New York City

2009 01 04

Posted by in: Anecdotal, New York City

I was in the mood for a stroll yesterday morning, so I took the subway to the North end of Manhattan and then walked from the point at which Broadway enters Manhattan from the Bronx down its entire length to where it stops not far from the Southernmost tip of the island.

It’s a nice walk. Google Earth tells me that it’s about 13.5 miles, or 21.5 kilometres. But most of the walking is flat, or on a gentle grade, and there’s a lot to look at. I took a leisurely pace, and stopped a number of times, and the whole walk took me less than 5 hours.

Great waves of money have washed over Manhattan in the last decade or so, destroying a lot of its social and economic diversity. So a walk down Broadway doesn’t offer the same crosscut of Manhattan society that it once did. Still, there’s plenty of variety on that one road.

Broadway begins in Manhattan on a very modest note, in a sort of ugly industrial squalor. To get there, you take the 1 train to 215th St in Manhattan, and then walk a few blocks North. Then you turn around and begin walking South, through Inwood, under the George Washington Bridge, through Washington Heights, getting glimpses of the Hudson River at each of the side streets for a time, then past Harlem, and Columbia, the Upper West Side, drawing away from the West side of the island as you move South, past Lincoln Center, through Columbus Circle, where Broadway finally, briefly touches Central Park, and then on into the canyon of buildings that leads up to Times Square, with its crowds of tourists, and cops, and street preachers, and then past Herald Square and Korea Way on 32nd st., and then past Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore, and Houston, finally leaving the numbered streets behind, and then past Canal and Chinatown, and City Hall, though the financial district and right to the end, by a statue of a Bull, symbol of a prosperous stock market, which faces up Broadway, and which seems to be surrounded by tourists at any hour of the day snapping shots of it, as if worshiping the symbol of a departed god.

No small part of Manhattan’s appeal is the modesty of its geographical size relative to its ambitions and its accomplishments. This makes for an incredible density of visual and architectural experience and historical reference, but on a scale that is walkable, and so both human and accessible. It’s an amazing city, and one way into it, into its life and its energy and its accomplishment, is to take an afternoon, and walk one of its most famous streets, from one end to the other.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 10 15
Recently read

Richard Price. Lush Life

A run of the mill murder and an equally run of the mill investigation. The interest here lies in the way the author takes us through it all from start to finish, and from several angles. Nothing too special about this novel, but it’s at least competently written. Price has written for The Wire, a fact that will surprise no one who reads more than a page of two of the book. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. If you’re a New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy the depiction of the Lower East Side, where all the action takes place.

Jonathan D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Did you know that in the middle of the 19th Century, a bizarre Christian cult led a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty which succeeded in taking over much of Southern China? Well, good for you, but I certainly didn’t. Hong Xiuquan was an obscure failed scholar with a passing acquaintance with Christianity (via a book of translated excerpts from the Bible) when he had a strange dream introducing him to God himself and informing him that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. Hong Xuiquan was evidently persuasive enough about his revelation to draw followers, who were then hardened in their faith by persecution. The resulting civil war, against the backdrop of chaotic 19th century China, led to the deaths of more than 20 million. Think of Waco, but in much of Southern China. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The Taiping — so they called themselves for a time — Movement deserves credit for being remarkably resourceful and militarily competent, even if they were completely bonkers.

This book takes us through these incidents, which I found so strange and improbable that I turned to Google several times to reassure myself that I wasn’t falling for a well-written but rather implausible alternate history of China. I found it a bit slow at first, but once it gets going it’s marvelous. And the theological bits are absolutely hilarious. The Taiping Movement’s interpretation of Christianity was filtered through questionable and at first partial translations of key texts, prejudices of the Taiping, and Hong Xiuquan’s personal revelations (which were assumed to be more authoritative regarding the word of God than scripture, since, duh, Hong had actually met the guy). This makes for fascinating attempts to rewrite and retranslate the Bible, and for very funny encounters with European Christians, which several times over resulted in a very quick slide from superficial agreement about Christianity to complete mutual incomprehension.

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

You really can’t go wrong with a book called Baboon Metaphysics. Cheney and Seyfarth’s book is not, however, about the Baboon’s views of time, space, properties and existence. Rather, the “metaphysics” in the book’s title refers to a jotting in one of Darwin’s notebooks:

Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

The term “metaphysics” here is used more broadly to refer to the basic ways in which the mind constructs the world, but it emerges that the authors have a special interest in social cognition.

Baboon Metaphysics investigates various aspects of Baboon cognition (especially relating to their social lives), moving back and forth between accounts of the researcher’s own fieldwork in Botswana and a vast literature on experiments performed on Baboons and other primates in captivity. The observations made and distinctions drawn along the way are extremely interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that the authors had managed to fit everything together into a coherent or persuasive framework. Their aim was to tie together the cognitive capacities that suit Baboons to their highly social way of life, and the cognitive preconditions for language use. Baboons are, of course, not all the way to language, but when it comes to communication they manage to get on fairly well in many respects. This is significant, according to the authors, since if complex social life puts a strong selective pressure on cognitive capacities that are a precondition for language use then it may give us clues about the successful human development of language. (At least, that’s what I understood of the argument. It’s entirely possible I’ve completely misunderstood it, and, since I read the book a while ago, misremembering it to boot. What do you want, a refund?) Well, perhaps, perhaps, but there are so many tricky unanswered questions — most of them acknowledged with refreshing frankness by the authors themselves — remaining about language, the relevant cognitive capacities, Baboons and other primates, and indeed, other highly social creatures that appear to lack the relevant cognitive capacities, that the authors’ overarching argument seems too weak to hold together all their interesting observations.

Carl Zimmer. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

E. Coli gets such a bad rap. Most strains are completely harmless, and this little organism has probably taught humanity more about genetics and evolution than any other, since it’s so easy to study, grow, and manipulate in the lab. Zimmer looks at everything from the history of genetics to the politics of evolution in this engaging book.

Jack Weatherford. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Weatherford seems to have two aims in this book. The first is to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Far from being a barbaric, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford depicts a savvy, open-minded proponent of religious toleration and open trade, who abolished torture and supported multiple far-seeing reforms. (Weatherford does not attempt to argue that Genghis Khan was terribly civilized by today’s standards when it came to the laws of war. Cities that surrendered to him were treated with leniency, but woe to the cities that resisted. This hardly marks him out as special for the period, though.) Genghis Khan’s accomplishments certainly suggest a remarkable man. In the course of a generation or two, the Mongols went from being a loose collection of feuding tribes to conquering a fantastic amount of the earth’s surface. The second aim of the book, announced in the book’s subtitle, is to sketch the many ways that all of this has impacted the rest of the world since then.

I’m not in a position to judge how plausible Weatherford’s account is, but the book is fun and very readable.

Joseph Mitchell. My Ears Are Bent

A collection of newspaper pieces by Joseph Mitchell (who spent most of his career at the New Yorker) originally published between 1929 and 1938. In these short pieces, Mitchell interviews cops, drunks, lady-wrestlers, pickpockets, ASCAP investigators, marijuana smokers, and more from Coney Island to Redhook to the Lower East Side to Harlem. In one memorable piece, he attends an execution; in another, he watches George Bernard Shaw spar irritably with the press. He has a fantastic eye for the telling detail, and wonderful control over the language in which he relates it. A convincing rebuttal to anyone silly enough to think that journalism can’t rise to the level of literature.

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2007 11 02
My neighbourhood

Posted by in: New York City

So true.

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2006 06 09
You must be this tall

I’ve occasionally wondered about the fact that at 5’8” I seem to tower over the average New York City cop. In the thirty seconds that I allot to research for research-based blog posts, I was able to determine that there was some sort of court case a while back that changed entrance requirements to the police academy. Result: a bunch of shorties patrolling our streets.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yeah, if you misremember the details, and squint your eyes a bit it’s totally like the movie Police Academy. This is pleasing.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 07 30
Washington Square Park

Posted by in: History, New York City

Says The Gothamist:

Before becoming a park Washington Square was a burial ground for a synagogue, an African Methodist church, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Veterans, not to mention poor people from the state prison on Gansevoort Peninsula and the Alms House by City Hall). Over 20,000 bodies are anywhere from 8-13 feet below the surface of the park. . .


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2005 07 30
Is that legal?

Posted by in: New York City

I’m apartment hunting these days. (By the way, if you know of a good, cheap one bedroom in Brooklyn for September 1st, let me know!) Last week I saw a place that wasn’t really right for us, but decided to take a rental application anyway, in case I changed my mind. When I got home, I looked at the application. Stapled to the credit/background was a sheet titled “You Do Not Qualify to Rent This Apartment If,” which contained a number of conditions, some reasonable and some perhaps not. One section of the sheet was titled “DO NOT FILL OUT THESE FORMS IF YOU ANSWER “YES” TO ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS.” And the first question was:

Have you ever been taken or gone to Landlord/Tenant Court?

Now, granted that there are some pretty lousy tenants in this world. And I’ve heard that in NYC it’s much easier to get someone to move into an apartment than it is to get them to move out of one, even when the tenant’s behaviour is outrageous. Still, this is madness. In an attempt to weed out deadbeats and the hyper-litigious, this restriction also rules out anyone who has ever been frivolously sued or insisted on his or her legal rights. It’s also obvious that if this criterion for screening prospective tenants were more common, it would shift even more power towards landlords, since all it would take to blacken someone’s name is to take them to court, regardless of the merits of the case or the outcome.

So, I hope we all agree that this is horrible. My question is, in NYC is it legal? Anyone know? If it’s illegal, I’d like to report it.

Howls of outrage (13)

2005 07 28
Subway searches

To coin a phrase:

Then there�s the fact that, in its futile attempt to skate just this side of constitutionality, the city is promising that no one can be arrested for refusing to open his bag; he�ll only be asked to leave the subway station. But this leaves a number of unanswered questions, or, as I like to call them, bombertunities.

But how is it working out?

At two other stations police attempted to mitigate the burden of the searches�and perhaps elicit cooperation�by allowing riders who submitted to the search to ride for free. Is this incentive really enough to get a suicide bomber to open his bags? Maybe Al Qaeda�s financial network isn�t as vast as we�d feared.


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2005 07 22
Random NYC subway searches

Lindsay is absolutely right. This is just fucking ridiculous.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 08 07
Ah, New York City!

Posted by in: New York City


the second bomb scare at times square’s 8th ave subway station in less than a month: an unidentified package was found around 7pm friday night. blocks were cleared by police as curious spectators, tourists, strippers (see photo 5) and local office workers (including us) watched a bomb squad officer check out what ended up being someone’s diaper bag.

after the bag was determined safe, we also watched while police weren’t as an employee of the adjacent diner exited a sidedoor, casually took something out of the bag and walked back into the diner with it (photo 8). ah, new york city.

Click through for a few photos.

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