Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Classic Cars on Franklin

The chain-link fencing doesn't exactly do wonders for the photos, but neither did holding the camera above the fence and hoping that I had the angle right. Either way, I've noticed a pair of classic cars holding court on the avenue in the past few weeks, and my curiosity finally got the best of me.

The first photo is of a GMC 3100, built for both GMC and Chevy by General Motors from 1947-1955. They're fairly popular machines on the classic-truck circuit as far as I can tell--one such model nearly cost this guy his marriage! GMC also used the chassis and nose for fire trucks in the early 1950s.

The second car pictured is readily identifiable by the bird logo on its side. It's a Ford Thunderbird, and judging from my comparisons with Wikipedia's exhaustive article and photos, it dates from 1964-66 (the "fourth generation" if you speak automotive).

Today's Fun Fact: A "thunderbird" was a mythical creature whose beating wings stirred thunder in the American Indian legends of the Northwest, Great Plains, and Southwest. Today, it's a car, a USAF demonstration pilot, an online business school, an email app, a British superhero, a Santa Barbara real estate company, a fortified wine, or a bass guitar, depending on who you ask.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Angle Revisited (on Franklin and beyond)

After Monday's post, I'm seeing angles everywhere, specifically, the angle--the angle at which several buildings and lots throughout Prospect Heights and Crown Heights sit askew from the grid. On Franklin Avenue, the angle makes an appearance between St. Marks and Bergen, as seen in the photos above and the property map on Pshark.

A bit of birds-eye browsing reveals that the angle persists well into Crown Heights, even after the existing grid jogs slightly between Bedford and Rogers. You can see it here on the block between Sterling, St. John's, Nostrand, and Rogers, here between Lincoln and St. John's on either side of Albany Ave, here between Park and Sterling on either side of Schenectady, and here slicing through two blocks between Park, Prospect, and St. Marks on either side of Buffalo. Examples abound, and while I'm not taking out my protractor and sitting it against my laptop's screen, it's fairly clear that these are all examples of the same angle.

Whence does this uniform misalingment originate? I did my best to figure it all out on google, proposing three theories, one of which--the farm lots theory, that this grid conformed to a previous gridding of farm lots--was validated by this post of Josh Jackson's in LOST Magazine. It's worth a read, but the key map is at the very bottom, a rendering of Prospect Heights from the late 1880s with the old route of the Flatbush turnpike and the radiating farm-lot boundaries. As shown very clearly, the angle of the stray buildings originates from the line of the old lots, which Jackson postulates were drawn to face the Flatbush Turnpike.

On Monday, I called this "the answer," but now I'm not so sure. I think it's half-right: the angle originates from the gridding of farm lots. However, I'm not convinced that these lines were drawn to face the Flatbush Turnpike. After all, the angle persists miles east of the old route of the turnpike, and as these maps from the NYPL show, it continues to be the product (presumably) of farm-lot boundary gridding. Moreover, the Flatbush Turnpike wasn't a very straight road, as evidenced by the map Jackson uses. Gridding to face a portion of it would make sense, but this grid was apparently so widespread that it would also have been at odds with the angle of the road in other places. Another old thoroughfare, the Hunterfly Road (which got its start as an American Indian trail), can be seen jogging through both grids in this map.

What seems to emerge from these maps, and the persistence of the angle, is that a whole swath of central Brooklyn was gridded for farming in a certain fashion well after both roads were laid. Perhaps this was based on the angle that Jackson found in Prospect Heights, where the lots face that particular piece of the Turnpike, but it seems just as likely that this effort at imposing order ignored the route of both of the old paths in its midst. The question becomes: when were all of these lots gridded, by whom, why, and with what organizing principle?

At any rate, I'm going to keep looking for angles. It's served me well so far, and it occasionally turns up great pieces of history, as in the case of the discovery of the Hunterfly Road Houses in historic Weeksville. Besides, every writer needs an angle.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Faded Glory

I'm stealing a page from Frank H. Jump's Fading Ad Blog today, with photos from the corner of Lorimer and Broadway in Williamburg and a pair from 681 Franklin Avenue. The first site just caught my eye in the winter sunlight today, despite the fact that I've probably passed it two dozen times since I moved to Brooklyn. Google lists the Acme Leather Belting Co., and Forgotten NY also reports that they still operate, making this painted sign a faded but not outdated advertisement.

The second site interests me a bit more, not least because it occupies a piece of frontage on my beloved Franklin Ave. When I first began plying the local paths this past summer, I occasionally saw a pair of elderly African-American gents sitting out front of what looks like a very old brick storefront, hawking t-shirts, socks, and hats from a wooden table. I intended to ask them more about the place once I started the blog, but I haven't seen them out in awhile. The very faded banner between the second and third stories reads "Groceries Flour & Feed," which would date the signage close to 100 years back, presuming that livestock haven't been kept too close to Franklin Ave in the intervening decades. Hopefully when the summer heat returns the haberdashers will open their door again and I can investigate this further.

An Angle on Prospect Heights

Brooklyn's constellation of grids produces buildings at all sorts of flatiron angles, but occasionally one comes across a home or business askew for a reason that isn't readily available in the current landscape. Famous examples include the Hunterfly Road Houses in Weeksville, which sit at an odd angle to the Crown Heights grid because they were built along the Hunterfly Road, which no longer exists.

Another spot where the building lots are inexplicably off-kilter is the corner of Prospect and Underhill in Prospect Heights. You can see the strange angle clearly on Property Shark and Google Maps, slicing cleanly through the block bounded by Underhill, Prospect, St. Marks, and Washington, with the occasional spur onto an adjacent block. The angled zoning has produced a series of buildings at odds with the grid, seen above.

A legitimate explanation of this phenomeon would take more time than this amateur has, but I've done my best on the web (a call to the realtor of 115 Underhill turned up nothing) and come up with a trio of theories, none of which are mutually exclusive.

1. The Farm Lots theory:

Pre-grid maps of this area were hard to find, but I came across two that might explain the angle. The first was the 1846 map of Brooklyn farm lands above, which ran in an 1896 historical piece in the Brooklyn Eagle. It's not exactly to scale, but there is one lot that could potentially explain the angle. You have to zoom in to see it, but it juts nearly due east from the Flatbush Turnpike before the southern end of the property ends, at which point the eastern edge creeps north at a unique angle (for the map). Another map I found of farm lots superimposed over the modern grid further west in Crown Heights showed the farm lots at similar angles to the grid.

2. The topo theory:

This Brooklyn subway survey map from 1888 has topographical lines, including one that slices right through the area in question at a similar angle to the existing one. This doesn't mean that there was anything special there, of course, but it does demonstrate that the hill slopes at that angle, which might have contributed to farm lot, and later residential, zoning.

3. The older-grid theory:

I couldn't discover when various streets were laid, but I've always noticed that Washington Avenue is an odd carryover of the Bed-Stuy grid into Prospect Heights. This 1855 map shows the streets as currently gridded, but perhaps there were briefly plans to grid the area differently. This might explain Washington's angle as well as the line of these lots, which make almost a right angle with Washington, as the streets in Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill do. The Flatbush Turnpike also used to cut through the neighborhood closer to Washington (you can see the angle of the turnpike in the 1846 map above), before slowly migrating west to become Flatbush Avenue.

These are completely inconclusive research results, of course, and they don't offer much of an answer. Thanks to the Brooklyn Geneology folks for their great maps page.

Update (10 minutes later): This is frustrating, but here's the answer, as complied and blogged by Josh Jackson of LOST magazine. A bit more googling finally turned up his piece, but I can't bring myself to take this pale shade of it down. Apologies for anything that seems like plagarism (though I'd be a poor plagarist if this was the best I could do).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Brooklyn at 35,000 feet

Not the photo, of course--that's just a stock favorite of mine that I took walking across 4th Avenue on Pacific Street.

I was out of town for the past couple of days, and on my flight home I found myself bored of my book and picked up the in-flight magazine. Lo and behold, my adopted home borough stared back at me from the glossy pages. And while these publications get a bad rap, there were actually some decent little articles tucked away between the ads for steakhouses and the lists of satellite radio stations available. Kudos to the US Airways magazine for putting together a good profile on Brooklyn (even though their lead photo is of the Manhattan bridge looking towards Manhattan!).

Some things I learned that I did not know:

-The borough of Kings is named for King Charles II of England (the naming took place when the Brits reorganized the colony of New York into twelve counties in the 1660s).

-There are 144 seats on the Wonder Wheel.

-Jackie Robinson is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery.

-Three borough eateries boast a Michelin star (Saul, Dressler, and Peter Luger).

-Dine In Brooklyn Week is coming up (though the dates seem a little fuzzy, it takes place in the last week of March)

Some things I found interesting or amusing:

-The six Brooklyn neighborhoods they recommend as destinations are:
1. Park Slope and Fort Greene (can you really elide those two?)
2. Williamsburg (somewhere a hipster is crying over yet another blow to Billyburg's hipness).
3. Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights (same gripe as #1, though they did have the interesting tidbit that in the pre-city days, Bensonhurst was farmland while Dyker Heights remained wooded because it was too hilly to till).
4. Dumbo (not spelled DUMBO, though they noted the acronym).
5. Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens (so when you said 6 neighborhoods, you meant 10? Yes? I see.)
6. Bedford-Stuyvesant (The real measure of neighborhood change is that this didn't even really surprise me).

-Their four "famous residents" cited were, in this order, Jackie Robinson, Chris Rock, Carl Sagan, and Shirley Chisholm. It got me thinking: who belongs on Mt. Brookmore? Those four? Another four? Some of them and some others? I'd argue that the faces on the rock (carved into the bluff that Brooklyn Heights sits on, perhaps?) would have to be Brooklyn-born, and I'm stuck at five: Chisholm, Sagan, Gershwin, Arthur Miller, and Christopher Wallace.

At any rate, seeing the borough lauded was a nice prelude to coming home to my new home.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Look: Franklin Avenue

I took this photo in the snow a few weeks back when I realized that the entire block on the west side of Franklin between St. Johns and Sterling is architecturally consistent. Some of the yellow brick three-story buildings have had storefronts cut into them along the street, and the cornices are different colors, but they are otherwise identical, an unbroken line that descends slightly with the slope of the hill. The surrounding blocks on Franklin contain a number of similar buildings, but only this stretch is entirely preserved.

I set out to discover when these handsome little units were built, but the search yielded very little. The most relevant piece of information I could turn up was in this 1855 map of Brooklyn, which confirms that Franklin Avenue had been cut and gridded by then. My stumbles through cyberspace were not a total wash, however, as I did unearth some fun local tidbits.

I mentioned the Green Mountains of Brooklyn in yesterday's post, and found a great descriptive article from the December 9, 1888 issue of the Brooklyn Eagle here. What's more, I found an image to match the description, a landscape of Crow Hill (a peak in the range) painted by Pennsylvania-born Charles Lewis Fussell. The blurb attached to the painting includes three theories of how Crow Hill got its name, and notes that "The neighborhood was gentrified during the early 20th century and renamed Crown Heights."

So for those who worry about it in this day and age, you are not alone, historically speaking: gentrification has been a process taking place (and a topic of discussion) along Franklin Avenue for over a century.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Where Steel and Sky and Five Trains Meet

A clear day on the L platform at Broadway Junction is a lovely treat, affording views to riders that stretch from Jamaica Bay to the Manhattan skyline. One of the highest platforms in the city, the station always provides a jolt from the routine to the extraordinary. It's yet another reason that elevated trains are worthy of celebration.

Located between the ridge of hills that separates Brooklyn from Queens and the ridge that Atlantic Avenue rides along (a stretch that a comment on this site taught me was once known as the "Green Mountains"), traffic has run through this gap since the Dutch first got here. It was a crucial pass that allowed the British to march on Gowanus and George Washington's army in the Battle of Long Island, and rail service to Jamaica has made use of the notch since the mid-19th century. The area around the current station was built up during that period as a "railroad town" (quoted from the link above--see the "history" section). Today, the station serves five trains on three separate lines, and offers the best transit-based workout in the city if you're trying to get from an A or C train to an L at rush hour.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Jazz Short Filming on Dean

I leaned out my window and took this shot this morning, and then asked the gentleman keeping an eye on the gear what was up as I went for milk at the deli on the corner. He told me that they were filming a short called "In Remembrance of Life" about a jazz musician at the end of his life thinking about what he sacrificed for his music. Look for it at festivals and showcases this summer and fall.

Brooklyn has been a player in the jazz scene since such a thing existed. Israel and Jacob Gershowitz (known to the world as Ira and George Gershwin) were born to Jewish emigres from Russia in the late 1890s and attended Erasmus Hall en route to producing the soundtrack to the jazz age. Renowned historian Robin D. G. Kelley penned a great piece on Brooklyn's jazz history and current revival for the Brooklyn Rail a few years back, and the NYTimes followed suit a year later. Both authors mention a booming scene based around Nostrand and Fulton in the late 1950s and early 1960s that attracted the legends (Diz, Bird, Monk, Miles, etc.) from across the East River and also produced a "Brooklyn Sound" best captured by the Blue Note recording "The Night of the Cookers: Live at Club La Marchal."

For current information on jazz in the borough, check out the Brooklyn Jazz Underground and the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Put "New Door" on the list, too.

One from the pure whimsy file - I passed this discarded door leaning against an apartment building on New Lots Avenue this morning. In keeping with the hard-times theme from earlier in the week, I like to think of it as a poetic rejection of materialism at a time when material needs are going unmet in neighborhoods like New Lots.

It also begs a much more practical question--they still make hat racks?

Weary Warrior

I pass by the equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant in Grant Square (where Bedford and Rodgers meet between Bergen and Dean) fairly frequently, and it never fails to draw my attention. It's almost the antithesis of a war memorial; Grant looks tired and bedraggled, wearing a grim, exhausted expression. Even if one stands too far away from it to see the general's face or features (as most do, since it sits amidst roaring traffic), the statue evokes slow sadness--the horse is barely moving, and Grant is leaning heavily forward in the saddle. A look at it suggests that the sculptor, William Ordway Partridge, was both a master and disinclined to produce a run-of-the-mill propagana piece.

I'm not the only one to have noticed this. In a NYSun article on the North Crown Heights Historic District, Francis Morrone writes: "The statue belongs to the same intensely naturalistic school as Henry Shrady's George Washington in Williamsburg's Continental Army Plaza. Partridge's statue shows a war-weary general, an image more deeply affecting than that of any peacockproud hero." It's a tribute particularly befitting Grant, a man with demons who understood the toll of war despite his success on the battlefield and who, at the end of his life, was intensely critical of those campaigns he saw as unjust, particularly the Mexican-American War. Morrone notes that the statue was erected in 1896 by the "august" Union League Club, a well-to-do Republican group. Original articles announcing the completion and unveilling in the NYTimes can be found here and here, informing us that the mayors of both New York and Brooklyn were present.

As for the sculptor, the Massachusetts-born W. O. Patridge spent time enough in New York city to grieve that the "automobile craze" was siphoning funding away from the arts (that cars could be considered substitute goods for commissioned works is a glimpse into the brief era of automobiles as luxury goods) and to call the Flatiron building "a disgrace to the city." A lion's share of his work graces the city's public spaces, including statues of Jefferson at the New York Historical Society and Columbia, and the "Peace Head" at the Met. Patridge died in NYC in 1930. His collected papers are held in Virgina at William and Mary.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sign of the Times

This photo would have been the perfect image for yesterday's rant, but I only just took it today. The setting is the corner of Ralph and Fulton in Bed-Stuy, where this joyful little reminder of one of the city's highest foreclosure rates greets you as you emerge from the IND station. Foreclosures were down in the 4th quarter of 2008, due largely to the 90-day moratorium, but Bed-Stuy remains worried: community groups, including the foreclosure-specific Know the Facts Bed-Stuy, are making foreclosure prevention a priority. The numbers are grim--5.2% of homes in Bed-Stuy have begun foreclosure proceedings, according to Know the Facts' December 2008 press release. If that number doesn't hit home, consider it this way: at least 1 in 20 homes is in the midst of foreclosure proceedings, or about one home per block. Put another way, 20% of Bed-Stuy homes are owner-occupied, comprising over 11,000 households, and of those, 650 are in foreclosure proceedings (this data compiled from the NYT). So it's not a stretch to suggest that most Bed-Stuy residents probably know someone dealing with foreclosure.

To reiterate yesterday's point: if Manhattanites are noticing insecurity creeping into their lives, remember that across the East River 164,000+ folks in Bed-Stuy alone are getting up every morning to signs like these, with full knowledge that people all around them are losing their homes.

Monday, February 09, 2009

A Brooklyn View

(Editor's Note: I polished this up a little tonight because my sentence about foreclosure in East New York was misleading and I decided the ending was a bit stupid. Hopefully you'll find it improved. -N.)

No, this isn't another excuse to wax poetic about the Franklin Avenue shuttle, colorful brownstones, or the myriad joys of elevated trains. In fact, the photo above doesn't pertain to what follows at all. I just wanted an image of Brooklyn, and this shot I took from the Franklin and Fulton platform seemed as good as any.

Rather, I want to offer a "Brooklyn view" (insofar as a transplanted kid is entitled to claim knowledge of such a thing) in contrast to the view from Manhattan promulgated in Allen Salkin's NYT article on Friday, "You Try Living on 500K in This Town." Salkin's piece, a look at the spending habits of those executives who would find their salaries curtailed if the current stimulus plan passes, is careful enough--who wants to be an apologist for the poor, put-upon super-rich, after all?--but its tone nonetheless reveals a naivete about what life looks like in much of New York City. The case Salkin makes, with helpful quotes from a pair of socialite-friendly authors, is twofold. His first point is that a salary reduction to $500,000 per year would be a massive disruption to the way of life these individuals know. He writes:

“As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable,” said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, “The Manny,” and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. “Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale.”

Salkin's emphasis is the disruption, and his case, though implied, seems to be that whether or not their lifestyle is ludicrous, such a massive set of changes would be difficult for anyone. He's right, of course. His second point, in which he slides sidelong into an ever-so-delicate defense of the lifestyle, is that the psyche of the successful executive depends on an ability to keep up with the Joneses (or the Rockefellers). As he puts it:

"Does this money buy a chief executive stockholders might prize, a well-to-do man with a certain sureness of stride, something that might be lost if the executive were crowding onto the PATH train every morning at Journal Square, his newspaper splayed against the back of a stranger’s head?"

He goes on:

The man would certainly not feel like himself on that train, said Candace Bushnell the author of “Sex and the City” and other books chronicling New York social mores.

“People inherently understand that if they are going to get ahead in whatever corporate culture they are involved in, they need to take on the appurtenances of what defines that culture,” she said. “So if you are in a culture where spending a lot of money is a sign of success, it’s like the same thing that goes back to high school peer pressure. It’s about fitting in.”

Again, I think he (and Ms. Bushnell) are right. The problem I have with this article isn't really that it's wrong, or even wrong-headed. My gripe is that it suggests that these conditions are remarkable, when they have been and continue to be a part of the daily lives of millions of New Yorkers, and particularly Brooklynites (a nod to our fellows in the Bronx, who have it even harder, statistically speaking).

On the first point, disruption. Many of the schools I work with in Brooklyn have "mobility rates" above 50%, meaning that over half of the students at the school spend part of their year elsewhere. Over 400 home in East New York were in foreclosure proceedings in October 2006, and rates across the borough remain high. Disruption can also be found in crime rates, unwanted pregnancies (as I learned from my lady, the cheapest birth control in Brooklyn is $350 up front for six months--no wonder people forgo it), lower life expectancies, job turnover (we'll get to this in a moment) and higher rates of disease. I'm not linking--this is basic stuff.

On the second point, the damage to an executive psyche: I'd like to launch into a tirade about the elitism of those who eschew public transit and their unbearable haughtiness, but the point Salkin is making is that this is all relative, and it's a valid point--if you're used to drinking nectar, clean water may well taste dreadful. But if trampled pride and damaged masculinity is the order of the day, what can be said of the modern American post-industrial service economy? A bailout means a $500,000 yearly salary for those Salkin discusses, but we know full well it means almost nothing at all for the former Circuit City manager. Long hours, no benefits, no job security, multiple jobs with humiliating outfits and regulations, everything else Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Nickel and Dimed, or that Richard Sennett wrote on in The Corrosion of Character: the bottom line for those living at or under Brooklyn's median income of $41,406 a year isn't pretty, and it is rarely a source of pride. If alienation and misery are to be found on the crowded subway, at least the executives won't be alone.

The irony, of course, is that working-class disruptions and their psychological toll aren't news--they've been around since well before the current crisis, part of the trends of de-industrialization and stagnating real wages that began at the end of the 1960s. The news is that Wall Street executives, if forced to live on a half-million a year, might get a taste of how the other half lives, not the conditions, but the insecurity and its effect on self-esteem and self-worth.

I don't wish that on anyone, and I'm sure those who've ducked from job to job while scraping and scratching to stay afloat would say the same. But when this crisis passes us by and our shaken, wounded executives are back in their limos, I hope they wear and bear the scars of disruption with thoughtfulness, because there will remain an enormous number of New Yorkers facing it down every day. If Obama and the Dems are serious about building a better social safety net, they should have as allies these newly-knowledgeable survivors.

Which is to say, once the view from Manhattan returns to normal (if the UES can really be called normal), please remember what the view from Brooklyn looked like.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Brooklyn Birds

If the chicken at Franklin Avenue supermarkets ever looks a little freezer-burned, locals have an alternative: T & S Live Poultry on Classon between Dean and Pacific. The storefront slaughterhouse carries a wide variety of city-legal beasts and birds, stacked high in cages in the front room. The customers, primarily individuals as opposed to restaurants or their suppliers, choose their animals and have them weighed live up front before they are butchered and dressed in the back. The employee I talked to said that they moved a "good number" of birds every week, and that they'd been in business two years.

New York City was once the largest live poultry market in the United States, as noted by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes in his majority opinion ruling against New Deal regulations in Schechter Poultry Corp. V. United States. (The "Sick Chicken Case," brought against a Brooklyn slaughterhouse, was one of several anti-regulatory rulings that led FDR to his slightly-less-than-democratic musings on whether or not the Supreme Court should be expanded to 13 justices.) However, operations like T & S are a relatively recent phenomenon: Dan Ackman's NYT article from 2000 on the subject notes that in 1980 there were just six live poultry markets in the city and only 20 in 1990. The author cites the tastes of new immigrant populations as the driving factor in the live-poultry resurgence--in 2000, there were 73 markets in NYC and numbers were rising, and a google search tonight turned up 24 in Brooklyn alone. Chickens are also making a comeback as long-term residents in NYC. The City Chicken Project will help you bring chickens into your neighborhood and trumpets them as sources of "social, economic, and environmental well-being." The folks over at the Walt L. Shamel/Dean North Community Garden have a coop full of laying birds at the back of their space right here in Crown Heights.

The markets are not without their share of controversy. The animal rights group United Poultry Concerns has voiced vehement opposition to the conditions in these slaughterhouses, which are regulated by the NY State Department of Agriculture. There have been outbreaks of disease at certain markets: in 1997, a strain of bird flu was found in the animals at 14 NYC sites. The markets are also notoriously odoriferous, especially in the summer months, which why they are often found nestled in amongst repair shops and warehouses and not along major commercial streets. Still, some markets have drawn fire from nearby residents, particularly in gentrifying areas.

Of course, the markets claim they are providing a fresh, honest alternative to the Meatrix-quality frozen bricks available to most Brooklynites. Do the birds taste better? A lone poster on Chowhound has posed the question, but so far no one has responded.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Brooklyn's Subterranean River

Standing water sits underneath subway tracks in almost every subway station, especially after rainfall or snowmelt, but in certain stations of the G train it actually flows merrily along. The torrent wanes and waxes with the weather outside, but it's almost always there, a constant burbling brook between the rails that runs through the stations under Marcy and Union Avenues (Myrtle-Willoughby, Flushing, and Broadway are the stations where I witness the phenonmenon firsthand).

I haven't discovered what specifics of construction or location result in this stream, or whether the water is direct runoff from streets or diverted from another part of the system. Water building up in the subway system is usually cause for alarm--unsurprisingly, high-voltage subway lines and water don't mix well, and to add insult to injury for those waiting on a flood-delayed train, water chases rats onto the platforms--but in this instance, things seem pretty well in hand. After all, the water is running somewhere and there haven't been reports of a massive urban aquifer slowly rising underneath Williamsburg. Most likely it either flows into the sewers or some kind of underground storage, or the MTA pumps it back out to street level. They might even be using it for cleaning or cooling as part of a new series of green initiatives.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

More Power!

Thanks to Brownstoner are in order for posting my "Why are there power lines in East New York?" question as their closing bell on Monday. My curiosity centered around both the lines' existence and the shoes that adorn them. Brownstoner's followers offered some insights, but the first question, at least, remains unanswered.

On the shoe-tossing query, posters were split on the two leading theories, "gang territory markers" and "kids goofing off." Ultimately, I think these two bleed together: kids goof off and throw sneakers over the wires near where they live. Kids are sometimes in gangs. Gangs identify their turf, sneakers on wires become appropriated as "turf markers," and more are thrown up. Meanwhile, some kids down the block mimic them because it looks like fun and they're kids. The point, I suppose, is that gangs and miscreant kids are a pair of groups with a whole lot of overlap.

As for the persistence of power lines in ENY, I don't have an answer. Respondents mentioned that ENY isn't the only Brooklyn neighborhood with power lines, which is true: Red Hook, Gravesend, parts of Canarsie, and parts of Dyker Heights also have their full grid above ground, and lots of other nabes have bits and pieces in the air, such as the telephone lines in backyards in parts of Bed-Stuy. So perhaps my argument that above-ground power lines are "rare in major cities" should be revised to "relatively uncommon in Brooklyn." Still, my interest in the original question remains--why are the lines in East New York above ground? What sorts of factors led to some neighborhoods having subterranean power supplies? There must be a history of this out there somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.

On an unrelated note, the photos above illustrate another interesting feature of ENY--the remarkable continuity of its rowhouses. Street after street is either composed of turn-of-the-century brick numbers like the ones in the first photo, or identical red-bricked ones built (I'm guessing here) in the 1970s. On a sunny day, the uniformity gives the neighborhood an almost suburban feel. As long as I'm asking questions, if anyone has any information on the building of either breed of rowhouse, I'd be curious.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Snow Day

I missed a B48 bus down Franklin at Myrtle by a hair today, and after a futile block of running to catch it, I decided to hoof it home. The result was this photo journal of a snowy day on Franklin Ave, with a final photo tossed in from my stoop as I came home to write it all up. I do love this street.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A working remnant of the Great Society

LBJ is a well-documented former president, but in spite of this (or perhaps because of it), his public image will forever by synonymous with his disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War. Though well-deserved, this reputation obscures the lasting good done by his "Great Society" programs, which included the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and the provision of millions of federal dollars to meet the basic needs of impoverished communities. Though his war was criminal folly, it should not be all we remember of the Southern-born President who proclaimed, from the United States Capitol, "We Shall Overcome."

With this in mind from a recent reading of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, it brought a smile to my face to come across the Lyndon Baines Johnson Health Complex at Nostrand and Kosciusko. Built in 1968, presumably with federal money of some variety, the complex is a free clinic that serves Bed-Stuy with primary, dental, mental health, ob/gyn and substance abuse care. The clinic was part of a multi-million dollar effort to improve patient tracking for those with chronic conditions in 2006, and has been a regular participant in Brooklyn prez Marty Markowitz's yearly campaign to "Take Your Man to the Doctor."

The scars of Vietnam are long and ugly, and the unhappy after-effects of that war will doubtless outlive those souls who fought in it. Still, it must give the ghost of LBJ some small consolation to know that his name lives on a corner of Brooklyn as a beacon for those who are sick or in need.

Why are there power lines in East New York?

I wish I could say I was being a clever journalist and leading with a question, but I honestly don't know the answer to this one. This is one of those topics that evades googling, because all the key words (east new york Brooklyn telephone power lines above ground) lead you astray, no matter the combination. But unlike much of the rest of Brooklyn, ENY actually has a substantial chunk of its grid above ground. You can find lines connecting bits and pieces elsewhere, but it's rare to see utility poles on every corner in a major city.

The presence of the lines makes shoe-tossing possible, another topic that I couldn't get to the bottom of because there are as many explanations for the practice (including some that claim to be borough-specific) as there are bloggers to write them up. The neighborhood was hit particularly hard by the crack epidemic (as I read in an article by Daily News reporter Denis Hamill in the book Brooklyn: A State of Mind), so perhaps in this instance the drug and gang explanations are relevant--gangs use shoes to mark territory, the presence of shoes notifies a user that crack can be bought nearby, etc--but I'm mostly inclined to the Occam's Razor explanation: kids goofing around throw shoes on wires.

If anyone from ENY has a particular explantion for the shoes that adorn the neighborhood's power lines, I'd love to hear it.