With Jesse Jackson back in the news (and being slammed by Nas), I have to recall one of my favorite days of my life: the day I sat on an airplane with Jesse Jackson and Dan Quayle.

In 2004 I had just finished a project in Chicago, and the next day I was flying to Brazil to meet my friend Kit, who was in the Peace Corps in Paraguay.  To celebrate the end of the project and prepare myself for the 12-hour flight in coach, I decided to cash in a couple of my United Airlines 500-mile upgrades and fly first class from O’Hare to LaGuardia.  I was the first passenger to board when the first class cabin was called, but to my surprise, there was already a passenger on the plane: the Rev. Jesse Jackson.  He was in seat 1F, and I was in 2A, but just walking past him I was astounded by his girth, his cologne, and his black vest.  Upon seating I handed my suit jacket to the flight attendant, and then I began sending text messages to everybody in my Sidekick’s address book: “JESSE JACKSON IS SITTING IN FRONT OF ME ON THIS AIRPLANE!!!”  I received some standard “Ha ha” replies from friends, and my friend Sameer, who was working in Bahrain at the time, wrote that he had never heard of someone so excited by Jesse Jackson.

So we received our drinks, and the plane was about ready to take off, when another passenger boarded at the last minute: former Vice President Dan Quayle.  And he sat down directly in front of me.  Good looking man, that Dan Quayle.  “Jesse Jackson!”, he said.  Jackson replied, “Hello, Dan Quayle.”  Of course I whipped out the Sidekick again and began typing furiously, “NOW DAN QUAYLE IS ON THE PLANE TOO.”  Sameer replied immediately, “Why would you make up stories about seeing washed up politicians?”

Before the flight, both politicians talked on their cellphones.  Jackson’s rang repeatedly (his standard Nokia ringtone was turned to full blast), and he bellowed rather than spoke into the phone.  Quayle told somebody, “I’ll be staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, under the name ‘John Danforth'” (I get that Danforth is his middle name, but isn’t there already a politician named John Danforth?).

A couple of details from the flight still stick out.  They exchanged some pleasantries, but soon they retired to the comfort of their newspapers; Dan Quayle read the USAToday, while Jesse Jackson read the New York Times.  They both napped.  When the pilot announced that our landing would be delayed, Quayle called out, “Tell air traffic control Jesse Jackson is going to be late to a meeting!”  Jackson didn’t really laugh at that.

The best part was toward the end of the flight, when Quayle took out a paperback and started reading.  It looked like a cheap thriller, and when I peeked through the crack in the seats and read over his shoulder, I was blown away by some of the words in the novel.  This from the man who made an example of Murphy Brown??  It’s my fault that I lost the paper where I had written the name and author of the book – I remember looking it up on Amazon and reading that it was set in Miami and somehow featured an ex-stripper girlfriend.  Or something like that.

Anyway, we landed, and some official-looking guys (Secret Service?) met the plane to escort Quayle off.  Jackson and Quayle cordially said goodbye, and before exiting Quayle turned and said, “Jesse, take it easy on my boy Bush!”

I let Jackson get off before me, and I stopped to use the bathroom before grabbing my taxi.  When I took the escalator down to the baggage claim area, I saw Jesse Jackson standing alone, barking into his Nokia, presumably wondering why his people weren’t there to pick him up.  What’s that word Jarvis Cocker used to describe the people who are running the world?  Anybody?  John McCain, surely you know the word….


O.K., so the first time I saw Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls, I was thoroughly underwhelmed.  On my morning run to the Staten Island Ferry, I got to see all four of them, three from afar and one from up close, and none of them seemed to match the majesty of the falls depicted in renderings.  And as one of the biggest fans of The Gates that I’ve ever encountered, I was disappointed but also worried that a lackluster spectacle could dim the public’s desire for more large-scale public art projects.

But after many views, these waterfalls have begun to grow on me as art, in that they’ve challenged the way I’m used to seeing the city and provoked me to reconsider my idea of public art.  Although I still agree with Howard Halle’s take that Eliasson’s insistence on making the scaffolding front-and-center is a bit overintellectual for the East River, there’s a lot more to the Waterfalls than the artist’s intentions.

The Waterfalls do not hold a candle to a real waterfall, but then again, that’s not the point.  New York City is not trying to be Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong or Bogota in terms of offering a contrast between a city and natural beauty.  Instead, they are part of the city itself, and so what you have to do is compare and contrast them to the city.  The falls, between 90 and 120 feet tall, are dwarfed by the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, which stand 277 feet tall.  But 120 feet is nothing to shake a stick at – it’s just shorter than the Statue of Liberty.  The project allows new ways to appreciate the city’s grandeur.

Most importantly, though, people are talking about art, just the way they did during the Gates.  It’s an event that everyone can participate in, and I’ve overheard Waterfalls-based conversations among Wall Street types, Latinos grilling out along the East River, and hipsters walking around Brooklyn.  New York City needs these conversations. Along the waterfront, which is arguably the most neglected asset the city has, all people, rich, poor and in between, have something to take pleasure in.

People sometimes forget that architecture is one of the greatest forms of public art, and due of a variety of reasons (financial, special interests, lack of planning and a stranglehold on NYC development by a small cabal of developers) we haven’t seen nearly enough exciting architecture in recent decades.  Still, I was in Berlin right after Jeanne-Claue and Christo wrapped the Reichstag, and I was in London for Eliasson’s earlier Weather Project, and I’m thrilled that public art is compensating somewhat for our lack of new architecture.  I hope the precedent established during the Bloomberg years continues in future administrations.

John McCain took a lot of flack for being out of the country during the July 4 weekend, but it was only to his benefit that his visit to Colombia coincided with the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and eleven other hostages held by the FARC.  Images such as the one above flashed alongside those of Betancourt and the Colombian military to the point where I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking that McCain somehow had a role in the operation (he most certainly did not).

The role that Colombia has come to play in American politics this campaign season is detrimental to Colombians and to the soundness of the Democratic platform.  Even though it was Bill Clinton who initiated the enormously successful Plan Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe has cast his lot with Republicans out of necessity, and Democrats are starting to look pretty silly.  Barack Obama is soon heading to Europe and the Middle East, but it would be a smart move on his part if he could depoliticize our relationship with Colombia.

A brief summary of the situation: the American Left has been quicker than their European counterparts to realize that the FARC and the ELN are nothing but drug-smuggling thugs with no popular support whatsoever.  In the primaries both Obama and Clinton spoke out harshly against the so-called insurgency.  Similarly, even the Republican candidate addressed concerns over human rights abuses in Colombia.  The major policy difference has to do with a free trade agreement – the Republicans are for it, and the Democrats are against it.

First of all, as my friend Kit Cutler said last weekend, I thought the success of the Clinton years had killed any serious belief in protectionism.  But I suppose, with the Bush economy in full effect, that Lou Dobbs jingoism has more resonance than good old fashioned intelligent thinking.  The truth is that no companies are going to ship jobs to Colombia, but we continue to punish an ally with some pretty steep tarriffs on a lot of goods.  The Colombian free trade agreement is a good thing, period.

The standard Democratic line opposing the free trade deal is that Colombia needs to improve its human rights record before they would consider backing the plan.  And even though everybody admits that there is plenty of work to be done on the human rights front, life in Colombia has improved considerably in the past decade, if only from the drastic reduction in guerrilla and paramilitary violence.  There is evidence that by using this deal as a carrot on the human rights front, Democrats have achieved some good: Robert Novak, the Dark Prince himself, reported in the Washington Post that pressure from Democrats had led Uribe to sweep out corruption from the military.  And a recent Carnegie Council article argued that the free trade agreement is likely to improve human rights.  So now, why not support the free trade deal?

What’s at play here is a refusal on the part of the Democrats to remove Colombia from the old Left-Right dichotomy, where Uribe is on the Right, and we have to be sceptical of him.  Outrageously enough, just last year Al Gore refused to appear on a panel with President Uribe because of “troubling allegations” in Colombia.  And Bush invites him to his ranch, and McCain visits him in Cartagena.  Uribe is, in American politics, a Republican.

But in Colombia, Bush is as unpopular as he his here, if not moreso.  The signal Obama sends by keeping his distance from Uribe and repeating the standard lines about human rights abuses is that he’s being classically partisan on the issue of Colombia and that he’s not in touch with the realities of the situation.  Perhaps he sees a spectrum with Chavez on one end and Uribe on the other, and he’s staking out the middle ground – except there is no such spectrum, at least not when it comes to the issue of trade.

At this point, Obama has painted himself into a corner and can’t change his tune on Colombia before the election.  I’m just hoping that, as president, he’ll bring his post-partisan approach to Latin America, too.

change your underwearA few weeks ago the lovely and beautiful Louise V. Nielsen came to visit from Denmark, and upon the night of her arrival I of course took her to a Barack Obama victory party.  While Obama was saying all the sorts of things that seem so refreshing to many Americans and so obviously common-sensical to Europeans, Louise noticed that the “Change You Can Believe In” sign looked awfully familiar to her.  After thinking about it for a few seconds, she said that Change is the name of a Danish underwear brand, and that their logo looks exactly like it does in Obama’s signage.

And it kind of does, as you can see above.  Obama’s change is on top, and the font, as has been widely discussed in the Times among other places, is Gotham (designed by Tobias Frere-Jones – yes, Sasha’s brother).  The Danish underwear’s change does not seem to be Gotham, but it’s awfully close – the ends of the “C” are vertical, the inside hook of the “G” is slightly smaller, and the tips of the “E” are of different lengths.  That said, you really do have to line the two up side-by-side to be convinced that Obama didn’t just rip off the design of this Scandinavian swimwear and lingerie company (but if you’re going to rip off design, that’s a good part of the world to pick from).

Danish design is hot these days, with brands like Munthe plus Simonsen and Dyrberg/Kern getting more and more international exposure.  Alas, Louise assures me that Change is not an elite brand but a mass-market, functionality-oriented line.  Which, if he’s going to be associated with European underwear, is probably a lot better for Obama.

I’ll leave you with a fun application of the Change logo.

maybe less change is better.

I posted a while back about a Volvo ad that used a song by the Swedish group Malpo Mene, and I wondered if the might be trying to tap into their Swedishness by using an indie-rock group from their own country.

The answer, it seems, is yes, because the newest Volvo ad uses a song by the more established Nicolai Dunger called “Something in the Way” – check out the video here:

So Volvo is tapping into the contemporary cultural assets of their native country to promote the brand as somehow unique among European car makers.  I’ve often thought about ways to extract value from a country’s culture, but aside from tourism and tangible products, it always seems to be pretty difficult.  Leave it to the Swedes to be a step ahead – although I’ll be keeping an eye on how it works out and if anybody else seems to take notice.

And I’ll leave you with the full (cute) video to the song:

Ever since I moved to East Gramercy Park the Northeast Village, I’ve felt a sort of antipathy towards Gramercy Park. It seemed to me blatantly elitist to have a massive private park smack in the middle of a green space-starved area of Manhattan. In fact, New York City has the lowest green space per capita of any major American city. It’s always saddened me to see so many of our public parks covered 90% by concrete and the malls of wide streets like Allen Street cracked and neglected (when the model of Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, where I spent a summer some years ago, provides such a great model). So here we have a beautiful park, privately maintained, but off-limits to 99.9951%* of city residents.

The New York Times published a story last week on Arlene Harrison, a trustee of the park and evidently the person with the most influence over its rules and regulations. Among the story’s revelations is a startling quote from Ms. Harrison herself: “It was always an ornamental park. A lot of people don’t even go in to enjoy it. They’re so thrilled just to see it. It’s like a hotel room with a view of the ocean.”

Yes, a hotel room with a view of the ocean. An ocean free of people–especially black people.

Oh, snap! Why did I just drop the race card? Well, not everybody is aware of the details of an episode in the park’s history briefly alluded to in the article as, “a discrimination lawsuit (quietly settled).” Let’s look no further than the Times archives, which turn up a January 18, 2001, article about a lawsuit brought against the Gramercy Park Trust. One of the principal players in the lawsuit, O. Aldon James Jr., the president of the National Arts Club, which sits on Gramercy Park South, was fond of taking students at nearby Washington Irving High School for walks through Gramercy Park using his organization’s keys to let them in. Many of these students, as anyone who’s walked down the southern stretch of Irving Place knows, are black and Latino. The lawsuit, brought by James and a group of minority students from Washington Irving, alleged that on at least two occasions a Park Trustee, Sharon Benenson, chased the students from the park due only to their race. Ms. Harrison is described in the recent Times article as “aligned” with Ms. Benenson.

The details of the lawsuit are telling:

On the morning of April 4, the suit said, a group of 55 students, four teachers and a chaperon from nearby Washington Irving High School went to use the park as guests of the National Arts Club. The students, predominantly members of racial minorities, belonged to biology classes that planned to examine plants and wildlife in the park.

Using a key loaned by the arts club, the students entered the park and began their lesson. According to the suit, Ms. Benenson, who is white, came and told them to leave. The suit says that when a teacher said they were participating in a learning activity, Ms. Benenson replied, ”It doesn’t look like a learning group to me.”

She then approached Mr. James, the suit said, and told him the children had to go, emphasizing they were not their ”kind of kids.”

When the teachers refused to leave, Ms. Benenson called the police. The police took no action after confirming the group was invited by the arts club.

Benenson denied saying anything derogatory about the children, but what sort of person calls the police to keep children from conducting biology research on plants??

Anyway, a nasty battle ensued in which Al Sharpton led protests against park rules, James was investigated for tax evasion (and his brother was convicted of a crime), the lawsuit fizzled and was settled (the children received $36,000 each), and one of the plaintiffs, William Samuels, wound up suing the law firm he hired for not handling the case competently. The next year, key-eligible residents of the park were billed to pay for the legal expenses. The lesson: oppose us to your own detriment; plus, we have lots of rich people to pay our bills.

In 2004, Benenson, Harrison and their lot introduced new rules banning groups larger than six. They agreed to open the gates to the public once a year, but they killed that last year. The Gramercy Park Hotel reopened as a boutique Ian Schrager property, and Park revenues increased. The end result: after a Park Trustee berated minority children for not being the “kind of kids” she wanted in her exclusive park, Gramercy Park only became more walled off from the public.

I’m planning on making the story of Gramercy Park a running theme on this blog. The park’s rules strike me as particularly archaic, especially given the dramatic drop in city crime and fact that we have a racial minority on the cusp of the nation’s presidency. Before I dive in deeper, I’ll posit two scenarios that seem far more just and tasteful than the situation we have now.

  1. Residents vote out current leadership or pressure them to adopt more community-friendly rules. Some elitism might still apply (think passes like the Central Park tennis courts), but New Yorkers could reasonably expect to be able to enjoy the park now and then. Furthermore, area schoolchildren would acquire a wonderful asset for learning.
  2. The city simply buys the park. This scenario is based on a plan by former Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa to buy the Bogota Country Club and turn it into something of a Central Park in the northern part of the city. Of course there’s a danger that the city allows the park to fall into disarray, but Central Park seems to do pretty well (with the help of private supporters). As I mentioned earlier, New York City has changed, and saying “it might turn into Tompkins Square” doesn’t instill the same fear it once might have. I could imaging the first year might be obnoxious, as the masses and the tourists pour in, but after that it becomes just another nice park, maybe not so pristine as it is now, but certainly just as special–and more than just “an ocean” to lots of people.

Not sure how I missed this, but a couple weeks ago the New York Times Magazine published an interview with former Bogota mayor, Enrique Penalosa. Penalosa, one of my favorite politicians in the world, is best known for his pro-environment policies, such as encouraging bicycle commuting and constructing the world’s largest rapid-bus system. He lost the last mayoral election, and the defeat seems to have helped him with his sense of humor:

At heart what I really am is a Colombian politician, but a bad one because I lose elections.

Penalosa represents the coming leftward swing in political thought–it’s a post-socialist approach to issues that accepts and even celebrates the market while remaining grounded in that whole “all men are created equal” ethos.

A few years ago I had the pleasure in interviewing Penalosa for a story that never appeared in Duke Magazine, and I’ll try to dig that thing up and throw it on here sometime soon.