Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center Tree.
There probably isn't a more recognizable or iconic symbol of Christmas in New York City than the tree at Rockefeller Center. It has got to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, and the crowds say it all. I went down there for the lighting ceremony once years ago, and, man, I hate to say it, but what a mistake that was. It was an early taste of how unbearably crowded these touristy places can get, and I couldn't get anywhere near the tree. As I recall, police barricades guarded the ceremony from blocks away and I could barely even see the jumbo-tron they had set up.

So I realized that the Christmas tree lighting is right up there with the ball dropping on New Year's Eve as far as events to avoid in this city go. But despite all this negativity, I've got to hand it to this city for having yet another event that is recognized and admired throughout the world. And so I took a walk down to Rockefeller Center, and as always noted how the sidewalks got increasingly more crowded as I came from the Upper East Side.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., leased the space in 1929 from Columbia University with the intention of building a new theatre for the Metropolitan Opera. However, due to the Stock Market crash, the plan fell through, and, left with only a few options, he decided to fund a new project entirely with his own money, making it the largest private building project undertaken in modern times. On the land was built a complex of fourteen office buildings. Rockefeller originally didn't want his name associated with the new development, but public-relations pioneer and prominent family advisor Ivy Lee persuaded him that it would attract more tenants.

A major controversy was avoided in the mid-30s when Lee and other advisers attempted to lease a number of buildings to German commercial interests and be dubbed the "Deutsche Haus", but strained relations with Hitler prevented that from happening. They were instead dubbed "International House North", and became the center for British in the U.S., and later Allied Intelligence during World War II.

Rockefeller Center actually kind of represented the end of an era in the history of architectural sculpture because it was one of the last major building projects in the country to sponsor a program of integrated public art. Sculpture Lee Laurie contributed twelve pieces, including the statue of Atlas across the street from the main doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Acclaimed architect Paul Manship was commissioned to create a masterwork for the central sunken plaza, and produced the gilded statue of the Titan Prometheus that is seen today. Although many sources throughout the world consider it to be the fourth most recognizable sculpture in the United States, followed by the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and the Empire State Building, it was not a work that Manship was particularly proud or fond of. Other sculptures that were at first commissioned and planned for throughout the plaza were all abandoned, and instead on Christmas Day, 1936, the ice rink opened up.

The first tree, however, was hastily and unceremoniously put up by construction workers in December, 1931. At a mere twenty feet, workers decorated the tree with strings of cranberries, paper, and even tin cans and the foil ends of blasting caps. Two years later, when 30 Rock opened, the official tradition began, and lasts to this day, with trees picked from around the tri-state area ranging from seventy to one hundred ten feet. Due to the width of the streets passing through, the tree can't exceed this height.

Plus, the star placed on top of the tree ways five hundred fifty pounds. All in all pretty extravagant, but that's New York for you I guess. Time for me to go to country for a while and get away from the hustle and bustle of this place. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old St. Patrick's Cathedral Becomes a Basilica

The altar at Old St. Patrick's.
The umbrella presented to the church, signifying its new rank as a basilica.
A closer shot of the altar
Another shot of the organ.
The organ.
A Chinese family that wished to take their picture with me.
A shot of the crowd during the reception.
Another shot of the crowd.
That skull on a cell phone that is common on condemned buildings.

This past week I got an e-mail from the Hibernians that Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott and Prince Streets in Little Italy, was being upgraded to a basilica, an honor sometimes given to important churches in a city, making Old St. Patrick's the Pope's official church in New York. Completed in 1815, it's unique-looking because it has no windows in the front, and high walls guard the graves on either side, a reflection of the anti-Catholic sentiment at the time, as rioters would destroy the stained-glass, and at one point nativist mobs even tried to burn the church to the ground. Despite its centrality to early Catholic life in this country, the Archbishop said that while filling out the paper work to apply for basilica status, he needed to prove that the church was still an active and important house of worship, and the Archbishop noted that despite all it's history, this church was not a "museum", but a "living, vibrant parish", as could be seen by the hundreds of Chinese faithful who packed the sides of the church, while some important guests took up the pews.

I was hastily given the job of an usher and a green, white and orange sash, and told to seat a well-dressed older Chinese woman in pew 5. She was with Father Jonathan Morris, who often appears on Fox News. I knew I recognized him but didn't say anything ... then I took the obviously important Chinese woman 5 rows to the back of the church instead of the front. My mistake. I just told her it was my first day here. I tend to say that a lot.

Anyway, it was a little unorganized as I had to guard two pews for Hibernians marching in the procession, trying my best to stop a whole slew of octogenarians who were trying to sit there, most of them with canes, one of them even blind. I didn't exactly feel comfortable asserting my authority over these people, and nobody was really going to listen to me anyway. But even though the Hibernians and Knights of Columbus bickered for a little while over who needed to sit where, and that two seats in the second pew needed to be saved for Justice Scalia and his wife (who I don't think showed up), eventually everything got settled just in time for the ushers to start spreading the word to each other that the Archbishop was coming through the door at any minute.

I stood in the back throughout most of the service mainly hoping that I wasn't in the way, until the head of the Hibernians asked me to go up to the front of the church so that I could help supervise the filing out at the end. So I walked up the center aisle alone during the closing prayer while the Knights of Columbus flanked me, about twenty on each side, a bunch of old guys in full uniform and swords drawn. When I got to the front of the church I made sure not to trip or fall backward or anything because I knew everyone would see me but at the end of the service Cardinal Egan came up to me and said, "Thanks for coming."

Next was off to the reception, where I went straight for the buffet table because I hadn't eaten all day. The place was packed and the line barely moving, and unfortunately prevented me from talking to Archbishop Dolan again. By the time I spotted him, he was already leaving. He gave a general wave in my direction and then a cop escorted him out the door.

I did meet Cardinal Egan, though. He was signing programs, and luckily had time for one more. He said, "So tell me about yourself."

Now, I knew I'd get about thirty seconds to talk, so I tried to make it count. "Well, Your Eminence, I'm with the Hibernians, I'm the Division 1 Historian, and I'm happy to be a part of all this. This is a great church with a lot of history." (Or something like that.)

He signed my program and then said, "And off we go." And quickly walked out the door with a priest. He had said something similar the last time I saw him ... he's obviously coached.

While wandering around the reception, a Chinese woman who barely spoke any English and had two small children came up to me and gestured to a camera. I thought she wanted me to take a picture, but soon realized that she wanted her four-year-old son to take a picture of her with me. The lady obviously thought I was more important than I really was. Her son could barely work the camera, taking a couple of pictures of the ceiling, so I suggested that someone get a picture of all of us.

On a side note, after I left, I saw a big picture of a skull talking on a cell phone, on a dumpster outside the Puck Building. I was surprised to see it because I'd seen the same picture on the side of McGurk's Suicide Hall, at 295 Bowery near East 1st Street, which was unable to receive landmark status and was demolished in 2005, but around the turn of the twentieth century prided itself as being "the roughest joint in town", a very dangerous dive bar where at least five back-room girls killed themselves by drinking carbolic acid.

I've added a video here that I found on YouTube of a news report of the ceremony, but, no, I wasn't able to spot myself.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gentrification and Change in Brooklyn

St. John's "Church of the General's" in Bay Ridge, built 1834.
For the first time, I thought I'd venture out of Manhattan, and write a little something about Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, my father's hometown, and nearby Coney Island, which is undergoing a makeover that is forcing many businesses that have been around since the early twentieth century to pack up and leave. Gentrification throughout the city has, as we all know, had its good and bad points, as it has made the city a safer, more family-friendly place to live, it has also made it absurdly over-priced. I can't help but think that these changes will redefine what a "New Yorker" is altogether. The born-and-bred "New Yorker" or "Brooklynite" of my father's day, a middle-class type who lived and worked in the city, will be weeded out, being replaced by the very wealthy, and as some other bloggers whose work I've read have attested, the city will become an private enclave for the rich. I think it's kind of a disgrace, but that's the way of the world I guess.

I used to be all for turning the city into a safer place by any means necessary, even if it meant "Disney-fying" it to the point that it was a very phony, commercialized, over-priced tourist destination, but now I've got to admit I'm not so sure. I've read a few blogs from some aging rockers who grew up in this city and wholeheartedly despise what it has become, and mourn deeply what it was in the '70s and '80s, what seems to be gone forever, and I've got to admit, the more I study the city's past, the more I'm starting to agree with them. Granted, it's great that I can walk through the city at three in the morning and not worry about being mugged, but I'm already beginning to feel that people like myself, who aren't criminals or drug addicts, are being weeded out as well.

But I digress. My grandmother's house in Bay Ridge was sold this past week, and it was the end of an era. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President, the old Yankee Stadium opened up in the South Bronx because the Polo Grounds couldn't fit all the people who were coming to see Babe Ruth hit home runs, and my great-grandfather from Dundalk bought the three-family row house at 222 88th Street. My aunt used to like to take my father out to Coney Island, to Luna Park, the Steeple Chase and the Cyclone, and now, many of the businesses along the boardwalk are going to have to close up shop and fast.

I've haven't made the trip down to Bay Ridge yet, but need to soon to take some pics, such as the 1834 "Church of the Generals," St. John's, where Robert E. Lee was a vestryman and where Stonewall Jackson was baptized in 1849. I hate to say it, but if we New Yorkers are not careful, it may someday be gone to, and it is up to amateur city historians like myself to keep the memory of places like this alive.