Sunday, December 30, 2007

Iron Maidens, Subway Safety and a Good Cop

In an age when an emergency evacuation of a New York City subway station is a terrible possibility, the Transit Authority's decision to close token booths and install high entrance and exit turnstiles is a disaster waiting to happen. All of the ingredients were on display yesterday at the Herald Square Station--along with a commendable support for journalistic freedom on the part of a police officer that I'll get to later.

When I got off the uptown N at Herald Square just before 4 pm, rushing to get my friend on a 4:10 pm train out of Penn Station, it took us an unusually long time to exit. In our corner of the station the usual turnstiles were closed, leaving open only the high entrance and exit turnstiles (nicknamed "iron maidens" for their resemblance to a medieval torture device) that admit people with a swipe of a Metrocard and--in theory--also allow them to depart.

But with hordes racing in and out of the station, the congestion at the turnstiles was fierce. People couldn't enter and exit at the same time, so you got long lines (at least six people apiece) on either side of each iron maiden. There were people waiting to leave, people waiting to enter, and people brazenly striding through the "emergency exit" door--each one setting off an alarm on the way.

I got my friend on his train, then returned to Herald Square to photograph the crowds around 4:30 pm. They were as thick as ever, and I was sickened by the thought of all those people trying to get out in an emergency.

To compound the problem, the token booth was closed, depriving passengers of the advice and oversight that token clerks used to provide. (There were some police officers in sight on the far side of the iron maidens, but if there was a need for a quick evacuation they wouldn't have been able to do much.)

I took pictures of the lines outside the iron maidens, the empty token booth, and passengers walking out through the emergency exit.

One passenger, angry that I had photographed her as she walked out of the emergency exit, said I had invaded her privacy. She asked me to destroy my picture of her. I explained that the law on these matters says that you have a right to privacy in a place where you can reasonably expect privacy. A subway station isn't one of them.

Unsatisfied, she summoned a policeman. Police Officer Vargas listened to each of us, examined my identification, and then made it clear to her that she didn't really have a case. I thanked him and left quickly, but I'd like to take this opportunity to salute him.

I got away with my camera and my pictures intact (you can see a photo of the crowding above). Still, I have a nagging concern about the iron maidens and empty token booths. The turnstiles just don't let people out of the stations fast enough. And the roving "station agents" that have replaced the token clerks are no substitute for them.

When the Transit Authority proposed its current policies on token booths and turnstiles in 2001 (before 9/11), the Straphangers Campaign and Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union both recognized the foolishness of the plan. Today, in a dangerous world, it doesn't look any smarter.

Does anyone else have some thoughts on these problems? And ideas for what we might do about them?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More on the NYHS

Let me follow up Rob’s post on the NYHS with a few comments of my own, though let me state that I know nothing about the situation he described (or the people involved.)But I too am a former employee of the NYHS (during the time I worked on the Encyclopedia of New York City), but I left their employ in 1992, when my job was finished. This was also at the time of the financial nadir of the NYHS, when it seemed very likely that it would not be able to continue as an independent institution.

Since then it has had, what, four or five different chief executives? This is a common path for troubled institutions, both of the for-profit and non-profit varieties, with a revolving door for saviors, all of whom come in with their own business plans and strategies, a determination to sweep clean with a new broom, until all this innovation and constant reinvention becomes completely enervating. At least in the bad old days, when the NYHS gloried in its antiquarianism, and rarely deigned to notice anything that happened in New York City after the time of De Witt Clinton, it had the virtue, from the perspective of the staff, of a security born of somnolence. Now, if people don’t get with the program of the current genius they get the standard two hours to clear out their desks.

It is hard not to compare the NYHS with the current problems of the Center for Jewish History, which just underscores the difficulty of independent historical institutions have in a non-profit world in which they really have no business existing. (The price of failure for all non-profits in NYC is being incorporated into the Borg-like collective of NYU. In the end, resistance is probably futile.) It’s very hard to be a small non-profit museum these days in NYC. Either you take over a 10 acre lot, like the Metropolitan Museum, or the dinosaureum next door to the NYHS, or you tend to die and wither, and institutions with deeper pockets say the right things while lusting after your collections.

Perhaps this is too cynical, and as I said, living and working in Rochester, I am completely out of the loop, and I am ignorant of the particulars of the situation, or indeed, of how well, financially or otherwise, the NYHS is doing these days. (I liked the exhibitions on slavery, I should acknowledge.) But, writing as a so-called “independent scholar,” I think the episode Rob describes sheds light on the perpetually tenuous state of public history and public historians. Most people agree that history is too important to be left solely to the mercies and ministrations of the self-interested academic colossi that are our large universities like NYU. But outside its borders, in the world where real public historians work, job security is a rare commodity, and you are all too frequently subject to the changing whims of your employer. Tight budgets make for pink slips, especially in the privatized world of public history.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Unfortunate Departure

Rare is the museum educator so inspiring that you want to make a movie about her, but that's the case with Cynthia Copeland. In 1996, when "Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York" was at the New-York Historical Society, I found her work with young people so impressive that I made a documentary short about her. So it baffles me to learn that on Monday the Historical Society fired her.

Cynthia doesn't want to discuss the issue and Laura Washington, Vice President for Communications at the Society, says "We don't make any comments on our personnel matters." If that leaves the situation murky, it is still absolutely clear to me that Cynthia has extraordinary talent for working with museum exhibits to teach kids about the past.

Here's the backstory. As the co-curator of "Metropolitan Lives" with Rebecca Zurier, I was fascinated by the way some visitors to the show connected to it through their family history. People would pause in front of a painting of a tenement scene, pull themselves up a little taller, and say something like, "My mother lived on the Lower East Side" with all the pride that some Americans reserve for "My great-great grandfather was at Gettysburg."

I resolved to document this phenomenon and make a short movie about it. I hired the sharp-eyed cameraman Peter Pearse, identified a senior guide at the Society, and told him to spend the day shooting him. But when Peter spotted Cynthia at work, he knew she was the real story of the day.

Peter's camerawork captured Cynthia doing something extraordinary, something far more important than I'd ever imagined as the subject of the film: talking with Black and Hispanic kids from the Bronx of 1996 about the New York of the early 1900s in ways that spanned decades and ethnic differences.

Starting with what the kids know--the streets of New York--she got them thinking about the Ashcan artists, city life, and the interplay of past and present. Months later, one of the boys who met with her told me fondly, "She put the pictures in our heads." The resulting film, which would have been inconceivable without Cynthia's work as its centerpiece, was honored by the National Educational Media Network and went into distribution with Carousel Film and Video.

At the Society, Cynthia went on to work on projects involving Seneca Village, slavery, and the American Revolution. She became a noticeable presence at history conferences and was a co-curator of the Society's "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery."

When I visited "Legacies" with my wife and daughter, Cynthia showed us around the exhibit. I still count that trip as one of the best history lessons my daughter will ever receive.

Given the hush about Cynthia's exit, I can't say anything more about her departure and what it means. (Although if anyone else knows anything, I'd be interested to hear it.)

But this much I know: Cynthia Copeland set a great standard for museums and museum educators. I hope it's not too long before she's up and working again, showing us all what great teaching about history can be.

The *

After bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which proved a tough order even for him, former Sen. George Mitchell, has turned his talent for straightening things out to baseball’s steroid mess. The Mitchell Report tried to lay blame where it was deserved (everywhere) and named numerous names, of which the most prominent was the ex-Yankee Roger Clemens, and the current Yankee, Andy Pettite, along with a parcel of other Yankees, in part because a former Yankee trainer was one of the few people who spoke on the record about steroid abuse.

It’s a dispiriting report, because it is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real problem with steroid use, and it has already implicated the best hitter of the recent era of baseball (Barry Bonds) and the best pitcher (Clemens. ) During Bonds's recent pursuit of Henry Aaron’s home run record, it was widely suggested that his home run record deserved to be asterisked, that is to say, in some ways noted as not being the "real" record. And today a parcel of Mets fans are suggesting, given the 14 Yankees named in the Mitchell report, that the Yankee victory in the 2000 subway series be similarly asterisked. By this logic, it is a short step to one giant asterisk being placed on all baseball records and results from about 1990 to the present

The asterisk as a term of baseball art was coined in 1961, the year major league baseball went from a 154 to a 162 game season, and the year Roger Maris challenged and beat Babe Ruth’s old record of 60 home runs in a season. If, Frick, ruled, it took Maris more than 154 games to beat Ruth’s record, it would be in its own category. (It never officially had an asterisk.) Maris broke Ruth’s record in the 162nd game of the season, and the metaphorical asterisk was applied. It was a grossly unfair ruling—no one came close to Maris’s record in 30 years of 162-game seasons until the steroid cases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds broke Maris’s record in the late 1990s. (And of course Maris supporters now argue that he alone has the unasterisked record.)

Anyway, it’s an interesting historical devise, the asterisk, to be applied whenever a result is achieved through unfair or illegitimate means. To give one example of this might work, at least until 1968, the first presidential election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, all presidential elections systematically excluded a large percentage of Americans from voting. All the presidents from Washington to Johnson should be asterisked, and Richard Nixon becomes the first real president, the father of his country.

The closest analogy to the baseball asterisk I know of is the Roman Catholic notion of the antipope, a pope who is deemed not to have been canonically elected, and is kept off the official list of popes. In the past 2000 years, there have been about 266 popes and about 30 antipopes. In recent years, since the ascension of Pope John XXIII in 1958 there have a number of conservative critics of Vatican II who have argued that there have been no real popes since the death of Pius XII, but on various technical grounds, only antipopes, while the See of Rome remains vacant. This is a doctrine known as sedevacantism, and like the baseball asterisk, it might have uses outside its original use. Whatever you say about American presidents through Nixon, there is no doubt that the person who claimed victory in the 2000 election was elected irregularly, and confirmed by a biased court. According to sedevacantist doctrine, once irregularly put in office,the illegitimacy continues throughout his tenure. George W. Bush has been an anti-president, and since Jan 20, 2001, the White House has been empty.

But of course the problem with the asterisk and sedevacantism is that history is not concerned with fairness, and that if human history were limited to contests and conflicts that were fairly decided, without bias or prejudice, historians would soon find themselves with nothing and no one to study. There is no record book that we can change to reflect our sense of what should have happened, but didn’t, no Hall of Fame from which to exclude cheaters. History is what it is, or what it was. We can’t change it, though I have long thought that studying history is a very poor substitute for what we really want to do, to change it, and be the assassin who gunned down Hitler, or to tell Julius Caesar to get out of Rome for a March vacation. As Santayana said, those who can’t change history are condemned to live it, or something like that, and the steroid scandal is history at its messiest and most complex, and no amount of burnishing the record book with asterisks will be able to change what actually happened.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Classical Music in North Korea

The Times reported yesterday that this coming February, the New York Philharmonic will become the first American orchestra to visit North Korea. Much of the coverage in the Times focused on the question of whether the NYPO will play the “Star Spangled Banner” before the concert, an event, that in my opinion, will have about as much to do with the actual concert as the playing of the national anthem before a baseball game has to do with hitting, pitching, and fielding.

The coverage of this event seems strikingly similar to the treatment of the first tentative American steps towards rapprochement with China in the early 1970s, an entrance into a dark and hidden land, and the presumption that we are bearing strange new gifts, and that North Koreans are utterly unfamiliar with classical music, bringing, as the Times writes, “the legacy of Beethoven, Bach, and Bernstein to one of the world’s most isolated nations.”

The Times should relax. North Korea is not a land without classical music. The excellent German label CPO has a recording of the Democratic People’s Republic Orchestra of Korea playing the music of the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917- 1995.) Yun is an interesting composer, who studied in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, from where in 1966, he was kidnapped by agents of the South Korean secret police, and returned to South Korea, where he was imprisoned and tortured for several years before West German pressure led to his release, from whence he returned to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life. His music is modernist in a post-war European style, maybe a cross between Henze and Nono, perhaps. I can’t say that I was overly impressed by the performance of the chorus in Yun’s cantata, “My Land! My People!,” but I found the orchestral playing excellent in Yun’s twenty minute “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” a tribute to the violent suppression of a student protest in South Korea in 1980, and as a piece of political music worthy of comparison to such composition as Husa “1968: Music From Prauge” or Pendereski’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and its sounds a bit like the latter as well.

The Times quotes a music critic to the effect that classical music will be challenge to North Korean culture, that in “a sense classical music is thoroughly at odds with the values of a closed, totalitarian society.” Would that it were so. But as Alex Ross has reminded us in his excellent recent book on the music of the 20th century The Rest is Noise, the history of classical music in the past century is in many ways a dialogue, for and against, the threat and reality of totalitarianism and unfreedom, and the need for music to be at once political and to be able to transcend politics. (After all, leaving aside the US, by 1940, the four greatest traditional centers of classical music, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia, were all ruled by totalitarian governments.) It proved far too easy for classical music to flourish under totalitarianism regimes, though admittedly not without a certain life-giving ambiguity.

According to Wikipedia the North Korean symphony orchestra has recently made a recording of that famously ambiguous work, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony “Leningrad” on which oceans of ink have been spilled on whether it was directed against Hitler, or Stalin, or both. Perhaps the North Korean musicians who recorded “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” played the music with other acts of repression in mind, those north of the 38th parallel.

All great music helps its listeners to transcend their limitations and surroundings and their own parochial concerns, and no form of music is more truly universal than classical music. I hope the visit of the NYPO to North Korea is an occasion for the realization of this shared humanity, and perhaps the music will remind those who hear its concerts that life is full of possibilities and alternatives, that change is inevitable, and the meaning of music, like the meaning of life, is to partake of it and to understand it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Human Face of Mass Transit

The weekend edition of the New York metro, a newspaper given away for free, offers the lead headline, "A 'human face' for subways" to describe an MTA plan to decentralize management of New York subway lines. Better service on the subways is a great idea, but the MTA will get better results from this plan if it affirms the work of the people who are already the human face of the transit system: transit workers.

As the grandson of a transit worker and the author of a book on transit workers (Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories), I've studied transit workers' reactions to their work. For decades, one word appears again and again in their demands for what they want on the job: dignity. That shouldn't get lost in the drive for passenger satisfaction.

As Greg Lombardi, line general manager for the L train puts it in the metro, "It's about pleasing the customer". Good point, but in our consumer society most settings for the pursuit of customer satisfaction are the stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues of a modern consumer society.

Transit workers, however, labor in a system that recalls the hard years of the industrial revolution. For many transit workers the job is dirty, dangerous, tedious, and physically demanding. For that, their labor deserves recognition and a proper reward.

In a consumer society, many consumers forget about the producers who make their comfortable lives possible. (When was the last time any of us inquired into the work conditions of the people who make our clothes or cook our food?)

As the MTA goes forward, it will get better results if its labor policies and public relations efforts recognize transit workers for what they are: the men and women whose labor makes New York a 24-hour city. And the human faces on the buses and subways that New Yorkers ride every day.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bombay and New York

When the writer Sukhetu Mehta told people in Bombay, India that he was going to New York City, they told him that he would feel at home: Bombay, they said, is just like New York. After writing his brilliant Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and working on a forthcoming book about immigration in New York City, Mehta has concluded that they are right.

Both cities, he said at a reading Wednesday at Rutgers-Newark, have a certain contempt for their capital cities: New York for Washington, DC, Bombay for Delhi. Both are city-states--large enough and distinct enough that their inhabitants can imagine that their destiny is not entirely bound to their surrounding country. As Mehta put it, people in Bombay imagine India the way a famous cover of New York imagines the USA in relation to New York City: narrow, distant and inconsequential.

The sources of this mindset in Bombay, and much more, are conveyed in Maximum City. At once an exploration of a great city and Mehta's own relationship to the metropolis, the book covers everything from Hindu-Muslim conflicts to gangsters to dancing girls to Bollywood films. Mehta conveys the feel of Bombay without reducing it to a few simple traits. Bombay, in Mehta's view, is a city of multiple personalities--many of which resonate in him.

Mehta is now at work on a nonfiction book about immgrants in New York City. If he brings to it the same sense of people and place that shine in Maximum City, it will be a book well worth reading.

The Two Bailouts

I highly recommend William L. Silber’s excellent volume, When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America’s Monetary Supremacy (Princeton University Press, 2007), even those who aren’t financial history buffs. Those of you who are know that the New York Stock Exchange shut down in August 1914, not to fully reopen until 1915, by far the longest suspension of trading in the history of the NYSE. (Which first began trading in 1792, and not in 1817, and almost every book and newspaper on this subject has it wrong, but that is another story.)

Silber’s book lucidly explains why the exchange was shuttered, basically to prevent foreign investors from cashing in their securities and exchanging their cash for gold, how this worked, and how the US avoided a panic in the summer of 1914, and emerged, by early 1915, as the strongest financial power in the world, with the dollar starting to dislodge sterling as world’s premier currency.

What I hadn’t known before reading this book is that, because of the strains in the financial markets in August 1914, when New York City had to make payments in British pound-denominated bond issues to European capital markets, the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and had to be bailed out by the Secretary of the Treasury, along with much tut-tutting on how the city had to learn to live within its means. Silber argues the bailout of NYC in 1914 was the beginning of the “too big to fail” doctrine in American finance, with Lockheed and Chrysler, being later examples of federal largess. The second bailout of the city in 1975 forms a partial exception to this principle, for while Ford did not allow the city to actually “drop dead,” it was hedged with so many controls and restrictions that (unlike the private companies the federal government aided) it would take many decades for the city to recover its financial independence, and in many ways it never really has.

The two bailouts of NYC, 1914 and 1975, make for an irresistible comparison, and the two dates perhaps mark the dates of what might be called “New York City’s short 20th century.” As Silber points out, even if the Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, had played his hand less expertly than he did, New York City would have eventually replaced London as the global financial center, but it would have taken much longer. The events of 1914 would have a profound effect on the city’s and state’s finances. In their aftermath, New York City would no longer go the European capital markets to raise funds, but would have their bond offerings underwritten by New York City bankers. Public authorities, the Port Authority, and later Robert Moses’s various creations like the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority would make use of friendly relations with underwriters. The expansion of New York State’s budget and services in the 1920s under Al Smith was likewise dependent on access to capital, and this would be a hallmark of “liberal” governments in NYC and NYS, Democratic and Republican, until the bailout of 1975.

In 1975 this access to capital started to dry up, and there were other, far reaching changes in America’s capital markets, starting with the end of fixed commission rates on the NYSE on May 1. 1975, the first stage in a process that would see a transformation of investment banks, and their supplanting of commercial banks as the dominant financial institutions of the United States. In the end the relatively cozy relation to home-grown capital than New York enjoyed from 1914 to 1975 would not be possible in the globalized marketplace that emerged thereafter. Today, the NYSE is a for-profit corporation, its trading floor steadily dwindling in size and importance, and the co-owner (and co-owned by) several European exchanges. What impact this and other changes will have on the finances of the city and state, only time will tell.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Moses Weinstein

About a month ago, as part of a book I am writing, I tried to find out something about the biography of Moses “Mo” Weinstein, the Queens County Democratic leader in the 1960s. I had never heard of him, and couldn’t find much about him. I looked for an obit in the Times, and there wasn’t one, and wondered whether the Times had neglected to give him one, or whether he was still alive. The answer was the latter, or it was the answer until earlier this week, when Moses Weinstein died at the age of 95, and the Times gave him a proper obituary.

In the course of my research, several people have spoken to me about Weinstein, how he skillfully but unobtrusively shaped the politics of Queens in the 1960s, and how he helped engineer the rise of black political power in southeastern Queens. He wasn’t flashy or controversial, like some of his successors as Queens Democratic leaders, such as Matt Troy or Donald Manes, but by all accounts he was an extremely effective leader. In some ways he was a model for a new type of Democratic leader that emerged in the 1960s, representing post-Tammany politics, liberal and relatively unobtrusive. At its best, party politics is a way of connecting otherwise disparate communities and constituencies in the pursuit of common goals, and as far as I know, Moses Weinstein helped to do this in challenging and difficult times, and one of the people who helped make Queens the remarkable experiment in racial and ethnic diversity that it has since become.

Dodger Blue

So Walter O’ Malley is in the baseball Hall of Fame. The article about it in the Times today spoke approvingly of the “the decline of anti-O’Malleyism in Brooklyn” and found two feckless yuppies, who, in the time honored language of thieves and swindlers defending their ill-gotten gains, told those who still bear a grudge against O’Malley to “get over it,” while another one-time Brooklyn Dodger fan called O’Malley a “genius”

The article’s author labeled those who begrudge O’Malley his induction “sore sports,” and the point seems to be that fifty years ago Brooklyn was a crumbling mess of a slum, and now it’s a really hip, happening place, and those who are still thinking about the Dodgers are just mossbacks too wrapped up their ancient grievances to realize the world around them has changed, or something like that. And the author also seems to support the theory that Robert Moses is the real villain in the Dodgers’ exodus, further muddying the waters around O’Malley.

What can I say? The revisionist theory is untenable. O’Malley made unreasonable demands of Moses and the city, wanting all sorts of public monies to be expended for the privilege of keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn (as well as spurning Moses’s perfectly reasonable suggestion that the Dodgers play in a new stadium in Flushing Meadows, as the Mets eventually would.) The essence of O’Malley’s rapacity is less his screwing of Brooklyn, but his opening of a new era in which sports teams would shamelessly pilfer the public fisc for their private profits, and sell their services to the highest bidder, an era we are still iving in.

But the ultimate the point of the article seems to be the Brooklyn and Brooklynites have become wealthy enough not care about the past, with the sort of genial historical lobotomizing that is at the heart of Bloomberg’s New York. Look, not all causes are worth fighting for or remembering, and if it was up to me I would make a gigantic bonfire of every confederate flag in existence. But the Dodgers leaving was about more than baseball; it was about people trying in some small measure to control their collective destiny, with the moral being that O’Malley was a “genius” because he knew enough to kick the people who had supported him for all those years in the stomach, and sell out to the highest bidder. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for sunny Los Angeles was a parable of the deindustrialization of New York City.

And look at the other plug-uglies who were elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday, among them Bowie Kuhn, the utter nonentity of a commissioner from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, who is perhaps the least worthy person ever voted into the Hall. And who was again excluded, Marvin Miller, the peerless leader of the players union who defeated Kuhn again and again, destroyed the reserve clause, and was probably the most influential non-player in the 2nd half of the 20th century. It was Miller who finally started to get for the players some of the riches that owners, following O’Malley’s lead, had accumulated for themselves.

In the end, what can I say? If I may speak as a former Brooklynite; If Brooklyn thinks itself too trendy to care about the Dodgers and the implications of the fight to keep them in New York City, it has become a borough of whores.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The World's Greatest City?

I recently read the volume The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? , Jerilou and Kingsley Hammett ed, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) The book is a collection of essays decrying gentrification and what the authors describe as suburbanization, disneyfication, or malling (mauling?) of Manhattan, the rise of chain stores, Wal-Marts and Home Depots on the urban grid, and the hyper-capitalism of contemporary New York City.

I am in sympathy with the aims of the book, and there are some excellent essays, including a fascinating essay by my friend Suzanne Wasserman on the rise of generic street fairs in the city. But I must say my general feeling I took away from the volume was one of annoyance. It starts with the subtitle—the book as also dedicated to “New York, the Greatest City in the World.” I know it’s a silly superlative claim, but just how is New York City the greatest city in the world? Are the authors saying it is somehow “greater” (whatever that means) than London, Paris, Berlin or Beijing, that its history is richer than say, Rome, Istanbul, or Kyoto, or more beautiful than San Francisco or Sydney? I suspect that these all left-trending intellectuals would never associate themselves with a book that called the United States “the world’s greatest nation” and would rightly attack that as an act of jingoism and know nothingism; my country is better than your country. Why does it make for any better history to make this ridiculous claim for NYC?

But in fact this claim is central to the book’s aims. The essays traffic in New York City’s uniqueness. The argument seems to be in part that it’s okay if every other city in the United States has to deal with the depredations of big box stores like Wal-Mart and their ilk, and the decline of locally owned inner city commerce, but that somehow New York City should remain above the fray. These are complex problems—Wal Mart thrives in part because it provides reasonable quality products at reasonable prices, and attracts a vast numbers of poorer shoppers—but surely the effort to challenge the unquestioned hegemony of capital in America today calls for a national if not a global solution, and not simply worries about land use patterns in Manhattan.

The essays in the volume also to some extent fetishize the decades of the 1970s and the 1980s as edgy and uncommercialized, when the downtown arts scene flourished, and untrammeled individualism thrived. But surely this period in the exception, not the rule in New York City’s history, when bad economic prospects, high crime, and a declining population led large companies to shun investment in the city. The pattern since the 1990s, when capital and urban development in the city have a cozy relationship, is far more common.

In any event to speak of the suburbanization of New York City is to miss the point of Manhattan in the era of hyper-gentrification, when people in droves are moving to the suburbs precisely because NYC has become unaffordable. The need for affordable housing in New York City is acute, but neither it or the other problems that face the city can be addressed or solved from the assumption that NYC, being NYC, ought to be immune to the social forces that have transformed other American cities.

Hudson Highlands Hikes and Vistas

Some of the best Hudson River scenes are only a short train ride from New York City. Consider the view from the summit of Sugarloaf Hill: it looks down on the Hudson as it snakes through the Highlands in a montage of plunging hillsides, wind-whipped water and a vast sky.

New York's image as a place of subways and skyscrapers obscures one of its greatest charms: the city's proximity to great hiking via mass transit. Buses and trains can take you from Times Square to trailheads in 90 minutes or less, and Sugarloaf Hill is no exception.

I made the trip to Sugarloaf on the chilly Saturday of December 1, 2007. From Grand Central I took the 11:51 am Poughkeepsie train to the village of Garrison, arriving at 1:05 pm. I knew I was getting a late start, but that's the beauty of Sugarloaf: the hike and the vista are first rate, so you don't feel that you're being shortchanged if you haven't got the time for a full day's outing.

Like other hikes in this part of the Hudson Valley, where public and private properties are side by side, the route navigated a patchwork of lands. If that made for a few confusing moments on the trail, it also reminded me of the good work of preservationists who have saved the Highlands from development and opened trails to hikers.

The trail, marked with blue blazes, began from the southeast end of the parking lot at a sign marked Arden Point. It ran through the woods parallel to the Hudson River and railroad until it reached a bridge leading across the railroad to Arden Point. There I turned left, away from the river, onto a trail called "Marcia's Mile" in honor of the late Marcia Favrot, an artist and local environmental activist.

Marcia's Mile took me in a southerly direction, then turned east when it reached the Glenclyffe property. (I knew I had gone to far when I saw a sign that said private grounds, so I doubled back and found Marcia's trail, which took me east to Route 9 D.)

I crossed 9D, climbed over a low wall on a stile, followed a blue blaze to the south, and quickly came to Wing and Wing Road, which led me up a dirt road into the Castle Rock Unique Area. At a fork in the drive, I ignored a sign for parking and another trailhead. I turned right and soon came to a red blaze; I followed it to a trail that led uphill across a meadow, into the forest, and then toward Sugarloaf.

From this point, the route left behind accommodations to private property and climbed up through the forest toward Sugarloaf. Soon, the sound of traffic on Route 9D faded beneath the rustle of leaves beneath my feet.

At a high saddle on the side of Sugarloaf, my red trail met head-on with a blue trail. I turned right, following red blazes up the steep side of Sugarloaf to the ridgeline above.

After about ten minutes of climbing, I was atop Sugarloaf. I turned south, following red blazes along the ridgeline until it descended to an open, rocky spot that was my destination. The entire hike from Garrison had taken me about one hour and fifteen minutes. I ate lunch, gabbed with another party of hikers, and took some pictures.

From the south Sugarloaf looks like a cone---the shape in which sugar was once sold. When you hike it, you see that it is more a ridge that runs along the river. The lookout where I enjoyed lunch was below the summit of the ridge, and therefore protected from strong winds to the north. I comfortably ate and took pictures while a wintry wind roared around me.

Eventually I hiked back down, retracing my ascent. There was a skim of ice on a small pond that I passed, and the earth underneath my feet crunched as my steps broke the ice crystals forming in the soil. The sun cast long shadows as I crossed the meadow toward Marcia's Mile and the route home.

By 4:30 I was back in Garrison--with enough time for more photography and a pint of Guinness at Guinan's, a riverside pub at the back of a country grocery--before I caught the 5:04 train back to New York City.

When I got home I concluded that my photographs from Sugarloaf didn't do justice to the vista, so I posted a picture of the river and the Highlands taken from the dock in Garrison.

If you want to see the Hudson from Sugarloaf, you 'll have to hike there yourself. I hope make the trip: the view is worth it.