Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

On Drinking

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I’ve received a fair amount of pushback from my commentary about drinking, where-in I made the argument that drinking had a political and social role in American culture. A number of west coast friends countered that they lead enjoyable social lives without the need for drink. For some, the reason they didn’t drink was because they were concerned about how they would act under the influence of alcohol, and for others, they didn’t see the point of inebriation. I found both answers to be two sides of the same coin.

I should first note that alcohol is indeed both a biologically and psychologically addictive substance: Above caffeine, below nicotine. There are people who simply can’t drink, and who should not try just for the sake of drinking. What struck me, on the other hand, about the stories these people told me was that they weren’t so much about addiction but about a behavioral concern: They were insinuating a Jekyll and Hyde scenario with the application of alcohol.

To me, alcohol is by nature an uninhibitor, which is to say, when you’re drunk, you become more you. Your personality does not transmute into something else. In South Korea, for instance, it is common practice for new business partners to drink together explicitly to reveal the uninhibited nature of each businessman: Only in such circumstances, they surmise, can they trust each other’s intentions. In Scotland it’s posited that the sincerity and personability intrinsic to the social protocols of the public house provide a glue for overall relationships.

Thus, I am concerned if I hear a person say that they cannot trust themselves to drink for behavioral reasons: What they are implying, to me, is that they have become adept at hiding their personal issues while sober. The alcohol in that scenario can be a route to exposing unrelated problems, which is different than saying the alcohol is the problem.

The same issue can be extended to those people who feel no need to drink, or rather don’t see the point in it: They are, in essence, turtling up – instead of revealing their nature and potential vulnerabilities to friends and acquaintances, they are pointedly guarding such. It’s a defensive measure more than anything else, which I understand and appreciate, but I worry that such is limiting their human experience. It’s a cause not for resentment but for pity.

Of course, that being said, South Korea and Scotland are heavy drinking cultures. However, while it is broadly known that humans are at heart social animals, interestingly enough, one of our longest and most universal traditions is the usage of mind-altering substances. There is not a culture in the world, aboriginal or modern, that does not traditionally partake in at least one mind-altering substance. While psychedelics and hallucinogenic drugs are relatively rare, depressives – like alcohol – are quite common. Society as we know it has grown up around readily-available intoxicants. We as a people have gone to great lengths to manufacture our own environment, both external and internal. There’s something also to be said for the drug-like qualities of non-imbibing practices – such as the asceticism of meditative chanting or the emotional manipulation of ensemble music – and it’s interesting how much our society is centered around publicly sharing such experiences.

If this sounds like a rejection of naturalism, well, that’s kind of a byproduct of the human condition. I am, after all, currently suspended 52 feet off the ground through a combination of mostly limestone, sand and clay treated to look and act nothing like the original materials and constructed through a process and protocol that is far more complex sociologically than it is from an engineering sense. We exist in a world that requires 12 years of education just to function and 18 years to make any real sense of it all, to say nothing of making informed amendments on established convention.

Funny enough, learning how to drink is included in that education, but isn’t exactly part of the core curriculum, which illustrates more or less our relationship with the world: We know we tend to solve things better through collaboration, but the how of it is still a bit fuzzy. We live in a Best Practices circumstance, and by far the best practices evident involve anything that facilitates hanging loose together. In moderation, of course.

Regulatory Compliance

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The problem with 96th Street is the problem of a street doing double service: It is in service to the convenience of motorist through-traffic, and it is in service to the use of pedestrians and store frontage. These are naturally at odds: Motorists want few stops, few obstacles, and a simple roadway. Pedestrians want a complex, variegated, safe street with plenty of cross traffic. Putting these both on the same surface results in contention: One or the other must win out in the end. Usually, cars do, by nature of their size and speed. However, this is New York, and people are not so quick to abandon real estate, leading to a prolonged and pronounced problem with pedestrian deaths.

I call such phenomena “car levees,” as the city tends to view such thoroughfares as overflow hatches for commuters more than streets for locals. Traffic engineer Charles Marohn calls them “stroads,” a portmanteau of street and road. I had always recognized them while running as a bike messenger because they were the routes I could not safely take, for the traffic speed was too great and there were no shoulders or eddies: 2nd and 3rd Avenues on the east side of Manhattan, 10th and 11th Avenues on the west side of Manhattan, Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Queens Boulevard in, well, Queens.

(Charles Marohn’s ‘Strong Towns’ explanation of a stroad)

For the most part, Manhattan has been largely exempt from the drawbacks of these hybrid surfaces, because Manhattan’s traffic is simply too thick to allow high speeds. There is nothing, effectively, stopping 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th Avenues, or the Bowery or Houston Street or Canal Street, or 14th Street or 57th Street from becoming such by their designs alone, but they tend not to be so because the congestion reduces the average speed in Manhattan to a pedestrian 7 to 9 miles per hour. As a bicyclist, I was often the fastest thing in New York south of 59th Street. It wasn’t until I started venturing further afield into Brooklyn that I started to notice the stark difference traffic congestion makes, for in Brooklyn the streets are just as wide but the density is much lower and thus the traffic can go a lot faster. The closest I’ve ever gotten to being pancake was in commuting to Prospect Heights.

Much the same can, unfortunately, be witnessed in certain parts of Manhattan as well. One of the deadliest spots for bicyclists in the city isn’t the West Side Bikeway, but in approaches to the West Side Bikeway, for to reach that route you have to cross not one, not two, but three car levees: 10th Avenue, 11th Avenue, and 12th Avenue – the last of which is effectively a surface version of the West Side Highway, and treated as such by motorists. One of the deadliest spots for pedestrians is 7th Avenue and 27th Street, which is right in front of the Fashion Institute for Technology: Students crossing from the school to shops on the other side of the street are often victims of motorists who, having finally cleared the congestion around Penn Station, bolt down the avenue at high rates of speed. You see a similar effect on 5th Avenue after 34th Street, where there is effectively no traffic at all until 23rd Street, meaning that pedestrians must often dodge speeding motorists.

Uptown Manhattan is largely exempt from through traffic because the highways that allow cars to exit Midtown largely bypass northern neighborhoods: Most of the bridges and tunnels are below 59th Street and the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive remove north/south through-traffic from local roads. The exception is entrances and exits to those north/south corridors. Pedestrian deaths on the Upper East Side tend to happen at intersections between 3rd Avenue – one of the afore-mentioned car levees – and cross-streets that start as exits from the FDR Drive. 96th Street, on the West Side, is also one such street in that it exits onto the West Side Highway.

Charles Marohn suggests that the solution to this problem is to halt the schizophrenic nature of the ‘stroad’ and simply reconfigure it as one or the other: A street or a road. To this I see an urban “road” to mean something like the fences around sidewalks near Herald Square, clearly corralling pedestrians and demarcating the domain of motorists. This is New York, however, so for most streets, I would defer on the side of “street,” which means, to make an example of 96th Street, to narrow the roadway and add more street furniture: Widen the sidewalk, add a raised median, add bike lanes, encourage on-street parking, or some combination of such.

All those have the effect of making the motorist feel unsafe, which means the motorist slows down. This severely reduces collisions (because they have enough time to react) and injuries from collisions (because of lower impact forces). Due to the nature of New York’s traffic lights spaced effectively every 200 feet, this shouldn’t greatly change travel times, for speed and travel times in such a big city tend not to correlate directly.

More importantly, this fix isn’t reliant on regulatory compliance: Pairing a road that, like 96th Street, is designed for high speed travel with a reduced speed limit of 25 mph, like mayor de Blasio suggested, is just going to result in a lot of speeding tickets, not slower speeds. Motorists drive at the speed they feel comfortable driving at, not the speed posted on signs. Likewise, nobody is going to stop New Yorkers from jaywalking whenever and where-ever they feel like doing so, nor should we attempt such draconian strictures.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that de Blasio and commissioner Bratton are not going to police motorists to the extent that they should, but while the prioritization of traffic enforcement should be focused on the road users most capable of doing damage, we can institute measures that reduce risk overall. As changes to the streetscape are more a local effort than a city-wide effort, they should be more politically feasible than things that car commuters from the far-flung suburbs and distant semi-suburban city neighborhoods would otherwise be able to weigh in on. This is a walking city, and our streetscape should reflect such: We can ill-afford to dither as we have been.

Visibility

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I commute primarily by bicycle, and I’ve been run off the road thrice by MTA New York City Transit buses on one particular stretch of Broadway in Washington Heights; each time, the bus would pull abreast of me and then charge in, crab-like, for a bus stop, effectively throwing me onto the sidewalk. Traffic laws dictate that I must keep to the right of traffic except in times of immediate personal risk. I learned never to keep to the right of traffic if that traffic happens to be a city bus, because they simply do not give a shit.

A bicyclist was struck, run over and killed by a city bus in Harlem yesterday, in much the same situation as one I experienced last November: The bus was pulling out of a bus stop, and failed to see the bicyclist already in the traffic lane. Needless to say, no criminality is suspected. In my case, I was to the left of an articulated bus as it pulled out from a bus stop. Normally, due to the manner in which buses move, they jut out beyond their allotted lane when making a maneuver but, this being Broadway, there was an extra lane and, being a bicyclist, I don’t need a full lane anyway. Thus, to me, there was room to spare. The bus driver, however, had different plans. He decided to pull ahead of a stopped taxi in the right-hand lane, which means the bus ended up blocking all the lanes of the street plus half a lane of oncoming traffic.

As I was already abreast of the bus when he was pulling out, I ended up in oncoming traffic – it wasn’t “I’d have needed to stop to let the bus pass,” it was “I’d have had to reverse in order to get out of the bus driver’s way.” This wasn’t necessarily a major concern for me, though. I’ve a full decade’s experience biking in this city, with two stints as a bike messenger, and know how to handle myself. This being rush hour, traffic was crawling regardless, and oncoming traffic had already stopped for the bus. Furthermore, at least when you’re coming at cars head-on they can see you clear as day.

I rounded the bus as its driver attempted to right himself and went on my merry way. Such is life in this chaotic city. This wasn’t kosher enough for a patrol car a block back, and the police officer proceeded to stop me and question my moves. “Why did you go around the bus?” Well, I couldn’t very well go through the bus. “But when you went around, the bus driver had to stop short.” Yes, that’s right: Only when he’d already run me clear through to the wrong side of the road did he notice I existed. At that point he hit his brakes. You don’t, however, argue with a cop, and true to form he wrote out no less than four tickets, first and foremost that I had failed to keep to the right of traffic.

Should the judge not feel lenient in my case, I may end up paying close to a grand in fines, but all things being equal, I’d rather that than be under the wheels of that bus. This is exactly what I told Fort Lee police when they gave me a warning for my failure to keep to the right of right-turning traffic near one of the on-ramps to the George Washington Bridge: I’d rather be alive and on the wrong side of the law than dead and on the right side of it.

Motorists have the larger, deadlier vehicles, and also need to be licensed in order to operate them. Bicyclists are listed in the DOT as “vulnerable road users,” for which there special stipulations that motorists must take extra care. These stipulations, however, go unenforced. Indeed, in the case of the man run over by the bus in Harlem, police do not expect to charge the bus driver. “I didn’t see him” should an admission of negligence, but instead it absolves the motorist of guilt. I half-joke to friends that I know how I’m going to die, just not necessarily when.

What I can be absolutely sure of is that, should I die, the investigation will be short, cursory and inconclusive.

A Walking City

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96th Street on the west side of Manhattan has become something of a black eye in our new mayor’s “Vision Zero” plan to dramatically reduce if not eliminate pedestrian casualties as a result of traffic accidents, as it has been the site of almost daily collisions that have tragically resulted in a pedestrian’s death. In the city overall, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have been almost double what they have been at this time last year, and de Blasio had stated that immediate action will be taken, to which Police Commissioner Bill Bratton concurred.

Bratton has acted, but not in the way I would have imagined.

New York police have started issuing jaywalking tickets in the area, an act not seen since mayor Giuliani had attempted such an initiative in 1998. This is disconcerting, as New York’s most famed and central cultural touchstone is how we are, above all else, a walking city. Pedestrian deaths are high and have always been high because we have more pedestrians than anywhere else in the country, and to effectively attack pedestrians is to attack New York’s very soul.

I have grown up in this city and jaywalk as a matter of course; as do all the people I have known and grown up with in this city. When Giuliani instructed then-commissioner Howard Safir to enforce the jaywalking laws in the city in 1998, a reporter followed him around: He himself jaywalked that day, which, if he had his way, would have cost him several hundred dollars and a summons by the traffic department. The NYPD at that time balked at the very concept, for they did not even view it as a crime. Indeed, while there is and has always been a fine incurred for jaywalking on the books, its non-enforcement has been a signal to New Yorkers that pedestrians are king, and in this domain motorists are the interlopers.

Bratton, apparently, sees it the other way.

His initiatives in Los Angeles were causes for concern, as he aggressively instituted and enforced jaywalking laws there, but he had promised during a Transit Alternatives forum to respect the different cultures of each city. In Bratton’s words,

“One of the great things about this city is that it is so much a walking city. Similar to what occurred in the 90s on crime, more can be done to deal with this issue.”

de Blasio, for his part, stressed that pedestrian education, not enforcement, was a facet of his plan, and cited more stringent regulation of motorists’ speeding and failure to yield. We have certainly had education campaigns like that over the years, but one of the most glaring oversights in traffic planning is the lack of enforcement of traffic laws for motorists, or punishment of offending motorists, in this city.

(The “Look!” campaign, a Bloomberg initiative to heighten pedestrian awareness)

There have been cases where the motorists driving without a license hit and killed pedestrians, and were only cited for driving without a license, not manslaughter or homicide. There have been cases where drunk motorists, having killed pedestrians, were only summoned for DWI, not homicide or manslaughter. This happens with disturbing frequency. “Failure to Yield,” a citation by which the driver rolls through a crosswalk when the pedestrian has the right of way, is not a criminal offense, and is usually the only citation the driver gets whether they hit a pedestrian or not.

Most times, however, the collision is listed as an “accident” and there is no further investigation, despite clearly careless driving, and no charges are filed unless there is a massive media campaign and public outcry, as in the case with the British tourist whose leg was severed by a speeding taxi. She is currently suing New York City for failing to even take away the cabbie’s license, despite multiple prior incidents. The very words “no criminality suspected,” by their drumbeat regularity in police statements, have become something of a cruel joke.

That is a failure in enforcement, and the message it sends is that motorists can get away with murder: All they have to say is “I didn’t see him.” That Bratton would then take to blaming pedestrians, against city-provided statistics that state that speeding, driver inattention and failure to yield account for the vast majority of pedestrian deaths, and indeed the lion’s share of pedestrian deaths in the past two weeks, gives a clear indication that motorists have the initiative. To turn 96th Street into a car levee by cracking down on pedestrians indicates to drivers that they need not watch out. This is an egregiously wrong-headed move, in opposition to the facts and in opposition to the culture of the city.

I cannot imagine which situation is worse: That Bratton has, little more than two weeks into de Blasio’s term, already shown signs of insubordination – a direct reversal of his own assurances – or that de Blasio himself may have ordered this policy change. Regardless, it must be stopped.

Newspeak

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The initial overture of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s political downfall is now complete, with the daily scandals of leaked emails and exposed lies and the like, and we are currently waiting on the actual legal nitty-gritty of nailing his ass to the wall. This will probably go the way of the OJ Simpson trial, if the rumors about his defense attorney are correct, and provide for a disappointing anti-climax to this whole affair, but we’re more or less used to that.

Why are we so inured to this? Why do we tolerate it so?

This is almost paint-by-numbers political theater, where nothing said is as it seems yet nobody needs translation for what’s occurring. Ostensibly, it’s about a week’s gridlock in Fort Lee drawn up as political payback against mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing the governor in his last election. Peel back that onion layer and, just as in the Soviet Union, it’s not the scandal but the cover-up that’s really rocking his political tenure. Peel back that onion layer and this petty bullshit isn’t of much concern to New Jersey residents at all and the reason it’s hitting him so hard is because nobody likes him in the first place.

Effectively, the scandal is an excuse to have a referendum on his political popularity, much akin to throwing the book at Al Capone for tax evasion. Democrats don’t like him because he’s stood in the way of every major Democratic initiative on infrastructure and social policy he could, in service to the national GOP and his chances at the presidency. Republicans don’t like him because he’s necessarily liberal enough to preside over a Democratic state and dared to shake hands with Obama when he was hurting for federal disaster aid. He rolls over for whatever’s most politically expedient, and in doing so has likely made a lot of enemies.

But what gets me about this is why we as an electorate bother to allow this sort of political nonsense occur. It’s clear to see the sheer contempt such politicians have for the actual act of governance through Christie’s State of the State speech:

The last week has certainly tested this Administration. Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better.

I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad.

Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.

But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state. This Administration and this Legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed. I am the leader of this state and its people and I stand here today proud to be both. And always determined to do better.

Allow me to translate:

The last week was hard on me, your governor. I got caught corrupting the office I was elected for, playing voters for fools. You deserve better than me. Much better.

I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad – but first let me throw my entire staff under the bus for following my orders in order to save my own political hide.

Please allow me to spearhead the federal and state investigation into my own malfeasance, and I promise you I will make sure to better cover my tracks when I inevitably “discover” that I did no wrong.

But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state: It defines me as a corrupt politician, latest in a surprisingly long line of corrupt New Jersey politicians. This administration will certainly not make the same mistake twice, at least as far as you know. Meanwhile, I still get to be governor because the gears of justice are slow indeed.

The art of the political non-apology is a storied one, with quite a long record of use, remarkable only for how patently obvious it is: Nobody is fooled by the words “mistakes were made,” yet we all accept them and fail to hold public figures accountable for using them. Allegedly intelligent people were in the room when he uttered those words, and if there was ever a time for somebody to shout out “you lie” during a public address, it was then. I believe the reason is because nobody’s paying attention at all, anymore, and the reason for that is because the actions of the national parties do more to decide the fate of a politician than his own record or the actions of voters.

Every statement like Christie’s that goes without actionable censure is further proof that the electorate’s general cynicism towards politics is well-founded: What apparatus is in place to put a politician’s feet to the fire over such bald-faced nonsense? What can an angry voter do in order to force responsibility on a politician for such a comment? Nothing. There is no means for one to do so, except in rare elections where the politician is placed against another hand-picked politician with equal(ly bad) credentials or in exceptionally rare recall referendums where we get to “throw the bum out” (and vote in another bum.)

Direct democracy has, since this nation’s inception, been as limited as could possibly be, for fear of the unwashed shouting down their intellectual superiors in the matters of public policy, simply because there are more of them. In Jefferson’s eyes, the landed yeoman was more trustworthy than the common laborer, and thus he created legislation that protected the former from the latter. In Jackson’s eyes, the common man deserved a say in what was obviously a rigged game, insofar as the common man looked like him. It is what got us the Electoral College and to a lesser extent the county system, and why the House is a citizen’s only direct national representation. It’s why every new electoral innovation is dominated by pols figuring out how to divvy up the electorate between the parties such that voting is all but unnecessary.

This not only emboldens politicians to do whatever they feel like with public policy, but it also explains why minor scandals become major scandals: They become the backdoor to accountability. If we can’t get him on his governance, we can get him on his sex life; his inability to hide details of his malfeasance on that front transmutes into his ability to hide his malfeasance in governance, which the media will frame under the guise of “trust,” and that’s all that matters. But all that means is that the power is shifted on those who are most able to exploit the Two Minute Hate that the public is able to bring to bear on a politician when the scandal breaks out, and to those who are most able to position themselves within the extant political structure to be the scandal-clad politician’s successor.

So in answer to this concept of Newspeak, who do they think they are fooling? Us, obviously, but long before the words themselves were uttered.

Too Rich for My Blood

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I used to work as a mail clerk on Mercer Street to pay off the last few years of college. The work was easy enough, though it was underpaid and I was ultimately disposable, but the difficulty at the time was finding an affordable place for lunch within walking distance, as 14-hour work/school days are not particularly conducive to bag lunches. This was SoHo, however; gentrified SoHo, so my paltry wage couldn’t accommodate both tuition and Dean & Deluca. There were three places that provided affordable food: Han’s Deli on Broadway and Bleecker Street, a Halal cart, “street meat,” outside of Han’s, or if I was lucky and had time I could venture further north to Gray’s Papaya on 8th Street and 6th Avenue. Venturing south, as I found, got even more expensive until you hit Chinatown, which required a mile’s walk in an easterly direction before viable places were evident.

Gray’s Papaya is now closed. Like so many other proprietors in Greenwich Village, their lease came up and they couldn’t afford the new amount: Their landlord had upped the price from $30,000 a month to $50,000 a month. That’s a lot for a place that offers dollar hot dogs and a “recession lunch special,” which is reportedly to be replaced by a juice bar that sells $12 “cleanses.” (I give them maybe three months.) Around the same time, another nearby SoHo establishment, Milady’s, on Prince and Thompson, closed because of new landlords. With this in mind, I wandered around the area to see how it had changed, venturing vaguely northward as I was originally wont to do, and what struck me was how many closed stores I saw.

(6th Avenue and 8th Street)

8th Street has always been something of a blight when it came to gentrification, and Barnes & Nobles have been hemorrhaging stores of late (including their flagship store on 5th Avenue and their massive presence in Astor Place and Lincoln Center) thanks in part to their lateness in establishing an online presence, but just as Barnes & Nobles squeezed out B Dalton Books from this neighborhood, so too have they been pushed out in favor of a bank branch that is able to pay more in rent, leaving no more bookstores in the area.

(Bleecker Street off 7th Avenue South)

These two storefronts are on a particularly hard-hit block on Bleecker Street off of 7th Avenue South, not because of a lack of foot traffic, but because of real estate speculation. The storefront on the left has been empty since at least 2011, and the storefront on the right has gone through three tenants in the last few years, each of which cannot make the ballooning rents in the area. On that same block are two more empty storefronts.

(Bleecker Street off Christopher Street)

Bleecker Street, as it continues on through Greenwich Village towards Christopher Street, becomes something of a fashion store line, although local independent fashion stores have been pushed out years ago. Here, however, even the high end chains are in and out just as quickly: A Jeremy Argyle shop that opened last year is gone and Yamak, their neighbor on the left, looks mighty threadbare as well. All up and down the street, long-standing stores have been closing as the retail rents have more than quintupled in the last few years.

Since nothing can be built in the neighborhood, everything’s gotten exponentially more expensive – and when I was working in the neighborhood almost a decade ago, it was already expensive. As the rents have continued to rise, the street life has begun to suffer for it. To illustrate just how much the acute lack of supply has put the market out of whack, look at one of the few places that can be developed in the area:

(7th Avenue South looking towards 12th Street)

Just beyond the purview of the unbroken chain of historically preserved neighborhoods that include Greenwich Village/South Village/SoHo is a patch of land developers have wrenched out of the hands of St Vincent’s Hospital – except without the towering hospital complex that was part of the original plan, which has resulted in a hodgepodge patchwork of alternative care centers to make up for the lack of local medical capacity – and because that is practically the only land they can build on, they’re going full luxury condominiums so as to fully exploit the pent-up demand.

I’m glad I don’t work in the area anymore. I love Halal carts, and they’re there largely because even the constant fines they get for working in a legal gray area outside of established brick and mortar stores pales in comparison to the exorbitant rents the stores have to pay, but I can’t eat from a Halal cart every day. I can see that my options have dwindled, but it’s not just my problems as a formerly lowly peon in an office, however: Fewer and fewer can afford to be there, business owners as much as anybody else, because of an artificial limitation on growth. This has to come to a head, and it’s not going to be pretty.

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