Former Parks Commissioner Recalls Highs, Lows and Secrets of Central Park

Adrian Benepe  | September 17, 2012 4:00 AM

Former NYC Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe shared highlights of his career, the history of Central Park, and some of its secrets in his interview with MetroFocus. He currently works for the Trust for Public Land, a national preservation group.

Editor: Andrew Blauner
Contributors: Paul Auster, Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Buford, Susan Cheever, Ben Dolnick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Adam Gopnik, Brooks Hansen, Mark Helprin, David Michaelis, Francine Prose, Nathaniel Rich, John Burnham Schwartz, Susan Sheehan, Colson Whitehead, Alec Wilkinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: Apr. 2012

Adrian Benepe, the former NYC  Parks and Recreation Commissioner from 2002 to June 2012, wrote an introduction to the “Central Park: An Anthology,” a collection of essays edited by Andrew Blauner about the crown jewel of New York City’s parks. Below is an excerpt in which Benepe shares highlights from his 30-plus year career working in city parks.

On Oct. 3, Benepe will appear at a public event about writers’ odes to Central Park alongside Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger and former mayor Ed Koch at 92Y Tribeca. Tickets are available here.

I recently had the opportunity to record an oral history of New York City’s parks for a high-tech start-up. The software wizards there created a Web-based map of the world and asked people near and far — comedians, bartenders, professors, city servants — to talk about their pieces of the world. Mine involves approximately five thousand pieces of property under the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, our parks, playgrounds, beaches, recreation facilities, meadows and woodlands covering more than twenty-nine thousand acres, about 14 percent of the city.

Yet I found myself telling not one, not two, but three tales of Central Park. The first described a few of the Park’s quirky characters, the second discussed the amazing temporary art installation known as The Gates, and the third covered the great statues and movements featured along Literary Walk and throughout the Park’s great expanse.

When I was in college, I had a summer job, perhaps my most interesting summer job, as a pushcart vendor in Central Park. It was an enormous pushcart that belonged to the Front Porch restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan. This was in the summer of 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial celebration, the tall ships, and fireworks, when disco was ascendant and “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway. It was a summer when NYC was mostly grimy and decrepit, with stifling subway cars covered in graffiti, but there were signs that all was not lost. It was also a summer when a girl I had just met at Middlebury College came to visit from her home in California, and Charlotte Glasser fell in love with New York, and would later marry me in Central Park.

Every day, I would get my cart and fill it up with tureens of cold soup and interesting fruit breads and push it — all six hundred pounds of it — from West Eighty-Second Street to Fifty-Ninth Street. I sold food at lunchtime at the south end of the park, and then, after lunch, I pushed the cart to the Delacorte Theater, outside of which I sold food at dinnertime. Though the cart lacked a Parks permit and the restaurant did not inform me that I needed one, no one enforced the rules at the time. There was a passel of other vendors selling creative food, and a few classic hot dog/pretzel guys who likely had real permits. Every once in a while a police officer would show up and shoo us away, but we would come back and sell our soup, falafel, or tacos. (The charismatic guy who sold falafel would shout out to prospective customers, “Falafel — Will Not Make You Feel… Awful!”) We banded together and enjoyed friendly competition, except for the two hot dog guys, who once had a fight that ended with one stabbing the other in his arm with a large hot dog fork. During this time, I came to know a lot of the people who seem slightly unreal to me now.

Top: Before its restoration in 1983, Belvedere Castle in Central Park was covered with graffiti and was in disrepair like many attractions in Central Park. Bottom: The castle as it appears today. Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

When we refer to the “bad old days” of Central Park, we are usually talking about the days of rampant crime, graffiti, abandoned buildings, bare lawns, and dead trees. And yet I miss some aspects of those old days. In particular, Central Park was home to a lot of “characters” who added to the atmosphere, but who, for the most part, are not there anymore.

One of the characters I met, the Poet O, trundled around Central Park with a shopping cart. He had a bushy white beard and he would ring a handbell. If you gave him money, he thanked you by reciting a poem that he composed on the spot, a sort of blank verse. He made promises to cure paying listeners of sexual diseases by ringing his bell. I talked with him often, and once he realized that I didn’t have the means to pay him for his wisdom, he dispensed it for free. Among other things, he explained to me the value of Central Park as a large, outdoor sanitorium. He said he was mentally ill, and the park enabled him to get out of his single room in a West Side hotel and be out in nature — not elbow to elbow with people — where he could experience what he called “the natural medication of nature.” The park, he explained, was saving the government huge amounts of money by allowing mentally ill people to “self- medicate” through the intoxicants of the romantic landscape and avoid expensive mental hospitals and drugs.

Another character, a flamboyant man with a pompadour, toured the park on an elaborate bicycle, pulling a tricycle with a red wagon behind it. A series of enormous tropical birds, cockatoos and parrots, rode on the tricycle and wagon behind him as he circled the park, allowing people to admire his birds. Perhaps the best known was Adam Purple, with his long flowing white beard and purple, tie- dyed clothes, who traveled the park on his purple bicycle picking up horse manure to compost in his garden on the Lower East Side. For a while, a woman in purple, whom he called Eve, accompanied him.

Photos of Central Park's Great Lawn prior to restoration in 1997 (top) and after (below). Benepe said that if you played football on the Great Lawn when it was neglected you'd get cut from all the rocks and sand. Photo courtesy Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

A hippie named “Mountain,” who had long, dirty-blond hair, played Frisbee every day by the Naumburg Bandshell. The Bandshell was where the other hippie kids hung out. Mountain, not one of the rich kids from Central Park West or Fifth Avenue, was lean and muscular and had the air of a Westie from Hell’s Kitchen. He knew how to throw a Frisbee better than anyone else and served as a kind of Peter Pan leader of the Lost Boys (and girls) of that generation. But Frisbee wasn’t his only talent. Mountain could commune with anyone, and he had to, because the area was habituated not only by middle- and upper- class teenagers, but also by a group of drug dealers who counted on the kids as customers. Soon enough, a new group would overtake the area — roller disco skaters in colorful outfits dancing to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” and then, in another summer, Chic singing “Le Freak” as dozens of skaters and hundreds of onlookers of all races and nationalities and sexual persuasions grooved and mingled and proved why New York City was the capital of where people just got along.

These were some of the Central Park characters. Today, they are not nearly as numerous. The Central Park Conservancy and New York City have invested six hundred million dollars in private and public funds to restore the glory of the nineteenth-century landscape in a way that suits twenty-first-century users. Ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen in linen suits strolling along the paths have given way to both genders running and cycling in Lycra tops and bottoms that their predecessors would have seen as underwear. Or perhaps you simply cannot see the characters now that almost forty million visitors enter the park each year. I suppose it is better that the park is busier than ever rather than abandoned, which it essentially was back in the seventies. Maybe now you just have to look a little closer to find the characters.

For sixteen days in February 2005, Central Park was transformed by the now-famous art installation known as The Gates. Centuries of great sculptors are featured along Literary Walk and throughout the park’s broad expanse, and The Gates, like a powerful orange highlighter, drew the attention of millions of New Yorkers for a blissful and brief rapprochement with the unexpected and the great.

In February 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 five-meter-high "gates" in Central Park for two weeks. The duo had proposed the park-wide project in 1979 but were not granted permission until Mayor Bloomberg's first term in office, when Adrian Benepe was parks commissioner. The total cost of the project, over $21 million, was paid for entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In an interview with MetroFocus, Benepe called the installation "a transformative experience." Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

The NYC park system has a very large temporary art program. The Parks Department works with groups like the Public Art Fund and Creative Time and also with independent artists to temporarily install contemporary works in parks across the city, notably on Park Avenue and at Grand Army Plaza and in City Hall Park, among many other places. I became deeply involved in perhaps the greatest and briefest exhibit, The Gates, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in the early 2000s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought the project would have merit both as a work of art and as a tourist draw, so he and Deputy Mayor Patti Harris instructed me to ensure the park’s safety first, but ultimately to try make the idea a reality.

The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month.
Over the previous twenty-five years, we had repeatedly informed Christo and Jeanne-Claude why we could not allow them to do the project. In its initial version, the plan called for fifteen thousand gates, with footings deep in the lawns, rocks, and woodlands of the park, and an autumn installation date. With so much potential damage to the park at stake, and scheduled as it originally was at a time of high visitation (and bird migration), as well as staunch opposition from preservationists and community residents, their project seemed undoable. In fact, Park Commissioners Gordon Davis and Henry Stern both formally turned it down, in Davis’s case with an elaborately argued booklet of more than one hundred pages.

Now it was my job to try to find a way to make it work, and Central Park Administrator Doug Blonsky and I, along with a very diplomatic assistant parks commissioner named Jack Linn, had the task of figuring out how to work with the artists so they could realize their extremely personal vision while doing no damage to the park’s landscape nor unduly disturbing the resident wildlife and park visitors. The artists had to figure out a way — and they did very cleverly with their engineer, Vince Davenport — to construct The Gates without digging holes in the park. Among the many ingenious aspects of their design was the use of hollow, extruded vinyl tubing to be used for the gates themselves, an idea based on similar technology used for fencing horse paddocks. The design used heavy weights to which lightweight gates were bolted to the asphalt paths. Christo and Jeanne-Claude also reduced the number of gates by half and installed the exhibit in February, during the park’s icy season, when visitation is normally extremely low and no bird migration takes place. The artists, along with Vince and his wife, Jonita, organized an army of paid technicians and volunteers to install the gates, and the entire process, including countless technical meetings, public review presentations, press conferences, and walks through the park, were part of the work of art. By the project’s conclusion, the park remained completely unharmed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands with artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the first day of "The Gates" installation in Central Park on Feb. 12, 2005. Photo courtesy of NYC.GOV/Edward Reed.

On February 12, 2005, Mayor Bloomberg and the artists unfurled one of the saffron-colored curtains that hung, the crowds streamed through, and like a very long line of dominoes, the other gates were unfurled by volunteers. The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month. It was a transformative experience for me. I had gone from being the guy who had to deliver the bad news as to why the show could not go on in the nineties, to being the one who helped make it happen. The Gates made me, and millions of visitors, look anew at Central Park, because the rows of orange gates formed lines across the landscape, undulating with the terrain, sweeping up and down hills, and swooping along lake edges and roadways, as if a giant hand had traced the contours of the park with an orange highlighter. For the first and perhaps only time, the complexity of this work of art, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s, was dissected and revealed in a way it had never been before,brilliant but evanescent. People thronged into the park and packed nearby hotels, shops, and restaurants; it was even rumored that the Starbucks near Columbus Circle ran out of cups. Tourism hit record numbers, and the city saw a positive economic impact estimated at almost $250 million. Like the three days of peace and love at Woodstock in 1969, the two weeks of unbridled joy in New York City in 2005 touched even the most cynical of the city’s residents. Perhaps most important, New Yorkers felt a very tangible sense that they could recover from the terrible devastation of the World Trade Center attacks. The Gates was not just the single greatest art installation the city has ever enjoyed; it was a reaffirmation of the enduring vitality of New York City and cities in general.

In the seventies, Central Park was a municipal embarrassment and a symbol of a city going down the tubes in a hurry. Graffiti obscured everything in sight, including the abandoned, once-historic buildings, festooned with extraordinary ornamentation, designed by eminent architects of the previous century. Vandals broke off pieces of stone carvings on the Bethesda Terrace. The fountains were empty and full of scrawl. The rowboats were covered with graffiti. There was no grass on the lawns, and the park lacked horticulture. The poorest of people made overnight homes in the burned-out buildings. Crime soared, from rampant drug dealing to hundreds of muggings and even murders. That was Central Park, the city’s premier park; one can imagine what the rest of the park system looked like.

These were the parks I knew as a teenager, in the summer of 1973 when I first worked for the Parks Department on the Lower East Side, cleaning toilets and locker rooms at the Dry Dock Pool on East Tenth Street and then picking up garbage and sweeping up huge piles of beer cans in the East River Park. I learned firsthand that a combination of reduced funding, low morale, and poor work attitudes can drive even a once proud park system to its lowest level. It was also the Central Park I first encountered when I graduated from Middlebury College and came back to New York City in the early spring of 1979.

In 1979, Adrian Benepe, center, joined the Urban Park Rangers, a program that hired young people to become ambassadors to showcase the transformation of city parks. Photo courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation.

Through a series of happy accidents, I made my way to the Parks Department, meeting Betsy Barlow, the newly appointed Central Park administrator, while working as an unpaid intern at a community newspaper. I learned about Commissioner Gordon Davis’s wonderful idea to start a program called the “Urban Park Rangers.” The Rangers would bring a corps of fresh-faced, mostly young and idealistic parks “ambassadors” to the public and show in a tangible way that the park system was undergoing a rebirth under Mayor Ed Koch. From May 1979 to September 1980 I served as an Urban Park Ranger. On one of my first patrols, walking through the Ramble, I stopped to talk to a middle-aged man, who said,”You know, I’ve lived in New York all my life, and the city really got lost when we abandoned the parks to the vandals and the hooligans.” He told me, “When we gave away the parks to the bad guys, that was the end of the city.” And I think he said, or he may simply have implied that “we will take back the city, and the city will become livable again, when the parks feel safe and decent again.”

It was very hard to feel hopeful about the future at that time. I would look at tinted postcards and black-and-white photos of old Central Park with perfect green lawns and flowers and fences and intact buildings and monuments and no graffiti and say, “Look at the terrible things that have happened. Can it ever be nice again?”

Soon, the city, and its parks, did indeed begin to become “nice again.” The Central Park Conservancy was formed under the leadership of Betsy Barlow, who was named park administrator by Mayor Koch and Commissioner Davis. The city restored the Sheep Meadow, and the Dairy was reopened as a visitor center. Then came the magnificent restorations of the Belvedere Castle in Central Park and the Boat house in Prospect Park. Each time a restoration occurred, the city sent a message. It was like winning a war against decrepitude and vandalism and all the bad things that had happened. With some minor bumps along the way, the work started by Davis and Koch and continued under Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and their respective parks commissioners, Betsy Gotbaum and Henry Stern, paved the way for Mayor Bloomberg to lead the largest expansion and improvement of the park system since the halcyon days of the WPA and Robert Moses.

The NYC Parks Department, among many other things, oversees most of the city’s collection of statues and monuments; certainly everything that is in a park. Statues and monuments in a city are traditions that go back to the ancient days of Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The primary purpose of civic sculptures and monuments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to honor heroes or ideals. Parks have memorials to all of the wars; to generals, soldiers, presidents, and other leaders. There are bronze statues and generals on horse back (unfortunately, all men). More recent additions to New York City Parks include statues of Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, and Harriet Tubman, as well as those representing a diversity of backgrounds — Mahatma Gandhi and Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglass, among others.

Some of the very best sculptors lived and practiced here in New York City. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a man many consider the best sculptor of the nineteenth century, and certainly the best American sculptor ever and a true genius, was born and raised on East Twenty-second Street.

Before becoming a successful sculptor, he served as a cameo cutter and then an apprentice. He eventually relocated to Cornish, New Hampshire, and founded the Cornish Colony, where all the artists and writers and sculptors and painters — including John Singer Sargent — went and lived. He created some of the great sculptures of American history, including the one of Admiral David Farragut that stands in Madison Square Park, the seated figure of Peter Cooper that sits in a small triangle behind the Cooper Union, and perhaps most famously, the gilded statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman being led by the allegorical figure of Victory, which stands at Grand Army Plaza at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.

Today, Central Park is home to many statues and monuments, but very few have been added since the mid-twentieth century, when a trio of South American heroes went up along Central Park South. People now have come to understand that Central Park itself is, as the Central Park Conservancy historian and photographer Sara Cedar Miller stated,”the most important work of American art of the nineteenth century.” Even more remarkably, it is a work of art that has managed to survive and evolve, look better than ever, and serve more visitors than ever, over 150 years after it was conceived and created. And it was considered perfect then.

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions. It is a long distance, in a Proustian way, from the characters of Central Park I met then. But it underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishment of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes an ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

© Bloomsbury USA. Excerpt published with permission.

The Hard Sell of an American Icon: The Statue of Liberty

Menglin Huang  | July 3, 2012 4:00 AM
Author: Edward Berenson
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: May 2012

The Statue of Liberty has long become the country’s most recognizable icon, yet in the late 19th century, Americans could not foresee all the statue would come to represent — America’s freedom, its form of democracy and even immigrant history.

This gift from the people of France had to be promoted by the statue’s sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who traveled to New York in 1871. Before he could secure New York’s harbor as the setting for his statue, the artist struggled to gain American support for the project. As he traveled the country, Bartholdi proposed the plan to every person he met, many of whom were socially influential, but only few showed interest.

Most wealthy New Yorkers seemed unwilling to reach deep into their pockets. People in D.C. and Philadelphia that were supportive in spirit were reluctant to contribute, as the statue would be erected in New York, after all.

In a brilliant, 19th-century style “social media” campaign — a newspaper publisher in New York whipped up the final necessary $102,000 from 121,000 ordinary Americans in 1885. The statue’s unveiling on Oct. 28, 1886 drew more than a million people into New York’s streets.

See who was for, and against, Lady Liberty by clicking the graphic.

MetroFocus/Karen Brazell

The Idea Factory: How New Jersey’s Bell Labs Engineered the Future

Christina Mulligan  | June 27, 2012 4:00 AM

Innovations at New Jersey’s Bell Labs included those that paved the way for satellites and cell phones. Jon Gertner, author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” sat down with NJToday Managing Editor Mike Schneider (@MikeSchneiderNJTV) to discuss the company’s past and how it remains an active research facility until today.

Author: Jon Gertner
Publisher: The Penguin Press 
Publication Date: March 2012

From its founding in 1925 until its demise in the 1980s when its owner AT&T was broken up, Bell Labs, now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, was the biggest laboratory for ideas and innovation in the world. The research and development wing of AT&T was so forward-thinking that its innovations sometimes took up to 20 years to develop.

As Jon Gertner, author or “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” explains, “It was attached to a monopoly, AT&T in those days. It had this huge stream of money that was flowing, so it could hire the best people, build the best facilities.”

The labs started in New York City, and moved to its current location in Murray Hill, New Jersey in 1941. It was there that Bell Labs hit its prime with the invention of the transistor in 1947.

“That’s really the building block of all digital products in contemporary life,” said Gertner. The three scientists who invented the transistor received the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1956.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been touched by Bell Laboratories, the birthplace of the laser, the solar cell and fax machines.

“We think of California and Silicon Valley as synonymous with innovation but really for the better part of the century, New Jersey was the center of innovation — first with [Thomas] Edison… and then Bell Labs as really being the center of innovation for 50, 70 years,” said Gertner.

Though AT&T kept its interests in Bell Labs after its court-ordered antitrust breakup in 1984, it soon sold Bell Labs to Lucent.

“It didn’t seem that things would go downhill or things would change that drastically,” said Gertner. But it did. Although the company was free to compete in other markets, it just wasn’t up for that kind of competitive metabolism.

The legacy of inventors and Bell Labs’ ability to think into the future was what kept the company striving.

“Maybe that long-term thinking needs to come back in some ways,” he said. “It’s a nice balance for the short-term, high metabolism, high-speed innovation we have right now.”

Videos from the AT&T archives on how the company explained its innovative technology and imagined the future:

WATCH VIDEO: “First Born,” 1991

“First Born,” a short film produced in 1991, imagines what life would be like in 2003 — when, according to the voiceover, “telephone lines will unlock the knowledge that will help us learn, keep us well and set us free.” The film tells the story of a San Diego family welcoming a new baby into the world. They use voice-activated computers, shop online using an electronic Yellow Pages and communicate using video pay-phones.

WATCH VIDEO: “Party Lines,” 1946

A relic of the past, “party lines” allowed several homes to share the cost of owning a telephone by connecting to one local loop. The only drawback? Only one person could use the line at one time and, if you picked up at the wrong time, you could eavesdrop to your neighbors’ conversations, so phone lines weren’t secure or private. Sharing a phone line required etiquette that’s now obsolete. This 1946 film offers advice on the “do’s and don’ts” of sharing a party line.

WATCH VIDEO: “The Thinking Machines,” 1968

This 1968 film takes an abstract concept, computer logic, and compares it to human thought to explain how computers work. “The Thinking Machines” was originally produced as part of an in-school educational program that AT&T piloted during the 1960s.

WATCH VIDEO: “Scrap!” 1974

Handsets, wiring, even decrepit telephone booths — “Scrap!”,  from 1974, explains how waste created by the telecommunications industry was recycled in the Nassau Smelting and Refining Works facility. According to the film, in those days the plant processed 2 million pounds of telecommunications waste and reclaimed copper, aluminum, and other metals for re-use.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.

Be Independent in Your Summer Reading

Lindsay Armstrong  | June 15, 2012 4:00 AM

Are you ready for summer reading? Flickr/Abdulla Al Muhairi

Summer is just around the corner. With it comes a hallmark of the season as reliable as the warm weather and long days: the summer reading list. Everyone from Oprah to The New York Times Book Review editors  weigh in on which titles you should peruse this season, but consider making your own discoveries at some of the city’s bookstores, most of which cover the top-sellers and also have their own quirky preferences.

Whether you want a light beach read or finally have the time to delve into “Ulysses,” avoid the glare of an electronic reader and throw an actual book in your bag. Besides, technology and sand don’t mix.

Here our picks for local bookstores worth a visit.




WORD caters to Greenpoint's literary tastes. Photo courtesy of WORD.

126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Beloved by both the hipsters and the moms with babies on their hips, WORD in Greenpoint proves that the small can be mighty. In spite of limited square footage, the store offers a well-curated collection. They specialize in paperback fiction, narrative non-fiction and cookbooks. WORD also loves the indie press. The store carries a respectable collection of titles from publishers such as Europa and Unbridled and is hosting a summer book club with only books from independent publishers. Some people even find love among WORD’s book stacks. The store has a board where singles can post literary-themed personal ads.

Good for: Indie reads or making a love connection



163 Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Book Court’s owners must be doing something right. The store, which opened in 1981, has not only survived the onslaught of the big box book store and the e-reader, it actually expanded during that time. There’s lot of space for everything here, including up-close-and-personal events with authors who reliably sell out venues like the Highline Ballroom and the 92nd Street Y. Past highlights have included Chuck Kolsterman, Lou Reed and Miranda July. Colson Whitehead is on tap for July. Book Court also has a long-standing policy of offering best-sellers at 30 percent off the retail price on a rotating basis.

Good for: Picking up the newest best-seller at a low price, free events with authors you’d normally pay a pretty penny to see.

Browsing the used books at Freebird.Photo courtesy of Freebird Books.

Freebird Books & Goods

123 Columbia Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Weekends only.

Customers describe the Freebird experience as similar to hanging out in a friend’s living room – if your friend is a bibliophile with a penchant for New York City or the end of the world. The store carries mostly used reads and owner Peter Miller says he has one of the largest collections of books on New York in the city. Miller is also the founder and host of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club. The idea started as a joke. Four years later, it’s still going strong with members analyzing books like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Stephen King’s “The Stand” at monthly meetings.

Good for: Books on New York City; the backyard where you can read and pretend you’re on vacation.

Other great choices in Brooklyn:

Park Slope: The  Community Bookstore: 143 Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

Greenlight Bookstore: 686 Fulton Street in Fort Greene.

Boulevard Books and Café: 7518 13th Avenue in Dyker Heights.


The front window at Idlewild Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Idlewild Books.

Idlewild Books

12 West 19th Street, Manhattan, or 249 Warren Street, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Stocked with books about other countries, Idlewild Books is appropriately named after the original name of  John F. Kennedy International Airport, which was called Idlewild Airport until 1963. To add an element of serendipity, Idlewild organizes its shelves of fiction and non-fiction titles by locale. You may find E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View” next to a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. The store also plays host to conversational language classes in French, Spanish and Italian at both the Manhattan and the new Brooklyn location.

Good for: Reading up on that exotic place where you’ll be spending your vacation or at least helping you pretend you’re there.

Posman Books:

Grand Central Station, East Terminal, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

I read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in poorly understood Spanish; not by choice. I forgot to pack books for my vacation and had to make a last minute purchase in the international terminal of the airport. If you’re forgetful like me, Posman Books in Grand Central Station could be your saving grace. They carry best-sellers, a good selection of fiction and a well-curated collection of non-fiction titles, all of which you can pick up while you’re waiting for your train to some countryside getaway in Connecticut or for your commute.

Good for: Grabbing a good read on the go. Posman also has shops in Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue and at Rockefeller Center.

Other great choices in Manhattan:

The Strand Book Store: Broadway and 12th Street in the East Village

Book Book: 266 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village

Three Lives & Company: 154 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village

Upper Manhattan

Book Culture's second location is very kid friendly. Photo courtesy of Book Culture.

Book Culture

536 West 112th Street or 2915 Broadway in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

Book Culture is actually two book stores rolled into one. The 112th Street location, formally Labyrinth Books, carries more academically-oriented works. The first floor is made up of all new publications, organized by subject matter. What many people don’t know is that Book Culture’s owners also opened a general book store around the corner on 114th Street. This location has an especially large children’s section. With one trip uptown, you can satisfy the reading needs of everyone in the family.

Good for: Finding something a bit more challenging than the average beach read or a great kids book


Word Up Books

4157 Broadway in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

Call it the little book store that could. Word Up was the brainchild of Veronica Liu, a Washington Heights resident who wanted a book store in her community. She approached the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance about creating a pop-up book sale during its annual Uptown Arts Stroll. Local residents loved having a local book store so much that they fought to keep it at the end of the festival. Word Up is about to celebrate its first anniversary thanks to lots of fund-raising and donations. In order to keep costs down, the store is run by a collective of volunteers and most of the books are donated. The selection can be erratic, but the friendly staff is more than happy to help customers find something interesting among the stacks. Word Up also has a packed roster of events that keeps the store buzzing every night of the week.

Good for: The thrill of discovery. You never know which book you’ll find on the shelf or who you might run into here. Past guest readers have included Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez.

Other great choices in Uptown Manhattan

Hue-man Bookstore & Café: 2319 Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem, Manhattan.

La Casa Azul: 143 E. 103rd Street in East Harlem, Manhattan


Turn the Page Again

39-15 Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Queens. Closed Sunday.

One of the few independent booksellers in Queens, Turn the Page Again gets rave reviews for its customer service. The store sells used books priced between one and five dollars. One reviewer noted that the selection tends to the mainstream, but most locals are just excited to have a book store nearby, complete with a sitting area and coffee. The shop is run by Transitional Service for New York and provides job training for people who have struggled with mental illness.

Good for: Bargain hunting.




100 Reasons I’m a ‘Card-Carrying’ Yankees Fan

Bob Woods  | June 12, 2012 6:57 AM
Author: Bob Woods
Publisher: Stewart, Tabori & Chang
Publication Date: June 2012

I moved to New York’s Upper West Side shortly after graduating from Syracuse University in 1975, eager to put my journalism degree to work. I had grown up in Syracuse as a diehard Yankees fan, and like lots of boys during the 1950s and ’60s, collected Topps baseball cards, stacking them neatly in shoeboxes and clothes-pinning doubles to the spokes of my hand-me-down bicycle’s wheels. (And, yes, my mom later threw out my cards, too!)

My fandom had faded in high school and college — not entirely because those cards were long gone and the Yanks stank then — but my arrival in New York coincided with the team’s resurgence, so I was primed for a rekindling. Ignition came the night of Oct. 14, 1976, when Chris Chambliss blasted the walkoff homer against the Royals that propelled the Yankees back to the World Series for the first time since 1964. In fact, Games 3 and 4 of that Fall Classic were the first major league games I ever attended — in the newly refurbished “House that Ruth Built” (and George Steinbrenner rebuilt), no less. Even though Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine swept the Yanks, getting to see Chambliss, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella, Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, Sparky Lyle, Ed Figueroa and the rest of the new breed of pinstriped heroes up close and personal cemented my rebirth.

Click below to browse a selection of classic cards from Bob Woods’ book:

While those Bombers surged to world championships the following two seasons and remained competitive for several more, keeping my fan fires burning brightly, my career as a magazine editor and writer wouldn’t converge for another decade, by which time the Yankees were mired in another prolonged slump. In 1989, now a full-time freelancer, I teamed up with a former colleague working for The Topps Company, to create a quarterly baseball magazine tied into the then-booming card-collecting craze. Topps Magazine rode that wave until it crested in the mid-90s, and provided me with the wonderful opportunity not only to venture into sports writing but also to recapture the fun of ripping open packs of baseball cards and hunting for yet another generation of Yankees stars. (Alas, Topps dispensed with the familiar slabs of bubble gum in 1992, denying me that sweet nostalgia.)

Bob Woods with his daughter Grace, now 17. Woods said that in the fall of 1996 he stayed home from work and let his children skip school in order to attend the Yankees' ticker tape parade after they won the World Series that year. Photo courtesy of Bob Woods.

This time my card collecting took on a personal generational character. For the other happy confluence then was the rise of a new Yankees dynasty, right at the time my wife and I were sharing our mutual love of the team with our young son and two daughters. Thanks to my continued association with Topps, despite the magazine’s demise, our kids had amassed sizeable card collections. So when Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and our other Yankees luminaries won four World Series in five years, a familial circle of fan life was opportunely complete. (We still laugh about the older two playing hooky so we could go to the parade in Manhattan after the glorious 1996 run!)

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, specifically June 1, the day “Yankee Greats” was published. Aside from my byline on the cover, the book marks the latest point in my evolution as a Yanks fan. Our older daughter now lives in Brooklyn, and though she left her Bernie Williams poster and personally autographed Topps card at home, she still roots for Derek, Andy and Mo, and thinks Robinson Cano is cute. Her sister, a high schooler for another year, stills includes the Yankees among her BFFs and occasionally joins my wife and me on the couch to watch a game.

Our son, however, has broken the chain, much to our dismay. Our eldest went off to college in Florida and, following his childhood dream, got into the boat business in Ft. Lauderdale. All good by us… until he unexpectedly traded in the interlocking “NY” for the ever-changing and hardly classic Marlins insignia. Heresy, the four of us keep telling him, even as he feigns a continued affection for his former team.

But that’s just to appease me, I think, especially after he seemed thrilled (okay, he was sincere) when I told him last year that I’d signed a deal to write a book that uses Topps baseball cards — some from his abandoned collection — to illustrate blurbs about 100 Yankee superstars. Although the assignment proved to truly be a labor of lifelong love for the team I grew up adoring and have been fortunate enough to merge into both my professional and family realms, as another Father’s Day comes and goes, I have to admit a tinge of sadness that one of our own has switched franchises. While his new allegiance reminds me of old New York stories of family feuds fueled when the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants all called the city home, I have one very grateful consolation. At least our son isn’t a Red Sox fan!

Bob Woods, a freelance writer, is the author of “Yankee Greats: 100 Classic Baseball Cards.” Growing up in upstate New York during the 1950s and 1960s, Woods collected Topps baseball cards. He later moved to New York City and teamed up with Topps to create Topps Magazine.

From the Ground Up: A Poet’s Ode to the City by Foot

Rowan Ricardo Phillips  | June 7, 2012 4:00 AM
Author: Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Publication Date: June 2012

My favorite subway line is the 11-Train. There’s always one waiting. It goes everywhere. It’s slow, but completely reliable. It runs the same on weekends and weekdays, rush hour and off-peak.

The 11-Train is also known as my own two legs. I walk just about everywhere. No distance is safe from my gait. I would walk from the West Village to the Marais district in Paris if I could, and without stepping foot on the back of a single dolphin or whale, unless one absolutely insisted, of course.

In fact, the two things that keep me from walking to and from everywhere all of the time are that I absolutely detest being late, and I absolutely detest having to rush. My distaste for rushing — I grew up in one of those “hurry-up-but-don’t-rush” households — reminds me of a common misconception about New Yorkers: that we tend to be rushing off from one place to another constantly, transmogrifying the city into an endless crossing and ramble of impersonal forms like grounded flocks of still-swerving starlings, clumps scuttling off to a somewhere rendered pyrrhic by the observer of it all who, by his or her interest in New York, is always more interested in the mass, the crowd, the throng, the rush, the hustle, the seeming chaos, the “New York” of it all. A flashed setting in a film or a television show offers up this New York, often an aerial New York, a constantly cavernous New York, in impossible scale, and underemployed white people in laughably large apartments where the same high school dramas became the same college dramas became the same adult dramas.

New York loves the novel. But poetry? Their relationship is as strange to explain as explaining to the rose that the thorn, too, is the rose. So I walk it off.
The deeper we commit to that New York and its marketable two dimensions, the further from us New York escapes. Of course we rush. But who wants to be defined by their haste? Perhaps in part I walk in defiance of this definition of New York. As every poem I write seems to push back toward a better definition of why exactly I’m here and what it is I was born to do, so too do I walk, I absorb, I remember, I forget, I stare, I ignore, I bristle when the nostalgia comes because I’m ever skeptical of nostalgia.

I was born in New York, raised in New York, met the love of my life in New York, welcomed my daughter into the world in New York — and yet, New York still struggles to feel real to me. And this is a good thing. Reality shouldn’t be a bill with your name on it or someone’s spite; rather, it should be a search for something true, a centering vision that steadies the self to see and do good. Somewhere in me, as I walk and walk this grid, between my blissful detachment and antagonizing familiarity, something twists, it torques like a departing cork, something real and recoverable that is in and of itself and costly to describe.

New York loves the novel. But poetry? Their relationship is as strange to explain as explaining to the rose that the thorn, too, is the rose. So I walk it off. And as I walk, as the neighborhoods fade in and out — the bodegas turning into boutiques and back to bodegas again and then back to boutiques — I recall the firemen coming by on a blistering summer day to open a hydrant so the kids could play in the street; the Delicioso Coco Helado carts marking the far-off horizon like snowcaps. This is not nostalgia. It has all always been nature. Even as the 11-train strides through the scene.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a poet, critic and translator. He teaches at Stony Brook University’s Department of English and splits his time between New York City and Barcelona. The poems in “The Ground” are inspired by observations of New York City post-9/11 landscapes.

Picket Line at the Strand and Evolving Labor Tactics

John Farley  | May 3, 2012 4:00 AM

On May 1, unionized workers at the Strand Bookstore formed a picket line in front of their workplace, and were joined by participants from Occupy Wall Street. The Strand's unionized employees' contract expired last September, and they say they're preparing to authorize a strike vote in coming weeks. Photo courtesy of Samantha Grace Lewis

On May Day, the workers holiday that falls on May 1, Occupy Wall Street’s call for a general strike merged with the activities of labor unions and immigrant activists — the holiday’s traditional celebrants. In the midst of diverse political and artistic actions throughout New York City, members of the 150 or so unionized employees at the Strand Bookstore picketed their workplace over the ongoing dispute over contract negotiations, their action accompanied by the brass sounds of a ragtag marching band.

In the coming weeks, the Strand’s unionized employees say they plan to vote whether to authorize a strike. To get to this point, Strand workers say they had to become self-organized, since until recently, as many of them claim, the local branch of the United Auto Workers that represents them was too understaffed to offer them the support they had hoped for.

In many ways, the Strand employees’ situation represent the convergence of the various issues surrounding May Day. Those issues  include an effort to use new models and techniques to reinvigorate the labor movement  — often without the help of unions — for traditionally unorganized sectors of the economy, as union membership rates continue to decline nationally.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2011, only 5.4 percent of retail employees were union members. And union membership overall has declined considerably since the 1970s, particularly in the private sector. In 2011, 6.9 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, compared to 35 percent during WWII.


Q&A with Novelist Gary Shteyngart

Perry Santanachote for NYC-ARTS  | May 1, 2012 11:25 AM

Author Gary Shteyngart. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Best-selling author Gary Shteyngart brings his wit to the PEN World Voices Festival in the form of a pop culture Q&A he has designed for the literature festival’s founder, Salman Rushdie (author “The Satanic Verses: A Novel”).

The festival (April 30 — May 6) convenes writers from around the world to discuss matters both literary and political at public events across the city. At the annual closing event, the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture,  Sir Rushdie will examine the many faces of censorship in contemporary society and the role of the author within a climate of forced silence and intolerance. The post talk “game” requires Rushdie to ad lib responses to whatever the satirical Shteyngart brings to the table, where nothing is taboo.


Writer and Critic Luc Sante. Outsider and PEN World Voices Panelist

Perry Santanchote for NYC-ARTS  | May 1, 2012 4:00 AM

Luc Sante. Photo by Evan Sung.

Although Luc Sante grew up in New Jersey and New York City, the Belgium-born author and PEN World Voices Festival panelist says he has never stopped feeling like an outsider. “While this has sometimes made me unhappy in my life, it has nevertheless helped equip me as a writer,” he says.

Sante is perhaps most well known for his historic documentation of New York City’s underbelly in “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” (1991).

He revealed the personal history of his his youth, immigration, Belgium and his family in “The Factory of Facts” (1998). “It had a big impact in my hometown, Verviers, which hasn’t often been written about,” he says.  “It holds up a mirror to the Belgians, but it’s also about the U.S., of course.” (more…)

Q&A with Lila Azam Zanganeh, Enchanted by New York and Nabokov

Perry Santanachote for NYC-ARTS  | April 30, 2012 4:00 AM

Lila Azam Zanganeh. Photo by Hank Gans.

Parisian Lila Azam Zanganeh claims she would never have become a writer if she hadn’t moved to New York City. Little more than 10 years after she arrived here,  New York City’s Center for Fiction awarded her book “The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness” (2011) the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. This Wednesday, writer Lila Azam Zaganeh meets with Proust scholar Eugène Nicole for a lunchtime literary discussion at New York University, a free event of the PEN World Voices Festival, which marks the PEN American Center’s 90th anniversary. (more…)

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