Trick or Treat!

October 31, 2007

On Halloween, suburban children dress up and wander from house to house to gather candy and treats. But — for many reasons — that approach to trick or treating doesn’t always work so well for city kids.

In Brooklyn Heights, the tradition calls for costumed youngsters to walk through the historic commercial district on Montague Street and collect candy from the neighborhood shops and businesses. This year, I was lucky enough to catch some of the little monsters (and the workers who gleefully welcomed them) in the act.

A lion caught outside a pharmacy

A little bride on the street corner

A family maneuvers the scaffolding outside a drug store

An M&M candy standing before a rack of dresses

Supermarket worker greets a little rooster

The ice cream parlor handed out samples

A pussycat stands before a revolving door

A foil-wrapped candy kiss inside a shop

Cowboy in a drug store

A pirate and Snow White stand with antique furniture

The poor guy in the middle just wants to shop

A group inside a thrift shop

Thrift shop staff coated with stage blood

A chicken naps while trick or treating

A group crossing Montague Street

Pair of Spidermen invade a shop

A dragon & his dad in front of the grocery store


October 21, 2007

It is time once again for the Annual Gowanus Artists Studio Tour (A.G.A.S.T.), a weekend when visitors are welcomed in many of the art studios in the area around the Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal is one of Brooklyn’s most notorious neighborhoods. Built to connect a marshy inland area of South Brooklyn with New York Bay, the canal was intended to serve two purposes: draining the land (thus enabling development) and serving the transportation needs of a rapidly growing industrial region. When it opened in the 1860s, the Gowanus was hailed as one of the world’s most important waterways.

Unfortunately, the factories, mills, tanneries, slaughterhouses, gas plants and coal yards that stood alongside the Canal produced great quantities of toxic materials, most of which were dumped directly into the water. There, the industrial pollutants mingled with the raw sewage and household waste discharged from the nearby worker’s homes. 

Due to a lack of sanitary methods and sound management practices, the canal rapidly became stagnant and poisonous. By the time of the outbreak of World War II, it had gained fame as one of the world’s dirtiest bodies of water, a foul, opaque pool locally referred to as “Lavender Lake.” The filthy passageway was renowned both for the stench that rose from its depths and the debris, including corpses, that often rose to the surface.

In recent decades, governmental agencies, technological developments and community activists have combined forces to improve the quality of the water. Their efforts are bearing fruit, as the waterway is widely acknowledged as “stinking a lot less.”

Many of the large commercial buildings and warehouses along the canal, no longer needed to support the much-diminished shipping industry, have been converted into residences, shops, restaurants, bars and — most notably — scores of artists’ studios. 

This weekend, more than 130 of the visual artists in 26 different Gowanus-area locations invited the public into their studios, free of charge. Visitors were able to meet with painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, glassblowers, videographers and others in their working environments and gain insight into their creative philosophies and processes.

Banner on Smith Street across from subway entrance

Corridor in building with many studios

Tamara Thomsen speaking with young visitors

Visitors discussing a painting

This artist keeps a photo of his grandmother in the studio

Artist and her mother greet visitors

Daniel McDonald speaking to an admirer

Wall of Curtis Wallin

Couple falling in love with a painting

Large canvas propped up in corridor

Pop gun

AGAST Brooklyn
Curtis Wallin
Tamara Thomsen
Ernest Concepcion
A.J. Mascena
Annie Leist
Kathleen Collins
Kathryne Hall
Hilary Lorenz
Dave Marin
Rachel Zindler
Daniel McDonald
Joshua Dov Levy
Ilan N. Jacobsohn
Lavender Lake

Open House New York: Richmond Hill

October 7, 2007

I spent this, the final day of OpenHouseNewYork, in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Located more or less in the center of the borough, in many ways Richmond Hill seems more like a suburban community than a part of the city of New York. The streets are filled with single homes, many with driveways and garages. The residents spend sunny days washing cars, mowing lawns and puttering in vegetable gardens.

There is a small business district cluttered with store-front lawyers and tax preparers, family-run candy shops and discount stores, fast food joints and Latin American restaurants. Richmond Hills also contains a handful of notable churches, a few neighborhood institutions and more than its share of boarded up buildings, including a train station abandoned by the Long Island Railroad.

The most remarkable aspect of the area, however, is the way it has been divided into two camps: the long-time residents who want to preserve its past and, far outnumbering them, the newcomers who have come here to build.

Not long ago, Richmond Hill was best known for its stock of century-old wooden Victorian  houses, many with large yards. But, unlike many areas where such buildings are protected, the residents here have never been able to rouse the city into giving the structures here protected landmark status.

As a result, the newcomers tend to treat the houses either as tear-downs (the house is demolished and a new structure built in its place) or remodels (original features are destroyed and replaced by incongruous, often gaudy elements).

Trees are ripped out and buildings extended to the very edges of their lots. Fishscale shingles are covered with vinyl siding, cedar shakes are hidden behind asbestos tiles and brick veneer. Wrought-iron gates are replaced by chrome, wooden millwork is stripped off, gilded plaster hidden behind suspended tile ceilings. Satellite dishes replace privet hedges and lawns are turned into parking lots.

A walking tour through the district is accompanied by a sad litany of vanished treasures. But the long-time residents are fighting back. They’ve organized the Richmond Hill Historical Society and are working to preserve and protect their neighborhood’s heritage.

Richmond Hill still contains architectural treasures including the remaining Victorians, the public library (an original Carnegie library), the Catholic and Episcopal churches and Jahn’s, an ice cream parlor founded in 1897 which still contains its original fountain, player piano, hanging lamps and furnishings.

While the majority of the newer residents have no interest in historic preservation, other newcomers are busily painting, plastering, re-pointing and restoring their historic homes to their former glory. Clearly, the final chapter in the battle for the character of Richmond Hill has yet to be written.

Victorian home with stained glass windows and wooden trim

Syrup dispenser in Jahn’s

Jahn’s soda fountain and amber light fixtures

Restored Victorian features several types of shingles

Sleeping balconies were used on hot summer nights

Another type of sleeping balcony

A homeowner lovingly paints his Victorian

A “Painted Lady”-style paint job

Experimenting with contrasting shades and colors

The roof lines were inspired by pagodas

Painted terra-cotta on old apartment building

Crumbling remains of a community center

Entryway to former RKO Keith’s movie theater, now a flea market

The theater’s grandeur hidden behind florescent lights

Wooden Victorian “improved” with plaster columns and circular marble staircase

When these remodelers ran out of vinyl siding, they continued in a different color

Victorian house “improved” with columns and bricked-over windows

Wooden Victorian “improved” with asbestos shingles

openhousenewyork weekend
Richmond Hill Historical Society Archive Museum
Historic Richmond Hill Walking Tour
The Richmond Hill Historical Society
Forgotten NY: Richmond Hill
The Food Section: Jahn’s, the Best Way to Travel Back in Time
Wikipedia: Carnegie Libraries

Open House Harlem Pt 2: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill

October 6, 2007

The OpenHouseNewYork Weekend continued with a trip to another section of Harlem, the areas known as Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill.

Like Manhattanville, the western boundary of Hamilton Heights is the Hudson River, the eastern end at St. Nicholas. The neighborhood’s name derives from its most notable early resident, the first Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who spent the last years of his life here at his country home.

As with Manhattanville, development here started in earnest when the railway lines were extended. A jewels of the area is the Church of the Intercession, built on one of the highest points of Manhattan. Its origins date to 1843, when sanitation problems downtown led Wall Street’s Trinity Church to stop performing burials in their yard.

To create a solution, Trinity reached beyond the city limits and purchased a large parcel of land in the tiny country hamlet of Carmansville for use as a graveyard. The land, which they dubbed Trinity Church Cemetery, became the last resting place of many notable and affluent citizens.

Within a few years, demand began for a convenient chapel, eventually leading to construction of the Gothic style cathedral that adjoins the Cemetery. Now celebrating its 160th anniversary, the Church features an altar designed by Tiffany, notable terracotta floor tiles, and an Aeolian Skinner organ.

Nearby is Audubon Terrace, which fills a block that was once part of a farm owned by naturalist John James Audubon. Created by railroad heir Archer Huntington, Audubon Terrace was intended as a modern-day acropolis, a sophisticated center of art and culture. At the dawn of the 20th century, Huntington hired the leading architects of the day, including Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. They designed the Beaux-Arts plaza and buildings that today house the Hispanic Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Boricua College.

Sugar Hill, a residential section of Hamilton Heights, was once the country’s most fashionable address for African Americans, the place where life was sweet. In these palatial brownstones and apartment buildings lived the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn (who immortalized the neighborhood in his song Take the ‘A’ Train), Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Robeson.

The neighborhood was also home to prominent professionals and civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

When the city’s fortunes declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, this area was severely affected; as most of the well-heeled moved away, drugs and violence became widespread. Elegant brownstones were divided into cheap, poorly-maintained apartments, then vandalized. A significant number of neglected buildings were demolished or burned.

But today, Sugar Hill is on the upswing. Professionals, artists and community activists again walk these streets. Newly-created private schools and arts institutions (including the Dance Theatre of Harlem) have made this area their home.

Everywhere are signs of renewal and revitalization. Houses that were filled with squatters only a few years ago are now being restored and selling for millions of dollars. Buildings that had become rooming houses are being converted back to spacious homes and Sugar Hill is again becoming one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.

Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway

Sculpture on the Plaza at Audubon Terrace

Bas-relief of Don Quixote on horseback

Above the entrance to the former home of the Museum of the American Indian

Entrance to American Society of Arts & Letters

The Church of the Intercession

Detail of wall at the Church of the Intercession

Gatehouse at Trinity Church Cemetery

The Gould mausoleum in the Cemetery

Garret Storm’s mausoleum in Trinity Church Cemetery


Building with Mansard roof in Sugar Hill

On W. 152nd St., three houses designed to look like one

Restored buildings on St. Nicholas Avenue

Classic Sugar Hill brownstones on St. Nicholas

Row of houses on St. Nicholas Avenue

Doorway with stained glass panel

Wrought iron railings in Sugar Hill

Painted stonework highlights the construction date

openhousenewyork weekend
Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association
The Hispanic Society of America
Church of the Intercession
NY Times: Living in Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Historic Districts Council: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization
Harlem One Stop Tour: A Walk Through Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Trinity Cemetery
Dance Theatre of Harlem

Open House Harlem Pt 1: Manhattanville/W. Harlem

October 6, 2007

NOTE: Thanks to a particularly robust strain of influenza, Blather from Brooklyn was knocked out of the blogosphere for more than a week and a half. Publication is resuming where it left off when the flu bug raised its ugly head.

OpenHouseNewYork Weekend is here, a time when New York celebrates architecture and design. Sites around the city throw open doors that are usually closed to the public while designers, historians and enthusiasts eagerly lead packs of the curious on walking tours and explorations.

This afternoon, as part of the celebration, participants were treated to a tour that included elements of West Harlem’s past and future: highlights of the now mostly-vanished industrial neighborhood known as Manhattanville and a preview of a waterfront park scheduled to open next year.

Situated between St. Nicholas Terrace and the Hudson River, Manhattanville was once a quiet waterfront village eight miles north of New York City. The 1800s brought paved streets, Robert Fulton’s ferryboat and a flock of city residents who ventured north for the green fields, fresh country air and new opportunities.

In the closing years of the 19th century, when construction of an elevated railway made it possible to travel from Wall Street to Manhattanville in less than an hour, the population tripled. The area was rapidly transformed from a community of tenant farmers and factory workers to a bustling commercial and transportation hub.

Over the years, changing fortunes plunged Manhattanville into a decline. But today, those who know where to look can glimpse the area’s past glory. Some of the luxurious buildings that rose here in the early 1900s are relatively unchanged, their facades still clad in marble and terra-cotta. In certain spots beneath the elevated tracks, the asphalt has worn away, exposing the granite Belgian blocks and bronze insignias of the long-defunct 3rd Avenue line.

As for the future, you’ll view it by crossing the West Side Highway to the spot where 125th Street ends at Marginal Street. There, along the river, is a construction project that will reclaim a long-inaccessible section of waterfront. Known as West Harlem Waterfront Park, the project is transforming a grubby, weed-filled parking lot into a lively spot for recreation.

When it opens next year, the small but carefully-designed park will contain sculptures, fountains and benches. It will feature designated spaces for fishing, kayaking, playing, performing and relaxing in the sun. Most importantly, it will fill a missing link in the greenway and bike path that will eventually stretch along the entire length of Manhattan island.

Under the elevated tracks

Plaque and unused tracks of the 3rd Avenue line

The view from Marginal Street

The fence is opened for OHNY visitors

This area will be filled with grass

Trees and grass will grow here soon

Design of the long, narrow park is based on intersecting triangles

Benches and walkway under construction

The future Water Taxi pier

The proposed fishing pier

The kayak launching area

The park will end here but the bike path will continue

openhousenewyork weekend
West Harlem Waterfront Park
Eric K. Washington
Archipelago Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Community Board 9: West Side Harlem
DMJM Harris: West Harlem Waterfront Redevelopment Program
NYLCV: Work Finally Begins on West Harlem Waterfront Park

A Night at the Opera

October 2, 2007

One of the joys of living in this city is having the ability (at least once in a while) to spend a night at the opera.

This evening I visited the Metropolitan Opera, America’s largest classical music organization and one of the world’s greatest opera companies. Founded in 1880, the Met isn’t simply a venue for great voices; it is also an institution dedicated to growing the next generation of opera-lovers.

Sadly, most American schoolchildren learn little to nothing about opera, so the Met has taken on a great educational mission. The company employs many methods to make opera afforable, accessible and fun, including discount seating for students, backstage tours and simultaneous translation of lyrics displayed on small, individual screens affixed to the back of every seat.

Tonight was the season premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The opera is based on the second of three plays that Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais wrote about Figaro, a hilariously subversive servant in a royal palace; the first in the triology is Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville) and the last La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother).

The show is long, very sexy and very, very funny. But even if the show wasn’t superb (it is), the setting couldn’t be finer.

Located at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera House is famed for the soaring arches of its white marble facade, the large, colorful murals by Marc Chagall displayed in the lobby, and an enormous gilded proscenium from which hangs the a massive sweep of golden fabric, the largest theatre curtain in the world.

The front of the Opera House

Reading Figaro posters at Lincoln Center

The fountain in front of the Opera House

Lincoln Center
The Metropolitan Opera
Metropolitan Opera: Le Nozze di Figaro
Metropolitan Opera: Synopsis of Le Nozze di Figaro
Metropolitan Opera Shop
Metropolitan Opera Guild
Metropolitan Opera Guild Education Department
Opera News
Guggenheim Collection: Marc Chagall
Britannica: Marc Chagall
A Night at the Opera

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