Archive for January, 2010

Cell Phone Landfill

Food court level, Citicorp building, midtown . . .

Homeland security cops patrol outside with heavy machine guns, bulletproof vests, and helmets . .

Inside, the tables are all taken. Next to me a dozen women critique each other’s CVs, discuss job search/ interview strategies. I get the sense they meet every couple of weeks to help each other through the recession . . .

A blonde woman is across the concourse, sitting alone.  Young, maybe early 20’s, with long blond hair, grey pinstripe pant suit. Pretty, in a generic way. Leaning over what looks like a book or newspaper, reading intently, with earphones in her ears. I thought of how unusual it was to see a young woman like that actually reading something on paper as opposed to staring into a laptoop or texting on her cell . . .

Cell Phone boxThen she is talking, with the earplugs still in. Quietly at first, a little nervous, then growing more animated. She has a flat accent, maybe Southwestern. As she is talking, she expresses herself with her hands, nodding aggressively as the other party makes a point, then laughing, flashing her eyes, touching her hair. Flirting with the person on the other end of the line. Putting her hands on her hips, threading her hair through her fingers through it so it falls back, then putting her hands together and rubbing them as she makes a point. Her voice getting louder and louder, as she reads from the papers spread in front of her.

Ordinarily, I am irritated by people yapping on their cells like this, forcing their one-side and intrusive conversation into my space. But I found this woman fascinating. Her gaze seemed to be focused just a few inches in front of her face. Except for her voice, she seemed like she had been surrounded by some sort of vacuum tube and pulled from the room, and she wasn’t a person at all, but some sort of hologram with this flat Southwestern voice. Like she’d been beamed right into the medium of the phone.

Such, such is the world we live in now . . .

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Pensive Martin Luther King jr. Tis Martin Luther King Day here in the US and A . . .

I found this on youtube (where else), the entire ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, from MLK walking on the podium to the incredible finish. I’ve never heard the speech in its entirety before, only the great cadence towards the end. The whole is as complex and beautiful as lyric poetry, about as good as oratory gets. As moving as it was when I first heard it as a teenager in small-town Canada (off a recording off course – I’m not THAT old . . .)

From 1968, Martin Luther King’s last speech, before he was assassinated. You can hear the anger in his voice, and maybe resignation as well, not for his cause, but for his own fate.

“I may not get there with you . . . but we as a people will reach the promised land . . . ”

The very best of American oratory, the great ideals which still guide the American nation, despite everything . . .

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Granite Wall inside Atlantic Terminal

Underwhelming . . .

This seems to be the consensus among the people I know in Brooklyn (and much of the Brooklyn blogosphere), and I have to concur. Especially after 8 years and $108 million ( 2 and half years late and $16 million over budget). The soaring windows are a nice touch, as is the limestone thing at the top of the stairs, but atmosphere, grandeur, the public space that should be a part of any train stations, are sorely lacking. This is the gateway to Brooklyn and the soon-to-be-constructed Atlantic Yards?

I admit that I was excited, almost despite myself, to see an actual train station finally re-opening where the original Atlantic Station was torn down in 1988. For years after I first moved here in 93, this was a pit in the ground, with a little tin shack to mark the station entrance. You’d descend a filthy stairwell into bedlam – crashing trains, harried crowds rushing though tunnels where the crumbling, mildew-stained concrete walls, blaring announcements and, eventually, a continual backdrop of jackhammers and construction hoardings. It went on for so long I began to think of the noise and unpleasantness as the station’s natural state, and would only go down if I absolutely had to.

So the new station is an improvement on all that. Still – eight years for a few steps, a glass front, some limestone, and three arches leading into a shopping mall?

Inside the station

Because the station, if you can call it that, is part of Atlantic Terminal, a dark and deeply unlovely mall whose chief aesthetic achievement is that it is marginally more atmospheric than the Atlantic Centre behind it, a mall which strives to have no atmosphere at all. When I tried to take a photograph inside Atlantic Terminal, a harried, nervous looking security guard came out and said: “no pictures – they can put you in prison for that,” though I don’t know what ‘they’ are worried about, since, well, it’s a mall. Outside, on Flatbush, is some of the worst traffic in Brooklyn and, traversing the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic, where heavy traffic barrels down six lanes off the Manhattan Bridge then veers north, south and east into Brooklyn, is a deeply unpleasant and even dangerous experience. The Atlantic Yards, and the basketball arena, will only make the traffic, and the notion of being anywhere near that traffic, much, much worse.

The Atlantic Terminal is owned by Bruce Ratner, the same dude behind the aforementioned Atlantic Yards development, which promises to bring a section of mid-town Manhattan to central Brooklyn, and pretty much over-run the two neighborhoods I’ve lived longest in New York, Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn. From the time I lived around the corner, up behind what was the Daily News Plant, the area has been a pit, so some kind of development is welcome. But if the Atlantic Terminal is anything to go by, Brooklyn is in a lot of trouble.

Station circa WWII Atlantic Station circa WW2 (from aart.aarchives.com).

And the original Atlantic Station? It had an open concourse, benches, and big glass panels on the roof which must have let in the same slightly milky light you find animating the beautiful Victorian stations in England. Like so much fine architecture – the original Penn Station is most notorious example – it was allowed to decay, then someone thought they could make money by developing the site and station was declared beyond repair and torn down. Before construction could get started, the last recession kicked in, the developers ran out of money and left the pit I discovered and wondered about five years later. Thus, thus, has been the way in so many of our cities . ..

You can see photographs of the original station at arrts-arrchives.com (thanks to Brooklyn Born for telling me about the site).

All that remains of the original station is this lonely adjunct, marooned on a traffic island across the street, serving I don’t know what function.

Atlantic Station adjunct

New York Times City Room has a positive if bland take

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I was going to write a series of blog posts commenting things happening around Brooklyn, but events in Haiti overshadow that. The earthquake has flattened a good part of Port au Prince, the capital, and estimates put over a hundred thousand dead.

I am Canadian and our head of state, the Governor General (an albeit largely ceremonial role), the elegant Michaelle Jean, is Haitian born (she came to Canada at age eleven). She made a very emotional appeal today on Canadian television. Ms. Jean has relatives in Haiti, and maintains many links there, and in turn, Haiti has many links with Canada. Montreal in particular has a very large Haitian community.

There is a mass of information out there, in everything from the big newspapers to blogs to twitter updates.  I don’t see how I can add anything useful here. I will donate to the Red Cross this evening. They seem the safest, and most efficient organization. Hopefully, this response to this disaster will be as quick and efficient as possible, and no more lives will be lost.

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Trolley tracks at the Santee Mall, Santee Town centre (San Diego).

Back in the city, back in the cold . . .

Spent the holidays in sunny San Diego, which is sort of an anti-New York, though a city of strangers in its own right.

I’d never been out to California before, though I’m familiar with the urban model from growing up in western Canada. But for a few blocks downtown, San Diego is built almost entirely around the car. This isn’t news of course, but since I don’t drive, and have managed to live in cities where a car isn’t a necessity since my late teens, it’s always a bit of a culture shock to go back to the car world . . .

Big box malls abound. They are so numerous, so uniform, that one night we got lost getting back to the suburb where we were staying and literally had no idea where we were, since every mall was identical – same Target, Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, Bed, Bath and Beyond (and so on). Even the houses seem built around the car – self-enclosed (often gated – they love their gated communities in San D.) The only neighboring stores or, God forbid, bars, in a strip mall built on a feeder road to a main highway. The sky, the colours are amazing – I saw colours I’d never seen before – and this entirely created, functional environment seemed an odd counterpart to the fantastic landscape. As I do whenever I go back to Western Canada, I thought that this was how space colonies will look like – functional adjuncts to the landscape around them.

Yet I got used to it. Even if you have to get into a car to get to them, the country, the beaches, are spectacular. Perhaps this sis a key to Western cities – they aren’t so much a suburb to a downtown, as suburbs to the land around them. Even the malls have a certain prosaic easiness. My local Starbucks – a half-hour bike ride down a busy semi-highway – was a quiet and cordial place to have coffee and write in the morning. Same people every morning, carving out their little bit of community. Hardly an cell phones – a lot more pleasant than the average ‘independent’ cafe in Brooklyn for example . . .

One afternoon when I caught the trolley right down to Tijuana. The trolley runs from the northern edge of the city to the border, curving through the highways, the valleys, skirting the ocean into downtown and beyond. Just off the pleasant colonial buildings, the twin streets lined with generic sports bars and ‘Irish’ pubs, comes streets of ragged, homeless men, white, black, Hispanic hanging out in front of vacant lots and boarded up storefronts. One guy stood up in full view of the trolley, pulling up his pants after crapping in a doorway.

Then beyond city centre, the navy base with lines of docked aircraft carriers, as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper, serviced by even taller cranes, lit up in the brilliant San Diego sunset by even more brilliant floodlights.

Then a bridge, curving up fifty, sixty stories, like a bridge into space.

Homeless encampment under bridge at Santee, just outside San Diego.

On past an ocean of trailer parks, non-descript main streets of motels, fast-food joints, auto-body shops, until the city of Tijuana appears, sprawling across a hillside and from a distance looking like any American city. A ferris wheel rises from a spot near the bottom of the packed-in buildings. A bridge extends over what I realized after a moment is a river seperating the two. Hundreds of Mexicans, looking reasonably well-dressed in jeans, embroidered work shirts or more generic ball caps and runners, streamed over the bridge, giving what seemed like a festive mood and at the bottom of the streetcar tracks is customs and immigration, the door yawning open as if changing countries was as easy as walking into a mall. American immigration officers on a break strolled back and forth, relaxed, joking with each other.

Odd to think then that 80 murders had taken place in Tijuana in December as rival drug gangs battle over turf, part of a narco-war engulfing and corrupting the entire country, giving Mexico, a local bartender told me later, a higher murder rate than Afghanistan.

Next post: Return to New York . . .

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Happy 2010 . . .

A new year is upon us. Although the new decade doesn’t technically start until 2011, we all know it starts now . . .

And all I can say is: Thank God whatever the 2000-2009 decade is over. At last. I was just thinking about waking up on Jan 1st, 2000, mildly disappointed that the Y2K didn’t happen, in any form, with absolutely no notion of what was to come . . .

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