Thursday, April 27, 2006

March of Folly

So, with the cameras rolling, construction begins on the Freedom Tower, or monumentum horibilis. A description of a book entitled The March of Folly goes like this:

Defining folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interersts, despite the availability of feasible alternatives, [Pulitzer-prize winning author Barbara] Tuchman details four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the very heights of folly in government: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See provoked by the Renaissance Popes, the loss of the American colonies by Britain's George III, and the United States' persistent folly in Vietnam.

To which I would add a fifth government folly: building the godforsaken "Freedom" Tower. Orwellian doesn't even begin to describe it.

Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP -- Getty Images

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Street Ballet Contest

I introduced The Most Jane Jacobs New York City Block contest, co-hosted with Curbed. From Curbed's post today, using a photo I took of St. Marks Place after the big Nor'easter:

In honor of urban thinker extraordinaire Jane Jacobs, Curbed is teaming up with Lisa Chamberlain at Polis to sponsor a contest to name the Most Jane Jacobs Block in New York City. As Lisa puts it, "The idea is to celebrate the 'street ballet' of your favorite block," keeping in mind Jane Jacobs' neighborhood tenets, but with your own spin. The directions:

· Choose a single block within NYC (define the street, and the cross-streets)
· Submit at least 3 but up to 6 pictures of the block
· Write 250 words or less describing the block and its Jacobsian characteristics. Any style welcome.
· Video in lieu of pictures and words (2 min or less) is cool

Entries can be submitted directly to the new Jane Jacobs Block Photo Pool on Flickr (and tagged janejacobsblock), or by email. We'll narrow down the finalists and run them here, then open it up for you to vote for the winner. The winner will receive $500 and no small glory. Deadline for submissions is Friday, May 12. Updates-a-plenty to follow here and at Polis, so stay tuned.
· Jane Jacobs Block Photo Pool [Flickr]
· Nominate the Best Jane Jacobs Block in NYC [Polis]
· Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006 [Curbed]

Sea Carousel at the Battery

I was at an event last night for the Sea Carousel at the Battery, a beautifully designed 21st century carousel. The top photo is a life-size model of one of the rides (the second photo shows how the little fishies will glow ... which, quite honestly, was no match for the fantastic view from a deck in Greenwich Village). The high-tech carousel itself, designed by Weisz + Yoes, uses "smart" glass that will switch from translucent to opaque where scenes of undersea life will be projected when the carousel is in motion. When the ride is not in motion, the nautilus-shaped building will be see-through, with the floor and fishies glowing. Thirty sea creatures, which harken back to fish that were at the site of New York's first aquarium from 1896-1941 in Lower Manhattan, will swim in Battery Park by 2007.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006

There are very few public figures whom I would mourn more than Jane Jacobs. She died this morning in her adopted home of Toronto, where she moved with her family from New York City so that her son would not be drafted during the Vietnam war. Of course, her life and letters are well known by most anyone reading Polis, but her impact has been so personal for me and many others. Reading a magazine interview with Jane Jacobs many years ago led me to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (her seminal work published in 1961, although it reads as if it could have been written last year), which then took my journalism career in the direction of urban planning and design, economic development, and all the concomitant issues of city life. She was more than a national treasure, but a maven for citizens everywhere. I propose a gathering at 555 Hudson Street in the West Village between Perry and W. 11th, where she lived for many years and waged her battles against Robert Moses, and composed The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Who's in? (photo by Globe and Mail)

Incomplete Globe and Mail obit
Metropolis interview with Jim Kunstler, 2001

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Art of the Flâneur

From today's Planetizen:

The art of the flâneur -- wandering aimlessly around the city, observing its daily rhythms -- has been revived by photobloggers.

Maisonneuve urban affairs columnist Christopher DeWolf takes a look at the flâneur, the dandyish boulevardiers who wandered aimlessly around nineteenth century Paris, observing the city and its inhabitants. Flâneurism was dealt a blow by car culture and suburbanization, but lately, it seems to have made a comeback. Can part of the credit for this revival be given to photobloggers? "Today's flâneur is the photoblogger," writes DeWolf. "Wandering around town, snapping photos of places and faces, these men and women are urban ethnographers, observing and interpreting the city around them."

Par example: The above photo is one of my favorite street shots that has a great back story. I took this awhile ago at Times Square when I was just wandering around taking photos and observing the city. Nearly two years later, I was interviewing someone for an arts-related real estate story, and the interviewee mentioned they were moving their office out of Times Square. That's all she said. While we were still on the phone, I emailed this photo to her, and sure enough, it captured a birthday party her office was having that spilled out onto the street. Totally random New York story ... and a perfect little example of
flâneurism. (Flâneuring is also how I happened across the whole St. Marks squat story ... scroll down for more on that.)

For the whole flâneur article (a good read), click here:
The Urban Eye: The flaneur is alive and sauntering in the modern metropolis

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Breathtaking Inanity: Village Voice in "Turmoil"

Against my better judgment,* I'm veering way off the usual course here at Polis to comment on the “turmoil” at the Village Voice. See, its been purchased by the New Times company, ending a long-standing rivalry between the two competing alt-weekly chains in order to dominate what has rapidly become an obsolete media market.

The breathtaking inanity of this otherwise little league media story became evident with a quote by New Times editor Mike Lacey, who has been firing Voice people en masse since taking over last fall. His main complaint has been that the Voice writers are all commentators and navel gazers, and that they don't do any real reporting. New Times reporters do real reporting, he declared to The New York Observer. They actually get on the phone and talk to people!

"We can our wrap our hands around the throat of the beast, find out what happened, and give that to readers,"” he said. "“It'’s fun. It's a kick-ass way to make a living."

"Wrap our hands around the throat of the beast"”? A "“kick-ass way to make a living"? Is this guy serious? To my ears, that sounds as retrograde as if David Schneiderman had said when he bought the Village Voice in 2000, "“We'’re going to stick it to the man! It's a groovy way to make a living."” Lacey'’s absurd bravado is just as amateur and outmoded as the Voice's unreconstructed leftism. There'’s something sad about a fat, middle-aged man in the throes of total irrelevance talking about "“kicking ass."

Hey, no argument from me that the Village Voice has been boring and predictable for a long time now. (Of course, there'’s a smattering of good writing here and there, and even some serious reporting now and again.) But is the New Times'’ apolitical gotcha brand of journalism the answer? Doubtful.

The New Times formula goes something like this: "“Some guy we don'’t know or care about did some fucked up thing to someone else we don'’t know or care about,"” and it goes on like that for 6,000 words, because that'’s what real reporters do. They get on the phone and talk to people! And talk to more uninteresting people. And then they write a very long, shaggy-dog story about it. It's just as boring and predictable, if not more so, than "“I hate Bush"” navel gazing.

The fact is, in this era of media saturation (do I really need to use the word "“blog"” here?), and the more recently ramped up class of professional journalists out-reporting each other on war, terrorism, hurricanes, wiretapping and whatnot, there'’s very little left of the beast to get a hold of, much less its throat. In order to really do "“original reporting,"” that means reporting on the leftovers. The kids don'’t care because they'’re on MySpace. The adults don'’t care because 9 out of 10 New Times stories are beside the point to anything important in people'’s lives. On the occasion that they do break important stories --– and they do --– I have no doubt those stories could have and would have been reported elsewhere. That was the whole point of alternative weeklies back when they were important: They reported the stories that the mainstream media wouldn't touch, for whatever reasons. That environment just no longer exists, in part because the MSM does report on things it didn't used to, and anything they miss or ignore is reported to death online.

I predicted back in 2002 that the two companies would eventually merge after they were embroiled in a Justice Department antitrust investigation for agreeing to sell each other papers and shut them down in order to improve their competitive advantage (which they announced, just like that, in their own damn press release, all but using the word "‘monopoly"’!). I also predicted back then that once the merger took place, the chain would die a slow, painful death. Not because I buy into the notion that print journalism is all but extinct (did radio disappear when TV came along?), but because this particular brand of one-stop-shopping-alt-weekly journalism is a dinosaur and has been for awhile now, whether it'’s a die-hard lefty paper or a juvenile gotcha paper.

UPDATE: A few people have written to me about this post, one pointing out a typo (thank you!). Another wrote to say that it's really the business model that is the problem for alt-weeklies. This is of course the bottom line. I alluded to that by saying that "one stop shopping" weekly papers are dinosaurs, but didn't really get Craigslist, Internet porn, online movie trailers, etc. That the biz model is outmoded is unquestionably true. But if that were the ONLY problem, it could be fixed merely by changing the biz model, i.e. by going online. Many papers have created very good websites, but it doesn't fix the editorial problem. The conundrum is in evidence by the fact that Lacey et. al. are attempting to rebrand the chain while still keeping the Village Voice name. That pretty much says it all.

*I'm going to head off charges of bias right here by saying that, yes, I am biased. I used to be the editor-in-chief of a Village Voice-owned weekly paper in Cleveland.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stop Work Order at Former St. Marks Squat

New York magazine has an update on Mosaic Man and 120 St. Marks Pl., the last artist squat in the E.Vil. that I've been reporting on here at Polis. NY Mag made it sound like everyone parted ammicably, which couldn't be further from the case. Nevertheless, here's an update to the update. The gut renovation of the building has been halted by a stop work order, according to Robert Arihood, an E.Vil. resident and photographer (he took the NYM pic as well). According to Mr. Arihood, Benjamin Shaoul and his company, Magnum Management, are allegedly perpetrating a dangerous renovation by poking holes in the building's rear retaining wall. Since we've seen our share of collapsed buildings of late, the city appears to be taking no chances by stopping work until a hearing on June 8.

Alleged Tenant Harassment Saga Continues [Polis]
Mosaic Man and Other E.Vil Squatters Evicted [Polis]
Mosaic Man Update [Polis]
St. Marks Squat Trilogy [Polis]

Monday, April 17, 2006

Your Hidden City Winners Announced

Your Hidden City, the first "open source" architecture photography contest, is complete after the jury voted for their favorite photos in five categories (for more details, click here). Tropolism has begun unveiling winners, some of which I voted for and others I didn't. Here's one all six blogger/jurists seemed to agree on for the category of Best Natural/Urban Overlap: Adam Pietrala's photo taken in Jamaica, Queens, of all places. For more winners, click here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Alleged Tenant Harassment Saga Continues

Updates on Benjamin Shaoul of Magnum Management keep coming in fast and furious. Polis readers know that I've been following the eviction of squatters from 120 St. Marks Place (including the well known Mosaic Man) by Shaoul using what tenants say are harrassing and illegal tactics. After my first post, I was then informed that legal, lease-holding tenants in a building on E. 5th St. are also alleging harassment by Shaoul. Now for the new info:
  • A tenant in a building also owned by Mr. Shaoul in Chelsea, 236 W. 16th St. contacted Polis to outline more allegations of harassment. One tenant said the gas has been shut off for two weeks. According to the tenant, there's a retarded man who lives in the building who is being routinely harassed by Shaoul and his people for refusing to take a buy-out. This person also overheard Shaoul barking on his cell phone about a reporter who is posting things on a blog about his tactics (i.e. Polis). Shaoul apparently has dragged several tenants into court as not really being legit tenants, which they claim is patently absurd.
  • Craig Lopez -- who vacated his storefront at 120 St. Marks Place today -- was confronted by Shaoul's people with a piece of paper demanding that he and Rachel Allen retract what they told me. Lopez and Allen refused to sign it. Because demolition of the building was underway while Lopez's store was still open in the building, per the agreement he signed with Shaoul, his asthma was aggravated and he had to to go the hospital.
  • The Villager, for whatever reason, still hasn't run the story the paper has supposedly been working on for two weeks now. New York magazine is now working on a piece about "The Cave," the artists group that existed in 120 St. Marks up until a few months ago, which one person familiar with the group said was more like a bunch of drunks than an "artist" colony. Nonetheless, Mosaic Man said he got the place cleaned up of all the drunks and things were settled down just when they all got harassed out of the building without "due process."
Mosaic Man and Other E.Vil Squatters Evicted [Polis]
Mosaic Man Update [Polis]
St. Marks Squat Trilogy [Polis]

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Chillin' On The Cube

I took this on my way home last night. The Cube is an iconic work of East Village public art (aka The Alamo). The moon was nearly full (upper left) but alas, all I had was my digital camera and not my big honkin' Nikon, which would have taken a much better shot. (Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

If Only I Were 25...

Metropolis turns 25 this year, and to celebrate, they had a party featuring 25 architectural photographers who have contributed to the mag over the years. The exhibit is up at the Art Directors Club, 106 W. 29th St. through the end of April.

Monday, April 10, 2006

St. Marks Squat Trilogy

I received an email from Robert Arihood (a fixture in the East Village who has been taking photographs of people and the neighborhood since god was a child) about the eviction of some squatters at 120 St. Marks Place, including Mosaic Man. He writes:

No one living in the building ever expected to live there forever. All expected to be evicted eventually. All were willing to leave peaceably when asked to do so. ... The owner of the building knew they were living there, some of them for several years. The owners acknowledgement and accepted their occupancy in the building for such a long time afforded them some limited standing and thus an entitlement to due process when the owner chose to evict them. ... Doors of occupied apartments were broken down with one very surprised individual actually being home at the time of the forced entrance. This behavior is emblematic of Mr. [Benjamin] Shaoul's management and can be seen in other places where he is attempting to evict other RENT PAYING and LEGAL tennants such as 515 E. 5th St.

Is this the last squat on St. Marks? I've walked up and down the three blocks between 3rd Ave. and Avenue A hundreds of times, and I'm pretty sure this is the last one. It's too bad that it had to end this way, when so many other squatters in Alphabet City were able to take control of their buildings and turn them into real homes. Of course, the inability of the squatters at 120 St. Marks Place to do that is not solely the fault of the landlord.

Gorgeous photo by Robert Arihood. Click to enlarge.

Mosaic Man and Other E.Vil. Squatters Evicted [Polis]
Mosaic Man Update [Polis]

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Mosaic Man Update

I bumped into Jim Power, aka Mosaic Man, this morning in Tompkins Square Park. He is well known in the E.Vil. who has done all the mosaic tiling on light posts and planter boxes around the neighborhood. He recently lost the squat on St. Marks place where he had been for three years. (Click here for all the gory details).

He's remarkably sanguine about losing his place, saying that it was inevitable. He said he didn't appreciate the tactics that were used by Benjamin Shaoul to evict everyone, but he realized he wasn't a "legitimate" tenant, and so took the $2500 that was offered and left. He also said that up until about four or five months ago, the building was total mayhem, with people coming and going, drinking all night, with rival groups fighting with each other. It sounded like a Lord of the Flies thing.

Now he's bouncing around from place to place. He's about to turn 59, he said, and has a hip problem that prevents him from walking too far; he will lose all his tiling materials if he doesn't find a more permanent place soon.

I also learned that people who live in a building on E. 5th St. -- with legimate, rest-stabilized leases -- are also alleging harassment by Benjamin Shaoul, who recently purchased the building. It's hardly a new story in New York City, but it's always a bit shocking, nonetheless.

The photos below are of one of Mosaic man's lamp post pieces, and his former squat which I took from a safe distance across the street (the demo crew was in the process of removing bicycles that were in the basement).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Eminent Domain: If not for this, what? If not now, when?

There's an important op-ed in today's Times arguing what I've been saying (albeit, in a much less in-depth way): The WTC site should be taken by eminent domain. It's an idea I stole from Paul Goldberger, which he advocated for in his book, Up From Zero.

Take Back the Towers [NYTimes]
Idling at Zero [Polis]

Photo by Julian Olivas.

Toll Bros. Condos

I have a piece in today's Times about the Toll Bros. (i.e. builders of McMansions) moving into the New York market, but the paper didn't use any renderings online. So here's three. The first is 110 Third in the East Village, and the second is North8 in Williamsburg, and the third is the first tower of three also in Williamsburg.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mosaic Man and Other E.Vil. Squatters Evicted

A few minutes ago, I stumbled upon a breaking story. Most regular East Villagers know the white-haired Mosaic Man and his constant companion, a yellow Labrador. (Mosaic Man, aka Jim Power, has done all the mosaic tiling around St. Marks Pl. and other streets and he also owns the website Apparently he is now homeless after having been kicked out of his squat at 120 St. Marks Pl. by the soon-to-be owner Benjamin Shaoul, who has allegedly harassed tenants in a Chinatown building he owned, according to

All the above information is according to Craig Lopez, who owns Accidental CDs, and has been living and working in the building for the past five months as well after he lost his retail space on Avenue A, where he had been for ten years. He said four regular squatters and others who come and go were all harassed out of the St. Marks building, and that he personally was threatened by guys wielding sledge hammers. Lopez eventually worked out a deal with Mr. Shaoul, who apparently doesn't own the building yet, but has an option to buy it from Jim Crowley, who inherited the rundown building but did nothing to fix it up, and looked the other way while squatters came and went. Rachel Allen, who also lives in a third floor apartment in 120 St. Marks, said Benjamin Shaoul himself kicked down her apartment door and verbally abused her.

I stumbled into this as I was walking down the street and stopped to take a picture of the ground floor retail space where I had seen Mosaic Man go in and out of; I noticed that everything inside was being removed. One of the demolition guys tried to grab my camera, at which point I got pretty curious, needless to say. I haven't checked on much of the above story yet, but I can say that Craig Lopez seems to be a credible guy and I'll be following up on this as I confirm more of the story. The above photo is of Craig Lopez in his Accidental CD store, which he will be vacating in a week.

UPDATE: It looks like Irene and James Crowley owned the lot and building as of March 20, 1997, when it fell into tax arrears and had a tax lien placed on the property. The current owner is listed on one NYC website as St. Marks Apartments, which was the name that the Crowley's operated the building under, but it also looks like it was put up for sale due to the tax liens. Haven't totally sorted it out. But Mr. Shaoul is not the current owner, although there is a permit on file as of today for demolition.

UPDATE 2.0: The building was put up for sale for tax arrears and it was owned for awhile by Bank of New York, but it was settled by Jim Crowley and he managed to hold onto the building, although there is almost $30,000 still owed in taxes. More importantly, Jesse Jane is the name of Mosaic Man's dog. Their whereabouts are unknown, but supposedly The Villager is working on a story about Mosaic Man and Jesse Jane getting evicted, which I'll link to when it goes up. There's also a better piece on Benjamin Shaoul's dealings in Chinatown by the Village Voice.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Ah, Tompkins Square Park on a beautiful spring Sunday.... who needs blooming daffodils and singing robins when you have witty social commentary? (Click above photo to enlarge.) UPDATE: Curbed alerts me to MySpace - The Movie!, a satirical series of short movies. Totally hilarious.

So There's a Blonde Reading the Newspaper...

As a general rule dictated by self preservation, I avoid cracking on the paper that I write for. But the cover story in Sunday's City section just refuses to go uncommented upon. The story is so ... well, you be the judge: "Golden Girls: There are blondes everywhere. But in New York, a city that thrives on symbols, they are a breed apart." I read this piece literally slack-jawed at its breathtaking inanity. In order to appreciate the richness of this absurdity, it should be read in full, but here's just one graph:

This polished, pedigreed creature can usually be spotted in her natural habitat, the Upper East Side, dropping off her offspring at the Episcopal School, scrutinizing embroidered 480-thread-count sheets at Pratesi and sipping drinks at La Goulue.

So here's my best impromptu dumb-blonde joke: What did the dumb blonde say when she saw a picture of herself in The New York Times? "I didn't know I could read!" Bah-da-bum.

Update: Of course, this is turning out to be one of the most emailed stories from Sunday's paper.