After taking in the Armory Show last week, I wondered, what sold? And for how much? Were any of the images that caught my eye scooped up by the collectors or museum reps casing the joint?
Though gallerists may balk at disclosing sales figures, artnet.com isn’t as reticent, so without further ado, here are just a few of their findings.
Every painting by Florine Demosthene on offer sold. Bargains at $7000 each!
Works by Jonathan Lyndon Chase were bum-rushed by a couple of American museums during the preview, according to artnet’s Eileen Kinsella, going for an average of $20,000 each.
Zak Ove sold well. The crocheted, doily and lace piece called DP43 went for $16,000.
And the largest price paid, one million dollars, went for a Lee Krasner work called Peacock, completed in 1973, and a stab at poetic justice, however late in the game. Historically given short shrift among the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s, Krasner’s work may still be undervalued. Even *current* entries in Wikipedia lean sexist, with Lee Krasner’s own page containing a paragraph headed “Pollocks’ Influence,” while Jackson Pollock’s page refers to his “Relationship with Krasner”. Because, you see, men bear “influence” while women have “relationships”. Phooey to that!
And while it was great to see so many women and people of color represented at the Armory Show, sales continue to reflect the predominance of men, white men in particular, in a world where contemporary art’s strange bedfellow is capitalism.
So I’ll end with a photo I call “Artist with Silver Backpack Filled with Ideas”. Is she a student at Cooper Union or Pratt? Is she taking a break from classes at the School of Visual Arts or come all the way from RISD to see the show? Whatever she’s seeing, thinking, doing, Godspeed young woman! Imagine your work on these walls or any wall and then, make it happen.
Taking in the Armory Show will cost you. Sixty bucks when you add the tax and handling fees. But it’s a must-see if you’re a collector, art lover, student, up-and-comer, or just plain curious, like me.
Having moved to the Far West Side in 2001 from its original location at the Gramercy Hotel, the Armory Show now holds court on the Hudson River at Piers 90 and 94. Nearly 200 galleries from around the world showcase their best and brightest.
But you don’t have to put on your walking shoes or brandish that credit card because I hustled down to catch opening day and found respite from a wintry city drained of hue. The Armory Show is its own universe of color, shape and texture, with great people-watching to boot.
Who needs WORDS when you have pictures? So without further ado, here are some of the images that caught my eye.
Speaking of textiles, there were quite a few works featuring fabric and woven materials. Not usually my jam, but then again…
Another trend was…mirrors: painted, sculpted and adorned. I love the way the surrounding environs become part of the artwork.
Some of the video/paint works were downright scary…
But what about the big names, you ask? Were the tried and true among the trendy and new?
There were Warhols and Wei Weis, Abramovics and Nevelsons.
At a show as renowned and expansive as this, people-watching is half the fun!
See, I saved you sixty bucks.
But I have to say that my first trip to the Armory Show was worth every penny!
Great books like Catcher in the Rye, Washington Square, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Award-winning literature set in a city so captivating that I had to see it for myself. Classic books about a place so big, bold and beautiful it was a character in and of itself. Yes, books made me want to move to New York City.
But I don’t wanna lie. Because it was television, not books. It wasn’t Seinfeld or Friends or Taxi but an earlier generation of sitcoms that, in the opening credits, had me striding down Fifth Avenue, arm and arm with Oscar and Felix, Rhoda and Ann Marie.
In The Odd Couple, Jack Klugman played Oscar Madison, a sportswriter who shares his Park Avenue digs with photog Felix Unger, a well cast Tony Randall. I loved the show, based on Neil Simon’s play, but it was the opening—the breezy Neil Hefti theme song paired with on-the-streets-of-Manhattan visuals—that had me pining at fourteen for my own New York experience.
I didn’t know at the time—the show first aired in 1970—that a Park Avenue apartment was out of reach. (Opening credits put Oscar’s building at 1090 Park Avenue at East 87thStreet.) But it was that first glimpse of apartment life that birthed the notion that I too could have a sunken living room in the greatest city in the world.
Like most sitcoms, the series was shot on a sound stage. But the title sequence, which showed a rumpled Oscar jumping into cabs and “girl watching” in Times Square, caught the big city exuberance of Midtown.
Felix was the yin to Oscar’s yang, if not exactly gay then a sort of anal metrosexual, with his crisp suits and the occasional ascot. He marched down the avenue with what seemed like fusty ownership, probably whistling a snippet from a Verdi opera, tsk-tsking over Oscar’s penchant to litter. Felix wouldn’t have survived in a place like South Bend Indiana but in the Big Apple he was home, just one more idiosyncratic New Yorker, bless his heart.
That was the thing about New York-based television: the city was a character filled with characters! You met bartenders and hotdog vendors, cabbies and cops. It was ok to be an artist or iconoclast, a loner or to be downright weird.
Rhoda was another show that inspired me, one spun from The Mary Tyler Moore Show that had Mary’s friend Rhoda Morgenstern returning to her hometown to pursue a career as a costumer. Valerie Harper played the lead.
Although the show’s opening lacks the catchy punch of The Odd Couple, the visuals were enough to spark longing in me. I too wanted to explore the streets of the Garment District, stroll past the stone lions guarding the New York Public Library, barter with a fruit and veg vendor in Little Italy.
And Rhoda had a doorman! The idea that someone was paid to sit in the lobby and open the door or hail a taxi or take deliveries was so… New York. “Carlton” was one of those only-in-New York characters, someone you never saw but heard: a voice through the intercom. A drinker whose daily intoxication was baked into the script, Carlton was more proof that New York City had room for all comers, however bumbling, inept or addicted.
One of my favorites and likely the one that planted the “germ” that developed into a case of newyorkitus was That Girl, (1966-1971). Not only was Ann Marie—the character played so winningly by Marlo Thomas—an aspiring actress but she lived alone in a cute “bachelorette” apartment, side gigging as a temp or “salesgirl” while auditioning for parts.
How Ann Marie—or any other twenty-something character in a sit com—affords that apartment remains a mystery, as does her ability to buy the eye-popping fashions of the sixties, from A-line mini skirts to opaque tights and Go Go boots.
But when you’re dreaming big, pesky things like rent, utilities and grocery bills don’t figure in the visuals. I would have moved into Ann Marie’s flat in a New York minute, with its mid-century furniture, galley kitchen and interesting assortment of New York characters landing on her doorstep.
Fifty years later, the opening sequence still thrills me, with its dreamy New York skylines…
Outings in Central Park…
And ordinary street scenes of pigeons and horse carriages and Lincoln Center…
Sometimes I wonder how many young women I pass on the street today were inspired by sitcoms. Sex and the City had its pull in the aughts, and if I were a twenty-something today, gems like Girls, Broad City and High Maintenance would have me packing my bags for the next train into Penn Station.
But I’m already here. And even though it’s been twenty years since I arrived on Amtrak, I still love New York. I still love the ding-dong of closing train doors, the mad traffic, the broad avenues and quirky side streets, that “get-on-with-it” New Yawk attitude. Coming or going, I still get a lump in my throat when I catch the Manhattan skyline.
And even though Park Avenue digs and a sunken living room elude me, I’d like to think that my own personal sitcom, with its New York backdrop and audience of one, will enjoy a lifetime run.
Yes! say the people who bring us the Museum Of Sex. Yes! Oh, yes! God, yes!
But after my first visit I’m wondering whether the museum will satisfy… anyone. The frat boy and his inner 12-year old? Swingers seeking fresh fodder for their sagging libidos? That retired couple from flyover country looking to be outraged? The grad student bent on scholarship?
More destination than museum, “Mo Sex” presents an after-hours vibe with its dim interior, below ground lounge and a door policy so restrictive that only those cool enough to pay twenty bucks get in. (Meaning anyone over eighteen.)
Never before has “exit through the gift shop” been more instructive. Which is why, standing on Fifth Avenue at 27th Street, you may think the Museum of Sex is more retail scheme than museum, shelves bursting with dildos, naughty candies and S & M paraphernalia for the newbie.
Paying too much for a pair of cheap handcuffs aside, what’s inside the Museum of Sex?
Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990—a retrospective of work by Argentine-Italian Surrealist Leonor Fini—presents an early feminist’s beguiling and transgressive art; unfortunately the museum’s as dark as a fruit cellar. My camera kept warning me: Use the flash! Use the flash!)
As a feminist myself, I was happy to learn about Fini, who was included in MoMA’s ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’ exhibit back in 1936. Her woman-yielding-whip perspective is refreshing— especially to those of us weary of the cis-male gaze, tired of the inevitable *orgasm-face* that women have to make while simulating sex on camera.
Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971-1985 is a fun romp through the punk scene of mosh pits, pierced nipples and ripped fishnets. But the exhibit reads more like the bedroom walls of a rebellious teen than a scholarly exploration of punk’s pugilistic sexuality which, depending on the band, carried strains of feminism, queer culture and sexism.
ObjectXXX showcases artifacts from earlier times: vibrators, sex dolls, vintage vending machines, chastity belts. Some of the objects were better left to the imagination, like the fake hymen on display. Yes, there was a fake hymen. Don’t ask me how it was applied or if it ever fooled anyone.
Apart from the Fini exhibit, the highlight for me was eavesdropping on a tour guide training a recent hire. Trying to out do one another, they ping-ponged their way through competing examples of early precocity: Tour guide read his grandfather’s vintage copies of Marquis de Sade when he was only thirteen!!! New hire’s grandparents had threesomes!!! Tour guide’s girlfriend is cool with polyamory!!! New hire was hip to gender fluidity by the time she was ten!!!
Who then, will be satisfied by a visit to the Museum of Sex? I’m guessing that millennials searching for a group activity—like an escape room, a paranormal tour or an interactive play—might be drawn to the subterranean speakeasy, clubby persona and the “Jump for Joy” bouncy room filled with inflated “breasts”.
And the prospect of seeing gorged genitals, pubic hair and ouch-inducing paraphernalia, all safely behind plexiglass, no doubt draws a certain demographic. Tourists and suburbanites, bored “sophisticates” and hearty partiers might well be attracted to the scene, open ‘til midnight on weekends. Step right up for boobs and booze, for weenies and martinis!
But genuine art lovers and, yes, true deviants, might have more luck at the good old Metropolitan Museum of Art, or other institutions, where paintings like The Swing (Fragonard), Woman with Black Stockings (Egon Schiele), Venus and Cupid (Lorenzo Lotto), La Douceur (Picasso), and The Sofa (Toulouse Lautrec) are far more lusty than anything the Museum of Sex has to offer.
At some point every New Yorker finds herself in Midtown. Rather than brave the tourist-clogged streets around Herald Square or 42nd Street—shudder!—I take the side streets, where a surprising number of family-owned businesses plug on despite the rapacious grab of developers.
I’ve always been drawn to the small shops of the Garment District, those fabric, notions and trim shops that “unspooled” around the fashion industry, the latter a powerful economic engine in the city until the early ‘80s, when globalization started to take its toll. **
Twenty-two years ago, NYC’s Department of City Planning created the “Special Garment Center District,” in order to preserve “opportunities for apparel production, and wholesale and showroom use” in “selected blocks between 35th and 40th Streets west of Broadway.” ***
The rezoning was an attempt to save Manhattan’s garment industry by limiting real estate development, specifically the proliferation of hotels and “the conversion of industrial space into office use.” *** Thank you, City Planning!
It’s worth remembering, especially during incendiary times such as these, that the city’s garment industry wouldn’t have been possible without immigrants. According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s A Stitch in Time, “The skills of Eastern European Jews perfectly matched the industrial landscape taking place in New York,” that landscape, of course, being the garment industry. **
How were they doing, I wondered? Those old-world emporiums plying mother-of-pearl buttons, grosgrain ribbons, hooks and eyes? Although they seemed cast from a Dickens novel, with their narrow aisles, buckled floors and ancient cash registers, still, they were magical. Fusty warrens of space where, lo and behold, the perfect alabaster button, or ribbon the exact shade of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, or lace befitting a debutant’s cotillion might possibly be there behind the counter or among the hundreds of boxes or spools teetering above.
Was West 38th Street still the antidote to a missing button or broken zipper or to that sinking feeling that the familiar squiggles of Manhattan’s fingerprint—Curry Hill, the Diamond District, Korea Town, the Garment District itself—had been rubbed clean, replaced with posh hotels, star-chitect builds and chic eateries?
The answer is yes, and no.
The button sellers still ply their trade, aided in equal parts by that zoning law of ‘87 previously cited—upheld in 1990 when developers sought to rescind it**—and from the publicity of shows like Project Runway, where the camera chases blue-haired FIT students sourcing a neon zipper, gem-like buttons or yards of rhinestone trim.
The biggest takeaway for me—after visiting about ten trim and button shops in the district—is that ownership has shifted, with Asian-Americans replacing Eastern Europeans as entrepreneurs. Yet again, immigrants put their brains, brawn and bankrolls behind Manhattan’s fashion industry and all the ancillary businesses that support it.
Some shops present a kind of organized chaos, with a mother lode of sparkly treasure stacked from floor to ceiling…
…while others have been transformed into clean and orderly museums of calm, with spools of satin ribbon housed behind glass, and black-clad salesclerks absorbed in the bright screens of their laptops.
Despite the fact that I visited on a chilly Monday morning, most of the shops had customers: one designer described the masculine vibe he wanted for the buttons on his sports wear line; two women examined bolts of lace for a bridal veil; another woman sparred with the salesclerk on the price per foot of tapestry-woven trim.
Some shops were chaotic, others pristine, but one thing common to all was the extraordinary assortment of product, from buttons to boas, embroidery to escutcheons, fasteners to fabric, ribbons to rivets.
And the wealth of materials astounds: wood, stone, bamboo and bone; ceramic, elastic and plastic; feather and felt; sequins and satin; metal, tortoise and horn.
Color seems a simple concept; but is “blue” or “yellow” or “green” an answer or a question? Which shade of blue, which green hue? The range of colors available behind each storefront presents a Pantone swatch book of possibilities.
So the next time I need to replace a button or match some thread, I won’t scan the Internet or shop one of those corporate “craft” stores, I’ll head straight to the Garment District, where searching is half the fun, where the perfect cornflower blue awaits and where a few enterprising shopkeepers are doing their part to both preserve and rewrite a fascinating chapter in Manhattan’s storied history.
# # #
* Sung to the tune of Baubles, Bangles and Beads by George Forrest and Robert Wright. (I like the Sinatra/Jobim version.)
** Some facts gleaned from A Stitch in Time, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s 2008 pamphlet written by Gabriel Montero.
*** NYC Department of Planning, Special Purpose Districts
One of my pet peeves about living in New York City is the noise. So I cursed under my breath when I saw the scaffolding going up on my building. As I’ve mentioned here before, I live in a 14-story prewar, erected in 1914. The Triple Nickel needed a facelift, bricks repointed, that sort of thing.
But scaffolding means months, possibly years, of an ugly grill marring the facade of your homestead; years of a photo-ruinous rig of steel, wood and mesh; years of a view-obliterating maze of steps and rails outside your window; years of curtains drawn against the peering eyes of workmen.
Oh. And the noise. The minute I hear the ring of metal hitting concrete in the a.m., I know that the workmen are here, unloading the giant erector set soon to embrace us in its skeletal hug. But I don’t wanna be hugged!
The scaffolding is just the beginning. Then comes the drilling, hammering, scraping; the whistling, shouting, singing; the shuffling of feet, disembodied yet so close that it feels like it’s INSIDE your head.
Of course, if I were still grinding the nine-to-five, I’d be gone all day, dealing instead with the nonstop office din: the loud talker, the fingernail clipper, the open-mouthed chomper, the mindless hummer, those annoying pings and ring tones. See how much I hate noise?
But I no longer work in an office, so it’s slammed doors, idling vans, gunned engines, baying dogs, screaming sirens, the angry buzz of minibikes…and workmen right outside my window. How would I cope? How to read and write, muse and dream, listen to music, even hear myself think? First world problem, right?
I admit to being sensitive to noise. I know I’m prickly, what with my distain for vocal yawners, gum snappers, street screamers, subway preachers, the deafening thump thump of a woofer in a passing car.
Yes, I wear earplugs. And noise-cancelling headphones. Ambient background music. Sometimes all at once. It’s almost as if I feel the noise. Sound penetrates, not just the ear canal but the skin itself. If you’re thinking I might need time in a padded cell, well, the thought of that isn’t necessarily abhorrent, as long as I have a laptop, books and QUIET.
But hey, I live in New York City. Dealing with noise is one of the sacrifices one makes in order to live here. So HEAR I am!
It seems every other building I pass is wrapped in scaffolding but now came our turn. Unloading is one thing, securing the materials to form a workspace is another. The scaffolding is bolted to the building, which means drilling into brick and mortar. It took days before the workmen reached the eighth floor but sure enough, there came the top of a hard hat, then a face, a torso, work boots rising steadily in my window as they banged and clanged their way to the summit.
For they are a kind of mountaineer, the workmen with their rugged boots and harnesses, their layered work clothes and bandanas, their wind-worn faces and sturdy physiques. Latino, likely, since all the shouts and cries are in Spanish. Are they organized? Paid a union wage? Are they family men? Sons sending life-saving dollars to mothers back home?
And then it happened. That shift in consciousness when I stopped agonizing about the noise and started worrying about… the men!
A few days after the workmen rose past my window, steel rigging left in their wake, there was an awful sound as something—somebody?—fell, pin-balling its way to earth, striking blows on metal then wood, wood then metal, a heart-stopping rhythm somehow just off the beat.
I ran to the window, not wanting to see, but incapable of not looking. There were shouts in Spanish, a name called, then nothing. Please let them be ok. Please let there not be a body splayed on the street.
And that’s when it hit me: these guys are superheroes. Able to scale tall buildings, withstand winter’s bitter breath and shore up our building, all while staring down gravity’s ruthless pull.
I sort of fell in love with them right then and there, these acrobatics of the construction set. Young, strong and fearless; upbeat, tough and tireless; plus they’re probably not getting paid enough. Last week the city faced record cold, with morning temperatures at a frigid 7 degrees. The men showed, wrapped like mummies against the chill, to climb the steep cliff of brick and mortar. I know they’re not getting paid enough.
Their “stairway” passes right by my kitchen window. The crew climb, one man after the other, their helmets splayed with stickers, torsos harnessed like performers in a high wire act. They rise together, as if going off to a high altitude war, and I imagine the camaraderie that forms, in dangerous jobs like this, a bond shared by those who shrug at vertigo’s dizzy spin.
How do they do it? Convince themselves to scale the heights every day? Cling to the jungle gym rigging before the walking planks are laid, 12, 13, 14 stories up? Stride across an 8” wide panel when a misstep or distracted moment means the street rushing up to meet them should they fall?
When the men leave for the day, I’m fascinated with the space they’ve created where there was none. A suspended work zone almost as miraculous as the men who made it, an aery float on which to walk, sit and work. I find a piece of chewing gum outside on my windowsill, struck by its incongruity, up here on the eighth floor.
That wad of gum was their only “transgression”. Not once have the men stolen glances through my window. I’ve never caught a wayward look as I lounge, reading on the sofa, while they risk life and limb just beyond the glass.
Turned out, everyone was ok. A workman had dropped a wooden plank. On the way down the board ricocheted through the layers of scaffolding, shattering a window along the way, but the men were fine.
I can hear them, whistling sometimes, calling out to their fellow workmen. Occasional snippets of mariachi float by as they climb the scaffolding on their urban ascent. And guess what? The calls and whistles, the tread of work boots steady on the stairs? I’m glad to hear it, glad for the buzz of the drill that means they’re not only doing what they’re supposed to do, but they’re safe. Safe doing what so few of us have the courage, skill or need to do in order to feed our families.
And I thank them, silently to myself, and say—a first for me in this lifetime—bring on the noise! Climb heavenwards with your drills and hammers. Cut a dashing figure on your brave balancing act. Mend the aging infrastructure of my beloved building. But come back down.
Make your way back. Be safe and sound as you make your way down. Because noise dissipates then floats away but the ground remains, solid and unforgiving.
And, POOF!, it’s everywhere. (Or should I say PUFF?)
From those California gals in Grace and Frankie to the millennial stoners of Broad City right here in Gotham, characters on film, both young and old(er) are getting roasted.
Of course here in NYC, pot’s been perfuming these streets since the 1960s, probably even before that, knowing our reputation to “live and let live.” The “head shop” might have been born in San Francisco but it was perfected in the Village, with streets chock-a-block with Bob Marley tee shirts, glass bowls and, now, vape shops, where the bongs look like a cross between a lab experiment and a mid-century modern work of art.
Mary Jane’s moved into the main stream and surely New York City played a part, never really ghosting on cannibis, despite the cocaine-fueled eighties, fitness-crazed nineties, the cocktail culture of the early aughts.
Medical marijuana was legalized in New York in 2014 when Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act into law. And in his recent State of the State address, the governor promised to do the same for recreational use by the end of the year. Since eleven other states beat us to the punch, you have to ask: Hey, New York, what took ya so long?
Is it because, all along, weed was pretty easy to cop? Just follow your nose or touch up that programmer at work; take a Washington Square stroll or a Craigslist scroll…
Seriously, I do wonder what will become of all those “420” dealers touting their “professional, high end delivery teams” on Craigslist. High end in deed! One dealer even offers “free gifts” with his referral program. But will the delivery biz dry up when anyone (over 21) can walk into a store for their daily chronic?
Even more important, what will happen to “the Guy” on HBO’s High Maintenance? He’s the chill dude cycling ‘round Brooklyn delivering “product” to his regulars—artists, oldsters, shut-ins, party girls—in other words regular ole New Yorkers just trying to score some Gorilla Glue to make it through another stressful day. What’s Guy gonna do when his customers can pick up Cookies and Cream at the corner store? And I don’t mean Oreos.
New York City has always been able to provide your basic paraphernalia to the average stoner. But gone are the days when your options were limited to bodega Bambu or the same ten bongs from a grumpy hippy in a St Marks smoke shop.
Suddenly, it’s chic to be baked! (Even Martha Stewart admits she can roll a J.) And does any place do chic better than New York City?
The bespectacled staff at Higher Standards in the Chelsea Market seem to have taken a page from Apple’s sales manual: There are no dumb questions. They’ll spend an infinite amount of time explaining a $600 vape contraption that looks as though it can double as an espresso machine. There are free samples of fancy shortbread at the counter, although, shucks, they’re not edibles. And every other sentence or so, you’ll be called “love,” as in, “Check out the ergonomic mouthpiece on this rig, love.”
What you won’t hear are the words “pot,” “herb” or “weed.” It’s “material” or possibly “flower” when the sales force explain the finer points of the imbibing arts. Not that they’re fooling anyone. It’s all spelled out, literally, on some of the merch.
I suspect the average stoner won’t be shopping at Higher Standards, what with their “Higher Prices.” Maybe those with unlimited incomes, are you listening Bill Maher?, will lay down a cool $2,500 for this crazy duck pipe, handblown of course. But I pity the partier who, inevitably, drops it. Bummer, dude!
Over on the East side, Village Grannies conjures a vibe somewhere between ascetic lab and Eileen Fisher, a cool white sliver of a place where calmness reigns.
Village Grannies has something over the competition: you won’t be ignored by the millennial behind the counter, assaulted by Thrash or given a hard sell on expensive doohickies. The two proprietors-of-a-certain-age created a gallery-like space where the hand-blown bongs get curated like a piece by Dale Chihuly.
But there are also reasonably priced pipes strung up like wind chimes…
…And plush, handmade pillows to rest your stoney head.
The scene’s a little more gangsta than granny down the street at i-vape, where the terminology alone, not to mention miles of product, will have any boomer skimming the urban dictionary. Bubble caps, mini rippers, clubbangers, chillums…anyone?
With recreational bud just around the corner, might even more New Yorkers emerge from the so-called “green closet”… unafraid to admit… now that it’s legit… their propensity to get lit?
I blame Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection.
In the seventies, directors like John Schlesinger and William Friedkin wanted to capture the grit and noir-ish intensity of the streets of New York City, so naturally they turned to… the streets of New York City to get the cred they wanted.
And who can blame them? Well, I can, just did in fact, but really, where else but the actual streets of this very real city can you experience the light glancing off brick, brownstone, glass and steel? Where else can the camera lens reveal the layers of a neighborhood, a peeling fire escape, a silhouetted water tank, the worn facades of newsstands and tenements?
Mean Streets called for real streets, so Martin Scorsese opted to shoot some scenes in Little Italy—at Old St Patrick’s Cathedral—and in Belmont, the Bronx’s version of an Italian enclave. And although Hitchcock hated being on location, he shot parts of North by Northwest at the United Nations, where the crisp edges of mid-century met the dizzying paranoia of mistaken identity against a backdrop of stilted civility.
From Rosemary’s Baby to When Harry Met Sally, from Annie Hall to You’ve Got Mail, directors have channeled Gotham’s aura, not through cardboard stoops or plywood walk-ups, but by taking over city streets with cables, cameras and crews.
You could say New York City got its SAG card whether it wanted to or not, becoming one of the most sought after “character” actors in the history of film. Once again, can you blame filmmakers? I mean, after all, New York City is my dream location, a place where every breath is a heady mix of energy, anxiety and hope that both unsettles and revives.
Filming in New York City today is its own industry, with studios in Brooklyn and Long Island City transforming the Big Apple into Hollywood East. Who needs Warner Bros. or MGM when you have Silvercup Studios, Broadway Stages and Steiner Studios? And why build a set when the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) welcomes you with permits, street closures and NYPD muscle to facilitate your shoots in the West Village, Harlem or the Lower East Side? According to MOME, the film industry employs more than 300,000 New Yorkers and brings in over a hundred billion dollars in revenue.
But there are costs, as well, to our streets, neighborhoods and well-being.
These days, it seems, everywhere I go is a film set and with that comes street and small business closures, lost parking space, idling vehicles and roving bands of bearded grips, gaffers and best boys. There’s so much filming in Sugar Hill and Washington Heights nowadays that it makes me want to shout: WE’RE NOT READY FOR OUR CLOSE-UP, MR. DE BLASIO!
And it isn’t just famous directors descending on my hood. Cable series and television producers are plugging in their generators all over Harlem and Washington Heights to channel NYC’s indisputable charm. The Deuce, Blue Bloods and God Friended Me film right outside my doorstep; often enough that I know I’m in for more lights-camera-action every time one of these pops up on the nearest lamp post:
Ok, I’ll admit it. The first couple of times you come across a film set, you wonder: what’s filming? Who’s in it? Is that Sean Penn? But after a while, the street detours, the idling trailer trucks, the treacly, “Ma’m, do you mind using the subway entrance down the block?” start to get to you; I mean, “I’m walking here!”
I’d like to throttle whoever came up with the idea that Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights was the perfect stand-in for the formerly seedy Times Square. When producers of HBO’s The Deuce come to film their 70s-inspired saga about the birth of porn, local businesses, most of which are mom & pop stores, hair salons and bodegas, aren’t compensated for streets crowded with film crews, depleted parking and the subsequent loss of business. According to one salon owner I spoke to, it was the landlords who were compensated by the production company, even though the mom & pops lost money, not the building owners.
Along with financial loss come the noise and blinding lights of a night shoot, as is so often the case with The Deuce. One resident told me his top floor apartment is flooded with light every night they shoot making sleep next to impossible. And then there’s the wear and tear on both infrastructure and our psyches. Who wants to live in the chaos of a perpetual sound stage while the production crew transforms a quiet working class block into naughty Times Square?
Filming in the city has borne much more tragic results. One of my favorite old Harlem jazz joints, St. Nick’s Pub, was destroyed by fire during a shoot for the film Motherless Brooklyn. Far more devastating was the fact that a firefighter died battling that blaze.
Look, I get it. I get why New York is the perfect back lot for so many films, I mean, it’s the ideal setting for me and a blog called newyorkitus after all! I spend a great deal of time wandering these streets capturing images, listening for stories: New York’s my jam; I completely get its appeal.
But I’m not sad to learn that Vancouver and Toronto are quickly becoming go-to cities to film…wait for it…New York City. That’s right, Toronto is standing in for Manhattan! Rumble in the Bronx? Filmed in Vancouver. Which means there’s more space on these mean streets for my camera and me.
Not that all filmmakers will pack up their Craft carts, booms and sugarwagons for parts north. The camera will always love New York City, maybe even as much as I do. So perhaps the best thing about the filming-on-location obsession that rose here in the 1970s and continues unabated is that, aside from the dressing and props, the character of a specific time and neighborhood is forever preserved on film.
So whenever I’m jonesin’ to revisit a mall-less SoHo, a pop-up-free Lower East Side, a Times Square sans Disney, I can queue up After Hours, Serpico, Desperately Seeking Susan, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Taxi Driver… the list goes on and on.
Ed Koch, who was mayor at the time, said wolves were the answer.
The problem was graffiti, with the New York City subway system bearing the brunt of the tags and symbols that “writers” scrawled, inside and out, on resting cars in the train yard.
To graffiti artists, tags were a kind of rebellious advertisement, all the better when the train bearing them hurtled throughout the city, increasing their visual reach. Truck “bombing”—hitting up commercial trucks and vans with your tags—was one more way to get your “message” across.
In the end, both the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cracked down on subway graffiti through what was called a “run clean” policy. Trains that couldn’t be completely cleansed of tags were removed from service at the terminal. Minors could no longer legally buy spray paint. Collared offenders were charged and punished more rigorously. And guard dogs, not wolves, were enlisted to patrol the train yards. (Koch believed “wild wolves” would scare but not attack graffiti writers, and were thus a safer alternative toward prevention. Go figure.)
But the city’s efforts worked. The only subway cars you see bombed with graffiti these days are in photos from the 1970s and ‘80s or at the Transit Museum.
New Yorkers who lived through those decades, for the most part, were happy to see graffiti-free cars, their daily transport wiped clean of the initials, symbols and comically-loopy fonts that collaged every conceivable surface. My partner, Peter, was among them, recalling commutes in the ‘70s and ‘80s as “visually chaotic rides.”
But static canvases were also targets for graffiti writers, the more difficult to access, the better. Subway tunnels, rooftops, viaducts, water tanks: if the surface in question could take paint and got eyeballs, it was prime for tagging, that is, if you were wily enough to get to it.
Graffiti in New York today is a different animal then it was in the late twentieth century. “Broken window” policing, increased fines and sentences and the ubiquity of security cameras make tagging more difficult to engage in and tougher to get away with.
Most of the actual graffiti you see in Manhattan these days is of an older vintage. Have Instagram posts and YouTube replaced tagging as a means to claim your own existence? Or have graffiti artists, at least those with any talent, moved into the galleries a la Keith Haring, or simply grown up and aged out?
In my travels around Manhattan, it seems that old-time tags have competition, with “street art” gobbling up the available space that real graffiti used to commandeer.
Along with street art come sanctioned murals and even paid ads done “graffiti” style. Graffiti, it seems, has gone mainstream, as long as it’s controlled, permitted and possibly even paid for. Wonder how some of NYC’s earliest graff writers and artists—Taki, Zephyr, Lady Pink—feel about that?
Far more vexing to me is advertising done under the guise of street art funded through takings of a multi-billion dollar industry, in this case fashion. Gucci has parked their advertising cum “art” in this space on Lafayette Street in Soho for the past few years.
Keith Haring is credited, in part, with ushering in graffiti’s legitimacy as art, at least the way he did it. In 1982, Haring painted, in collaboration with Juan Dubose, a mural on the Houston Bowery Wall, one of his first projects to win acclaim. (The Wall has since become the coveted NYC location for internationally-known artists, a kind of Super Bowl-like ad space for the famous. What would Haring think about that?)
Currently the Houston Bowery Wall is a work in progress, the artist in charge unknown to me.
Haring’s “Crack is Wack” mural on Harlem River Drive at West 128th Street, completed in 1986, was unauthorized by the city, but public affection for the art as well as its anti-drug message convinced officials not only to accept but also to protect and periodically restore it. The mural is currently covered due to ongoing construction in the area, but I did manage to get a few shots through holes in the canvas.
Did Haring and company jumpstart the street art craze that vies with plain old-fashioned graffiti for wall space? Whoever did, Lower Manhattan is crawling with cheeky, wannabe artists plastering, spraying and Kinko-ing their way (they hope) to fame.
Another artist, who preps his/her work beforehand, is making the scene down in the LES. I call them the “Doll Head Girls.”
Street art with a message? I’m all aboard especially when it condemns the fur industry and those who purchase their deadly wares.
And it’s hard to argue with the message below anytime, but especially now during the #Me too era.
More “writing on the wall,” this time with a simple message when it comes to immigration. Bravo!
Queen Elizabeth II looks a bit menacing here. If anyone can explain the watermelon reference, jolly well do.
Is any image more common in art than the human face?
More good advice…
As development continues in nearly every Manhattan neighborhood, taggers and artists are drawn to areas known to be, if not graffiti-friendly, at least graffiti-tolerant. Unofficial “galleries” like Freeman Alley in the Lower East Side provide space where taggers and artists can, for now and with impunity, collage the walls with their art, their angst, their imagery.
New York City has long been a place where even the powerless could endeavor to make their mark. Whether you call it graffiti, tagging, vandalism or art… whether it’s a kid from the projects or a student from FIT… the city seemed able to absorb such existential communiques, almost embrace them as one more fascinating layer of the humanity that energizes this urban life.
Is graffiti dead in NYC? With tenements falling, glass towers rising and Big Brother watching, a kid with a can of Krylon can only look longingly at the bare walls on the other side of this increasingly gated community called Manhattan.
And since the almighty dollar reigns in NYC, neighborhoods like this…
…start looking more and more like this…
And taggers will be once again on the run, crossing rivers, barreling through tunnels, giving up on Manhattan’s glass-walled edifice for more accessible canvases anywhere they can find them.
Because in the end, graffiti — just like the human urge to shout “I exist! I’m here!”– will never truly die!
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I’ve made my best effort to provide credits on the above images, although many remain unattributed because of the nature of street art. All photos are my own unless otherwise cited.
A couple of weeks ago, a 40-pound coyote spent some quality time in Manhattan, strolling the West side before getting “collared” by the NYPD on the Chelsea Piers. It wasn’t the first time “canis latrens” managed to bridge-or-tunnel it into the city and it probably won’t be the last.
And who can forget Ming, the Siberian tiger raised in a Harlem housing project? With a 5-foot caiman for a roommate and raw poultry for grub, Ming grew to over 400 pounds, becoming so powerful that his “owner” abandoned the apartment, returning only to fling chicken thighs through a crack in the front door.*
You could say New Yorkers love animals but the truth is, many New Yorkers ARE animals.
New York’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) claims that about 600,000 dogs live in the five boroughs. What about felis catus, you ask? Five hundred thousand according to NYCEDC, a number that most likely doesn’t take into account NYC’s many feral cats. Now that’s a lot of Meow Mix!
Whoever thinks “canyons of steel” mean a dearth of wildlife doesn’t know New York City. Animals are all around us, from the commonplace—think pigeons and rats—to the extraordinary: Blue and Gold Macaws on the streets of Washington Heights? Yes, please.
October brings the Feast of St Frances and Blessing of the Animals to St John the Devine on Amsterdam Avenue, where last year, according to the Gothamist’s Scott Lynch, the gathering included an alpaca, a coatimundi, a camel and a fennec fox; a horse, cow, sheep and goats, as well as countless dogs and cats. Holy menagerie!
Down in Nolita, a couple of sheep came to “summer” in the city, enlisted by a different spiritual institution—the Basilica of Old St Patrick’s Cathedral—to keep the churchyard’s grass in check. One hundred percent green energy lawnmowers, thank you very much. And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!
Horses are fairly common here in a Manhattan, what with the mounted unit of the NYPD doing crowd control, not to mention the horse-drawn carriages around Central Park that delight tourists and, apparently, helped get the current mayor elected, what with his promise (still unfulfilled) to abolish the practice on the grounds of animal cruelty. Neigh it ain’t so!
Hardly a day passes without a squirrel sighting. Who knows? Maybe our bushy-tailed friends outnumber us as true born and bred New Yorkers. Read about my squirrel counting adventure in Central Park here.
Just like rats, raccoons are hip to the value of living alongside homo sapiens. The “pickin’s” are good here so raccoons are plentiful and robust, with a big city attitude to boot. As our super told me when I reported a “gaze” of raccoons tearing into the trash outside our building, “Don’t mess with ‘em. They’ll slap you back.” Advice taken.
Even the elusive beaver was spotted recently in the Bronx, according to the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), which initiated the cleanup of Sherman Creek Park, where the animal was sighted. Since castor canadensis figures prominently on both the official NYC seal and flag, isn’t it fitting that the creature actually reside here? Let’s grant them rent subsidized riverfront properties, damn it!
Everyone’s talking about the rare Mandarin Duck found chilling in Central Park this past fall, although he was a no-show the day I visited. Ducks, geese, cormorants and egrets make their daily commutes via NYC’s waterways and I’m always surprised to hear the cries of a seagull as I emerge from the subway on Broadway. The city’s famed green spaces, like Central Park, are home or temporary rest stops for more than 200 species of birds, and although I don’t claim to be a birder, spotting a Long-eared Owl or Red-Tailed Hawk on the wing is way better than seeing a Real Housewife of New York City, hands down.
New York City’s been compared to a jungle, a zoo, a place famed for its rat race. But I humbly submit that New Yorkers with feathers or fur aren’t really the ones acting like animals…
I mean, have you ever commuted by subway at rush hour? Talk about “red in tooth and claw.” Let’s face it, people are the ones to be afraid of.
And remember: Friends NOT food!
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*Four hundred-pound Ming was tranquilized and moved to an animal shelter in Ohio. Unsurprisingly, it’s illegal to keep tigers as pets in NYC, according to the NYC Health Code. It probably goes without saying that lions, leopards, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, panthers, mountain lions, cheetahs, cougars, bobcats, lynx, servals, caracals, jaguarundis and margays are also prohibited. Visit the Bronx Zoo, why don’t ya?