Thoughts on oligarchy

Is it disingenuous to not think of the United States as an oligarchy when the brother of a former president (their dad was also a former president) has a decent chance of being our next president, as does the wife of a former president? This is all in the last three decades over four administrations.

From Wikipedia: “Oligarchy, meaning ‘few,’ and ‘to rule or to command,’ is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next…”

I draw no grand conclusions from this, but it’s worth considering.

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Speaking of #fail

I’m going to unpack this tweet I made earlier today, mostly because it doesn’t make sense without context (140 characters, sorry) and because the column in question is frustrating insofar as it relates to Occupy Wall Street (lol remember that?).

A bit harsh, but read on.

A bit harsh, but read on.

I agree with the central thesis of the Daily Beast’s column, Why Industry Hashtags #Fail: because they’re easy targets that are easily co-opted by critics and can easily go viral. The notion of a social media campaign – corporate or otherwise – going completely toe-up is catnip in the twittersphere.

As a case study the author used #MyNYPD, a social media debacle in which the NYPD tried to solicit photographs of friendly interactions between officers and the public. It failed miserably. Social-savvy activists, including the main Occupy Wall Street Twitter account, began to collate photos of abuse (perceived or actual) by the NYPD, mainly in the context of the protests.

I was tracking with the column until I read this:


Why Industry Hashtags #Fail, by Samantha Levine. The Daily Beast – May 5, 2014.

The author is right, none of the established news organizations that deigned to cover the protests delved into accusations of wholesale misconduct or systemic brutality. However, that’s not – as she suggests – evidence that such widespread, systemic conduct did not occur.

And is it really a base instinct to question the police department’s handling of Occupy, something that neither Bill de Blasio nor Bill Bratton has really addressed in the context of future protests? No news outlet here in New York, that I’ve seen, has even attempted to take the police department to task for illegally detaining people or the widely documented instances of abuse of power and force. No news outlet that I’ve seen took a comprehensive look at how the NYPD reacted to Occupy and came back to the police department with questions.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying there was widespread, systemic brutality in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy protestors, though if presented with such a case I’d have no problem believing it based on what I personally saw. I’m not saying the NYPD isn’t well-liked, as I believe they are by everyday New Yorkers.

What I am saying is that even though the point of the column – why industry hashtags don’t work – is ultimately made, claiming that there wasn’t systemic abuse in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy because there weren’t any news reports about such a thing is lazy and careless in any context. The question was never really asked. My larger point is that the question should have been, and should still be, asked of the NYPD.

Forget for a minute the ideology behind Occupy Wall Street. There’s a right way and a wrong way of handling protests, especially those that are big enough to warrant a full-scale response from the world’s largest police force. I’m not convinced the NYPD handled it anywhere close to the right way. And there hasn’t yet been a reckoning from those who have since come to power.

What’s going to happen next time, like if New York City wins its bid to host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention?

I’ll close with this excerpt (linked above as well) from The Atlantic that looked at the 14 most egregious allegations of abuse by the NYPD during the Occupy protests and was based on an eight-month study conducted by law clinics at NYU, Fordham, Harvard and Stanford.

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street. The Atlantic - July 25, 2012

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street, by Conor Friedersdorf. The Atlantic – July 25, 2012

Occupy had its run in the mainstream news cycle, and has long ago ceased being much of a story. But the media largely failed in holding police departments across the country accountable for how they handled Occupy protesters. There are bound to be more large-scale protests in New York, and we would do well to start asking the questions that should have been asked and answered years ago, perhaps starting a national dialogue among law enforcement in the process.


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Priced out of Carnegie Hill

Small businesses hit hard by rent increases, changes in co-op rules. This piece was published Jan. 29 in Our Town

But come Jan. 31, the Carnegie Hill mainstay will be closing its doors and relocating north to Lexington Avenue, with paired-down offerings that will only include the printing department.

In one sense, the closing of a long-time neighborhood retailer has become the new normal in Manhattan, as rising rents make it ever-tougher for mom and pop stores to keep the doors open. But those pressures are now being exacerbated by a change in federal tax rules affecting retailers who rent space from co-op buildings. Prior to 2007, the “80-20 rule” required that these buildings receive 80 percent of their overall revenue from shareholders who owned apartments.


Neighborhood favorite Green Tree Deli in Carnegie Hill is now closed.

But in 2007, that regulation loosened, enabling buildings to generate more money from leasing out retail space. Now, as five-year leases have started to expire, co-op buildings are cashing in on the ability to dramatically increase their business tenants’ rents.

Blacker and Kooby is one of five businesses along a four-block stretch of Madison Avenue that have closed or moved recently, along with the restaurant Jackson Hole, Moormends Luggage Store, the Green Tree Deli and the Gerald Bland Gallery.

Kooby said the co-op he’s rented from for the past 50 years offered him a lease at double the $35,000-a-month he’s currently paying.

“We decided that’s it, we’re leaving,” said Kooby. “The store, as it exists, that’s gone. Over half a century.”

Gerald Bland – who rents space for his antiques gallery from a co-op – said he’ll be moving at the end of March after his lease expires. He was offered a new lease with increased rent, which he declined.

It’s unclear whether Jackson Hole, Moormends and the Green Tree Deli were forced to close or move as a result of the change to the 80-20 rule; Jackson Hole closed last spring for repairs and a rental sign only recently appeared it its former space. An employee at another Jackson Hole location said the Madison Avenue restaurant would be moving, but she didn’t know where or when the move would take place.

But whatever the reason, it’s clear there is a small-business exodus from Carnegie Hill. Kooby said his store was the last holdout on a block that once had many staples of life in New York – a butcher, a hardware store, an art gallery and a cobblers, in addition to the recent businesses that have left.

“Everybody is gone,” said Kooby. “At this point I’m not going to start something new, that’s how it is. I’m ready to retire.”

One of his employees, who gave his name as Khem, is originally from Guyana and has worked at Blacker and Kooby for 30 years. Like his boss, he’s stoic in the face of the store closing.

“I had a good 30-year run. It’s happening all over the city, we’re the last guys in this neighborhood,” said Khem. “I’m going to take some time off and do some travelling.”

Kooby’s daughter, Vanessa, has taken over the printing side of the business at 1390 Lexington Avenue. Blacker and Kooby will still offer custom invitations and stationery, as well as engraving, letterpress printing and calligraphy, at that location. Still, she said, it’s the end of an era.

“Fifty years is a very long time, our customers are practically crying at the register,” said Vanessa Kooby. “The chain stores are creeping up Third and Madison, Lexington is really where all the smaller businesses are going, and the smaller businesses are really what makes our neighborhood our neighborhood. Otherwise, you could just go live near a strip mall in New Jersey.”

Many of the stores, she said, look empty during the day, and are probably on Madison Avenue simply for the status that such an address confers. “They don’t seem to mind if they don’t compensate for their rent because I guess they get some kind of externality being on Madison Avenue, but they look empty inside,” she said. “For people who live in Manhattan and live in the neighborhood, it’s kind of destructive because it doesn’t really serve them anymore.”

Businesses being priced out of the neighborhood is not a condition unique to Carnegie Hill, and not every co-op in the city will be able to increase their retail space rents. Under the new law, a building must pass one of three criteria in order to keep their federal tax benefits, which include valuable tax deductions; a co-op must either meet the original 80-20 requirement, spend at least 90 percent of their revenue toward things that will benefit tenant-shareholders, or commit at least 80 percent of its total square-footage for residential use.

Nevertheless, real estate experts and brokers have hailed the regulation change as a tremendous benefit to co-op buildings, which can now entice buyers with low-maintenance apartments and, in some cases, actually offer a dividend to property owners drawn from the rent they charge ground-floor retailers.

But federal tax regulations and real estate boons aren’t important to Carrie Doyle, who grew up in Carnegie Hill and now lives nearby with her family. For her, the physical change in the neighborhood is as heart-breaking as it is striking.

“I spent my childhood eating plates of greasy french fries at Jackson Hole after school, and ordering buttered bagels from Green Tree deli, and buying suitcases at Moormends and school supplies at Blacker and Kooby. For the past few years my sons have been doing the same,” said Doyle, 41. “Carnegie Hill was always a neighborhood – a sweet, safe, and happy community tucked in a little pocket on the Upper East Side. Now, all the mom and pop shops are being swept away and we’ll be left with rows of chains. Really, how many Duane Reades, Chase Banks and Starbucks do we need?”

Do you have thoughts about the changing face of the Upper East Side? Email and your comment could be printed in Our Town next week.

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Charlotte Lichtblau, Upper West Side artist, émigré, dies at 88

The German Expressionist remembered by friends and family as ‘Lotte.’ This piece was published Jan. 14 in the West Side Spirit

There’s the framed calendar hanging in the bathroom that she made as a child with her grandmother. The text beneath, written in German, says, “If people knew how much we loved each other they would laugh.”

In the living room is a portrait of her father, Ernst Adelberg, who in addition to getting his Jewish family out of harm’s way in 1938 Vienna, was also instrumental in getting many extended family members to America.

In the dining room is a painting of seemingly disparate objects; a bible and a crucifix, an African mask, a tallow candle and a milkweed pod. “This was her way of seeing the world,” said Claudia Payne, Lichtblau’s daughter.

The bible depicted in the painting – oversized, leather-bound and hundreds of years old – was rescued from a bombed-out monastery in Austria and is still in the family. The African mask sits on a nearby hutch.

Charlotte “Lotte” Lichtblau died on Dec. 18. She was 88.

Lichtblau converted to Catholicism in 1961, a minor scandal among her Jewish-Viennese émigré community at the time. According to those who knew her best, she always considered herself both Jewish and Catholic, and considered the latter a fulfillment of Old Testament orthodoxy.

“She was profoundly convinced that she was both Jewish and Catholic,” said Father Patrick Ryan, a Jesuit priest and lecturer at Fordham University, who delivered her eulogy.

Under the auspices of a family vacation to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, the Lichtblaus made their way to England and finally to St. Louis in 1940. Eventually, the Lichtblaus moved to New York and settled on the Upper West Side. Lichtblau met her husband, Hans, through a local club for Viennese expats.


A self portrait by Lichtblau.

Her friend Bruce Payne, who was married to Claudia and is the caretaker of Lichtblau’s artistic estate, said Lichtblau was something of an outsider in the New York art scene, as it wasn’t exactly in the zeitgeist to earnestly depict religious scenes, let alone take them seriously.

“She was serious about them morally, and she was serious about them in terms of how stories shape our identity,” said Payne. “She was always a bit of an outsider to mainstream New York painting, even though a fair number of New York painters, including Philip Pearlstein, thought highly of her work and always came to see it when it was available to see.”

Despite the emotionally heavy overtones in much of her work, Payne said Lichtblau was a warm person, often hosting lively dinner parties with Hans. “But she was also, you might say, a kind of heavyweight intellectual, and she was unpredictable a little in how she would react.”

Walking around her apartment, at a lifetime of collected work and memory touchstones, it’s apparent that art, and its execution, was inextricably linked to Lichtblau’s experience of life, war, religion and truth.

When asked once by her daughter why she chose to paint a particular biblical scene, Lichtblau replied simply, “I wanted to see it.”

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Fighting for the Soul of Washington Square Park

Some fear the possibility of the famous park becoming privatized. This story was published Jan. 8 in Our Town Downtown.

People who flock to Washington Square Park do so to revel in the pocket of nature in the West Village, for sure, but also to watch unlicensed street performers, take a snooze on a shady bench, engage in people-watching of the most varied order and sometimes sneak sips from brown paper bags or follow plumes of sweet-smelling white smoke. It’s a park for students, drifters, skateboarders, tourists and New Yorkers of all stripes, and many want to keep it that way.

Historically, when conservancies pop up for NYC parks, the results can be beneficial, but also bring some complaints. A 2010 report by Harvard Law School said that private groups participate in the management of half of the city’s 1,700 public parks.

According to the study, “This ‘privatization’ has generated criticism. The manager of Central Park, for example, was severely criticized for refusing to allow a protest during the Republican National Convention, and instead protecting the grass of the Great Lawn. Bryant Park’s management similarly has been criticized for commercializing its park by hosting fashion shows to raise revenue.”

Such conservancies have also been praised as protectors and preservers of public space.

“Historians have hailed the Central Park Conservancy, for example, as the long-awaited ‘protector’ of the park, and the Wall Street Journal has complimented the renovated Bryant Park as the most ‘urbane’ space in the city.”

The study says that critics of public space being privately controlled often say conservancies and the like become unresponsive to community needs as they relate to public space, but the study takes the position that frequently, government agencies, like the parks department, are just as unresponsive to such needs.


Hot dog vendors stage a rally in Washington Square Park on Dec. 8 protesting the city’s decision to not renew their vending licenses

According to Cathryn Swan, who runs the Washington Square Park Blog, the founding members of this new conservancy presented their plans to the community as a benign organization seeking to simply spruce up the park. The reality, she claims, is something different.

“They basically forced, in my opinion, the same model onto Washington Square Park that occurs at all these other parks but tried to camouflage it as these four nice women who just wanted to form a friends group,” said Swan. “But when you look at the 501c3, they’re not the documents of a little friends group.”

Swan’s referring to the non-profit application the conservancy filed with the IRS, which projects fundraising revenue in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in the coming years and includes the ability to award an up to $25,000 bonus for its executive director, who is a parks department employee.

The conservancy’s bylaws, which were made available to The Villager newspaper and posted on their website, calls for a board of anywhere between three and 25 members who will vote on a wide range of initiatives at the park. The conservancy’s executive director is Sarah Neilson, the parks department’s administrator for Washington Square Park.

Swan said the community has resisted pressure to form a conservancy at Washington Square Park for the past 12 years, but that this attempt was successful because of the way it was presented to residents and the community board by the four founding members.

“They may in their minds think they’re insuring the future of Washington Square Park,” said Swan, “but they also have to know what subsequently comes with those conservancies, which is there’s always more commercialization and privatization and private money gets to influence what happens at those parks.”

A major issue for Swan is the relationship between the parks department and the conservancy. In their pitch to Community Board 2 and residents, founding members Betsey Ely, Gwen Evans, Veronica Bulgari and Justine Leguizamo stated they would have no formal agreement with the parks department, including a crucial licensing agreement whereby the parks department could shift operational and maintenance duties over to the conservancy.

However, Swan recently obtained emails through a freedom of information request that showed the conservancy’s Evans, in an email to Neilson, saying, “We look forward to agreeing [to] a license agreement with the City. [...] We will make sure that the [conservancy’s] bylaws are changed before the license agreement is executed so that should not be a concern.”

In an interview with the Villager, the conservancy’s Ely said Evans’ email to the parks department was a joke and taken out of context. Neither Ely nor any other conservancy members responded to requests for comment from Our Town Downtown.

Swan points to another sign of what she considers the conservancy changing the nature of the park – the city recently decided not to renew licenses for two hot dog vendors that expired at the end of December. Critics of the decision believe it was really made by the conservancy in an effort to attract more cultured – and pricier – food options to the park.

Geoffrey Croft, President of NYC Park Advocates, said he received calls from angry parks department employees who said Ely made the decision to move the hot dog vendors out of Washington Square Park, contradicting the department’s official stance.

Phil Abramson, a spokesperson for the parks department, denied this and said, “The parks department is definitely retaining all management and control of Washington Square Park.”

Like Swan, Croft believes the conservancy could eventually have real power over Washington Square Park backed by its fundraising efforts.

“I don’t think anyone is against people helping out, as long as that’s what it is,” said Croft. “But generally people don’t get into this without wanting some degree of decision making power.”

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