Category Archives: my city and neighborhood

waiting for …

 

 

“New Yorkers are accustomed to waiting. They wait, usually with Job-like patience, for a long-overdue train to pull into the station. …”

— editorial, New York Times, February 28, 2018

 

 

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This is typical pomposity and snootiness on the part of the New York Times Editorial Board. “Job-like patience”? A ridiculous allusion meant to impress and which shows a tin ear as well as a lofty disdain for the grubby actualities of city life. And, a lack of knowledge of life as it is actually lived in the City.

Do they ever deign to themselves ride the subways along with common folk?

In their high handedness, they remain oblivious to — or perhaps just don’t want to acknowledge (because they would have less to pontificate about) — the fact that the waiting time for New York subways is incredibly short, with very few exceptions. I know. I grew up in Boston, where one often has to wait 15 or 20 minutes for a subway during peak hours (whereas, during rush hour in New York on the most heavily traveled lines, trains arrive every four to five minutes).

To affect disdain for the subway is fashionable now. No doubt, service improvements can and should be made, and upgrades are necessary. But the subway system transports millions of New Yorkers every day and is an indispensable part of city life. That it works as well as it does is a reason for rejoicing.

Yes, rejoicing. The complainers don’t realize how vital the subway is to the city. Ask riders who rely on it. Most of them can’t afford to live in Manhattan or pay for alternative forms of transportation.

Believe me, the Times editorial writers don’t care about how the little people live or what they think. They’re too busy telling the benighted masses what they think is good for them, when it is actually the opposite.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

happiness is … an expectant concert audience

 

 

 

 

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“As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”

— Samuel Johnson

 

 

“There is nothing like the pure felicity and sense of pleasurable anticipation of an audience arriving for a concert.”

— Roger W. Smith

the ferry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
photographs by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,

Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,

The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemm’d Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter*;

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!

Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water;
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!

 

— excerpted from Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

 

 

* A lighter is a flat-bottomed barge used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

good neighbors (in a metropolis)

 

 

 

 

 

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

— Matthew 22:31

 

 

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I have lived in New York City since early adulthood.

New Yorkers cold and impersonal? Too busy to be Good Samaritans?

I have often experienced instances of just the opposite.

 

 

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On Wednesday afternoon, January 3, a bitterly cold day, I was headed home and was waiting for a bus.

No one at the bus stop. I guessed that I probably had just missed a bus and that another one wouldn’t arrive for at least ten to fifteen minutes.

It’s a bleak neighborhood, but there was a “gourmet deli” right there.

I entered and ordered a large cappuccino. There was one customer in front of me. Two young women were behind the counter. I paid $3.95 for the cappuccino.

Through a window, I saw my bus, the Q39, pulling up at the bus stop.

“How long does it take to make a cappuccino?” I said to the woman who had taken my order. “My bus is here.”

I left without a cappuccino or the $3.95. The bus was at the curb, about to leave.

I got on. There were only a couple of other passengers. The driver shut the door.

Then he opened the door again for a “last minute passenger.” A young woman boarded (whom I realized after the fact was the cashier) with cash in hand, arms extended. She dashed to my seat and said, breathlessly, “here’s your $3.95”; handed me the money with a big smile. Then she darted off the bus before it left.

New Yorkers are NICE.

 

 

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When I first moved to New York (to take a job) after graduating from college, I was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming impersonality of the place. The anonymity was refreshing and liberating, in its own way. But, the City seemed like an awfully cold place. (And, besides its sheer size, all those high rise buildings intimidated me.)

I went to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village once, when interviewing for the job, and asked a couple of young people if there were any like minded types hanging out there, as I had experienced on Boston Common. “If you walk over to St. Mark’s Place, you will find some,” they said kindly.

On Sundays, I would hang out in Central Park, where Sixties types would congregate, perhaps listening to a guitar player singing folk songs, hoping that I would vicariously feel a sense of belonging or companionship.

One day in a subway station, I asked someone a question of some sort. They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college, Sam Silberstein (son of concentration camp survivors), who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, about this. “Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” Sam replied.

 

 

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Yes, New Yorkers are nice. I wonder if it’s the same way in Paris. I don’t think so. Parisians seem to be cold and abrupt. But, I can’t really say, having been to Paris only briefly a few times.

“Even with that sprawl of humanity, New York can be lived as a small town, familiar and compact,” in the words of New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

What accounts for this? I am thinking particularly of the way New Yorkers treat one another.

I think there are several factors. People like myself live in a metropolis like New York because they like being amidst other people. They don’t want to live in an ivory tower or, God forbid, a gated community.

The diversity of New York’s population acts as an elixir, a tonic. Immigrants in particular bring vitality and a palpable sense of community to the City. One might think it could be otherwise, that perhaps immigrants would cloister themselves in ethnic enclaves. Perhaps to an extent in the outlying boroughs, but, for the most part, I have found that it’s the opposite: The newcomers, and the recently arrived, or those who have not always lived in New York (which includes a large segment of the population) are full of enthusiasm for everything (and an inherent ingenuousness), including getting to know other people. And the tourists have the same attitude.

 

 

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When I go into retail establishments, restaurants, and the like, the staff seems to be for the most part friendly, eager to relate with you, the customer. (Perhaps a bit less so in chain stores.) I seem to get a welcoming reception and a friendly hello or goodbye over half the time.

If you are in distress, incommoded, or someone perceives they can help you, it’s quite remarkable how often people are ready and eager to do so. When I tripped and fell flat on my face crossing Third Avenue a couple of months ago and within seconds several people were clustered around me, helping me to get up, asking if I was okay, and (one woman) offering to call for medical assistance.

When I was taking photographs on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street last summer and someone with a foreign accident, a man who seemed to be Hispanic with several children, noticed that I had dropped my wallet on the pavement and alerted me to the fact. (I was already walking away and was halfway down the block). Same thing if one drops something or gets up and leaves one’s hat or gloves or one’s MetroCard on their seat on a bus. People including myself swiping their MetroCard for someone who needs a fare, and frequently giving handouts.

And so on. I could cite numerous examples.

 

 

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Re niceness. Of people in general, that is. And Good Samaritan-ship (aka altruism). I prefer to encounter it “in the raw,” so to speak, spontaneously, from average people whom one encounters ad libitum. To witness it bubbling up from the ebullience of good hearted types. Prefer this to organized charity and welfare, to do goodership of the institutional form.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   January 5, 2018

we are blessed (and so am I): racial diversity in New York

 

 

This past fall, I saw the film Ex Libris, directed by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It is a documentary film about the New York Public Library, both the library system itself and the vital role it plays in the life of the City.

The film includes scenes of library patrons participating in discussion groups. In one scene, a discussion group at the library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue is engaged in a lively exchange of views about Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera with respect to romantic love. There were several scenes of library patrons participating in similar meetings and discussion groups at branch libraries in Manhattan and in other boroughs such as the Bronx. Some were about books, some involved a presentation cum discussion on topics of current interest. Others concerned how to make the library more accessible or serve community needs better.

Something that struck me was that the racial/ethnic composition or makeup of the various local groups seen in the film was so diverse. Well, one might say, would you not expect this in a city such as New York? Everyone knows it is racially heterogeneous and always has been.

Yes, but.

I observed the same thing at a business presentation not long ago: a presentation by persons associated with an entrepreneurial company for attendees who had recently become involved as independent partners and persons interested in getting involved. It was a relatively small group and there was a lot of interaction among the attendees.

What I have observed is that in New York, people do not seem to notice or take account of racial differences. They just plain don’t matter.

At both the library sessions seen in the film and at the business meeting I attended, the ethnicity was varied: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other groups. And, it was not as if there was just a smattering of or token representation by one racial or ethnic group or another. All were amply represented. There had obviously been no conscious effort to achieve “diversity” in the makeup of the audience/participants. It had just resulted, naturally, that the groups were notably diverse. In both instances, one did not get the sense of any one group predominating in any sense, numerically or otherwise.

The discussions were spirited. Persons were engaged. At no time — I observed this both in the film I saw and as a participant/observer at the business meeting — does one ever get the sense of consciousness by anyone — meaning speakers or audience; the give and take of participants who had something to say or just looked on with interest; group discussions — of race, their race or anyone else’s, being a factor that was taken or that one was expected to take into account, or that actually was noticed (which is to say, by an impartial observer), from what I could observe. Race was not a factor in any shape or form. It was clearly not something that might affect the content of the discussion and how someone or their contributions were viewed. People were just plain friendly and respectful, period. No one looked to be guarded or on the defensive. Everyone seemed fully accepted and welcomed. A priori. As a matter of course. No one is unwelcome nor patronized or talked down to.

In New York City, race really doesn’t seem to matter — as a public thing, that is: in social interactions and events, business, or commerce. In other words, in daily life, which goes on as it should. This is a welcome and edifying thing. It energizes and gladdens me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 2017

the awfulness of Lincoln Center: photo essay

 

 

Yes, awful!

See my previous post

 

“Lincoln Center; the ruminations of a ‘genius’ ”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/13/lincoln-center-the-ruminations-of-a-genius/

 

 

The following photos of Lincoln Center and the immediate neighborhood/surrounding streets prove my point.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017; updated February 2018

 

 

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photographs by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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Ugliness and inaccessibility go hand and hand. The Broadway steps leading to the plaza, which is usually nearly empty of live people.

 

 

 

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A desolate block right behind Lincoln Center: the east side of Amsterdam Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. There are two large retail stores on this block that are empty with for rent signs — an indicator that rents are too expensive and the neighborhood cannot support commercial establishments (hence, they are going out of business).

 

 

 

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An “inviting” “arts center”? Entrance to Lincoln Center at 65th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway.

 

 

 

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Welcome! The steps from Amsterdam Avenue.

 

 

 

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Warm and fuzzy. Entrance passageway, with 67th Street on left.

 

 

 

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Ramesses II would have been proud.

 

 

 

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A public friendly space? (“All are welcome.”)

 

 

 

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62nd St between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. (Lincoln Center on left.)  Note the vibrant street life.

 

 

 

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Happy clusters of people congregate like flocks in front of Lincoln Center.

 

 

 

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art befitting an “arts center”

 

 

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an enchanted forest

 

 

 

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Addendum: The construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which was opened in 1959, destroyed a neighborhood on New York City’s West Side. The project encompassed 53 acres and involved demolishing 2,100 households as well of hundreds of businesses. Something very similar happened with the United Nations headquarters, which created another urban dead zone with no vitality or street life. Jane Jacobs put it best when she described Lincoln Center as “a piece of built-in rigor mortis.”

Lincoln Center; the ruminations of a “genius”

 

 

I emailed the following comment to my wife last month: “Do you realize that you married a genius?”

Don’t worry, I said it in jest. Or at least half in jest. It’s okay to make such comments, jesting or not, to one’s spouse.

She responded, “Let’s not get carried away, dear.” She tends to keep me from getting a swelled head. She is never awed by me. Admires me, yes. Knows my weaknesses all too well. Takes me with a grain of salt. Isn’t given to making exaggerated claims about anyone, including herself.

 

 

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In a previous post

“a Carnegie Hall concert”

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/10/13/a-carnegie-hall-concert/

I wrote, about Lincoln Center:

 

I have never liked Lincoln Center. It’s a sterile “arts center” with worse seating and acoustics than Carnegie Hall. The architecture is typical 1960’s (think Shea Stadium): functional but uninspiring. Lincoln Center ruined a neighborhood; the surrounding streets have no street life. There are hardly any restaurants, watering holes, cafes, or places of interest, other than one or two rip-off restaurants on the other side of Broadway, across the street from the main entrance.

 

 

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Further thoughts of mine re Lincoln Center (since my post):

the main plaza is dreary … it’s raised above street level … one has to walk up a stairway to get to it

there are always few people on the main plaza … they don’t look happy

there is no “through traffic” (pedestrian, that is) … it is not welcoming

there is no life, no animation to the horrid “arts center’ or the surrounding area

 

See my photos below.

 

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Lincoln Center; photo by Roger W. Smith; December 2017

 

 

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Lincoln Center; photo by Roger W. Smith; December 2017

 

 

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Guess what? The pioneering urban theorist and writer Jane Jacobs, who became famous for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, said essentially the same thing:

… the street, not the block, is the significant unit. … When blight or improvement spreads, it comes along the street. Entire complexes of city life take their names, not from blocks, but from streets — Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, State Street, Canal Street, Beacon Street.

… Believing their block maps instead of their eyes, developers think of downtown streets as dividers of areas, not as the unifiers they are. … The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York is a case in point. This cultural superblock is intended to be very grand and the focus of the whole music and dance world of New York. But its streets will be able to give it no support whatever. Its eastern street is a major trucking artery where the cargo trailers, on their way to the industrial districts and tunnels, roar so loudly that sidewalk construction must be shouted. To the north, the street will be shared with a huge, and grim, high school. To the south will be another superblock institution, a campus for Fordham.

And what of the new Metropolitan Opera, to be the crowning glory of the project? The old opera has long suffered from the fact that it has been out of context amid the garment district streets, with their overpowering loft buildings and huge cafeterias. There was a lesson here for the project planners. If the published plans are followed, however, the opera will again have neighbor trouble. Its back will be its effective entrance; for this is the only place where the building will be convenient to the street and here is where opera-goers will disembark from taxis and cars. Lining the other side of the street are the towers of one of New York’s bleakest public-housing projects. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

— “Downtown Is for People,” Fortune, April 1958

 

… New York consists of an intricate, living network of relationships–made up of an enormously rich variety of people and activities. … Consider the interdependence, the constant adjustment, and the mutual support of every kind which must work, and work well, in a city like ours.

This cross-crossing of relationships means, for instance, that a Russian tea room and last year’s minks and a place to rent English sports cars bloom well near Carnegie Hall. …

All that we have in New York of magnetism, of opportunities to earn a living, of leadership of the arts, of glamor, of convenience, of power to fulfill and assimilate our immigrants, of ability to repair our wounds and right our evils, depends on our great and wonderful criss-cross of relationships. …

This is all so obvious it should be unnecessary to mention. But it is necessary, for our slum clearers, housing officials, highway planners and semi-public developers have been treating the city as if were only a bunch of physical raw materials – land, space, roads, utilities. They are destroying New York’s variety and disorganizing its economic and social relationships just as swiftly and efficiently as rebuilding money can destroy them.

The most direct destruction is, of course, associated with clearance, and this is a painful aspect of slum elimination of which we are becoming aware. It was described well by Harrison Salisbury, in his New York Times series on delinquency. “When slum clearance enters an area,” says Salisbury, “it does not merely rip out slatternly houses. It uproots the people. It tears out the churches. It destroys the local businessman. It sends the neighborhood lawyer to new offices downtown and it mangles the tight skein of community friendships and group relationships beyond repair.”

…. Our rebuilders have no idea of what they are destroying, and they have no idea of repairing the damage – or making it possible for anyone else to do so. The entire theory of urban rebuilding rests on the premise that subsidized improvements will catalyze further spontaneous improvement. It is not working that way in New York. Living communities, portions of living commercial districts, are so ruthlessly and haphazardly amputated that the remnants, far from improving, get galloping gangrene.

Furthermore, the newly built projects themselves stifle the growth of relationships. We are now conscious that this is true of the huge public housing projects. What we may not be so aware of is that this stifling of variety and of economic and social relationships is inherent in the massive project approach itself, whether public or private housing or anything else.

Take the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts for example. It is planned entirely on the assumption that the logical neighbor of a hall is another hall. Nonsense. Who goes straight from the Metropolitan Opera to the Philharmonic concert and thence to the ballet? The logical neighbors of a hall are bars, florist shops, non-institutionalized restaurants, studios, all the kinds of thing [sic] you find on West Fifth-seventh Street or along Times Square or generated by the off-Broadway theatres down here in the Village. True, halls and theatres are desirable to each other as nearby neighbors to the extent that their joint support is needed to generate this kind of urbanity and variety. But Lincoln Center is so planned and so bounded that there is no possible place for variety, convenience and urbanity to work itself in or alongside. The city’s unique stock-in-trade is destroyed for these halls in advance, and for keeps, as long as the Center lives. It is a piece of built-in rigor mortis. [italics added] …

Lincoln Center shows a brutal disregard for still another type of urban relationship. It will have a catastrophic effect on Amsterdam Houses, a ten-year-old, 800-family public housing project. Amsterdam Houses is now bordered by factories, railroad tracks. garages and institutions except on its eastern side. On that one side, fortunately, it faces, across the street, forty-eight lively neighborhood stores, part of a non-project, ordinary community. The stores and the non-project community will be cleared out to make way for Lincoln Center. The tenants of Amsterdam Houses will therefore no longer have neighborhood stores or any contact with non-project community life, which they desperately need. Instead they will have the Metropolitan Opera. This project will be utterly shut off to itself and isolated. I should think its people would explode. What kind of irresponsibility it this that deliberately and at great expense, makes intimate neighbors of public housing and the Opera, depriving each of the neighbors it needs?

— “A Living Network of Relationships”; speech at The New School for Social Research, April 20, 1958

 

 

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Jane Jacobs and I both think, see, and say the same things. I am convinced she was a genius. She stood urban planning and the way people think about cities on its head.

Ergo, I am a genius.

Just kidding.

But, I see in her writing and views similarity to my own writing and cast of mind. For example:

We are both by nurture and nature contrarians.

We are liberal on many social and political issues, but we have a deep, ingrained strain of conservatism. Some commentators perceived Jacobs, who was arrested for anti-government and antiwar protest activities, as being reactionary.

We both rely on good old plain thinking more than education or professional credentials. We try to think everything through anew, to see it for ourselves — through our own eyes — to examine it “from the ground up.” We don’t tend to be influenced by accepted doctrines.

We both distrust big government and social engineering.

We are both essentially apolitical, but apt to be attacked for our views.

She is refreshingly jargon free. She writes simply and clearly (and, persuasively).

Does my writing compare? I will leave it to the judgment of readers of this blog. But, you know what, I think it does. So there!

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 2017