If You Could Make One Change in NYC in 2014, What Would You Do?
Photographed by Jesse Dittmar in The Back Room, NYC
Picture this: You're walking down the street, en route to your landlord's office to demand he extract the dead whatever-it-is from your A/C. You're minding your own business, putting one foot in front of the other, but slowly you start to let your surroundings in: an old man asking a teenager why aliens shot off his hands, a black rat building a grotto out of Coke cans, the twentysomething women in dresses the '70s want back doing their best Hannah Horvath, grown men in painted-on jeans with enough product in their hair to anchor an aircraft carrier, crust punks wrestling Egg McMuffins from their dogs, kids practicing cuss words on each other. Above it all, the wind carries the sweet tones of Wayne Wonder's reggae cover of "Fast Car."
OK, not the likeliest scenario. But the thing about New York is, this particular setup doesn't strain the imagination. That's what's so amazing about this city. We have a year like 2013, with Anthony Weiner focusing our attention yet again on his wiener, a sitting mayor who said black and Latino men aren't harassed by police enough, and Miley Cyrus twerking the Barclays Center — and life just keeps on moving, maybe with a bit more pep.
Which got us to thinking: What will 2014 bring? How will New York City change in 2014? For the better? The worse? Then we said to ourselves: Why wait for the change to come about on its own? What if we could instigate it ourselves? What would we do?
While pondering the question, we put it to a handful of our fellow New Yorkers. Here's what we asked them:
If you could make one change in New York City to make it a better place in 2014, what would you do, and how would you accomplish it?
Money, we said, is no object. Bureaucratic hurdles are set aside. Think as big as you want or as small — there's no such thing as too local or too narrow here. But be specific: "Peace on earth and goodwill toward men" is a lovely sentiment, but it's too vague. A ban on talking loudly on one's phone in public is better — and a concrete step toward world peace.
Edited a bit for space and clarity, here's what your fellow citizens came up with . . .
Cabaret singer, Bridget Everett and the Tender Moments
The obvious answer, for me, is to stop allowing teens to ride the train in groups of two or more. But if I really think about what would make New York a better place, it's this: Take care of your shit before you go to the seventh-floor ladies' room at Macy's (big ladies and kids floor/McDonald's adjacent).
You have never seen the kinds of crimes against humanity that people commit in a place that's supposed to bring joy to so many. It's unfathomable. It's horrific. It's cruel and unkind. It's like people wake up in their hotel rooms or their shares or on their friend's couch and then someone makes them coffee and a nice breakfast. They feel that coffee move through their tummies and into their bowels and they think, "Hey, I could take care of this now in the comfort of this wonderful pink bathroom with a sweet little toilet shrug." But then they think, "No. Save it for Macy's."
They grab their coat and their keys, pick out a playlist, and lock the front door. Say hello to Jimmy at the pizza shop, dig in their purses for their MetroCards, hop on the train, take the local 'cause they're in no rush, get off on 34th Street, then say to themselves, "All right, we're here. Let's get to work." Then they walk into Macy's, hop on the elevator, go up to seven, and unleash the fury.
Author (In Praise of Messy Lives)
I think the city would be a better place if it instituted a dauntingly large tax on anyone making over $200,000 a year, which would pay for the following in public schools: orchids and other plants, lavish salad bars, state-of-the-art coffee machines and excellent strong coffee for teachers, bright new rugs, gleaming new science labs, pretty libraries with window seats and pillows, art from great artists for the hallways, stipends for writers and poets to come and give workshops, assistant teachers, costumes, computers, magic markers, glitter.
Radio host, The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC (93.9 FM)
My 2014 New York New Year's resolution is a Tax Break Truce. New York should propose to New Jersey and Connecticut that all three states resolve not to be played by companies seeking to evade their civic duty to pay taxes on their profits by threatening to move from one state or locality in our region to another.
All area governors, mayors, and other local officials should resolve not to offer tax breaks for the purpose of luring a company into moving within the region or preventing a company from doing so. If this Tax Break Truce is successful locally, the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut can propose it as a nationwide ethic: no competing for jobs by letting profitable employers evade their tax obligations.
Compete with quality of life, an educated workforce, and other relevant attractions. But public officials will resolve to stand as one on behalf of their taxpaying constituents to refuse to be held up for ransom.
Novelist (The Slippage)
I wouldn't wish for peace on earth, if only because it would make me nervous. Just like the darkest hour is right before the dawn, pure peace can only be the prelude to something horrible. There has to be some conflict. Isn't that the human condition? Oh, right: improving New York City. Well, I guess the thing that would improve everyone's life is more public toilets. That seems like a winning move for the city in general: If care is taken with their design, they could be architecturally impressive, technologically sophisticated, environmentally sound, add a bit of humor or color to streets, and provide a valuable service for residents and tourists alike. Maybe they could replace phone booths — instead of being a waste of space, each place could be a space of waste.
The Rainbow Room (and presumably the bar) at the top of Rockefeller Center will be reopened in the fall of 2014. The developers say, "All of the features that were part of the greatness of the Rainbow Room before will come back, just in different iterations."
I have low expectations. If I had the power to change one thing about New York, I would say: Bring back the Rainbow Room bar in its former grandeur, to the tiniest detail.
I was crushed when I went to the Rainbow Room bar after it was completely stripped of its Art Deco beauty in the late 1990s. I felt physically ill. I had never been able to afford to go to the actual supper club, but I loved the bar area, built in 1934. Where were the banquettes of velvet, the delicate sconces, the rich carpeting, and the majesty of decor that formed the perfect showcase from which to view the greatest American city? At that bar, with those dazzling floor-to-ceiling windows, the city was at our feet. At the center of it all, the Empire State Building rose up, dressed in jewels. The new decor looked like someone had pulled out down-and-dirty, cheap materials found languishing in someone's basement.
The Rainbow Room is just one example. It goes on. Although I never saw the original Penn Station, I see photographs of it and want to cry. Who allowed this to happen? I still mourn the loss of the Beaux Arts–style Scribner Book Store on Fifth Avenue at 48th Street, with the large wooden ladders to reach the book stacks on the highest levels of that space's Gothic ceiling. Now the space houses a Sephora. The Plaza Hotel lobby is another loss that can't be described to anyone who never saw it in its former splendor. The Plaza brought to New Yorkers memories of first dates, engagements, birthday parties, and anniversaries. I had my marriage reception in the tiny State Room on the second-floor corner facing Central Park and Fifth Avenue. It has been turned into a private condo. And just across the street, on the lot occupied by the beautiful Savoy-Plaza Hotel from 1927 to 1965, is the General Motors Building. (The Apple Store that stands in front today has saved the space in a different way, and has now become one of the most photographed landmarks in New York.)
Yet sometimes things do work out. I was thrilled to see that the nude nymph murals on the walls of Café Des Artistes at 1 West 67th Street were saved by the Leopard at des Artistes restaurant after George Lang closed his iconic space. When his River Café was completely demolished by Hurricane Sandy, Buzzy O'Keeffe wisely rebuilt its structure better than before, but with the same decor and eye for the quality of every detail. And I love the exquisite Lalique windows that were reincorporated into 714 Fifth Avenue.
If I had the power, and neither finances nor politics entered into the equation, I would give the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission the authority to save these jewels of our past, to leave to our children a vision of all the beauty that is possible in the future.
Musician; Village Voice advice columnist
I'd like there to be a designated party car on every subway train. It would have awesome colored lights, only a few seats, and a reinforced dance floor. In here you could blast music, smoke and drink, dance around, throw confetti, and do whatever you want, as long as it's party. It could be the last car on each train.
And it would be awesome if there was a bathroom in the party car, too.
Actor (Orange Is the New Black); transgender rights advocate
I want to see the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA) passed in Albany, granting all trans New Yorkers equal protections under the law. I also want to see justice for Islan Nettles, an African-American transwoman murdered in August 2013 whose killer has yet to be brought to justice.
I want systemic shifts where more trans lives are not only treated as if they matter, but where all our lives are celebrated and our authentic gender identities and expressions are acknowledged and our lives are not in danger simply for being who we are.
Actor (The Long Ride Home); advocate for Rethink 9/11
I hope and pray daily that we as a nation recognize that forensic evidence exists proving that Building 7 was brought down in a controlled demolition. We at rethink911.org and the entire crew at Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth have been tirelessly pursuing recognition for our peer-reviewed critiques and experiments into how and why Building 7 (the third tower to fall at freefall speed on 9/11) fell the way it did. Our hope in another new year is that the American people receive a true and impartial investigation into the events of 9/11.
Commissioner, New York City Human Resources Administration
We have to contain the rising costs of public employees' pensions and healthcare. I have been blessed with a truly excellent staff, people who have dedicated their lives to helping those less fortunate, and they deserve to be well compensated for the work they do. Unfortunately, the contracts that govern city employees' benefits were drawn up in a very different time, and the city simply cannot sustain them now. We have a responsibility not just to the New Yorkers of today, but to children who will be born into poverty in the future and civil servants of tomorrow starting new careers. We cannot allow old commitments to crowd out our ability to help those in need, and to hire those who can provide that help. Solving this will mean adopting the kind of benefits structure that has become standard for professionals in the private sector, which asks a bit more of employees but also offers greater flexibility.
I don't say this as an outsider to the process: Having been a city employee myself, I am in the pension system, yet I recognize that it can't continue in its current form. It is difficult to change something that has been in place so long, and the kind of compromises needed won't leave anyone completely happy, but I believe that the city and labor unions can arrive at an agreement that is fair to our excellent employees and gives us the resources to address the challenges of the 21st century.
Program director, Hot 97 (WQHT 97.1 FM)
I would build a walk/cycle tunnel from Edgewater and Jersey City to Manhattan to encourage less driving into the city from Jersey.
And I would stop local rappers from complaining: I would accomplish this by telling them all to stop whining and make better music.
President and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone
I would change federal, state, and local housing supports so we can create a significant number of new units of affordable housing. No child should be homeless in New York.
Director, Sacred Gallery; manager, Sacred Tattoo NYC
I would create more permanent affordable housing throughout the five boroughs to meet the needs of all the poor and struggling individuals who have been increasingly marginalized and priced out of the city. New York City is experiencing a housing crisis, and the city that once valued diversity and creativity now seems to value only the wealth of the top 1 percent.
With more than 51,000 individuals currently in homeless shelters, and many more middle-class workers and emerging artists one paycheck away, the quality of life for those who once made the city so vibrant has hit a new low. Affordable housing is a human right, and I would prioritize its creation so that the individuals who make the city interesting and dynamic can continue to remain here.
I'd love to see some restrictions on all of the utterly crap buildings that are going up. I understand that New York needs more housing, but who puts plywood paneling on the outside of a building, and why does the Williamsburg waterfront look like downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Also, what's up with having one giant floor-to-ceiling window, and why is the light switch to the bedroom in the kitchen? I could go on and on. I feel like people deserve better-built homes with some consideration to the existing aesthetic of a neighborhood.
We have to stop landlords from forcing senior tenants out of their apartments, set up a special team to go after landlords who are illegally destabilizing tenants, and reform the unified court system by removing and replacing every New York City Housing Court judge in all five boroughs.
Money is what the people I'm here to represent do not have, due to joblessness and the high cost of living. Elected officials are doing nothing to take care of those who voted them into office. Instead, corporations come first. To me, Jimmy McMillan, founder of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party and movement, "Peace on earth and goodwill toward men" means three things: a roof over your head, food on your table, and money in your pocket.
I need the entire world to take part in this movement the old-fashioned way: by shouting out windows, screaming at the top of their lungs. Because what is happening in New York is happening all over the world.
Musician and performance artist
I'm on a kick to turn down music in restaurants and bars so we can liberate conversation and stop paying to be tortured. They crank it up because they think people buy more drinks when the music is loud. It's true, people do buy more drinks — in a desperate attempt to ameliorate the distress they feel at not being able to communicate with the human in front of them! How many times must you find yourself inches from some possibly great mind of your — or any — generation who has been reduced to monosyllables, grotesque gesticulations, and facial contortions that convey all the nuance of an emoticon? The NYPD should immediately halt all other programs to focus solely on the issue of café volume control so that intellectual hubs may again spring forth in our great city. I can't wait to watch some toughie in an overcoat bursting into a bistro and flashing a badge that says "shhh." End the violence! Lest anyone think I'm showing signs of early-onset curmudgeonliness, I want to state that I do hope to see more unregulated gyration, orgies, and graffiti this year. Even in combo.
All photos (excluding Andrew W.K.) by Dominic Perri
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