Robin Williams spaced out genius dies

It’s always sad to hear that a celebrity of our time dies early. Most were first exposed to Robin Williams as Mork, a visitor to Earth from another planet. Williams was a quick wit improvisational actor who was Juilliard trained. Be it stand-up comedy, drama or thriller, Robin Williams fit the part and entertained millions of fans. So why does he die at age 63? Depression may be at the root. Suicide is the cause.

There are strong correlations between genius and madness in artists and actors. It seems the more talented they are, they die too soon. The culprit is depression. The modus operandi is suicide.

Sometimes all that bustling creativity and its presence is masked or a way to mask dishonesty.

A celebrity needs to mask his identity despite his mood or motivation. That can take considerable energy. To regain that energy, many leap at drugs as ways of stimulating a flatline effect. They have the energy to perform.

As Robin Williams approached 60, he may have seemed to lose his sense of timing. In a recent CBS TV series, The Crazy Ones, Robin Williams seemed to be pushing his character to be as funny as he is remembered. Sometimes it worked but often it didn’t. After the May sweeps, CBS cancelled the show. It’s tough and sad to see a genius drop.

A 19th-century actor, Edmund Keane, is famous for the phrase “dying is easy (but) comedy is hard.” Being funny is hard as many comedians will attest. As the sad, forlorn clown, the laughmakers always travel a fine line between humor and tragedy.

Depression is not an end, it is a means to an end. One is actively depressing and even some anti-depressants can’t fix the neurochemicals that are supposed to bring you up. Add the panic of losing it as you age, depressing moves faster and further into the psyches of many performers.

Fortunately, there are many prescription-based medications that help combat symptoms of depression. These need careful control since they act differently on many different neurotransmitters, the chemical balances of depression. Unfortunately, there are many supplements, alcohol, and illegal drugs that help mask depressing symptoms as well. For the intents of saving face or self-preservation, few coping with depression reach points where chronic conditions can be effectively managed. By the time depressed feelings take over, it is often too late.

Many creative people cope with depressing. The problem is that observable symptoms are often disguised from others as well as themselves. Then there’s self-recognition. There are negative stigmas in the perception that depression is an emotional disease. It should be seen as a chronic disease, like diabetes for example.

There are probably many more creative people out of the limelight that have been prone to severe depression. There have been poets, composers, musicians, artists, scientists, thinkers, and writers that have occasionally had depression symptoms.

Depression is normally not seen as a condition with a high morbidity rate. As a celebrity icon of our generation, it is difficult to speculate what caused Robin Williams to take his own life. Acts of suicide claim the lives of about 30,000 Americans each year. About half affect men between ages 25 to 65. About 15% of people who are clinically depressed may commit suicide. There are many more out of the system who deal with their moods differently but still die.

Many religions forbid suicide as an attempt to kill oneself. Yet even some of the devoted religionists found moral turpitude in forging mass suicides. We have seen it happen in many cults. Indeed, depression and suicide are not merely a sign of modern times. It has had enough prevalence in human civilization that codes of law found suicide to be a punishable offense.

It is hard to figure what exactly Robin Williams might have been thinking. He was still making movies and projects will be released posthumously. Sometimes the problem just might be that he is hired because he’s Robin Williams, an acclaimed actor. Yet, secretly, Robin Williams guessed that both character and name were becoming an illusion. At the end, he wanted to ride slowly into the sunset. It’s sad and tragic.

In death do we honor. Robin Williams’ gave us many laughs and many superb performances that (hopefully) will be cherished by other generations and our own. His impressions on us through his talents and creativities deserve our honor. If we are to gain something more from his death, it might be an appreciation of how creativity and depression are associated. Tragedy is easy but comedy is harder. We should attempt to stabilize our moods in appropriate ways, and practice comedy inwardly and outwardly. It may be very hard.

We will mourn Robin Williams and revere the memories he has given us. Like all others who succumb from depressing, it’s difficult to find comedy in death. That may be why tragedy is easy and comedy is hard. For those that enjoyed his talents, this brings a tearful laugh. His death is depressing. Let’s remember his life.

1850 Central Park is born

If one perceives a baby, New York City was a young adult in the late 1700’s. The challenges confronting the city were great. Poor and wealthy people were attracted to New York and the infrastructure needed vast improvements to help the city grow greater. As a growth period, the 1800’s (and lessons learned) shaped much of what we call New York City now. Central Park was one of those formidable challenges.

The 1800’s marked a major boom in New York City’s urban planning. With a rising population, NY drained the Collect Pond and nearby wetlands for housing expansion. NY dug its first water reservoir bringing water from the Croton River into the city. Railroads were constructed. Parks were designed for friendly use by residents. Central Park was built. The first section of Central Park opened to the public in December of 1859 and by 1865 Central Park was receiving over seven million visitors per year.

Don’t take the natural reality of Central Park for granted. It is a construct of reality. When it comes to Central Park, nothing is real. Central Park is an illusion of reality built and revised over more than a century. All the birds, squirrels, and other animals adapted to its being there.

New York had to confront issues that taxed technology and talent to its maximum. One of the key points was working on a water supply to control disease and fires. In perceiving dark past realities, Central Park was an ambitious and luxurious undertaking. With a rising level of New Yorkers, Central Park was a necessity. When talking about New York lifestyle, the Central Park is a shared reality, though seen from different eyes and minds.

Everyone has a different perspective on reality. Many tourists and young residents of New York accept that Central Park land was always here. It wasn’t. Manhattan was full of rocky hills, lakes, streams, and wetlands throughout every area. The neatly organized lakes and the Harlem Meer of Central Park were created from wild lands and by shifting ancient waterways. The Harlem Meer, as it appears, wasn’t there at all. The Harlem Meer wasn’t even part of the original Central Park plan. It was McGowan’s Pass and had a wide stream fed by the rivers. It was a battleground in the Revolutionary and 1812 wars. The pass was named for Andrew McGowan, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside those lands until 1917.

The land that makes up Central Park wasn’t a park at all. It was an impoverished shanty area of pig farmers. There was a water reservoir different from the existing Jacqueline Kennedy reservoir. There was even an early African-American village nearby and in the park. There was even a convent within the lands that were to be the park. All were eventually displaced.

The origins of Central Park were complex. Most parks at the time were locked, gated, private parks – similar to Gramercy Park near 23rd Street. Beginning in 1849, a small group of civic-minded New York visionaries began to stir interests for the creation of a grand, artfully sculptured uptown park, modeled after the opulent public parks of Europe for the public use of an expanding Manhattan population.

As most New Yorkers, at the time, lived around 14th Street and below, Battery Park was originally considered for expansion. By the mid-1800’s, uptown areas were being occupied by country homes, asylums, and dance halls. Property owners favored development of an uptown park because they assumed it would encourage people to move uptown and so their property values would increase.

In the early 19th century, most of New York commerce took place below 14th Street and public spaces were being taken away for building neighborhoods. The draining of wetlands led to the creation of the 5-Points, a neighborhood that would develop a very seedy reputation. People would travel upwards in search of more country. The few existing open spaces were wild knolls and cemeteries. Several parcels of land were being considered. One was the Jones’s Wood farm on the upper east side. The farm was 132 acres. The city planners were realizing that the population was expanding and moving upwards. New York legislature settled upon a 700-acre area from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of the park at a total price of 5 million dollars. It would be Frederic Olmstead and Calvert Vaux task to reshape and design the land as an urban oasis, based on large European parks they had seen, known as the Greensward Plan. The complete park was completed in 1857. The expanded area to 110 was finished in 1873. Welcome to Central Park.

The areas that became Central Park were populated by what many people called scum, squatters, and poor people. In 1853, the city legislature passed a bill authorizing that all the land between 59th and 106th Streets, from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, be taken by right of eminent domain so that a park could be built. Residents and property owners were ordered to vacate the park area by August 1, 1856.

It was a fairly wild concept. Among all the natural wilderness in Manhattan, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmstead were given the task of designing a park for the expanding New York City. Central Park was the first explicitly made park in the United States.

Central Park had to be built. As construction commenced, over 13,500 cubic yards of topsoil was removed to New Jersey. Four million trees, plants and shrubs were planted, and stones protruding out of the ground were moved, stacked and altered depending on Olmsted’s vision on how they should shape and anchor the park. Thousands of workers carried out this work to create a completely artificial landscape, artificial being the key word. Many of those stones were moved to the streets and avenues surrounding the park, particularly parts of 5th Avenue.

There were many debates on costs and more debates on available lands and acquisitions. The designers really had formidable tasks to give the park a theme and a welcoming plan.

The original land, between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets consisted of hilly terrain with irregular swamps, creeks, and bluffs were undesirable. The territory was wild and its residents were very poor. The work of art that is known as Central Park required displacing roughly 1,600 poor residents, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, who lived in shanties on the site. At Eighth Avenue and 82nd Street, Seneca Village had been one of the first stable African-American settlements, with three churches and a school. The extension of the boundaries to 110th Street in 1863 brought the park to its current 843 acres. The extension added the old, strategic Fort Clinton that was active in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

It really was not Central Park that obliterated Seneca Village. It was replaced by two large reservoir pools as part of the Croton Reservoir project in 1842, at the approximate area now used by the Great Lawn. By the time Central Park was bought and designed, most of the village was already misplaced. In a growing city, bringing water to New York was essential. 1842 was the first reservoir.

Fort Clinton was deserted by 1818 and became a wasted federal area. The land, from 106 to 110 Streets were sold to the Central Park project. Olmstead completed financial negotiations for additional parkland between 106th and 110th Streets that included a large swamp amidst wetlands. These 65 acres constitute today’s Harlem Meer landscape, which reflect Olmsted and Vaux’s plan to retain the northern end’s rugged topography.

A 1940s reconstruction by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses changed the existing soft grassy shoreline to a concrete and fenced edge. As part of Moses’ plan, the commissioner had a long, one-story boathouse constructed in 1947. It was less popular than the area by 72nd street and fell into disrepair by the 1980’s.

In 1993, the Meer’s shoreline was returned to Olmsted’s original vision, with a miniature sandy beach added. The boathouse was never restored.

A key component of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s award-winning 1858 vision was keeping pedestrians, horses and (especially) vehicles out of each others’ way. A series of bridges and archways were constructed that allowed passage over and under to allow safe passage. The original plan was for 36 bridges, each unique, some made of rock, cast-iron, or wood. Furthermore, the immense park, the designers felt, would disrupt needs for commercial traffic between the both sides of the park. In keeping with their original intent, they did not want crosstown traffic interrupting the park experience. Ingeniously, they came up with transverse roads across 65th, 79th, 86th and 97th streets, running beneath the park surface.

The Bethesda Terrace and Fountain on 72nd Street was the only original sculpture in the plan. It is perhaps the most frequented and photographed area of Central Park. Central Park’s other sculptures were added later.

Despite the original plan of not putting gates around Central Park, a lesser known but extremely grand part of the park is the Conservatory Garden. The Garden’s main entrance is through the Vanderbilt Gate, on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. This magnificent iron gate, made in Paris in 1894, originally stood before the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. It has a 12-foot high jet fountain on the western end of the lawn, backed by tiered hedges and stairs that lead up to a wisteria pergola. An elevated walkway has medallions inscribed with the names of the original 13 states. This is a particularly tranquil part of the park, designated a quiet zone, that is closed at night. Originally designed as a bird sanctuary, the Conservatory Garden was redesigned around the early 1900’s as a garden.

Belvedere Castle was built in 1869 and appears much like a fairy tale building for royalty. The original structure had no windows. That changed in 1919 when it became a Weather Observatory. When they talk about Central Park temperatures, the information is sourc3ed from here. Belvedere Castle was originally built as a focal point that everyone can see in the park. Note that the original Croton reservoir (now the Great Lawn) used rock that resembled the castle but the two structures were never connected. When the reservoir was dismantled in the early 1900’s, water was redistributed to create Turtle Pond, near the Great Lawn.

Of course Central Park, like many works of art, had returned to a wasteland. After the Depression of 1929, poor people lived in the area surrounding what was once the Croton Reservoir. In the 1930’s, especially with the forthcoming New York World’s Fair in 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Robert Moses to clean up Central Park. In a single year, Moses managed to clean up Central Park and other parks in New York City. Lawns and flowers were replanted, dead trees and bushes were replaced, walls were sandblasted, and bridges repaired. Part of that repair included the development of the Great Lawn.

Indeed, nature will return and regress Central Park to what it might have been. The Central Park Conservancy raises money to preserve and maintain Central Park. Many volunteer regularly to help keep the park looking pristine and polished.

Central Park seems like a natural idyllic setting. Among the creators, the development of Central Park meant displacing thousands of people that once called the area their home. The designers reshaped nature to create a grand public park that anyone could enjoy. When constructing realities, there is a plasticity to Central Park that few art forms can replicate. Whether it was made or whether it is real, many will agree that Central Park is one of the grandest natural escapes from New York City life within New York City and it is free to all. It’s all a dream made true.

San Juan hill Lincoln Center west side story

New York City is young by European standards but it has many phantoms and ghosts of the past. Sadly, those ghosts barely recognize the city neighborhoods where they once lived. New York has built over or totally destroyed the old and replaced it with new structures. Manhattan’s West Side has had many stories but they have vanished with time. What you see likely never was. Tenements weren’t just on the lower East Side. They were found on the West Side too. Do you remember San Juan Hill? Those stories are mostly forgotten.

Sometimes (actually quite often), what people deem as reality has been real for only part of a lifetime. New York City has undergone hundreds of changes since it was first settled b6y the Dutch as New Netherland in 1624. By 1664, the area we call New York became New Amsterdam. Ironically, that was the year the British invaded (through the city of Brooklyn) and converted Manhattan to New York. Realities only last a couple of generations. Countries change borders and cities change structures. New York City is one place where changes often obliterate what was real before. One such example happened around 1960 to a poor, African-American neighborhood known as San Juan Hill of infamy.

San Juan Hill was settled before Harlem. In the late 1800’s, the neighborhood west of Central Park was one or the less desirable [laces to live. A mostly African and Indian community in the west 80’s was called Seneca Village but was mostly wiped out after the construction of the New York Reservoir. The area, now part of Central Park’s Great Lawn, was virtually gone by 1860. With limited means of transportation, the poorest of the poor settled in nearby areas. One such area was known as San Juan Hill on Manhattan’s now trendy west side.

San Juan Hill was located around 60th Street to 65th Street, west of Broadway, and featured thousands of African Americans squeezed into one of the few areas where they were able to rent apartment in the late 1800’s. The area may have been one of the birthplaces of jazz, if anyone remembers San Juan Hill. The neighborhood was a reality very long ago but not necessarily long ago. Most of us know the area as Lincoln Center, a destination point for tourists and affluent residents.

When Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim wrote West Side Story in the late 1950’s, the west side of Manhattan was very much like this. The turf extended from 50th Street up to 66th Street. From 50th to 59th Streets, the Irish were the big bosses. Above 60th Street, there were no bosses. The area was known as San Juan Hill and it was largely an Afro-American and Puerto Rican neighborhood. In West Side Story, the Irish gang was the Jets. In San Juan Hill, the Hispanic gang was the Sharks. From 60th to 65th Streets between Amsterdam Avenue and the 11th Avenue railroad tracks, was San Juan Hill, one of the largest and poorest African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan before the rise of Harlem.

By the 1950’s, the African-American exodus to Harlem, opened the neighborhood to Puerto Ricans, dubiously attracted to San Juan. One can only wander if the Puerto Rican prevalence in San Juan Hill inspired the lyrics of America in West Side Story. It would be serious business to surrender San Juan Hill to the Jets.

Harlem offered underground subways along Broadway, 8th, 6th, and Lexington avenues. It was a haven for African Americans fleeing the slums of downtown. The noise and fumes from the elevated lines didn’t touch Harlem’s streets.

At the time, the stretch of Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill was a cesspool of poverty. Whites were at the south and African-Americans were at the north end. Homes were wood and brick. Many were not upgraded to meet New York City housing codes. An influx of Hispanics settled in San Juan Hill in the 1940’s. The gang activities may have inspired West Side Story as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet.

In 1940, the New York City Housing Authority characterized the area as the worst slum section in the City of New York.. But much didn’t happen to focus on developing San Juan Hill until the 1960’s.

Prior to 1908, when the Hudson and Pennsylvania railroad tunnels linked Manhattan to New Jersey, people travelled from Newark and Hoboken by ferry to New York. It would be 30 to 50 years before other bridges and tunnels were constructed. The neighborhoods stretching up the west side by the Hudson River were dank, dark, and dangerous for travel. Only two ancient, elevated passenger railroads served the extreme West Side, inviting the working poor opportunities to find living space. There was the 9th Avenue Elevated and the West Side Elevated Railroad on 11th Avenue (remnants are called the High Line). A short-lived freight railroad, called the Miller Railroad, was nearby over 12th Avenue. It later became the elevated West Side Highway. The structure was demolished in 1980’s. These elevated structures helped make the extreme West Side a haven for violence.

The area had an old elevated train, the oldest in New York City, started around 1870. The 9th Avenue Elevated ran up Columbus Avenue. It was a clunky, noisy diesel, or steam train that smelled-up the area. It played a significant role in making the West Side a poor, working-class neighborhood. It also was a destination route at the Polo Grounds at 155th Street, later the first home of the New York Yankees, and the New York Giants. The line went out of service in the 1950’s and was demolished in 1958. If it were still around today, it would be the entrance to Lincoln Center. But it would never be so. The area would still be San Juan Hill.

Images of the West Side taken from the 9th Avenue Elevated are the few remaining images of what Columbus Avenue was like before 1958.

In the early days of 66th Street and the west side, people came to the Saint Nicholas Arena and Rink for entertainment. It was less than a block from the train stop. The rink opened in 1896 and closed in 1962. It is on the site of the current ABC TV studios.

In its place, we now have Lincoln Center and a neighborhood called Lincoln Square. By the time West Side Story was filmed for its release in 1961, virtually all the buildings were already condemned by plans to demolish San Juan Hill. Virtually none remain west of Broadway. The demolition of the 9th Avenue Elevated probably was the catalyst that brought the city’s prominent architect to focus on what to do with San Juan Hill.

A large, gothic armory stood south of Lincoln Center near the current Fordham University campus, between 61-st and 62nd Streets. Imagine passing this at night! It was constructed in 1887 and was torn down to make space for Lincoln Center. It was one of the major structures that radically changed the area from San Juan Hill to Lincoln Square.

The planner behind the Lincoln Center neighborhood project was Robert Moses, New York’s master builder and the mind behind almost all of New York’s highways and bridges. Despite dissent from area boards and coalitions, 40,000 people were reportedly evicted and San Juan Hill was virtually demolished to make way for Lincoln Center and the surrounding neighborhood. President Dwight Eisenhower dug the first shovel to commemorate the death of San Juan Hill and the birth of Lincoln Center.

One of the only remaining references is a street behind the New York Housing Projects, Thelonius Monk Circle, at around 63nd Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. The jazz musician called San Juan Hill his home, at 234 West 63rd Street, among other African-American musicians.

San Juan Hill led that during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt won a significant battle against Spain here. It is likely the neighborhood was named after San Juan Hill but wasn’t the authentic San Juan Hill. The West Side’s San Juan Hill lost the battle to the city’s plans of modernization in the late 1950’s, at around the time West Side Story was written.

During the times of New Amsterdam, the west side was part of the Bloomingdale Farm. The area attracted artists, bohemians, and musicians. It seems right that Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School are here. While jazz found homes in San Juan Hill, old acquaintances are forgotten. Few west-siders are old enough to remember what was around before the tall buildings rose. We remember Jazz from Harlem but, African-Americans only moved there around World War I. The roots of New York Jazz stemmed from neighborhoods like San Juan Hill.

Having lost its lease at Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra became the first tenant at Lincoln Center. Metropolitan Opera closed its building near 40th Street and Broadway. It moved to the Lincoln Center campus in 1967. By then, Lincoln Center cemented its reputation for a place to see and hear the finer arts of music from dance, opera, and classics. The unique architecture all but wiped the memories of San Juan Hill that lay beneath the buildings and the plaza.

We often talk about what may lie beneath the streets of New York. Archaeologists find remnants of an old city beneath a new one. Such is what we find in digs throughout the world. Little remains of San Juan Hill and tourists haven’t got a clue that this Lincoln Center area was the most dangerous Manhattan neighborhoods in the 20th Century.

Few remember the significance of the Collect Pond, the names of city streets and parks, and the flavors of what made New York the great city it is. Many of those things are hidden or gone. Fewer remember San Juan Hill.

New York City has enjoyed urban renewal for at least 200 years. Robert Moses had dreams that cars would eventually replace public transportation. Demolishing the elevated railways made urban development easy. We all enjoy and appreciate the sphere that Lincoln Center has made as an inviting part of the upper-west side. Perhaps it is true that neighborhood improvement means destroying old neighborhoods.

Beneath the realities of today, below Lincoln Center and the towering skyscrapers, virtually nothing exists to commemorate San Juan Hill (other than Monk Circle). What’s left of what was once San Juan Hill memories are new productions of West Side Story and the glorious movie version. Some movies, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, were filmed there.

From the existing (and changing) Hells Kitchen to the defunct San Juan Hill, a historic (though infamous) Manhattan neighborhood may be forgotten and (for the most part) is. May Lincoln Center reign as long as it can. Lincoln Center is a west side story reaching middle-age. Who knows what lies ahead?