Friday, February 28, 2014

Talking Union - RIP Pete Seeger

   There have been a slew of prominent entertainers who have passed away recently. Both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis helped contribute to some of the best depictions of New York City on the silver screen. But for me, the saddest passing was that of the great folk musician Pete Seeger.

   Pete Seeger was a great American and one of the most pivotal and positive voices in American music from his birth in Manhattan in 1917 to his passing last January 94 years later. He was one of the most influential musicians of the 1960s folk movement because he had been there, in Greenwich Village, 20 years before, bringing to traditional music of America's farmers, workers, sailors, cowboys, hobos, African-Americans, and hosts of other forgotten groups to the masses for the first time. His career was one of principles and powerful songs. He fought for social justice. He fought for environmental justice. And while he was an optimist who believed in the power of songs and togetherness to change the world, his will and determination were as hard as steel.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Neighborhood Guides - Flatiron District/Gramercy

  If you were a visitor to New York at the end of the 19th Century, the area around 23rd Street and 5th Avenue would not need an introduction. Madison Square and the streets around it hummed with the goings-on of the brightest, sparkling members of the Gilded Age. Businessmen and high society families shopped at Constable's and Lord & Taylor. They ate at Delmonico's and were entertained at Madison Square Garden. By 1892, Moses King's Handbook of New York City described the "...resplendent lines of retail stores sweeping around Union and Madison Squares and along the intervening and branching streets, these are always fascinating, alluring, and irresistible. What cannot be found here, is not to be found in any shopping district anywhere."
   Fashion is fickle however, and the party kept moving uptown as the wealthy kept building mansions further up 5th Avenue and the shops relocated with them. By the end of World War I, all the department stores had moved and were replaced by warehouses and factories serving the growing ready-to-wear garment industry. The glitz had been replaced by grit. Over time the area became yet another anonymous region of dwindling manufacturing, ready for reinvention. Like other former manufacturing areas, buildings were reinvented as office space and loft apartments. But unlike many areas, the old businesses often remain. Publishers, booksellers, wholesalers and other old businesses mingle with tech companies, residents, shoppers, and nightlife. And at the neighborhood's center, the namesake Flatiron Building stands timeless.
   The Flatiron District isn't a secret, but I do find it's overlooked by visitors as a destination in its own right. Few parts of the city better exemplify a hodgepodge of old and new as well as the Flatiron District. So here are some of my favorite tidbits from the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New York Reading List - Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

   Much like my playlist posts, I'll occasionally point you to a book of the city that's worth reading to get ready for a trip to New York. Even more than music, the writing of New York is impossible to consume and the variations in style and theme are unceasing. I'll highlight some great pieces of fiction and non-fiction. But I will start with some poetry. A great piece of writing can distill the entire essence of the city into a few short paragraphs. And so it is with my favorite poem: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman.
View of the Fulton Ferry build... Digital ID: 800691. New York Public Library
Engraving of Fulton Landing in 1857 by William J. Peirce from the NY Public Library 
   Whitman is the most significant poet in American history. His seminal work Leaves of Grass, of which Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is the opening poem, is the first great work of free verse poetry in the United States. And its themes of everyday life of working people and the beauty of the world of humans gave the work a democratic tone that flies in the face of poetry's sometimes elitist and ethereal nature. Whitman's importance is even greater in New York City.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Quiet City

   The musical history of New York City is filled with the stories of Jewish immigrants. The enormous influx of Eastern European Jews to New York through Ellis Island is one of the defining cultural migrations of the city. While the traditional music of Eastern Europe was important to those immigrants, it was their children that blazed new, uniquely American paths.
   Aaron Copland was born in the currently trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who immigrated from Russia and owned a neighborhood department store on Washington Avenue. Copland discovered an interest in music as a child and by 15 had determined to become a composer.