All posts by Andrea Cordonier

Hello, This is The New York Times Calling

It’s not every day that The New York Times calls one for an interview. But I arrived home recently to find a message from Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir. The topic? Charity house tours in New York City and the potential breach of privacy that cellphone cameras pose to homeowners.

I happened to be writing a piece on house tours across the U.S. and was poking around various websites for details. Spring is peak season so I’d been surprised to find that a few well-known New York tours had yet to confirm for 2016. On the Brooklyn Heights Association’s Facebook page I posted: Hi – Will there be a Brooklyn Heights House Tour this May? If so, what are the dates and contact number for tickets? Thanks, Andrea. While I never heard back from the organizers, I did receive a response from Ms. Nir. She had seen my comment and wondered about my interest.

We spoke at length about the presence of the ubiquitous cell phone camera having a chilling effect on homeowners’ participation. Did I think, she asked, that their reticence was a reasonable response? As a homeowner, community organizer, and writer on the relationship of people to their homes and communities, I said it was. Houses are private property and owners are entitled to their feelings, rational or not. But it took more time than the length of our conversation to fully articulate my thoughts. Are homeowners really worried about photos appearing on the internet, or is their fear based on something more complex? And is ‘security’ and ‘privacy’ code for the end of the traditional house tour in high-net-worth neighborhoods?

I am no fan of the cellphone and support their ban at house tours from the perspective of respect: respect for the homeowners and the experience of other guests. However, I acknowledge this is really a struggle against the explosive growth and adoption of personal technology. We are living through the wild west of rapid technological change with no agreed upon social mores to govern behavior, to determine what is appropriate and inappropriate use. I assume that lawmakers will eventually provide the authority as they have, for example, with texting and driving, and battle cries over a growing Nanny State will sound from sea to shining sea. I am not sure that the simple house tour can survive that kind of fight.

But technology is a distraction, the red herring, for other, more cataclysmic, social shifts.

Where soaring land values are altering neighborhoods beyond recognition, physically and/or sociologically, a house is perceived of as less of a home – a source of belonging in a larger community – and more of a means of wealth creation. According to the Brooklyn Heights Association website: “Only about 49% of residents have lived in their current home for five or more years. Some moved from elsewhere in the Heights or Brooklyn, but it appears that nearly 40% are new to the borough.” Such drastic turnover is bound to create a clash of old and new values, a desire to shake-up the way things have always been done, and to push some people aside. It’s difficult for a community to absorb that much change in so little time and present a unified front.

Social media, reality TV and corporate brands commodify houses and promote designing, building, renovating and flipping properties to the level of bloodsport. We are pressured to get in on the action – to move on and move up – or economically fall behind (and we know, historically, how that’s worked out for many people). The sacred home is reduced to a profane buzzword, masking its true purpose as a critical building block of social cohesion, community stability, and economic, physical and mental health.

With growing economic inequality between the 1% and everyone else, wealth-and philanthro-shaming are actual things and could be considered not only embarrassing, but genuinely threatening. It becomes a practical matter to fly beneath the radar of the angry or displaced, to not provoke their online or physical wrath. It’s safer to shut away one’s house than open it up to who-knows-what.

So, after 30 years of cooperation and generosity on the part of local homeowners, the Brooklyn Heights Association has cancelled its 2016 house tour. Yes, an alternative fundraising opportunity has been proposed, but that is a slap in the face of communal ritual and history. It seems big money – or the problems of having it – changes everything, for everyone involved.

Like & Share

The Pilgrimage to Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs was a noted urbanist, writer and activist whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has become the go-to tome for community planning and urban development.

Like the Camino de Santiago, there are prescribed stops on the pilgrimage to Jane Jacobs, including her two former residences in Toronto and New York City.

Since I explored her ‘hood in New York’s Greenwich Village last year, I needed to visit her former home in Toronto’s Annex to complete my journey and close the circle. With family waiting in the van, this would be the world’s fastest micro-exploration, leaving plenty for later (solo) visits to the neighbourhood.

Jane Jacobs Toronto
555 Hudson Street in The Annex, Toronto
Jane Jacobs Toronto
The shrine of Jane Jacobs in Toronto
A remnant of Canada's Centennial in 1967
A remnant of Canada’s Centennial in 1967
Jane Jacobs Toronto
Not yet spring and the cyclists are out and about
Jane Jacobs Toronto
Appropriate signage particularly because The Annex was the one-time home of nearly 20,000 Americans avoiding the Vietnam draft

I negotiated a few more minutes and headed to Bloor Street. It was exactly as I expected it would be: lively, multicultural, pedestrian-friendly, full of cyclists, an eclectic foodie and entertainment haven and a street art feast for the eyes. It is a microcosm of the spirit of Toronto life and no poor cousin to Greenwich Village.

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

Jane Jacobs Toronto

The 2016 Jane’s Walk will be held the weekend of May 6th to 8th in cities and towns around the world. For more information click here.

Other Habicurious pieces on Jane Jacobs

Parks By (and For) the People


Walking Jane Jacobs’ Hood

Jane’s Walk Burritt’s Rapids May 2 & 3 2015

Like & Share

Caplansky’s Delicatessen Toronto

There is nothing I like better in this world than serendipity, except, perhaps, a great smoked meat sandwich.

So there we were at U of T, hungry and cold, and Husband suggested eating at Subway to which I replied with a choice expletive or two. We’re in Toronto, for God’s sake, surely we can do better than banal blandness, yes?

So I grabbed the wheel and drove, one eye on the road, one eye scanning (always scanning) for the perfect eatery. I want what I want and I knew I’d found it when I spotted Caplansky’s sky-blue sign and a line streaming out the door. If I’d any lingering doubt, it was crushed when I spied a jar filled with hundreds of these:

Caplansky's Delicatessen Toronto

How positively sassy.

We opted for take-out which (conveniently) left us enough time to slip to the back and have a drink at the bar (okay, me at least). I happily passed the keys off to Husband.

The bar is by far the best spot to absorb the energy of the place, to take in the whole show. It was noon on a Sunday and wall-to-wall with brunch-eaters, crowded in a familiar, homey kind of way. I didn’t help matters any by creeping around shooting everything I could get my eyes on. There’s no shortage of things to gawk at here.

The deli is like a movie set, designed as a venerable, old-school hangout. Caplansky is also a master marketer. He is his alter ego in a paper hat and horned-rim glasses, his face plastered on product labels, posters and other ephemera. No detail is lost on him. He has created a business that is clever, engaging and fun and staff as well as patrons look as though they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.

As I would find out later, he has appeared not once, but twice on Dragon’s Den and has been featured in a wide variety of media including The New York Times.

With a four-hour drive ahead of us we hit the road for Ottawa with our lunch to go. I had to make one final stop. Returning from my 15-minute Jane Jacobs pilgrimage on Bloor and Albany Avenue, I found that my son, confused, had eaten the wrong order. Gone was my Reubenesque, my pickle and side of slaw. In its place was The Honest Lawyer, delicious, drippy and filling. Clearly, the boy requires an education in the finer points of deli.

Caplansky's Delicatessen Toronto

Caplansky’s Delicatessen Details:
356 College St
Toronto, ON. M5T 1S6

Phone: 416.500.3852

Click here for the menu 

Click here for franchise info

Click here for Zane’s Blog

Like & Share

Giving Grace to Utility

Excerpt: John Ruskin ~The Relation of Art to Use, 1870

Our subject of enquiry to-day, you will remember, is the mode in which fine art is founded upon, or may contribute to, the practical requirements of human life.

Its offices in this respect are mainly twofold: it gives Form to knowledge, and Grace to utility; that is to say, it makes permanently visible to us things which otherwise could neither be described by our science, nor retained by our memory; and it gives delightfulness and worth to the implements of daily use, and materials of dress, furniture and lodging. In the first of these offices it gives precision and charm to truth; in the second it gives precision and charm to service. For, the moment we make anything useful thoroughly, it is a law of nature that we shall be pleased with ourselves, and with the thing we have made; and become desirous therefore to adorn or complete it, in some dainty way, with finer art expressive of our pleasure.

And the point I wish chiefly to bring before you to-day is this close and healthy connection of the fine arts with material use; but I must first try briefly to put in clear light the function of art in giving Form to truth.

98. Much that I have hitherto tried to teach has been disputed on the ground that I have attached too much importance to art as representing natural facts, and too little to it as a source of pleasure. And I wish, in the close of these four prefatory lectures, strongly to assert to you, and, so far as I can in the time, convince you, that the entire vitality of art depends upon its being either full of truth, or full of use; and that, however pleasant, wonderful or impressive it may be in itself, it must yet be of inferior kind, and tend to deeper inferiority, unless it has clearly one of these main objects,—either to state a true thing, or to adorn a serviceable one. It must never exist alone— never for itself; it exists rightly only when it is the means of knowledge, or the grace of agency for life.

99. Now, I pray you to observe—for though I have said this often before, I have never yet said it clearly enough— every good piece of art, to whichever of these ends it may be directed, involves first essentially the evidence of human skill and the formation of an actually beautiful thing by it.

Skill, and beauty, always then; and, beyond these, the formative arts have always one or other of the two objects which I have just defined to you—truth, or serviceableness; and without these aims neither the skill nor their beauty will avail; only by these can either legitimately reign. All the graphic arts begin in keeping the outline of shadow that we have loved, and they end in giving to it the aspect of life; and all the architectural arts begin in the shaping of the cup and the platter, and they end in a glorified roof.

Therefore, you see, in the graphic arts you have Skill, Beauty, and Likeness; and in the architectural arts, Skill, Beauty, and Use; and you must have the three in each group, balanced and co-ordinate; and all the chief errors of art consist in losing or exaggerating one of these elements.

100. For instance, almost the whole system and hope of modern life are founded on the notion that you may substitute mechanism for skill, photograph for picture, cast-iron for sculpture. That is your main nineteenth- century faith, or infidelity. You think you can get everything by grinding—music, literature, and painting. You will find it grievously not so; you can get nothing but dust by mere grinding. Even to have the barley-meal out of it, you must have the barley first; and that comes by growth, not grinding. But essentially, we have lost our delight in Skill; in that majesty of it which I was trying to make clear to you in my last address, and which long ago I tried to express, under the head of ideas of power. The entire sense of that, we have lost, because we ourselves do not take pains enough to do right, and have no conception of what the right costs; so that all the joy and reverence we ought to feel in looking at a strong man’s work have ceased in us. We keep them yet a little in looking at a honeycomb or a bird’s-nest; we understand that these differ, by divinity of skill, from a lump of wax or a cluster of sticks. But a picture, which is a much more wonderful thing than a honeycomb or a bird’s-nest,—have we not known people, and sensible people too, who expected to be taught to produce that, in six lessons?

101. Well, you must have the skill, you must have the beauty, which is the highest moral element; and then, lastly, you must have the verity or utility, which is not the moral, but the vital element; and this desire for verity and use is the one aim of the three that always leads in great schools, and in the minds of great masters, without any exception. They will permit themselves in awkwardness, they will permit themselves in ugliness; but they will never permit themselves in uselessness or in unveracity.

102. And farther, as their skill increases, and as their grace, so much more, their desire for truth. It is impossible to find the three motives in fairer balance and harmony than in our own Reynolds. He rejoices in showing you his skill; and those of you who succeed in learning what painter’s work really is, will one day rejoice also, even to laughter—that highest laughter which springs of pure delight, in watching the fortitude and the fire of a hand which strikes forth its will upon the canvas as easily as the wind strikes it on the sea. He rejoices in all abstract beauty and rhythm and melody of design; he will never give you a colour that is not lovely, nor a shade that is unnecessary, nor a line that is ungraceful. But all his power and all his invention are held by him subordinate,—and the more obediently because of their nobleness,—to his true leading purpose of setting before you such likeness of the living presence of an English gentleman or an English lady, as shall be worthy of being looked upon for ever.

Like & Share

William Goyen: The House of Breath

…and then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was drenched and frozen; and walked upon a park that seemed like the very pasture of Hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls. I came out and felt alone and lost in the world with no home to go home to and felt robbed of everything I never had but dreamt of and hoped to have; and mocked by others’ midnight victory and my own eternal failure, un-named by nameless agony and stripped of all my history, I was betrayed again.

…then I was standing against the wet, cold wall of this building in the park and I slid down against the wet wall, wanting to die, squatting there in the dark….

…and I melted down like the gingerbread man that ran and ran and melted as he ran.

…I began to name over and over in my memory every beautiful and loved image I ever had, to name and praise them over and over like a rosary….It was like a procession through the rooms of the house, saying, now this is the hall and there is the bottled ship and the seashell, this is the breezeway…and here is the map in the kitchen…  

          ~Extract from The House of Breath, 1949

Notes to myself:

(indulge me)

an epiphany (or validation) of form!

“I am not linear. I do not wish to be linear. I don’t think life is meant to be lived in a straight line.” (I said)

Goyen’s The House of Breath is a striking, exacting, revelatory narrative that defies traditional narrative form with no sacrifice of cohesive strength.

“More than a story, it is a meditation on the nature of identity, origins, and memory.”

While there are many ways to tell a story, home is our universal starting point and natural end.

Like & Share