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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The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch *

In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:

Credit: SUNY Suffolk

The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."

But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:

Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point.  The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.

We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk.  This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.

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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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When the Lights Go Down in the City

As the sun sinks over the Hudson River, New York City doesn’t power down. Lights flicker on and soon the famous skyline is lit in a blaze that defies the natural clock. But few stop to consider where and how that electricity comes from and what it means when it isn’t there. That is such a frightening consideration that we prefer to pretend it isn’t a possibility.

New York City owes a debt of thanks to Thomas Edison for the brilliance that the skyline projects at night. He is the reason that we have the power to be the city that never sleeps. And it’s not because he invented the light bulb—he  didn’t. Rather, it is because Edison gave us the grid that serves as the basis for powering the city, even today. He saw the big picture. But when was the last time we really considered the grid’s potential to support our growing needs? Are we capable of seeing the big picture now?

Times Square on a summer night.

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NYC History Uncovered: The Discovery and Demolition of the Hudson Wall

Jul 15 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], [Science in Society]

There is no question that we build upon that which precedes us—quite literally, in some cases. Downtown Manhattan is littered with traces of our Dutch heritage. When opportunity arises to witness New York's past, it is a chance to reflect on how we have arrived at our present and the expansions that have been required to do so.

In 2008, construction at the World Trade Center site ran aground of a section of the Hudson River Wall dating to 1899. The sea wall, which took six decades to complete, is a historical resource. Though the uncovered section would have to be removed for construction of an underground walkway, the site was carefully studied by the Louis Berger Group, allowing researchers to understand more about New York's early waterfront—including earlier walls and piers as well as assorted symbols of life (e.g., ceramics, pipe, bone, etc.)

This week, a 40 foot section of the wall was visible to the public! Though portions of the wall currently exist along the shoreline, it was a real treat to see this bit of dry-docked maritime architecture. And so it is with immense pleasure that I share this bit of urban archaeology with you, Readers.

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Statuesque in City Hall Park

Jun 09 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

A new art exhibit has gone on display in City Hall Park. Statuesque features art from six international artists. The show is meant to encourage a re-imagining of the classic form of statues by melding sculpture with beauty and elegance of this now historic style. The show will run through December and is a perfect accompaniment to lunch in the park. Images of the pieces can be viewed after the jump.

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Urban Archaeology in Action

Jun 08 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], [Science in Society]

I recently learned about a wall that was uncovered near City Hall. It may date to the 18th-century, and in fact may be connected to the First Almshouse—a poorhouse that stood on this site from 1735 to 1797. It's also a great opportunity for the public to see archaeology in action!

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