Holy Trinity, West 82nd Street

Visited Holy Trinity on the Upper West Side for mass yesterday. Its Byzantine character reminded me of the National Basilica in Washington, and its tile reminded me specifically of the National Basilica’s crypt. Here’s Holy Trinity:

Founded in 1898, today the Church of the Holy Trinity serves almost 1,400 parishioners on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We seek to respond to the social, liturgical and faith needs of our active and diverse congregation by offering a wide variety of religious and social service ministries. Our Religious Education, RCIA and family programs strengthen the basis of our faith and provide an integral sense of community to all involved.

We have a rich and varied musical program whose offerings cover the gamut from Gregorian chant and polyphony to the contemporary music of the 21st century.

At the center of parish life, we have a singular, magnificent Church; built in the Byzantine style, decorated with Guastavino tile. This is our legacy from our forebears.

Please explore … the many opportunities Holy Trinity offers to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ.

As mass was starting I tapped my Apple Watch to record the choir’s Kyrie Eleison:

I hope to be back.

Ah, Wilderness!

We saw Peter Atkinson in “Ah, Wilderness!” yesterday at the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture on Bleeker Street, where he played the part of Richard Miller:

Ah, Wilderness! is a classic American comedy about the trials and tribulations of a young man and his loving family in a small Connecticut town on July 4, 1906. Playwright Eugene O’Neill described it as, “A nostalgic comedy of the ancient days when youth was young, and the right was right, and life was a wicked opportunity.” Presented by Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and The Storm Theatre. Peter Dobbins, Director.

Peter is at Columbia working on his MFA, and it was great to see him on the stage. Never would have predicted I’d have the pleasure after meeting him years ago outside The Bean in Ave Maria, Florida. Here’s Terry Teachout on the production:

“Ah, Wilderness!” hit big on Broadway in 1933, was promptly turned into an equally successful movie, and has been a community-theater standby ever since. In addition, it gets done with modest regularity by regional companies that can afford to produce a play that calls for four sets and a 15-person cast. But it hasn’t been seen on Broadway since Lincoln Center Theater’s 1998 revival, and there haven’t been any off-Broadway stagings since then, either. …

The best thing about “Ah, Wilderness!” is the way in which it mixes sweetness with sorrow. It stands to reason that O’Neill, who subtitled the play “A Comedy of Recollection in Three Acts,” would have been inclined to mix these two strong flavors. “Ah, Wilderness!” is the theatrical equivalent of a reverse image of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the tragedy in which he dwelled at length on the horrific shortcomings of his real- life family. In “Ah, Wilderness!” he chose instead to evoke the imagined shades of the Millers, the family he would have preferred, headed by Nat (Mr. Trammell), the tolerant, supportive father, and Essie (Lynn Laurence), the kindly mother. In addition, he portrayed himself when young as Richard (Peter Calvin Atkinson), a lovesick innocent who reads George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde on the sly but remains a virgin. Indeed, poor Richard is so idealistic that he actually contrives in the second act to visit a whorehouse without effect, coming home drunk but unspotted.

Terry Teachout, Kathryn Jean-Lopez, and others have praised the production:

“A stripped down production of Eugene O’Neill’s only mature full-length comedy shows that the playwright’s work endures. You’ll be charmed!” –Terry Teachout

“Smoothly directed by Peter Dobbins, the piece is as stageworthy as ever…[Peter Atkinson] embodies adolescent angst to the point of making someone well past adolescence recall how it can hurt. He’s a young actor to watch.”  –Off-Off Online

“The youthful Peter Atkinson is outstanding as Richard and is the production’s centerpiece. Mr. Atkinson’s animated intensity, comic timing, slightly croaky voice and sense of depth capture the adolescent bravado of an all American boy of yesteryear…Admirers should be charmed by this lovely revival.” –Theaterscene.net

“I laughed and I cried – it’s healthy and delightful! This production makes a convincing case for its old-fashioned virtues and Ah Wilderness! surrounds you with love on Bleecker Street…Do yourself a favor and see this run of Ah, Wilderness!” –National Review

“Reminds us of our past so that we might progress to a more enlightened future…Atkinson gives a captivating performance.” –Theatre is Easy

Also my first time back to the Sheen Center since last January for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture’s Vita Institute seminar.

Walking Broadway

We saw “Ah, Wilderness!” at the Sheen Center’s Black Box Theater today. I’ll write a bit about that tomorrow. In the meantime, sharing scenes from last night’s arrival in New York and this morning’s walk down Broadway. I initially caught the 1 from 137th in Washington Heights, planning to head directly to Columbus Circle, but due to a schedule change had an extra hour and decided to get off at 103rd Street and walk down Broadway to Columbus Circle.

We made our way to McSorely’s for lunch before the show. We met an older man named Bill who met Joseph Mitchell a number of times as a teenager. Joseph Mitchell captured probably the definitive literary portrait of McSorley’s in 1940, and he would come into the South Street Seaport-area bookstore where our older friend Bill worked when he was a teenager.

New York electric ferry service

As I was pulling up to the terminal at LaGuardia yesterday I snapped this photo of an old American Airlines facility, and not long after read about a company planning to launch New York’s first electric ferry service. The new electric ferry launch is planned for next year, to coincide with New York’s temporary closure of the Manhattan/Brooklyn L train. Micah Toll writes:

SW/TCH E-Mobility (presumably pronounced “switch”) is a new electric transportation company based around multiple modes of EV commuting. The company is planning to offer NYC’s first electric-powered ferry combined with a seamlessly integrated e-commuting fleet onshore. …

Their flagship e-ferry will be an innovative 150-passenger battery-powered ferry used to connect Williamsburg with the East side of Manhattan. The electric ferry will give SW/TCH members a way to beat the L-train shutdown while enjoying a comfortable, stylish, and emission free commute across the East River. …

The electric ferry, and all electric boats in general, feature a much quieter ride due to the lack of a standard diesel or gasoline engine found on most ferries. In addition to a more peaceful ride, the electric ferry will also include a large bar, coffee shop-style seating and outdoor decks, as well as membership perks such as locally crafted coffee and daily specials onboard. …

For the electric ferry, SW/TCH has partnered with Clean Marine Energy (“CME”), an impact-investing group focused on lowering emissions from the marine shipping industry through cleaner fuels and vessel electrification.

The electric ferry is planned to launch in 2019 and will be privately run by an existing ferry operating partner.

SW/TCH’s vision is perhaps overly complicated. Why not simply produce the electric ferries and focus on their success? But the vision for a seamless experience of hopping on the ferry and hopping off to electric scooters or whatever makes sense, insofar as commuters are going to need continue to their destinations in a cost/time efficient way. I’ve read about electric ferries before and I’d like to ride this one next year.

Eighteen hours in New York

A few scenes from a very brief visit to New York for last night’s Human Life Review dinner. Afterwards on the walk south on Park Avenue, as I was headed back to my Midtown hotel at 30th and 6th, I stopped to admire the Empire State Building. It was lit up in the colors of the American flag, shimmering white and alternating solid reds and blues.

It’s a wonderful city.

‘Great Defender of Life’ Dinner

I’m in New York today for the Human Life Review/Foundation’s “Great Defender of Life” Dinner. J.P. McFadden founded Human Life Review/Foundation in 1975; the Review is “an academic-quality journal devoted to civilized discussion of legal, philosophical, medical, scientific, and moral perspectives on all life issues.” In practice this covers “not only abortion but also euthanasia, suicide, neonaticide, genetic engineering, cloning, fetal and embryonic stem cell research and experimentation, and new issues as they emerge.”

Human Life Review’s archives might as well function as an archive of the American intellectual life movement since Roe, and its writers and contributors have in many ways charted out how to return America to a place where authentic, life-affirming choice is possible without the violence and self-harm inherent to our present system of law. Human Life Foundation, meanwhile, publishes the journal and also has provided something like $1.5 million to New York pregnancy resource clinics over the years.

Tonight’s “Great Defender of Life” honorees were David Quinn and Edward Mechmann, and each provided moving and passionate witness for the work of life in Ireland and New York, respectively. Prior to tonight, I had visited the Union League in Philadelphia and the Union League Club of Chicago, but never in New York. These are independent clubs, all created during the Civil War Era for the purpose of raising moral, a spirit of fraternity, and importantly financial and political support for the Union and anti-slavery cause. These institutions are monuments to another era of American conflict, and they’re also lasting symbols of hope for healing and a return to social unity.

David Quinn is Ireland’s best known commentator on religious and social affairs. He has been writing a national newspaper column since 1994. He wrote for The Irish Independent (Ireland’s biggest selling daily paper) for 12 years. Currently his column appears in The Sunday Times (Ireland edition). He also writes a weekly column for The Irish Catholic, Ireland’s biggest-selling Catholic paper. He was editor of The Irish Catholic from 1996 until 2003. He frequently appears on radio and television programs and also contributes to numerous magazines overseas, including Human Life Review and First Things. He has been a leading pro-life voice in Ireland for more than two decades. David is also founder and Director of The Iona Institute which promotes the right to life, marriage and the family, and the place of religion in society.

Edward Mechmann is an attorney with the Archdiocese of New York, where he works on public policy education and advocacy. He is the Director of Public Policy, and has worked for many years with the Family Life/Respect Life Office. He is also the Director of the Safe Environment Office at the Archdiocese, where he oversees their child protection programs.

Union Carbide Building

Justin Davidson writes on the planned demolition of the Union Carbide Building in New York and reflects on what is lost and gained with its replacement:

If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means…

The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. …

Together, Bunshaft and de Blois helped create the look of 1960s America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity that defined the big corporation. They amplified the power of straightforward geometries. Taut planes, gridded frames, and straight lines so beguiled architects that even today their successors haven’t shaken off the wonder of those feats. Before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone. De Blois and her cohort produced designs that exposed every imperfection and didn’t forgive. …

Modernism’s newness thrilled the critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1957 she voiced the hope that, if good enough architects did a good enough job, the new style would “deliver us from the present anarchy and return us to this perennial ideal” of “serenity, harmony, and repose.” It didn’t work out that way. In order to celebrate her new 20th century Renaissance, Huxtable had to write off what she saw as the over-ornamented masonry hodgepodge of apartment buildings and hotels that the new Park Avenue declared obsolete. The architectural historian Vincent Scully could not abide such deliberate slate-wiping. Glass buildings, he wrote, derived their meaning from contrast with their chunkier predecessors, the pleasing contrast of a crystal and stone. The new towers pulled back from the sidewalk to create plazas, lining up in a parade of quasi-military uniformity. For Scully, they destroyed the street.

Glass buildings soon destroyed entire cities, too, as efficiency muscled out elegance. A style predicated on mass production has kept on grinding out widget-like skyscrapers that are equally at home, or equally alien, in downtowns from Düsseldorf to Jakarta to Santiago de Chile. It’s a fair bet that, whoever designs the next iteration of 270 Park, it will belong in the lineage that began with Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft, and de Blois.

The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack. It achieves regularity without monotony, the rhythm of its façade marked by syncopations: the low street level and double-height lobby above, the two bands of blackness that segment the tower and frame the illuminated grid of offices. While at the Seagram Building a few blocks away, Mies bordered the façade in bronze I-beams, here de Blois has the columns stand back from the corners so that the walls seem to meet in the lightest of pencil lines. …

And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.

I don’t think the Union Carbide Building is a beautiful building, but I can see the value of its preservation in light of Justin Davidson’s context. But as he pointed out, a key part of the modernist architectural movement was to instill an attitude of disposability into architecture.

It’s certainly the case that the post World War II international order, and the globalization of commerce and markets that it helped foster, has resulted in less distinctive places. That makes sense. A more culturally integrated world would naturally be a more architecturally integrated world, wouldn’t it?

World Youth Alliance Solidarity Forum

Nadja Wolfe and Lord Pomperada from World Youth Alliance invited me to speak earlier this month at their International Solidarity Forum:

The International Solidarity Forum (ISF) is an annual training event hosted at the World Youth Alliance and United Nations headquarters in New York City. The forum brings together WYA members from around the world and subject matter experts to participate in lectures and discussions on topics relevant to ongoing international policy debates. Previous themes include Sustainable Development, Maternal Health, HIV/AIDs and Good Governance.

This year’s theme was Human Dignity and Bioethics. It was a pleasure presenting with Dr. William Breitbart of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His talk precedes mine, and it’s worth hearing particularly for his development of a “meaning centered psychotherapy” for advanced cancer patients. He touched on the scandal that is the Netherlands policy of legal euthanasia for huge number of people with clinical depression, psychiatric illness, psychotic illness, etc. His “dignity conserving therapy” is compelling:

World Youth Alliance has an incredible purpose, and the members I’ve met seem to be uniformly remarkable people:

WYA works at international institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States, as well as with young people from around the world to build a culture that supports and nurtures the dignity of each human person. We bring young people to international conferences and into dialogue with ambassadors, diplomats, and political leaders.  We focus on: international policy and human rights, economic development, social development, global health, education.

WYA trains young people of every background from every corner of the world in each of these areas, training them to advocate for the human person and develop creative solutions to real world problems.

Afterwards Lord Pomperada presented each of us with a certificate, which was a nice gesture. After lunch I headed to Penn Station, and thankfully my train was one of about half heading south that wasn’t cancelled due to the snow.

Penn Station snowfall

I was in New York on Wednesday for a talk on bioethics and human dignity to the World Youth Alliance’s 15th Annual International Solidarity Forum, and left the city that afternoon just as the snow was falling in earnest. Here’s the scene from just outside Madison Square Garden, before I headed down the steps into the modernist dystopia of Penn Station:

Luckily, my 3:35 Amtrak to Philadelphia was one of those which wasn’t cancelled outright, though it was slowed and delayed enough by both the weather and electrical failures across the line that we didn’t pull into 30th Street Station in Philadelphia until past 8pm. I didn’t mind this, and took advantage of the time to take a nap and get a modest dinner in the cafe car, along with a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.

McSorley’s and wholeness

Maria Popova writes on wholeness, and the ways in which our intentior life lives in harmony (or not) with our public identity:

Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective: “Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.” …

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

“One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.”

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

I woke up in New York’s Financial District to the above in my inbox this morning, and thought it was an appropriate reflection on the topics of our interior life, wholeness, and the identity politics of our time, because I spent last night at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village with Peter Atkinson:

McSorley’s is one of those places that stands outside of time, to a large degree—if you let it. It’s the sort of place where it’s still literally possible to almost meditate, if you want, in a public place. You’re surrounded by 163 years of history, real historical memory and the artifacts left behind by real people who stood in the same Ale House you’re standing in now. It’s custodians over the years have respected McSorley’s as they’ve inherited it, and not tried to make it more relevant, or to change it with changing times. What they’ve come into, they’ve passed along, unchanged in only the smallest and most necessary ways—no more live cats wandering the place, for instance, thanks to stricter New York health codes.

But McSorley’s seems to me to be an example of the sort of “wholeness” that Maria Popova writes on above, albeit in physical/place form rather than personal form. It is confidently what it is, and doesn’t explain itself or adjust itself to changing fashions for the sake of anyone’s affections. It has earned the love and returns of so many generations because it is authentic, meaning that it simply is what it is.

A place like McSorley’s might also just provide the context for a discovery of a renewed interior life, especially in the quiet mid-day hours of a Wednesday, for instance, when you can see the dust falling through the air with a burning stove fire nearby, and the warmth of generations seeming to envelope you in one of the few public places in the world that doesn’t seem to want anything from you, in particular, other than to sit and be for a while.