Archive for the ‘ New York ’ Category

New York: Plus Ce Change…


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


Context: To grow older is to become more reflective. The mind’s acquisitiveness yields to the increasing tendency to connect the disparate knowledge it has already acquired. Even new information is now absorbed in the contextual memory of the old. So it is that when I go to New York these days I find myself filtering the novelty of its ever changing present through the prism of my past experience. That city has been a special place for me. It is truly the hospitable adopted home for the “citizens of the world,” as the deracinated are euphemistically called. Coincidentally, the architecture of its being is also best suited for the reflective age. Unlike, say San Francisco, where much of the attraction is the work of nature, New York is more about what its people do. You have to look inside –New York does not compete with the allure of the outside setting of a San Francisco.



Washington Square

The more it has changed, the moreNew York City seems to have stayed the same for me since the time I lived there in the 1960s. This thought occurs to me as I sit on a bench in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, where I once occasionally played chess . It is a warm Saturday night in June, the kind I fondly remember. Three street musicians (on piano, drums, and guitar) are playing, accompanied by a tap dancer. A crowd is gathered around them, clapping and singing along.

At the northern entrance to the Park near the Arch (President Washington’s Centennial Memorial), an artist has created a circular, multicolor painting on the ground using sand.  He tells me that he has trained at the Chicago Art Institute and “also India.”  A woman asks if this is a mandala. Her friend suggests that it looks more like an “American-Indian dream catcher.” The painter says there is some truth to the latter and adds that Jackson Pollack was influenced by Native-American art. “But,” he continues, “this painting of mine combines many things.” A man points out a young woman with painted bare nipples and a white gardenia in her hair,  standing at the edge of the painting. “Was she your muse?” The painter is amused by the question but says that the woman was not his muse.

Two blocks before the Park I passed the Mews where Susie Parker lived, when I was a New Yorker, in one of the fashionable remodeled cottages that were once stables, The celebrated model was the muse to more than a few. On a side street just north of this I had seen the narrow two-bedroom brick house which Eleanor Roosevelt used as her pied-a-terre from 1933 to 1942, after she presumably stopped being FDR’s muse. She continued to be, of course, the inspiration to many in politics. Could one say that she was a political muse?

The past merged with the present yet once more as I was having dinner earlier that night in the nearby Gotham Bar and Grill. Joe, the manager, came by to ask if I enjoyed my New York steak which had been dry-aged for 40 days. I told him that in San Francisco we prided ourselves on having good restaurants and to me his was as good as the best of them. In the lobby of the restaurant there was only one framed picture on the wall. It was of Max’s Kansas City . That was my favorite restaurant in New York back when I lived in the City. Joe told me it had closed down sometime ago.

In the Park now I drop a few dollars in the tip bucket that the musicians are passing around. One of them talks to a teenager after he makes his donation. “Hey, thank you! Where have you been? Last time I saw you, you were this high,” he lowers his hand way down toward the ground.

The Carnival on Fifth

On this Sunday morning when the air is clear and the humidity is low conditions are ideal for half of the world to descend on my favorite path in midtown New York, which is from 50th Street and Fifth Avenue through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum. There are more people than flowers in the alley that fronts the Ice Skating Rink at Rockefeller Center. Earlier in the day, when the crowd was thinner, you could see the separate parts of the veritable carnival that was forming on Fifth. Four boisterous middle-aged women, sporting blazing green T-shirts, came up to me a few blocks from the Rock.  The lettering on the T-shirts declared that they were from Kansas. “And we are not wicked,” the laughing ladies announced. “Wizard of Oz,” one said. “Get it?”

Presently, there was another puzzle. A camera-wielding group of tourists was aiming east on 55th Street. As I stepped toward them curiously, I almost stumbled on two single-hump camels who were calmly standing on the sidewalk across from the St. Regis Hotel. Luckily, there stood yet another oddity: a local who would explain it all. You could tell his provenance by what he was wearing: a sweaty plain white T-shirt. He was a lone figure among the out-of-towners who subdue the normally irrepressible New Yorkers in this season of tourist invasion. They came in all stripes of nationalities but they were hard to differentiate. It seemed that the whole universe had been successfully “Gap-ized.”  Everyone has adopted the American summer uniform of baseball caps, T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers. The only exceptions were the sari-clad moms from various part of the old Subcontinent, visiting their high-tech kids, the latter themselves clad in shorts, baseball caps, T-shirts, etc.

My New Yorker pal was in a chatty mood as are certain locals found in tourist environments. He told me that the camels were there for a “movie shoot.” The paraphernalia on the ground supported this explanation. Two old pieces of safari luggage, covered with kilim were on either side of the camels. A man wearing a fez and a long robe stood next to them. “We are based in Florida,” the faux-Arab declared. The New Yorker said: “I knew it was a comedy when I saw diplomatic license plates attached on the camels’ butts.” He continued: “It is a Sacha (Baron) Cohen movie. He was here himself earlier. The story is about (Moamer) Gadhafi. There were several beautiful Amazon women in the cast too, plus one voluptuous blonde who played Gadhafi’s Ukrainian nurse. Look at that line of blue Lamborghinis! I don’t think they even make Lamborghinis in blue. These were made especially for the movies.” Four blue Lamborghinis were parked at the curb. Behind them were several white police cars. A studio hand was watching over her two kids who had climbed into one of the Lamborghinis and were playing with the dashboard.

Back on Fifth, a Chinese street vendor was rearranging the pictures of movie stars and other celebrities on her cart.  Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles were among them, but the center of the display was given to a picture of “Audi Hepen,” as the woman pronounced the actress’s name. Tiffany’s flag-ship store directly faced the cart with these pictures. At the jewelry store’s windows there were two necklaces on display with round medallions which distorted the reflection of the viewer’s face.

At Bergdorf Goodman’s window displays across the street,  phobia was the theme. Clownish figures represented the sources of various phobias spelled out by captions underneath. Along with the familiar phobias there also were some obscure to me. “Maimouphobia” was the fear of monkeys. There was even a fear of “nothing”. The representational pedestal above this caption was simply empty. Around the corner, at the entrance to the Plaza Hotel a man with a sign seeking customers for his bike-rental business hustled three women who had just gotten out of a limousine. They wore black Islamic head scarves and heavy makeup. “You are Arab,” the man insisted. “No, we are nothing,” one of the woman said, trying to ward him off.

The plaza that is around the Pulitzer Fountain here was hosting the first exhibit in the U.S. of works by Ai Weiwei,China’s “best known and most successful contemporary artist.” Called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” this was a series of black metal sculptures depicting the heads of animals in the Chinese Zodiac . On the north-side of the street several Chinese portrait artists sat on their stools in a row, offering to draw you for as low as 10 dollars. I stopped at one of these stands where the ubiquitous picture of the 60s rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix stared at me. I asked the artist why Hendrix was so popular. His reply was only in hand motions to this effect: “I paint.” The driver of a horse carriage standing nearby was only a little more responsive when I asked about his business. “Fifty dollars for a twenty minute ride,” he said.


The Mall 

Inside Central Park I paused to listen to a Chinese musician at the Pond. He invited me to sit down and work the bow on the strings of his instrument. “It is called erhu,” he said.  It resembled the two-string lute I had seen in Central Asia.  Playing the erhu was a first for me. On the other hand, the view of the New York skyline as it framed this tranquil corner of the Park had beguiled me many times before. The buildings seemed as naturally  a part of the Park scene as the boulders inside the Park, except that they were outside.

People who pushedstrollers or pulled dogs in the Park were easy to identify as neighborhood residents. So were perhaps those who were playing in its baseball field. The rest of the crowd was mixed, especially those who ran, biked, and walked on the roadways of the park which were closed to car traffic on this holiday.

The Mall of Central Park that had been originally designed as its “open air hall of reception” was today the venue for a host of musicians under the canopy of its magnificent American elm trees. At its south-end corner a woman stood playing Bach on the violin, with the recorded sound of an orchestra as the background. There were two jazz groups at different locations in the long stretch of the Mall. One had a vocalist. At the north end, a piano player had brought along his instrument. He sat at the piano and sang as he played his own music. Just outside the Mall was a harpist . She was typical, she said, in that she made her living by playing in the Park. “The authorities want to stop us from playing here. But we are fighting them and we will win. We have a good lawyer.”


The Museum Nonpareil

In the Metropolitan Museum the ancient Temple of Dendur from Aswan dominates one side of the Egyptian Collection. In grandeur it rivals the famed Roman Temple in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum –which I had visited a few months before. It is, of course, also much older. Yet one more proof of the Met’s incomparable holdings was the full size statue of Hatshepsut , the center piece of a large gallery dedicated to the masterpieces  from that female Pharaoh’s Mortuary Temple in Deir el-Bahari, Egypt -which I had also explored recently. The Hatshepsut was more beautiful than the celebrated bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin’s New Museum.

When I asked a museum staff for direction to “the special exhibit” currently at the Met, his response was symptomatic: “Which one? There are currently 9 special exhibits here.” The one I did manage to see in my limited time was the “Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.” The Director of the Met himself guided us in an informative audio recording. He was circumspect and allowed more time to the curator to explain the pieces with her deserving passion. Sabine Rewald’s explanation for the emergence of the genre was especially noteworthy: this was a period of political turmoil which these artists metaphorically avoided by looking at the outside only from the windows of their studios.  Indeed, their focus was the interior that was illuminated by the window.


Mayor Superstar

Not far from where I used to live in New Yorkas a student, a professor of mine was stabbed to death on the street. He had refused to give his wallet to a mugger; instead, he fought the assailant. I remember the Professor (Wolfgang Friedmann) fondly. An old-time German, he invited us to his country home outside New York City and showed us the rope hanging from a tree which he climbed so as to strengthen his muscles just for such an eventuality. That was in the late 1960s and we carried on us only a five-dollar bill to give to the would-be muggers who were routinely expected to cross our paths in the campus neighborhood of Morningside Heights. The five-dollar was called “Lindsey money,” in reference to Mayor John Lindsey who could not protect us despite his best efforts. The current mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, evidently protects the New Yorkers.

He is also credited with “solving” the city’s homelessness problem. At least, you do not see homeless on the streets of Manhattan. The streets are also exceptionally clean. You see sanitation workers actually cleaning. I could not but wistfully compare them to city workers in San Francisco who too often looked idle. The contrast was even more pronounced between the courteous bus conductors and their sullen San Francisco counterparts. Even in fighting smoking, Bloomberg’s New York has passed “progressive” San Francisco; and Starbucks’ pastries in New York know show labels indicating the number of their calories, in compliance with the recent city requirements.

The efforts to make New York a more pleasant urban environment especially catch the attention of visitors to Times Square. The middle part of the Square has been closed to car traffic and turned into an area for tables and chairs. This is no perfunctory show: on the day of my visit workers were painting the area as a part of a continuous maintenance program. Lest all credits go to Bloomberg, a plaque at southwestern part of  Times  Square notes the 20th anniversary of the efforts to fix it under “Mayors Midtown Citizens Committee” which began in 1976. I sat on the bleachers which were installed several years ago at the north side and looked at the line  of customers for the discounted theater tickets booth, an institution that has also existed for sometime.

This was a good vantage point to observe that the landmarks of this area have remained largely the same. My memory of the distant past is particularly vivid about this place. On the second night after I had become a resident of New York, I came out of the subway station here and saw Times  Square for the first time in a new light: “This is now my town,” I heard myself  whispering in elated disbelief. I was no longer just a “tourist” in the grand place.

There are still only two statues in Times Square. The older one, from 1936 , is of a man unknown to almost all tourists today. He is Lieutenant Colonel Francis P. Duffy , a Catholic priest and Army Chaplin who was honored here for his service to “God and Country” in battles from the Spanish- American War to the First World War. The other statue in Times Square was erected in 1956. It is of George M. Cohan, the creator of such famous musicals as Over There.  Cohan’s most famous utterance was “Give my regards to Broadway.” His statue is thus also Times Square’s tribute to its Broadway Theaters.

The namesake of the Square is no longer there, as the New York Times has vacated the celebrated building. The electronic ticker tape, however, still runs around the old structure to announce the news. The famous Camel Cigarette sign has been gone for some time, but its replacement is just as bright, along with many similar signs advertising other products. Through the glitter of all those lights, and many modern buildings, one could still glimpse the sight of a graceful 19th century mid-rise on the southern edge of the Square.

The electronic ticker tape is now used also in food vending carts around Times Square. One advertised “Kosher Hot Dog” above a framed Islamic invocation in Arabic, “In the name of Allah, the Kind and the Merciful,” on Amir’s food cart. In other eateries of Time Square, the boastful tendency of New Yorkers shows itself in ample hyperbole. Many restaurants claim to be “the best.” A block from the Square, I spotted a local resident recommending several of these to visiting tourists. He did not seem to have any motive other than pride in his hometown. He pointed out one Indian restaurant not only as one of the best, but also “the oldest Indian Restaurant in the United States.” Sure enough, that is what the Bombay Masala claimed in its sign. I walked up the one flight of stairs covered with partly torn carpet to the restaurant’s dinning room. The host was a smiling young man who had not been in the country long enough to have full command of English. The restaurant was almost empty. The menu explained its dishes to “Dear Mehman (guest)”. The host said he was from Bangladesh, as was the owner. The Restaurant had first opened in 1917 in the same location.

The “best” ribs in New Yorkare now available in a restaurant on 42nd Street, if the eatery’s self-promotion is to be believed. On this block in the past there were run-down movie houses where we went to see double-features on the second floor. I noted that two of those houses were still around. On the surface they did not show much improvement, although now they had as a neighbor the back entrance to the new ritzy Westin Hotel.

Near the back entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 9th Avenue the superlatives used by restaurants and bars in self-description continued. A bar boasted that it was the best in the city in the league of where the “locals” went. This was in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, still as nondescript as in the past. On this Saturday,  in Hell’s Kitchen they had their regular weekly flea market.  A woman in a wheelchair who sold T-shirts at the entrance to the market told me:  “The name of the place comes from a police man complaining to his friend that this area was as hot as hell’s kitchen.” It was not unduly hot today, but still a woman held up a parasol and a dog had spread itself on the hard pavement. The flea market spilled over several blocks on a side street. There was a variety of goods to browse, from pricey old coins to cheap new women’s dresses. An accordionist played old favorites for tips. A film crew was there to do a program for a local television station. A man who was being interviewed was saying into the camera: “I could not live anywhere but in this City, and specifically this old area.”

Tourists, however, came to see New York’s newest attraction nearby. The High Line now runs to 30th Street. It is a walkway built over the tracks of an old raised railroad. The railway had been built in the 1930s to bring in food and other products to the City without burdening surface streets below. That use was terminated in 1980. By the time the City authorities got around to debating what to do with the abandoned tracks, fashionable housing had been established in the areas adjacent to the tracks’ southern portion, in Chelsea. Led by two of their neighbors, the influential residents persuaded the City to turn the tracks into a neighborhood park. The innovative design of a long (now 16 blocks) pathway with greenery at 30 feet above the ground attracted private contributions from corporations such as Google. Mayor Bloomberg could take credit for yet another lasting urban accomplishment. The views from the southern part of the High Line are attractive with the Hudson in the west and leafy streets with interesting new architecture in the east. Further north, the landscape is one of old ugly buildings that also block any glimpse of the river. The novelty of the High Line still attracts visitors  , but its fate ultimately depends on the use the neighborhood residents will make of it.

The stairs at the southern end of the High Line brought me down to the old Meat Packing District where modish stores and busy restaurants have come to occupy the renovated buildings that proudly show their old brick walls. On a grander scale this urban revival is demonstrated in the large building that once was the National Biscuit Company Factory. It is now called the Chelsea Market. Just north of the 14th Street, the Market is the heart of the Chelsea District. It has many stores and restaurants under the same roof. I chose to buy my lunch at the one appropriate to the building’s provenance: Sarabeth’s Bakery. Proclaiming herself the “Goddess of Bakedom,” Sarabeth Levine indeed is a past winner of the coveted James Beard annual Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. I sat at an outside table at Sarabeth’s and watched the bustling neighborhood parade by in the narrow passageway of the Chelsea Market. It was a different location, but New York still felt the same as those days when I sat on the benches in the middle of Broadway watching the Upper Westside traffic of humanity.