Tag Archives: New York City

New York City’s Final Frontier: Underground

Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.

Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”

New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.

Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.

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New York City’s Housing Emergency

Despite having some of the most progressive housing laws in the country, New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency: a man-made and large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes.

In an essay for The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg breaks down four aspects of the city’s current housing crisis: homelessness, rent stabilization loopholes, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan, and alternatives for reform. Nestled within every terrifying statistic are heartbreaking personal stories — landlords grinding down tenants financially and emotionally until they give in, families with children bought out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades after the rent “perfectly legally” doubles overnight. “I put up with these streets when you had to be half-crazy to go out to the bodega for a quart of milk after dark,” one renter says. “Why should we have to leave?”

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

Stories like these move through the city like an underground stream. I repeat them not because they are extraordinary, but because they are a fact of life for thousands of New Yorkers. For the most part they go unnoticed. The displaced slink away, crouched into their private misfortune, seeking whatever solution they can find. Many experience displacement as a personal failure; they dissolve to the fringes of the city, forced to travel two or three hours to earn a minimum wage, or out of the city altogether, to depressed regions of Long Island, New Jersey, or upstate New York. If they have roots in the Caribbean, as some residents of Central Brooklyn do, they may try to start again there. Or they may join the growing number of people who are officially homeless, dependent on the city for shelter.

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Finding Her True Self: Queer and Muslim

When young international student Lamya H arrives in Manhattan, she not only finds the city she’s come to know from books and media, she finds a place to explore her sexuality in a way that surprises even her. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lamya H recounts how she started to embrace her true self and all the challenges it would create.

It has been a wonderful night. “Queer Muslim Show and Tell,” a brilliant idea by my friend, where we’ve all shared something we’re passionate about. Things that we didn’t know about each other: my friend who is a serious academic reads us the poetry that she writes in her free time; another friend brings a comic book collection to show us; another talks about the anti-violence project she’s starting up at her mosque.

It has taken me a while to find these people, this group of queer Muslims who will spend a Saturday night sharing parts of themselves. It has taken me years dragging myself to lesbian bars and pride and dance parties and all that this city has to offer, these places where my Muslimness, my brownness feel acutely out of place. These places where, once, a white lesbian once petted my hijab like I was an exotic creature, where this other time, a Moroccan bouncer looked me up and down and said, “What are you doing here, sister?”

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New York in the 1970s Gave Us Hip Hop, Madonna, and the Chip on Trump’s Shoulder

New York’s chaotic 1970s — when the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and crime rates reached record highs — have been mythologized as the last great period of unfettered, gritty creativity before yuppies, and later hipsters, ruined everything. It’s a complicated narrative, and the election of Donald Trump, a city-hating city-dweller, makes it even more so. Here’s a man who’s unquestionably among the most provincial New Yorkers of all time, yet he’s just as unquestionably an iconic one. And his rise to prominence came about right at that moment when New York was (supposedly) at its worst and at its best. Michael Kruse, writing at Politico, dives into what we might call Trump’s Studio 54 period, the years when desperate politicians allowed Trump to build an impressive real estate portfolio underwritten by huge tax breaks, and when public (specifically, Manhattan elite) derision shaped his politics of resentment for decades to come.

If he had expected New York to grant respect the way it had handed out tax breaks and opportunities for sheer publicity, he was mistaken. Critics in the pages of the Times called him “overrated” and “totally obnoxious.” It bothered him that he could put up such a glossy building and still be so readily dismissed as an arriviste. “If I were Gerry Hines in Houston,” he told Marie Brenner for a profile in New York magazine in 1980, referring to the billionaire real estate entrepreneur in Texas, “I would be the most important man in the city—but here, you bang your head against the wall to try to get some nice buildings up, and what happens? Everybody comes after you.”

But Trump attacked New York, too. He had, for instance, valuable art deco friezes jackhammered off the face of the Bonwit Teller building during its demolition—even after he had promised to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a literal and visceral assault against the exact sort of New Yorker who found him so distasteful.

They were “nothing,” Trump said. They were “junk.”

They were not, said a man from the Met. “They were irreplaceable architectural documents.”

“Obviously,” huffed an editorial in the Times, “big buildings do not make big human beings.”

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In Bed-Stuy, the Ghost of Robert Moses is Alive and Well

It’s tricky to write about gentrification. Beyond the genre’s clichés (can you avoid the well-meaning, clueless pour-over barista?), there’s often a tension lurking between the stories of real people (whether the displaced or the invaders) and the broader, structural conditions that produce their respective urban migration in the first place. At n+1, an excerpt from Brandon Harris’ new book on Bedford-Stuyvesant draws a nuanced picture of one of the current epicenters of gentrification in the U.S. He shows how complex this phenomenon is on the ground (with various configurations of race, class, and personal history coming into play), and how inextricable it is from processes that started decades ago, including the discriminatory urban-planning policies put into place by 20th-century “Master Builder” Robert Moses.

In late August, Highline Residential, a realty company that was spending significant amounts of money developing Bedford-Stuyvesant properties, released a promotional video called This Is Bed-Stuy, in which smiling blond twentysomethings give a “neighborhood tour.” Many longtime residents found the video—in which the pair of pale hosts sip expensive coffee and brunch cocktails at recently opened establishments while offering testimony to the neighborhood’s amenities and vibrancy—deeply offensive, seeing no mention of the institutions with which they associated Bed-Stuy. Highline Residential didn’t give a shit about them, the general sentiment went, other than wondering when they’d get the fuck out. Suddenly New York magazine and the Daily News were falling over themselves profiling entire blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant real estate, interviewing generations of owners and tenants, publishing op-eds by black journalism professors who had long lived in the district, and interviewing women who had been pushed out to East New York, or all the way to the Rockaways. [Robert] Moses, and the forces of history that animated his mindset, would drive the dispossessed right out of this city if the market allowed.

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A Love Affair with a Prince Soundtrack

At Catapult, Michael Gonzales offers an account of Prince’s career of hits with a touching personal history of the writer’s own years as a music journalist and his eight-year romantic relationship with publicist Lesley Pitts. The couple bonds over a shared love of books, cocktails, and, of course, Prince, before Pitts’ untimely death in 1999.

Playing a silly game with myself, I calculated that in 1999 I would be thirty-six years old, which to my then-nineteen-year-old self sounded ancient, dusty as an old record. If I’d had access to a crystal ball, what exactly would I see in my future? Would I be a famous novelist chatting with Dick Cavett on PBS? Would I be married to my college girlfriend Denise and living in Long Island with our badass kids? Or who knows, maybe Prince was on some Nostradamus shit and the sky really was going to turn purple, followed by destruction.

In the real 1999, while the planet didn’t perish that year, for me and the small world I inhabited, it all came to a screeching halt on August 3rd, two months after my thirty-sixth birthday, when I was riding in the back of the ambulance with my long-time girlfriend Lesley Pitts. Lying on a gurney, she was being rushed from our first-floor Chelsea apartment on 22nd Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital, after she complained of a headache and shortness of breath. Leaning over her, I grunted something reassuring.

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At McSorley’s: Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes, and Psychos

At Hazlitt, Rafe Bartholomew tells the story of his father, Geoffrey Bartholomew, who felt that his alcohol addiction and his bartending job at famed McSorley’s in New York City had prevented him from achieving the dream of becoming a writer. Bartholomew quit the booze but not the bar, and self-published a volume of poetry: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. In this poignant story of ambition, regrets, fathers, and sons, Rafe recounts how Bartholomew found his voice by mining the humanity of the “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos” who frequented the bar.

The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.

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Is That a Pillowcase Full of Human Hair, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

a collection of wigs, in different lengths, styles, and h

Annie Correal’s New York Times story on the last of New York’s custom wigmakers has a little bit of everything—celebrity gossip, history, international trade, religious scandal, trash-talking Italian wig artists*, and the sentence “Nicholas Piazza keeps 600 pounds of hair in his Staten Island garage.”

The three-foot braids in Mr. Piazza’s garage came into his possession in the mid-1990s. One day, two Russian men appeared in his shop carrying suitcases. “Natural blonds, natural reds, straight off people’s heads,” he said. It was the kind of hair known in the industry as “liquid gold” — Caucasian hair untouched by Western chemicals, long and remy. “I say, ‘Whoa, fellows, you don’t have to go no further; let’s talk.’”

Of his Russian dealer’s shipments, Mr. Piazza recalled: “Sometimes it came stitched in pillows. Sometimes he would ship 20, 30 kilos of hair at a time. Sometimes I’d be going to an apartment in Brighton Beach at 2 in the morning or meeting a plane at Kennedy. He’d hand me a suitcase, and I’d hand him an envelope.”

* My new favorite insult: “hairpiece finagler.”

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The Fuzzy Chinese Face That Transcends Political Divisions

a sleepy panda bear that seems to be smiling

In New York City, Representative Carolyn Maloney and 450 rich people gathered at the Waldorf Astoria to raise money toward the one thing that brings everyone together: adorable, roly-poly panda bears. Politics be damned: everyone loves a panda. Carl Swanson wrangled an invitation to the Panda Ball to give you the inside scoop in New York magazine.

The event was to raise money — $50 million is the estimated goal — to bring a couple of pandas to live in Central Park. The dream had proved unbelievably flexible: Democrats for pandas, Republicans for pandas, and, above all, New York (and Chinese) money for pandas; pandas as cuddly “Can’t we all just get along?” political metaphors and icons of world trade; pandas for peace and mutual respect, and the branding opportunities that could bind rival empires together, but in any event pandas who could never be pressed into military service over the islands in the South China Sea. Pandas as crowd-pleasing trophies of city pride (the D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis zoos have them, but the Bronx Zoo last had them, and only briefly, in the late 1980s); pandas as paragons of a kind of toddlerlike, clumsy innocence — we must protect them! — and of conservationism (there’s a reason the World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its logo; without human support, it’d be hard for them to even survive the Anthropocene). This is all besides their being such adorable plushie fluff (for those fluffy people who were hoping to make their world a little fluffier again). Who knows why we are supposed to care about these sleepy-eyed creatures, really — though we instinctively tend to — much less how practical this grand panda dream is. The important thing seemed to be that, emerging bleary-eyed and anxious from the election season, New York’s powerful people had to care about something uncontroversial, had to gather together at charity galas and sit in those faux-bamboo chairs at the benefit for some reason. And suddenly the list of inoffensive causes had shrunk so radically that it seemed maybe a couple of fat black-and-white bears — who eat almost exclusively what is the world’s least nutritious vegetation and who take a rather lackadaisical approach to procreation — were the only thing these people could agree on anymore.

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Celebrating New York City’s Early Soul Food Celebrity Chef, Princess Pamela

To Taylor, Princess Pamela’s story is a case study in examining who controls narratives of excellence in cooking. For decades, the chains of influence and power in the culinary sphere have remained static and white, and so have those sentries who dictate the worth of certain people’s contributions. (That it took two white, male celebrity chefs to resurrect this book and assert its worth within the literary marketplace only confirms this.) “Food media tends not to focus on black stories and black cookbook authors,” Taylor says. “There are dozens more waiting to be told.”

It is a refrain I hear from countless others: that her narrative’s descent into obscurity is indicative of a greater systemic ill that plagues America’s culinary memory. It is a memory prone to historical amnesia. Look no further than Princess Pamela, a woman no one noticed was gone. It’s as if they weren’t even looking.

At Food52Mayukh Sen recounts the glory years of Manhattan’s best DIY soul food restaurant, Little Kitchen, and tries to understand the final years of its beloved proprietor, who left without a trace.

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