Friday, April 30, 2010

Regular, please, with two sugars

Here's the Times obit for the originator of the Anthora, the once ubiquitous neo-classical New York take-out coffee cup.

Whenever I think of New York's Greek diners and coffee shops I am reminded of Tom Waits, who once said:
"I lived in New York for a year, and ate every meal under the Parthenon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Miracle of Bogota. Who knew?

I recently saw a documentary about the renaissance of Bogota, Colombia, and the crazy politicians who pulled it off. If you have Time Warner Cable you can see this film for free at the Sundance Section of Channel 1008.

In 1994, Bogota was considered by many to be the worst city in the world. It now is considered one of the world's most civilized cities - with greatly reduced crime, excellent transportation systems, great public spaces and so many libraries that it shares the title of Book City of The World with Montreal. This transformation is the urban equivalent of parting the Red Sea.

There are two heroes in this story, but one of them has to win the title as the world's most unique mayor. He is Antanas Mockus (a perfect last name in English), son of Lithuanian immigrants. He came to prominence in 1994 when, as chancellor of the national university, he got fed up with being shouted down by thousands of leftist student protestors , dropped his trousers and mooned the raucus crowd. He tearfully resigned his position, but cashed in on the overwhelmingly positive response to his gesture of frustration by getting himself elected Mayor of Bogota (a city of seven million) by the largest majority in history.

The story then goes from absurd to miraculous (with a lot more absurdity along the way.) Mockus, a philosopher, decided that what Bogota's citizenry needed was more internal than external. He set out to change the culture away from chaos, violence and indifference, step-by-step. Because Bogota mayors are limited to one three year term, he had very little time to achieve this lofty goal - AND HE PULLED IT OFF.

Among  his methods - firing every corrupt official in the city. Collecting tens of thousands of weapons. Talking to the people with a refreshing personal honesty. But that is the sane stuff - how about firing the corrupt traffic police and replacing them with MIMES, who re-trained Bogota's drivers to take such steps as obeying traffic lights. How about setting up a hot line so kids who were being beaten by their parents could call for help. He and his associates decided that the root of the violence overwhelming the city was coming from violence in the home. It turns out they were right. The slogan became "Hit instead of kill. Scream instead of hit. Talk instead of scream. Let's talk" He illustrated this on national TV by casually tossing a glass of water into the face of an annoying presidential candidate and saying it was better than what he wanted to do to him.

Crime plummeted, people began to obey rules, he talked 60,000 of the city's richest citizens into kicking in an extra 10% of their income to help the cause, and the entire spirit of the city was transformed.

The next mayor,and second hero, Enrique Pensalosa, also ran as independent, and then used his urban planning background to completely remake the city - replacing slums with parks, solving the city's transportation problem with a system of buses acting like an inexpensive light rail system, even transforming the huge private country club in the center of the city into the equivalent of Central Park. He built dozens of schools and libraries, delivered public services to the poor for the first time, and, because of the ensuing disruptions quickly became the most hated man in the city. After a failed recall, and as people saw that the changes were working, he ended his three years as one of the most popular mayors. Then, after getting a public commitment that his projects would be completed, he endorsed his successor -none other than Antanas Mockus.

PS - Pensalosa and Mockus have formed a Green Party in Colombia, chosen Mockus to run for president this year, and, according to the polls, our crazy-man may just become the next President of Colombia. On a sad note, last week Mockus announced he has Parkinson's Disease. "I want to be honest with the people," he said, "the doctors assure me I may have 12 more good years."

See this film - it is truly a must see for anyone who loves cities.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Important Book Yet to Be Written

Yesterday I visited the new museum at the African burial ground. It does a fairly good job of explaining the role of African slaves in the early development of New Amsterdam and New York. But visiting brought up another issue - why no one has written a definitive history of Blacks in New York City.

Sure, you can pick up the story in pieces. Stories of slavery, of early settlements in Greenwich Village, black blocks near the Ladies Mile, San Juan Hill and Harlem, but no one has yet tied it all together. San Juan Hill, a ghetto located where the Metropolitan Opera stands today, is of particular interest to me, probably because my apartment looks out on it. I know DuBois lived there, and Thelonious Monk was raised there, and it featured regular Saturday night brawls with the Irish neighbors from Hell's Kitchen. But I can't find out much more.

Please - somebody write this book!