Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Prodigal Cool Event Pick: Staten Island Film Festival

We've been seeing posters like the one above (snapped on the ferry) for months, and this weekend, it's finally here. Even The New York Times agrees that Staten Island's place in film history is undisputed, so don't hold back -- come down to support and participate. For more info, see the Staten Island Film Festival homepage. As a special bonus, several (but not all) of the screenings, are being held at the phenomenally grandiose St. George Theater. Other nearby and picturesque venues include Snug Harbor, the Staten Island Museum, and the Richmond County Savings Bank Ballpark. See you at the movies!

Ganas Founder Shot Outside Home

Jeff Gross, 52 a co-founder of Ganas, the Prodigal Borough's generally good natured commune (and used stuff retail empire), was allegedly shot right outside his house (i.e. not far from our house) by a disgruntled former fellow utopian, Rebekah Johnson. Johnson had apparently been feuding with Gross since being ejected from the commune in 1996, and had filed a $3 million dollar lawsuit against him and other members alleging sexual asault and brainwashing. She dropped the case in 2001, but appaqrently has been going mentally downhill since then and had been arrested herself on harassment charges in 2005.

Perhaps it's time for Ganas to change its happy-go-lucky admissions policies (they let in anyone crunchy enough to want to join) and start becoming a little more xenophobic. At least, we'd sleep a little better if they did.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Surprises On The Ferry

Photo: By CVB, Governor's Island from the usual side.

Usually, my commute is pretty much the same. Perhaps there are more tug boats one day or freighters the next. But the other day I looked up from my iBook and I was in the twightlight zone! We were in a narrow passage with huge cranes to my right and an island with stately buildings on the left. There were large sailboats all around. We had gone the long way around Governor’s Island. I take the ferry 4 days a week, twice a day, and the ferry driver has never taken this route. Although, I have noticed more boat traffic than usual recently. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera. I would have had great shots of Red Hook and the less seen side of Governor’s Island. I'll make sure to have my camera in the future. Another surprise on the ferry was the “poetry” being broadcast at the center of the boat. It sounded like religious propaganda to me because it was a reading about Noah’s Arc, but when I asked a DOT employee he said it was the “poetry section” of the boat. I like that. Spoken word on the ferry. That is a step in the right direction. However, I doubt that they’ll play any of my spoken word: Women of Sodom, Countess).

Paul Sorvino Narrates Staten Island Historical Audio Tour

Photo: New York Public Library

It looks my favorite former taxicab narrator is coming to the Prodigal Borough -- or at least, coming to a mobile device near you. As a joint effort, four of our own civic organizations -- The Council on the Arts & Humanities of Staten Island (COAHSI), the Staten Island Museum of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Downtown Staten Island Council and the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce -- got togther and raised $45,000 to produce the tours, which lead listeners from Ellis Island to St. George and beyond.

My personal favorite tour is "Stop 11: An Introduction to St. George, the Heart of Staten Island" which talks about the elegant and glorious past of our lovely part of town. It seems that not much has changed since the early days of the island -- nearly 100 years ago -- when Erastus Wiman saw its great potential as a place to live. "For the mechanic and the working man," he said, "property is too expensive. Staten Island's wide areas afford the best hope." Sounds tru to us. Sorvino concurs. Noting that Staten Island is the only borough whose population has never stopped growing, he reasons that "New Yorkers are drawn to an island where most of the homes still have backyards." True indeed.

The tour is free until June 1st, and can be reached by calling: 718-297-8687 (718-297-TOUR). After June 1, the cost will be $5.95 for the entire program.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Borough Hall Celebrates 100th With Free Tours on May 21st

Staten Island's Borough Hall, one of St. George's most recognizable landmarks (and, frankly, a lovely building in a lovely place), is celebrating its 100th birthday tomorrow. According to the Office of the Borough President, there will be a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Mr. Molinaro from 2pm to 6pm (we'll pass, thanks) with guided tours afterwards. We've heard elsewhere, though, that the hall itself (which includes 13 noteworthy WPA-era murals) will be open to visitors from 12pm to 4pm.

St. George Greenmarket actually IS Open

Despite what we'd been led to believe by this page, which says the St. George greenmarket doesn't open until July, it actually is open now. Today. We haven't walked down there yet this season (gee, we thought it was closed!), but some of last year's weekly highlights included stupendous white corn, ripe low-acid tomatoes, apple cider donuts, and some truly excellent freshly ground turkey -- all ridiculously cheap (by NYC standards, perhaps) and sold by sincere, friendly, and helpful farmers. If we can make it down there, we'll take some pics and put up an article.

According to this article on, the market is open 12-2pm every Saturday until November at the St. George Municipal Parking Lot at the corner of Hyatt St. and St. Marks Place.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Forgotten New York Live at the SoHo Apple Store

A little birdie told us that Jake Dobkin of Gothamist fame has invited Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York to present a slideshow as part of NYC Photobloggers at the SoHo Apple Store on Friday, June 2 starting at 7pm. We're not sure whether or not this is in support of Kevin's forthcoming book, or just to generally promote New York things forgotten. Either way, we anticipate there will be some good Staten Island content, and we'll do our best to make it there.

The Prodigal Commute Part II - S.I. to 14th Street - 48 minutes

Due to the popularity of Russell's timestamp commute blog entry from S.I. to midtown Manhattan, I decided to put up my own version: I commute to my art studio on 13th Street in the Meatpacking district. I take a slightly different route down to the ferry by going behind Borough Hall. When I lived in Park Slope, I took the F train and then switched to the express along the way. The F train was broken all the time! I had read in The L Magazine that the F train was graded F which is so fitting. I eventually found an alternate route (R train to the D) but I had to switch trains 3 times and suffered long waits in some nasty train stations (although I enjoyed feeding the rats, really!). Either way it took me about 45 minutes to get to 14th Street, so my commute time has not changed. What has changed, however, it that now my ride is much more pleasant and calming, and it is a great time for me to work on my computer.

Travel Time: 48 minutes

12:15: Leave the house through our front door.

12:15: Walk around back and stop to feed the fish in our pond and while doing so I discover that the turtle we placed in the pond last summer made it through the winter! We thought our raccoons had eaten him for a treat.

12:17: Stop to smell the fabulous wisteria which is totally out of control in the garden.

12:17: Run down the many, many steps and turn to take a quick look back up at our house.

12:18: Turn the corner onto Daniel Low Terrace. Pass by a very large tudor house. Our houses were once owned by relatives and our gardens meet through a secret door.

12:18: Pass a charming brick house.

12:19: Pass a well kept barn-roofed house.

12:19: I can’t resist taking a picture of this cat on a roof. This house, on the other side of Fort Hill Circle, could use a coat of paint.

12:20: Have you noticed how lush this greenery is? It is such a pleasure to see this everyday.

12:21 Pass my favorite neighborhood mansion on the left.

12:21 Corner of Daniel Low Terrace and Fort Place.

12:22 On the corner of Belmont and Fort Place, there is a lovely brick Victorian. Russell says how much he likes this house every time we pass by.

12:23 Does this house look familiar? It is a recent Prodigal Pick of the Day and is currently for sale. A woman who sees me photograph it smiles and says, "you should see how beautiful that house is on the inside!"

12:25: Pass The Saint George Theater on the left. The door is open so I peek in and...

12:25 ...this is what I see.

12:26: I’m nearing the ferry terminal now. On the right is the location of the forthcoming Lighthouse Museum.

12:26: Pass the stately Borough Hall as I cross Richmond Terrace.

12:26: Welcome sign in front of Borough Hall.

12:27: Entering the ferry terminal driveway.

12:28: Passing over the ferry parking lot.

12:29: I’m running late (from stopping to take all of these pictures) so I skip getting coffee at The Water’s Edge in the terminal (where the guys are very friendly to me everyday). I’m walking quickly now to catch the ferry before the door closes.

12:30: I walk quickly past the security dog but pause to snap a picture. Those dogs are great. I feel much safer having them here and they are also really cute.

12:30: View on the left as I’m the last to board the ferry.

12:31 I order a latte on the ferry…

12:32 where they serve Starbucks coffee without the annoying cup size names.

12:35 This is what I see everyday. It still makes me smile. These two ships are passing.

12:37 As they pass each other the view of Brooklyn appears.

12:38 This boat looks like it is fake but it is very real.

12:45 I see Lady Liberty everyday.

12:46 Photo ops galore!

12:47 As the ferry nears Manhattan I get a nice view of Governor’s Island , the Manhattan Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

12:50 This is the Maritime Building, which appears to be an old ferry terminal. It's undergoing a fetching restoration.

12:51 My old home, Brooklyn.

12:53 This is the wooden bumper which absorbs the shock of the ferry as it docks. Isn’t is pretty?

12:55 We have arrived at Whitehall!

12:56 Exit.

12:56 Take the escalator down, run through the turnsile, run downstairs, and jump on the 1 train uptown which is about to leave. Switch to the 2 express train at Chambers Street. The 2 train arrives as the 1 train arrives in the station. Jump off the 1 train and onto the 2 train.

1:03 Arrive at 14th Street and 7th Avenue! TOTAL TRAVEL TIME (including backyard fish-and-turtle-feeding-expedition): 48 minutes.

39. I have other errands to run before I go to my loft to work. I lose track of time here. Eventually, after more meandering, I stop at 'sNice, my favorite coffee shop, and then I head over to the meatpacking district. CVB Space, is my art studio, an art gallery, and an event space.

40. CVB Space.

Cellphone Pic of the Day: Van Duzer Street

The Muddy Cup on the right, next to an interesting yellow mixed-use Greek Revival house which was purchased sometime last summer. We're wondering what they'll do with it.

Why I'm Glad I Moved to Staten Island: Mortgage Defaults on the Rise

It looks like we may have dodged a bullet when we were priced out of Ditmas Park. In early 2005, we ended up in a bidding war over a beautiful yellow Victorian house on Rugby Road. CvB's imagination was irretrievably captured. The agent we were dealing with at the time, Eileen Gallagher, knew our absolute price ceiling and kept asking us to submit our best bid. She reassured us that any reasonable offer would be entertained, and that we still had a chance. Our most outrageous, imprudently overextended bid ended up being a good $500,000 shy of the eventual sale price, which tells you what kind of froth we are talking about. For just the difference between the bid and sale prices on that house, you could just about buy a large Victorian house in our neighborhood.

That was the moment we gave up on Ditmas Park, turning instead to Crown Heights, Jersey City, and ultimately, Staten Island. At the time, I consoled myself with the idea that it was the reckless loan market that made unreasonable sales like that possible. What's more, the mortgage numbers I was being approved for weren't at all numbers I'd have been able to pay if I wanted to have money left over for chewing gum and heating oil. Even with interest rates as low as they were at the time (5% for fixed and 4% for variable mortgages), I refused to entertain the idea of an ARM or IO (interest only) mortgage in favor of a stolid 30 year fixed at 5.3%. My conservatism there was based mostly on an inkling that interest rates, at historic lows, had nowhere to go but up. A prescient commentator I heard at the time forecasted that in mid 2006, we'd be seeing a surge in the number of mortgage defaults as (1) interest-only loans went off their introductory fixed-rate periods, (2) structural economic changes made it impossible for some people to manage the outrageous payments they'd agreed to in better times, and (3) the bulk of the first 3 year interest only loans from a few years back started to revert to including huge principal payments, in some cases as much as doubling the homeowner's payments.

For example, if you had taken on a variable rate 3/30 (pay interest only for 3 years, then pay the principal and interest combined for the remaining 27) interest-only loan for $300,000 at 4% three years ago, your interest-only payment would have been $1,000 per month.

Today, however, with the interest rate up to 7% and payment on the principal also due, that payment goes up to $1,995. If you don't believe me, check out this calculator.

The bet the IO loan takers made was that home prices would continue to rise (allowing a quick flip sale for a profit if costs got too high), and that interest rates would stay low (making a favorable refinance possible when the loan reverted to including principal payments). I reasoned at the time that the combination of rising prices with low interest rates wasn't a condition the Fed was going to allow for much longer, and indeed I was right. And today's headlines corroborate the idea that the big bills are coming due for those who overreached.

According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal (wsj online is subscription only so this link is only for those who have access), "Soaring housing prices and aggressive mortgage lending have saddled home buyers with ever greater levels of debt, and early signs are now emerging that more people are unable to keep up with their monthly mortgage payments." The article goes on to say that delinquency on loans made last year grew out of proportion with the increased number of loans, and that, due to piggyback home equity loans and rampant refinancing, 29% of borrowers who took out loans last year have no equity in their homes. What's more, with interest rates continuing to climb, delinquency is expected to continue to rise, culminating in a glut of defaults in 2008, when "some of the most aggressive loans made last year might experience their biggest problems." Mortgage lenders interested in maintaining the pace of the housing market that made them rich are continuing to ply even applicants classified as credit risks with large loans with no concern for what will happen to the housing market when those borrowers default.

What happens, obviously, is that forclosures will flood the market as they are auctioned off by desperate banks for the lowest acceptable value, resulting in a stiff downward pressure on home prices. That trend, combined with a long-forecasted withdrawal of foreign investment in the dollar and the US Treasury bond markets, is what could bring about a solid drop in real estate prices. Good for home buyers and tentative buyers late to market, but bad for existing homeowners. Fortunately, because we moved to a place where even today home prices seem to be within the realm of reason, we're not especially concerned either way.

Turning Landfill into Park Will Cost $952,000,000 More Than Anticipated

Photo: NYC Department of City Planning

According to an article in today's New York Times, the anticipated costs of plans to turn Fresh Kills into a giant park and outdoor athletic complex (which we somehow thought were a foregone conclusion), are now believed to have been wildly off base. When he moved to close the landfiill back in 2001, then-Mayor Giuliani estimated that the cost to close the plant would have been somewhere around $448 million. Today, however, the New York City Sanitation Commission estimated that the project would take five years longer to complete and would cost more than $1.4 billion over thirty years. In other words:

$1,400,000,000 - $438,000,000 = $952,000,000

Now we wouldn't say the landfill needs to be converted at any cost, but we sure think it would be helpful if it were completed some time between now and 2036.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Prodigal House For Sale Pick - $575,000 (Saint George)

Pretty turreted historic house in The Saint Marks Historic District. Two family. Street: Saint Marks. Phone: Century 21 Safari, 718-442-5200. ID: SF6105.