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