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Friday, March 23, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Spring tours of Manhattan's northernmost neighborhoods, Washington Heights, Inwood, and even Marble Hill

The Audubon Terrace complex at Broadway and 155th Street, on part of the property once owned by naturalist-painter John James Audubon, must have been quite a sight when it was built, roughly between 1906 and 1930. The developers' assumption that Manhattan's seemingly relentless northward push would sustain such a grand assemblage of academic and cultural institutions has so far proved over-optimistic. (See the Audubon Park tour, May 6, in the list of Spring 2012 WAHI Tours below.)

by Ken

If you live in a place (if you don't live in a place, this may not apply to you), there are reasons -- whether or not it has occurred to you -- why that place is where it is and has developed the way it has. In the case of a city of any size and age, it's overwhelmingly likely that there are layers upon layers of history and geography and what-all, most of which can still be seen in one form or another. And of course in this country even our oldest cities aren't that old. I remember when I spent the fall of my junior year in college in Caen, the capital of Lower Normandy, and every day on my walk to and from the university I passed one of the two abbeys (one for men, one for women) built by the still-future William the Conqueror -- that is, before he moseyed off to England, when Caen was his capital as duke of Normandy. Guillaume made that crossing of the English Channel in 1066, you'll recall. Now that's old.

In Manhattan our history doesn't trace back anywhere near that far, but there's still tons of it, and it starts, straightforwardly, at least as far as settlement by European colonials is concerned, at the bottom. There's not much of Dutch New Amsterdam left, but we know a lot of where things happened there. Even with the English takeover, the new city was packed tightly down there, but when expansion began, even allowing for geographical obstacles in the form of marshes and heights, it moved amazingly rapidly, and for this transformation there's abundant surviving evidence.

The Native American populations that had long inhabited the area had their own travel and trade patterns, many of which the spreading settlers followed. Naturally there were soon colonial settlements scattered around the island even as the new city itself pushed northward, with the prosperous burgers pulling up stakes amazingly frequently and resettling in the new "in" precincts. For a time, the process of northward expansion must have seemed inexorable. In general, those venturesome souls and institutions that gambled on continued northward expansion won those bets. Eventually, as I was noting in a recent Urban Gadabout post ("Urban Gadabout: When east is west and north is south -- travels in the Bronx and Brooklyn"), the northward push jumped the Harlem River into the Bronx.

But there was a limit to how far north the "core" of the city would move. Oh, the whole of the island -- minus the parkland set-asides -- was eventually paved over and settled, but not settled in that core-of-the-city way. I got a graphic glimpse of what development "overreach" on a recent Municipal Art Society walking tour of "Audubon Park," which I put in quotes because there isn't any actual park. The name refers to a designated historic district occupying land that once constituted the rural estate of the great naturalist and painter John James Audubon, north of 155th Street and west of Broadway, which is to say across 155th Street from Manhattan's most important cemetery, the "uptown" cemetery of Trinity Church, the Episcopal heart of the growing city.

At the southeast corner of Broadway and 155th is the beautiful Church of the Intercession, which was built to house a merged pair of Episcopal places of worship as a far-northern outpost of, what else?, Trinity Church, which had a number of such satellite chapels around town, a partial measure of its considerable sway over the borough of Manhattan. There's a picture and a bit more comment on the church in the click-through.

The crown jewel of the area is the cultural complex built in the early 20th century by railroad heir Archer Huntington, who brought in some of the city's leading architects and in its various buildings housed such institutions as the Hispanic Society, American Geographical Society, Museum of the American Indian, American Numismatic Society, and Academy of Arts and Letters. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was never transformed into the kind of elegant social hub Huntington envisaged, and while the complex is still there, and even still has a couple of its original resident institutions, along with replacements for most of the other originals.

Which is the long-way-round way of explaining that James Renner, noted as a historian of Manhattan's far-northern neighborhoods, Washington Heights and Inwood, has scheduled a series of spring tours of the area Sundays at noon, which includes his own tour of Audubon Park on May 6. I bring it up now because the series begins this Sunday, March 25, with a tour of "Fort Washington-Hudson Heights." See the complete listing below.

The beautiful Church of the Intercession, at Broadway and 155th Street (diagonally across from Audubon Terrace), long a northern outpost of the Episcopal heart of New York City, Trinity Church in the Financial District, now struggles against the financial realities of surviving on its own. It's well worth a visit, not just for the gorgeous church itself and for the large and historic uptown cemetery of Trinity Church (which still belongs to Trinity), but for the current spiritual leader of Intercession, Father Berto (more formally, the Rev. José R. Gándara Perea, S.T.L., priest-in-charge, one of the most charming and inspring people you'll meet. When I visited, I bought a mug!

Here as promised is the schedule for the Spring 2012 WAHI Tours schduled by Northern Manhattan historian James Renner.


James Renner

Washington Heights and Inwood (WAHI) are communities that have, over the years, gained recognition in massive demographic changes. People from other parts of the city are visiting and moving here because of its affordable housing and beautiful parks. These tours will demonstrate to the resident and visitor alike how upper Manhattan has changed and adapted to suit the needs of its new inhabitants and tourists.

The tours are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors or students. No reservations are necessary.

Sunday, March 25, 2012, 12:00 noon

FORT WASHINGTON-HUDSON HEIGHTS combines local history and real estate. The Battle of Fort Washington will be discussed at Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue and 184th Street where the last major battle of New York City was fought during the American Revolution. Hudson Heights is a real estate term used today by local realty companies to promote the neighborhood. Afterwards, other sites will include the estates of James Gordon Bennett, Dr. Charles Paterno, Lucius Chittenden, August C. Richards and C.K.G. Billings will be visited and discussed. The Shrine of Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini will also be visited as well.

MEET: 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, N.W. corner

Sunday, April 15, 2012, 12:00 noon

SHERMAN CREEK was named for a working class family that occupied a fisherman's shack in what is now Inwood in 1807. The family lived in the community for almost a century. During the American Revolution a ferry operated from Sherman Creek to the Bronx. The area was also home to the Dyckman Oval where the Negro Baseball League team the New York Cubans had played until the 1940s when the ballfield was razed for the Dyckman Houses, an urban renewal project. The Dyckman Houses was home to basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

MEET: Entrance of IRT #1 Dyckman Street Station

(190th to 193rd Street, Amsterdam to Audubon Avenue)
Sunday, April 22, 2012, 12:00 noon

FORT GEORGE was named for the Revolutionary fort and the amusement park which overlooked the Harlem River. It is also home to two educational facilities (George Washington High School and Yeshiva University) and the Isabella Geriatric Center.

MEET: N.W. corner of 190th Street and Audubon Avenue

Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:00 noon

JUMEL TERRACE HISTORIC DISTRICT & SUGAR HILL is noted for the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Sylvan Terrace and the homes of famous African American entertainers Paul Robeson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington at 555 Edgecombe Avenue. The area is home to a local bookstore, art gallery and the Washington Heights branch of the New York Public Library. Nearby Coogan's Bluff is where baseball fans watched the New York Giants play at the Polo Grounds at 155th Street.

There is an admission fee to the Morris-Jumel Mansion: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students.

MEET: 160th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in front of the Library

(155th to 158th Streets, Broadway to the Hudson River)
Sunday, May 6, 2012, 12:00 noon

AUDUBON PARK was the home of naturalist and artist John James Audubon and conservationist George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society. It has been designated a Historic District on May 12, 2009 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Audubon's grave at Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleums and the Audubon Terrace museum complex are some of the many steps included on the tour.

MEET: At the triangle at 157th Street and Broadway

Sunday, May 13, 2012, 12:00 noon

MARBLE HILL is the landlocked part of Manhattan to the Bronx that had been separated from Manhattan (Inwood) when the Harlem River ws rerouted and dredged for improved ship navigation around Manhattan. The community has homes dating back to the 1870s for those who are interested in architecture known as "Painted Ladies." There are Dutch and English colonial sites and military sites from the American Revolution (Fort Prince Charles) within the community that will fascinate those interested in history.

MEET: 225th Street and Broadway in front of Chase Bank

(Dyckman Street, Riverside Drive and Broadway)
Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:00 noon

TUBBY HOOK is a community that is coming of age. It started as a fishing village in the valley situated between Fort Tryon Park and Inwood Hill Park in 1819. During the American Revolution it was used as a transfer point for information between both parks in which the American army had fortifications. It was also known for its railroad and ferry service along and across the Hudson River. The Riverside-Inwood Neighborhood Garden is a beautiful oasis that is the centerpiece of the area.

MEET: N.W. corner of Dyckman Street and Broadway


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mali... Falling Apart-- And Now A Coup

This week I went to see the country's foremost tropical disease specialists; wonderful woman! But she didn't want to take my case. Mostly she does research and academic work. But she agreed to a consultation. When I saw her I told her I had spent some time in the wilds of Mali and the consultation immediately turned into an examination and a series of tests. I'm down 6 vials of blood!

I've been warning readers that Mali has been disintegrating into civil war and that it is now so unsafe for tourists that some of the major sites are now shut down to foreigners-- like, for example, the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, for many people the primary reasons for even going to Mali. And today there was a military coup d'etat, overthrowing longtime president, Amadou Touré-- who had come to power in a military coup a decade ago.

The 7,000 man army is angry because there are no weapons and equipment to fight back against the Tuareg rebels up north.
Anger has been growing within the army at the handling of a Tuareg-led rebellion that has killed dozens of people and forced nearly 200,000 civilians to flee their homes.

While soldiers had been urging the government to provide better weapons to fight the rebels, bolstered by fighters who had fought in Libya's civil war, one of the mutineers said they now wanted to oust President Amadou Toumani Toure.

"He needs to leave power, that is all. The movement will only stop with the taking of the palace," said the sergeant, who asked not to be named.

...A military source said a trigger for Wednesday's events was a visit by the defence minister to a barracks in the town of Kati about 20 km (13 miles) north of Bamako.

"The minister went to speak to troops but the talks went badly and people were complaining about the handling of the crisis in the north," the source said.

An official in the defense ministry who was at the meeting said a soldier accused the defense minister of betraying them by not giving them means to fight the rebels. Soldiers then began throwing rocks at the minister before they took weapons from the armory and started shooting in the air.

Bamako was briefly paralyzed last month as hundreds of Malians put up street barricades and burned tires in the streets to protest at the government's handling of the rebellion.

Tuareg fighters seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north have made advances in recent weeks, including the seizure this month of the key garrison town of Tessalit by the Algerian border.

The MNLA rebel movement has been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting alongside Libyan forces who tried in vain to prevent Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow last year.

Apparently the coup was led by low level officers-- no generals or colonels-- and Touré, who was a paratrooper himself, is hiding out with a loyal paratroop regiment. A.P. painted a pretty chaotic picture tonight-- drunken soldiers looting the presidential palace and suspending the consititution.

UPDATE: Ex-President Touré Is Safe But...

Although the A.P. still insists on referring to Mali as "a functioning democracy" the president who was just overthrown in a military coup became president in a military coup of his own 10 years ago. And Timbuktu is about to fall to brutal Tuareg rebels (who still passionately believe in slavery, I might add).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Urban Gadabout: When east is west and north is south -- travels in the Bronx and Brooklyn

The Mott Iron Works, founded by Jordan L. Mott in 1828, and the source of the name given to the southernmost area of the Bronx, Mott Haven, is mostly forgotten and almost entirely gone -- but this sign remains.
The Bronx is divided by the Bronx River into a hillier section in the west, closer to Manhattan, and the flatter East Bronx, closer to Long Island. The West Bronx was annexed to New York City (then largely confined to Manhattan) in 1874, and the areas east of the Bronx River in 1895.
-- from the Wikipipedia article on the Bronx
by Ken

We had just walked across the Third Avenue from Manhattan into the Bronx, and the leader of this Municipal Art Society (MAS) tour, Jack Eichenbaum (the official Queens borough historian, who's actually allowed to venture into the other boroughs), was explaining that when settlement began pushing north across the Harlem River into the neighborhood that became known as Mott Haven, where we were, notably once the Third Avenue El began offering service over the river and into the northlands, in the 1890s, the area was often referred to as Northside, since it was north of New York City proper -- of which it had been a part, you'll see from the Wikipedia note, even before Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island were merged into the city in 1898.

As you'll also see in the Wikipedia note, this area, being well west of the Bronx River, is classically "West" Bronx -- and yet, as Jack pointed out, if you look at the street signs for the numbered streets in the neighborhood, you see that they're "East," the north-south dividing line being well to the west, at Jerome Avenue. So the area can be thought of as "north," or as "east," or as "west" -- but is best known to the outside world as part of the South Bronx.
Dealing with similar challenges of urban disinvestment and blight, the neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Melrose, Morrisania were often referred to dismissively as simply ‘the South Bronx’. In recent decades, planning and new buildings have begun to restore their livability. This walking tours stresses renewal in response to basic urban geography.

I've written a number of times about Jack and his unusual perspective as a tour leader a number of times. The unusual perspective is that he is an academic and practical georgrapher. (His website, called "The Georgraphy of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum," can be found at, And his overall description of the three Bronx walking tours he's doing for MAS, which began Saturday with "Mott Haven: From the Harlem River to the Bronx Hub," reads:
Dealing with similar challenges of urban disinvestment and blight, the neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Melrose, Morrisania were often referred to dismissively as simply ‘the South Bronx’. In recent decades, planning and new buildings have begun to restore their livability. This walking tours stresses renewal in response to basic urban geography. Please be prepared to walk two miles and at a brisk pace.

And sure enough, by walking across the Harlem River to Mott Haven, we got to see how Jordan Mott came to locate his iron works there -- on the Bronx side of the river, where the amount of land he needed could be had less expensively, with that easy access to the Harlem and East Rivers for shipping materials in and goods out in the era before railroads. Later we got to see the development boom that came with the coming of the Third Avenue El, and then some of the factors that caused the neighborhood to go into decline in the 1920s. And then how the decline of the area made it an obvious place to locate some of the city's largest public-housing projects in the '50s and '60s boom of such projects.

At the tour's northern end, 149th Street, the area known as "the Hub," still an important shopping district but no longer, as it once was, the central commercial district of the Bronx, we even got a glimpse of the next tour in the series: Melrose. As it turned out, Jack had been so efficient about keeping the unexpectedly large group -- thanks apparently to a mention in the Times -- moving (his tours tend to cover a lot of ground, so he tends to keep his people moving smartly) that we arrived well ahead of schedule, and the "add-on" walk that Jack had planned for those interested in continuing, across 149th Street from Third Avenue to the Grand Concourse, wound up fitting comfortably into the tour's scheduled two hours.


Which was great for me, because I had scheduled myself, probably foolishly, for a tour in Brooklyn scheduled to start a mere hour after the official finish of the Mott Haven walk. I'd done it partly because I know Jack is good about keeping to schedule times, and partly because I'd worked out that I really could get from Third Avenue and 149th Street in the Bronx to Park Slope in Brooklyn in the allotted time via the IRT no. 2 train, provided I made the right connection.

And so I peeled off of the group en route to the Grand Concourse and headed back to Third Avenue, which showed my ignorance of Bronx geography. I was so conscious of needing to head south, and not wanting to be diverted in the westward diversion of the tour "supplement," that I remained blissfully unaware, until I got to the train platform, that the no. 2 train in fact heads westward from Third Avenue. The next stop, in fact, is 149th and Grand Concourse!

Nevertheless, I made my train connection and made it to the sidewalk in front of the Montauk Club, once the social haunt of the cream of the cream of Brooklyn society, which was as prosperous as any in the country, comfortably in time for the second part of a three-part series led by another MAS stalwart, Francis Morrone, "Three Ways of Looking at Park Slope, Part 2: Park Slope Northeast."

It was a heavily sentimental day for me, because both Jack and Francis have been so important to my late-dawning fascination with and budding awareness of how the city has developed. As I've written before, I was lucky enough to do a tour that Jack did for the New York Transit Museum back in the fall of 2010 focusing on three subway nodes (Times Square in Manhattan and Queens Plaza and Jackson Heights in Queens), where the crossing of two or more different subway lines played such a vital role in the area's development.

It was Jack that day who turned me on to MAS, and it's no exaggeration to say that the MAS tours have changed my life. (As I think I've mentioned, I was lucky enough to have a chance to say just this to the outgoing MAS tour director, Tamara Coombs. I was pleased and unsurprised to hear that it wasn't the first time she'd heard this.) Since then I've done a huge number of tours with Jack, both for MAS and under other auspices, including tours of his own, notably what he calls is "signature" tour, "The World of the #7 Train" (of which he's announced a 2012 edition, scheduled for April 28; see below).


And among my early MAS tours, which became my first with Francis, was the last incarnation of this very tour: of the "gold coast," the northeast, of Brooklyn's Park Slope. Actually, it should have been my second tour with Francis, because I'd signed up for the first tour in the series, which covered the low-rent, still-developing northwest part of Park Slope. But I wound up going out of town and missing that tour.

So I pounced when the Park Slope series was announced to begin again with Part 1, the one I'd missed, in January. By the time Part 2 was slipped into the schedule, on a preregistration basis (for the last several months most of Francis's tours have been scheduled on a walk-up, pay-at-tour basis, and he draws such crowds that I've just been passing on them), I had done so many walking tours in Park Slope and surrounding areas of Brooklyn, many of them with Francis (I've now done so many tours with him, and many of them have remained cherished memories), that I couldn't resist signing up to do Part 2 again, even with the potential scheduling nightmare of the time-sensitive Bronx-to-Brooklyn trek. I certainly wasn't going to miss the Mott Haven walk -- anytime MAS has asked what kinds of tours we might like to see happen, my first answer has always been the Bronx, the borough I know least well.

As it turned out, my legs didn't hold out (I won't bore you with that story) for the whole of the Park Slope Northeast walk, but it jogged a lot of memories and filled in a number of points. One point that Francis made fit in with Jack's point about directionality in Mott Haven: that a number of the neighborhoods in the southern part of the part of Brooklyn that lies west of Prospect Park are still called "South Brooklyn," even though anyone who looks at a map can see that they're fairly far north in the modern-day borough of Brooklyn, as it has existed since shortly before the combined Brooklyn merged with NYC in 1898, they are in the southern part of the original town, then city, of Brooklyn, as established under Dutch and English rule -- consisting basically of that area to the west and a bit to the north of what's now Prospect Park.

I was happy to find my legs back in condition Sunday for another tour with Francis that seemed to have been slipped onto the schedule, again by preregistration, "Downtown Brooklyn Now." It's an area I've wanted to be exposed to for some time now, and I can't imagine it being done better than Francis did it, giving us not only a picture of the area's odd development patterns and the visible changes, but a sense of how it was in older times. I haven't mentioned it yet this time out, but Francis (a bona fide architectural historian), in addition to being vastly knowledgeable over a remarkably wide range of subjects, is very funny, in an ingratiatingly quiet, droll way. In lovely sunny pre-spring weather, it was a grand outing (though I've been on tours with him in ghastly weather, and that worked out just as well). Advice: The next time Francis schedules the Downtown Brooklyn walk, don't miss it.


I wrote a lot about this tour along the Flushing line last year, when I was excited out of my mind for months before it actually happened -- and lived up to all my expectations. It's scheduled for Saturday, April 28, from 10am to 5:30pm, and I'm all but sure I'm going to do it again. Here's Jack's description:
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’s Asiatown. Tour fee is $39 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. Don’t get left out!
Last year the pace of registration was pretty slow for a long time after Jack announced the date, but as it approached, that pace picked up rapidly, and he wound up having to turn a number of people away.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Choo-Choo Trains Finally Coming To Afghanistan?

That's the highway, dangerous and barely functional these days

I drove a shiny new red VW van that I bought in Germany across Europe and Asia to Afghanistan in 1969. What a trip! And Afghanistan was nothing like anything I had ever seen or experienced before. I fell in love with the country. But it wasn't easy to get around. Well, there was a nice, well kept-up paved highway that circumnavigated the perimeter of the roundish-shaped country. I sort of remember that the stretch from Herat in the northwest to Kandahar down south and on to Kabul in the east (and to the Khyber Pass further east into Pakistan) was built by the U.S. and that the other half, from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif and the poppy and hash fields up north and on to Herat were built by the Russians. It worked for me-- except for the entire middle of the country which could only be traversed on rutted, mostly dirt, roads... well, barely roads. My van wasn't going anywhere. So I left it in Kabul and went with some friends for a nice ride in the country up to the Hindu Kush. It was supposed to be a 10 day jaunt. I fell off the horse, broken an ankle and spent six months in a "village" with two family compounds. No one had ever experienced electricity or heard of the U.S. and no one could read-- or even speak Farsi, the Afghan language I could get along in. The adventure of a lifetime... but I sure was thinking how nice it would have been if Afghanistan had had a railroad system. (I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines.)

But Afghanistan didn't want a railroad system. From the time of Alexander the Great until a couple years before I drove in with my VW van, few people visited Afghanistan unless they were riding in on horseback with an army. It mostly worked out poorly for everyone. But now, we learn, Afghanistan, who's beautiful highway system has been turned to rubble, like most of the country, is finally building a railroad. China and India are building it-- so they can extract, respectively, copper and iron ore.
More than a century ago, fearing that his country might be swallowed up in the Great Game rivalry between the British empire to the east and the Russian army to the north, an Afghan king made a radical decision: He banned railroads.

That edict effectively kept out foreign troops for a number of years. But it also left the Afghan economy, once a wealthy crossroads of the ancient Silk Road trading routes, largely cut off from the world at a time when trains were the engines of development.

Now, Afghanistan has just opened its first major railroad and is planning a half dozen more. The government is also inviting other countries to build tracks, part of plans for a "New Silk Route" that the U.S. hopes will help stabilize the region by promoting trading links.

China, Iran, Pakistan and India all have government or corporate plans for separate railroad projects across Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is completing its own plans for another line. And Uzbekistan has already built the first major rail link, a 47-mile (75-kilometer) line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan's north.

One reason so many countries are helping Afghanistan belatedly join the rail age: They need trains if their companies hope to export the country's vast, untapped mineral wealth, estimated by U.S. surveys at nearly $1 trillion.

Both the railway projects and the prospects for future mining wealth will depend largely on whether the country can keep violence from escalating once the international military force withdraws most of its troops by the end of 2014. For investors, it's a question of whether the increased commerce is worth the risk and effort.

"Now there is genuine trade and traffic going on, especially in the north of Afghanistan, so it makes sense," says Andrew Grantham, an editor for Railway Gazette who runs a website chronicling the history of Afghanistan's failed railroad projects. "It's not just people drawing lines on maps and saying, "Wouldn't this be nice?"

Competing for contracts to mine deposits of copper, gold, iron and lithium is Afghanistan's modern Great Game, and one of the prices the government is extracting from eager companies is a promise to develop the railroads necessary to carry the heavy cargo.

"This will be critical to get anything to markets," says Juan Miranda, head of Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which funded the $165 million Uzbek-built railroad. The bank is also pushing a plan to link landlocked Afghanistan into the rail networks of all five of its neighbors.

For now, plans for Afghanistan's railroads are progressing bit by bit. As part of its agreement to develop a massive copper mine in Aynak, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is being asked to build a 575-mile (920-kilometer) railway from the mine southeast of Kabul. One branch would head to the Pakistani border, another in the opposite direction through the capital and connecting with the new Hairatan line in the north.

The Afghan government is also negotiating with the Indian-led consortium that won the contract for the equally huge iron deposits at Tajigak in central Afghanistan for the companies to fund a 560-mile (900-kilometer) railroad-- likely through Iran-- to bring out the heavy ore.

The story of how Afghanistan never got a major railroad pivots around Abdur Rahman Khan, the emir who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901. During his reign, Afghanistan was sandwiched between the British colonial rulers of India, which then encompassed modern-day Pakistan, and the Russian empire that extended into Caucasus areas of Central Asia.

Both sides were engaged in what was known as the Great Game to control the region. They were racing to build railroads in areas under their control as a way of quickly moving troops. By the 1880s, both the British and the Russians had built tracks that went right up to Afghanistan's border.

Rahman Khan responded with a decree that no railroad would be allowed to enter Afghan territory, reasoning that without them, it would be difficult for invading troops to cross the mountainous frontier, according to Grantham.

Afghanistan is "almost unique worldwide" in its history of actively working to stop railroads, Grantham says. "Most countries wanted railways."

In fact, the emir's gambit may have worked: Afghanistan never was annexed by either great power.
"It is one of the factors that probably kept the country together, but the price was Afghanistan became a complete backwater economically," says Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

In the 1920s, Rahman Khan's modern-minded grandson, King Amanullah, planned a modern rail network in Afghanistan and even built 5-mile (8-kilometer) track with steam locomotives running between Kabul and his European-style palace of Darulaman. But his plans for a wider network met with opposition, and the line fell into disrepair after he was overthrown in 1929. The locomotives are now in a Kabul museum, next to Amanullah's bombed-out palace.

...The plan is to build a series of short, cross-border tracks to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran. The tracks would connect to each other inside the country's north by railways built by Iran from the west and China from the east.

"We would be able to import and export to Russia, Turkey, and even European countries," says Noor Gul Mangal, Afghanistan's deputy public works minister. Opening new transport gateways would also reduce Afghanistan's dependance on neighboring Pakistan as its only link to sea ports.

Only one line is finished and several of the rest are delayed or face funding problems. But already, the prospect of restoring Afghanistan's status as the crossroads for goods traveling from India, China and Europe has kindled enthusiasm.

Instead of silk, spices and tea, the New Silk Route would carry washing machines from India, heavy machinery from Europe and T-shirts from Pakistan over interconnecting railroads that are faster than container ships and cheaper than air freight.

Prediction: not in your lifetime, at least not a passenger service-- not with this kind of stuff making foreigners less and less welcome there... and rightfully so.
Western forces shot dead 16 civilians including nine children in southern Kandahar province on Sunday, Afghan officials said, in a rampage that witnesses said was carried out by American soldiers who were laughing and appeared drunk.

One Afghan father who said his children were killed in the shooting spree accused soldiers of later burning the bodies.

Witnesses told Reuters they saw a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar's Panjwayi district at around 2 am, enter homes and open fire.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

TSA Body Scanners Are Dangerous-- To Us But Not To Terrorists

U.S. taxpayers have coughed up at least a billion dollars on these intrusive body scanning machines that endanger our health and don't do anything to help make us safer. Dr. Lee Rogers, a prominent California surgeon from Simi Valley who's running for Congress against the head of the Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, whose entire career has been predicated on spending taxpayer dollars on his cronies' expensive projects, wants the scanners banned immediately.
"Currently, there are about 250 body scanners that use X-rays placed in American airports by the Transportation Security Administration which have screened millions of passengers. Last year, a report by the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, which includes the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and the World Health Organization, concluded that pregnant women and children should not be subject to the scanning, even though the radiation dose from body scanners is small. The Committee also stated that governments must justify the additional risk posed to passengers and should consider other technologies to achieve the same end without the use of radiation. Recently, the European Commission banned the use of X-ray body scanners in all European Union airports, citing the health and safety concerns.”

“The TSA’s use of these devises violates an important principle in radiation safety: humans should not be radiated unless there is some possible medical benefit. The devices used for security screening are not subject to FDA regulations for safety, unlike X-ray machines in a doctor’s office. Additionally, TSA officers are prohibited from wearing radiation dosimeter badges, as worn by healthcare workers to track their radiation exposure.”
“It is obvious that the use of this risky X-ray technology is the result of the culture in Washington. The manufacturer of the X-ray device is a California company called Rapiscan Systems which has more than tripled their lobbying cash in the past 5 years. The health and well being of our citizens should not be for sale.”

“As Congressman, I would work to stop the use of radiating devices for human screening that serve no medical benefit and I call on others in Congress to do the same. I would ensure that any future research on X-ray screening devices for humans meets the same ethical and safety standards that are required of medical devices emitting radiation. I would also fight to allow workers who operate X-ray machinery for baggage screening to wear radiation detector badges for their safety.”

The video above, from the blog TSA Out Of Our Pants! demonstrates the absurdity and mendacity of the TSA's insistence that the nude body scanner program is effective and necessary. "The scanners," wrote the blogger-- and engineer and frequent traveler himself, "are now effectively worthless, as anyone can beat them with virtually no effort. The TSA has been provided this video in advance of it being made public to give them an opportunity to turn off the scanners and revert to the metal detectors."

Dr. Rogers vows to introduce legislation within his first 100 days in office to force the TSA to stop using bodyscanners. We've never asked anyone to contribute to a political campaign on this blog before, but if you'd like to register your disdain for the body scanners, please consider making a contribution-- and even $5 and $10 donations help-- to Lee Rogers here at the Blue America ActBlue page.