savenypl

Save NYPL: How an Organized Movement to Stop the Destruction of Libraries is Being Ignored by Mayor de Blasio

It was a Wednesday in mid-March: the presumed wane of a long and relentless winter that had caused many fine minds to crack. Two buildings had exploded four miles northeast in East Harlem. Two more buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge — the very framework of the New York Public Library system — were threatened by a fiendish desire for greed.

Only a few hours after the New York Public Library stage-managed a few beatific rays of sunshine in the form of the belated Lotte Fields, who bequeathed $6 million to the NYPL simply because she loved to read, imposing gray clouds drifted over the stunning stone edifice of the New York Public Library’s main branch. The twin lions rested regal as raindrops pelted upon sixty brave souls, gathering in a steady drench to protest the Central Library Plan, a scheme to close and sell off two vital hubs of the system — the Science, Industry and Business Library (known as SIBL) and the Mid-Manhattan branch — for a wasteful consolidation of books into a overcrowded space that is estimated to cost more than $300 million.

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Last July, Bill de Blasio — then Public Advocate, today the chronically tardy Mayor of New York — railed against the plan, lambasting the lack of “forethought to the building’s historical and cultural integrity.” But despite the vocal admonitions from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library — which gained prominent publicity a few weeks ago through a Humans of New York entry featuring a young man named Matthew Zadrozny eating chicken that went viral, the Mayor has remained steadfastly silent. His glaring inaction, together with continued meetings behind closed doors, has forced the Committee to amp up its efforts.

“The Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library is meeting today,” said Theodore Grunewald, a dapper man of the streets with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy beard, and a three-piece purple windowpane suit. He identified himself as the Vice President for the Committee to Save the NYPL and was fond of standing next to a de Blasio cardboard cutout, a mildly unsettling likeness reminiscent of the flattened, life-size, B-grade stars that once advertised dicey action movies in video stores.

“One of the items on their agenda,” continued Grunewald, “is, no doubt, the $350 million+ costs of this project, which consists, by the way, of selling the Mid-Manhattan Library to real estate developers, then moving that facility into the Central Research Library. But in order to make room for it, they have to remove seven levels of book stacks underneath the Main Reading Room. Those books serve the Rose Reading Room. They make it possible for scholars and researchers to do their work. Their absence from this building and the banishment of 1.5 million volumes from the key research collections of the New York Public Library to off-site storage will decimate this research library as a research institution.”

Grunewald observed that the main branch, along with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, was one of the three greatest research libraries in the world. But unlike the other two research libraries, the NYPL is open to anyone. You do not need to show your credentials to use the facility. In many ways, this open policy makes the main branch the ultimate public library.

“This is one of the most remarkable and innovative buildings in the world,” said Charles D. Warren, an architect and President of the Committee. “Not just because of its great exterior, but because inside its stone frame is a steel structure like a skyscraper building. That’s what holds up the books. Not only does it hold up the books, but it holds up the floor of the Rose Reading Room. And to take those out completely diminishes the meaning and the purpose of this building.”

Warren claimed that the main branch was not in need of serious renovation. “New air conditioning. New fire suppression. That’s it.”

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Mass protests usually attract disparate activists. The hope is that a passion for one cause will inspire a protester to put time in another. One protester disseminated a “gift” bag featuring leaflets for an education project that had nothing whatsoever to do with the library.

But the Wednesday rally was mostly on point. It included Citizens Defending Libraries and the Library Lovers League. Representatives from each of these groups had attended Tuesday night’s city budget meeting on libraries.

I was fond of the Raging Grannies. Despite the insinuated belligerence, the Raging Grannies were a calm and lively group of women with an affinity for music.

“Sometimes we sing against the war,” said Raging Granny Judith Ackerman. “Sometimes we sing against fracking and nuclear reactors.”

But on Wednesday, the Raging Grannies came armed with a fistful of library songs, one of which can be heard below:

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There is also a small book published by the Committee — The Library of Libraries — which is being sold for $5 to help generate funds for the campaign. Publicists for the Save NYPL campaign were kind enough to provide me with a copy earlier this week. The book, described as “a parable,” is written and illustrated by Simon Verity. It contains many red hearts inserted among the prose and depicts vicious rhinos roaming the inner sanctum of the library with malicious intent. The book is an elaboration on Verity’s 2013 commentary, previously published at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s blog.

All this represents the beginnings of a flourishing movement. But the more practical matter of getting an ostensibly progressive mayor to take time away from his hyperbolic Swedish programs to fulfill his pledge and avert the destruction of a major cultural part of New York remains a more grueling challenge. The Committee was a bit diffident on this point.

When I asked about the Committee’s efforts to contact de Blasio, Grunewald reported that the Committee was “working assiduously to reach out to him.” I asked if the Committee had heard anything from de Blasio’s office. Grunewald ignored this question, pointing to an online petition with 4,600 signatures. It was at this point that a mysterious gentleman named Jack, hearing my inquiries, suggested to Grunewald that “we should probably be getting these signs up.” I tried again as Grunewald excavated the many vivacious signs from the plastic wrap.

“Have you actually heard a single peep from him by email, by phone, or anything like that?”

“It is a concern,” said Grunewald. “We did reach out to the Community Affairs Office at City Hall. We’re waiting to hear back.”

But while the Mayor refuses to meet or return calls, the Committee has made efforts to cut through the high-paid lobbyists and consultants, finding some elected officials who are willing to talk. Committee President Charles Warren wouldn’t name anybody specific, but he seemed optimistic.

“We are trying to talk with any elected officials we possibly can,” said Warren. “We have had some very good meetings and we have some upcoming meetings with some of them. We would love to meet with the Mayor.”

Warren suggested that the Council and the Controller may be receptive to the Committee’s message. He also pointed to the State’s landmark authority over the main branch, which is still being litigated. It is still possible that the State could reject any attempt to modify the building’s structure. Warren noted that two court actions were holding up the Central Library Plan: one by a citizens group and one involving Weiss and Hiller (representing plaintiffs Edmund Morris, et al.).

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Several protesters informed me that they would take the rally to City Hall if they had to. But what remains unclear is the timetable, the manner in which the Committee is organized, and whether these efforts have any bewitching effect beyond a popular photoblog.

It turned out that Matthew Zadrozny, the aforementioned pollo-eating beefcake, was at the rally. He went out of his way to approach me. He asked if I was a reporter. I told that him I was in a way. And we chatted.

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Correspondent: Who are you in relation to the Committee?
Zadrozny: I am working with the Committee. I’ve been with the Committee since December. I’ve been attending these protests since June of last year. And every Saturday, I’m organizing the weekly work-in protests at the library. We’re asking the public to come and protest while you work by sitting in the Main Reading Room, getting your work done with a www.savenypl.org sticker on your laptop.
Correspondent: I’ve seen those protests being announced. How much turnout? I mean, that seems more of a passive-aggressive form of protesting, I think.
Zadrozny: Well…
Correspondent: This is very active, however.
Zadrozny: Today’s protest is very active. On Saturdays, we want to garner the regular users of the library and give them ways to express their outrage at what’s happening by just getting their work done with a sticker.
Correspondent: Aha.
Zadrozny: It’s as simple as that.
Correspondent: It’s protesting for introverts.
Zadrozny: Protest…not necessarily. We encourage them to email the Mayor at savenypl.org. But we also encourage people to come out afterwards, get a drink with us, and talk about the future of the library.
Correspondent: Mayor de Blasio has remained silent. So are these protests doing any good?
Zadrozny: Mayor de Blasio, as Public Advocate, came out criticizing the plan. As Mayor, it’s true. He’s remained silent. We’re still waiting to hear from him. But we’re hopeful.
Correspondent: You’re hopeful. Why are you hopeful?
Zadrozny: We’re hopeful because he took a stand as Public Advocate and we believe that he understands the impact that this would have on the city and on local communities.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Committee was used in a political gesture rather than an actual act of true political movement?
Zadrozny: Uh…we don’t think so.
Correspondent: Why?
Zadrozny: Because we believe that the Mayor understands that this is, in many respects, an issue of equality, of opportunity. We believe the Mayor understands that if the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries close, the amount of space in the system will be reduced. We believe that the Mayor understands that if Mid-Manhattan closes, there will be less space for students in the CUNY system to study. We believe that the Mayor understands that this is bad for New Yorkers.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Mayor has changed his mind?
Zadrozny: (pause) We’ll find out.

[May 7, 2014 UPDATE: The New York Public Library abandoned the Central Library Plan, opting to renovate the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue instead. The main library is no longer under threat.]

New Mayor, New Hysteria: De Blasio and Bratton’s Insane and Secretive War on Jaywalking

On Sunday, the New York Police Department put Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man, in the hospital. Wong was left bleeding in the streets. There were cuts to his face. His crime wasn’t murder or drug trafficking or robbery. It was jaywalking.

kangwongThe New York Post reported that Wong, who did not speak English, was approached shortly after he had crossed the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway against a red light. Wong walked away when the cop tried writing him a ticket. The police tried pulling him back. There was a struggle. And the violence began.

The NYPD has launched a crackdown on jaywalkers at this intersection — still in effect as of Monday afternoon — in response to three fatal accidents over a week. (Details on these deaths can be read at DNAinfo.) The most prominent fatality was Samantha Lee, who was struck by a red Dodge Charger sedan on early Saturday morning.

But the jaywalking crackdown, and the violence directed towards Wong, is completely out of proportion with the crime or even the jaywalking “epidemic,” as Mayor de Blasio referred to it on Monday afternoon. As The New York Times reported last March, New York’s traffic fatality rates are less than one-third of the national average and half the rates of other big cities. 286 people died in New York City last year, up from 2012’s 274 deaths. Yet this is still a remarkably low figure. Indeed, 2013’s tally was only 30 fatalities greater than 2010, when Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan announced that it was the best year for traffic fatalities in the City’s history. (The second-lowest figure is 269 in 2011, just 17 shy of the 2013 “epidemic.” Historically speaking, New York is doing much better than the 471 traffic fatalities in 1910.)

Yet Mayor de Blasio is determined to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. Aside from the fact that such a statistic is completely impossible unless the streets are purged of all cars, there’s an even bigger problem: the program that de Blasio is drawing from doesn’t actually work in New York.

Vision Zero — a policy idea cribbed from Sweden that de Blasio was talking up last August — wishes to put an end to all traffic fatalities. But the considerable efforts by Scandinavians to curb death have had middling and often ineffectual results. Norway adopted a Vision Zero policy in 1999, but the number of traffic fatalities remained largely unchanged since. And while Sweden has seen traffic fatalities fall as low as 266 in 2010, New York is not Sweden. Sweden isn’t nearly as dense as New York. It doesn’t have nearly as much traffic. Moreover, 65% of Sweden’s serious accidents involve wild animals. Unless New York reduces its population density (not likely) and sees a sudden influx of Swedish moose hopping around the BQE, what works for Sweden is unlikely to work in the Big Apple.

Moreover, de Blasio’s attempts to enact policy predicated upon an unworkable fantasy has established a dangerous authoritarian precedent: a tactic that the newly reappointed Police Commissioner is bringing to New York from Los Angeles that is more about sponging offenders with frivolous $250 tickets and making their lives more of a hassle.

Mayor de Blasio and New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton are also working from illusory datasets for their new program. Bratton appeared at a press conference last Wednesday to promote Vision Zero, claiming, “Last year, pedestrian error — and I point this out — pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions.” The New York Times‘s J. David Goodman and Matt Flegenheimer — among other journalists — accepted this statistic without question, failing to follow up on where or how Bratton obtained this 73% figure. (On Monday afternoon, I spoke with Lieutenant John Grimpel in the NYPD’s public information about what data Bratton was drawing upon. Gimpel informed me that this came from an internal document from the Collisions Investigation Squad. I asked Lt. Grimpel if he would be releasing the data or the survey at a future date. “We’re not giving that out,” he said.)

On Friday, Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron did the work that other journalists couldn’t be bothered to perform, attempting to track the source of Bratton’s figure and reporting similar communications issues with the NYPD. Aaron pointed out that the 73% figure “doesn’t match up with any known dataset or the robust recent research into the causes of serious pedestrian issues.”

In other words, de Blasio and Bratton are using Scandinavian ideology that doesn’t work and basing their policy on statistics that they refuse to be transparent about and that look to be illusory.

When questioned by reporters on Monday about the crackdown, de Blasio stated that while there was no citywide crackdown, precinct commanders could act upon the issue. De Blasio also referred to pedestrian fatalities as “an epidemic we’re facing,” but refused to address the Wong case “until I have a better sense of it.” But if the Mayor cannot provide adequate data and transparent justification which explains why his jaywalking crackdown is a sane corrective, then he and his Police Commissioner are no better than other thugs who have persecuted the hoi polloi in the name of mass hysteria that they lacked the acumen to respond to.

As Philip Alcabes has pointed out in his thoughtful book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu

When officials or entrepreneurs make use of an epidemic threat to create politically or financially useful lessons, they follow a long tradition. Medieval Christians burned Jews in hopes of warding off epidemics of plague; outbreaks of cholera in the mid-nineteenth century in England and America; early-twentieth century epidemics of plague in San Francisco were said to be caused by immigrants (Chinese and Mexican, respectively); and venereal disease epidemics have been attributed historically to “loose women.”

During his inauguration speech, de Blasio held up Fiorello La Guardia as “the man I consider to be the greatest Mayor this city has ever known,” citing La Guardia’s belief in the rugged individual. But his new policies against jaywalking are not only a shocking throwback to draconian police measures enacted by Mayor Giuliaini. These measures stand against La Guardia’s populist principles. (They are also a waste of police resources. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criminalized jaywalking in the late 1990s, pushing up the fine from $2 to $50, police rightly balked at having to waste their time. How many more manhours will be wasted because of de Blasio and Bratton’s ridiculous war?)

According to H. Paul Jeffers’s The Napoleon of New York, Mayor La Guardia stood adamantly against criminalizing jaywalking. In 1936, as the Nazi conflict escalated in Germany, La Guardia vetoed a bill passed by the aldermen that required police to arrest people for jaywalking. “I prefer the happiness of our unorganized imperfection to the organized perfection of other countries,” said La Guardia. “Broadway is not Unter den Linden.”

But maybe under de Blasio and Bratton, it is.

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A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 22, 2013, I set out on an eighteen mile “trial walk” from the top tip of Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. It will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!]

Other Trial Walks:
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

The Broadway Bridge rumbled hard with tardy cars hoping to beat that dreaded moment when the lift raised for a big boat hauling cargo across the Harlem River, tying up traffic into a time-consuming knot that no sailor could unravel at gunpoint. On the whole, this was a reasonable bridge, agreeable and unassuming, not unlike a workmanlike band following an act that bombed spectacularly on stage. You couldn’t help but like the Broadway Bridge after all the barbed wire coils and the industrial grit that came before. But I think I may have loved the bridge simply because I crossed it on foot.

I was walking across to meet Lisa Peet, a good soul with a wily mane and a knowing glint who had kindly agreed to be my first interview subject. We met in the Gold Mine Cafe, a former donut shop recently renovated to serve breakfast at all hours of the day. This establishment inveigled the locals with its new kitschy interior, which included a Greco ideal, his knee raised, ensnared in a vessel with a periwinkle lid. This marvelously extravagant illustration, seen only if you look to your left when you leave the joint, rightly reflected the neighborhood inconsistencies that Lisa told me about. There was also a painting of an elderly woman tempting fate with a reddish orange mass, which hung just behind the table where Lisa and I chatted:

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“No restaurants,” said Lisa of her neighborhood. “No coffee shops. No galleries. No bookstores. No nothing. There’s the Bronx Ale House, which opened up a few years ago. That’s a nice place. No takeout really. There’s Riverdale. You can get delivery from there. You have to leave if you want to do anything fun.”

I pointed to the Gold Mine Cafe’s charms, which suggested new fun in the making.

“There’s fun, but you really have to make it.”

* * *

geese

I saw the geese after I saw the coyote statue atop a rock and the slowly thawing ice rink that needed to be deliquesced out of its misery. I saw the geese after shuffling around a memorial lawn with its grave markers parked low to the grass and American flags shooting out of the soil. I saw the geese wandering near the Van Cortlandt Park baseball diamond, not far from the big track that still attracted stubborn joggers in the morning chill, and I attempted an interview.

I spent more minutes than I care to admit slowly advancing on the icy lawn, hoping that the geese might view me as more peaceful and more inquisitive than the average human. But the geese had seen humans pull this parlor trick many times before. They squawked and they sprinted in that gangly manner that only geese can and they fluttered into the air when I pursued them beyond the specified maximum distance established by the Human-Geese Accord of 1872.

The geese did not wish to answer my inquiries concerning income inequality or human-animal relations or Katy Perry’s sartorial style. Still, I was having a good deal of fun coaxing the geese to talk with me. I opted to leave them alone and file an interview request with their publicists. I did not know that there was a bigger interview ahead in Yonkers.

* * *

The idea came when I walked into Yonkers and saw Mayor Mike Spano’s name on the city limits sign. I had never been in Yonkers before. Perhaps Mayor Spano would talk with me. I had not known that Mayor Spano had just delivered the State of the City address. In fact, I knew nothing about Yonkers politics at all.

I decided to hit City Hall.

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I didn’t anticipate that Yonkers City Hall would be a fairly imposing Italianate edifice built in 1908 and situated on a rather high hill.

This did not stop me.

I walked to the side entrance and told the amicable guard that I was going to the Mayor’s Office. He seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing and directed me to the second floor. I went to the Mayor’s Office and talked with a friendly woman named Francesca. The Mayor was in Albany. I asked if there was anybody else who would talk with me, but apparently all communications people were locked in an implacable meeting. It was so quiet behind Francesca that I began to wonder if city officials were playing a long game of Spin the Bottle, perhaps over coffee and cake. I asked Francesca if she would talk with me and she said that she wasn’t authorized to do so. But she was very nice about it.

It then occurred to me that Yonkers City Hall had other floors and, quite possibly, more movers and shakers who might talk with me. Since I had gone to the trouble of walking up the rather high hill, it seemed eminently reasonable to bag the Munro.

There were a few fun-filled conversations inside the Public Works Department and the Department of Engineering, although I quickly learned that Yonkers City Hall acoustics share certain qualities with an invisibility cloak. The doors throughout the building are sturdy and loud when opened. Every lawmaker and aide knows the precise moment someone enters an office. I entered one room in search of a Yonkers booster and was alarmed to hear a man reply from his office just after I chatted with several good-natured people craning their heads out of cubicles. He had heard the whole exchange. I wondered if the man was preparing for some inevitable moment when he would overhear some vital gossip that would pull him from his chamber and into some position where he would spend the rest of his days laughing as hard as Emil Jannings.

Nearly everyone in Yonkers City Hall was kind and courteous. Maybe I was stunned because, living in New York City, I’m accustomed to city employees who give you the look of someone who wants to rip out your heart with gelid hands and watch you die. It’s also possible that city employees don’t often receive visitors or interview requests quite like this.

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Whatever the reason, all this bonhomie led me to believe that I could talk with someone on the City Council. My journey started at one wing of the fourth floor, where administrative types were answering telephones and sealing envelopes and trying to hold the majority leader — a man named Wilson A. Terrero — to his hectic schedule. Nerissa Peña, Chief of Staff of the Yonkers City Council, was very helpful in seeking five minutes with Terrero, who was at the tail end of a vivacious meeting with two businessmen. I thanked Nerissa and told her that I would return, once I had investigated the opposite wing.

I walked to the other side of City Hall. Several people told me that there was a man named Chuck who liked to talk. Chuck was the Council President. All spoke fondly of his gregariousness. The three women working in his office. The communications guy, who name-checked Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed when I told him about the walk. And I’m fairly certain that if I had loitered around City Hall after business hours, some wraith kicking around for decades would tell me that Chuck Lesnick is the man you need to spread the Yonkers gospel.

But Chuck wasn’t there.

It was suggested that I schedule an appointment, even though the four lovely people I talked with in Chuck’s office understood that these interviews were spontaneous.

I returned to the other wing to see if I could catch Mr. Terrero just before he was splitting for Albany. As I chatted more with Nerissa about this drop-in prospect, a calm man in a near navy sweater and a fluted gray scarf draped around his neck in a tidy coil passed along some papers for her and, eyeing the recording unit dangling across my chest with its concomitant microphone, said hello. This was Terrero himself! We came up with a plan to wait for Terrero to finish up with the two businessmen. Then I’d talk with him for five minutes before he made the two hour drive upstate.

I settled into a chair and watched the world of Yonkers politics whirl around me. The walls were white and mostly unadorned: the vagaries of city politics ensured that nobody stuck around long enough to hang a Matisse print. But Terrero had tacked his diplomas and his certificates on the wall so that any curious soul sifting through the door knew who she was dealing with. There was a Dominican flag perched behind a manilla folder and neatly arranged photos of the majority leader on a dark brown credenza: the thickest gold frame featuring Terrero in uniform, but all photos showing Terrero sharp and smooth and poised and prepared. I began to understand why he was the majority leader.

I asked Nerissa if Terrero relied almost entirely on her to keep the schedule running on time. “Yesssssssssss!!!!!” she said, the stage whisper of someone who appreciated a sharp observation.

The clock above the door pushed closer to noon.

This was now getting tight for me, especially since I still had fourteen miles to hike that day to Sleepy Hollow. So I asked Nerissa if she could chat with a few minutes.

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Nerissa came to City Hall four years ago on the day Terrero was elected. She told me that there’s never a dull moment in City Hall. I asked Nerissa if she had any political aspirations. “Not at the moment,” she replied, which I noted was a very political answer.

Nerissa was a big fan of Tinker Bell. There was a small statuette of the famed fairy on her desk. Two interns had made a sign just before their stint was up, calling Nerissa “the best supervisor an intern could ever come across” in rainbow lettering, with Tinker Bell waving her wand in the top right corner. These days, Nerissa was sprinkling vital pixie dust for the Yonkers constituents. She said the job could get very busy, but she enjoyed the opportunity to help other people.

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Shortly before the stroke of twelve, Terrero emerged from his office and, upon saying goodbye to the two businessmen, turned to me without missing a beat. As we sauntered slowly down the stairs, Terrero told me that while his job was technically part-time, he worked full-time to serve the community.

“There is a community out there that is in need of representation. And when I say ‘needs,’ it’s basically the Latino community, which has been underrepresented for so long.”

Despite the fact that 35% of the Yonkers population is Latino, the city had been slow in electing Latinos to the City Council. This was one of the reasons why Terrero had decided to run.

“The Party was looking for someone who had been involved in the community, who was likable and electable also. And they found me. And I said, ‘Okay.’ I went to my family. I went to the community to ask them for questions. Whether you see me as a politician now. Do you think I can do a good job?”

Last year, Terrero became the first Latino City Council Majority Leader in Yonkers. It was an unanimous vote and it’s easy to see why. Despite all the meetings (four that day) and the community events that take up Terrero’s busy calendar, he has a calm and easygoing manner. And when we hit the ground floor, many city workers clapped his shoulder with affection on their way out to lunch.

Terrero has developed this quiet patience that allows him to speak with all types of people, regardless of education and background. When I asked Terrero about the greatest nightmare he’s ever faced in his political career, he told me that he loves the job so much that the excitement of a tough vote overshadows the difficulty. He’s more interested in making things happen.

“Yesterday, we called this special meeting to vote for a project I believe is very important for the city. It’s going to create jobs. Temporary jobs, permanent jobs. And the people of the city are the ones who are going to benefit. The Teamsters are going to build that housing complex. And only five of us voted for the project. And there was a discussion about it. And at the end, some people just crossed lines and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to vote for it.’ And they did.”

His day begins at eight in the morning, when Terrero exercises and showers and prepares himself for the long day. He is a former baseball player. So he’s had some practice at this. City Council meetings can stretch into the dead of Tuesday night and often across the rest of the week. And when your time is devoured by talks and votes, you need every bit of energy you can to keep the flame alive.

* * *

dogrun

I had spent more time in Yonkers than planned and there was still the matter of lunch. I walked north on Warburton Avenue, which ran along the river and the rails. I passed schools and churches and houses increasingly labeled “private.” I passed riverside dog runs and attracted barks from playful canines.

hastingsonhudson

The plan was to stop at Hastings-on-Hudson and grab something to eat there. But I became so caught up in my walking rhythm, taking in the beautiful quietude of creeks burbling into the Hudson and the wind lapping at the surviving vegetation, that I overshot Hastings entirely and ended up in a village called Dobbs Ferry.

I settled into a booth at Doubleday’s, the kind of place where a man in late middle age sits at a bar and orders a lemonade and vodka at 2:00 in the afternoon. There were many TVs blaring sports, with a slight echolalia among sets televising the same feed. None of this stopped the talk from flowing like a loose tap.

“We did fall in love with each other, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Forty years later…”

This expansive establishment was arranged like a triptych: a restaurant to the south, the bar forming the central hub, and an open room to the north for overflow on busy nights. There was talk of football pools and objects flying up from the road and scratching the insides of eyes. This was a place where you could melt away hours of your life and not even know it. I would have stayed if I did not have an appointment with Washington Irving.

* * *

villalewaro

I had only a few hours left of daylight and six miles left before Sleepy Hollow. One of the big surprises was running into Villa Lewaro, the home of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American millionaire. Madam Walker had made her mark with a sulfur-enhanced shampoo and donated considerable money to the YMCA and the NAACP. She even saved Anacostia, the home of Frederick Douglass. She lived in the house in 1917 and taught many other women to run their own businesses.

I knew Andrew Carnegie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was where I was heading. Given my Indiegogo campaign, it was odd how my trial walk had me running into very charitable people. Maybe Carnegie could use a dramatic audio reading about steel. I considered hitting these two up for donations. But then I remembered that Walker and Carnegie were dead, which probably prohibited them from helping me.

washingtonirvingmemorial

Not long after Villa Lewaro, I hit the Washington Irving Memorial on the edge of Tarrytown. There were increasing indicators that I was close to Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving School. A housing project named after Washington Irving. Washington Irving appeared to have more places named after him in Tarrytown than Walt Whitman did in Brooklyn. I wondered if culture would be this kind to its literary figures fifty years from now. Would we see Joyce Carol Oates School or William Gass School? Or would tomorrow’s educational institutions be named after the likes of Brett Ratner or Sergey Brin?

headlesshorsemanbridge

“Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.” — Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

After eighteen miles of walking, I arrived in Sleepy Hollow at around 5:00 PM, where I was overjoyed to discover the Headless Horseman Bridge or, rather, the place where it had once stood. But given how Irving had described it in the original story as “formerly thrown,” I wondered if had ever truly existed. I didn’t have a horse, but I dropped my head beneath my shirt and walked across the bridge headless. A car horn beeped back with approval. Then I turned my attention to the cemetery, the final destination of my journey, only to find this:

sleepyhollowgates

The gates were locked. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery had closed only a half hour before I arrived.

This was surely the most crushing setback I have ever experienced as a walker. I had walked so long and hard to get here. I had two choices: I could turn around and frown my sorrows into a beer or I could find a way in.

You can probably guess the option I chose. I rationalized my decision by pointing out that I was no common trespasser. These were extenuating circumstances! Nobody in American history has ever walked eighteen miles to check out a great cemetery. I found an open area and walked in.

cemeterytombs

I was surrounded by numerous tombstones: glorious gray slabs with carefully carved names that had been eaten away by the elements over the centuries. There were families now long forgotten and many of the plots were quite strange.

shc-strange

Then there was the Irving family:

irvingfamily

With the sun falling fast, I flailed around the graveyard, seeking Andrew Carnegie’s marker, but I couldn’t find it. I should note that I became so exuberant about this magnificent cemetery that I was live tweeting my finds, openly using the terms “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” I am almost certain that these announcements of modest interloping led to what happened next.

In an effort to track down Carnegie’s grave, I tried searching online for a cemetery map with my phone. I was unsuccessful, but I did learn that physical maps existed close to the gates. I grabbed a map from the entrance, long after I had informed The Man on Twitter of my activities. Then I saw a white minivan roll up to the cemetery gates, with the driver making a move to unlock them. I decided to hightail it back to the way in. With the gate open, I saw the minivan roll slowly my way. On my way back, I heard two loud siren blurts near the Headless Horseman Bridge.

I knew that if I continued that way, I’d probably be grabbed by the cops. So I found a fence and I hopped over, landing into an unmaintained sidewalk. I heard another blurt from the police just south of me. So I walked across North Broadway and made my escape.

My eighteen mile walk had ended in a modest chase. I had gone from the noble heights of Yonkers City Hall to the unanticipated lows of being on the lam.

It was time to grab a beer.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to see more adventures and investigation into our nation like this and regularly offered over the course of six months, please donate to the Indiegogo campaign.]

pepperspray

Occupy Wall Street: Was the NYPD Authorized to Pepper Spray Peaceful Observers?

On Saturday, the New York Police Department arrested approximately 80 people — many participating as part of Occupy Wall Street, a peaceful protest against Wall Street and the economy.

But one incident suggests very strongly that the NYPD exceeded its authority and failed to follow appropriate procedure. In videos that have been making the rounds in the past 24 hours, three bystanders — all occupying the street and captured inside orange netting erected by the police — shout “What are you doing?” and “Oh my God!” in response to unseen arrests in the distance. The women, who offer no resistance or violent behavior, are seen and heard shrieking in pain as police officers pepper spray them without any apparent warning. On the main video, the young woman on the right clutches her hand over her mouth in shock, looking around and doing nothing, just standing there. She is clearly unaware that she is about to be maced. (The Daily Kos’s MinistryOfTruth talked with one of the women. She confessed in the report that she had no idea what prompted the attack.)

Two police officers clad in white shirts approach the women. One of them is equipped with pepper spray. He has been busy off-screen. He points fiercely at the three penned women, barking, “You guys are all going to be going” — presumably in response to the legitimate question “What are you doing?” The young woman on the right, still stunned, stretches out her hand. And he responds by spraying her in the face with pepper spray. He moves his arm to the right and sprays the others.

As the three women scream in pain and flail their arms, the netted orange perimeter is broadened. But not a single police officer steps inside to aid the women, much less arrest them. Other people scream for someone to bring water to the three women.

Here is the original video:

Here is the original video slowed down:

Here is the incident from another angle:

The NYPD would not confirm with The Gothamist whether or not it used pepper spray in any of the arrests. Yet the videos clearly indicate that it did. According to CBS News, the NYPD called every arrest justified. But an equally important question is this: Why did these officers consider the use of OC justifiable against these peaceful observers?

These three videos contain enough information about the macing incident to reconstruct a substantial portion of it. Reluctant Habits has also obtained a 2005 edition of the New York Police Department Patrol Guide, which outlines the specific use of pepper spray in Section 212-95. By the 2005 standards and based on the available evidence, it is clear that the NYPD did not follow appropriate measures.

In most cases, pepper spray is used to effect the arrest of a resisting subject. And the Patrol Guide specifies five uses for OC pepper spray:

  • Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)
  • Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest
  • Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody
  • Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)
  • Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
    or animals present.

We see in the above videos that the women were not assaulting the police officers (unless stretching out one’s hand to get one’s bearings is considered “assault”). There was no need to establish physical control. They were not fleeing from arrest. (Indeed, how could they when they were trapped in orange police netting?) They were not emotionally disturbed persons. They were not dangerous animals who were going to injure anybody.

In looking at the Patrol Guide, we learn that the police are obligated to arrest the person who is pepper sprayed and charge them with a crime. Yet we see that the police do not make any moves towards the three women. They are left to scream, kneeled in the streets and in pain. They are not criminals. But they are clearly examples of what befalls “bad” citizens.

The Patrol Guide specifically orders the uniformed officer not to use pepper spray on “subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp, offering no active physical resistance).” But the white shirted policeman has clearly ignored this procedure. In the same note, the uniformed officer is instructed to “avoid using O.C. spray in small contained areas such as automobiles and closets.” It is hard to determine with all the pandemonium going on in the video, but the orange netting erected by the police may very well fall into the scope of “small contained area.”

Patrol Guide procedures also request Emergency Medical Services “once the situation is under control.” But we see these women screaming and no apparent EMS members in the frame. Did the NYPD fulfill this option? Probably not. Because the women were left in the contaminated area to scream. They were not relocated to fresh air, contrary to another Patrol Guide mandate: “Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically feasible.”

Given the distance of the officers from the victims, it’s likely that none of the officers asked the women if they were wearing contact lenses. Nor were the women placed in a sitting position to promote free breathing. They were left to fall to the ground and suffer. The Patrol Guide also specifies that officers should provide a source of water and flush the contaminated skin of those who are pepper-spayed. Even if we give the NYPD the benefit of the doubt, and accept that the situation was an anarchic one and that it was hard to enforce these guidelines, one would think that this flushing proviso would be followed to the letter — if not as an enforced code, then at least as a basic quality of humanism that requires no explanation. But for a good twenty seconds, the women are left to scream and to experience pain, with one woman stretching her arms in an effort to find some relief for her anguish. The women who are not sprayed appear to want to help her, but, trapped inside the orange netting, they cannot offer water.

The NYPD’s conduct does not fall into the five general categories of pepper spray use. It fails to adhere to the NYPD’s own guidelines. And since the NYPD cannot own up to its inhumane behavior, despite repeat inquiries, it suggests very highly that the police are not especially committed to Fidelis ad Mortem — especially that vital faith in innocent bystanders whose only crime was to ask what was happening to fellow human beings.

Here is P.G. 212-95 reproduced in its entirety:

P.G. 212-95 Use Of Pepper Spray Devices

Date Effective: 01-01-00

PURPOSE

To inform uniformed members of the service of circumstances under which pepper spray
may be intentionally discharged and to record instances where pepper spray has been
discharged, intentionally or accidentally.

SCOPE

Use of Oleoresin Capsicum (O.C.) pepper spray constitutes physical force under the New
York State Penal Law. Use of pepper spray is proper when used in accordance with
Article 35 of the Penal Law and Department procedures. O.C. pepper spray may be used
when a member reasonably believes it is necessary to effect an arrest of a resisting
suspect, for self-defense or defense of another from unlawful force, or to take a
resisting emotionally disturbed person into custody. In many cases, pepper spray will
reduce or eliminate the need for substantial physical force to effect an arrest or
gain custody. It will often reduce the potential for injuries to members and suspects
that may result from physical restraint and it should be regarded as a possible
alternative to such force and restraint, where practical. Pepper spray shall not be
used in situations that do not require the use of physical force. O.C. pepper spray
may be used in arrest or custodial restraint situations where physical presence and/or
verbal commands have not been, or would not be, effective in overcoming physical
resistance.

PROCEDURE

When necessary to use pepper spray device:

UNIFORMED MEMBER OF THE SERVICE

1. Hold pepper spray in an upright position, aim and discharge pepper spray into a
subject’s eyes for maximum effectiveness, using two (2) one second bursts, at a
minimum distance of three (3) feet, and only in situations when the uniformed member
of the service reasonably believes that it is necessary to:

a. Protect self, or another from unlawful use of force (e.g., assault)

b. Effect an arrest, or establish physical control of a subject resisting arrest

c. Establish physical control of a subject attempting to flee from arrest or custody

d. Establish physical control of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP)

e. Control a dangerous animal, by deterring an attack, to prevent injury to persons
or animals present.

2. Effect arrest of criminal suspect against who pepper spray was used and charge with
crime which initiated use of the pepper spray.

a. Add resisting arrest charge, when appropriate

b. P.G. 210-13, “Release Of Prisoners – General Procedure” will be complied with if
it is determined that arrested person did not commit the crime or that no crime was
committed.

c. P.G. 216-05, “Mentally Ill Or Emotionally Disturbed Persons,” will be complied
with, when appropriate.

NOTE: Do not use pepper spray on subjects who passively resist (e.g., going limp,
offering no active physical resistance). If possible, avoid using pepper spray on
persons who appear to be in frail health, young children, women believed to be
pregnant, or persons with known respiratory conditions. Avoid discharging pepper
spray indiscriminately over a large area for disorder control. (Members who are
specifically trained in the use of pepper spray for disorder control may use pepper
spray in accordance with their training, and within Department guidelines, and as
authorized by supervisors.). In addition, avoid using O.C. spray in small contained
areas such as automobiles and closets.

3. Request response of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) once the situation is under
control.

a. Advise person sprayed that EMS is responding.

4. Remove the subject from the contaminated area and expose to fresh air while
awaiting the arrival of EMS, or transportation to hospital/stationhouse if tactically
feasible.

a. Determine whether the person sprayed is wearing contact lenses. (It is strongly
recommended that contact lenses be removed as soon as possible after exposure to O.C.
spray.)

5. Position subject on his/her side or in a sitting position to promote free
breathing.

a. The subject should never be maintained or transported in a face down position.

b. Do not sit, stand, or kneel on subject’s chest or back.

6. Provide assistance to subject as follows:

a. When consistent with member’s safety, and provided a source of water is readily
available, the uniformed member should flush the contaminated skin area of a subject
with profuse amounts of water.

b. Repeat flushing at short intervals, if necessary, until symptoms of distress
subside.

c. Continue flushing the contaminated skin of the subject in custody, at the
stationhouse as needed.

d. Commence the flushing of a subject’s contaminated skin upon arrival at the
stationhouse, if this has not already been done.

NOTE: Do not rub or touch skin of contaminated person, as the initial effect of
pepper spray does not dissipate for 15 – 20 minutes. Also, do not use salves, creams,
ointments, commercial eye washes or bandages. The desk officer will ensure that all
prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray receive appropriate first aid, if
needed, upon arrival at the stationhouse. Desk officers are also responsible for
ensuring that prisoners who have been sprayed with pepper spray are properly observed
throughout the arrest process, and that they receive prompt medical attention if they
need or request it. A Command Log entry will be made stating whether the prisoner has
had his/her skin flushed with water, been examined by EMS, or been transported to the
hospital.

7. Transport prisoner immediately to the emergency room of the nearest hospital if
he/she is demonstrating difficulty breathing, or exhibiting signs of severe stress,
hyperventilation etc.

a. Windows of transport vehicle should be kept open

b. Members who come in contact with persons who have been exposed to pepper spray
must thoroughly wash their hands afterward and avoid having any contaminated clothing
make contact with their face

c. Advise hospital staff that pepper spray has been used on prisoner.

8. Prepare ON LINE BOOKING SYSTEM ARREST WORKSHEET (PD 244-159) and MEDICAL TREATMENT
OF PRISONER (PD 244-150) in arrest situations.

9. Complete the AIDED REPORT WORKSHEET (PD 304-152b) in non-arrest situations, e.g.
EDP, and:

a. Check box “O.C. Spray Used”

b. Enter rank, name, and tax registry number, of each MOS who discharged spray in
the “Details” caption

c. List the time, doctor’s name, and diagnosis under “Details” caption, when
applicable.

COMMANDING OFFICER, M.I.S.D.

10. Provide a quarterly printout of all arrest and aided incidents where pepper spray
was discharged to the commanding officer, Firearms and Tactics Section.

COMMANDING OFFICER, FIREARMS AND TACTICS SECTION

11. Analyze situations where O.C. spray was employed to evaluate its effectiveness.
a. As appropriate, modify existing training/tactics relative to the use of pepper
spray.

ADDITIONAL DATA

The only pepper spray authorized for use is the type issued to all uniformed members
through the Firearms and Tactics Section.

In order to maintain the effectiveness of the spray, it is recommended that the device
be shaken at the start of each tour. Carrying the pepper spray device during normal
patrol duty should be sufficient to keep the solution thoroughly mixed.

Pepper spray will not automatically stop all subjects, and even when it does
incapacitate, the effects are temporary. Members should therefore be ready to use
other appropriate force options and tactics.

When performing duty in uniform, the pepper spray shall be carried in its holster
attached to the non-shooting side of the gun belt. When performing enforcement duty
in civilian clothes the pepper spray must be carried, in the holster attached either
to a belt or in another appropriate manner. Undercover members may opt not to carry
the pepper spray. Members of the service may carry the pepper spray device during off
duty hours.

UPDATE: The Village Voice talks with Chelsea Elliott, one of the protesters: “We lay on the ground like little worms. One of the other girls was a medic, and was able to pour milk in her eyes. The cops left. They moved the net. All I know from what happened afterward, I watched on YouTube. For like 15 minutes, I couldn’t see; I couldn’t breathe at first. It was so out of the ordinary and unprovoked. Our medical group poured milk into my eyes for like 10 minutes, and apple cider vinegar on my face.”

UPDATE 2: The NYPD officer who pepper sprayed the protesters has been identified as Anthony Bologna. A Downtown Express profile of Bologna reveals that he became a police officer late in life and there is this telling quote: “You read in the papers about cops doing things that you can’t believe because you think everybody’s like you. But a department this large can’t really be completely free of it. If you don’t find anything wrong, you’re in real trouble because you’re not looking.” I am also investigating this article from 2001, which suggests the possibility that Anthony Bolgona attacked another protester at a Mayday NYC protest in 2001.

UPDATE 3: Jeanne Mansfield, “Why I Was Maced at the Wall Street Protests.”

UPDATE 4: The Guardian reports that Anthony Bologna may have committed civil rights abuses during the 2004 demonstrations at the Republican National Convention.

530

Five Three Oh

530

At 5:30 AM, you know who is truly fearless. Early birds shuffle into the guarded lobbies of fitness centers, jutting their chins and sticking their hands into hoodies not for warmth, but for protection against the unpredictable aperture between the end of night and the promising onset of the sun. A man rattles the locked door outside Starbucks, wanting his quick fix as the workers unpack big metal bins from the fridge and talk shop before putting on a customer-friendly face. A more subtle addict stands outside a diner with a Voice stuffed with bills and hands it over to his seller, who then hands a shopping bag filled with illegal merch, and proceeds to breakfast. Inside the diner, you can just grab the first batch of home fries and catch several snippets of the manager ordering this week’s supplies. The manager’s conversation is in Spanish and the numbers rattled into the phone reveal how his business is doing (not well). Delivery trucks rattle and stop, followed by taxi cabs, a few buses, and the odd automobile or two. Stacks of newspapers form outside newsstands and stores. Security guards are permitted to yawn. Mysterious vans pick up less secure workers at corners, where a few huddled souls begin a long day in Queens or Jersey with payments guaranteed out-of-pocket.

5:30 AM unleashes strange truths. A Duane Reade manager — a middle-aged man with an untrimmed moustache — shouts loudly about how much he enjoys hurting people just after welcoming you through the doors. It’s all about Modern Warfare 2, the latest twitch game making the rounds. He smiles as he talks of gunning down civilians and using bounce grenades to kill a crowd. Urination is more publicly practiced, but the rats are too tired to gnaw on the trash. Temporal minority groups welcome each other. The lonely chat with strangers: some demanding a response to “Good morning” and some looking for a two-minute friend. Social cues are more awkward at this hour. The lonely feel compelled to force intimate questions upon strangers in less than a minute. Requests for change carry a slight delay. No one quite knows the timing because you can’t always tell if someone’s just risen out of bed or about to head to dreamland. You can’t sit on a stoop, but you can bunch your frame near a door. In fact, it’s better that you do. The last thing you need is a property manager jostled before his alarm.

A man sans yarmulke sways in the wayward wind, singing a Jewish hymn. The smell of fresh bread careens from bakeries. The hardcore dog walking crowd, friendlier than the vigilant fitness freaks, conclude their constitutionals. A man takes his shirt off and hangs it over his head just because he can. And the normal sounds are preternaturally minimalist. Thin metal struts squeak in the breeze. The bright bus shelter signs are most visible at this hour. The signs advertise ghastly financial products and mirthless talk show hosts with rum, oversize jaws, but the messages won’t reach the people stirred up at this golden hour. Because this is the time when things are real. At no other time is the city so half-awake yet alive.

Subway

“Subway” — the fourth installment of my “Anthropological Film” series — was shot and edited on July 14, 2009. For some unknown reason, I took my camera with me for a job interview. Since I had arrived at the Times Square station early, I began shooting to pass the time and satiate my fascination with what I was observing around me. I figured that this was a film that I could work on later, possibly “anthropological” or not. But that evening, I became haunted by the subway and felt compelled to finish the film. So I rode the subway for a few hours and, to my surprise, it all came together. For those noting the absence of rats, I should point out that I did go out of my way to look for them, but my quest for vermin proved unsuccessful (at least in relation to this film’s more human emphasis). And since the film is more about the human relationship with the subway system, I don’t feel that (for this film anyway) rats were entirely necessary.

Golden Hour

“Golden Hour,” which was shot at and around Riverside Park, is the third of what I’m calling my “anthropological films.” You can watch it above or click through to YouTube to see it in HD. (The series started with “Bubbles: A Consideration” and continued with “Dia de los Vivos.”) Like the other two films, this installment deals with certain glimpses of New York that most New Yorkers seem to ignore or fail to appreciate. This latest film chronicles aspects of how we live that were put into place decades ago by developer Robert Moses. (I recommend Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, if you’re not familiar with the subject.) But you don’t need to be know New York history to experience the film.

I plan to shoot a total of ten “anthropological films” before the end of the year. There may even be more, depending upon how deeply I plunge into these variations on a theme.

[UPDATE: I have created an “anthropological films” page for anyone who cares to chart the progress. I will update this page with additional information pertaining to the interconnected themes of these films as it becomes available.]

Bubbles: A Consideration

On June 12, 2009, I attended a bubble battle in New York. But the event wasn’t really a battle — at least not in the traditional sense. Hundred of people who didn’t know each other gathered in Times Square to blow bubbles. It seemed like such a simple act, but it turned out to be so much more. And I hope that the above film, “Bubbles: A Consideration,” gives anyone who wasn’t able to attend a sense of the possibilities.

crock

C Rock

crock The cracked light turquoise paint clings to the gneiss on the Bronx side of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, forming the canvas for a stenciled C, a character cloud with a silver lining representing Columbia University. I can report with some small relief that elite rowers are in short supply on a cold February afternoon. But the Amtrak trains that roll across the bridge to the west of the Henry Hudson can be seen emerging on the Bronx side and disappearing behind the Big C. While the rock itself has defiantly exacted fissures through serious chunks of this not-quite-elliptical letter, the paint sits truer near the stems. And you can walk a good hard slog through Inwood Hill Park, slipping on the presently icy trails under the Henry Hudson Bridge leading southwest to Dyckman Street, and not know a damn thing about how the C came to be. You’ll run into friendly geese, with their sinuous necks jutting as slow and methodical and as graceful as their struts, and encounter a number of maps displaying city department propaganda about all the forest preservation going on. But what of the origins of C Rock itself? Nothing. An unknown letter defying history, standing some sixty feet tall but somehow still managing to upstage the large chunks of ice now breaking in the water.

It is commonly understood that a rowing team from Columbia University painted the rock out of school pride. Bill Twomey’s The Bronx suggests an alternate theory: that the rock was painted by engineering students from Columbia and the blue paint was purchased by George Younkheere (along with brushes and rope). In 1994, the New York Times reported that the peninsula was destroyed sometime in 1937 to widen the Harlem River Ship Canal, where the C was later painted. The Times also helpfully informs us that the paint is replenished every few years by Columbia crews. But who? And what authority determines how frequently the rock must be painted? Another Times article four years later informs us that the rock was painted by oarsman in 1955, with then Columbia assistant director of athletics Brian Bodine claiming that the work was done with team members suspended from boatswain’s chairs. But was Bodine there? And how does he know exactly? Are there pictures of the initial rock painting that Columbia is sitting on? (The latter Times article also informs us that there was a touch-up job in 1986. But from my observation, it appeared that the C had been painted a little more recently, perhaps at the stems.)

These shifting details still don’t answer the precise origins of the C, and it may be because the C is perhaps one of New York’s largest items of graffiti. The rock is referred to in some quarters as Geronimo, and there are apparently two physical activities associated with the rock. The first supports the Apache reference transformed into triumphant cry: giddy souls sometimes leap from the top into the creek. The second is reminiscent of that silly climactic scene from the film Gattaca: swim across the creek and back and prove your athletic prowess (and presumably your manhood). The site Inwoodlite claims that C Rock was established on a racist note, but is too diffident to share this with us. It is also known that a Lenape settlement was once situated at the top of the rock. This likewise suggests a clash between civilizations, but perhaps not the kind that the Lenapes would be aware of during their residency.

What’s fascinating is that there haven’t been any legal challenges to the rock. The C was painted and it has endured, quietly endorsed by the Inwood neighborhood and the Bronx dwellers living above the rock. Perhaps it is too unwieldy to rub out. Columbia is understood to have marked its turf on a rock cut by workers, leaving one to wonder whether some ambitious taggers might establish an A Rock and a B Rock somewhere along the Harlem River to ensure an alphabetical symmetry. This will probably not happen. They’ve cracked down on graffiti in the five boroughs, and Ivy Leaguers, it seems, are the only one afforded immunity and a natural canvas. The rest evade bulls and whip out cans and try tagging cars at the ends of subway lines, but their screeds and illustrations, however crude, are washed away to avoid permanence. No such fate for Columbia, whose C may very well be cruder and bolder than the output of today’s taggers.

(Photo credit: jag9889.)

When Is a Bar Not a Bar?

It changes its hours, its temperament, and its reasons for existing faster than the seasons. Faster than some contemporary hostler can rustle up fresh horses or the unseen manager can replace fleeing steeds who take legal tender while tending behind the isthmus separating employee from customer. There are some moments during the year when it serves coffee, and other moments when it dumps these java options in favor of more alcoholic ones. (The latter scenario is the present option. It has resulted in others fleeing to more dependable joints where coffee has been a regular option for at least six months.) The place has a perfectly respectable architecture that possesses hospitable potential: plentiful tables to talk or to read, a tawny aura that isn’t likely to be profiled in Architectural Digest anytime soon, but that might work with the right clientele and the right management. Unfortunately, for those who hope to stay, there’s a revolving door in place: those who own the joint and those who run the joint are fresh-faced neophytes who emerge every two months. And you never know where the previous folks went, even when you ask around. It’s safe to say that this constant confusion about what this place is exactly doesn’t permit a hearty staple of neighborhood regulars. Without even a shred of permanence, it remains a house devoted to transients. And it inexplicably survives.

This establishment blames its current woes on the economy, which was why it recently ejected coffee from its beverage repertoire and truncated its hours. But you can find four or five boisterous talkers on any weeknight itching to turn the place seedy. And one senses a certain resistance to this not entirely unsavory option from the staff, for you can almost always hear them them bitching about crazed drunks and lonely eccentrics who they had to eject.

The folks who hang out at this place are almost never from the neighborhood. They come from SoHo, Queens, and sometimes Inglewood. A few arrive late after watching strippers at the Slipper Room, and deliver fleshy reports to anyone who will listen. A large television is behind the bar, mostly muted. Like most bars, it’s a point of reference for anyone who can’t find some topic to talk about. And there are always things to talk about. Just check your brain in at the door and concentrate on small talk.

Perhaps this place is some outre port in the storm. The place that nobody knows about or cares to acknowledge. The place where anyone who walks in and carries some sign of living somewhere within a five-block radius is viewed with a natural suspicion.

I don’t wish to name this place. There’s a perfectly wonderful bar that I could go to a few blocks down the street, but I’ve long had a soft spot for the underdogs. I am fascinated by this bar’s almost total failure as a business and as a place of natural community, but I likewise harbor some small hope that it will figure itself out. It could very well be that the anxiety now in the national air — the transition from a dopey president who seems as unstoppable as Friday the 13th‘s Jason to a guy who might actually do something — has affected its staff and customers. Or it could very well be that those in the neighborhood are “wiser” than I am, going to the sensible spots where their evenings will be predictable successes. But this seems too easy an option in a city with one of the swiftest gentrification rates in the known world.

I don’t know how long this place will last, but I hope to carry on attending. I suspect I have some modest aspirations as a flâneur. Or perhaps I’m simply waiting around or hoping to instigate some moment in which the people of New York City finally throw off the shackles.

Crave

The economic downturn is shaking up the rabble just south of Times Square. I was walking along Eighth Avenue, and a man leaped at me some fifteen feet from the edge of the sidewalk, grabbing my forearm. There had been a guy who almost tore the lapel off my wool coat last winter. But somehow the man today was more desperate. More determined to seize another’s attention. More compelled to invade personal space. Wanting to survive, needing to matter, bowling alone.

I chatted with a thin woman bundled in a dark pockmarked coat just outside Penn Station who said she needed $12 to get home. She was situated under one of those ramshackle walkways intended to steer pedestrian traffic away from the main sidewalk while some construction rattles on, but that almost always serves as an impromptu shelter in the winter. She told me that I was the only one who talked with her in two hours. Whether her story was true or not, she was pretty hard to miss. Her large cardboard sign had the word STRANDED! in big blocky letters, a kind of Bic-imbued pointillism. The details in her story didn’t add up, but I gave her a dollar that I didn’t really have. There was the man I saw begging for a cigarette just outside a diner. A woman stood with a smile on her face, smoking three cigarettes in a row. The man wouldn’t go away. He was persistent. She didn’t budge. He dived for one of the butts she had dropped on the sidewalk and then asked her for a light. She refused. I had no cigarettes or matches on me. It would have made some difference.

Someone told me yesterday that she had been given $40 and a box to collect her possessions upon submitting her resignation notice. No pay for the last two weeks. The White Castle on Eighth Avenue announces that it’s hiring. Benefits are the big selling point. And it can’t be an accident that a bundle of comfort burgers over there is called a Crave.

Everyone craves a little security these days. More than a White Castle burger, which you have twenty minutes to sit around and eat until they kick you out. If you’re not let go just because, then you’re certainly craven, hoping to keep whatever job you have. Whether it has become necessary to sacrifice a little liberty and empathy to pay the rent is a question I can’t possibly answer. But you can feel the bristling fear in the streets.

NYPD Police Brutality

WCBS: “Cephus said he was bringing ice into a park, when he encountered two police officers checking for liquor. He dropped his bag, and says he was hit 10 to 12 times on the shoulder and upper arms, before a bystander’s camera even started.”

Amazingly, Police Union President Patrick Lynch claims this to be an appropriate amount of force. And while the officer involved has not been suspended, he has been confined to desk duty.

This violence comes only a day after a NYPD officer assaulted a Critical Mass cyclist, brutally pushing him from his bike while he was simply riding down the street.

The officer who assaulted Cephon is Michael Harrington. The officer who assaulted the cyclist is Patrick Pogan, and even Mayor Bloomberg believes Pogan went over the line.

subwayreef

Subwaymarine

Ever wonder what happens to abandoned subway cars? Well, apparently, retired subway cars have proven to be quite helpful to the fish population just off coast of Delaware. Cars are dumped into the water, and the subway car’s roomy confines has resulted in fish taking to the cars like, well, water. (There have been other efforts to dump aircraft, automobiles, and other vehicles into the ocean to create these reefs. But the fish seem to like the subway cars the best.) Red Bird Reef, named after the famed Redbird cars being used for this experiment, has seen a 400-fold increase in marine food per square inch over the past seven years.

Red Bird Reef is not without controversy. The American Littoral Society has expressed concern that the small levels of asbestos within the glue used to affix floor panels and the like might prove damaging to the environment. And since there are only so many retired subway cars to go around, other states are trying to compete for the subway cars. (New York provides these subway cars for free.)

So is this a waste of manmade resources? A sullying of the environment? Or is it very possible that, given the declining fish populations in the Atlantic, it takes this extraordinary manmade reef to generate a sustainable fish population again?

Forgotten Statue, Forgotten Spirit

schurz.jpgLike many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.

That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.

The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)

We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.

The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.

schurzreal.gifSchurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.

As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.

When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.

Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”

At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.

schurz2.jpg

Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.

First Year’s Snow

To say that I was a gleeful and spellbound little monkey this morning upon seeing the first year’s snow in New York City would be an understatement. My first impulse upon catching a glance of familiar landscape transmuted overnight into a wintry wonderland was to race outside and jump up and down and feel the steady crunch and glorious slippage of sneakers hitting as yet unsalted sidewalks. I improvised a bipedal method of sledding down a Central Park slope and cheered on kids who had the foresight to haul out sledding equipment for use upon this beautiful white stretching scape. The snow made strangers in the distance more pronounced and the white expanse was a natural bounce card to highlight the glorious brick and urban beauty. In short, I was happily six years old, if only because I was making up for three decades of mostly snowless California weather. Yes, later in the afternoon, there was the slush and the pungent marshmallow smell of decay that penetrated even my clogged nostrils. But this was snow! Magnificent snow! As wondrous a meterological ingredient as San Francisco’s fog!

For East Coasters, this is no doubt all old hat. I am indeed a wild-eyed rube when it comes to this sort of weather. But the New York population had been bifurcated into those who embraced the snow with great ardor and those who wished to hole themselves up until the snow had passed. I wondered about these shadowy figures bunkered in apartments. When did snow lose its appeal for them? When did the first drop of winter become something to be dreaded? Yes, it’s all new to this California native. But surely even new joys can be discovered within the familiar.

I am also saddened to report that A Public Space was beaten by the New York Review of Books this afternoon in a game of literary trivia. A cadre of litbloggers — including the effusive and good-natured proprietor of Wet Asphalt, who I was fortunate to meet today for the first time — was assembled to cheer on APS, but ended up heckling and applauding both teams, while also conspiring together to determine the answers. I am happy to report that Tim Brown adeptly got in touch with his inner Alex Trebek, providing very funny and very deadpan emcee work. Apparently, we were so unintentionally vociferous that not only did the three A Public Space members run away from us when it was all over, but the trio suggested that we come up there to replace them (“Sure!” we replied). At one point, I even observed Brigid Hughes, sitting a row in front of us, covering her head with her hands.

Further, I was shocked to see APS not taking the opportunity to plug its recent subscription offer. I was so distressed by this that, at one point, I loudly mumbled, “*cough* Helvetica **cough**,” and thankfully the balance was rectified. (And if you think that’s bad, the NYRoB team couldn’t even get its URL right.)

I came away with respect for both teams, who played well under pressure and displayed a hearty sense of humor.

Nevertheless, the NYRoB‘s victory did not stop us from laying down the gauntlet. We approached the NYRoB trio, boldly declaring that the Litblogging Army would challenge them anytime, anywhere for any contest of wills. Let it be literary trivia or let it be Twister or mini golfing or bowling. I handed Edwin Frank my card, figuring that our common first name might prove beneficial in arranging a future matchup. Whether Mr. Frank will take it upon himself to deploy his able team against ours, I cannot say.

I’ll have more to report on the 2007 Indie & Small Press Book Fair quite soon, including a lengthy report on the Ian MacKaye presentation. For now, I have a few modest deadlines to beat.

[UPDATE: Eric has a report, including some pictures of Brown and the litbloggers in action.]

The NYPD Cracks Down on Human Decency

New York Times: “In fact, all three items had been planted by police officers in plainclothes during the previous six weeks. And the three people who picked them up were arrested, and now face indictment on charges that could land them in state prison…. Unlike the initial program, in which the props were worth at most a few hundred dollars, the bags are now salted with real American Express cards, issued under pseudonyms to the Police Department. Because the theft of a credit card is grand larceny, a Class E felony, those convicted could face sentences of up to four years. The charges in the first round of Operation Lucky Bag were nearly all petty larceny, a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of one year in jail.”

I wonder just what kind of atavistic mind would come up with something like this, where a good deed of turning in a purse is transmuted into a criminal action. Is it the same type of person who would replace vanilla extract with white-out on Free Ice Cream Day? The type of person who would tell you that you need to file your taxes on April 16th instead of April 15th and then audit you for being a day late? The type of person who would tell a two year old that, when using a knife, it’s the blade you hold and the handle you cut with?

Along Central Park’s Perimeter

Saturday morning’s walk extended, to my surprise, across six miles in Manhattan. Mammoth bleachers for the Thanksgiving Day Parade were settled and half-unpacked by imposing tractors, stretched in sequential array upon the western edge of Central Park from West 81st to somewhere in the seventies, more no doubt to follow in the forthcoming days. There were numerous dogs — one unduly burdened by a carriage attached to his hind legs, as if he were a miniature Ben-Hur steed in service to his owner. I had thought that this poor dog had suffered an injured leg, and that the owner had attached the carriage to provide locative succor. But the contraption appeared more in the service of the owner, who didn’t seem to be aware that dogs could perambulate as fast, if not faster, than mere humans. A boy no more than seven years of age observed this rigged dog and thought him special by way of the wheels, but I felt sad for the dog, who was pressed to move faster by his master.

The bleachers were something of a burden, for they impeded steady foot traffic and we were forced to cross the street, contending with oppressive red lights, which we defied by jaywalking, and pedestrians who didn’t shuffle down sidewalks with our celerity. Certainly, they had the right to saunter. But when you get into the groove of walking, it’s hard not to go hard-core and we weaved like cars desperately careening across lanes to make an appointment. But we had no particular destination in mind.

The poor pedicab drivers, mostly African-American, shiver in the cold along 59th Street, waiting for desperate fares. They are the modern rickshaws, but the tourists prefer the horses. The statue of poor General William Tecumseh Sherman — at 59th Street and Park, in considerable disrepair, with a fading gold sheen — is largely ignored by the tourists, who settle for the horse drawn carriages at $37 per half hour, when they can have this needlessly abandoned historical figure for free. Perhaps they disapprove of the general’s march or Trump’s gilded endowment from not long ago. I find myself commiserating with the forgotten historical figures interspersed throughout the five boroughs, sometimes addressing them directly. “Who are you?” I ask a statue with an unfamiliar name. I then begin to apologize to them personally for not knowing the history and start asking these bronzed and iron representations questions, for the plagues which depict their histories are often unsuitable. I never seem to receive answers, nor do I receive strange looks from other New Yorkers. Perhaps inquiries along these lines are a common practice, or perhaps nobody is as interested in the past as I am. I am forced to Google the info later.

Concerning Trump, easily the most wretched buildings along the southern edge of Central Park are the Trump condos, which are as inventive as an accountant taking on architecture as a hobby with their flat rectilinear exteriors and banal facades.

Near the end of this peregrination, I stepped into a Men’s Wearhouse just to time how long it would take for a salesman to approach me. Total interval: nine seconds. And I was besieged with endless questions about my suit size, the smart sartorial items I was presumably pining for, and the suggestion of smart pants. But I left the store, not particularly surprised at the aggressive sales tactic. At least the Men’s Wearhouse staff have the decency to stand away from the door, which is not the case with the Madison Avenue men’s clothing stores, who hound you within two to three seconds with pathological fervor. They stand right by the doors and one considers applying for a restraining order.

Generally speaking, no clothing was purchased, I’m afraid to report. But if you have nothing to purchase or nothing to see as a tourist, it’s often a defiance of other’s expectations when you randomly walk through the streets of New York.

Six Years Later

It is just a day. Why don’t they understand this? Yes, it’s a Tuesday. The same third day of the week it was when it happened. But this doesn’t mean that it will happen again. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t live, goddammit. It doesn’t mean that we should deny our collective essence, our great possibilities, our joie de vivre, our healthy skepticism, our intolerance for bullshit. Six years, neighbors! How much longer do you need? Why do you silently cling to something that was terrible but that is sufficiently enough in the past? Why do you use this day to skirt human accomplishment? To do something kind, to do something amazing, to give someone a beneficial kick in the ass.

I’m new to this sullen ritual. I wasn’t here when it happened. Now, I suppose, I am a New Yorker. Or maybe not. Perhaps one becomes a New Yorker after a year’s residency. I haven’t yet received the glittery certificate in the mail. I don’t know. The only city that I ever sufficiently attached myself to was San Francisco. That was a hard town to leave. But what does place really mean in the end? I was in Hamburg, Germany when the planes hit the towers.

That young lady who knocked over a cup of coffee on our table twice in five minutes. Naturally clumsy? I don’t think so. She’s doing her damnedest to divagate her wiry body into her seat. Did she not apologize or acknowledge us this morning because today was The Day? I’ve found that New Yorkers thank me more than San Franciscans (perhaps because holding the doors open for strangers and the like might be something of an exotic etiquette around here). When even a minor solecism in etiquette goes down, there is often nobody more vocal than a New Yorker.

But not today. Silence. As if expecting the inevitable.

Today, in New York, we all subscribe to John Donne’s maxim, subsisting in frightened bubbles. New Yorkers are reluctant to talk. They are on guard. In case it happens again. In case the collective empathy that they keep inside must come out, because the city and those that live in it must heal, must persevere.

But I am not afraid. Because I know damn well that there aren’t any guarantees in life. Not afraid of the increased police presence in my neighborhood. Not afraid of any bastard, within or without, trying to strike us down. And I will stand defiantly against this fear, remaining as vigilant and as vocal as I can about my country’s countless indiscretions and remaining as happy as I can about life.

As to my fellow neighbors, well, I don’t know. Perhaps tomorrow the spirit of New York will return.

The Death and Life of a Great American City?

Robert Sullivan: “For the past two decades, New York has been an inspiration to other American cities looking to revive themselves. Yes, New York had a lot of crime, but somehow it also still had neighborhoods, and a core that had never been completely abandoned to the car. Lately, though, as far as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring New York.”