The History of The High Line

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, Aparil 1, 2015

The High Line Park attracts nearly 6,000,000 visitors a year. Though thoroughly modern at every step, The High Line Park owes its success – and its very existence – to the past. In fact, the elevated train tracks that make up the current day park were originally constructed not only to deliver food to Manhattan, but also to save lives.

Prior to the construction of the elevated tracks, trains ran at street level, giving this stretch of Tenth Avenue the dubious nickname of Death Avenue. This corridor earned the moniker due to the consistent – and almost always gruesome – incidence of trains colliding with people along the busy thoroughfare, often resulting in fatalities. Before the trains were eventually elevated, the New York Central Railroad hired men on horseback armed with red flags to ride in front of the trains to signal its arrival. These men came to be known as The West Side Cowboys.

West Side Cowboys - High LineBy 1934, Manhattan’s West Side Elevated Line was constructed as part of a massive urban redevelopment project, spearheaded in part by Robert Moses. This was not the only elevated train line in Manhattan at the time. Its novelty, however, came by way of its path, bisecting city blocks, rather than running directly over traffic. Trains running on the High Line unloaded their cargo directly into buildings on Manhattan’s West Side, such as the warehouses for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), the present-day Chelsea Market. The original High Line tracks ran as far south as Spring Street, almost twice its current length. Though by 1961, most of this southern section had been demolished.

As trucking became a more common form of freight transportation, the High Line saw a steady decline in use. Around this same time, industry decentralized from urban centers, further contributing to the decline in the High Line’s rail use as Manhattan’s West Side became the Meatpacking District in name only. Finally, in late 1980, the last train ran on the High Line carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving.

High Line - Nabisco

As the 1980s made way for the 1990s, most residents of Manhattan’s West Side saw the High Line for what it unfortunately had become: a rusty relic, a bygone blight getting in the way of a neighborhood’s redevelopment. In certain places, the High Line literally got in the way of property owners desire for upward growth. And in late 2001, the tracks very nearly met their demise when Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed an order for their demolition just days before leaving office.

Meanwhile, up on the tracks, something unexpected was happening: nature was taking back the abandoned stretch of rail line. Seeds began depositing on the High Line by way of winds and passing birds. In a short time, wild flowers and other unintended growth began to take form.  The tracks appeared rusted and muted to pedestrians and neighbors. But, along the mile-and-a-half stretch, nature was taking back that which the City had abandoned.

Photo by Josh Sternfeld

Photo by Josh Sternfeld

This transformation was by no means a secret. Down at the street level, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit dedicated to repurposing the train tracks for public use. Around the same time, CSX Transportation, then owners of the tracks, commissioned photographer Joel Sternfeld to document the serene transformation afoot on the abandoned tracks. As these images circulated, public favor for the public space plan grew. Diane von Furstenberg being the nascent park’s most well known early advocate.

Luckily, Giuliani’s demolition orders never took hold, and in 2004, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $50 million to the park’s redevelopment. By 2009, the first phase opened with the second and third phases following in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Hoping to emulate the High Line’s success, similar projects have popped up in Philadelphia, Chicago, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Queens, to name a few. While the High Line, once an artery of industry and nearly demolished in haste, stands as one of New York’s most unique attractions; one that upholds the legacy of New York’s history while at the same blazing the trail for future open space initiatives.

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Uncovering NYC’s Sewer Alligator Legend

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, March 10, 2015

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection oversees the city’s massive sewer system, employing about 6,000 people. This small army is in charge of the nearly 7,400 miles of sewer pipe that flush a staggering 1.3 billion gallons of water every day. The department is quite friendly and responsive, as far as city services go. Recently, we wrote them to see if we could speak to someone on record. Quickly, a real person responded inviting me to ask away.

So we did. We only had one question.

“Are there now or have there ever been alligators in the New York City sewer system?”

The response came back the next day.

“We have no record of alligators in the NYC sewer system.”

But as definitive as this answer was, the rumor still persists. For example, when searching “NYC sewers” on Google, the term “alligator” auto-populates alongside it.

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Alligators may or may not exist in the city’s sewers, but the legend of them remains a part of the New York City mythology. And this likely started in the early 20th century, when, according to legend, it is said that wealthy New York City families went vacationing in warmer, exotic climates and returned with baby alligators as souvenirs; a little something for the kids. The legend goes on to say that after a while the beasts got too big and were flushed down the toilet.  Ever since, they have roamed the murky waters of the city sewers, reproducing and subsisting on a diet of plentiful rats.

These origin theories didn’t come out of nowhere, though. They began circulating around the same time actual alligators began popping up around New York City. For instance, in June of 1932, two boys brought a dead 3-foot alligator to the Bronx River Parkway Police with confirmation of at least three more alligators alive and well back at the same spot along the river. The next day a hunting expedition set out, but ultimately found nothing. Still the newspapers reported the next day on “swarms” of the beasts swimming in the Bronx River.

On February 10, 1935, The New York Times reported on a 7-foot, 125 pound alligator turning up in the sewers near 123rd Street in Harlem. According to reports, some neighborhood boys were shoveling snow into a manhole when suddenly they saw a thrashing which they soon realized was an alligator, albeit a diseased one. The boys attached a slip knot around the massive creature and together pulled the animal from the sewer and onto the street. Unfortunately, no pictures were taken of the beast as the city quickly had the reptile incinerated.

Twenty years later the tale popped up again in Robert Daley’s nonfiction book, The World Beneath the City (1959). In the book, Daley recalls a story told to him by New York City’s superintendent of sewers, Teddy May, a man with his own legendary personality. For years, May had heard rumors of alligator congregations from his employees, but figured it was a whiskey-inspired legend. One night he decided to look for himself. Down below the streets he saw:

“Alligators serenely paddling. The beam of his own flashlight had spotted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet. Some may have been longer… The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.”

The story goes on to describe alligator hunts with an arsenal of “rat poison” and “.22 rifles” among other weaponry.  Perhaps these “sewer safaris” eradicated the scourge of sewer gators then. But, there’s also the possibility that it was all made up. Teddy May was not the most reliable of sources and was evidently known to spin yarns.

Sewer alligators have made more than a few appearances in pop culture, too. A few years after Daley’s book, Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. (1962) added more voices to the conversation. In the novel, Benny Profane works for New York City’s Alligator Patrol, where two-man teams search underground for alligators, one with a flashlight, the other with a shotgun.

Allusions to sewer alligators can be seen by commuters who frequent the 14th Street station on the 8th Avenue line in the form of Tom Otterness’s art installation, “Life Underground.” The series of sculptures depicts a variety of scenes including an alligator reaching out from underneath a manhole cover to snatch a man for dinner.

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And as recently as August 23, 2010, witnesses in Queens reported seeing an 18-inch alligator. “It’s a big mystery,” said police spokesman Officer James Duffy, who was on the scene that day. “It could have been dumped from a car or it could have come out of a sewer.” Turns out it had fallen from a ship and dragged itself from the East River to this spot of gawking residents.

In spite of all these stories, sewer alligators remain a myth or a legend, at least officially. Academically speaking, they exist in the realm of something called cryptozoology, the study of animals whose existence has not yet been proven. The Loch Ness Monster, Skunk Ape and Sasquatch also fall under cryptozoology. Cryptozoology has its detractors. Critics contend it’s more of a pseudo-science that relies too much on anecdotal evidence and not enough on the scientific method. Proponents are quick to point out that both the okapi and the Komodo dragon, two very real animals, were once under the purview of cryptozoology, and thought to be imaginary by so-called serious scientists.

Loren Coleman runs the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. He has written a few books on the subject and even appeared on The History Channel to discuss sewer alligators. According to his email, “Alligators in the sewers are neither rumor, folktale or myth, but a real part of the underground world of some of our larger urban centers.“

Though adamant, his email didn’t provided any specific examples or evidence. But, perhaps simply looking at alligators might provide some credence to the theory that they could survive in the sewers.  Research shows that alligators (and also crocodiles) can detect minuscule vibrations in the water through dome pressure receptors on their faces. That is to say, they don’t rely solely on sight for hunting and therefore wouldn’t be totally “in the dark” hunting in the light-deprived sewer system. This is further backed up by the fact that alligators very often hunt at night.

And while it is true that alligators probably prefer something warmer than New York City, the sewers themselves can be quite warm. Most importantly, alligators survived the last Ice Age, which was probably a bit colder than any northeast winter–even this winter. In fact, it is probably foolish to question the adaptability of a creature that has existed for over 30 million years.

Jim Nesci is an alligator expert and reptile educator from the Chicago area. He was a “good friend” of the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, and has adopted several rescue reptiles. Nesci points out that any number of alligators could end up in a sewer system. (One of his very own rescue gators was found in a sewage treatment plant in Illinois). However, as he points out, alligators can’t digest food in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making the prospect of surviving a New York City winter, even underground, unlikely. Furthermore, the nests required for laying eggs rely on vegetation more than likely not found in an urban sewer system. As Nesci puts it, “in the short term and only the short term” alligators could survive in a sewer system. But they couldn’t reproduce or thrive there.

In the end, alligator populations probably wouldn’t fare too well in New York City sewers. But, the legend of alligators in the sewer seems to serve some other purposes. For one, New York views itself as a tough place. The idea that even the sewers were teeming with predators bolsters this mystique. New York City is also expansive. Part of the city’s charm is the idea that there is always something new to see. There’s something new to discover on every single street. It only makes sense to think there might be something mysterious underneath those streets, too.

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I Was Just Kidding: How a Snarky Tweet Got Me 9 New Followers!

Like you and everyone else you know, I was captivated by ‘The Dress’ for way longer than I should have been. I debated friends, took screenshots, used a control image, altered room lighting, and really just wasted a bunch of time arguing over an internet meme; an argument that literally can’t be won.

Similar experiences happened to a lot of people. Sure, it’s an interesting discussion on relative experience and perception or whatever. But, it’s also just a picture of a dress manipulated by photoshop. (Also: It’s kind of funny how we all saw different colors, but yet had the same arguments.)

So after literally 36 hours of thinking about the stupid dress, I took to twitter to be snarky…. because, you know, one useless internet activity certainly deserves another, right?

Dress

Here’s what I tweeted: What The Dress can teach us about, um, net neutrality, or no, content marketing.

Good jokes usually don’t need to be explained, but here goes. There’s a trend to tie something recent in the news to one’s industry. What x can teach us about y, with xbeing the thing in the news and y being the thing you do for a living. So the ‘joke’ in the above tweet is that the author is searching for some buzzword to affiliate with the dress. It’s about taking advantage of a trend even when it doesn’t make sense.

But, it turns out I used a good buzzword: content marketing. For the record, I believe in content marketing. What I don’t believe in is mining twitter for like-minded search terms free of context. The tweet garnered five favorites from accounts that had either “#content” or “#contentmarketing” in their bio. And my awesome twitter handlealso received nine new followers from folks who have “marketing” somewhere in their bio.

Are these folks in on the joke or are they following who the algorithm robots tell them to follow? Either way, I’m glad to have them here. These new followers are going to love my content!

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Sneckdowns: How Snowfall Reveals True Street Usage

 

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After a significant snow storm, like the one in New York this week, a clear indication emerges of how much of the road is actually needed for automobile traffic. One easily notices how traffic truly flows by way of the paths carved out by cars. Something called sneckdowns also appear.

Neckdowns are curb extensions found at the corner of intersections intended to slow motor vehicles, giving pedestrians a shorter distance to cross. And Sneckdowns are neckdowns caused by snow, like the one in the picture above, like those all over Manhattan today. 

In this way, snow leaves a blueprint for smarter road use. (Or a whiteprint, I guess.) It’s a real-time rendering of how streets should be shared. It’s hard to argue that cars need more space when the snow shows just how much they are actually using. And this knowledge paves the way for more bike lanes and wider pedestrian areas, which in turn make the streets safer

Snow in the city can be a wonderfully peaceful event. Turns out it can even calm traffic, too. 

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Taxation Without Representation

 dcvote

Washington, D.C. has a population of nearly 600,000 American citizens, who pay taxes, and serve in the military. Yet, none of them get a vote in Congress. That’s over half a million Americans living at the seat of the federal government, yet none are afforded the right to take part in its legislative process.

The District is “represented” in Congress by a non-voting delegate. U.S. territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico have similar delegates in Congress. However, unlike Guam or Puerto Rico, the District is subject to all federal taxes. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting delegate of D.C., has taken this democratic oversight as her signature cause.

DC Vote has also been championing this cause since their inception in 1998, bringing attention to this worthy cause, fighting for legislation and even helping to introduce the iconic “Taxation Without Representation” slogan that appears on DC license plates.

The effort for DC Voting Rights enjoyed a moment in the national spotlight in August 2008 when Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Norton implored the convention to apply common sense to this unnecessary miscarriage of justice. “The revolutionaries,” she said, “did not create a nation to get the vote, only to turn around and deny the vote to the citizens of their own capital.”

Proponents of DC Voting Rights argue that DC citizens are being treated unjustly. For example, in 2007, DC residents and businesses paid over $20 billion in taxes, or more than the taxes collected from 19 states. And with nearly 600,000 residents, the District has more citizens than the entire state of Wyoming. Yet, Wyoming has a seat in the House of Representatives, as well as two senators.

However, opponents of the movement maintain that Wyoming and the other 49 states are just that: states. And therefore they enjoy the representational democracy afforded by the Constitution. While the District may exist in some sort of legal limbo, it is one that exists within the parameters of the Constitution.

A more sinister theory exists that opponents of the movement are doing so to maintain party balance. Put another way, giving a seat to the District would be almost an automatic seat to the Democratic party. A compromise was floated to offer an additional seat to the usually Republican-leaning state of Utah . But to date all efforts to pass this legislation in the House have stalled.

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The Ted Baker Vitric3 Penny Loafer: A Versatile Shoe for Spring

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Originally appeared in Montecristo Social Club on May 22, 2013

Penny loafers should be a staple in any shoe collection. They are versatile and are a perennially stylish choice for footwear. Ted Baker’s Vitric3 line of loafers upholds these virtues, bringing the next evolution of the classic shoe into the modern era. These loafers occupy that unique space of being at once hip and stylish while at the same time vintage and refined.

The loafers work as easily with jeans as they do with a jacket and tie, or even shorts for that matter. The inner fabric lining assures they’ll be comfortable regardless of which outfit they accompany. Beyond the comfort level, these shoes look great as well. Be it the sleek leather, the textile lining or the raised sole, the quality of these loafers is visible all over the shoes. With its own distinct personality, as well as a slightly stacked heel, these shoes stand above the ranks of this year’s loafers.

Every working man needs a pair of shoes like these. The Vitric3 is versatile enough to be worn to both work and happy hour. These shoes are perfect for the spring. As if we needed another reason to look forward to warmer weather.

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Ruxbin: Bring Your Own Appetite

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Originally appeared in Montecristo Social Club on April 26, 2013

 

Boasting just 32 seats and a steam-punk décor, Ruxbin is quickly establishing itself as one of Chicago’s premier eateries. And that’s saying a lot in a city known for its food.  After honing his trade in New York and Los Angeles, Chef Edward Kim has finally graced his hometown with this American bistro sitting near the border of the neighborhoods of West Town and Wicker Park. Kim, a Chicago native himself, drew from influences ranging from French technique to his own Korean background to create a truly unique restaurant. Unsurprisingly, there’s often a line found out front as the restaurant only takes reservations on Sundays. What you won’t find, however, are many unsatisfied patrons.

Another thing you won’t find is a wine list. Due to a zoning irregularity, Ruxbin is not allowed to sell alcohol to its customers. So to make do, the restaurant is BYOB; or, in other words, the wine list is just as good as you want it to be.  But, patrons should be sure to check the menu first as it is updated daily. Octopus salads, short ribs over ramen risotto, black cod and garlic fries, are the signature dishes of the restaurant, so plan your spirits accordingly. Guests of Ruxbin should also be advised to leave room for dessert. With items such as pineapple upside down cake and bacon cotton candy, there’s plenty of motivation to stick around through the encore.

Ruxbin treats the word restaurant, as its origins intend, to restore. Moderately priced, with entrees ranging from $22 to $30, the eatery is affordably delicious. And to that end, those who leave will feel well fed and refreshed. What’s more they’ll find it’s worth the wait.

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