28 August 2011

Peter Brook’s 'Tierno Bokar'

[I’ve just published a report on Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research (ROT, 25 August) in which I mentioned the director’s production of Tierno Bokar at Columbia University. As a follow-up to that article, I’m publishing my 2005 performance report on Brook’s production. Note that this assessment was originally a comment to some friends on a casual basis, so the tone is less formal than some of my later theater reports.

[Tierno Bokar Saalif Tall (1875–1939) was a Sufi sage, a member of a distinguished clan, and a spiritual leader in his village in what is now Mali. His clan, exponents of repeating a Sufi prayer 12 times, was embroiled in a debate with a rival clan that advocated repeating it 11 times, a debate that devolved into a conflict over power and leadership in the Tidjani Sufi Order. When Tierno eventually became a follower of Hamallah, a member of the rival clan, he was cast out by family, relatives, and clan, branded a traitor, and forbidden to teach or pray publicly. His enemies further ostracized him by collaborating with the French colonial powers, portraying him as a fomenter of rebellion against French rule. Tierno died impoverished and isolated. The play
Tierno Bokar is based on Malian writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s book about his studies with Tierno, Vie et enseignement de Tierno Bokar: le sage de Bandiagara (Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, 1957; translated as A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar
, 2008).]

Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I got tickets for Peter Brook’s Tierno Bokar on Tuesday, 19 April [2005]. Brook's in residence at Columbia University under the auspices of the Columbia University Arts Initiative which is headed by Gregory Mosher, formerly of Lincoln Center (and before that, the Goodman in Chicago). Brook and his troupe, Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT), are performing Tierno Bokar, based on the biography of "the Sage of Bandiagara," at Barnard College; there didn't seem to be any student involvement, so I don't know how the residency/sponsorship works at Columbia.

Where to start, where to start?

Bokar, of whom I had never heard before, was a Sufi Muslim teacher who lived in French colonial Mali (then called Upper Volta, I believe) from 1875 to 1939. He became part of a conflict with another clan over the recitation of a prayer, "The Pearl of Perfection," which his group believed should be said 12 times, while the opposing clan believed it should be said 11 times. This conflict ultimately led to violence and gave the French an excuse to crack down on all of the native subjects. Bokar went to the leader of the Elevens and reached an understanding with him, causing his own clan to ostracize him. He essentially died an exile in his own village. According to Brook's statement in the program, his point is to "illuminate . . . the power of violence and the true nature of a tolerance that is more powerful still." Well, that's certainly a nice notion, laudatory, even—perfectly in keeping with Brook's politics and philosophy. Unhappily, the performance didn't accomplish this as far as I was concerned.

Well, to begin with, Margo Jefferson was way too generous with Brook in the Times on the 7th. She seems to suggest that it's worth seeing the performance: "Still, research is a journey, and journeys can matter as much as arrivals." In this case, neither the journey nor the arrival were worth much. In fact, I'd venture that there was no arrival—it was just an endless journey! I finally read Gordon Cox’s Newsday review of the 7th from the 'Net, and it's more accurate perhaps, but still too kind. [Jefferson’s New York Times review on 7 April 2005 was entitled “Timeless Lessons on Tolerance Imparted by a Sufi Sage From Colonial Africa”; Cox’s Newsday notice seems to have only had the headline “Theater Review” and no longer appears to be available to non-subscribers.]

There are maybe half a dozen serious problems with Tierno Bokar, some large, some small, but the most pervasive and all-encompassing is that it isn't theater! It's storytelling—which is an art, but a different art. (When I say 'storytelling,' I mean the kinds of performance that are part of the tradition in places like India, where itinerant storytellers go from town to town, sit in the village square or someplace, and recount the legends of their people, unraveling an illustrated scroll—sort of like a linear comic strip . . . er, 'graphic novel.' I've see this on tape, and it can be marvelous—the storyteller is a true performer—but it's different from 'theater' as we usually understand it. Africa has this tradition, their griots being charged with recounting the village history—though that may be almost the same as the myths and legends of India, I guess—and many American Indian cultures also have this tradition. Since neither African nor Native American languages had a written form originally, it's obvious where this tradition of storytelling comes from. And, perhaps, why we've lost it in the West to a great degree.)

Tierno Bokar has virtually no physical action of any kind—either innate or imposed (like dancing or rhythmic movement to symbolize something) and the two types of speech are not just untheatrical, they're anti-theatrical: narration (which is almost never theatrical, much less dramatic) and what I can best describe as "instruction" (where someone, usually Bokar, gives a brief lesson to someone else). It's not conversation, much less dialogue. And it's enervating, to say the least. I had trouble keeping my mind from wandering (that's not accurate: I failed often to keep my mind from wandering), and Diana actually nodded off at least once. Maybe we're both ignoramuses, but I posit that that reaction says something about the performance! If Brook is going for minimalism—and he was a follower of Grotowski in his early days—he seems to have jumped over a few steps. Even Grotowski acknowledged the need for acting (well, actors—but the latter seems to presume the former), but Tierno Bokar had no 'acting' in it—just some 'positioning'—not really 'movement'—and recitation/narration. And Grotowski decided that the playwright wasn't a necessity, suggesting that the text was secondary to some extent. This implies that the actors’ work was paramount in communicating ideas, but Tierno Bokar relied on text almost exclusively—words you either read (the supertitles) or heard, but not actions at all. If Brook had had some kind of narrator, like the Kabuki or Noh singer at the side of the stage, while his actors 'performed' the roles and events of the story, maybe in ritualized movement or dance, that might have been something. If the text had been sung or chanted, like we believe Greek drama was presented, that might have been theatrical. (I don't say any of this would have worked—I don't know.) But what Brook presented here was basically narration in which the actors became the speaker/storyteller plus the illustrated scroll—and just about as animated; Diana raised the comparison with 'tableaux.' Anyway, he seems to have jumped over the positions on the continuum of theater that included anything theatrical; he went from what he apparently sees as too much spectacle right to dead air. (Can you say, "Nothingism"? That's the step after Minimalism. It's not the same as "Nihilism," by the way.)

This is all exacerbated by the fact that, since the performance is in French with supertitles, you have to keep reading the words above the actors' heads—the whole piece is the text, after all; there isn't anything else—so you do more reading than watching anyway. I still speak French, but it's not good enough to handle a performance, even though the language was close to elementary-school level. (If your whole piece rests on words, the words, I'd think, should be . . . well, scintillating is a word that comes to mind. This sounded exactly like what I suspect it was—quotations lifted directly from the biography of Bokar that is the basis of Brook's text. Research, indeed! Comes awfully close to plagiarism for my dough! Speaking of which—the tickets were 40 bucks a pop!)

It didn't help, by the way, that the seats in the performance space, a converted gym, were excruciatingly hard—for an hour-and-a-half, intermissionless sitz.

Brook's reputation rests on his innovation and avant-garde convention-breaking, but there were no theatrical techniques on display here at all—neither old, traditional ones nor new, radical interpretations. "Pushing boundaries," if that’s what Brook does, suggests to me that something more ought to have been going on than there was. If creating a totally enervating experience is "pushing the boundaries," then maybe that's what Brook was doing—but it strikes me as an accomplishment that demands (but not 'begs') the question, "Why?" I'll amend that: the question ought to be "WHY??!!" Like I said: not theater.

I guess, if we're ranking the problems, the next one down would be the central plot element: the conflict between Bokar’s Twelves and the Elevens. I understand that this is a symbolic struggle, but it was Little-Endians vs. Big-Endians to me—it made no sense, I couldn't understand it, and it was unengaging to me. Therefore, I didn't really care about the struggle. It seemed so senseless, even though I understood intellectually that it was important to the participants, that I was not engaged. (Brook wrote in the program, "All through human history, every society ends up by getting it wrong. In the beginning there is always a bold rush of energy. This creates new, fresh structures, but they soon turn into institutions which from then on slowly become fossils." That's the closest Brook or the play—in which these lines don't appear—comes to explaining anything.) I suppose it didn't help matters that the acting was so low-key (I think the Newsday reviewer remarked on this phenomenon—he was right) that the performances didn't substitute for the lack of intellectual conflict I felt (or, I guess, didn't feel). Remember Chekhov? It is often said of his plays, especially Uncle Vanya, that in a play about boredom, the acting cannot be boring. Well, Brook forgot this lesson. (Apologies to Grotowski, but there is something to say for spectacle!)

I also never figured out why the French got involved in this struggle. I know, again in my head, that this was just an excuse for the colonial masters to suppress and brutalize the natives, but I still don't see why they even cared one way or another even minimally. I can guess that the struggle became so violent that the French had to start arresting and imprisoning leaders from both sides to try to restore peace or something, even if they didn't care which side prevailed, but that wasn't in the play as far as I could see. Besides, the French brutality was only recounted in the narration—it was never represented on stage. (There were a few early scenes of colonial arrogance—but they were more ludicrous than frightening. School teachers extolled the virtues of France and encouraged the students and native teacher to sing a patriotic song which held no real meaning for them, of course. The French did invent chauvinism, of course.) Besides, do we really need to be told again that Western imperialism is destructive, bad, immoral, and brutal? We hardly need a play about an obscure figure who died almost 70 years ago to tell us that anyway—we only have to watch the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the legacy of modern Africa (can you say Sudan and Rwanda?).

I've already remarked on the acting—there isn't more to say than that it was minimal to the level of invisibility—and I guess the point that there was no staging to speak of says all that's needed about the physical directing. The set looked interesting when we went into the theater— the Newsday description is accurate—but nothing was made of any of it. Once or twice, a rug was used to represent a river that had to be crossed, but for the most part, everything was literal.

Remember my personal criteria for good theater? It has to do more than tell a story and it has to do it in a way that uses the attributes of live performance (that is, be theatrical in some way). Well, Brook did just the opposite as far as I'm concerned. He just told a story and he didn't do anything at all theatrical. I'd say that gets an F.

I'll add one further comment: This was all the more disappointing—maybe there's a stronger word—because it was Brook. Despite the reviews, Diana and I both went in expecting something at least interesting if not exciting. Brook's image as an innovator and experimenter implied that there'd be something going on, even if it was unsuccessful. The raised expectations made the experience even more of a let-down. Tierno Bokar didn't look like anything more than an amateur attempt to translate a prose narrative into a staged retelling. (Do you know about the so-called Purim play? Little kids put one on in most temples; it's an enactment of the story of Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman. Tierno Bokar kept reminding me of this. At least, at the end of a Purim play, you get to have some Hamentaschen—little triangular pastries. In this case, I could have used a stiff drink!)

You know, I have the impression I had more to say right after I saw the performance, but I've already forgotten it all. I've either got early Alzheimer's, or that says something about this experience.

[Tierno Bokar was adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne from the book by Amadou Hampaté Bâ (1901-1991). The production featured music by Toshi Tsuchitori and Antonin Stahly and lighting design by Phillipe Vialatte. Sotigui Kouyaté, from Burkina Faso, who appeared in Brook's Mahabharata, The Tempest, and other productions, played Tierno Bokar. (Kouyaté died in Paris in 2010 at the age of 73.) Brook and CICT spent a month in residence at Columbia in the spring of 2005. Forty-four related events sponsored by the Columbia University Arts Initiative in partnership with the Harlem Arts Alliance and Barnard College included symposia, lectures, workshops, and class work. The Columbia University Arts Initiative, directed by Gregory Mosher, was launched in February 2004. In 2010, Brook presented 11 and 12, an expanded version of Tierno Bokar; based on the same material, this play is performed in English.]

23 August 2011

Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research

[Peter Brook, the British stage and film director with an international reputation for innovation and experimentation and the author of The Empty Space (1968), a book that had tremendous influence on almost every Western theater artist in the 1960s and ‘70s, has recently returned to New York City and Lincoln Center. Just as he did in 1981 with La Tragédie de Carmen, Brook’s has adapted a famous opera by paring it down to what he considers the essentials. This time, it’s Mozart: Brook’s production of A Magic Flute was at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

[Brook began his directing career with a 1943 production of Christopher Marlowe’s
Dr. Faustus at the Torch Theatre in London. He followed that in 1945 with more contemporary fare, Jean Cocteau’s 1934 Infernal Machine, a retelling of the Oedipus story, at the Chanticleer Theatre. Brook directed all around England, gaining considerable acclaim, joining the Royal Shakespeare company as a resident director in the early 1960s. He remained with the company, directing Shakespearean plays and other classics, often in innovative stagings, as well as contemporary works, perhaps the most famous of which was the RSC production of Peter Weiss’s theater-of-cruelty script, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (known universally—for obvious reasons—as Marat/Sade) in 1964. The director’s famous circus-infused version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented in 1970, influencing nearly every other director who saw it—or even heard about it. Brook, who also directed several films (many based on his stage plays) and wrote six more books since The Empty Space, was at the height of his renown when he decided to abandon the life of a successful and sought-after stage director, move to Paris, and form an international theater research center.

[This article is a brief analysis, however superficial, of some of Brook’s early work with his International Centre of Theatre Research, covering the period from its start to about 1974. Among the impressions revealed are the influence of some of Brook’s most significant inspirations: E. Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.]

Few theoreticians of the craft of acting have had the conviction to abandon a financially successful career in the commercial theater and strike out to put their theories into practice on a grand scale. Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) did so, but they had the advantage of state-supported programs to release them from the worry of financial backing. Peter Brook (b. 1925), however, did so without the support of his own government, and even removed himself from his native England in order to carry out his experiments in the training of the actor. In 1968, having obtained private funding, Brook and Micheline Rozan gathered together an international group of young theater people in Paris and established the International Centre of Theatre Research (known as CIRT, for the French name, Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale) in the Mobilier National, a former Gobelin tapestry factory on the Left Bank. The company, as it eventually evolved, was made up of fifteen to twenty actors from Iran, Mali, France, Greece, the U.S., Spain, Portugal, Japan, and Morocco; five directors from England, Romania, Armenia, and Germany, and one Swiss designer. Brook himself and Ted Hughes, an English poet, completed the company. Except for the period from 1968 to 1970 when CIRT removed to London because of the 1968 student riots in Paris, Brook’s company remained disconnected from his original base of operations in England. In 1974, CIRT took over the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a theater near the Gare du Nord in Paris’s 10th Arrondissement, where the company has remained. In 2008, Brook, then 83, resigned the artistic directorship of CIRT, handing it over to Olivier Mantei, then director of the Opéra-Comique, and Olivier Poubelle, a theater entrepreneur. (Rozan, then about 80, also stepped down at the same time.)

Because Brook believed that privacy was an absolutely necessary element in the training regimen, the working sessions at CIRT were closed to visitors except for specially scheduled, prearranged experiments opened to a specific audience. No public “performances” were held at the factory. Indeed, Brook’s work in those years wasn’t performance-oriented in any way. If an experimental performance developed out of one of CIRT’s exercises, Brook might select an audience of Paris children (one of his favorite audiences) and invite them to participate. In other cases, the company might go into the rural suburbs or workers’ districts of Paris and present its work to an audience of unsophisticated, theatrically naïve spectators. On three occasions, CIRT took its work on international tours in order to test Brook’s theories regarding language and communication: Shiraz and Persepolis, Iran (1971); Africa (Spring 1973); and New York (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fall 1973). After the BAM sessions, the Centre ceased to function for several years, terminating Brook’s training experiments.

Though Brook’s foremost purpose for establishing CIRT was to train his ideal actor, a combination of acrobat, juggler, singer, dancer, and clown, he was also committed to the development of a universal theater, and therefore had theories not only on how to train an actor, but on how to relate to an audience, how to construct a piece of theater, and how to stage a performance. These theories necessarily affected his program of training for his company and consequently the work that came out of that program.

The general belief upon which Brook based his concept of the ideal theater was that the world of experience is divided into two parts: the everyday world and the imaginary world. In adult society, according to Brook, the two worlds are separated arbitrarily, whereas children, when they play, pass effortlessly between the two worlds, accepting the fact that the everyday world has elements of imagination and the imaginary world has elements of the everyday. In the adult theater, as in adult society, this blending isn’t accepted: when the curtain goes up in the theater of illusion, so does the finite division of the everyday world from the imaginary world. It was Brook’s contention that this arbitrary separation was both untrue and unhealthy. He advocated the coexisting relationship as the healthy one and the one that, in art, would revitalize the theater. With the acceptance of the free flow between the imaginary and everyday worlds, the adult actor would be able to accomplish the kind of free use of space in adult theater that is characteristic of children’s theater. For Brook, the division of these two theaters was as invalid as the separation of the two experiential worlds. In Brook’s ideal theater, the actors would be capable of passing back and forth between the two worlds for an audience equally capable of accepting that transition.

Because Brook wanted a theater in which the distinction between the everyday and imaginary worlds was blurred, he also required a special relationship between the performers and the audience. Whereas he previously looked upon the audience with an aggressive, even assaultive viewpoint, as exemplified in his 1964 production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, Brook now considered the audience as a partner in the complete experience. To aid in this interplay, Brook looked for what he called “a walking theater” wherein the audience, instead of remaining static, would move about and experience the presentation from various angles. (This was 16 years before the Royal Court’s presentation of Jim Cartwright’s Road, called a “promenade” production where the actors and the spectators occupied the same space and moved among one another. Seven years before Brook spoke of this concept, playwright John Arden wrote about a day-long event, with spectators coming and going and “rival attractions” offered in the atmosphere of a “fairground or amusement park” with “all sorts of thematically-relevant interludes” intermingled; he called this “a kind of ‘promenade theater’” in his preface to 1963’s The Workhouse Donkey. In 1967, Arden and his NYU theater students presented such an event, entitled War Carnival, in New York’s East Village.)

Furthermore, the CIRT presentations weren’t to be set down and repeated at a specific time and place on a regular schedule. In Brook’s theory of a universal theater, a piece should ideally be performed in as many different milieus as possible, appearing unannounced at irregular times in different places in order to make it available to as many diverse audiences as possible. (Today we recognize this practice as guerrilla theater, a term coined in 1965 by the San Francisco Mime Troupe.) Repetition, both in rehearsal and in performance, was the bane of art to Brook. Ideally no work should ever be obligated to a replay at all, unless in the estimation of the performers/creators, it still had something to offer. Even then, of course, the second performance must not be a mere copy of the first, but perhaps changed entirely as it went along. (In the United States, experimental director Richard Schechner took up Brook’s initiative with the Performance Group, most notably in Dionysus in 69, 1968, Makbeth, 1969, and Cops, 1978. Earlier, however, the Living Theatre had pioneered an improvisational technique in its productions such as The Connection, 1959, and The Brig, 1963. Joe Chaikin, an alumnus of the Living, followed some of its practices with the Open Theater, most noticeably in Viet-Rock, 1966, and The Serpent, 1969.)

With these ultimate goals for the theater well in mind, Brook established CIRT and created a training program to develop actors for his ideal theater. The Centre wasn’t to be a repertory theater or an acting academy, but a laboratory devoted to experimentation and research, with no particular end in mind. (This, of course, is reminiscent of the Teatr Laboratorium, which Jerzy Grotowski, one of Brook’s principal influences, founded in 1965 in Wroclaw, Poland.) Brook was quite adamant in stating that CIRT wasn’t designed to prove any preconceived beliefs or to find specific answers to specific questions. Brook was as concerned with discovering the questions as he was with answers that developed. For this reason, the Centre’s company was selected for its diversity in background and training as well as nationality. They were all young, in their middle or late twenties and early thirties; came from varying training programs; and had varying, but not vast, experience in performance. There was no common language, an important factor in Brook’s experimentation with language and communication, though French and English gradually became the lingua francas of the company. One of the most vital criteria for inclusion in the group was that each entrant must bring something to share with the others. Since there were no trainers, no teachers or instructors—Brook himself was often a participant in the experiments—the exercises were each led by one of the company who was best qualified to do so.

As important as the diversity of the parts was the cohesiveness of the whole, Brook envisioned his theater as a communal experience, and required a high degree of “ensembleness” from the company. Brook wanted a group so connected, so integrated “that a move from one creates a tremor from another; an impulse from a third, an immediate chain-reaction.” In order to be so connected with their fellows, however, Brook believed that actors had to be finely attuned to themselves first. Most of Brook’s exercises and experiments were directed toward this end. The dance, acrobatics, and singing were, on the surface, a program for training the actors’ bodies and voices. But at bottom they were designed to develop in the actors the ability to relate so organically to their own bodies that their thoughts and actions became one.

One of the areas in which Brook and the company concentrated very heavily was the use of language, speech, and sound. In order to connect more organically with language, Brook experimented with speech in various ways, searching for a method of communicating on a direct emotional or biological level, without resorting to intellect. Ultimately, he was looking, he said, for “a form of theatre which makes the same impression anywhere in the world without reference to language.” In his search for a universal dramatic communications system, Brook had his company study ancient languages such as Latin and Greek, and various modern languages such as a Malinese (African) dialect and Japanese. (In 1974, Andrei Serban, who had studied with Brook at CIRT, presented Fragments of a Greek Trilogy at La MaMa E.T.C. using similar language techniques.) The CIRT troupe studied these languages not for their linguistic properties, but their sonorous qualities. The Malinese and Japanese languages were used in native songs taught by the company members from those countries. In further linguistic exercises, the CIRT company used English, often Shakespearean lines, and repeated them at great speed or at a slowed-down pace to exaggerate the sounds that made up the words and to disassociate the meanings superimposed on them. In other instances, one word was stretched out to seven or eight seconds to explore all its sonorous aspects.

Brook’s most ambitious attempt to remove theater from the shackles of conventional language, however, was his use of invented artificial languages. The first such language used in his experiments was Bashtahondo, a language made up of syllables contributed by the members of the company, each contributing one syllable. The name of the language was the first four syllables of the new language. A large number of the company’s exercises were conducted in Bashtahondo to restrict the reliance of the actors on verbal communication. The culmination of this experimentation was the development of CIRT’s experimental piece Orghast, performed at Shiraz and Persepolis, Iran, in 1971. For this piece, which was based on a combination of Zoroastrian and Greek myths concerning the theft of fire, its worship, and the eternal warfare between father and son, Ted Hughes, CIRT’s poet-in-residence, created a new language, also called Orghast, from words and sounds culled from Sanskrit; Persian (Farsi); Greek; Latin; and Avesta, the ancient Zoroastrian ceremonial language.

Neither Orghast nor Bashtahondo were developed in an attempt to find a theatrical Esperanto, a universal language into which all CIRT pieces could be translated. It was Brook’s contention that human beings should be able to communicate with one another without regard to their mother tongues, that a form of basic, biological communication is possible based on sound which has meaning such as music or the grunts and groans by which primitive humans communicated. In dealing with English, the company was searching for “the primal impulse in the sound of a word, what informed it at its coining before it became tarnished with semantic associations . . . .”

Equally as important as CIRT’s search for a universal form of communication between performer and spectator was their work in enhancing the actors’ communication with their colleagues. Various exercises were devised to develop the members’ abilities to respond to each other organically—without the necessity of verbal communication. In one exercise toward this end, a group of actors, each representing separate parts of a particular person, including the invisible functions such as voice and subconscious, tried to create a coherent whole of the parts. This exercise was designed to develop in the individual actors the sensitivity to each other as separate parts of a unified entity, harking back to Brook’s concept of an ensemble company. In another exercise which developed the actor’s attention to implication and innuendo, one actor was being interviewed for a job and the rest of the company acted as extensions of that actor’s personality, speaking what he or she “meant” as they understood the replies to the interviewer’s questions. A third exercise used to develop an actor’s awareness of another’s movements and impulses was a mirror exercise wherein a pair of actors stood face to face and tried to duplicate the movements of each other simultaneously as if acting as a mirror for each other. Sometimes one actor would initiate the movement, sometimes the other would do so, and sometimes neither would be the initiator.

Improvisation was also used extensively by the CIRT trainees to train the actor to respond truly to the actions of other actors. These improvisations were conducted in Bashtahondo and, when the situation became confused or began to pall, Brook altered the circumstances by introducing some new element such as reversing the characters, advancing the time, speeding up the lapsed time of the action, heightening the rhythm, or adding characters. One thing they were searching for was a sort of philosopher’s stone of improvisations: a set of characters that could be rearranged into an infinite number of situations. They came up with The Difficulties of a Bridegroom about a “shy lover’s travails.”

The props used in these improvisations were as restricted as was the language. Most common among CIRT’s props were bamboo sticks, derived from their use in Japanese theater as a means of achieving “Zen calm.” The sticks were used in varying ways as extensions of the body, voice, and psyche to contact the other actors, measure an actor’s relationship to space, and elicit non-verbal responses form the other actors. Another such prop was a simple box which the actors explored in improvisations in which they were to discover the various possibilities of the box. In both cases, Brook’s idea was to require his company to expand their awareness and knowledge of simple, common objects so that the actors could approach more realistic objects on a set with enhanced sensitivity. This seems clearly to be an application of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarization process he sought.

A fourth concentration for Brook’s trainees was self-awareness. To help achieve this, CIRT borrowed an ancient Chinese martial art exercise, T’ai Chi, an exercise in which simple movements are executed very slowly and gracefully with the knees slightly bent to cause all the muscles to balance against each other. T’ai Chi was used to still the spirit in preparation for bodily awareness. For further development of such awareness, an actor was required to make a gesture, then remain still for up to a half an hour trying to recall the exact gesture. Then the actor attempted to reproduce the gesture exactly as originally made. This was a test of “muscular memory” as well as an analysis of the gesture’s meaning.

CIRT’s concentration, then, was in four major areas: communicating with the audience, relating to other actors, relating to objects, and relating to oneself. Did any of this work in practice? According to many critics, in the final analysis, it didn’t. Either communication broke down entirely, or the performers had to resort to standard verbal communication. In so far as the search for a universal language was concerned, one constant problem was that even the artificial language Orghast eventually came to depend on the environment for its meaning. The variables of the circumstances—place, space and acoustics, specific actors, and so on—had a definite effect on the language, and couldn’t be separated from it. Furthermore, Orghast was capable only of conveying feelings and emotions and couldn’t deal with abstractions. In this respect it limited the play’s creators’ ability to communicate with a sophisticated audience.

Brook’s theory that repetition brings sterility to art, though it may theoretically be valid, caused a conflict involving Brook’s biggest problem: striking a balance between freedom and form. He felt that, as it was absurd to prepare dinner party conversation beforehand, it was equally absurd to rehearse what an actor will perform on a stage. It then remains a question of how to arrive at a disciplined, quality performance when dealing solely with freedom and spontaneity. Part of the art of acting is selecting behavior; selection is obviated if there is no rehearsal.

Another difficulty in communicating with the spectators, Burt Supree of the Village Voice found, was “the feeling of a mystique operating here that oppressed me.” He went on to explain:

The company never acknowledged the existence of an audience. No contact. I suppose they were concentrating, but the utter humorlessness of the situation, the holiness and exclusiveness, made things very difficult for me. I found myself hardening my heart against what was going on and had to wrestle throughout the day to keep myself open to the company’s work. It was a constant concern.

As for performers who could adapt to new and unplanned circumstances and react as an integrated ensemble, Walter Kerr of the New York Times found the CIRT company unresponsive and stiff. At the BAM sessions, Kerr found:

When Mr. Brook suggested that the company might try dividing the performing area into Hollywood and Broadway . . . the company sat immobile for a very long time trying to think through that one. It never did. Eventually a few performers rose and made use of the same leaps and hop-steps they’d been employing all day, ‘finding’ nothing new, nothing distinctive, nothing illuminating . . . . Spontaneously, the happening didn’t happen.

Furthermore, Kerr found that these actors, presumably finely tuned and in touch with all their organic resources, couldn’t function beyond the limits expected of any run-of-the-mill performer: their “physical vocabulary” was “extraordinarily limited”:

Though the performers were constantly flirting with mime, they weren’t skilled mimes; though they had taken pains to release their bodies, they weren’t dancers, or anything like; and when it was time to enunciate simple-enough sentences, they proved not to be the trained actors either.

In the final analysis, Brook’s experiments seem to have produced only one fact: they didn’t really work. At least not for most observers, if the critics are any indication. The very fact that Brook tried is of course significant, and the results, even if they’re viewed as failures, cannot be ignored. What he seemed to have discovered in the end was that no one can entirely reconcile absolute freedom and spontaneity with discipline and form. Brook tried to have both, and ended up losing the one necessary element to all theater: the spectator’s attention and awareness. This, it would seem, was the final, and sole contribution to the world theater of Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research.

[The experimental period of CIRT ended in 1974, and Brook and his company returned to more audience-cognizant performances, changing the company’s name to the Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT – International Center for Theater Creations). After Brook directed his own version of La Tragédie de Carmen at Lincoln Center (1981), in 1985 he and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière adapted the great Indian epic The Ramayana for the stage. Brook followed that with more conventional fare, from classics like The Cherry Orchard (1981) to new works such as Woza Albert! (1989). In 2004, he presented Tierno Bokar, a stage adaptation of a biography of the Malian Sufi sage, at Columbia University. Recently (5-17 July), Brook’s staging of A Magic Flute, his rendering of Mozart’s opera, was on stage at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

[I saw
Tierno Bokar in April 2005, though I didn’t care much for it. I’ll post the report I wrote on the performance then in the next few days. Come back to ROT if you’re curious about my response to this Peter Brook production. (Among the other works mentioned here, I have posted reports on Arden’s War Carnival, 13 May 2010; the Living’s Connection, 9 July 2009; and Serban’s Fragments, 9 April 2011.)]

18 August 2011

A Helluva Town, Part 2

[Here’s the second part of my coverage of oddities, curiosities, and idiosyncrasies in the town so nice they named it twice. In this section, you’ll find some New York City sights you can actually go see, some small and endearing, others large and majestic. I start again, though, with another factoid about the city, one about which I imagine some readers may have wondered.]

Let’s get to one of the most curious facts about The City. (If you live here or anywhere nearby, New York is just “The City.” To many, that means specifically Manhattan, and some New Yorkers from the other four boroughs speak of going “to the city” when they mean Manhattan.) I’m thinking of the city’s world-renowned nickname, The Big Apple. People worldwide recognize the name, but there are lots of stories about where the moniker comes from. Many are apocryphal, and even the fact that the origin’s unknown or uncertain is no longer true. (One false account that was popularly circulated had it that the name referred to an early-19th-century New York City brothel whose madam was named Eve. The girls were “Eve’s Apples.”) There are many interesting details about the nickname, but the basic story is fairly simple. It started to show up in a column by John J. FitzGerald (1872-1952) in the New York Morning Telegraph in the 1920s; his use spread the name around the country. It was at first a term used in horseracing circles—New York was a big racing town in the early and mid-20th century, as Damon Runyon would affirm (consider “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls: “I got the horse right here”)—particularly among the African-American stable hands. The moniker meant that New York was the center of the racing business, where the crowds were large and knowledgeable and the bettors well-healed and avid. Running in the Big Apple was the horseracing equivalent of playing the Palace!

By the ‘30s, the name had been appropriated by the jazz world, who had the same relationship with New York City as the horseracing world did—it was the best place to have a gig. Heading for the Big Apple was climbing to the top of the jazz pyramid. (In 1937, a song called “The Big Apple,” recorded by Tommy Dorsey among others, became a hit.) From that usage, continuing into the ‘40s and ‘50s, the nickname spread and became permanent. In the 1970s, New York City’s official tourist and marketing bureau began promoting the city as “the Big Apple,” marking it as the semi-official name for the city, and in 1997, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani approved the designation of the southwest corner of 54th Street and Broadway, near where FitzGerald lived his last years, as “Big Apple Corner.” So, the Big Apple we are, and the Big Apple we shall ever be! Now, go buy a T-shirt.

(By the way, the town of Manhattan, Kansas, population 52,000, likes to call itself “The Little Apple.” Minneapolis, Minnesota, has apparently taken to calling itself “The Mini-Apple.” A coupla fellow-travelers, if ya ask me!)

If nothing else, the Big Apple is a city of tall buildings. To be sure, there are some small structures—the Village is still a low-rise neighborhood—and some of them have histories or other noteworthy aspects, but New York City is famous for its skyscrapers. From the Woolworth Building (opened 1913; 57 stories at 792 feet) to the Chrysler (1930; 77 stories at 925 feet) and the Empire State Buildings (1931; 102 stories at 1,250 feet) to the ill-fated World Trade Center towers (1973; 110 stories at 1,368/1,362 feet), there are many world-renowned highrises in the city. One of the city’s most beloved buildings, however, isn’t even considered especially tall by today’s standards. Across from the south end of Madison Square, on a triangle of land formed by the intersection of Broadway, 5th Avenue, and East 23rd Street, with East 22nd Street forming the southern, flat end, stands the Flatiron Building, for a few years one of the tallest buildings in the city. It was one of the first skyscrapers and the first in New York City north of 14th Street. Completed in 1902, the beaux-arts Flatiron stands only 22 stories and 285 feet tall. (The top floor, built as artists’ studios, was added after the building was completed.) Originally named the Fuller Building after its builder, George A. Fuller (“the father of the skyscraper,” 1851-1900), the nickname “Flatiron” stuck because of the unique shape: it comes to a 25-degree point at the northern end (because Broadway crosses 5th Avenue at 23rd Street at a diagonal as it runs from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side) and unquestionably resembles the household appliance for which it was nicknamed: a flatiron. The location of the building was a particularly windy spot, in part because of the building itself, blowing women's long skirts enough to show a little ankle occasionally. Girl-watchers gathered to catch a glimpse and were often shooed away by the traffic cops in the intersection, hence, supposedly, the origin of the phrase, "23 skidoo!"—the phrase the cops would shout to warn away the gawkers. True or not, it's an amusing anecdote.

The building became a New York City Landmark in 1966 and a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The area from 23rd Street south, bordered by Chelsea on the west, Greenwich Village on the south and west and the East Village and Gramercy Park on the east—a region that includes my apartment building—has now become known as the Flatiron District after about 1985 when the district shifted from mostly commercial to heavily residential. The neighborhood includes Union Square which, contrary to some popular theories, wasn’t named for the labor unions that used to surround it—the last Tammany Hall, which now houses the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theatre, is on Union Square East and 17th Street—nor the Federal Union, despite the presence of an equestrian statue of George Washington at the south end of the park and a standing statue of Abraham Lincoln near the north end, but the “union” of Broadway and Bowery Road (now 4th Avenue/Park Avenue South), two important city thoroughfares. (Union Square today, the site of occasional concerts and many political rallies for various causes, is the location four days a week of the city’s largest and most popular Greenmarket farmers’ market where I can get farm-fresh produce and other seasonal, locally grown products in the country’s biggest city more easily than I could when I lived in small-town Oneonta in the upstate dairy-farm region. Just about now, I’ll be getting the best corn, peaches, and Jersey beefsteak tomatoes anyone can find anywhere! Eat your hearts out, people!)

The intersection of Broadway/Union Square West and East 14th Street, at the southwest corner of the square, used to be known as “Dead Man’s Curve” at the turn of the 19th Century—not because of accidents between motor vehicles or between cars and people, or even horses and people, but because of frequent fatal encounters between pedestrians and the cable cars plying along Broadway as they swerved around the corner of the square. The spot today is its own little park—a large garden really—with a small statue of Mahatma Gandhi installed there in 1986.

While other famous buildings have distinctive silhouettes when seen from a distance, the Flatiron is immediately recognizable at ground level. It has become one of the most iconic sights in New York City and appears in films and on TV as a frequent symbol of the city. The building appears, for instance, in the opening montage of city images for The Late Show With David Letterman. Today the Flatiron houses offices of several publishing firms, but in 2009, an Italian real estate company bought the building and plans to convert it into a luxury hotel when all the current leases expire—no earlier than 2019.

There are many objects that have become visual symbols of New York City over the years, like some of the buildings I named above, or Times Square, the Guggenheim Museum, the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, Washington Square Arch, the Statue of Liberty, or the Brooklyn Bridge—some more familiar to New Yorkers and others to out-of-towners. One that may be more-often recognized by those who live here was originally a symbol of an international exhibition, the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The Unisphere, located in what is now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, the site of both the ’39 and the ’64 World’s Fairs, is a 12-story-high, stainless steel representation of the Earth intended to commemorate the beginning of the age of space exploration. (The theme of the fair was “Peace Through Understanding” and the Unisphere was dedicated to "Man's Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe." Three stainless steel rings circle the Unisphere, commonly believed to represent the orbits of Yuri Gagarin (1934-68), the first man in space (1961); John Glenn (b. 1921), the first American to orbit the Earth (1962); and Telstar, the first active communications satellite (1962). In truth, the original design included rings for all the satellites in orbit at the time of the fair but that wasn’t practical so the symbolic number of three was chosen for aesthetic reasons.

Designed by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke (1892-1982), the Unisphere was donated by the U. S. Steel Corporation. The world's largest globe, with a diameter of 120 feet, it stands 140 feet tall and weighs 350 tons; its base, an upside-down tripod, adds another 100 tons. The Unisphere’s built on the foundation of the Perisphere, half of the Trylon and Perisphere, the iconic symbol of the ’39 World’s Fair, which the Unisphere replaced. The Unisphere, like the Flatiron Building, has become so recognizable as a New York landmark that it figures in many films, TV shows, and videos. It is especially dramatic when floodlit at night. The ledge surrounding the Unisphere is a popular spot for skateboarders. It was officially landmarked in 1995.

One of New York City’s least-well-known holdings is probably one of the world’s most famous bears. I’m not talking about Smokey or Yogi, but Winnie-the-Pooh, the leader of A. A. Milne’s little band of animal characters, beloved of children (and not a few adults) everywhere. Few people know that the original toys, including Winnie, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger, all reside at the Children’s Center in the New York Public Library’s main building at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. (Roo, the baby kangaroo, was lost many years before the toys found a home at NYPL. They used to live at the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which housed the largest NYPL children’s collection, but that building has been demolished so the dolls moved in 2008.) You can buy replicas of Pooh, but the ones in the glass case are Christopher Robin Milne’s actual childhood playthings, starting when his father bought the bear for his first birthday in 1921. (The stuffed bear’s original name was Edward Bear; Christopher, 1920-96, changed it to Winnie-the-Pooh later.) The rest of the stuffed animals came later during the ‘20s. (The first Pooh book was published in 1926.) In 1956, the year A. A. Milne (b. 1882) died, the original toys were put on display at E. P. Dutton, Milne’s U.S. publishers, and though they made several visits back to England for promotional events over the years, they remained at the publishers until they were donated to NYPL in 1987. They’re a little ragged now, obviously well-loved and much-handled—the family dog was apparently also drawn to the dolls—but thousands of children visit them weekly in the library, which is open to all during its regular operating hours.

The library itself is a wonder, of course, with the famous lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the expansive, block-long front entrance plaza. It is the largest research library in the world that is open to the public without special arrangements or restrictions. In fact, the entire New York Public Library system, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx (Queens and Brooklyn each have their own library systems), is terrific, despite draw-downs due to budget cuts over recent years. My own branch, the Jefferson Market Library at 10th Street and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, is one of my favorite buildings. (I think it’s one of Woody Allen’s favorites, too. He featured it in Hanna and Her Sisters.) Originally a courthouse erected (with an adjacent prison which now is the site of the library's garden) during the years 1875-1877, the building was converted into the Jefferson Market Library in the early 1960s and opened for use in 1967. The red-brick building, a New York City landmark, has a wonderful clock tower that’s visible (and audible) all over the Village and lower Chelsea and houses the New York Collection of old and interesting books on the history of New York City. (Jefferson Market Courthouse was the site in 1906 of Harry K. Thaw’s trial for the murder of architect Stanford White, known as the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing case because the motive had been White’s affair with Thaw’s wife, the actress Evelyn Nesbit. The late Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa E.T.C. in the East Village, was incarcerated in the women's jail early in her New York days, and it is the setting for scenes in Melvin Van Peebles's 1971 musical play, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death.)

There are wonderful library facilities, both for their architecture and for their holdings, all over the city, but one particularly curious branch is the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library, located down a flight of stairs, just outside the turnstile entrance to the No. 6 IRT train on the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 50th Street, halfway down the entrance steps. There is no street-level sign announcing its existence and the NYPL webpage for the branch just states that it’s on “the lower level.” The NYPL website describes the library as “one of the more compact branches” in the system, though at 2,100 square feet, the Cooke library is only the second-smallest in the NYPL system--the 700-square-foot Macombs Bridge Library in Harlem is the smallest of all 90 branches. Closed on Saturdays and Sundays, the Cooke branch is a full-service library, however, substituting laptop computers for desktops because of space but offering all the services of larger branches to both local residents and regular subway commuters (plus a little traveler and tourist assistance to confused drop-ins).

Perhaps a more well-known sight in Manhattan stands outside the front entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (42nd Street and 8th Avenue). An eight-foot bronze statue of Jackie Gleason in his Honeymooner's bus driver's uniform, his lunchbox in his hand, looks out over the passers-by. Commissioned by the cable network TV Land, the Kramden statue is only one of three public statues I can think of that depict an actor in a role he made world-famous like that. The others are the statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards throwing her beret in the air in downtown Minneapolis. (There’s a famous statue of 19th-century actor Edwin Booth, elder brother of John Wilkes, as Hamlet in Gramercy Park—but Booth hardly made that role famous; rather, his portrayal of the Prince of Denmark made Booth famous. He was the first American-born actor to achieve an international reputation—and he essentially invented the character of Hamlet the way we think of him today: the melancholy, morose, black-clad brooder.)

You may not consider statues of Gleason or Booth as art, but they are part of the public-art landscape of New York City, arguably one of the most diverse and extensive in the country if not the world. Even New York’s subway system, the largest in the world and the only one to operate 24/7 for 365 days a year, has art. Along with the musical performers, there are works of visual art in the stations as well. There are small, almost inconspicuous pieces by nearly anonymous artists around the system, and some large pieces by significant American artists, too. There are mosaics on the walls of many recently renovated stations like the performing arts images at Lincoln Center on the 7th Avenue IRT (Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers by Nancy Spero, 2004) and the Alice in Wonderland figures at 50th Street on the same route (Alice: The Way Out by Liliana Porter, 1994). Then there’s the Jacob Lawrence glass mosaic (New York in Transit, 2001), his last commission before his death, and the Roy Lichtenstein panels (Times Square Mural, 1994) in the Times Square station at 7th Avenue and 42nd Street; the Maya Lin clock sculpture (Eclipsed Time, 1994) on the ceiling of Penn Station; the Sam Gilliam sculpture (Jamaica Center Station Riders, Blue, 1991) at Jamaica Center/Parsons-Archer in Queens; and the Romare Bearden stained-glass triptych (City of Light, 1993) at Westchester Square/East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. I’ve already written an article for ROT (27 April 2011) on the imaginative bronze sculpture installation by Tom Otterness, Life Underground (2000), all over the 8th Avenue/14th Street station, and across town on the L line at Union Square/14th Street, artist Mary Miss created Framing Union Square (1998), stand-alone panels made out of the original architectural elements, including six "14" eagles, that had been elements of the 1904 station, salvaged from the renovation of the station complex, one of the largest and once the most confusing in the system. Additionally there are red frames in the station walls at 115 locations highlighting a fragment of the station's initial construction such as old mosaics, rivets, steelwork, and wiring. At the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue station on the BMT line in Brooklyn, famed theater director Robert Wilson, also a sculptor, has My Coney Island Baby (2004), a glass-brick wall featuring silk-screened images of the characters and entertainments of the historic Coney Island amusement parks. At Herald Square, located along the platforms of the BMT Broadway line at the 34th Street station on the BMT and IND lines, is REACH New York, An Urban Musical Instrument (1996) by Christopher Janney. This piece consists of a rack of sensors hanging along the length of each platform. Waving your hand in front of a sensor creates a corresponding sound from the rack—on the opposite platforms where passengers can respond by using the instrument. In addition to these and other visual art works are some occasional examples of different kinds of art—if you look out for them—like the Burma Shave-like poem, Commuter's Lament, or A Close Shave (1991) by Norman B. Colp, mounted on the ceiling of the corridor that connects the 7th Avenue subway station at Times Square with the 8th Avenue station and the P. A. Bus Terminal. The verse—"Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again"—is partly hidden among the ceiling beams until you actually come upon each line (and you’re looking up).

Not all the art in subway stations is sanctioned. Keith Haring (1958-90) became famous as a graffiti artist by chalking his dancing stick figures on the black panels of unused advertising spaces in stations all over Manhattan. Occasionally, the guerrilla art in the subways is more complex and difficult than that. In the fall of 2010, for instance, a group of 103 international street artists, many of them well-known in the world of street art, created or installed works in an abandoned subway tunnel, the exact location of which was kept closely guarded (because what they were doing was illegal). Almost no one aside from the artists saw the installation, known as the Underbelly Project, and it closed the night it opened. One New York Times reporter was invited, on the condition that he not reveal any details that would locate the exhibit, to tour the improvised underground gallery. (A London Sunday Times Magazine writer was also invited.) The artists were identified only by their street-art monikers. Two artists, known only as Workhouse and PAC, organized the show after Workhouse had been shown the space by an urban spelunker. Because the only way to enter the unfinished station was to jump off the platform of a functioning one and run along the tracks, the artists had to be careful about how often and when they accessed the space, so they restricted contributors to only one four-hour visit and they had to bring all the necessary materials with them—there would be no running out for resupply: if an artist ran out, improvisation was the only remedy. Lighting was provided by battery-powered camp lanterns, which had to be dowsed if MTA workers were detected on nearby tracks. In November 2010, police arrested 20 people for trying to get into the guerrilla gallery after its existence had been revealed. While neither the originators of the exhibit nor the police specified the location of the clandestine art site, accounts pointed to an abandoned 1930s station built above the Broadway IND stop on the G line, near South 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Though the exhibit has been abandoned by the artists, New York Transit officials said they had no plans to dismantle it (principally for budget reasons, I gather), but vandals and souvenir-seekers had begun to take away or destroy the art, not to mention the dampness and other environmental forces below ground.

Another asset of the MTA in New York City is the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. Like the subway itself, the museum is underground! Located in a historic 1936 IND subway station in Brooklyn Heights, it features 19 restored subway cars and other exhibits. (The Transit Museum also operates an annex in Grand Central Terminal.) But that’s just one of the unusual museums in the city. Along with our many world-class art collections, New York City has several . . . shall we say “idiosyncratic” museums. In that last category is a new museum that’s still in the planning stages: the Museum of Mathematics (the subject of a recent ROT post on 31 July); to be known as MoMath, its address will be 11 E. 26th Street when it opens in 2012. Nearby, ironically, is the Museum of Sex—which, while it’s just what you think, is a serious, not to say scholarly, endeavor. (Not for the kids, however, unless you’re especially progressive in your child-rearing.) Located at 233 Fifth Avenue, near 27th Strreet (a few blocks north of Madison Square), MoSex is the brainchild of NYC businessman Daniel Gluck and self-styled artist Alison Maddex. Described as "a sacred place to study" by Maddex and as "high brow" by Gluck, the museum opened in 2002.

At another museum, the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (where the Unisphere is), is one of the neatest sights in New York City: the Panorama of the City of New York. (QMA occupies the former New York City Pavilion of both the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.) Billed as the world's largest scale model, the Panorama covers 9,335 square feet and recreates in miniature 895,000 New York City buildings—every building constructed in all five boroughs before 1992, built to a scale of one inch to 100 feet. Updated in 2005, it took 100 craftsmen more than three years to construct, timing the completion for the opening of the 1964 fair. (Originally, visitors viewed the Panorama from small cars running on tracks above the model, simulating a helicopter tour.) The model, conceived by New York City master builder Robert Moses (1888-1981), is filled with little details, like the miniature Roosevelt Island tram going across the East River just north of the Queensboro Bridge (recently renamed in honor of former mayor Ed Koch). There are also tiny airplanes at LaGuardia Airport that take off and land on wires!

Returning to the subject of sex—well, sort of—how many cities can boast a famous Naked Cowboy? I’m tempted to say, ‘Only in New York.’ Robert John Burck (b. 1970), AKA: The Naked Cowboy, is actually from Cincinnati and first started his busking routine in Venice Beach, California, in 1997, but he’s a New Yorker now! He came here in 1999 and started hanging out in Times Square, all year ‘round in snow and rain and bright sunshine, dressed only in a white cowboy hat, white cowboy boots, and tighty-whitey briefs—with a guitar slung strategically in front to cover not his near-nakedness, but to perpetuate the illusion of nudity. (Okay, so he’s not actually naked. You gonna sue?) Burck’s trademarked his “stage” name—he’s sued over infringements of his trademark—which he has it inscribed on his briefs across his glutes. He’s even franchised his gig—for $5,000 a year! (You can buy Naked Cowboy merch on his website.) Burck’s principal occupation is pursuing world-wide fame, toward which end he will appear at weddings—as of 2008, he can even perform your marriage in New York State—and has made appearances in commercials; in music videos; in Austin, Nashville, in his hometown of Cincy, and at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He’s such a fixture that tour-bus guides point him out and he claims to make as much as $1,000 in tips a day. Burck’s recorded country albums (including an upcoming X-rated one) and, just to mix things up, ran for mayor of New York City in 2009 (that’s the race when Bloomberg won his third term), announcing in July 2009: "No one knows how to do more with less than yours truly.” He withdrew in September, but last October, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States as a Tea Partier. For his presidential declaration, Burck cut his shoulder-length dark blond hair and wore a suit for the press conference. According to his own bio, the New York State tourist bureau had declared him "more recognizable than The Statue of Liberty" and he had by 2007 “officially became the most photographed person in the world.” Who knows? Could be true.

Since ROT is supposed to be a theater blog, I’ll end with a little theater fact. New York City, of course, is the theater capital of the United States and, arguably, the world. (Almost every actor and company wants to play here; nearly every playwright wants the cachet of having his work produced here. Further, we see more of the world’s great theater, from London to Johannesburg to Tokyo, than any other single city I can think of.) Many of New York’s theaters and performance spaces have gained international renown and have colorful histories that are fun to learn. I want to consider one historic theater that’s more out of the way than most you might think of: the BAM Harvey. Located on Fulton Street in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, near its now-parent institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Lafayette Street, the Harvey is the last of Brooklyn’s legit playhouses. BAM, as it’s universally known, began in 1861, the oldest performing arts center in the U.S., and opened in its current location, in a huge beaux-arts building, now called the Peter Jay Sharp Building, that houses the Howard Gilman Opera House and other BAM facilities, in 1908. The impresario Harvey Lichtenstein (whose brother was the artist Roy Lichtenstein, 1923-97) was named president of the organization in 1967 and remained until 1999. During Lichtenstein’s tenure, BAM became the site of many international performances by the famous and the not-so-famous from around the world, including Ingmar Bergman’s Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, Philip Glass, and the Moscow Art Theater, as well as companies from around the U.S. and North America. The stunning Next Wave Festival, which presents two seasons a year of music, dance, opera, and theater from all over the globe, began in 1983 (two years after being introduced as a series).

The Harvey, renamed for Lichtenstein (b. 1929) in 1999, was opened as the Majestic Theatre in 1904 (with a staging of The Wizard of Oz), one of the many legit theaters outside Manhattan—Brooklyn had quite a number then—where shows played before moving to Broadway, after playing there, or were revived in star-led productions. Along with its classics, musicals, and contemporary plays, the Majestic soon began presenting vaudeville revues to which was eventually added the novelty of the age, moving pictures. In the 1930s, the WPA theater program presented many productions there. In 1942, the Majestic was converted into a movie theater until it was closed in 1968 and essentially abandoned to deteriorate. In 1987, BAM purchased the 874-seat Majestic as the venue for Peter Brook’s 9-hour adaptation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. According to Brook’s wishes, the theater was renovated and cleaned up, but left intentionally distressed, a “modern ruin,” in reflection of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the home theater of the Centre International de Créations Théâtrales, Brook’s Paris-based company. After The Mahabharata played there during the 1987 Next Wave Festival, the theater remained in its deliberately ruined state, winning the Architectural Theater Award in 1988. With its crumbling columns and water-stained ceilings, the distressed interior of the Harvey, as it’s now known, lends a unique element to every performance on its circular stage, resembling an old Greco-Roman amphitheater as reconceived during the Renaissance and then left to go to seed.

[When I’ve been working outside New York City, I often get the same question from colleagues, students, and parents: Isn’t New York a dangerous place to live. (This was especially common in the bad ol’ ‘70s.) Of course, there’s crime in New York City, but I’ve always maintained that its reputation as a hazardous place is unearned; the impression outsiders get is probably because of the spotlight that’s always on New York and the fact that as the country’s largest metropolis, there’s more of pretty much everything here than anywhere else. There aren’t actually more crimes committed in New York City per capita than in, say, San Francisco, or even Springfield, Illinois—but because there are dozens of times more people here than there, it seems as if you’re more likely to be a victim here. In fact, FBI statistic show that the Big Apple is the safest big city in the U.S. by a large margin. I’ve lived in New York for over 35 years and I’ve been out and about at all hours of the day and night, in all parts of the city, on foot and on the subway—and I’ve not only never been the victim of a crime, I’ve never even witnessed one. Bad ol’ New York is a myth.

[The other common question I get when I’m away from home is whether I miss New York. Of course, I do, and I always explain that I mostly miss my own surroundings, like my apartment and my kitchen—just like anyone else away from home. But I also explain that when I’m in another town for any time, I do miss some specific New York amenities: I miss the great selection of theater fare and restaurants, of course, and the museums and I miss the special resources I rely on like the New York Public Library, especially the Library for the Performing Arts. Most of all, I think, I miss the neighborhood restaurants of nearly every kind of cuisine that are all in walking distance and which almost all deliver or do carry-out when I don’t feel like cooking for myself. No other city I’ve ever visited offers that convenience and I sometimes wonder how I’d ever live without it!

[New York City’s unquestionably a curious place. It’s part of the imaginary landscape of many people who don’t live here and perhaps haven’t even ever visited. It’s the setting of countless TV shows and movies and not a few plays—and has been for decades, even centuries now. Vilified by some and beloved by others, New York City has a symbolic existence quite outside the quotidian life of its eight million residents and two million daily visitors. One statistic I’ve never been able to verify is whether, as I believe, there have been more songs written about New York (not even counting “The Big Apple”) than about any other city in the world. I wonder if anybody knows?]

15 August 2011

A Helluva Town, Part 1

[Years ago, when I was expecting a friend from Virginia to stay in my Manhattan apartment while I was away, I started to compile a little instruction booklet for her to use to find her way around, first, the apartment and my building, then the local neighborhoods. I expanded “Rick’s Guide to New York City” little by little to include bits of info about the city beyond my cruising range, and part of what I included was a sort of list of oddities and unexpected factoids about New York City, concentrating on Manhattan. New York, as I’m sure most people know, is immense, with 8 million inhabitants (“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”) over 305 square miles. (There are as many as 10 million people in the city at any given time. Los Angeles, by contrast, has under 4 million inhabitants in 468 square miles.) The NYPD, the largest police force in the United States, consists of 35,000 officers (not counting auxiliary officers and School Safety Agents), the equivalent to as many as 3½ army divisions. The New York City school system, also the largest in the country, educates (no cracks!) 1.1 million students, the population of Dallas.

[New York’s also fairly old for a U.S. city, 387 years, so it has peculiarities and characteristics that many who don’t live here, and even many who do, don’t know about. Since I know that there are readers of
ROT who aren’t New Yorkers and who haven’t spent time here, I thought it’d be fun to publish part of my personal little “Guide to New York City” for those who’re curious about the Big Apple.]

"The Bronx is up and the Battery's down." That's true, but Brooklyn is also "down" and Queens is sort of “up” (it’s really “over”). New York City really doesn't exist. The five boroughs are actually quite separate, both physically and emotionally. Everyone knows that Manhattan is an island, for instance, and some people even know that Staten Island is part of New York City (although it's nearer New Jersey and even voted to secede in 1993). But New York City is actually three main islands (and many smaller ones such as Roosevelt, City, and Governor's). Beside Manhattan and Staten Islands, Brooklyn and Queens are actually on Long Island. Only the Bronx is on the mainland.

There are about 30 additional islands that are part of the City of New York, though not all of them are inhabited or even accessible. Some form separate communities with their own characters, like City Island off the Bronx, and others are city neighborhoods, like Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell’s Island and then Welfare Island), accessible by the Roosevelt Island Tramway, a cable car over the East River. (The tram opened in 1976 and was the only commuter tramway in North America until 1984. A ride across to Roosevelt Island costs the same as a subway or bus ride, currently $2.25, and the fare is paid with the MTA’s electronic MetroCard. The famous Staten Island Ferry, by the way, has been free since 1997.) Other well-known islands are tourist sites, like Ellis Island and Liberty Island (home of the Statue of Liberty, of course), or parkland, like Governor’s Island, formerly a military installation that’s become open to the public since 2003. The famous Coney Island, with its beach, boardwalk, and amusement park, is no longer an actual island as it was connected to Brooklyn by landfill in the 1930s.

The five boroughs of New York City are also counties: New York (Manhattan), Bronx, Queens, Kings (Brooklyn), and Richmond (Staten Island); it’s the only U.S. city so (dis)organized, I believe. Brooklyn was a separate city (and still claims to be the fourth largest city in the U.S.) until the 1890s, after the Brooklyn Bridge was built (1883) to connect it to Manhattan. (Many Brooklynites are still miffed about this betrayal.) Greater New York, comprising the annexed Richmond, Kings, Queens, and Bronx Counties, wasn’t formed until 1898.

Note that the storied Dodgers of baseball were never the "New York Dodgers" but always the Brooklyn Dodgers (until Walter O’Malley moved them to L.A. after the last game at Ebbets Field in 1957). The Yankees, you'll notice, are never called the "Bronx Yankees"—though they are known as the Bronx Bombers occasionally. The Dodgers, of course, were just "The Bums"—or "Dem Bums" if you spoke the local dialect. (The hapless Mets, just to complete the trilogy, play in Queens, formerly at Shea Stadium and, since 2009, at Citi Field.) The New York Giants and the New York Jets football teams both play in New Jersey. In retaliation, the New Jersey Nets basketball team, which played in New York until 1976, is planning to relocate to Brooklyn once a new stadium is completed there in 2012. (Ironically, the site of the new stadium, the Barclay Center, is near the site where Walter O’Malley had wanted to build a new Dodgers stadium, the rejection of which led to the move to L.A.) That will mean that there’s a major league sports team in four of the five boroughs, with the basketball Knicks and the hockey Rangers both playing at Madison Square Garden (which, for the uninitiated, isn’t in or even near Madison Square) in Manhattan. (There’s a minor league baseball team on Staten Island, the Staten Island Yankees. The Mets-affiliated Brooklyn Cyclones, another Class A baseball team, play on Coney Island.)

The city’s odd political divisions make things even more peculiar. There are three different levels of political activity in New York City, aside from the federal and state politics that are part of the city’s life. First, obviously, are the city-wide politics. The city as a political entity elects the mayor, the executive, and each city council district elects a councilperson to represent it in the city legislature. We also elect a Public Advocate, a sort of balance to the mayor, as well as a City Comptroller, our treasurer. The Public Advocate is a kind of ombudsman though the office has little actual executive authority. The Public Advocate is first in line of succession to the mayor’s office if something should happen to the incumbent.

The next layer is the boroughs, and this is where things start to get complicated in comparison to other cities. The boroughs used to have much more power because the borough presidents (known as the BP, or sometimes the Beep) appointed members to several powerful boards, but the city government was reorganized by court order in 1990 and the borough presidents were relegated to little more than figureheads whose main jobs are boosting their boroughs for tourism and development. Many borough presidents have run for mayor and several have been elected.

Finally, since each borough is also a county, there are county politics. While the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, city council members, and borough presidents are all city positions, subject to city regulations and laws such as term limits, county posts are under state jurisdiction and are not subject to the same rules. The five district attorneys, for instance, are county positions. That’s why the recently retired Robert Morgenthau could serve as DA of New York County—he was often called the Manhattan DA, but that’s just common usage and actually incorrect—from 1975 to 2010, even though all other New York City officials were subject to a two-term limit after 1993. (Mayor Bloomberg forced a one-time extension of the limit before the last election in 2009 so he could run for a third term, which he did and won.) After Morgenthau retired, the two longest-serving New York City DA’s have been Charles Hynes of Kings County (Brooklyn) and Robert Johnson of Bronx County, both since 1989. (There was a really old Law & Order episode that used this little-known fact as a plot twist. The DA promised a suspect/witness that he wouldn't be prosecuted in New York County if he testified. His lawyer signed off on the deal, obviously figuring that New York County was the whole city, but after the court session, the witness was arrested. When the lawyer protested, the DA pointed out that the arrest was for Kings County—Brooklyn—not New York County—Manhattan.) Each county also has its own branch of the New York Supreme Court (the trial court in New York State) and New York State trial judges are elected (to 14-year terms), but the DA’s are the only elective county offices of any stature as there are no executive or legislative positions in the five New York City counties.

Some of the borough names have curious origins. Many New Yorkers know the lame joke about the visitor who asks, “What’s a Bronk,” for instance. The Bronx, which isn’t plural despite its sound, got its name from a Swedish settler in the Dutch colony of New Netherland, Jonas Bronck (1600-43), whose land was along the river that came to be known as Bronck’s River. The name Brooklyn is of Dutch origin, derived from the Dutch town of Breuckelen in the province of Utrecht. Staten Island, directly from the archaic Dutch name Staaten Eylandt, means State Island, named in honor of the Dutch parliament, the Staten-Generaal. Manhattan is probably the simplest (aside from Queens, of course) because its name comes from the transcription by one of Henry Hudson’s officers of the name he heard the native Indians, the Lenape, use: Manna-hata. It’s supposed to mean “island of many hills.”

There are also several rivers, aside from the famous Hudson to the west, separating Manhattan from New Jersey. There are the Bronx River and the Harlem River, both in the north. (The Bronx River, the one named for the Swedish settler, is the only one that’s entirely fresh water.) The East River, in reality, isn't a river at all. It's actually an arm of the ocean, is salt water, and has tides like the harbor. Because it's narrowed by Manhattan Island on the west and Long Island on the east, connecting New York Bay with the Long Island Sound, it looks like a river.

When New York City was consolidated in 1898, it obviously incorporated towns and villages that had been separate communities in the counties of Bronx, Queens, and Richmond. (By the time of the consolidation, Kings County was pretty much coterminous with the city of Brooklyn, but in the 17th century, Breuckelen was just one of six Dutch towns at the western tip of Long Island.) Many of those villages are still more like suburban towns than city neighborhoods, though others have been absorbed into the metropolis. In Manhattan, however, there are two neighborhoods that used to be separate villages—centuries ago, to be sure—and though the city around them has grown right up to their former borders and pulled them into the big city, they still retain much of the flavor and character of the villages they used to be before New York City became a megalopolis.

The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, annexed to New York City in 1873, began as a Dutch village named for the town of Haarlem in the province of North Holland. New Haarlem, as it was originally called, was founded in 1658. (Jonas Bronck, who gave his name to the river, county, and then borough now known as the Bronx, was one of the original settlers in 1639.) When the British conquered the colony of New Amsterdam in 1664, anglicizing the Dutch names in use in the former New Netherland, the village at the northern tip of the island became Harlem. The site of a Revolutionary War clash (the Battle of Harlem Heights, 6 September 1776), Harlem was mostly farmland until the mid-19th century; for most of that century, Harlem was known as the site of elegant living. Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, had an estate in Harlem. The rest of New York City still concentrated at the southern end of the island, terminating at about what is now Washington Square, the territory between the city and Harlem was either wilderness or outlying farms until quite late in the city’s history. Travel between the two ends of Manhattan was effected by boat up the Hudson, an hour-and-a-half trip in the days of steam. When the river was iced over in winter, the stage coach served as an alternative. The New York and Harlem Railroad, which became Metro North, was inaugurated in 1831. In the middle of the 19th century, when the land became over-farmed, the area became blighted and property values dropped as residents abandoned Harlem. When the elevated rail line was introduced in 1880, Harlem’s fortunes picked up again, however. Over-construction and a delay in extending the subway service to Harlem reversed the trend to elegance, wealth, and culture in Harlem by the end of the century and low real estate prices attracted new immigrants, mostly East Europeans. Harlem was becoming a center of African-American life and culture as the black population grew starting in the 1880s, increasing to a flood in 1904 because of another drop in property prices and rising racial exclusion in the rest of the city. By the 1920s, fueled in large part by the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South and the search by northern industries for factory workers as the World War I draft took so many of the traditional laborers, working-class whites, into the military, the percentage of Harlem‘s black population increased rapidly, giving rise ultimately to the Harlem Renaissance in art, music, and literature. Since then, the neighborhood’s fortunes have risen and fallen with the cultural trends that effected America’s black population and the economy in general.

The other separate town that became absorbed into New York City is still known as a village—in fact, “The Village.” That’s Greenwich Village, of course, which in the 16th century was an Indian tobacco field along the Hudson in lower Manhattan a few miles above the original New Amsterdam colony. In the 1630s, the Dutch turned it into a pasture which they named Noortwyck, largely used again to cultivate tobacco. After the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664, the British formed a separate settlement from the main colony to the south and renamed it Greenwich Village, which was first established as a village in 1712. Breakouts of yellow fever in the city in the 1820s and smallpox in the 1830s forced many to flee to the fresher air of Greenwich Village and there was a housing boom in the hamlet in the 1830s. The elegant homes around Washington Square, which had been a potter’s field in the 18th century, were built around 1832 and established the Village as a center of fashion and gentility (as celebrated in Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square and the 1947 stage adaptation, The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz). In the early 20th century, the Village became the New York center of progressivism, the avant garde, bohemianism, and even radicalism in politics and the arts. The little theater movement, which grew into the regional theater movement across the country and the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements in New York City, was initiated with the births of the Provincetown Players (1915 on Cape Cod; 1916 in New York) and the Washington Square Players (1916). By the 1950s, Greenwich Village was the New York seat of the Beat Generation and a decade later the base of New York’s hippies. Jazz clubs, coffeehouses, rock clubs, and other venues sprang up all over Greenwich Village and its offspring, the East Village, all through the second half of the 20th century. Artists and writers flocked to the neighborhood until the real estate costs grew too high for them to afford, and there was always a veneer of upper-class bohemianism in the Village. It became the center of New York City’s gay community in the ‘60s—the famous Christopher Street is one of the Village’s main commercial thoroughfares; the site of the Stonewall Riot which launched the gay rights movement in 1969, the Stonewall Inn, is in Greenwich Village. Today, the gay community has moved uptown to Chelsea for the most part and the artists’ studios and galleries moved first downtown to SoHo and, when that got too expensive, to Chelsea also. The Village is still a center of theaters, restaurants, and boutiques, and it’s always a pleasant, interesting, and fun place just to amble, with many small residential streets that even now feel much like the small hamlet Greenwich Village once was, with old brownstones and trees lining the narrow, picturesque lanes.

Have you ever heard of Señor Wences Way? Would you know where Minnelli Way (as in Liza with a Z) is? If you mailed a letter to Leonard Bernstein Place or Joe DiMaggio Highway, would the post office deliver it? If you never heard of any of these New York streets, don’t feel embarrassed—most New Yorkers wouldn’t be familiar with them, either. They’re honorary names for parts of regular streets in the city, often temporary but sometimes permanent—though always only symbolic, so the USPS (the folks who deliver snail mail) doesn’t recognize them and taxi drivers can’t find them on any map. I think there are some other cities that do honorary street renaming, Chicago for instance, and they probably all do it similarly to New York City, but I’d guess we have more of them, for more people, organizations, and events than any other town in the U.S. Some commemorate people who truly deserve to be honored for their accomplishments, some are obviously politically motivated, and some are just plain silly (or, perhaps worse, commercial). The City Council approves honorary names, but it’s pretty much pro forma after the local Community Board recommends them; some CB’s are easy on approvals, others don’t seem to like the idea at all. (The widow of Jerry Orbach, the actor beloved as NYPD detective Lenny Briscoe on Law & Order but who had a long career on the stage, including four Tony noms, before that gig, wanted to get the corner of 53rd and 8th Avenue, near where they lived for a quarter of a century, renamed in the actor’s honor. The local CB, however, routinely rejects all such requests and played true to form this time, too. So Elaine Orbach went to the neighboring CB, which oversees the opposite corner of the same intersection, and she succeeded in getting Jerry Orbach Way approved. Location, location, location!)

All these honorary street names have two street signs, one with the regular, permanent name (for example, 7th Avenue) and one for the honorary name (some of which are also permanent, but still not official as far as the post office is concerned, like Fashion Avenue, as 7th Avenue is designated between 34th and 39th Streets in Manhattan because that’s the main drag of the Fashion District, the center of the women’s clothing industry here). Permanent honorary street names have green signs just like the regular signage; temporary signs are blue and remain for several weeks or several months; brown signs mark a historic name, often an old one from when New York City was still forming. A few double names are both accepted and recognized by the post office and city maps and so on, such as 6th Avenue/Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan or Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard above 110th Street in Harlem. Other official second names are not accepted by USPS but are nevertheless recognized by everyone who lives in or knows the city, such as the blocks in Midtown Manhattan between 9th and 10th Avenues on 42nd Street and 8th and 9th Avenues on 46th Street which are universally known (and signed) as Theatre Row and Restaurant Row respectively.

Some honorary street renamings have been for commemorative purposes such as the scores of honorary signs that went up all over the five boroughs to acknowledge the police officers and firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on September 11. Others remember historical figures, such as Harriet Ross Tubman Avenue in Brooklyn or Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Corner in Manhattan. There are even honorary names that commemorate events, sometimes for political reasons, such as the renaming of the intersection of 12th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan as Tiananmen Square Corner in remembrance of those who died there in 1989. Even organizations can get a street name: The Order of the Sons of Italy Way in Manhattan and Sisters of St. Joseph Boulevard in Brooklyn. This doesn’t preclude the use of the renaming process for commercial or promotional purposes: Hammacher Schlemmer Way, MTV Music Awards Street, Bike to Work Week Boulevard, and the intersection of Beauty Way and Beast Avenue, usually known as 47th Street and Seventh Avenue (right near the Palace Theatre, where Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opened).

Some more oddities of New York’s grid:

  • 3rd Avenue, below Astor Place, is the Bowery (from the old Dutch word for ‘farm’), famous for bums and derelicts.
  • Lexington Avenue starts at 21st Street (Gramercy Park) and continues north. Between 14th Street and 20th Street there’s a charming little street called Irving Place (named after Washington Irving in 1833) where Lex should be. (In Herb Gardner's play A Thousand Clowns, he mentions "14th and Lex," an intersection that doesn't actually exist.) Irving is said to have actually lived on Irving Place for a while (probably before it was named for him), at 122 E. 17th Street, also known as 49 Irving Place, on the southwest corner of 17th and Irving.
  • 4th Avenue exists only from 14th Street south to Astor Place (ca. 8th Street). Below Astor Place it's Lafayette Street (location of the famous Joseph Papp Public Theater). Along the Square, it's Union Square East, but between 17th and 34th Streets, it’s Park Avenue South. It used to be 4th Avenue, and the house numbers still act as if it were. Above 34th Street, it’s Park Avenue, with a new numbering system starting at 34th Street (1 Park Avenue).
  • Everybody in New York City talks about 6th Avenue, except the post office and the street signs. They persist in calling it "Avenue of the Americas" (to which the street’s name was changed in 1947). No one uses that, not even the subways and busses—but you'd better know it, or you'll get lost. Ed Koch, when he was mayor, wisely had the street marked with both names. Below Canal Street, 6th Avenue merges with and becomes Church Street.
  • 7th Avenue below 14th Street is 7th Avenue South. Below W. Houston Street, it becomes Varick Street.
  • At Abingdon Square in the West Village, 8th Avenue merges with Hudson Street.

On the Upper West Side, at 59th Street, several changes take place:

  • 59th Street itself is called Central Park South (CPS) between 5th Avenue and Central Park West as it runs along the southern border of Central Park.
  • 8th Avenue becomes Central Park West (CPW); above 110th Street (also known as Cathedral Parkway), it becomes 8th Avenue again or Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
  • 9th Avenue becomes Columbus Avenue; above 110th Street, it becomes Morningside Drive.
  • 10th Avenue becomes Amsterdam Avenue.
  • 11th Avenue becomes West End Avenue (WEA).

110th Street is called Central Park North (CPN) as it runs along the northern border of Central Park; it’s also called Cathedral Parkway elsewhere because the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, is located along it. 6th Avenue ends at CPS, of course. When it starts up again above Central Park at 110th Street/Cathedral Parkway, it’s renamed Malcolm X Boulevard. It’s also known as Lenox Avenue and bears signs for both names. 7th Avenue behaves much the same way, continuing above 110th Street as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.

Travelers have to be careful, especially in the Village: there are both a Washington Place (southern edge of Washington Square) and a Washington Street (far west in the Village, parallel to the Hudson), not to mention Washington Mews (a private street north of Washington Square, property of NYU). There are also a Greenwich Street (one block east of Washington Street) and a Greenwich Avenue (running from 9th Street and 6th Ave. to 14th Street and 8th Ave.). There is Broadway and also West Broadway (running from Canal Street to Washington Square; its last block, near NYU, is called LaGuardia Place) and East Broadway (on the Lower East Side). There is MacDougal Street and MacDougal Alley (both near Washington Square), Minetta Street and Minetta Lane (both near 6th Avenue south of Washington Square) and Jones Street (West Village) and Great Jones Street (East Village). Along with Park Avenue, there's also Park Row (near City Hall), Park Place, and Park Street (near Ground Zero, the former WTC site); there are also both a Madison Avenue and a Madison Street (Lower East Side). There’s also both W. 12th Street and Little W. 12th Street (in the West Village meat-packing district). This isn’t even counting the name duplications between one borough and another, such as 5th Avenues in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Fulton Street in Manhattan is downtown near City Hall, but Fulton Street in Brooklyn, which is mostly a pedestrian shopping mall now, is in Fort Greene, not far from the Brooklyn Academy of Music; there are subway stops (on different lines) in both areas with identical names.

  • Broadway cuts across Manhattan on a diagonal, starting in the Financial District, running up the Lower East Side, crossing 14th Street at 4th/Park Avenue creating Union Square. At 23rd Street, it crosses 5th Avenue and makes Madison Square. At 6th Avenue and 34th Street, the intersection of Broadway creates Herald Square. When it meets 7th Avenue at 42nd Street, Times Square is formed. (Father Duffy Square—recently dubbed "Actors' Square"—with the statue of George M. Cohan and the TDF TKTS booth, is the north end of Times Square.) At 59th Street and 8th Avenue/CPW, Columbus Circle is formed (the only traffic circle in Manhattan).
  • On the Upper East Side, at 53rd Street, east of 1st Avenue, Sutton Place replaces Avenue A. This is not a name-change, since the three lettered avenues end at 14th Street because the East River cuts into the land. At 60th Street, Sutton Place (New York's highest rent street) becomes York Avenue.
  • Madison Avenue starts at 26th Street (Madison Square, where Madison Square Garden was first built; it has moved twice to get to its current site).
  • Riverside Drive (RSD – lovely old mansions and once-elegant apartment houses overlooking the Hudson River) starts at W. 72nd Street and meanders along the river (and Riverside Park) on the far West Side.
  • South of 8th Street (Greenwich Village, SoHo) and north of 110th Street (Harlem, Ft. Washington, Morningside Heights), things get very screwed up. You need a map or a native guide!
  • W. 4th Street is a weird little street. Though numbered like the others, it is not straight and actually intersects with 10th through 13th Streets in the West Village. It is still called West 4th Street as far east as Broadway in the East Village, when it finally straightens out and becomes E. 4th Street, and fits neatly between E. 3rd and E. 5th Streets. It also becomes Washington Place when it forms the southern boundary of Washington Square Park. You go figure it out. W. 3rd Street is very similar to W. 4th. In both cases, the house numbers are as unruly as the street itself. Be careful looking for addresses on these two Village streets. Or the streets themselves, for that matter.
  • There are no numbered streets below 8th Street on the West Side (except the above-mentioned W. 3rd and W. 4th Streets): 1st through 7th Streets only exist east of the Bowery in the East Village.
  • 8th Street between 3rd Avenue and Avenue A is known as St. Mark’s Place (in honor of nearby St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, where Peter Stuyvesant is buried).
  • The intersection of, say, W. 4th Street and W. 10th Street is a peculiarity of the Village. But more peculiar even than that is the intersection of Waverly Place and Waverly Place. It happens at the Northern Dispensary near Sheridan Square, and—I would venture to say—nowhere else in the world. Now that's Greenwich Village!
  • In Harlem, there are intersections of 125th Street with 130th, 126th, and 127th Streets.

With all those streets, it’s no wonder that New York is a city of parades. I suspect New York City has more parades than anywhere else in the world; I can’t prove it, and maybe Moscow in the days of the Soviet Union, where they loved a military display, could beat us, but I doubt that—and even if they could, those days are gone. Most parades in New York are in Manhattan, but not all. And most parades in Manhattan go down 5th Avenue—but not all. (The famous tickertape parades for designated heroes, either actual, like returning troops or astronauts, or sports champions, like the Yankees when they win a pennant, go up lower Broadway in the Financial District while spectators throw paper waste down on them from the tops of skyscrapers.) New York City has three general kinds of parades, starting with the many organized processions, like the Thanksgiving Day Parade and St. Patrick’s Day Parade (the oldest parade in the U.S., and the oldest St. Patty’s parade in the world). These are organized by some group or other formal entity (like Macy’s, who does the Thanksgiving parade) and they determine who marches and what the rules will be. These are, of course, formal parades, with police security lining the route and traffic halted along the parade streets and many officials turning out to walk along and be seen. Then there are the semi-organized parades, like the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I think that’s the only one of its kind in New York (though the Coney Island Mermaid Parade may have similarities), and anyone who shows up can march and no one plans the costumes or the order of march. The route’s determined and there are police barricades along the sidewalks and other official trappings, but the rest of the procedure’s pretty much ad hoc. Finally, there’s the world-famous Easter Parade, popularized by the Judy Garland song (which wasn’t originally about New York City, but who’s gonna complain?). This is a completely ad hoc promenade: there’s no organization, no monitoring, no official anything. You just show up and walk—preferably wearing an elaborate hat, often homemade and silly. In any case, New York loves its parades. We better: we pay millions for the cleanup afterwards!


[The following comment by Andrew H. Malcolm was published in the New York Times on 19 April 1991; it's rather appropriate. ~Rick]

One striking thing about New York City is its residents' willingness to tell visitors where to go, whether recommending a good restaurant or responding to comments on their civility.

But here is a non-New Yorker's advice for visitors who don't know what questions to ask:

New Yorkers don't actually think they are more important than anyone else. They know it. What else could explain why they came here? And look at the geography: New Yorkers live where the Passaic River and the Gawanus Canal merge to form the Atlantic Ocean. Enough about import.

New Yorkers are not happily ignorant about the rest of the country. They recognize there are 50 other states. They know the H in Ohio is silent so it comes out Iowa.

Next, something about city geography. New York City is Manhattan, period. The other three boroughs—Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx—were allowed in because the subways had to end somewhere. Staten Island, which is trying to get out, was needed to keep New Jersey at bay and to support the wrong end of a bridge named for the explorer Verrazano, who left too.

Now about crime. Some people think that a city where 5.5 people are killed on the average day should be called Detroit. This is ridiculous. New York is a fine name. New York remains one of the region's safest island cities. And the New York Police Department, with the uniformed personnel equivalent to two full Army divisions, is determined to keep the city as safe as it already is.

Some fashion tips: wear running shoes everywhere, as New Yorkers do; yes, it looks funny, but so do life jackets. Wear all luggage like bandoliers. Do not take photographs; that's what those nifty Big Apple postcards are for. Wear jewelry only indoors. For streetwear, don a Walkman; in groups, everybody don a Walkman. If you run low on incense, go to Times Sq. Do not say hello to people, even if you know them; it's too Des Moines. And places like Idaho don't even have subway cars to deface. If someone says hello to you, use those shoes; he's not from Des Moines.

Also, do not admit to possessing a driver's license; it hurts the environment and New Yorkers oppose pollution unless it's in the Hudson River. Do not expect New York bus drivers to accept United States currency. Walking in groups of 500 or more for safety requires a parade permit, which explains Fifth Avenue's closure every 15 minutes.

Above all, do not try to trick these big-city people about the pigeons. New Yorkers know they're just grown-up sparrows.

[Andrew Malcolm captured an attitude that many see here in the Big Apple. I hope you all take it in the humor it’s meant and have had as much fun contemplating how strange this huge town can be. But my list of New York City oddities has grown too long (and won’t ever include all the peculiarities of this great city). So I’m going to break here and pick up again in a few days. If this coverage of my town’s curiosities and idiosyncrasies amused you, come back to ROT and see what else I’ve dug up.]