Paris Has a High Line! Qui savait que?

Present in the City was present in Paris and files this report:

It’s not as exciting as New York’s High Line, even for a New Yorker excited about Paris, but the City of Lights does have its own elevated park. Opened in 1993, 16 years before the 2009 debut of Manhattan’s newest landmark, the Viaduct des Arts/Promenade Plantée runs on the abandoned Vincennes Railroad viaduct northeast of the Gare de Lyon and then continues at street level.

Lovers of the High Line who run out of other things to do in Paris, and find themselves seeking tranquility or the understated scribbles that mimic Gotham graffiti, might check it out. Although it’s mentioned in guide books, it is still not easy to find. It is marked on the Paris aver Rues map available at metro stations and is a bit of a stroll from the Bastille stop. Walk down the Rue de Lyon until you come to the red brick wall. Meanwhile, New Yorkers staying home can check out the new section of the High Line opening Sept. 21. Here are some views for comparison (click for enlargements):

Promenade Plantee

Quiet Contemplation

Peaceful lunch

Dejeuner sur bench

Skeptical Parisians

Cherchez graffiti — they are waving, really

Viaduct des Arts

The base of the Promenade Plantee

Health Enthusiasts

Health Enthusiasts

Bridge at Viaduct des Arts

Sky Bridge

Viaduct des Arts

No grass to cut at this level

Send the Children Home

Multi-cultural New York City, through governmental and non-profit immigrant service agencies, is working to find shelter and other needed resources for the tide of unaccompanied children pouring over the southwest border of the U.S. from Central America. Since last October, according to the N.Y. Times, federal officials have sent 3,200 of these minors into New York State alone. One potential source of housing for them is a former convent in Syracuse.

Some attribute the influx of these hapless children to immigration policies that are more lenient to children than to adults. The Obama Administration blames the poor state of the economies of Central America. As for what is to be done now, some say turn the kids back immediately, others say they should be allowed to stay.

For myself, I am going with the opinion of my friend Milly, who has a life history of being pro-immigrant. A U.S. citizen since birth, she has done social work in Mexico, worked with immigrants arriving on these shores, and now teaches English to newcomers from all nations in New York City. She insists that the children must be sent back to their homes immediately. She has seen first-hand the horrors – robbery, rape and murder as well as exposure to the elements – that such children face on their journey from Honduras to the southwest border. Milly insists that any such travel must be blocked and discouraged. Certainly, it should not be rewarded.

I am left with two questions: First, did NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, deliver as promised? It seems not to have engendered the “certain” boost to the Mexican economy that would keep its people thriving at home. In the U.S., even factoring in automation, it deprived U.S. workers without college degrees of needed work, forcing them on social support at taxpayer expense. It was good for shareholders and intellectual property rights. It also dealt a big blow to unions. Learn about other outcomes here and see one of NAFTA’s proponents make a case for her work here.

Second question: How fast can we de-criminalize drug use and regulate and tax the sales of substances from marijuana to heroin? You can bet the drug lords of Mexico and the gangs they sub-contract to don’t want this to happen. Neither do those who live off the tax-funded U.S. prison system, which is supported by drug convictions and is, statistically speaking, the destination of many of today’s scarred and unaccompanied immigrant children.

Mutant Architecture: Days of Past Oddified

Not that one’s mind could wander while watching the film  X Men Days of Future Past, but it put me in mind of buildings that continue to distract me, such as the Military Museum in Dresden and the Hearst Tower in New York City. Here’s how that happened: The X Men are a species bearing much resemblance to homo sapiens except they have unique super-properties grafted on to them. Wolverine, as you moviegoers know, has noisy extended metal claws that frankly detract from the pleasure of looking at Hugh Jackman who plays him.

Strange eruptions like those from the Marvel Comics superheros made me think of what Daniel Libeskind did to the Dresden museum and how Norman Foster augmented the Hearst Building. They just look odd. Renzo Piano’s addition to the Morgan Museum & Library is so jarring that it makes what is original to the complex feel fake. I have yet to find or take a photo that conveys what it is like to step from the hush and splendor of the library into the trumpeting light and bare wood flooring of Piano’s addition. His work feels odd and violates the place. In contrast, one makeover ennobles. The standout is Foster’s Reichstag in Berlin, which exorcizes the horrors of its past and creates a setting for a soaring and responsible future. From the outside the classic shape of the glass dome harmonizes with the 19th century facade. Inside the environment is transformed. Lacking credentials as an architectural critic, I have hesitated to publish these thoughts.  Now I am emboldened by insightful Witold Rybczynski, who has written an excellent piece in the N.Y. Times that questions the aesthetics of global architecture. Read it here and hope that those who bankroll New York’s cultural institutions hand-in-glove with real estate developers and hedge fund managers will learn something of the public good. Please share your thoughts.

Libeskind in Dresden

Libeskind’s Wing

Hearst Tower, Manhattan

Foster’s Hearst Tower

Reichstag in Berlin

Foster’s Reichstag

Marching to Brooklyn

The de Blasio Administration has entered a bid for Brooklyn – not New York City — to host the 2016 Democratic Party Convention.   I hope this one borough gets bragging rights to the convention and even more. Brooklyn should host all city parades now held on Fifth Avenue in tired and sanitized Manhattan. Let the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of 2015 lead the way from the Grand Army Plaza all along Eastern Parkway. All the other my-group-is-better-than-yours cavalcades could follow – including those that require heightened near-military security.

Equally fine, parades could be shifted to The Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Please comment.

Monopoly Alert: Amazon.com Makes The Price Too High

The trending topic at BookExpo America in New York City this week is Amazon’s abuse of its near-monopolistic hold on book publishing and how it is discouraging consumers from buying books from the Hachette Book Group, currently the lone publisher standing up for better pricing for authors (and of course better income for itself). Recently when customers have gone to the Amazon website to buy a Hachette title, Amazon has told them that it can’t be shipped for weeks. To be helpful, the company suggests that the customer buy a similar (non-Hachette) book instead. Now that Amazon’s practice has been exposed to the nation, perhaps it will yield. Or not.

Amazon is led by Jeff Bezos who also owns the Washington Post. He must feel some pressure because his company just issued a rare statement about its position. The gist is that Amazon wants to pay book sellers and authors what it wants to pay them. If vendors want a price they think is fair, they can go elsewhere. Take it or leave it. The problem is that there is very little elsewhere to go. Barnes & Noble is just holding on, and of course there are the valiant independent book sellers whose prices are deeply undercut by Amazon. Obviously, once Amazon’s struggling competitors go out of business, and Amazon has a stranglehold on book publishing and the written culture of the nation, Amazon will stand alone able to dictate sales terms.

Will U.S. book buyers will let Amazon get away with this? One of them won’t. A consumer standing up against abusive practices is so rare that David Streitfeld published a piece about her in the N.Y. Times. Ardelle Cowie, who estimates that she spends $5,000 a year buying products, including books, from Amazon, was so appalled she called the company to complain. The Connecticut woman, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, found that Amazon had no mechanism for taking complaints about its policies and so she has switched to another bookseller.

I was on the brink of buying Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, which I am persuaded is the best device for reading, just as Amazon says, but now I won’t. This will certainly hurt me more than it hurts Amazon, but I will have exercised one of the dwindling ways that an American consumer can stand up for competition in the rigged marketplace.

Why rigged? Well, it’s complicated. The Justice Department has actually protected Amazon from having to face real competition. When the Authors Guild, Apple and various book publishers tried to break Amazon’s near stranglehold on the book business, the Justice Department sued that group alleging that publishers were in collusion with Apple and restricting competition. The N.Y. Times editorial board agreed with the Justice Department, but noted that the settlement did nothing to protect consumers from Amazon. Consumers need that protection again Amazon, because clearly we have a preview of Amazon’s monopolistic practices. Ida Tarbell, who wrote the classic exposé of how John D. Rockefeller used illegal tactics to build Standard Oil, said that the most appalling thing about him was that his intelligence, drive and focus would have enabled him to capture the nation’s oil business without using criminal means.

So if Amazon were not discriminating against a vendor standing up for fair prices, I could have bought that Kindle and downloaded a very worthwhile e-book. I want to believe my action is Amazon’s loss, but I don’t think the Fortune 500 company will be as inconvenienced as I am.

Ferries Could Save Tax Payers from the Second Avenue Subway

A decade ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority held public meetings at the old Hunter College School of Social Work to prepare East Side residents for the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and for the destruction and damage to homes and businesses. Mysore Nagaraja, then president of MTA Capital Construction Company, nearly wept as he described the plight of those of us living east of Third Avenue in the 70s who had to walk 20 or 30 minutes to reach the subway. That was why, he told us, construction of the Second Avenue was so important and inconvenience was to be darned. He was so aggrieved about our situation and so agonized over those who live around York Avenue and 77th Street, that he advocated construction of multiple entrances on the north, south, east and west sides of every station so that after years of suffering we would not have to cross one more avenue, or tarry at one more traffic light, before we could descend to a train each day.

As it turns out, residents of the far East 70s or 80s will continue to be under-served by train service, even if the Second Avenue Subway is ever completed. There is no stop between the 86th Street and 72nd Street stations. Michael Horodniceanu, Nagaraja’s successor, told me during neighborhood tour of the underground construction this is intended to speed travel on the line. I had suspected that plans to construct a station in the high 70s were dropped because a developer pal of former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow was building a new high-rise on the spot, but clearly I was wrong.

Although Second Avenue Stubway, when it opens, will not shave much time from the commute of those living on East 79th Street and First Avenue or York, a more efficient and cost-effective service for them and everyone else is on the way.

The East River, the greatest transit artery in New York City, is one that few travel today, but the New York City Economic Development Corp. recently proposed five new ferry routes that would exploit its possibilities. Such service would connect waterfront neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx to Manhattan and to each other. It would also improve transit from midtown to the Lower East Side and Wall Street.

Current ferry service on the East River has proven to be a success. It served 1.2 million total riders last year, some 3,200 riders daily. Fare is $4.00 each way, and like the rest of public transit, it is subsidized. The city pays $2.22 or 55 percent, for each one-way trip, compared to 62 cents, or 35 percent, for the subway, which because of the varying fare structures averages $1.73 per trip. Increased use of ferries would make the water system more cost-effective.

Currently there is a pier at 34th Street on Manhattan’s East Side and shuttered one near Gracie Mansion at East 90th Street. An additional one in the mid-70s has been on the drawing board. Happily, construction of ferries would also cost taxpayers far less than the subway. A NYCETD report notes that the extension of the 7 train cost $1.6 billion per mile served, compared to the cost of construction of infrastructure serving the East River Ferry at $8 million per mile served. Unlike busses, ferries don’t travel on congested roads and bridges. Based on what figures I can glean from MTA reports and a helpful 2010 post on the 2nd Ave. Sagas blog, I calculate that construction of the Second Avenue subway ballooned to a cost of  $2.75 billion per mile.

Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway will end at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street and is supposed to be operational by December, 2016 after much delay. Increased ferry routes, and the relatively new Select Busses on First and Second Avenue that have improved surface transit, should mean that other Manhattan neighborhoods will not be needlessly and pointlessly blighted at enormous cost to taxpayers.

Library is About People Encountering Each Other, Sez Starchitect

Do you go to a library solely to sit down? Is your purpose to photograph yourself and your misbehaving friends? To harass and hamper people who are trying to accomplish something? If so, the New York Public Library system under the dubious leadership of board of trustees chairman Neil Rudenstine and president and CEO Anthony W. Marx is for you. If you are planning a big event in the next few years, give them a call because the library is rapidly becoming party space.

The latest evidence that this is true is a quote from Enrique Norten, the architect who has designed the Donnell Library Center on New York’s West 53rd Street, which will open in late 2015.  He describes his creation as “More like a cultural space, which is about gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other.”

His definition fits not a cultural center but the subway system and city sidewalks. Cultural spaces are actually where people experience art, theater and the written word. Such spaces could feature Picasso or Basquiat, Handel or hip-hop, Wilkie Collins or Erle Stanley Gardner, but they are not primarily meet-and-greet. That a supposedly educated man affiliated with the New York Public Library could make such a public statement tells us all we need to know. Ditto a statement comparing taxes to Hitler’s invasion of Poland made by library benefactor Stephen A. Schwarzman*.

library-articleLarge-thumb

NYPL puts bleachers where books used to be, at cost to public

Norten’s Donnell Library Center will be embedded in a luxury hotel and has been diminished to a third of the size of the Donnell Library that it succeeds, but certainly does not replace. The main feature of Norten’s version, of which he is so proud, will be bleacher seating and steps. He seems to be copying the High Line and Times Square bleachers, but both are open-air, not contained in libraries. Architects must follow and serve the money, but surely they are supposed to be too educated, or at least too savvy, to make statements like Norten’s unless they know their patrons would approve.

A bit of background: the original and much-mourned Donnell library branch opened in 1955 and had the system’s largest collection of non-English circulating materials. It also housed the system’s largest collection of materials for teenagers.  As the New York Library’s second busiest branch it was clearly appreciated by New Yorkers. It lent a note of leniency and humanity to midtown. In 2008 (before Rudenstein and Marx took over), the library sold the Donnell and its space to developers. Norten’s largely empty area (see photo) will open in late 2015. The “new” Donnell is to the 1955 Donnell what a rhinestone is to an engagement ring.

Norten’s quote achieved prominence this week when N.Y. Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman evaluated the anticipated destruction of the American Folk Art Museum building near the destroyed original Donnell. His piece offers an explanation of why midtown Manhattan will soon resemble a Stamford industrial park and shopping mall, and it also provides insight into current cultural leadership.

In sum, if you are a student or some other kind of knowledge seeker, or if you just want to read, the New York Public Library is decreasingly for you. However, if you want to make noise and socialize, and you are over-caffinated from Starbucks public spaces, by all means go to the New York Public Library, particularly the Stephen A. Schwarzman* Building, as the iconic library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is now known. A few months ago one patron (not me) in the Reading Room was so driven to distraction that he started screaming: “We are NOT zoo animals.” He lost when the tourist setting up a tripod to photograph him proved to be too much.  Last Saturday afternoon when I searched for an empty place at a reading room table, tourists were less in evidence. It was cold and rainy, and so only people who love and need the library were about.

Catch content-users while they last. People who use the New York Public Library as a source of knowledge are endangered. Rudenstine, Marx and Schwarzman, who have a big contested plan to renovate the library, are more geared to party people. The stone lions in front of the Schwarzman building are called Patience and Fortitude. Let’s adopt the library management’s spirit of update and call them Philistine and Barbarian instead.

[Search “public library” for previous posts]

*Stephen A. Schwarzman is chairman of The Blackstone Group and author of a 2010 statement about proposals to end the carried-interest loophole allowing executives like himself to pay taxes on only 15 per cent on income: “It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” He is a NYPL financial benefactor and trustee and his name is on the former Main Branch, but he is apparently not one who reads history books. He did apologize.

Federal Decision Lends Hope to The Ramarley Graham Case

Police officer Richard Haste, who gunned down unarmed Ramarley Graham by his grandmother’s toilet in the Bronx nearly two years ago, may yet be indicted. U.S. District Court Judge P. Kevin Castel cleared the federal civil suit against him to proceed. Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the New York Police Department are also named as defendants.

On Feb. 2, 2012, Haste and his partner pursued Martin from the street because they thought he was acting suspiciously. Without calling for back-up, the officers charged after him and onto private property without a search warrant. When the three stood before the toilet, Haste’s partner called out that the kid has a gun, so the Haste shot him down. Oops! Look, in fairness the police were onto something — frightened Graham was  flushing away marijuana when he died– maybe a plastic bag in his shaking hand gleamed like a gun.

This case deserves far more media attention than it has received, particularly by the major print media. However, the fact that this horrific incident has been so under-reported makes it more likely that many in New York have no opinion about the incident and could sit on a jury. The death of this young man is as worthy of nation attention and prolonged discussion as the Trayvon Martin case in Florida in which a black youth was killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator. [Enter “Ramarley Graham” on this blog’s search box to find two previous presentinthecity posts on the death]

A brief history of the policeman’s days in court thus far: Officer Haste pled not guilty to first and second degree manslaughter charges in June, 2012. In May 2013, the case was dismissed on a technicality when State Supreme Court Judge Steven Barrett ruled that the prosecution had not given proper instructions to a grand jury. Last August, a second grand jury decided not to indict, which led Graham’s family to ask the federal government to intervene. In a pending review, the U.S. Attorney’s office is considering whether Graham’s civil rights were violated.

As Jeff Mays of DNA Info reports in detail, Paulet Minzie, the owner of the building where Graham lived, has also filed suit against the police. She alleges that Haste and other officers terrorized and humiliated her and her family members when they banged on her door to gain admittance. Minzie says that she jumped out of the shower and grabbed a towel when she heard the pounding on her door. In the terror of the moment she says  she exposed herself to the officers and in fear urinated on herself.

In a full story on the latest developments, Khouri A. Atkinson of The Amsterdam News reports that Judge Castel asked the parties to consider whether they want the case decided by a mediator. They have until Jan. 14 to decide. The next court hearing for both lawsuits—filed by Graham’s family and Minzie—is Aug. 1.

I hope there will be a full trial with a detailed record. I want to know how Haste and his partner were trained — how did they come to be on our streets with loaded weapons making judgement calls? It is proper that Kelly is a defendant, because police are unlikely to be better, or even worse, than police policies.

I want to know Haste’s background — was he born and raised in New York City or is he a suburbanite come here to give multi-cultured city people what for? Am I far off the mark when the suburbanite police force, roaming this city where they can’t afford to live, make me think of Hessian soldiers hired by the British around 1776 to subdue unruly colonists? I honor the fact that the police are first responders — even though former Mayor Bloomberg did tell an audience at MIT that the police were his own army. Let us hope that the federal courts will help us sort this out.

Your Identity or Your Life, Jobseekers, Submit to Abuse

Target Corp. just announced that it would stop running criminal background checks on potential employees. Good, because among other things the practice discriminated against needy, capable senior citizens who committed minor infractions during the Summer of Love. Worse yet, job applicants must supply their Social Security numbers and birth dates to people who may expose them, however unwittingly, to identity thieves.  No one could quibble if responsible Human Resources personnel checked into those in the final stages of the hiring process on any level, but today a job application form with a low wage employer — or even a classy one — is like something one should fill out before being approved for a U.S. ambassadorship. This has disturbing implications for all of us.

Some (not Angela Merkel or Edward J. Snowden) would say we are paranoid to protect our little-people identity and guard the on-ramp to all our financial information, so let us monetize this issue. The Internal Revenue Service says it mistakenly pays as much as $5.2 billion annually in tax refunds to criminals filing false returns using Society Security numbers they have stolen. The IRS estimates that known identify fraud cases have grown by 650 percent since 2008. I suspect that is due in part to exposure of personal data on the Internet. I myself was amazed to obtain the foreign passport number of my pesky neighbor when I entered his distinctive name alone into a Google search. I, of course, will use this power for good, but protecting my own information from faceless or over-eager strangers has worked against me.

Three years ago I was dumbstruck when two sympathetic, responsible women at the New York Botanical Garden asked for my Social Security number and birthdate the first (and only) time they interviewed me for a position in their public relations department. Not having looked for a job in a while, I said I knew they would need that information if I became a finalist for the job. I never heard from them again. The request shocked me and felt like a horrible violation. Common sense indicated it was a terrible risk.

Yesterday to prove my point I applied for entry sales jobs at New York City stores. Target’s on-line application required my Social Security Number. When I did not supply it, I could not proceed. CVS asked for my date of birth explaining that it wanted to send age-appropriate ads (mascara and condoms vs. adult diapers and Medicare spam). Then CVS “proposed” that I take an optional survey. When I tried to take advantage of my proffered right to decline, pop-up boxes insisted that CVS really wanted me to take it. Then I had to agree to a privacy policy that would have permitted robocallers to “contact” me and would have allowed CVS to disclose my information to “third parties.”  I declined other CVS opportunities (I don’t know how many jobs they have anyway because they use check-out machines instead of cashiers).  Macy’s wanted me to take a tax survey. I declined, but after more coaxing pop-ups, I agreed because this was clearly the only way to apply. The first question on the survey was my Social Security number and my age — literally whether I was over or under 40. Then we proceeded to the question about the year I graduated from high school. I would hate to be a 41 year old single mother, unless I had a job in a human resources department. What do these people do nowadays or have they all been laid off? We might not be getting jobs, but we sure are getting ads and robocalls.