Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Book Review: I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What-Have-You

New York Press
October 3, 2007

"I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What-Have-You"
Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Scott Shuffitt, and Will Russell, Creators of Lebowskifest
With a Foreword by Jeff Bridges
Bloomsbury USA , August 2007
256 pp.

With a budget of $15 million and an opening weekend gross of just $5.5 million, The Big Lebowski—the Coen Brothers’ nod to Raymond Chandler about bowling, pot, Southern California, mistaken identity and much more—was a box office flop when it hit theaters in 1998. Enough critics dismissed it to negate any positive reviews it received, so it seemed headed for the dustbin of movie history. Since then, it’s become a cult classic, especially among college males and stoners of every stripe. And of the four particularly rabid Lebowski fans who put together this bible for “Achievers” (a Lebowski reference that hardcore fans appropriated for themselves), two are founders of Lebowski Fest, a gathering that began in Kentucky in 2003.

The book examines Lebowski from every possible angle: interviews with cast members and the real-life inspirations for characters like Walter, Jesus and, of course, The Dude; profiles of some seriously devoted Achievers; lots of photos, gimmicky graphics; and a heavy dose of trivia. (Bet you didn’t know two of the three men the Coens based Walter Sobchak on actually did interrogate the real life Little Larry, and that they actually presented his homework to him in a plastic evidence wrapper. But it was algebra, not social studies.)For Achievers, this is new shit that’s come to light, which means it should be read straight through, to commit all the ins and outs to memory. For everyone else, it’s a worthy addition to any coffee table stack, something they can flip through at random for a chuckle or two. And for those who don’t like The Big Lebowski at all, that’s just, like, their opinion, man. -- Matt Elzweig

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Book Review "Nobody Belongs Here More Than You: Stories by Miranda July"

Hardcover ($23.00)
191 pp.

New York Press
September 12, 2007

Once, an old friend of mine co-wrote a shadow puppet opera and performed it in Denver. That same friend stood on stage at a club several January Firsts ago in nothing but a diaper as the New Year Baby. And more recently, he and some other artists created an exhibit out of spam emails and displayed it in a performance space in Manhattan. The average person isn’t fascinated with the seemingly trivial the way he is. And the average person doesn’t go to such lengths to stage things this esoteric—unlike the characters in Miranda July’s short stories.

July (born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger) grew up in Berkeley, California, and is a video, performance and Web artist, as well as a playwright. She got the attention of moviegoers after the release Me and You and Everyone We Know, her 2005 feature debut, which she directed, wrote and starred in. It won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and four prizes at Cannes including the Camera d’Or (for best first film).

Taking into account the writing in No One Belongs Here More Than You, her debut story collection, and the pale, bewildered-looking figure who stares out from under a mess of dark curls on the dust jacket, it’s a surprise to hear how unremarkable her voice sounds, how commonplace her outfit and how level-headed she comes across when interviewed.

The 16 stories in No One Belongs, are a highly unusual, often funny look at the functions and the fleeting nature that relationships of all kinds can have. Or, depending on the reader, they’re the bizarre by-product of someone who thinks way too much.The relationships the stories revolve around exist between tenants, lovers, exes, friends and neighbors and, in “Making Love in 2003,” even novelist Madeleine L’Engle and a young writer who fantasizes about L’Engle’s husband. (A disclaimer promises that the things the L’Engles do in short story are entirely fictionalized).

For the most part, the stories take place inside the heads of the narrators, with regular detours that follow the neurotic infrastructure of their thinking. They appear to be tangents, but zip back to the point just when it seems things are about to cross into total irrelevance. They’re closer to the kind of extensions of thoughts most people would not record the way July has.

In “Mon Plaisir,” the narrator explains how she and her soon-to-be ex-lover have dismantled their relationship piece by piece as if it were self-assembly furniture: “And our few intimacies were simply discontinued. Where did they go, those things we did? Were they recycled? Did some new couple in China do them? Were a Swedish man and woman foot to foot at this very moment?”In “Ten True things,” the narrator describes her employer, a married accountant she’s having an affair with: “A better accountant might actually account for something instead of hiring another, slightly cheaper accountant to do the accounting, and skidding by on the difference … Accountants do this all the time, and so do Indian restaurants. Sag paneer? … the waiter hands the order to the cook, the cook hands it to the busboy, the busboy runs down the block and orders sag paneer from the other Indian restaurant, the shoddy one, takeout. This is why the more expensive restaurants take longer to bring out the food…In this case, I am the busboy, I am the one who hires the real accountant…”

To the characters in No One Belongs, and especially to the unnamed narrators—who you can safely equate with July herself—even the most accidental, tenuous encounters between people are relationships of some kind. Her characters are motivated by conflicting desires and aversions, their attitudes and intentions are constantly in flux.

The best way to read a short story collection by a single author is intermittently, by leaving a good collection lying around and reading one or two stories, and then putting it back down on, in my case, the floor. There may be some authors who are able to write in a multitude of voices that change from story to story, however, read straight through, No One Belongs starts to sound like a disjointed novella told by very similar-sounding narrators. It’s partially because everything is told in the first person, which can become redundant. Though in all fairness, half of the stories in the book appeared on their own in literary magazines like Tin House, Zoetrope and The Paris Review, before they were collected here.

The upside of No One Belongs Here More Than You is that Miranda July emerges loud and clear as a fresh, original voice, that will probably be back soon (with a novel, perhaps?). And that's a very good thing.

-- Matt Elzweig

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Q & A with Melissa Plaut, cab driver, author

New York Press
September 5, 2007

After a layoff from a comfortable, but mind-numbing, ad agency job, Melissa Plaut, a copywriter and editor, basically gave up on making a living through words. Instead, she decided to embark on a long series of adventures instead of slogging through a “career path” until retirement. The first one was to become a cab driver, which Plaut, 32, did in 2004. About a year later, she began blogging about her experiences, but just for her friends. Due to the blog’s unexpected popularity, it ultimately led to a Random House book deal. The result is Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab, out now.

Has your driving outside of work changed at all?

Now I drive every car as if it were a cab. I can’t undo that sense of urgency and madness. You need to make a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. I’m also a terrible backseat driver now.

What surprised you about the job when you started?

I went online and found the TLC [Taxi & Limousine Commission] and saw the list of things I needed to do to get licensed. None of it involved a driving test. In terms of what happened when I actually got in the cab, I thought it would be a little bit more dangerous than it is. It’s dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as bad as I had feared and maybe most people assume it to be. You know there’s so much money in the city now that there are fewer people actually robbing us.

Ever had any accidents or criminals in your cab?

There are people who beat the fare, or try to beat the fare. I chased some kids. I’ve had a couple fender benders. I’ve had very many close calls that could’ve been very severe accidents. That’s just from being on the street so much. And I’ve never been held up or anything (knock on wood). I escaped this summer unscathed, with the guy who was going around pointing a gun at everybody’s head.

And how long do you think you’ll be doing this?

I have no idea. I don’t want to drive a cab for the rest of my life, but I may feel like a cab driver for the rest of my life.

There was a long period of time when you were driving around without health insurance. Were you terrified?

I wasn’t scared. I just prayed that nothing happened—and that if it did happen that it wasn’t my fault, and somebody else’s insurance could cover the bill.

What are some of the crazier things that have happened in your cab?

They’re not like “somebody had a baby” or “there was a knife fight in the backseat,” or anything. A guy got in and wouldn’t tell me where to go, and just gave me money to just drive until the money ran out, and then ended up having me take him to a strip club and wanted me to come in with him. He gave me another 20, and I just left him there. People do have sexual relations. I don’t know if anybody’s had full intercourse in my cab. I don’t think it’s happened, but then again, I can’t say I’m sure about that.

Is that uncomfortable for you?

It’s a little awkward, but I don’t want to say anything. Really, the best I can hope for is that they tip well and don’t make a mess.

How well do you know the other cabbies?

I made a bunch of friends at my garage. And obviously not just anybody, but I have a little crew, a little clique or whatever; guys that just treat me like one of the fellas. And far as I can tell, nobody holds back in front of me. In the beginning they may have, but they know me well enough to know I can handle anything if they can handle it.

So what are the cabbies with their phone attachments stuck in their ears talking about?

They’re talking about you.


Yeah. Most of them. They’re talking about either if you’re interesting, or if you’re doing something interesting, shitty, stupid, annoying. They’re also talking about where they’re going, which is also where you’re going. You know, “This guy just got in. We’re going to Williamsburg.” They’re talking about traffic as well. I always thought they were talking to friends from outside work. They’re talking to other cab drivers. The only people who are willing to talk on the phone with you for that long are the other people who are that bored for their 12-hour shift—isolated and frustrated. They’re like, “traffic on the 59th Street Bridge. Don’t go, use the lower level. I’m going to goddamn LaGuardia, it’s 5:30, I hate this guy. I hope he tips me.” It’s on and on. Whatever you’re doing, they’re talking about it. How about you? I don’t like to because I get so distracted. And I find my tips are better because I don’t do it. If a cabbie calls me and he’s like, “There’s traffic, don’t do this,” or something, I will take that call for a second. I will also just talk to them, but in-between fares. And I’ll be like, “Aw, this stupid guy just got out, and he took me all the way out here, and he didn’t even tip me, and he was, you know, jerking off the whole way there.”

-- Matt Elzweig

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Q & A with Tim Hatcher, Pedicab Driver

New York Press
August 22, 2007

Tim Hatcher, 33, is one of the many pedicab drivers who wait outside Central Park for customers. He takes them to various parts of Manhattan, but concentrates on giving tours of the park.He fell into the pedicab world a little over two years ago, after realizing how hard it was to get full-time graphic design jobs without connections.

It’s obvious Hatcher, who holds two college degrees, likes what he does. But with the city’s new pedicab regulations scheduled to take effect on September 20, Hatcher, like many of his fellow pedicab drivers, is concerned.

What will the new regulations mean to you if they’re not revised or annulled?

We asked them to regulate the industry a couple years ago when there were less pedicabs. To wait to do it now and then put a cap on it is really unfair. If they had put the cap of 325 a couple years ago, there might only have been 325 cabs. They wait ’til there’s [500-600] cabs, and then they put half of us out of business? [Pedicabs] have been in the United States about 20 years, but there has never been a fatality. Pedicabs have been in New York City for about 12 years. There’s only been one hospitalization that I know of.

How are you paid?

You haggle and make up prices. Extra weight is a factor. Uphill is a factor. Rain is a factor. Wind is a huge factor. If you look at this, it’s like pulling a parachute behind you. You always have a bottom line. Sometimes you end up going below it if it’s a really slow day. If you see somebody who’s injured or somebody who needs help, then you do them a favor. If you get somebody coming out of the theater and they’re on a romantic date, you know they’ll pay 20 bucks.

What’s your schedule like?

You make up your own schedule, usually. I like to work early in the morning when it’s quiet and peaceful. Other guys work midnight to 4 a.m. And you can make a lot of money fast if you know where the clubs are. But I don’t like dealing with drunk people. I’d rather deal with kids and tourists.

Any outrageous passengers?

This Japanese businessman. He was just trying to get across the city. But he wanted to make it like a game show. And he said he would give me like an extra dollar for every car I passed. And then he would give me like an extra five dollars for every time I did this, an extra dollar for every time I did that. And I knew he was in a hurry, so I’m racing anyway. And I really poured it on because it was added incentive. And suddenly, all of the traffic hit gridlock. And I can squeeze around gridlock. So I’m passing hundreds of cars. At one point, I pulled the bike up and walked it on the sidewalk, and dropped it down on to another side street. And the guy was so happy, but he admitted he didn’t have that much money. He was really amazed, so impressed. [He was] like, “Wow, you guys really work hard.”

Riding is probably good exercise.

You get exercise, but it’s all in the legs. I like to call it the “Tyrannosaurus Physique,” because you get the massive legs and no upper body.

Do you ever feel vulnerable to getting hit by taxis and buses?

On occasion. But I feel much safer driving this in traffic than I do a car. On this, you’re much lighter, much more maneuverable. You can see 360 degrees. If the situation is getting dangerous, I can pull this right off the road, up onto the curb.Are the drivers as international as the cabbies? Oh, definitely. Most of the more international guys, they’re kind of seasonal workers. Some of them are illegal aliens, which is a problem. And some of them are kind of duped into doing this. People run a scam where they’ll ship guys over, promising them they’ll make a lot of money, put them all up in like bunk beds in their aunt’s basement, and then put them on bikes and say, “Go out and make $300 a day.” And they go out and they can’t do that.

Is there any rivalry among you guys?

There’s some. A lot of cliques. In a perfect world, we’d all get along, but I’ve seen shouting matches that almost turned into fistfights over misunderstandings and people stealing rides from each other and stuff. Right now, if you look, there’s100 bikes and there’s not too many customers. And that’s not a good thing.

What about cab drivers?

We only take people short, 10 to 15 block distances. Our closer competition is probably the horse and carriages. But that’s only in the park.

Is it a friendly competition?

It varies. Some horse [and carriage] drivers are friendly. Some have actually driven by and screamed insults.

-- Matt Elzweig

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Q & A with Juliana Luecking, Public Comment Filmmaker

New York Press
August 6, 2007

Picture New York, a group formed in response to new rules the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting proposed for filmmaking and photography on city streets and in other public spaces, had a major victory on August 3, the final day of a public comment period the Office set up. After the group hand-delivered a petition signed by over 34,000 opponents of the new rules, the Office scrapped the proposal and agreed to draft a new one, and release it for another public comment period. Under the rules the Office proposed in June, groups of two or more, filming with a tripod would be limited to 30 minutes in a single location. Groups of five or more would have no more than 10 minutes. And two or more people, filming for 30 minutes or more, would be required to have a permit and a $1 million liability insurance policy. Picture New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union feared that the restrictions would be disastrous for amateur filmmakers and even tourists.

Filmmaker Juliana Luecking made the first of several YouTube videos by activists against the regulations, and recorded a press conference at NYCLU headquarters just before the Film Office visit on August 3.

Did you get the impression the Film Office gave in begrudgingly, or that they were at least, starting, to agree with you?

I have a mixed understanding of that. They didn’t let us in the office. I didn’t know if it was about security or that they really didn’t want to confront us as a group. The guy that accepted it from us was very easygoing, but didn’t really say much and didn’t really want to speak to reporters that were there.

How difficult was organizing all this?

The phenomenon that in two weeks Picture New York, a group of very experienced, savvy, media folks and artists were able to generate such a big media campaign without financial support at all just blows me away.

Why did it matter to you so much?

There was really never a need for this before. And I don’t think anything’s changed, culturally, to warrant a change in the Constitution. And I think that’s what this eventually would require. It's a real threat to freedom of speech, freedom of expression.

Has anyone ever tried to shut you down while you were out filming?

At [the] World Trade Center I tried to set up a tripod and the police had me take it down immediately. That was back in February. How did you get involved in the public comment process? I didn’t even know there was a public comment process. I read about this in the New York Times, and I called the NYCLU to tell them that I thought I was kind of a poster child for this issue. But even before I interviewed with them I just made a video and I put it up on YouTube as soon as possible because I just knew it was wrong. And, my video’s about three minutes, and I just kind of step-by-step describe what the regulations are like, and question why should I have to get permission for doing what I’m doing? So, luckily the folks at Picture New York posted my video. And from there, they did great outreach. I really had no idea it would be that big. I just felt like I had to say something about it.

What has the process of getting permission to film in the streets been like up to now?

The city wanted to know, basically, if you were going to be blocking a street or a sidewalk, or using a crane or any of that big movie equipment, which makes sense. And the other few people in that crew that would do this work of applying for the permit, they’d name the particular time, the exact location, you know like, what [section] of the sidewalk they’d be using. And The city would decide if that was going to be disruptive or not. And I believe after the World Trade Center went down New York was really encouraging more filmmakers and more business to come to New York. I mean, we’ve seen zillions of film crews everywhere.

Are you going to stay involved with this issue?

What I’m interested in, actually, is if anything like this, these regulations, is affecting any other small towns, bigger cities, rural areas, even, in the United States, if there’s any connection between city councils and government wanting to shut down photography. I’m hoping that we can set a tone in New York that this stuff has to be figured out with the inclusion of the Constitution in mind. So, the video that I cut [on August 3rd] is available [on]. And I might do one more that’s encouraging people to check out what’s going on in their own area.What would you do if you the rules had become law?I would continue shooting past 30 minutes, and if a police officer ordered me to stop, I would try to continue until they forced me to stop and arrested me. And then I’d go out and do it again.

— Matt Elzweig

Monday, July 30, 2007

Washington Square-off: Neighbors, pols weigh in on privatization, redesign

Our Town downtown
July 30, 2007

The man was wearing a dark cape and was standing inside the Washington Square Park fountain, which The City renamed “Tisch Fountain,” after a $2.5 million pledge from the foundation in 2005. He was near the northwestern rim of the fountain, and had something that resembled a do-rag on his head. He was speaking in a tone too controlled to call yelling, but more than loud enough to be heard by all those around him, at the very least, the people sitting directly in front of him and nearby. Exactly what he was talking about was unclear, but a substantial portion of it was a plea for anyone of influence who might be listening to please “publish” his “book.” He was not so far gone as to not know what city or day or century or planet this was, but mental illness comes in all shades of blue, and he was down in that sub-spectrum somewhere.

Up above this part of the fountain, a bare-chested kid with surfer hair, who looked homeless, approached a black man sitting on a bench in the shade. They talked quietly for a second or two and walked into the sunshine a few steps away. Then they stopped so the man could make a call on his cell phone.

Interactions like these are typical, but they’re only part of what goes on inside Washington Square Park on any given day.

On the Fifth Avenue side, a kind of retro ragtime band was unloading their gear while a string duo played chamber music behind them. At one point, two men on a bench in the same area were talking about the complications that could arise if one of them were to run for office. They didn’t say which office.

A courtly-looking senior couple walked by slowly, and two young women came in through the Fifth Avenue entrance just past the musicians. “This is where I used to hang out in college,” the first one said. “I was just thinking the same thing,” the other replied.

Graeme Humphrey, 24, was sitting on the southwest side of the fountain. It’s was his seventh or eighth time in Washington Square Park. Humphrey, an actor, works in the neighborhood. He likes hanging out near the large dog run since he’d like a dog, but affording and taking care of one is difficult in New York.

Irena Simonova, 20, a model from the Czech Republic, who lives in Soho, comes to Washington Square Park just about every day. She was sitting in her favorite spot, east of the Arch, near MacDougal and Washington Place, and said the only thing she’d change about the park would be to remove the drunks and homeless people. Maybe the police could help with that, she said, “because I’m scared sometimes.”

Tom, also sitting near the West 4th corner, who wouldn’t give his last name, goes to the park two to three times a week to read and relax. He’s been doing this for 50 years.

And Kristina Magcamit, 19, comes here to study almost every day. She likes to sit by the fountain and the dog run behind it. Magcamit, an NYU student, said she thinks The City’s plan to realign the fountain with the Arch is unnecessary.

All Carlos Casanova, 21, would change about Washington Square Park would be to place “more restrictions on drug-related problems.” He can’t figure out why they’re ignored. Casanova, a dog walker, hangs out by the main dog run, naturally, though he’s usually just passing through.

The controversy over the proposed redesign of Washington Square Park involves allegations that The City wants to privatize public space, or at the very least, make this very public space exclusive. It involves concerns about noise, and it has already been the subject of two lawsuits.
Landscape architect Robert B. Nichols designed the park in its current form, which was completed in 1970. Fifth Avenue ran through the Arch until 1964. And in 1995, The City completed a $900,000 renovation of the park.

An announcement the New York City Law Department made earlier this year called the Parks Department’s initial plan a “renovation” for a “heavily used park, both to restore crumbling park features and to enhance community members’ ability to make use of park space.”
The Parks Department first announced its intent to redesign the park in December 2003, and Community Board 2 voted unanimously in favor of “the concept to refurbish” it, according to court documents.

In February 2005, Parks unveiled its initial plans at another community board meeting. And though the plans provided did not include specific measurements, they showed the renovated fountain spraying a jet as high as the Arch, which is approximately 45 feet high, and increased lawn areas.

Neighborhood residents in attendance, like Jonathan Greenberg, were “outraged,” Greenberg said in a telephone interview.

But going into the meeting, he suspected The City might want to “transform the very nature and spirit” of the park. Greenberg, who polled the crowd there to determine what its priorities were in terms of improving Washington Square Park, said that 197 of 200 respondents favored a smaller, simpler, alternative plan that he and other members of the recently-formed Open Washington Square Park Coalition came up with.

To Greenberg, the results of this and other surveys he conducted were proof that “everyone” was against The City’s plan.

It wasn’t that the community didn’t recognize the need to fix certain things in the park – the bathrooms, the pavement and some of the benches needed repairs, the lighting needed to be replaced, the grass needed to be cleaned up and maintained, and the mound areas should be opened up, and the playgrounds expanded a little – but they did not want a redesign.
“Frankly, they wanted the park to be left alone other than that, for the most part.”

Greenberg said that Parks showed Community Board 2 plans at subsequent meetings as well, but that the department never left them copies to review.

Nevertheless, Community Board 2 approved the plan in April 2005, on the condition that the Parks Department work with City Councilperson Alan Gerson to decide where to put the dog runs and how to design the playgrounds.

And one month later, the Landmarks Preservation Committee approved the redesign.
Gerson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn stated in an October 2005 letter to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe that they had reached “30 points of agreement” on the renovation and would support the release of city funds for it.

Some of these 30 points included a four-foot cap on the height of any sidewalk perimeter fencing, a three-foot-six-inch cap on any perimeter fences inside the park; a reduction of the inner plaza that surrounds the fountain by no more than 10 percent, with no reduction in permanent seating between the plaza’s inner and outer circles; and a provision that if a conservancy were created to raise funds for the park, the Parks Department would have to encourage the conservancy to include a representative of Community Board 2 and local City Council members as “ex-officio members.”

The Gerson-Quinn agreement also requires The City to shut down no more than half of the park at any one time during construction, and requires the Parks Department to keep commercial events in the park to a minimum, and consult with the Council members and Community Board 2 before approving them.

The budget is $16 million and a greater portion of the funding will be coming from a private-public partnership than from The City, according to several media reports. If the project goes forward, The City will be responsible for $6.8 million.

In February 2006, Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper, reported that the university had pledged $1 million. (Alicia Hurley, an NYU spokesperson, said that NYU is not involved in the renovation plans themselves, and that the university’s only involvement were two requests – that Parks allow it to continue to hold its commencement ceremonies in the park, and that Parks not put a dog run in front of the NYU library on the south side of the park. “There’s no reason for the institution to get involved in any of the design. So we have remained completely agnostic on it,” she said in a telephone interview.)

After reviewing the Gerson-Quinn agreement, Community Board 2 reaffirmed its approval of the first phase of the renovation. But when the Parks Department presented its plans to the Art Commission in January of 2006 – a slide show revealed the dimensions they had in mind for the fountain and grade-level changes for the plaza – opponents of the plan were upset. “They’re bringing the central plaza to a street-level grade,” Greenberg said.

The Art Commission withheld its approval because it wanted a chance to observe an on-site mockup of the fountain area and study the acoustic impact of the water jets, first.

In April 2006, Greenberg and three other plaintiffs sued The City to annul all the approvals the redesign had received, on the grounds that by first announcing specific dimensions at the Art Commission hearing – which included shrinking the fountain plaza by 33 percent, and creating a 45-foot water jet – the Parks Department had unlawfully withheld material information from the community board and the Landmarks Commission. Greenberg also alleged that a Parks Department employee purposely misled the Landmarks Commission regarding the
Department’s intent to reduce the size of the plaza, and that Parks had violated the Gerson-Quinn agreement (by planning to shrink the plaza by more than 10 percent).

The City contended that it had no obligation to show final plans to Community Board 2, since community boards only have an advisory role. But the District Court judge disagreed, and Greenberg and his co-plaintiffs won.

The City appealed, and although the Pataki-appointed, all-male appellate panel agreed that The City had to inform the community board of its final plans, in March 2007, it ruled that The City had fulfilled this obligation, and therefore did not have to resubmit its plans.

Greenberg and co-plaintiff Luther Harris, author of “Around Washington Square,” and another neighborhood group called the Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park (ECO) filed separate suits that were heard together in May 2007. If The City loses either suit, it will have to conduct a time-consuming Environmental Impact Study of the renovation, a process which is subject to public review. Greenberg expects the judge in that case to issue a ruling sometime in the next two months.

If Greenberg is right, and most of the people who would be affected by the redesign don’t want anything more than minor improvements, why would the Parks Department, why would The City, be pushing so hard for it to go through?

To Greenberg, part of the answer is Mayor Bloomberg’s belief in private-public partnerships, “that conservancies are good. Funding a park is a liability to the taxpayers, and … privatizing through the use of naming conventions,” (he mentions Tisch Fountain) is an asset. “The next logical conclusion is renaming the … Arch … How much would Donald Trump pay to name it Donald Trump Arch? That’s where the logic leads. What’s not for sale since we are pimping out our public spaces? … By creating a plan … of which, only half of it is funded [by The City], you create a reliance upon private funding for the first time in the park’s 180-year history.” Greenberg said this would allow the conservancy to function like a Business Improvement District.

But above all, The City’s motivation as Greenberg sees it, is “transforming who uses the park and how … The Parks Department does not want this to continue to be a hangout park. It is the quintessential hangout space in New York City” … “They want to create a garden-style, pedestrian pass-through mall, with an ornamental fountain at the center … which people admire as they pass through and keep moving.”

By reducing the size of open spaces, The City reduces the number of opportunities for people to hang out or play music in the park.

And by doing that, The City can also accommodate its “post-9/11 reality,” in which spontaneous gatherings, especially protests, are security risks. “The euphemisms they use are getting rid of the homeless and drug pushers” … “Half of those guys are just selling oregano or something … I’m not a police genius but you’d think you could do something about that … You don’t need to completely redesign Washington Square Park.”

Of course not everyone is dreading the possibility of a redesign.

Gil Horowitz, a retired psychologist who once attended and taught at NYU, lives in Two Fifth Avenue, a co-op steps away from Washington Square Park. He’s been going to Washington Square Park for over 50 years.

Horowitz is President of the Washington Square-Lower Fifth Avenue Block Association, which he said has always worked with the Parks Department, and that represents residents between Washington Square and Lower Fifth Avenue, most of them co-op owners like himself.

He said the current design of Washington Square Park, which he dates back to 1969 (not 1970, the Park Department’s date), is a poor design and should never have been allowed to go through. The Nichols design “is one of many designs, and many people think, the worst of all the designs the park has ever had.”

Horowitz believes the Gerson-Quinn version of the redesign will go through, and is really hoping it does. “I’ve waited now almost 20 years to see this happen,” he said, referring to a failed attempt by the community board in 1990, when he was a board member, to redesign the park.
Washington Square Park’s condition is beyond simple repair, Horowitz said. “It reminds me of the Mayan ruins, when you go to visit Tulum, near Cancun.”

The renovation plans remind him of the design that predated the Nichols design. “It pays homage to all the prior designs which Washington Square Park has had—and yet takes a look to the 21st Century by moving the Arch. To recognize the Arch, which was not originally there when the park was designed, is an integral and central part of the design. So by aligning them … it recognizes the reality of the 21st Century, provides a view up Fifth Avenue from the fountain.”

He said that he knows of “tens of thousands of neighborhood people” who want a redesign and have championed the current proposal.

The reason you don’t hear as much from supporters of the plan as you do from opponents is that, according to Horowitz, they’re not as loud, and they’re too busy working and taking care of their families to constantly attend meetings. “The other side seems more at liberty for some reason … to come to every meeting and make themselves look like they represent great numbers of people. They do not.”

He thinks there’s nothing wrong with a nighttime shutdown of the park either. One thousand people live in his co-op, including 50 children, Horowitz said. They’re not snobs, they just like to sleep at night, which is why they don’t find a 1 a.m. curfew unreasonable, he said. (Horowitz is also the spokesperson for Two Fifth Avenue.)

Although he has an “emotional attachment” to the park, he said that “virtually none” of his neighbors still use it because the other side is so “possessive” of it. The neighbors tend to take their kids to play elsewhere instead. And the person getting left out is “the ordinary tax-paying, hardworking citizen of the neighborhood.”

The concerns about privatization don’t add up in Horowitz’s view because the supporters of the conservancy idea want the conservancy to have an advisory role, but that’s it, he said. “There would be an advisory fundraising group, and not an ownership group, much like the Board of Education has some business partners. Like IBM might partner with the school. IBM doesn’t organize the curriculum. IBM doesn’t manage the school.”

He noted that originally, the park had a fence, and estimated that in the photos he saw, the fence looked to be between five-and-a-half and six-feet high. Horowitz thinks a fence is a good idea because it will “keep the property safe.” Plantings are being stolen from the park at night, and if The City puts millions into the redesign, he suspects these types of problems will matter to them much more than they do now, in the park’s current state of disrepair.

“I see the golden opportunity to get the park we deserve – late, but not too late.”

-- Matt Elzweig

Community Checks Out Parks Plan

Our Town downtown
July 30, 2007

At a City Hall meeting of the Washington Square Park Task Force on July 26, John Krawchuk, the Parks Department’s Director of Historic Preservation, presented the department’s Phase One drawing and took questions from the task force and the public. The proceedings were set up to begin determining, specifically, whether the Parks Department’s plans were in compliance with all the provisions of the Gerson-Quinn agreement.

Due to ongoing litigation, there were questions Krawchuk could not answer.

Members of the public were instructed to write their questions down on index cards and pass them up to the front, where Community Board 2 Parks Committee chair Tobi Bergman read them.

Later in the meeting they were allowed to walk up to drawings and examine them.

The Parks Department will make the Phase One plans available to the public from Monday, July 28, through Friday, August 3. They will be viewable by appointment at the department’s Manhattan Borough office, though Gerson urged the department to make the plans available at the American Institute of Architects near Washington Square Park during this period.

Mary Johnson of the Washington Square Block Association and Gerson raised questions about whether Phase One plans for the plaza that surrounds the fountain were in compliance with the 10 percent maximum reduction in space specified in the Gerson-Quinn agreement. However, that matter is still being determined.

The agreement sets the height limit of all sidewalk perimeter fencing at 4 feet, but Krawchuk said that including the base supports, the sidewalk fences will range from 4 feet 3 and 7/8ths of an inch to 4 feet 5 and 7/8ths of an inch.

A follow-up meeting will be held on Monday, July 30, at NYU, from 6:30 – 8 p.m., in the Great Room, 19 University Place.

-- Matt Elzweig

Monday, July 23, 2007

Book Review: "After Dark" by Haruki Murakami

“After Dark”
Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover ($22.95)
191 pp.

By Matt Elzweig

Like the characters in his latest, brief, novel, “After Dark,” and the fluctuating realities they inhabit, Haruki Murakami is hard to pin down. In one breath, whether through his work or in interviews, he comes across as shy, sensitive and vulnerable, his passions for jazz and rock n’ roll, endearing in their nerdiness. In the next, he seems grandiose. His words start to scrape the borders that separate sincerity from pretension.

In a 2002 Japan Times article, Murakami talks about his commitment to readers. “I answer my readers’ e-mails … I read about 100 per day, and I write 10 to 20 replies … I think it’s very important for me to read the words from my actual readers, the ones who pay money to buy and read my books.” But in that same interview, he makes statements like this one, from a 2005 International Herald Tribune article. “I went to New York myself, found an agent myself, found a publisher myself, found an editor myself … no Japanese novelist has ever done such things.”

He often presents himself as a rebel pitted against the Japanese literary establishment, and when he says, in the Japan Times article, that Japanese critics don’t like him, he’s not kidding. They don’t appreciate his constant references to Western, especially American, pop culture. They hold his unusually straightforward, stripped-down prose in low regard. And probably see his psychodrama as psychobabble, his sentences more like pop lyrics than literature.
Whether he created this controversy or they did, is a good question, and Murakami offers one partial explanation: that due to the popularity of “Norwegian Wood” (1987), his breakout novel, he could never be considered a “literary” author again. “Most critics don’t like bestselling writers … In the West … my books sell very moderately. So readers there think of me as a kind of cult writer,” the way they used to in Japan.

Murakami’s strength is shining the light of his imagination on eccentric characters in dark landscapes, usually urban ones, and pulling everything – the superficial, the practical, the subconscious thoughts – out of their heads to articulate his ideas and questions, and leaving just enough unanswered.

But while his formidable knowledge of and fondness for Western pop culture gives Murakami, the person, a geeky charm, his pop references are transparent and get in the way of the imagery and dialogue, and everything else that makes his books unique. (“Only the area around the man’s desk receives illumination from fluorescent lights on the ceiling. This could be an Edward Hopper painting titled ‘Loneliness.’”) In a book just under 200 pages, these interruptions become more distracting.

The intersection of strangers and the way fate and free will (if you believe in either) egg each other on, both Murakami staples, always have the potential to make for an absorbing read, and this one’s not bad. It’s not great either.

Just before midnight, a young musician named Takahashi walks into a Tokyo Denny’s and sees Mari Esai, the sister of a girl he went on a date with once, and sits down with her. Mari, a student majoring in Chinese, is the awkward brain to her sister Eri’s superficial model.
The scenes, written from the perspective of a camera lens, are undermined by a screenplay treatment-like narration. Murakami could have written them in conventional third person to better effect.

When Eri is introduced, she’s shown, frame-by-frame, trapped in what seems to be some kind of parallel universe.

Eventually, Takahashi leaves the restaurant. But when one of his friends, the manager of a “love hotel,” finds a Chinese prostitute beaten in one of the rooms by an unknown assailant, they bring Mari over to translate. After they identify the attacker, a “salaryman” (or office worker), working late in the area, in a surveillance photo, they give it to the victim’s pimp.

What’s most satisfying about “After Dark” contradicts what is perhaps the Western media’s most common criticism of Murakami, which amounts to a naked emperor argument – that his books are high on vague metaphysics, and atmosphere, but low on substance.

But in this one, he explores an idea he has played with before, that a kind of moral dualism exists – a fluid border between kindness and cruelty, darkness and light. “There really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine,” Takahashi explains, remembering defendants in criminal trials he attended as a pre-law student.

“Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mâché. The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side. Or maybe … the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we just haven’t noticed.”

Just before three a.m., the salaryman is back at work. He has just beaten up the prostitute and skipped out without paying for her or the room, and is speaking to his wife on the phone; picking up a carton of low-fat milk on the way home will be no problem at all.

In Tokyo, residents talk constantly about when the “big one” is coming – the earthquake equal to or worse than the 1923 earthquake that killed over 100,000 people in the Kanto region. Who knows if earthquakes are the inspiration for Murakami’s often unstable world? But what could be less stable than a chain of islands on four tectonic plates, where change occurs in an instant?

Q & A with David Muñoz, a.k.a. Story Man, Hip Hop Artist

Our Town downtown
July 23, 2007

A young man with a bag of CDs and a pair of headphones approaches me in Washington Square Park, and asks if I listen to hip hop. I tell him not much anymore, and he’s not surprised.
David Muñoz, 28, who came to New York from his native California two years ago, sells his albums in Washington and Union Square parks, and markets them as a positive alternative to the brainless bling anthems that mainstream radio and music channels like BET keep in heavy rotation.

“Nowadays, a huge percent of the hip hop that people see in the mainstream is, just garbage. It’s just all about, you know, look at me throw money up in the air while half-naked women dance behind me and I drink a bottle of Cristal and show you all the jewelry I own, or I rented. But there’s still a few guys out there that are real good. And, they just don’t get pushed as well as they should, because of the belief the record company executives have that people want these buffoons, these fake thugs or whatever. But I think that with hip hop record sales going down in the last few years, it’s just a matter of time before the record executives see that they’re going to have to change. Because hip hop doesn’t suck. It’s just that, unfortunately, the image that hip hop has in the mainstream kind of sucks,” he says, when we meet in a coffee shop the following week.

Muñoz’s latest album isn’t political, but his music often is, which makes sense; he studied Government at Georgetown, led student walkouts over standardized testing when he was still an English teacher at his old high school, and in 2004, he ran for Congress as a write-in candidate.

How’d you end up running for Congress?

I was working on an album that was very political, talking about my whole marketing of it. I said, I’m going to be on the cover in a tie, like a politician. And then, one of my friends, he said, maybe you could like run for something, school board or something. I was like, I wouldn’t want to go for school board, I think I’d be wasting my time. And then I said, well I am 25, I could run for Congress. I found out it was too late to get on the ballot, but I could run as a write-in candidate. I liked that because it was highlighting how the way people vote is kind of like taking a multiple choice test. You don’t have to know the person or what they’re about. You just check the box off. As a write-in candidate—every person that voted for that candidate would know that person and know they really wanted that person.

Did you get any votes?

Like a couple hundred.

How do people respond when you approach them in the parks?

I get a great response because it’s just going directly to the people. It may not be, in the eyes of most people, the most glorious way to go about doing it. [But] it’s the most effective way because there’s a lot of people out there that still do listen to hip hop music. And I go out there every day and just find them without having to cross my fingers and hope they walk into a store or somehow find out about it on the Internet. It’s a way to be a cause rather than be the effect. Even if my stuff was in the stores and the Internet was helping me tremendously, I’d still be out there doing it. I get to meet the people that are going to listen to my music and they get to [meet] me.

You do it full-time?


About how much do you make a month?

It depends on the weather, depends how much time I’m out there. But I can make anywhere from $20 to $60 an hour.

And what’s the most CDs you’ve sold in a month?

Maybe like 800. And total, I’ve sold, probably around 7,000 to 8,000 CDs.

How old are the people buying them?

Oh, all ages. I’ve had like 90-year-old women buy my CD. In a wheelchair.

Do you ever run into people who are skeptical that hip hop can be positive?

Yeah, but those are people that don’t listen to hip hop.

Are you happy just being your own boss or are you hoping for a record deal?

I would like to be my own boss as long as I’m making money at it. A lot of these guys who have record deals aren’t necessarily very free, and are almost like slaves to their masters. I would definitely go for a record deal as long as it was the right terms and somebody I respected, and they let me keep a lot of creative control. I wouldn’t want them to tell me to like, make songs like 50 Cent or something. Because I had that happen to me.


When I first got to the city, I ran into these guys in Union Square Park, and then they took me over to this guy’s office. He said, I want to sign somebody and invest millions of dollars. But, he says, two artists sold ten million albums this last year or whatever it was—Alicia Keys and 50 Cent. Then he starts playing me 50 Cent’s CD. And he said, yeah! Like this! like this! He didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. And he wanted me to go get buffed and make songs that weren’t political and sound like 50 Cent or something, and then he probably would’ve went for it. I wasn’t willing to do that.

—Matt Elzweig