Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Day 25 - La Guardia Landing Lights

If you find yourself wending your way through northern Queens on the M60 bus to La Guardia Airport, and you're not lost in a book or frantically trying to balance your suitcase and knapsack on the jerky bus while fumbling for your boarding pass and checking your watch, and you look up and out the window on the right side of the bus at the exact time that it is turning through the intersection of Astoria Blvd and 82nd St, you might catch a glimpse of it: the familiar looking Parks sign with the best logo of any city agency--the Parks Leaf. Except that this sign designates a park with one of the most peculiar, at least one of my favorite names: La Guardia Landing Lights. Look a little closer and you find the eponymous structures--a series of lightpoles spaced a few hundred feet apart that lead landing airplanes to Runway 4 at the airport.

And if you're unencumbered by luggage, not rushing for a flight and happen to get off here, and if the planes are landing on Runway 4 that day, you'll be right in the laning path of big jets floating down to the end of the runway barely a quarter-mile away.

The edges of airports can be strange places to find oneself. They have a Lilliputian feel; by the very nature of where it's located, things are low-slung. Streetlights are half-sized. Buildings don't usually go above a single story. And there is a surprising number of folks who, equally enamored of planes passing barely 50 feet above their heads at better than 100 mph, skulk around the ends of runways just sitting and watching. Several for hours. On a recent visit, at least two families pitched a sheet and were picnicking while planes roared overhead. It seemed quintessentially urban. I loved it. And I'll be back here a lot over the next few weeks.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Day 24 - A Horse of a Certain Color

How many times have you wandered around the City--probably in a park--and seen a statue of some war hero or colonist or constitutionalist? Occasionally, an animal is included. Very rarely, it's something odd that makes most people stop and wonder a bit, like Balto. More often it's merely the stead that one of the above rode in on. But it's not everyday that one wanders past these monuments and finds it mounted not just by its warrior, but by a worker--a civil servant. Specifically, a member of the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program staff of the Department of Parks & Recreation. (Which, I guess, in the context of conserving art in NYC is a warrior of a different sort, too.) Those following the link will learn more but, in short, the program "monitors the condition of, and performs conservation treatments and maintenance on, the extensive and irreplaceable public art collection in New York City's parks."

There are more than 1200 monuments in City parks, 300 or so of which are sculptures. They're listed here.

Day 24 - Out & About Around Town

Most of the best observations are not the ones we set out to find, but the ones we notice along the way to somewhere else. Imagine my giddy surprise when, on my way back from a midtown lunch waiting for an uptown 1 train at Columbus Circle, I noticed a couple guys in hardhats exposing the gem pictured above as they were ripping off a couple of decades of nondescript glazed tile from on top of it. It was unclear when I was taking this picture if the tile was to remain as part of the current reconstruction project!

Columbus Circle is the latest major subway hub to undergo reconstruction & modernization. The IRT line running through it is on the original subway line inaugurated in October 1904 that ran from City Hall up the east side, across 42nd Street, and then up Broadway to W. 145th Street. The handsome ceramic plaque above indicates that some of the ceramic tile in the station was compliments of the American Encaustic Tiling Co. from Zanesville, Ohio. Encaustic tiling was a decorative form of tiling regaining popularity at the turn of the 20th century due, in some part, to the renewed interest in aesthetic flourishes in municipal and public structures known as the City Beautiful movement and, itself, an outgrown of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It instigated and celebrated other such wonderful public works as the ornate whimsical entrances of the Paris Metro but is known locally to most people through the thoughtful tile mosaics in subway stations--both in the original and updated--and the birth of the Municipal Art Society.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Day 22 - This Place Used To Be A Dump!


The Fresh Kills Landfill operated for more than 50 years, much to the chagrin of every single Staten Islander except, perhaps, for DSNY guys who worked there and also lived on the Island. For much of that time, it received every shred of household garbage disposed by New York's 7 or 8 million residents. It was originally devised in the late 1940s as a place to dump fill from a variety of Moses-era projects on the Island and slated for closure in fewer than 5 years. But over time, our society's disposable approach to the world required more space to stick the increasing residue of a consumer economy--of 7 or 8 million people. Over time Fresh Kills grew to over 2000 acres--more than 3 square miles--of stinking trash piled high on the former tidal mud flats of Staten Island's western shore. Some spots are now more than 10 stories high.

I grew up about 10 blocks away. It didn't always stink, but it did quite often. People in the neighborhood would joke that we were just used to it always smelling. Folks who didn't live nearby asked if the stench was unbearable in the summer. In fact, I remember fall and winter as being the smelliest times. Maybe the heavy, humid air did a better job at tamping down the odors than the crisp, fresh breezes in cooler weather. And it seemed to only ever smell at night. Stories, many apocryphal I'm sure, circulated as to why this was. My favorite, told by the elders on the block with a conviction that recalled their stories about being in wars, was that the tractors turned the garbage over at night when the sea gulls that infested the landfill would be less likely to swoop in and carry away chicken carcasses or apple cores or dirty diapers. I've seen the gulls at the dump. Nightfall would not have stopped them from a meal.

Another story shared, perhaps a bit more plausible since it was relayed (or maybe just repeated) by our teachers at school, was that Fresh Kills was one of only two human-made structures visible from space; the other being the Great Wall. What is undeniable is that by the end of its life, Fresh Kills was receiving 12,000 tons of waste a day. That 24,000,000 pounds of shit in one form or another. Every day of the week.

In 1999 The Dump, as it was uniformly called, was finally closed to the cheers and psychic relief of everyone on Staten Island. In September 2001 a portion was pressed into service again, temporarily, to take in a good deal of the debris from the World Trade Center. Here the solemn, macabre task of sifting through fine dust and debris for a variety of objects of human significance--papers, ID cards, family photos that used to be propped up on desktops, wedding bands which were not pulverized by the pancaking floors, and, yes, bone fragments--was conducted around the clock by a specially trained group of forensic investigators. Much of what was too fine to be identified, but which almost undoubtedly contained traces of mementos of the lives of more than 3000 people, remains in on a hallowed hilltop poking up from this ignoble expanse.

Over the past 5 or 6 years, several City agencies have been working on a plan to transfer this site--three times the size of Central Park--from the Department of Sanitation to the Parks Department, and to develop it over the next 20 years into recreation and and reclaimed natural areas. Now if that's not turning the term "reclamation" on its head (mud flats and the like are typically "reclaimed" from nature by filling them in and building subdivisions or Home Depots on them, praise God), then you've me. The NYC Urban Park Rangers are giving tours of The Dump from time to time. So this weekend, my girlfriend and I hopped on our bikes and joined an intrepid and sometimes quizzical dozen other folks to see how the last few years of inactivity at Fresh Kills have begun to transform the natural landscape. The results follow below. It was a hazy day, but it made the bucolic wetlands feel of the place even more apparent. Nevermind the subdivisions and Home Depots in the distance.

You'll also see a few other pictures from our bike trip which included a trip to the German-style beer hall Kilmeyer's near where Joseph Mitchell wrote about the freed slave community of Sandy Ground in the Charleston section of Staten Island. And then there are the bricks from the Kreischer Brick Works (scroll down about 1/4 of the way) which was about one-quarter mile away from Kilmeyer's and, at one point, responsible for quite a bit of the fireproof brick construction in NYC. The sidewalks are still paved with them out there. Enjoy!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Day 21 - Ellis Island

It's embarrassing, but I hadn't been here, yet... in a City that is 36% foreign-born.

As probably everyone else already knows, this spit of land played perhaps the central role in one of the largest migrations in all of human history. In the course of about 60 years beginning in 1892, more than 12 million poor people moved through the vaulted, Gustavino-tiled Great Hall here in their quests--real or imagined--to take part in the grandeur that was America. The Great Hall was the dynamo of a human factory. In a single year, 1907, over 1,000,000 souls move into and out of this chamber. The single busiest day saw a staggering 11,000 waddling, huddled men, women and children funneled in from ferries and steamships, circulated through various veins of bureaucracy and cavalier clinical reviews radiating from the hall, and then disgorged again. On a typical day, more than 98% would move further on toward their dreams. The rest remanded or returned for a variety of reasons, some capricious. Despite the room's heft, the strength conveyed by the smoothly hewn stone columns and tiled walls, it's not hard to imagine groaning sounds coming not from the masses inside, but from the building itself under the strain--of shear numbers, of weariness and of hope.

For those coming to this country in steerage (first- and second-class passengers moved through customs and immigration dockside in Manhattan), this was the third and perhaps only the penultimate leg of their journeys. Most started in small, destitute rural hinterlands in Europe, traveling on foot, by wagon or railroad to a port; booked passage on a steamer to New York that might take a week or a month depending on the storms of the North Atlantic, arriving at a passenger terminal on the Hudson River; were moved out of steerage and onto ferries for Ellis Island and then back onto those same ferries to return to the rail terminals along the Hudson if they were traveling further west (a surprising number were). Or, if they were making a go of it in NYC, they were dropped off at the Battery where they might finally be greeted by eagerly anticipating friends or loved ones. Or not.

The museum on Ellis Island has an impressive collection of paper, ephemera and photographs of what they call The Immigrant Experience. And it is extensive. One item which I was transfixed by is a mural-like collage of scenes of folk artist Ralph Fasanella's memories of his childhood as part of an immigrant family in Family Supper. It reminds me of Faith Ringgold's quilts and paintings. And the building itself was impressively restored in the mid-1980s, in time for the Statue of Liberty's centennial.

Ellis Island is an impressive monument to what the human will can undertake--traveling half-way around the world for weeks with little more than their family and a suitcase (sometimes empty and carried just for appearance) in wretchedly degrading conditions that surely must have been worse than what they were leaving behind for something better than they had. All of my family was on Staten Island by the time Ellis Island opened in 1892 so I can't trace an of my ancestry through it, and I'm a little sad about it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Days 13 & 14 - Saratoga Sojurn

For a bunch of years, now, I've been intrigued by horse racing--and the folks that go to see horses race. There's an old school feel to the whole affair: racecourses that date from the late 1800s, even if some of their accouterments are updated to a more modern, and less grand, 1950s sensibility; a mix of the haughty with the hardscrabble, the horsemen with the hawkers, racers with bettors, each trying to make a buck with their own tools and in their respective ways; standing in line, shoulder to shoulder, for decidedly human transactions--verbal bets with their own jargon and process of race number, bet type, amount and horse number. And then, well, there's the whole medieval feel of horses chasing one another. I sometimes wonder if the jockeys shouldn't be draped in chain mail and suited in armor.

Before this su
mmer, I had only ever bet--as most novices do--on big stakes races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. And I had only over been to Belmont's track and only for Belmont Stake Days--the third leg in the Triple Crown each June. But this past July, I went there for the first time not on a Stakes day. It's a beautiful place in its own right. For a mere dollar (one-third of Saratoga's usurious $3 entry fee) it's not a bad place to spend a balmy afternoon. And with a couple of thousand fellow racing fans instead of the 100,000 plus on Stakes day, it was positively relaxing. I bet on a few races and, as always, won nothing.

So when Carl suggested we head up to Saratoga for a few days to see the ponies--and do a little camping in between--I jumped at the chance to see another and much more historic track. I budgeted $100 to lose over a couple of days on fantasical bets of infinitesimal odds with obscene payoffs. It's not unlike playing the lottery.

We arrived in Saratoga on Wednesday, rushed to the track, and picked ourselves up a copy of the Post Parade which contained the day's racing program. Carl gave me a few tips on how to read the past performance records of the horses and then we plunked down a bunch of bets. We won nothing, but left the track amused and looking forward to a night in the woods at a nearby state park in the intervening evening, followed by what would surely be a winning day at the track on Thursday.

We checked in, bought a bushel of firewood, found our way to the tentsite and unpacked the car. It was a great site--flat and level with a minimum of pebbles in the soil. There were no tents nearby, so we looked forward to a quiet night without the yahoos I'm used to bunking down next to at cam
pgrounds. We positioned the tarp and unloaded the firewood. All we needed was the tent.

Well, that and the tent poles to hold the tent up. Which, of course, I left at home, 2oo miles away.

I couldn't have felt more dejected. My job was to bring the tent. And the tentpoles. And now we couldn't camp. I pondered this for a moment and decided to crack open my fifth of bourbon to help me contemplate it a little better. Finally, with the sun setting we realized we'd either need to sleep outside without a tent or get a hotel room nearby.

NEWS FLASH: During racing season in Saratoga there are NO HOTEL ROOMS NEARBY. So we got on our phones and Blackberries and mana
ged to find a room for $160 (upfuckingstate!) for the night about 30 miles away near Lake George. Suddenly, our day's losses were seeming steeper than when we left the track. All the more reason, we determined for ourselves, that we absolutely had to win big on Day 2 at the track. I had some more bourbon.

The next day I modified my approach, remembering a snippet from a book I thumbed through a few years back on racing and betting: real bettors focus on winning horses with marginal payoffs instead of long-shots that pay out thousands. Repeated over time, it's a winning strategy--the Warren Buffet approach to betting. So over the course of the second day--nine races--I bet a series of favored horses and managed to win back enough money in several races to cover my day's bets and the losses at the track from the day before. Not enough for our beds the night before, but enough to leave the track happy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Day 9 - The Feast of the Giglio

For years in many of the Italian neighborhoods in and around New York, each July, communities come together for several days to celebrate their beloved saints in what are known as Festa del Gigli, or Feasts of the Lily. The celebration consists of lifting and dancing a 5-story, 5-ton wood and plaster obelisk--an outsize lily--around the streets in front of the parish church in the neighborhood. On the shoulders of 125 or so guys. With a brass band on top. And an opera singer. And sometimes a priest.

Depending on which celebration you're considering, sometimes the giglio (pronounced JEEL-yo) is made anew each year in the months leading up to the feast. Other communities build a giglio that lasts several years. The lifters--known as paranza--pile beneath platform of the giglio, put their shoulders to the undersides of the criss-cross of rafters holding it up, and lift on the command of a leader--the capo paranza.

The tradition was carried to America by immigrants from the region Campania. There, in the 5th century, in the town of Nola, about 20 miles east of Naples, the inhabitants celebrated the storied brave act of their beloved Bishop Paulinus. At the time, many of the Nolani were being carried off into African slavery by Vandals. It is said that a widow, whose only son was among a group about to be wrenched away from the Neopolitan suburb, begged Paulinus to intervene in some way. He prevailed upon the Vandals to allow them to substitute himself that the widow's son might stay. Two years later in Africa, Paulinus apparently foretold the death of of his master in a dream eerily similar to one his master also had. Unsettled by the coincidence and not wanting to upset fate, the master granted Paulinus and his Nolani brethren their freedom. Their return was celebrated by the village of Nola with many lilies--gigli--being thrown at the bishop's feet. It is this event that is commemorated by the dance of the giglio in and around Nola--and still in several of the Neopolitan Italian communities in and around New York City.

Today was the East Harlem feast honoring St. Anthony from a neighboring town, Brusciana. It takes place in the erstwhile Italian enclave of East Harlem, on Pleasant Avenue, just east of First Avenue. Some pictures appear below, along with some from the Williamsburg feast a few weeks before honoring St. Paulinus. One of the best moments from this weekend's feast in East Harlem was the "Lifting of the Ford Explorer." Some poor schlep didn't notice the "No Parking This Sunday" sign on the block of the church. The giglio was not able to pass by with the SUV parked there. So before lifting the giglio the paranza all decamped, headed around the corner, and lifted the Explorer onto the sidewalk to make room. I'm a crestfallen that my camera didn't successfully capture it as a movie, as I had hoped.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Day 4 - Gowanus Canal Paddle

I'm not spending as many hours lallygagging and poking around as I had hoped. At least not yet. But today was a great example of what I hope to get to do more of with during-the-day hours free.

Ellie Hanlon, Captain of the Gowanus Dredgers, took me on a canoe tour of the Gowanus Canal. It's not the first time I had been on the canal, but it's the first time in a couple of years. Some pictures from the water appear below.

There's a good deal of contention on and around the canal right now around land use and how to best make the canal part of the community. But putting all of that aside, at least for the moment, there are few places as intriguing to see as Gowanus from the water. It's stinky and smelly in parts and you have to be careful not to splash any water on your face. But it's cleaner than it's been in years and is worth a trip with the Dredgers one weekend soon.