Fulton Center Enlivens #SoBeCaLiving

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On Monday of this week, after more than 10 years of talk and the requisite absurd budget overruns, the new downtown Fulton Center opened to the public. I missed opening day while working from the Vox DC office, but stretched out my morning commute today to check out this new public space. I even brought my iPhone to snap some pics.

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Strolling in from Fulton Street, with Calatrava’s soaring wings visible just a few blocks up at the World Trade Center site — a commute that, coming up from the Seaport, I won’t be doing on any kind of regular basis based on the location of the 2-3 lines — the first thought that hit me was: airport!

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It’s like a real nice new shiny airport, with lots of interactive information screens and even bigger wider video screens flashing words like BURBERRY. This isn’t a terrible thing; airports are much nicer places these days than they used to be, and unabashedly upscale advertising sure beats the usual MTA advertising cohort.

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Coming out into the center of the Center, I beheld the oculus, the fancy architectural word for the big circular element above that got bandied about at the time of the Barclays Center opening. (If your large public/private works project doesn’t have an oculus this decade, you’re not even in the game.) To its credit and that of the Fulton Center architect, Grimshaw, it’s a pretty good oculus. I wasn’t the only one standing under it this morning, iPhone arched skywards, bemused cops looking on while randomly deciding which passengers’ bags to search.

Recently, Evan Reeves wrote a behind-the-scenes about the Fulton Center oculus on Curbed NY. He quotes a Grimshaw architect thusly: “Grand Central station is the obvious reference point, but I wouldn’t want to purport a direct comparison.” Smart move… though then the architect goes and compares the oculus’ size to that of the Guggenheim’s spiral. I’d avoid any and all such comparisons. The thing is cool enough in its own right. Once the three stories of stores that are to be nestled behind the oculus and its “sky reflector net” designed by James Carpenter open, there’ll be a new perspective on it which may make the oculus even cooler. It will at any rate be a good excuse to say the word oculus again.

Fellow downtown resident and author Paul Greenberg took the Fulton Center’s opening to merit and entire rethinking of downtown neighborhood nomenclature:

As Greenberg sees it (quite clearly, imho), FiDi is FiDi. The question is what should we rename this revitalized swath above FiDi, adjacent to City Hall and the Seaport. From the best nominees from the Twitter thread, I’m endorsing Jonathan Glick‘s suggestion of SoBeCa. It’s got the right pedigree, and sounds sufficiently obnoxious that it’s sure to piss off everyone who doesn’t live down here. Plus, neighborhoods with Lo- prefixes have a bad track record of catching on.

The new Fulton Center. We’ll see you in SoBeCa soon.

Happy 50th Birthday, Gentrification!

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Until last week, I had no idea that the word gentrification was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist “seeking a word to sum up what she saw happening in the London borough of Islington, where creative young professionals were suddenly re-appraising the neighborhood’s Georgian terraces and intimate squares,” as Steven Thomson wrote in a wonderful essay on the history of gentrification for Curbed. Nor did I know that the stem of the word is “gentry.” In my gentrification ignorance, I was not alone.

So gentrification — the word if not the reality — turns 50 this year, the same year Curbed turns 10. For the past decade, the topic of gentrification has been a big part of the Curbed narrative. That’s because, as Curbed NY’s Hana Alberts writes, the topics of real estate and neighborhood change, Curbed’s raisons d’être, are inexorably intertwined. It’s also because the word gentrification gets used in ways that transcend its literal definition, which I think is well captured in the graffiti in the photo at the top of this post.

In that slightly broader spirit of gentrification discussion, Curbed NY asked a bunch of writers, bloggers, and NYC neighborhood citizens “to share with us one moment in which they knew their home had irrevocably changed. A shop opens; a dive bar closes. An industrial tank gets torn down; a pile of glassy condos launch.” Curbed’s resulting compilation of carnage makes for outstanding reading.

I moved to New York city in August 1996; my first apartment, in the odd cul-de-sac of East 5th Street between Avenues B and C in Alphabet City, was on a run-down block. Two weeks after I moved in, Neil Strauss wrote a story for the New York Times called Life Beyond Avenue A. Strauss wrote, “For many New Yorkers and tourists, Avenue A is a boundary line, east of which they will not cross. Beyond Avenue A, the streets get darker, the commercial offerings more sporadic. Stepping through a brightly lighted doorway could take you into a trendy new bar or a cockfight in progress, a fence may hide a burgeoning community garden or a sprawling garbage dump.” Indeed, the first bistro, Cafe Margaux, had just opened further up on Avenue B; hailing a cab on Avenue C was impossible, as cabs simply didn’t drive there. Less than four years later, the Times returned again, this time with a real estate reporter to tell the new story of the neighborhood: “It is impossible to take a stroll around the avenues and their connecting blocks without encountering concrete being poured, foundations for new structures being sunk, and old town houses and tenements undergoing facelifts.”

Save for one year in the West Village and one year abroad, I lived in the East Village and Lower East Side consecutively from 1996 until 2011. In that era, my answer to Curbed’s question about the moment of irrevocable change would be when the gas stations closed.

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It happened mostly in the 2005-2006 era; perhaps I remember it vividly because I was doing most of the writing on Curbed back then and found myself fascinated with the sudden closings of nearly every gas station below 42nd Street. The Gaseteria at the bottom of Avenue B? Gone. (Now apartments and a bank.) The gas station on the north side of the Houston/Broadway intersection? Gone. (Now that giant sleek Adidas building.) The one on lower Sixth Avenue, between Canal and Houston? Gone. (And only now being developed into apartments, if I recall correctly).

In this same era and area, I’d count the preservation of so many of the community gardens of the East Village as the biggest preservationist win. What would the East Village be without the garden at Avenue B and Sixth, or Avenue C and 10th? And gas stations, well, one wouldn’t think that’d be such a big loss. We’re now a city of Ubers, anyway. Yet it’s what sticks in my mind when I think about the downtown that was, and isn’t any more.

The Eater 38 (Redux)

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The Eater 38 debuted on October 3, 2006, with entry No. 1, Balthazar. Soon after, entry No. 2, Nha Trang, joined it. The feature then sat fallow for the better part of two years despite near-monthly conversations between Ben Leventhal and me about jump-starting it. Finally, we did, and the feature grew into one of Eater’s most beloved. It’s a genuine pleasure every time someone says to me, “I used the Eater 38 when I went to [city] and we had the best meal because of it!”

Yesterday, I arrived at work to an email from Fred Wilson that he’d written an appreciation of the Eater 38 on his blog. I headed over there to give my two cents in the comments, but by the time I arrived — about 10:30am — the post had been live for about four hours and 125 comments had already piled up. Such is the way of the world at AVC.

The first batch of comments and responses were harshly negative. “Ouch, bad news — the Austin list is exactly the list that a clueless, foreigner would make about Austin,” commenter number one offered. Though many others critiqued Eater’s inclusions, other commenters raised fair points concerning things Eater can be clearer about, such as the fact that the 38 list isn’t ranked (in fact, it’s in no particular order).

(As an aside: mad love to the various Eater editors who waded into the fray to correct misconceptions about the 38s, including Eater’s editor-in-chief herself. For good measure, I added some deep background.)

Separate from what one might call The Philosophy of the 38, this comment addressed Eater’s user interface: “I am minimally interested in how good the restaurants are — but the site functionality (mobile+ lists+ maps) is pretty cool.” I appreciate the props, but tend to agree more with this commenter: “I too love Eater 38 but the new UX detracts from its usefulness.”

In the month-plus since Eater’s relaunch, we’ve come to the same conclusion. One initial issue — a map zoom that was just too tight — has already been resolved. Among other improvements, Vox Product is working on a far more robust List view, as well as smoother mobile swiping. I’m reliably informed that the next round of upgrades will be rolling out across all Eater maps next week. Stay tuned.

And now, a final lesson: if at any point in its lifespan you can get your product critiqued by the raucous crowd at AVC, you and your product will be the better for it.

Yours,
Clueless Foreigner

Going Vertical

Last week, Rafat Ali wrote a great blog post titled Why It’s Time for a Vertical Media Collective. He explains:

For all the hype that media loves to shower on itself, vertical media companies, outlets and startups are the invisible middle child that everyone ignores. Even media reporters writing at vertical media outlets ignore it, while using those platforms to talk about the same five BuzzVoxViceQuartz538Gawker & the ilk.

I have written previously about my love for verticals — after all I have built my life in them — and companies and sites I admire that are taking a vertical focus and building long-lasting loyalties way beyond the flavor-of-the-day types.

Verticals, the real ones, are focused on subject matters where professionals build careers in, or enthusiasts spent their lives in being obsessed about. By definition, these are specific niches, but businesses being built on top of these don’t have to be.

As someone who spent a decade building and growing the vertical media stacks of Curbed, Eater, and Racked, I couldn’t agree more. In his post, Rafat rattles off a bunch of vertical media companies that he loves. Here are some of mine, in no particular order: Pando (Sarah Lacy’s Silicon Valley events and media company); Apartment Therapy (Max Ryan’s interiors site); Food52 (Amanda Hesser’s impressive recipe-cum-commerce hub); MediaRedef (Jason Hirschorn’s growing curated email newsletter empire); and Skift (Rafat’s own travel intelligence and events concern).

Each of these sites does what a strong vertical media company should do: deliver an insane depth of knowledge about its world, and, in many cases, creates ways for people who live in the penumbra of that world to meet up in real life and/or transact commerce in a very specialized way (such as with Food52′s Provisions store, which feels like shopping alongside Amanda Hesser herself).

Separate from Rafat’s post, I’ve been thinking about verticalized media as it relates to Vox Media. Despite Rafat lumping Vox in with a bunch of other horizontal media plays at the start of his post, I think one of the core advantages of a model like Vox’s (or Gawker Media’s) as compared to, say, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or Mashable, is that our verticals can stay mostly verticalized, whereas more horizontal media companies need to expand their purview significantly in order to increase audience. Refinery 29, one of the leading fashion websites, has been doing this aggressively over the past few years, branching out into food and drink and movies and TV coverage, among numerous other subverticals. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to give a rabid audience more of what they want, and R29 has a pretty good filter for this sort of thing. But I also think a brand like R29 risks losing its authority in its original vertical when the site that was once the best place about one thing becomes yet another site about everything.

An interesting Digiday story that came out this morning about The Verge illustrates this same tension inside Vox Media:

The Verge may have been founded as a competitor to tech sites like CNet and Engadget, but it’s now eyeing newer, bigger targets: lifestyle publishers like Rolling Stone and Vice. Since its launch in 2011, the Vox Media tech site has extended its editorial coverage beyond technology to culture, science and even general news. This has all been in the hopes of building its audience beyond gadget enthusiasts and attracting more lifestyle-oriented advertisers.

In its most recent move, the site hired Grantland culture editor Emily Yoshida to build out the its coverage of movies, television and music. The Verge is also putting the finishing touches on an automotive and transportation section, which will push its coverage boundaries even further.

Listening to Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel explain it, the purview of The Verge isn’t so much “technology” as it is “the future.” Which helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it. Nilay and the team are aware of this risk, and I believe they’ll manage it successfully. (I also could not be more excited about The Verge’s addition of Emily Yoshida to its team; she’s going to kill it.) But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.

Meantime, Rafat’s planning to assemble a bunch of folks obsessed with vertical media — including me — next month in New York City. He’s calling the undertaking the Verticals Collective, and hey, you know it’s serious because he’s even got a website for it up and running. If any of what I’ve written about here touches a nerve, join us. I expect the conversation will be illuminating — and oh so very vertical.

Here’s something cool that’s happening at FYI, the new cable network from A&E:

In 2015, FYI will partner with real estate blog conglomerate Curbed for My City’s Just Not That Into Me. It will follow different individuals who are parting ways with their current towns and shows how they pick their next stop. Like Tiny House Nation before it, it aims to address the financial limitations of urban real estate facing so many in their 20s and 30s. Curbed will be integrating editorially on the show and online. Real estate expert Courtney Poulos is hosting with 10 half-hour episodes already in production.

Conglomerate! Don’t mind if we do.

Week on the West Coast

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Hola amigos. It’s been a little while since I rapped at ya. Seems I’ve been on the West Coast of the United States, first for a birthday weekend celebrating the man, the myth, the 40th birthday party that is MOP, then in Los Angeles for a few days of Vox Media work supplemented with speaking at Brad Inman’s Luxury Connect event in Beverly Hills 90210. They don’t yet have blog software on the west coast, so sorry for the radio silence. Here’s what went down.

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NAPA VALLEY HILLS
Mike had quite the entourage for his birthday weekend — about 50 folks, all told — but a group of us from college got the nod to stay at an Airbnb he arranged in the hills above Yountville. As Mike observed, it was as if the owners decided on the exact spot for the hot tub, then built the rest of the place around it. No complaints.

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I’ve been to Napa a bunch of times in recent years, mostly for fancy meals as part of Team Eater. No complaints about that either, but it was a blast to start the Napa weekend with a big group dinner at Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena, a place I’ve driven past a bunch of times but never stopped over at. You know the menu, and you know exactly how good it is (especially when supplemented with special wines brought in by Mike’s mom and stepdad). Should you go, do not miss the onion rings.

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CHATEAU MONTELENA
The group activity for Saturday, presented by Mike’s Dad: a tour of the Chateau Montelena winery in Calistoga, as far north in Napa Valley as I’ve ever been. The winery is famous for 1976′s Judgement of Paris, the first time California and Oregon wines faced off against French wine critics on the home terroir of France and beat the French at their own game. Although Chateau Montelena won back then for its chardonnay, the winery is better known for its reds. We tasted rieseling, then a flight of cabernets from 2010, 2005, and 2004. I thought the 2004 walked away with it, but I might just have been picking the oldest year to sound like I know what I’m talking about. (Above, me with the one and only Gaby Darbyshire.)

CALISTOGA INN
Late Saturday lunch after wine tasting at the unassuming Calistoga Inn nearby. Waiting for our table of ~12 to be readied, ran into Courtney and Zach and their li’l tyke, which, small freaking valley, my friends. Had a fresh fish special and made friends with a few folks in the birthday party I didn’t already know. Good vibes, good vibes.

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Saturday night dinner: a seated affair at Ristorante Tra Vigne back in St. Helena. Another place I’ve driven past a bunch of times but never sat down and eaten at, but will again; the meal was first-rate. I had to split the next morning but dropped by brunch at Boon Fly Cafe and grabbed a few of their famous donuts, which are exactly the size of a ripe peach and equally delicious, albeit less organic-slash-healthy.

Onward to Los Angeles.

KANPAI/GJELINA
Upon arrival at LAX, met by Meredith, who took me to a hole-in-the-wall sushi place called Kanpai on the drive between LAX and Venice. We picked up sushi to go which inevitably tasted better than 95% of all pricey sushi in New York City. The next day we lunched at Gjelina on Abbot-Kinney in Venice, a place I’ve eaten about a thousand times and, God willing, will eat at least a thousand times more. Gjelina, now and forever.

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SUSHI PARK
After a night at Meredith’s new apartment in Venice, checked into hotelier Jeff Klein’s Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood on Sunset, one of my favorite hotels in the world. Among the perks: walking distance to Sushi Park, a restaurant that then-Eater LA editor (now, having moved back to NYC, Eater’s editorial producer) Kat Odell first took me to in 2010. Sushi Park is one of those only-in-LA (or Tokyo) sushi restaurants situated on the second level of a strip mall, with decor to match, that has strict rules about what you can and can’t expect. Attention must be paid.

Walking into the one-third filled restaurant at lunchtime, the hostess stopped me. “Reservation?” No. “First time here?” No. Which relieved her a great deal, because Sushi Park clearly deals with a lot of folks who wander in having no idea what they’re in for. If you’re sitting at the sushi bar, as I did, it’s omakase only, and worth the hefty price tag for one of the best omakase (omakases?) you’ll ever eat. I’m convinced that a few omakase meals of this variety in Los Angeles last winter ruined me for Sushi Nakazawa in the West Village, Zagat’s top-ranked new restaurant in NYC this year that I thought couldn’t hold a candle to LA sushi. Really not Nakazawa’s fault.

FREDS AT BARNEYS
Also lunched one day with new Eater LA editor Matthew Kang at the brand new (opened two weeks ago) outpost of Freds at Barneys in Beverly Hills. If you know Fred’s at the Barneys in midtown NYC, expect the same vibe: an epic ladies-who-lunch scene abetted by a menu tailored for them. Our pasta and pizza both looked gorgeous but lacked, well, taste. Probably could have called that.

ORSA & WINSTON
Final night in LA, dinner with Mimi at Orsa & Winston in Downtown LA. The chef, Josef Centeno, oversees a crazy group of great restaurants — Bäco Mercat; Bar Ama; etc. — that are insanely all located in the same one-block radius. Critics like the LATimes’ Jonathan Gold are gaga for this place, which serves tasting menus of five or eight courses in eclectic fashion. We loved the whole night, but the plates were hit-or-miss. Given that the menu changes nightly, we may just have hit an off night. I’ll be back.

Fall Dining: Marta and White Street

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Halfway through October! Seems a good time to take stock of the autumn arrivals to New York City’s dining scene. After four visits — out of an eventual 93 — I can report that I still adore Lower East Side newcomer Dirty French. Only Dirty French regret so far: not yet having tried either of the for-two entrees, the chicken with crepes or the côte de boeuf. On the latter, a cadre of friends have expressed interest, so we’ll make that happen in November, when the cold rains come. On the chicken with crepes side, if you want in, hit me up and let’s get this done.

September saw several other heavyweight openings, none bigger than Danny Meyer’s East 29th Street newcomer Marta and the return of Chef Floyd Cardoz at Tribeca’s White Street. Here now, the exclusive LS.com report on both.

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I’ve been to Marta twice now, both for lunch. The restaurant, the latest from Danny Meyer, is situated in the lobby of the Martha Washington Hotel on East 29th Street — and, wouldn’t you know, it feels like you’re dining in a hotel lobby, albeit one with two huge wood-fired pizza ovens at the rear. And pizza is very much the thing here. But not just any old pizza. No, chef Nick Anderer (also of Maialino) and his team are aspiring to Roman-style thin crust pizza. Or, as Meyer likes it, Thin and Crispy!

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The menu divides the pizzas into two classes, Rosse and Bianche, and switches out seasonal ingredients on the regular. The two pizzas we consumed in my first visit, above top, squash blossoms and zucchini, a truly excellent pie; above bottom, tomatoes and corn, which tasted of the season but had so much on the crust that one couldn’t accurately describe it as Thin and Crispy. Both pizzas are now off Marta’s menu.

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Second visit, we again went one rosse, one blanche, this time opting for, above top, the Salsiccia (mozzarella, pork sausage, crimini), a solid take; above bottom, the Patate Alla Carbonara (potatoes, guanciale, black pepper, pecorino, egg). This second pizza appears to have emerged as Marta’s signature pie — check out Eater’s photoessay on its creation with Chef Anderer. It’s definitely cool that it tastes like carbonara on a pizza. But that’s a lotta toppings for any crust to support, and the middle of our pie was defiantly soggy.

Which is my only issue with Marta — that in piling up the pizzas with toppings makes for pizza that is quite delicious but not always thin and crispy. Also note that it’d be easy to have a great meal at Marta without ordering pizza at all. There are some very good salads, including the lovely Marta Salad seen at the very top of this post. And rabbit meatballs, because you’re not a new restaurant in fall 2014 in New York City if you don’t have rabbit on the menu, #factsonly. Like all Danny Meyer restaurants, the service is crisp, professional, and friendly. This is always harder than it seems.

Final pro-tip: haven’t yet been to breakfast here, but I’m reliably told it’s out-of-the-park fantastic. Which makes perfect sense if you know how good the breakfast at Maialino is.

WHITE STREET

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Service was the big problem at Floyd Cardoz’s new restaurant, White Street, on West Broadway above Franklin in Tribeca. From a sheer looks perspective, the place is spectacular. And on the rainy Monday night we were there, nearly ever table was filled with your typical cross-section of fancy Tribecaites. Wouldn’t expect more or less from a restaurant co-owned by Dan Abrams and Dave Zinczenko, among other dudes.

Cardoz worked with Danny Meyer for years, first at the long-shuttered Madison Square Park Indian restaurant Tabla, and lately of North End Grill in Battery Park City. Here, he’s saddled with a less experienced service team, and it shows. Wrong dishes brought our table, confusion over our wine order, and the like diminished our enjoyment of a more straightforward menu from Cardoz than one might expect (including, the night we were there, white truffles over gnocchi, above). I’ll let the kinks get ironed out for a spell before giving it another go.

Slack Down!

Yesterday, for the first extended period of time, Slack went down at Vox HQ. And, apparently, down too at the HQs of every other company that now uses Stewart Butterfield’s chat platform. The feeling felt like nothing so much as the Fail Whale of yore: people in our office looking at each other with eyes that seemed to say, “Well now what are we going to do?” Until someone near our desk pod said out loud, “Slack is down. Now what are we going to do?”

The importance of Slack at this moment in time at the companies that have fully bought into it can’t be understated. (Literally: the platform is expensive on a per-user case, as captured wonderfully by Mat Honan’s chronicling of Gawker’s Joel Johnson in this Wired essay on Slack.) At a Vox Media offsite last week, Slack came up as the solution to a bunch of thorny problems, and was citied as the savior of several more. For a far-flung company like Vox — with big teams in New York and Washington DC, and employees in spots ranging from Austin to Los Angeles to London — a comprehensive chat-and-chatroom product like Slack that people actually love has been a true gamechanger.

But what of Campfire, HipChat, or plain old Gchat? I’m not totally sure, but there’s something about Slack that seems to click with everyone. Back at Curbed, we tried multiple communication tools over the years but none caught on with every team, so groups ended up isolated on islands of their own, unreachable by the rest of the company except via email. Slack nearly instantly won over everyone — to the point we all sat here yesterday, when Slack went down, and wondered what the hell we were supposed to do next. (At least I’m still on AIM.)

In the Wired piece on Slack, Mat Honan writes, “Slack’s well-designed chat function is a trojan horse for bigger ideas. Its ambition is to become the hub at the center of all your other business software.” Alright, fine, but I think Slack’s next opportunity is simpler. It is to replace email. Not all email, of course. I have concluded that there will always be email. But the amount of email that has disappeared at Vox Media since the conversion to Slack is nontrivial — and there’s the promise of much more. The day I can Slack a meeting with people at Gawker Media instead of emailing them to set up a call will be a very good day.

Meantime, Slack: no more Fail Whales, please, yes? (AIM: lockloct)

From today’s NYT article The Chicken Wings Boom, by Jeff Gordinier:

Chaz Brown has dreams. Strange ones — sort of like the dreams Kevin Spacey’s character had in “American Beauty,” except that instead of rose petals hovering in the air, Mr. Brown has visions of ethereal flocks of crispy chicken wings. “I’ve definitely seen wings flying out of people’s heads,” he said.”

Image of a Photoshop created by Meredith Katz for a 2010 matchup between our respective Fantasy Football squads:

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Always the visionary.