Next year’s model

My three sons and I went to the New York International Auto Show. I’m not sure how “international” it was—the most exotic thing I saw was the family from Union City, New Jersey whose Nike sneakers were made in Southeast Asia.

But it was indeed an auto show: there were lots and lots and lots of autos. Red ones, blue ones, silver ones, black ones, white ones, yellow ones—many, many colors like these. And there were large cars, small cars, cars in the middle somewhere. They all had black tires, and most ran on gas. Most of them seated between two and seven people, but there was a big black one that could seat twelve, plus three magnums of champagne, six egos, and four sets of spike heels.

8264404990_cc31b9674f_bThe show cost $5 for kids and $15 for adults, which was very affordable, especially in light of the NYC museum option at $20 a pop, which most people don’t realize is an option and not a requirement. But of course, the price of a ticket to the auto sale—I mean show—didn’t include admission to adulthood in the form of a new car when your suburban kids turn 16, insurance for a teenager, or the cost of several thousand gallons of American blood seeping into Iraqi sand.

As you enter the Javits Center, to the left of the New York Post subscription tent, are a couple of black limousines. You must be at least 5’9” to see them, however, for a vast group of tall and wide men—somewhere between 25 and three hundred individuals—is clotted in front and mostly blocking the view. Most of the men are pretending to look at the limousines and not at the two women in red dresses who are standing in front of the vehicles. Of course, the limousines don’t move much, and the women occasionally do. (The women are real, by the way.) These women have bodies that have been carefully crafted by the best car designers over the years—designers with names like Ferrari, Porsche, and Kia. Their lines, curves, and headlights are the mood and imagination and temperament of the driver drawn, molded, and cast by these famous designers. These two women embody what men want most. They want to go fast, with Van Halen playing, and they want their friends (and enemies) to see them doing it. And fortunately for these men, the old model at home—when it wears out or needs more maintenance than it’s worth, when it makes too many loud noises that grate on the nerves, when its parts start coming loose, when it embarrasses him in front of the neighbors, when it frankly gets to be too much damn trouble to do anything with but abandon the motherfucker along the Pulaski Skyway—well, in that case they can pick up a nice, new, shiny red one at a dealership off I-95.

Just like the one they’re pretending not to look at.

Because, let’s face it: none of these men will ever ride in one of the limos.

The other cool thing about the New York International Auto Show was the people themselves. There were people of all shapes and sizes who drove in from at least thirty—maybe even forty—miles outside Manhattan. Traversing the Hudson or East River, they each paid bridge and tunnel tolls to use structures that were built in the 20th Century with bond financing and the promise that once the structures had recouped their cost they’d be free. But when you’re a municipality and your drug is nickels and dimes in the ‘50s and quarters and dollars now, it’s hard to go cold turkey.

Well, back to people.

What was really neato about all of them was that each man in a grey sweatshirt who drove in by himself, or each young couple—man with bejeweled arm around woman’s neck—or each family, kids not gawking at the city but at vehicles that they saw thirty miles earlier in front of an I-95 dealership but which were displayed so much more nicely here—each individual or group didn’t bother anyone else. They obediently followed the carpet around each of the four levels and stuck to themselves—didn’t bother anyone and didn’t much look at anyone else. They were very civil. Model citizens. They talked among themselves, laughed among themselves, and even went over to the many different food carts and bought salty pretzels or Häagen Dazs bars and ate among themselves. They were good neighbors: they had good walls.

It was time for Teak and me to go home. His two brothers stayed with friends who were also there.

We walked outside, into sunshine. A couple with an elderly parent and their 5-year-old son were also leaving. The father said to the boy, “We’re in New York City, Joey! We can hop in a cab and do anything! Wanna go to The Lego Store? Toys R Us?”

We walked through the exit—signs explained, “You are now exiting the Auto Show, no re-entry.”

Teak said, “Dad, can I sleep on the subway?”

“Yes. Of course.”

But there was no easy way to get to the subway. The Javits Center is road-locked by the river to the west, Port Authority to the northeast, cars and tunnels and cars and parking lots and cars racing down 11th Avenue all around us. I looked around and honestly did not know how best to get my sleepy child home.

Finally a nice man in a yellow car offered to give us a ride.

When we arrived at our apartment, I paid him handsomely, and Teak and I walked upstairs.

photo: Flickr Commons


Unhurried and very aware

Still working my way through Robert Caro’s tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.  We’re at the section—in the 1950s and ’60s—where Moses is “hacking his way” “with a meat ax” through neighborhoods to make room for superhighways that are 200+ feet across.  Caro is describing East Tremont in the Bronx, the kind of place that most of us starry-eyed urbanists only dream of living in (to hear Caro’s sympathetic portrait of it).

It’s easy for a reader like myself, who loves the idea of the city (sometimes more than the city itself) and the experience of it, to be wistful as he hears about the vibrancy of yesterday’s neighborhoods and also to be envious as he considers what painstaking research Caro must have been able not just to endure but also to enjoy in order to word-paint such portraits of them.  Going through Moses’ old Triborough Bridge Authority records on Randalls Island or in a Chambers Street archive or held at the NYPL (wherever they keep them) thrills some of us—writers who like to be alone with people and things of the past who change only when our keystrokes change them. And interviewing people who were “there” can be both invigorating and saddening.

When reading about the city—both the city of the past and the city that “could be” that we see in blogs about sustainable cities, walkable cities, the City of God and the city of man—it’s never about being “present” in the city around you.  Reading about the city is about making sense of things.

For presence, I walk.

Sometimes things make sense, sometimes they don’t. But I often don’t have time to make sense of them; I try—in my best moments—to just let them happen around me as an observer.

Walking the sidewalks removes me from Armchair City Adoration and places me into a state that Tony Hiss (author of The Experience of Place) calls “simultaneous perception,” an almost zen-like movement through physical space where one is calm and experiencing the things and people nearby in an unhurried and very aware state.  Holly Whyte, in City: Rediscovering the Center, wrote earlier and similarly about walking in New York City:

The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit. …He moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so. Think of the orders and computers it would take to match him! Transportation engineers are spending millions on developing automated people-mover systems. But the best, by far, is a person.

We move through city space in Whyte’s way—autonomously aware of others’ vector changes—and in Hiss’s as well: we are aware of fellow walkers’ facial and fashion details and of aspects of buildings and street-level stores.

In this way, I can walk even familiar territory on the Upper West Side and enjoy simultaneous perception: getting off the train at 86th and Broadway (having known exactly which car on the northbound #1 to get onto so that I can easily get to the turnstiles at my stop); ascending the staircase with seemingly hundreds of others—a sudden burst of urban blood bursting through a narrow capillary that was barely widened by MTA workers last spring, a capillary that, when shut down during work, caused almost a stoppage in flow on the alternate staircase and underground heart attack—only to emerge and call Karen (“I’m off the train; want anything at the store?”); crossing Broadway with many of those others even though we pedestrians have the red hand (formerly “Don’t Walk” in a literate society) sign, knowing how long northbound taxis and other vehicles will take to reach us before we reach the median; passing Euclid Hall seniors and disabled, whose presence is ubiquitous enough in Mama’s Famous Pizza next door and in front of their own building to appear even on the street view in Google maps; getting then to Broadway Farm for a gallon of milk and grimacing at the prices we pay (we vow to switch to Key Foods one block out of our way) but reveling almost unaware at buying from a place that employs a Moroccan, several Dominicans, Pakistanis and a Caribbean Islander all under one roof consistently between Olympic Games; then back outside deciding to navigate either in front of the Victoria Secret windows and their Amazon-tall flesh-posters or past the Jewish restaurant that has always intrigued me but never appealed to me to dine in; deciding for Broadway and walking past the Origins store—pumping enticing cologne at us from vents—Baked By Melissa, and Coach; turning the corner to see the local homeless man defecating between cars on the south side of 84th Street in front of Ouest’s service entrance; then finding my body move into a steady rhythm as I walk downhill to West End Avenue, to our block, and then the final approach to our building.  A stiff Hudson River-born wind blows up the bluff in Riverside Park, over the Promenade and then leaps the schist wall on Riverside Drive to meet me as I walk westward.  I notice the white-wire holiday lights on the stoop of one brownstone.  The scaffolding (“sidewalk sheds,” they call them) across the street on the south moves along the block from building to building like a worm’s sheath, fertilizing each townhouse and making it more marketable.

A few feet from our stoop, the temperature drops about ten degrees.

I reach our building and pause inside the vestibule to dig in my right front pocket for my keys.  I am almost sad—glad to be home but missing already the intimate connection with the city I’ve had for the past seven to ten minutes.

It’s been a daytime romance.

It now becomes only an idea while I rest at home.

I write in sentences and carriage returns instead of think in paragraphs.

Curry dip in a jelly jar

“But he doesn’t need deodorant,” my father said.

“My love.” Mom sometimes used their term of endearment as punctuation. I was standing next to her. “My love. You don’t have to wash his shirts.” The kind of shirts worn by a husband and two sons and borne along New York City sidewalks in July and on subway platforms that were infernal practically year-round.

The next day I had deodorant, no doubt purchased by Dad at the Herald Square Korvette’s along with the store-brand toothpaste that never really foamed up in your mouth even if you wet your brush with hot water.

Though my parents were raised in somewhat different economic circumstances, each had respect for how money was spent and what was considered a necessity. Whether they had air conditioning or not during their youth was beside the point. (They didn’t.) What mattered now was whether it was more important than something else, like planning March vacation on the north fork of Long Island (which to this day seemed like one of their more budget-conscious choices for recreation with pre-teens). They didn’t spend money based on the assumption of either an ever-widening revenue pie, or the deceiving lull of a deepening debt pit. Both were born in the 1920s and remembered the Depression—my father in ‘21 and my mother in ‘25. He had to quit college during his junior year at Hamilton to support his family after his father died. His mother had died when he was nine and still an only child. His father re-married and the couple added two brothers and a sister. My mother grew up enjoying an opulent Rhode Island vista of East Greenwich Bay. Her father and mother both lived into their mid-80s. He retired at 45 as a successful car dealer and day trader; she played golf and had an electric putting machine in a living room covered by plum-colored carpet. The machine would spit the ball back out at you if you sunk it.

My father knew the hardships of the 1930s and my mother knew of them—they both lived through World War II and lost friends and family—and decades later each translated their respect for money into how they decided about air conditioning, deodorant, and undershirts. My father used to go to the Odd Lots store across from Grand Central Terminal and buy pickles or sardines by the case (which he would store under my brother’s and my beds) or pastel neckties or dress shirts by the three-pack, which he’d give my brother and me for Christmas as the “practical” present alongside the Action Jackson soldier dolls we wailed for just so we could later decapitate them during brilliant feats of bravery behind enemy lines or hold their heads over the kitchen stove burner to torture them as an interrogation technique. Death, for Action Jackson, always involved the head and neck.

My maternal grandfather, Poppa, was rich and frugal, and he seemed to wear the same khaki trousers every day I saw him during 18 years of summer vacations. The Chrysler Town & Country station wagon that heard me at six singing along with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on Poppa’s car radio was also the one that cradled me in the front seat nursing a hangover during college vacation. My mother learned from Poppa how to play competitive bridge and pick stocks, learning about odds and mercilessness and a poker face and how not to lose. She was a doting mother but gave no quarter during card playing. My father’s penny-pinching flowed from his becoming the family breadwinner at twenty: largely responsible for a stepmother and three siblings.

So a 1970s NYC heat wave descended upon our Upper East Side apartment, which seemed to happen more in my childhood memories of the city than it does now, it encountered a militia of appliances that was well past its time of honorable discharge. We never needed extension cords or multiple plugs. It was not surprising that the best my brother and I could hope for was floor and window fans (probably mustered at Odd Lots or Korvette’s for the 1975 equivalent of $9.95 each). We’d have one framed in the window over 96th Street and its loud crosstown traffic and one on the floor positioned to pull air from the bedroom into the hall. The idea was to create a 90-degree wind tunnel, which was better than a stagnant Turkish bath. Thick city air and the gas-metallic grind of revving Harleys at the red light were blown in at us while we slept sprawled in our white Fruit of the Looms on top of sheets that melted over the sides of our beds and into rippled pools on the carpet.

On a sticky Saturday afternoon, when my brother and I would watch Japanese monster movies on TV and sip Cokes from the deli downstairs, and when she was not reading the Times or playing solitaire, my mother would walk around the apartment in her panties and bra, carrying a vodka-and-tonic and smoking Virginia Slims. We thought this was normal. My father would stay in the kitchen, overhead light off, listening to “classical radio WQXR-FM” and its Texaco-sponsored opera program, slowly chopping carrots diagonally and placing them in a water-filled glass jelly jar. We’d eat them that night with his curry mayonnaise dip.

Neither his tasks nor her leisure needed take so as long as they did. But each lingered at them until dusk, when the sun would begin to drop behind the pre-war buildings across Madison Avenue and the shadow of a water tower would creep by inches from the living room down the hallway and toward our bedroom.

photos: No known copyright restrictions; Maidenform

Pattern #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket”

Walking from the 9th Avenue bus to the office, I noticed—I mean noticed—for the first time a block with wonderful “place” qualities and the potential for more.

29th Street between 9th and 8th.

On the north side of the street nearer to 9th, there is a row of brownstones with full, leafy trees in their front yards. This by itself in center-city Manhattan is uncommon. The homes face south, obviously, overlooking a ribbon of park that undulates as 28th winds north among low-income housing towers and a geriatrics unit. There’s a 7-foot high chain link fence to your right as you walk along the south side of 29th toward 8th Avenue. A mid-20s Taiwanese homeless-looking guy with a white Styrofoam deli container sits on the sidewalk against the fence; he is holding a chicken drumstick and pulling meat from the bone with his teeth. His legs are open like a V; his shirt is open and his chest is dirty.

I would remove about six to eight parking spaces, which would result in only a reduction of 0.016% of the more than fifty thousand metered spaces in NYC. (Those folks can bloody well park near the new New York Yankees stadium, which has garages that accommodate 9,000 cars but are usually around 60% full (Source: Crain’s).

I would then expand the sidewalk accordingly.

In that widened sidewalk area would go a row of benches, interspersed with concrete Chess/Checkers tables. There are a lot of men who congregate at Chelsea Park one block west who would jump at the chance to sit here and play chess, smoke cigarettes, and talk. Mothers from the projects would go and sit. I would open the fence so geriatric patients could be wheeled over to watch the homeowners to the north who are planting geraniums. Their wheelchairs would face those gorgeous trees that are so stunning yet are underappreciated for lack of an audience.

Right now, only the Taiwanese guy is in a position to see them. And he’s more interested in his chicken.

In “A Pattern Language,” architect Christopher Alexander describes “Activity Pockets (#124) and “Sitting Circle” (#185). The above suggestion forms #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket.” It’s characterized by a one-way street, not busy, bisecting two sidewalks that have seating areas whose users can see each other and interact.

photos: Google map, manipulated in iPhoto, and H. Freeman

Pattern #69.2—“Curbside Parlor”

The addition of a bench around the tree completed the public space.

Had you been walking east on 12th Street between Avenues A and B and passed Northern Spy prior to that time, you might have kept staring down at your iPhone and noticed a restaurant on your left only peripherally.

Oh. Gotta check that menu on my way back from the meeting, you tell yourself. But you don’t, because you walk back to 14th Street via Avenue B. You don’t remember Northern Spy until the next meeting.

Yet, with the bench around the tree you are likely to check who, if anyone, is sitting there; whether there’s a dog tied up to the bike rack that immediately precedes the bench and whether it’s a lab or a pug; and whether anyone is exiting or entering the restaurant. You look through the plate glass window and try to determine whether those you see inside look like you or like those you aspire to become, so that perhaps you’ll eat there next time. You are approximately 52% more likely—I made that up—to stop at that moment and check the menu. Which makes it 50% more likely that indeed you will ever check the menu at Northern Spy.

The addition of this bench, therefore, has created a new space in front of the restaurant. There are benches on either side of the entrance facing out to the street. So there are two areas to sit in—the tree bench and the benches against the façade. But this combination—not possible with just the entrance benches and a row of cars or, worse, empty curb—creates a third human space.

It creates what I am going to call a “curbside parlor.”

It’s a bit like Christopher Alexander’s “Public Outdoor Room” (pattern #69) and a bit like a “Flow Through Room” (#131) but located outside a building. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist in his book, “A Pattern Language.” Yet it very much makes that stretch of concrete which is otherwise a pedestrian thoroughfare—not a bad thing—into a locus of social intercourse.

It makes that concrete space come to life.

This tree bench and the restaurant itself with its benches create a “parlor” in between where people can congregate. Most of those people are ostensibly connected somehow to the restaurant: they are waiting for their table or they stopped to talk to a friend who is. But it’s possible that some of the people sitting or standing near there are neighbors who live above the restaurant. Maybe their roommates don’t like them to smoke cigarettes inside the apartment, so they have to go downstairs and onto the sidewalk, but until the tree bench came along, they had nowhere to sit and smoke. There are no stoops here.

(New Yorkers who smoke, after all, may soon find themselves huddled on a dedicated barge in one of the rivers. There, or living on Staten Island.)

The word “parlor” comes from the Old French parleor or parler (meaning “to speak”). It originally meant, “a place set aside for speaking with someone, an audience chamber” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1993, via Wikipedia). This outdoor urban parlor, extending to the curbside, bottlenecks foot traffic in a mostly pleasant way, allowing for people who may not normally speak to do so, and it creates an “audience chamber.” It also increases the likelihood that people like me will stop and check the menu.

A new pattern: #69.2, “Curbside Parlor.”

photo: Google & manipulation by H. Freeman in Instagram

Urban Flight [abstract]

My American friends told me that Hong Kong was ‘like New York on steroids.’

Having grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I was skeptical about the Asian city’s intensity or impressiveness. Yet, I must admit I was astounded by China’s ‘Special Administrative Region.’ After 23 meetings in 13 days— all meetings but two held in Central and Wan Chai districts —I knew why the city was known for juicing. I later asked a Chinese friend about this.

“It’s such a dense city,” he said… [more here]

Photo: Surrealplaces

So far…

Wordle: research notes so far on generosity in cities

My first of three weeks in Texas (with Karen’s family) was largely devoted to researching generosity in large cities (online and in texts), and some of the next two will be as well. That is, when we’re not swimming, eating fried catfish, napping, or looking for deer bones in the woods behind Memaw and Granddaddy’s house.