Lost and Found: Stories From New York

Image result for lost and found: stories from new yorkA couple from the most glamorous state (California) pay a deposit for an apartment via money order (can’t cancel) and has to wait two months to move in. The boiler smokes up, then there’s no hit water, the other tenants move out, and everyone’s screwed. Welcome to New York, folks, it’s a city of con men.

There are some nicer stories, where people don’t get conned, and for several reasons. First, they have no money to get stolen, and secondly, they don’t expect to step off the plane onto a gold sidewalk. A “hip” woman visits Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1992, a safe place, but very dreary and bleak. By 1998, however, it’s all “arty” types in tight jeans. During that time, she self-medicates her depression by swimming at the Metropolitan pool, and discovers that 10am is “women only.” The women are all local Hasids, badly dressed, pale, unattractive, but they’re happy to be there. They frolic in the pool, not giving a damn about their looks, knowing their husbands will have to put up with them no matter what, no pressure to dress sexy for the men. Now she’s not depressed anymore. She no longer feels like an outsider.

Perhaps New York isn’t much different from LA, in that there’s pressure to look a certain way. In California it’s the beach bodies and health clubs, but here in NY, maybe it’s having to dress in style? Have the best hairdo? Have the best looking kids? There’s a story in this book about a white woman who adopts an Ethiopian baby, and gets nasty comments form both races. So much for the post-racial America of the Obama era. There’s the couple on a film site tour, looking for the house from the Royal Tannenbaums, and they find it, even though the movie takes place in the Bronx. An Ecuadorian teacher finds New York ways beneath him.

Just as E.B. White discovered in the 1940’s, New Yorkers are rarely homegrown; they’re almost always transplants, and know for what we perceive as rudeness. It’s also a city with character, and as each of these people discover, it has its unexpected joys. But if you come here expecting only wonderful things, you’ll end up depressed. Not every neighborhood has a pool, where a depressed Brooklyn woman can marvel at the fat Hasidic women. Some people spend all day at the library, where they’ll see a lot of homeless people. Now that would make for a great story.

Hotel Chelsea: Photographs by Victoria Cohen

No two rooms in the Chelsea Hotel look anything alike. The furniture is a far-flung collection of different eras, and each bed, table, dresser, and rug looks old enough to have been made right here in the USA, no particle board desks to be seen. We might as well call it “Garage Sale Gothic” and if the furniture were in better condition, they would all be museum pieces.

Hotel Chelsea is one of many books on the Chelsea Hotel, but it focuses on the décor rather than the people. This is not going to be a typical Martha Stewart style book, because the furniture is randomly placed and the paint schemes are all different. What makes this book great is that it isn’t stylish at all; this is exactly how the average New Yorker would decorate an apartment. Few of us can afford fancy furniture and rugs, so we have to buy what we can. My father, who spent the 70’s trapped in a small NYC apartment, used to take old furniture right off the street and refinish it. He told me hilarious stories about bringing home an old bureau from the sidewalk and vacuuming out all the dead cockroaches. The only thing louder than the vacuum was my mother’s screams. I hope he didn’t bring in any furniture with old syringes, because after all, this was the same New York City of Taxi Driver, Death Wish, and Looking For Mister Goodbar.

Victoria Cohen photographs the many rooms, some with beautiful furniture, some with cheap-looking 80’s accessories. Most of the rooms are well-maintained, however, so I can assure you this is not a welfare hotel. The owners tried to match the furniture to the look of the room, such as a red leather armchair in front of a red wall. Room 617 has old nasty wallpaper, contrasting with the recently repainted white molding. One room has a flowery old divan next to a lace curtain, while another has a small scratched-up desk and ugly red curtains. When I saw this room, I was reminded of Joe Buck’s fleabag room in Midnight Cowboy, before he gets locked out for not paying rent. I wonder if the average out-of-town transient would’ve been put off by the curtains, or felt right at home? Depending on his situation, it would probably not have been much different from mom & dad’s tract house.

Cohen is a New York based photographer, and like anyone enamored with the city, has a fascination with the Chelsea Hotel (or Hotel Chelsea, if you prefer.) She was not happy to hear the sad new in 2011, that it was closing down to be renovated, and all the charm and history would be gone. This was the same place where Arthur C. Clarke began 2001 A Space Odyssey, where William S. Buroughs wrote Naked Lunch, where Leonard Cohen met Janis Joplin, and where Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend. The last one we could do without, but what about the rest? Doesn’t this hotel anchor a lot of the city’s history? It certainly took in a lot of the people that were not especially welcome among the Eloise crowd at the Plaza Hotel. You wouldn’t see a lot of kids in this hotel, except for Gabby Hoffman, who lived here until age 11. In describing the hotel where she grew up, she says it was a great place to be, like every day was an adventure. Like most of us, she wasn’t happy to see it closed off and full of construction dust.

Maybe this book about the Chelsea’s décor is the antithesis to the hotel business? It was never a choice lodging for affluent visitors, so it was popular with writers, artists, and people with less money to spend. After WWII, the owner took artwork in place of rent, so his art collection was probably worth as much as the hotel. My fault with this book is that it leaves out all the artwork in the hotel that made it one big gallery. I wish the photographer had included some in the book, but you can still see it in other books about the hotel. Cohen does make it clear, however, that she was interested in the individual hotel rooms, not the residential apartments. The long-term residents could decorate how they liked and throw parties, but the short-term renters weren’t there for fame; they came to “drop off the radar” and be anonymous. Kind of like E.B. White describes in his book Here Is New York, it’s a city of anonymity.

Oscar Wilde, on the last night of his life, wrote “either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” He was referring to the hideous wall paper of his room in Paris, where he retreated as an anonymous expatriate. While Oscar Wilde’s widely-celebrated last words are seen as those of a genius critic, I’d rather see old décor celebrated. The average bohemian, living in austere circumstances, should celebrate the cheap décor as part of the adventure.

A good title for this book would be “Chelsea Hotel: Ode to An Old Dresser.”

Robert Moses: Master Builder of New York City

The cover illustration for this comic makes Robert Moses look demonic, which given his reputation, doesn’t shock me. It chronicles his upper-class boyhood to his metamorphosis into the city’s biggest vampire, sucking the blood from neck of New York. The book tries to create a balanced image of Robert Moses, including his great contributions and his catastrophic destructive habits. In the end, his mega-callousness wins out. Try as you might, you can’t make this guy look good.

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Despite making Robert Moses look like the domineering bulldozer that he was, the book is unbiased and even in its portrayal. He did care about the health of the city, which is why he pushed for the creation of the city’s beaches. It was better to have a decent beach, he thought, than to have kids jump off the docks and into the river. He also built swimming pools, which for the average working class New Yorker had previously been out of reach. That alone is wonderful. He built bridges to connect the boroughs, and went under-budget. That’s great. He emptied several decaying square blocks, on both the Upper West Side and the East 14’s, to build co-op complexes. That’s sort of good. He put in restrictive covenants to keep African Americans out. That’s not good. Then he plowed up whole neighborhoods to build a highway through the Bronx. I’m sorry, but that’s bad.

Olivier Balez, a French comics artist, creates brilliant artwork, with realistic drawings and bright colors. When necessary, the artist uses slightly muted colors to evoke the mood of the era. Great artwork, great writing, I’ll call this a great book about a horrible guy. If you’re interested in learning more about Robert Moses, I would also recommend watching the Channel 13 documentary The World That Moses Built. It has interviews with the people who lived in the neighborhoods that he bulldozed for the Cross Bronx Expressway.

There is one thing missing from this book, and that is an explanation of the financing. Moses’ bridges, tunnels, pools, and beaches were often financed with bonds, and the profits financed his other efforts. An illustration of this process would’ve been welcome