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Friday, July 26, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Summer gadding around the outer boroughs of NYC, with news from MAS, Jack Eichenbaum, and the NY Transit Museum

Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island -- we'll be there tomorrow evening for the Municipal Art Society's walking tour, Roosevelt Island: The Northern Route.

by Ken

I haven't been writing much about my late-spring and summer wanderings, but after my enforced decommissioning in late April and May, I've been getting my rhythm back, and having some especially good times outside Manhattan. In fact, including tomorrow night's Roosevelt Island: The Northern Route (7/26, 6pm -- an evening tour, note), with Roosevelt Island Historical Society president Judith Berdy (who a few weeks ago led us on a terrific walk through the "Southern Route," down to the new Four Freedoms Memorial at the island's southern tip), I'll have had something like nine consecutive excursions over seven weeks outside Manhattan, including neat destinations like City Island, the tiny island off the coast of the northeasternmost Bronx, and the Little Italy along the Bronx's Arthur Avenue, both Municipal Art Society tours.

I actually undertook a walk less than four weeks after total-knee-replacement surgery, because I'd been wanting to do Joe Svehlak's tour of the few remains of Manhattan's once-thriving Lower West Side, a neighborhood that was basically to make way first for the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and then the World Trade Center. I've done a lot of tours with Joe, both his own and other tour leaders' -- and who should I run into on the Lower West Side tour but another of my favorite tour leades, urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum?

There's exciting news from Jack, maybe the most exciting New York tour news of the summer, but we'll get to that. Meanwhile I'm delighted to see that Joe is repeating his tour of Brooklyn's Sunset Park: The Old Neighborhood (Saturday, 8/31, 10:30am), where he grew up and later became a first-time property owner. I'm a huge fan of Joe's neighborhood tours (I still kick myself for missing his walk through Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood but loved the follow-up tour of Ridgewood, straddling the Brooklyn-Queens border), which provide a great feel for the way geographical and historical factors have shaped development as well as a feel for the way area residents live their lives.

Joe pointed out, by the way, that in his time Sunset Park wasn't yet a neighborhood in its own right, but was "the Sunset Park area of Bay Ridge," which then covered the full four miles or so of Brooklyn's waterfront along New York's Upper Harbor, down to the Verrazano Narrows. And the day after Joe's Sunset Park tour, Melanie Macchio will be leading a walk in Bay Ridge: Brooklyn's Western Waterfront Neighborhood (Sunday, 9/1, 4pm) -- I can hardly wait for that one! (The Bay Ridge walk means I won't be able to do another of architectural historian Tony Robins's patented art deco-themed tours, Art Deco on Central Park West; Sunday, 9/1, 2pm.)

Even though I did it last summer, I'm tempted to redo Norman Oder's Atlantic Yards: Urban Debate, Arena Debut (Saturday, 8/3. 10am), now that the first-completed part of the massive Brooklyn development project, the Barclays Center arena, has been open for nearly a year and is in full swing. Of course, as Norman, who has been the blogger most assiduously tracking the fairly squalid (and often flatly illegal) history of the project, stressed last year, when the arena was just opening, we won't know how seriously it will impact the immediate and surrounding neigborhoods until the serious parts of the develoment, the money parts, the 16 planned towers, are built and functioning -- if they ever all are.

One of the more suspicious aspects of the development is the way the modest concessions to the community which probably made it possible to finally get the project going don't kick in until virtually all of the planned development is completed, which may never happen. There doesn't seem to be much question that there will be enough towers built to alter the lives of everyone living in the area now, but that by itself won't trigger the community concessions.

Last summer I loved Norman's Atlantic Yards walk and presentation, which really gave us an immersion in the welter of issues raised in and by the project. I was all the more impressed since my attention was serious compromised by clock-watching even as we were walking farther and farther in the wrong direction to help me make the rendezvous for Francis Morrone's walk through Red Hook, the low-lying area on the western Brooklyn shore that would soon be devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

As it happened, i didn't make the start of the walk, but did manage to catch up, as did my friend Laurence Frommer, who had also been on the Atlantic Yards walk and had separately made his frantic way from one tour to the other. Laurence is an MAS tour leader himself, and I've been on countless tours with him, both his own and other tour leaders'. Earlier this summer he did a series of Pride-themed LGBT walks. This weekend he continues his exploration of the city's new phenomenon of cultural districts with a walk through the South Bronx's Mott Haven Cultural Corridor (Sunday, 7/28, 2pm-5pm -- yes, it's three hours). Then next weekend he's doing a pair of tours, Off and Off-Off Broadway, Parts 1 and 2 (Saturday and Sunday, 8/3 and 4, 3:30pm each day).

Let's see, I still have a tour coming up with Harlem (and Uptown Trinity Church Cemetery) maven Eric K. Washington: namely, Manhattanville: Recalling a Neighborhood's Activist Heritage (Sunday, 8/11, 1pm). I've really wanted to do a tour of this West Harlem neighborhood with Eric, and last time had it sell out on me before I realized I hadn't registered! Eric is also doing a Harlem Week edition of his terrific Harlem Grab Bag walk (Saturday, 8/17, 11am).

I'm also signed up for Bedford Stuyvesant's Eastern District (Saturday, 8/24, 11am) with architecture bloggers Suzanne Spellen and Morgan Munsey, who I'm happy to see have become MAS mainstays specializing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area (and related areas). The next day they're doing Stuyvesant Heights Expansion District (Sunday, 8/25, 11am).

Staten Island will be represented too, with a two-part investigation of the north shore led by lifelong Staten Islander Georgia Trivizas: Part 1, basically the St. George area (I thoroughly enjoyed an earlier version of this walk with Georgia), tomorrow (Saturday, 7/27, catching the 10:30 Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan); with Part 2, the northwestern shore around to Snug Harbor, to follow (Sunday, 8/18, also catching the 10:30 ferry).


As I've said, I've probably learned more about how the underlying geography has conditioned the development of New York City neighborhoods from Jack Eichenbaum, a geographer, than from anyone else. I've still got a summer tour with Jack coming up, and it should be fascinating: Willets Point (Saturday, 8/17, 4pm), "a sewerless hardscrabble area of auto junkyards and related businesses" lying between the Mets' baseball stadium (now-gone old Shea Stadium and now-functioning Citi Field) and now-booming Flushing, a sort of wasteland "that has twice beaten back attempts at redevelopment." Once again the developers have their beady eyes on an imagined wonderland. "We’ll walk to the area from central Flushing," Jack says, "to
understand its important setting, confront ecological issues and learn why
'Willets Point'  is a misnomer."

The September-November MAS schedule won't be announced till, probably, mid-August, but Jack has tipped his mailing list off that he has some tours coming up: Forest Hills to Corona (Saturday, 9/7, 4pm), Maps, Realities and the People's Palace (from the exterior of Grand Central Terminal to the interior of the New York Public Library, specifically the Map Division; Saturday, 9/14, 11am), Flushing's Koreatown (Saturday, 10/19, 11am), and Astoria (Saturday, 11/23, 11am).

But the really exciting development I referred to earlier is an addition to Jack's famous all-day expeditions built around a subway line. He has been doing The World of the #7 Train annually for a number of years now, and not that long ago revived his Day on the J. Now he's taking on Brooklyn's Brighton Line (Howie's and my old subway connection to "The City" in our Brooklyn years).
BRIGHTON LINE MEMOIRS -- meandering off the Q train

Saturday, September 28, 10am-5:30pm

This is a series of five walks and connecting rides along what was once the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island RR dating to 1878. Walks take place in Prospect Park, Brighton Beach, along Avenue U, in Ditmas Park and Central Flatbush. Lunch is in Brighton Beach where you can picnic on the Boardwalk. 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). Get the full day’s program and other info by email The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!
Those who didn't know about Brighton Line Memoirs -- meandering off the Q train or weren't able to register when Jack originally intended to offer it, on July 21, are benefiting from a blow of misfortune he suffered this summer: a knee injury that didn't ground him but made it medically inadvisable for him to be on his feet so long. So he has rescheduled this exciting outing for the end of September when, as he notes, it will also be cooler.

I had my check in the mail the day the tour was originally announced, but the delay also helps me. I'm hoping that by the new date my leg will be a good bit stronger. (I also would have had walking tours on back-to-back days, something I've found I don't do so well yet.)


I've also had a busy summer with NYTM, including a vintage subway-and-bus trip to the Bronx's Orchard Beach (on a day that turned out to be singularly un-beach-friendly). The third of the summer's three popular Nostalgia Rides is still coming up.

Sun, Aug. 25, 10 am to 5 pm – Tickets
Non-members Adults $50 / Children $25 Museum Members Adults $35 / Children $20

Venture uptown on our WWI-era IRT subway cars to spacious public grounds at Van Cortlandt Park, the third largest park in NYC. During a 3-hour layover, explore Van Cortlandt House Museum and a stroll along the John Kieran Nature Trail. Pack a picnic blanket and “staycation” with us!

Information on Municipal Art Society walking tours is ridiculously easy to find. Just go to and click on "Tours." Preregistration is required, but you can probably do it online right up to tour time. For New York Transit Museum tour information, go to the Programs and Excursions page of the website. For information about Jack Eichenbaum's activities, and to sign up for his e-mail list, visit his website, "The Geography of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The best thing showing lately on my TV has been Michael Palin's "Sahara" and "Himalaya"

I've just finished watching the 2004 film of Michael P's epic 2003 journey through the Himalaya and surrounding regions. The map above should be intelligible enough (you should be able to click to enlarge it) to suggest the scope of the journey, except that the copy of the book covers over the early segments in Pakistan and India.

by Ken

I've written about my excitement at rediscovering the early Michael Palin travel-trek series on British DVDs. (Even now that they're actually readily available in U.S. editions, the U.K. ones are still way cheaper.) Of course you have to have a multi system DVD player, but there's an advantage there as well: For HD, my Panasonics (I bought a second one during my recent medically induced hiatus) up-convert from the higher-lined PAL versions, and look pretty darned good on my first HD TV, another product of that hiatus.

And I had the new TV just in time to go back and rewatch the first episode or two of Michael's grand Himalaya series, where the scenery is so mind-boggling. I mean, the show starts in the Khyber Pass! I mean, I never dreamt I would ever see the Khyber pass, and now here it is (video below), with Michael P standing right there talking about it, on my own TV!

Confession: I got stalled with the Palin videos some time back, when I ran into Hemingway Adventure. Even if one doesn't share that "thing" for Hemingway that Michael is far from alone in possessing, you'd think that locales like Key West and late-revolutionary Cuba would be interesting enough in their own right to get me through. And maybe someday I'll go back and find them so, but as presented, as reflections of this or that part of Hemingway's journey through existence, they drove me crazy.

And in this case, the accompanying book didn't help, because it's still imbued with Michael's Hemingway "thing." I find that not many people, even Palin fans, know about or understand the books that have been written and published to supplement each of his travel series. The books, based on his obsessively detailed diaries, are his own re-creations of the making of the journeys. Naturally there's overlap with the edited TV series, but usually even when the same visit or interview is present in both film and book form, there's information or perspective from one that amplifies the other. And there's a great deal in the books that doesn't appear in the edited series.

When I finally restarted my Palin-viewing habit, with Sahara, I was surprised to find that I hadn't acquired the book -- I thought I had them all waiting for me. But I found a really gorgeous hard-cover copy dirt-cheap on Amazon, and had it in time to supplement my televiewings, still on my old 31-inch Panasonic CRT TV, of course. (And the hard-cover version is definitely a plus. I've got paperback versions of some of the others, but for Basil Pao's photos, you want the better reproduction of the hard-cover.)

And Sahara is a fabulous journey. I had seen parts of an episode or two of the series way back when on the Travel Channel, but not enough to make sense of it. The series encompasses a staggering range of terrains and cultures, starting north of the Sahara -- starting in Gibraltar, where happily for us Michael had never been, then proceeding by ferry from Algeciras across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, then across the mountains and finally encountering the Sahara (it fascinated Michael that this vast little-known terrain existed so close to Europe), spending time with the exiled Polisario rebels from Western Sahara and on southward, then swinging east and finally heading north through Algeria and Libya before Michael revisited the once place he'd been before: Tunisia, where Life of Brian was filmed, then across the then-still-highly dangerous northern coastal region of Algeria and eventually back to Spain.

As always with a Palin journey, the primary focus is on the people encountered along the way. The locals hired or pressed into service as guides are almost always fascinating, and nearly always Michael's own cultural openness and curiosity leads to glimmerings of contact with and understanding of people who live lives that seem, and sometimes really are, so different from our own. The people, however, aren't so different. And one couldn't ask for a better travel companion (or surrogate) than Michael, with all that gentle humor to go along with the insatiable curiosity about people.

When I finished Sahara, I was all primed for Himalaya, but despite the shock and delight at finding myself transported straightaway to the legendary Khyber Pass, I wasn't initially enchanted by the first couple of episodes. I mean, a grand gathering of locals from two fairly distant villages in, as I recall, the Pakistani Karakoram, for a no-holds-barred polo match? (The play without rules.) And then there was cricket -- or was it rugby, or soccer? Whatever the hell it was, who cares?

I applied a double rescue strategy. First, as noted, I now had the new TV in place, a perfect excuse to double back. But also, since I indeed already had the accompanying book (also in hard-cover!), and now I had the idea of reading the book ahead of watching the film, and I have to say, it did seem to give me a more involving sense of who the people encountered were and why we might care about them and their ways of life. And with the book under my belt, I was also happy to encounter a number of the "Extended Scenes" that are offered for each of the six episodes.

Indeed, I came to think that Himalaya represents such an enormous journey, encompassing not just the mountains to the west of the stupendous Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram, but a significant chunk of lowland Pakistan and India, and the pretty much the whole of the Himalaya range (with significant coverage of Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan), and the previously unknown-to-me far-eastern stretch of India bordering Myanmar (Burma), called Nagaland, leading naturally into the lowlands of Assam, and finally lowest-land Bangladesh, where such great waters of the Himalaya as the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers wash not just the water but the rock and soil of the mountains into the plain and delta emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

(In Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, by the way, we get a vivid sense of how different the Bengalis are in their Muslim identity from their various Pakistani coreligionists. I should add that differences of and conflicts in religion and politics, which were rife in this region in 2003, when the journey was made, and of course still are, are handled with breathtaking evenhandedness and sensitivity.)

Do I have to add that virtually all of these are places I never imagined seeing? Tibet! (Everest is actually seen, not from the familiar south side in Nepal but from the far less known northern face.) And not just the Tibet Autonomous Region, as the former country has been known since it was annexed by the People's Republic of China, but additional portions of the massive Tibetan plateau in the PRC itself. It's such an immense journey that boiling it down to six hours of TV must have been agony.

It may seem contradictory to suggest that at the same time an awful lot of the people and places visited aren't all that memorable, and yet have to be represented to fill out the picture of the travel path -- and again the combination of book, film, and DVD extended scenes proves immensely helpful. One common thread is that in countries that are heavily Muslim, heavily Hindu, and heavily Buddhist, there is an enormous amount of religion, about which Michael is magnificently tolerant and inquiring, but a viewer may be a lot less sympathetic. The thought of visiting one more temple or one more monastery becomes all but unbearable. Ditto the assortment of pointless festivals we partake in along the trek. It is, of course, what people do to fill out their lives, and I don't mean to suggest that their versions of these things are less meaningful than ours. Quite the contrary. But it does take its toll on one's armchair-travel stamina.

In the course of watching these six packed hours I did a lot of backtracking, but I suspect that the whole thing may look very different the next time through, and the next. There is, by the way, an extended interview added to the special features on the third DVD in which Michael talks about the whole journey, including the story (also told in the book) of how they managed the final shot of Michael sailing off in a tiny boat into the sunset on the Bay of Bengal.

Already in Himalaya, filmed in 2003, Michael displayed a keen awareness of having turned 60, and of the group aging of his entire little travel family -- after all, by then he had been traveling and working with largely the same production team for decades, and none of them were getting younger. I'm cheered by the thought that still ahead for me is one more Palin journey, New Europe.

Do I have to add that it's unimaginable that American TV would ever undertake anything remotely like these journeys? There is, after all, no obvious commercial payoff to any of them. The BBC, however, has garnered not only strong audience response to these series, but continued income from sales of the books and now the DVDs. It's not the kind of money that would impress a Hollywood mogul. Luckily that's not the standard at the BBC.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Finally, Today The State Department Warned Travelers Away From Egypt

The State Department is very cautious about harming the tourism business of allies and client states and for the entire week-- with dozens killed, including an American student-- the State Department didn't issue a warning about Egypt, despite the turmoil. But tourism is a gigantic part of the economy and warning away tourists is almost like declaring economic warfare. Some say that Morsi fell because Egyptian tourism was down by about 25% this year. But today, the State Department did warn tourists to find another destination instead of Egypt.

July 3, 2013

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Egypt and U.S. citizens living in Egypt to depart at this time because of the continuing political and social unrest. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning issued on June 28, 2013.

On July 3, 2013, the Department of State ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and family members from Egypt due to the ongoing political and social unrest.

Political unrest, which intensified prior to the constitutional referendum in December 2012 and the anniversary in 2013 of Egypt's 25th January Revolution, is likely to worsen in the near future due to unrest focused on the first anniversary of the President’s assumption of office. Demonstrations have, on occasion, degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters, and between protesters supporting different factions, resulting in deaths, injuries, and extensive property damage. Participants have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails and security forces have used tear gas and other crowd control measures against demonstrators. There are numerous reports of the use of firearms as well. While violent protests have occurred in major metropolitan areas, including downtown Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said, the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan, and Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el Sheikh, continues to be calm. Of specific concern is a rise in gender-based violence in and around protest areas where women have been the specific targets of sexual assault.

On June 28, a U.S. citizen was killed during a demonstration in Alexandria. On May 9, a private U.S. citizen was attacked with a knife outside of the U.S. Embassy after being asked whether he was an American. Additionally, Westerners and U.S. citizens have occasionally been caught in the middle of clashes and demonstrations. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security by knowing the locations of police and fire stations, hospitals, and the U.S. Embassy.

If you wish to depart Egypt, you should make plans and depart as soon as possible. The airport is open and commercial flights are still operating, although cancellations may occur. Travelers should check with their airlines prior to their planned travel to verify the flight schedule. There are no plans for charter flights or other U.S. government-sponsored evacuations. U.S. citizens seeking to depart Egypt are responsible for making their own travel arrangements.

The U.S. Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent, and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse. Because of the proximity of the U.S. Embassy to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the U.S. Embassy has sometimes been closed to the public on short notice due to violent protests. The Embassy will notify U.S. citizens as quickly as possible of any closing and the types of emergency consular services that will be available. Should security forces block off the area around the U.S. Embassy during demonstrations, U.S. citizens should contact the American Citizens Services section before attempting to come to the U.S. Embassy during that time. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt.