Thursday, January 27, 2011

No One Is Surprised

So for those of you who live in the City, you may have come across the slim man, donning a feathered top-hat, wearing silver platform shoes, and strutting his stuff with a walking staff who can often be seen in the east side.  Or you may have seen the man who runs through the City streets in full make up, a unitard and fishnet stockings with his hair in a top knot.  Some might think, "well that really isn't 'unique' to NYC; odd ball characters can live anywhere."  And while I could argue the details, my point is that in NYC these folks might garner a second glance from New Yorkers but they rarely get anything approaching sustained attention.

The other day in the subway, I saw a man painted completely in gold who was wheeling around a gold office chair.  Ok, I realize that the picture I took is quite blurry, but what is clear is that no one (other than me) in the train is looking at the man.  Nothing phases New Yorkers.  At first when the man boarded the train I think other passengers shifted uncomfortably, worried that he would be soliciting.  However, once he sat down and road along quietly, everyone else went about their business.

New York City is one of the few (if not only) places that allows anyone and everyone to be who they want to be and look how they want to look...without harassment or interference.  Now THAT is fantastic.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gracie Mansion (88th Street and East End)

So I braved what was another ridiculous snow storm in NYC today to go to my appointment tour of Gracie Mansion (  Apparently the others who were supposed to get the tour at the same time canceled (so much for hearty New Yorkers) so I had a private tour!  Note that in order to get a tour of the home, you have to call 311 and be persistent until you get connected to the Gracie Mansion Conservancy where you can leave a message and hope for a call back (not the best system in this day and age of electronic communication, but what can you do?) and confirmation of your tour request.

Many who live in the neighborhood might be curious about this beautifully-situated yellow "mansion" (house by today's standards) next to the Carl Shurtz Park (pictured right) and the East River.  It is open to New York City events, for public tours ($7 for adults and free for students), and group high teas (in the Susan E. Wagner Wing Ballroom, which was added in 1966 by the then-current Mayor Robert Wagner's wife).

The home has a long history from its construction in 1799 when Archibald Gracie (a shipping magnate) built the home on some 11 acres for his family's country home (NYC then really stopped at what is now lower Manhattan and he could take a ship along the East River and get to this summer home in about half an hour).  The Gracies were one of the most prominent families in NYC and hosted luminaries like Alexander Hamilton and Washington Irving at the home. Gracie lost the home when he traveled to Europe seeking reparations from the Spanish government for some of his ships that had been commandeered in the War of 1812, and his eldest son lost the home related to some failed cotton speculations. Two other private owners lived in the home, but then it passed to the City, where it fell into disrepair when the City really didn't know what to do with the home (at one point it was used as a comfort station).  Finally, with the urging of "Master Builder" Robert Moses (who was building what is now FDR Drive under the Gracie Mansion lawn so as not to disturb the home's spectacular views), Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set aside as the residence for New York City mayors in 1942 (although Mayor Bloomberg chooses not to live there, and thereby improving public viewing and access, thereby labeling it the People's House in 2002).

Gracie Mansion is appointed with period furniture (see photo at right of the convex mirror with eagle and ball and chain hanging opposite the main chandelier in the Susan Wagner Ballroom), floor coverings, wall coverings (including Jean Zuber wallpapers), and a beautifully painted compass rose motif faux marble painted floor (part of the renovations selected by Mayor Ed Koch) in the foyer, which was part of an expansion Gracie did to realign the entrance to the views of Hell Gate.  Some of the furniture is reproduction, some are antiques owned and maintained by the Conservancy, and others are on loan from other museums or historical societies.  If you are a fan of historical interiors or the Federalist style of architecture, take the time to visit this quaint home and get a personalized tour.  It's quite a treat in this hustle and bustle city to take a step back in time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

United Nations along the East River (1st Ave and 46th St)

I've walked past the UN headquarters regularly for over 5 years walking my dog, but never ventured past the gates until today. 

Like the permanent missions to the UN, whose flags fly in English alpha order (Afghanistan to Zimbabwe) in front of the headquarters, the 18 acres of the UN headquarters is international territory.  Except for the lobby and the basement level coffee shop, book store and gift shop (which has fabulous jewelry and interesting other gifts from all over the world), it is not open to the public except by guided tours (  Tours are offered in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian.  Tours in Italian, Japanese, German, Korean and other languages are offered upon request.  Tickets are $16 for adults, $11 for seniors and students, and $9 for children 5-12 (no children under 5). 

I took one of their English guided tours (60 mins) during which our group of 12 was informed about the UN's history beginning after WWII; the designers of the headquarters (which included renowned architects like France's Le Corbusier and Brazil's Oscar Niemayer); its six principal organs (International Court of Justice (not in NYC), Security Council, General Assembly, Economic & Social Council, Trusteeship Council, and Secretariat (which is the administrative body that operates out of the tall, skinny building--39 stories above ground and 3 below); and the amazing collection of art gifted to the UN by its various member nations (which number 192 at present).

The tour was well worth the $16 and the time (of which there never seems to be enough).  Besides the incredible art and artifacts (the huge ivory carving from China that took over 2 years to carve is awe inspiring--see right), the breadth of issues and the reach of the UN through all of its organs and its affiliated organizations (like UNICEF and The World Bank) are truly amazing.  They are tackling global issues such as war, hunger and poverty, women's rights (see below), childhood disease and mortality, climate change, nuclear disarmament, and the global economic crisis.  All of these things seem insurmountable, and perhaps they are, but the UN and its affiliated organizations are working on them.

I have never been a big fan of the UN, as it has seemed pretty ineffectual to me (and when the general session is IN, our neighborhood traffic is a mess, all the nice restaurants in the City are packed, and all the trash cans in the area are eliminated so I have no place to dispose of my dog's poop bags on our walks).  But our tour guide gave me something to ponder when she paraphrased Kofi Annan (Secretary General from 1997-2006) answering a reporter who questioned why the UN was so ineffectual as compared to God who was able to create the world in 6 days by saying that God had the benefit of working alone.  Yes, something to ponder in this world that feels ever-smaller with increasing technology.