Archive for the 'History' category

Riding the Freight

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

My father was a delivery man for an office supply company. He delivered coffee, soda, plates, cups, and sugar, but he was known as the "Coffee Man" to most of the people he delivered to. He got up every morning at 4 am—which might have explained his impatience with me and my sister when we slept in on weekends—and drove out to Hicksville, NY to load his van before driving into Manhattan. His goal was to be there by 7 am or 8 am and be done by noon or so to beat rush hour in both directions. I think part of the appeal of this type of work was freedom it afforded him to set his own schedule. In Trinidad, he had tended toward employment that let him set his own terms, and this may have been the closest match to those types of jobs.

It's with no small sense of irony that I pass his distribution center every morning on the LIRR on my way to my office job. My company does not use an office supply company like the one that he worked for—and indeed the growth of chains like Fresh Direct and the expansion of office supply companies like Staples heralded the end of his job long before that end was really known to us. Still, there's no end of delivery men (and some women) who filter through the office. They come up through the freight elevator and they largely pass unnoticed through the office; sometimes, they're waved irritably away to reception if they choose to announce themselves (the freight elevator is near the back of the office). They make up an invisible class of workers who provide services to keep the City running.

When I was nine, I decided I would spend the summer working with him. I didn't have a sense for what that would mean. I was lonely and bored. He agreed with the condition that I would wake myself up and get ready. And I did: I'd ride with him to the distribution center, hunkered down in the passenger seat because I was still mostly asleep, and then follow him on his delivery routes.

We don't make it easy for delivery people to do their jobs. They come in through the service entrance so as to not mar the appearance of professionalism and exclusivity the building strives to maintain. There is a perception that these service professionals get in the way. They're treated with impatience if they board the front-of-house elevator, doubly so if they are carrying anything more than a letter, but how many of us have ridden the freight? Continue Reading »

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Past and Present: Selling Newspapers in New York

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them? Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them?
Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

New York City takes pleasure in assaulting your senses. You turn a corner and hit a wall of garbage bags that have timed a particularly pungent release just for you. Or you stumble from the train half asleep in the morning and find yourself in a maze of gridlock. You might find questionable substances dripping on you from above where old air conditioning units are holding court. Or you might get to the landing in the stairwell in the subway and encounter an almost tangible odor of urine. Make no mistake: these are calculated attacks. But occasionally the abrasiveness gives way, and under the grime you'll catch glimpses of the harmonies that help shape the New York City. Newspaper hawkers are one such thing. Continue Reading »

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Summer Panhandling Strategies

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

My office moved a few blocks south earlier this year, which puts me in the Flower District and means that I have a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station. As the summer months wane, the obstacle course of tourists and panhandlers grows more complicated. In this regard, New York City is like any summer town: an influx of visitors during the warmer months means an increase in profitable opportunities in many contexts. It's a pattern that you can readily observe in some of the smaller towns on the eastern tip of Long Island and in other small town vacation destinations. In a metropolis like New York City (and this applies throughout the boroughs), it might be harder to catch because the hustle and bustle never quite slows to sleepiness as it does in "proper" summer towns, but the ebb and flow is there: as the number of tourists and vacationers increase, so too does the number of panhandlers. Continue Reading »

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Lessons From the Leftover Vault

Jul 22 2011 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], History, Landscapes

There are secret places all over New York City--that is, if you can manage to escape the glare of lights and the siren-song of the tourist traps of midtown—but often, they work hard at being a secret and brandish badges of exclusivity. Then there are places that feel like a secret, and when you stumble upon them, it's piques the imagination.

History functions similarly. Sometimes, it teases: you know it’s there, and you have to follow the trail to uncover it. And other times, it remains completely hidden until the right circumstances jostle it from its hiding place.

A friend introduced me to a fantastic spot downtown called Trinity Place—it’s dark, the booths will swallow you, and it's rarely ever super crowded. It's a subterranean location, and it's easy to miss as you walk by because the windows seem to gradually melt into the sidewalk. I know. It doesn't sound particularly striking, but that's because you actually have to walk through the doors to be swept off your feet: Trinity Place boasts two 35 tonne bank vault doors that date to 1904.

Trinity Vault

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A Tale of Two Undergrounds

Feb 24 2011 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], History, Landscapes, Transit

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

"To be happy, stay hidden." - Yopie, Parisian cataphile

Ever since reading Jennifer Toth's The Mole People as a teen, I've been intrigued by the metropolitan underground. Cities teem with life, and change happens at a dizzying pace. But what lurks beneath the streets remains a mystery to many—it almost remains a realm lost to time. Yet, to think of this space as stagnant would be foolish: from Paris to New York City, the subterranean has a life and character all of its own. And if you look closely, you'll find traces of the urban centers on the surface—almost as though these spaces contain seeds of the personalities that thrive above ground.

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The Vigilance of Trinity

Oct 20 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], Art, Community, History, Landscapes

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Digital ID: 801103. New York Public Library

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Credit: NYPL Digital Archives

Standing directly at the western end of Wall Street, Trinity Church is perfectly framed. Seriously, the young colony could not have chosen a better spot. Today it looks a bit out of place at first glance, but its Gothic spire and dark exterior seem to hold the nearby skyscrapers at bay—which is fitting since this building reigned as the tallest in the mid-nineteenth century. Sunlight and shadow coexist perfectly on the grounds, making the surrounding churchyard a refuge from the busy city that flows around the land. Buildings have lives of their own. They have histories, and they mark and record the history, culture, and time that passes around them. Trinity Church, which is one of New York City’s oldest houses of worship, is no different.

Wall Street, N.Y. Digital ID: 809984. New York Public Library

Wall Street, N.Y. 1847. Credit: NYPL

Wall Street, N.Y. October 2010

In 1696 the Anglican community of the growing colony petitioned Governor Benjamin Fletcher for land for a parish. He approved the sale of the downtown plot to the Crown, which then issued a charter to the parish with a rent of 60 bushels of wheat annually. The church appeared to be well received. In fact, legend has it that even famed Captain Kidd pitched in to help with construction. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776, which was believed to have been set intentionally and destroyed twenty-five percent of the city. Rebuilt in 1790, the roof of the second building collapsed under the weight of snow 40 years later, and the third building—the one that stands today—was constructed in 1846.

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Change in a New York Minute

Rendering of updated NYC skyline. Credit: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects.

So there's been some fuss recently over proposed new additions to the New York City skyline. A developer has set his sights on 15 Penn Plaza, which has upset the owners of the Empire State Building. One of them, Anthony Malkin, is particularly upset by the plans:

"Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic Landmark and beacon?"

He has also said that the proposed building will "ruin" the skyline and it will be a "black eye."

Hah.

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Smells From the Past: The Fulton Fish Market

Aug 12 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], Community, History, Landscapes

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIt's been a very hot summer here in New York City. And the city smells. It's more than the smell of baking asphalt, exhaust fumes, and lack of deodorant—these smells are around all year. The heat has awakened older smells.

Around midday, if you happen to stroll down by the South Street Seaport you can pick up on the smell of fish in the air. If you can manage to follow your nose—which really isn't all that hard to do—it will lead you right to the old site of the Fulton Fish Market. It has been closed since 2005, but if you close your eyes while you stand outside the gates of the old market building you can smell the day's catch and just hear the bustle of fishmongers at their trade.

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