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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Curiosity (Plus news from OHNY, MAS, the NY Transit Museum, and Jack Eichenbaum, including another trek on the No. 7 train)

On Saturday, September 6, Norman Oder leads the MAS walking tour "Long Island City, Queens in Flux: Court Square and Hunters Point." I've done at least six or seven tours with Norman now, and they've all been tremendously rewarding.

by Ken

If you look among the newly announced September, October, and November walking-tour offerings of the Municipal Art Society at the description of Francis's Morrone's September 28 tour, "Then and Now: Jane Jacobs and the West Village," you'll see that it --
looks at the life and work of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities so sharply and logically articulated many people's inchoate misgivings about the city rebuilding of the preceding decade and the orthodox notions of city planners. (The book, not least a literary masterpiece, is highly recommended reading for this tour.)
I think the tour should be pretty much self-recommending. I've already registered. (And contrary to the incessant complaints about certain MAS tours, like Francis's, being impossible to book, the fact is that if you take the trouble to look at the schedule early in the registration period, they're all available.) In addition, since I'm embarrassed to say that I have never in fact read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I've ordered myself a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition.

Which I bring up because of that phrase Francis uses in the description: "highly recommended reading for this tour." This is a stepped-back version of a formulation Francis experimented with awhile back, which again I'm embarrassed to say I flunked on my very first opportunity. It was a tour, naturally down in the Old Seaport region of Lower Manhattan, devoted to Herman Melville's and Joseph Mitchell's New York, and I must have decided to register for the tour without properly reading the description, which contained a notice that two pieces of the legendary New York-centric New Yorker writer, at least the opening section of "Old Mr. Flood" and the story "Up in the Old Hotel," both of which bear directly on what we now think of as the South Street Seaport area.

Francis mentions Joseph Mitchell pieces frequently on his walks, for the obvious reason that Mitchell explored New York City the old-fashioned shoe-leather way, and listened to the people he met -- in places that fancy writers rarely venture to -- for a sense of who they were, who they had been (and where they had come from), and who and what they wanted to be.

Not long afterward, while doing another walk with Francis (Greenpoint and Williamsburg open spaces, as I recall), I confessed my guilt but told him I had been doing my remedial Joseph Mitchell reading and brandished my copy of the lovely immense Mitchell anthology -- four books in one! -- whose name was taken from none other than Up in the Old Hotel. Which prompted a story from Francis. I've never seen anything yet that didn't prompt a story from Francis.

He mentioned that for his upcoming tour of Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, which has seen barely imaginable gentrification since the '70s, he had included more required reading in the description which had simply vanished from the published version. A couple of us who were registered for the Boerum Hill tour asked what that was. It was, he told us, two Joseph Mitchell pieces, "The Mohawks in High Steel" (from 1949, when the neighborhood included a packed enclave of those Native American daredevil ironworkers from upstate New York, whose union had its headquarters on Atlantic Avenue, on the northern edge of the district), and -- are you ready for it? -- "Up in the Old Hotel," plus a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

We'll come back to the Lethem novel in a moment, but having just read "Up in the Old Hotel," which deals primarily with the proprietor of a humble South Street eatery that, much against his will, had come to be called Sloppy Louie's, I puzzled initially at the Brooklyn connection. And then I remembered Louie's story of the restaurant in Brooklyn where he had learned the business as a waiter, and been drawn into the social history of the city.

As to the Lethem novel, I had to trust to memory, despite the enormous risk of trusting to my memory these days, since that day I wasn't carrying anything to write with. So imagine my chagrin when, back at the computer, I discovered that Lethem, whom I'd never read, is a Brooklyn boy, and the novel in question could have been either of his early novels Motherless Brooklyn (1999) or The Fortress of Solitude (2003). I figured it wouldn't kill me to read both, and naturally -- since this is the way my mind works -- I attacked them in chronological order

I loved Motherless Brooklyn, a grisly story told from the perspective of a grunge-level detective who suffers from Torrrete's syndrome, which is built into the fabric of the book and the way the story unfolds. But I had a feeling it wasn't "the" book, since the office out of which the narrator worked was in the sort of no man's land between Boerum Hill and adjoining Cobble Hill. It's a sensational book, though, and I was delighted to have been led to it, however accidentally. The result, though, was that by the time the tour came round, I was only about two-thirds of the way through Fortress of Solitude, which does in fact deal directly with Boerum Hill pre-, mid-, and post-gentrification.

(And the Francis story about Jonathan Lethem? When a German TV company was doing a piece on Brooklyn, they choose as their experts on the subject -- Jonathan Lethem and Francis Morrone! And I gather they've kept in touch.)

Do I have to tell you how much those readings enhanced my sense of what we saw on that Boerum Hill walk? Because the tour description hadn't included the "required reading," Francis took the time, while we were standing opposite the site where the restaurant Louie had worked in once was, to read a passage from "Up in the Old Hotel," which gave a sense of what the location and the people had meant to Louie while he worked there and took his lunch breaks in the area.

Later still, when Francis scheduled his Cobble Hill walking tour, he included as required reading a novel whose name and author I've forgotten, but which I bought and read, even though while I was deciding whether to do that walk again (I had found the Cobble Hill tour one of my most enjoyable with Francis, but as a result I thought maybe I remembered it too well for the time being), it sold out! So I wound up doing the required reading without doing the tour -- but it was a remarkable book, and not just an on-point Brooklyn book, with a chillingly icy slant on our supposedly closest relationships. (I'll think of the name.)

On a tour not long ago, I finally asked Francis what had happened to those reading assignments. The problem, he said, was that nobody was reading them. He reflected a moment, then said he should probably get back to that.

And he should. I've come to understand that it isn't so much the tour leaders' knowledge that I'm looking for on these tours, although the good ones are overflowing with it. It's their curiosity I treasure -- the curiosity that has driven them to acquire the knowledge they've acquired and the ways they've found to satisfy and further stimulate it. They're very different people, people like Francis and Matt Postal and Justin Ferate and Jack Eichenbaum and James Nevius, but in the few years I've been doing this, I've tried to walk in the path of their curiosity -- and learned more than I could have imagined on my own about the world around me.


It's the time of year when everyone is announcing fall plans.

Before we get to actually announced plans, I should mention that the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend is scheduled for October 11-12. "More than 300 sites and tours. 75,000 visitors," the Facebook page says. The website says:
Celebrating the city’s architecture and design, the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend will once again unlock the city, allowing New Yorkers and tourists alike access to hundreds of sites, talks, tours, performances and family activities in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. From private residences and historic landmarks, to hard hat tours and sustainable skyscrapers, OHNY gives you rare access into the extraordinary architecture of New York City, while introducing you to the people who make the city a vibrant and sustainable place to live, work, and play.

Please note: Sites and tours for the 2014 Open House New York Weekend will be announced in early October. Be sure to check back in October for the 2014 list or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.


As I mentioned up top, the September-November MAS schedule is posted now (or you can just go to and click on "Tours"). I have it on the authority of a source whose judgment I respect immoderately that this is the best MAS schedule he's ever seen. That's not quite my response, but then, that's just me. No doubt you'll find an enormous range of offerings covering a large chunk of NYC. And the last time I looked, every one of them was still available for registration.


The fall schedule of programs and off-site tours is here. As always, there's a two-day pre-registration period exclusively for NYTM members, on August 20-21, beginning at 9am, with registration thrown open to all on August 22.

Remember that two popular tours are open only to members:
• The visit to the long-abandoned, ornate old City Hall subway station ("The Jewel in the Crown: Old City Hall Station," offered at 1:30pm and 3:30 pm on Sunday, October 12)

• And a walk through the old subterranean space, now contemplated as a possible underground version of the High Line, that once housed a busy trolley terminal leading out onto the Williamsburg Bridge ("Trolley Ghosts: The Terminal Under Delancey," offered at 6:30pm on two Thursday evenings, October 23 and November 6).
Yes, you can register in time to use the early-registration period. For membership information, check here.

Among the tours open to all are:
An evening fall Nostalgia Ride, for Halloween season, to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx

• A look at the Flushing Meadows site of the 1939 and 1964-65 World's Fairs considered from the standpoint of their transit options, with the always-interesting Andrew Sparberger, whose Transit Museum offerings I try never to miss (Sunday, October 19, 1pm, or Saturday, November 15, 2pm). Note: Andy will also be doing a free program at the museum on Wednesday evening, December 10, 6:30-7:30pm, in connection with the publication of his new book, From a Nickel to a Token ("a microhistory of New York's transit system," which "examines twenty specific events between 1940 and 1968, book-ended by subway unification and the creation of the MTA").

• A "behind the scenes" visit to the Bergen Sign Shop, "New York City Transit's only locale for sign production (Saturday, October 18, or Sunday, December 6, at 10am or 12n either day)

A Staten Island bicycle tour, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to Fort Wadsworth and the anchorage of the bridge, with a stop-off at the Alice Austen House (Saturday, September 13, 11am-3pm)

• "Power Play: Steampunk and the Transit System," an after-hours event at the museum on Thursday, October 2, 7-9pm, held in conjunction with Atlas Obscura, in which "we examine the marvel of engineering that transformed the city from steam to electric at the dawn of the twentieth century"
Among the mostly free (but reservations recommended) programs at the museum are:
• A "Bus Bonanza!" clustered around NYTM's 21st Annual Bus Festival (Sunday, September 28), held in conjunction with the always-lively Atlantic Antic on nearby Atlantic Avenue, 12n-6pm, celebrating its 40th anniversary, and including $1 museum admission

• "The MTA's Next Big Thing: Fulton Center" (Wednesday, October 29, 6:30pm; $10, $5 to NYTM members)

And several conversations with authors of bound-to-be-interesting new books:

• With former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch (Thursday, October 9, 7pm), author of So Much to Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises

• With power super-whiz Joe Cunningham (another longtime NYTM tour favorite, Wednesday, October 15, 6:30pm), author of New York Power

• As mentioned above, with Andy Sparberger (Wednesday, December 10, 6:30pm), author of From a Nickel to a Token
Again, for the full list of events scheduled, check the NYTM "Calendar of Events" page.


I've written about Jack's "World of the #7 Train" a bunch of times, and was signed up to do it again on May 31, when disaster, aka New York City Transit, struck, with a last-minute announcement of the shutdown of the western half of the No. 7 line for that date. Jack was able to reschedule the outing for June, but I wasn't able to do the makeup date. I've already sent in my check for September 20!
Saturday, September 20, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing with a great variety of Asian restaurants. Tour fee is $40 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address)

The full day’s program and other info is available by email

The tour is limited to 25 people.
You can keep up to date on Jack's event plans on his website -- where you can also sign up for e-updates. The tour-info page is here. For his upcoming MAS tours, you'll be directed back to the MAS site for registration information. To bring this full circle, I've mentioned that Jack was the person who turned me on to MAS, when I took his "Three Transit Hubs" for NYTM!

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