Slices of "The Big Apple" This is New York City Wit, Reflections & Amusements: Cliff Strome

Dewey, Rob, Steele, Chetham and Howe, LLC

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Dewey, Rob, Steele, Chetham and Howe, LLC

Chapter VII

So Now You Know


Mannahatta, My O’ My. Have You Changed!

Peering into the distance from behind a clump of rocks I saw the future. No, it couldn't be true. No way! My people, my ancestors, have lived here for over four hundred generations, as I was told it is written in a white man’s book. We have never disturbed the beauty and abundance that nature and The Great Spirit have provided. We have maintained it and given back and always protected and respected the great gifts we have received. We have sustained ourselves, living off this gorgeous rich land, the great river and our hunting grounds. We have always had all that we needed and more so; even more than we had wanted and could have ever wished for; an abundance of food, the means to create shelter, safety, knowing that the waters surrounding us have always provided sufficient protection and bountiful gifts from the sea, rich with varieties of nourishing fish and an abundance of oysters. We have dwelled here peaceably, as a family, a great nation, free from diseases and weapons brought here by the white men of which we could have never conceived. We grew our own food, hunted, fished and survived on this “island of many hills” and always believed that we would be able to do so forever. Why not? Who could or would ever change this island? We never imagined that that could happen. Why would anyone ever want to change a perfect place like Mannahatta?

Our years were measured by generations, not by events or inventions. We lived in a world that stayed the same and for us that was good. As Lenapes we were content, self-sufficient and pleased that we had found a way of life that was inspiring, with strong kinships and exhilarating. We were closely connected to the land. We were entwined in a symbiotic relationship with the land that would go on forever, for generations to come.

Our dear departed were interned on this land and they “live” on through our relationship with the soil and the Great Spirit. No one owned land; it was ours to work with and live upon us as a people, as a nation. We were all attached to it in spirit and deeded forever in life and the afterlife; bound forever, kindred spirits, inseparable and forever.

We took care of each one another. We sought no material gain, only the fruits of the land that were derived from our labors, nature and our faith in our creator, "The Great Spirit". We had no need to change a thing, just carry on and endure; nurture the land and give back. Truly it was our support system and that was good and pure. We have always loved this island and it has truly been our home, a safe and secure place to raise our children, to teach them the ways of their ancestors, to build their futures as their forbearers had built theirs, upon the past.

We are a simple people with strong and proper values and environmentally responsible. We know of no other way. Love, truth and justice and peace, those are our values. We are a caring people embracing love and concern for our families, neighbors and pride in our communities, and those principles have always defined our way of life and of our great nation.

The island of Manna-hatta, Lenape Indian words for Manhattan, means "island of many hills." Now, not even 400 years after the first European settlements, thirteen short generations, it is the most geographically transformed urban environment on earth, and created in such a relatively short time; a heartbeat in the history of mankind.

How would those Lenapes feel if they came back today? "Culture shock"! That's an understatement! How interesting it is to imagine, after the Pilgrims had landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 that this transformation had not yet begun! In less than 400 years ago, look at what time has wrought? How incredible it is to consider that this little island, only 23 square miles, seventeen percent of which is landfill, has become "The Island at the Center of the World", truly, the fulcrum of the earth.

“If you want to see the world, come to New York City!" Come and visit Manhattan and become a part of the greatest piece of ground upon the planet. Celebrate the world, "the melting pot." We thank you the Lenapes for providing us, though certainly not voluntarily, with a treasure that is truly beyond belief! And if there are any Lenapes out there, please return and become a part of our great diversity. To you we certainly owe a debt of gratitude. We welcome you to join us and continue to build this great place and return home. May love reign in your lives and families for generations to come.

Back to the Future with a Metro Card

We all have "uneventful" days as though time is carrying us along. Recently, I suddenly had an amusing thought, a surrealistic, out of the ordinary interpretation of a rare humdrum day in Manhattan. That day I had "launched" two tours, a Chinese and Spanish language tour, one at The Gramercy Hotel and the other at Le Parker Meridien in midtown. Starting out, by subway, from West 97th Street, where I live. Twenty minutes later I emerged from the subway at the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street where Broadway and Fifth Avenue intersect. From a quiet Upper Westside neighborhood where there was an abundance of children who were on their way to school, commuters rushing to work on the sidewalk, the absence of ubiquitous car and taxi horns helped to define the neighborhood as a residential community. As I emerged from the subway on 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, I realized that I was in a vastly different place, adorned with historic late 19th century and early 20th century buildings, The Flatiron (1902), The Metropolitan Life Tower (1906), The Fifth Avenue Hotel (1859) and a park that once was Manhattan’s town square, Madison Square Park, a mere four miles from home as the crow flies!

That was my first transformation of the day. I had entered a different time, space and place vastly unlike the one that I had left a few minutes earlier.

A short walk to The Gramercy Hotel took me past the church were Eleanor Roosevelt had been baptized, where Valentine Mott, MD, founder of New York Hospital, had died suddenly on the evening of April 15, 1865, Good Friday, upon learning of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I peered through the iron fence at Gramercy Park, the only park in Manhattan requiring a key to enter, ironically bearing a statue of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin, New York City’s most popular actor in the mid 19th century. Samuel Tilden’s home, the unsuccessful Presidential candidate in 1876, stands on the south side of the park. Mayor James Harper lived on Gramercy Park West, one of the richest men in the City.

I turned the corner at Lexington Avenue and recalled that I was gazing upon the home of Cyrus Field, the genius behind the laying of the first successful Trans-Atlantic cable over a century ago. This time, I had entered another contrasting neighborhood, older than the one I had witnessed when I had left the subway at the Flatiron. I had entered the mid 19th century while at Gramercy Park. The evidence was abundant, rich in history, beauty and wealth. I walked around the corner and viewed Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace at 28 East 20th Street, now a National Park’s museum and then I turned south and took a short walk down Irving Place and spotted the home of Washington Irving and Pete’s Tavern where O’Henry had written “Gift of the Magi”.

After I left The Gramercy Park area I plunged back into the subway and stepped out at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. As I exited, Carnegie Hall came into view, City Spire, Carnegie Tower and Metropolitan Tower, a span of architecture that covered an entire century.

I was taken, in fifteen minutes, from the mid 19th century to a mixture, the turn of two centuries, the 20th and 21st! The changing palette is extraordinary and the contrast here is incredible. Carnegie Hall, and to the immediate east are three huge late 20th century structures, Metropolitan Tower (716’ tall 1987) and Carnegie Hall Tower (778’ tall, 1991) and City Spire (814’ tall, 1987) appear to be touching each other. Three huge siblings casting shadows on the music hall but never diminishing its glory; setting a backdrop that illustrates the mosaic of change that helps to define New York City.

After I completed my mission I dipped back onto the "iron horse" and was off to the West Village where I had ventured to capture a photograph that I had needed of 66 Perry Street, of the fictitious home of Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City." This time, the clock wound back to the early 19th century. The streetscape appeared as it had back then; over 180 years ago. The various architectural styles, Federal, brownstone, neo-classical, Italianate with large second floor windows, a la "piano noble", cats sitting on windowsills gazing indolently, the bark of a curious dog and the quiet conversation between a couple passing by on the sidewalk transformed me to another time and place.

In New York City change transforms the urban landscape and provides evidence that the past keeps peeking at us. All it takes is just a small dose of imagination to transform you back in time. You can see it and experience it only if you try.

It's just one of the magical benefits of Manhattan and much of the rest of the City. It is the desire to use the subway to take you back to another time that had existed, though a City that is layered with a visual history.

All of our neighborhoods have a rich character, a soul and their own personalities and histories. Moving through one suddenly drops off and you arrive in another; it’s a walking slide show of history, architecture, culture and nostalgia. Your eyes and sensibilities provide the switch if you just think it. It's traveling to many cities, one after the other, through time, co-existing in one tightly knit space, a quilt, a mosaic blended together forming a vast composite of space-time.

I was immersed in a world where everything happened a million times before; but it was the conscious desire to experience the City more passionately with reverence and reflection that had made a usual day so special.

Perhaps tomorrow will be filled with a new and different type of excitement; if not I'll just grin and love it as a flaneur or promeneur in Paris, gazing at it all and inhaling it with joy, deep admiration and wonder. Ah, New York City!

Neighborhood Names, More than You Know!

Is there a troll of neighborhood names? Could it be a secret that someone is paid by the City to sit in a closeted office, in City Hall, appear promptly at 9 AM, take their place behind an old oak roll top desk, wear a translucent green head shade beneath an old copper lamp made of BX cable and crank out names of New York City neighborhoods for $65,000 per year plus about $50,000 in annual benefits?

Certainly, with all the new neighborhood names cropping up these days, this official must be underpaid for all the good work he does. The list never stops growing. But, what is the value of the good work that this commissioner does?

“The Commissioner of Neighborhood Identifying Classification” NIC, works for the Division of Streets within the Department of Transportation. What does all this effort add to the significance of our town?

How boring it was when just a small handful of neighborhood names dotted the City supplementing the names of the five boroughs. Space became scarce, we were confined, living closer together in our neighbors as our population grew the space between us shrank. These enclaves, or neighborhoods began to acquire their own unique character and they acquired names that helped to define them.

What's in a name? Neighborhood names can serve merely as a label or a destination and create a sense of belonging, an identity, and a test for a cabbie or a destination name created by astute real estate agents who breath “value” in name places. "Take me to DUMBO!" These names serve as a sense of pride for people, who proclaim,

"Now I live in BoCoCa, no longer Cobble Hill!"

Isn't it a little insane, or just a little New Yorkish? We, as New Yorkers, find new ways to define ourselves as our organic City always changes, adapting and revising itself; necessitating redefined locales with odd and unusual place names.

Place names of the past won't do, old names, in many cases no longer reflect the current venue, such as, "Hell's Kitchen" it now known as Clinton, nothing to do with Hillary or Bill, but rather De Witt Clinton the inspiration behind the street grid and the Erie Canal, or some call it Midtown West. Chelsea Clinton bears the name of two New York City neighborhoods, a fluke but, very interesting. The Financial District is "FiDi" to the hipsters, trendy and up to date. Not everyone would agree with that new name, most New Yorker’s, no doubt, never heard of FiDi! The Flower District, what's left of it, was "Floma", meaning flower market located at 6th Avenue in the high 20’s; and there’s Viaduct Valley, where the terrain takes a dip between 116th and 134th Streets from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue is now referred to as "Viaduct Valley" or you can get away with "ViVa"! The Photo District in the Flatiron District is also known as "The Fashion District", a technological change. Perhaps, it should be the Digital District, or “DiDi.” South Harlem has anointed itself, "SoHa" and you guessed it, North Harlem, yes, “NoHa” and "SoCa" is a new label for Inwood in northern Manhattan, which means, south of Canada!

And now there's West Chelsea, which you can call “Wechee" if you like. Interesting, we have an Upper Eastside and a Lower Eastside but no “Middle East”, hum. Instead we have Murray Hill, the Murray family, owners of huge tracts of land, back in the 19th century, were residential developers, it’s adjacent to Turtle Bay. The British perceived that the bay on the East River, which is not a river but a tidal straight, was shaped like a turtle, along "Blood Alley" another neighborhood, where slaughterhouses reigned and now where the United Nations complex stands. Interesting that the world's principle peace keeping institution stands on what was once known as "blood alley", ominous, eh?

Neighborhoods have been given names of prominent former New Yorkers such as Carnegie Hill, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Stuyvesant Heights, Bed-Sty, a shortened Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ft. Greene, the Revolutionary War General, Nathaniel Greene, who orchestrated Washington’s retreat after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn. Williamsburg is named after the surveyor of Williamsburg and others less known such as Clinton Hill, Farragut, the Admiral, Morris Heights, Bedford Park, Astoria (Astor), Douglaston and on and on. Jerome Avenue in The Bronx is named after Winston Churchill’s mother, Jenny Jerome!

It’s too bad that many New Yorkers simply cite the name of their borough as their home eliminating the pride or shame of their space place, neighborhood, where they actually live. I’m never satisfied with the borough as the answer for a person’s neighborhood because boroughs are quite large and diverse and it tells you very little about where a person lives with precision! Why say you’re from Queens when you could be a resident of the more desirable Forest Hills, or historic and diverse Jackson Heights? Why not say Jamaica Estates, it sounds much better and indeed it is a spectacular place to live.

But, Queens residents, had better be careful because Queens is the only borough not recognized by the U.S. Postal Service as a proper mailing address. Your postal address must have your neighborhood name if you expect to receive your mail in Queens. No one addresses a letter or package to Manhattan, New York, it’s New York, NY and our friends in The Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island can do so too and use their borough name for mail purposes, so why not Queens? Do you feel sorry for Queens? They'd better know where they live. Queens is the largest borough, in square miles, 110, but certainly Manhattan and Brooklyn have more people and commercial businesses receiving mail.

I wonder why the Postal Service doesn’t recognize Queens as a mailing address? Don’t ask, don’t even go there! Basically, don’t try to figure out the Postal Service unless you love frustration, long lines and the words, “Next person in line” or “Step up”, “Step down’ or the favorite, plain ol’ “Next!!” Someday they’ll be gone but there will be no nostalgia. Post office, you did it to yourselves, what a shame. Government should stay out of business enterprises, just for starters, right? UPS and Federal Express are running post offices, so to speak, and making millions, paying their employees well, growing and vital. The only way they exist is because the Post Office blew it. Perhaps they should all merge and call it FedUpUS!

There are three Villages now, once called The Ninth Ward: The West Village, Greenwich Village and the The East Village. Alphabet City claims to be a part of The East Village but we’d better check with our imagined commissioner. It may become East East Village down the road, who knows? I’ve always wondered why the Avenues were named with letters instead of names similar to Lexington, Madison or Park. It came to me, Ave ABCD, assault, battery, coma, death! Not anymore! That neighborhood has come a long way and is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant, exciting, interesting and amusing. Pretty safe too!

If I were the naming commissioner, I’d choose names that reflect what’s going on now, not what went on way back when. For example, Midtown would be Midcity, uptown and downtown signs would be changed to Downcity and Upcity, because we are no longer a town, we’re a city! But, nostalgia kicks in and people do want to cling to the past, even in a City that lurches to the future. Greenwich Village is not a village so it should be Greenwich, period! The Lower East Side should be Chinatown, the Chinese have virtually taken over the entire neighborhood. Little Italy needs to be renamed Teeny Tiny Italy, with three blocks of restaurants and souvenir shops, many now owned by Chinese shopkeepers. “Happy Family” and “Lucky Gift” are owned by Italians or are they owned by Chinese? Guess!

Battery Park City is another example. The only batteries you’ll find there are Duracell, Eveready and Walmart because the batteries of cannons are long gone! How about Times Square? That used to be Long Acre Square before Adolf Ochs convinced his pal August Belmont, the subway builder back in 1904, to name the 42nd Street station, Times Square. Hey, Herald Square, aka Bowtie Square, was named after a newspaper too, the competitor of The Times so what the hell.

Recently the New York Times, a print media company, has fallen on hard times due to e-readers, and regrettably it may just fall altogether, oy vey. What then? Have any suggestions? How about Metro Square or AM New York Square, Post or Daily Square, Kindle or Nook Square? Hum? No! I got it, The Enquirer Square, oh no!

Williamsburg, I’d change to Bar Burgerburg, for obvious reasons, on second thought, maybe Condoburg or Condomburg would be better. How about Conundrumbury? Coney Island would become Coney Peninsula because that’s what it is. Turtle Bay should be changed to No Turtles Bay, Spanish Harlem to East Harlem, Greenpoint to Warsawpoint and finally Kips Bay to The Middle East because that’s actually where it is!

No one knows exactly how many neighborhoods exist in New York City as boundaries are constantly changing, ethnically there’s a constant ebb and flow and borders are, in many cases, are ill defined. But we do know that wherever New Yorkers call home it’s their neighborhood and they all contribute to make our City a most diverse and fascinating place.

Got any names you’d like to offer? Call 311 and ask for the Commissioner of Neighborhood Identifying Classification. Stay on the line because you’re bound to get a busy signal or “Please hold while I serve another caller” or you’ll hear the ubiquitous, “I’m either on the phone or away from my desk.”

For those of you born after 1985, a busy signal is a repeating beep sound that indicates that the phone number that you have “dialed” is in use and the person you have called does not have an automated answering device imbedded in their phone, a digital retrieval system, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail or an alternative party to accept your call. But keep trying. In truth they’re either helping a client or discussing last night’s Yankee game. Perhaps their phones should be placed in the bathrooms along with their desks. That way a lot more work would get done. Ya think? Eh, who knows, who cares? You just can’t take this stuff too seriously.

Wait! Even tho’ the Sign Says “WALK”!

While living on West 60th Street, just off of Ninth Avenue, I had walked through the intersection of 59th and 9th many times. Any Manhattanite knows what 59th and 9th means, since the number of Avenues is limited to twelve therefore 59th has to be a “street” and, in such an instance, ninth must be an “Avenue”. You could say that you are standing at the corner of 9th and 9th and that would make perfect sense. Best to suggest the NW corner of 9th and 9th that would be best, the precise corner, if you intend to meet someone, eh?

This intersection is not typical in New York City because Ninth Avenue traffic flows southbound only and 59th Street east of 9th Avenue does not exist due to two co-op complexes that occupy the otherwise road space, presently a private park behind both building. Therefore, vehicles heading south on 9th Avenue can either travel passed 59th Street, upon entering the 59th and 9th intersection, or make a right turn on 59th Street, westbound, the only two choices for motorists.

I had noticed a disturbing problem regarding synchronization of the traffic lights and the walk and don't walk signs at the two Westside corners of 59th and 9th.

Essentially, if you, as a pedestrian are crossing 59th St, on the Westside of 9th Ave and the traffic light is green, which allows vehicles on Ninth Ave to turn right at 59th St, those vehicles turning right onto 59th Street are clearly hazards to pedestrians crossing 59th St! The problem with the synchronization was that the “Walk” signal was lit, mistakenly misleading pedestrians of “safe passage” to cross the street when car and truck traffic was in movement and vehicles are permitted to take a right turn and enter the crosswalk.

The “Don’t Walk” sign was lit when pedestrians should have been permitted to cross safely when the 9th Ave traffic light was red, halting all the vehicular traffic proceeding south on 9th Ave or for those turning right on 59th Street. Only when the Ninth Avenue light was red would it be safe for the “Walk” sign to be displayed for pedestrians to cross 59th St.

My concern was that the “Walk” sign was out of synchronization with the Ninth Avenue red and green lights creating an obvious hazard.

Down the block, on 59th and 10th is a major hospital, St. Luke's Roosevelt, The John Jay College of Criminal Justice and numerous elementary, middle and high schools as well. As a result, there are lots of young children as well as elderly people visiting those being hospitalized, many who slowing lumber to the hospital for treatment, less able street crossers as we all know. And, of course, there were hoards of those with young children in strollers, and last but not least, dog walkers such as I. What to do? Hum?

311, the phone number established by Mayor Bloomberg to call in complaints regarding graffiti, items of interest or importance such as the out of synch walk and don't walk signs on 59th and 9th. So, that’s what I did, I called 311.

I was referred to the DOT, Department of Transportation, and began a seven month journey punctured by tenacity, patience, frustration and a commitment to provide a necessary benefit for my fellow citizens and, of course, dogs too. After numerous letters, written confirmations, case numbers, reference numbers and phone calls to and from the DOT and finally I receive a letter that “the problem had been resolved.” After I had received that notice I determined that it was fiction. Nothing had changed. This required another few doses of tenacity, yes, and the deed was finally done. How could they not have known?

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