Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?

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’Tis the day to revisit our annual Noticing New York tradition: Checking in on the status of New York’s not-so-metaphorical `Ratnerville,’ which is to say to engage an annual stocktaking of the decisions we are making in the public sphere and whether we are veering off to a reality where a few of us revering money and accumulating “wealth” count for almost everything and the rest of us count for little.

The Noticing New York tradition of annual assessments of where we stand in this regard began in 2009: Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville).  The next year I returned to the theme: Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville.

When I first wrote, I spoke about how we use traditional Yuletide stories like the Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” about the reformation of the miser Scrooge or Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in a sense much the same story, framing the importance of free will and choice in terms of alternative possible realities, in order to contrast the bunching up of wealth and treasure with the spirit of shared community and giving.

The tradition of New Year’s stock taking is not isolated to Christmas.  An important part of Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, and the Jewish holidays that come with the fall equinox, is the self-examination, repentance and asking for forgiveness that are the work of restoring right relationship with the world going forward.   The Jewish tradition associates the beginning of the New Year with the fall equinox, and other traditions associate the New Year with other times like the annual renewal of life that comes with spring.  Still, there is a special appeal for me in the contrasting extremes when the beginning of the New Year is associated with the winter solstice, the dark and deepening cold of the longest night of the year when the lights we offer each other for cheer seem to provide the greatest and most necessary comfort.

It is the longest night of the year, and it is also the turning point when the days begin to lengthen.

When I first wrote about “Ratnerville’ I was writing about how closely the accumulation of a huge swath of Brooklyn by Bruce Ratner and his Forest City Ratner company at the expense of the community at large paralleled in reality the foreboding alternative reality presented in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  That was an alternative reality that had been avoided by the good choices made by George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart).   In the film, the plot of which I detailed, George Bailey was a banker, a good community-oriented banker, and the alternative reality (shown to George via the heavenly intervention of an angel, Clarence Oddbody) was a world in which Henry F. Potter, a bad banker, has monopolistically accumulated the ownership of everything in the town of Bedord Falls, Potter's instinct being to keep others impoverished to ensure and continue building his own wealth.

George represents the good but unexalted, perhaps unrecognized choices essential to a shared and vital community of mutual support.  Potter represents the vortex of bad decisions which George resists, decisions, seemingly simple, involving the potential of personal benefit for George at the cost of what really matters, his human relationships and human spirit.  Twice, George faces the specter of surrendering his fate to Potter, an unholy melding that would sacrifice up the fate of the other residents of the small town of Bedford Falls.

Whereas in the embodiment of choices is split between two the two bankers in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947), in “A Christmas Carol” (1843), preceding it by more than one hundred years, it is the character of Scrooge that, with his reformation, embodies both these polar opposites ending the story as an opposite example to his existence at the story’s outset.

While I have long believed myself to be quite an aficionado of the “Christmas Carol” story including who has played Scrooge and who has played it best,* it was only this season that it came to my attention, via Turner Classic Movies, that Lionel Barrymore, who plays the despicable Henry F. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was also famous for playing Scrooge on annual radio broadcasts and was scheduled to play the role in the very fine 1938 film version of “A Christmas Carol” that ultimately starred his close friend Reginald Owen, due to an intricate cascade of misfortunes.
(* Seymour Hicks played the role in the first sound version of the story, Scrooge, 1935, followed fast afterward by the 1938 version with Reginald Owen. Hicks had previously played Scrooge in one of the silent film versions.  I am a firm believer that the 1951 “A Christmas Carol” with Alistair Sim is hands-down the best version, although I am fond of George C. Scott’s 1984 color version and always a fan of Patrick Stewart’s work who took a turn in 1999.  It is funny how strangely satisfying Mr. Magoo, voice by Jim Backus, was in the role in 1962, sort of the way Michael Caine’s performance was fun when he did a version with The Muppets in 1992.  I think I am one of the few people who saw and remember a version where  Basil Rathbone, more famous as Sherlock Holmes, played the role in 1956 -1954?.  He played it again in 1958.  In 1956 he played Scrooge in one production and in another Jacob Marley’s ghost opposite Frederic March’s Scrooge.  With the proliferation is retellings Rathbone was also able to play Marley’s ghost twice.  In the story Jacob Marley is Scrooge’s deceased partner, essentially a version of Scrooge who doesn’t get to reform.)   
Basil Rathbone on left playing the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's deceased partner, essentially a version of Scrooge  who doesn't get to reform and on right in another production playing Scrooge who does eventually reform  
In "It's a Wonderful Life": on left Lionel Barrymore (who played Scrooge in annual radio broadcasts) playing the Scrooge-like Henry Potter and on right Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, the banker with friends who fends off succumbing to the Potter world
Alistair Sim, perhaps the very best ever to play Scrooge.  On left, Scrooge the epitome of a miser at the outset of the film.  On right, the reformed Scrooge now a model of kindness and generosity (above six images added 12/26/'13
The story of Scrooge is perhaps more powerful and daring (and hopeful) than the incarnation of these themes in the similar “It’s a Wonderful Life” tale because it envisions that the wealthy, misguided though they may be when they hoard, are themselves spiritually malnourished by their preoccupation with accumulating wealth.  The 2009 book, “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger", by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson makes the case that unequal societies deprive and impoverish not only the poor, but the wealthy as well, that “unequal societies are bad for everyone within them-the rich and middle class as well as the poor.”
Not depicted in every film version of "A Christmas Carol" are the swarms of ghosts like Marley revealed to be haunting the air high outside Scrooge's window consigned to float futilely and literally aloof, able to do nothing but realize how in life they separated themselves from the rest of mankind.  Above, clockwise from upper left, 1.) The Mr. Magoo cartoon version, 2.) Drawing for a Speaking Books version 3.) Another cartoon film version, 4.) The Alistair Sim version. 
Above, the ghost swarm revealed and visible from Scrooge's window upon Marley's defenestrating departure in the Patrick Stewart film version
A year ago, after a fall season of intense media hype, I was writing about how the piled up pirate treasure of the newly opened Ratner/Prokhorov “Barclays” arena represented an impoverishment of the neighborhood despite the way that people were crowing about “the spectacle of its glitter.”  See: Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure.  Two years ago I wrote about the accumulating takings of the public realm in that year: Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville.
The "Barclays" Center advertising oculus showing Barbra Streisand 
This year despite the costly subsidies for that arena ($700,000 for two Barbra Streisand Concerts?) people are talking about how that arena is not making financial projections and its owners may cut back on its glitter’s polish.  No matter, it’s too early to project the private profit.

This year the true measure of where, without correction, we could be headed in this society came in the form of plans revealed at the very beginning of the year to sell off our heavily used and relied upon New York City libraries in deals concocted to benefit developers, not the public.  I could hardly believe it.

Libraries?  Could there be any better example of giving and pooling of resources to be shared for the common good and for the pursuit of the highest human aspirations than libraries?  Therefore could there be anything more astoundingly miserly on the part of the well-to-do and well connected than to take those resources, generous gifts from the past, to sell them off and shrink the library system in deals where the eye is on private profit?    While many public assets were being put on the sales block by the departing Bloomberg administration and its friends, schools, parks, public housing playgrounds, hospitals, one must wonder:  If we can’t stop them at libraries where can we stop them?

In February, my wife Carolyn McIntyre and I co-founded Citizens Defending Libraries (with an associated petition) to at least stop the sell-off of the city’s libraries and the deliberate underfunding and shrinkage of the library system.  It’s been a hell of a year.  (Oh yes, though it’s not what it’s all about, Ratner’s in the picture too when it comes to libraries.)

Selling off libraries and diminishing the public commons is not good for anyone, the wealthy included.  Why are we doing it?  One reason is that costly subsidies were being directed at supporting the private profit of Ratner and Prokhorov’s arena while the libraries were being deliberately underfunded at unprecedentedly low level.  That underfunding by the Bloomberg administration commenced at approximately the same time the administration commenced moving forward with the library sell-offs.

Truth to tell, we are not just wrangling with problem human values these days, not just the human instinct for personal and individual gain.  Our values, and the values of the wealthy, today are mediated through a corporatist filter.  It has been suggested that if corporations were truly the individuals the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested they must be treated as, they would, by definition be considered psychopathic.  Corporations can only be motivated by the pursuit of profit.  Profit doesn’t and can’t measure the common good.

One of the things afoot his year that is terrifying is possible passage of the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed treaty that would in multiple ways make governments subservient to international corporations.  See:  Saturday, October 12, 2013, The Other Government Shutdown Now In The Works (One You Are Not Hearing About): A Corporate Replacement Of Government Via The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Pete Dolack, author of the blog “Systemic Disorder,” speak about the TPP.  He suggested that with its system of secrete tribunals it would put corporations on a par with governments.  I suggested, and I think we agreed, that corporations would actually be at a higher level: The secret tribunals would only be empowered to decide cases between governments based upon the criteria of profit, not public good.*  In other words the playing field would be tilted to consider only what is important to corporations and not the public welfare it is the job and duty of government to deliver.**  There is much that is good in the world that never gets measured in terms of monetary exchanges or profit.  But wasn’t that what the Dickens “Christmas Carol” story was about too?  Likewise, "It's a Wonderful Life."
(*   The New York Times recently wrote confirmingly about how the TPP (not specifically referd to by that name in the article) and other treaties now affecting countries in Africa wipe out or substantially impede the ability of countries to regulate corporations to improve public health.  In the case of their articles the examples only involved tobacco, but the issues are much more broad based.  See: Tobacco Firms’ Strategy Limits Poorer Nations’ Smoking Laws, by Sabrina Tavernise, December 13, 2013.)
(** Corporate interests can get advantage over of the needs of government and public welfare through technicalities people might never imagine or understand.  This Christmas Eve morning I woke up to a story of the front page of the New York times business section telling me something I wouldn’t have suspected- was I not thinking?- despite having worked with bankruptcy attorneys and collecting many legal opinions addressing the potential of bankruptcy issues: As of relatively recently, there is “unusual provision in the federal bankruptcy code” giving “traders in swaps, options and other derivatives” a special status, “a so-called safe harbor.” Those fellows have been given, in contradistinction to other creditors, “a legal right to 100 cents on the dollar.”  Among other things, this means that, in the case of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the unusual right to 100% payment cannot be balanced against the “very strong public-interest considerations” in returning Detroit to a properly function status and health, this despite the fact that the article suggests that the $1.4 billion transaction that generated these rights was sort of a bankers’ swindle for Detroit that “smells’ when examined.  The article suggests that exactly contrary to its original intention of providing financial stability, the safe harbor Congress handed out may have led to the assumption of bigger risks, more derivative activity and bigger likelihood of financial meltdown.  Something to sort out and think about.  See: December 23, 2013, ‘Safe Harbor’ in Bankruptcy Is Upended in Detroit Case, by Mary Williams Walsh.)
And if you don’t remember that not everything that is good in the world can be measured in terms of money will you then become separated from your values and from the rest of society?

Days ago the architectural critic for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, wrote a column of restrained alarm about the new super-tall towers that are being built in Manhattan to exult the wealth of the 1% and literally place them at a level above all other citizens, potentially at the expense* of everyone else.  See: Critic’s Notebook-  Seeing a Need for Oversight of New York’s Lordly Towers, by Michael Kimmelman, December 22, 2013.
(*  Among other things Kimmelman pointed out how five of these luxury towers are recently the subject of investigation because somebody inveigled Albany legislators to bypass city officials and specially exempt the buildings from property taxes.  This was a special deal even the Bloomberg administration wasn't accepting.  See:  See: Monday, October 14, 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo Quashes Moreland Commission’s REBNY Subpoena and Other Follow-The-Money Subpoenas Hitting Too Close To Home and Friday, October 25, 2013, Update On Cuomo Corruption Investigation’s Nonissuance of Subpoenas- More Subpoenas Are going Out, Just Not To REBNY .)
Kimmelman also, in the footsteps of Ada Louise Huxtable and her last column for the Wall Street Journal (one year ago- December 3, 2012), has criticized the New York Public Library’s Central Library Plan with its consolidating shrinkage, sell-off of libraries and destruction of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library stacks.
Slide promoting Skyscraper Museum Show- Left to right: 432 Park Avenue, One57, 111 West 57th, Four Seasons at 30 Park Place, 56 Leonard, Hudson Yards Tower D.
Kimmelman’s cautionary article about the new towers going up for the wealthy was likely promoted by the a new show about them at the Skyscraper Museum together with an unfortunately after-the-fact critical report, “The Accidental Skyline,”  from the Municipal Art Society.  These buildings are startling and it is hard to absorb or assess their impact on the rest of us even as we know that they will cast shadow on Central Park (worst at the winter solstice).  Kimmelman’s online article links to information about them.  The sales website for one of them, 432 Park Avenue is itself enough to astound in terms of how much it alone must have cost to build.  It affords 360 degree views of what can be seen from the various apartment heights under construction, including the very tallest.
Added Dec 25, 2013- Daily News extracting shadow diagrams from MAS "Accidental Skyline" report. 

Rendering of 432 Park Avenue
Expected view south from 432 Park Avenue
Looking down, what were once considered very tall buildings rimming Central Park, such as those on Central Park West now seem tiny.  It is like an airplane view.  I remember my three year old cousin in awe after his first airplane ride explaining his experience.  “They looked like ants,” he said.  Do we look like ants to the buyers of these apartments?  How will the buyers of these apartments experience us?
Rendering of 432 Park Avenue
Expected view north from 432 Park Avenue over Central Park- Click on this or any other image in this post to enlarge
Added Dec 25, 2013- Daily News extracting shadow diagrams from MAS "Accidental Skyline" report. 
Kimmelman writes about one of the buildings, the Nordstrom Tower, oddly configured for the sake of better views of Central Park to “cantilever over the Art Students League, a landmark building from the 1890s, in French Renaissance style, by Henry J. Hardenbergh.”   Says Kimmelman: “Picture a giant with one foot raised, poised to squash a poodle.”
Slide promoting Skyscraper Museum Show-"View of Central Park from One57"
At the same time that I looked at the scarily exciting views that will be seen from 432 Park Avenue I had to wonder.  I thought about Charles Montgomery's new book about the benefits of urban living:   “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.” Urban living, Montgomery says, makes people happier, but even as he suggests that urban density helps people to be happier, he says that, based on surveys, there is a Goldilocks zone were people are happiest.  People living in cities are happier than those living in suburbs, but those living in city towers are not as happy as those living in more low-rise environments.  See: Does City Living Make Us Happy? Leonard Lopate Show, Monday, November 04, 201.

Tall luxury buildings are coming to teeter over Brooklyn Heights too if Mayor de Blasio doesn't continue to fend off those who would sell and significantly shrink the Brooklyn Heights Library to build such towers.
Renderings released by the Brooklyn Public Library of two of the buildings that might be chosen to replace the Brooklyn Heights Library if it is sold and shrunk.  Neither is as tall as possible.
Might there be taller building looking more like this?  The subject was explored by Noticing New York.
Maybe those people living up so high in those apartments won’t actually be so happy (if they reside in them at all).  Might the vertiginous thrill of those views only present them with anxiety, reminding them of the precarious purchase they have on their advantageous over and separation from others in society?

I know how my past year has been spent:  I have been cheered to be working in the company of others fighting for our communities and preservation of the public realm, a realm that we can all benefit from by sharing.
As the shadows lengthen to maximum on a winter solstice evening might we imagine their darkness generating a Dickensian ghost swarm to fill the view?  (added 12/26/'13)

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