Look for a new post the first week of every month!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

SOUND: A boutique flophouse on the Bowery

“I spent last night at a flophouse on the Bowery.”

This bragging right is one of the amenities that the Bowery House, a boutique hostel that aims to re-create the flophouse experience, offers “individuals on a budget . . . looking to enjoy the authentic nature and living history of 220 Bowery.” For about fifty dollars a night (off-season), visitors can stay in an approximately five-by-six-foot ceiling-less wooden cabin and experience a sanitized version (complete with heated bathroom floors, monogrammed robes, and custom bath products) of what was, in the last century, a seedy, crowded, noisy, and often dangerous living space.

Conspicuously not mentioned among the amenities are the four original tenants still residing on the second floor, grandfathered in when the former lodging house was purchased by developers in 2011, and  living proof of the many ironies of New York’s gentrifying skid row. They share bathrooms, common spaces, and hallways with the hotel’s guests, who pay many times more for the flophouse aesthetic that constitutes these men’s actual lives. While the third-floor lounge features leather Chesterfield couches and an expansive wood table, the second-floor space is decidedly less hip. Since the cabins are tiny, the men, who were once known as “Bowery bums,” use it as a living room, and guests tiptoe past, trying not to gape at the display of “living history.”

The Bowery House was formerly the Prince Hotel, which opened in 1927 and served as a residence for the area’s degenerate population as well as soldiers returning from World War I. Its guests were crammed into what eventually became a warren of two hundred cubicles with chicken wire in place of ceilings to allow for air circulation (and to prevent theft between neighbors).

Today's restored cubicles feature the original woodwork and bed frames fitted with new mattresses and high-thread-count sheets. An Edison bulb in a Mason jar fixture provides dim light. Furnishings are basic: a small dresser, some wall hooks, a corner shelf with a brochure about the property’s history, and a vintage film poster.

Laid atop the Ralph Lauren towel on each bed is a pair of complimentary foam ear plugs—and for good reason. Besides the original tenants, the feature that provides the closest approximation of the flophouse experience is undoubtedly the ceiling-less rooms. The sounds coming through the latticework (which has replaced the chicken wire) are probably not so different than they might have been a hundred years ago, albeit with a few modern twists.

Heels clicking on the concrete floors, coughs and sneezes and burps, someone clipping their nails. Muffled laughter and arguments, the whiskery sound of teeth being brushed in the communal bathroom, zippers zipping—and the beeps and trills of cell phones. A ceiling fan tirelessly circulates the stale air in a constant moaning whir. The interior cabins have no windows, and there is little natural light. Though the hotel is immaculate (housecleaning staff can seem to outnumber guests), it can’t mask years of stale cigarette smoke embedded in the woodwork.

Out in the common room, a guest describes to the receptionist his problems reserving an original cabin through Expedia. “Oh, you poor thing. That sounds like such a drag,” the receptionist says, handing over one of the dog-tag-festooned cabin keys.

It is apparent from the scene on the sidewalk the following morning that he was not the only person who has trouble securing shelter last night: a mattress and suitcase are splayed out on the sidewalk, just steps from the Bowery House’s front door, where the swishing of a housekeeper’s broom can be heard among the other sounds of morning.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

SMELL: Suspended Forest, an installation of discarded Christmas trees

For certain empathetic New Yorkers, the beginning of January can be bittersweet for an entirely different reason than the usual. In the first weeks of the year, the Christmas trees that have been the center of many homes—that have been bedecked with stars and candles, that have had carols sung around them, that have sheltered gifts and been touched by the mystical presence of Santa Claus—are cast out onto the sidewalk, to be rained, snowed on, peed on by dogs (and possibly humans), and eventually chucked into the back of a mulcher or sanitation truck, perhaps with bits of tinsel or even a stray homemade ornament still clinging to their branches.

In response to this annual abomination, for the past few years the local artist Michael Neff has been collecting a sampling of discarded Christmas trees from the streets of Brooklyn and displaying them. In 2012 and 2013, he hung them illegally from a drainpipe beneath the BQE, but the installation was fleeting, as the trees were promptly removed by the city. 

Image from Reyclart.com
This year, Neff found an authorized home for his trees at Maspeth’s Knockdown Center. Until the end of January, forty spruce trees will hang from strings from the rafters of the cavernous warehouse, filling the space with their resinous, tangy scent. 

In contrast to Neff's previous collections, most of this year’s trees remained unsold by vendors. They are, in other words, rejected Christmas trees: trees that were chopped down but never had the chance to be at the center of a home or to be strung with lights and serenaded, trees that were dismissed at the sidewalk stand with a “too short” or “too sparse” or “not fragrant enough.” This twist makes the installation all the more poignant: rather than giving already-celebrated trees an extra month of homage, this display is these trees’ moment to shine.

The spruce trees are arranged in a grid, spaced so that visitors brush against the branches as they wend between their pendulous forms, often releasing a cascade of dead needles, which are crushed by the feet of others, releasing yet more of the woody aroma. 

Suspended like this, the trees are at once triumphant and vulnerable. They are subject to the whims of passersby as they rotate helplessly on their strings a foot above the floor, yet they are also celebrated as these same visitors admire their scent, caress their needles, even lie down on the floor beneath their branches for a moment of stillness or meditation.

As I lost myself in the evergreen labyrinth, I heard a child remark, “This is like being in a car wash!” Which it was, with the bristles brushing against my coat on either side. Though several young guests were scolded by a guard for cavorting between the trees (really, who could blame them?), touching the branches appeared to be condoned, and it was surprisingly satisfying to take hold of a tree and give it a spin, feeling how lightweight yet substantial it was, how responsive, and how fast it spun—almost like a partner in a dance.

The fragrant and contemplative space contrasts with the neighborhood just outside the gallery’s windows, which smells of diesel fumes, tire rubber, and cheap baked goods from the surrounding warehouses and factories. But even industrial Maspeth isn’t immune to post-holiday nostalgia: in mid-January, illuminated snowflakes still swayed above Flushing Avenue.

Later that evening, taking a stroll through Brooklyn, I saw a family of three carrying their Christmas tree to the designated MulchFest drop-off site at the corner of a park. The tree was suspended between the mom and the dad; their daughter hung on behind, and their dog, on a leash, trotted alongside them. Their faces were dutiful—yet it was a family affair, everyone connected, leaving a trail of spruce needles in their wake that, briefly, perfumed the air.

Suspended Forest is on view through January 31, on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 6 pm,  at Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Avenue in Maspeth, Queens.

Monday, November 30, 2015

SIGHT: The center(s) of New York City

According to the Department of City Planning, the geographic center of New York City happens to be in the vicinity of 365 Stockholm Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn: a brick townhouse with a bright red door. As I approach, I notice two men sitting on a stoop. “Excuse me,” I say, “but did you know that you are sitting at the geographic center of New York City?”

“No way! Right here?” says the older of the two, who’s wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a Bluetooth chip.

“Lance grew up right on this block!” his friend says. Their eyes light up. Kenny also grew up in the area. A pizza delivery car pulls up and they kindly invite me in for a slice; I decline.

Lance’s family owns the adjacent parking lot, which used to be a church where he once attended Boy Scouts; it burned down around 1970 and is now leased to the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which runs along the entire eastern side of this block, and whose flower beds seem to coordinate with the awning and fire hydrants.

The urologist a few doors down, Dr. Rosenthal, has been there “as long as I can remember,” Lance says.

Lance tells me he’s seen this block change “from Italian and German to gangland—crack, heroin, prostitutes—to yuppies.” 

“But they don’t like to be called yuppies, Lance,” Kenny interjects. “We call ’em bohemians.” And sure enough, this block at the center of the city runs the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow: at one end is a café fitted with Edison bulbs and a chalkboard. A customer with a cello strapped to her back stands at the counter.

At the other end is a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts; two teens with guitars and a cardboard sign panhandle outside. I peer at the center of the city through the center of my doughnut.

Two young children play with a ball beneath the falling leaves. “Are you Puerto Rican?” one asks. “I don’t know. My mom is Puerto Rican and I’m cold as dammit,” his friend replies. Jackhammers pound outside Yo! Orthodontic Braces.

Lance says there have always been murals in this neighborhood. The side of a Rite-Aid is painted with a poetic tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge, and a sort of electronically outfitted whale swims across some aluminum siding.

It's time to move on, as there’s a second center of New York to explore: the population center, which (according to the DCP) lies in Maspeth, Queens, near the employee parking lot for Big Geyser bottling company. The lot abuts the sulfurous shore of Maspeth Creek, at the intersection of Galasso Place and 48th Street. In the distance you can glimpse the spire of the Empire State Building, though it feels miles away from this desolate junction.

Lone men wearing backpacks pedal past on bikes, presumably coming from shifts at the nearby warehouses and factories: a Chinese importer that offers everything from bras to flashlights under one roof; Freihofer’s, whose baked goods claim to be “the pride of the neighborhood.”

As I wander along some railroad tracks that lie alongside the Big Geyser factory, I hear a whistle.

Across the street, a white-haired man, who introduces himself as Carlos, from Argentina, has just finished installing a sign for Maya Foods, an Indian spices company whose logo is “Add Flavor to Your Life,” and whose pumpkin-festooned stoop and café table add the only element of cheer—not to say expectation of human visitors.

“Did you know you’re standing at the population center of New York City?” I ask him. He looks around him at the empty streets, the empty parking lot, the stagnant creek and barbed-wire fences and trailers plugged into loading docks. He urges me to roll up my car windows, warning, “You never know who might come by around here.” Carlos agrees to pose at the population center of his adopted city, where he and I are the only people around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SMELL: United Pickle factory

The other day a companion and I sat down on the red-leather stools at the counter of Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, the 1929 diner in the Flatiron District. He ordered a vanilla milkshake and I asked for pickles, which arrived sliced in half in a brown melamine dish. They tasted just the way a New York pickle should taste: firm, rubbery, squeaky outer flesh giving way to a slightly seedy, slushy, salty inside. There was a snipping sound to each bite and a garlicky sting in the crunch.

A month earlier, in search of the roots of this iconic New York City food, I'd visited United Pickle, a fourth-generation family pickle factory in the Tremont section of the Bronx, founded in 1897 "with a horse and wagon." United also owns the trademark brand Guss' Pickles, one of the Lower East Side sidewalk-barrel vendors of the early twentieth century, featured in the film Crossing Delancey and on countless walking tours through the 1990s. Most important, however, United holds the rights to Guss' secret thirteen-spice recipe, passed down over more than a century.
Image courtesy of United Pickle
United's owner, Stephen Leibowitz, is undeniably a pickle man. He claims he was born in a pickle barrel to a pickle family, and that pickle juice runs through his veins. His business card reads "Chief Pickle Maven," and as he strides toward me across the brine-soaked factory floor he announces his arrival with "Here he is: the Big Pickle himself."

The factory smells tangy and prickly: like garlic, brine, dill, and spices, evoking the sawdust and chrome of old-school New York City delis like Eisenberg's. People think that milk and pickles don't mix, but the building used to be a Borden milk factory; today brine rather than milk drenches the historic cobblestone floors.

Walk into the factory, on a desolate stretch of northern Park Avenue, and the first thing you'll notice is cucumbers: in buckets, in bushels, on pallets, spilling out of boxes. The factory goes through about eighteen million pounds of cucumbers per year, spends $150,000 year on water (for brine and washing), and uses three trailers a week of salt.

Here's how you transform a cucumber into a pickle spear like the ones I ate that afternoon at Eisenberg's (Eisenberg's pickles, however, are made by Mr. Pickle, not United). Using a forklift, hoist a forty-bushel box of cucumbers and dump it out onto the conveyor belt.

Sort through the cucumbers and pick out the ones that are crooked or less than 4 inches long: these will get made into chips or relish.

Shuttle the cucumbers into a "shuffler," which corals the mass of slippery vegetables into orderly rows to be fed into the slicer.

Each pickle shoots along the slot in a blur, like a rocketing green torpedo,

blasts through the slicer, which quarters it, and is launched into a plastic tub, which curbs the momentum. It drops through a hole onto a conveyor belt below.

It rides up the belt with hundreds of other spears, where someone picks out any broken or otherwise errant pieces. All Guss' pickle spears are uniform.

Steve presents a perfect specimen.

The spears drop into a bucket. A worker squirts brine from huge vats into the bucket through a hose, and the buckets are capped by a machine to ensure a tight seal.

A point of pride of United Pickles is the meticulous count: Steve guarantees 270 to 300 spears per bucket, give or take 10 percent.

To this end, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours a day, a worker counts the pickles in a randomly selected barrel while a coworker watches. 

When I stepped up to the cash register to pay for our snack, the cashier charged me only for the milkshake. "The pickles are always free here," she said. Eisenberg's owner, Josh Konecky, as tall and barrel-shaped as a pickle himself, smiled at us and said, "What's a milkshake without pickles? What's Eisenberg's without pickles?" And indeed, what's New York City without pickles?