Tuesday, October 30, 2007

1920 Wall Street Bombing

On September 16th, 1920 a horse drawn wagon carrying 500 lbs of explosives was detonated on Wall St. killing 33 and injuring 400 people.

Yesterday I took a small walk down Wall St. to see the damage. 90 years later there are still marks left on the building as evidence of the attack on the financial district (pictured above). 23 wall has always been the headquarters of JP Morgan Inc. Also seen from that intersection are the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall.

No reason for the attack was put forth, but Russian communist and Italian immigrant groups were widely blamed. The bombers were never caught although even today on the historic landmark sign out in front, the incident is still being attributed to unknown and ubiquitous "Anarchist" factions.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Brooklyn Promenade

Brooklyn Heights is the oldest neighborhood in Brooklyn. In 1834 when the borough was formed, the Heights was still called Brooklyn Village. It still has that quiet feel of a nice town. It was the neighborhood where the Huxtables from the Cosby Show lived and it looks like it. With shady tree-lined streets and old Brownstones, on any given afternoon it feels like a Sunday afternoon. In the mid-nineteenth century, residents were known to feel a bit superior to the "dirty industrial" (at least Walt Whitman did) city across the harbor, and much of New York's founding families called Brooklyn Heights home. (The names of the streets still bear their names...Hicks, Degraw, etc.)

The area is called the Heights because of its location atop a bluff, once its defining feature. After Robert Moses failed to bulldoze through the cities elite for his BQE highway project, the bluff was to become another defining feature and one of my favorite places to sit and drink a cup of coffee. The highway route was moved to just below the Bluff and the view from the neighborhood like so many others after Robert Moses got to them was turned into that of a motorway. Instead, the now famous Brooklyn Promenade was built.

In another great adaption to over-industrialized urban landscape, a walkway and overlook was built on the bluff to cover that stretch of the BQE and create a nice, semi-quiet park that boast of amazing views of lower Manhattan, Governor's Island, The Statue Of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. It is the premier spot in Brooklyn to watch the July 4th fireworks.

The sunset from there, which I have seen 5 times in the last month, does not set perfectly over the skyline or the Statue as you might want. However, on a clear night, when the sunset turns orange, the south faces of all the Manhattan buildings reflect the color with a unique glow that has to be seen to fully appreciate.

It is almost always a quiet place to sit and even now...especially now as the weather gets a bit colder one of those sit-and-gather-your-thoughts hot spots that makes New York so special.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Muse

"And you can stand on the arms of the Williamsburg bridge, crying 'Hey man, well this is Babylon"

-Soul Coughing-

It's been raining here is NY for a few days and I haven't gone anywhere since last weekend. So that means I've been mostly sitting at home and doing 2 of my favorite things; reading and listening to music. Then I did some digging around for lyrics about New York or from New York musicians. I found them everywhere. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine about which city is the greatest musical city.

"Detroit", he said "it is definitely Detroit."

He was, of course from Detroit. Naturally, I took New York, but we opened the discussion up for others as well. Maybe it was Nashville, or New Orleans, San Fransisco, Austin, LA? We talked about that topic for weeks. We changed the parameters often. Did an artist have to be FROM that city or just become famous there. Neither Stevie Wonder nor Frank Sinatra were from Detroit or NY respectively, but no one would argue that they weren't iconic figures of those cities.

Then we had to figure out a time frame. We certainly were not going to compare Mozart in Salzburg with LL Cool J in Queens. So we settled on U.S cities only, any time, any type of music...much easier.

Since this is a blog about NYC, I'll spare you the whole discussion but here are some of my thoughts about music in New York.

  • Stephen Foster, the great writer of the Americana aesthetic, lived and died in tenement row in the Bowery.
  • George Gershwin, possibly the greatest American classical music composer was from Brooklyn...so was Aaron Copland.
  • Leonard Bernstein was the youngest conductor of the New York Philharmonic and brought New York music to the world with On The Town and West Side Story.
  • The world's greatest Banjo player, Bela Fleck, is from New York.
  • in the 1960's Greenwich Village was the epicenter for modern folk music giving voice to Pete Seger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
  • The whole style of the American Musical is named after Broadway...and Tin Pan Alley.
  • Jazz great Miles Davis was kicked out of Julliard.
  • KRS-1, MC of the ground breaking hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, real name is Kris Parker, the same name as a friend of mine from High School.
  • There is an area of Queens called Cyprus Hill in case anyone wondered where they got their name.
  • It is said that salsa music started in NY, but i honestly don't know enough to talk about it.
  • John Lennon, John Lennon, John Lennon.

There is literally not enough time or space to give anywhere near a good history of music in NY. New York gave birth to Punk, gave new life to Jazz and many if its forms, has always been a center of hip-hop and dance music. Every classical musician has either lived or passed through here. Antonin Dvorak and Rachmaninoff were drawn to the city by its sophistication...The Velvet Underground and Patti Smith by its dunginess. The worlds most famous music venues are here: Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Blue Note, Radio City Music Hall (CBGB-we miss you).

Sifting through all the lyrics about New York from the likes of Tom Waits, James Brown, Irving Berlin, New York Dolls, Ani Difranco, etc., I realized how some of these songs touch people and can live with you for life.

Once while listening to Guitar Man in central park sing Paul Simon's The Boxer, he paused after singing these lyrics:

Asking only workman's wages/ I come looking for a job/ but I get no offers...Just a come on from the whores on 7th avenue/ I do declare, / there were times when I was so lonesome/ I took some comfort there.

He told a great story about a kid that had heard him sing that song and kept nagging his mother that he wanted to go see the "Horse" on 7th ave. That is one of my favorite New York stories.

Of all the things that connect music to New York, all the things I have wrote about, read about or experienced, there is one thing above all that makes me happiest of all...music is what brought me to New York. New York is my Muse!!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tibbetts Wetlands

As I start my exploration of the Bronx, the borough I am most excited about seeing, one giant fact became clear: there are giant chunks of NY I just have never been to. For example, as embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I have never been to Van Cortlandt Park...until Yesterday.

I plan on going back to see the whole park later this week, but yesterday after my trip to Indian Pond, I took a small stroll through the Bronx largest open space. After passing Van Cortlandt House Museum and a large statue of Major General Porter, I came across a vast field of weeds and overgrowth that some park goers may mistake for neglected parkland. This is part of Tibbetts Wetlands. It is home to a very large population of birds, including the Great Horned Owl. The area also houses white-tailed deer, hare, wild turkey, and recently NYC's first sighting of coyote in over 50 years.

The Wetlands surround what remains of Tibbetts Brook. The brook was dammed in 1690 by Jacobus Van Cortlandt for his two mills and formed Van Cortlandt Lake, the largest fresh water lake in the Bronx. The northern potion of the brook has been turned mostly into marshland when highway construction diverted its flow and the southern portion has been covered and used as a drainage system into the Harlem River.

Walking through the wetlands is actually very nice. There is small trail with wooden walkways over the marsh and birds are really just about everywhere. I don't know how much maintenance is done in the area, but from what i saw, people have been very respectful not to go off trail or throw any kind of debris in the protected areas.

If this is any indication of Van Cortlandt park, i can't wait to go back to see it.

Secret Pond of the Super Rich

There is a small pond in the Bronx, on top of Fieldston Hill at the end of a dead end road that is quiet, serene and nobody wants you to know it's there.

Have you ever been to Riverdale? Its a very nice neighborhood in the Bronx between Van Cortlandt Park and the Hudson River. Inside of Riverdale is a small semi-gated community that is the nicest house-only neighborhood in NYC. Walking up the hill from the last stop on the 1/9 past Manhattan College (don't ask me why Manhattan college is in the Bronx), the apartment buildings give way to large beautiful houses tucked away behind maple trees and mansions built to compliment the exposed glacial boulders.

This is Fieldston. Entering this neighborhood, there are signs warning that all non-residential vehicles will be towed. There are private security cars driving around, and the locals eyeball anyone they don't recognize. This is a small ultra-rich Westchester-like hamlet right smack in the middle of the Bronx, the borough unfairly known by most of the world as a rough crime-filled cement block...and the home of the Yankees. What they don't show you are the rows of 200 year old mansions built by New York's elite before NY was NY. This area was a separate village when the Bronx was incorporated and may as well still be. It is a very pleasant neighborhood, but i suspect most New Yorkers would resent the signs and the "your not welcome" attitude.

I wasn't there to spy on the filthy rich and ogle their homes, however. I heard a rumor that there was a hidden pond somewhere within the no-park zone. There is. Its called Indian Pond and is at the dead end of Livingston just north of 246th st. It is a very small but serene little pond enclosed by rows of trees and a low rock wall. There are a few benches to sit at...but don't even think about it. There is a sign out front warning that the pond and surrounding park is for the enjoyment of residence of Fieldston only. FUCK THAT!!!

How can you have a private pond in NYC?

What is more enraging than the protectionist attitude of elitist millionaires is that my very up-to-date map has no pond or park to mark the spot. In fact the map shows Livingston as a through road. How does this happen? How does a map company allow a community to hide a pond and a park? Who made this decision? How much does it take to make Hagstroms map company outright lie?

Thanks to the fine folks of the book and website "Forgotten New York" for showing me this spot.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kerouac at Columbia!

I got a book a month ago called "The Beat Generation In New York". Its a NYC guidebook of 9 walking tours focusing on the history of the Beat writers...mostly Jack Kerouac. Today i followed one of these tours...loosely. I spent the day hanging out in and around Columbia with my little guidebook reading about Kerouac and his buddies' college years.
I didn't follow the tour point by point (who really needs to see the facade of an apartment building). But the exercise of walking tours gives you a feeling of the scene and in my case a feeling of nostalgic attachment with those writers, those places and those stories. I went to school about a mile south of Columbia but lived in 3 separate apartments on the westside above 100th street, so I do have a personal history there as well.
Its a bit funny to me that the Beat writers went to such a stuffy University. But i guess it is just a reminder that most of the writers from that era were in fact from wealthy families and their Dharma-Bum reputations were the design of a conscious effort to strip themselves of their privilege...or at least take their clean-cut past to rebel against.
Years later in 1959, when the Beats were formally recognized and had become controversial literary figures, they were invited to speak to an overflowing audience at Dodge Hall, they had fully realized their dirt-of-the-earth aesthetic. In a scathing review of the evening the wife of Ginsberg's Professor Lionel Trilling wrote, "I took one look at the crowd and was certain it would smell bad." Certainly a notice a rebellious poet could be proud of!
At Columbia, Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many others. This group was the core of what became the Beat Generation. Their heavy literature background, mixed with normal collegiate rejection of authority and a heavy dose of the dark side of life (i.e. murder, drugs, jail) and a world ready for a little post-war social upheaval, and the rest is history.
Walking through Columbia with my handy guidebook, I saw:
  • St. Paul's Chapel where Lucien Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs that he had just stabbed David Kammerer, a known stalker of Carr's.
  • Hamilton Hall where Ginsberg wrote graffiti in the dirt on his windows...and act that got him expelled.
  • Hartly Hall and Livingston Hall-buildings that Kerouac lived in.
  • 114th and 115th street-streets that the group lived on and wrote about extensively. 114th is a street i was once nearly attacked by a drunk who tripped over a fire hydrant while running to grab me.

The group hung out often at a local pub "The West End", a bar I often frequented at roughly the same age as Kerouac. A different bar in the 1990's where i would go every weekend to watch a friend's Jazz quintet, Ginsberg remembers the stiff moralled Irish bartenders that thought all students were communists. HA!

Walking these street without a story, I guess is just a walk. A walk that most of us do everyday. With a story or 10, a walk can be thousands of times more fulfilling. New York is full of stories. They are everywhere. Today was fun, because i could compare a few of my own stories with a few of more historical importance. Kerouac wrote about 115th street imagining himself walking down the street years later:

"In years to come I shall walk down this street, this stage, and look at it in retrospect. It shall not then be a part of the present, but a reminder of the past to me. I shall value it and love it for what it once meant."

Well said Jack...the perfect sentiment for my day and my Farewell Tour.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

This Sunday I went to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens for the first time in about 7 years, and went with a friend that has lived in NY longer than I have that had never been there.

It was a great day for mid-October but it was still a few months too late to appreciate all the trees and plants in full bloom. It took about 2 hours to walk around and see most of what was there without spending much time at any one exhibit. I think that's how most people enjoy the gardens...just taking a nice leisurely stroll.

My favorite exhibit the first time I went was still my favorite exhibit now: the Bonsai collection. We also saw the Shakespeare gardens with over 80 plants mentioned in his writing, the Fragrance gardens for the blind fully equipped with braille plant markers and the Japanese Hill.

The 52 acre gardens has been up and running since 1910 and continues to be a great little weekend adventure. I want to get up to the Bronx Botanical Gardens soon to compare.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ellis Island

Yesterday while standing on a very long line to enter the ferry that would take me and a friend to Ellis Island, a street musician playing a steel drum asked in a very thick Caribbean accent "So, where are you all from?" He obviously set up to play for the usual throng of tourists from around the world and was amused when I said loudly "Brooklyn." He then told us an anecdote about a guy he saw once that lived 2 blocks away for 20 years that had never been to Ellis island either.

It is the fate of most New Yorkers that we never understand the beauty and history that surrounds us. As soon as the ferry left the dock and exposed lower Manhattan to the deck full of sightseers, a hundred cameras flew out of bags and coat pockets to document the New York skyline. Another amusing moment for 2 jaded locals. My friend who once lived in one of those waterfront buildings in Battery Park City, laughed and took note, "Huh...i wonder how many pictures there are of my old apartment?"

I had never been to Ellis Island or Liberty Island for that matter. I never saw the point. I don't know much of my heritage or my ancestors and I have never felt that pull from my past to find out where I come from. I was always the type of guy that worried about where our collective pasts have brought us, after all don't we all now live in what Robert Bly once called a Sibling Society? It is in that spirit, one interested in our shared past than that of my own, I went on the trip to Ellis Island.

It was a long afternoon. The ferry takes you to either Liberty Island to see the Statue Of Liberty or Ellis Island to see the immigration museum. The line at 1:30 p.m took us almost 2 hours to get through. The security was airport-like making many people remove belts and shoes and articles of clothing. In fact we spent more time on line and in transit than on the island itself. The boat ride was very fun. It was a beautiful fall day with a nice breeze, and the ferry took us right past the statue, although if this is what you want, take the free ride on the Staten Island Ferry instead.

Once on the island you can choose between a guided tour, a movie about the history of immigration and the island or take a look around yourself. We did the latter. Walking around the 3 floors of the museum. The pictures of the immigration lines and medical and mental checkpoints during the intake process line the rooms. You can walk the path of one of the 15 million people who had to go through the process. If you allow yourself to imagine what it would be like for a poor immigrant just off a long steamboat ride being asked in a foreign language all sorts of probing questions while being herded through the Ellis island maze, its all very strikingly sad.

Outside the main building is a wall with hundreds of thousands of names on it. It is assumed by most people that this is the list of all immigrants that passed through the island...it is not. It is a monument listing people who payed for their names to be listed! A very fitting metaphor for the plight of the poor throughout American history, I think: If you have money, you will be remembered.

Here are a few facts about Ellis Island:
  • 90% of the island is a landfill artificially created to build the immigration facility.
  • After years of dispute and lawsuits the island is held claim by both New York and New Jersey, although it is still run and maintained as federal property.
  • Between 1892 and 1954 between 12 and 20 million people passed through the Island in hopes of being allowed to enter.
  • At least 2% of all who came to the island were turned away after failing either a medical, mental or social interview...although the wealthy applicants were not subject to this process.
  • After the 1924 "Quota Law" limited the amount of legal immigration, the facility was used mostly as a detention and deportation center.
  • Some notable people who went through Ellis Island: Father Flanagan, Irving Berlin, Chef Boyardee, Charles Atlas, Isaac Asimov, Bob Hope, Bela Lugosi and Ezio Pinza.

I have very mixed feelings about immigration in the U.S., and I have very strong feelings about the dubious way in which history is written. However, I think the museum depiction of its history is a good representation of the cold and harsh reality of what our ancestors went through to get here. I strongly encourage everyone who reads this to do more digging into exactly how important immigration has been to the makeup of our communities of the past, especially those who were the poorest.

The trip to Ellis island is nice one, but not spectacular. As you may already have gathered, I find the history itself to be where the journey is, not the actual trip. But if you have 5 hours to spare and a healthy interest in the past, leave early in the day and take a camera with you.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Yellow Submarine

There is a old rusty Submarine half-submerged in a Brooklyn waterway called Coney Island Creek. I heard about it from a few Flickr contacts of mine that like exploring NYC as much as I do. I had never been to Coney Island Creek so I went to see it this weekend.

On my foray into a very hidden area of NY I saw some of the coolest things i have seen so far on my farewell tour: a secluded beach, a few broken down piers and about 10 rusted-out shipwrecks including an old Yellow Submarine.

But before I get in to that, here are some facts about the Creek and Coney Island.

  • Coney island used to be a real island separated from Brooklyn's mainland by a tidal strait (a body of water similar to the Long Island sound).
  • Coney Island creek, the remains of that strait starts at Gravesends Bay and ends near Shell road.
  • Coney Island was named by the Dutch and called Konijn (rabbit), named after the local wildlife.
  • The Canarsie Indians called the area Narrioch "Land without shadows" because of its day long sunlight.
  • During the building of the Verazzano Bridge, the city allowed dredged soil and garbage to be dumped in the creek, essentially closing it off for boat traffic.
  • At least a dozen boats that had been trapped in the creek are still there and can be seen during low water times.

What a trip! I don't know what it is about things like shipwrecks that makes me have fun. I spent the day traveling from beach to beach trying to find the best spot to see the submarine and other boats. I started at Leon Kaiser Park on the westend of Coney Island. I saw the boats right away on the opposite coast, but decided first to walk up the shore and see what i could find. Next door is a very secluded beach without a name that wraps around the island out to Gravesend Bay. The sand is much finer that that of the main beaches. There are a number of fun things along the beach, like a few abandoned wooden docks, old decaying piers and piles of old rusty metal.

On the other side of the creek is Calvert Vaux Park also called Dreier Offerman park. I don't know what is up with this park. It was closed...kind of It is a big open space but all the entrances were fenced off or blocked. It has a half dozen ball fields and not much else. I wonder why on a sunny Saturday afternoon in October a park like this would be closed. I hope its not closed for development...that would be bad.

This park was great. I hopped the cement barricade and walked towards the water and noticed right away that there was no direct water access. The entire park was surrounded by wetlands that were buffering the water from the highway past the park. There were a few narrow paths carved out by fisherman that lead to the water, but making my way out there wasn't all that easy. The paths cut through tall weeds and trees. Once at the water, it was an 8 foot jump down to the rocks. The only reason that i could do this was because the water is at its lowest point it will be all year. Most of the year, the submarine and the other boats are completely submerged.

There were 3 separate landings in the creek that had boats washed up. Check out an aerial view here: http://www.forgotten-ny.com/YOU'D%20NEVER%20BELIEVE/yellowsub/yellowsub2.html

The boat graveyard is nothing more than the old rusted boats that were left here after the creek was blocked off. I suppose you could climb up on the wrecks, but i wasn't all that interested in wading waist deep in oil sludge and sharp rusty metal. But looking at it all was very cool. The coolest site of course was the yellow submarine. A small sub that never made it out to the ocean still sits in the creek.

In 1956 an ocean liner named the Andrea Doria sank in the North Atlantic killing 41 people. 5 years later a NY ship builder Jerry Bianco launched a plan to salvage treasure from the wreck and built a sub he called the Quester I. He painted it yellow and tried to moor it in Coney Island Creek. Making a series of poor decisions, and cutting too many cost-saving corners, Bianco tried to launch it in 1970 but the sub turned on its side as soon as it went in the water and it never sailed since.

During the years it first sat there, the sub was robbed of its internal components and was straight left to rot by Bianco who failed to secure more funds for his venture. Most people thought the sub had floated out to sea, but the sub reemerges every once in a while to remind people of its sad past.

Now, you can see it when the water is low...still known mostly by fishermen, photographers and urban explorers.

here are some pictures of my trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82369865@N00/

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Holocaust Memorial Park

I came across a surprising and deeply meaningful memorial today. By accident and my second poorly navigated trip this week, i visited the Holocaust Memorial Park.

I was on my bike, as usual, headed towards Coney Island Creek when i realized i was not where I thought I was. I had it in my head that i was riding along Ocean Parkway, when instead I was on Ocean Ave. Even though I had on many, many, many occasions ridden along both of these roadways, today my sense of geographic awareness had failed me. Perhaps it was by chance, or perhaps a happy karmic slip of the mind.

When Ocean Avenue ended and i was not on Neptune ave. in Coney Island, I looked around for some markers to see where I had ended up. I was in fact in Sheepshead Bay, a few miles from my destination. I found a small lake with some swans and a footbridge to take some pictures of when i noticed a monument on the west end of the water. I walked over and saw the Holocaust Memorial. It is in a small, unassuming park with markers, plaques and the statue-like sculpture.

I never even heard of this memorial. I came home and did a little online research and found a little about it...but not much. The memorial was dedicated in 1997 and is the first such memorial, and museum of its kind anywhere in NYC. Here is the dedication:

"You who read these words, remember.Remember that, in the years of darkness from 1933 to 1945, in German-occupied Europe, six million men, women and children were murdered with unprecedented brutality only because they were Jews.Remember that thousands upon thousands of Jewish communities were uprooted, schools and synagogues destroyed, and the hopes of an entire generations reduced to ashes.Remember that all this happened at a time when evil was triumphant because the world remained silent."

-Elie Wiesel, SurvivorRecipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, 1986"Remember", Inscription in the memorial by Elie Wiesel

I don't want to get preachy about this, but how come this isn't more known? The fact that I didn't ever hear about it is probably my own fault, but the fact that it isn't even on the map, or New York City's web-site is shameful.

If you want to see it, it is on Emmons and Shore at e. 15th st.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Lost In Manhattan

I got lost in Manhattan today...really!

I went back to upper Manhattan with my bike and checked out all the Northern Parks, then I got lost.

  • Nicholas Park- This is a long sliver of a park on a giant hillside in Harlem (127th-141st). On Saint Nicholas ave. it typifies the parks north of Central Park...much less developed planning, obviously built on the last remaining piece of land left in the area, random vegetation, old trees, crumbling walkways, a few great community areas and thus, makes for a much more intimate and interesting park that a lot of the ones in "Manhattan Proper". Nicholas is traced by a lot of up-and-downs and giant staircases that lead up to City College on top of the Hill. I did not get lost here.

  • Jackie Robinson Park- Slightly smaller and almost identical to Nicholas a few blocks south. It too is built on the Hillside of the great Manhattan ridge. It has a pool, some basketball courts and a very iconic band shell (pictured above) with a Jackie Robinson mural painted inside. Again, i did not get lost here.

  • Dykman Park- On the northwest end of the island off of Dykman st. is Dykman Park. Mostly made up of ballfields, Dykman is on the waterfront and offers great sunset views over the GW bridge and the beautiful cliffs in Pallisades.

  • Now comes Inwood Hill Park- This is as far as I have seen, the most open and untouched park anywhere in NY. It has essentially stayed untouched, meaning no new development, in over 100 years. From the park you can see the Highway Bridge from the Bronx and the cliffs with Columbia's giant "C" painted on the side. This may become my 2nd favorite park, only to Central.

Now here is where I got lost. The best feature of Inwood Hill park is...well, Inwood hill itself. It is the biggest hill in Manhattan, covered completely by trees and forest trailways. After a full day of biking through upper Manhattan from my neighborhood in Brooklyn, i was exhausted and in no physical shape to fully enjoy all the climbing in the woods. But I tried. I got fully immersed on the trails, i realized that i had no idea how to get out. I tried for the next 15 minutes to get out but all the trails are like mazes. I WAS LOST!

So then I tried to think my way out. The tree cover was way too thick to see the way out, but it was obvious which direction was west, by the sun and sound of cars on the highway. Since I was on top of a hill, i figured that if i just went "down", i would get to where i wanted to go. But every time i followed a trail down, i found myself in a col and was forced to go back up another hill.

It would have all been amusing, but I was really tired and wanted to beat the sunset so I could take some pictures. All in all I spent an hour on the forest hill. I did eventually get down and I feel very foolish...but also very impressed with the park. I never thought I would find such a cool hiking trail in Manhattan.

So i made my way down to the river at the same entrance as Dykman Park and found a fenced entrance to a dirt trail between the Hudson river and the train tracks. It goes on for a few miles and goes past a lot of fishing spots, a canoe port and a few rusty fence opening to get up to the tracks. It was a perfect spot for and just in time for the sunset.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Irish Hunger Memorial

Along the Hudson River at Battery Park City is a small but striking structure that most New Yorkers have never seen. It's the Irish Hunger Memorial.

I was biking around Battery Park City a few weeks ago and came across this very odd looking thing. It looks like a cross between a viewing platform and a launching pad. I took notice and came back to see it last week. To start with, Battery Park City is a secluded group of buildings on the Hudson river that forms an affluent community next to the oldest part of NYC. As I have said in past posts, I don't trust neighborhoods that don't have graffiti. Battery Park city is a very sterile and pristine area that, in my opinion, is not a very good representation of the city. But amidst the exclusive neighborhood is nice waterfront with outdoor cafe's, a marina, views of the harbor and the Irish Hunger Memorial.

The Memorial was built in 2001-2002 by Brian Toll to mark the Irish Famine of the 1840's, the wave of Irish immigration that followed and world hunger since. The structure includes an homage to 19th century irish country architecture and is built using soil and stone from each county in Ireland. The site is full of 62 kinds of plants taken from the original Killarney site and has been regrown on the 1/4 acre plot of soil. The 1/4 acre size is important to the concept of the memorial to mark the "poor law of 1847" that made anyone living on land larger than a 1/4 acre not eligible to receive government aid.

When you see the memorial there are quotes that encompass the facade from famous political figures that have spoken on hunger...110 quotes in all that spread over 2 miles of luminated space that glows at night. I wish i wrote down some of the quotes. There was one I liked from Frederick Douglas about the beautiful and sorrowful nature of the Irish folk music.

To get in to the memorial, you have to walk through a tunnel where you can hear spoken word recordings about poverty playing on a loop. It is a very well thought out memorial that I wish more people knew about. Go See It!!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Manhattan Waterfront and the North East River Crossings

I took a ride up the East River this weekend. I tried to see as much of the waterfront from the Queensborough Bridge to the top of the Island. Unlike the westside of Manhattan, there is no continuous route along the water. There are long stretches of pedestrian bikepaths, but they are interrupted by frustrating ins-and-out back into the streets.

According to the New York City Department of City Planning, there is a 32 mile continuous path that you can follow that circumnavigates all of Manhattan. This is not true...this is like saying there is a direct flight from here to China, but you have to change planes 3 times. What there is, is called the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. They have changed what they called "ignored and derelict" waterfront into open public space for recreation and commuting. Whatever you want to call it, I tried to see it all.

A lot of the early ride is right up against heavy FDR traffic with nice views of Roosevelt Island and the Queens waterfront that I explored last week. The Mayor's Gracie Mansion is at a turn in the Island near 90th street. There is a nice overlook out to the Lighthouse and Mill Rock island before heading north toward Wards Island.

The path stays on the water all the way to the Triborough Bridge. For a Sunday bike ride in New York, there were surprisingly few people on this path, probably because it isn't as accessible as the city thinks it is. There were scattered groups of people fishing along the way. Under the Bridge the path turned to dirt and as I went along I passed large piles of gravel, docked barges of sand and suddenly I realized that i wasn't really allowed to be there. Oh well. I went as far as I could until I was forced by fencing to try and find other waterway access points.
From 125th street to 155th street there is no bike path and getting to the water is a maze of highway access roads, dead ends and bad turns. This is where Manhattan narrows and along the way there are 5 small but very cool bridges to the Bronx.
  • Willis Ave.
  • 3rd Ave.
  • Madison Ave.
  • 145th st.
  • Macomb's Dam

I walked my bike over each of these bridges, some of them were draw bridges but didn't lift while I was there. On the Manhattan side of Macombs Dam Bridge is a small turnoff with a great view of Yankee Stadium and a patch of flowers with at least 100 butterflies. I'm not sure if I've ever seen butterflies in NY.

After 155th street there is a very confusing re-entry to the Greenway on the water. This section which takes you from 155th all the way up to Dykamn ave. is the most secluded park of Manhattan I have ever been on. The narrow part of the river is enclosed by cliffs on both sides. The bridges here, like Washington Bridge pictured above, are not accessible by the path but are very classic and the highest of any north of the Queensborough. There is also the Hamilton Bridge and Highbridge.

There are 2 very cool little things on the water here. A small boathouse that houses kayaks and canoes and a little waterway garden path that used to be an illegal dumping spot. That's where sherman creek is and where the path turns into the island at Dykman.

There are 4 more river crossings before you get to the Hudson. 2 of them are much like the others, the other 2 are in Inwood park and I will try and see that sometime next weekend.

oh yeah...there is one other crossing along the east river. There is a giant foot bridge that connects Manhattan to Ward's island. Its very high and lifts in the middle for boats to pass. I want to walk across, maybe some other time.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

Roosevelt Island

Yesterday I took a much anticipated trip to Roosevelt Island.

There are 3 ways to get to the Island (4 if you consider swimming there). There is the F train subway stop, the Roosevelt Island bridge from Astoria (good by car and bike) or you can take the Tramway from 63rd street in Manhattan. Since I wanted to travel by bike, i took the bridge. Maybe later on in my farewell tour I will try the Tramway.

The Island itself is very small. It is significantly smaller than central park, has a residential population of about 10,000 people and you can, as I did, circumnavigate the entire island by bike in about 15 minutes. At its widest point, it is not even 800 feet. On the North end of the island is a very nice park with the lighthouse, pictured above, aptly named Lighthouse Park. The rest of the island has a few buildings off of the only street, Main street. There are a few hospitals and medical institutions that have given the island its identity over the years. On the south end is the brick ruins of a jailhouse that is closed off to the public. That is going to change soon, as this fall a new waterfront development project will break ground. I have no idea what they are building.

I ran across a little community arts and music fair that was really entertaining. Other than that, i only saw a small community theatre and a few ball fields that might be considered public centers. Everything else revolves around the waterfront.

Here are a few great facts about the island:

  • The island used to be called Blackwell's Island, Welfare Island and Minnihononck.
  • It was renamed after FDR in 1973 in recognition of a monument that was to be built in his honor (due to the death of the architect, it was never completed)
  • Welfare penitentiary was closed in 1935 to give way to the new Riker's Island prison.
  • Noted social activist and anarchist, Emma Goldman was imprisoned here for her courageous work fighting for woman's rights.
  • Nelly Bly went undercover to discover awful conditions in the Woman's Lunatic Asylum.
  • Billy Holiday spent time in jail for prostitution here.
  • Charles Dickens visited the island and wrote about the conditions of mental institution he called the "octagon" in his American Notes.
  • Al Lewis "Grampa Musnter" lived here.

The Island is still known mostly for the tramway and the mental hospitals, but with new apartment buildings on the way, I'm sure all that will change soon. But, i have to say that with all the very important people and events that happened on such a small island, there ought to be more than a lighthouse and an old tramway kiosk that marks its history.

Perhaps its time to organize a radical walking tour of the Island.


Fort Wadsworth

Most people think of Staten Island and think of a big dump surrounded by boring suburban housing with tacky mailboxes and overly manicured lawns...and by most people I mean me. In fact, Staten Island is a very geographically diverse landscape with as long a history as any of the 5 boroughs.
One of the oldest buildings in SI and NYC is Fort Wadsworth sitting in the shadow of the Verrazano bridge. Built in 1663 as a military blockhouse by the British, the fort has changed hands between a Federal military instillation, a city maritime center and a coast guard outpost. It guards the bridge and the narrows as a sister fort to Fort Hamilton across in Bay Ridge.
I have never been very fond of military tourist attractions, but there is something about these old forts that i find interesting. It makes me feel like I'm staring at some old ruins, like an Aztec village or something like that. Of course it is not all that dramatic, but looking at the crumbling building from the overlook while having a great view of the bridge and all of the Manhattan skyline makes for a nice bike ride stopping point.
The SI waterfront makes for a nice ride all together. While riding from the Staten Island Ferry 2 days ago (without incident i might add) there were a few nice viewing spots along the water, before I got to the Fort. There is the Cromwell Recreation Center, Alice Austen House and Gateway National Park. The park opens into a very long beach boardwalk along the south shore of the island...perhaps I will be able to make my way that way again.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Staten Island Ferry

OK...all bandaged up and back to Staten Island.
When did the Staten Island Ferry turn into the airport? I had to get my bag checked 3 times before they let me on the ferry. 3 TIMES!!! Once, when i got through the door...OK i thought, maybe everyone has to get checked.

But then three big cops came up with an angry dog on a leash and made me throw my bag on the floor, step away from it and made the dog sniff and slobber all over my bag to see if i have a bomb in it.

As if the first cop wasn't enough, or the next three cops with sniffy the bomb sniffing wonder dog may have missed some dangerous material in my bag, another cop asked me to open my bag when i got to the bicycle waiting area. I have to say for those who know my aversion to unwarranted searches, i stayed remarkably calm...maybe it was because the last time i went to Staten Island, I was hit by a truck and this time wanted to stay under the radar.

Anyway, the ferry ride is a great free thing to do in NYC. If you can get on the Ferry at a non-rush hour time, its great. You get some of the best views of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor's Island, and the bridges. The ride used to cost 50 cents...now its free.

If you ride a bike, there is a bike rack on the lower level...in fact you HAVE to put your bike there. Just don't bring a bag unless you want it sniffed by a big dog!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


I went to Staten Island...AND I WAS HIT BY A TRUCK!!!

That's what I get for opening my big mouth and saying I was going to visit ALL 5 boroughs. Just kidding...kind of.

Anyway, I had a whole day planned biking to the underside of the Bridge and then down the length of the south beach boardwalk all the way out to Miller Field. But some dumbass truck driver stopped me cold.

I was just off the ferry riding along Bay St. right by Cromwell recreation center, when I found myself pinned between a parked car and one of those ambiguous 16-foot white box delivery trucks. He had sped past me and was trying to park in a spot right in front of the car to my right. He cut in front of me and cut the turn within inches of the car. Needless to say, neither me nor my bike are just inches wide.

I screamed "STOOOOOOOOOOPPPP!!!!" and he didn't. As the truck pressed me against the car, i was able to jump off my bike and partly onto the hood of the parked car. The truck was brushing against the left side of my body when BAM!!!!!! Something cut right into the back of my arm. It was one of those giant padlocks that was on the side delivery door of the truck. The lock cut marks into my arm as it slid past. OUCH!!!

In the mean time, the truck kept moving and ran over the back wheel of my bike. The driver didn't stop until he finished parking in his precious spot!!!

The driver got out and didn't come over to see how I was until after he checked the side of the truck. There was not much of a conversation between me yelling and him trying to explain how it was my fault in broken English.

The thing that pissed me off the most, was that the crowd of people that was gathered around watching the spectacle did absolutely nothing to help. Nobody asked me if I was OK, nobody offered me something to wipe the blood off my arm, or get me something to clean up the bruise. Not a very warming welcome to Staten Island...is it?

Well....i'm ok for the most part. My arm is in quite a lot of pain, but there is no serious damage. Look at the picture on top and add a lot more black-and-blue.

I guess it could have been much worse. I could have not been able to jump on the hood, or my head could have been hit by that lock instead of my arm, or I could have gone under the wheel instead of my bike.

My poor bike...i've now had to get it fixed twice in one week.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Central Park Guitar Man

As i imagine i will many times over the next few months, I spent some quality time in Central Park this weekend.

When i first moved to NYC in the summer of 1994, i had very little money and knew absolutely nothing about the ins and outs of NY. I didn't know anyone, where to go or how to find fun and interesting things to do for free.

All the money I had went to tuition, books and food...with food being the luxury i sometimes went without. The only things I did for entertainment were go to the free concerts at my music school, public museums that had "suggested donation" admittance and exploring central park that was 1 block away from my apartment.

Over those few years, i spent more time in central park than anywhere but the practice room. I developed, as many people have, a very personal relationship with the park. I believe i have seen all of the park...every corner, every tunnel, every inch of bike and walk path. I never took one of the boats out in the lake...but who cares.

In 1994, on a very sunny weekend in September, I came across a street musician in front of the lake by the 77th st. entrance by the Museum of Natural History. He played guitar to a group of about 20 people sitting on the hill that formed a natural amphitheatre. It was a perfect NY park scene. People eating bag lunches with their friends or families, overlooking a beautiful city skyline peeking out over the trees of the park...all the time this guy with a guitar serenading the crowd, singing Bob dylan, Paul simon, Harry Chapin...some others that you would expect a folk-like guitar singer would sing on a Saturday afternoon in the park.

The guitar man experience at random times may include his handing out cookies to the children in on the hill, an impromptu sing-a-long of a Beatles song with the guy selling beer out of the back of his rigged bike/cooler, or serenading the boaters who rowed up to the water's edge with a rendition of the theme song from Gilligan's Island. Corny...yes, at times, very corny. But it is still very genuine and relaxing.

David Ippolito is his name, better known as the "Central Park Guitar Man." For the last 16 years on most sunny weekend days, you can find him in the same spot, playing his guitar and crooning for the park goers. The crowds have gotten bigger and he is much more well known, as he has been the subject of many newspapers profiles and a decade and a half of word of mouth advertising. He has played in other more run-of-the-mill venues and has done a few TV commercials and I'm sure has had his share of success outside of this little weekend gig...but there is something special about his tenure in the park.

He has become a part of the people's history of NYC. He is one of those New York experiences that people share stories about. For me he has been a kind of marker or a way-point I like to go back to from time to time to reflect on where I am. His songs change from time to time, but his demeanor doesn't, nor does the feeling of contentment I get when lying down looking at the scenery and listening to music. As I sat on the hill on Saturday, i remembered back to the first time i saw Guitar Man, and then i thought of all the people I brought there to listen over the years. I wondered where some of those people were and if they ever thought of the day they spent on that hill with me.

It is one of my favorite places to go in New York. When I leave, i will really miss weekends in the park. When i come back to visit or to live here again, visiting the park and seeing Guitar Man will always be on the list of things to do.

here are some pictures of my day in the park: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82369865@N00/