since it takes more like 2 weeks to do the place justice. Did you know that Croatia is the "new Prague"? I wasn't even aware we needed a "new" Prague, but I guess if "Prague is the new Paris" then we don't have a Prague so I guess Croatia has moved in to fill that vacuum. Makes sense (huh?)

After ruling out Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Central Europe, we finally decided to go to Paris and Berlin for a little over a week. Paris is Paris- always amazing. And Berlin is apparently "the new New York"- or how people think New York was in the 1970s and 80s, as far as cutting edge culture and avant garde design. All this is background for the most amazing hotel I've ever seen. EVER. Tell me if I'm wrong when I show you this- a hotel in Berlin called the Propeller Island City Lodge Hotel. If you poke around that last link, which is the home page for the hotel part (it's also apparently an art gallery and some sort of performing arts space- I think the owners/designers are also music producers and/or artists), you can click on any of the numbers to see all of the rooms.

But why don't I just take you on a little tour, shall we? Here are some of my faves- I say some of my faves because 100% of the rooms are OUT OF CONTROL BIZARRE. That said, buckle up your seat belts, kids, because it's time for a ride through an alternate universe, brought to you by some wacky Berlin artsy types:

[note: you can click on the bottom right of the home photo for each of these, and see several more photos of each room]

Let's start off slowly, shall we?

SYMBOL ROOM: There are over 300 symbols covering the surfaces of this room. I think it's graphically amazing, but I couldn't help but think how my luggage would be slopped all over the place and really ruin the vibe. Plus, it looks a bit too much like the Riddler from Batman. Next!

FREEDOM: This is supposed to be like a prison cell. Click on the multiple photos and you can see that the window has even been covered by a false wall that has a hole in it, the sole source of light in the room. GROSS. Do you think the toilet is filthy, for the sake of authenticity? I mean, who wants to have the experience of staying in a prison cell and actually have it be clean? Perhaps instead of a mint on your pillow, it sends you home with a nice staph infection, just to keep it authentic. Moving right along . . .

PADDED CELL: Also known as "The room you graduate into, if you are really good, but still imbalanced, after staying in Freedom for a few nights." I love how the TV is carefully worked into the padding- Germans gotta have their electronics available at all times!

UPSIDE DOWN: Can you see that the furniture is on the ceiling, the "view" is upside down photos approximating a topsy-turvy view, and you sleep in secret compartments underneath the freaking floorboards???

COFFIN ROOM: I'm sorry, WHAT? Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy!!!! I might be able to understand this one if it were a "coffin built for two" to sleep in, but I'm thinking that people who want to sleep in coffins, don't want to do it alone (if you catch my drift) so this one baffles me. 'Nuf said.

CHICKEN CURRY: I can't believe I think this one is uninspired, given that the bed is tucked into the floor, behind a sliding garage door. I guess I just think it has a lame name. Or maybe the artist gets bonus points for making an entire room themed on a spicy dish.

GRANDMA'S ROOM: This room scores for having the balls to put that awful granny picture on the wall. I can't see it, but I'm certain the lady has a nice moustache. This room is cool because you enter the bathroom and shower via the two doors in the armoire. Kind of like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or something.

NIGHTLIGHT: At first glance, this one looks tame, but it actually is quite racy- check out the written description: "The wild brush strokes of abstractly painted murals surround and adorn the mirrored aperture to the goings-on next door - an opened curtain might just invite you to have a look! The bathroom is a gigantic plastic bag - a real sensation!" I love that I now know how to say "my bathroom is a giant ziploc bag": "Das Bad ist ein riesiger Plastiksack"!!

This room, and the room next door, definitely play to the voyeur/exhibitionist crowd, but I did a lot of independent research on this place (shocking, I know), and it does not appear to be some sort of weird sex hotel or something. It is in a very small group of "experiential hotels"- not unlike California's kitschy Madonna Inn, and it's funky themed rooms like the Caveman Room.

You have probably guessed from my comments above that YES, in fact, we ARE staying at the Propeller Island City Lodge in Berlin!!! When I first saw the website, I thought it was NOT for us- we're way too square. But then we agreed that we would kick ourselves if we don't stay there. Plus, it's even in our price range. Still, we would have been willing to pay a little extra simply because staying at this bizarre-o hotel will give us fascinating dinner party stories for literally decades to come.

The only downside? I had to ask for a specific room, ranking my top three choices (which is good because you don't want to unwittingly wind up in Freedom or something!), which meant spending hours looking at all those pictures and going through a process something like this: "Will this room give me nightmares, yes or no?" then "Will I feel like some sort of sexual deviant if I stay in this room, regardless of my activities therein?" then "When I explain this room to people, will they think I'm a complete freak, yes or no?" That line of questioning QUICKLY narrowed it down to three.

Can you guess which ones were our top picks? Hint: None are listed above. Try me! Try me! Take a guess!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

P-A in Need of Marketing Makeover

We live about 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border, and every time we drive through Pennsylvania (or "P-A" as 100% of the locals call it) I am astonished at how freaking terrible the local names are. I mean, BAD. Consider these examples, which I've grouped into categories, for your reading pleasure:

Names that invoke the terrible industrial legacy of the down-on-its-luck, "rust belt" state:
Mechanics Grove

Towns with impossible-to-pronounce Welsh names:

Towns with impossible-to-pronounce and/or -spell, hard-on-the-palate (apparently) Native American names:

Names of P-A towns that are just generally ridiculous:

These names are just one more barrier-to-entry that the struggling Pennsylvania economy does not need. What kind of business wants to set up shop in "Tredyffrin" and who wants to tell their friends they are moving to "Grimville"- is that some kind of joke? So I thought it would be brilliant if some of these little towns gave themselves a good ol' California-style image makeover by giving themselves some snappier names. California seems to know that you can make just about anything sound exotic and beautiful just by putting a "San" or, better yet, a "Santa" in front of it, right?

Turns out, I'm not the first to prescribe this for ailing P-A. Check it out: In 1953, the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk (GREAT names to get rid of, obviously) merged into one, and took the name of Jim Thorpe. The combined borough is now the county seat of- wait for it . . . Carbon County, of course!

Here's the crazy backstory:
Jim Thorpe was considered to be the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, excelling in just about every sport and event you can think of. Although he won a boatload of medals at the 1912 Olympics, they were stripped due to allegations that he wasn't an "amateur" at the time (but really it was just about anti-Native American sentiment- did you know that Native Americans weren't US citizens until 1924? and couldn't even VOTE until 1954? WOW. Did not know that.)

Flash forward to 1953, when Jim Thorpe dies, penniless, living in a Lomita, California trailer park. At the same time, his wife hears that these two Pennsylvania towns were down on their luck and looking for a marketing gimmick. Savvy third wife strikes a deal to have his remains moved to newly-minted Jim Thorpe, PA in a snappy mausoleum and voila! A marketing campaign is launched to bring tourism to the former Mauch Chunks.

A Doggie Wonderland in Philadelphia

For a look at John's photos of the Purina National Dog Show in Philly, click here.

This weekend, I joined John for a quick trip to Philadelphia, where he presented the findings of his Masters Thesis research at the annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Little did we know that, right next door to his convention, was a gathering of fluffy goodness, the likes of which you cannot imagine without seeing it firsthand; yes, this weekend, the Philadelphia Kennel Club played host to the Purina National Dog Show. This is no corny local dog parade, this is a Big Daddy Dog Show, the one that is aired after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on national TV.

It might seem kind of weird that we attended a dog show, but when I checked the "FAQ" online, I read that you were allowed to pet the dogs (with owner permission, of course). I still didn't know quite what to expect from the experience, but for $12 and all-you-can-pet doggies, what did we have to lose? Besides, the newspaper article about the show today indicates that we were in good company- there were over 15,000 attendees!!

All we knew of dog shows was what we'd seen on TV- the big bleachers and formal ring in which dogs are judged by very serious-looking men and women in awful suits/dresses, wearing "comfortable shoes." If that was all it was going to be, that was going to be pretty cool. But little did we know the amazing experience that lay before us . . .

Turns out, the formal dog ring that you see on TV is definitely NOT the coolest thing going on in the Convention Center that day- the judging ring is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real action, if you are lucky enough to get in on it, is the 1,200 dogs representing over 150 breeds, that are hanging out "backstage."

As we entered the exhibit hall, there were about a dozen small, pretty informal looking "judging rings" where various dogs of the same breed were trotting around at various times. But beyond this, the other 75% of the exhibit space consisted of row upon row upon row of DOGS. Each dog and owner is assigned a small space, approximately ten feet wide, where they set up shop: dog, cage, grooming table, comfy beach chairs, etc. Visitors are then able to walk freely among these hundreds and hundreds of dogs and talk to the owners and (for the most part) pet and generally visit with the amazing dogs.

I had worried that the owners wouldn't be so friendly, that they would be more of the "don't touch my high-strung dog, he is WORKING today." While there were a couple people who had just groomed their fluffies and didn't want the blown-out hair tussled, the vast majority of dogs were definitely accepting visitors. What a huge variety of dogs! The American Kennel Club recognizes over 150 breeds, and they were definitely all in the house. From Great Danes to Neopolitan Mastiffs to those ridiculous Chinese Cresteds (the same breed that brought us the perennial favorite World's Ugliest Dog.)

Turns out this dog show is what's called a "Conformation show," as opposed to an agility show or something. Conformation shows seem to simply judge dogs based on how closely they conform to the breed standards set by the American Kennel Club, therefore encouraging and perpetuating purity of breeding stock. This might explain why people were a little more mellow and friendly, since the distance between the dog's nose-tip and forehead (or some other super-specific judging standard) isn't going to change by my petting it that day. That said, I'd say that the dog owners fell (very roughly) into three categories:

1. Joe Average Dog Fancier: this person isn't much different from you and me, assuming you are well-balanced, normal looking, educated and friendly. They go to shows mostly just to educate the public about whatever breed of dog they have found is a great animal. The best example of this type of dog show person is- you guessed it! - the nice guy who had the gorgeous brindle Boxer. He told John he really just goes to these shows to tell people what it's like to have a boxer, what makes a good fit, etc. See? Boxer people rule! Duh.

2. Eccentric (Borderline Dog Freak): these are the people who really look like their dogs. There were some ladies with some funky feathered hats who matched the wispy tailed salukis, and 100% of the Bull Dog owners looked their dogs- portly, middle aged, crunchy-faced. Hilarious.

3. Dog Show Nazi: This is the person better personified by the mega-spaz lawyer couple/Weimaraner owners in the hilarious movie Best in Show: very serious, high strung, don't-touch-my-animal types. We only came across one or two of these types yesterday, but the most extreme example was definitely the super-bitchy Komondor couple who wore stupid matching kilts (apparently the Komondor comes from Scotland) and definitely looked like they were in it for the money (i.e., that they were professional handlers who were being paid by some rich person to show the super fussy dog, and this was "all business" for them).

If you've never seen a Komondor before, they are big dogs that look like a bunch of old mops stuck together into dog-form and they are RIDICULOUS. They BEG to be touched (what ARE they made of? so weird). I admit it was probably wrong of me to do this without asking first, but almost 100% of the dogs were available for petting, so when these people had their dog out, doing final primping before the judging, I reached down to touch it. "DON'T TOUCH HIM. HE'LL BITE!" she barked. Well, guess what? Every first year law student knows that "every dog gets one bite" which means that, once you have a dog with a known propensity to bite, it leaves "domestic" status and moves to "vicious" animal and the courts are supposed to treat it like a lion if it bites you. In short, if you know your dog bites, and it bites me, I get to have your house because you are uninsured and 100% liable for the damage that your known, vicious animal causes.

Sorry for the legal digression, but seriously, why bring an animal that is CRYING to be touched into a room full of 15,000 curious people? On that slightly sour note, I'll end this blog with some words of wisdom: if you EVER get a chance to attend a dog show, DO IT DO IT DO IT! you will be amazed how much fun and how interactive it is. We cut ourselves off after 4 hours!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Binghamton: Capital of the Pierogi Pocket of America!

Sometimes this place just gives me a blog-lay-up. Something so ridiculous and self explanatory that there isn't much left for me to do. Here you go: After months of grassroots campaigning and online voting, Binghamton was officially declared "Capital of the Pierogi Pocket of America" by Mrs. T's, the country's largest pierogi maker (and one of my best friends when I was broke in graduate school and could not afford proper protein in my meals).

First, just in case you aren't on a first name basis with pierogi - or perogi, perogy, pirohi, piroghi, pirogi, pirogen, piroshke or pyrohy- MAN they have a lot of variations on the name! Pierogi trace their roots to the Eastern European/Slavic cultures, so you can imagine I enjoyed them at my favorite ethnic festival- the St. John's Ukrainian festival. As far as "comfort foods" go, they are pretty darn good: typically carbo-laden dough stuffed with buttery mashed potatoes and fried in some fatty grease (butter? bacon? who cares!) but they stuff those babies with all kinds of stuff: cheese, fruit, meat, sauerkraut- YUM!

I have to admit, I was pretty darn excited for Binghamton when we beat out stiff competition- including Buffalo, NY, Clifton, N.J. (never heard of it) and Whiting, Indiana (ditto). The online voting attracted 60,000 votes and - get this- a "controversial endorsement reversal by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y." according to our local paper. WHO KNEW there were such pierogi politics?? (I bet she endorsed Binghamton until a staffer reminded her that Buffalo, NY was also in the running- gotta love the weird lines that politicians have to toe.)

But something about the awkward name nagged at me- why can't we just be "The Pierogi Capital of America"? Is that too much to ask? What is this "Capital of the Pierogi Pocket" stuff? (Get it? Pierogis are stuffed pockets of tasty goodness? very clever ha ha ha). Something seemed fishy.

Well, it turns out that pierogi consumption in the US is mostly concentrated in a geographical area known as the "Pierogi Pocket," which consumes 68% of all pierogis in the US, and that this area includes NY, Pennsylvania, and parts of several nearby states too boring to list. To honor their most loyal and biggest consumer base, Mrs. T's (based in PA) picks a capital of that region. But wait, it gets worse: Binghamton only gets to claim the title for a YEAR! Mrs. T's is apparently a lot smarter than I am, and they know to rotate the honor to keep 'em paying attention. I knew it was too good to be true!

At any rate, BRAVO for Mrs. T's coming up with such a great marketing stunt. And they give $10,000 to the local food bank, to boot. Such a win/win/win for the community and the company- now where is my "Binghamton: Capital of the Pierogi Pocket" tshirt!!??

p.s. Do not confuse pierogis with "spiedies," which are decidedly less tasty and for which Binghamton is (somewhat) legitimately famous.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Primer on New York City's Unique Form of Government

I just want to give everyone a little lesson on New York City, because it seems to simultaneously be the best-known and yest least-understood city in the country. People use terms imprecisely, which doesn't help matters. Worse yet, there is such a strong sense of "neighborhood" in that huge city that the casual observer is misled and confused at every turn. It has taken me, ME- the big political/government wonk- almost 2 years of living in NY state to finally unravel that weird Gordian knot of a city that lies 150 miles downstate.

Here's the deal:

Myth: "New York City" = Manhattan
Fact: "New York City" actually consists of 5 "boroughs": Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. There are about 8 million residents living in these 5 boroughs, any of whom might properly say they are from "New York City."

Question: What the hell is a "borough"?
Answer: A borough is an administrative subdivision of a state. Since each state is free to organize itself as it wishes, "borough" means different things in different states, adding to the confusion. New York State has only the 5 boroughs that make up New York City, and boroughs are not used elsewhere in the state. Alaska, by contrast, uses the term "borough" as other states would use the term "county."

Question: No, really, what the hell is a "borough" and why does NYC have them?
Answer: Try this- think of NYC as "the United States" and each borough as an individual state. This sort of "federalism" is sort of like NYC, with each of the five boroughs retaining a lot of local control over things like land use, and each with its own "borough president" (like each state has a governor), but all falling under the control of a strong mayor (like the President) who leads on issues of importance to the city as a whole (which is why he has power over the school system, hospitals, transportation, etc.)

Just when you said to yourself, "Got it. NYC consists of 5 boroughs, which are like states, but the mayor runs the whole show for all 8 million people on the overriding issues of civic importance," I have to throw in a curve ball, and here's where it gets really screwy: each of the boroughs is "coterminous" (meaning, geographically one and the same) with a county, so NYC actually has 5 counties within it. Even worse- not all the counties have the same name as the borough, but some do. Here:
Question: What did you just say?
Answer: Each of those 5 entities (Brooklyn, etc.) acts like a borough for some purposes (local, municipal stuff) and a county (bigger stuff) for other purposes, and has a separate borough and county government. So if you get arrested in Manhattan for shoplifting, you will be prosecuted by the District Attorney of New York County. But if you want your trash picked up, you could take the matter to your borough president (or your local city councilman, of which there are 51!)

Myth: Manhattan is the most populous part of NYC.
Manhattan is the most densely populated part of NYC, I was shocked to learn that Manhattan, with approx. 1.5 million people, is home to fewer people than Brooklyn (2.5 million) and Queens (2.3 million). Manhattan's population is about 70,000 people/square mile, compared to 8,000/square mile for the City of Los Angeles and about 15,000/square mile for Hermosa Beach.

Myth: New York City is an island.
Sort of true: 4 of the 5 boroughs that make up New York City are islands. Only The Bronx is physically connected to the U.S. mainland.

How come NYC has such a wacky form of government?
This is the $64,000 question and I figured out the answer: In 1898, The City of New York was formed out of what used to be something like 20 independent cities and 4 counties. Brooklyn, for example, was, I think, the fourth largest city in the entire country at the time, which is why it has such a strong historical identity and so many people say the are from "Brooklyn" instead of identifying with the relatively recently manufactured "New York City." (Staten Island, by contrast, was mostly farmland and had only a few thousand people at the time it was folded into the City of New York.)

Now that I've thoroughly confused you, here is a recap of what we've learned just now, courtesy of wikipedia:

"New York City is subdivided into five boroughs, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. Each of these is coterminous with a county, Kings, New York, Queens, Bronx and Richmond Counties respectively. There are no county governments within New York City for legislative or executive purposes, but there are borough governments composed of a borough president, members of the New York City Council which represent parts of the borough, and the chairmen of the local community boards (see Government of New York City). The powers of the borough governments are inferior to the powers of the city-wide government. The boroughs of New York City are still treated as separate counties for judicial purposes, and for business and legal filings."

All of this just scratches the surface. I've been reading what I call "the paper" (that is, the historic Los Angeles and New York Times, for the past 125 years) for the past few months on this topic, so I'll have to stop myself here because I'm full of so much random information, it starts to get ugly from here on out. :-)

Alpacas: the Windmills of upstate New York?

When we used to drive to Palm Springs in the 1980s, I remember thinking how odd all those "windmill farms" looked along Interstate 10. I vaguely recall understanding that we had to wait in long lines for gas in the 1970s, and that was somehow related to President Carter's administration giving tax credits for alternate energy sources in the 1980s.

As a kid, my gut perception was that those funny windmill farms were the result of some dumb government policy, and that they probably didn't actually do much but serve to make some smart, rich people even richer. I mean, if they were such great energy sources, why wasn't the desert covered with them? Something seemed fishy. And it still does, to me. As an adult, those windmills stand out in my mind as some crazy thing that people do to avoid paying taxes.

Well, I've discovered the Upstate New York analog to the 1980s California windmill phenomenon- ALPACAS!!

Question: How many alpaca farms do you know of, within 100 miles of where you live? Well, our area seems to be flush with them, so I did a little digging to try and explain this fact.

It seems that alpacas- the llama's cuter cousin from South America- offer not only tax incentives, but a bucolic way of life for the retiring baby boomer generation. Apparently, you can retire to a cheap, naturally-beautiful place like Upstate NY, write off your house and property as a "hobby farm," depreciate the livestock and claim your property as some sort of agricultural/farmland, all the while living with these easygoing, low-maintenance creatures. (That was a gross oversimplification but you get the idea.) One website even calls alpacas "a hugable, lovable investment." Another guy says that, while his stocks dried up when the market crashed, his alpacas are still around, keeping him warm.

But here's what else I found: it seems that the bulk of the earnings on an alpaca farm come in the way of breeding and selling to other alpaca farmers. A giant alpaca-ponzi, if you will. There is actually a fair amount of concern that there is an "alpaca bubble" and that, unless the industry and build a much bigger market for the fur/fiber the animals produce, the ride may soon be over.

Alpacas may soon join their friends on the llama, buffalo, ostrich, and emu farms- that is, in retirement from the topsy-turvy world of an entire industry based on an oddity of our national tax policy. (Apparently alpaca meat = not too tasty.) Makes me wonder if John and I will find ourselves retiring to some crazy "killer bee farm" or whatever is the "flavor of the decade" for random tax breaks to build your entire life around!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New York City Suggestion Box

I posted before about the incredible tram-ride over to Roosevelt Island, a quirky little petri dish of an urbanized Mayberry lying 2 minutes off of Manhattan in the middle of the East River. So I guess maybe I shouldn't be surprised that, when we were waiting for the tram back over to Mid-Town, I noticed this "Suggestion Box" at the station.

This leads me to a greater point: If you haven't been to New York City in the past decade or more, you might be shocked by what you find there now. Not only is it clean and safe- and I mean we walked and walked and walked for days and still never felt uncomfortable, even among the tenement district in the Lower East Side and in the Bowery (former skid row) area- but the people are even nice.

Whereas the NYC of the 70s and 80s a) didn't give a rip about your or anyone else's opionion, and b) would tell you to take your suggestions and shove them . . . and c) would probably have covered the Suggestion Box with graffiti and shoved God-knows-what in there, today's NYC is downright civilized.

OK, so the subway station manager can be a little off-putting as he glares at you through bulletproof plexiglass, but my favorite thing to do is to approach a guy just like that, give him a huge smile, and ask one of my moronic questions, "Excuse me, sir, but would you please help me figure out how to buy my sorry-tourist-self a subway card? Oh, and I'm such an idiot that now that I have the card, I can't figure out which way to slide it in so that the turn style will open for me, Duh-uh!" But once I bust out my Midwestern charm, the veneer is off and these people are sometimes even nice, particularly to dumb, well-intentioned tourists like me. My favorite thing is to stop a busy local on the street and ask for directions- they are so taken aback sometimes, and it's fun to watch their steely exterior fall away with the human interaction.

As we were leaving the city last time, we were laden with luggage and trying to find a corner worthy of hailing a cab. The problem was apparently that we were on the backside of the Waldorf=Astoria- where President Bush and friends were staying during the UN Summit in September- and traffic was all screwed up. Anyway, there were about a BILLION cops around so I approached one of them and asked if it was OK to hail a cab while standing next to him, that is, if a cab was even going to stop for us, with all this funky traffic.

So New York's finest doesn't say but a couple of words to me and the next thing I know there is a shiny yellow clean cab at my feet. The NYPD had hailed my cab for me! Now if that isn't customer service, I don't know what is.

Jetson's Mail Delivery Robot

I have been meaning to blog about this bad boy for ages- this is the self-propelled and unmanned contraption that delivers mail around one of the businesses in my building. I've been in a lot of offices, but I've never seen such a crazy Jetsons-flashback as this puppy. I half expect it to start talking to me in a robot voice, like their maid Rosie, everytime it mysteriously senses my presence and pauses for me to walk by.

So I finally googled the name on the thing- Mailmobile- expecting not to find anything online because, clearly, this thing is circa-1972. I was shocked- SHOCKED, I tell you!- to find that, not only is Mailmobile still in business, but this might even be the current model!

Wow, sure fooled me. That font even! It looks straight out of a '70s Atari ad. The whole thing is like Tomorrowland at Disneyland- which is to say that it is more like a bad 1950s vision of what "tomorrow" looks like. I guess it is kind of amazing- the Mailmobile even gets on elevators and stuff by itself, which sort of creeps me out.

But nope, no Mailmobile for my office. We deliver mail internally the old fashioned way- with something like 3 guys who walk around the offices and manually do it. No new-fangled robot contraptions putting our staff out of work!

More Southern Tier Signage

I have posted before about my favorite local phenomenon- what John and I call Southern Tier Graphic Design- but it just never ceases to amaze me how pervasive it is.

The first sign above is in the ladies room of our favorite local dump neighborhood restaurant. First, do people really not know that you can't smoke in the bathroom of a restaurant? Smoking in bars has been illegal in New York for at least 10 years. And if it's really a problem, don't you think New York State probably makes some handy dandy little stickers, probably available nice and free, that you could post if necessary? (3 seconds worth of searching on Google led me to printable signs offered by the New York State Department of Health.) Why bother being so fancy and formal when you can handwrite a sign and let it get all nasty and wet in the bathroom!

And the second one is outside a little bodega-type convenience store- I don't even think they sell any booze- that I pass on my to work when I walk there. Now, call me a rebel, but when I was a kid, if someone put this sign outside, I would loiter right in front of it, just because I was pissed off that they were trying to tell me I couldn't talk to my friends outside. I guess I can't complain too much- at least these signs don't contain any misspellings and aren't as filthy dirty as some of the others I've seen.

Feng Shui Fountain Sale

Call me crazy, but if I'm so into feng shui that I'm going to pay money for a zen-inspiring water fountain, I'm not going to buy it at the drug store like the one in Manhattan where I saw this gem on sale in the discount rack.

What could be lamer than to have this lame little fountain, complete with sand and a freaking rake, oozing water and dust and leaking wax all over the black glass coffee table in front of your black leather couches? (clearly, only a 20-something male would buy this thing, and that is exactly what his decor would consist of.) Well, I guess you need earth, water and fire, so there's no skimping, at least.

You like me! You REALLY like me!

In the past few days, three of my four parents have indicated their sadness at my lack of blogging for the past 3 weeks (!!!) so, after a week of houseguest and a home computer that was a bit on the fritz- I'M BACK!! And I've certainly got some good stuff stored up, so we'll see what I can get out quickly. Thanks for reading!!!

p.s. I failed to mention that I've also been a bit distracted because . . . dare I admit? . . . I am in a Tuesday night bowling league at the Club!! "What?" you are asking yourself. "Annie doesn't know how to bowl!" Don't you worry, my friends, that didn't prevent one of my friends from signing me up on her team. "Don't make this get ugly," she said, in response to my strong protestations.

Well, turns out I actually don't suck as bad as I had expected. I scored a 138 the first night (I'm a substitute so haven't actually bowled much yet this year- but don't worry, the season goes until freaking MARCH!). Anyway, THERE. I said it. I BOWL. The first step is admitting you have a problem . . .

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Premiere of "My Kid Could Paint That" documentary film

It's not often that Binghamton gets international media attention, especially for something that's cool or, at least, not related to a toxic spill or something. So it was pretty exciting when John was reading The New Yorker last week and learned that a documentary was coming out about a local artist, and that it was coming to theaters (including Binghamton) in limited release.

Last night, we got to see the movie on opening night, along with the Director, and followed by a Q & A panel hosted by the local gallery that launched the artist to international acclaim in 2004.

If you are still confused by the photo I posted, then you haven't figured out that the artist who attracted all this media attention is a 4 year old Binghamton girl named Marla Olmstead. Her work is abstract oil on canvas, and has great titles like Sick Teeth, Lollipop House, and Ocean.

Here's the 20-second-version: her abstract painting first hangs in a local coffee shop as sort of a joke, someone buys it for $250, local gallery owner thinks they have merit, launches showing of her work with attendant press releases, media frenzy follows work sells for thousands of dollars (I think like $10,000 to $20,000 at its peak), 60 Minutes does a scathing piece that suggests her dad has an undue influence in the work- that he at least coaches her and at most finishes the work off for her- and implies that it's all a fraud, the wheels come off the Marla train and sales of her work come to a screeching halt, the parents try to defend and make their own video of her actually painting the work, the family and gallery owner have been dragged through the mud, no one seems to be speaking to each other anymore, and. . .

That's about when I arrived in B-town. I haven't heard much about this girl or the surrounding controversy because I didn't live here when it was all going down (although I had met the gallery owner back in 2004 and he told me about Marla himself, and I was shocked to go back to LA and read about her in the local paper!) Marla matters seem to have been relatively quiet around here for the past year or two, so I didn't really know much of the story.

And MAN, is there a story. But it's not what you think. I thought the movie was going to be about abstract art, who determines what is "art" and what it should cost, and certainly whether she was the true artist behind the work.

Sure, the movie covers those bases, but it raises so many more issues that are- to my amazement- even more interesting than the ones I had initially expected. Nothing gets resolved, but the movie . . . I can't even put words to it. I told John that I think we'll be talking about this movie for at least a year, there are so many parts to it. My favorite issues were the ones about "storytelling" and also media ethics and how the media machine works (clips from the interview with the journalist from the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin were particularly outstanding).

I'm going to cut myself off here because there is way too much to write about. The movie, "My Kid Could Paint That," from super sweet and extremely articulate director Amir Bar-Lev, was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January, so Sony Pictures bought it for $2 million. I'm hoping that means it will at least be available to rent on DVD soon. (A bonus is all the great footage of our Binghamton "First Friday" monthly art walks downtown that I love so much!) Oh, and if you rent it, be sure to check out the "Directors Cuts" or whatever they call those bonus parts at the end of the thing- they taped the Q & A we were at last night- we might be in the background? - but mostly I reference this because the Q & A with the director (and others) was particularly fascinating- I felt like I was on a jury and we were all trying to figure out what the "truth" was, but no one could get a lock on it. Really excellent questions and discussion.

P.S. Icing on this media-cake is the obligatory misspelling of "Binghampton" in one of the movie release informationals! I'm going to have to have John bust out the "Ain't No P in Binghamton" tshirt I had made for him last year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What do Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Skyscraper Museum have in common?

This is a burning question. I'll put you out of your misery. The answer is: they both live in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Downtown Manhattan right now.

We made our way down to the tip of Manhattan (yes, past the World Trade Center site, around the Stock Exchange, through Battery Park for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty) and to Battery Park City. I hadn't known the distinction before, but check out the cool origins of Battery Park City:

By the 1950s, Manhattan found itself with a boatload (no pun intended) of "finger piers" adjacent to the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. These piers- and there were dozens of them- were outdated and pretty much useless because they were way too small to accomodate modern-day cargo ships. Not only were they not useful, they were becoming blighted, attracting crime, and generally starting to infect the valuable parts of the Financial District. On top of it all, the Financial District was lacking enough modern office space (the kind that could accomodate those new-fangled computers and such) and businesses were leaving the area altogether.

So by the 1960s, somebody (actually, it was businessman David Rockefeller, with the support of his then-NY-Governor-brother Nelson Rockefeller) got the bright idea to 1) build the World Trade Center complex of buildings and 2) use the considerable amount of excavated earth to 3) fill in the outmoded pier area. They literally dumped zillions of acres or pounds or whatever of dirt right onto the piers. In this way, the shape of Lower Manhattan was significantly altered and Battery Park City now stands on top of the old piers/on top of the dirt from the World Trade Center excavation (looks like a bulge on the left side of this map). COOL, huh?

As an aside, I think the developers of the WTC were supposed to pay a bunch of money into a fund to build affordable/subsidized housing in Battery Park City, but my quick research gives me the feeling that the rich guys didn't want The Projects anywhere near their fancy new skyscrapers, so the money went elsewhere. Today, BPC seems to be full of only high-end housing and beautiful jogging paths along the Hudson River overlooking New Jersey across the way.

As if Battery Park City isn't cool enough already, just by virtue of its "birth" as a landfill site atop the skeleton of the old 19th century pier complex, it also is the site of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, which happens to also house the very cool Skyscraper Museum. But when we showed up at the Ritz Carlton, we were greeted by literally a hundred security guards, dozens of NYPD vehicles, a Coast Guard ship stationed off shore. We practically had to get a cavity search to get within 100 yards of the Ritz (ok, not really, but it was pretty weird to have to go through full airport-style security on a public street). What gives, I innocently asked one of the gentlemen wearing an ill-fitting suit and talking into his sleeve periodically.

DUH!!! It is the big UN meeting in town and, of all people, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was staying at the Ritz, hence the crazy security action. Not only was he staying there, but they were having some sort of ball that Saturday night and by the time we left the museum around 6 pm, the tuxes and gowns were arriving en masse. Too funny to see so many very important people, dressed in their finest, be super pissed-off that they couldn't drive up to the hotel and that they had to go through the un-glamorous security process in their ultra-fancy clothes.

The next day, Sunday, we were walking past the Waldorf=Astoria (don't blame me for that stupid "double hyphen" on the name, that's the official spelling) near our own hotel in Midtown, and security was even crazier. Turns out, that's where President Bush was staying!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lower East Side of NYC: CRAZY melting pot that it is

Pardon the low quality of these images, but they are taken from my phone camera. I just had to capture the incredible diversity we saw in New York City last weekend. These were all taken within a single block of Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

First, we have an image of a business that has been selling pickles out of barrels in this same spot for 100 years- Guss' Pickles. They don't sell them anywhere else, and they probably taste the same as they did 100 years ago when the Eastern European immigrants bought them from the same barrels. This was taken right outside of the Tenement Museum we visited, and man, did that guy know how to SLING PICKLES! He was fast and didn't waste his words. He'd be the Pickle Nazi, in fact.

Today there is a line (as you can see) of people waiting to buy these babies. And a tiny bit of google-searching tells me that - you heard it here first- September 16th was the 7th Annual International Pickle Day!!

Then we walked a block, crossing Delancey Street, to the heart of The Bargain District where the street was closed to cars and vendors were selling every kind of crazy imported cheap-o thing you can imagine. That's where I caught the second photo of DeMask- your standard-issue local dominatrix/leather shop, of course!

Finally, I took the third shot right across the street from the Leather Shop. Not sure if you can tell what's going on inside the shop, but that's a serious Hassidic Jew- earlocks and beard and snappy skull cap- selling naughty-nighties to a large African American woman. GOTTA LOVE AMERICA!

$1,000 per night, and -woo HOO!- it's Bed-Bug Free!!

I recently blogged about how ridiculously crazy the hotel rates are in Manhattan. I'm talking like $450/night for the Red Roof Inn-crazy. I'll stop myself here because I can feel my chest getting tight at the thought of my fruitless search for a weekend bargain.

When we were in NYC last weekend, we visited the Lower East Side when we went to the Tenement Museum. The Lower East Side ("LES") was extremely sketchy for probably the past 150 years. Super densely-packed, and generally the first-stop-neighborhood for the poorest immigrants to arrive in steerage through Ellis Island.

[Time Out: U.S. Fun Fact: Did you know that if you came across the Atlantic in 1st or 2nd class, you were admitted to the US no-questions-asked? It was only those passengers who arrived in "steerage" (think Leo DiCaprio in "Titanic") who had to get TB tests, physical and mental screenings, and all the other processing hoops associated with Ellis Island. Basically, money bought you free admission to the United States of America. The poor? They had to at least not be crazy or infirm. Otherwise, they got sent right back home!]

LES has stayed very dangerous and crowded and dirty from about 1810 until probably the past 10 years, when the outrageous real estate prices in Manhattan spurred gentrification of even the shabbiest areas (I'm massively generalizing here, but you get the idea).

So I was excited to see that there was a new, boutique hotel (a converted tenement house) on shabby/funky/chic little Orchard Street on the LES. With the faint hope that I had found my diamond-in-the-rough, new and still-undiscovered lodging spot, we popped in to the Blue Moon Hotel to check the rates, after taking the tour of the museum.

The lobby was gorgeous and funky- sort of a throwback to the 1920s- very authentic to the neighborhood, except that it was nice and not a flea bag hotel. Wait, maybe it is? read on.

We were greeted by a man in the lobby who, shall we say, matched the place. He must have been the owner because it was clearly 1926 when he woke up and got dressed- wearing one of those funky cabby/newsboy hats, turned to the side, and some unusual sort of corduroy vest and pants combo. Fashionable, but definitely eccentric. So we asked him about the rates for future reference.

So he is trying to sell the place to us, and he leads off with THIS gem/tidbit of marketing info: "The Blue Moon Hotel is CERTIFIED BED BUG FREE." And he points to a framed certificate on the wall- I'm not making this up- it was nicely framed and had a drawing of a nasty bed bug with a big red "zero/slash" around it. GNARLY.

Then the lady at the reception chimes in, and she starts bragging about how a real beagle dog came and did the sniff-inspection, and that was supposed to really impress us, to show us exactly how bed-bug-free this newly-opened hotel was.

Excuse me? I had never thought about bed bugs until they flagged the issue for me. Now I go online and google "New York City" and "bed bugs" and I find that this is apparently a huge issue. I even found a blog dedicated solely to NYC bed bug problems!

I have to stop because I don't even want to know any more about this topic. So back to the initial question, how much do I have to pay to stay in a bed-bug-free, converted tenement in a "transitional" part of the Lower East Side, a.k.a. "the Bargain District"?


OK, OK, so the "pied a terre" room was actually spacious and very nicely appointed, and the $1,000 room was very big and downright homey, with a balcony and view, but PLEEZE! Again, who is paying $1,000 per night to stay in the 'hood?

Ugh. There go my hopes for a secret hotel "find" in the worst part of Manhattan!

NEXT coolest thing we saw in NYC: a bathroom?

While walking around SoHo on Saturday afternoon, we were looking for a place to escape the brief rainshower. We walked past a little restaurant and loved the name, "Peep." It looked trendy/funky and the $8.50 three-course price-fix lunch seemed like a typo, so we were intrigued and checked it out.

As if the super-chic interior design and uber-tasty food weren't enough to make us extremely pleased with our choice, the post-lunch visit to the bathroom sealed Peep's place in my heart forever.

The restaurant is very long and narrow. Sort of feels like a bowling alley/lane, with banquette tables all along one side and miscellaneous things on the other side. Half of one whole wall was solid mirror, and the kitchen is at the very back. So it wasn't obvious where the ladies room was, and I had to ask the waiter. "Behind the mirrored door." OK, so there's no "women's" sign and the mirrored door just blends in with the mirrored wall. Nothing too crazy, right?

But open that mirrored door and you will never be the same again. The bathroom is basically a box of 2-way glass/mirror that sits in the middle restaurant. It's really dark inside the bathroom, which is apparently necessary because otherwise the diners on the outside- who are like 2 feet away- could theoretically see right in! I fumbled around for a light switch, not knowing that I wasn't supposed to find one, or that, if I had, the bathroom would become an exposed light box for the whole restaurant to see!

You have no idea how strange it is to be - excuse the details here- sitting on a toilet, doing your business, staring at some lady two feet away who is chomping her pad thai noodles and chatting happily with her boyfriend, oblivious to the horrors that might be transpiring on the other side of the glass!

I emerged from that bathroom a different person. I couldn't even talk for a minute, the impact was so deep. I returned from the loo, mouth agape, with a look of shock on my face. "What is it?" John asked, curious. "Go to the bathroom." "But . . ." Me: "Just go. Trust me. It is a life-altering experience."