Search This Blog

Sunday, April 29, 2012

People Have The Power... For Pissing In A River

I crossed the Indian border from Pakistan for the first time on December 1, 1969. It changed my life. I've been back to India at least a half dozen times since then and from time to time I blog about my experiences there both here at the travel blog and at my political blog, DownWithTyranny. More about restaurants and the tombs of beheaded gay Sufi saints on the travel blog and more social commentary at DWT, like this bit from a quick visit to Delhi in 2007.
I guess they're so small because they don't eat any protein-- or much of anything-- and neither did their parents, grandparents or ancestors. I'm not in India anymore; I'm in Thailand. You don't see much of that kind of grinding, horrific poverty in Bangkok. Nor do you see the levels of garish displays of conspicuous consumption like you see in Delhi. You see some and you do see some people in appalling poverty. But it isn't anything like the extremes you see in India. In Delhi wherever I went on the streets there were always clusters of small, very dark, very skinny people. They're everywhere, but no one seems to notice. There are hundreds of millions of them-- more of them in India than the entire population of the United States! And no one seems to notice them. They don't own anything but the rags on their backs and I've never been able to figure out how they exist. The begging can't possibly support them, even if every tourist and every trendy call center-walla gives (far from the case; no one notices them).

I didn't cry the whole time I was in India. It was simply too horrible to fathom. Families laying in the filth and dust with stray dogs night after night, wrapped in their rags, bundled around a little fire burning garbage. Delhi's cold. I've being seeing it since I started coming to India in 1969. It's just unfathomable. Has anyone cared about these millions and millions of people since a right-wing religious fanatic assassinated their champion, Mahatma Gandhi 60 years ago?

So what brought me to hunt that up and resuscitate today? It was a report a noticed a few days ago from a BBC correspondent in Mumbai... about women's toilet facilities in India-- or lack thereof. Don't worry-- not for tourists; that all set these days (although when I rented a lovely beachfront home in Goa in 1969, the sewage system was pigs... I'll spare you the details). This is just for the little people. And it's not just about the homeless; half of the homes in India don't have toilets! That's 1.2 billion people.
Activists in Mumbai have launched a campaign to demand better public toilet facilities for women.

Currently, women have to pay to use public toilets while men can use the services for free.

The campaign, dubbed the "Right to Pee" campaign, is led by 35 non-government organisations (NGOs), and urges women in Mumbai's civic authority to ensure that the service is free for women.

Women currently make up 50% of Mumbai's civic authority.

Rahul Gaekward, who heads one of the 35 NGOs in the campaign, has outlined three basic requirements for women.

"They should be allowed to pee for free, the public toilets should provide vending machines with sanitary towels, like men have for condoms, and they should have a changing room in the toilets," he said.

There is an acute shortage of both public and private toilets in India, and public defecation is common across the country.

And it's worse in the countryside than in the cities. Two-thirds of the homes in the villages have no toilets.
Is the lack of toilets and preference for open defecation a cultural issue in a society where the habit actually perpetuates social oppression, as proved by the reduced but continued existence of low caste human scavengers and sweepers?

It would seem so.

Mahatma Gandhi, India's greatest leader, had, in the words of a biographer, a "Tolstoyian preoccupation with sanitation and cleaning of toilets." Once he inspected toilets in the city of Rajkot in Gujarat. He reported that they were "dark and stinking and reeking with filth and worms" in the homes of the wealthy and in a Hindu temple. The homes of the untouchables simply had no toilets. "Latrines are for you big people," an untouchable told Gandhi.

Many years later when Gandhi began encouraging his disciples to work as sanitation officers and scavengers in villages, his diligent secretary and diarist Madhav Desai noted the attitudes of villagers. "They don't have any feeling at all," he wrote. "It will not be surprising if within a few days they start believing that we are their scavengers."

India's enduring shame is clearly rooted in cultural attitudes. More than half a century after Independence, many Indians continue to relieve themselves in the open and litter unhesitatingly, but keep their homes spotlessly clean. Yes, the state has failed to extend sanitation facilities, but people must also take the blame.

In the upstart suburb of Gurgaon, where I live, my educated, upwardly mobile, rich neighbours sent their pet dogs outside with their servants to defecate and refuse to clean up the mess. As long as their condominium is clean, it is all right. These are the same people who believe that the government is at the root of all evil.

Do you think the food preparers-- even in the fanciest Mumbai and Delhi restaurants-- have adequate and hygienic facilities in their homes?

Friday, April 27, 2012

No More Drugs For Tourists In Holland?

I never got into the 12-step thing. I was severely addicted to drugs a couple times while I was a teenager and I went for the one step thing: stop. It wasn't easy and there was some spiritual intervention that was helpful but it worked, eventually. By the time I was 21, the drug demon was over... and I moved to Amsterdam. I lived there for almost 4 years and even worked in a licensed hash distribution center-- the Kosmos, which was actually a meditation center-- but never participated in the free and easy drug life. But it was certainly all around me, all the time. In fact, I didn't know that many people who weren't smoking hash. That's all changing now... at least for foreigners. Pressured by E.U. conservatives, the right-wingers who won the last Dutch elections passed a law preventing foreign tourists from using drugs... and this week a judge upheld it. That reversed 36 years of a very easy-going policy towards soft drugs in the country.
While soft drugs are tolerated, there is growing concern at tourists visiting just for drugs, and foreign dealers selling illegally at home.

The ban is due to start in three southern provinces next month, and go nationwide by the end of the year.

A group of cafe owners argued at The Hague district court that the ban was discriminatory against foreigners.

Under the new law, Dutch residents will still be allowed into the cafes, as long as they have valid identification, or possibly hold a new "weed pass," which is also being debated.

There are about 700 coffee shops, as they are called, in the Netherlands. The cultivation and sale of soft drugs through them is decriminalised, although not legal; police generally tolerate possession of up to five grams of cannabis.

A lawyer for the coffee shop owners said he would immediately lodge an appeal.

Michael Veling, a spokesman for the Dutch Cannabis Retailers Association, is among those challenging the government plan.

"It is going to cost me 90% of my turnover," he told the BBC World Service. "That is a very good reason for anyone to oppose any plan. Second it puts our customers in a very difficult spot, because why do you have to register to buy a substance that is still illegal?"

The BBC's Anna Holligan in The Hague says the nationwide ban is being strongly opposed by the Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, because around a third of the city's tourists visit to smoke cannabis in the cafes.

If the coffee shop owners lose their case they say they will take it to the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds that the Dutch should not be allowed to discriminate against people on the basis of where they live.

The moves are part of a tougher approach to drugs introduced by the coalition conservative-led government, elected 18 months ago.

In October strong cannabis was reclassified as a hard drug, amid concerns that it has a psychotic effect on some users.

The move forced cannabis coffee shops to remove the more popular stronger varieties from their shelves.

In November the city of Maastricht brought in a coffee shop ban for foreign tourists from all countries, except Belgium and Germany, from where the majority of foreign customers come.

Now I guess there's going to be a big black market springing up for the wietpas or weed pass that permits coffee shops to sell drugs. Or will a big portion of the tourist trade dry up starting January first when the ban goes into effect? When I was there in the early '70s, there were always kids from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Japan visiting Amsterdam and I had the feeling it wasn't just to see the Rembrandt pictures. Funny thing is, the only social problems I ever saw related to intoxication in Holland was from drunks, not from people smoking weed. The pilot program launched on October 1 in Maastricht confined cannabis sales to Dutch, German and Belgian customers. This reportedly led to the loss of over 345 jobs and will cost the city approximately $41 million dollars per year in pot tourism. But, on the other hand... I had a perfectly delightful 4 years there-- without drugs.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Urban Gadabout: You may still be able to find an Obscura Day event near you

Plus NY Transit Museum news and other NYC
gadabout notes, including big MAS news

From (click to enlarge)

by Ken

I sure hope you're not depending for information on the now-certified Last Person to Know, but I swear I never heard of Obscura Day, which happens this Saturday the 28th, until I opened my new issue of Time Out New York last night. There's a full page in the magazine, but only this for online coverage. Of course, as I write, in mid-afternoon, the only one of the five events highlighted in the print edition seems to be an added time, 3-6pm, for "The Forgotten Beaches of the Forgotten Borough," meaning Staten Island, which starts at the border of the borough's Cedar Grove and New Dorp Beaches.

Even at this late date it's worth letting the Obscura Day website direct you to offerings in your area. You just might get lucky. There's always next year. This is the third incarnation. The organizer, Atlas Obscura ("A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica"), explains:
Each spring, Atlas Obscura (that’s us), organizes a global event called Obscura Day.

On Obscura Day thousands of people, all over the world, go out and explore interesting and unusual places. Sometimes we organize the event, sometimes folks organize it themselves! Over the past two years nearly 10,000 people have attend over 200 different events on Obscura Day.

Well, even if you can't find an available event for this Saturday, there's always next spring.
My chance of finding an event worth signing on to if I'd heard about Obscura Day even a couple of days earlier, when I created a schedule conflict I might not have if I'd known. have a schedule conflict Saturday which I didn't have a couple of days agoIn general, by the time I joined the world of the sentient most of the jazzy-looking offerings were sold out (prices seem pretty modest), but it's worth going to the Obscura Day website, which will direct you to offerings in your area. but even so there are some in the NYC area -- bear in mind that it's a worldwide event -- I might have been able to do if I didn't have a schedule conflict that I might not have if I'd found out about Obscura Day just a couple of days earlier. (I'll explain in a moment.)


Whew, it was a busy day for me: the first day of the members-only early-registration period (which runs through May 2) for the New York Transit Museum's summer tours. I managed to confine myself to five:

* An outing by bus to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey (offered on May 19 and July 22, $50 for Transit Museum members, $65 for nonmembers).

* "Look at a Landmark: The Historic Station House at Avenue H," a converted turn-of-the-century real-estate office on Brooklyn's Brighton line, landmarked in 2004, with promised visits to "other local stations of the same era" (June 3 and July 29, $30/$45)

* One of this year's three Summer Nostalgia Rides, where frolickers young and old get to ride on various old-style subway cars -- and even, in one case, an assortment of vintage buses. Last year I did all three Nostalgia Rides, but having already done "Coney Island Bound!" (this year July 29) and "To the Rockaways, by Rail and Bus!" (August 12), this year I'm just going to do "Cultural Treasures of Brooklyn" (July 1):
Brooklyn's in bloom! Ride in style to the cultural treasures of Brooklyn on board the Museum's classic Lo-V vintage trains. Emerge from underground at Eastern Parkway where you can explore the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's summer blossoms and “Urban Garden” exhibit or pay homage to the iconic art of Keith Haring –- whose work was inspired by the subway system -– at the Brooklyn Museum. Spend the day enjoying these and other local attractions, or stay on the train for a ride underground. It's your day, your Brooklyn.
All three Nostalgia Tours are $50/$65 (children $20/$25). The hard part is deciding between partaking of events at the destination and staying on board the train for those extra rides.

* An eating tour with Saveur magazine's gastronomically omnivorous executive food editor, Todd Coleman, "Bridging the Gastronomic Gap," homing in on the "international noshing extravaganzas" at either end of the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn (August 1 and August 8, $45/$65 including the food).

* And one of the summer's two members-only tours "Trolley Ghosts: The Terminal Under Delancey" (June 7 and July 12, $55), a rare opportunity to see the underground site of the onetime streetcar terminal at the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn. The other members-only offering is also subterranean: the always-popular "Jewel in the Crown", an otherwise-impossible visit to the long-disused station, designed to be the showplace of the then-new subway system (twice each on May 12 and June 17, $40).

This doesn't by any means exhaust the summer tour offerings. Photography buffs in particular are directed to "Bridge Photography: A Tour and Workshop", inspired by the upcoming Transit Museum exhibition of water colors by Antonio Mosi, who has made a specialty of painting all nine of the city's great bridges (July 14 and August 19, $35/$50). And if you've never seen a subway-system power substation, the tour of Lower Manhattan's Cliff Steet Station (July 7 and August 5, $30/$45), including a walk through the South Street area where Edison built his 1882 powerhouse, is a no-brainer.

I haven't even mentioned the wide range of "public programs" offered by the Transit Museum's Education Department -- the best thing I can do is to refer you to the Calendar of Events. I signed up for a whole bunch -- and am waiting to see the Municipal Art Society May schedule to help choose a date for yet another. The programs are free, or free with museum admission, which itself is free for members. Considering what a genuinely cool place the Transit Museum is for anyone with even a passing interest in urban public transit, membership is obviously a great deal. Do it now and you can still take advantage of the members-only early-registration period.

One innovation, by the way, is that all registrations are now being done online, as is the case with the Municipal Art Society (see below). I love it, and I suspect I'm talking now to people who are similarly cyber-schooled. I do wonder, though, how welcoming it is to people not used to arrange their lives online.


In just the time since I began writing this post, MAS has finally gotten the May walking-tour schedule up -- the long wait presumably accounted for by the introduction (at last!) of the long-promised new system of online electronic ticketing for all MAS tours. All the information about the new system is here, ; the May tour schedule is here.

I've only begun to digest it all, and at first glance the May listings don't look as interesting as, say, April's, but that's all subjective -- and the fact is that this month I've actually done more MAS tours than I have in a long while, and I'm happy about that.

In fact, the reason I can't even try to squeeze in any of the remaining Obscura Day offerings is that I belatedly added a Saturday MAS tour, "Lower East Side -- Art and Culture," to my schedule. And the reason I was free to that brings us to one last story.


As I've mentioned a number of time, this Saturday -- yes, Obscura Day (though who knew?) -- is the current version of what my favorite urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum's "signature" tour, "The World of the #7 Train" to Flushing. I did it last year, and was seriously thinking of doing it again, but put off thinking about it until finally I checked with Jack and learned that the tour has been booked up for two weeks! I was delighted to hear it (don't say I didn't warn you!), and decided what the heck, why not do the Lower East Side tour?

Oh yes, I forgot the best part. Jack mentioned that he "may" do "A Day on the J" in the fall. To which I replied that I would have my check in the mail as soon as he announces it.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Jack's websitebe sure to sign yourself up for Jack's website, "The Georgraphy of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum" (, and e-mail him at and ask to be put on his e-mail list for schedule updates. He's got a couple of MAS tours coming up in May focused on area of his native Queens of special interest to him, Long Island City, which has been undergoing astoundingly rapid changes since the city's adoption of major zoning changes there:. First there's "Daylight Loft Buildings in Long Island City" (May 12), then "What's New in Long Island City?" (May 20).

It's often possible to get advance notice of Jack's MAS tours, but more important there's news of his own tours and all sorts of other lectures and such he's giving around town. Great stuff. Oh, and you might mention in your e-mail that you've heard about that "D on the J" tour and would love to do it. I know I would.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

German Banksters Are Forcing Greece To Sell Off Some Islands-- But Just Small Ones For Now

Oxia got snapped up for a song-- but Scorpios may still be for sale

Over the weekend, the cause of Austerity, banksterism and German hegemony over Europe were dealt a (probably very temporary) setback, when Nicolas Sarkozy received a stinging slap across the face from the French electorate. Only 25.5% of the electorate voted for him to have a second term. It looks like the European version of Mitt Romney won't be getting another chance to drive France further into the clutches of International Aryan Bankers Conspiracy. Too late for poor Greece. We joked about Wolfgang Schäuble forcing them to sell off islands to pay the interest on German loans and fees last February. Well, guess what... some greasy Qatari "royal" bought Oxia at a bargain basement rate and plutocrats from all over the world are descending on Greece to see what's for sale. Thus far, Greece is holding onto big ones like Crete, Lesbos, Mykonos, Rhodes and Korfu but the little ones... ever think of building a vacation home on your own Aegean Isle? Greece aims to raise 50 billion euros through privatisations and real estate sales by 2015. Last year, it set up the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund to dispose of 70,000 properties including monasteries, tax offices and tracts of beachfront land. And the islands are starting to go like hotcakes.
[M]ajor activity is currently being observed in the sale and development of Greece’s private islands. According to experts operating in this singular market, a number of owners, especially those who inherited the island properties, are trying to sell them off due to recently introduced high taxation.

As a result, asking prices have dropped considerably, while in cases of serious offers, it is estimated that the owners are willing to make some substantial concessions. This is the case in the alleged sale of Oxia, an island owned by the Greek-Australian Stamoulis family, to members of Qatar’s royal family.

The island, which has a surface area of approximately 1,236 acres, was initially advertised at 6.9 million euros. The property’s final price, however, is said not to have exceeded 5 million euros. The island is located in the Ionian Sea, near Ithaca.

While a major portion of Oxia is protected as a part of the Natura 2000 ecological network, part of the island may be developed, according to sources.

The sale of Patroklos island, off the tip of Attica and 3 kilometers from Sounio, might be nearing. According to a well-informed source, the property’s owners, the Giatrakos family, are currently working in tandem with a Canadian investor and collaborating with local authorities in a bid to clarify which part of the island may be commercially developed. Given Patroklos’s major development potential and its proximity to the capital, it is estimated that the price will exceed the 100-million-euro mark.

Nevertheless, previous attempts to sell the island have come up against obstacles due to the lack of a clear urban-planning and land-use scheme, as well as a series of archaeological issues. The Giatrakos family is making all possible efforts to put the aforementioned matters to rest in order to finalize the island’s transfer.

A well-known private island, Scorpios, has also been up for sale for the last few years. The island, which currently belongs to Athina Onassis, is situated opposite the village of Nydri, Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea.

The Onassis heir is citing financial reasons for putting Scorpios on the market. According to Kathimerini sources, however, the sale has run into difficulties given that Aristotle Onassis’s will forbids the sale of the island, unless its maintenance is unfeasible, which is what the magnate’s granddaughter claims. Given this legal complication, the owner is actively pursuing the option of a 99-year lease to an investor.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Think you know what delimits Manhattan's Upper East Side and Harlem? Jack Eichenbaum can set you straight

Properly speaking, as I learned from Jack Eichenbaum, the "Upper East Side" is (or at least historically was) the high ground alongside Central Park -- the two blocks between Fifth and Park Avenues, "upper" meaning, well, upper, not "northern," as most of us assume. If you were to draw a diagonal line from the mid 70s at the East River up through the northeastern corner of the park and on beyond Morningside Heights to the north, you would have the stark dropoff from the rock-underpinned main body of Manhattan to the relatively swamplike valley where the Dutch established their agricultural town of Nieuw Haarlem.

by Ken

What you've got in the above caption is some of what I learned, or think I learned, from one of my most eye-opening walking tours ever, a recent Municipal Art Society tour led by urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum, "Where does Harlem Begin (Nieuw Haarlem)?"

I've written a bunch of times about Jack's illuminating perspective as a geographer: showing us how the development of neighborhoods and regions is conditioned by natural geography and features that develop, most often transport. In the case of the "real" Upper East Side, for example, that two-block-wide swath of high ground which eventually became the eastern boundary of Central Park was delimited on the other side from the pushing through, in the '80s, the New York and Harlem Railroad (later the New York Central, now part of the Metro-North system) over what was then still Fourth Avenue, and became Park Avenue only when the railroad was moved underground below 97th Street and covered over with, well, a "park" avenue. While the railroad was above ground, it marked a stark eastern boundary to that high ground where the city's elite had begun to move -- the rich, Jack always points out, generally gravitate to high ground. East of Fourth Avenue was literally "the other side of the tracks."

Once the railroad was safely buried, the new Park Avenue became part of the "real" Upper East Side, and became home to many of the growing city's most expensive apartment buildings, now that apartment living had become acceptable for the swells. (The original upper-class development along Fifth and Madison Avenues had been mansions.) Now the next blocks, to Lexington and Third Avenues, became suitable for middle-class residential development, but the even more noticeably dropping-off land was rendered further unsuitable by the pushing through later in the 19th century of the Third and Second Avenue Els. The els provided a huge impetus to development of previously little-used terrain, but for working-class and industrial use. When the els came down in the '50s, not just Third and Second Avenues themselves but the whole character of the area east of Third became ripe for change, but amid the considerable high-rise development that's taken place, it's still possible to see many of the low-rise 18th- and 19th-century buildings that once lined both avenues.

Thanks to Manhattan's rigidly rectangular street grid, as established in the 1881 plan whose bicentennial we celebrated last year, it's possible for even the most hardened New Yorkers not to notice that diagonal dropoff from higher-ground Manhattan to the valley that's Harlem. Oh, on any numbered street you'll notice the sharp descent going from west to east, and ditto on the avenues going from south to north, but unless you walk enormous numbers of adjacent streets, it's highly unlikely that you'll notice how the "dropoff" points shift as you move north and west.

And with a guide as knowing as Jack, it's possible to tread this terrain and see how all these geographical factors intersected with the socioeconomics of old times and new to condition the kind of development and redevelopment that took place -- visible, for example, in the degree of, um, fanciness, of the architecture. We started at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 86th Street, then headed east to Third Avenue and headed north, and shortly down the considerable hill, before beginning our westward trek. Reaching the northeastern corner of Central Park, we could more easily see that portion of the diagonal dropoff to the Harlem valley, and continuing on through central Harlem we got to see the broad avenues and stunning residential buildings that took shape when northward transportation made this area ripe for development. We wound up by climbing the western delineation of Harlem, up to the heights of Morningside Heights, home of Columbia University and so many high-toned cultural institutions.

I don't suppose this drab recital suggests much of the visceral excitement of the tour itself. I can only suggest that you watch for the next time Jack gives it (he said he does it every two or three years), and pounce.


Over the last couple of months I've gotten a bit back in the urban-gadding groove, even pulling off a two-in-one-day this weekend for the first time in a long while. So there are a number of walks to catch up on, with a particular emphasis on walks led -- in three of NYC's five boroughs -- by people who actually live or have lived in the immediate area. I'm thinking the time may be right after this Sunday's Municipal Art Society walk through Brooklyn's Boerum Hill with Joe Svehlak, whose recent MAS walks through Ridgewood in Queens (mostly) and Brooklyn's Sunset Park (where Joe grew up and later moved back as a home-owner) were truly outstanding, so much so that I've slotted the Boerum Hill walk in ahead of another tour I'd really wanted to do.

But priority now has to go to Jack Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian with whom, as I've noted a number of times, I've done some of the most eye-opening tours I've taken. I recently did an especially memorable MAS tour with Jack which substantially overturned and reoriented my understanding of the northern half of Manhattan -- this after I've lived in NYC for 50-plus years! And Jack has some tantalizing projects coming up.


First let me mention that anyone who happens to be free tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon and is within striking distance of Jamaica, Queens, Jack is giving a lecture on "Queens: Topographic Influences" at 1:30 at Jamaica's Central Library (89-11 Merrick Blvd., between 89th and 90th Aves., accessible via the F train to 169th St.; free, no reservations required).

The library offers this description:
Ever wonder why Hillside Avenue is named Hillside Avenue, or why certain areas of the borough are hilly and other areas flat? Join us as urban geographer and Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum talks about the geography of Queens County.


Then, coming up this Saturday, April 21, 11am-1pm, Jack is giving a special tour, "Historic Jamaica Avenue," sponsored by the Queens Historical Society as a fund-raiser (at bargain-baement prices for a fund-raiser: $10 for QHS members, $15 for nonmembers).
One of the earliest settlements in NYC, Jamaica boasts centuries old homes, churches and cemeteries. Focusing on Jamaica Ave at the foot of the glacial moraine, we'll dwell on its strategic location, recent redevelopment strategies and make some interior visits.

(The meeting place is at the entrance to the Jamaica Station of the Air Train to JFK, adjacent to the Sutphin Blvd.-Archer Ave. station of the E and J trains and the Jamaica station of the LIRR.)


As I've mentioned, Jack is doing "The World of the #7 Train" again this year, on Saturday, April 28, from 10am to 5:30pm. I did it last year, and am powerfully tempted to do it again. A word of warning: The tour did sell out last year, and Jack had to turn people away.
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!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Urban Gadabout reminder to New Yorkers and visitors: Upper Manhattan walks resume Sunday, continue through May 20

This aerial view of Sherman Creek in Northern Manhattan comes from the NYC Dept. of City Planning, whose note concerning the "currently inactive" Sherman Creek Study begins:
Sherman Creek lies along the Harlem River waterfront and is part of the Inwood neighborhood in Manhattan Community District 12. The primary study area is between Dyckman Street, Broadway, West 207th Street and the Harlem River, and includes Sherman Creek inlet, for which the surrounding area was named. The upland portion, between Broadway and Nagle Avenue, is a densely populated residential community, while the waterfront area, which is zoned primarily for industrial use, is characterized largely by underutilized and vacant land.

by Ken

Upper Manhattan historian James Renner began his spring series of WaHi walking tours of the neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill with a walk through Fort Washington-Hudson Heights on March 25 -- a tour made that much richer by the presence of two lifelong residents of the area, who added all manner of wonderful local (and of course personal) detail.

Now, after a holiday hiatus, James's spring tours begin in earnest, with weekly tours every Sunday through May 20. On the scheule are: Sherman Creek, this Sunday; Fort George, April 22; Jumel Terrace Historic District & Sugar Hill, April 29; Audubon Park (see my notes on a Municipal Art Society tour of the area in the earlier post), May 6; Marble Hill, May 13; and Tubby Hook, May 20.
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

For the remaining tour descriptions and meeting places, see the full schedule, which I printed in the earlier post. All tours begin at noon and are $15 ($10 for students and seniors). You can contact James at 212-795-7830

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Timbuktu Falls To The Tuaregs... Burkina Faso Swamped With Refugees

Here I am in downtown Timbuktu, 4 years ago

These days I just want to go to Tuscany or Paris or maybe Bali. And Roland is always coming up with Mongolia or Mozambique or Burkina Faso. The whole time we were in Mali he was grumpy we weren't going to Burkina Faso. I don't know if he has a check list or just wants to add a notch to his belt or what. I know for sure none of his friends have ever heard of Burkina Faso. None of them had ever heard of Mali. And now that hundreds of thousands of displaced Malians-- eager not to fall into the slavery that the Tuaregs practice-- are fleeing in every direction, at least 20,000 of them have arrived in Burkina Faso, which was already having a major problem feeding it's own population and keeping the lid on things. Like Mali's, Burkina Faso's "democracy" is what the aftermath of a far off military coup is called as long as the putschists adhere to corporate-friendly policies.

When I would tell people I was going to Mali or I had gone to Mali they would look at me incomprehensibly. Maui? Bali? I almost never met an American who knew where Mali was. But when I would mention Timbuktu there was at least some comprehension that I wasn't taking about Hawaii. Four years ago, a topper of a month Roland and I spent in Mali, we finally made it to fabled Timbuktu. I had imagined it as the city in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, which it isn't, but we discovered a unique and fascinating, hospitable if remote town on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

This week Timbuktu fell to Tuareg rebels, savage desert nomads who fervently believe in slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Malians have fled south, as the Tuaregs captured Gao, Kidal and now Timbuktu, the entire northern two-thirds of the country.
Mali's army is reported to have deserted the military base of Timbuktu, the last town in the north under government control, as Tuareg separatists pounded it with heavy weapons. Coup leaders have reinstated the constitution after pressure from neighbouring countries.

Shells could be heard exploding at the base even though it was deserted, local residents told news agencies by phone Sunday.

The soldiers had fled, some shedding their uniforms, leaving Arab militias from the Bérabish community to defend the town, they said.

Al Jazeera television reported that the town, whose population is mainly ethnic Arab, had fallen to the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which wants a Tuareg homeland in the north of the country.

On Saturday the army quit the largest town in the north, Gao, leaving it to the MNLA which has already captured Kidal.

The Tuareg rebels have been strengthened by the arrival of well armed fighters previously employed by deposed and murdered Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

The military claims that they have links to armed groups connected to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operate in the Sahara.

Timbuktu, a historic city that is on the Unesco World Heritage list, is 800 km north of Bamako and 300 km west of Gao.

Now I'm reading about looting in the captured cities and that Muslim fanatics are imposing their primitive and unevolved version of the Koran on the conquered people. And the rest of the world just sits around bitching that the military coup that overthrew the last military coup has got to turn over power to the former coup leader or no on will help out. The Tuaregs are among the worst lot I ever came across anywhere in the world. My heart goes out for the people who fall into their clutches. Anyway, best tourism advice for anyone thinking of going there-- see a psychiatrist.

UPDATE: June 6- Tuaregs Declare An Independent Nation, Azawad

While the rest of the world forced Malian coup leaders, ostensibly reformers, to turn power back to the old regime (former coup leaders), the Tuaregs have captured over half the country and just declared their independence. The Tuaregs are brutal and primitive slavers who live for war.
Tuareg rebels who captured the three main towns in northern Mali this week unilaterally declared independence for their state of Azawad on Friday, adding to turmoil in the west African country.

...Tuareg nomads have rebelled three times since Mali’s independence in 1960, protesting at their marginalisation and demanding more autonomy.

But leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) were more ambitious when they started a fourth rebellion in January, seeking to carve out a new homeland in the Sahara.

...Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union commission, rejected the independence declaration, and called on “the international community as a whole to fully support this principled position of Africa."

Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbour, also denounced the rebel claim.

France, the former colonial power, said other west African countries needed to see if it was possible to negotiate with the MNLA. Autonomy would be a more acceptable solution to the regional and international community.

France’s defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said: “A unilateral declaration of independence which is not recognised by African states would not have any meaning for us.”

The claim by the MNLA is not supported by all Tuaregs in Mali, let alone by other ethnic groups living in the north. It is further complicated by the fact that the secular rebels received help from another dissident Ismalist group, Ansar Dine, in capturing the three towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

Ansar Dine seeks to impose sharia law in the north. Though it has fewer fighters than the MNLA, which has up to 3,000 men, Ansar Dine rebels were reported to have taken control of much of the ancient town of Timbuktu.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Are Frequent Flier Miles Worth the Trouble Anymore?

Some of my friends don't even bother collecting frequent flier miles. I used to be rabid about them. But most of the airlines-- particularly Delta-- have made them so difficult to use for anything worthwhile, that sometimes they barely matter any longer. Bottom Line published a post recently, How to Get More Mileage from Your Frequent-Flier Miles and it has some useful tips. Not earth-shattering, world-changing tips. Delta still sucks beyond belief... but useful tips.
Cashing in frequent-flier miles for the flights that you want can be devilishly difficult. Ways to overcome the barriers…

Use different airlines for different legs of the journey.

In the past, frequent-flier trips essentially had to be round-trips between two destinations on one airline or its partners-- that’s how the programs offered awards tickets. Today most airlines offer awards tickets per flight. So if you can’t find both the outbound and return awards seats you want at the frequent-flier price you want on one airline, you can search for a flight for each leg separately on two different airlines, assuming that you have enough miles on both airlines.

Add a third leg.

On some airlines, you might be able to add an extra destination without increasing the number of required frequent-flier miles. For instance, on Delta you could fly from New York City to London, then a few days later, from London to Paris on the same airline or one of its partner airlines, and then from Paris back to New York City. However, airlines are increasingly phasing out this practice.

Participate in the Southwest, JetBlue or Virgin America frequent-flier program.

These airlines do not impose limits on the number of available awards seats on a flight. Any seat that is available for cash also is available for frequent-flier miles.

There is a downside-- the number of miles required for an awards ticket increases with the cash price of the ticket. Still, participating in one of these three programs is a great way to ensure that you can get an awards ticket even to popular destinations and/or during busy travel times.

Call a reservations agent.

Airlines now impose fees for booking awards tickets over the phone-- usually around $25 per passenger for the entire trip-- but calling an agent can make sense when you’re having trouble finding the best ticket.

Good reservations agents not only know the ins and outs of the awards seat booking system, they also often have options available to them that are not available to customers through the airline’s Web site. These include cobbling together trips using partner airlines… changing planes in less obvious airports… or perhaps even unlocking seats that are not listed on the site as awards seats.

You pay nothing if the reservations agent can’t find a solution that satisfies you and you don’t book a ticket.

Book early, book late or book holiday flights.

The single best time to find an awards seat is 330 days before the flight, when these seats first enter the system. However, additional awards seats often enter the system within two weeks of departure. Awards seats also tend to be plentiful for people willing to travel on Christmas or Thanksgiving Day rather than during the week before or after.

Redeem British Airways miles on the airline’s partner, American Airlines.

British Airways (BA) now charges extremely steep fuel surcharges. A “free” round-trip flight between the US and London could cost upward of $500-- on top of the frequent-flier miles required. That includes unavoidable taxes, but it’s mostly the fuel surcharge. Many other foreign airlines charge fuel surcharges, too, though most are nowhere near as steep as those of BA. To avoid these massive surcharges, redeem BA miles for flights on American Airlines, a BA partner airline that does not impose fuel surcharges.