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MILLBROOK REVISITED

Screen shot 2014-05-13 at 4.18.27 PMMillbrook, New York is a sleepy upstate town (pop. 1350) with a good diner, a bowling alley and a firehouse where there’s a dance every Valentines Day. It’s also home to a number of robber-baron era estates garnished with country homes and villas. John Foreman lives in one of these — a 38-room, white clapboard production of towers, verandahs and bay windows that brings a Transylvanian wedding cake to mind. The 52-year-old real estate broker works about 85 miles south in Manhattan where he has an apartment on the Upper East Side, but he considers the Millbrook house, where he has spent his weekends for the last 18 years, home. Set back a mile from the main road, beyond an impressive stone gatehouse, it can be accessed by invitation only.

The house has been called everything from “Queen Ann-style” to “Bavarian baroque,” but Charles Dieterich, the German-born acetylene gas magnate who built it as the main dwelling on his summer estate at the turn of the last century, simply called it “Daheim” — or home — a name Foreman carries on. A babbling stream flows north past Daheim, beneath a wrought-iron gate that opens on to 2,500 acres of cattle pasture and Hudson Valley back-country. Lunacy Hill unfurls out there along with sister hill, Ecstasy — names forgotten by all but those who lived on or visited the estate during the 1960’s, when the landscape was defined by the mansion’s then-tenants, a group of Harvard researchers led by Timothy Leary.

In 1963 Leary and colleagues Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner launched the first of what was intended to be a string of psychedelic drug research centers at the mansion, in what they referred to as the “Big House.” Leary wrote his version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “The Psychedelic Experience,” in its drafty, wood-paneled rooms, and coined the rallying cry for the psychedelic movement, “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” in one of its showers. As ground zero for the psychedelic movement in America, the house hosted some of the most controversial and visionary personalities of the 1960’s.

Despite having served as a country outpost for American social and cultural movers over the last century Daheim has reverted to an eccentric house in the middle of a cow pasture. Yet odd details like the small water-stained American flag fastened to the corner of a dusty upstairs window, and the 70’s-era Cadillac under a drop cloth in the driveway, hint at the libertarian spirit and hedonistic lifestyle that once reigned here made it a destination for seekers from around the world.
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In Flashbacks, his 1984 memoir, Leary describes the place as a “magical location” surrounded by elegant lawns, stables and an ornate two story chalet.”

The house belonged to the Hitchcocks, one of the more individualistic branches of the Andrew Mellon family. In the early 1960’s Peggy Hitchcock drifted into the whirlpool of academics, psychiatrists and hipsters that centered on Leary’s controversial Harvard Psylocybin Project in Cambridge which involved administering psychedelics to prisoners, graduate students and others interested in exploring uncharted realms of consciousness.

Following a brief affair with Leary, Hitchcock, then a jet-setting heiress in her late 20s, arranged for her brother William, a young stockbroker at Lehman Brothers, to be guided through an LSD trip. The experience appealed to William’s entrepreneurial aspirations. Envisioning the drug as a conduit to stock market success, he let the Harvard group use the Dieterich house, which was one of several on the rambling cattle ranch he and his brother had recently purchased in Millbrook, as a research center.

Taking the basis of Dieterich’s fortune – widespread illumination resulting from the adoption of acetylene gas lighting across the country– as a good omen, the hopeful dons left Boston and headed for Millbrook.

Upon arriving, the group’s first task was to pry the boards off the windows of the house, which had been shut down while the estate passed from Charles Dieterich’s heirs through Walter Tiegel, then-president of Standard Oil, to the Hitchcock family who own it to this day. Like many late-Victorian homes of the era, it had undergone a period of neglect. In the 1960’s the style was widely considered to be dark and dingy and buildings from the period were often razed. The Dieterich house survived by a fluke. Under Leary’s guidance the place was rehabilitated and furnished in a Middle Eastern harem-style, which was both cheap and conducive to far-out mental voyages. The house would eventually hold a fully stocked hotel-sized kitchen, a comprehensive library and a sound studio. Like Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion, Leary — charming, glib and charismatic — created a sanctuary, isolated from the outside world, where the human capacity for revelation, wonder and mysticism could be nurtured and explored.

LSD was legal in the early 1960’s and visitors to the estate could take the drug in any way they wanted, provided they wrote up a report afterwards. By most accounts, people under the influence spent a great deal of time chanting, listening to records and skinny-dipping in a nearby pond.
The psychedelic movement was evolving concurrently with the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement and rock and roll, and all of these elements were part of the comic drama that was allowed to play itself out on the stage of Millbrook in an atmosphere of genteel anarchy that rendered all things permissible.

On any given night, Peggy Mellon might drop in for cocktails in an evening gown, while Ralph Metzner wandered around in a pair of psychedelic glasses fitted with tiny strobes and resident musician Maynard Ferguson blew jazz trumpet on the roof. Visitors — from behavioral psychologist R.D. Laing to pop-Buddhist teacher Alan Watts — came to experience the buzzed-about happenings at Millbrook firsthand. Warhol superstar Viva occasionally drove up on weekends to unwind from the frenetic pace of New York City and drop acid with professors from Harvard, MIT and Princeton. Timothy Leary once married a Swedish model on the lawn, Allen Ginsberg and companion Peter Orlovsky experimented with nudism and jazz legend Charles Mingus tested his paranoia level by allowing the predominantly white residents to lock him in a walk-in freezer.

As Leary put it in Flashbacks: “We saw ourselves as anthopologists from the 21st century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the Dark Ages of the 1960’s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.”

The renegade researchers believed that, like Ralph Waldo Emerson before them, their efforts would one day be appreciated and immortalized. But high-minded social experiments designed to chart untapped regions of the human brain and facilitate the liberation of humankind proved to be a hard sell among the residents of bucolic Millbrook.

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“Once in a great, great while I’d have people come into the store and kid me about it.” recalls John Kading, who owned the Millbrook general store when Leary and his group lived on the Hitchcock Estate between 1963 and 1968. Kading is now 71, retired, and lives in a comfortable farm house across the road from the estate gatehouse. He has a barn full of sheep and a garage crammed with psychedelic-era bric-a-brac given to him over the years by estate residents.

“‘Is this where Leary was?’ they would say, ‘Well I used to come up here with my gang and my friends.’”

Kading is glad to reminisce about the 1960’s in Millbrook, and was fond enough of Leary, to whom he sold The New York Times each morning, to follow his career until Leary died of inoperable prostate cancer in 1996. Yet he maintains a small town disapproval of Leary’s legacy. The early years of Leary’s residence in Millbrook were, by most accounts, quiet and amicable. A revolving cast of estate denizens spent money in local shops and got along well with the town’s residents. But as news of events at Millbrook spread beyond the exclusive worlds of academia and old money, curiosity-seekers began to turn up in growing numbers and life on the Hitchcock estate took on an increasingly menacing quality.

“The longer he (stayed) the more and more kids kept coming up,” recalls Kading “I was on the ambulance squad at that time so there was many a call I’d make to the estate picking up these kids who were so out of it that it was unbelievable. We’d take them into St. Francis Hospital and they spent some time in there and that went on for quite a while.”

By the summer of 1965 life in the Big House was evolving from a quiet scholarly community to a drug resort where rowdy urbanites were using LSD to fuel omnisexual fun. The potent mid-60’s mixture of LSD and birth control pills proved to be too much for many of the local residents living along the peripheries of the estate. When rumors began to spread that acid and panties were being dropped with equal nonchalance at the Hitchcock estate, local parents waged a campaign to drive Leary from his lair.

In the fall of 1966, the house was raided by the Dutchess County sheriff’s office and assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy, who would go on to infamy (and a succession of federal prisons), for engineering the Watergate break-in.

The event marked the first encounter between Liddy and Leary, political and ideological rivals who would subsequently travel the lecture circuit together years later in a wildly successful point-counterpoint discourse on drugs and politics. Liddy’s account of the conversation they had in a quiet broom closet under the stairs of the Big House on the night of the raid in Will, his 1980 autobiography, serves as a vivid illustration of the clash between conservative and libertarian ideologies in the 1960s:

“This raid,” said Leary, “is the product of ignorance and fear.”

“This raid,” I replied, “is the product of a search warrant issued by the state of New York.”
We sparred like that for a few minutes, he trying to get me to see the error of my ways, I trying to pick up something I could use against him. Neither of us was very successful.
“The time will come,” Leary said finally, “when there will be a statue of me erected in Millbrook.”
We were both smiling. “I’m afraid the closest you’ll come is a burning effigy in the village square.” Leary rose and, by mutual acknowledgement, the interview was over.”

Liddy’s prediction turned out to be closer to the mark.

Despite the fact that no illegal drugs were found on the premises that night, a campaign of harassment ensued. Community disapproval and incessant police raids combined with dwindling financial resources to drive Leary out of Millbrook. Infighting among the tenants who remained resulted in members of Leary’s core research group moving to other dwellings on the estate or leaving Millbrook altogether. Eventually, the water and power were turned off and the doors to the Big House were locked. A giant yin and yang sign was spray-painted on the side of the house by one of the many starry-eyed pilgrims who camped out on the property and used the house as a comfort station. The Leary-era had come full circle. Soon an odious pall would settle on the derelict house. Leary’s legacy would dog Millbrook like a hangover that would worsen in direct proportion to the degree that the utopianism of the 1960’s faded.
John Kading recalls it.

“I can remember pulling up to the Ramble Inn Restaurant just outside Millbrook, which is now (The Daytop Village Rehabilitation Hospital.) We had a businessman’s dinner. Timothy Leary was there and I think he was one of the speakers. He spoke about what he was doing as far as the businessman’s association was concerned — and he at that meeting, believe it or not said: ‘Some day you people of Millbrook are going to build a monument in my memory of what I am doing here today.’ And you know what the monument is today? Daytop Village. All those kids up there in rehab.”

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“We had a good ball here — a masked ball last weekend,” says John Foreman in his drafty book-lined den. “Everyone was in costumes. We had a band called The Flying Neutrinos. They were great!”

Foreman is tall, thin and just at the point when blonde hair begins to turn white. He is wearing an old powder-blue sweater with a hole at the elbow and mud-splattered riding boots. From his doorstep he can see a great expanse of muddy lawn with leafless winter trees clustered in the distance. A cat walks into room and meows at him. “Oh, there you are,” he says, scooping it up serenely. It is one of half a dozen cats that wander freely through the house.

Foreman shares the 38-room mansion with his 17-year-old daughter and ex-wife. Seven bedrooms and a servant’s quarters are currently in use and expertly if incompletely furnished with 19th and early 20th century antiques. Having published a number of articles on the era along with a book about the Vanderbilts’ estates, Foreman has used his expertise to restore a semblance of Victorian grandeur to the Dieterich estate. When he first came upon the house 18 years ago, it was uninhabitable and, had he not stepped in, it would likely have been destroyed.

Following the abuse it suffered at the hands of people Foreman refers to as “hippies,” it had been boarded up for ten years and was well into the final stages of structural degeneration.
“There were bats, mice, everything,” he recalls. “The ceilings were falling in. The plumbing had been allowed to freeze up. When I moved in here we turned on the water and just waited to see where it would start spouting through the walls and then that’s what we fixed. The boys from the property had established a perimeter around it with little bits of everything from snow fence to chain-link fence and it enclosed a dog run that ran all the way around the house in which they had an albino Great Dane named Geronimo.”

The first task for Foreman, as it had been for Leary two decades before, was prying the boards from the windows and cleaning the place up.

“I found a letter from Richard Alpert’s mother to him thanking him for a book.” recalls Foreman. “And it was amusing because she was totally in the dark as to what the hell was going on in his head at the time.”

Having graduated from college in the Summer of Love, and experimented with the psychedelic drugs of the era, Foreman is hip to the events that unfolded in the house during the Leary years but admits to no nostalgia.

“I’m very fond of this house but the psychedelic era is not what characterizes it. It was a passage — an unusual one. I lived through that. I was a hippie myself and I was certain the world was changing, the Aquarian age was coming and America was being greened — I’m no longer quite at that point.” says Foreman who, in middle age, has given up drugs like LSD and alcohol for somatic stimulants like horseback riding. With a view tempered by firsthand experience of the utopian crusades of the 1960s, Forman sees Leary, less as a fool than a fellow traveler.

“I look at the world around me and I see humanity striving for greater consciousness and I suppose that Leary at his best was sort of part of that movement. I think he was, perhaps,(a more self-indulgent person than many) and I’ve been there myself. I can’t believe he was any great hero — but neither was he a villain.”

Like the old Cadillac Foreman keeps under wraps in the driveway, the Leary years at Millbrook speak of a hedonism that can only be marveled at today. Isolated from the world at large and closed off from the Village of Millbrook by a functioning gatehouse, life at the Big House between 1963 and 1968 may have seemed like Camelot to those living there, but it looked like Frankenstein’s moated asylum to those outside. The fact that members of Leary’s group viewed themselves as an enlightened priesthhod offering humanity a shortcut to bliss while members of the establishment saw them as drug addled nuts running wild in the woods of Dutchess County, illustrates the extent to which the events that unfolded in the Big House embodied in miniature the yin and yang of the 1960’s.

Though the revolution Leary and his colleagues championed was demonized instead of lauded, there is no denying that the movement they spawned at Millbrook reverberated throughout the country in the psychedelic movement that altered the consciousness of a generation. Testaments to their work are today evident from the MOMA to the White House – Clinton’s, in any case. In 1995 I had an opportunity to talk with Timothy Leary about the future of technology. His predictions have proven to be remarkably accurate. Here is the transcript of our interview.

BACK IN THE NEW YORK GROOVE

I shot this video during Time’s Up’s recent “Back In the New York Groove” dance ride with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, a camera known for it’s cinematic image quality. In manual focus mode, with all the necessary lense focusing, it’s not great for motion, but the richness of the resulting image, even in low-light, is worth a bit of blurring here and there. The Mark III is heavier and bulkier than other cameras I’ve used but handled easily enough to shoot while biking. Shooting on a bike at night on the streets of New York is basically a trial-by-fire situation for both camera and shooter but the Mark III came through with flying colors and I survived to deliver the resulting footage. The ride began in Tompkins Square Park and ended at the East River Bandshell. I’m surprised by how well the 5D often maligned interior mic captured street sounds as well as the sound bike’s brilliant mix of early Hip Hop, No-Wave and dance music from a time when the neighborhood was known as Alphabet City and I would as soon have strolled through it wearing Crizal’s and a dookie chain as biked through it with a $4,000 camera hanging from my neck.

TEENAGE WASTELAND AT THE EMPIRE DRIVE IN

I shot this video with my trusty Canon digicam at a drive-in double-feature showing of “Over the Edge” and “Suburbia” on a 40-foot screen surrounded by junk cars in a parking lot in Corona, Queens. It’s an amazing venue, part drive-in, part art installation that will run through October 20th. Olympia punk band RVIVR played an intermission set.

HOME ALONE

Each year solitary strummers post thousands of videos of themselves covering hit songs on YouTube. This is a highlight reel of a handful of clips I found featuring “A Song to Play When I’m Lonely” by guitar virtuoso John Frusciante.

THE HOW-TO & WHY OF DANCING IN THE STREET

Dance much? The closest I get is running with an iPod. Unless I have a camera. But observing dance is different from actually dancing. The former is passive, cerebral and safe while the latter is about letting it all hang out, which may be why public dancing is regulated and periodically reviled in tightly-wound NYC.

A couple of months ago I met Rachel Cohen, a modern dancer/choreographer who combines the aesthetic and physical aspects of dance in elaborate performances that she produces in venues ranging from dance theaters to hospital psychiatric wards. In addition to practicing one of the city’s most endangered art forms, Cohen is running her own dance company. I spent several hours with Rachel and her dancers as they rehearsed for an upcoming show and I wondered about their willingness to invest so much effort and time — and in New York time equals money — in an ephemeral art form with a limited audience.

In the end, the kids just wanted to dance.
 

Less formal types of dance generally get a pass in New York. At least since Rudolph Giuliani left the Mayor’s office. While Mike Bloomberg is friendlier to getting down, he maintains a low tolerance for what he deems to be lifestyle incursions like public smoking and street freaking (and all-night drum circles). Last fall, I took part in a Rock & Roll Dance ride organized by bike advocacy group Times-Up to promote public ownership of the city’s open spaces. No physical clashes or arrests occurred, but several onlookers got vibed for parking on the dance floor.
 

Yesterday, I came across a less overtly political form of public dancing on the boardwalk in Coney Island. This seaside shindig is for my money–and it’s free as the sun and air–the beating heart of the New York People’s Partay. In the face of all the grumbling about the city’s gentrification and infringement on civil liberties, it attests to the triumph of the will to boogie and the ultimate power of New Yorkers to hold on to our city by being how we are.
 

POSTSCRIPT: The above clips were shot in three different video standards: The modern dance piece (first clip) was shot in high definition at 30 frames per second on a Canon HV30. The Times-Up dance ride was filmed in “cinema mode” (24 frames per second), which gives it more of a film-like look, an option on the HV30. The Coney Island boardwalk clip was shot in standard digital video on a Canon PowerShot digicam. Yeah!

NO REST FOR THE WEARY

I woke up on QT’s couch which, when California fell into the sea, would likely float to the hill with the Hollywood sign, given our proximity to that hill and QT’s proclivity for weathering disaster. He’d survived mortal beat-downs so many times in the course of our 25-year friendship, I felt safe in his house. I was a NYC winter fugitive at the start of a 9-day, couch surfing getaway.

The last time I was in L.A. was in 1994. I was living the Melrose Place lifestyle, working in publishing. After a year and a half, I took I-40 — the most direct route — back to New York. This time I would ride into the Mojave landscape.

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QT has stayed with me in New York on several occasions. When I needed a break from the relentless city winter, he offered me his sofa in L.A.. Originally, we planned to drive to Riverside to shoot a story. When that didn’t pan out, QT Googled a cool-looking hotel outside of Joshua Tree and we hit the road anyway. Hollywood wasn’t going anywhere and I wasn’t getting any sleep on the couch. It’s hard to overstate the importance of a good night’s rest. L.A.’s incessant sunshine triggered a bout of insomnia that I drove 3,000 miles to get relief from in 1994 and here I was crossing the desert again for the same reason.

About an hour outside of L.A., wind turbines began sprouting up across huge swathes of American steppe. These were interspersed with long stretches of scrubby desert that have for decades been used to train Marines. I prayed for nothing to come between us and our canary-yellow Aveo, a Hertz rental that screamed “Unarmed Liberal.” True Grit had hit theaters earlier that week and the Old West typography used to hype it was all around us but I was thinking about 29 Palms, the desert horror in which a couple of road-tripping hipsters get car-jacked by some locals and ultimately make sop rags of the motel linen.

The Mojave Sands turned out to be a classic ’50’s roadside motel post-modernized with poured concrete and oxidized metal. Our room was one of five or six lined up inside a gated compound. It was comfortable in a Führerbunker way and had all the basic amenities (i.e. clean beds, running water, a flush toilet & light) but lacked a TV, a telephone and curtains. The place was unfinished and that was part of its initial appeal. When it became a chic, desert-Bauhaus retreat, we would be seasoned veterans. In the meantime, we’d pull up our socks and make do. The ubersized bathroom featured a Platonic cave of a shower. Was it supplied by a hot spring? I could ponder that question later. Our late-afternoon arrival dictated we hit Joshua Tree asap. The desert was chillier than we expected so we pulled on some layers and set out for a hike.

We drove past legions of the park’s famed Joshua Trees before parking in a picnic area at the base of a one-time cattle rustler’s trail. The terrain resembled the bottom of a drained aquarium landscaped with grit, coral and very large rocks. Once the initial sense of funhouse wonder subsided, direct contact with nature began short-circuiting our media-saturated brains. QT commented on the area’s unusual stillness, which he attributed to an absence of surveillance equipment. I chalked up the sense of holy solitude I felt to the sound-proofing effects of the barn-sized mounds of granite that surrounded us.

Just before sunset we drove to Keys View, an overlook with a panoramic view of the San Bernardino Mountains, Palm Springs, Indio, the Salton Sea, and creeping Los Angeles smog. I looked out on the abundance and folly sprawled out across the Coachella Valley and got the feeling that God was okay with it all. Then gale-force winds drove us back to the car. We gingerly wound our way out of the park in the Aveo, past weathered glacier sockets, when we spotted this fella and pulled over to see how he fared.

My desert fears, allayed by the good (muted?) vibrations of Joshua Tree, rushed back like headlight moths when we returned to the empty motel and learned we would be the only occupants when the compound gate closed for the night. The owner told us he lived nearby and could be reached by phone. Good thing we brought our own. After a harried shower–tap water–I passed a fitful night poised for a sunrise escape.

CARHEADS ARE STRANGE


The above video has been disabled as a link but I recommend viewing it on YouTube. Not only is it riveting in-and-of-itself, but it also provides a glimpse of the gorgeous interior of a 1967 Shelby Mustang and is the subject of this post.

Jim Morrison freaked out when he heard The Doors sold the rights to Light My Fire to Buick while he was on a bender, a curious reaction given his supposed dislike of the song and love of cars, or one car. Morrison starred in and produced a celluloid paeon to that vehicle in what may be the greatest car ad in automotive history. It’s a short clip of him driving his 1967 Shelby Mustang through the desert and it’s part of a film called HWY: An American Pastoral that Morrison, the Shelby-era’s Kurt Cobain, made with some friends in 1969. A primitive version of the clip haunted YouTube until filmmaker Tom DiCillo remastered it for When You’re Strange, his 2010 documentary about Morrison.

It’s not clear why he’s hitchhiking at the beginning of the clip and behind the wheel seconds later, aside from maybe referencing the psycho drifter in Riders On the Storm, but we soon find a very contemporary-looking Morrison burning through a Roadrunner landscape with the radio on when a DJ cuts in to announce his death in Paris that morning. (Presumably dubbed in after the fact, the announcement nonetheless lends credence to the notion that Morrison faked his own death and is today running a truck wash near Barstow.) In art as in life, the Lizard King yowls at the road, drinks a beer and spins out amidst some yuccas.

The car, like the driver, is hot, sexy and gone, man, gone. Morrison reportedly wrapped it around a telephone pole on Santa Monica Boulevard one day in 1970 and never drove it again. But chatroom debates over the persistence of Morrison’s “Blue Lady” heat up whenever Mustang Monthly runs an article about it or some newbie claims to know it’s whereabouts. That’s when the naysayers slide out from other their cars to rattle off the missing VIN, the un-transferred title and other well-worn proofs that the Shelby was scrapped. These are the killjoys who believe that Jim Morrison died in a bathtub in Paris. And for every one of them there are legions of gas-huffing carheads for whom the prospect of Mr. Mojo rising from the desert in his 1967 GT500 is just too cool a possibility to summarily dis.

There’s a filmmaker out in Texas who’s working on a documentary called Morrison’s Mustang. It’s a wonderful idea and I’m curious to see what he’ll scramble up on the now mythical muscle car which, if it exists, is probably moldering beneath a thick blanket of money in Vladimir Putin’s garage.

ZOO YORK

Last week, while vendors set up for the annual San Genarro Feast in Little Italy, three scrappy cubs — two lions and a tiger – paced figure eights in small storage unit-sized cages. They were the bewildered stars of a petting zoo reportedly brought to the event by John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, a local restaurant owner and character actor known affectionately as “The Mayor of Little Italy.” My initial shock at seeing two species that are creeping toward the endangered list chase their tails in the middle of Mulberry Street gave way to a sense of amazement at organizers who would set up a captive wild animal concession in one of the most media-saturated zones on earth. Did these folks not know they were nestled in a liberal mecca affectionately known as “NoLiTa,” and that– pro-fur fashionistas aside — the ethical treatment of animals is as basic to the make-up of the average hipster as a neck tattoo? Evidently, the mayors of Mulberry Street were too caught up in the gabagool spirit of the feast — and intent on capitalizing on any lingering Sopranos/cresting Jersey Shore hype attached to the old neighborhood — to notice they were surrounded by soy-loving jamooks.

Like a wild cat petting zoo, Little Italy is today an ersatz remnant of a once brutal landscape that evolved according to basic survival imperatives — to eat, procreate, colonize, and live another day. At one time Sicilian thugs ran the Lower East Side just as lions ruled the African plains. But now that both species had been de-clawed and commodified, one had arranged to exploit the other for fun and profit. The cubs would be poked and harassed by wandering throngs for two weeks, leading to stress on the animals and potential injury to people. When an animal lashes out at a human being, regardless of the circumstances, the animal pays the price. The way feast pilgrims ogled and fawned over the cubs indicated that–even in plugged-in, hyper-informed Manhattan–ignorance about the dismal facts of these animals lives was commonplace. I decided to return to Little Italy’s petting zoo and cast a lens on the casual cruelty with which the animals were being wrangled.

When I returned to Mulberry Street the following day with a video camera, I found a team of Health Department officials with clipboards citing the vendors for lacking necessary permits. The concession was being shut down and the cubs were being packed in the back of a truck bound for Florida. Less than 24 hours after landing on Mulberry Street, the animals were being shipped South, possibly to another sideshow.

PETA is inquiring into Lions, Tigers & Bears Wild Animal Sanctuary, the Homestead, Florida-based operation that carts the animals around the country under the guise of raising funds for rescued wildlife. Animals have a way of being made to pay for human ignorance and given that these seemed to be legally owned (a “Registered with the USDA” sign was prominently displayed above the cages where the cubs were kept), it’s not clear how much legal action can be taken to protect them from abuse. One can only hope to track these cubs — and thousands of others like them around the world — as they make their way through the grim channels that currently exist for captive wild animals.

HUDSON RIVER STORIES

Stacey HRSThe first step in the evolution from Village rat to Upper West Sider is getting a bicycle. Living in a tiny East Village apartment, I felt no inclination to ride a bike and had no room to store one. Everything I needed was within easy walking distance and living space was too precious to waste on a pair of spare tires.

Then I moved uptown to a building with a bike storage room. Central Park was just down the hill and the roads were wide. That’s when owning a bike began to make sense. Once you get used to having a bike around for fun it’s just a matter of time before you start using it instead of the subway. In my case, an intrepid Yorkie who fit easily into a basket set the stage for a happy three-fer: exercise, errand running and quality time with my four-legged buddy.

The development of the Hudson River Greenway is another major factor in any New Yorker’s switch from LES sofa spud to Hudson River rider. A couple of years ago I attempted to reach the New Jersey Palisades from Upper Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge on my new wheels. After maneuvering my bike through an obstacle course of ravaged pavement, and braving the riverside carnival that takes place every summer weekend in Washington Heights, I followed an Amazonian path around a soccer field and –praying a commuter train wouldn’t come barreling over the tracks to my right– emerged like Pizarro in Cuzco near The Little Red Lighthouse.

Every year since has brought small improvements and today the same path is a nearly seamless belt of velvety blacktop.

Last week construction on the short waterfront path that runs along the FDR Drive between  83rd and 91st was completed, reuniting the two riverside paths it had separated since the 1930’s when Robert Moses built the Westside Highway around a Metro North tunnel. I had grudgingly humped it up the Morningside Park detour for so long, I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

I’ve taken the greenway south to get things done and north to relax at least once–usually twice– a week for years. Despite having done the ride hundreds of times, I never tire of it. The river glimmers and broods, it’s brackish scent seeps into my clothes and remarkable people cross my path.

My transition from Village rat to river rat was gradual and roughly concurrent with New York’s transformation into a greener city.  Hudson River Stories is an on-line journal I’ve launched to document the tales of people like me who are renegotiating their relationship with the city as access to the river grows.

CHEAP, FAST & OUT OF CONTROL?

Photo by Eddie Cunha

Photo by Eddie Cunha

When I was growing up in Big-’80s New Jersey, the boys ate burgers, pizza and deli heroes while the girls, most of whom were obsessed with being thin, subsisted on bagels, granola bars, Diet Coke and Dexatrim. My high school harbored more than a few hollow-eyed honeys with legs like goitered vacuum tubes but obesity was rare. Two decades later, more than a quarter of all Americans between 17 and 24 are too fat to serve in the military. Last I heard, getting a sports scholarship to a Big Three university was steadily losing ground among high school go-getters to attending the French Culinary Institute and roasting squab for Jaques Pepin.

Is America’s corpulence like the ex-addict’s 20-pound spread, a gluttonous reaction to the drug drought following the ‘80’s “war”? Is apocalypse anxiety driving America’s impulse to gorge on refined sugar and saturated fat? More likely it’s over-consumption of processed foods that were once reasonably-portioned and not-so-bad. I would love to see a detailed comparison of a Big Mac from 1985 with one from today. If the modern fast food hamburger is 93% government-subsidized corn — most of it genetically modified for insect repellance and maximum yield — my guess is that at some point at least 20% of that was something closer to simple beef.

The standing moonsault obesity has landed on everything from individual life expectancy to national security is driving an examination of the changes America’s food supply has undergone over the last twenty-five years. And as the depths of corporate greed, government shortsightedness, and consumer ignorance come to light, more and more of us are taking a longer look at the food on our plates and what its long term costs are for our bodies and planet.

Living in New York City I’m exposed to new trends almost as soon as they occur and as a journalist I’m finding food to be an inexhaustible source of material worth covering. Everybody from the downtown auteur to the guy down the hall has a food horror story to tell, a great recipe to share, or crackpot diet to promote. Consequently, I keep finding myself on the food beat.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Norwich Meadows Farm, the organic CSA I subscribed to last summer. (See Wooden Hill Farms below for more on CSAs.) I took the four-hour ride north in order to trace produce from its source on the farm to the hands of urban consumers and provide a glimpse of the simultaneous laboriousness and efficiency of a local food system. Visiting the place where my food came from and spending time with the people who grew it was a revelation to me. Here’s a link to the video that resulted.