Gotham Gazette

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Jay Kriegel’s Unmatchable New York Ethos

kriegel via abny

Jay Kriegel, 1940-2019 (photo via ABNY)

Jay Kriegel wasn’t a New Yorker, he was New York. In Jay our city was personified, embodied, embedded, in a being the likes of which we will ever know again.

The architecture of his hair alone—towering, iridescent, and high density—distinguished him from the mere mortals who ply our sidewalks, most of whom he knew. Walking Midtown with Jay was like being Mick Jagger’s wingman. From sales clerks to senators, he knew them all, and they all adored him. Ordering a meal with Jay was theater. By the end we knew everything about our server, where they were from, where they had studied acting, and how enamored they were, man or woman, twinkly-eyed, of Jay.

Never mind that for the sake of work we were having breakfast in the Regency surrounded by the self-important; to Jay our server held much more currency than the context, because he knew the actual backbone of New York.

Like so many of Gotham’s now-graying urbanists, I first met Jay while I was employed in the first term of the Bloomberg Administration and he was running the Olympics bid. He was our Yoda. Grouchy, mischievous, brutally honest, there was no bullshit with Jay. For all the pedigree we imported from the halls of Cambridge or Berkeley or Ithaca or Ann Arbor, it was no match for the wisdom of the streets that was Jay’s mastery.

Once he counseled that I should get my shoes shined during rainy weather to protect them, contrary to those who shined their shoes to look good on sunny days. “Rookie mistake,” the pro quipped.

Humility was Jay’s prime directive. In a city of dense egos and vainglorious masters of the universe, Jay was the master of self-effacement. It is this lesson, the hardest lesson for so many of us, that Jay exuded.

As Roy Bahat, a once Jedi apprentice, recently noted in his beautiful essay, for Jay it was about them, not you. Furthermore, this humility, if it was to be authentic, had to be anonymous—there would be no virtue-signaling for Jay. For the innumerable people he had helped, from young students of limited means to we rookies of limited wisdom, there would be no accolades or likes in return for the shelter of his wings. Humility demanded closed door, whispered telephone conversations that led to unrewarded action, as I would learn so personally.

While working with Jay, my spouse Maria and I decided we wanted to adopt from India. Many of the principals around us were skeptical—why gamble with adoption when we already had a biological son? But not Jay. He loved the idea from the outset and would follow its developments daily. Had I heard from the adoption agency? What is the condition of the orphanage? Were there doctors near? Then a magic moment arrived. An email. The agency had identified for us a beautiful three-month-old girl. A photo. Double-click. Two massive eyes pierced the screen. I’m not sure who was more in love, me, Maria, our son, or Jay.

Eight months passed when the adoption agency called: her paperwork was finally ready, it was time to fly. Days later, my heart beating like hummingbird, Avia and I met for the first time. Calamity struck when we flew to New Delhi to get a visa from the U.S. Embassy. Ironically while the Indian bureaucracy had processed her paperwork, the American bureaucracy hadn’t. Embassy staff callously explained that we couldn’t leave India for at least eight weeks, an impossible timeframe. 

Panic stricken, I had one instinct: call Jay. It was 10 p.m. in New York, when I knew his long nights typically began. The consummate fixer, Jay was sleeplessly, passionately on it. Days went by until the hotel phone rang. It was the senior consular officer, politely inviting us to the embassy to speak in person.

“Mr. Chakrabarti, who are you exactly?”

“I’m an architect from New York.”

“Mr. Chakrabarti, in the last 48 hours this embassy has been inundated with emails and phone calls from around the world, from Condoleeza Rice’s office, from the Carlyle Group, from several ambassadors, from...”

I smiled silently, picturing Jay working the phone like a lightsaber. Avia and I were on a flight two days later, home before Christmas, as was the enormous stuffed Orangutan that Jay and his dear Kathryn had sent as a homecoming gift.

I am ever aware that the unconnected could never have pulled off what we did, and that this was both unfair and much the way of the world.

Jay, a man of a different generation, from a different New York, understood both conditions, understood this liminal zone between aspiration and reality. He knew that we should always fight for fairness, but we also should help whom we can when we can in this unjust, untidy world.

Jay’s New York understood humanity without binaries—to him there was good in both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Much like Jay’s hair, between black and white was not the gray of compromise, but the silver of wisdom. At his knee we learned that the real dark side of the force were those who lived in a world of absolutes—those who fought against change at all costs, or those who fought for profit over everything. His is a lost ethos today, drowning as we are in the toxic, humorless rhetoric of absolutism.

For Jay the only absolute was New York itself. His desire for the success of each and every New Yorker eclipsed all else. The contagion of his wit and generosity spread to most of us fortunate enough to have been in his orbit, yet none of us can be Jay, none of us can come close. We can only aspire to embody Jay Kriegel’s undying spirit, a giant walking into the sea, taking with him a New York we can only hope to someday recover.

Vishaan Chakrabarti is an architect and author. On Twitter @VishaanNYCA.

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