A Rally for Sweet-Drink Rights Comes Soaked in Patriotism

Claims of tyranny. Calls for more freedom. And a banner that included a Statue of Liberty-like figure triumphantly holding aloft a large soda cup, complete with straw.

The American soft-drink industry arrived at City Hall on Monday to protest the Bloomberg administration’s proposed restrictions on sales of big sugary drinks, and while appeals to populism and patriotism were rampant, the topic of obesity received only an occasional mention.

The industry, which has a reputation for deep pockets and aggressive lobbying, has been collecting petitions and running radio advertisements against the plan, which is to be discussed on Tuesday at a public hearing by the city’s Board of Health. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at the headquarters of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Long Island City, Queens. A vote is expected in September.

At Monday’s rally, industry officials were joined by City Council members and union workers, several of whom held placards that declared, “I can make my beverage choice myself.” One libertarian activist held a handmade sign written in the Coca-Cola font. “My body, my choice,” it read.

Robert Sunshine, a New York-based lobbyist for the movie theater industry, said the average soda cup served at cinemas in the city was about 48 ounces, more than twice the size of a standard 20-ounce plastic bottle.

“We don’t want 16 ounces!” Mr. Sunshine said to loud cheers. “Who wants to go to a movie theater and have small glasses?”

In a brief interview afterward, Mr. Sunshine warned that a reduction in soda sales could lead to higher ticket prices for moviegoers. And he reinforced the rally’s patriotic tone, saying, “It’s not American to tell me I can’t eat a big hot dog, or that I can’t drink a big soda.”

The Board of Health, whose members are appointed by the mayor, is expected to support the proposal, which would limit the size of sweetened drinks to 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters and many convenience stores.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the restrictions would help reduce the city’s runaway obesity rates and prevent diseases like diabetes and hypertension, which the Health Department has linked to consumption of high-calorie sweetened drinks.

Asked at a news conference on Monday if he was surprised by the opposition to the plan, he responded sharply, describing the protests as “negligible.”

“I don’t see it; you certainly don’t get it on the streets,” Mr. Bloomberg said,

“Nobody’s going to stop this,” he added, although he later softened that remark. “They’ll consider the issues, and my hope would be that they would pass this,” he said of Board of Health members.

Several Council members who spoke at the rally said Mr. Bloomberg’s plan would hurt small businesses in their districts and place a disproportionate financial burden on the working class.

“This plan will cost more for those families who are struggling each and every day under the weight of poverty,” said Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn, who has emerged as a leading voice against the mayor’s plan.

City health surveys have shown a relatively high rate of adult obesity in some of the neighborhoods that Ms. James represents. She said she “tossed and turned” about whether to support the limit, but concluded the city would be better off renovating parks and playgrounds, and emphasizing physical education in schools, rather than targeting a specific product.

“The worst thing about being in elected office is that I go to too many funerals of people who die prematurely,” Ms. James said. “I know how to correct it, and this is not the way.”

There was no discussion at the rally about the financial concerns of global beverage companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which are helping to finance the opposition effort in New York. The industry has been fending off taxes and restrictions on its products around the nation, where public health officials increasingly warn about health problems related to soft drinks.

The official line on Monday, however, was that restrictions on soda would be the start of a slippery slope for consumers. Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York Restaurant Association, warned about what might be restricted next.

“They could take away our hot dogs,” Mr. Moesel said. “They could take away our steaks, our calzones!”

Kate Taylor contributed reporting.

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Thanks for Going Paperless. (Three More Letters Follow.)

Patrick Stretch, an agent in Manhattan who represents photographers and creative directors, told Verizon Wireless on July 14 that he’d like to get his cellphone bills electronically from now on.

A letter from Verizon came in the mail July 18. “Thank you for enrolling in paperless billing,” it began, noting that this was an “environmentally friendly” choice. “You will no longer receive a paper bill in the mail,” it continued. But it said nothing about more thank-you notes. And there were three in Mr. Stretch’s mailbox, each identical to the first.

Tom Pica, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless in Basking Ridge, N.J., said: “We do mail a letter to each customer who signs up for paperless billing as an acknowledgment, as well as a safeguard against online fraud. That’s a good thing. We’re looking into why duplicates were sent — not such a good thing — to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Mr. Stretch said he would recycle the paper.

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Surfing on the Subway

Dear Diary:

I’m a native New Yorker, never been surfing.

My assistant is a native Californian, outdoors girl, experienced surfer.

She has been in New York four years and often bemoans the loss of her west coast skill set. She just returned from her 10th high school reunion and several days of vacation.

Turns out her friends say her surfing has actually improved: she attributes it to never holding the poles on the L train.

NYC subways as training for board surfing? I should be ready for the Duke Kahanamoku by September.

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Effort to Save Harlem’s Murals From a Grittier Time

One of the first murals that Franco Gaskin noticed missing was of a weeping Martin Luther King Jr. He had painted the work about 18 years ago on the dreary metal front gate of an abandoned store where Dr. King was said to have had a book signing. Then his painting of a bountiful harvest outside a store called Family Fair Fruit that is now a Starbucks disappeared. Also gone was his vision of a phoenix flying near the sun outside a mom-and-pop store that became a Rite Aid.

Back when Harlem’s 125th Street was a far drearier commercial stretch, Mr. Gaskin, an artist who has gained global acclaim as Franco the Great, painted mural after mural on the storefront security gates. He ultimately painted about 200 of them.

“There was a stigma in Harlem,” said Mr. Gaskin, 82, his hands knotty with arthritis, as he sat in his apartment near 125th Street. “I was still trying to beautify it. I just wanted to give people the opportunity to see something different.”

Now as new businesses and higher rents remake the strip, much of Mr. Gaskin’s work has disappeared.

As businesses have shut down or relocated, the old steel roll-down gates, vestiges of Harlem’s troubled past, along with much of Mr. Gaskin’s brilliant work, have ended up in the garbage. Now only about 25 of the steel gates remain.

“It’s upsetting,” said Mr. Gaskin, flipping through photographs of his murals and sitting amid coffee cans filled with paintbrushes, boxes of files, news clippings about him in various languages, and a computer where he conducts his business. Mr. Gaskin is scheduled to travel to Colombia soon to discuss painting a mural in a nightclub.

“All I’ve done in the last 35 years is all for Harlem,” he said. “It’s been forgotten.”

When word about what was happening to the murals spread, Mr. Gaskin’s friends formed a nonprofit group — Team Franco — to save as much of his work as they can. They recently reached out to a few property owners with stores set to close or relocate. In letters written to the owners, they asked to be allowed to take the gates if they were going to be replaced. So far, there have been no responses.

“If push comes to shove, we’ll go knock on the doors,” said one of Mr. Gaskin’s longtime friends, Dana Harper, a retired police officer. Mr. Harper, who was raised in the Polo Grounds housing project in Northern Manhattan, used to patrol 125th Street. He said that with the businesses constantly changing hands, “people don’t have any community ties, and don’t understand the history of what Franco’s been doing there.”

“It’s unfortunate that Franco’s known throughout the world,” Mr. Harper added, “and people see him in Harlem and it’s kind of taken for granted.”

Part of the preservation push was prompted by a city ordinance that went into effect a year ago requiring some businesses to replace their solid roll-down gates with ones that are more see-through. “Mainly, they want to make it look like Fifth Avenue, because there’s white people here now,” Mr. Gaskin said, laughing softly.

Still, the community board that oversees 125th Street issued a resolution in support of efforts to preserve the murals that, the proclamation said, “have lifted the image of Harlem as a community.”

Mr. Gaskin’s friends plan to hold a petition drive to help save the remaining murals and will present the signatures to the City Council. Team Franco is working with local officials to secure a site in Harlem for a gallery to display the murals, and plans to hold fund-raisers.

Mr. Gaskin, who is divorced and has two children, was born in Panama and eventually moved to Harlem to live with his grandmother. He has used the same fifth-floor apartment as his studio for about 40 years. “I must bloom exactly where I was planted,” he said.

For a short time, he worked as a magician, honing his skill at painting blindfolded. The experience helped him venture out of his shell after a childhood fall that had left him virtually mute. Mr. Gaskin soon became a full-time artist, painting murals in bars and churches.

His mural work began when a shopkeeper who owned a clothing store on 125th Street asked him one day to cover his graffiti-mired rollover gate with a painting. Mr. Gaskin left him with an image of a cherry-blossom tree. “And no one touched it,” he said.

Mr. Gaskin painted his storefront murals on Sundays when much of the strip was shuttered. He would leave his apartment at dawn and paint until dark. He did not charge anything for his efforts.

Tour buses in Harlem began to stop so that passengers could see his work, and fans begged for his autograph. Mr. Gaskin would greet some of his female fans by hugging them and lifting them up off the ground. Some started calling 125th Street Franco’s Boulevard and calling him the Picasso of Harlem.

“When that strip was abandoned, except for maybe the rats, he saw those gates as a place to create beauty,” said Bill Perkins, a state senator from Harlem. “In doing so, he gets credit for helping in the turnaround of Harlem.”

The storefront artwork brought fame beyond Harlem — Mr. Gaskin has painted murals in Africa, China, France and Japan.

Although time has wrought ruin on his murals, Mr. Gaskin still gets up early on Sundays to greet tourists along 125th Street. He sells bejeweled shopping bags, Harlem umbrellas, limited-edition prints and remaining posters of Franco the Great. “He can’t do it like he used to,” Mr. Harper said. “But if he sees a little woman he’ll still try to pick her up.”

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