Sunday, November 14, 2010

Philly the Philodendron

During my junior year of college, now seven years ago, I welcomed my first house plant into a tiny one-bedroom I shared with three other women. My parents purchased the philodendron at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and I dubbed her "Philly the Philodendron." Philly has lived in four different apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn with various roommates and light levels. She suffered set-backs, like the time she was fried by a prematurely functioning radiator or when the shock of transplantation to a larger home was overwhelming. And she put up with neglect. But she always muddles through, reborn after a hair cut and some R&R. There's a lesson there.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sukkah City

Earlier this week, an old friend and I wandered through Union Square taking in this year's finalists in the Sukkah City architectural competition. For those of you not "in the know," a sukkah is a temporary structure built for the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert following their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

There are an elaborate set of talmudic rules in constructing a sukkah. For example, the roof must be made using the leaves or branches of a tree or plant and be sufficiently permeable so that one can see the stars at night. Also, on the stranger end of the spectrum, a whale or living elephant may be used to make the walls. (I laugh, but I've been told it's not much different from the City's Building Code.)

There's been some debate about how kosher this year's finalists actually are, but it's fascinating how much they varied in building materials and design. My favorite, and incidentally the winner of the competition, was "Fractured Bubble" by Queens-based designers Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan. This sukkah was fashioned from phragmites (an invasive marsh grass) and looked like a cross between a Pieter Bruegel painting and, as my friend put it, a really bad hair day.

What I like about the tradition of building sukkahs is the way it acknowledges how we can be both dependent on wilderness and at its mercy. Forty years in the desert doesn't sound like a party, but the Israelites worked with what they had and muddled through with a little help from upstairs (if you go in for that).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tornadoes Vs. Trees

I would be remiss if I didn't address the immense damage to the urban forest as a result of the two tornadoes that ripped through New York City on Thursday evening. The storm was brief, but devastating. I was astonished at how dark it got and then realized that the streetlights hadn't yet turned on. Then it hailed and everything went white. In the aftermath, thousands of the city's trees are damaged or destroyed. Such loss.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fairwell and Adieu to You, Fair Spanish Ladies

I blame it on Jaws, but whenever I'm in a body of natural water, my flight response kicks in the second any fish or, let's face it, piece of seaweed comes anywhere near me. I also have an all-consuming fear of suspicious dark objects in the water, which usually turn out to be rocks. Well, it could have been a man-eater.

Despite my Spielberg-induced neurosis, I'm excited to report that, as a part of the effort to restore the Bronx River's ecosystem, the Parks Department's Natural Resources Group (NRG) has reintroduced two types of herring to the river.
The alewife and blue herring are diadromous fish, meaning that they live in salt water, but migrate to fresh water to spawn. The Bronx River, New York
City's only freshwater river, was prime spawning ground for the herring until access was compromised by the construction of several dams beginning in the 17th Century. (Just think what would happen to Park Slope if subway service was disbanded – adios triple-wide strollers.) The dams are here to stay, but NRG will be implementing fish ladders – which are exactly what they sound like – to allow passage over the dam so the herring can successfully get it on!

"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Draw the Green Curtain

There are few things less appealing than razor wire, but then I suppose that's the point. Razor wire speaks volumes -- it says, "keep out" with sharp edges, but also suggests indifference and uncertainty. Because razor wire is cheap and ugly. It is the manifestation of urban neglect. It's what makes people cross to the other side of the street.

But what happens when nature takes over, enveloping the cruel metal with tangles of green vines, transforming the spiraling razor wire into a trellis? I'm awed by this phenomenon. As we
know, the woods have long represented an escape from the complexities and ugliness of urban civilization. To me, the vines are an envoy of the woods, shielding us from the harshest of realities, softening the sharpest of edges.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Justice is a Dish Best Served in the Shade

In my experience, Forestry, though staffed with very burly men (I like to think of them as reverse lumberjacks), doesn't usually bare its political teeth. Fees for damaging the urban canopy are often nominal and give property owners little incentive to go the extra mile to care for street trees. I often daydream about one day ruling the division with an iron fist, extracting my pound of flesh for every maimed or murdered tree. (And yes, in this dream I often don green spandex a la Batman's Poison Ivy.) So you can imagine how thrilled I was to read this morning in The New York Times that the City has thrown the book at the arboricidal maniac wreaking havoc in Prospect Heights. Obviously, my heartfelt condolences go out this disturbed man's family, but I'm pleased to see that Forestry has manned up. Way to go, boys.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ruins of New York's Industrial Past

Perhaps due to an overreaction to a recent birthday, lately I've been thinking a lot about decay. As I touched upon in an earlier post, Hollywood has given us our fair share of desolate New York City ruins. But we don't really need Hollywood; we have plenty of real-life examples of urban decay, most notably of the city's industrial past. These are, admittedly, in most cases less cataclysmic than zombie-apocalypse or sudden onset of an ice age, but they can be just as visually striking.

A few years ago, the Times ran a photo essay by Nathan Kensinger that included images of Brooklyn's industrial ruins, including an abandoned powerhouse on the Gowanus Canal known as "The Batcave" (you'll see why) and the infamous Admirals' Row in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I keep coming back to these photos; they expose the tender underbelly of New York's past -- spaces occupied now only by our city's most destitute.

On my recent visit to Staten Island, my friends and I sought out another industrial ruin: the Ship Graveyard, the site of dozens of scuttled vessels left to rust in the wetlands. Not much is known about the Ship Graveyard, I suspect it's because its the result of illegal dumping. Indeed, to reach the spot, you must pass through the neglected 18th-century Seguine family graveyard and down a steep hill overgrown with phragmites and poison ivy. But it's worth the effort.

Staten Island Ship Graveyard from Alicia West on Vimeo

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hawk and Awe

City Hall, like so many other houses of government, is set within a park. It's a small park, but the significant tree canopy offers relief from the chaos of the city's civil and financial centers. I'm lucky enough to work in the attic of City Hall, which affords me a great view of the park and its inhabitants, which I thought consisted only of squirrels, office workers and nannies. That is, until today, when an enormous hawk landed on our office's AC window unit, scrambled to keep its grip on the metal, and then stared at me and my officemates as we screamed (from shock and delight) and rummaged frantically for a camera before he took off again (to no avail, sorry). I saw him again a few hours later coasting upward over the clock tower. We've named him Stokes in honor of I.N. Phelps Stokes, the author of The Iconography of Manhattan.

While I wait for Stokes' return, I'm obsessed with the live feed of the hawk's nest at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. After watching the three nestlings nap, stretch and feed, I am trying to figure out how I can make my life a little bit more like theirs.

Title pun courtesy of Alex Hills.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

674,725 Trees To Go!

Thursday was the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and, in honor of this, my friend Keri and I, along with roughly 150 other volunteers, including a troop of chubby Boy Scouts, ventured to Wolfe's Pond Park in Staten Island to plant trees as a part of the City's MillionTrees initiative.

Here's a video of Keri planting her very first tree. (Just a note: the video is cut a bit short because one of the event leaders came by and suggested that I actually help Keri, rather than film her. I assure you, we did get this tree -- and many others -- planted.)

Keri Plants a Tree from Alicia West on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I Never Knew the Charm of Spring... Til April in Paris

I'm fresh back from a week-long visit to Paris. I still have that great jet-lag that lets you feel rested upon waking up at 7:30 a.m. (of course the flip side is that I fell asleep at 9:00 p.m. with all the lights on). Regardless, I am up and feeling industrious.

I've been to Paris before, but previously had not had the benefit of touring the city with natives. Forgive the anthropological leaning of this post, but this experience allowed me to begin to understand and try to embrace the rhythms and customs of the town. While I'll never get the double-cheek kiss down (awkward!), it was liberating to sit down and enjoy a coffee, rather than taking it to go on my way elsewhere.

This joie de vivre-type atmosphere was refreshing. But I also noticed a strong vein of formalism and tradition that we seem to lack stateside. (We're a little more rough around the edges and, well, rude.) I noticed this everywhere -- in interactions in shops, in fashion, and, quite surprisingly, in tree pruning (you didn't think I'd be able to tie this in, did you?)! Parisians love square trees. I don't get it, and I cannot find any explanation thus far. Parks are a priority in Paris, and as far as I can tell, this specialized pruning is a part of keeping them neat and tidy. It's the french cuff of urban forestry!

Jardin du Luxembourg

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Orchard Beach: A Transplanted Oceanfront

I purchased Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York in 2007 with every intention of diving right in. But all 1,246 pages of that tome have sat on a bookshelf for the past three years. I never even cracked it. That was until last week, when I eagerly foraged through its index for information on Orchard Beach in the Bronx.

Before Robert Moses got to it, the beach was a narrow pebbly sand bar that linked Rodman Neck and Hunters Island, two of the easternmost landmasses of the Bronx in Pelham Bay Park. Moses reconceived Orchard Beach by connecting Rodman Neck, Hunters Island and the Twin Islands (east
of Hunters Island) using fill and white sand dredged from the Rockaways to create 115 acres of parkland and a mile-long crescent-shaped beach. The result, even seen from satellite photos, seems otherworldly.

View Larger Map
What I'm beginning to understand from Caro's book is that Moses was practically an unstoppable force. He rearranged the city with a confidence fed by brilliance and arrogance. The pebbly sand of the Long Island Sound wasn’t good enough for Moses, so he simply transported tons upon tons of white sand from oceanfront Queens. Ecosystem, shmecosystem.

This type of urban planning would never fly today, but I can’t wait to check out Orchard Beach for myself this summer.

More, I'm sure, to follow on Robert Moses....

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hope Renewed

I was walking along Willoughby Avenue, sidestepping mounds of melting snow, when I saw it: a budding tree.

Spring is on the way!

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Failed Attempt at a Positive Outlook: Legacy Vs. Men in the Cities

In hopes of redeeming myself from my "I Hate Winter" post from mid-January, I had planned to write about Joel Meyerowitz's photo collection Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks, which includes some breathtaking wintertime images of nature. Meyerowitz's photos of the furthest reaches of the city's parks provide a glimpse of what so few New Yorkers experience – actually being in nature, completely cut off from the trappings of urbanism, all within our five boroughs. These photos express a calm and beauty that is transcendent.

As I said, my plan was to write an uplifting, positive post about natural beauty. But as I was shuffling through our collection of monographs in search of Meyerowitz's work, I came across Robert Longo's Men in the Cities.

The Men in the Cities series, created by Longo in the late 70s and early 80s, includes large-scale drawings of suited men and women writhing in response to unseen stimuli. Longo saw the figures as representative of Downtown types – both CBGB's and Wall Street, and he described the violent
gestures he captured as emblematic of the time: "that jerking into now." What's special about the book I have is that it focuses on the photographs Longo used as the basis of his drawings, and many of these, unlike the drawings, which are closely cropped, are set against the backdrop of New York City as seen from the rooftop of Longo's South Street apartment building.

It's easy to identify with Longo's frenetically contorted figures. In wending my way through early adulthood in New York, I frequently feel pulled in too many directions, not sure which expectations to fulfill, all the while my business casual attire twisting uncomfortably.... But it's nice to know that Meyerowitz's New York City is out there too, and someday I'll get there.

Left: Pelham Bay Park, Hunter Island, marsh grass and tidal pool, winter, Joel Meyerowitz

Right: Photographic study, Robert Longo

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mythologizing Trees

I read into trees. In them I see symbols of strength, perseverance, stability, renewal. I'm not alone. In revisiting Ovid's Metamorphoses, I came across the beautiful story of Baucis and Philemon. I'd like to share it here. Enjoy.

One day, Jupiter and Mercury visit Phrygia disguised as world-worn travelers in search of shelter and kindness. House after house, the gods are turned away, until they come a hovel and are welcomed by an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon. The couple is near destitute, but generous nonetheless. Moreover, they are happy and not at all ashamed or self-pitying. Jupiter and Mercury are impressed and resolve to reveal themselves.

As Baucis serves a modest meal, she and Philemon notice that the wine stays plentiful, seeming to replenish itself. The couple realizes they are in the presence of gods and hastily apologizes for the humble offerings. Jupiter and Mercury transform the hovel into a temple and assign Baucis and Philemon as priests, agreeing to grant the couple’s wish that neither should outlive the other.

And so Baucis and Philemon attend to the temple until one day, while reminiscing over their long and happy life together, each notices the other putting forth leaves. "Fairwell, dear companion," they whisper as they transform into an oak and a linden tree, sprouting from the same trunk.

For Alex, my oak tree.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tu B'Shevat!

I found out that today is Tu B'Shevat, the Jewish celebration of the New Year of the Trees. From what I've read so far, this holiday marks the first bloom in Israel. It seems to have begun as a way to calculate the maturity of trees for harvest and tithes. Accordingly to Leviticus, fruit is forbidden for three years, sacred in the fourth and up for grabs in the fifth. Celebratory customs include planting trees and eating fruits and nuts. More recently, many have embraced Tu B'Shevat as a means to further environmental awareness. Happy Tu B'Shevat!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Applied Sciences: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This is a principle that we all learned in high school, but so few of us understand how it relates to the practical world.

A few weeks ago, on Clinton Avenue, I looked on as sanitation workers loaded a perfectly sound couch into a garbage truck. Although watching the truck's compactor snap this huge piece of furniture in half was pretty cool, I was troubled that anyone would consider a seemingly pristine and functional couch disposable.

When I had to part with a beloved hand-me-down loveseat because it wouldn't fit in my new apartment, I made sure it had a home at a friend's place. When he no longer needs it, we'll find it a new home, provided his cats haven't torn the poor thing to pieces. I guess it's equal parts fanatical pack-ratism and responsibility to ensure that that loveseat lives out its useful life.

My guess is that whoever threw out that couch on Clinton Avenue gave little thought to its ultimate destination. Out of sight, out of mind. But that couch was trucked to a marine transfer station, tipped onto a barge and shipped to a landfill, where it will sit -- providing comfort to no one -- for many, many years, when it could have been reused by others or disposed of in an environmentally responsible way.

Wasteful behavior is a mix of ignorance, denial and laziness, and we all have our weak moments. But there are ways to make responsibility for the environment fun. For instance, yesterday, my friends hosted a clothes swap party, where I unloaded a few impulse purchases and snagged myself a super-awesome NY Jugglers t-shirt. The party hosts donated the remainder of the clothing to the Council on the Environment’s textiles recycling program. Our unwanted apparel will be redistributed to those in need or, if deemed non-usable, recycled for use as insulation or even car upholstery.

So next time you edit your wardrobe, replace a working appliance or part with a couch, think twice about taking the easy way out!

Monday, January 18, 2010

I Hate Winter

It’s my refrain these days: “I hate winter.” I say it almost unconsciously; it slips out dully as an expression of boredom or more sharply as an articulation of stress, frustration or panic. Winter makes me feel cornered and desperate: the pervading grey that slips too quickly into black, that stench on the subway, the dormant trees twisting in the relentless wind.

I find myself conjuring images of pioneers struggling though the barren winter, cut off from the world, huddled around a wood-burning stove, eating the last of the cured meats and praying the livestock doesn’t die. I think I read too much historical fiction, but I relate to the strange combination of restlessness and lifelessness.

Rationally, I know that winter is what makes summer so grand. I know that nature is merely resting, not dead, preparing to emerge renewed in spring. I get the yin and the yang of it. But I miss spending time outside, and I hate this desolate landscape. I hate winter.

Clearly, I have a serious case of cabin fever, and I apologize for being such a downer. We’ve got a lot of winter to go, so I resolve to find the life out there and report back soon.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

MulchFest 2010

Not to bore you with yet another Xmas tree-related post, but this one comes more in the form of a public announcement. For those of you who are ready to oust your trees, the City has a great program called MulchFest that will allow you to recycle them! Just bring your Xmas tree to a local park on January 9th or 10th from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to feed it through a wood chipper. (You can find listings of MulchFest sites by borough at the Parks & Recreation website or by calling 311.) The City will use the mulch to nourish trees citywide with enough mulch left over for you to take some home!

(I just love PlaNYC's spokesbird!)