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The crucible of summer in New York

If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.

New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.

This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.

This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).

Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.

That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.

The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.

Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.

Brown Bin Follies, and Why Composting is Not Just for Hippies Anymore

One of the odors that comprises the urban bouquet is that of garbage. The smell can be ubiquitous and is unmistakable, and the air of the hot summer months amplifies the oppressive stench when it sits uncollected for too long.

New York City has had recycling laws on the books for some time now, and while the success of the city’s recycling program is mixed—plenty of trash goes in recycling still, and the most ardent recyclers are homeless people who collect aluminum cans for the deposit money—recycling has wound its way into the everyday bustle of city life. It’s accepted as part of our routine.

The new frontier in responsible trash processing today is in composting: separating out the organic matter that can be used to create rich soil and put back into agricultural use. To this end the New York Department of Sanitation began a program that collects food scraps and yard waste to both promote composing and to help cut down on rats and roaches. The more edible food that’s in the garbage, the more vermin there will be to feast upon it.

But recently the Department of Sanitation halted the expansion of the program, saying it would focus on increasing adoption in those areas that were already in the program before expanding it. I can see why they did this. One could easily confuse these smaller brown bins for medical waste receptacles or for regular small garbage cans. No doubt people are adding their own manner of organic matter to these bins and probably making a mess of it.

Whatever the merits of the city’s program, you don’t need the Department of Sanitation to begin composting on your own. You can do it yourself and there are several organizations that will help you do it.

Among the enthusiastic composters in the city is my wife, who grew up in Eastern Queens and her family had a house with a yard when she was a youngster, and her family had a composting pile in their garden. She is one of the leaders of our local community supported agriculture program, Flushing C.S.A., and brings compost to a drop-off location at Queens Botanical Garden.

I was very skeptical of my wife’s plan to keep rotting food in our kitchen on purpose, but the composing has worked out so far and is easier to do than you might think. You can buy an inexpensive (about $20) countertop composting bin with charcoal filters to contain the odors. And the odor doesn’t get that bad, it actually smells like someone is trying to make pruno in your kitchen for a few seconds after you open and close the bin.

We have healthy jalapeno plants growing on our windowsill in containers filled with compost we got back from Queens Botanical Garden. Our basil plans, which make half our kitchen smell like a fancy Italian restaurant, are also growing in soil that is partly compost.

Why is this kind of thing important? Because we are running out of places to dump our garbage, with China recently refusing to handle more trash and recycling from other parts of the world. New York City ships much of its garbage out of state, but that is getting more expensive and it’s only a matter of time until that becomes unfeasible.

This kind of thing is smart to do. It’s for survival and the fittest people that are going to survive are the ones who can do more with less and organize to consume resources in a reasonable and sustainable way.

It would be easy to brush off composting as tree-hugging hippie nonsense, but it is not. Hippies are slackers who only want the trappings of conservation so they can feel good about themselves. Real conservationists and survivors are willing to do the hard work and build real systems to have the confidence in their future.

So embrace the rot and death of life to cut down on the rats and roaches and add more nutritious soil to our land. It is the smart thing to do.

The Oncoming Starbucks Conundrum

Life in New York City includes being on frequent scouting missions for public restrooms. Most subway stations did have some at one time, but those are now closed or off limits to actual paying passengers. If you live and have a social life in New York City, you will also likely become adept at public urination at a certain level.

Clean public restrooms are a sought-after commodity for people in the city. There are even mobile applications for smart phones that help people find the nearest public restroom. This phenomenon is not exclusive to New York, of course, but like everything else, it is more of an intense challenge here. There are too many people vying for comfort and ease in our Gotham, and breakneck competition for the good life means someone has to lose.

Starbucks was the subject of good-guy America’s two-minute hate a few months back when two African American men were arrested a Philadelphia location after using the bathroom and refusing to order anything. The Seattle-based coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores in the U.S. this past Tuesday for “a conversation and learning session on race, bias and building of a diverse welcoming company.” One note: while it closed all of its “company operated” stores, its 7,000 “licensed stores” at airports, hotels, major grocery stores, and universities, remained open.

Maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if some of the people who objected to the arrests had bought the two men some coffee, but apparently the fight for justice is worth shooting video with your smart phone but isn’t worth springing for an $8 latte.

Outrage quickly spread and there were calls for boycotts of the ubiquitous coffee chain.  I was way ahead of the curve before it became uncool to get coffee there. Starbucks injects unneeded pretention into buying coffee. I refuse to use its bogus jargon that calls a small coffee a “tall.” Just let me order a large coffee (which I never see on their menu; you have to know to order the “coffee of the day” if you want to get anything resembling a regular cup of coffee—please spare me that nonsense). I prefer to drink the free coffee they have at the office where I work. If I’m going to get coffee from a store, I’ll go to 7 Eleven or to any local corner deli or bodega, which usually have decent coffee and will be happy to take your money without putting on airs.

Just about everyone agrees that arresting people for loitering in a coffee shop is excessive. If police arrested everyone who went into a Starbucks just to use the bathroom there would be more Americans in jail than out of jail.

Starbucks’ continuing mea culpa included a public announcement that anyone can use any Starbucks bathroom at any time without making a purchase.

That’s both good and bad news. The good news is: If you are starting to get desperate for a restroom you know you can walk into a Starbucks and stand on the (now likely longer) line to access a legal toilet. The bad news is: Now everyone knows that. The company is going out of its way to welcome people who are not customers. When people can’t be turned away, the kind of people who show up are people who would normally get turned away.

This will make everything more crowded, and will also bring in more homeless people. This will get worse in the winter time, and if homeless people can’t be dissuaded from camping out there, customers will start turning away.

A few months ago, I met a friend for coffee at Grand Central Terminal, where they have tables and several coffee shops. The MTA has let the homeless problem at Grand Central get out of hand again, and while I was able to find a place to sit and have coffee with a friend, the presence of the homeless was everywhere.

Another issue that arises with unlimited bathroom access is that of drugs. We are in the midst of a drug use crisis that few have seen in their lifetimes involving opiates. Will Starbucks be the new injection site for addicts? The bathroom lines will be even longer when more people start overdosing in them.

One issue that’s become lost in this discussion is the welfare of Starbucks employees. Their jobs are tough enough, especially in light of this recent publicity, and they now have to clean up after a bigger swath of the general public, including more homeless and drug addicts. All official hand-washing aside, do you want someone who just cleaned a horrendous restroom to be handling your iced coffee and banana bread? Me neither.

If Starbucks becomes an overcrowded mess as America’s new homeless shelter or heroin shooting gallery, it will no longer be America’s preferred “third place.” Why shouldn’t people bring a bagged lunch when they visit the city and take advantage of the space, bathrooms, and free Wi-Fi at Starbuck’s? So what is the plan to counter the potential deluge of homeless and drug addicts?

I wish the chain the best of luck in navigating this. I will add them to my own mental list of available public restrooms, but only to be sought in desperate times, and I’ll try to buy something.

The Benefits and Dangers of Being in a Forgotten Zone

It’s frustrating when you live someplace that’s not on the map. It is doubly frustrating when you live in one of the largest metropolises in the history of human civilization and you find your neighborhood has been dropped from the map.

This phenomenon is well-known to anyone who lives far enough out of the popular centers of New York City. Manhattan maps might end mysteriously somewhere above or below 125th Street, and many tourist-centered maps of Queens don’t venture much farther than Astoria or Long Island City—not including the airports, mapped separately. Staten Island may have this the worst, as the most popular destination of their borough for tourists is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Staten Island wears its “forgotten borough” hat with pride; respect.

Even the “Not For Tourists” map guide that includes Flushing for Queens stops a few blocks away from the building where I live. That’s too bad for the not-tourists, since there are delicious 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurants not even half a block from where the map ends.

Living in a lesser-known area of the city has a lot of benefits. One is cost of living and small rentals, not necessarily home prices. People pay a lot of extra money to live in a neighborhood that is popular or sounds impressive or hip. That’s why realtors have developed bogus neighborhood names that reference more popular areas. A few years ago, “East Williamsburg” was realtor shorthand for Bushwick, but now even Bushwick has become a popular destination for gentrifying newcomers. Maybe East New York (a higher-crime area not blessed with any in-crowd interest thus far) will be called “South Bushwick” or “Jamaica Bay Coast” or something ridiculous.

If you’re not in easy walking distance to a subway, consider yourself in a forgotten zone. The prices will be lower but the commuting to work in Manhattan will be long and miserable unless you’re able to take an express bus or railroad and pay the extra money for the honor.

Also, being in a neighborhood that is a best kept secret is a bit thrilling. I lived in Inwood for a little more than a decade, and while it was frustrating to have to explain where I lived for that long, it was nice to experience all that the far north end of Manhattan had to offer before people found out about it. Now Inwood has all the trappings of an “up and coming” neighborhood including overpriced rents.

One drawback to living in a lesser-known neighborhood is the fight for resources. The political calculus that determines how money is allocated is determined by political power and opportunity, and if your neighborhood doesn’t have the cache to woo the powers that be in City Hall, you may be out of luck.

Local Flushing and Whitestone parents are trying to rally support to keep a Parks Department children’s program located nearby – the Parks Department wants to relocate the program to Kissena Park, about three miles south. A group has organized Families for Bowne Park and sought the help of local elected officials and is even planning a Kids Rally for Bowne Park on June 1st.

Bowne Park is definitely off the radar. It has a nice playground and pond, even some bocce courts. While in the past this may have helped the park stay a quiet gem in a local neighborhood, its success may have led enough of the wrong people to take notice and decide to move the Parks Department children’s program.

I wish this group all the success in the world, and while we may not always want to struggle for neighborhood recognition, we’ll go to the mattresses to make sure our area gets respect.

The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten

Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.

My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.

I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.

The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.

One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).

But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes.  One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.

So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.

This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.

We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.

Meeting Farmers in Queens, New York

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy created shipping delays in the New York area, gasoline shortages arose quickly. Within the span of a week, 1970s-era gas lines formed on city streets. A cab driver I spoke with in the weeks after the hurricane told me he had woken up early that day and driven to Stamford, Connecticut to buy gas.

Now imagine if our food supply was so adversely affected. For this reason alone, it is a good idea to get food that’s grown closer to your home whenever possible. You want to live close to your most vital supplies, especially since we can’t all plant vegetable gardens in our living rooms.

Luckily, entire networks of local farms serve many large cities, and New York City has its own ecosystem of networks that allow residents to get their food locally – locally in this case being within 100 miles of the city.

My wife is one of the founders of the local C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), Flushing C.S.A., and this Sunday they are holding a Meet the Farmer event at the Flushing Quaker Meeting House (the oldest continually used house of worship in the city – no joke, it dates back to the 1600s).

The central purpose of Meet the Farmer is to meet the farmer who grows the food for Flushing C.S.A. and other C.S.A.s in the city. But there will be a lot more. There will be local food vendors there and a free screening of Farmers for America, a documentary that explores the troubles facing our country’s local farms.

There is something for everyone at the Meet the Farmer event. You can peruse the historic site of the Meeting House between snacks provided by the local vendors. You can learn about the local farms that supply Organic produce and other goodies to networks within the five boroughs and beyond, and you can learn about larger issues facing agriculture in America today.

I often gave little thought to where food came from. I went to the grocery store when I needed and got whatever was the tastiest food that was easy to make. As a bachelor I lived off of egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and Chinese food. That was good living for a while, but that kind of thoughtless consumerism has its limits. My wife has had a much longer interest in agriculture and nutrition. When we met she was running a small health supplement store that had a lot of well-to-do clients. For a while she was a member of a C.S.A. that was not very close to her home, so she helped found the local one that we use to get our vegetables.

Living in New York, we are often far removed from rural life and agriculture is something alien, done in faraway places. But knowing where your food comes from and being part of a community that supports a stable foundation for supplying it is a good thing. In communities where there is dissipating cultural cohesion, people forge their own groups and find common ground where they can. It is helpful that they can do it to help other local communities and ensure their basic survival.

So come to Flushing and learn more about Flushing C.S.A., or find out what C.S.A.s serve your area. It is well worth the journey to Queens.

New York Becomes a Windy City

Years ago I was meeting with two men from Chicago for work. I noted that the downtown financial district of Manhattan can get very windy, as breezes come in off the harbor and are funneled down the streets by the tall buildings.

I asked how the downtown area of New York compared with Chicago. It didn’t. It could get windy here, they agreed, but in Chicago the wind had once dislodged a large window pane from a tall office building, and the loose piece of glass had cut a person in half. I haven’t been able to confirm this story anywhere, but it didn’t sound like these guys were trying to bullshit me.

This story came to mind recently as New York was hit with extreme winds amid a storm that couldn’t make up its mind. I set out to work in a rudimentary rain storm. A few hours later, I looked out the window of my building to see snow blowing sideways and obscuring much of my normally pleasant view.

The snow turned to rain when I stepped out of the office during lunch time. Large snowflakes flecked my umbrella as I made my way to my bus stop in Herald Square. None of the snow was really sticking in Manhattan. The wind was bothersome but I did not have an idea of the scope of the problem.

Arriving home from work on Friday via commuter bus, traffic to the Whitestone Bridge was backed up at least one mile, with the backup spilling onto service roads; we later learned that tractor trailers and busses were banned, and heavy restrictions on the number of cars crossing imposed. As cars turned right up a local street near my building to try to steer around the traffic, a felled tree forced them to make a U-turn and plunge back into the gridlock. A few days later, the tree was still blocking half of the road and felled tree branches still littered lawns, sidewalks and streets.

The video of a truck being blown onto its side on the Verrazano Bridge began circulating over the weekend. Upstate on the Tappan Zee Bridge (no one calls it the Mario Cuomo Bridge) at least two tractor trailers were blown onto their sides.

In New York, we live in such a large, man-made metropolis, we like to think that for the most part we have conquered nature, that natural disasters are things we see on the news happening in less fortunate places around the world. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 sobered some people up and forced building code changes to those neighborhoods most in danger.

Within the past decade, we’ve been bombarded with one hurricane that did damage that is still being repaired, endured at least one earthquake that sent people fleeing their office buildings, had tornadoes touch down within city limits, and faced heat waves and cold snaps that cost lives. Despite the powers that we wield over our environment, despite our ability to carve and crush bedrock to anchor our buildings and lay track for our subways, we are still at the mercy of what the Earth will do.

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