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Archives for July 2011

Birthday Traditions, Brooklyn Changes.

Having a summer birthday (on Monday I turned 31, what what!) in Brooklyn was always the same thing. I would bike to Coney Island, ride The Cyclone (built in 1927! Out of wood!) and then head to Ruby’s Old Tyme Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk for clams, beers and chat. A pretty solid summer tradition. Wish I could say I’d been doing it the last 31 years, but if that were true, then my folks would’ve been pretty worried about a 7 year old drinking beer and riding a roller coaster as a religious rite. I started this delightful tradition just since 2003, when I returned to Brooklyn after college.

For those not in the know, Coney Island invented fun. Really. Starting in the 1830s with oceanside resorts and heading through the turn of the Century, America was stuck in a Victorian era of proper social etiquette. You weren’t supposed to have fun in public, or see other people enjoying themselves. Coney’s 3 major amusement parks changed all that – Dreamland (1904-1911,) Steeplechase Park (1897-1964,) and Luna Park (1903-1944.) All of a sudden, it became en vogue to laugh, scream, twirl, hoot and holler for more, all amongst the clamoring masses.

After Eisenhower’s Interstate Act of 1956, and the ensuing Great White Flight of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Coney lay in ruins. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the City of New York started to turn things around by buying up parcels of Coney in order to revitalize it. My beloved Cyclone got landmark status in 1988. In visiting Coney every year on July 25th, in addition to taking tour groups down there (including our weekly AYUSA teenagers this summer,) I have a first-hand view on the changing face of Coney Island. The new amusement rides are fine for what they are (fast, cool, expensive) but the real tragedy is in the wholesale eviction of Coney’s boardwalk clam shacks and dive bars. The best of which is Ruby’s.

Started in 1934 by Rubin Jacobs, Ruby’s was voted the 14th sexiest beach bar in the world by Travel Magazine, as well as they serve up a mean plate of clams on the half-shell. In 2009, as part of a reinvention of the dilapidated, derelict, falling-apart amusement park, the City decided not to renew the leases of 7 different food stands on the Boardwalk. All of whom are family-owned and operated, and most of whom had stuck it with Coney through the good, bad, and worst of the times. The Italian-run amusement park operator Zamperla decided that the old time Coney atmosphere wouldnt fit with the new shiny rides and espresso culture being developed on the beach. The “Coney Island 7” as they’re now known, managed to eke out two more years, but at the end of this summer season, there’s  a good chance I’ll have to move my birthday tradition elsewhere.

Brooklyn changes. Traditions have to follow suit. Nothing is sacred, and history is history. And Lord knows its not possible to build for the working class anymore. Its just a shame that the city would rather raze a half-dozen family purveyors of working-class culture, in the form of clams, beers and dive bars. I’ll still ride the Cyclone every July 25th. But I’ll take my beer and clam money elsewhere.

By Matt Levy

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New Yorkers in Russia, Russians in New York

Mark and Alisa in Red Square

As my 60th birthday approaches (the fireworks go off August 17th!) my present to myself was a 10 day vacation destination anywhere in the world. I chose Russia; I’m a huge history nut and the lure of Russian history alongside architecture and war politics was hard to beat. From the Czars to the Soviet Era, to the tumultuous periods of perestroika (restructuring) and  glasnost (opening) with Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the burst of democracy in the late 1980s: this was my idea of a vacation! Luckily my beloved Fiance would put up with my historical hysterics. That, and St. Petersburg’s White Nights Festival would coincide with our visit. After Moscow and St. Pete’s, we figured we’d stop over in Helsinki, Finland on the way home.

Mark at the Moscow Circus

Moscow: Big and bustling city with a strong New York vibe, holding its head high as the first city of this huge nation. Red Square, the Kremlin, Moscow’s art filled subway stations were a treat for native New Yorkers. The Moscow Circus was a boisterous joy.   My favorite part of Moscow was visiting Lenin’s Tomb. Seeing Lenin would complete our Frozen Communist Troika! (We saw the preserved Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi and Mao Tse Tung in Bejing.) Some might find this fascination a bit macabre, but lemme assure you, a dead historical figure stretched out in a glass casket  is as real as history gets.

Mark & Alisa at White Nights Neva River Bridge Opening.

St Petersburg (formerly Petrograd and then Leningrad,) is considered the Venice of the Baltic, with urban canals, stunning late 18th Century architecture and an old world charm that, had the city been transported to NY, would’ve made every building a city landmark. The Hermitage Museum in the former Winter Palace was wonderful – each room filled with high art, like Picasso, Renoir, & Matisse.  The highlight of St. Petersburg was its White Nights, when the sun just dips slightly below the horizon. The resulting all night light makes for revelry, but wrecks your body clock. The best part of the White Nights was the dramatic, majestic opening of the Neva River drawbridges, at 1:30 in the morning, one after the other. The riverbanks were filled with revelers, hundreds of canal boats were filled with tourists like us and private boats of every kinds sailed through the openings.

Mark ordering kielbasa in Brooklyn's own Brighton Beach

And yes, the streets of both Moscow and St Petersburg reminded us of NY’s own Little Odessa, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach. Once known as the kingdom of lower middle class Jews (as Neil Simon remembered in it Brighton Beach Memories,) Brighton Beach is now a thoroughly Russian neighborhood, with babushka pushing shopping carts under the El and vodka-fueled restaurants on the Boardwalk. Brighton Beach is one of our destinations on our Edible Ethnic Brooklyn Eats tour, and well justified for its incredible gourmet shops and food stores. And after visiting Moscos and St. Petersburg, and after picking up Russian delicacies in Brighton Beach, I can draw connections between each’s city’s sense of power, energy and history.

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Summer Swelter Films in the City

There isnt another movie alive that makes you fall in love with NYC.

Free film screenings are a great summer tradition in New York City. If the grass (or concrete, in some cases) stays cool and dry, if a space can be squeezed amongst the throngs of filmgoers, and if friends bring the requisite drinks and snacks, then it can make for a wonderful summer night. With half a dozen different locations showing free films every week, it can be hard to choose which flick to watch; however, I’ve been looking forward to one screening location for the other 8 months of the year.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is brand spanking new, with a lovely grassy expanse looking out over NY harbor. Furthermore, their opening screening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a match made in movie heaven. Granted, it’s not your typical summer movie: although the film is built upon Woody’s classically comedic & nebbishly anxious tone; this romantic flick was filmed as a March-October romance.  I love it to death but I would happily replace it with any of my favorite New York Summer Swelter movies.

Before I get down to my top 3, let me define the Summer Swelter subgenre: These films typically take place in a single day or two—and the aforementioned day is the hottest one of the year. Tensions boil over with the mercury level and there is an urgent need for any of drama’s great catalysts: money, love, respect, and/or protection from malevolent forces with guns.

Without further delay, my Summer Swelter 3:

Die Hard With a Vengeance

He's had a bad day . . . and he's blowing things up!

It’s one hell of a day for John McClane. This is a seminal New York film, from the opening montage and unexpected explosion at a midtown Jewelry store to the mind-bending puzzles and riddles at classic New York locations: Grays Papaya, Tompkins Square Park and Yankee Stadium. To top it all off, Sameul L. Jackson performs one of the greatest supporting roles of all time, WELL BEFORE Taratino cemented him in the pantheon of cinema as a bad ass motherf*cker.

Summer of Sam

A strong showing by Spike Lee about the hottest summer in 1970s Brooklyn


A Spike Lee joint, and one of his most underrated. Spike tells the story of the Son of Sam, one of the most terrorizing serial killers in New York’s history, not through a single day, but over the course of the summer of ’77. An outstanding ensemble cast led by Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, and John Leguizamo, these fine native New Yorkers spin a yarn of filial loyalty, youthful rebellion and deadly secrets. The icing on the cake is New York journalist Jimmy Breslin’s true-life introduction to the story of the hottest summer in NY’s history.

Dog Day Afternoon


My favorite film of all time stars a lithe, young Al Pacino and the greatest actor you never heard of, John Cazale who play Sonny and Sal, two Vietnam War veterans who attempt to rob a bank. Guess what? Nothing goes as planned. With a healthy mix of comedy, gut-wrenching suspense and a terrific analogy for the modern media as a three-ring-circus, this film is riveting from start to finish. Seminal New York filmmaker Sidney Lumet, who went on to the great screening room in the sky a few months ago, draws one of Pacino’s most energetic performances and Frank Pierson’s screenplay has a number of lines and moments that have been seared into my memory.

In summation, you can sit in your darkened studio bedroom and Netflix these classics, or you can head out to a big open-air screening and watch other films. Or you can do BOTH! Viva NYC in the summertime!

By Jonah Levy

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A Good Old-Fashioned Night on the Town

“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” –William Falkner

Some cities, like Las Vegas, have no sense of roots or history. Anything old is torn down to be replaced with something garishly new. Other cities (like Savannah, Georgia) are so deeply entrenched in their roots and heritage that one can think that Savannah stopped moving forward sometime in the 19th century and decided to comfortably stay there.

Notice the Condo (with the yarmulke) next to the 19th century rowhouse. Thanks to Curbed for the (ridiculous) photo

New York is one of them grand old towns where the tension between the old and new is juxtaposed so closely that the border between them can be almost non-existent. For example, a 21st century condominium on Bowery and E4th street shares an anchoring wall with a 19th century tenement walk-up. A former freight-rail through a once industrial shipping district is now a manicured, high-concept promenade through a neighborhood filled with luxury loft apartments. Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side cling to the last remnants of cultural resonance in the face of the ever growing Chinatown.

In the face of this struggle between the old and new, organizations like the Municipal Arts Society and the Landmarks Preservation Commission provide comfort in knowing that some institutions are protected by law. Then again, there are other institutions that are protected simply by… TRADITION!

And they even provide the slippers and towels!

On a recent evening out with my girlfriend Danielle, we went to an institution in the East Village that had been there since before the term “East Village” even existed. A hot, sweaty, steamy institution. An institution where the teeming Polish, Russian, Ukranian and Jewish immigrants went to escape from the sweatshops and packed tenements. An institution known as The Russian & Turkish Baths!

Dont you dare call him "Lucky" to his face . . .

Dating back to 1892, you could go to 268 E10th street and enjoy a nice, long sauna or steam-bath in the Russian & Turkish Baths. Russian Baths have since popped up all over New York, but the one on E10th, along with being the oldest, has the cramped, LES immigrant feel of a New York gone by. Adding to its history-rich ambiance, right across the street from the Bath House is the former home of one of NY’s most notorious gangsters: Charles “Lucky” Luciano. According to legend, “Lucky” had more than a few important meetings inside the bath house. Why would Gangsters talk business in a Russian steam-room (or a “shvitz” in the Yiddish parlance?) Cause no one could wear a wire inside!

Lanza's, since 1904! Try the Meatballs!

After we were done sweating our worries away, Danielle and I walked less than two blocks over to Lanza’s restaurant on 1st avenue between E10th and E11th streets for some good old-fashioned red-sauce Italian. Lanza’s was founded in 1904 by respectable, proud and law-abiding Sicilian immigrant Michael Lanza. His cousin, Joey “Socks” Lanza was not exactly a paradigm of Sicilian American success like Michael: He was a captain in the Genovese crime family and exhibited control over the Fulton Fish Market for much of the 1940’s and 50’s. He allegedly got the nickname “Socks” for his penchant for punching people.

Frutti di Mare: Fruit of the Ocean!

Regardless of the tarnishing of the Lanza name, Lanza’s Restaurant is a perfect example of Southern Italian and Sicilian cuisine, complete with a painting of Mount Vesuvius on the wall. Some of the hallmarks of Southern Italian cooking are squid, raisins and pine-nuts, much of which can be found deep in the Mediterranean sea and on the shores of North Africa.

Along with some Frutti Di Mare, Arugula salad and Gnocchi Bologense (potato dumplings and meat sauce) Danielle and I sat in the front window and watched the ever-unfolding New York street in front of us. We tried the hardest we could to imagine what the street looked like back in 1904, but the skinny jeans, cell-phones, and hybrid-engine buses that passed by our frame of view, kept pulling us back to 2011.

They say you can never go back, though if you spend enough time some of the neighborhood establishments of yore, you can sure as hell try.

By Gideon Levy

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