Saturday, May 20, 2017

The High Line

Four years ago, after spending Mother’s Day in New York City, my girlfriend at the time (a native New Yorker) asked me where I wanted to go the next time we visited. “The High Line” I said, without hesitating. “Too touristy,” she, a child who rode the subways when they were graffiti laden and went to Times Square when it was still home to porno shops, sniffed. We broke up a few weeks later (not for that reason), but today, I finally made it to what has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Manhattan less than ten years after its completion (no small feat).

Special Lady Friend was right - the High Line is touristy, but simply because a seemingly never-ending parade of Europeans (easy to spot as Brooklyn hipsters with slightly better clothing) and middle Americans (the I ♥️ NY t-shirts are a dead giveaway) cycle through the roughly 1.5 miles of what was once an abandoned railroad line and is now an urban park, does not mean it is not also really cool. Where else could you see a couple getting married at 8:45 in the morning while 50 feet away, a yoga class was taking place in a studio with floor to ceiling windows?

I can see why the High Line engenders strong feelings - at its origination point the new Whitney Museum, garish, modern, and impossible to miss, stands in an area that was once synonymous with urban decay. The meatpacking district is now home to multi-million dollar condominiums and the entire pier is being transformed. For those (like my ex) who remember a tougher time in New York City, the era captured in movies like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Fort Apache: The Bronx, it can be difficult to get their heads around an expensive urban redevelopment project underwritten by well-heeled philanthropists whose names are honored throughout the park. 

But here is the thing. It is impossible not to be charmed by the High Line. It is the perfect execution of a simple concept completed with impeccable precision. From the slick website that posts events, performances, and things to do, to the manicured gardens bursting with color, you wonder how the High Line ever did not exist. It is not just how smart it was to take an abandoned area and repurpose it for a public good, but by making it so accessible (multiple entry and exit points) and interactive (the views are uniformly outstanding and also anachronistic, as in the seating area around 18th Street that allows for a view straight down 10th Avenue that makes you feel like you’re watching television) the High Line draws you in completely.

As the photos below show, the flora and fauna are a delight, photogenic and demanding attention, but the architecture of the area is also honored - the High Line snakes through, under, and is adjacent to the many buildings that arose before its construction and now, the many that are popping up in its wake. And there are SO MANY BUILDINGS going up. The entire length of the High Line is awash in construction - residential, commercial, the entire skyline on the West Side of Lower Manhattan has and is being transformed thanks to this visionary project. 

This is the bone that many traditionalists pick. After all, what was once home to shooting galleries and a lively after hours club scene has made way for high rises and waterfront driving ranges. And while I certainly get that argument, it is a windmill that people must be tiring of tilting at. After all, a Whole Foods has arisen along the Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn long ago became the poster child for gentrification. 

If there is a criticism to levy at the High Line, it is that the designers may not have had enough faith in their creation. Instead of drafting a plan that could accommodate huge crowds, the walking paths are narrow - one lane in each direction through most of the park - which can make the experience feel a bit like moving along a conveyor belt; however, this is tempered (in part) by the spacious seating areas that jut out like little culs de sac along the way. 

And for those who say the High Line and all the redevelopment that has sprouted around it has ruined the grittier vibe, not 50 feet from the 14th Street entrance, I saw a homeless woman writhing on the sidewalk. She was either having a seizure or an orgasm, so not all is lost. 

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dumbest Thing Politico Has Ever Published

Politico has been derided as “Teen Beat on the Potomac,” a journalistic virus that has infected reporting by emphasizing controversy and gossip, with a splash of tabloid and less concern for hard news. And while Politico does churn out some decent reporting, its main claim to fame is Playbook, the daily tip sheet started by Mike Allen and now written by Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, whose mission is to “drive the day” of political news coverage in the nation’s capital.

One part news aggregator and one part political analysis, Allen did not pioneer this idea, but he did perfect it; however, with his departure to Axios, and the emergence of other like products such as James Hohmann’s Daily 202 (The Washington Post), Playbook has faltered. A perfect example comes from today’s (May 16, 2017) edition. Palmer and Sherman offer this “quick thought”

You do get the sense that Trump has a decent chance for some sort of peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, we should all be skeptical of solving one of the most intractable cycles of tension and violence ever. But in the last few weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled openness, and behind the scenes, Trump officials - and even some longtime Obama officials - have been surprised at the positive body language on the two sides.

Here, in one paragraph is everything that is wrong with modern-day political journalism. A story that is thinly sourced (anonymous current/former Administration officials), whose main source of evidence (body language) is as reliable as phrenology, drawing a conclusion (decent chance) about one of the hardest foreign policy challenges of modern history (peace between the Israelis and Palestinians), written by two reporters who were not even born when Jimmy Carter helped broker the peace deal between Israel and Egypt. 

It is no small feat to cram so much bad reporting into one paragraph, but Palmer and Sherman manage to do it. You would hope that an editor somewhere up the food chain at Politico would have had the good sense to squash a story like this, but in today’s media environment, that would be asking for way too much. 

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Trump's Firing Of Comey Is A BFD

President Trump’s firing of James Comey has created a shit storm in Washington, D.C. that should be lighting everyone’s hair on fire. Comey’s protectors in the media are quick to rush to his defense, both generally, and specifically as to his actions over the past year. But here’s the thing. If you’re James Comey, you don’t rise to some of the most politically sensitive positions in government (U.S. Attorney for the S.D.N.Y. - the pre-eminent U.S. Attorney’s Office in the nation, Deputy Attorney General and FBI Director) without some savvy. The media’s willingness to constantly give him the benefit of the doubt lacks credulity, but at the same time, people need to understand that Democrats who were outraged at his actions during the campaign can also be outraged that his firing appeared to be a pre-textual (and pre-emptive) effort by a sitting President to shut down a criminal investigation into his campaign (and possibly Trump himself). 

It should be said that neither Clinton nor Trump was entitled to preferential treatment by Comey, but by the same token, they should not have been given worse treatment, which is what happened in Hillary’s case. When Comey gave a press conference in July 2016 to announce there would be no recommendation of charges against Hillary, he tiptoed near the line of impropriety - it is rare for an investigation that results in no charges being filed to be announced publicly; however, if you accept that in the public interest it made sense to say something, his editorializing went well beyond his charge and was, naturally, turned into convenient sound bites for political attack ads and ad nauseum coverage on cable news. Comey’s intervention just eleven days before the election was even more egregious, both because it flouted clear DOJ guidelines on making public statements so close to an election, but also because it was done without having facts behind it that might have mattered. 

The media’s willingness to give Comey a pass - bemoaning the “impossible” position he was in - has turned out to be too cute by half. The prudent course for Comey, had he treated Hillary like any other person under investigation but never charged, would have been to keep his mouth shut the entire time. Indeed, prosecutors do this for two primary reasons - (1) so an innocent person’s good name isn’t sullied if he or she is never charged with a crime; and (2) to avoid tainting the investigation. When word leaked after the election (curious timing, no?) that the FBI had an open and active investigation against the Trump campaign dating to last summer, his actions looked even more partisan and indefensible and the media’s defense, laughable. 

So why is that his termination by Trump is so offensive? After all, Comey blurred the lines (or eradicated them entirely) during the campaign. But here’s the thing - with an active investigation into Trump’s associates (and possibly Trump himself) going on, for Trump to remove Comey is precisely the type of malfeasance post-Watergate changes were designed to protect against, including the “wall” between the White House and the Department of Justice as it relates to criminal investigations and the 10-year term (which was established after Watergate in 1976) the idea being the FBI Director should, to some degree, be insulated from the political process. 

If it turns out that Trump removed Comey in an effort to sideline or stop an investigation into his campaign’s contacts with agents of the Russian government or, worse, actively collaborated with them, that itself would be grounds for impeachment; whatever else may be discovered would simply be icing on the cake. There are few agencies in our government more important to the functioning of our nation than the Department of Justice; thus, injecting politics into the DOJ is particularly fraught with peril. One of the reasons an independent counsel makes sense is because the nature of the Trump/Russia investigation is so sensitive and the appearance of a conflict so apparent, someone who cannot be removed by the President or Attorney General is needed. Once upon a time, Republicans believed in this concept; conveniently, it was when some guy named Bill Clinton was President. My, how times have changed. 

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Breaking Saul

Whether by necessity or design, Better Call Saul has become about much more than a small-time lawyer’s transformation from hustling clients from the back of a nail salon office to consligiere for Albuquerque’s reigning meth king. And the change has been to the show’s benefit. All too often, and particularly in the first season, it simply felt like there was not enough “there there” to carry this story for a four or five season run. Episodes were mired in the back and forth of class action lawsuits and filial competition, but as as the show has accelerated its pace in a standout third season, the writers’ end game is now clear - instead of simply answering the question of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, they are filling in the entire backstory of the ABQ’s criminal underground when Walter White and Jesse Pinkman took that RV into the desert for their first cook.

In doing so, the show is less Better Call Saul and more Breaking Saul, as the child spin off adopts more of the parent show’s look and feel, including direct call backs, grittier storylines, and, most notably, the return of Gus Fring, one of the most sharply written villains in recent TV history. The fan servicing is not subtle and more than appreciated. A recent opening sequence flashback featuring Steven Bauer as Don Eladio meeting with his lieutenants was the closest BCS has come to directly referencing BB and the tension of those few minutes was as gripping as anything witnessed in the salad days of Heisenberg’s reign. On the other hand, the writers have offered a little lagniappe (something extra) at the beginning of each season - a one scene glimpse into Saul’s “erased” future, where he is now a sad sack Cinnabon store manager in Omaha, Nebraska with a droopy mustache and thinning hairline. 

As each episode airs, you see the puzzle pieces filling in, like the border has been completed and the middle parts can now be put into place. We see the nascent scuffles between Hector and Gus and know that the former will end up essentially becoming a suicide bomber to kill the latter, but we do not yet know how Hector became a mute in a wheelchair. Similarly, Kim, Howard, and Chuck are all integral to BCS but none appear in Breaking Bad. Do they simply live on (off-screen) in the BCS/BB universe or are their fates more dire? 

In broadening its scope, the writers have also lifted some of the narrative weight from places it seemed strained (Jimmy’s on-again/off-again relationship with Kim) and made it more balanced. As Alan Sepinwall has noted, BCS is now really two shows in one - the first is still tracking Jimmy’s inexorable slide to his alter ego but the Mike Ehrmantraut storyline, which seemed a throwaway when the series started, is every bit as prominent now. While Jimmy and Mike seem to be running on parallel tracks, their intersections, and in particular with the Fring/Salamanca storyline, show how these paths will all converge once a high school science teacher with a death notice fulfills his destiny and becomes the southwest’s greatest meth cook. 

Vince Gilligan had the good sense to put a temporal limit on Breaking Bad, ending it after 62 tidy episodes over five amazing seasons when he surely could have stretched but left an inferior product. I hope a similar decision is made with Better Call Saul which has become a highly entertaining spin off while retaining its own charms. 

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