Movie Review: When They See Us (2019)


Title: When They See Us
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Harpo Films | Tribeca Productions | ARRAY | Participant Media
Summary/Review:

This Netflix miniseries dramatizes the stories of five teenage boys from Harlem who were accused and convicted of brutally raping a woman jogging through Central Park, but would be exonerated for the crime over a decade later.  The film covers the same as the Ken Burns’ documentary Central Park Five but with a greater emphasis on the emotional impact on the boys and their families.  When they see is directed by Ava DuVernay, who is also responsible for the biopic Selma, the documentary 13th, and fantasy/adventure A Wrinkle in Time (which is quite a varied portfolio).  While the four parts tell a complete story, each part also works as a stand-alone film.

The first part focuses on the night of the incident.  The media portrayed them as part of a “wolf pack” of “superpredators” who went out “wilding,” commiting crimes for fun. The truth is that the 5 boys and others were caught up in spontaneous gathering of about 30 teenagers who mostly didn’t know one another and went to Central Park to horse around.  And yes, some of them did participate in assault, robbery, and vandalism, but by and large that was a small portion of the larger group.  Oddly, one of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is an overhead shot of the boys running into the park.  The five – Raymond, Kevin, Korey, Yusef, and Antron – were among those rounded up by the police. When the unconcious jogger is found, the police held them overnight without food or sleep, interogate them without parents present, and coerce them to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. The NYC District Attorney Sex Crimes Unit leader Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) works up a narrative from the skimpy evidence to place the boys at the scene of the crime.

The second part focuses on the trial.  The film only dramatizes one of the two trials.  We see the boys support one another as they resolutely refuse a plea bargain or anything but their full innocence.  There’s support among the families too, but also a lot of tension as what course of action to take and distrust of the other families’ children. Archival footage of Donald Trump condeming the Five is shown with a mother commenting that his fifteen minutes are almost up, perhaps too big of a wink for this movie.  Their lawyers are not up to snuff to take on the city’s prosecuter Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) despite the only evidence being coerced confessions that contradict one another. The five are all found guilty.

Part three focuses on the four younger members of the group – Antron, Raymond, Yusef, and Kevin – each of whom serve around 6-7 years in juvenile detention.  The film shows their transition from boys to adults through phone calls and visits with their families.  Then each is released and tries to return to their lives.  There are tensions with family members as they adjust to changes that happened during their imprisonment.  Worse, the law regarding what convicted felons and sex offenders can do leaves them very little opportunity to find work and housing, and require frequent check-ins.  One of them turns to crime to make ends meet and ends up back in prison.

The younger four are played by different actors as a child and as an adult – Kevin Richardson (Asante Black and Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares).  They all put in an excellent performance portraying their characters, but the major star of the miniseries is Jharrel Jerome who plays Korey Wise both as a teenager and an adult.  Wise was 16 at the time of the case and thus tried as an adult.  He was sent to prisons where the other prisoners and guards targeted him for severe abuse.  Wise requested transfers to other prisons farther from NYC and spent lots of time in solitary for his own safety.  In one prison, there’s even a white guard who is sympathetic to wise and treats him humanely.  Many of the most intense scenes of the film focus on Wise enduring long periods of time in solitude and having memories and daydreams. Flashbacks show his close relationship with his transgender older sister until their mother throws her out of the house.  One of the most beautiful sequences shows Wise imaging that instead of going to Central Park with the other boys that he took his girlfriend to Coney Island.

In 2001, Wise meets another prisoner named Matias Reyes (one he’d actually had a fight with in prison several years earlier).  Reyes admits that he had raped the Centeral Park jogger on his own.  His description of the attack and DNA evidence verifies his claim, and this leads to vacating the convictions of Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise.

This movie is beautifully directed  and yet a brutal depection of a grave injustice. It is an important film to watch to get an understanding of the discriminatory nature of the criminal justice system against black and brown people.

Rating: ****

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2019)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2010
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I kind of felt compelled to watch the third and final season of Jessica Jones on Netflix, despite my disappointment in the previous season.  This season starts of strong with some well-paced, character-focused episodes but about a third of the way through the season, the carpet is pulled out, and once again we’re stuck with ludicrous plot twists and lazy characterization.

The season starts with the newly-powered Trish (Rachael Taylor) working on becoming a hero by solving her own cases.  Naturally, Jessica  and Trish begin following the same guy and sooner than you’d expect they begin to work together and sort-of reconcile.  Jessica also has a new “hook-up” (it seems too much to say “romantic interest”) in Erik (Benjamin Walker), a man with the very mild power of getting severe headaches around evil people, a power he uses for blackmailing, but becomes key in helping Jessica and Trish solve cases.

After a few false starts, a big bad is revealed in the form of serial killer Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb).  Salinger is played like every stereotypical psycho killer you’ve ever seen on a detective procedural show, and is fine when his machinations are backdrop to the main characters’ actions, but BORING AS FUCK when he’s on the screen for more than 15 seconds.  So of course, he’s allowed to eat up tons of screen time over the season.  I also don’t understand why Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is still in this series because her story of trying to win back an old lover, while well acted, feels like an entirely different tv show has been spliced in.  When she takes on Salinger as a client and decides to take on powered people through the law, it feels like a desperate attempt to shoehorn her character into the story.

But the worst element of this season is that (SPOILER) they decide to make Trish an eviiiiiiiil powered person who just ups and start killing people for no good reason (/SPOILER).  I think what bugs me most about this show is that it comes so close to being a great use of superhero tropes and detective stories as an outlet for exploring deeper human relations and behavior, but they never seem to have the confidence to follow-up on that. Instead the show relies too heavily on ridiculous plot twists and undermining character work for shock value.  Oh well, at least there won’t be any more Jessica Jones to underwhelm me in the future.

Related Posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 1


Futility Closet :: The General Slocum

The grim history of the worst maritime disaster in New York City.

Best of the Left :: Our built environment shapes society and vice versa

The issues of increasing urban density, building social housing, and deprioritizing the automobile in cities are near and dear in my heart. And yet, even Leftists tend to fall into the pro-car/pro-sprawl trap, so it’s good to hear these arguments for a more livable urbanism.

Hub History  ::  Love is Love: John Adams and Marriage Equality 

It seems like yesterday, but 15 years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages.  Here’s the history of how that came to be.

Sound Opinions  ::  De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

I have a lot of nostalgia for De La Soul’s debut album which came out when I was a nerdy high school student.  The Sound Opinions crew explore how the album was created and explain why it’s so hard to find the album today.

Hit Parade :: The Invisible Miracle Sledgehammer Edition

If you turned on the radio in the mid-1980s, you were likely to hear music by members of Genesis (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Mike and the Mechanics) while the band Genesis continued to make hits.  Chris Molanphy explains this unusual situation in pop music history.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Book Review: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro


Author: Robert Caro
Title: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011) – Originally published in 1974
Summary/Review:

Robert Moses may not be a familiar name to many people but Robert Caro’s extensive biography argues that he was one of the most powerful persons in the United States in the 20th century.  Moses was a man of contrasts. While known as a park commissioner, his greatest achievements were highways, bridges, and tunnels. While radically redesigning cities to accommodate to the automobile, he never learned how to drive himself.  And while dedicating his life to creating great public works, Moses was dismissive of the people who would use them.

Caro, as a biographer is most interested in the idea of power, how it is gained and how it is used.  Since publishing The Power Broker in 1974, Caro has dedicated his life to writing a multi-volume biography of another powerful figure, Lyndon B. Johnson.  While not a strict biography, nevertheless does begin with an exploration of Moses’ youth. Born into prosperity, Moses is strongly influenced by his grandmother and mother who consider their family exceptional.  Moses is isolated when attending Yale, partially due to being Jewish (although Moses was not actively religious) and partially because of his bookishness.  Moses would instead create new organizations within the university and put himself at the head, a pattern established for his future.

As a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, he studied the British Civil Service, and became determined to implement its ideas in the United States. Despite establishing himself as an idealist and opposed to the corruption of New York’s machine politics, Moses is not able to gain influence until he attracts the attention of Tammany Hall governor Alfred E. Smith and becomes his advisor.  Smith and Moses would become very close and although Moses would work under 6 governors, Smith is the only one he ever referred to as “Governor.”  Later, when Moses renovated the Central Park Zoo, Moses recognized his friend’s love of animals and made him Honorary Night Zookeeper, so Smith could bring his guests to the zoo after hours

Moses comprehensive knowledge of law lead him to draft numerous bills which the legislature enacted unwittingly giving Moses extensive power. By the time many lawmakers realized what they had done it was too late to remove Moses from office. Smith appointed Moses as President of the Long Island State Park Commission and Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks in 1924 (positions he retained until 1963).  Moses also served as New York Secretary of State in 1927-1928.

Moses’ earliest projects focused on Long Island.  In the 1920s, New York City residents overwhelmed by the summer heat sought to find a bathing beach to cool off at, but instead found themselves on narrow, congested roads and turned away from beaches that were privately owned by Long Island Robber Barons.  Moses built parkways from the city to the new public bathing beaches he also designed.  His crowning achievement, Jones Beach, opened in 1929 providing beach access to tens of thousands of New Yorkers as well as  two enormous bathhouses, a boardwalk, restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, and numerous recreational sports facilities.  Moses’ design was extensively themed to ships and maritime activities, with staff in sailors’ outfits, who fastidiously picked up litter seems to presage Disneyland (Moses and Walt Disney would later work together on the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair).

The beaches and the parkways that lead to them made Moses a very popular figure and he became seen as someone who could get things done amid New York’s corrupt and gridlocked politicians.  Moses played on the popular perception that he fought the Robber Barons for land to build the parkways, when in fact he actually moved them several miles to accommodate the desires of the wealthy, while providing no similar accommodations to poorer farmers.  Moses also designed the parkways to be crossed by low bridges, preventing them from being used by buses, which many people – including Caro – believe he did deliberately to keep New York City’s poorest residents, especially African Americans, from getting to the beaches.

In 1934, while retaining his state positions, Moses was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks.  This meant he would be working with the city’s newly elected mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, a Progressive Republican who campaigned against Tammany corruption and promised new housing, hospitals, schools, parks, and transportation. La Guardia and Moses didn’t see eye to eye, but Moses had the ability to get money from Federal and state programs and use it to get things done. Moses was able to rebuild dozens of parks and playground and cheaply acquire or redistrict land to build new parks. While unable to get the housing, schools, and hospitals he desired, La Guardia could always appear at the dedication of another Moses park to show that he was getting something done as mayor. Caro details that despite the hundreds of parks, playgrounds, pools and other features opened by Moses, that it was not done in an equitable way. African-American neighborhoods like Harlem received very few parks while middle-class white neighborhoods got an abundance.

Moses ran for governor in 1934, which proved to be a miserable failure as his natural arrogance didn’t play well in the campaign.  Nevertheless, his parks made him popular with the people, and he particularly received strong support from the newspapers.  While never holding elective office, he would eventually hold as many as 12 appointed positions at the same time. Elected officials who served at the whims of the voters found themselves needing to work with Moses if they wished to get anything done.  If they tried to stand up to him, Moses simply wouldn’t distribute money to their projects, and in fact would hold a grudge and never work with them again.  Moses would respond to efforts to slow or rethink his projects by having his crews go in and lay out a roadbed or bulldoze all the trees, making his project a fait accomplis.  Moses would also openly criticize his opponents by creating scandalous rumors about them, including derailing the careers of several politicians by accusing them of being Communists, decades before Joe McCarthy would use the same tactics. Moses vindictive streak can also be seen in his destruction of the Central Park Casino, an historic building in the park that was renovated into a restaurant and nightclub in the 1920s.  The Casino became the place where Moses’ rival Mayor Jimmy Walker entertained and conducted business, and Moses demolished the building as an act of revenge despite calls to renovate the building to its original public purposes.

Moses greatest source of power would come as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.  The Tribourough Bridge is actually three separate spans connecting the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens by way of Randalls Island, opened in 1936.   Moses’ office beneath the toll plaza on Randalls Island became the base of his empire. The Triborough was able to bring tens of millions of dollars through toll revenues at a time when other city agencies were starved for cash.  Moses raised even more money by selling bonds for construction projects, and instead of paying off the bonds, used the revenues for more projects, creating a cycle that kept Triborough in existence long beyond what lawmakers had expected. Moses merged the Triborough with other agencies, growing it to control seven bridges and two tunnels, as well a convention center called the New York Coliseum.   In 1965, the Triborough was merged into the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which curiously still has the legal name of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to this day.

Moses also arranged the wording in his bridge construction bills to allow him to contract bridge approaches, which he used to build actual parkways through the city connecting the new bridges to existing parkways in Long Island and Westchester County.  Eventually he took the lead on building highways throughout the city (with plans for more thankfully never completed). Moses used the term parkway because of the practice of early automobile owners taking leisurely, scenic drives, thus the highways were in themselves “parks” designed to display the best scenery. In practice, the parkways were used from their earliest days by commuters who typically looked at nothing but the bumper of the car in front of them.

This rigid adherence to his vision lead Moses to refuse to amend his plans for the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side of Manhattan and into the Bronx.  Scientists pointed out that the highway cut through a unique wetlands in the Bronx.  Residents of Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood noted that Parkway would destroy the last old growth forest on the island.  The plan also included Moses Riverside Park along the Hudson River, yet the planned route of the parkway would cut off access to the river for people from adjoining neighborhoods.  Alternative plans that shifted the parkway short distances to adjust for the wetlands, woods, and riverfront were all rejected by Moses.

In the late 1930s, Moses took control of a project to construct a link between the lower tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn. While many advocated for a tunnel, Moses insisted on a bridge which would include approach routes, a parking garage, and a connecting viaduct to the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan.  This construction would decimate Batter Park and the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton, while forever altering the view of the city’s skyline.  In this instance, powerful financial district executives and leaders of old money families lead the opposition.  Yet, even they could not defeat Moses as time after time city leaders were browbeaten into voting for Moses’ plan.

Despite the fact that I know a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge does not exist, I was breathless during these passages wondering how Moses could be defeated. Turns out that President Franklin Roosevelt – a bitter enemy of Moses – was able to get the War Department to declare that if the bridge were destroyed in a bombing it would block access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard up the river.  Moses took control of the tunnel project, but always complained about it and closed off the Battery Park behind fences for the decade of construction. He had the aquarium demolished and came close to destroying the historic Castle Clinton, before the Federal government once again intervened taking ownership of the fort as a National Monument. While Moses’ opponents celebrated these victories, Caro notes the fact that Moses had become so powerful that only acts of the President could stop him was an ominous sign of what was to come. Moses did build a new aquarium at Coney Island, and while it had plentiful parking, it was much harder to access by public transit, and charged an admission fee, unlike it’s free and centrally-located predecessor.

Moses justified the construction of new bridges and highways as ways of reducing congestion on the existing structures.  Yet, as early as the 1930s, the flow of traffic increased on all bridges with the opening of each new bridge, as new construction encouraged more people to choose to drive cars (a process called “induced demand” although Caro doesn’t use this term).  Moses indifference, and even hostility, to public transit exacerbated congestion on the new highways.  The construction of new highways also sped up the process of “White Flight” to the suburbs and lead to decay in the neighborhoods they sliced through. Caro notes that plans for the Van Wyck Expressway in the 1950s provided an opportunity to run a rapid transit line down the median that would perfectly connect Midtown Manhattan to the new Idewild Airport (now JFK Airport), but was rejected by Moses.  He similarly dismissed suggestions for the Long Island Expressway to be bundled with a new high-speed commuter rail, allowing commuters to live in dense residential/commercial districts along the spine of Long Island.  Moses plan for automobile-only infrastructure contributed to the growth of sprawl across Long Island the engulfed the natural beauty that made it a desirable place to live in the first place.

One of the most heartbreaking chapters of the Robert Moses story is the Cross Bronx Expressway.  While previous highway building projects were on undeveloped land (in the suburbs) or along existing parks (in the City), the Expressway was planned to cut right through urban neighborhoods, displacing thousands of residents.  People in the Bronx neighborhood of Tremont fought back, proposing an alternate route only a block to the south that would only destroy a handful of residents.  Bronx borough officials agreed only to switch to Moses’ side when the vote came.  Oddly enough, the alternate route was more of a straight line than Moses’ proposal, which ran counter to Moses’ desiring highways to travel in straight lines.  Caro is not able to explain why Moses refused to switch from his proposed route but rumors have it that the alternate route cut through property owned by a prominent Bronx official or because it cut through the depot of the then powerful Third Avenue Transit Company.  Once construction began, Moses’ operatives cruelly cut off the top floors of buildings once the occupants left, even while people continued to reside in the lower floors.  Children walked to school alongside the deep trenches for the Expressway with no fences protecting them from falling in.

Moses fall from grace began with a deceptively smaller project, an attempt to demolish a Central Park playground in order to build more parking for Tavern on the Green. Prosperous mothers banded together and this time were able to defeat the Power Broker. Another Central Park battle centered on Moses opposition to free Shakespeare in the Park performances.  But the big hit to Moses’ reputation would be the 1964-1965 Worlds’ Fair.  In his arrogance, Moses was not able to get official sanction for the fair, and many nations refused to participate as a result.  Actual attendance at the fair was much lower than Moses’ projections and thus many of the fair was unable to fulfill many of the benefits it was supposed to provide to the city.  Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and his family’s interests in Chase Manhattan Bank, would finally have the influence to remove Moses from power in the late 1960s.

This is a long “review,” more of a book report really, but there’s a lot I want to remember about this book.  This is an important book that details the irrevocable changes to New York City, and by extension to the United States, as the automobile was given priority.  It’s a cautionary tale of what can be lost when too much power is extended to an individual in a democracy under the auspices of “getting things done.”

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Central Park Five (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat,  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Ceasefire Massacre, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword.

Title: The Central Park Five
Release Date: November 23, 2012
Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Production Company: Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

I’ve never lived in New York City, but in my comfortable suburb in Connecticut, New York was the center of our news world.  In 1989, the rape and brutal beating of a young woman jogging in Central Park was the topic of discussion.  For many people, the crime was indicative of just how low New York had sunk into unrestrained criminality, and particularly the danger of Central Park (although statistically, the crime wave of the 70s & 80s was on the wane, and Central Park was one of the safest places in the city). The attack on the Central Park jogger and others that night was pinned on a large group of black and Latin teens.  Five of them were sent to prison after they confessed, and for most people, it seemed justice had been served.

This documentary tells the story of the five individuals – Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise – who were all around 14-16 years old at the time (the same age I was a the time) and would be arrested and convicted for the crimes.  They tell a story of going out in the park one night amid a wave of other young men, many they didn’t know.  Some of them were violent, throwing rocks at cars and people, and beating up a homeless man. The Central Park jogger was attacked in another part of the park at the same time, and these five teenagers were among those rounded up by the police.

They knew nothing about the rape and beating of the jogger but were held without sleep or food for 24 hours as the police told each individual was being implicated by the others, and the boys felt that they’d be able to go home if they told the police what they wanted to hear.  This ended with videotaped “confessions” that were contradictory and had no details of the actual crime scene. These confessions would be the only evidence used in convicting them.  This is despite the fact that they had alibis of being elsewhere at the time of the attack on the jogger and DNA evidence did not match any of the accused.

The documentary shows that how the Central Park Five became the scapegoats of an angry public outraged by violent crime in New York.  The racial divide of black and brown kids and a white victim played out in a story like the lynchings in the Jim Crow South.  The media reported that the teens claimed that they were “wilding” and bragged of their exploits in their jail cells, which appears to be furthest from the truth. One thing this movie didn’t cover is where the term “wilding” originated from if didn’t come from the teenages themselves.

The Central Park Five would have their convictions vacated after the actual rapist came forward with a confession in 2002.  The movie focuses on how the five had their lives drastically changed by the accusations, trial, and loss of 7 to 13 years of their lives in prison.  They talk movingly of how it still affects them today even as they take positive actions to move on with their lives.  In addition to extensive interviews with the Central Park Five, the filmmakers also interviewed family members, news media figures, and former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins.  Unfortunately, the New York Police Department refused to participate in any interviews although their point of view is included through extensive archival footage.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Last year for the Blogging A to Z Challenge, I watched Koch, about New York City mayor Ed Koch, whose law and order style of governing contributed to the racial divide that played such a big part of the Central Park Five’s case.  Ric Burns (Ken’s brother) made New York: A Documentary which covers a much broader history of the City.  A couple of books that capture the mood of New York City in the 1980s are New York Calling and Greed & Glory.

Source: Amazon Prime Video

Rating: ****


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Photopost: St. Patrick’s Weekend in New York


I visited my mother in New York this past weekend and together we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in traditional and unique ways.

The weekend began with a Big Onion Walking Tour of the Lower East Side area once known as Little Ireland.

We met our guide Erin at St. Paul’s Chapel, and although her name was appropos to the day, she told us she was not actually Irish.  The St. Paul’s churchyard has a memorial – but not the actual grave – of Thomas Addis Emmet. He was the elder brother of famed Irish martyr Robert Emmet, and participated in the rebellious United Irishmen in the 1790s.  Exiled to the United States, he did pretty well for himself, and even became New York Attorney General.

The next stop was at St. Peter Catholic Church, the oldest Catholic parish in New York, established in 1785.  The current church building dates to 1840.

The Marble Palace is under scaffolding right now, but it is a historic landmark that once held America’s first department store. Opened in 1846, it was home to Alexander Turney Stewart’s dry goods store.  Stewart was an Irish immigrant made good. The store provided same day tailoring of clothing thanks to dozens of seamstresses working on the top floor, many of them recent immigrants from Ireland.

The Tweed Courthouse is associated with the graft of Tammany Hall, the powerful political machine that was initially nativist but grew to welcome Irish Catholic immigrants in return for votes.  Across the street is the former home of Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, founded in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society to protect the savings of newly arrived immigrants.

We took a brief tangent from Irish history to discuss the African Burial Ground, which was pretty cool.  Nearby in Foley Square, in the midst of a rally opposing discrimination against Muslims, we talked about one of New York’s first suburbs, built on the site of the Collect Pond which was drained in 1811 through a canal at what is now Canal Street.  Since it was a natural spring, the water returned, making the houses unstable.  As the wealthy moved out, the poor occupied the abandoned houses and created New York’s first slum.  A short walk away in a Chinatown playground, we talked about Five Points, the notorious neighborhood known for its mid-19th century gang violence.  But it was also a place where Irish immigrants and free blacks got a toehold in the city, and even invented tap dancing!

On Mott Street, the Church of the Transfiguration shows the immigrant heritage of the neighborhood.  Initially a place of worship for the growing Irish community in the 1840s, by World War I it was a largely Italian parish, as the names on the World War I memorial plaque indicate.  Today the church serves a Chinese Catholic community.

Another fascinating diversion from the Irish theme was passing by the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jewish Graveyard, which is associated with Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, founded in 1654!

Around the corner, we visited another Roman Catholic church, St. James, where the Ancient Order of Hibernians was founded in 1836.

We stopped by Public School 1 to talk about how Irish Americans had their children educated.  Erin also noted the architectural design of the school pays tribute to New York’s Dutch heritage.  In the heart of Chinatown, we talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how an Irish American woman could lose her citizenship if she married a Chinese man. At the final stop, we discussed the notorious riot brought on by the conflict between two street gangs, the Irish American Dead Rabbits and the nativist Bowery Boys.

A pegasus flying over Chinatown. Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

Finishing our Irish tour in the heart of Chinatown, we of course had lunch at Thai Jasmine.  It was yummy.  Then we headed uptown to see part of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I hadn’t been to the parade since in 22 years, but had a lot of nostalgia for my childhood when it was an annual event.  We remembered the year when the wind was so strong it blew wooden police barriers down the street like tumbleweeds, and told stories of family friends we met at the parade.  I was impressed that the pipe and drum bands have significantly more women than in my childhood, and that black and latinx people were in the parade as participants as well as spectators, making it a much more diverse celebration than it used to be.



The crowds were light and I didn’t witness any misbehavior, which was also a plus, although it may have been due to the fact that we arrived late in the day and were way uptown.  When the winds got too chilly, we decided to drop in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an hour or so.  We wandered into a gallery of art from New Guinea, which was fascinating, and definitely not anything I’d ever seen before.

If the day wasn’t full enough already, we finished things of with a performance by the New York Philharmonic, who played Mozart’s Requiem, but only the parts that Mozart wrote.  I had a peaceful half-nap to the music in the first half of the perfomance.

On Sunday, we went to the New York Botanical Garden for the Orchid Show.  There were significantly fewer orchids on display than last year, and the greenhouses were very crowded, but it’s always a lovely place to visit regardless.

 

 

 

 

 

I like how these two photos turned out.  One is a picture of the dome of the greenhouse, the other is the reflection of the dome in the water.

To finish out a proper St. Patrick’s Day, we went to An Beal Bocht Cafe in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx.  They had sweet Guinness poured properly and musicians playing a traditional Irish seisiún (although they snuck in a couple of crowd pleasers like “The Wild Rover”).  It was crowded but friendly and definitely a place I’d like to visit again, albeit it’s a steep climb uphill from the subway station!

TV Review: Russian Doll (2019)


Title: Russian Doll
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

This clever tv show features the comedic talents of Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who dies repeatedly and keeps returning to relive her 36th birthday party.  The time loop concept is similar to Groundhog’s Day, a similarity the show doesn’t try to hide.  I also felt it shared some qualities with Donnie Darko, and Run, Lola, Run, especially in that the show feels like a video game character that dies and always returns to the same starting point.  Not coincidentally, Nadia is a software designer for a game company who created a particularly difficult game.

The twist here – and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t watched the show – comes in the third episode cliffhanger where Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett, who could easily be cast in an Alex Rodriguez biopic), a young man who is also repeatedly dying and coming back to life.  While Nadia is struggling with her troubled childhood with her mentally ill mother (who died at the age of 36), Alan is challenged by being dumped by his long-time girlfriend on the night he planned to propose to her. The great thing about this show’s plot is not only to they have to come to terms with their problems in order to get on with their lives (literally here, but also metaphorically) but they also have to help one another to do so.

Russian Doll is by turns really dark, acerbically funny and very sweet.

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 22


HubHistory :: When Boston Invented Playgrounds

It seems that places for children to play have always been with us, but someone had to invent the playground and it turns out that Boston played a role in that, starting with piles of sand called sand gardens.

99% Invisible :: Mini Stories

All of these stories are good, but I’m particularly interested in the nostalgic look back at the WPIX Yule Log, a television program that featured a burning log for three hours, which was a HUGE deal when I grew up in the New York City area.s

Scientific American Science Talk :: Meet the Real Ravenmaster

If you’ve ever visited the Tower of London, the resident ravens are a highlight of the experience.  This podcast features an interview with the yeoman warder charged with the ravens’ care.

Book Review: Greed and Glory by Sean Deveney


Author:  Sean Deveney
TitleGreed and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Doc Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and the Mafia in 1980s New York
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Sean Deveney follows up his book about New York City in the 1960s through the lens of local politics and sports, Fun City, with this book about New York City in the 1980s through the lens of local politics and sports.  Fun City focused on two figures, Mayor John Lindsay and Jets quarterback Joe Namath, both handsome, young men who rose to prominence alongside the 60s youth culture and offered the promise of a great future (for themselves and the city) but also had hubris that lead to colossal failures.  Greed and Glory, as evident by the extraordinarily long subtitle is not so focused.  Greed and Glory cuts from storyline to storyline with no clear theme, and often is not even arranged chronologically.

The sports angle is covered by the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  Star players Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Lawrence Taylor for the Giants each struggle with their celebrity in New York and each end up with cocaine addictions that mar their careers.  But Deveney just can’t seem to focus on these two players and what they mean to the larger story of New York in the 1980s, and instead spends a lot of time describing the experiences of other Mets and other Giants and play-by-plays of important games in their championship seasons.  And while this kind of narrative can be interesting, there are whole other books dedicated to these teams’ champion seasons, whereas this one promises and fails to tell a more relevant story of Gooden and Taylor in 1980s New York.

The other storylines focus on New York mayor Ed Koch as his third term is rocked by scandals among the Democratic party leaders throughout the city.  Future mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his mark as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by aggressively pursuing cases against the Mafia as well as the political corruption in the Koch administration.  And Donald Trump carries out a convoluted plot to get a NFL team and a domed stadium in Queens (paid for with other peoples’ money, naturally) by suing the NFL on behalf of the USFL.  The plan fails, but he somehow redeems himself by restoring the Wollman skating rink in Central Park.  Pretty much every sketchy detail of his character (and lack thereof) was evident in the 1980s, but for some reason people still decided to make him famous and then elect him President.  Ugh!

These storylines – if the Mets/Giants stories were excised – could almost make a good book, but there’s still too much and it just comes out messy. Granted, the 1980s in New York were a mess and it’s still difficult to make any sense of it.  Deveney doesn’t make a dent in that mess, but I will give him credit for at least making it a pageturner of a read, if ultimately too fluffy for its own good.

Recommended books:

  • The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • New York Calling : From Blackout to Bloomberg edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

Rating: **1/2

Photopost: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island


This Thanksgiving weekend, my family & I visited the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. I’ve been to Ellis Island twice before as an adult, but my last visit to Liberty Island was when I was a small child in the 1970s.  Every child should get the chance to visit the Statue of Liberty at least once, so I purchased tickets well ahead for the full experience.

The ferries are efficient at getting visitors to the island although the experience of slowly disembarking with the “huddled masses,” hearing dozens of languages spoken around you, and being barked at to keep moving along is perhaps an unintentional living history experience of our immigrant forebears.  Once on Liberty Island, we were able to move more freely from the crowds.  We had tickets to go all the way to the crown, but first we circled the island listening to the excellent audio tour which told us about the history of the island, the statue, and the many things the Statue of Liberty has come to represent.  My favorite new thing I learned is that since women were prohibited from attending the dedication ceremonies in 1886, a group of women activists hired a boat to circle around the island and shout protests to disrupt the event.

It was an overcast day and rather blustery, but the warmest day of the weekend, so it was a good day to take in the views of the harbor.  The wall of skyscrapers spanning the Hudson River is particularly spectacular from this angle, and made me realize how much it has changed since my childhood (especially Lower Manhattan and the spectacular growth of Jersey City).  Finally we got out of the wind and headed inside to scale the Statue (having to fuss with some unfriendly lockers and crowds before entering).

The walk up the pedestal was not bad and then there was a nice view from the balcony, albeit exposed to stronger winds.  Then we continued up the spiral staircase to the crown.  This is something that was changed significantly during the renovations in the 1980s and a glimpse of the remnant of the old staircase actually brought back a memory of climbing them as a child.  The stairs were long and steep but didn’t feel all too taxing to climb.  The greater challenge was keeping my head down to avoid getting clocked.

And then suddenly we were at the top!  The crown is much smaller than I imagined (or remembered), basically a small platform no bigger than a landing between the upstairs and the downstairs.  We briefly took in the view, took a few pictures, and I banged my head a couple of times, and headed back down.  After a visit to the museum at the base, we took a crowded ferry to Ellis Island.

We had lunch in the cafe which had tables and chairs modeled on those used at the immigration processing center, thus once again giving a living history experience.  The audio guides lead us through the Great Hall and surrounding rooms following the experience of newly arrived immigrants processed through the buildings.  Even my 7-year-old was able to maintain interest through the whole thing.  There were several other exhibits we did not make it to that focused on the history of immigration before and after Ellis Island, as well as hard hat tours of buildings not yet renovated.  But it had already been a long, and tiring day.

Before departing we visited the Wall of Honor, the only wall we should have for immigrants in this country.  The kids were able to find the name of their great-great grandmother Bridget King Sullivan who arrived at Ellis Island from Ireland in 1908.  We sailed back to Manhattan followed by a flock of seagulls, hopefully to return another day.

Vista of New York

 

Ms. Liberty
A ferry cruises in front of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Liberty’s foot steps free of her chains.

The interior structure of the Statue.
The Great Hall on Ellis Island is perhaps the most important room in United States history.
The kids find their great-great grandmother’s name on the Wall of Honor.
The Main Building on Ellis Island.

Sailing back to Manhattan.