Monthly Archives: February 2017

Day Sixty-Four, December 30, 2016 -February 16,2017, Back to Harlem between 145th Street to 125th Street east of St. Nicholas Avenue (NoHA).

I started walking Harlem again after the holidays and I saw the last vestiges of the holidays all over the neighborhood. Some of the brownstone owners still had their wreaths and garland decorating their homes and it was still quite striking to see a ‘Victorian Christmas’ in front of me. There were still some Santa’s up and trees with lights at twilight and it was nice to see that some people kept their decorations up for the Epiphany.

I started my day by walking the avenues first and then I would do the side streets. It is very different to do this walk in the winter months than in the summer as the days get short and it gets dark very quickly. Some parts of this part of the neighborhood can be somewhat sketchy so try not to venture out too late. I would not say that some parts are dangerous but in any part of New York City even in daylight, you should watch yourself. Even parts of the Upper East Side can be daunting after dark.

The part of the neighborhood that I was covering on this part of the walk is from south of 145th Street east of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard and Edgecombe Avenue to FDR Drive, which is near impossible to walk as their is no outlet to get onto it with getting yourself killed.

I had covered most of First, Second, Third and Lexington Avenues over the summer but I walked them again to see if there were any changes. There were a few as new buildings are going up by 128th Street and some of the businesses in the area had splashed some new paint on the buildings. This area of the triangle bounded from Lexington Avenue from 131st Street to 125th Street is dominated by commercial buildings and the bus depots with a few small parks that have seen better days.

There is a very nice recreational area that I walked through on 128th Street that was very active in the Summer with loads of kids playing soccer and baseball but in the winter months, there were a few kids milling around and playing chase and soccer. Mostly groups of kids hanging out after school. As I walked up the ramp to the 3rd Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, I noticed a few pairs of eyes watching me as I was watching them. The same thing happened at Young Park on 145th Street.

In the summer, the park was very active with a huge basketball tournament that had attracted a big crowd. In the winter, it had just a few kids playing basketball and a few mothers strolling with their kids. The site of a six foot tall white guy had people staring at me  but I have gotten used to it by this point.

Even Park Avenue in this part of Manhattan is not very glamorous. Much different from the blocks south of 96th Street. Up here, it is more commercial with a few schools in the area and a few new apartment houses. There are many small businesses and the area is mostly geared towards transportation. It is not a place to be late at night if you are not from the neighborhood.

Around 132nd Street down to about 128th, the glamour continues with the Department of Sanitation having one of their uptown buildings. This area under the train underpass is where they keep all the garbage trucks and the area is really busy during the days of pick up. It gets a little scary up here at night and it does smell but also too you get to see how the city works. I just wonder how this effects the health of so many residents who are living in public housing that surround the area.

Once you pass Park Avenue, then the neighborhood becomes more residential and you really see the beautiful brownstones and apartment buildings. From Madison Avenue to 7th Avenue, most of the streets are lined with the most graceful buildings from the turn of two centuries ago. Some of the doorways were still decorated for the holidays and it complimented the homes nicely.

This area of Harlem is dominated by many large public housing complexes, which is the reason why the Harlem section of the city will remain a  diverse section of the city. This is unless the city decides to sell off their housing department to meet the demand for housing at market rates. This would really change the complexity of the city.

Walking the Avenues did not take as long as walking the streets. I was able to walk from 1st Avenue to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard in two days and get a real view on how the commercial districts are slowly changing. Since the summer, many businesses I have noticed have closed or have been replaced by chain businesses. It is funny that for the number of years that the city moaned and groaned about chain businesses not wanting to enter the city it is now being dominated by these businesses often pushing out the mom & pop businesses that give each neighborhood its uniqueness.

The one thing about Harlem is that if you ever want a quick snack, there is no lack of bodega’s and small restaurants that are reasonably priced. I stopped in at Food Company Deli at Madison and 130th Street for pastilitos, those wonderful and reasonable meat pies I enjoyed so much in Washington Heights. They were $1.25 here but still delicious. They were freshly cooked and full of chicken and beef respectively. They had a wonderful selection of hot snacks, probably for the after-school crowd from the two schools around the corner and the people playing in the park down the road. All I know is that the owner got very excited about me being there and jumped through hoops when I walked in and paid for my purchase in cash.

When both walking the avenues and the streets, you will notice that there are a large number of public housing units that spread over several blocks. The Drew Hamilton Housing Complex dominates from 144th to 141st Streets from Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue) to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard (8th Avenue) and Fredrick Samuels Houses run from 141st to 139th Streets between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue). Saint Nicholas Houses at 127th to 131st Streets was my start off point since the summer months and where I completed the walk in February at 6:30pm while watching a group of kids play basketball (their park is still having a major makeover that has been going on since the summer months).

Between 142nd Street and 139th Streets, from Lenox to 5th Avenue, you have the mixed income and renovated Savoy Park Apartments. They are gated and you can see by the landscaping and the cars in the lots not public housing. It is much better taken care of then the surrounding housing but reading reviews on the internet, they still seem to have similar problems. Even though this series of former public housing still has older residents and am not sure if all the buildings are fully renovated yet.

I walked through most of these complexes around twilight and no one ever bothered me. Most people either ignored me or looked the other way. Sometimes groups of young men would be on their cell phones while I was walking on one side of the street and then would disappear by the time I walked back down the other side of the street. Since I criss-crossed most of the neighborhood for a second time, I was able to judge how the neighborhood was changing just in the few months it took to walk this side of Harlem.

The areas the surround the SUNY campus seem to have the most changes to it. Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Fredrick Douglas Boulevard keep changing all the time in the areas between 140th Streets to about 132nd Street. Many of the buildings have the ‘new window’ syndrome, where you can tell the building is either been renovated or in the process of being renovated. This is where your newer restaurants and shops are popping up. This is especially true at around St. Nichols Boulevard and Edgecombe Avenues where brownstones and pre-war apartments being sandblasted back to sparkling perfection with new plantings and artwork to accompany them. The homes around Dorrance Brooks Square Park between 136th to 137th Streets have a real beauty to them with their unique designs and big windows over-looking the small park.

The area gets even nicer in the fast gentrifying St. Nicholas Historic District, known as ‘Strivers Row’ of brownstone homes between 137th and 139th Streets right off St. Nicholas Park between Fredrick Douglas and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards. These majestic buildings were once ‘the’ area of Harlem and are fast taking their rightful place in the neighborhood again. So much of the block I have passed over the past two months has been under scaffolding (as much of the neighborhood has been). These buildings built between 1891-1893 in the Colonial, Georgian and Italian Renaissance styles and  have been home to many famous residents including musician Eubie Blake and congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Really take time to look at the architecture and the detail work. You can still see traces of the past century in the details.

The commercial avenues is where you are seeing the most changes. The weird part is that it changes from block to block. Even the restaurants change. You can have a hip new barbecue place next to a Chinese restaurant with bullet proof glass and a small slot to get your food. The funny part is when the young white kids enter these Chinese restaurants and the looks on their faces when they are ordering. It can such a juxtaposed array of businesses catering to both old and new residents. Even when I walk in the owners seemed perplexed with who I was and what I was doing there. This happens right across the street from the housing projects but even in the nicest restaurants in the area, it is a mixed crowd of residents enjoying themselves.

One note when walking this upper part of Harlem is that there are scarce public bathrooms around the area. Outside of the McDonalds on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard the only  other bathroom you can use in the neighborhood is in the much needed in renovation Fred Samuels Park. Their bathrooms are clean but still falling apart. The park is located between 139th and 140th Streets off Lenox Boulevard and is well used both days I passed it. You would think of the condition of the park and its bathrooms though that the park system could do more for the neighborhood.

Another part of the neighborhood is the very busy and very famous “Harlem Hilton”, Engine 69, Ladder 28 Battalion 16 located on 143rd Street, a block that I am sure has completely changed over the years. The years of the ‘burn baby burn’ days are long over but the company was out the whole time I was there making calls all over the neighborhood. This famous fire company had seen it share of fires over the years. With all the public housing in the area, it looks like the companies are kept busy.

Two unique blocks that I passed was the 132rd Street neighborhood and their garden, the 132rd Street Community Garden that is tended and planted by the neighborhood association and compliments the well-taken care of brownstones on the street. The effect must look nice in the summer. Another nice looking garden is the Harlem Rose Garden on 129th Street. It was under a foot of snow the time I passed it but it must be quite nice in June.

There are also the ‘Harlem Grows’ gardens at 134th Streets, which is an urban youth garden that caters to the children in the neighborhood by sponsoring programs and volunteer planting while working with schools to create school gardens. This unique programs gets kids involved with the whole process of urban farming. Again under a foot of snow when I passed it , you could see traces of activity in the small green houses on the property.

Some of the most beautiful buildings in the neighborhood was the Astor Row block on West 130th Street. These 28 single family brick houses were built by William Backhouse Astor Jr. between 1880 to 1883. These homes, mostly newly renovated have front and side yards and wooden porches that have been added again since their renovations. Most have renovated  but in the middle of the development there is one home that is bricked up with a huge sign that says ‘not abandoned and not for sale. Don’t inquire.’ on the door. This is how desperate people are to buy into the historical housing in this area.

After seven weeks of walking this part of North Harlem, I finally reached 128th Street, months after the summer months of walking from 125th to 128th Streets. It was so nice to see the park at the Saint Nicholas Houses where I had started so many months ago.

Much has changed since the summer months with Colombia University growing by the Hudson River side of the island and scaffolding all over the areas surrounding the areas between Madison Avenue to Fredrick Douglas Boulevard where brownstones and prewar apartments are being snatched up quickly.

More college students are moving in and venturing to further reaches of the area and the housing projects are even going through their own renovations. It won’t be so strange this time to see college students sunning themselves in St. Nicholas and Jackie Robinson Parks anymore. The whole area is changing and there is a lot of investment in the neighborhood not just in housing but in the parks as well. With community gardens and block associations cleaning up empty lots, the pride of Harlem is alive and well. You just have to look for it.

This part of the walk completes the whole neighborhood above 125th Street known by the relators now as NoHA, North of Harlem. Now on to Morningside Heights.

 

 

 

 

Day Sixty-Six: Exploring the new Q subway line up Second Avenue (Shhhhhh) January 27th, 2017

I had some business to do uptown on my way back from Chinatown in Lower Manhattan and had to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the afternoon, so I decided to check out the new Q line stops along the new Second Avenue line. The Q line runs all the way from Coney Island with me picking it up on Canal Street. What an amazing trip!

The new construction of the subway lines has been in the works for almost a hundred years and has recently completed four stops along the Second Avenue line that make travelling to uptown Manhattan a real pleasure. The fact that not too many people have caught on to the line yet makes it even better as there is plenty of room to sit down on the brand new cars and you are not squeezing in like on the number 6 line. If you have ever been on the Number 6 subway in Manhattan at rush hour, you know what I am talking about. Sardines are not squeezed in like this.

I have been on the line twice since it has opened and what a pleasure it is to get a seat and relax instead of someone pushing into your back for a three stop trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The subway car is one of the new ones with the blue seats you do not have to squeeze into and you can see and hear all the announcements. The old joke of everyone is ‘mumbling’ over the speaker is still true on most subway cars in the city. With all the racket going on between the cars, the speakers and the occasional person singing and dancing in the subway car (I don’t think they have discovered them yet), you can’t hear a thing. It is so nice to read the paper in peace on this line.

It is interesting to note that they have been trying to build this part of the subway since 1919. This first phase of the subway route was conceived when it was realized that the ‘Fourth Avenue line’ was over-crowded and needed to ease the congestion.  In 1927, a rapid transit plan was put out that called for a six-track Second Avenue subway line. These plans were abandoned with the Great Depression in favor for completing the IND line. It was revisited again in the 40’s then World War Two broke out.

In 1965, one year after the Urban Mass Transit Act mandated that federal funding be made available for transit programs, the MTA was founded. The Second Avenue Subway plan was proposed  in 1968 with one two-track line stretching from 34th Street to the Bronx. The city broke down in 1972 when the city was granted $25 million in Federal funding. Construction started at East 103rd Street and Second Avenue but construction was halted in 1975 due to the Financial Crisis and the project was abandoned again with only three little tunnels between Chatham Square and Canal Street, 99th, 105th and 110th and 120th Streets. (New York Magazine and Gothamist.com 2016)

With Environmental Impact Studies done in 2004, the project was planned in four phases to be completed between 2004 and 2006.  Ground was broken for Phase One in 2007 at 99th/101st Street and the project was to done in four phases with the first to go from 63rd Street to 96th Streets. Phase Two has been planned to start in 2019 with the line expanding to 125th Street with the last two Phases expanding down to Lower Manhattan. This will create the T Line while bringing back the W Line to Queens. All of this will alleviate the traffic on the 6 Line. (New York Magazine, Gothamist.com).

The best part of the subway line on top of the cleanliness is the artwork. The MTA Art & Design had four different artists create the work for the four completed lines. This creativity starts at 96th Street as you enter the subway with a combination of steel and blue lights and take the escalator down a futuristic tunnel down to the platform and you gaze upon the artwork of artist Sarah Sze. When you see the work from the subway platform, it almost looks like flying papers outside. When you walk the whole platform, you see what she is trying to achieve.

Her ‘Blueprint for a Landscape’ when completed with tile masters from Spain who used porcelain to produce the work. It takes a few walks around to see the true detail of the work. The work is made up of fragmented images of scaffolding, birds, chairs and leaves. It is like being outside in a wind storm. The main body of work on the platform you can see the papers flying around and as you take the escalator up, you see the blue and white scaffolding, which took me two trips to figure out what is was. Off to the side, you see the birds in flight. It is like seeing a day in New York City with the different aspects of the city flying by. The most touching part is the ‘Subway’ poem by Billy Collins (born 1941).

Subway

As you fly swiftly underground

with a song in your ears

or lost in a maze of a book

remember the ones who have descended here

into the mire of bedrock

to bore a hole through this granite

to clear a passage for you

where there was only darkness and stone

remember as you come up into the light

A touching poem to match the beauty of the art work.

At the 86th Street stop you will be dazzled by the artwork of one of my favorite artists, Chuck Close. I had marveled at his artwork when I lived in Chicago at the Contemporary Museum. You always know his work by the powerful real life images that he presents. He created 12 large-scale works that spread throughout the platforms. Really look at the artwork and you will see that they are made of tiny mosaic pieces.

It was also the detailed construction of these pieces and the work that went into creating them that is impressive. There are even two self-portraits of Mr. Close in the station proudly pronouncing his work to subway riders. Take the time to really look at the details of each piece even when security looks at you funny (as they did with me twice).

At 72nd Street, Brazilian artist, Vic Muniz has created a series called “Perfect Strangers” with portraits of real New Yorkers. There are portraits of men holding hands, a policeman holding a popsicle and a man chasing flying papers, who I have read is the artist himself. The artist created this work based on staged photographs on people he knows.

Again really look at the details that created these works. I almost immediately thought I was going crazy when I thought one of them was Daniel Boulud, the famous chef holding a fish in a bag until I read later on that it was him. To see him immortalized in a subway station artwork I thought was a real testament to him as a chef.

The 63rd Street station is not modernistic as the other three stations but still has a sense of newness to it. It is also kept so clean now to match the other stations. Artist Jean Shin work is featured at this station. You really have to go outside the station to see the just of her work which was quoted as being inspired by the idea of illustrating the demolition of the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines.

Her more geometric pieces really show the metal work of a different era as well as her work was based on when “she dug through archives at the New York Transit Museum and at the New York Historical Society and used photographs she found based on the images of everyday riders and pedestrians from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, along with geometric shots of elevated girders being dismantled” (New York Times 2016). It took some reading on my part to figure it out. Again you really have to walk the stop to get the feel of her work.

The best part of these new stops are how clean they are and how well-managed the people from the MTA keep them. The three nights I travelled the new Q Line, the gentlemen from the MTA are constantly mopping and sweeping the cars and the platforms. They take immense pride in taking care of ‘their’ station and it shows in their work. The MTA should proud of how well-maintained these new stations are and should take note for many of their other stations that could use the same TLC.

So this is your opportunity readers to see the subway stops on your way to the Met or the Museum of the City of New York, the Conservatory or even Central Park and see the marvel of how art, commerce and construction and immense creativity on the part of the MTA, the City Planners and dedicated construction workers put their best foot forward and gave the city a living, breathing ‘art museum’ to pass through every day.

But SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! We want to enjoy first before the tourist get there.

Update since this Blog: August 1, 2018

According to Our Town Paper of the Upper East Side, the ridership on the new Q line has exceeded expectations as it is stealing riders from the Number 6 line:

The Q/F Stop at Lexington & East 63rd Street:  20,893 riders

The Q/F Stop at East 72nd Street:                         28,145 riders

The Q/F Stop at East 86th Street:                          23,722 riders

The Q/F Stop at East 96th Street:                          17,150 riders

This has eased the Number 6 line by almost 23% to 29% on most of the same stops. Right now there are plans to expand the line to East 125th Street with stops at East 106th Street, East 116th Street and East 125th Street that could be finished by 2029 if the funding from the government comes through. The cost could be around $6 billion; work on Phase One lasted ten years and cost $4.5 billion. The first phase took almost a hundred years to build with most being set up in the early 70’s before the money crunch of the City.

Money very well spent!

(Our Town Newspaper August 1st, 2018)