My continuing quest to see everything in New York City

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Sunday, January 8, 2006

Art at the Edge of Town

New York is huge. The biggest challenge to truly being able to know the city isn’t getting into secured places, or overcoming language barriers. It’s simply the physical area involved. Getting up the motivation to do something fun like climb a bridge is easy compared to schlepping out to somewhere like Breezy Point or Edgewater Park just to see what’s there.

Another one of these far corners of the city is Tottenville, the southernmost point in the city located on the South Shore of Staten Island. It’s about 30 miles from midtown - to put this in perspective, it’s closer to the town where Bruce Springsteen grew up than to Times Square. I drove down there one day with a friend who grew up in the neighborhood.

Like everywhere in New York, it was subject to development pressures. Contrary to what Manhattan-centric people think, the biggest change in New York housing stock isn’t the 40-story luxury condos going up in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, it’s the borough neighborhoods where attached houses are being replaced by small apartment buildings, detached houses are being replaces by 3-unit condos, and (as in the case of Tottenville), a suburban, almost rural, area of medium sized-homes on wooded lots is being replaced by McMansion-style estates built up to the very last inch allowed.

Still, it was a welcome break from my usual explorations - instead of the usual sensory overload that accompanies a new urban environment, this was more like a calming nature walk. After lunch, we headed out to the state park (technically a “unique area”)and beach next to the neighborhood.

One of my favorite things about exploring is finding art in strange places - by a collection of abandoned trains in the Bolivian desert, 100 feet below the Jardins de Luxembourg in the old quarries of Paris, along a remote peninsula in the Bay Area, and now at the very southern edge of New York City. The beach was home to a 15-year project by a local zookeeper - paths and pyramids make of stone that had washed up on shore over the years.

While I love the art museums of the New York, it’s important to be reminded that art exists all over the city: that $20 dollar admission fees and highbrow curators are the exception, not the rule. A day spent at the Met or perusing the art galleries of Chelsea is a day well spent in my opinion. But a day equally well spent is finding other art in the city simply by wandering the streets of the Bronx, or the subway tunnels, or the beaches of the far corners of the boroughs.

This is an age where interesting things cost money, and are easily known and accessible to those who have it. The days of being able to experience a truly magnificent artistic or historical site on your own terms are pretty much over. The drill is the same from Stonehenge, to Machu Picchu, to the Empire State Building: you read about it on the internet, queue up, pay your fare, go through the tzochzke shop, and snap your photos from behind the ropes with all the other tourists.

It’s not the money - I, and I think most people, don’t have a problem paying a reasonable fee to see something interesting. It’s not really even the lack of access - unfortunately, more people means more wear and tear, which means enforcing the “no touching” rule a little more than I’d like. It’s the total commodification of history and art. Instead of these places existing to awe and inspire humanity, they now exist to make as much money as possible. It’s a $5 admission turning into a $20 admission in less than a decade, or having no way to enter, exit, or come within a 50-foot radius without being sold every conceivable variety of souvenir. It’s that sinking feeling when you realize that the historic, spiritual, or artistic merits of one of humanity’s great works have, once again, taken an obvious back seat to its commercial value.

This is why I explore cities - to get away from that feeling. To experience a place on a personal, not commercial, level. It is inexplicably more rewarding to visit a place after investing time, effort, and gumption to get there, rather than just simply investing money. And I greatly, greatly enjoy being part of a community that values this, rather than just being a part of the community that is willing and able to pay.

I can’t say I intend to head back down to Tottenville anytime soon, but I’m sure I’ll find myself on that beach again someday. I don’t think I’ll find a ticket booth or a souvenir stand, but I can’t say I’d be that surprised. Still, it’s OK. The more that interesting things turn into just another way to make money, the more people will keep on searching for the things that haven’t. And hopefully, the more that people like that zookeeper will keep creating them.

Neighborhoods: Tottenville

Tracts Walked: SI244


I love Coney Island. During the summer the boardwalk and amusement parks are obviously a blast (and visited by every self-respecting Brooklyn hipster at least once a season), but the feeling of Coney on a crisp winter morning is my favorite.

One of those mornings I decided to stroll the Boardwalk down past the amusement park area out to the western tip. Western Coney is your typical borough mishmash of high-rise housing projects, newly built small homes, and a few leftover vacant lots and abandoned buildings from the bad old days.

You can always count on Coney for character, for a relief from the generic and soulless feeling that sometimes envelopes you when you work in Midtown. I wasn’t disappointed on this walk, as is evidenced by a scene I ran into halfway down the beach. Now sure, some of the hipster crowd, at least those not too hung over to schlep down to Coney, will go swimming in the Atlantic every January 1st at the annual Polar Bear club. But it takes a certain kind of person (generally fat, old, and Russian) to just hang out on the Boardwalk in 30-degree weather chatting with the locals in nothing but a bathing suit after just having gone for his morning dip.

At the end of the western tip of Coney is a gated community called Sea Gate. Back in the bad old days I’m sure it was a bit tougher to just meander about, but nowadays, despite all the “no trespassing,” and “private property” signs, nobody gives me much of a second look.

After a short walk you come to is one of its landmarks - the old Coney Island lighthouse. It used to have the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the United States until his death a few years ago. Plans to open it to sporadic public tours are apparently in the works as well.

Another one of the landmarks of Coney Island is the Parachute Jump. An old relic from the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, it’s now standing right off the boardwalk in Coney.

Now, when you see something like that at one of your favorite places in the city, you really have little choice but to climb it. Sitting 262 feet above the empty Coney Island boardwalk on a clear winter night, the city off in the distance and the quiet lapping of the Atlantic Ocean the only thing you hear, is an almost Zen kind of experience. And one that reminds you that even though this town can drive you nuts at times, it can also give you moments like these.

But this off-season experience is coming to an end. Redevelopment plans are in the works, and a 365-day-a-year modern amusement district is planned. I wonder if naked old Russian men will still be welcome.

Neighborhoods: Sea Gate, Coney Island
Tracts Walked: B336, B352

Falling Down in the Boogie Down

I can't believe it. I'm going to die, and in the stupidest way possible.

It goes without saying that there are certain hazards when going nutty places. The two big ones are getting arrested and dying. I'm of the mind that if you haven't gotten a little taste of both, you aren't challenging yourself enough. I always thought my taste of death would at least be somewhat glamorous – dodging a subway at the last minute, slipping while climbing up a suspension cable, that sort of thing. Instead, I've idiotically taken a blind step backward and fallen through a hole in the floor.

The Bronx has always been my favorite borough, and is certainly the most unappreciated. It's where my roots are, my family first settling on Kelly Street during the 1920s – an area that later contributed two of the most important cultural innovations in the history of New York: Hip-Hop and Salsa. It has a distinct topography and a demographic pattern that's fascinating. And it's the borough where you're most likely to still find any kind of interesting abandonment, such as a gorgeous old courthouse in a still-dilapidated area of the South Bronx.

I made sure to pass by this courthouse every once in a while, always seeing if there happened to be a way in this time. Once again, timing and patience pay off: a sloppy job securing the back door leads to entrance. Without a flashlight, I decided to back off, call a couple of other people, and head back in with them the next day. The place is next to a police station, so we're a little tense as we check the surroundings, negotiate the door, and head on in. I start to relax. This is going to be fun.

We civilized folks have internalized a great many habits and axioms that we aren't even aware of when it comes to the built environment. One of these axioms is that in a building, a railing surrounds the hole in the ground that is used for a staircase going down – therefore we unconsciously walk around without worrying about falling into said holes in the ground all around us – in fact we probably don't even think of the floor as having “holes.”

This axiom about railings turns out not to be true in abandoned Bronx courthouses. I only fall for a fraction of a second, but I'll remember that fraction of a second for the rest of my life. And I'll remember the lesson learned: never get comfortable in a place not meant for everyday use. Never take a thoughtless step.

I end up falling about 6 or 7 feet. Blind luck dictates I don't land on a step corner or bash my head open. Instead, I land the best way possible – like a pro wrestler. Flat on my back, on a relatively even surface. There's one quick flash of blinding pain, and then I feel like I've just gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. I try wiggling my toes to make sure I'm not paralyzed. Everything seems to work. I temporarily consider abandoning my upbringing as a staunch atheist.

I scramble out of the hole and manage to croak that I'm OK. “Just let me lie down a minute.” I say. I don't want to be the party pooper after all. Who wants to go do fun stuff with someone that's going to pack up and go home at the first little brush with quadriplegia? Still, I lag pretty far behind. It hurts like hell to breath. It hurt to breath for the next three days.

We head on through the courthouse, finding old jail cells and beautiful detailing. We unsuccessfully hunt for a way up to the roof for a while, and then decide to call it a day. I still feel like I've been beaten like a gang initiate. As we walk to the subway I decide the best course of action is to head to the nearest hospital and make sure I haven't cracked a couple ribs.

Despite having health insurance, I make the idiotic decision to go to Harlem General, mostly because I know it's only a 10 minute ride on the train we're taking. Six hours later, I'm still in the waiting room, and it still hurts to breathe.

The other folks in there are mostly the uninsured waiting for non-emergency related care. One young lady who needs a bunion removed is astounded when I tell her my story. “I'm sorry, but you're stupid” she says. I don't take much offense at this – I certainly was stupid. But according to the lady, it's not, as it turns out, for the reason I thought.

“How did you not call an ambulance? You know you're not getting any money now, right? You've got to call the ambulance if you want to try to catch a settlement.” I hadn't even thought about that until she brings it up, but I have no regrets. There's a deal all responsible urbanists have with themselves: you grant yourself the privilege to go where you want, but you take complete responsibility for yourself when you do.

A few years later I go back to the courthouse as part of an official event. The jail cells have been ripped out, and I still can't find a way onto the roof. The hole where I fell is covered with a board - the place has been prepped for at least temporary human occupation. Still, I make sure not to take any backward steps this time.

Neighborhood: Morrisania
Tracts Walked: BX141