My continuing quest to see everything in New York City

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prison Martyrs' Monument

"I'll race you up - no using the stairs." "Deal."

This is my walk in Brooklyn Census Tract 0031 - which consists mainly of Ft. Greene Park - I'm saying a climb counts as a vertical walk. Somewhat strangely, the park is not an entire tract in and of itself, which is the norm. Similar sized parks - Sunset Park in Brooklyn, St. Mary's Park in the Bronx - are all their own tracts.

A couple of Aussies who travel the world exploring storm drains are in town (yes, several of these people actually exist - isn't that awesome?) Now, while the History Channel decided to say I'm an underground expert who's been going into drains for 10 years, the reality is I'm only somewhat into storm drains, and was not really up for schlepping out to the boroughs to hang out in the combined sanitary system. Luckily the Aussies were also into my idea of climbing up the scaffolding to the top of the Prison Martyr's Monument - the huge column in the middle of Ft. Greene Park.

After a decent spell drinking, the Aussies and my friends Steve and Ellie head over there. Once we get over the fence Steve has the bright idea to race up by climbing up 150 feet of the scaffolding instead of walking up the steps. Did I mention it had started to rain? Still, the booze gives me confidence - not enough to beat Steve, who wins handily, but enough to make it all the way up to the top.

It's a great view. You're right between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, with downtown right in front of you, and the curve of the Lower East Side visible from over 200 feet above the river. It becomes one of my favorite places to go over the next couple years - the renovation drags on and on. I climb it to psyche myself up for a Brooklyn Bridge climb on my birthday, I climb it on the 4th of July for a romantic evening with a special lady, I climb it to show friends the great view, or to go and be away from it all, or just for fun. This lasted until the Fall of 2008, when the scaffolding came down, and there was a grand re-opening celebration in honor of its centennial. I had high hopes this was to be accompanied by at least some increased public access - maybe just to the crypt underneath, which would be cool in its own right, but hopefully also to the top. I had never seen the view in daylight, for starters, and it's really a huge shame that more people couldn't experience the great terrace.

No such luck - with all due respect to the NYC Parks Department, the best thing their 5 million dollar renovation bought was the scaffolding that let whoever wanted to climb up to the top for a couple years. A general cleaning and repair, the replacement of a couple old statues, and some lighting at night were the only things that changed. If you are going to spend 5 million dollars and two years, why not actually spend it on something real, and give people access to a piece of history and a great view of their city? I can't imagine I'm the only person who would rather have a somewhat grimy observation deck you can actually use once in a while, rather than a lit up one where all you can do is look up and dream of the view. Even an Urban Park Rangers-led tour to the top every month or two - similar to what they do for the High Bridge Water Tower and the Soldiers and Sailors Arch - would be worth it. About all you can do since the renovation is peek inside the column every once in a while. And, of course, forget about visiting the crypt.

I'm lucky enough to be fairly young, athletic, and in a position in life where I can afford to be somewhat risk-adverse about this stuff. Most New Yorkers are not, and their tax dollars went to fund this renovation as much as mine did. It is unfair that only two very small segments of the population - namely people like me, and people powerful or connected enough to do it officially - got to experience this great space and amazing view. And unfortunately, this is the case with a lot of interesting, publicly (or quasi-publicly) owned spaces around town. Here's to hoping that one day I - and you - will be able to see what that view looks like in daylight.

Neighborhoods: Ft. Greene. Tracts Walked: BK31

Friday, March 20, 2009

East Flatbush

A lot of times a walk's just a walk, and not really through an interesting area to boot. Most of my time doing this project isn't spent walking fun places like tunnels and bridge tops. Still, they're part the city also, and I've made a commitment to myself to write them up too. But don't expect too much if it isn't labeled "interesting" or "favorite." It's mostly for myself.

A few of these nondescript walks lately have been through East Flatbush. Flatbush Avenue has always been kind of a demographic dividing line in New York - Downtown Brooklyn from Ft. Green, Crown Heights (or Prospect Heights, depending on what year it is) from Park Slope. As this line fades north of Prospect Park, it remains to its south. The bustling Caribbean neighborhoods by Church Avenue, the shabby old Victorians of Ditmas Park, the hodgepodge immigrant area by Newkirk, the neat rows of houses of the Orthodox Jews in the lettered avenues, all of this generally gives way to a kind of nondescript, somewhat rundown area once you get east of Flatbush Avenue that I have yet to find anything interesting is, or even get a real feel for at all. I haven't yet walked all of East Flatbush, so maybe this will change, or maybe it's just been the moods I've been in on the walks. Holy Cross cemetary (a pretty standard Catholic cemetary) is the only thing that really breaks it up. The end of the neighborhood is also home to the oldest house in New York, which is worth a visit.

Neighborhoods: East Flatbush. Tracts walked: BK 788, BK 790, BK 792, BK794, BK 824, BK826, BK 828, BK830, BK832, BK834, BK838, BK840, BK846, BK848, BK850, BK852, BK854, BK856, BK936, BK942.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Alligators in the Sewers?

Here's my episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. I edited it down to just the parts I'm in (about 4 minutes), with the exception of the first frame of the cute zookeeper straddling an alligator. Had to leave that one in.

This is mostly me and my friend Shane explaining how storm drains work. Shane is the one filming the sewer expedition, and is the disembodied voice you sometimes hear.

Just to clarify, there are no alligators in the sewers - at least, not more than the fluke handful of discarded pets that have been in the hundreds of miles of the system over the last several decades. Despite what I say on TV to try and sound somewhat responsible, you don't really need an air meter in a 12-foot-deep trunk drain. I haven't been exploring storm drains for 10 years - that was probably only my 3rd or 4th trip draining - and wouldn't really call myself an underground expert (or "urban explorer," which they kept calling me, but there's not a lot you can do about that particular label anymore).   And I'm wearing a shirt and tie because I had just come from work.

The whole thing was a lot of fun. And of course, I got in another couple census tracts while doing this, but I can't tell you which ones.