A Hawkish Weekend
December 13, 2004
David Patrick Columbia's New York Social Diary
A damp and grey weekend after a week of rain. And a relief to intrepid New Yorkers at holiday time. The local community obsession is basically the hawks who were nesting at 927 Fifth Avenue. This isn't so local as people all over the world are concerned about the eviction of the famous Fifth Avenue red tail hawk Pale Male and his mate Lola. 927 Fifth Avenue has been the habitat of Pale Male for more than decade (you can see a documentary on him on PBS on Tuesday at 8 PM and again on Sunday, December 19 at 8 PM).
There used to be hundreds of red tail hawk in Manhattan in the days of old, pushed out, as they were by encroaching human habitat. The return of the hawks, especially Pale Male, because of his prominent (and prominently visible) address, which is easily seen from the sailing boat pond in Central Park, has made New Yorkers of the hawks once again.
The twelve-story building at 927 was completed in 1917 by Warren & Wetmore, the architects for Grand Central Station. It has twelve floors and twelve apartments. Among its tenants are Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Dr. Robert Levine and television broadcaster Paula Zahn and her husband Richard Cohen, a real estate developer who is also head of the building's board. The apartments in the building are currently valued at upwards of $15 million. Moore's apartment has recently been listed for sale for $18.5 million.
The building's facade is festooned with a stringcourse with dolphins and shells and (ironically or coincidentally) large cartouches of birds with spread wings, which might possibly have attracted Mr. Pale Male, who moved in (or on) in 1993. Since taking up residence there, according to Saturday's Times, Pale Male has sired 23 chicks to fledgling with three different mates.
The bird's nest was removed last Tuesday, which led to public protests. Mary Tyler Moore, through her husband, has made it known that she would have liked to see the bird's nest remain. Ms. Moore is by nature very discreet and reticent about public pronouncements, but she has been quoted as saying that the board members "are not reversible type people," adding "They just don't want the birds here." My sources tell me that there are only two residents who really wanted the nest removed - Mr. Cohen and Robert Belfer, a longtime resident of the building who is chairman and CEO of Belco Oil and Gas Corporation.
Until now, Mr. Belfer's name has been prominent in the news only because of his holdings in Enron. It has been said that Mr. Belfer lost a very large part of his fortune (some estimates were $1 billion) when Enron went belly up. Co-op boards, varying with the buildings, can be notoriously difficult depending on the personalities of the members. Some board members appear to like the power that comes with the position - approving or declining a potential (and therefore very wealthy) buyer for any number of reasons from the important to the itsy-bitsy. Mr. Belfer has long had a reputation for not being so easy for newcomers to please, and that he maintains very high standards (some would say impeccable) for this building. But it is possibly because of that that many are privately blaming him for this public relations debacle.
The main gripe of the board was said to be that Pale Male was dropping carcasses of his prey on the street - his prey being dead rats and pigeons, and that the bird droppings messed up the canopy. Of course bird-droppings can be hazardous anywhere you go in Manhattan, canopy or no canopy. I remember walking along Lexington Avenue with JH one afternoon coming from an interview when a pigeon dropped its surplus right on JH's head. That was not pretty, although JH was able to remove it quickly and without public notice. It should also be said that neighbors who have lived on the same block for decades claim they have never seen anything unusual on the sidewalk in front of 927 Fifth. Most of the neighbors I've spoken to are outraged by the building's board's decision.
Because of it, the neighborhood, which always has a lot of traffic is getting a lot more noisy traffic. One neighbor told me the honking goes on night and day, as does a lot of the protesting, and he blames the building's board and not the birds. Ironically, the board's decision has done just the opposite of what co-op boards prefer, by drawing wide public attention to themselves in a most unfavorable way.
JH went over to photograph the activity yesterday afternoon and found lots of signs ("Honk for Hawks") and found lots of cars honking - Cabbies, Range Rovers, new cars, old cars, all honking, including some police cars sounding their sirens, presumably in protest. There were about 150 protesters gathered across the avenue from 927. People from all over town. Two women dressed as hawks were frolicking freely down Fifth. A petition for bringing back the nest was being passed around.
Meanwhile, Pale Male himself was watching (like a hawk) from his perch atop the building next door on the northeast corner of 74th Street. Many people who know the principals involved are not optimistic although we must remember that this is the time of the year immortalized by Dickens in his character Ebenezer Scrooge, and as we all know, even old Scrooge eventually saw the light (or the ghost of Marley as was his case) and came around, so it's not a bad idea to remain optimistic.
Evening vigils: Monday, Dec 13, Tuesday Dec 14, 4:30 PM. Visit www.nycaudubon.org for actions you can take.
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