Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

18 DECEMBER, 2014

How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses

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How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis.

Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century. He envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, which increased the city’s previous supply of these precious play-areas fivefold, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, and 678 baseball diamonds, in addition to numerous major roads and bridges. A brilliant architect and fierce politician who denied doing politics, Moses possessed “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in his Pulitzer-winning, 1,200-page biography The Power Broker — one of the most impressive books ever written in the English language — tracing how Moses slowly changed from “the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists” into a man who used “iron will and determination” to bend a city, perhaps the world’s greatest city, to his will. That uncompromising willpower and its fruits would eventually lead the great urbanist Lewis Mumford to proclaim that “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Forty years after Caro’s classic, writer Pierre Christin and artist Olivier Balez offer a very differently delightful take on the legendary man’s life in the beautiful graphic biography Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City (public library) — the latest installment in the same series by British independent press Nobrow that also gave us the excellent graphic biography of Freud and that of Karl Marx, which was among the best history books of the year.

In gorgeous mid-century-inspired illustrations, the story chronicles Moses’s formative years, his rise to power, his many contradictions — the greatest urban planner who ever lived built revolutionary highways and freeway systems, but never learned to drive — and how he acted out that infinitely rare combination of dreamer and doer on one of the grandest stages the world has ever known.

But make no mistake — Moses was no holy hero. The deep flaws of his power-hungry character and the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his industrial vision reveal themselves gradually and crescendo midway through the book as his counterpoint emerges: Jane Jacobs, legendary patron saint of urbanism and the human-centered city, enters the scene, via the beloved bicycle on which she was known to roam the city.

By that point, Moses has developed “such arrogance that he started to think himself irreplaceable.” Jacobs, on the other hand, operates with equal determination but from a deep place of humility and compassion for the citizen’s experience. The two titans of urban planning soon clash over their differences, exposing the disquieting fact that no ideal is without its tradeoffs and that what is most effective, more often than not, comes at the expense of what is most ennobling.

Moses’s fertile and perhaps perverse imagination has no limits and a second, equally gargantuan project will bring the antagonism between him and Jane Jacobs to a climax….

Jane has no trouble denouncing the monstrous “Spaghetti Bowl” that will constitute the Lower Manhattan expressway, soon also to be known as the LOMEX.

All that constitutes New York’s heritage, but also the memory of the tenements crammed with new immigrants — the air laden with the smell of meat from the meatpacking district; the discarded fish of Fulton Street; the sewing workshops full of exploited girls — all of this, considered by Robert Moses as inefficient or worse, unhygienic, is destined to disappear under a ten-lane highway.

Jane Jacobs will personify the refusal of the systematic eradication of the human, done in the name of a hypothetical better world.

In fact, the entire book feels like a love letter to Jane Jacobs buried inside a biography of a man far less worthy of admiration, which begs the obvious question: Where is the graphic biography of Jacobs herself? And, more broadly, why is it that among all the major graphic biographies released in the past few years — Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and Francis Bacon — there hasn’t been a single one of a female cultural icon? There are some lovely children’s books celebrating great women — such as those about Julia Child, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but the graphic biography genre woefully remains gender-warped, to say nothing of the subtler implication that women’s stories are to be infantilized and men’s superheroized.

Even so, Robert Moses remains an excellent book and in many ways a necessary one, worthwhile not only for that love letter to Jacobs — though it, to me, was the highlight — but also for telling the complicated story of a complicated man who shaped a complicated city. In doing so, it disabuses us of the dangerous illusion that history’s most important narratives are simple and straightforward hero-myths.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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25 NOVEMBER, 2014

Eating Delancey: A Love Letter to Jewish Food and Its Iconic New York Bastions

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A warm celebration of knishes, kasha, lox, and the people and places of which collective memory is woven.

If it is true that we are what we eat and that telling stories is what makes us human, then at the intersection of these two adages lies an immutable truth about the stories we tell about the food we eat. That is why the greatest books of all time are full of memorable meals, why we find food so sensual, and why the best cookbooks tell the stories of their time and place.

That’s what food photographer Aaron Rezny and magazine creative director Jordan Schaps explore in Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food (public library | IndieBound) — a delectable compendium of recipes, mouth-watering photographs, profiles of legendary establishments, jokes, and food-related sentimental stories by some of New York’s most interesting Jews about the beloved foods their immigrant ancestors transplanted from Europe to the Lower East Side in the early 20th century: knishes, kasha, dill pickles, bagels, lox, pastrami, whitefish, egg creams, and more.

The project, which features contributions by luminaries like violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, graphic designer Milton Glaser, artist Debbie Millman, and music legend Lou Reed, does for edible memories what Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for wearable ones.

Lower East Side pretzel vendor in the early 20th century

Joan Rivers writes in the introduction:

My mother was a very chic woman, very well read, a great hostess, and a horrible cook. She literally couldn’t cook anything beyond just a few dishes. And we weren’t kosher but she always went to kosher butchers. She thought the meat was better quality—not that it mattered since she didn’t know what to do with it in the first place. You know how they butcher kosher meat, right? The cows aren’t slaughtered. They’re nagged to death.

There’s an old joke: What does a Jewish woman make for dinner? Reservations. That was my mother. She did cook a few things: kasha varnishkes, eggele (or eyerlekh, which is Yiddish for “little eggs.” These are creamy, flavorful unhatched chicken eggs, either cooked inside a chicken or in a soup), and gribenes, which I just loved until I was about 13 and realized how fattening they are. And we always had challah.

So how did I develop my love for good Jewish food when it wasn’t on our table daily? I’ll tell you. My father was a doctor with a huge ethnic practice in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Obviously, most patients paid him but some could not afford to, and so they’d bring food in exchange for medical services. We got soups, blintzes… you name it. Stuffed derma was a big one for fixing a burst appendix. Oh my God, the food… it was just terrific and this is how I grew up — eating such food cooked with love and delivered by infirm and dying patients.

Joan Rivers, age 5

In a sentiment rendered inevitably poignant by Rivers’s recent death, she adds:

If I had to choose, my last meal would be a good piece of gefilte fish with some fantastic freshly grated horseradish on it.

In his 1968 homage to the true potato knish in general and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery at 137 E. Houston Street in particular, legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and one wise soul, writes:

Although the knish has played an active role in many New York political campaigns, some readers may still never have seen or eaten one.

The authentic hand-made knish made at Yonah Schimmel’s is an irregularly shaped, fat, bun-like amalgam of mashed potatoes, flour, and onions, all encased in a thin, crisp, brown pastry skin, and as a food contains great stomach-filling properties. As is the custom with simple dishes, the knish is at its best when fresh, hot and made of ingredients of good quality. The mass-produced commercial knish most often encountered in New York delicatessens lacks these essentials. It can be recognized immediately by a thick, embossed surfaced of an unnaturally yellow hue. Another clue of its identification is its hard-edged rectangular shape. Because the commercial knish is often kept on a hot grill for days at a time, the potato filling tends to go sour. The real tragedy of this abuse is that many people brought up on this inferior product have never known a real knish. Yonah Schimmel’s is perhaps the last bastion of the genuine item.

Milton Glaser as a child

The humble bakery, Glaser notes, is the stuff of legend — a waiter who worked there for forty-five years recalls the fateful day when Eleanor Roosevelt walked in and bought a bag of knishes for her presidential husband.

In an touching essay titled “Grandma Lillian’s Cookies,” artist, author, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman explores how we imbue food with the comfort and love we long for:

I didn’t see my dad for a long time after he and my mother divorced. One day she told me he wasn’t coming home, and I saw him only one time again in the next five years. I remember seeing his car down the street where we lived when he was visiting the woman he left my mother for. But he didn’t visit us. I must have missed him, but I don’t remember thinking about it much. My father stopped paying his alimony and child support so my mother had to take him to family court to get him to pay. My mother took my little brother and me to court with her, and I got all dressed up because I wanted to look nice when he saw me. I wore an orange and pink dress with puffy sleeves and white rubber boots and I remember feeling both excited and nervous about facing him. We waited and waited but he never showed up and we went home without ever seeing him. Then my mother met a new man, and shortly thereafter they got married.

Everybody loathed my stepfather except my mother. Her mom and dad — my grandparents — disliked him so much they moved to North Miami to be as far away from him as possible. This devastated me, as my grandmother was my favorite person in the world. Grandma Lillian was a feisty little lady with coiffed silver hair and shimmery pink fingernails. She made mouth-watering meals whenever I came to visit her Brooklyn apartment on McDonald Avenue: melt-in-your-mouth pot roast with fluffy kasha varnishkes, crunchy potato pancakes, and the softest, sweetest cheesy blintzes with cold sour cream. Every meal ended with my grandmother’s famous butter cookies. Shaped like daisies with a single, perfect chocolate chip in the center and baked to a golden perfection, my grandma’s cookies were the very definition of happiness to my 10-year-old self.

All that ended when my stepfather moved in. He was short and thick and had the stubbiest fingers I’d ever seen. He was curt and violent and I was terrified of him. My brother braved it in our home until he was 13. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called my father and he came and took him away. I didn’t see much of my brother for the next ten years. Neither did my grandmother.

Every couple of months Grandma mailed me a care package filled with cookies. I was gleeful when it arrived — I could always recognize her loopy script and the 50 two-cent stamps haphazardly stuck on the box. I’d take my time opening my precious package, and I would ration the cookies so they’d last as long as possible. I’d imagine her with me as I slowly ate them, fantasizing what it would be like to hear her laugh or feel her hand. I missed her.

Years later, after Grandma Lillian died, my mother, my brother, and I met at her funeral. I hadn’t seen my brother in a long time and we were both cautious and glum. We tentatively talked about our memories, and I waxed sentimental about our grandmother’s cookies. Suddenly he perked up. “Hey!” he said. “Grandma sent me a box of cookies when I was at school. But as I opened them up, I realized that mice had eaten through the box. I had to throw the whole thing away. What a waste.”

I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him and tried to find the years between us. I wasn’t sure if they were there.

Debbie Millman, age 10, with her Grandma Lillian

The great violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman recounts moving from Israel to attend Julliard in New York and rediscovering a childhood favorite in Manhattan:

In Israel, my family didn’t go out to eat. For dessert, my mother used to bake a two-layer cake with yellow cake, chocolate butter cream filling, and chocolate butter cream frosting on top — it was delicious.

My mother’s cake was probably the reason why I wandered into Cake Masters on the Upper West Side. Cake Masters made cakes for Liberace, President Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor and was known by its slogan, “where baking is an art.”

Cake Masters made the best seven-layer cake that I ever had. It tasted just like my mother’s! Their seven-layer cake was layers upon layers of yellow cake and butter cream frosting. Each layer had a nice soft texture and wonderful taste. I still remember how they used to sell it by the slice with each slice separated by wax paper. Cake Masters was close to my parents’ home so I would stop by again and again and again.

Nestled between the profiles of legendary establishments and stories of family memories are also a number of recipes that reveal the secrets behind beloved treats:

KATZ’S DELI EGG CREAM

by Jake Dell, owner

Alright, so the perfect Katz’s egg cream is really simple. The oldest recipe in the book for egg creams is a little Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup—although if you’re kinda a chocolate wuss you can use a little vanilla syrup instead, but let’s be honest, chocolate egg creams are infinitely better in my humble opinion — fill that up about an inch or so. Put an equal amount of milk in there. Top it off with a little bit of seltzer and as you’re pouring the seltzer you stir vigorously and that’ll get you the nice head on top. Voila! You have the perfect egg cream.

Eating Delancey is a treat in its totality. Complement it with Liberace’s little-known cookbook, the Modern Art Cookbook, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, some real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books, Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction, and Andy Warhol’s forgotten illustrated recipes.

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

The Artist and the Anguish of the American Dream: Zadie Smith’s Love-Hate Letter to New York

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“The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization.”

With his philosophy of happiness as a moral obligation, it is no surprise that Albert Camus is intellectual America’s favorite European export. The American Dream is built on the pursuit of happiness, but Camus amplifies it from a mere right to something more, something better aligned with the modern condition of compulsive pursuit — of happiness, of productivity, of self-actualization. Indeed, this is a paradoxical culture where the Self reigns supreme, even though we know it is an illusion; a culture built on hard-headed, hard-bodied, hard-and-fast individualism, even though we don’t know how to be alone. Ours is an era built on the legacy of the age of anxiety, the pathology of which we’ve perfected to a virtuoso degree.

Some weeks ago, I attended Amanda Stern’s excellent Happy Endings literary salon, where writers are asked to read their work. The magnificent Zadie Smith, she of great wisdom on the craft of writing and the psychology of the writer’s mind, read an enchanting essay she had just written — about Manhattan, about our modern compulsions, about the artist and the anguish of the American Dream. The essay, titled “Find Your Beach,” is now published by The New York Review of Books. With unparalleled humor and humility, Smith explores the essential hubris of our age, not without admitting her willful participation as an ambitious cog in the machinery of compulsive self-actualization.

She opens with a view of a billboard across from her university housing in Soho — a beer ad, “very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue,” captioned “Find your beach.” Smith finds the text — almost a command — perfectly, tragically emblematic of American culture. She writes:

It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”).

Smith considers the ad’s particular placement in Soho — “home to media moguls, entertainment lawyers, every variety of celebrity, some students, as well as a vanishingly small subset of rent-controlled artists and academics” — at once paradoxical and telling, a kind of self-aware eulogy to those vanishing bastions of culture:

Collectively we, the people of Soho, consider ourselves pretty sophisticated consumers of media. You can’t put a cheesy ad like that past us. And so the ad has been reduced to its essence — a yellow undulation against a field of blue — and painted directly onto the wall, in a bright pop-art style. The mad men know that we know the Soho being referenced here: the Soho of Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the Soho that came before Foot Locker, Sephora, Prada, frozen yogurt. That Soho no longer exists, of course, but it’s part of the reason we’re all here, crowded on this narrow strip of a narrow island. Whoever placed this ad knows us well.

Even the language of the caption, Smith notes, is odd — “faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind” — and reflective of the undulating cult of the Self. Where alcohol ads used to promise the illusion for communal fun, she notes, they now sell the illusion of solitary bliss:

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if — as in the case of this wall painting — it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

Illustration by counterculture cartoonist Peter Kruper from 'Drawn to New York.' Click image for more

One can’t help but think of E.B. White’s 1949 ode to Gotham, perhaps the finest and most enduring portrait of the city ever committed to paper. White writes of “the essential fever of New York,” a city populated by strangers who have come “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” a city filled with “the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.” For White, writing a decade before social psychologist Abraham Maslow established self-actualization as a cultural fetish, New York’s singular proposition was one of promise. For Smith, it seems to be one of peril — one that, perhaps like the bibulous billboard’s imperative to “find your beach,” is toxic but nonetheless alluring, inescapable. She writes:

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan… Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths — they are all within our own power to create, or destroy…

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak… To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment — as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything — not even reality — to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Once again, White’s Manhattan comes to mind, with its gift of “insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute,” as Smith lament’s Manhattan’s existential imperative:

There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day. When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten.

This, perhaps, was what 36-year-old Italo Calvino felt when he recorded his first impressions of America, “the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little.”

Smith observes the centripetal force with which New York, every time she returns, pulls her into its vortex of unrelenting beach-finding:

I have to get used to old New York ladies beside themselves with fury that I have stopped their smooth elevator journey and got in with some children. I have to remember not to pause while walking in the street — or during any fluid-moving city interaction — unless I want to utterly exasperate the person behind me. Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

But what makes Smith’s essay so compelling is that the Soho tower from which she observes the “Find your beach” billboard is by no means an ivory one — her lament is rooted not in an onlooker’s static judgment but in a participant’s dynamic self-awareness:

I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires” — there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

It is also a fair description of what it is to write fiction. And to live in a city where everyone has essentially the same tunnel vision and obsessive focus as a novelist is to disguise your own sociopathy among the herd. Objectively all the same limits are upon me in Manhattan as they are in England. I walk a ten-block radius every day, constrained in all the usual ways by domestic life, reduced to writing about whatever is right in front of my nose. But the fact remains that here I do write, the work gets done.

Even if my Manhattan productivity is powered by a sociopathic illusion of my own limitlessness, I’m thankful for it, at least when I’m writing. There’s a reason so many writers once lived here, beyond the convenient laundromats and the take-out food, the libraries and cafés. We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.

And yet, Smith mourns the loss of the underground creative energies that made Manhattan — those of Walt Whitman’s Bohemian coterie and of Patti Smith’s starving-artist circles — replaced now by something more ominous, something sterilized by the relentless pursuit of self-actualization:

A twisted kind of energy radiates instead off the soulcycling mothers and marathon-running octogenarians, the entertainment lawyers glued to their iPhones and the moguls building five “individualized” condo townhouses where once there was a hospital.

It’s not a pretty energy, but it still runs what’s left of the show. I contribute to it. I ride a stationary bike like the rest of them. And then I despair when Shakespeare and Co. closes in favor of another Foot Locker. There’s no way to be in good faith on this island anymore. You have to crush so many things with your mind vise just to get through the day…

The greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next.

What emerges, then, is the notion that happiness is to be allowed rather than attained, a notion closer to Alan Watts than to Camus. But Smith’s essential lament is that such gentle surrender is one of which we beach-hungry moderns, whether New Yorkers by residency or by geographically unmoored temperament, seem incapable. And yet isn’t this awareness — awareness Smith crystallizes with far crisper eloquence than most are capable of, yet one most of us experience in a perpetual cycle of reconciliation — already a dissolution of that “sociopathic illusion”? She concludes:

I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists — of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals — against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university — or have sold that TV show — they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.

Smith’s full essay is well worth reading, as is her 2009 collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

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