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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The 3 Scariest Things I Ever Did On My Travels

For those who think hopping on a plane for a trip to London or Paris or Mexico City is adventurous and dangerous, this post may be hard to relate to. I started hitchhiking across America when I was 13. I hitched from Brooklyn to L.A. when I was 15 and stowed away on ship so I could make a new, simpler life for myself on Tonga. I celebrated my 21st birthday in my home-- a thatch-roofed bungalow steps from the Arabian Sea in Goa. But this morning, after reading about the latest deprecation in war-torn Mali, I tried to recall what the most dangerous stunts I had pulled on my travels.

Because I was swimming when I was thinking about it-- and because I get really scared of crocodiles and alligators-- one that popped into my mind was a trip to Esteros del Iberá a swampy section of northern Argentina where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay all come together. They call it the Serengeti of Latin America because of the abundance of wildlife and, as I noted at the time, "the most important thing was to get the idea of "swamp" out of my head. This was easy because the place is not only gorgeous, it is fresh and even cooler than everyplace around it. The water is so beautiful that if it weren't for the alligators, pirhanas, capybaras and anacondas, you'd want to jump right in-- as many of the folks who live around there do anyway (and have the missing fingers and toes to prove it)."

Alligators-- they call them Yacare Caiman in the neighborhood, like the fella in the picture-- are something I usually go out of my way to avoid. So, for me, the scariest moment came when I agreed to go with a local in a dugout canoe for an afternoon of caiman, capybara (word's biggest rodent) and anaconda watching. And for hours that's all I saw... not anacondas, just a billion alligators and giant prehistoric rats.

Years earlier I had a run-in with an even scarier creature. I was bumming around Afghanistan in 1969 and found myself captured by a militia up in the mountains. I didn't understand a word of Pashtun at the time-- I learned a few months later when I got snowed in and stranded in a tiny Pashtun village for the winter-- but I sure understood the universal motions and grunts for "put your hands over your head or I'll unload this Kalashnikov into it." So I did. Maybe they wanted to go for a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Record, but they just had us keep our hands over our heads for hours. Eventually some Australian hippie who was with me-- and peaking on acid-- just started laughing and lowered his hands. At first the Afs all started screaming menacingly and made like they were about to shoot us. Then I started laughing and lowered my hands too. And then everyone else did-- and soon we were sitting around the campfire drinking tea with the militia all laughing away and smoking opiated hash like we were all best friends.

Most recently though, Roland and I went to Mali and wound up in Timbuktu on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert. It's not really the outskirts anymore; the desert is encroaching rapidly and the streets get covered in sand all the time. One night we decided to go with Mohammed, our Tuareg guide, into the Sahara itself. It's trackless; there's nothing but sand dunes and the light is the moon and stars and our flashlights. Our destination: a Tuareg encampment a few miles away where some nomads had come down from the desert to trade. We were leaving for America in a few days and there was plenty of stuff to trade-- from my high-end REI walking sticks to cans of sardines Roland had brought... and toilet paper, airline shaving kits, bits and pieces of clothes... all kinds of stuff we didn't want to schlepp back to L.A. It went pretty well. It might not have. As I've been writing in the last few months, a Tuareg rebellion was brewing and it's boiled over... big time. They've seized two-thirds of the country. And these are bad guys; they believe slavery is condoned by their religion, for example. And in the name of their primitive and ignorant concept of Islam, they are destroying Timbuktu, ironically a centuries-old center of Islamic learning.
Armed fighters of Mali's al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine Islamist group on Saturday destroyed mausoleums in the ancient trading city of Timbuktu, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, witnesses said. 

The attack came just four days after UNESCO agreed to a request by the West African state to place Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger following the seizure of its northern two-thirds in April by separatist and Islamist rebels. 

"They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud (Ben Amar) and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16," local Malian journalist Yeya Tandina said by telephone of the 16 most prized resting grounds of local saints in the town. 

"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," he said, adding that the Islamists were currently taking pick-axes to the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another cherished local saint.

Roland is protesting because I didn't include the time I was stranded on a coral reef in Sri Lanka and the time we almost drove over a cliff in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco south of Marrakech.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Walking Dutch Kills with Mitch Waxman, "Your Guide to a Tour of Decay" (NYT)

Mitch Waxman: "This would be a great place
to base yourself if you were a supervillain"

"You don't get to have Manhattan without having a Newtown Creek," Mitch says at 2:33 of this NYT video. "It's funny because the comic-book guy in me wants to find a villain. You know, I want to find a Lex Luthor. He's out here somewhere, I could tell ya. But the thing is that there is no villian here. The villain is us. We use too much and waste too much, and this is just a theme that you have to come back to continually -- that there's a price of those skyscrapers and that fabulous modern city, in this place."

by Ken

Mitch made this same point today at the end of the three-hour walk around Dutch Kills, the Queens-sided tributary of Newtown Creek which I mentioned earlier this week. The tour ended at the lovely Newtown Creek Nature Walk adjoining the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on the Brooklyn side of Newtown Creek (opposite the mouth of Dutch Kills), the once-crucial industrial highway flowing into the East River which still provides the western part of the border between Queens to the north and Brooklyn to the south. Throughout the walk Mitch had emphasized the role the area around Newtown Creek played, not just locally but nationally, as a receiving ground for materials shipped in by water for the manufacture or processing of substances crucial to the country's supply of energy, food, and building materials, among many others.

Of course not a lot of attention was paid to the environmental impact of the way the Newtown Creek area was industrialized, leaving behind a waterway of EPA Superfund-level toxicity. And today, let me tell you, the creepy shade of green of the water of Dutch Kills looked as scary as chemical analysis tells us it is. Newtown Creek itself, however, looked surprisingly and quite deceivingly okay. And it's not just the water's toxic. Vast quantities of oil from the numerous storage tanks still highly present on the creek pollute the water table -- not just in Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, Greenpoint, as is well known, but through much of the Brooklyn side of the creek and (not at all well-known) the Queens side as well.

As it happens, as Newtown Creek Allliance Executive Director Kate Zidar happily informed us when we met her at one of the street bridges over Dutch Kills, Mitch is about to become a citywide celebrity, with the publication of a really good piece about him by Steven Stern which will appear in the Metro section of tomorrow's NYT (and of course is already posted online).

Mitch stressed that the NCA, which he serves as historian (Kate Zidar told Steven Stern, "Mitch got that title by proving it, over and over"), isn't trying to convert the area around the creek into an upscale theme-park-type environment (my words, not his). The city needs its increasingly lost industrial base. But industry can be brought back and new industry created in an environmentally sustainable way, and that's the kind of development strategy that NCA likes to champion.


Even in its present state of pollution, Mitch insists, the area around Newtown Creek isn't "dead." Give nature even a small opening, he said, and it will come back. We saw bird life in the mouth of Dutch Kills (there are nests all over the area, he said), and as I mentioned the other day NCA has a birding tour scheduled for June 24. It's free, but you have to RSVP (to

The next big event is a Newtown Creek cruise with Mitch, in association with Working Harbor Tours.

On July 22nd, Mitch shares his unique point of view and deep understanding of the past, present and future conditions of the Newtown Creek as the narrator and expedition leader for this years Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek exploration.

Our NY Water Taxi leaves from South Street Seaport at 11 a.m. sharp on a three-hour tour of the Newtown Creek. From the East River we’ll move into the Newtown Creek where we’ll explore explore vast amounts of maritime infrastructure, see many movable bridges and discover the very heart of the Hidden Harbor.

Limited seating available, get your tickets today.


Don't forget the new walking tour of the northern shore of Staten Island which Mitch is doing, from the Ferry Terminal along Kill Van Kull to Snug Harbor, offered on three Saturdays -- June 30, July 28, and October 13, from 11am to 1pm.

Your Guide to a Tour of Decay

New York Times, Metro section, June 17, 2012

Stand on the pedestrian walkway of the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, and you might notice a vaguely ominous red brick tower on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek, looming over the railroad tracks and asphalt plants.

If Mitch Waxman is your guide, he will identify it as the derelict smokestack of Peter Van Iderstine's fat-rendering business, which first set up shop in 1855. But he won't stop there.

He will expound on the archaic waste-disposal operations that once flourished on the creek, conjuring scenes of putrescent horse carcasses floating in on barges from Manhattan and docks piled with manure three stories high. The narrative will extend to Cord Meyer's bone blackers and Conrad Wissel's night soil wharf -- the gothic names of these forgotten businesses rattled off in a distinct Brooklyn accent.

At some point, he will start in on the horrors of the M. Kalbfleisch Chemical Works, eventually making his way to the sins of Standard Oil.

If the city's dead industries leave ghosts behind, Mr. Waxman is an adept medium.

The Newtown Creek watershed, his field of expertise, is a place where such specters are all too real. In the murky depths of the 3.8-mile estuary, the past haunts the present. Since the creek was designated a Superfund site in 2010, contractors from the Environmental Protection Agency have been dredging and testing in search of that past. The sludge acid that the Kalbfleisch factory sluiced into the water back in the 1830s is of more than academic concern.

Not that Mr. Waxman is any sort of an academic. While the Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental advocacy group, lists him as its resident historian, his credentials were earned on the street and the Internet, through countless solitary walks and countless nights poring over obscure archives. ("Mitch got that title by proving it, over and over," said Kate Zidar, executive director of the organization.)

Formerly a comic-book artist and writer, Mr. Waxman earns his living doing photo retouching out of his apartment in Astoria, Queens. Since 2009, he has documented his passion for the creek -- in oddly beautiful photography and beautifully odd prose -- on his blog, The Newtown Pentacle.

Lately, he has been leading public walking tours of the waterfront for the alliance and other groups, as well as personally guiding anyone else who comes calling. He has lectured to local politicians and environmentalists, shepherded documentary filmmakers around Calvary Cemetery and taught German industrial ecology students a thing or two about sewage. Somehow, almost everyone interested in the polluted waterway seems to find his or her way to Mr. Waxman. He's become a docent of decay, the cicerone of Newtown Creek.

Mr. Waxman begins his tours with a well-rehearsed opening line: "This is not the world you know."

For most visitors, that's probably true. The Newtown Creek area was once one of the nation's great manufacturing centers, the waterway carrying more freight than the Mississippi River. Walking around the massive factory buildings of the Degnon Terminal in Long Island City, Queens, now mostly repurposed as warehouses, you catch a glimpse of a lost working-class city only blocks from the gleaming condominiums now rising by the East River.

After World War II, that industrial greatness faded, just as its environmental cost started to become apparent. A 1950 sewer explosion in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was the first indication of the huge quantities of petroleum poisoning the water and leaching into the soil. But the full extent of the damage wasn't discovered until the late 1970s: At least 17 million gallons of oil spilled over the previous century (more than the Exxon Valdez), much of which, after years of legal wrangling and recovery efforts, is still there.

Mr. Waxman calls the area a "municipal sacrifice zone" -- the urban equivalent of the bomb test sites of Nevada. And his tours are meant in part to expose the unsavory infrastructure that has been shunted there. He can name the 19 waste-transfer stations lining the creek and point out each of the 23 combined sewer outflows that disgorge their contents into the water. The lurking danger of the creek's emanations is a constant undercurrent. He will intone: "The very air you're breathing is a poisonous fume!"

But despite the toxic atmosphere, Mr. Waxman is clearly in love with the place. Based on the enthusiastic groups that show up for each tour, that perverse attraction is shared by others.

The journalist Andrew Blackwell, who traveled to some of the world's most polluted places for his recent book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl, seemed unsurprised that such a blighted area would hold an aesthetic appeal. Ravaged industrial sites, he suggested, might actually fulfill a longing for nature.

"Part of what people are looking for in a wilderness experience," Mr. Blackwell said, "is the sense that it's not a mediated thing, that it's not made for them. A place like Newtown Creek isn't a product. It's supposedly a place that no one wants to go. That almost makes it more wild, makes people feel like they're discovering something about the world."

Mr. Waxman's own discoveries began, strangely enough, as an effort to improve his health.

Until 2006, his life was sedentary and circumscribed, revolving around wife, dog and (primarily) computer. "My friends called me ‘veal,' " he said, "because I never left the little white room."

That led to a heart attack at 39, a weeklong hospital stay and a command to exercise. So he began walking. Headphones blasting Black Sabbath, camera at his side, he circled out from Astoria, exploring colonial graveyards, abandoned factories and, eventually, the Newtown Creek waterfront.

"I started to see all these things I couldn't explain," he said. So began the cycle of wandering and research that continues to this day. "The more time you give it, the more stuff you find, and the more questions get asked," he said.

These questions brought him in contact with a circle of like-minded seekers: amateur urbanists and self-taught historians, railroad enthusiasts and infrastructure aficionados. In their company, Mr. Waxman distinguished himself as someone equally comfortable on the street and in the archive. "Mitch is the type that will go up to a stranger and ask things," said Kevin Walsh, creator of the popular urban history blog Forgotten New York. Mr. Waxman's social ease, combined with a willingness to share the knowledge he was acquiring, helped him "make allies among the people who work along the creek," Mr. Walsh said.

One day, Mr. Waxman signed up for a boat tour narrated by Bernard Ente, a maritime devotee from Maspeth. They hit it off, and Mr. Ente, a founding member of the Newtown Creek Alliance, became a sort of mentor. When he died, in April last year, Mr. Waxman essentially stepped into his shoes.

The distinctively apocalyptic spin he brings to his newfound role, however, is his alone. That "sense of looming menace" comes to full flower on his blog. An oddball mix of history, reportage and genre pastiche, it is written in a self-consciously florid prose modeled on H. P. Lovecraft, the cultish writer of pulp horror fiction. Slipping in and out of the voice of a demented antiquarian, the daily posts portray the creek as home to unspeakable, possibly supernatural, terrors.

"You have these buried secrets," he said, explaining the thinking behind the occult conceit. He's spotted early-19th-century terra-cotta pipes protruding from bulkheads, antique masonry sewers connected to who knows what. He added: "There really is no telling what's in the ground there."

The more Mr. Waxman discovers about the creek's hidden past, the more he has become an advocate for its survival. Last summer, while out on the water surveying bulkheads with the crusading conservation group Riverkeeper, he discovered and documented a previously unreported oil spill on the Queens side.

His fascination with the darker aspects of the landscape has made him a fitting counterpart to the environmentalists working toward its future. As E.P.A. scientists begin the long process of rehabilitating the waters, Mr. Waxman is engaged in a parallel effort. His work is a kind of historical remediation, reclaiming the waterway's forgotten role in the life of the city.

"It's an odd thing," he said. "The creek has been waiting for me all this time. And I've been waiting for it."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Jack Eichenbaum in the Bronx and Queens; scenic Dutch Kills; Hidden Harbor on land as well as sea

The scenic Dutch Kills tributary of Superfund site Newtown Creek

by Ken

There's a lot of news to cover, but some of the events I promised to tell you about as a continuation of Sunday's Urban Gadabout post, "Jamaica Bay, here I come!," in which I reported on the upcoming Jamaica Bay Ecology Cruise setting sail from Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay at 3pm on Sunday, June 24 (information here; buy tickets online here), are coming up right soon.

As I mentioned, I'll be making my way to Sheepshead Bay from the last of Jack Eichenbaum's Municipal Art Society series of three walks in the part of the Bronx crudely known as the South Bronx. Following March's walk through Mott Haven and last week's walk through Melrose (perhaps best known as Fort Apache country -- though almost unrecognizably changed since then), next up is Morrisania.
Morrisania: From Suburbia to the Grand Concourse (Part 3 of "Back to the Bronx": The Three M's)
Sunday, June 24, 10am-12n

Let Jack Eichenbaum, Urban Geographer, show you the Bronx in a new way. Dealing with similar challenges of urban disinvestment and blight, the neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Melrose, and 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. Cost: $20 / $15 Members.
Please purchase tickets online or call (212) 935-2075, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm.
Meeting locations are provided after tickets are purchased.


Meanwhile, tomorrow evening Jack is launching another summer series of Wednesday-evening walking tours in his native Queens (of which, you'll recall, he is the official borough historian).
Wednesday, June 13, 6pm-8pm

This demographically changing neighborhood is opposite Manhattan‘s Upper East Side. Italians and Greeks are being replaced by Arabs, Bosnians, Brazilians, Mexicans, and yuppies. We’ll explore Astoria from its important transportation arteries: Steinway St (a former trolley route), 31 St (under the elevated train), the Grand Central Parkway which bisected the neighborhood 70 years ago, and 30th Avenue, its cafĂ©-lined promenade.

Fee $15. Meets at the SW corner of Steinway St. and Broadway (M, R Steinway St.) No reservations necessary. Ends near many good restaurants.

More Space and New Arrangements in Western Queens: Sunnyside to Jackson Heights
Wednesday, June 20, 6pm-8pm

During the first third of the 20th century, Western Queens nurtured developments where traditional open space/building area relationships were altered to create new urban architecture. The Sunnyside Gardens and the Jackson Heights Historic Districts anchor the route which also includes Phipps Gardens, Matthews Flats, Metropolitan Life apartments, and early truck-oriented industrial buildings.

Fee $15. Meets under the Sunnyside arch, south side of the elevated 46 St/Bliss station (local #7) No reservations necessary. Ends near many good restaurants.

Long Island City to Old Astoria
Wednesday, July 11, 6pm-8pm

Walk the East River shore between the Queensboro and RFK (Triboro) Bridges. Begin at Queensbridge House and head for the remnants of Old Astoria. The sights include increasing oblique views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side from three parks, a (former) piano factory, a huge power plant, a “big box” store, the Socrates Sculpture Park, the Isamu Noguchi Museum and ante-bellum mansions. Ends in Astoria at the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden (Czech food) with Greek and other cuisine nearby.

Fee $15. Meets at the NW corner of 21 St and 41 Ave. (F Queensbridge) No reservations necessary.


Some readers may recall that it was with Jack that I finally got the first exposure I craved to Newtown Creek, the waterway-turned-Superfund site that forms the East River end of the border between Brooklyn and Queens, actually walking across the Pulaski Bridge. Since then I've cruised the scenic creek, thanks to the invaluable Newtown Creek Alliance, which has a walking tour coming up this weekend for which I dropped everything else: "an intense exploration of Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary — found less than one mile from the East River," with NCA historian Mitch Waxman.
Newtown Creek Walking Tour
Saturday, June 16, 11am-2pm
"Drizzle or Shine" (in case of total downpour we will reschedule)
$10 ticket required

Join Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman for an intense exploration of Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary -- found less than one mile from the East River. Dutch Kills is home to four movable (and one fixed span) bridges, including one of only two retractile bridges remaining in New York City. Dutch Kills is considered to be the central artery of industrial Long Island City and is ringed with enormous factory buildings, titan rail yards — it’s where the industrial revolution actually happened. Bring your camera, as the tour will be revealing an incredible landscape along this section of the troubled Newtown Creek Watershed.

Full info here.

Also coming up from NCA is a free (though reservations are required) "Newtown Creek Birdwatching Excursion" the morning of Sunday, June 24, when I will, alas, be occupied with my Bronx-to-Sheepshead Bay-to-Jamaica Bay loop.


I wrote last summer about the fascinating Hidden Harbor tours jointly promoted by the Working Harbor Committee and Circle Line Downtown. (Information about this summer's schedule of the three tours -- to Newark Bay; along the Brooklyn shore; and along the Hudson shores of Manhattan and New Jersey -- is here.)

This year there are Hidden Harbor walking tours as well, beginning this Saturday with the first of three dates for a tour of Lower Manhattan, led by Working Harbor Committee member Captain Margaret (Maggie) Flanagan.
New Hidden Harbor Walking Tours!

Now you can explore the working waterfront by land on our NEW Hidden Harbor Walking Tours.

Tour hidden or overlooked places and experience the working harbor’s rich history and its fascinating role today. The walking tours are 2-hours long and like our boat tours, are narrated by maritime experts, historians, and other titans of the working waterfront.

Hidden Harbor Walking Tour of Lower Manhattan

Join us on the walk around the tip of Manhattan from the mouth of the Hudson River to the South Street Seaport Museum on the East River, where New York’s port began and maritime piers in action today.

The tour starts with sweeping views out over the harbor from the public roof deck at Robert Wagner, Jr. Park and includes historic Pier A and Battery Park to the US Custom House, Broad Street (the Gentleman’s Canal in Dutch times) and the historic shoreline along Pearl Street.

Landmarks along the way include Fraunces Tavern, handsome India House, and along the East River, the newly opened waterfront esplanade.

We then continue north to the historic ships and structures of the South Street Seaport District. The tour ends at the South Street Seaport Museum where your Hidden Harbor ticket includes admission to its recently inaugurated galleries celebrating the interweaving of the city and the sea.

MEET UP: Meet at the brick archway/entrance to Robert Wagner, Jr. Park at 20 Battery Place across from the Ritz Carlton Hotel at 1pm. Ends at the South Street Seaport Museum at 3pm.

Saturdays, June 16, July 21, and August 11, 1pm–3pm
Lower Manhattan tour is limited to 20 people per tour, so book your tickets now! $20
Click for Tickets

The other Hidden Harbor walking tour being offered is of the northern coast of Staten Island from the ferry terminal to Snug Harbor, led by none other than Mitch Waxman!
Hidden Harbor Walking Tour of Staten Island

Join WHC’s Mitch Waxman for an intense exploration of the Staten Island coastline of the Kill Van Kull, the busy waterway connecting Port Elizabeth-Newark with the lower harbor. Expect tugboats, special guests and a few surprises as we walk the two miles from the Staten Island Ferry terminal at St. George to Sailors Snug Harbor, home of the Noble Maritime Collection, featuring works of maritime artist John A. Noble.

MEET UP: Meet at the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island, walk to the outside plaza at the north end exit (toward the baseball stadium, plaza above/over the cab stand), at 11am. Ends at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, Nobel Maritime collection at 1pm.

Saturdays, June 30, July 28, and October 13, 11am–1pm
Staten Island tour is limited to 30 people each tour, so book your tickets now! $20
Click for Tickets

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Jamaica Bay, here I come!

See below for information about the Jamaica Bay Ecology Cruise leaving from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, on June 24.

by Ken

Some years back I had the pleasure of providing overnight accommodations to a friend who had a layover in New York on his journey from the Midwest abroad, and because he'd never been in the city, I went to the airport to meet him and drag him all the way back to my place in Washington Heights -- not quite as long a distance as you could have within the five boroughs of NYC, but a long distance anyways.

The Air Train was up and running by then, providing -- for the first time! -- easy access from JFK to the Howard Beach station of the A train for the long trip back to my place, but I still feel kind of bad about what I did. Instead of doing the logical thing and planting us on the Manhattan-bound platform, I dragged my poor friend to the opposite platform, from which the A train begins what I consider an amazing trip across Jamaica Bay to the Rockaway peninsula.

I think of this as one of the amazing rail journeys a person can make for the price of a subway fare. I do it at least a couple of times a year, even if I have no desire actually to be in the Rockaways. I realized, though, that my friend had no interest in this little ocean voyage by rail, or in my labored efforts to explain the geography of our journey. I suppose it was understandable that his mind was more wrapped up in the long and laborious trip still ahead of him, and the several months he would be spending in his remote destination.

I thought about that day when I took my most recent trip across Jamaica Bay, but for the first time not all the way across the bay. At the Broad Channel station, the next stop after Howard Beach, I was getting off to meet a tour group led by the incomparable Justin Ferate, which would begin with a walk through the community of Howard Beach -- an extremely right-wing neighborhood with a heavy concentration of police and firefighters -- as the start of a mile-and-a-half walk to the visitor center of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. As many times as I've made the train crossing of Jamaica Bay, I never had any idea there even was such a destination.

I was caught short again when some of my fellow tour-group members not only had never done the Jamaica Bay train ride but really didn't even know where they were. They had followed Justin's instructions (in some cases never having set foot on an A train before) and arrived at the designated subway station and found the designated meeting place, but the rest was a mystery to them.

Jamaica Bay has always been a mystery to me, but not that kind of mystery. I've always been a compulsive map-reader, and when my family moved to New York when I was 12, and I began to become obsessed with the map of NYC, my eyes were riveted by that enormous expanse of bay bounded by the coasts of Brooklyn, "mainland" Queens, and the Rockaways. So when I saw that Justin was doing a walking tour of the Wildlife Refuge, I got my check in the mail immediately. And it was a terrific afternoon tramping around the most accessible portions of the refuge guided by Don Riepe, director of the Northeast Chapter of the American Littoral Society, and the enormously capable and charming Elizabeth, who works with Don.

It was a wonderful but exhausting afternoon, and I'm going to share something with "Urban Gadabout" readers which I somehow managed not to mention to readers of my DownWithTyranny "Sunday Classics" posts. (I'm figuring there isn't much overlap between the readerships, even making the large and presumptuous assumption that either has any readership.)

I've written several posts now based on the New York Concert Artists series of "Evenings of Piano Concerti," including today's, and while it's true that most of what interested me had already happened in the first three concerts, I never got around to mentioning that I blew off the fourth and final one, because that Saturday I would have had to go straight from the Jamaica Bay outing to Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's West Side, with possibly time to stop at a conveniently located branch of my gym to shower. And the next day I had walking tours scheduled first in the Bronx (the second walk in Jack Eichenbaum's terrific Municipal Art Society series of South Bronx walks, which began in March with Mott Haven and concludes June 24 with Morrisania) and then in Brooklyn (the New York Transit Museum tour of several historic subway stations, which I wrote about recently).

There's more to that story, including tales of a number of other upcoming events around the city, but I'm going to leave that for sometime soon, maybe even tomorrow, in order to pass on news that Don and Elizabeth shared with us before we left the Wildlife Refuge.
June 24 - Jamaica Bay Sunset Cruises (3pm-6pm)

Leave from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn aboard the "Golden Sunshine" for a narrated tour of Jamaica Bay. Learn about the history, ecology, wildlife and management of the refuge and see egrets, herons, osprey, peregrine falcon, terns, shorebirds and waterfowl. Cost: $45 includes tour, wine & cheese, fruit, drink, snacks. Call (718) 318-9344; e-mail: You can also make payment here. (With Gateway NRA and NYC Audubon.)

You may have noticed that the date is the same as Jack Eichenbaum's walk through Morrisania in the Bronx. Yes, once again, as with both previous installments in Jack's Bronx series, I'm headed straight from there to Brooklyn!

More about upcoming walking tours of Jack's, and some other tantalizing events, in the next installment.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Closed To Tourists... Tibet And Timbuktu

Ever see the uncropped version of this famous picture of Tiananmen Square? (click on it to enlarge)

Roland and I were just rejoicing that we had a chance to visit Timbuktu and northern Mali before the whole area-- as much as two-thirds of the country-- was captured by savage Tuareg slavers and closed up tight. Supposedly the alliance between the militant Islamists and the slavers has been cancelled but, on the other hand, flotsam and jetsam, fanatics and jihadists from all over the Muslim world are flocking to northern Mali. There's not much there. I mean, beautiful, varied Afghanistan it will never be. And now the residents-- or what's left of them-- are fighting back against the conquerors, at least in Timbuktu.

Timbuktu was incubating a proper little tourist industry when we were there a couple years ago-- I mean beyond just for tourists who were backpacking and roughing it. That's totally over now. Everyone who invested in boutique infrastructure must be bankrupt. And the Islamists are systematically destroying whatever it was-- apart from the allure of the name itself-- that has drawn people to Timbuktu for hundreds of years.
Since seizing the city in March, Ansar Dine has targeted Timbuktu's precious Muslim heritage.

The shrine of a 15th Century sufi saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar has been attacked, according to Lazare Eloundou Assomo of Unesco.

"The entrance gate of the mausoleum was completely destroyed and burnt," Mr Assomo told the BBC World Service. "The curtain that protected the shrine was destroyed."

Timbuktu is known as the city of the 333 saints, says Alida Jay Boye, author of Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu.

The fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam objects to the veneration of saints' tombs, maintaining that it amounts to saint worship.

"Salafis do not want there to be any intermediary between the believer and God. It looks like Ansar Dine is going after shrines just like other groups have done in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia," she says.

Neil Whitehead, a former hotelier in Timbuktu, has fled to Morocco because of the recent unrest.

He says that conditions are deteriorating in the city.

"The Salafis are turning on the locals, raiding their homes and taking anything of value, together with any food. All shops are shut and, in the words of our friends, 'everything is broken'," he said.

"They have introduced a form of Sharia and the locals feel like prisoners in their houses."

His account is confirmed by Mari Touri, a Timbuktu resident.

"There is no food in the shops, no stocks of supplies, because everything in Timbuktu comes from Bamako in the south and it cannot get through at the moment."

Another resident, Youba Ag Moha, said that the situation in the city was "calm" but that government offices were closed and there was a problem with the electricity supply.

There are also concerns for the city's wealth of manuscripts.

Exactly a year ago, Roland and I were getting ready to visit Tibet. Unfortunately, just as we were getting ready to leave, our visas were pulled and the borders were shut. We wound up staying far longer than anyone should have to in Katmandu, the overly polluted capital of Nepal. It was for one of the periodic crackdowns-- they normally last a few weeks-- that the Chinese occupiers impose on the country for a brutal crackdown they don't want to be embarrassed by in the West. But this week ABC News is reporting, ominously, that China has shut down tourism to Tibet indefinitely.
In a matter of days, the number of expected foreign visitors to Tibet has gone from millions to zero.

Chinese authorities alerted foreign travel agencies Tuesday that they would no longer be issuing entry permits to Tibet, the latest in a series of regulations being put on travelers to Tibet. The announcement follows the self-immolation of two Tibetans last week.

Tibet is no stranger to Chinese interference in its tourism industry. Tibet’s failed rebellion in March 1959 and the event’s annual memorial on National Uprising Day has chronically put the region at odds with the People’s Republic of China. In 2008, protests after National Uprising Day turned into riots that were met with violence by PRC forces. The Chinese government temporarily closed Tibet to foreign visitors. That is a now-annual practice in March, and during other national events significant to the Chinese government.

Now, many are saying that the latest in a string of Tibetan self-immolations led to the country’s shutdown to outsiders. According to Free Tibet, a campaign promoting Tibetan independence from China, there have been more than 30 self-immolations since March 2011. Most recently, on May 27, 2012 two Tibetans were the first to set themselves on fire in Lhasa, Tibet’s tightly-controlled administrative capital. The shutdown also coincides with the Saga Dawa festival, which celebrates the Buddha’s birth and draws many Buddhists to Tibet. This year, the festival began on June 4, which is also the anniversary of the Chinese government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.

While many tourism agencies have learned to adapt and predict the trends on tourism bans, this closure comes as something of a shock. According to Nellie Connelly, marketing director of WildChina, a prominent travel company that regularly coordinates trips to Tibet, Chinese authorities informed the company in mid-May that travelers would only be allowed to visit Tibet in groups of five people of the same nationality. Last week, the government stopped issuing entry permits to Tibet altogether.  Connelly is in the process of rerouting customers whose Tibetan vacations are affected by the new ban. Only those Chinese nationals are allowed to enter the region.

“Tibet is a bucket-list destination for many people,” she says.

Last year, WildChina sent approximately 100 travelers to Tibet. This week, the company had to turn down approximately 10 inquiries about travel to Tibet. Four other WildChina trips are being re-routed, and five more are on indefinite hold.

The loss of income for Tibetan communities is significant. Tibet received 21.25 million domestic and foreign tourists in between 2006 and 2010, generating $3.58 billion in income for the country. Tourism is a staple of the region’s economy. Tibet set a goal to increase tourism revenue between 2011 and 2015 to more than 20 percent of its gross domestic product.

The Chinese government’s recent actions will make reaching 2012 targets difficult.

We never made it to Damascus either.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Under Delancey Street -- a visit to the ghost of a once-crucial underground trolley transit hub

The Essex Street trolley terminal today, more or less (photos borrowed from Joseph Brennan's "Abandoned Stations" article "Williamsburg Bridge Railway terminal")

Last night, Community Board 3′s land use committee voted unanimously (with two members abstaining) to support the Delancey Underground, the high profile plan to bring a park to a 60,000 square foot abandoned trolley terminal. Project co-founders Dan Barasch and James Ramsey outlined the proposal for CB3 last fall, and received a warm reception, but no vote was taken following the initial presentation. CB3′s endorsement will become official after the full board votes later this month.
-- the start of Ed Litvak's Lower East Side News report yesterday

by Ken

The trolley terminal under Delancey Street, at Essex Street, on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge, served more than a dozen trolley lines running across the bridge to Brooklyn. The bridge opened on Dec. 13, 1903, and by the following November cross-bridge trolley service was in operation. The underground terminal is thought to have opened on May 18, 1908, according to Joseph Brennan's splendid article on the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Railway terminal, and remained in use for decades after subway service was added to the bridge. The last of the trolley lines was discontinued in 1948, at which point the underground terminal was to all intents and purposes abandoned, as it has remained for going on 65 years, though lately talk has turned more serious as to possible reuses of the 60,000-square-foot space.

The Delancey Street approach to the Williamsburg Bridge in 1919, with kiosks at center that took trolley passengers to the terminal below, the larger kiosk at left leading to the subway station, and foreground waiting areas for terminating Manhattan trolleys

The Delancey Underground project -- conceived as a sort of underground version of the wildly popular High Line conversion of the abandoned West Side elevated train line -- is merely a proposal, albeit one that has gathered a certain amount of momentum. At the moment it isn't even a formal proposal, because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which among many other tri-state-area transportation-related divisions includes New York City Transti (NYCT), which operates NYC's subways and buses, has yet to ask for RFPs (Requests for Proposals) for the space, as Pedro Zevallos, associate director of real estate development in the MTA's Real Estate division, explained to us today on a New York Transit Museum visit to the abandoned Delancey Street terminal. When the MTA does ask for RFPs, he explained, and obviously the agency has every interest in finding productive use for the space, a Delancey Underground will compete with whatever other proposals are submitted. Clearly a lot of people, inside and outside the MTA, hope that the Delancey Underground proponents can assemble a persuasive proposal, in terms of feasibility and financing, but for that we'll have to wait and see.

The terminal in operation, "sometime before 1935"

The one thing that I would really have liked to see today in our visit to the ghost of the subterranean trolley terminal, onetime hub of trolley traffic that carrying large numbers of commuters across the East River into Brooklyn, was the actual connection whereby all those dozen-plus trolley lines -- which came underground in eight loops for loading and unloading -- actually made their ascent onto the bridge. But of course that can't be seen because it no longer exists. When the trolley lines on the south side of the bridge (there were also trolley lines running on the north side of the bridge, but they're a whole other story) were taken out of service, those lanes were opened to vehicular traffic that accessed them via a newly built on-ramp to the bridge.

Nevertheless . . .

The Transit Museum members-only tour was expensive ($55) and short, with not a whole lot to see, and yet it was all worth it for the incredibly exciting opportunity to see something few New Yorkers have seen. And we had the benefit of Pedro Zevallos's expert's-eye perspective on the present and future of this ghostly space. One of my favorite categories of Transit Museum tours is the kind that bring us together with people who have held, or currently hold, positions of authority over the particular subject matter.

The landmarked Avenue H station house, triumphantly reconstructed

Last Sunday, for example, for a presentation on and visit to three historic stations on Brooklyn's Brighton line, we had the inestimable benefit of the participation of NYC Transit's chief architect (on the job five years now), Judith Kunoff. Did Judy ever have insight to share (and stories to tell!) about the process whereby building decisions are made in the system -- and of course the way specific projects like (but not limited to) the overhauls of the three stations we visited (Cortelyou Road, Avenue H, and Beverley Road) have been designed and executed.

For more information about current Transit Museum programs (many of them free) and tours, check the calendar.

The Transit Museum members-only tour "Trolley Ghosts: The Terminal Under Delancey" is repeated Thursday, July 12, at 5:30pm. "Look at a Landmark: The Historic Station House at Avenue H" is repeated Sunday, July 20, 2pm-4pm.