Posts Tagged New York City

Other People’s Cars: Ford Fairlane Squire

Ford Fairlane SquireI found this gem a few weeks ago while I was in Manhattan for the New York Auto Show and took a photo because its an awesome old station wagon parked on West Side Drive.

I’ve been trying to think of something else to say about it, something more significant, but that’s pretty much it.

The wagon in question is a Ford Fairlane Squire, the wagon version of Ford’s mid-sixties midsize sedan. It was built in either 1966 or 1967, the only two years this body style was made.

I’m not sure which engines were available on the Squire, but I bet this one is having a bit more trouble keeping up with New York traffic than it did when it was new.

Yet it looks just fine parked where it is; like the cool kid leaning against a building with one heel on the bricks.

This is why I like walking around cities. You never know what you’ll find.

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Moses Maimonides’ iPad

“Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries” at the Jewish Museum, New YorkRecently, I saw an amazing exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City. “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” shows rare Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic manuscripts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

Among the scores of texts on display were the Kennicott Bible (a magnificently illuminated Hebrew bible) and a book handwritten by the great philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides.

Obviously, these texts were too old and valuable to handle, but luckily the curators at the Jewish Museum had a clever technological solution. Beside each book was an iPad, so visitors could look at every page virtually. It was very cool, and made for a very odd juxtaposition.

It’s harder to get closer to a long dead philosopher than to see a book written in their own unique hand. On the other hand, it’s harder to get farther away from an original text than reading it on a tablet, where code creates the illusion of paper and ink.

Of course, this is all out of necessity: seeing an image of Maimonides’ book is better than not seeing it at all, and few people would even know of Maimonides if his books had never been mass-printed.

Still, it begs a question: What artifacts will the great writers and thinkers of today leave behind? Will the efficiency of typed notes and digital publishing erase the writer’s mark, denying future generations a reminder that great books are a product of human beings?

Digital tools make creating and reading written works much easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean all of the changes it brings will be positive. The printing press made the books on display obsolete, not the Internet, but there’s still a reason why they attract so much attention today.

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A visit to Governors Island

Governors Island juxtapositionWhen I found out that there was a secret military base within a mile of downtown Manhattan, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Governors Island served as a Revolutionary War fort, a prison, and the headquarters of the U.S. First Army and the regional Coast Guard command. For over 200 years, the Island was closed to the public. A few weeks ago, I finally got a chance to visit. It was not what I expected.

Governors Island became a part of American history on April 9, 1776, when soldiers from the Continental Army arrived to fortify the Island (located at a strategic choke point in New York Harbor) to retard the British attack on New York. Those fortifications evolved into Fort Jay (later renamed Fort Columbus), which still stands today.

The Army also stayed. Governors Island remained a military base from the end of the Revolution through the 19th century. Elihu Root, Secretary of War under President (and native New Yorker) Theodore Roosevelt, ordered the expansion of the Island using fill from the IRT subway system, and it eventually became the headquarters of the United States First Army.

The First Army left in 1966 for Ford Meade, Maryland and Governors Island was taken over by the Coast Guard. The Captain of the Port of New York and command staff for the Coast Guard’s Third District called Governors Island home until 1996, when budget cuts forced the government to leave.Fort Jay

Since it had been continuously occupied by the military since the Revolutionary War, Governors Island was off limits to civilians for over 200 years. That changed in the early 2000s, when the National Park Service rechristened the former base Governors Island National Monument.

It seemed like a great opportunity: a chance to explore a virtually unknown patch of land in the middle of America’s busiest city. I was expecting a combination of earthworks and Cold War-style military buildings, all left just as they were when Governors Island was an active base 16 years ago.

Indeed, Fort Jay and the fort/prison Castle Williams still stand. Many of the old buildings from the Coast Guard era are still there too, but are in the process of being torn down. Some had scorch marks on the windows, and were apparently being used in UL testing.

What was surprising was the crowd. I had underestimated New York’s art and hipster cultures’ ability to rapidly colonize. A unicycle festival and a graphic design exhibit were being held the day I went. People lounged in droves on former parade grounds, in the shadow of Fort Jay’s guns and some contemporary sculptures.

One wouldn’t expect tourists to be that interested in military history, and there are other parks in New York that don’t require a ferry ride to visit. There’s a good reason for that, though: the views.

Governors Island is practically in the middle of New York Harbor, and paved trails encircle it. Walking around the Island, you can see all of Manhattan, along with Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. That alone makes Governors Island worth a visit.

Anyone who isn’t interested in great views of Manhattan had better hurry. Most of the buildings are being demolished to add more park space, so Governors Island will soon lose its military feel. Historic buildings like Fort Jay and Castle Williams will remain, of course.

A prime urban exploration site might be lost, but the unique vantage point of Governors Island is the real story, even if it does attract hordes of unicycle-riding tourists and hipsters. It’s also free, so if you’re in New York and evenly mildly curious, you don’t have much to lose.

The ferry (about a 10-minute ride) leaves from the Battery Marine Terminal, the old building next to the depressingly modern Staten Island Ferry terminal. The latter might be more famous, but Governors Island is much more pleasant.

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Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.

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Great Bookstore in Peril

If you wish you were reading this on a piece of paper (I wish I was writing this on one), then here is some unfortunate news. For the week of January 11th, the Village Voice compiled a list of “The 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers,” which included the staff of the St. Mark’s Bookshop.

According to the Voice, the “staff’s jobs are on the line if either of the seemingly inevitable occur: the continued rise of e-books and the fury of Cooper [Union] students at the possibility of having to pay tuition.”

St. Mark’s rents its space from Cooper Union, which gave it a rent reduction reprieve. The highly selective college has traditionally admitted students for free, and it seems unlikely that it would give up one of it’s biggest selling points before raising the bookshop’s rent.

I’m not a fan of e-books; one of the reasons I prefer the printed variety is because it gives places like St. Mark’s a reason to exist. It’s not just a bookstore: it caters to a very specific clientele. You will never find a more complete selection of Emma Goldman texts, or a wider variety of philosophy books. And, especially if e-books take over, you will never be able to rub shoulders with the people who read them. Isn’t it nice to know that you aren’t alone; that other people share your interests?

The avid read will not be able to find the types of books St. Mark’s specializes at Barnes & Noble, and it will be awhile before some of the more esoteric titles get made into e-books. Of course, there’s always Amazon… but who wants to browse for books on socialism without socializing?

St. Mark’s is an unusual bookstore, and for that reason alone it deserves to survive. The Internet is making consumerism much more efficient, but it is also making it boring. Consumerism is the engine that drives the American economy (it’s not like we make anything anymore), and spending all of one’s time buying the same types of items from the same vendors sounds like a form of dystopia.

If the fashion-conscious can have their quirky boutiques, and gastronauts can have bakeries with $5.00 cupcakes, readers deserve to have quirky, physical bookstores. More casual readers may turn to e-books, but those who are more committed to the written word shouldn’t let the unwashed masses drag them down. If you’re in downtown Manhattan, go to St. Mark’s and show your support.

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