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Neighborhoods New York Project: Catching Up

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So about three years ago I announced, with much fanfare, an idea for this blog that sort of fizzled.  I think I should revive it a bit.

I actually was checking out some various places in the city during that time; I just wasn’t writing about them.  So here, real fast-like, are some impressions from some of the places I have visited.

  • Cadman Plaza

This is actually a park; it’s the traditional border between tony Brooklyn Heights and more proletariat Downtown Brooklyn.  However, this also puts it right bang in the middle of a major business district in Brooklyn, so very few people use it as a park; it’s mostly populated by people in business attire walking purposefully on their way to meetings or sitting on benches grabbling lunch and talking urgently on cell phones, with the occasional nanny with a couple kids.  I got to walk through each day myself during the two weeks that my new job was a walking distance from my house, and passed a big statue of Henry Ward Beecher each way.

  •  Downtown Brooklyn

The aforementioned Downtown Brooklyn has been a major shopping drag since I moved in; the courthouses for Brooklyn are all here, but so are three solid blocks of clothing stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, and such all stretching down Fulton Street.  Brooklyn’s own Macy’s sits down the block from an H&M and an Old Navy and a Nordstroms, and etc., etc., etc.  Right on the edge is a new sort of mall-type building that I have to admit I’ve been to a lot (it has a Target, a Flying Tiger outpost, New York’s only Alamo Drafthouse theater, and a food court in the basement with the only Trader Joe’s I’ve seen in the city where there is no line).

But there are other little surprises tucked in – get past the shops and you see some smaller historic buildings tucked in, like the city’s main meeting house for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the main transit museum.

  • Fulton Ferry

Otherwise known as “the buildings most people walk past to get to Brooklyn Bridge Park”.  Most tourists either line up 50-deep to get to Grimaldi’s pizza, or give up and head to the new Shake Shack that just opened up a couple blocks away.  However, I favor the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, a little ice cream shop in an old fireboat house perched right under the Brooklyn Bridge.  The ice cream is nice and simple, and the scooper staff all fresh-faced high-school kids; I always get a major flashback to the little ice cream shops you can find up and down Cape Cod in the summers.

An old boyfriend once owned the building right next to Grimaldi’s, but had to sell it during a divorce settlement. Whenever we went wandering in the city, if we passed by it, it would send him into a bit of a funk for the rest of the day.  I sort of don’t blame him.

  • Boerum Hill

Another big shopping area, with boutiques and fancy shops along Smith and Court Streets, with some tinier cafes tucked into the rowhouses further from Smith.

  • Bay Ridge

I ventured down here most recently.  The city has dramatically expanded its ferry service in the East River; instead of a single line serving three stops in Manhattan, two spots in Williamsburg and one in Astoria, there are now two more lines hopping along the Brooklyn Waterfront and the East Village, with another line heading all the way to Rockaway Beach.  Another line for Queens is coming, and there’s even supposed to be a ferry up to spots in the Bronx.

Right now the Rockaway line and the line for South Brooklyn are the only two new ones open, to encourage the development of the industrial park in Sunset Park; it also tries to give commuters from Bay Ridge, Red Hook and Sunset Park a bit of a hand getting to Manhattan.  I rode it the opposite way, though, from the Brooklyn Bridge down to Bay Ridge.

It’s pretty clear where the upscale part of Bay Ridge is; it’s the houses on the bluffs overlooking the river.   The ferry lets you off on a pier just at the head of a shoreline jogging path, with steep cliffs overlooking the water looming over you.  It’s a steep climb from the pier to the next block, and then another one to the block beyond that – so steep, in fact, that at some places the cross streets simply stop at the base of the cliff, resuming one block later at a higher altitude.  Pedestrians can walk it, though – there are stairs.

I fell in love with house after house in the little side streets I walked through; mostly the smaller, cottage-y looking places with tiny lawns and front porches, and probably just a single bedroom in the second floor.  Most of them sported flags and kitschy lawn ornaments, the occasional political sign, faded wreaths or Christian slogans.  But then I really fell hard for “The Gingerbread House”, an Arts-and-Crafts style house with six bedrooms built a hundred years ago and now an architectural landmark.

I desperately wished I could get in, wished that there was some kind of house tour.  No such luck, so I just lingered at the fence and peered through hedges, wishing I could peep inside windows.  ….I have since discovered that the house has been for sale since 2009, and the asking price is making this now one of my aspirations for if I ever win the lottery.

A couple more blocks east was 3rd Avenue, the more commercial drag; storefronts and smaller apartment buildings instead of the stately houses.  I stopped in at another landmark that pre-dates the Gingerbread House – Anopoli Family Restaurant, an old family diner that boasted a small ice cream parlor. I went in, planning to get something to go; I ordered a small dish of peach ice cream, and the man at the counter was training a teenager, clearly there on a summer job, and showed him how to dish my ice cream up and how much it cost.  But when I held up my debit card to pay for it, their faces fell.  “Only cash, sweetheart,” they said.

“Oh.  Uh…is there an ATM?”

“You could go to the pizza place next door.”

“Okay.  Uh…I’ll leave this here, then,” I said, pushing the ice cream back towards them, “and I’ll just go get it.”

“What? No.” The man scoffed.  “Stay here, eat your ice cream, then you can go get the money.”  I hesitated, thinking about the ferry I wanted to catch. “G’wan,” he chided me.  “Sit down. Relax.”

“….Okay, I probably should,” I said, meekly taking the only open seat at the counter, next to a woman with bleached-blond hair eating a plate of fried shrimp.  Almost the second I sat down another older man I hadn’t even seen put a glass of ice water in front of me as well.  I was a little worried he was going to try to chat with me – I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation – but instead, he left me alone, and I instead just listened to the patter as he teased the woman with the fried shrimp, or occasionally lectured the teenager about how to serve up pre-packed ice cream or sundaes.  He raced through all his lectures, and I wasn’t sure the kid would be able to remember it all; but when I finally got my money and paid for my ice cream, it was the kid who rang me up, and he was spot-on.

 

Auditions

So. My apartment is about to undergo a change of cast.  I put up the Craigslist ad about 36 hours ago, and 32 hours ago I’d already had three people wanting to make appointments to have a look.

And so I am here twitching, waiting for the first contestant – who is right now about 20 minutes past his appointed arrival.  I haven’t eaten anything yet, because I wanted to have a clean kitchen when they showed, and I wanted to do a bit of writing tonight – but can’t while I wait, lest I get too deep into the weeds and have to interrupt myself when they show.

This honestly is the worst bit. I grumbled to A* that there should be some place where you’re just issued a roommate, like at Target or something.

On The Town

(Good news – this will not be about the election! Come on in!)

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This weekend was the city’s Open House weekend – a day when a number of the city’s cultural, historic, and otherwise significant sites open up to the public (or, if they’re already open that day, they open on a level more so than usual). It’s an even I’ve been vaguely aware of over the years, and finally kicked myself into heading out to explore.

One of the sites was actually right in my neighborhood. I live in Fort Greene, and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument has gotten to be a familiar landmark over time; it’s a spire erected in 1908 devoted to commemorating people who died in prison ships anchored in New York harbor during the Revolutionary War. When it was first built, this spire had a staircase leading up to an observation deck up top, but that was long since closed; so when the Open House brochure promised a peek inside, I made it a stop.

The “peek” inside was pretty much exactly that. There was only enough room inside for fifteen people at a time, and a pair of rangers stood outside and dutifully counted each of us off, letting only a little cluster of us in at a time to listen to a third ranger give a lecture about the history of the monument, the prison ships, and the park surrounding it. We all huddled in, respectfully trying not to step on the huge door set in the floor with an inscription commemorating the dead.

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However, when one of the other attendees asked about it, the ranger’s eyes twinkled a bit and she gave us a bombshell – this door is actually a fake door, constructed as a recent movie prop. It just looked so realistic that the park service decided to keep it.

The rest of my afternoon was similarly…Revolutionary. Castle Clinton was next – it’s not a “castle” as such, but rather a fort constructed at the very tip of Manhattan. These days it also does double duty as the box office for the ferryboats to the Statue of Liberty, so most visitors just come in for no more than a five-minute visit. The “museum” on site is also similarly small; a single room with a series of dioramas depicting New York harbor over the years, a few displays on the site itself, and a couple of display cases with some archeological trinkets found on occasion. But for this weekend, the site had also sprung for an added treat – the Marquis de Lafayette.

When I walked in, he was deep in conversation with a couple of Hamilton superfans; they were talking about what they’d heard about Lafayette from the show, and he was responding in character – “I am afraid I have not seen that performance, Madame, but I have heard about it, and they do take some theatrical liberties, I must say…”  I lingered a while after they left to talk with him myself; he dropped character to tell me about how the popularity of Hamilton affected his gigs. “It used to be that I’d mention some names and get blank looks, but now I mention some of Lafayette’s more obscure friends and a couple of kids will perk up and nod, which is cool.” On the other hand, he said that during a recent gig he saw some kids’ faces light up when he was talking about Yorktown and used the phrase “rendezvous with Rochambeau”; he was a little afraid they were going to burst into song.

The Marquis got back into character when some other guests entered to tell us that “Monsieur Hamilton is actually at Federal Hall, along with Monsieur Washington, if you would like to pay a visit,” and indeed that was my next stop. That was more of a performance, though – with actors depicting Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton in an early cabinet meeting.

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I unfortunately arrived a bit too late to catch the beginning, so instead I prowled through the building itself, peering at artifacts like the Bible Washington used during his Inauguration.

did make the tour at the African Burial Ground National Monument. This is something I’ve long wanted to check out – I had only been living in the city for a few years when they first discovered the site, and the controversy over what to do with the site occupied New York’s press for a couple years after until the site was finally declared a national monument.

At first glance it’s not that different from a modern-ish city park; there’s a couple green plots, a granite memorial rising from the center, and a walkway down towards a central plaza. But the ranger leading the tour pointed out some of the design details, and each and every one was like a blow to the heart.

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For instance, you can walk through the monument. That big granite slab is actually a gateway, placed just east of where some of the bodies disturbed during excavation were re-interred. They had all been buried with their heads oriented west, she explained, because the tradition was that they would face the rising sun. So the monument serves as a passage back east, back to Africa.

The ranger had us all pause inside before walking through; the design is meant to be narrow and cramped, with only a tiny skylight above offering light.  A pool alongside the monument on the outside feeds a waterfall; the whole thing is meant to represent the hold of a slave ship.

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The plaza you come to after passing through the granite monument is decorated with a globe, surrounded by a spiral walkway. On the wall flanking the walkway are symbols depicting several symbols found with some of the remains. The spiral continues at the end of the walkway, in the form of engraved descriptions of some of the hundreds of remains that the excavation had disturbed.

The engraving spiraled inward on the floor of the plaza, across the map, ending in Africa.

I’d actually forgotten that the monument design included a compromise. The site was originally meant to be a high-rise office building complete with parking garage; the research suggested that the original burial ground was vast, covering much of the city’s municipal district. Ultimately, the compromise involved an acre of land set aside for the monument, and a smaller building, which also had to house a visitor center on the first floor. Before they constructed the building, scholars from Howard University did a thorough study of the bodies on the site – nearly five hundred of them. A display inside the visitors center spoke to that research, which often revealed physical effects of hard work on the very bones on the site. One showcase had a collection of some of the items found with the bodies – buttons or cufflinks left behind after the clothes had degraded away, tin symbols which had been nailed to coffins, tokens tucked into hands, beads left around waists.  One wall was covered, floor-to-ceiling, a display of all of the Polaroids they had taken of each body they found, where it lay.

 

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There was a stand by the door where you could leave a comment card, but it was out of pencils; if I’d had a pen, I would have written that I can think of several people I wanted to drag to the site and point and say “look at this, you bastards.”

On Mattress Sales and Memory

Today, the Internet is abuzz over a cheesy commercial produced by a Texas mattress store – the kind that lots of family-owned businesses produce prior to a national holiday, where some employees are pressed into playing George Washington and saying “I cannot tell a lie about chopping down our prices” or some such. But this time, the “holiday” which inspired the ad was the upcoming 15th anniversary of the September 11th Twin Towers attacks.

Really.

As I understand it, it aired somewhere in Texas, once, and half of Texas had a collective fit, complete with angry phone calls and Yelp reviews, uploadings of cell phone-recorded videos to Youtube with “omigod can you believe this” captions and the ensuing re-tweeting and facebook sharing everywhere. The owner of the store was quick to apologize, followed by pulling the ad – and then after a couple more hours of backlash, he announced he was closing the business entirely. So by now, the only thing left is the fact that at one time this existed, and the uneasy knowledge that yes, we have just now reached a “jumped the shark” moment on 9/11.

Those who know me, know that I was here in New York on September 11th of 2001. And yes, I was indeed initially offended when I heard about this ad. But that initial shock gave way to a sort of…resigned shrug.  Because, to be honest, “people exploiting 9/11” is something I’ve been getting used to seeing for years now.

In the fifteen years since 2001, I have seen people use 9/11 to sell commemorative coins, t-shirts, ties, calendars and other tchochkes.  There were vendors hawking shirts and bumper stickers from carts around Ground Zero within a year or two. There was commemorative wine in 2011.  There was a sushi place in Arizona that featured a “Remembrance Roll“. When the 9/11 Museum opened two years ago, it drew flak for having a gift store; and to be fair, there was some demand for things like NYPD t-shirts to commemorate first responders. But people were less pleased with the commemorative cheese plate on offer (the museum quietly pulled that a week after the museum opened). People have been making a buck off of 9/11 from the beginning.

But, that exploitation I can actually swallow.  There is another kind, which has been going on just as long, which I’ve found harder to forgive – the kind practiced by politicians, or even other citizens.

Every year, in the few days leading up to September 11th I start seeing an uptick in flags on people’s Twitter and Facebook pages. On the day itself Facebook is usually covered by flags, pictures of the Towers, and people posting the words “Never Forget” again and again and again and again and again. I once lost my temper at a snide comment the friend of a friend made about how it seemed like so “few” people remembered the day that year – why, she had gotten her kids up early and dressed them up in red, white, and blue and brought them to church, she hadn’t forgotten, unlike some people….I responded that I had been close enough to hear the impact of each plane as it hit the Towers, I saw the missing-persons flyers covering my neighborhood for a months, and for a solid two weeks I had to go about my business with a huge pillar of smoke looming to the south; and that trying to forget some of that was the only way I had been able to stay sane, thank you very much.  …I think that is partly why my own Facebook feed is free of commemorative messages.

But I wasn’t spared from George W. Bush’s flag-bedecked ads during his 2004 re-election campaign, ads which actually used footage of a New York firefighter’s funeral.  Or from his press rep retorting, when hearing criticism of the ads, that  “I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath.”   I also get a lot from Rudy Giuliani, whom a lot of New Yorkers were already sick of in the years before September 11th – since then, we’ve all been suffering with an extra fifteen years of him, talking about it so much that during his 2007 bid for the presidency, Joe Biden quipped that “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.”  This year, Trump and Clinton have both mentioned their first-hand memories of the day – Trump as a New York mogul, and Clinton as a junior Senator.

But even here, I could swallow it if all that was happening were just “9/11 happened and we should be sad” mentions amid a sea of other political blather. But that’s usually not the case. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve seen in the past fifteen years:

  • A Florida state senator posting billboards with a photo of the burning Twin Towers, with the slogan “Please Don’t Vote Democrat”.
  • George W. Bush invoking 9/11 to defend a bill calling for oil drilling in the Arctic.
  • A US Senate challenger from Ohio plastering his campaign ad with a picture of the burning Twin Towers, that was later found to have been photoshopped for maxiumum impact.
  • George W. Bush invoking 9/11 to defend tax cuts to businesses.
  • Trump claiming before a rally in Alabama that in the hours after the attacks, he saw “thousands of people” gleefully “dancing” over the collapse of the Towers.
  • Congress using 9/11 to support the Patriot Act.
  • Pamela Geller, a conservative political activist, blanketing New York’s public transit with anti-Islamic ads, all of them prominently featuring a picture of the Twin Towers aflame.
  • Congressmen like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham all tweeting about the “brave first responders” to the Twin Tower attacks, but then trying to block the Zadroga Act, which would provide health care to those same first responders suffering from chronic illnesses caused by exposure to pollutants at the Ground Zero site.
  • George Bush invoking 9/11 to send us to war with Iraq.

So there are those who are exploiting memories of 9/11 to make a quick buck.  But then there are also those who are exploiting what was the worst day of my life to wrest power for themselves, and in doing so, have made the nation sicker, meaner, and poorer.

I know which I think is worse.

August Break (Catchup) 30 – Evening Light

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Okay, this is cheating because I’m interpreting “evening light” as “the bar up the street from me lit up for the evening.” But it lets me tell a story about why I swear allegiance to this place.

Not that I’m that much of a barfly, honestly.  I think the most “regular” I ever got was once a week, when I was recovering from a broken foot and I marked off the weeks until I was healed by hobbling there for a glass of wine during Happy Hour.  (I also broke my foot in here, but that was my fault – all I will say is, if you’re ever at a party and someone starts a kick line to the song  Come On Eileendon’t join in.)

But it’s only one block up the street from me, and has good food and a lively staff, and the owners known me and it is thus good for spontaneous jaunts out of the house and brunches.

And also for nasty shocks.

…So, like most people, I have an ex-boyfriend who is kind of “the one who got away”. We actually met in this neighborhood – at another bar nearby, which has since closed – and we were well and truly head over heels for each other. Most of the time.  But after nearly a year – for reasons only he will ever know for sure – he cut things off with me. Soon afterward he met someone else and moved out of state with her.

I tried to stay friends on Facebook with him, and it took me a few years to catch on to the fact that this probably wasn’t great for me. But after a couple years I was pretty much over him, so I thought it was okay and I could handle it.  It still came as a shock, though, when I got home from work after an utterly lousy day, got online to lose myself in mindless websurfing, and saw my ex’s Facebook status that he was in New York City – so he could get married, that day, in a courthouse in Queens.

I read that status a couple times, turned my computer off and grabbed my wallet and proceeded immediately to Putnam’s.

The bar was about half-full at that point, and I got a seat on one of the empty stools.  When the smiling bartender asked what I wanted, I told her everything, and then asked “what would you recommend for someone in my condition?”  She clucked in sympathy and made me a Manhattan, in a big glass.

I’m not much of a whiskey drinker, so I was sipping it slowly – slowly enough that the bar filled up more, and I was still there when a man came in after getting off work himself and taking the seat next to me.  We got to chatting – I threw myself into the chat more so than usual, trying to get my mind off things – and he was witty enough that I started having a good time. Good enough, in fact, that when I finished my drink and he’d finished his cider, we each ordered another round – another cider for him, and a cranberry juice and vodka for me.  We didn’t trade numbers after, though, and two drinks were enough for each of us.  But I was still happy that I’d cheered myself up, and that I wasn’t home pouting over my ex. Quietly proud of myself, I turned to the bartender and asked for my bill.

The bartender hesitated. “Okay, here’s the thing,” she said. “Your Manhattan was on the house, and I’m gonna make this guy pay for your second drink (you cool with that, dude? Good) because in my opinion, no one who got the news you got today should have to pay for their drinks.  So…you’re set.”

And that is one of the reasons I have nicknamed this place “the best bar in the world”.

August Break 21 – Today Is…

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Today was a day for Buckling Down And Getting Things Done. And like many Brooklynites, that means that for me, it was a Coffee Shop Day; my own “office” at home is a little too close to lots of things that could distract me, and I had to concentrate.  So it was off to a coffee shop for me.

My problem, though, is that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to coffee shops. I want a place that either has spacious tables if I need to spread out, or big puffy chairs if I’m looking for a more comfortable, lazy session. I’ll need wi-fi.  And the indie, anti-corporate Gen-X’er in me will only set foot in a Starbucks under duress.  My other problem is that my neighborhood boasts two college campuses, and so on a Sunday, that means I’m competing with about half the population of Northern Brooklyn for a seat in one of the coffeehouses in the neighborhood.  I actually had to poke into two shops before I could even find a seat; and I only happened to get one because the shop I was in cut people’s access to their Wi-fi after 90 minutes, and someone’s turn ran out about two minutes after I got in and they left to find another shop.

I also left shortly after my turn at the Wi-fi was up, but was able to cram in some emails, bill paying and travel planning in the interim. I also noticed that this particular shop had a section that was reserved for people not on laptops, which could come in handy when I have more of a Luddite’s need for coffee…

August Break 20 – Clouds

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We’re on the fourth day or so of another stretch of hot-and-humid here in the city; the kind of day that saps you of the ambition to do much of anything except for laze around the house, poking through books for a few pages and then losing your train of thought.

I did rally for a little bit of housecleaning today, though, and then decided to treat myself to an iced coffee up the street. And when I went outside, I felt there was a gathering breeze and a bank of clouds forming – and some of them were even starting to go gray on the bottom. Always a good sign; the rain could bring some relief by wringing some of the humidity out of the air.

But by the time I finished at the coffee shop and was heading home again the clouds were already starting to melt away.

Dammit.