Monday, March 10, 2014

March 2014: New York City

The Chrysler Building from our hotel
For the first few years of this letter and occasionally since, March has been the month where I write a travel letter.  Since the Great Recession, my travel wings have been clipped.  Truth be told, I still have that wanderlust just not the budget or business need.  This month I am again writing a travel letter.  My destination is someplace I used to live for seventeen years:  New York.  In actuality, we lived in Connecticut but I worked in Manhattan.  Most of the time when asked where I was from, I answered New York. 
I liked living there.  No... I loved living there.  The town and country contrast and contrast really appealed to me.  We had a home in Wilton, CT and my office was on Park Avenue in Manhattan.  That never stopped being cool.  It is still cool.
It's not like I do not like living in Chicago now or that I do not relish my time in Detroit.  Both places are wonderful... but there is something unique and special about New York.  Oddly, I was not really sure about moving to New York.  While I was born in Boston, I really only recall living in Detroit and lived there until 1990.  It was all I knew.  I loved and am quite proud to be from there. 
Moving to New York, while being a great career move, was iffy.  The housing market was far more expensive and the place seemed too big, complicated, and obnoxious.  Mostly, this impression came from movies and TV and the very few times I had actually visited. I knew other people loved it but I was apprehensive.
That all changed when I first got there.  I fell in love with the city the first weekend I was there.  What a great place.  I wondered what the heck I had worried about.  It was both good and bad.  The good simply overshadowed the bad.
While walking around the city
We were in New York City the weekend of February 21-23.  It was a great weekend.  We flew in and out of LaGuardia but spent all our time in Manhattan.  It was the longest time I have spent in Manhattan since Aram and Anoush's wedding in 2009. I enjoyed being in the great city again.  I wish, in part that I still lived around there.  But. I know in reality that chapter is over.  The probability of having to relocate there is not high.  Anything is possible.  It is just not probable.
We were there for a wedding, the son of close Armenian friends of ours from Connecticut.  It was fun to see all our everyone.  For us, it was having the old gang back together again.  For them, we were the only addition.   
We walked around Friday and Saturday during the day.  It was good to hit some spots we used to frequent.  It was not surprising to see that some places were no longer there. 
Here are some reflections of the trip.
Smart Phones and Phone booths:  I have not thought about pay phones or phone booths for a long time.  I never see them.  I think there is one somewhere on the College of Lake County campus where I teach in the evenings.  In the New York, I saw pay phones in three different locations.  I did not see anyone using them.  My guess is they would not be there if they weren't generating some revenue. 
An October 31 article in the New York Post revealed some interesting facts.  It seems there are still about 5,500 pay phones in Manhattan which is down from 8,260 in 2008.  I guess seeing pay phones in three different locations was not such a rare sighting after all.
While the number of pay phones are decreasing, the advertising revenue from them is, oddly, up.  The city collects 10% of the revenues from calls and 36% of the revenues from ads.  

Ad revenue from phone booths has risen 18 percent, from $14.1 million in 2008, to $16.6 million as of January 2013, based on data compiled by the budget office.

Ads are the main reason that pay phones are still around.  They form part of the mini-billboard landscape in the city.  The revenue is worth millions to the city so they are interested in not only maintaining the revenue but trying to grow it.  The city is working with the thirteen pay phone suppliers in the city to modernize the pay phone concept to include wifi and smart screens.  I would guess fast charging stations would be a plus too. 

Colgate:  I visited Colgate.   The only person I informed ahead of time was leaving the day we arrived on a trip to China.  So, I simply called my old friend and partner in supply chain crime Jim Davis.  He was in the office and available in the late afternoon.  I had not been in the headquarter offices since 2009. 
I wanted to see folks in the Latin America Division of which I was a part of and Global Supply Chain where I had a functional dotted line.  To my delight, they were both consolidated to the same floor.  It seems Colgate staffing levels have decreased as has been the case in many Fortune 500 companies since the Great Recession.  They now occupy about two thirds of the space they used to occupy.  If they go any lower they may risk losing their name on the building. 
I was lucky to run into a variety of old colleagues in the 45 minutes I was there.  It was more than I thought I would have seen late on a Friday afternoon for the short time I was there.  It was very nice to see everyone.  It felt good to be back but most definitely it was a closed chapter.

Giambelli's:  One place I was sorry to see no longer there was Giambelli 50th a long standing Italian mainstay in Midtown.  It was around the corner from Colgate and one of the first restaurants I saw when I was first there in 1990.  I made a note upon first seeing it to try it out.  I ate there maybe six or seven times.  It was very good and it was also very expensive. 

Giambelli was founded by Francesco ''Frank'' Giambelli, who died in 2006 at the age of 90. He was born in 1915 in Voghera, outside Milan, Italy. Frank came to the U.S. in 1954 to open Giambelli's Ristorante, originally located on Madison Avenue and 37th Street; it relocated to 50th and Madison Avenue in 1960. In 1995, during Pope John Paul II's trip to New York, Giambelli's served the Pope and fifty Cardinals at the Cardinal's residence. The cuisine was northern Italian. The interior had off-white walls, light brown banquettes, picturesque paintings, Classical bronze statues, and riotously colorful floral arrangements. One account said that a long-stemmed rose was given to each female guest.

Mr. Giambelli was always there.  I knew him mostly in his 80s.  He didn't move fast but he was always there in a suit and tie.  It was his place.  He was proud of it and it was a great dining experience.  He greeted me every time like I was one of his best customers.  I was not, but it really made me feel special. 
I have two great memories of this classic and classy restaurant.  First, I went there for lunch with a Colgate colleague from Mexico.  Even though it was not an expensed lunch, we just wanted to go someplace nice and Italian.  This was to be my treat to thank my friend for something he had done for me.  We walked in and Mr. Giambelli greeted me, as usual, like his best customer and my friend was impressed.  I was feeling very good.  Mr. Giambelli personally seated us and told me of a very special appetizer he wanted me to taste.  He told a waiter to bring us some.  Cool.  It was very very good.  We had our lunch which was equally good.  I asked for the check and when it came, I reviewed it.  Holy smokes, the appetizer was like $40... for lunch.  Here I thought Mr. Giambelli was being so nice.  He was but he also deftly got me to raise my ticket.  Well done Mr. Giambelli.
Another time, when I was working in Global Procurement, we had a Global Meeting of the Procurement leadership in the company.  The meetings were held at the Piscataway Technology Center.  One evening, we all piled in a bus and were not told where we were going.  The bus trundled into Manhattan and we were supposed to go to on a dinner cruise.  It would have been a great evening except for the fact that they dinner cruise boat had no record or knowledge of our reservation.  Yikes.  There were like fifty of us, it was dinner time, we were hungry, and we had no reservations.  There were not a lot of nice places where you could just drop in with 50 people. 
Jack DiMaggio called Mr. Giambelli.  No problem.  By the time the bus got there, the tables were arranged in the loft and we had a prix fixe menu that was fabulous.  What a restauranteur.   Well done Mr. Giambelli.

The Waldorf Towers from our hotel
The restaurant is not only closed but gone.  It it torn down.  The Lost New York blogspot informed me that the site was taken over by the MTA for a construction project.  The invoked the Eminent Domain law in 2009 and took it over.  Both the restaurant is closed and the building is gone.  It exists in the memory of its patrons.  In reading the blog, the memories are strong and heartfelt. 
Nothing lasts forever.  This may be more the case for local stores and restaurants than other businesses.  They are dependent on several things for their survival.  There is the, first and foremost, the energy, vision, drive, charisma, and business acumen of the owner.  The owner breaths the spirit into these places and gives them personality.  It is this personality with which customers make their relationship with the business and the owner; there is often no distinction.  Needless to say, that product and service also must delight customers.
The second factor is the market.  The business landscape is always changing.  Chains operate more efficiently than sole proprietor stores and restaurants.  Small businesses find it harder to survive.  They are more able to do so in large cities especially in New York where chains have a more difficult time with their model because of both property and labor costs.  

Mayor de Blasio:  New York has a new mayor:  Bill de Blasio.  He is a different than the past two mayors:  Giuliani and Bloomberg.  He is a democratic and from what little I have read and seen, he seems like a pretty left wing Democrat.  It will be interesting to see where he takes the city.  I understand his desire to help the lower economic strata.  I am sure that the benefits of the resurgence of the city did not trickle down to them enough.  I am certain their lot has been worse since the Great Recession.
It is almost certain that he will steer the municipal ship in a different direction than either of the last two mayors.  The fear is that he will alienate the wealthy tax base of the city.  They will flee the city if they are too concerned about taxes and fiscal policies.  If they are powerfully rich enough, they may take their companies with them to Connecticut, New Jersey, or perhaps even out of the Northeast altogether.  The loss of this tax base, which my anti de Blasio friends already say is happening, could have the city returning to what it was in the 70s and 80s.  That would be horrible.
I will have to wait and see how this plays out.  I must say that his rhetoric is not conciliatory or inclusive thus far.  He criticized Bloomberg in his inaugural address.  Most people in my demographic and wealthier took that as a rude harbinger of things to come. 
In New York this weekend, there was a news story about de Blasio.  It was not about what I have just expressed.  It was about how he ate pizza.  It seems that the media was taking exception to him eating pizza with a knife and fork whereas real New Yorkers simply eat pizza with their hands.  Really?  At that moment, I was on de Blasio's side.
Not to be confused with the New York
State of mind
That New York state of mind:  This notion of the New York state of mind is something captured in song, literature, and film.  There is that certain something, the I can’t define it but I know it when I feel it, air about the city.  It is as much of what ties people to the place as all the exciting places to go.  It is the romantic allure of the city, but a romantic allure that is a bit gritty and tough.
I am not sure if I really ever had that New York state of mind.  I thinking I would have actually had to live in the city to have it fully.  I am also sure that people that are always talking about it probably don’t have as much of it as they profess.  But, it is there.  It is real and however much infected me, I enjoyed it.
It is a rat race.  It can be crazy.  But, the people are better than their reputation in other parts of this country.  Sure, there are folks that are pure caricatures of what one expects, if all they know is the New York of sitcoms and movies.  It is actually exciting when you meet these characters. 
I want to say it was my city.  But, it wasn’t.  I felt like a passerby, an observer.  Maybe it was more like I was part of city for the time I lived there.  There was a lot of history before I was there, and there will be a lot more.  I am sure people in other great cities of the world feel the same way.
There was such a wide range of poverty and wealth, obscurity and celebrity, all around.  Yet, I was comfortable with my lot.  There were always people infinitely richer or poorer either in wealth or character and they were all about. 
There is a New York state of mind.  However much of that I have, I value.  It was good to be there.  I would love to visit more often.

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