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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas in Middle Village

Went to go see the Christmas Lights that were referenced in this article the other day. The author of the article seems quite proud of the fact that "no guidebook mentions these," comparing them to the (relatively) heavily touristed Dyker Heights lights. Well, there's a reason no guidebook mentions them, and it's because they aren't really that noteworthy. It's a lovely block with lovely Christmas decorations. You'll find something similar in almost every neighborhood of the boroughs during this time of year. Much cooler was the gigantic 10-foot-tall snowman we found across 69th street.

I actually enjoyed the article (as well as this one about the Christmas display at the Garabedian's house on Pelham Park North in the Bronx), especially the profiles of the families on the block. But it's certainly not some kind of hidden find, and it's especially misleading to imply it's a display anywhere close to on par with Dyker Heights.

There's certainly something to be said for writing about what you find on a nice Christmas walk through 12 census tracts in Southwest Queens. But such walks are really meant for blogs like this, not the New York Times.

Neighborhoods: Middle Village, Maspeth, Rego Park. Tracts Walked: Q657.02, Q659, Q651, Q655, Q657, Q669, Q671.01, Q671.02, Q679, Q505, Q695, Q687

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lessons on Abandoned Observation Decks - part 2

The history lesson from the South Deck continues on the North Deck with the other 8 signs (and a much better view which you can see here). Numbers 9,11,12,13,and 16 illustrate the loss of the Battle of Brooklyn and retreat of Washington's Army to Manhattan. 14 gives a short description of the skirmishing in Manhattan after the retreat, and 15 is an overview of the Prison Martyrs Monument in Ft. Greene Park. 10 is missing, and has been since at least 2005 when I was first up there.

Format is the same as the south deck - the first photo is the overhead view of the deck showing the placement of the signs. The location of the numbers on the map after that correspond to the relevant sign - red for the Colonists, black for the British, and the arrows are the troop movements. If you're wondering where 14 is, it's on East 33rd describes the British landing in Kips Bay in Manhattan. The signs with the text written out follow (for some reason the formatting works best in Internet Explorer). You can click on the signs for a larger picture.

Each sign consists of text, an illustration, and an image of the area you're seeing. When you're up there, these images provide some interesting glimpses back into history - you can contrast the city as it existed in 1976 when the signs were installed, with what you see before you today. The most obvious of these occur on signs 12 and 13 where the twin towers stand tall in the skyline.

"On August 27th General Washington observed the fighting at Gowanus from the "cork-screw" fort at Cobble Hill, one of the series of fortifications comprising the American "inner line." Overcome with emotion he exclaimed 'Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!'"

"Following the Battle of Gowanus, the Americans retreated to their inner line, a series of fortifications stretching from Wallabout Bay on the North to Gowanus Creek in the South. The "inner line" had been started under the supervision of Lord Stirling earlier in 1776 when it became clear that the British would try to take New York."

"On the evening of August 29th Washington summoned American leaders to the home of Phillip Livingston for a "council of war to decide what should be done. The American outer line had fallen, many troops had been lost in the Battle at Gowanus, the Americans now had 10,000 raw soldiers to face 20,000 well trained British and Hessians, and a total of 1200 guns under Admiral Howe was standing ready to cut off Washington's only route of escape. At the council of war it was decided to withdraw from Long Island immediately."

"All through the foggy night of August 29th, Washington's units silently withdrew from positions along their inner line. Quietly they made their way to the East River where waiting boats and barges ferried them across to New York. If they had known of it, the British could have destroyed Washington's army during this silent retreat. Instead, soon after dawn the next morning the Americans were gone. Washington's brilliant retreat from the western tip of Long Island enabled the American army to fight on - and five years later to prevail."

Meanwhile, the American forces regrouped in New York to defend Manhattan briefly. On September 15th, 1776 they skirmished with the British who landed at Kips Bay and nearly captured Washington. At the battle of Harlem Heights on September 16th Washington temporarily drove the British back, but by November all of Manhattan was in British hands. During the rest of the Revolution the British had their principle headquarters in New York.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Ft. Greene Park stands over the remains of 11,500 Americans who died of sickness and starvation on British Prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay during the seven years New York was British headquarters. the monument stands on the site of Ft. Putnam, a primary fortification on the Americans' inner line during the Revolution. During the war of 1812 the Fort was rebuilt and renamed Ft. Greene.

Here on August 28th and 29th the British mounted cannon and built a small fort 800 yards from Fort Putnam near the corner of Vanderbilt and Lafayette avenue. The existence of this fort and the potential threat from it was a major factor in Washington's decision to call a Council of War the afternoon of August 29th.

Signs 9, 13, 15, and 16 were shot by me. Signs 11, 12, and 14 were shot by Steve Duncan. The photo of the deck from above was shot by Mike Epstein.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lessons on Abandoned Observation Decks - part 1

The first time I got up to the abandoned observation deck of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower was in 2005 when it was still all offices. The 26th floor with the deck was occupied, but luckily the 27th floor above was empty. Once we were up there, we noticed that the deck was actually two different decks - one terrace extended out from the South side of the building, and one from the North side. We went out a window and down a ladder onto the North deck. I was expecting some great views, and perhaps for security to come and escort us out. What I wasn't expecting was a history lesson on the Revolutionary War.

What we were on used to be a public observation deck, and for what I can only assume was the Bicentennial in 1976 16 signs were installed - 8 on each deck. Each sign describes some historical happening of the American Revolution, and points out the area where the event took place on the landscape of Brooklyn some 400-odd feet below. In 1977 the building was landmarked with the signs still up. A short time afterward the deck was abandoned. Since you can see the backs of the signs from the street, they're now considered part of the landmarked facade and can't be removed. So they stick around an abandoned observation deck, a lost little part of an older New York City, waiting to impart their lessons as a reward to the lonely few whose curiosity leads them to venture there. Look up the next time you're in the neighborhood - they're the tiny white rectangles on the gates of the uppermost terraces.

I've since returned many times with many people, and have gotten a full photographic collection of the signs. Each of the signs on the South deck (I'll cover the North deck in part 2) describes a specific action by either the British or Continental army during the early days of the Battle of Brooklyn - together, they illustrate a fairly standard pincer movement by the British. The amazing thing is that as you're reading the descriptions of the battle, you can see the entire terrain - from Staten Island, to Flatbush, to the Gowanus Canal - where it played out 233 years ago.

Below is a photo of the South observation deck from above - each number corresponds to the location of the related sign. To the left is Eastern Atlantic Avenue and Bed-Stuy. To the right is Western Atlantic Avenue, and the Gowanus area. Straight ahead is Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park, and Southern Brooklyn.

The location of the numbers on the map correspond to the relevant sign. Black is for the British Army, Red is for the Continental Army, and the arrows describe the troop movements. The person is where the Observation Deck is located. For those of you not familiar with Google maps, you can scroll around to view the entire area.

View Williamsburgh Savings Bank Signs - South Deck in a larger map

Photos of the signs themselves are below, along with the text. You can click on the photos for a larger picture.

"In July, 1776 a fleet of British vessels landed troops on Staten Island. They were unopposed.By the middle of August a total of 32,000 British and Hessian troops - supported by more than 350 ships in the Harbor - had gathered on the island. It was the greatest assemblage of military and naval armament launched by England up to that time."

"On August 22nd, 1776, 15,000 British and Hessians under the command of General William Howe landed unopposed on the beaches of Gravesend Bay. Another 5,000, mainly Hessians under General Von Heister landed on the 25th. As one observer said, 'the Disembaration...exhibited one of the finest & most picturesque Scenes that the imagination can fancy or the Eye behold.'"

"Soon after landing, a unit of 5,000 British and Hessians under Cornwallis moved to Flatbush to probe the American outer line of defense. The outer line consisted of a terminal moraine, or hill, running diagonally across Brooklyn. Through this hill ran four roads or lanes at low points called passes. American troops were deployed at or near these passes. The Flatbush pass, one mile north of the village church, was at the center of the American outer line."

"By the evening of August 26 General Howe had moved 10,000 men - or one-half his total force - to Flatlands. From there, while the American troops were diverted by probes of his other units at Flatbush and in the Gowanus, he would launch a flanking attack around the unguarded east end of the American outer line."

"On the night of August 26th, the main column of the British Army moved off cross-country from Flatlands leaving their campfires burning. Early in the morning, they captured a small American patrol but, still suspicious that there might be more Americans in the pass, they forced a local innkeeper, William Howard, to show then an alternate way through the hills above the pass."

"About 8:00 AM on the morning of August 27th an American scouting party under Colonial Miles came upon the rear end of the British flanking column moving west along the Jamaica Road. The Americans had been outflanked and would soon be in the gravest peril as the other two British units pressed forward to close the pincers."

"While Howe and Clinton were executing the flanking movement in the east, British General James Grant, with 5,000 troops was moving against the west end of the American line in Gowanus. About 3:00 AM in the morning of the 27th he was discovered on the slopes of the hill near present day 20th street. This was said to be the first formal field confrontation of the Americans with another army."

"About 9:00 AM on August 27th General Grant recived news of the success of Howe's flanking movement and began to strike hard against Stirling's men. Stirling, realizing the imminent convergence of the two enemy units from Flatbush and the east, sent most of his force of 1800 to safety across the Gowanus canal. Keeping some 250 Marylanders, he made a desperate stand near the Vachte Cortelyou house until two o'clock in the afternoon, when he and most of his men were captured."

All photos on this page were taken by Mike Epstein - he's a lot more great shots of the building and view here and here.

Part 2 is here

Thursday, December 3, 2009

NY State Gay Marriage Ban - by the numbers

This post doesn't have much to do with Census Tracts or NYC geography - it concerns the Marriage Equality amendment recently rejected by the NY State Senate. I'm a strong supporter of Gay Marriage, and I wish it had passed. And if white people had been more supportive it would have.

Wow - that sounded a bit weird didn't it? Just what does that have to do with anything?

Well in California, apparently, it had everything to do with it. In case you don't remember, black voters in California voted for the gay marriage ban at a rate about 20 points higher than white voters (athought you also have to keep in mind that this is based on just one exit poll). This led to a furry of articles and blog posts - all with the general point that it was black voters who were responsible for scuttling gay marriage in California.

Now, maybe that happenes to be true and maybe it doesn't (in fact probably it doesn't). But the specifics of the demographic breakdown of the California vote isn't what mostly got talked about - what got talked about was "black homophobia." Not just in California, but across America. White people have no problem imagining that, say, white people from rural Alabama will be mostly against gay marriage, while white people from the Upper West Side of New York will be mostly for it, but somehow translate one vote in one state into an blanket overview of 50 million Americans. An unfortunate attitude does exist among a lot of white liberals that black homophobia is the rule, and white homophobia the exception.

Now, I don't know California very well, but I do know New York. And in New York this is most definitely not the case.

Know your history - you could be out and gay in Harlem back when being out and gay in Greenwich Village meant risking your life. The oldest gay bar in Brooklyn is in the heart of heavily African-American and Caribbean Crown Heights, and has been for over 50 years. This history continues today. Let's look at the numbers.

The marriage equality law was championed by an African-American governor, and brought to the floor of the Senate for the first time in history by an African American Senate President and an African-American Conference Leader. 90% of black members of the NY State Senate voted in favor, compared to 26% of white members (and that includes just 71% of white Democrats). Let me repeat it another way - black NY State Senators supported gay marriage more than three times as much as white Senators.

I also analyzed the vote in the Assembly (I'm using the May 2009 vote which is the most recent one I found a roll call for), which narrows the difference, but still leaves a big gap. 76% of total black elected state officials (I'm counting the Governor here also) who voted on the issue supported Marriage Equality. 73% of Hispanic state elected officials did also. Only 57% of white state elected officials did (the one Asian state elected official, Grace Meng, didn't vote). It should be noted that this vote - in both houses - was one of those rare "conscience" votes in Albany, meaning the leadership isn't pressuring you one way or another.

I haven't broken it down any further, but I think it's a reasonable assumption that the only group of legislative officials that supported gay marriage more than black legislators was out-gay legislators.

But somehow, I don't think you're going to hear this in the media. I don't think you're going to see any headlines like "White, Gay communities collide over Gay Marriage." I don't think you'll read any angry blog posts about how whites doomed marriage equality in New York. I don't think you'll hear the subtle narrative among the pro-gay marriage crowd of "you know, if white people just supported gay marriage more, maybe we wouldn't have such a problem getting it done."

Now, I happen to think everyone should support marriage equality as a fundamental human right and I hold individual legislators - regardless of race, ethnicity, or anything else - equally in contempt for not doing so. But I do hope the same people who were so eager to call out black homophobia as the reason why the vote in California failed are equally eager to call out white homophobia as the reason why the vote in New York failed. At the very least I think they owe the black community of New York a "thank you" for supporting marriage equality well above and beyond the norm.

State Senate Roll Call Vote (Dec, 2009)
State Assembly Roll Call Vote (May 2009)