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

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The technology to transport water underground was visionary, feeding the various man-made bodies of water and to provide necessary drainage in the Park, all man-made via a labyrinth of underground pipes. The topography was carved out with slopes dug below the level of adjacent roadways providing greater peace and quiet for park visitors, while those who enjoyed the brilliance of it all deceptively never taking notice that it was all made by the hand of man! Perhaps that’s the brilliance of it all, to fool the eye; the designers deliberately did not want those who enjoy the park to notice. In effect, therefore, I should be pleased when I see people enjoying the park without a care as to how it came to be! That’s the genius of the designers, the ultimate confirmation that their design was a decisive success, a man made park that appears to be nature’s creation.

At a cost of over $5,000,000 for the land, at the time when The United States government paid slightly more for the entire state of Alaska, one has to reflect that the commitment to provide this great City with a park equal in size to the two smallest countries on earth, Monaco and The Vatican combined, was quite a remarkable and unprecedented undertaking. It was, up until that time, the greatest investment made by this City for its people, a statement that we as a city were competing and exceeding the efforts of other great cities of the world. It was another declaration that New York City was committed to be the world’s first class City, bar none!

To those who lament the value of the property, 843 acres that is Central Park, were instead developed into luxury housing of the best construction and design that would have provided an impressive and enormous real estate tax grab, ought to take note that had the park never existed the increased value of the surrounding properties, due to the existence of the park itself, is of far greater value than that which would have been had all of that acreage been “developed” by builders of the highest order. Tax-wise the City has come out way ahead due to the park.

Enjoy Central Park! The more you learn about this greatest of parks the more you will take pleasure and gain appreciation. It is truly the 19th century American Artistic Masterpiece, a natural, organic piece of art that truly spells America, glorifying its valleys, rivers, streams and mountains. The designers have replicated nature, the Hudson River Valley, here in the center of Manhattan, in the most magnificently executed possible way.

We, as a young country, had no other palette to project our visual imagination. Unlike Europe we had no history of tapestry, architecture, oil paintings or sculpture. Nature was our palette and Olmstead and Vaux, together with Wrey Mould, created the park at a cost of $7,000,000 plus the cost of the land.

As you walk through Central Park imagine after you pass through each scenic landscape, open your eyes and before you observe another site, freshly painted, and look as though you were walking through an art gallery. That was their intent. The intent is for you to take a tour, as if it was a museum inviting you to savor every pictorial that unfolds before you, masterpieces, in three dimension made with real material and formed to appear natural but made and designed by the hand of man; that’s the magic and art of Central Park. Enjoy it, even if you know nothing about it! Perhaps now, you know you know and before, you didn’t know you knew nothing about Central Park!

Take a Stroll in Greenwood

Did you ever think of going to a cemetery to take a walk, relax, enjoy nature and get immersed in a beautiful landscaped environment? Would you ever consider taking the time and trouble to visit a cemetery without any consideration to search for the monument of a departed relative, friend or even a person of fame?

Perhaps you would consider making such a trip if you had lived in a filthy, crowded and stench ridden urban environment rife with diseases and squalor without decent parks laden with bundles of trees, a walking path and void of any powerful sense of rural, quiet, natural bucolic serenity with an abundance of peace and beauty. Would you?

Those sentiments gave rise to the “rural” or “garden” cemetery movement in France and England in the early 19th century, to enhance the experience of cemetery visits, for the living, of course! The result was that not only did mourners appear at such cemeteries, but those seeking an escape from urban environments came to enjoy solace and peace by “inhaling” these splendid places before the “invention” of landscaped parks. Shortly thereafter, this movement reached The United States.

“Inspired by romantic perceptions of nature, art, national identity and the undermining of the melancholy themes of death” such cemeteries were generally placed on the outskirts of large cities such as Boston, Cincinnati and New York City on high ground with excellent views of the cities. Naturally, the views were intended to provide a pleasing panorama for the visitors only if to enhance the experience that put that place, the cemetery, in unison with the city making it a part of city life and inspiring spiritual energy. Views are not intended for the departed, but strangely many plots are purchased for that reason, huh! It’s an old put-on that the departed have great views and people pay extra for such raised plots; as many plot salesmen well know.

American landscape design, pioneered by Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, Frederick Law Olmsted and Jacob Wrey Mould integrated their skills to create spacious and tranquil grounds where the combination of nature and the esthetic vision and the hand of man would result in lush and well-planned places of beauty and “art”. They created cemeteries, essentially park like grounds, providing a getaway; an escape from the urban environment, a bucolic and natural setting that “spoke” of life and laid the departed to rest in an organic and peaceful place of beauty. The patterns were hilly wooded sites with vast open areas of thinned out trees, void of plants amidst broad vistas. Many plots were adjacent to magnificently carved bodies of water providing nearby benches for reflection, connection with nature providing solace and repose. These settings stimulated a sense of appreciation of nature and the continuity of life as a return to nature, an extension of existence, the next phase of an eternity.

Leonard Bernstein is “resting” atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, over 200 feet above sea level in Greenwood Cemetery overlooking Manhattan. Trees, planted beside a stone bench inscribed with his sir name, shade his monument. It is a spectacular site, a final place, evoking communion with the living, nature and eternal beauty.

A walk through Greenwood Cemetery, the resting place for over 600,000 people, many who were the “movers and shakers” of New York City for over one-hundred and fifty years is inspiring. If you imagine this 478 acre landscaped ground, established in 1838, without the monuments, you cannot help but perceive that you are strolling through the most magnificent park in the world.

After a two-hour leisurely walk through Greenwood, I did not leave with a gloomy sense of sadness but rather a peaceful and serene feeling of calm. This place provides the best possible opportunity for visitors of its occupiers and for those seeking comfort; that existence itself is an endless journey. Surely, this cemetery and others alike are more for the living then the departed. Among some of the notable residents are: Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, DeWitt Clinton former Mayor, Governor of New York, inspiration for the Erie Canal and the 1811 Street Grid in Manhattan, Horace Greeley, poet, publisher and advocate of Central Park, Samuel F. B. Morse, the genius behind the first Atlantic cable, Margaret Sanger, birth control pioneer and Lewis Comfort Tiffany, artist and of course the infamous Mayor William M. Tweed and many more. You’ll also see stones bearing numerous names of Brooklyn streets that are familiar to many of us, a sure giveaway that they were important without us knowing why; Remsen, Joralemon, Montaque, Boerum, Henry and Hicks. It’s interesting to write down the names of those that appear on the largest monuments on the highest ground and “Google them”. You’d be surprised to know whom you have visited!

Many of the monuments are quite impressive and original. Pyramids, sarcophagi of various sizes with incredible ornamentation are found everywhere. The names, dates and sentiments are a tour through New York’s past. Richard Upjohn, architect of Trinity Church and Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights, designed the highly ornamented brownstone “gate” at the 5th Avenue entrance in Sunset Park. That alone is truly worth the trip. Go there, you’ll be glad you did, but don’t stay too long, please! Just a visit! Interestingly, before the construction of Central Park many Manhattanites crossed the East River by boat and walked up the hills at Sunset Park to Greenwood Cemetery to enjoy a day in the “park” a cemetery and precursor of perhaps the greatest park on earth and you know where that is!

Subways, Love or Hate?

With approximately 5.5 million paid “rides” per weekday, the New York City subway and bus fleet, the world’s fourth busiest, largest subway system and world’s largest exclusively hybrid bus fleet, stands only behind Tokyo, Moscow and Mexico City in number of daily riders. We have the most tracks, by far; 722 miles compared with second place London with a mere 150 miles. It’s the only subway system in the world built with express tracks from the “get go” and there are no multiple fare schemes for distance, at least not yet, and it is the only system that runs 24/7! We are truly “The City that Never Sleeps!”

The genius of building the subways in New York City with express tracks from the very beginning is one of the most significant innovative ideas that has enabled this City to exist, to grow and thrive. Imagine if we didn’t have express tracks! We never would be able to carry such vast numbers of people and transport them so rapidly. The volume would overwhelm the system and the limits would have impeded the growth of the City. Time of travel to and from Manhattan would have doubled. Far-flung neighborhoods would not have become so dense. We would have had impressive skylines in outer borough neighborhoods close in to Manhattan with more open spaces further out. The subways would not have penetrated those further away places; it would not have been practical to extend the subways to such far flung places to collect small numbers of people. Perhaps the underlying story is about alliances between the bureaucratic subway decision makers and the real estate moguls.

The express tracks have provided the opportunity for outlying real estate values to soar enabling resident’s to enjoy quicker access to their jobs from distant places, making their lives more enjoyable, increasing their work and leisure time immeasurably. “Honey, I’m home!” “So soon, you should have taken the local, and whose lipstick is on your collar?” The express tracks make it possible to leave home later and get home earlier, true, making it possible to argue with your spouse longer then those who live in cities with only local rails! Could it be that express tracks have resulted in larger sized families and higher divorce rates? More time with your spouse may have spun that ancillary byproduct due to more time at home.

When you enter the subway you venture into a completely different world. Rich in its own cultural mores and codes of conduct written by The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) and those authored, but not written, literally, by the ridership or “straphangers” as riders were known years ago who “wrote” the “rulebook” that governs behavior on the “iron-horse”.

Just about everyone who rides the subway has a love hate relationship with the subway. It gets you where you want to go inexpensively, safely and quickly but, it’s noisy, often crowded, with long waits at off hours and weekends and at times it’s not clean, but tolerable and acceptable.

The love argument goes like this:

It’s fast, the fastest way to get around the City. It’s statistically the safest way to travel compared with taxis, driving, biking, busing and walking. It is reasonably dependable, more so then any other means. Without it, this City simply could not exist! Even though Manhattan has more vehicles entering and leaving on a daily basis than any other city in The United States, we must rely on the subways to transport millions of people who travel daily. There simply is no other way. There are those who travel in the opposite direction of the voluminous flow of people and they do have many benefits: space, comfort and seating, less noise and a little peace. It was the subways, initially the L’s (elevated trains) that had enabled people to increase the distances between home and work, expanding the city and making it possible for people to live in larger homes abandoning their tiny tenement dwellings, making room for newcomers, the next wave of immigrants. Subways are the arteries of the city, its lifeline; cheap, fast, safe and air-conditioned. Kill it and the City will die!

The hate argument goes like this:

It’s unfit for humans, there’s too much trash, dirt, bottles, newspapers and many people are filthy, there are not enough people on staff to keep the system clean, it’s “disgusting”!

Recently, I picked up a newspaper off a seat and thought the news that I had read two weeks ago had reoccurred, that’s how old the paper was! The trains are extremely noisy; the express trains roar through stations compelling many to stick their fingers in their ears. You could go deaf! They’re far too crowded, at times and the wait is much too long for the next train and people are often literally unable to squeeze in or they just refuse to try, their wait continues.

The worst thing about the subway is the crowd during rush hour. We are at times packed in like sardines in a can, crushed up against people who are in your face, pushing, leaning against each other, and all the unpleasant smells and shouts of those among us who are arrogant, selfish and inconsiderate. Backpackers swing around forgetting or not caring that their packs are crashing into others. It doesn’t have to be this way, does it? At least we don’t have “pushers”, people hired by the transit system as in Tokyo who push and jam people into trains to maximize the load! I can’t imagine that in New York City. That would be the most dangerous job on the planet, as nice as New Yorkers are!

The MTA’s code of conduct; we all could have written that in five minutes; no spitting, don’t hold the doors, step back when a train is entering the station, etc. etc. The unwritten rules are far subtler.

People tend to sit or stand at the greatest distance possible between one other. You’ll never see two strangers take adjacent seats if there are two empty seats available to provide a bit of distance in the same car. If you put yourself next to someone and had the option to sit with space around you then you’d get a look that would kill. Everyone cherishes his or her space, especially in the subway.

Many riders peer into the windows of a train as it enters the station looking for unsavory riders in each car as the train passes by enabling them to seek avoidance from crying babies, boisterous children or cars filled with school children who are loud and inconsiderate, performing acrobatics on the steel bars and poles, and those who appear to be scary, threatening, hostile and unpredictable. “Strap hangers” generally opt to enter an adjacent car if they so desire, eying a sleeper, a person with an abundance of black plastic bags, a cart or evidence of “persons of interest” who are not mainstream.

Riders generally do not move to the center of cars, the space that is the greatest distance from the three or four sets of exit doors, depending on the subway line that you are riding. This results in more overcrowding near the doors; more jamming and squeezing then should be necessary. People tend to be lazy and hate to do what they are told or should do without having to be told.

Conductors frequently make announcements during rush hour; most comply with their requests, albeit unenthusiastically. What’s in it for them? Space! Many push to leave the train blocked by those seeking entry fearing that the doors will shut in their faces leaving them standing on the platform. It is customary to let people leave the train before allowing those who seek entry. But, that doesn’t include everybody. How dumb, let’s all get in and then let the others out. Duh!

“Please stand clear of the closing doors” an announcement made prior to the closing of the doors by the conductor. However, this doesn’t always happen. Some riders cram an arm in, hold doors for a friend, aggressively. Or, they force doors open to gain entry. This is dangerous stuff and it will never end! But it could, if the City wanted it to! Just hire some plainclothes enforcers and issue summonses en mass. Isn’t that a primary cause and effect of society, the failure to provide reasonable and deliberate enforcement? Don’t we know enough about reducing crime? Why are we so tolerant and accepting of unacceptable behavior? Let’s get with the program. We have demonstrated, as a City, that we’ve done that better than any other city. It’s called pushing for “voluntary compliance”. What’s the problem?

We have more than our share of obesity in New York City and I could swear that the seats keep getting smaller. Manhattan is the thinnest county in the United States, not thin geographically but demographically, average body weight. Often people who are seated, on a bench seat are suddenly joined, literally joined, by an overweight rider who consumes a seat and a half! I have even seen some consume two seats, entirely! For me, I quickly rise and stand for the duration of my trip if I fail to find another seat. Many remain seated and endure the big squeeze. Perhaps the MTA will create a surcharge for seat and seat and a half riders as some airlines have instituted. Forget the calorie counts that are required to be posted in chain restaurants to thwart huge caloric intake. The people who need that information the most, read those calorie counts the least. The MTA should consider a surcharge for those who are “weight challenged.”

That would be a sure cure, well, “I think I’m sure!” Seriously, this is an enormous problem and needs immediate attention not just for fellow strap hangers but for those challenged by weight most of all. Perhaps we should be standing on a scale as we swipe our cards and if your weight exceeds x then an additional swipe would be required to gain entry, or an extra half a swipe, a surcharge. For many, that’d be a good thing, longer, healthier lives and more seating for others. In fact, there is a law that states, those who inconvenience other riders, and that includes occupying more than one seat must rise and provide fellow riders the benefit the two seats they occupy. I do believe however, that some folks are so huge that standing for their entire ride may be a grueling physical challenge and may be life threatening.

Recently, I took the annual vintage subway ride sponsored by the MTA. The train that I rode was a model that had been in use during the 1940-1960’s, equipped with wicker seats, tungsten light bulbs, porcelain handles and without air conditioning. The print ads featured cigarettes, the ones that most doctors preferred. Brands such as Lucky’s, Camel, Raleigh and good old Chesterfield, all non-filtered were featured. That really took me back, way back. What made the biggest impression for me was the size of those seats. Most people today would not have had adequate space and todays large Marge’s wouldn’t have the space for half their tushes. Tiny seats that seemed so normal back then today look like seating for fifth graders, but not all fifth graders by any means!

Many stations are now equipped with elevators and escalators, too often many are out of service. They were paid for at great expense, just about a billion dollars or so according to what I’ve read. So fix ‘em or get the money back. No can do? Bet there’s inadequate language in the purchase orders or agreements that the MTA signed with the contractors, giving them the right to foot drag or play dead. If not, who’s minding the store? I’ll bet all the elevators and escalators in Bloomberg’s offices are working just fine. It’s amazing! If the MTA were a private company competing in “the real world” then the elevators and escalators would be working under threat of well-written contracts that include penalties crafted by attorneys who knew a thing or two about contract law. No competition equals unreliable elevators and escalators. MTA, the proof is in the pudding! Overall for $2.50 per ride you are doing a fine job (“Brownie”) but there’s a lot of room for improvement, and that doesn’t include another “annual” increase above $2.50 in the very near future. The best way to prove that you are giving away the shop is to launch some of your union employees who make $55,000 per year with benefits into the private sector and let them check out the job opportunities they’ll find there. It’s about votes? Yeah! Perhaps, anyone who has anything do to with keeping their mouth shut or supporting those increases won’t get my vote. How about yours? When lines for applicants approaches zero, then you know you’re offering the right deal. This is not Walmart! We don’t want to see people squashed lining up for a toy or electronic gizmo for half price. We want enough qualified people to run the system and earn a fair wage, not a balloon giveaway or a handout. Some of those who work for the MTA cannot make an announcement that is understandable. Some are walking around in a haze, or daze. Others are taking up space. If this was run like a business and we straightened out the unions, enforced the Taylor Law that forbids public employees to strike, ala Regan’s strategy that busted the FAA air traffic controllers, then we’d be able to create a system that is the envy of the world. What are we afraid of? Another strike? Let the National Guard run the subways or cut their pay for every day they decide to hold this City hostage. Hallelujah!

Isn’t it amusing that the MTA has implemented an audio system that advises us when we should expect specific trains to arrive at the station?

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a Brooklyn bound train arriving on the local track.” Or, “There is a Queens bound train two stations away.”

How often I have stood on the platform and waited for the “arriving” train that confirms that the announcement was fiction. At times, I’ve entered the station and seen the Brooklyn bound local pull out of the station while the announcement is blearing that it’s one station away! Soon it will be, but moving away from the station, not toward it. I’ve heard two announcements simultaneously canceling each other out! Try that in the real world folks. It would be beneficial if the announcement cited which local train the announcement is referring to: The C and the B trains both travel to Brooklyn or uptown! Let us know which of the two is coming. What would be the big deal? Ah! It’s twenty-five year old technology. Oy, come on folks, wake up.

The customary and usual unwritten code, for escalators, is to stand to the right and allow walkers to walk up, or down, on the left. Many riders prefer to walk up escalators rather than wait and stand on a step. Unfortunately, many stand on the left and pretend that they don’t hear you from behind, “Excuse me please!” They block you from moving and take pride in the acquisition of this little piece of temporary real estate. They know darn well that people may be behind them who walk up escalators but they just stand there, angry people. This too will never go away. This exposes anger and frustration on both sides. Some people love to express their anger in public places and the subways are an excellent place to push those buttons. Get up, grow up and get over it. Stand right and pass left, got it? Hey MTA, why not post signs, such as: Please stand right and walk left with an illustration that anyone will understand.

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