Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New York missive no 130 - A cat dies on an Astoria sidewalk

I did not realize until afterwards, that I had put my foot probably on the exact place on the sidewalk where that morning a cat lay dying.

I had seen the cat after dropping JNH off at his daycare. A furry huddle among fallen leaves, a cat in the morning light, yes a cat, it became clear when I was a few feet away, stretched out on its side, eyes facing but not seeing me and head, I think, making barely perceptible movements and me in a ruthless rush for the subway walking on by, slowing a tiny bit only, then telling myself well what could I have done, bring her back to life?

End it? Someone had probably already moved her off the center of the road to this unforeseen resting place (like any other) and the flickering life in her was still life after all.

Now, fetching JNH at the end of the day, I walk right over the place where she no longer is, and I only realize afterwards. This dying cat is lingering in my mind, which is why I am writing about her. Is my seeing her unique? Or is this just a rearrangement? Of other cats among fallen leaves. Of other children collected at the end of the day, other footsteps.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

New York missive no 129 - Avonte Oquendo

You rarely hear the word “person” unless one is missing.

There are flyers all over New York at the moment for the missing person Avonte Oquendo. He is 14 and disappeared after leaving his Long Island City school on 4 October. He’s particularly vulnerable because he is autistic and mute. Seeing his face floating on those flyers is a reminder of the tragedy of his and his family’s situation, and also of the terribly thin line between being with those you love and losing them. Inevitably parents everywhere are imagining this happening to them.


JNH usually asks for water soon after he has gone to bed. The other night I went in to his room to give it to him and he told me, sounding intrigued, “Mummy, someone’s having a bath. I can hear someone having a bath.” I had been running water for a bath. For a moment I thought how wonderful to be a child and fill your mind as you are falling asleep by the fact that you can hear someone running a bath. So little thought-clutter! Then I realized that it shouldn’t be difficult to pay attention to the sound of running water for a bath, or any other everyday sound. We’re perfectly free to do so if we choose.

On another night when I took him the water to drink, a wonderful phrase – more like a pronouncement: “Mummy, water and agua are not the same.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Thank you Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - Part 7 - DUMBO to Red Hook: Destination

This is the seventh and last part of my essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five. Part six.

The Monday before I go back to work is a clear blue-skied day. The rest of the week is gray and wet, so this turns out to be the last of our September excursions together through the city. Conrad and I take the newly-reopened East River ferry from Long Island City to DUMBO. Another acronym; this one stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It was once an area where sailors, prostitutes, street gangs and writers who thrive off such environments or financially have no choice but to live there crammed into late-night bars.

Now it is the scene of arty brunch venues and the expensive River Café. A restored carousel by the water’s edge transports exited children on painted horses as their parents watch them come around, trying to catch their passing smiles on camera. There is the clanking of Cat diggers and thud of trucks behind a placard promising “Pier 5 – Picnic Peninsula.”

We climb up to Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The stately townhouses look just as they did when they were built in the nineteenth century. It was at 110 Columbia Heights, backing onto the promenade, that Hart Crane worked on his poem The Bridge. He wrote a letter to his grandmother describing the neighborhood as a “magnificent place to live”, with its sweeping views of Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan’s new skyscrapers and the endless to-and-fro of boats. A world apart from the slums of the Lower East Side just the other side of the river.

“I dated her for a couple of years…she wrote this great memoir,” says a well-dressed man to his female companion as we pass them in nearby Cobble Hill. Lived Brooklyn is infused with literary Brooklyn. Along Court Street I browse briefly in the Court Bookshop, where flyers announce upcoming readings. I buy a ham and cheese sandwich at D’Amico, an Italian deli where hessian sacks of coffee beans line one wall, filling the air with their aroma. I stuff the sandwich into my bag for later and keep on walking South. I am thinking that Conrad might wake up soon, that I should find a place to feed him then hop on the subway home, but he keeps on sleeping and I keep on walking, and resolve to make it down to Red Hook. We navigate a noisy narrow overpass across the traffic of the Gowanus Expressway, named after the canal renowned for its fetid contents. Through Coffey Park, where groups of people huddle talking, down Van Brunt Street with its crop of new cafés, around past Sunny’s Bar that teeters in its isolation, and to the sea. Not long after this walk hurricane Sandy will rip through the area.

I find a bench in a small park overlooking the water. It is surrounded by plants, and while I am aware of two men on another bench further along the path from us it feels as if we are alone. Somewhere nearby, shrouds clang against masts. Seagulls cry, a factory hums. A huge cargo ship – Saudi Diriyah says the name on the side – is reversing towards the shore, towards us. Its loading ramp is raised at the back, a vast rectangle of metal slanting up towards the sky. The ship seems to come dangerously close. The water must be deep here, where the East River fills into the expanse of the sea. The ship stalls. Then it gradually pulls away and embarks on its course to its next destination, bearing its cargo and invisible crew.

Conrad wakes up. I have my sandwich, he has his milk. I respect him for waiting, as if he wanted us to reach this point for our stop.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thank you Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 6 - Chinatown and the Lower East Side: People

This is part six of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five.

“He has so much of you in his face,” says the elderly woman opposite us in the Q train carriage. “And he seems very calm.” Conrad is perched on my knee observing the occupants of the train. The lady has been looking at us. I appreciate her two comments. Jack’s facial expressions are so much Carlos’s that now I am beginning to know how he feels, seeing his traits echoed in his child.

Family resemblances fade in and out over generations. When I was about ten I went to a birthday party dressed as Dame Edna Everage. God knows why I decided to be her. Looking at a photograph of me in that costume, feather bower, long gloves and all, my parents immediately said, “there’s your great aunt Eileen.” She was one of my paternal grandmother’s five sisters, many of whose stories have disappeared with their passing. (When the sixth was about to be born, their father apparently said that if the baby was another girl he would leave the family. He did).

I appreciate the comment that Conrad is calm too. The lady is right. From day one he has had a peaceful way of watching the world.

We get out of the train at Canal Street and go straight to Columbus Park. The park flickers with morning rituals. Chinese men sit on benches reading newspapers or at tables playing mah-jongg. The chips clink beneath the trees which are not yet turning autumnal but soon will be. Women and men do their exercises (separately – the genders don’t mix here), gentle thai-chi on an asphalted surface, or slow pull-ups using the park fences and playground equipment.

That asphalted surface has been a space of contention. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would use a large chunk of a bequest by Polish immigrant Joe Temeczko to resurface the sports field in Columbus Park with artificial grass. The mayor had made a campaign promise to replace asphalt play areas throughout the city with artificial turf, on the basis it was safer and easier to maintain. But a group of park users campaigned against the change. They were worried the new surface might be unstable for elderly exercisers, and would not last a long time. In the end the area was split in two. Half turf, half asphalt.

The park is next to the site of the former slums “Five Points” and “The Bend,” where newly-arrived immigrants made their lives in over-crowded tenements. Dickens described the area as “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” while Walt Whitman pointed out that the inhabitants were “not paupers and criminals, but the Republic's most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work."

We sit on a bench in front of some bamboo that keeps Conrad entertained as he waits to poop (it can be a long process). When the park was re-developed, botanists advised on plants that are common in East Asian parks. They got it mostly right, except for planting a few bushes with white flowers. Some Chinese believe that white symbolizes death.

As it happens, Mulberry Street, which runs down the East flank of the park, is lined with funeral homes. A funeral procession is gathering outside one of them while we are there. A band wearing olive green uniforms plays on pipes, accordions and cymbals as the mourners and limousines gather. One of the cars has a photograph of the deceased on its roof, with his name: Yi Xing Chen. Relatives huddle as his coffin is slid into the car, some of them circulating with video cameras.

A man wearing a bright yellow t-shirt comes to sit on the bench adjacent to ours. “75 Years – Goya” it says on the front. On the back: “If it’s Goya it has to be good.” I am tempted to tell him that I agree. Carlos uses a lot of Goya products in his Dominican cooking, like their black bean soup (which we have with rice and pork chops), small red beans (in salads), and adobo spice-mix (on pretty much everything).

Conrad and I get on our way, working East. Opposite the Transfiguration Church on Mott Street we find ourselves passing through the funeral cars as they drive around the block from the park. Their tinted windows have labels in English and Chinese according to who is inside: “friend,” “relative,” “daughter.” The street is lined with shops whose owners are setting produce out on the sidewalk for the day. Among them are pharmacies – in one a pair of businessmen skims the shark cartilage shelf. I take a photograph of the two street signs at the intersection of Henry and Catherine Streets. I will send it to my friends Henry and Katharine. The three of us lived for a few years in a house in Camberwell, London soon after we had left college, and despite the different spelling of her name the signs prompt me to get in touch with them.

At a point between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, with the FDR Expressway roaring above our heads we reach the river. I do not intend for most of these walks to feature the East River but they do, as if it has me on an extendable leash. This river and its sister the Hudson on the West side of Manhattan are the margins down the side of the city’s page. They are taken for granted but without them the city would make no sense. They are a continuum as the city and people between them change. As we stand there an occasional solitary person stops to admire the view of glinting water beneath the bridges, or jogger pounds the sidewalk. I close my eyes and imagine the crowd that used to fill this place, when it was a tangle of docks and markets and counting houses.

Our next stop is back inland. We rest by Little Flower Playground. The playground is perched on the edge of the LaGuardia Houses project, built in the 1950s – “Little Flower” was mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s nickname. Alongside it is a concrete space with picnic tables and we sit at one of them. This park does not have the varied botany of Columbus Park, just some dusty plane trees. But it too has its rhythm and clearly is an important fixture in the neighborhood. Doctors and nurses from the adjacent hospital come here to grab their lunch, let off steam or to give elderly patients a walk.

I read as Conrad nurses. I am reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Its narrator, a Nigerian psychiatrist called Julius, goes on walks in New York City that become a prominent part of the book. I read a section in which he is headed for a party on the posh Western edge of Washington Heights. He is a bit early so walks up there from his apartment near Columbia University. I can trace the path he takes in my mind and have flashes of recognition with the landmarks: I explored Washington Heights a couple of times when I first arrived in New York, then it became more familiar after meeting Carlos who was brought up there. Julius mentions El Mundo Department Store, the perennially busy restaurant El Malecón, the United Palace Theatre, and the narrow steps reminiscent of a funicular railway (that is how they look, I think as I write this later, then realize that is the word Cole used as well), with their steep slope and railings that connect 181st Street with the sedate environment of Pinehurst Avenue. Here I am in that comforting world where writer, reader and place meet.

From Little Flower Playground we walk up Clinton Street into the Lower East Side. Gentrification has been sliding Southwards, with realtors dressing sub-neighborhoods up in new acronyms like BELDEL for “Below Delancey.” Evidence of the creep is in two establishments tucked at the corner of Clinton Street and East Broadway, a craft beer and cheese place called “Malt and Mould,” and Pushcart Coffee with its little benches outside for people to sip their lattes, and t-shirts on sale saying “Pushcart Coffee – est. 2011.” As we walk North those kinds of places are everywhere of course. The streets are filled with memories of my first two years in New York, so nocturnal compared with the predominantly diurnal habits of my life now with children, a procession of nights of music and dancing in places like Nublu, Drom, Nuyorican Poets Café, National Underground, 555 and Macondo, where Carlos and I first met. These are interspersed with memories of coffee and laughter with a girlfriend, Mia, before she died of ocular melanoma at the age of 33. She loved this part of the city.

We pass Cooper Union. It is the site of many moments of social change, including a speech by Abraham Lincoln soon before he stood for the presidency. In it he unraveled a statement by Senator Douglas, which suggested the founding fathers would have considered the federal government forbidden from controlling the use of slavery in the federal territories. He meticulously built his evidence to show the opposite. He focused on setting out facts but pulled back a little at times to make points that seem equally relevant today. If any man sincerely shared Douglas’ belief, Lincoln said, “he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live’ were of the same opinion – thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”

Just above Cooper Union we reach Astor Place. Huge billboards wrap around a building site and announce the pending arrival of “51 Astor Place,” a thrusting glass office development. Commercial Observer, a real estate magazine, celebrates its arrival on the scene with the declaration that “Noho is finally turning into a swan.” It quotes a leasing agent for the building: “Whatever tenant moves into this building can brand the Astor Place area, like Google branded its neighborhood and AOL branded Columbus Circle. It goes way beyond just having a name on a building.”

Part 7: "DUMBO to Red Hook: Destination"

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thank you Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 5 - Astoria (night): Projection

This is part five of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. Part four.

Astoria again, but this time in the dark. Conrad has been fighting sleep so I take him out for a walk around the block. At first he is all wide-eyed at the contrast between the night air and bright lights. By the time we return he has nodded off, and maybe those bright lights are still sliding by in his sleeping mind or maybe there is just quiet darkness.

Outside the Irish pub Kelly’s Bar on the corner of 31st Avenue and Crescent Street two rows of marigolds in a flower bed that are beacon-like enough in the day are even more so now. Red light lands on them from a string of bulbs along the pub wall. Whatever is going on in the pub is hidden from the street. During the day time its door is open and drinkers come to and fro, some hanging out on plastic chairs on the sidewalk providing a running commentary on passersby. Now the pub is one world and outside it, another.

A couple gets out of a car and goes into an apartment building.

“Yes,” he says.

“Does it live in water?” she asks.

“No,” he replies, and they enter the building beyond earshot.

We pass the diner on the corner of 30th Avenue and Crescent St. aptly called the Crescent Corner Coffee Shop. Recently an episode of 30 Rock was filmed there. That created a buzz in the community as film trucks hogged the streets and large cameras rolled about the place. Now it is closed and empty. It looks like Hopper’s Nighthawks without the people. There is enough light from unidentified sources to make out a single pepper shaker, salt shaker and sugar jar on each of the pale green table tops, ready for the next morning when the sugar will be tipped into cups of coffee and the salt and pepper sprinkled over eggs. There are croissants in military rows beneath a transparent plastic cover, and next to them the till, hard worked but currently silent. I can just make out our reflection in the mirror along the back of the bar.

Round the corner, lamps in a doorway cast latticed shadows over the sidewalk. Virginia Woolf in her essay Street Haunting describes how the walker’s roving eye singles out beauty. “Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty…the eye is sportive and generous: it creates; it adorns; it enhances.” Yes, it creates. An alchemy takes place between observation and imagination, from which a new, independent reality emerges. The city is not so much the sum of those realities as the simultaneous being of all of them. It relies on this healthy collision between external features and the internal mind. The more those two become detached from one another, separated by car windows, glass screens, the weaker the fabric of the city becomes.

At night a walker is less visible to others. The dark of the outside world puts bright interiors, such as can be glimpsed, into sharp relief. Along 30th Avenue we pass a hip Italian restaurant that lures twenty and thirty-somethings from all around, and there they are, tonight’s crowd, like last night’s no doubt and yet unique, never to be repeated, in terms of who is sitting where, pressed up along wooden tables, cozy among their kind.

Just around the corner from there, the bar that has been in place much longer contains three solitary drinkers. Then we pass a new condominium building. They are sprouting fast along 21st Street, which until recently was a busy traffic thoroughfare dotted with drive-thru McDonald’s, the occasional fire station or place of worship. The building's ground floor is still wrapped in marketing placards that promote views across the river to Manhattan. Those views will remind residents that they are here because they cannot afford to be there. They will also present a there that is far more appealing seen from here than lived up close.

The apartment building has a reception area that looks like it should have a doorman but does not yet. The white walls, black leather furniture and white lilies seem to be there just for their own sake, or posing for a brochure photograph soon to be removed ready for the next shoot. A delivery guy arrives clutching a box of food. Who is on the receiving end?

Part 6: Part five - Chinatown and the Lower East Side: People

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 4 - Astoria (day): Power

This is part four of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. I'll post the other three parts subsequently here on EWINY, one a week.

There has been a storm. Near our front door a phone cable trails across the street. Here in Astoria tangles of overhead power and communications cables are slung from wooden pole to wooden pole and I am always amazed they function. A man on his way to work suggests I call 311 about it – he cannot because he is in a rush – so I do, and feel good-neighborly-about it while also conscious that usually it would be me rushing down the street to work and savoring the fact I am not. Back in the apartment I put things into our bag for the day (blanket, diapers, wipes, notebook) and hear a fire engine approach then drive away. When we go back outside the cable has been tied up.

We walk to Astoria Park and sit for a while on a high grassy verge next to the running track, overlooking East River. Above our heads the traffic over the Triborough Bridge thunders into Manhattan and the Bronx (no-one has adjusted to calling it by its new name, the Robert F Kennedy Bridge). Like Flushing Meadows Corona Park, this one has the stamp of Robert Moses. He commissioned the bridge, and, himself an avid swimmer, also the city’s largest open-air swimming pool at the center of the park.

Below us the river rushes. In fact it is not really a river at all though, but a straight that links Long Island Sound with Atlantic Bay: the force of the ocean courses through it. It has tides. Its surface is scurried with eddies and stirred by currents. It has a dark underbelly. Just upstream from where we sit, over a thousand passengers of the General Slocum pleasure steamboat died when it caught fire in 1904, in the city’s worst disaster before 9/11. Downstream in Brooklyn, the bleached bones of patriots who had died on the sixteen British prison ships in Wallabout Bay – later the Brooklyn Navy Yards –would wash up regularly after the revolutionary war.

A hodgepodge of bodies jogs around the running track. This track is undiscriminating. There are svelte runners, flabby runners, young and old (the latter walking). A middle-aged couple for whom this is clearly a regular routine strolls in comfortable silence alongside one another. Ethnically the runners reflect Astoria’s mix, that is to say, a bit of everything, with a Greek, Italian, Latino and Middle Eastern emphasis.

We go down to the river’s edge and head North along Shore Boulevard. Conrad soon falls asleep in his stroller. The tide is low. Fallen branches, flotsam and jetsam from the storm are scattered across the sidewalk: the fragility of this city-meets-river fringe is more evident than usual. A single seagull stands sentinel by a sign marking the spot of the General Slocum disaster. There is an underling whiff of sewage, explained when we reach the top edge of the park by a notice entitled “wet weather discharge point.”

We reach the southern flank of the immense Con-Ed power station, whose presence is marked on maps of the area as a great blank gray swathe. New Yorkers may no longer depend on the river directly for sustenance but it sustains them in other ways: providing cooling water for multiple power stations is one of them. There are no people around and the strong sun feels desert-like as we move along 20th Avenue, power plant on our left and a row of rented garages on the right. Gradually there are signs of life, starting with the diner Two Greeks to Go, perched on a corner alongside a gas station, where I buy a bottle of water. “The Truth Hurts” shouts a New York Post headline. The previous day the tape of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was released, in which he dismissed 47% of the American population as dependent on government because they do not have to pay income tax and declared them irrelevant for his campaign.

Opposite the diner are three institutions: The Federation of Italian American Organizations of Queens’ soccer pitch (sponsored by Con Edison); Live Meat Market, with red painted signs that announce chicken, rabbit, guinea pig, lamb, goat and Halal meat; and Loumidis Foods factory whose slogan is “Bringing the culinary treasures of Greece to you.” I keep walking fast, headed towards the Steinway piano factory which I have heard so much about but never seen, and wanting to reach it before Conrad wakes up again.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Henry Steinway, who had changed his German name Steinweg to Steinway on advice of friends who said it would be better for business, moved his piano factory from Manhattan to a site in Northern Astoria that was more or less an empty space. He built not only a factory but a whole village, with housing, foundries, and a mansion for his family, which has been on the market since soon after I moved to Astoria.

The wood for making the pianos used to be shipped to the factory’s back door where it bobbed in floating pens: walnut, pear, spruce, rosewood, mahogany. Now it is trucked in, but the factory is still active in much the same way as when it opened. Craftsmen transform the raw materials into the sleek finely tuned vessels whose notes grace concert halls throughout the continent (Steinway pianos sold in Europe are made in its factory in Germany). The meticulous process reportedly culminates with the elderly Wally Boot whose grandfather worked at the factory and whose job is to test and tweak the finished pianos. A note on his door reads “Pianos enter this room looking like a piano but leave sounding like one.”

One day I will visit the factory and see all this for my own eyes. For now, we just see the low red brick building from the outside before turning around and walking South. We rest and Conrad has his milk in a tiny patch of shade in Ditmars Park. Then onwards down Steinway Street, including the stretch known as Little Egypt that is lined with hookah bars and that earlier in the year had erupted in celebration at the toppling of Mubarak. We turn right down 30th Avenue which takes us home.

During 2011, I had interviewed one person a week along the Avenue. I posted the interviews on a blog I called “30th Ave – A Year in the Life of a Street.” The project was inspired in part by the fact that in 2008 the “Genographic Project” of National Geographic magazine had taken DNA cheek samples from passersby at the 30th Avenue street fair and found traces of every human ethnic lineage among them except for one (that of Khoisan hunter-gatherers in southern Africa). People often mention Queens’ diversity when describing the borough and leave it at that. But what are they saying? As author Junot Díaz puts it in an interview, “Saying a distinction is different from drawing a conclusion from that distinction…[I]t's okay for us to be able to talk and say, ‘I'm a person of color. This is a person who's white.’ And that's not a bad thing. It's saying that that means something, that that somehow is deterministic. That's the problem.”

My project was, in its small way, about listening to and collecting individual voices from the neighborhood. Among them was Halim who founded a café called Harissa: “You don’t feel like an immigrant. Because everybody is,” he said of Astoria. And the Ecuadorian crossing guard Julia Bravo, who helps children of multiple backgrounds cross the road to school. “Son niños, son iguales,” she said. There may be as many stories of the city as there are inhabitants, but more connects them than differentiates them. Successful neighborhoods are the ones that recognize that fact.

Part 5: "Astoria (night): Projection"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 3 - Roosevelt Island: Perspective

This is part three of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two.

Via Socrates Sculpture Park and Vernon Boulevard we find ourselves on Roosevelt Island Bridge, which links the island to the borough of Queens. Until now I did not know the bridge existed. A notice half way across says that in 1955 it received an award of merit for the “most beautiful steel bridge” from the American Institute of Steel Construction. I am not surprised. It is a dark red color. Its tall structure recalls the railroad gantries a little further South in Long Island City that hauled cargo from ship to train. It has that thrill of soaring metal that so many of the New York City bridges do. Conrad’s stroller, which is not big, just about fits across the width of the walkway that is squeezed between whipping traffic and the drop to the river below. There is a wire mesh fence between us and the river but that does little to break the sense of threat.

The island has been put to many uses over time. Dutch settlers ran pig farms on it. In the 1830s, a prison and the New York Lunatic Asylum were built; undercover reporter Nellie Bly exposed the horrendous conditions at the asylum by spending ten days there. “In the upper halls,” she wrote, “a good view is obtained of the passing boats and New York. I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.”

The island, which for a while was called Welfare Island, was also the site of a smallpox hospital. The hospital ruins remain. They are floodlit at night and from Manhattan look like a hollow-eyed ghost facing the river. Soon after moving to New York I bought a book, Invisible Frontier – Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York. I bought it in the now-closed Blackburn bookstore on Broadway in Astoria. Little did I know that within four years I would be raising my children in the neighborhood. In the book a group of urban explorers sets about almost-inaccessible parts of the city, including the smallpox hospital. They describe a precarious clamber over crumbling brick walls clad in foliage, opening their account of the exploration with two lines from T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land:

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?”

Today, the mostly un-ruined Roosevelt Island consists of chunky apartment buildings, many of them home to people who work at the United Nations building across the river.

We cross through to the Western side of the island (it is less than a kilometer wide) and do a loop over its Northern tip, pausing for a while in a park with a view across to Manhattan. Among Manhattan’s squeezed streets it is easy to forget that it too is an island, despite what you might think would be wake-up calls in the form of hurricanes like Sandy that hit a couple of months after our walks in the city. From here the geography is more apparent. We are close to the water with its choppy current and it is not difficult to flash back a few hundred years to when Native Americans navigated it in their canoes. The backsides of the Manhattan buildings look like temporary appendages.

On the top tip of the island is a small lighthouse. It has not been used since the 1940s. I have seen it so many times from the Astoria shore that it feels disorienting now to be standing here, as if I should be looking across the water at myself. A couple on bicycles swoops around the lighthouse. Then it is just Conrad and me and the splashing water and a wide sky. Open spaces like this within the city are like a deep breath. On the concrete river wall are traces of crab shell – some pincers and a cracked back – the remnants of a seagull’s dinner. I read the small plaque at the bottom of the lighthouse in memory of Vicki Holland, a polio patient who was treated on the island before living in an apartment here, and who campaigned for disability rights. Randomly-encountered inscriptions like this are quiet voices on behalf of people who have gone, just enough to say for some time afterwards, “I existed, remember me.”

Walking back down the Eastern side of the island we pass the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command Division. Small fire trucks and vans are clustered outside. Firefighters in ceremonial uniforms talk beside them. It is only then that I realize the date, immersed as I am in my and Conrad’s world. It is September 11, the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Later I hear a little about the day’s events and how purposefully understated they are compared with the previous anniversary, the tenth. The emphasis now is on a respectful acknowledgement of those who lost their lives, a pause to reconnect then carry on. More inscriptions, this time painted onto the window of one of the trucks:

DC Raymond Downey

DC Charlie Kasper

DC John Paolillo

BC John Moran

Part four: Astoria (day): Power

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 2 - Central Park: Time

This is part two of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." The introduction and part one are here.

This walk isn't going to be a walk. Rain is forecast so I decide to go with Conrad to the Guggenheim. I do not know what exhibitions are on but think if we are going to be indoors, that is a fine place to be. We get the N train and I misremember that the museum is just a few blocks up from the Southern edge of the park. We disembark at the Fifth Avenue stop at the park’s South East corner, when I realize that it is much further up – at 89th Street, beyond the Met. There is still an hour until it opens, so clearly a walk up the park was meant to happen after all.

The rain threatens but does not fall as people in the park go about their early morning rituals. Among them are office workers talking into hands-free headphones. I recall hearing about the Summer evenings when my maternal grandfather decided to walk all the way home from work through London parks, a distance of about seven miles. He would set out from the engineering firm Binnie & Partners where he worked in Artillery House, on Artillery Row, and walk through

St. James’s Park

Green Park

Hyde Park

(then roads for a bit)

Regent’s Park

Primrose Hill

Parliament Fields

Hampstead Heath

and to his home in Highgate.

This being next to the Upper East Side, there are also well-groomed dogs out on walks with their owners, and white children with their dark skinned nannies. Soon before Conrad’s elder brother Jack was born, I had read the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s account of bringing up his children around here. It is called Through the Children’s Gate, after an entrance to the park at Fifth Avenue and 76th Street. “On most days you can’t even read its name,” Gopnik writes of the gate, “since a hot-dog-and-pretzel vendor parks his cart and his melancholy there twelve hours a day, right in front of where the stone is engraved.” The book captures some of the universality of childhood, along with a lot of a rarefied experience of child-rearing, one in which parents intellectualize the decisions involved – from coat purchase to school selection – deliberating over how those decisions will affect the child and how they will be perceived by others.

Splashes of bright yellow leaves are starting to appear on dark branches. The yellow echoes the taxis that are gliding along the roads and triggering a stream of memories of past Central Park walks. Here comes a walk up to the Jackie Kennedy Onassis reservoir one evening as dusk was falling, soon after I moved to the city. I felt like I was racing nightfall. There are my morning walks down the West side of the park, when I lived at 109th Street and sometimes went by foot to Columbus Circle where I got on the subway to work. Now I see the time that I was meeting a friend on the East side and wanted to cut through the park from the West. My mind wandered as well as my feet and I found myself an hour later back on the West side again. Here is the bright November day when Carlos proposed in a hut beside the lake.

In The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead describes how a different New York exists for each of its inhabitants. A travel agency will for someone else always be the pizza parlor that they knew it as, which for someone else will be the beauty parlor soon to open at the same site. “Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.” The city is a morass of memory. Carlos often says that, having been born and brought up here, wherever he walks there are memories to haunt him. Even for me many neighborhoods already jostle with them. The memories hanging about on the streets and hunched in entranceways can start to feel oppressive. But the city saves us from them too. There is always the next distraction that pulls our attention and keeps us afloat.

We pass the small lake called Conservatory Water, where I buy a bottle of water from a kiosk. A woman approaches with her son, carrying a remote controlled sail-boat. The son is about nine years old. “Do you know if it’s ok to sail anytime?” she asks the kiosk vendor.

“No,” comes the brief reply.

“Well we’re going to do it,” the woman announces. “They don’t have any signs.” She takes her little boy by the hand and off they go to the water’s edge.

We continue. The chance that at any moment it may rain or Conrad may wake up, or both at once, keeps me moving. My attention is absorbed by the present again. Here I am on a morning walk in Central Park, smelling the trees and with little Conrad asleep on my chest, and soon it too will be a memory. When I write the moment down it may be preserved but only to the extent that hieroglyphs capture anything of ancient Egyptians’ lives.

At 79th Street we exit the park onto Fifth Avenue. A row of construction workers sits on a ledge in front of the Met, which is about to open. They are art enough for me, I think. That said, I still carry on towards the Guggenheim.

Tourists mill outside then form an orderly line to filter in when the security guard announces that we can enter. “This his first museum visit?” a woman asks me of Conrad, who is now awake. I tell her he has been to the British Museum too. Once inside we learn that the main part of the museum, the galleries that spiral around the air in the center of the building, is closed to visitors while an exhibition on “Picasso Black and White” is hung. The side galleries are still open. From them we can see across to the spirals and get glimpses of Picasso faces looking back at us. There are also rows of flat crates marked FRAGILE and THIS WAY UP. People in jeans and t-shirts maneuver canvases on wheels.

Conrad is hungry. I nurse him in a small room of Kandinsky paintings. One is called “Simple Pleasures”.

On to photographs by Rineke Dijkstra. Some of her photo series freeze moments to convey passing time: a woman is photographed at intervals from childhood to motherhood, a French soldier periodically throughout his career. Other series show different people in a similar setting. There is one of adolescents on the beach at resort towns:

Brighton, England

Coney Island, USA

Kolobrzeg, Poland

Odessa, Ukraine


And a series of naked mothers just after they have given birth, holding their newborns.

Part 3: Roosevelt Island: Perspective

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 1 - Flushing: Surprise

This is the introduction and part 1 of my 7-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo."

During the last month of my maternity leave with Conrad, we went on walks in the city. The rhythm of the walks was more or less up to me. I was free to choose where they started and which turns to take, what to stop to explore and what to let pass by. Conrad’s needs played a role too though. His feeds enforced pauses, and meant that I targeted parks and quiet benches more than I would otherwise.

These are accounts of the seven walks. Many of the words came to me as I walked. Footsteps became words, paths sentences. I jotted some of them down in a blue notepad. If I was walking at the same time as writing to keep Conrad asleep in his papoose or stroller, the writing would be a jolty scrawl across the page.

1. Flushing: Surprise

Our first walk is in Flushing, Queens. We get out of the 7 train at the 111th Street stop in Corona and walk a few blocks South to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The park is on the site that F. Scott FitzGerald called the “Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby. Once a salt marsh, riddled with rivers and periodically drenched by the tide, in the early 1900s it was a dumping ground for industrial waste, including mountains of ash from coal furnaces. In 1930, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the area cleaned up. He chose it as the location for the World’s Fairs in 1939/40 and in 1964/65.

Public buildings constructed for the second World’s Fair still dot the park today, among them Queens Zoo, Queens Theatre, and the New York Hall of Science. Despite efforts to civilize it though the park has not shaken off a monochrome undertone of windswept wilderness, both natural and manmade. Much of it is covered in patchy thin grass, over which Canada geese roam as low flying planes on their way to or from nearby La Guardia airport skim overhead. We skirt around the edge of the Hall of Science and the zoo’s birdhouse. Through black railings and dense foliage I glimpse a scarlet macaw preening.

Near Queens Museum of Art, I talk briefly with a group of young people gardening in a rectangular rose bed. It turns out that they do community service in the park every Wednesday. One asks where my accent is from. London, UK I tell him. He replies with “that’s awesome,” then “I have a friend from Birmingham.” It is not always Birmingham, but invariably people have a friend from the UK who they refer to. I have lived in New York for five years, so it takes me aback when people ask where my accent is from. There are plenty of New Yorkers who do not have a New York accent. Often I tag “but I live here now” onto my answer.

In front of us is the Unisphere. It is a 12 story-high steel globe that US Steel donated to the 1964/65 World’s Fair. It has come to be a symbol of Queens, appearing on maps of the borough and in the opening credits to coverage of the US Open tennis, which happens to be underway at the stadiums right next to the park. This is the first time I see it with its fountains working. Tall vertical jets of water form a circle around it. They shoot high, then low, then high again. Just in front of the Unisphere a woman in a red jacket is practicing tai-chi. She seems to be conducting the fountains; as she raises her arms they rise.

With a swoosh the fountains stop. Their roar, which I had not really noticed before as I was so struck by seeing them, falls silent. I listen to the sounds that emerge in their space. There are cicadas. Birds calling, one (perched on a dormant floodlight) with a shrill single cry. People talking on their cell phones. A lawn mower at work. The rumble of cars on the close but unseen Grand Central Parkway, which we had crossed on a narrow footbridge to enter the park, its traffic streaming oblivious beneath us. Robert Moses liked parks but he liked big roads better. A light crunch of passing bicycle wheels. Footsteps. A cough. Then cranking, as two men get to work fixing something on the fountains, which presumably is why they have been turned off.

I started the walk planning to see an exhibition on Caribbean art at Queens Museum. It turns out that the museum does not open until midday on Wednesdays, and it is only 10 o’clock. So instead, after a pause to feed Conrad on a bench, during which the flow of people headed towards the tennis tournament thickens, we cross through the park towards Flushing.

We emerge on College Point Boulevard a few blocks East of Flushing center. I need to pee. “Kane’s Diner” beckons from the other side of the road. I enter, intending just to use the bathroom, but when one of the waiters greets us with a smile and a “sit anywhere you like” I decide to stay for a late breakfast/early lunch. Despite his welcoming words there is just one booth free, which I take. Conrad lies on the pleather-cushioned bench beside me, studying for much of the time the bottles of sauces gathered at the end of our table. The plastic-backed menu is an overwhelmingly dense collage of photographs of the food, with pictures of prominent republican types who have dined there popping up in places between the eggs and pancakes (Trump and Giuliani among them).

What works about diner food is not its individual ingredients but the combination of them. It is the fact you do not just get an omelet, but an omelet with lots of stuff stuffed into it and potatoes and brown toast on the side and ketchup or brown sauce or both to go on top. And coffee refills, and the familiar diner decor and atmosphere that is echoed from diner to diner while each retains a stamp of uniqueness too.

Post mushroom-omelet we set off again along College Point Boulevard. Chinese and English-language signs jostle for attention. The street is dominated by tile, bath and kitchen cabinet shops with the occasional anomaly like “Hisun LED,” which has dense lines of colored LED lights flowing around its walls. We hit Flushing town center by “Bland Houses” housing project. I am thinking what an unfortunate name that is when we pass a small, bright plot of flowers by one of the entrances with a hand-painted sign stuck in the ground:

“The garden of life after death.”

We wander up Roosevelt Avenue to Main Street, Conrad asleep by this time. I slip through tempting entrances along the way: into Iris Tea and Bakery with its fruit panacottas; a boutiquey-shopping center connected to Flushing’s Sheraton hotel where the décor is dark and lulled by falling water features; St. George’s Episcopal church, where a helium balloon trapped around a helicopter-fan up near the roof spins on its blade. Then a Chinese food market on the corner of 41st Avenue and Main where the seething fish counter features a tank of fat Baramudi crammed so tight they hardly have room to move.

It is time for a rest and more milk for Conrad at Flushing library, before we get on the subway home. Queens Library has just been saved from its annually threatened city budget cut, following a passionate campaign to prevent it. Sunlight slants through tall windows onto people accessing books, computers (more than a quarter of Americans now use a library for internet access) and advice from each other. In the children’s library I hear a girl telling a woman, her mentor of sorts it seems, about how she feels younger than her friends. She likes books for small children. She is afraid of things that her classmates find fun, like rollercoasters.

Part two: "Central Park: Time"

Note: the minimal maps that accompany this essay follow the paths we took

Sunday, July 21, 2013

New York missive no 128 - Dubai interlude

A dhow being loaded with goods in Dubai Creek, bound for Somalia. One of its crew told us it's a good thing the boat looks old and run down - that means it is not tempting to pirates.

Recently my colleague from Beirut and I went on a work visit to United Arab Emirates. We were mainly in Dubai but also spent a day in Abu Dhabi and a morning in Sharjah. On the last evening in Dubai we went for a meal with members of my colleague’s family – some of whom live there – at a restaurant on the Emirates’ “Palm Jumeirah”, a palm-shaped island tagged onto the coast by its trunk (which is also an eight-lane motorway). The island didn’t exist until the early 2000s when it was built by dredging and dumping tons of sand in the form of a palm tree, to extend the city’s beachfront area by 40 miles for the development of luxury apartments and hotels.

As we left the mainland part of the city we became snarled in a traffic jam. They are not uncommon in Dubai because, other than the two-line metro, the only way to get around is by car. No-one walks. Sidewalks are rare, so in many parts of the city it is impossible to. In this case the snarl was caused by a deep construction ditch down the middle of the road. Similar, perhaps to the ditch in which two Indian workers, Ram Kumar and Selvaraj, were buried alive in the nearby city of Al Ain soon after our visit, when the sand on each side of the trench collapsed as they tried to fix a pipe.

Once on Palm Jumeirah the traffic subsided. But it still took around half an hour to reach the restaurant as the car slid through curved bright-lit underpasses along streets lined with pristine buildings around bends back through the same underpasses and over bridges seemingly trapped in a road-loop designed to prevent us from getting to our destination. Reach it we did, eventually. We ate a barbeque meal with a view across to the winking city. The open-air restaurant was flanked on two sides by apartments and on the other by a sleek swimming pool. On an apartment balcony a small girl twirled pirouettes to the restaurant music while her parents, or whoever was taking care of her, set the table beside her.

The structure of a city like Dubai where you are forced to drive creates separation. It's a divide that is echoed everywhere - in the fact that public life takes place largely in air-conditioned malls constructed on desert, for example. The separation is necessary in that it makes the circumstances of the city tolerable through denial: a capitalist dystopia dressed up as utopia where you can get your apartment re-decorated for $50, where you can earn double (or more than, anyway) you would earn on the rice fields at home by working at the teetering steel pinnacle of a tower block in the 100 degree sun.

As Daniel Brook puts it in “A History of Future Cities" though, it is not helpful to view Dubai as all awe or all horror as tends to be the case:

“Apologists for Dubai, like architect Rem Koolhaas, who salivates over the city-state as ‘the ultimate tabula rasa on which new identities can be inscribed,’ cannot explain away the barbarism of its system: one that assembles all the world’s people but makes no attempt to treat them all like people. Those who condemn Dubai, like urban theorist mike Davis who tars it as an ‘evil paradise’ cannot explain the allure of the city for the hundreds of thousands of low-wage guest workers who have migrated there.”

The unobserved shades of grey are there within individual inhabitants but somehow get lost when you look at the whole. They are there within people like Adil, a taxi driver who we came across outside the Jumeirah Lake Towers. JLT is one of the city’s many free trade zones, this one a conglomeration of over 70 skyscrapers with 6000 businesses, centered around commodities trading. Here the traffic was snarled too, as it is every day. The towers were mostly finished a few years ago but the roads between them were not.

Adil’s experience in UAE is bittersweet. He spent his first few years paying off the fees for getting his job in Dubai, with the state-run taxi firm Dubai Taxi. He works long hours, sometimes to the extent he knows he is driving dangerously from tiredness. He still has to pay a large chunk of what he earns each day back to the company, which still holds his passport, and which only allows him to go back to Bangladesh once a year. He finds that especially difficult because he has a young daughter there. He said he was living for the next time he can go back. And yet, Adil said his situation is far better than that of Jumeirah taxi drivers (the Emirate where he lives), and of his friends who worked on construction sites. He wants to stay some years, perhaps earn enough to buy his own car to run a taxi service on his own terms.

The situation in UAE is kept on a relatively even keel by the synthesis of economic dreams and absolute social control by the government. At times, frustration when the former are not realized threatens the latter. In May thousands of workers at the Emirati construction firm Arabtec went on strike, demanding better wages. Reuters just reported that the strike happened and, a few days later, that Arabetc said it had resolved the dispute, without saying if the workers’ demands had been met. Many of those involved in the strike were deported.

Not surprisingly, voices from the workers themselves were missing. But a reporter for Al Jazeera (which is headquartered in neighboring Qatar), stood by the Arabetc workers’ camp gates – they weren’t allowed inside – to gathere a few testimonies. One, for example said, “I have not gotten a raise in the last nine years. The strike ended because of pressure from higher management and police. People are scared. It is possible this will happen again because conditions are so bad.”

This week I was immensely privileged to listen to a conversation between Henry Belafonte and Dolores Huerta, looking back at the civil rights movement in the US to inform its future. Playwright Bryonn Bain chaired the discussion. He kicked it off by quoting Martí’s “radical no es más que eso: el que va a las raíces,” - “to be radical is simply to go to the roots." The roots are in all of us. We need to put our ear to the ground more often and listen to what is going on down there.

Friday, June 21, 2013

New York missve no 127 - Attention

A wish from a wish tree in Socrates Sculpture Park

I’ve recently stumbled across points people have made about attention, and how it is a neglected value. It was the focus of a commencement address by author Jonathan Safran Foer. He describes how he saw a teenage girl crying into her phone saying “I know, I know, I know…Mama, I know,” and how burying himself in his own smartphone made the option of not intervening a lot easier. He goes on to quote Simone Weil - “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” – and says, “By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.”

Then I read the obituary of a priest who had pretty much spent his life giving attention to people who needed it. He had said his work was “heaven on the way to heaven.” (I'm not considering becoming a priest to find out).

And then an extract from the commencement address by Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. He talks about how he had always passed a group of kids in the lobby of his building and sometimes hung out with them. One of them stood out as being like his father, for his “quick wit, that great swagger.” Later as he campaigned for mayor and during his first months in office he had less time to spend with them. After coming home from a murder scene at which, as mayor, he had talked about the need to rally to fight crime, he read through the day’s incident reports on his blackberry and only then realized that the victim had been that boy on the stairwell who reminded him of his Dad. “As you put your sights on your goals…” he said, “don’t forget what is right in front of you today.”

I just realized that all of those three pieces were from the New York Times. That’s shocking. Time to diversify reading material. Though recently I’ve been trying to read more fiction than news.

Speaking of attention, being in the presence of young children forces it to some extent. One of my most memorable times last weekend was with JNH, closely following a small bee as it moved from clover flower to clover flower in Astoria Park.

Two more wishes from that tree in Socrates Sculpture Park:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

New York missive no 126 - Home

The day in November 2009 when we came apartment-hunting in Astoria was gray. We saw two places, the second of which is where we live now, about which more below. Then I decided I wanted to check out the nearest park. We took the least scenic route. We walked up 31st Street under the elevated subway track – an oxymoron, but so it is – then went left along Astoria Boulevard with its roaring traffic and gloomy new apartment buildings that offer luxury but convey nothing of the sort.

We reached the Southern edge of Astoria Park, and then the running track at the foot of the towering Triborough Bridge. As far as I remember there was no-one running. Luckily the grayness wasn’t enough to deter us from moving here. It was such a different scene to the one recently, three and a bit years later, albeit in just the same spot by the running track. The sun was shining and the track, by now so familiar, was busy, though no-one was taking the running too seriously as this was mid-morning on a Sunday. JNH, who will turn three in May, asked C to run with him and off they went jogging around the track while I watched, holding 10-month-old CMH.

I was struck by the randomness with which a place becomes known so intimately. What if we hadn’t come to Astoria that day in November? (C had emailed me in the morning saying “what about Astoria, check out these links on Craigslist.”) Would it still have become home? Would the stretch of shops between Crescent and 30th Ave subway station, for example, be unknown to me, rather than sunk into my memory – however long we end up staying here – as the place we walked every day when my children were young?

The apartment we chose is in a semi-detached three story-house, so our building has six units. In many ways its dynamics are typical of Astoria. There is a mix of newcomers and old timers. (Click pic to read it):

About a year ago, the two houses in front of us were knocked down. The space became a building site. JNH was thrilled because that meant trucks and diggers. The foundations seemed to take ages but now finally the apartment building is going up: the first floor is there. Buildings like it are springing up all over Astoria, and their apartments are far more expensive than the old ones in the neighborhood. They have names like “The Elizabeth”, “The ‘L’ @ 30th Drive”, “The Luxe” and “Crescent View.” I wonder what this one will be called. J’s uncle was watching the construction work recently, and I asked him if he knew whether the plane tree just in front of it was going to stay. He said yes. I thought he probably would be disappointed by the building, another concrete block going up, albeit smaller than the huge one that towers behind our back yard. Instead he said, “it’s good. We’ll get lots of new neighbors.”


Earlier this week a big bunch of pink helium balloons was perched outside a house two doors along from JNH’s Montessori. “It’s a girl,” one proclaimed. Another was in the shape of a stork. A man was coming up to the front door with his dog and his neighbor called across her congratulations. The man said thanks, then yelled at his dog to get in the house “NOW!”, his anger seeming most out sync with the occasion.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

New York missive no 125: The Bronx is Burning, technology, Stumptown Coffee

I just finished reading Ladies & Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, by journalist Jonathan Mahler. C had recommended it to me, prompted by the death of former NYC mayor Ed Koch who features in the book. He pulled his hardback copy off the shelf and said “I think you’ll like this.” He knows I like reading books about NYC and enjoyed it himself. And it has added significance for him, as it recounts an era in the city’s life – 1977 –when he was a five year-old growing up in Washington Heights, just old enough to have some isolated memories. (It also happens to be the year in which I was born, in London).

When the September 11, 2001 attacks happened, Mahler was in the middle of researching the looting and arson that flared during the power-failure in July 1977, when the whole city was plunged into darkness. He acknowledges the events were not on the same scale – an act of terror that killed thousands, and a powercut. But he says, “both were extraordinarily trying moments for the city, and I couldn’t help pondering how different New York felt in their respective wakes.” After 9/11, “there was a sense that our tallest towers had been felled but that our foundation was more secure than ever.” After the 1977 blackout, “New York had felt shaken to its core, and America had been anything but sympathetic.”

1977 was a transformative year for the city, too. Disintegration was accompanied by rehabilitation. The book weaves the seemingly disparate stories of the mayoral race involving Bella Abzug, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo and the ultimately victorious Ed Koch, the tabloid wars between the New York Daily News and the New York Post (plus Murdoch’s Murdoch-ization of the latter), the search for the serial killer Son of Sam, the blackout, and the infighting within the New York Yankees, who went on to win the World Series at the end of the year. Mahler originally intended the Yankees to be the subject of the book but the city soon took the foreground.

I was amused and not at all surprised to discover that while some neighborhoods were razed by looting during the blackout and Greenwich Village was the scene of candlelit dinners, on Weehawken Street in far-flung West Village a gay orgy took place. (Weehawken Street is where I lived on first moving to NYC). Mahler quotes the recollections of one participant, as told in the magazine Michael’s Thing: “The small one block was a beehive of made insane activity…Nudity was the rule; many guys were pushed against cars and performed upon with the full consent of everyone there.”

Bushwick in Brooklyn was the area worst hit by the looting. Instead of conveying the chaos and moving on, Mahler stops to trace the neighborhood’s trajectory over the preceding twenty years to look for the reasons why. And when it comes to describing the arson fires in Bushwick, which had begun in 1969, he explains why the design of the buildings made them prone to fire and the way the fire teams had to tackle them. The often wooden buildings, with air shafts over their stairwells, were connected by attic spaces that made is easy for the fire to spread from one building to the next. Fire fighters would poke holes in the roof of a burning building to try to lure the flames upwards. Either they climbed through smoke and flames to do that from the inside, or hung from a ladder outside, “right in the line of fire the instant the flames started licking toward the sky.”

Another nugget I’ll share here. It's a description of a typical New Yorker. During the police search for Son of Sam, Rupert Murdoch put one of his strongest reporters, fellow Australian Steve Dunleavy, on the story (he was determined not to be outdone by Jimmy Breslin at the Daily News, who at one point received a personal letter from the killer). The book mentions that Mario Cuomo described Dunleavy later in a profile as a real New Yorker (aside from his right-wing politics): “he’s feisty, he’s resilient, he’s self-made, he stands up for what he believes in, and he can even, on occasion, be charming.” That description fits so many New Yorkers, including Ed Koch.

The Bronx is Burning is such a great read not just because of Mahler’s meticulous reporting combined with pacy storytelling skills, though they are critical, but also because he hit upon such a rich and compelling subject. Disparate narrative subjects are linked effortlessly by a single theme, that of a city at a turning point. For me the book is a reminder that it is only by slowing down to that extent – for example by telling the story of one year in a life of a city in such meticulous detail – that you can ever begin to get to the heart of things.


A story that should be told in that level of detail but I doubt ever will be is that of brothers Toor Jan, 11, and Andul Wodood, 12. In Feburary they were out collecting firewood with their donkeys in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, when they were killed by gunfire from a NATO helicopter. The donkeys were killed too. The new US commander in Afghanistan, General Dunford, said the killings were an accident and apologized. Which of course he should, but I doubt any apology could ever be enough for the parents of those boys.


There’s something disconcerting about the endless flick between twitter accounts, hit of send and receive buttons or scrolls down Facebook pages. It is a search for affirmation. As if that flick or hit or scroll will turn up something wonderful, something that recognizes that you, yes you, are the best being on the planet but no, of course that ever happens, so we just set ourselves up for a series of disappointments by searching cyberspace that way, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but still we do it.

Fast-forward fifty years and most of us will have stopped looking at the physical world and at each other.


Talking of things that we still do anyway, about once a week I get a coffee on my way to work from Stumptown Coffee in the Ace Hotel on the corner of 29th Street and Broadway. This article gives a great portrait of the two economies at work in the neighborhood. One is that of cheap wholesale goods. “Rhinestones and ribbons” one storefront reads, and another, “Tiger Accessories”, which when I passed the other morning triggered an entertaining procession of accessorized tigers through my mind. The other is the world of hip, rich, international technoscenti, drawn by the Ace Hotel that opened in 2009. Stumptown Coffee epitomizes the latter. The coffee is roasted in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The servers are clad in hipster-meets-nineteen-forties attire. They wear chic shades of brown, accompanied by thick rimmed glasses and wide brimmed hats. In the mornings there is always a queue out the door and into the hotel lobby. The coffee is great but also pricey, like $4.50 for a latte. And yet still I go.