Sunday, December 30, 2007

Day 148 - My big break... on the radio.

So, five months almost to the day from when I decided to jettison the trappings of a nerdy bureaucrat to dabble in journalism, it seems I've finally broken in. In Cincinnati.

The brave, kind folks at NPR's Cincinnati affiliate, WVXU, ran the six-and-a-half minute piece on Sunday morning based on interviews I did with a bunch of folks attending Cincinnati Night at Edward's Restaurant in TriBeCa.

My deep thanks to: Brady Richards for the lead on such a fun story (and a great primer on Cincinnati, much of which you'll hear on the piece); Marcos Suiero who donated two valuable evenings away from his wonderful family to engineer the sound so that it actually sounds like a real NPR piece (and, by extension, to the very patient Lorna & little Daniela); and to Gerry Donnelly at WVXU for giving me a shot and for helpful feedback for the next time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Day 145 - A wonderful day entirely north of 123rd Street

A weekday afternoon. Overcast. A slight, intermittent drizzle. Warm for late December. Maybe the perfect way to be tramping around looking for owls who fly down from further north to spend winters in Pelham Bay Park.

But owls or not, (not, by the way), this was the first time I made the full loop around the nature trail on Hunter Island at the northeastern tip of the park. Views in virtually every direction were foggy and drear--and magnificent. When we made it further north and looked out past a little bay toward Cat Briar Island, there was virtually nothing convincing you that this couldn't have been 500 years ago--still untrammeled wilderness. A fleet of hundreds of brandts bobbed up and down in the bay just far enough to be inaudible. Smaller squadrons took turns circling in formation on brief missions before landing again. It was like watching a busy Richard Scarry airport from afar. From the water's edge, along the fringe of stands of poplar, oak, jewelberry and dogwood, and staring into the mist with faint outlines of islands further away, it wasn't hard to imagine that this is what the Lennape saw before the Dutch and the English arrived. Not sure if some of my pictures will do it justice.

Matt Symons, a NYC Urban Park Ranger, led me around the northern tip of the island along the Theodore Kazimirioff Nature Trail, up an old carriage road that led to the high point of the island and the estate--long gone--of John Hunter. In its place is a stand of white pine whose softly green needles stood out sharply against the browns and ochres of autumn--more so on a shadowless gray day. These are where the owls would be found if they were sleeping, as they tend to do during the day. (Indeed, we found a few saw-whet owls sleeping afternoon away in this very spot a few years earlier on a less rambling walk.) But not on this day. Our only consolation was the sighting of the extremely rare wild Pinus christmas which was in bud when we came upon it.

The afternoon was framed by lunch at Feroza's Roti, a modest, tasty joint on Burke Avenue in the Allerton section of the Bronx; and dinner at Sisters' for jerk chicken, callaloo & collards on E. 124th St. in East Harlem. Feroza's is a (by now) old favorite, thanks to Matt's introduction a long time ago. It gets mixed reviews and I'm no roti expert, but the conch is excellent. Sisters' was new to me and a great place to catch up with an old friend in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Day 144 - Christmas, Brooklyn-style

So, Dyker Heights isn't a particularly new thing for me. But it's the kind of thing I feel like I never do enough. I get there once every third year or so. There's even less incentive these days now that Lento's amazing, unprepossessing barroom meatsauce pies rather unceremoniously faded into memory a couple of years ago as part of a family dispute. (I just found out that there's a new Staten Island Lento's, apparently of the same family. I'll be checking that out in short order, but it can only go so far since part of the allure was the unchanged--in good ways and bad--1930s Deco barroom.)

But despite Lento's demise (or, at least, relocation), there is a new reason to see the Dyker Heights Christmas lights, and to spend time in Bay Ridge, generally: Tanoreen. This is a Palestinian-owned middle-eastern restaurant on the corner of Third & 77th--just a block-and-a-half from my old Bay Ridge home. Chowhound it and read all of the reviews yourself because they do a much better job than I will in describing individual dishes. All I can implore you to do is to ask the server what's been made on the night that you go that isn't on either the menu or the specials listing. This was one piece of advice we got and my friends and I had the most delicately wonderful lamb sausage in a tangy tomato-sumac sauce. Now a few days on, I get a little weepy just thinking about them.

Tanoreen has no alcohol, but you're welcome to step across the street to Hendrick's wine shop which has what seems like a perfectly serviceable selection of wines--at least to this non-connoisseur. And if you're really feeling old-school after that, you can wander into Mooney's Pub next door. If it's after 10pm, you can even enjoy a cigarette or two or twenty inside. While strangely nostalgic, I remembered when I woke up the next day and smelled my jeans why I so much prefer the smoking ban.

Not the most elegantly executed photo, but possibly my favorite since you get both Christmas AND
the emerald-top of the Verrazano to the right.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Day 131 - Sweet, sweet Cajun country

If you travel just 45 minutes by car to the west out of New Orleans, you'll probably be on the Cajun Highway--US 90. Pull off into Raceland and you'll be on the threshold of southern Louisiana's sugar cane country. The broad arc that sweeps from the Mississippi River across to Lafayette westward along this road is, more or less, the frontier between the crawfishing, shrimping and fishing bayous to the south and sugar cane country to the north.

This year, about 400,000 acres of the flat, marshy deltaic plain--about twice the size of NYC--is under cultivation for sugar cane in Louisiana. And around now, assuming the weather has been good to the farmers--wet early, dry later, bone-dry at the end--some 700 farmers will be riding their fields in combines shucking sunflower-high stalks of cane. In their wakes, dozens of egrets who have flown over from the bayous swoop in to catch insects and field mice dislodged from the stands of stalks.

The farmers make a bit of gamble: to wait as long as possible to begin harvesting without running out of time to finish cutting their 2500 or 5000 acres before a deep freeze settles in by late December or early January. The longer you wait to begin, the more sucrose accumulates in the cane. But the risk of losing a good deal of your crop to a freeze also increases. A few days of rain somewhere in between can delay harvesting for a week and increase the risk of missing the deadline even more. This year has been dry and warm.

The farmers will deliver some eleven- or twelve-million tons of shucked cane to a dozen sugar mills. The mills are industrial behemoths of rusting battleship-gray corrugated steel siding with steam-belching stacks seemingly from another era. They crush the cane to extract the sucrose-laden juice that, with some heat, spinning and chemistry, will become a million--perhaps one-and-a-quarter million--tons of raw sugar. That's just in Louisiana. Texas, Florida & Hawaii also grow cane. Sugar beets, which can grown in more temperate climates, can grow further north. Beet sugar is more prevalent than cane sugar these days. Both are dwarfed by corn syrups in the sweetener market.

I still have more to learn--including about price controls, the characteristics of the industry, etc. But I got to spend a pretty incredible day touring a sugar mill and meeting a few farmers, including Jessie Breaux, pictured below. He comes from an old Cajun cane-farming family who loves what they do and struggle a bit in an industry that continues to demand more and more cost savings through consolidation--but that's the challenge of all commodity farmers at the moment. He was working through Christmas Day this year, as all of his neighbors were, to take advantage of the late warmth and the great yield this year. "Santa will be riding his two-row," he told me with a weary smile. His two-row combine, that is.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Day 130 - Guerrilla Benchmaking in New Orleans

New Orleans is improving. Plans are coming to the fore. There’s still a long way to go, and there are some very tricky questions still to be worked out: how those of the nearly 200,000 residents still displaced who want to return can be repatriated; the wisdom of rebuilding below sea level (indeed the wisdom of levees for that matter); the fate of public housing; the dramatic demographic shift of the city from pre-storm to now and in the next several years. On that last point, Mayor Nagin two years ago famously, if artlessly, said New Orleans was and always would be a chocolate city. And it may, yet. But it is decidedly more dixie cup at the moment.

Money finally is beginning to flow. Governmental and non-profit partners are moving from a hired-gun approach in addressing the most critical problems haphazardly to being more deliberative. Programs are becoming institutionalized; staff are being hired.

But it’s slow. And the seemingly small problems that fall far down on the list of priorities are actually more crucial than they might seem. When I was last here nine months ago, I estimated by a rough count that those areas of the city that were still inhabited were missing street signs at one-third of the intersections. A big deal? Perhaps not when you’re worried about getting your FEMA trailer hooked up to the street’s sewer line in front of our house so your family has a flushing toilet. Or if you have to find the title to your property--which has been passed down for several generations without re-registering with the city’s deed office—in order to apply for a building permit. Street signs are the last thing you might care about. But they do an awful lot to tell everyone—residents, visitors, volunteers—that the city is getting back on its feet.

Virtually every intersection I drove through in the more inhabited neighborhoods have their signs now. But they’re still largely missing from the inundated Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview areas. That is, official street signs are still missing. But local residents have pitched in to help out in a pinch and posted their own. I hear that people who lived in corner houses—if they were still around—did this since they knew what their intersection was. Guerrilla sign painting. My friend Philip pointed out to me that New Orleans is a town that is being rebuilt—such as it is—largely through such guerrilla benevolence. In addition to the signs, there is the guy who owned a couple of hotels in the French Quarter and couldn’t get the city to come pick up his garbage for a good long while after Katrina and so bought his own garbage truck and Dumpsters and now has a side business in sanitation. Truly. (He even recently won a couple of the city’s contracts for waste hauling.)

And then there are the guerrilla benchmakers.

The Bench Women, as they call themselves, were introduced to me by my friend Robin Barnes—herself a Bench Woman. She and two colleagues—all involved in New Orleans’ rebuilding, though in less manual ways—spend some of their weekends building, painting and deploying simple, sturdy benches at bus stops in New Orleans’ Central Business District. Surreptitiously. They don’t do it under cover of darkness or anything like that. But they don’t have permission either. But neither did the folks posting street signs. Nor, at first, the hotelier turned garbage truck king.

The benches are the inspiration of Carey Shea after she noticed people massing at the street corners downtown throughout the day.

“At first I thought something free was being handed out,” Carey told me. “It was just a few months after the storm and there were very few people around at that point.” So large groups were downright noteworthy.

Carey, a former New Yorker and current New Orleanian, is a program officer at the Greater New Orleans Foundation working on affordable housing issues. Her habit is to ride her bike most places around New Orleans. She began to notice—in the way that the slower, more deliberate pace of a bicycle ride through a city allows—that throngs of people were gathering on some of the street corners in her neighborhood.

She realized that they were simply waiting for the bus. These were the 10% of the New Orleans transit ridership that had returned—because they had few other choices—to use the skeletal, limping system of buses that arrived infrequently, if at all. The waits, even now, two years on, can be over an hour on many lines. Carey said she thought to herself that someone—the city, the transit authority, someone—should put benches there for the waiting patrons, many of whom were elderly. But New Orleans was a town of dire infrastructural need even before Katrina. Bus stop shelters and benches are still a luxury that MIGHT be indulged in after new buses are bought, streets are paved, electricity is restored to swamped neighborhoods, and housing is rebuilt.

Then Carey realized that she had her own power tools

Robin Barnes’s sideyard has become the staging area for benchbuilding. Every couple of weeks she’ll arrive home from work to find a half-dozen pieces of lumber waiting behind her gate. She then knows that Carey “made a drop,” and that they’ll be building and painting at the weekend. The team includes the two of them as well as Robin Keegan, a New Orleanian by birth who lived in New York until Katrina and who has since returned. In about 90 minutes, they can assemble a 16” high bench that is 8 feet long. Two of these, bolted together after they arrive at the bus stop where it will eventually be deployed, gives about 10 people space to wait for buses.

While two of them work on construction, the other is painting and varnishing the previous session’s benches just prior to delivery. The most recent one was a deep pink with black fleurs-de-lis stenciled on. It’s at the corner of Loyola and Common, downtown. I wandered over there the other day and found a few folks sitting on it. It’s just used—constantly, it seems.

I asked Joanne Johnson when she first noticed this bench here.

“’bout two weeks ago.”

And what did she think of it?

“They have a lot of old people. A lot of people that be coming home from work they need to be sit down waitin’ on these long buses. It’s hard. It’s real hard.”

Did she know where the bench came from?

“No, just showed up one day.”

I told her about the Bench Women.

“I’m a senior citizen and I thank the ladies very much for the bench.”

And then Ms. Johnson pointed up the street and asked me to tell them which corner she thought the next one should go.