Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sounds of Fall in the City

Nothing says fall like the sound of a brisk walk through paved streets covered in fallen leaves. That spectacular "clomp-swish-swish-clomp" heralds in the change of season in a way that is, I think, uniquely urban. And new fall boots always put a spring in a girl's step.

The Sounds of Fall in the City from Alicia West on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On the Waterfront

Earlier this year, I accepted the dubious challenge of writing a historic plaque for the park at Catherine Slip in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. While trying to explain how a space that was once a docking place for boats between piers was now terra firma parkland, I was surprised to learn that much of the shoreline was filled in not only with earth, but with refuse. This tidbit didn't make it into my plaque text, but it's fascinating to me to think about how we have physically blurred the edges of our city both purposefully and through neglect and how our relationship with the waterfront has changed over time.

The shores of Manhattan once consisted sandy beaches, intertidal mudflats and salt marshes. With industrialization, the waterfront was put to work, much to the detriment of the ecosystem. Industry flourished with easy access to water transport and few regulations about waste dumping. According to Mark Kurlansky's book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, by 1910, 600 million gallons on untreated sewage was being dumped into the waterways daily. Surprisingly, New Yorkers still used the waterways for recreation, though they would often emerge caked in filth.

Today, under the auspices of the Bloomberg Administration, the City is endeavoring to return the waterfront and waterways for safe public use. Vast swaths of the waterfront have been rezoned for public access and new parks and esplanades are under construction. Oyster and mussel beds have been reintroduced to the waterways to naturally filter the water.

Of course, there are still areas where the waterfront is completely closed to the public, notably in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. Here, the giant Con-Edison plant bars access to the water. I'd love to post a photo to show you how Con-Ed plant completely blocks views of the water, but a small man stepped out of a guard booth to inform me that photography was not permitted, as though I had not seen the signs.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Finally: Mannahatta, Ho!

It took me three months, but I finally made it up to see the Mannahatta exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. (Nothing like realizing it's the last weekend of the exhibit to send me scurrying up to the northern-most reaches of Museum Mile!)

Having read most of the book, the information within the exhibit wasn't new to me; but I was impressed by the presentation, particularly the 15 foot long topographical model of Mannahatta, onto which the curator projected the many maps and diagrams included in the book. This display was a brilliant synthesis of information, illustrating not only the island's transformation from Mannahatta to Manhattan, but also the different types of bedrock, levels of beaver population, areas of the Lenape's controlled fires, and more. It was really breathtaking at times. Since the exhibit is closed, I think it's okay to post a video of this central display, but I do encourage you to buy the book!

Mannahatta from Alicia West on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ode to the Ginkgo Tree

This week, the Times picked up an AP story about US cities removing perfectly healthy ginkgo trees because of the "stink bomb" seeds they drop this time of year. A forester (a forester!) in Iowa City commented that these seeds present a sanitation problem, noting, "No matter what we do, two seconds after we leave, there are more on the ground and somebody can step in it." I find this absolutely ridiculous. It's nature, people! God forbid you get your Manolos messy walking down the sidewalk. (Do people wear Manolos in Iowa City?)

Ginkgo trees are amazing. First off, they are one of the few species of trees in this country that is dioecious
, meaning it is distinctly male or female (it's the females that drop the "stink bombs"). They are also incredibly hardy and resilient trees, making them uniquely suitable as urban street trees. As the AP article points out, there were some ginkgoes that survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima. And they are beautiful, as evidenced by this grove of female ginkgoes in Fort Greene Park.

So, watch your step, but don't cut down healthy trees.