The Transom

Mr. Adams at 50

“I met him in Times Square,” said Walter Naegle about his former lover, the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin. “There used to be a place on 42nd Street called Hotalings. It was a place that sold newspapers from all over the country and all over the world. I was on my way there because I had decided to leave New York and move to San Francisco, and I was going to get a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle to start scouting out the job market and the apartment market. I was standing there, waiting for the light to change, and Bayard was there, waiting for the light to change, and we kind of looked at each other …. I did go to Hotalings and I got my newspaper, but I never moved to San Francisco. I realized that that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in New York.”

At least, it once did. This was Saturday night, at Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too restaurant on Lenox Avenue and 138th Street. A party of 100 or so had gathered to celebrate Harlem historian and fierce preservationist Michael Henry Adams’ 50th birthday.

In lieu of gifts, Mr. Adams had requested that donations be made to the scholarship-granting Bayard Rustin Fund. Mr. Rustin died in 1987.

“He’s the conscience of Harlem,” said Hal Bromm, who owns an art gallery in Tribeca and was president of the Historic Districts Council, speaking of Mr. Adams. They met in 1985.

“He chained himself to the door of the commission”—the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission—“and said, ‘I’m not leaving until you do something about Harlem,’” Mr. Bromm recalled.

His words drew the attention of Julienne Jack, president of the Harlem Preservation Foundation and the daughter of the late Hulan Jack, Manhattan’s first black borough president.

“Who did this?” she asked. “Who walked into Landmarks and said to Tierney”—Robert B. Tierney, the current commissioner—“‘I’m not leaving your office’?”

“I just said,” Mr. Bromm answered. “Michael!”

Ms. Jack paused. The bulk of her recent work has concerned Saint Thomas the Apostle Church at St. Nicholas Avenue and 118th Street. It was the site of her father’s inaugural mass in 1953 and his funeral in 1986, and is now under threat of demolition. Mr. Adams has protested this plan, too. “I hadn’t heard that Michael had stormed into Tierney’s office,” Ms. Jack said.

“No, I don’t know that he stormed into Tierney’s office. I’m going back to when Jennifer Raab was the chair,” Mr. Bromm said. “That’s gotta be about five years ago.”

But, oh, it could happen at any moment. In the more than 19 years that the Ohio-born Mr. Adams has resided in Harlem, he has grown increasingly vocal and active about preserving its buildings. He has called for the entire neighborhood to be designated a historic zone, off-limits to development projects.

Bow-tied and bowler-hatted on many occasions, Mr. Adams is the kind of figure that people recognize from his escapades.

“I was at the 10th Street market,” said Martha Dolly, who is tiny and speaks with a Haitian-French accent. “He was crossing the market. I walked up to him—‘I recognize you and I’m coming to say hello.’” She told Mr. Adams that she regularly hosted salons on Friday evenings at her Harlem brownstone and that he was welcome to attend.

“The very next Friday he was there, and every Friday after that,” Ms. Dolly said.

The journalist Stanley Crouch, who has written a couple of these articles on Mr. Adams and now considers him a friend, made a brief appearance.

“I don’t like too many people,” he said, accurately, looking around the packed restaurant.

Norma Jean Darden, the former model who now owns Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too, called for everyone’s attention. “We’re so happy to have Michael’s birthday party,” she said.

Mr. Adams, however, was leaning against a counter with a phone receiver stuck in the crook of his neck.

Ms. Darden hesitated.

“I know how we can get him off,” shouted Bill Perkins, the councilman for Harlem, and he broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The room sang out lustily, but Mr. Adams remained on the phone.

“Get off the goddamn phone!” Mr. Perkins barked.

As it turned out, Mr. Adams was tying up loose ends concerning the delivery of his own birthday cake.

When he did finally address the room, he did so calmly.

He said that now, at 50, he had learned to live for the moment. And, he said, “I’m going to go and picket in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, and I’d like you all to come and join me.”

—Nicholas Boston

Palpable! Benign!

Dressed in black scarves and colorful eyeglass frames, the city’s art critics and collectors fanned out over five floors of the Whitney on Tuesday afternoon. They were there to get a sneak peek of the 2006 Whitney Biennial, the exhibition that museum director Adam Weinberg called “about risk and discovery” and “embracing the new.”

But not all of the reviewers’ arms were so widely spread open.

“In some cases, I hope these artists have a day job,” said Fred Winship, a senior critic for United Press International, who wore a brown tweed jacket and brown tweed tie as he stood in front of a sprawling wood piece. “It seems that everything gets bigger every year. Hugeness plays a lot into art these days.”

So does sarcasm, apparently. Crowd pleasers, familiar to visitors of recent New York and Miami art fairs, included faux obituaries blown up and hung on the wall. Among the departed were Nicole Kidman, Bill Clinton and Rod Stewart (“loud, energetic and boozily shambolic”). The much-discussed Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s ‘Caligula’ (“Beyond perversity there is only Caligula”) screened on the second floor behind a bordello-red curtain, which parted to reveal Jennifer McAlwee, an art critic for NYC TV channel 25. She was holding a microphone but had trouble speaking over the noise of a neighboring installation.

“I have just watched one of the more palpable and provocative pieces here,” she started saying to her television camera, before fumbling her words. She tried four takes and then dropped the microphone to her waist. “Oh, just take the first one,” she said.

In a quieter gallery on the fourth floor, Judd Tully, an art critic for Art & Auction with Jarmuschian white hair, contemplated a black triangle protruding from a white wall.

“This is kind of strange,” Mr. Tully said with a confused air as he examined the artist’s biography. “I didn’t realize this guy was dead.”

But most of the time, it was the critics who were the source of confusion.

“I’m an environmental economist, so I always concentrate on the organic materials,” said Pamela Peeters, who hosts a show called Our Planet on Time Warner Cable channel 67. She slowly traced a camcorder across the unpainted side of a blackboard. “The colors, the shapes—that’s my riddle game. I always film in sepia, so it’s always organic. There’s always a connection with the earth, even for those who have lost that connectivity.”

In the museum’s lobby, Franklin Melendez, a bearded critic for the San Francisco–based art magazine Soma, said that the exhibit had a “sense of heterogeneity, but total disassociation.”

“It’s really hard to have any dialogue—there is a feeling of vertigo, and the layout resurrects the politics of the 1960’s street art,” said Mr. Melendez, who had two raccoon tails hanging from his keychain. As for the “preoccupation with the globalization of the world economy,” well, “it was a thematic strand, but I didn’t think it was developed.”

One dealer with blue framed bifocals but a much clearer perspective on the show disagreed, arguing that the 2006 Biennial was one of the most satisfying he’d seen in decades.

“So far, it’s the best I’ve seen,” said James Hammond, the dealer, dressed in a black overcoat and loosened tie. “I remember there was one year when they had these telephones that you could pick up and listen to erotic conversations. Another had depictions of a real bloodbath in a Spanish Harlem apartment. It used to be all violence and porn. This is surprisingly benign and pleasant. I like that there are paintings. It’s a lost art in art.”

—Jason Horowitz

Soap Star Jim

Monday night was frigid outside, but not inside the toasty Pierre up at 61st and Fifth, where the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music had its annual Beacons Awards Gala. Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and all-around go-to jazz éminence grise, held court before the French doors leading to the dining room. A redheaded woman with prominent décolletage glad-handed him and cadged his number.

Elsewhere, a highly photogenic, handsome couple wandered around, drinks in hand. It was Jim and Kassie DePaiva, from One Life to Live! Ms. DePaiva, who plays the devious yet sensual—we’re just spitballing here!—Blair Manning on the show, held forth with a charming Southern accent.

“I’m not much of a jazzhead,” she confided. “But I love country!” Her husband, Jim, left OLTL two years ago. (According to soapcentral.com, his character was undone by his son’s drug-related death.) Mr. DePaiva is now working on post-production for a film he’d directed called Undone. “It’s about a woman whose husband dies in a fire, and then someone tries to set her on fire—in an elevator!”

Excellent. And what brings you here? “I enjoy jazz very much.”

Mr. DePaiva then started a spirited conversation about his love of punk rock back when he was a kid in San Francisco. He used to go to Dead Kennedys shows, and he also saw the Sex Pistols’ last performance.

Dinner was just about to begin, but Mr. Marsalis was already at the coat check, off to … ?

—Matthew Grace

How We Deal With Asia

Eliot Spitzer swept through the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, scrutinizing the face of his BlackBerry. He was bound for a reception preceding the Asia Society’s 50th-anniversary dinner.

“Wonderful,” he said of his day. His deep-set eyes beamed a brilliant aqua. And what were the State Attorney General’s thoughts on how the U.S. can strengthen relations with Asian countries?

“Trade balance,” he said with confidence. “Those two words—that’s everything.” And: “You’re here for a fun dinner,” he dismissed.

Dress code for the evening was black tie or “Asian national dress.” There were Nehru collars and bindis various: from the barely-there speck of gold filigree between a blond woman’s eyebrows to the crimson streak worn by Asia Society president Vishakha Desai.

Alfonse D’Amato, with his wife, Katuria Smith, proved to be in a mood of generosity. “Communication is the great issue,” he said. “[This is an] opportunity to get to know people, exchange ideas and do away with perceptions that sometimes have nothing to do with reality.” Ms. Smith appeared struck by her husband’s ambassadorial comments and watched him intently. “So, the more communications and links we can open up,” Mr. D’Amato said, “whether they be in the traditional links—whether they be business, culture sector, sharing of these mutual experiences, spending time together, travel and, above all, respect for one another—it’s the key to life.” Ms. Smith gave a nod and a smile.

John Macomber, who is in finance, was interested in a different sort of link. “I’m in the investment business,” he said. “I started going there”—he did not specify where—“maybe slightly before it was legal to go there, and everybody wore Mao jackets.”

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan inched from guest to guest under the close watch of two plainclothes centurions. “Very much” was how he was enjoying the evening. “And I’ll be saying a few words later on.” And how—then David Rockefeller intercepted, with a stern “Would you mind just a minute …. ”

Ahoy, the junior Rockefeller set! “There’s a lot of energy,” said Charles Rockefeller, 33, who works at Sotheby’s and is the grandson of the Asia Society’s founder, John D. Rockefeller III. “It’s amazing just to see how many people came out to appreciate the accomplishments of the last 50 years and to recognize the potential for the next 50.”

Yes, what about those next 50? “I’m still in the learning phase,” he said. “I can’t answer yet. I’m still a new trustee, so I’m not in a position to give a knowledgeable answer. But talk to me next year at this time and I’ll know a little more.”

The lights in the room softened. An airport-like tone began to sound: ping, ping, ping.

“Hey, buddy,” said one of Mr. Rockefeller’s cousins. His companion wore a layered dress with spaghetti straps.

“It’s Valentino and it’s old,” she said. “I don’t get to wear it very often, and I like to keep it that way.” Her voice betrayed an Italian accent. “I am from Italy,” she said, delighted. “Most don’t get it.”

—N.B.

The Transom