I have never lived in the suburbs. I don’t drive. I love New York way too much to ever change either of these two things. However, I do make bi-annual pilgrimages to my aunt and uncle’s house in Larchmont, New York. Despite my agnostic, nonreligious Jewish upbringing I celebrate Christmas and Easter there every year.
My journey always begins on my iphone checking the MTA website for train times. This inevitably leads to me deciding I can sleep a little bit more before the next train. I always miss this train and end up waiting for the next one. These days I get the train from Grand Central, a short citibike ride along the east river from my Alphabet City dwelling. However, growing up on the upper west side I would catch the train in Harlem at the 125th street station. I much prefer the layout, and smaller nature of the 125th station. The view from the single raised platform is far preferable to sweating in my coat underground while navigating a confusing maze of crammed hallways. For all the romanticism about Grand Central the place really sucks. I find the ugly, modern Penn Station far more intelligently designed and navigable. Twice I have managed to get on the wrong, express train which bypasses Larchmont and proceeds straight to Stanford Connecticut. As a thirteen year old this proved a somewhat nerve racking experience. As a twenty two year old it was annoying and embarrassing.
Once I arrive in Larchmont I always opt to walk rather than call somebody to pick me up. Larchmont is a very pretty suburb. Its roads are never straight and are all dissimilar. Somewhat intentionally I always take a longer than necessary route than necessary. The winding roads tend me lull my attention to sleep. The whole town is green. It’s prime feature is its waterfront. Gazebos lines the sound overlooking a natural harbor. Despite being a suburb on paper Larchmont has its own distinct local identity. Larchmont avoids the monotonous, repetitive suburban culture one expects from a town centered around a commute to a nearby city. That it is only twenty five minutes away by train never ceases to amaze me.
The particular element of Larchmont that makes it unique for a suburb is its lack of a dependency on cars. My cousin goes to high school in the city everyday without ever using a car. You are also able to go to the movies, get dinner, go shopping or go to the park without getting in a car. Larchmont exists in a warm neighborly bubble. It is loved by its residents for reasons far beyond its proximity to Manhattan. It feels like I imagine a town would feel in the early 20th century. Larchmont is a destination not just a transitional location. I see the degree of comfort in my cousins who were raised there and it is abundantly clear that Larchmont is a home.
The first time I was exposed to Stuytown I joked that it was just a really expensive project. My friend corrected me. He said it was a really expensive, safe project. In the years since my first exposure I have ended up in various Stuytown units sporadically throughout my time at NYU. I always found the blue light system and rental cops are an interesting juxtaposition to the east village. I also found the circular roads particularly confusing at night.
This past year in an interesting turn of events my part time job assisting in operations of a recreational basketball league lead me to Stuytown. This winter Stuytown experimented with winterizing their outdoor basketball courts. This amounted to putting up two massive bubbles up like the ones traditionally adorning tennis courts. My job was specifically to drum up interest from Stuytown residents in participating in our league. If we got a high enough percentage of Stuytown residents in the league the discount we would get on the space would save my boss a lot of money. However, while sign ups for our new downtown division of our league were very strong the number of Stuytown residents interested in participating in a league in their backyard at a discounted rate were disproportionately low. My boss wasn’t happy and I didn’t have an answer for him.
I presently live at 328th E 4th street and commute regularly using citibike. I particularly enjoy riding through Stuytown despite the not biking signs scattered throughout the development. The quiet winding roads are a nice alternative to hubbub of 14th street. However, no matter what time of day I ride through I find the street life disappointing. I see the space as a massive missed opportunity. I can’t understand how the community aspect of Stuytown, which I imagine as the primary perk that comes with the disproportionately, goes consistently under utilized. From what I can gather safety, or likely more specifically, peace of mind is the primary motivation for inhabiting Stuytown.
Reading Lewis Mumford’s initial “nightmarish” reaction to Stuytown I at first found his critiques hyperbolic. However, the fact that Stuytown residents leave their shared public space so underutilized certainly backs his claims. I can see that the closed in nature of the units, which is key to the all important safety of the units is simultaneously responsible for the uninviting nature of the public spaces within the development. As Mumford points out the Stuytown was deliberately exclusive from its outset. He humorously explains that “In order to make the Metropolitan’s control over this feudal domain absolute and inevitable, a public school and two parochial schools in the territory were also demolished. Now no citizen of New York may set foot with Stuyvesant Town except by permission of the owners, and a private police force is on duty to exercise, if the proprietors require it, this control.” This sounds more like police state than a housing complex. It is clear to that the Stuytown is a vicitim of its own stifling.
Throughout my time at NYU my father and younger sister lived in a duplex, penthouse walk up apartment on the upper west side. By far the prominent feature of this apartment was its porch. It sat on the 7th floor perched above the private world of 75th 1/2th street. This space was made beautiful by the shared happiness it fostered in its inhabitants. Those lucky enough to possess even the smallest portion of this shared space contributed by making that place there own and loving it.
More important than the object contributions made by tenants in form of chairs, tables, couches, Christmas lights ect. were the contributions these individuals made by sharing meals and conversations or even simple solitary reflection in this space. On a warm summer night my fathers porch would feel like the best outdoor seat at an impossibly large yet rustic restaurant. The cacophony of conversation would rise beneath you creating a welcome warm buzz. The outdoor space has a distinct spirit colored by shared unwinding. In a busy city shaped by motion this place’s spirit of relaxation sets it apart.
Each morning as those inside the apartments awake smaller winged inhabitants would sing their morning songs. Those lucky enough enough the spend a weekday morning on 75 and 1/2th share a much more tranquil spirit. The birds are the only loud ones. Many enjoy a morning coffee. Some prepare themselves for the day with yoga. Others tend to their space agriculturally. After the earlier morning activity the space slows down. Juxtaposed to the crowd that descends each evening the space is much less occupied during the day.
Throughout my college years I spent plenty of weekday mornings wholly unproductively contributing in my own way to the location’s spirit. Shielded from the wind by the communities southern building barrier I would bask in the warmth of the sun. Such a private space is truly hard to find in New York. Next time I come across one I will surely cherish it. The 7/8 story buildings created a perfect nest, not too tall as to obstruct sunlight yet tall enough to protect from the wind. Aesthetically the height of the buildings is perfect too. With Midtown looming behind as you gazed south the buildings created a perfectly layered foreground.
Of the many places I have lived in New York this porch will stick out in my memory. The feelings it evoked yielded a sum greater than value of the parts we contributed to it. The bench we had on it was old ratty even before I broke it and we never fixed it. Most of the time I would sit on the aged AstroTurf. This place was great because of circumstances out of our control. It faced south in such a way that my dad would joke it was always the warmest spot in the city. Most importantly it sat comfortably atop the vibrant hidden community on 75th 1/2 street.
I lead a privileged childhood in New York. I attended private schools for the entirety of my K-12 career. I lived in a series of nice doorman apartments on the upper west side. Every school I attended was physically unique. As was each building I lived in. However, chess tournaments and recreational basketball lead me to spend countless weekends in different public schools around the city. By knowing the layout of one public school you knew the layout of every public school. They all had the same auditorium. The same cafeteria. The same gym. The same hallways. The same entrance. The only difference between them was where they were. A twelve year old version of me thought this was awesome. A twenty three year old version of me recognizes how inhuman this is.
By making public schools institutionalized New York prepares its youth to simply accept institutionalization blindly from a young age. By denying each school any unique qualities the city makes its schools indistinguishable. This intern limits the ability for a student to develop a meaningful relationship with his or her academic setting. Consequently, that student looses his or her agency with regard to his or her own indistinguishable academic career. Ubiquitous similarity breeds apathy.
Two years ago I had the unique opportunity to participate in NYU’s Lyrics on Lockdown program which culminated in a series of arts workshops at the high school on Rikers Island. That semester I was simultaneously working with middle school aged children at Booker T Washington middle school in upper Manhattan through the America Reads, America Counts work study program. The two facilities were nearly identical. From the chairs, to the tiles to the hallways, everything was the eerily similar, even the bars on the windows.
That year (for reasons I won’t discuss in this forum) I also started making somewhat regular trips to the projects on Avenue D. Spending time inside this institutionalized housing open my eyes to the a third element in this ugly equation. Stylistic similarities create the same Orwellian overtone that comes from Public Schools and Rikers Island High School. The fact that those who grow up in two of these three settings often find themselves in the third setting is an ugly truth. The socioeconomic forces behind this statistical truth are well documented. However, the psychological effects of growing up in impersonal institutions cannot be understated. A toxic culture exists where these locations have agency over the people who inhabit them instead of vise-versa.
It is very easy for me to imagine how growing up in indistinguishable public housing and attending a series of indistinguishable public schools would foster a hopeless, apathetic outlook. Recognizing that the repetitive nature of these settings is deeply connected to this dangerous outlook is paramount. Implementing tenants of place making to Public School and Public Housing is as huge piece to fixing an extremely convoluted relationship between New York city and it’s inner city youth. Simply breaking the uniformity would amount to massive progress.
The upper west side has strict socioeconomic borders. Projects are sprinkled throughout an otherwise entirely upper class neighborhood. As a 12 year old boy the playground basketball courts amounted to my only contact with these neighbors. Though I lived a only a couple blocks away from my courts of choice between 91st and 92nd on Columbus Ave it could often feel like a different world. The fact that my best friend Brian and I could really play ball only added another layer to an existing tension. However, only once in a childhood where I played pick up basketball 2 or 3 times a week did an actual altercation occur.
It all started because it was getting dark and I wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I had the only ball left in the playground and the half dozen other kids left were not so keen on my intended exit. The first time I tried to leave I was talked into another game relatively easily. By then end of this game it was pitch black out. I knew I had gone from pissing my mom off to freaking her out. I anticipated the hostility I was going to encounter when I tried to leave after the second game. I grabbed to ball after game point and jogged towards the exit. However, what I didn’t realize was that the 92nd street exit was already chained shut for the night. Meaning I would have to cross back through the frustrated mob behind me to get out of the fenced in playground. I turned around and made my run for the other exit. It was very clear that I had escalated the situation by running. I was terrified.
As I passed the now ball less court one of the guys I was playing with grabbed me. I was absolutely horrified. I relented and gave up my ball almost immediately. The ball, which had seemed all important just moments earlier now couldn’t have mattered less to me. However, the largest of the the guys I was playing with pulled the kid off of me, scolded him and apologized to me on his behalf. He then put the ball in my hands and grabbed the other boy by his shirt and said he was taking him to see his grandmother.
As a 12 year old boy this experience transformed my view of the projects from scary mystery place grown ups warned me in about ineffable platitudes into simply communities of people. The avuncular, disciplinary nature of the interaction that saved me my basketball proved to me that people are people. There are bad people and there are good people and there isn’t a reason to label somebody as one or the other until they give you a reason too.
New York city is a battle ground of place. Many strong elements of placelessness persist. Relph’s concept of giantism contributing to a lack of human scale can clearly be witnessed in the numbing repetition of identical gargantuan boxes. On the streets examples of Relph’s media and systems transmitting placelessness are ubiquitous. Billboards and flashing lights inundates each and every passersby with propaganda incessantly. To those not yet adjusted to the exposure to the city are overwhelmed.
Below the ground subways serve to transport the great masses of commuters to their respective boxes. Commuters lose their own identity and become part of a stampede of motion. These faceless commuters ignore each other. Human interaction is minimal. At each stop a migration occurs. As the train pulls up to the station commuters push on either side of the subway doors to jockey for position. On the platform impromptu lines form on the right and left of each door. Inside the train there is a scramble as seats evacuated by commuters preparing to exit the train are filled instantaneously.
However, mixed in with this force of the masses are a minority of observers. These observers attempt to make the subway a temporary home. They flock to the warmth and safety of these commuters and the setting of their grand design. They float throughout the subway system to remain unnoticed in their innocent crime. Some attempt to converse with their zombie neighbors and beg or entertain but the forces largely f motion drown them out.
Another battle ground exists on the walls of the platform in the subway. Advertisement stickers line the walls layered on top of each other. Each layer contributing more nothing. However, a human touch attempts to subvert the transmission of these meaningless messages. Graffiti fights to make the platforms places. On rare occasions artists manage to turn the media against itself.
Sponsored decorations also attempt to carve out an identity for each individual station. Each station highlights its numeric or verbal representation with a tiled, repeated name card surrounded by references to elements of where that specific portal leads to. One of the best examples of these naming elements can be observed at the 81st street stop below the Museum of Natural History. Creatures climb along the tile lines that exist in every other station. These signs both alert zombies to their location and give each stop its own visual title.
Some rare stations add to the character of their identities with small iconic pieces of art. Such a station is the 14th street ACE stop. Small metal characters wait on benches and stand among the zombies, mocking them. They disrupt the motion of the commuters and break the mindless state of the commuter. The same way graffiti subverts advertisements these munchkin sized messengers alert commuters to their shared identity. They make the commuter a person for just a split second by turning on their brains. They interact with the zombies much like their living breathing neighbors, attempting to start a dialogue with a silent objection to a persistent norm.
Image Source – Munchkin
Image Source – Museum
In my beach town of Fair Harbor, Fire Island every single house has a bike rack in its front yard. As suburbs have SUVs and driveways we have one speed bikes and bike racks. Because of the salt air gears and hand brakes erode rapidly and subsequently are avoided. The classic Fire Island bike has a very distinctive look. It is a single speed. It is rusted to a point beyond being charming. It has a chain which will come off anytime you put your weight down the pedal. Much like a wild horse these bikes respond much better to a experienced, familiar rider.
There are two basic competing styles of bike rack, sunken and standing;
Every bike rack in the town works from these two basic concepts however, no two are identical. Sometimes the sunken model provides stability for the bikes back wheel sometimes the front. Sometimes the standing rack has a bunch of individual structures for each bike, other times (like in the picture above) vertical beams line a square to create many slots for bikes.
There are pros and cons that inform each owners decision to go standing or sunken. The sunken is definitely the more elegant of the two. However, the standing is undoubtedly the more stable of two. Also cutting in the standing rack’s favor is its capacity for excess bikes. As an owner of a sunken bike rack I envy the superior functionality of the standing bike rack.
However, my father is particularly proud of our sunken bike rack which he built. I must applaud his design. Rather than building a sunken structure (like the photo above) my dad artfully cut out wheel sized holes in a deck. The minimalist in me really appreciates this design. Our rack accomplishes the same task a standing rack does with multiple feet of wood with just a few inches of negative space. This sunken design would be pretty cool if it weren’t for its tendency to damage the wheels on bikes and its intolerance for drunks. Every time I stumble on my bike in the bike rack I bend the wheels on pretty much every bike on the rack, knock them all over and skin my knee.
In town there are two industrial sized standing bike racks. The density of these bike racks can get brutal. In peak season locals avoid these racks altogether because they are viewed as vulnerable to thieving joy riders. Bike crime is Fire Island is entirely driven by these joy riders. Often a lost bike can be found at the turn around, where the cement road ends and the joy riders and forced to continue on foot. Only a few enlightened individuals like me know that you can continue riding next to the ocean on the hard sand at low tide. In the off season my father and I go to this turn around and round up dilapidated bike for parts. We always have 3 or 4 of my dads Frankenstein bikes in our sunken bike rack.
Growing up in New York City my parents moved me from apartment to apartment. For this reason I never grew roots in my homes. They were comfortable but always ultimately temporary. However. Since even before I can remember. Since before my family lived in New York. I have had a home at 448 Riverside Drive, the home of my paternal grandmother. She has lived in her apartment for more than half a century. Her home is my safe place. Just a couple blocks north, and far more visible, is Riverside Church. This church, which stands high above all surrounding buildings, serves a my personal landmark marking my safe place. I always look out for it when fly into New York.
Riverside Church is apparently a somewhat notable institution. This has nothing to do with my relationship with building. I have never set foot inside the building nor do I know anything about the religious or other gatherings that occur there. I am an observer of the church, not an active participant in any of its real functions.
Upon approaching the church more closely I am always reminded of more cold human truths as often a half dozen or so individuals will be huddled wrapped in shaggy blankets in front of the church. I have always found this a peculiar phenomenon given how Riverside is consistently the coldest, windiest spot in Manhattan. The area around infront of Riverside Church is altogether strange. It is the antithesis of the cramped village I now inhabit. Grant’s Tomb ends what looks like was once intended to be a parade route. Huge, consistently underutilized, double sized roads come to an intersection below a walkway fit for a king in a palace. It is extremely rare to see so much empty space in Manhattan. At night it is rare for me to encounter any other people on my walk.
Thanks to my grandmother’s strict no smoking indoors policy walks through the north end of Riverside Park are a part of my regular routine anytime I spend time at 448 Riverside Drive. By far the highlight of these walks is the view of Riverside Church. At night from the steps leading into Riverside Park on 120th street the church completely dominates the horizon in its majestic beauty. I am particularly taken with the church when it snows. Something about the juxtaposition of black and white is truly inspiring. Standing tall Riverside Church represents my corner of Manhattan with pride. It’s beautiful yet dark gothic aesthetic give it an ability to inspire strength and fear simultaneously. It could be taken out of the modern New York skyline and placed in a smaller european city’s skyline centuries earlier and it wouldn’t look out of place.
The subject of this post is timely. I am writing this post from a hostel in New Orleans. I have come down here to celebrate Mardi Gras with a group of my friends. However, I decided to get here two days earlier than anybody I know. This choice was intentional (and not only because the flight was half as much this way). Traveling on my own to a new place is my favorite thing to do. When I do this I am able to temporarily separate myself from my own identity.
I landed in the New Orleans airport in a less than settled state. It is 5 pm. I don’t know where I am sleeping. I found the public bus into downtown New Orleans and started googling Hostels in New Orleans. Unfortunately, I get a call from my father and accidentally let on the precarious nature of my sleeping arrangements. I spent the bulk of the ride into New Orleans getting lectured about how dangerous a city New Orleans is. Apparently I can expect to get robbed, raped and murdered tonight. The combination of my substantial size and youth in New York has made me extremely cavalier in my travels. I tell my dad I am keeping my valuables in my Timberland boots which I wont be taking off and that he should worry about himself. I call a hostel. They have a bed. We nice.
I pull up google maps with the hostel pinned as the bus goes from highway to urban sprawl. I am lucky, the bus takes me to .8 miles from India House, the hostel I called. The walk is short but does affirm the fear my father put in my head. The houses are dilapidated. I get looks. However, google maps gives me solace. I just have to walk a few blocks.
The hostel itself is exactly as I hoped. It ain’t pretty but a bed for 25 dollars a night is a wet dream. The courtyard perpetually smells of marijuana. I need to meet these people. I thank my upbringing in New York for my ability to land in a city and situate myself. New Yorkers don’t necessarily know the entirety of their city off hand. However, we are adaptable to an urban map. Streets are streets. I will never got lost in a city, unless my smartphone dies.
Tomorrow I will explore this city as a stranger. I will not bring Mark Strage’s baggage with me. I will be a blank slate. I will see things as they are, not as they relate to me. Traveling alone in an unknown city is a unique modern experience. You are accepted without question. You do not need to declare a purpose, nor do you need to prove anything to anybody. Seeing a city for the first time is much like sleeping with a new lover for the first time. Weather or not New Orleans proves to be the city its reputation bares it out to be getting to know a new city is always a treat.
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As I have grown up in New York I have always prided myself on my ability to move around it with ease. Growing up I always had a bike. This made me about five times faster than anybody else. Even a cab has nothing on a bike. You just hop on and go whenever you want.
Now as an adult living in New York I feel just as much pride about this ability. Perhaps more accurately I find most of my peers extremely pathetic for their lack of such ability. If you need directions in this city you should be embarrassed . Therefore, you should use your smartphone instead of harassing me with questions that will simply make me mad.
With my Citibike key and Metrocard I can be anywhere in Manhattan inside 30 minutes. In less than a year I have memorized the locations of every Citibike dock in lower Manhattan. I know every subway station inside and out. I know exactly where the exit will be when I get off the train. If I need to make a transfer I know which steps work best for said transfer.
It wasn’t until reading Kevin Lynch that I appreciated both how concrete a map of this city I have in my head and how much this familiarity is tied to my affinity for this city. If I were to draw my cognitive map of this city it would simply be a map. I have called this city home for two decades and I am hoping to continue to do so for half a dozen more. My favorite thing about it is that the subways, the streets and the buses don’t change.
I have a very special relationship with public buses in this city. They are all they same. They have all been the same my whole life. For this reason every time I sit on a bus I feel a contact with my childhood. No bus is any different than any other bus. When I am taking the m14d from Union Square home to Avenue D I could be on the m86 heading home from a play date. The experience is largely the same. For this reason every time I step on a bus I feel good, I feel safe.
I am familiar with this city because it is my home and it is my home because I am familiar with it. When I revisit the upper west side I am struck by how comfortable downtown feels now. I recognize that I no longer need to be in my original home neighborhood to feel the local comfort I grew up with. As my familiarity with lower Manhattan has grown it has become my home.
However, my familiarity doesn’t just make me love this city for sentimental reasons. I know what I love about New York and I am damn good at navigating this city to get it. I can make it uptown to my Grandmother’s apartment on 116th and Riverside from 4th between C and D in less than 30 minutes, this comes from knowing this city and how to use it.