Picture, if you will, a round building situated along a shopping strip in Woodside, Queens. It is big—perhaps fifteen thousand square feet. Inside, an image of the New York City skyline is projected on the ceiling. At ground level, there are multimedia exhibits—holograms, maybe, plus records and paintings and books—celebrating the likes of Tony Bennett, Brooke Astor, and Christopher Reeve. This is the grand vision of Albert Stern, a retired camera-store manager and lifelong New Yorker who has recently come into some money and decided, in the spirit of J.F.K., to ask what he can do for his city.
Stern was watching a Mets game in his Flushing apartment, in the spring of 2002, when he heard mention of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. “I said to myself, ‘Gee, that would be nice, to have a hall of fame in New York City,’ ” he recalled last week, while sitting on his sofa amid an assortment of stuffed animals and the chirping of Max and Bernadette, his cockatiels. Stern is built like Santa Claus and speaks with a gruff Brooklyn accent. “And then I said to myself, ‘Gee, there must already be a New York City Hall of Fame—this is the greatest city in the world.’ And I started to scratch my head, and I said, ‘Gee, I never heard of a New York City Hall of Fame.’ So I started doing some research, and, lo and behold, to make a long story short, the research indicates that there isn’t a major city in the world that has a hall of fame that honors its citizens—both celebrity and non-celebrity.”
Not yet, that is. (The Hall of Fame at Bronx Community College doesn’t count; it is devoted to “great Americans,” most of whom have no Big Apple cred.) Traditionally, New York has honored its luminaries with auxiliary street names: Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard (Eighty-sixth Street between Broadway and Amsterdam), Cus D’Amato Way (the south side of Fourteenth Street between Fourth Avenue and Irving), Bobby Short Place (outside the Carlyle). But Stern, who was wearing a black T-shirt with white block letters that read, “new york city hall of fame,” and a blinking smiley-face button, explained that he has now established a board of trustees and an official Web site, through which he is currently accepting nominations for the inaugural class. He hopes to launch the new hall with an induction ceremony next spring.
So, once the word is out, who makes the first cut? At Cooperstown, the founders settled on five worthy originals—Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson—but they were selecting from only a few decades’ worth of history, in a fairly narrow field. In the case of New York, so many names spring immediately to mind: Peter Stuyvesant, Herman Melville, Fiorello LaGuardia, Frank Gifford, the Ramones, Barbra Streisand, Rusty Staub, Al Roker, L’il Kim.
“We want to be pretty selective,” Stern said. “We’re thinking along the lines of starting when New York City became fully incorporated, in 1898. Which is not to say if somebody happens to mention DeWitt Clinton, or someone like that, then they will not be eligible. Of course we will consider them.”
Stern and the trustees have identified eleven categories, among them architecture, education, health and science, and communications. They will accept up to two hundred nominations per category, but will select only one from each. Just about anybody, alive or dead, is eligible (though you have to be eighteen or older to submit nominations). An emphasis will be placed on “principle and dignity” and contributions to “the betterment of New York City.”
So far, the group has received about a hundred nominations, the majority of which have been related to September 11th. (Heroism/bravery is a category.) “We are getting people like Mayor Giuliani, of course, and somebody nominated Willie Mays, ” Stern said. “But we are also getting a lot of non-celebrity people.” This is partly by design: volunteerism, charitable contribution, and humanitarian work are separate categories, while sports and entertainment share a single slot. (John Starks and Jerry Seinfeld may have to wait.)
“As an example, just to show you the quality of nominations that we’re receiving, somebody suggested the doctor that had discovered the West Nile virus outbreak right here in Flushing Hospital,” Stern said. “And two sisters were nominated,” he continued. “Now, these two sisters were the first African-Americans ever to compete in P.S.A.L. track-and-field meets in New York City. So that goes to show you how interesting this is.”
What about, say, Peter Boyle?
No. Instead, Stern described an Israeli immigrant who plays the musical saw. “She has become so proficient that she has played at numerous recital halls, and she plays in many, many senior-citizen centers,” Stern said. “The person that nominated her we assume is most likely living with her, because they have the same address—she’s a female, he’s a male.”
For the time being, the Hall of Fame will have to make do without an actual hall. Stern suggested that next year’s induction might be held at Tavern on the Green, or perhaps the Four Seasons. To build a shrine in Woodside, he will need to raise ten million dollars.
“Now, of course, one usually asks, ‘Why Woodside?’ ” Stern said. “Most people are not aware that Woodside is the geographic center of New York City. So of all the places to put a New York City Hall of Fame, that would seem to me a great place to put it.” Max the cockatiel was making a great deal of noise. “We really feel that eventually, once the building is up, it’s going to become a very, very big tourist attraction.”
— Ben McGrath