Monday, February 27, 2012

Rook Takes Pawn

I had never intended for the New York Guide posts to take over the blog quite as much as they have. Since most of them are made up of things I've said to people in my mind a hundred times, they've been surprisingly fast and easy to write. Regardless, I'd like to take a detour and discuss what may be the most enormous, Godzilla-sized chess game to be played on New York probably since the 1960s, if it comes to pass. Some of these things are already in the works, others are being officially discussed now. Some are just ideas on paper, others have only been proposed as possible solutions.

First, here are the moves:
1. Build the country's largest convention center and a casino in Willets Point, Queens.
2. Move all convention business from the Jacob Javits Center to Willets Point.
3. Tear down the Javits Center.
4. Use part of the now empty Javits site for a new Madison Square Garden that will connect to the waterfront.
5. Extend the tracks of the 7 train all the way west to serve the new MSG and potentially across the Hudson River into New Jersey.
6. Connect the James A. Farley Post Office to the new MSG with a park and mixed-use development over the Hudson Yards, connected to the High Line Park.
7. Move Amtrak services from Pennsylvania Station into the Farley Post Office, now to be known as Moynihan Station.
8. Tear down MSG.
9. Rebuild the rest of Penn Station,
connected to the adjacent post office building, on the now empty MSG site (above ground?) with a new tower exploiting the air rights above it.

Google Maps View.
Certainly the Javits is not nearly as fresh as it must have been when it was first finished in 1986. It has held up remarkably well, though. Its bones are still stunning and, seeing as how many conventions held there are not able to fill up its entire space, it's easily adequate in size for most of them. Do we really need another convention center? As inconvenient as the Javits Center is, it's still a hell of a lot better than traipsing all the way out to Willets Point. The extension of the 7 train and the park over Hudson Yards promised to solve the problem of the Javits' isolation, anyway.

One of the arguments for convention facilities in Queens is "neighborhood revitalization!" This is absolutely ridiculous. These people talk about revitalizing Willets Point in the same exact breath as they mention the Javits Center, and just look at that neighborhood. The convention center has been there for twenty-six years, and what else is there as a result? I couldn't even tell you, because as soon as I'm done at the Javits, I hightail it out of there. It's miserable. Aside from car dealership after car dealership, I think there's a gas station and a strip club. And isn't there some kind of weird little tiki hut restaurant where no one ever eats? If that's "vital," then I'll take suburban sprawl, please.

Photo courtesy Mets Talk.
As much respect as I have for HOK Sport (who are now known as Populous), a convention center is similar to a sports stadium: a gargantuan building, out of all conceivable human scale for the pedestrian, standing alone in the middle of a parking lot a mile in diameter. In fact, the exact same thing could be said about a casino hotel. HOK's beautiful Camden Yards in Baltimore notwithstanding, if I had to choose building types that would be least likely to mesh well into the fabric of a small-scale neighborhood and "revitalize" it, these three would be on the top of the list. Willets Point's direct proximity to the demolished Shea Stadium did nothing to prevent it from filling in with auto body shops and Radiator Royalty over the past fifty years. I'd be willing to bet that's the very reason it did.

And what of the Willets Point business owners? Will they be fairly compensated for their property? And what if it's a disastrous failure? An active permanent residential community arguably would be a crucial ingredient for its success. But who on earth would ever want to live there? There are numerous fundamental flaws with the site, many of them insurmountable, others built right into the redevelopment plans.

One of the selling points of the location is how close it is to LaGuardia Airport. While this is great for those who work the conventions and depart immediately afterward, it's useless information for New Yorkers and everyone else. Around 225 airplanes a day land on LaGuardia's southeast runway one mile away. That means that on average, once every 6.4 minutes, the thunderous roar of a jet plane on a typical three-degree descent will pass less than 265 feet (80m) overhead. [Amusingly, there's actually a plane found flying overhead in the Google Maps satellite image.] To me, that sounds like quite enough to make you go deaf, if not insane. It will also likely mean that any fancy penthouse apartments will attract only buyers who are interested in the convenience of its location to the sporting events and conventions compared to Manhattan or a suburb, but few of them would stay there many nights out of the year.

Photo courtesy Cook & Son Bats.
The accessibility of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one of the best things about this site, is blocked from Willets Point by the elevated 7 train to the south, and by Citi Field and the wide, sprawling vista of its parking lots to the southwest. The waterfront, the other thing one might consider a real selling point to living on Willets, is blocked by the Van Wyck Expressway to the east. The waterfront to the northwest is blocked by both the Whitestone Expressway and Northern Boulevard, amounting along with their access roads to twenty-two lanes of vehicular traffic in some places. The peninsula that is the "point" named for its former owner, Charles Willets, is commanded by an oppressive spiderweb of elevated roadways linking the expressways and boulevard. It could only be tunneled underground if it also tunneled under the adjacent water bodies, presumably, and at enormous expense.

You might find a few interested people who are involved with the Mets or Citi Field, officials from the US Open, a couple from Queens Theater in the Park, Queens Museum of Art, the Hall of Science, or the park itself. A few of the Mets players might grab up apartments just to use when they're in season. You might get out-of-town baseball teams or tennis players reserving a couple apartments for intermittent dwelling. You might get a good number of people of lower incomes who work at any of these places, or the hotel, casino, convention center, and surrounding stores and restaurants. I suspect the vast majority of these people, regardless of their economic status, are not going to want to live and work in exactly the same place. Mostly you're looking at a community of transients.

As far as quality of life is concerned, this could very easily be a bizarre flow of nothing but tourists for the majority of the year, none of them staying for more than a couple of days at a time. Many people working conventions will just want to play a few slots at the casino and go to sleep at the end of the day. If they're going to go out at night, they'll go to Manhattan. The US Open lasts only thirteen days and comes once a year. Eighty-one times a year for several hours at a time, the entire area will be completely overrun by a thousand or two loud, drunken Mets fans hooting and hollering up and down the streets before and after home games. The whole idea of living in a place like this sounds perfectly awful.

I actually live in Queens. If even I think the Javits Center is more convenient than Willets Point, that must be saying something. What will this do to convention business? As it is, I've seen the trade shows shrink year after year in recent memory. Less exhibitors can afford to do them, less exhibitors think they're worth the time, effort, and expense. I strongly suspect moving them out to a little peninsula next to Citi Field is not going to help matters.

New York's water quality is possibly the one thing that could benefit most from this transformative project. Flushing Bay, which is sort of tucked into an inlet between the East River and the Long Island Sound, is both geologically ripe for stagnation and fed by run-off from a particularly industrial area and all the pollutants it generates. Something very similar to this is currently being discussed concerning the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which I'd like to explore in more depth in a later post. For sure measures could be taken to improve the water quality around Willets Point without new development going up in the middle of it. But without that development, on the one hand one might ask, "why bother?" On the other hand, without the development, how would you ever generate the interest, and more importantly the funding, to undertake such a thing?

Photo courtesy Metropolis.
I'm a bit torn about the demolition of Javits, to be honest. On the one hand, it's a wonderful building architecturally. Like a Crystal Palace for the 1980s, it commands its site on Eleventh Avenue with power and grace. It also happens to be another work from the offices of I. M. Pei. Now that the razing of JFK's Terminal 6 is a done deal, I'm forced to ask yet again, "how many more of these do we need to lose?" I could see little justification for the loss of T6. To be fair, the Javits building is not without its problems. But in my opinion those problems are not architectural. Since its structure is essentially a number of enormous, column-free glass boxes, I fail to see how it couldn't find innumerable reuses. Instead of simply attacking it with a wrecking ball, it would be fantastic to think that at least some sections of it could be dismantled and rebuilt for some other purpose elsewhere. I fear I may be wasting paragraph space even suggesting that, unfortunately.

The major problem with the Javits is its location. The appearance of a new subway station for the 7 train could potentially enliven that neighborhood, but any substantial change as a result of that alone would surely take at least a generation to manifest. There is no question in my mind that the park proposed over Hudson Yards and the northern connection to the High Line will significantly improve this area, if the results of the High Line in the Meat Packing District are any indication.

The Hudson Yards project creates a whole different problem for the Javits Center, unfortunately. As some journalists have noted, the Javits building does nothing if not completely block midtown from the Hudson River. Anyone who has attempted to walk around it from the back to its front doors will know exactly what I mean. It's huge, and every side of it is a towering, inaccessible warehouse and huge, impervious metal garage doors except for the front entrance. With a park to its east, it becomes even more obvious that it should not be there. The visceral response, standing in the park looking west, would automatically have to be "remove that."

Photo courtesy Trip Holiday.
As much as the Javits building blocks that entire strip of waterfront property, so would the construction of a new Madison Square Garden over there have to be handled extremely sensitively to not make the same mistake all over again. While I may be very in favor of getting that bland, oversized drum out of where it is now, I can't possibly endorse rebuilding it on the bank of the Hudson. If the waterfront is to be used for any large-scale construction other than parkland conducive to strolling, bike riding, sunning, boating, etc., no way should it be a building type (for concerts and indoor sports) that is necessarily and completely closed off to the outside, not even to mention the river views. It's the worst waste of a natural resource I can imagine.

When I first heard about moving Penn Station into the post office, I was mostly for it. The old Penn Station was breathtaking, but it's just gone. Nothing is going to bring it back. Converting the post office, by McKim, Mead, & White (1910) as was the old station, seemed like a nice compromise to me. Certainly the redesign will have to be sensitively handled so that it doesn't destroy the building. The respect I have for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill is well documented. I think I can trust them to do a fine job.

Photo courtesy Empire State Development Corp.
It did seem to me a little bittersweet that it would no longer be a post office. It has to be one of the most magnificent post office buildings in the country. I also love the fact that its zip code is 10001. In other words, this is the very first zip code--Zip Code #1. Someone might argue for Pleasantville, NY 00401, which is the smallest numerical zip code, but obviously that was assigned later. I'd also hate to think that the Herodotus (mis)quote in the frieze, "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night...," would be chiseled out and replaced by some advertising slogan for Amtrak.

The good news is that the building will still be used as a post office. But the irony here is that, since it will still be a post office (if perhaps with its facilities reduced in size), the new Amtrak facilities won't actually be taking advantage of the grand staircase in front. The stairs will still lead to the post office. Passengers instead will enter from small portals on either side of the stairs and descend to a newly glass-enclosed space in the center of the building. One might be tempted to wonder how much this will truly solve the dire circulatory problems of the present station.

New York by Gehry, ©2012 Ryan Witte
Again, the loss of the big, mostly ugly cylinder that is Madison Square Garden is unlikely to bring tears to anyone's eyes. Even less anyone who has seen images of what the Stamford-White-designed MSG looked like when it was actually in Madison Square. There isn't much in terms of a big office or hotel tower that could look worse, even if city bureaucracy thwarts every attempt to enlist a world-famous architect and to allow him or her to design something worthy of so central and vital a location in Manhattan. On the other hand, seeing as how Mayor Bloomberg is determined to get ten more Frank Gehry buildings built here, this might be the perfect opportunity for a truly remarkable piece of architecture.

This enormous shifting of some of New York City's biggest and most important facilities presents an almost infinite number of possibilities for greatness, beauty, and improved infrastructure and amenities. It also threatens the city with an equal number of pitfalls, quicksand, and potential for economic, aesthetic, or pragmatic debacles. As I mentioned in regard to JFK Airport, it's when faced with something like this that one might actually pine for someone as visionary and ruthless as Robert Moses (before the megalomania and insanity) who would swoop down with a single-minded, comprehensive strategy. We see it all over the World Trade Center site; endless committees and mismanaged appeals to popular consensus (as necessary as they should be in principle) could prove fatal to a reworking of the urban environment at this scale. One can only hope as deeply as possible that all the greatest minds will be brought on board. In the end, if we're lucky, we may get something the world has never seen before.

©2012, Ryan Witte

Friday, February 24, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #9a


I was getting a bit bored with all that navigation business, so I thought I'd take a little diversion into food and return to that other stuff later.

Traveling can be a very disorienting experience. Some comfort of the familiar might be gained by spreading personal belongings from home all over one's hotel room. Beyond that, it's all new environments, new people, new cultures, new customs, new sights. For someone from a slower-paced town, New York amplifies that disorientation by hitting visitors non-stop with new experiences like machine gun fire.

The common sense of "do things you can't do at home," to which most people subscribe at least initially, at least in theory, only goes so far. Even for the more adventurous traveler, there often comes a point where the gamble of finding palatable and reasonably-priced food out of all the countless thousands of one-off restaurants becomes just one more hassle added to an exhausting day. The common mistake is to resort to the familiarity of a fast food or chain restaurant that can also be found at home. The easiest example is McDonald's.

While the menu might look exactly the same as at home, the food and service is not. Keep in mind that I have never been a fan of fast food anyway. Most of it I find disgusting. Outside the city, though, there are a few fast food places I will patronize without a scowl on my face and enjoy a little junk just for its ease and entertainment value. Those same chains in New York City are noticeably inferior.

It's worthwhile to consider how the food gets to these establishments. Fast food is produced in a factory, dried, packaged and frozen, and loaded onto trucks. Most franchises are located in strip malls or similar roadside locations that are easily accessed by truck, or in indoor malls with efficient means of unloading and distributing products to stores.

In contrast, a circle of probably a hundred miles of residential, suburban communities rings New York City before the very idea of having a food production and packaging facility is even plausible. Getting a huge supply truck into the heart of Manhattan is quite a chore indeed. Once the truck gets here, the food is set out onto the sidewalk, where it sits baking in the hot summer sun.

Then it encounters the employees. A job at a fast food restaurant in a smaller town, relatively speaking, is basically like working at a neighborhood community center. It's really not such a horrible job for kids after school or over the summer. While the traffic is certainly heavy, it's a lot of familiar faces and nothing compared to the relentless tidal wave of demanding lunchtime customers that barrages the girl behind the counter at Burger King in Times Square.

The point of all of this is that the primary casualty is the food quality. These employees are frazzled, overworked, and underpaid. Getting the food off the sidewalk and into the walk-in freezer is something they only barely care about. The kid who started three weeks ago just had to clean the restroom after someone had a diarrhea explosion all over it. Mice, rats, cockroaches, and other pests are just a fact of life.

The finest restaurants will take every possible measure to get a high rating from the health inspector. Do you really think that kid at Taco Bell cares all that much? You may as well just eat a big box full of e-coli with a side of salmonella for lunch. And yes, I have gotten food poisoning from fast food places here. Not fun, and even less so if you're on vacation and tethered to the toilet in your hotel room for an entire afternoon.

The icing on this foul cake is that rents are so ridiculously high in the city, especially in the tourist areas where one would likely choose a fast food place. So while it might seem a cheap and easy solution to an empty stomach, the prices are likely to be a lot higher than at home for what you're getting. At this price level, you're really much better off going to a diner.

At the next tier up, the table-service restaurant chains (Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, Applebee's, etc.) are admittedly a little bit better, but not by much. Again, I have had entirely pleasant meals at these types of places outside of the city, but in the city, no. The employees here are just as disgruntled, but for different reasons. They are also overworked, but you basically have to assume that every one of them is an out-of-work actor waiting for his or her big break on Broadway, and would rather be any place else in the world besides serving your food. Restaurant jobs tend to have flexible hours which is conducive to going on auditions. Plus, it's a job which requires you to "act" friendly and happy through an entire shift.

The food suffers for all the same reasons as at the fast food chains. The whole point of the chain is that the menu should be more or less the same at every franchise. To a slightly lesser degree, the food must be prepackaged and delivered by truck. Here one presumes the food is prepared by a relatively trained chef. Since the menu is set by the corporate office, there is little or no opportunity for creativity or invention that might make the chef's job rewarding. So the food is generally acceptable but has no heart or soul to it. The chef would likely rather be working in a third-world sweat shop. A lot of them probably feel like they are now.

The theme restaurants are a whole different animal altogether. I find them awful, but I have been to a few of them over the years. The food quality is about the same as at the table-service chains, but it's often "themed" as well. It can occasionally be gross. I would go for the entertainment value of the place and not for a particularly good meal.

Where it concerns the purpose of this series--getting a true New York experience--no real New Yorker would ever eat at a theme restaurant unless at the insistence of an out-of-town guest or some other strange circumstance. The wait staff at these places deals almost exclusively with loud, obnoxious tourists and often enormous groups of them at a time. They're even more likely to be out-of-work actors because the restaurant often employs them to perform some kind of tacky floor show.

In case you're thinking no one would ever really want to be a career waiter, bear in mind that the wait staff at the extremely expensive, five-star restaurants are often exactly that. Their resumes include restaurants with the most impeccable requirements for knowledge and service excellence. They can literally bring in six figures a year working full time and bringing in considerable tips. This is not the case at the Hard Rock Cafe.

©2012, Ryan Witte

9b. The Food Solution

Thursday, February 16, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #8


I contemplated saying "fuhgetaboutit," but I always thought that was rather stupid because so few people speak in that clich├ęd accent anymore. This is perhaps the advice that I most often want to implore visitors to heed. I know that often they wouldn't listen to me, or worse, they have no choice in the matter.

If you and your group are using a tour director to help plan your daily itineraries, he or she will very likely give you far, far too much to do. They'll tell you a dollar amount for their package and say, "just look at all the amazing things you'll see for that low price!" What they won't tell you is that you'll be running around like a chicken with its head cut off, on what will feel like a sped-up movie montage of a scavenger hunt. [For the record, decapitated chickens don't actually keep running, they just kind of flop around on the ground.]

This marketing strategy has a number of unfortunate consequences besides being entirely unrealistic. The saddest, in my opinion, is that you're trying to see so many things that, in the end, you're not actually seeing anything. Most of New York's major tourist sites are so for a reason. They're huge, impressive, beautiful, comprehensive, historically important, or just simply magical. If you're racing through them at top speed to check them off your list before racing off to the next one, you can hardly be experiencing what makes these places so fascinating. You have no time to explore, no time to really look at anything, no time to discover the hidden treats that could make your visit something special.

Another thing this kind of planning does is makes your trip about as stressful as it possibly could be. A trip to a Caribbean island, where one's goal is to turn off the cellphone and drink margaritas on the beach, is relaxing. Camping and hiking through the woods before skinny-dipping in a mountain stream can be energetic but also exhilarating. A vacation to a major city like this one, especially for people from smaller towns, can be intense and overwhelming. You have to allow your brain the time and leisure to process all the incoming information or it will be much less enjoyable.

This kind of vacation is tiring work. I'll discuss the amount of walking later. Adding to your exhaustion, you took a red-eye flight that made it impossible to sleep or were on a bus with screaming kids for the past thirty-seven hours. You'll be awake every night until midnight because you're seeing every last musical on Broadway, and up at the crack of dawn to stand around freezing to death outside the Today Show studio. You'd never live your life like this at home, so don't do it here. It's a holiday; enjoy yourself. Quality, not quantity.

I wish I had a dime for every person who has quite literally fallen asleep as soon as I had somewhere for them to sit down. If you're physically unable to stay awake, then clearly you aren't experiencing what you've paid so much hard-earned money to see. If you're so tired you're about to collapse, your brain can't possibly be absorbing or processing any of the incredible things to be found here. When your adrenaline kicks in, you'll be alternately cranky, ornery, spastic, and borderline insane. Chaperones entrusted with twenty-five kids should be especially aware of this: no picnic.

If you take nothing else from what I've said here, I will summarize in two words: SLOW DOWN. You want to return home with clear and inspiring mental pictures that you can describe accurately and with enthusiasm, "remember when we saw this/ did that??? That was so awesome!" You don't want to come home with blurred memories like from a week-long ride on a haunted carousel gone berserk. Three to five things in a day--one in the morning, two or three in the afternoon, occasionally one at night--will be more than enough, believe me. Some things may only take an hour. On the other side of it, you could literally spend three days in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and still not see its entire collection.

If you're traveling through the night, are coming from a wildly different time zone, or your travel method could be especially grueling, plan a lot less stuff to do on your first day. I'd even suggest doing nothing on your first night here. You may very well need it for sleep, and your second day will be a lot more enjoyable if you've had sufficient rest.

I recommend the following strategy if your group has choices of what to see and what not, and especially if the group is larger. Ask everyone in your group to visit a website like this one that lists the top New York destinations [the ordering of that particular list is strange, and doesn't appear to be arranged by popularity, check all four pages]. Have each person put the sites in their order of preference from least important to most important. Least to most means that the number for each destination on people's lists will correspond to the importance level they've given it. Add up all these numbers to assign each destination a value for the group. Save the sites rated highest by your group onto a Google Map (or similar).

See the most important things first. This may seem like an idiotically simple suggestion. You'd be shocked how many people show up to where I work, without a reservation, two hours before they have to get on the airplane home, and get all pissed off when we're sold out or things are unavailable. I mean, I've seen grown men and women throw actual temper tantrums. "But we're leaving tonight!!! We can't come back later!!!" Well, then you should have done this first and not last, Einstein.

Good advice for any trip, but in addition to what you most want to see, also plan to see the outdoor sites at the start of your visit. This way, if it rains the first three days you're here, you have the option to replace them with indoor activities and move up the outdoor ones a day or two in your schedule. Visit the sites most important to you in the mornings, so that if you run out of time one day, you won't be as disappointed by missing that last one. This may seem a great recipe for days that start out really fun and get steadily less fun as they wind down. I don't think so. The sites you're most excited about have a higher potential to disappoint, while the ones you're less enthusiastic about have a much better chance to pleasantly surprise you. I have plenty of visitors who arrive already bored before I've even started speaking, but by the end, say things like "I had no idea this was going to be so cool!"

As time consuming as it may be without a tour planner doing it for you, check hours and days of operation ahead of time for everything you want to see. This is considerably easier now that we have the internet. It used to be a simple rule that, for instance, museums were closed on Mondays. Art galleries still are. But many of the tourist destinations have purposely chosen different days to be closed so that they can capitalize off of the schedules of all the rest. A lot of places are free or "pay what you wish" at a certain time of day once a week, but be aware that they'll be much more crowded at those times. If you have a larger group, make a reservation everywhere that will take one.

©2012, Ryan Witte

9a. The Food Problem

Monday, February 13, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #7


If a tour director from New York has planned your itinerary for you, I would certainly hope you wouldn't have this problem. For most out-of-town groups I suspect the use of a city guide is unrealistic, because it precludes any face-to-face contact with the person in whom you're entrusting your entire vacation.

I think the reason so many groups have this problem is that the map of Manhattan is dangerously deceptive in scale. The following is an exaggeration, but I encounter so many people who look at the map and decide it's a good idea to go to Ground Zero and then plan to be at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine a half hour later. On the map, the two sites are only about eight miles (12km) apart. In many parts of the world, it's a distance that could easily be traversed in about ten minutes or less. In a big chartered bus or two, meeting any unusual traffic situation, the trip from Ground Zero to the cathedral could literally take three or four hours.

That's only one extreme example, but I talk to many groups whose entire itinerary seems to be planned out this way. This added to the "too many destinations" issue I'll cover in the next installment makes it even worse. It leaves them harried, scattered, and exhausted day after day. They have practically no free time to wander or explore, or are consistently disappointed by whatever they had too little time to see or see adequately.

Related to this is traffic. Pretty much anyone reading this will have dealt with traffic, so feel free to skip this. It's a bit of a different animal in a city as densely packed as this one, however. Innumerable circumstances can disrupt traffic flows for nearly a mile radius from their center, and they happen on an almost weekly basis and often with little warning. Oddly enough, traffic seldom moves fast enough to result in accidents much more serious than a fender-bender. Things that can affect traffic include visiting politicians or dignitaries, conventions, parades, street fairs, marathons, unusually awful weather on a weekday or unusually beautiful weather on a weekend. A great resource for a lot of this information is the NYC 311 website.

The woman who took me to see the Marx Brothers house had had a guide book arranged by neighborhood. Unfortunately, I didn't think to make a mental note of its title. I think it might be this one. In any case, that's for sure the way you want a guide book to be organized, if you can find one. If you can't, we're lucky these days to have tools like Google Maps, where you can mark down all the various sites you want to see. I do it myself. Then, each day you can visit things that are truly close to one another. The added benefit of this, if your group is larger, is that if half the group wants to head off to the next destination, you'll be close enough for this to be realistic.

Plan for everything to take twice as long as you expect, and honestly, I don't think that's an overestimation. If you get lucky with lines/ queues, quickly find a nice spot for lunch, and end up with a lot of free time left over, then that's all the better. That gives you time to wander around and explore. I can guarantee that in your wanderings, you'll find something interesting on one level or another.

The other thing you can do with extra time is just...sit. For people who don't live in a walking city, you may very well need it. Because of my job, I probably walk more than even a lot of other New Yorkers. Even for me, being out and about all day really does require stops to rest. Don't feel like you're wasting time, either, especially if you can find a restaurant with outdoor seating. True, you're not moving through the city, but the city is still moving past you. People-watching is a great New York tradition that allows you to experience it while sedentary.

©2012, Ryan Witte

8. Pick One Thing a Day and Forget It

Thursday, February 9, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #6


Hopefully I'll be the only New Yorker to say that to you.

This advice is obviously not for everyone, especially control freaks with no sense of adventure at all. It happens to mesh well with my personality and also the type of journeys I like to have when traveling. Some of my most valuable experiences in other cities have been getting lost in them. Luckily, I have a relatively good sense of direction and never found myself wandering around dangerous neighborhoods until the early morning hours. In the meantime, I always felt as if i were seeing the "real" place, where people really live and work, the places that aren't all shiny and sanitized to impress tourists.

Keep in mind that when I say to get lost, I mean on foot. By no means should you try getting lost on the subway system. That's a great way to find yourself somewhere that you really do not want to be, for any number of reasons in addition to your safety.

There are a couple of reasons why it's particularly good advice for a visit to New York City. Firstly, there really are no areas left on the island of Manhattan (or extremely few, out-of-the-way ones) that are truly dangerous during the daylight hours. So as long as you find your way before sundown and don't cross any bodies of water, you're pretty much okay. Leaving Manhattan would be extremely difficult to do by accident on foot; you'd be pretty likely to notice if you were on a bridge. Unlike cities that sprawl or blend right into their surrounding suburbs, here everything is neatly contained on an island. If you seem to be headed into a neighborhood that doesn't appeal to you, it's also easy enough to just turn around.

The other thing is that Manhattan is quite dense and compact. No matter how lost you were to get, even if cloudy skies prevented referencing the position of the sun, you really cannot walk for more than about fifteen minutes in any direction without smacking right into a major avenue or something easily recognizable on a map. If it does manage to get late or you're tired, you can't stand on a major avenue for more than five minutes before a taxi will come along.

As I'll discuss more later, the most interesting things to be found in the city are furthest from the major subway hubs and landmarks. Around subway hubs are large chain stores, daily-life sort of things like grocery stores, dry cleaners, and banks for the most part. Around landmarks are the most generic tourist-oriented businesses. To find the really cool, unusual stuff, you have to wander away from these areas.

If I had to choose one neighborhood to suggest getting lost, I'd have to say Greenwich Village going west. It's remarkably easy to get lost there. Even I can, if I'm not paying attention. The streets are sort of gridded, but they seem to go in all different directions. But it's also a vibrant neighborhood, charming and older and very safe. It has awesome tree-lined cobblestone streets and beautiful little red brick row houses, including a couple of the only free-standing houses left in the city (that is to say, with no party walls). Some parts are rather industrial, some residential, and you can stumble onto streets lined with little shops. Most corners have a nice bistro, cafe, or friendly neighborhood bar so you're never too far from refreshments. I don't really recommend being there on Saturday night, mostly because I think the crowd gets really tacky, but someone from out of town might find its energy fun.

©2012, Ryan Witte

7. Sightsee by Neighborhood

Monday, February 6, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #5


The title of this installment was purposely sort of provocative, but I don't really mean it the way you might think.

A lot of hillbillies in this country like to spout off idiotic statements like, "youse in Amurka now: talk English!" Of course, Native Americans didn't speak English, nor did Amerigo Vespucci, after whom Europeans named this continent. I don't happen to subscribe to the Euro-centric "discovered America" myth, but Christopher Columbus spoke Italian and Spanish, which, ironically, is much of the time the very language the hillbillies are complaining about hearing.

Those of you for whom English is not your first language may encounter this opinion to some degree, but I doubt you will particularly often in New York. Where I live in Queens is possibly the most ethnically diverse area on the planet. There's a very funny (fake) Onion story in which various deities are trying to sort out the souls from a deadly bus accident in Queens. But even counting only my time in Manhattan, I literally hear five or six different languages every day. The point of all this is, don't worry. We're used to it. Any moderately sized destination like a hotel will have people on staff who speak one of the major world languages.

What I will often tell people--and just a day prior to this post told a wonderful family from Beijing who were self-conscious about their English abilities--is this: I don't speak Chinese. So however bad you think your English is, your English is still way better than my Chinese. Please don't be afraid to try at least the simple phrases. Only the most low-class piece of trash would ever laugh or act derisively to an honest attempt at an unfamiliar language. I'd be shocked to hear about a New Yorker ever doing that without being immediately fired for it. New York's expansive multiculturalism is one of the things many of us love most about living here.

Anyone from foreign lands who do encounter this should without question report it to that person's supervisor. It's unacceptable. But there are a few things to keep in mind along with my apologies. Any person who would do this is both ignorant and arrogant, a very irritating combination of traits. Likely he or she has never even been to a country where another language is spoken. If he or she has, I would be willing to bet they spoke English almost the entire time.

Another thing is that a lot of U.S. citizens can't speak English properly, either, much less any second language. The mangled grammar of my hillbilly quote above was intended to illustrate just that. I was once talking to a visitor who, if I remember correctly, was from Germany. After a bit of conversation, he said to me, "where are you from? Were you born here? Because I can understand everything you're saying." I laughed and informed him that my mother was an English teacher. I was no doubt privileged to have had that head-start, which I fully realize not everyone has had. And fluency is kind of what being a writer is all about, in the first place. What his comment says about the ability of many people here to articulate our own language is really not all that funny at all, however.

Especially if you speak a language that's common here--Spanish is the most obvious example--you can literally spend an entire lifetime in parts of New York and not ever have to speak one word of English (I know people who've done it). I need to recommend against it. I say this not because you don't have every right to communicate in any way that you're comfortable. But it would be, in my opinion, a sadly isolationist view of this place. I know it's less realistic for folks attempting English from languages like Arabic or Japanese, which are constructed completely differently. Finding this blog probably would be unlikely without at least a cursory understanding of English, anyway, or very good translation software. For everyone else, I do encourage you to try. As with the advice in the rest of this series, I believe your New York experience will be more true in some ways.

While I'm on this subject, I'd like to discuss something that will only really apply to native speakers of one of the Romance languages who happens to be reading this right now using an online translation. Everyone else is welcome to skip it. It's what I'd like to call the "English Ignorer." This person knows very little English aside from maybe a few important phrases like "please," thank you," "how much?" "where's the toilet?" and things like that. They have already decided in their mind before I've even begun speaking that they will not understand a single thing that comes out of my mouth.

Granted, I find this personally frustrating because I have made it one of the key goals in my work to be mostly understood by speakers of other languages. I greet groups of people who speak seven or eight different languages among them. Knowing any one of those languages would be infinitely less useful to me than speaking articulate English. 

I know enough about the various Romance languages to know what English words and types of words have equivalents in the others, in addition to things like proper nouns which don't change. I remain conscious of what types words are typically taught first to a person learning the basics of a foreign language (like letters and numbers). I'm aware that the tendency to slur the words of phrases together into one continuous verbal string tends to make following along more difficult (I pause briefly before and after important words to isolate them in the string). And finally, I use somewhat elaborate miming, pointing, and gesturing to make spacial references more clear and even describe physical actions. It's actually somewhat exhausting, but I take my job seriously. If someone were to speak to me this way in French, Spanish, Italian, or possibly German, I'm confident I would get the jist of what they were saying.

The English Ignorer is having none of it. They don't understand English, and that's that. So while I'm speaking, they're reading something in their own language, looking around as if I'm invisible, or worst of all, having a loud conversation with their travel companion while I'm trying to talk. It's sort of just bad manners, first off--to me, yes, but more importantly to the other people who are attempting to listen to what I'm saying. It's also quite self-defeating, even if I weren't going out of my way to be understood as clearly as possible (and certainly plenty of people don't speak their native English particularly well). This visitor is so busy concentrating on ignoring the sound of my voice and convincing themselves they don't understand a word of it that they're sure to miss every part of it that they could understand. Perhaps most unfortunate, if I were in a country where I would necessarily be addressed in a foreign language, and no one spoke English, I would see that as a great opportunity to at least try to pick up a little bit of it, an opportunity to learn.

I'm not suggesting everyone on the planet should understand English, just that acquiring skills in any foreign language is of benefit to us. Merely listening isn't going to kill anyone, and on the flipside, it might end up being more rewarding. The fact does remain that in our world economy, English is a useful language to know, every bit as much as, for instance, Arabic, Japanese, or Mandarin.

©2012, Ryan Witte

6. Get Lost!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #4


Although this is more a section for visitors from the United States, I feel it's an important one, anyway. One of the most humiliating things about traveling to other parts of the world is other travelers from the United States. They're not just loud, but obnoxiously so--crass, rude, entitled, and shouting it. The sound of their American accent is always the most audible in their immediate vicinity. This is why I usually say I'm from New York, not the United States, in hopes that people will recognize the difference.

No, I do not hate my fellow countrymen and women. I also have no problem with having lots of fun while on vacation. But I do feel that when traveling, we have some obligation to represent our country and not only ourselves. I wish more people would do so by behaving like civilized adults at volumes appropriate to various situations.

No one wants to hear your business. No one cares. I'm not certain which is more irritating, shouting your business across a subway or metro car in a place where most everyone speaks English, or in a place where few people do. While overhearing a loud conversation in a foreign language is still sound pollution, at least you have the benefit of not being distracted by the conversation's content. In the age of text messaging, there is also really no excuse for screaming at your friends across a busy city street, either. I won't even bother to discuss cellphone etiquette in this regard. Enough lip service has been paid to that elsewhere.

What the loudness actually says is, "LOOK AT MEEE!" Well, we've already seen enough people today. We don't really want to be forced to pay attention to you and your loud conversation. Keep it to yourself, unless you happen to be running around the park or have gone to a Rock concert, sporting event, or nightclub.

©2012, Ryan Witte

5. Speak English