Grab a Cab at the City Limits?

I saw something unusual Friday night, as I drove home from work after dark, at about 8:30, taking a very circuitous path. I started heading south on the Bronx River Parkway, which is not my normal route home, and skipped the proper exit as it was quite backed up, I was in the wrong lane, and I was too polite to cut ahead of cars waiting in the right-hand lane. Sometimes I still have to work on being a New Yorker. On the other hand, I made one tiny gesture toward greater civility on the roads. If only a few more people would do the same!

At any rate, during my meandering drive in the dark through some poor areas of Yonkers and Mt. Vernon, navigating by vague familiarity rather than GPS, I ended up in Wakefield, Bronx. Even in the dark, the appearance of the elevated subway tracks is a giveaway. (I do enjoy either saying or writing “elevated subway.”) After a couple of moments of confusion about whether I was 180 degrees off, I soon realized, when the tracks of the 2 train overhead disappeared, that I was indeed heading the proper way on White Plains Road: north back toward suburbia. Soon I saw the flashing lights of a police car ahead and to the left on White Plains Road. Since I am not quite sure where the city line is, I was curious to see whether it was a Mt. Vernon or New York City Police Department car.

Surprise! Neither. The blue and red flashing lights were coming from inside a yellow New York City taxi. The interior light was on as well, illuminating two clean-cut white guys in the front seat, clearly cops.

This sight got me thinking. As an unmarked car, a yellow cab is not exactly unobvious in that neighborhood. On the streets of Midtown and Lower Manhattan in the middle of the work day, a yellow cab would blend right in. But in Wakefield that was probably one of the first cabs the locals have ever seen in their neighborhood. Ironically, it wasn’t even available to provide a ride. (Although I am rarely in that area, I am sure I have seen a few regular livery cars—licensed or not, I do not know—hoping for a potential fare coming off the subway. A passenger would negotiate a flat rate rather than being charged a metered fare.)

I might also wonder whether the “apple green” Boro Taxi—the new look for thousands of specially permitted livery cabs under a program initiated in 2013 that provides hailable cabs to riders outside core areas of Manhattan—would be a better choice for NYPD undercover work and unmarked cars in the outer boroughs. According to Mayor Bloomberg’s publicity machine, the Boro Taxi program has proved very popular both to passengers and drivers, and all 6,000 permits available in 2013 sold out in quick time. Thus the outer boroughs should be seeing more of the green taxis. On the other hand, a person getting off the subway might actually want to hail a green cab, interrupting the undercover police at work. No matter its color then, a taxi seems an odd choice to use as an unmarked car.

I don’t have any photos, because it was dark and I was driving. Not to mention that I am not sure how well photographing the NYPD’s surveillance cab would go over. Sometimes it is better not to test the limits.

Later, a bit of online research:

A post on Gawker includes a photo and mentions a book published in August 2013, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, about NYPD surveillance of Muslims. It says that the NYPD’s spy cab is parked outside mosques to monitor Muslims. Presumably, the target is Muslim cabbies who have made a stop for daily prayers. Someone commenting on a related New York Magazine post says the NYPD has about a dozen such specially outfitted cabs. Another person, in this instance posting on, says there are many such cabs, which have license plates starting with particular letters and can be seen parked outside police stations. Perhaps I did not see anything particularly rare after all.

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Sandy my darlin’, you hurt us real bad

After spending a weekend upstate, I felt strange driving home to await a storm, a very big storm. Why go back? I had to, I suppose. My cats would need some attention sooner or later. I have a job to go to, if the office were to be open. Still it felt strange to be heading toward the storm.

I am very lucky to have had the worst of it avoid me. My power didn’t go out, and the winds were much worse through the night on the other side of my building. The quiet yesterday was a bit, well, disquieting. Today, however, a few minutes outside in the late afternoon gave me a small reminder of the power of nature. While just yesterday the waters of the Long Island Sound were unusually high, flooding the park in which I spend a great deal of time, today things were calm, the wind only a bit stronger than usual.

If one hasn’t been paying much attention to the issues and science of climate change, one would have to wonder how we have brought about such rapid changes to the environment. Am I just getting older and therefore wrong in thinking that things didn’t happen like this “in the old days”? I don’t think so. When I lived in New York City, from 1987 to 1997, we had a huge snowstorm or two, sure. I remember walking in the street to work from the Far West Village to SoHo, since there was practically no traffic in the foot or more of snow. No one else made it in, and it was so very quiet for a weekday in Manhattan, the emptiness of the office heightened by the unusual lack of traffic. But we didn’t have weather events that one needed to prepare for, to worry about, to fear. (Sure, there might be a major human-caused event such as a blackout every decade or so.)

Now these seem to come so often in this part of the country, an area that seemed to be free of natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and devastating floods. Last year on the same weekend, we had a foot of wet snow that brought down perhaps as many trees, their autumn leaves catching and holding the heavy snow. A couple months earlier, in August, Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene had made landfall in southern New Jersey at Little Egg Harbor, bringing a huge amount of rain to the New York City metro area.

It is tempting, maybe instinctual, to want to personify nature as a beautiful, yet angry, female force: Nature. Realistically, though, these “extreme weather events” must be inherently tied to human action. Maybe some of them should no longer be considered “natural” disasters. We, and our leaders, must anticipate and plan for future events. More importantly, we need leaders strong enough to build support for taking the action needed to stop heating up our planet.


East Harlem

Development still seems to be under way in East Harlem, despite the lingering effects of the recession and the elevated Metro-North Railroad tracks along Park Avenue. Just south of 125th Street there are at least a few bakeries popping up, which supply stores located in more desirable neighborhoods. While that seems an appropriate use, this new building looks to be residential. Those units are going to need some seriously soundproofed windows.

I turned down a perfectly nice one-bedroom apartment once in Astoria, Queens, even though I had already been selected for the lease by the realtor, which in New York City is a victorious skirmish in the battle of finding somewhere to live. The place had one major flaw: ominously close, elevated tracks just outside and above the living-room window. I did my research first: trains didn’t go by nearly as often as they do on the Park Avenue tracks, on which all trains on all three Metro-North lines run en route to and from the northern suburbs. Even so, I was concerned that I would have nightmares or my bed would shake to a passing 3:00 a.m. freight train.

Observed several blocks south:
Why was the pig painting installed upside down? Perhaps so people like me would question why.

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Hudson River Day: Ossining

View from a ridge in Ossining, about 25 miles north of Wave Hill and Riverdale, after a thunderstorm:


Hudson River Day: Wave Hill, Riverdale

On Saturday a friend and I visited Wave Hill, which is a garden-packed former estate overlooking the Hudson River in Riverdale, a well-to-do neighborhood in the northwest Bronx. It thundered all afternoon, though the downpour did not occur until just before closing time. Wave Hill is known for its gardens and greenhouses, which offer a spectacular show in a compact twenty-eight acres. The buildings and property are owned by New York City, yet the institution itself is an “independent nonprofit” supported by public and private grants and donations. (That makes sense, right?) However it is structured, Wave Hill is one of those institutions that is so worth a visit when one needs a nature fix. This is well-controlled nature though, not Mother Nature left to do her own thing.

While it is a little off the beaten path for Manhattanites, Wave Hill is a quick drive from lower Westchester. The $40 annual membership is quite the steal for its immediate neighbors, many of whom seem to use the garden as if it were their own yard, bringing an old-fashioned item, the Sunday newspaper (the paper version), to leisurely read while relaxing in a somewhat incongruous, modernist, Gerrit Rietveld–inspired chair. Since I do not get there often, I feel it necessary to look at the plants while visiting, as they change frequently with the seasons and the preferences of the gardeners. They manage to pack in a huge variety in what is relatively limited space, including rearrangements and introductions of an array of potted plants.

Currently closed for renovation, the main house was constructed in 1843–44. The book The Gardens of Wave Hill tells us that George Perkins, a J. P. Morgan partner and the third owner of Wave Hill House, “had been accumulating properties along the river” to create one large estate (Bronx, N.Y.: Wave Hill, p. 89). Some people collected glass paperweights or model ships, I suppose, and others estates. Perkins must have done alright for himself as adviser to and negotiator for Morgan on many a deal.

Such estates give us a hint of how the super wealthy of the robber baron era were able to live—or at least spend their weekends and summers. Also open to the public are several other nineteenth-century country houses along the Hudson River, among them Glenview, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers; Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown; and Boscobel, further north in Garrison. (Kykuit, the John D. Rockefeller mansion in Sleepy Hollow, dates from the early twentieth century. Boscobel,  originally a gentleman’s farm, precedes the robber baron age.) All have wonderful river views: their raison d’être was ultimately their location. I confess that I like the current lack of a historic house component at Wave Hill. The gardens seem to be living, ongoing gifts to those lucky enough to visit these former estates, unlike the stagnant rooms of the historic houses, frozen and trapped in time.

All photos © 2012 Laura Morris

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Marshlands Conservancy

Marshlands Conservancy is a wonderful, quiet, undeveloped park, a refuge for nature and its human visitors. People generally look content when I see them there. Lacking in human-made “attractions,” other than a small visitor center and some educational programs (including a summer ecology camp for children), Marshlands is cleaner and quieter than many other area parks and, thankfully, lacks the abundant paving so common in many other Westchester County parks. It is part of the county parks system, yet does not require a county parks pass or the parking fee requisite at the system’s more popular attractions. It is a very good place for bird-watching. It is also said to be a great site for resolving conflicts. Perhaps it is the peacefulness of the place?

The main attraction is that the land has been protected and is publicly accessible, unlike the bulk of the waterfront on the Westchester shore of the Long Island Sound, much of which is devoted to private yacht clubs and large houses. Because individual properties are generally smaller in the southern part of the county, the mere fact that there are 150 undeveloped acres together is special. In the northern parts of the county, there are more tracts of protected land, saved from development through the efforts of private organizations. However noble those donations to land trusts may be, they often seem to speak of a desire to not just protect nature and open space but to prevent the unwashed masses from moving in.

At any rate, the variety in the landscape at Marshlands Conservancy is remarkable, full of contrasts of light and dark, water and woods. The forest opens up onto a sun-filled meadow. When walking along a path through the trees up to the meadow, I am always reminded of a time I was in France with my friend Heidi. Somewhere along our deliberately long route from Giverny to catch the train back to Paris, we happened to climb an incline and came out, entirely unexpectedly, onto a massive field of sunflowers. While there is no such surprise at the Marshlands meadow, other than the occasional deer sighting, that sense of wonder always comes back to me.

Similarly, I remember the feeling I had during my first visit to Marshlands when I came out through the forest and meadow to the rocky outcropping overlooking the salt marsh and mudflats: the pleasure of a previously unknown view.

The park also leads me to imagine the time before the arrival of the Europeans, who went on to develop, pave, and pollute the salt marsh along the Northeastern and Midatlantic coast. There are surely many open, accessible marshes left (I have seen them in South Carolina), but they must be in short supply in my part of the country, particularly in those spots from which you can see New York City. (How open and accessible the New Jersey Meadowlands are is open to debate.) A place that can transport one to one’s own past and much further back in time is indeed special.

There in the distance is the Throg’s Neck Bridge, which connects Bronx to Queens.

Earlier I had come across a pair of wild turkeys, the male exercising his vocal capacity and tail-display talents.

So many tiny crabs, each about an inch long, seem to have been stranded when the tide went out. What a way to go! These must be Asian shore crabs, an invasive species. If so, they are apparently not as invincible as reports suggest.

Perhaps I can allow the rest of my pictures to speak for themselves.


New York Harbor

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Today I attended the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance’s 2012 Waterfront Conference, Our Harbor: An Environmental Engine and Economic Resource, as a volunteer. I was stationed in the room devoted to talks on economic development, which had three different panel discussions. My enthusiasm for waving a three-minute warning sign from the back of the room at speakers was noted! Hey, just trying to do my job, as most everyone talking ignored me. That likelihood must have been taken into account in the organizers’ scheduling.

Water transport, in the form of commercial ferry and water taxi services, was the primary theme for that trio of talks, followed by the working waterfront. The video footage for all the conference’s panel discussions, I was told, will be posted on the alliance’s website within several weeks. There will be a lot of food for thought there about how New York City’s and the region’s waterfront will be developed in coming years, as well as how the many competing demands on it—for recreational access, residential development, commercial operations, and a port able to compete with a bigger, better, and deeper Panama Canal—will be balanced. Speakers involved in shipping and the Army Corps of Engineers promised greater environmental protections in the industry.

I hope the working waterfront survives for selfish reasons. I have always enjoyed the sight of gantry cranes and shipping containers; their bright, kindergarten-friendly colors and simple, rectangular volumes a real pleasure to look upon. My curiosity is always sparked when I am able to get glimpses of local shipping facilities, be they inactive or in current use: the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Bush Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Ports Newark and Elizabeth in New Jersey; and so on. Whenever I drive on the New Jersey Turnpike by the port facilities, I want to stop and draw the many fabulous forms, yet somehow have never taken the initiative to plan an outing for myself to do so. Is it even possible to stop somewhere at a port with a huge sketchpad? I am skeptical that I could do so, particularly in post-9/11 America. (I never understand the criticisms when people speak so negatively of the New Jersey Turnpike. I hate the traffic, but love the sights.)

The day was capped off by an hour and a half boat ride on a Hornblower cruise from Pier 60 at Chelsea Piers to the Statue of Liberty and back. Indeed, some time on the water on a beautiful day, accompanied by great snacks and conversation with interesting people, cannot be beat. Not to mention, the new World Trade Center is making its presence known in the skyline, impossible to miss from the water, after more than a decade with no prominent visual marker at the southern tip of Manhattan, that lack signaling the abyss of September 11.

All photos © 2012 Laura Morris

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South Norwalk

People instinctively like to be near water. Even if they don’t want to swim in it, or it is not swimmable, they still enjoy looking at it. Water—be it lakes, oceans, rivers, or bays—makes most people feel good. Yet many of our waterfronts are inaccessible as a result of vast stretches of privately held property and the legacy of past industrial uses. Many big cities have been recognizing the appeal of waterfronts in recent decades, redeveloping these areas to attract visitors and expand residential areas. (New York City is finally catching up to some of its smaller sisters in this arena with such projects as the Hudson River Park.)

Smaller municipalities have gotten into the game as well. I went on an afternoon outing recently to Norwalk, Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound east of Stamford, which has been dealing with issues of how to increase the tax base of a small, formerly industrial city on the waterfront. An observer of 1901 claimed that, despite Norwalk’s failure to live up to its potential for industrial output, “her reputation for air compressors, hats, shoes, corsets, locks, hardware, woolen goods and other manufactured products is as favorable in all parts of the world as to our own people.”1

High pressure compressors factory; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Norwalk River looking roughly north; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Norwalk River looking roughly south; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Today the city is about 86,000 people, and it is indeed “culturally diverse,” as the city’s promotional video on Planning and Development says:

(The 2010 population was about 56% white of non-Hispanic origin and about 24% Hispanic, per the U.S. Census Bureau:

An odd amount of parking lot around this new building on stilts; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Much to the excitement of someone who took up sculling far beyond her college years (that is, me), the Norwalk River is clearly home to a few rowing clubs. I confess I felt compelled later in the day to drive over to find the “boathouse” on the other side of the river, finding four clubs each with a garage far too small to hold any shells, let alone an eight-person scull. I do not envy any of these rowers who have to carry boats up that steep ramp!

Quad coming in from practice; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Scullers carrying up their boat; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

The waterfront around the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk is a bit rough, but efforts are being made to make it a bit more inviting. The aquarium itself is a small, enjoyable facility focusing on the ecosystem and sea creatures of the Long Island Sound. (I would advise the National Aquarium in Baltimore that it need not fear the competition.)

Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Despite the emphasis on the local, the exhibit team managed to sneak in a selection of international frogs and toads, as well as creatures from Africa, including the ever-entertaining meerkats, which, to my knowledge, have never been seafarers. The exhibition Go Fish! does a good job of educating about the dangers of overfishing and how one can make better, sustainable seafood choices, while it simultaneously ties into Norwalk’s history of oystering.

Resident of Frogs exhibition; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

The proverbial face only a mother could love; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

The aquarium’s home combines the new with adaptive reuse to somewhat mixed success: the profile of the IMAX theater does not seem wholly integrated into the design. Or perhaps the new red-brick color merely stands out too much from a distance.

Maritime Aquarium interior; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

A very blue Maritime Aquarium interior; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Outdoors at the aquarium; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Harbor seal pool; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

This large room was devoted to a huge map of the Long Island Sound with only a few interactive, circular screens. Was this designed as a party space or room for expansion?

Photo blowup of Long Island Sound in oversized gallery; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

Later I wandered a bit and went to a café in “SoNo” with the world’s slowest service—could I possibly have been that far out of the sphere of New York City, or was this just the work of one clueless server? SoNo comprises a few blocks, much smaller than SoHo. (SoNo, YoHo, SpaHa . . . every place needs its own SoHo, even other neighborhoods of Manhattan.) At any rate, I likely thereby furthered the desires of city leaders, who surely expect that visitors will spend at least a few dollars while visiting local attractions. All in all, South Norwalk makes a fine daytrip, its integration of new, adapted, and gritty, together with its efforts at revitalization, well worthy of semi-urban exploration. I will return.

Mix of the old and new; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

SoNo streets; photo © 2012 Laura Morris

1. Edmund E. Crowe, “Norwalk’s Industries,” in Norwalk Historical and Memorial Library Association, Norwalk after Two Hundred and Fifty Years: An Account of the Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Charter of the Town, 1651–September 11, 1901 (South Norwalk: C. A. Freeman, 1901), p. 857; Google Books.

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Starting from my small swathe of Lower Westchester, if we move out another ring—to Greater New York, Metro New York, or the New York-Newark-Bridgeport Combined Statistical Area—we’re up to 18 to 22 million people or more, depending on where we cut things off, when the count was made, and who is counting. That is a lot of people and a heck of a lot of jurisdictions, which lie across four states and thirty counties. Yet I wouldn’t have to travel very far to meet a good chunk of them. If it’s rush hour though, it might take a bit of time.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for 2010:

“The New York-Newark area continues to be the nation’s most populous urbanized area, with 18,351,295 residents. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim is the second most populous (12,150,996), followed by the Chicago area (8,608,208).”

(See )

One out of every ten people lives in either the New York or Los Angeles metro area (also from the U.S. Census Bureau). Does that substantiate the famous Saul Steinberg cartoon: ?

Day 1: Much to be done

I look at and think about places, those around me and near me, not surprisingly, as I go about my daily life. The narrow swathe of land north of Manhattan, which widens as one moves north, has a surprising amount of variety in its built environment, population, and geography. Water, in particular, always captures my eye, from the mighty Hudson River to the west to the Long Island Sound to the east. I am fascinated by the presence of the natural world in such proximity to the big city but also by the ways that we humans have shaped it. While the land itself, of course, holds no opinions about political jurisdictions, people have created so many artificial borders that have shaped and will continue to constrain communities, defining differences. Yet here we all are tucked between metropolis, river, and sea, impacted by events of the past but able to redirect our paths to a certain degree, if we, collectively, so choose. The proximity to the nation’s biggest city can be a challenge, perhaps an intellectual tease: is this semi-urban locale second-best? Or is this metropolitan condition—what I mean here is the state of being outside the major draw—something equally worthy of attention?