Category Archives: Chelsea

republicans against privatized health care?

I can’t believe I’m posting twice in one afternoon. But this is quietly extraordinary: the famously pro-privatization mayor of my city realizing that for-profit health care may not be the best idea.

Bloomberg noted the city had gotten its health insurance from the two companies — Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York and Group Health Incorporated — for more than 60 years, adding: “We don’t need city dollars intended to protect hard-working city employees and retirees used instead to pad the compensation of healthcare executives.”

The state stands to reap nearly $1.8 billion over several years from the conversion as it would be the biggest shareholder in the new combination, but Bloomberg fears the city won’t be able to afford the higher insurance premiums for public employees and retirees that he said will result.

Maybe the city employees live in the few remaining Mitchell-Lama apartments can next persuade Bloomberg that development deals cannot be the solution to he city’s 50-year-old housing crisis.

neither soldier nor civilian

Yesterday, I went to a benefit performance of the Off- Broadway show “The Castle,” in which four former inmates tell their stories and praise The Fortune Society. For 40 years, the society has worked on such folks’ behalf, and ten years ago bought the castle where this movie was filmed and turned it into a halfway house. The group’s director, Jo Ann Page, told me last week that the play felt like a return to the origins of the group, born of founder David Rothenberg’s play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” “David was saying, ‘look—we started on Broadway, now we’re back almost on Broadway!’ And meanwhile, one of the players was saying, ‘Last year I was in lockup. Now I’m Off-Broadway!’”

The play itself is a touch didactic – while Variety called it “immensely eloquent,” the Times said drily, “This is theatre verging on a public service announcement” – but it made me think about something I’d noticed since I first started covering prison stuff: the extent to which these ex-offenders reminded me of so many of the GI’s I used to counsel. Serious people, who’ve been through something I can’t claim to share (and likely wouldn’t want to).

That impression was redoubled last night by a conversation I had with the wife of one of the leads in the play, herself a graduate of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. After we bonded talking about a friend of hers I’d written about, she spoke of some programs at the prison that had been restored with the help of “some civilians.” I’d not known that former prisoners also talked about “civilians.”

“Are you a veteran?” hotline callers used to ask me, back in the day. “You just seem like you understand.” Not a soldier, I would reply softly, but maybe not quite a civilian either. Maybe my task as a writer is to hover in that not-quite-civilian zone. Because, as my brilliant friend Jine pointed out a few weeks ago, the most important thing journalists can do is not the stories we tell, but that we listen.

Monday morning links, not thoughts

It’s a Monday morning, and I’m trying to simultaneously finish my crazy oversized book chapter and get my week at the newspaper firmly started. So I’m going to punt one more time, and offer up a couple of links:

Does Obama’s appearance on Fox News signify a move to the right? An interesting take.

A portrait of the overall primary drama from my favorite cartoonist, who is also one of our most fearless thinkers.

If you’re tired of political chat, some Chelsea stuff: for those of you curious whatever happened to the folks I described at the Hotel Breslin, here’s the latest update:

Last week, the Hotel Breslin on Broadway bustled with the sounds of construction. Eight DOB notices were plastered to the front door, between 28th and 29th Sts.—some clear (“Install New HVAC System”) and others mysterious (“Conversion To Prior Use”). Just below the doorman’s cubicle, workers wearing protective masks tramped down to the basement, while the sound of power drills and other heavy equipment blasted from beyond the inner door. Just beside that door, a yellowed notice pleaded politely: “Please Remember That This is a Residential Building. Avoid Excess Noise.”

And if you just want to grimace wondering why you didn’t come up with it yourself, the inevitable Yes We Can Has.

Groundhog Day, with a few more clues

Last night, a meeting of a local transportation committee kind of made the past 15 months slip  away. The topic was the same as my very first story for Chelsea Now: the ARC Tunnel project, a plan by New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority to double the number of passengers crossing the river. Then as now, there was a New Jersey Transit rep with Power Point slides, ready to explain how the trains would only benefit New York and Chelsea. Then as now, there sat the opposition, renegade transit planners and passenger organizations with their own quixotic-seeming quest to remake the project.

In the interim, NJT had revised its plans significantly, but not to respond to the critics. Instead, the plan had diverged even further from its original concepts. There went those critics’ hopes to integrate the tunnel station with a regional rail system, as in Paris or Philadelphia.

My full article about the (bloody long and contentious) meeting will be in the paper, but I wanted to note some language I might never have noticed last February. The fellow from NJT rattled off a series of “impacts” now avoided by the new plan, which envisions a tunnel and station 155 feet underground that doesn’t try to link with Penn Station. “We would have had to get too close to the bottom of the buildings near the station. Both existing buildings and for future development,” he said. “The city, City Planning, asked us not to do that. So we found a better way.”

Anyone who follows New York’s development dance might have had their ears prick at that last sentence, and wondered when those conversations took place. And who it was that really asked. Given subsequent changes, that may make a difference in whether the Quixotes can slay their dragon.

Meanwhile, this movie is still in play. And thus,my current earworm is this song

Luxury [boring] City

At Chelsea Now I often feel like I’m writing a subtler version of one of those blogs chronicling the loss of old New York in the crush of New York’s new development, like Lost City or Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. Roughly a quarter of my stories feature efforts to Save something, whether it’s Save the Garment Center, Save [Historic] Chelsea, or — this week — Save Saint Vincent de Paul, a historic church that served former slaves among its congregants back in the pre-Civil War Gangs of New York days.

All of them fear the future envisioned by Mayor Bloomberg and his aspiring-Robert-Moses deputy, Daniel Doctoroff, which was illumined beautifully by my J-school classmate David Freedlander in Thursday’s AM New York. David ended his article with a quote from urban scholar Fred Siegel; “”You can sum up the Bloomberg legacy in two words: luxury city.”

I found myself quoting Siegel, and by extension David, on Friday to some folks in Philadelphia, the city I’ve always thought of as a second or third home. For a journalist, I speculated, their town might offer much more interesting terrain than the latest $2-million condo or yet another elegy for a historic church/concert hall/bookstore. It was enough, I added, to make like John Cusack in this movie, telling his editors from a wild and woolly Savannah, Georgia: “New York is boring!”

Of course, I may just not be taking the long view; there’s no doubt that at least some of the new building is Ozymandian. Brooks at Lost City warns:

I still think the big wake-up call is yet to come, long after Bloomberg has left office and taken up his new job in Albany, when the City wakes up and realizes it has no working class, no artistic class, no small-business culture, no middle class to speak of, no younger generation that didn’t come out of law school or business school, or clings to a trust fund.

But by the time that happens, I’ll be collecting Social Security. And I wonder if I will be in New York or some other, more little-engine-that-could town.

the kid gets an award

Just got word from colleagues ar Community Media that my series on illegal hotels (see Selected Articles, or just google my name and “illegal hotels”) was given an award for “in depth reporting” by the New York Newspaper Association. The citation read: “These stories were well written as well as rich and
informative–putting a consistently human face on a pattern of official indifferences to the illegal hotels.”

Not sure how significant that is in the outer world, but what makes me happy: I know this year the awards were judged by a similar association in North Carolina. I would never have thought that an only-in-New-York dilemma like illegal hotels would speak to readers from that far away, where NYC’s fragile web of tenant protections might feel like a dream.

And OK, I know I’m not so much a kid. But journalism keeps me feeling like a third-grader.

rashomon, via NYC schools

This past Tuesday, I sat in a windowless classroom on my beat, getting yelled at by a principal, four assistant principals, and a handful of teachers and students from a local high school. Many of their sentences began: “Do you even know..?”

Did I know that their math team had done well? That their media school produced numerous magazines and books? That their fine arts academy’s music and art teams had worked together on a concert, the latter painting the sets till all hours? And one young teacher hissed at me, “Do you even know what you’re doing?”

They were responding to one of four articles I’d written about their school, which like other large high schools in New York has been undergoing rapid changes under Chancellor Joel Klein: breakup of its student body into small “learning communities,” shifts in curriculum, and its first “report card.” These teachers and students felt I had stigmatized the school, that I had written a borderline racist way about the changes in the school’s demographics “without writing about the amazing things that happen here every day,” as the director of their business school put it. And their principal accused me of “twisting the facts to suit your (my) agenda.”

Now I know why education reporters burn out.

I’ve spent close to six months now trying to sort out fact from rumor on both the overall citywide reforms and on what’s going on in the local schools, to the extent possible when my beat isn’t Chelsea schools but all of Chelsea. I get letters and emails challenging this or that point as well as giving me tips about where to look. The stories told by each vary hugely, both in simple facts and in the mood about the schools themselves. Especially this one. I began to work more slowly, to examine each claim and to prepare to ask for an official response from the school.

Then news broke: a kid at the school had been shot a block away. With three bullets in his body, he had run around the corner to the lobby of the school and collapsed. Suddenly it was front-page news (for us), and a followup to the first story these teachers had hated, about rumors that swirled about gang activity after three of their students were stabbed.

After months of looking into it (to the extent possible while writing other news stories every week), I feel like I’ve been part of a 2000’s NYC version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The school blames the community, with its out-of-town partyers and public housing complexes. The community blames the school — most of whose students live in less affluent neighborhoods, like the South Bronx or my own ‘hood Washington Heights. A longtime expert on NYC schools tells me that many parents from those neighborhoods likely chose it partly because it’s in a rich neighborhood, and they figure the kid will be safe there. OR they only send them reluctantly aftet their child begs, “because she wanted to take a chance on Manhattan,” as one parent in the room said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a kid is recovering at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The school is trying to recover, the Tuesday group said, from the damage my articles have done. And I’m still turning the crystal around and around, hoping to distinguish between objective fact, personal testimonies, and the bigger picture, if there is one, while pulling out an actual story by deadline.

It’s a journalistic truism that if all your sources feel equally maligned, you’re doing something right. But as a sometime educator, I did feel bad that the kids felt I’d ignored their heroism. Because much of their work as I’ve seen it is indeed brilliant, like the short films and newspapers I’ve seen, a testimony to both students and the teachers who shepherd them. These kids’ writing sure beats the pretentious drivel I produced in high school.

If there’s one thing I learned from my time teaching at CUNY, it was that many of the students struggling to learn paragraph structure had already done things I’d never have the strength for — like living with alcoholic parents, or crossing over from Mexico in the dark of night. (I don’t remember the latter guy’s name, Department of Homeland Security, should your Google-enabled software find this entry. I do remember that he was a cook in a fancy Manhattan restaurant, and a hell of a poet.)

Time to shake off the dragged-to-the-principal’s office feeling from Tuesday, and finish my piece (deadline this afternoon). Most of the investigative stuff will have to wait for another week. If I succeed in describing one facet of the crystal with accuracy, I’ll be happy. I don’t expect them to be.

500 words

Everything old is new again.

When did I first hear that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day? Long before I thought I might try to emulate his multifaceted career:

Graham Greene had a reputation for prophecy; as early as 1955 he published “The Quiet American,” a book about the perils of American meddling in Vietnam. What seems like foresight actually came from his knack for cutting down to the heart of the matter — to appropriate the title of another of his novels, this one about Sierra Leone. It was less that he saw things coming than that he recognized the same scenarios of human foolishness and venality unfolding over and over again. If anything, his was a gift for timing, and it’s still in operation, even now, 13 years after his death. His centennial (Greene was born in 1904) arrives just as some of his most barbed political observations have acquired a brand new — and simultaneously all too familiar — relevance. Greene wrote steadily (500 words a day, every day) and as a result produced a large body of work: journalism, travel writing, novels and stories, plays, memoir, criticism. There are several fat veins in his fiction alone: the “Catholic” novels, thrillers, comic fiction like “Travels With My Aunt” and “Our Man in Havana” (also a spy novel); and harder to categorize works like “The Quiet American,” the book that more than any of his others has stamped itself upon the American imagination.

Those years ago, I mostly was impressed by his daily output — a quota I used steadily during the fiction writing days. Of course, back then I also fantasized about spending my days like Babbo: starting in a cafe, working from 11-5, and going to the theatre every night (if not, perhaps, the riotous drinking after, which ultimately killed him).

But lately, amid the press of Chelsea Now angst and other assorted disasters, that 500-words -a-day rhythm has felt impossible. Until this morning. Now I’m back where I began, albeit maybe a touch wiser (no more fantasies about some millionaire admiring my work so much that I needn’t ever work again). Just focusing on that number 500, setting it as a daily can’t miss,, as a way to amass the marble I need to get this book underway whatever happens.

Many thanks to yesterday’s commenters, who helped me acknowledge my terrified block, and reminded me how to end it. Meanwhile I’ll let myself stay inspired by Greene, who shared Joyce’s capacious Catholic sensibility if not his optimism.

the glass slipper of Bryant Park

Reporting my two Chelsea stories last week, I had cause to learn about the Bank of America’s new tower at One Bryant Park, as I prepared to talk to Jared Gilbert and Alice Hartley of architecture firm Cook+Fox about green buildings. (The BOA tower is slated to earn a “Platinum” certification from the U. S. Green Building Council). Turns out that given the site, near the park that 30 years ago had a seedy rep (so much so that we thought this movie was set there), the architects reached back much further: to the 1853 World’s Fair, when New York decided to best London and build a Crystal Palace.

As I said to a colleague, “That’s all a history slut like me needed to hear.” I spent far too much time reading about the building, designed by architect George Carstensen. It filled what is now Bryant Park with nearly 40,000 square feet of glass, 1,250 tons of iron and 70-foot columns supporting its central dome. Walt Whitman, still in his exuberant “Manahatta” phase, wrote of the result, which supported all that glass with 19th-century iron:

… a Palace,
Lofter, fairer, ampler than any yet,
Earth’s modern wonder, History’s Seven out stripping,
High rising tier on tier, with glass and iron facades,
Gladdening the sun and sky – enhued in the cheerfulest hues,
Bronze, lilac, robin’s-egg, marine and crimson
Over whose golden roof shall flaunt, beneath thy banner, Freedom.

I spend a lot of time writing about newer glass behemoths in this rapidly changing city, like Renzo Piano’s Times Headquarters or Jean Nouvel’s haute condo complex in Chelsea. The closest they get to such poetry is New York Times architectural writers exulting about Nouvel’s “undulating glass wall.” Which is to say, not so close. I wonder if Dostoevsky, who cites the London version of the palace as among his spurs to renounce modernism in favor of dour religious fundamentalism, would have been even more offended by this glass temple of commerce in the Babylon of Manhattan.

He likely was not surprised in 1857, when — in the middle of the annual fair of the American Institute — the building’s “fireproof” wooden/iron frame smoldered and snapped, its glass shattered and melted. (Made me think a little of the recent wave of glass flying to the ground, from the Times building and other glass towers.)

I wonder if Cook+Fox has paid extra attention to that fire as they designed One Bryant Park. Or if somewhere in their minds, in between such laudable goals as energy efficiency and air quality, they hearDostoevsky’s ghost warning that all glass carriages need to be put away at midnight.