Friday, July 31, 2009

The L Magazine: Mapping Mannahatta, The Original Manhattan

Markley Boyer, The Mannahatta Project, Wildlife Conservation Society

On The L Magazine:

Picture a time when Kips and Turtle Bays were actual bays, and East Harlem was nothing but plains. When Queens and Brooklyn were still considered part of Long Island, the was Bronx part of Westchester, and the center of New York was just Manhattan. Now it’s a paved paradise with buildings, streets and sidewalks, but back then two-thirds of that island were covered in green forests. Deer, otters, bobcats, and rabbits roamed the thickets. The island was smaller then: 11,817 acres instead of its current 13,690 acres. When Mannahatta was truly the island of many hills, as the Lenape Indians, the original New Yorkers, called it. Welcome to New York, circa 1609.

It’s been 400 years since Henry Hudson and his crew of the Half-Moon set sail up what would become his namesake river and, my oh my, how New York has changed. Instead of soaring trees, there are towering buildings made of brick and steel. Our urban opera now includes honking motorists, screeching tires, constant chatter, construction noise, jackhammers, and blaring music, with the occasional bird chirp somewhere in the mix.

Even though the wild Manhattan of old is long gone, you can get a sense of it in Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, 1609 to 2009, a project helmed by Eric Sanderson, landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The endeavor exists both as a book and exhibit form at the Museum of the City of New York.

Eric Sanderson thought he’d always live in northern California, where he grew up and got his PhD in landscape ecology at the University of California, Davis. Then he got a job offer from the WCS, which is headquartered at the Bronx Zoo.

In between his far-flung trips trying to figure out how to conserve international ecological systems, Sanderson made his home on City Island, which he describes as “a little bit like an old fishing village, New York-style.” During the weekends, he ventured into Manhattan and acted like a proper tourist, though he couldn’t turn his mind off. “I would go to the Empire State Building and try to figure out how this landscape works,” Sanderson said. “Like how the savannah in Africa works: how does this ecosystem work in New York? It was so different from what I’ve grown up with.” “Manhattan is so extraordinary,” he continued, “it is the densest place in the United states by twofold.”

Whenever he was about to visit a new location, Sanderson did his research and New York was no exception. Often, he would look at old maps, which greatly intrigued him. This was how he stumbled upon the British Headquarters’ Map, dating from 1872. The map was created during the American Revolution by the British Army to figure out strategic strong and weak points throughout New York in order to protect itself from the Americans. The meticulously detailed map included the original shoreline, elevations, and locations of marshes, streams, wildlife and plant life.

“If you take that map and geo-reference it to the city today, then I could figure out where those streams are,” Sanderson said. “All those features are long lost from the island of Manhattan.” That’s exactly what he did, and armed with the map and a GPS system, he created the Mannahatta Project.

The project illustrates that old Manhattan for us through 3D digital renderings combined with photographs of actual similar and current ecosystems, to help create realistic speculative renderings of the wild island by Markley Boyer.

Select images from the book are presented in the exhibition at the City Museum, along with maps paintings, and written observations from various travelers at the time. The animated 3D map, where the landscape of Mannahatta morphs into that of contemporary Manhattan, is projected in the middle of the room, where it feels a little like a campfire. Meanwhile, signs for each section of the exhibit mimic subway signs.

“I really wanted something beautiful and emotional, so that you could connect it first with your heart, and then with your mind,” he said of the design of the exhibit. “The more time you spend with it, the more you experience it.”

What do you learn? Collect Pond was the biggest source of fresh water on the island. After the local tannery polluted the pond and it was filled in, the location became the swampy area known as Five Points, where violent gangs would fight it out, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Times Square was home to the confluence of two streams that poured into the Hudson River and to Beaver Pond. The Hudson shores were simply sand banks and the East River shores were marshes.

When asked about further expanding the project to cover the outer boroughs, Sanderson said he had a student working on Queens and Brooklyn right now, but there is no funding, so it’s just a summer project. “Queens had 50 percent wetlands,” he noted.

He is also often asked about creating similar projects for other cities, like London and San Francisco. “Certainly, a lot of other cities in the world, you can do it right,” he said, but there are no further plans.

Currently, Sanderson is working on a competition for architects and landscape designers through a fellowship at the Van Alen Institute. In September 2009, contestants will be invited to work design a sustainable working plan for Manhattan in the year 2409, working within predetermined guidelines. “A beaver needs habitat, and you have to supply food and shelter for it to work,” Sanderson says, “so where is the city going to get those things? What will the city produce, what will it get from the surrounding regions, and get from the world?”

While today’s Manhattan is vastly different from the Manhatta of four centuries ago, Sanderson still believes the city has a bright future. “I’m really optimistic about the future of New York City,” he said. “I think people are really ready and hungry for wanting to know how to live their lives in ways that are meaningful and satisfactory, but not in ways that harm the environment.”

He pointed to architecture and the green revolution as evidence: “People are thinking about how we can live in cities in a resource-efficient manner, and there’s a push to express them more fully. Like green roofs that don’t rely on air conditioning.”

“Even closing streets like we do over the summer and encourage people to ride bikes,” he added. “If you take cars off the streets, it becomes really rideable and fantastic.”

When I asked him about his favorite New York City spot, Sanderson responded enthusiastically: “Inwood Park—the place that’s closest to Manhattan and closest to the Hudson River. It has great, beautiful hills and it’s so far uptown that people still haven’t been there.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Queens, the Nabe

Someone at the Metro just asked:

Is Queens a neighborhood or a borough?

...for real?

Gun Hang-Ups

I never knew this was what the police did with guns, but it’s awesome:

And after the revolver is used as evidence in court, its future will be assured, even as some of its past remains a mystery: Like other guns seized by the police, it will be melted down and reincarnated as wire clothes hangers.

I will now think of a gun every time I hang my shirts up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Metro: Schooled on the summer

For Metro:

School’s out — but that doesn’t mean you and your kids should ditch the books. “Research shows kids lose ground over the summer when they’re not in school,” says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the National Center for Summer Learning. “As communities, we need to figure out how to engage kids.”

Don’t worry — this doesn’t have to be as dreadful as the regular school year, and there are options for learners of all age.

Learn on vacation
If your hometown is too small for you, try running away to another country through a summer study abroad program like Global Student Experience. Attend universities throughout the world, including Argentina and Spain, while learning the language and the country’s past and present.

Mix it up
Try taking classes at a different school, like Harvard Summer School, with mostly open admissions. The school offers, among regular classes, English Language Programs, study abroad programs, secondary school programs, and courses for teachers.

At your own pace
Instead of spending four years earning your degree, earn credit over the summer and do it in three years. Manchester College in Indiana offers the Fast Forward Program, where students take summer online courses.

Get your hands dirty
Green Mountain College in Vermont offers Farm Life Ecology, where students receive hands-on farm operation experience, caring for livestock while taking classes. “The experience helps students understand how consumption is tied to production,” says Kenneth Mulder, Cerridwen Farm manager. “[It allows] them to explore issues about energy, agriculture and sustainability.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Governors Island Facts

My three favorite facts about Governors Island (one old, two new):

Buttermilk Channel, the body of water between Brooklyn and Governors Island, used to be so shallow that cows from Brooklyn were able to cross the water by foot and graze on the island.

The original size of Governors Island was smaller, but in 1912, the island was expanded using dirt and rocks from the Lexington Avenue subway line excavations, hence creating the ice cream cone shape we have today.

Last year, security caught a couple hiding out in a closet in, what I assume, one of the former Coast Guard building, because they wanted to spend the night on Governors Island, which wasn’t and isn’t allowed, with the exception of the camp-out for City of Water Day).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inprint: Volver

Published in Inprint, Issue 5, October 31, 2006

Volver, Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Starring Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Rated R, Opens Nov. 3rd

Out of breath, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) opens her front door slightly. Her friend sees blood streaked on her neck and asks if she’s hurt. She brushes it off, saying “Women’s troubles.” This is the essence of Pedro Al¬modóvar’s Volver, a film revolving around women, their lives and their relationships.

Volver, in Spanish, means “to return,” and here it means to re¬turn to Raimunda’s and her sister, Sole’s (Lola Dueñas) home village, to their family and to every¬thing else in their lives. Most importantly, this includes the return of the ghost of their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), who died in a fire with their father.

Almodóvar is fascinated with strong women, and the actresses in this film hold their own ground. The female cast collectively won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Cruz is perfectly costumed for the role in big teased hair, stylish clothes and lovely curves, both real and false (her ass is padded). Cruz exudes maternal strength and despair at the same time while remaining calm. Almodóvar always finds grittier and fleshier roles for Cruz as opposed to her American films and Raimunda is her best to date.

Volver also marks the reunion of actress Carmen Muera and Al¬modóvar, 18 years after Women on the Verge of a Nervous Break¬down. She flawlessly slips back into Almodóvar’s world flawlessly now as an older woman. Pretending to be a Russian immigrant, her cute, wide-eyed expressions hide her guilt as she attempts to reconnect with her daughters.

Almodóvar uses close-ups to emphasize key scenes, like the pristine, white quilted paper towel dropping onto a puddle of blood, the red quickly soaking the white and the overhead shot of Raimunda cleaning a knife slowly after dinner.

The film isn’t surrealist at all, fantastically real is a more suitable description. From Irene ap¬pearing out of nowhere in the trunk of Sole’s car, to strong winds that blow mementos and flowers off of graves, every ac¬tion in the movie makes sense and is believable, though it first seems out of place.

With my fading high school knowledge of Spanish, I know some dialogue was not translated properly. Despite this minor set-back, Almodóvar’s film remains clear, tinted with his signature red, speaking to (and never for) women everywhere.

Journalism & the Sea

So Walter Cronkite used to take a tugboat out to fancy ships to interview celebrities before they docked.

The term “anchor,” came about because of Cronkite: when he led the coverage of the Democratic and Republican Conventions, the director of television news referred to Cronkite as an anchor, because he held the ship (or the event, as this metaphor goes) in place.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The L Magazine: Now Anyone Can Surf The Subway Like a Native

From the L Magazine:

Being a New Yorker for 24-and-something years, I know where I'm supposed to stand on the subway platform if I want to transfer from the uptown F to the Brooklyn-bound L to the Queens-bound G. I stand in the back of the downtown E if I want to get off at West 8th Street at the West 4th Street station, and the front of the train if I want to go to West 3rd Street. After making these trips over and over again, I just learned from experience.

It comes with the privilege of being a New Yorker. It's something you learn after taking the train over and over again. The idea behind the new smartphone application Exit Strategy NYC (which tells you where to stand on what trains for the quickest walk to your desired connection) is nice for those not familiar with the intricacies of the subway, but what about those hard-earned fast-transfer stripes? I guess some things still come with being a seasoned New Yorker, like being flashed at least once on the train. (For me, it was my freshman year of high school on the R train.)

The L Magazine: This too Shall Pass

From The L Magazine:

The Vanished Empire
Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov

Outdoor lines for beer, black market Pink Floyd and Rolling Stone records, Wrangler jeans — this is what Soviet Union has become by the 1970s. As the country slowly but surely falls apart, Sergei, our protagonist, comes together.

Director Karen Shakhnazarov shows us Sergei's story, along with his friends Stepan and Kostya, and the love of his youth, Lyuda, as they deal with the trials and tribulations of being young in the Soviet Union while obsessing over Western goods. We peer into their lives, watching a confrontation from beyond a cement fence, and watching the three young men walk away into the distance after a brawl. They drive around in shiny Tatra cars, decked out in American jeans, while outside, there are rusted playgrounds and soldiers stationed on every corner.

"Moscow still in one piece?" Sergei's grandfather asks.

"I guess," Sergei answers stoically.

Sergei's grandfather, once a famous archaeologist, tells him how he discovered the ancient city of Khurezm, Central Asia's "City of Winds." After Genghis Khan and his army shut the city off by filling its canals, it became the Vanished Empire, nothing left but wind-worn stone ruins where the great people used to live. This could be said of Moscow, and, at a certain point, of Sergei as well, but he can still change his fate.

Despite academia running in Sergei's blood, he is preoccupied with other things: he makes out with girls in class, and sells his grandfather's books to buy black market records and jeans. The love triangle between Sergei, Stepan and Lyuda is but a tiny part of the greater picture: Sergei needs to find his own path to his destiny.

"Our address says Soviet Union," the older Stepan tells the older but unseen Sergei in a concluding flash-forward, "but I don't recognize any of it." He continues, "What's left?" After the repercussions of his own personal fuckups and lost loves, Sergei leaves behind his superficial life — and the Soviet Union itself. Through posters and snippets of news clips, we experience the fall of Moscow and the USSR, which represents Sergei's past. The only way he could find himself was by leaving his home country. He manages to pick up his pieces and find his place in life — though the same couldn't be said of the Soviet Union.

Opens July 10

Monday, July 6, 2009

The L Magazine: Animals in the Subway: Better Heard than Seen

Picture from Antenna Designs.

From the L Magazine:

Amidst the squeaks, creaks and groans of trains rushing by and people chattering, listen closely and you’ll soon be able to hear birds, leaves and gushing streams. But those sounds aren’t real; they’re part of a proposed installation to bring nature back to New York’s underground at the 96th Street and Broadway stop.

Using a combination of localized environmental nature sounds and Japanese anime-inspired flower sculptures, Antenna Designs, the firm behind the installation, wants us to think about the New York that used to be here, back in the time of the Dutch, while we go about our present-day New York activities.

Antenna Designs, also brought us the new subway car and MetroCard kiosk redesigns, so they at least know what they’re doing.

The project reminds me of the interactive sound installation at 34th Street-Herald Square, Christopher Janney’s “Reach New York, an Urban Musical Instrument,” where riders can play with sensors that activate sounds. It got annoying after a while, especially while waiting 20 minutes for a train at 2am and I don’t think it works that well anymore. Let’s see how this exhibit fares after a week, and whether people will even notice the sounds.

Read more about the project in this Times piece, and click here check out some of the other work Antenna has done.