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Sunday, November 27, 2005
Upstate Mini-Vacation
Starts & Fits took a day trip upstate over the weekend, visiting Cooperstown and Roxbury to gather data for the Henry J. Hardenbergh Architectural Database. In Roxbury, my girlfriend and I took photographs of the Jay Gould Memorial Reformed Church (middle photo, at right), a civic work that was financed by the 19th century robber baron Jay Gould. In Cooperstown, we photographed the Inn at Cooperstown (bottom) and Kingfisher Tower (top), a castle-like stone tower in Otsego Lake. It was erected by a 19th century millionaire simply as something to be looked at and enjoyed. What fun!

Back in the city this morning, sobering news. The Times published a story entitled "Middle Class Gets in Line for Help With Rising Heating Bills." The story is about how all kinds of folks who are too wealthy to qualify for Federal assistance with heating bills are applying for them anyway, and being turned down. A quote from the article: "They are retirees, young couples, the temporarily unemployed, the two-icome families stretched to the limit of second mortgages and credit cards, a slice of the suburban demographic that social workers call 'mortgage rich and pocket poor.'" The are stories of people partioning off parts of their houses to leave cold, and even going without meals. It's sad that that is happening. If heating oil prices continue to rise in the coming years, there will be more pressure for housing in cities. Apartments, with far fewer square feet, are less costly to heat than single family detached homes. Also, being part of attached rowhouses or apartment buildings, they have fewer exposures to the outside, and thus, are more efficient than single family houses.
- Posted at 8:41 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, November 17, 2005
The Sins of Wal-Mart
Robert Greenwald's documentary film on Wal-Mart is being shown at screenings across the nation this week. With personal stories told by former and current employees, customers and neighbors of Wal-Mart, and no shortage of pointed visuals, the film attacks the world's largest retailer for a number of violations of the moral glue that holds society together. The movie alleges the following moral if not actual crimes against the retail giant.

  • Offering a health insurance plan for its workers that is prohibitively expensive to a large percentage of them, and then encouraging them to apply for government-run social welfare programs.
  • Employing workers in China at a rate of 18 cents a day, requiring them to work six or seven days a week well beyond your typical eight-hour day, and making them pay for squalid barracks housing even if they choose to live elsewhere.
  • Paying its American employees poverty-level wages while preventing them from forming a union.
  • Hollowing out small towns across the nation by underselling countless small businesses, and behind closed doors, being glib about it, too.
  • Tricking and bullying local governments into offering Wal-Mart tax breaks not offered to small businesses; then failing to live up to the promises it made to get those breaks.
  • Systematically denying promotions of women and African Americans into positions of authority.
  • Not living up to its responsibility to effectively police its vast, dark parking lots, which are havens for rape, kidnapping, assault and theft.
  • Wildly enriching some half-dozen heirs at the rate of $18 billion apiece — people who then spend their money on a giant underground apocalypse-bunker while giving a minuscule 1% to charity, compared to more than 50% for Bill Gates.
  • Using dirty tricks or outright strong-arming to get their employees to work extra hours off the clock; then even deleting records of overtime that make it into the payroll.
  • Failing to prevent environmental damage to a public watershed river that absorbs chemically tainted parking lot runoff water.

    Wal-Mart has attempted to refute some of the many criticisms against it by putting up a website called walmartfacts.com. I find this movie a great deal more compelling. You should buy a copy of the film, read Wal-Mart's website, and judge for yourself whether this giant corporation is treating the rest of society fairly, or manipulating it in pursuit of profit.

    Now a word about that word, profit. Sometimes people demonize it, as if anyone earning a profit is somehow evil. Startsandfits.com has no problem with people earning a profit on a venture that involves a degree of risk, as they all do. A person who has a great idea that helps others pursue their goals ought to be rewarded financially, and in extremely large sums if their idea is that great, and doesn't hurt anybody. It is that promise of financial reward that encourages the innovation that propels humanity forward. It's the essence of capitalism, which for all its faults, is the best system that the human race has come up with for organizing economic activity. Where Wal-Mart runs into trouble is with that little piece about not hurting anybody.

    Because the potential to earn a profit is critical to successful capitalism, anything that infringes on an entrepreneur's ability to profit, however slightly, should be considered only in the most outrageous set of circumstances. Even with this high standard, there are other needs can trump the untempered ability to pursue profit. Protecting the fine-grained, nonexploitative systems of commerce between townsfolk across America is one such reason. James Howard Kunstler has written about how Wal-Mart sacks local economies that grew up over centuries.
    We will have to recreate the lost infrastructures of local and regional commerce, and it will have to be multi-layered. These were the people that WalMart systematically put out of business over the last thirty years. The wholesalers, the jobbers, the small-retailers. They were economic participants in their communities; they made decisions that had to take the needs of their communities into account. they were employers who employed their neighbors. They were a substantial part of the middle-class of every community in America and all of them together played civic roles in our communities as the caretakers of institutions - the people who sat on the library boards, and the hospital boards, and bought the balls and bats and uniforms for the little league teams. We got rid of them in order to save nine bucks on a hair dryer.
    Just why is it so important to have flourishing local economies if goods are cheaper at Wal-Mart? In The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler eulogizes the small town main street of Schuylerville, N.Y., which could be anywhere in the country: It used to thrive but is now an empty shell of its former self. In their place, he notes, are "X and Y Corporations," which have their corporate headquarters in distant cities and thus don't have an incentive to invest in the places where they do business. The stores do pay local taxes, and they
    also furnish a handful of minimum-wage jobs. But what they contribute to the town is far less significant than what they take away: the chance for a local merchant to make a profit, to keep that profit in town, where it might be put to work locally, for instance, in the upkeep of a hundred-year-old shopfront building downtown, or a Greek Revival house on Pearl Street, or in the decent support of a family. But that profit does not stay in town. Instead, it is funneled directly into distant corporate coffers. The officers of the X and Y Corporations, who do not live in Schuylerville, have no vested interest in the upkeep of the hundred-year-old shopfront buildings or the Greek Revival houses there. (They may not even know what the town looks like, or a single fact of its history.) Their success is measured strictly by the tonnage of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi Cola they manage to move off the shelves.
    Folks, we are lucky to live in New York City. This is a city where people buy and sell things from local people, in some small way reinforcing the social bonds that tie us all together as humans and members of a society, not simply anonymous consumers. Here, shopping involves jostling through the crowded sidewalks of Herald Square, not the anomie of driving into a sea of parking, alone, and walking into a soulless warehouse where nobody knows your name or cares to learn it. Ours is a city where century old buildings are still economically useful, where strips of small scale businesses are as busy as they were 100 years ago, and where there is not a single Wal-Mart store.

    Does that fact make life in New York City a little less convenient? Sure. We can't get everything at the same store, but have to visit different stores at different times. Does that mean that for a given budget, we can buy fewer things? Yes it does. But how much happier would that extra increment of things make us? Aren't we happier enjoying the street life and human interaction on the crowded sidewalks of this singular metropolis? If the proliferation of self-storage warehouses is any indication, don't we have enough stuff already?

    Would a Wal-Mart be a commercial success here? Of course it would. It would be mobbed from day one. That's why Wal-Mart is desperate to open up a store in town. But imagine the consequences to the city. Some number of businesses throughout the city that are doing well will start to do less well. Some number of businesses that are marginally profitable will close. Many of the people employed by these businesses will become suddenly poorer, so much so that they might very well be able to shop only at Wal-Mart, feeding more business into the monster, which as my girlfriend says, seems to spread across the country like a computer virus. Economic forces are compelling Wal-Mart to open here in New York City. It will take political action to keep the monster outside the gates.

    - WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price
    - Remarks in Hudson, NY, January 8, 2005 [Kunstler.com]
    - The Geography of Nowhere [Barnes & Noble - a local company since 1917, headquartered at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, and with its flagship store at that intersection since the Depression]
    - Posted at 8:52 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |  

    Sunday, November 13, 2005
    Presenting the Hardenbergh Database
    It's a little unnerving to see the Plaza dark at night, its entrances fenced off as the hotel undergoes conversion to an apartment building (but one with a hotel component!). As a designated city landmark, the Plaza's French Renaissance facade, conceived of a century ago by the great Henry J. Hardenbergh (1847-1918), cannot be altered without the permission of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, so there's no need to worry … about … that. Hardenbergh also designed another gem that defines and enlivens the city: The Dakota. But you already knew that.

    Maybe you didn't know about 63 buildings that Hardenbergh designed that have been demolished over the years, most recently in 2003. But thankfully, there are at least 59 buildings that Hardenbergh designed that have survived demolition, from the little Western Union Telegraph Building in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, to the grand and restored Willard Hotel in Washington. To help bring to light this architect's work and show how his tastes evolved over his career, I've created the Henry J. Hardenbergh architectural database and put in here on this website. This is a work in progress, so things are likely to get updated or change in appearance. If this works out, maybe I'll do Cass Gilbert or William Van Alen next.

    Send any information or photographs to startsandfits@gmail.com. Enjoy.

    Meanwhile, as workers gut out the Plaza, I'm reminded of a 1906 interview Hardenbergh gave to a reporter from Architectural Record. The reporter sat in his midtown office, which he described as "A quiet interior, a harmony of deep reds and browns, frugal but elegant equipment and a subdued light effect … his office desk on an elevated platform that runs along the window, and I on a leather chair below, which obliged me to look up to him." As the interview was wrapping up, the reporter, Sadakieln Hartmann, asked a final question, "Have you any special method in following out your theories?" To answer that, Hardenbergh turned to the project he was working on at the time:
    "My method is really a very simple one. There, for instance, is a sketch of the new Plaza Hotel," and he showed me a sketch of that giant caravansery. There seems to be a striking tendency in this latest of his work, to abandon the picturesqueness and irregularity of his former sytle, and to arrive at a simpler, and at the same time more pleasing effect. I had involuntarily to smile, however, at what seemed to me interminable rows of windows. He guessed my thought: "None of them is unnecessary. Now, what would be the use of introducing columns, colonnades, as they do? The Greek didn't build buildings of this kind. Edifices of this order have been unknown to past generations. They have no prototype. All one can do is to take some good model, that served some kind of purpose as a hotel, and enlarge upon it. And then embellish it as well as one can, as for instance, in this case, with the early French Renaissance."
    Hardenbergh lived at precisely that moment when buildings were getting huge but before architects dropped those subtle flourishes that can make a building pleasing to look at. The result is a perfect combination of proportion and richness.
    - Posted at 11:05 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

    Thursday, November 10, 2005
    A Huge Win for the Second Avenue Subway
    Construction of the Second Avenue Subway is looking more likely than ever in recent memory, and Startsandfits.com couldn't be more excited. The total cost of the first segment to be built (in the Upper East Side) is reported to be $3.8 billion. Back in February, the United States government, through the Federal Transit Administration, pledged $1.3 billion for the project, and New York State voters just approved another $450 million. It may not seem like that much money, but the vote was an enormous psychological boost for the project since the Feds needed to see enthusiasm for the project to proceed with their piece. Of course, there is still the issue of paying for the remaining $2.1 billion. Ah, details, details.

    Some commentators may question spending so much money for a project that goes slightly more than 2 miles. It's important not to look at transportation projects not in terms of distance, but in terms of people moved. There are projected to be 202,000 riders on just the first segment of the line, predicted to open in 2012. That's a subway line that, upon opening, will move the equivalent of the entire population of Mobile, Ala., or Des Moines, Iowa, twice a day. When the line is extended up to East Harlem it's projected to move 303,000 people per day, the better part of the population of Wyoming. Thinking of transportation projects in term of distance fosters sprawl; thinking in terms of people moved helps projects that serve cities, and more people. That's why the FTA endorsed it.

    The Daily News reports that the MTA is going to send a delegation to the FTA to discuss the project, while a report in Newsday includes other details from a press conference given by MTA chairman Peter Kalikow. Here's a roundup of news on the recent bond act approval.

    - MTA sees 2nd Ave. subway by 2012 [NYDN]
    - A Second Avenue line in 2012? [Newsday]
    - Second Avenue's T Line: T Minus 7 Years Or So [Gothamist]
    - Hello, T Line: Transportation Bond Act Passes [Gothamist]
    - Posted at 10:04 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

    Sunday, November 06, 2005
    A New Subway Line is Within Reach
    Reporters in trench coats and fedora hats and photographers with giant flash bulbs surrounded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia underground on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 14, 1940. Standing at the brand new Herald Square subway station, the Mayor said snipped a ribbon at 11:47 p.m. and said, "As Mayor of New York, I now formally open the Sixth Avenue subway and dedicate it to public use."

    That day, the local tracks that run from Columbus Circle to West 4th Street opened to the headline above, and they've been packed ever since. In the 65 years since, there have been a few improvements to the subway system. The trains extended to the Rockaway Peninsula in 1956. The express service between Herald Square and West 4th Street opened in 1968. Most recently, the 63rd Street Tunnel was connected to the Queens Boulevard Line, allowing the MTA to create the V train in 2001. But there hasn't been a major subway construction project in the region despite decades of enormous investment in highways, roads and parking lots.

    Now after a number of false starts, the stars are finally aligned for construction to begin on the Second Avenue Subway. The planners and politicians behind the project have arrived at a very sensible construction timetable that allows work to begin in individually financed phases that proceed in a logical order. The Federal Transit Administration is ready to invest $1.3 billion in the project.

    All we need to do is to vote YES on Tuesday on Proposition 2, the Transportation Bond Act. A similar bond authorization was narrowly defeated at the polls in 2000. Construction of the Second Avenue Subway might have started had it not been for that. The current proposal would approve a bond authorization that will send $450 million to the project and, according to the MTA, allow construction to begin on the first phase, which includes three stations, at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets. Construction of a new subway line for the first time in 65 years. Wow. That would be the surest sign that the city's health is finally restored.

    Beyond the psychological boost, what would the Second Avenue Subway do? It would relieve congestion on the overflowing, sardine-like 4, 5 and 6 trains, the busiest subway line in the nation by a significant margin. By doing so, it would allow the LIRR to bring trains into Grand Central Terminal with greater confidence that the 4, 5 and 6 could handle all the new people. It would make up for the mid-20th century destruction of the Second Avenue Elevated and the Third Avenue Elevated, which were demolished with the promise that underground service was on the way. It would make urban communities from East Harlem to the Financial District more attractive to live in, and thus discourage the sprawling of the region. It would take innumerable cars off the streets as people opted for easier transit. It would allow for the New York City economy to weather any potential high gasoline prices. It would make destinations on the far east side easier to reach, since there is no north-south subway service east of Third Avenue anywhere in Manhattan.

    The reasons to be cautious about taking on more debt are of course sobering and deserving of serious attention. Many people ande governments are in over their head on the debt thing. But look at the Second Avenue subway. Is there any chance this thing won't be filled from the day it opens? Manhattan's existing subway tunnels were largely opened between 1904 and 1940. They are ancient. But they're absolutely packed to the maximum capacity 65 to 101 years after opening. It's a good investment sure not to go unused.

    Need another reason to vote for the bond authorization? How about some words from The New York Times, Hillary Clinton, Governor Pataki, Scott Stringer, Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Vote Yes NY, Joseph Dolman at Newsday or Jeremy Soffin of the Regional Plan Association at the Gotham Gazette, and Elliot G. Sander of the Rudin Center.

    If this is successful, one day, our subway map could look like this:

    - Yes on Transit Bonds [NYT, 2nd item]
    - The Second Avenue Subway [nycsubway.org]
    - Second Ave. Subway Pressure Mounts on Pataki [S&F]
    - Transportation Bond Act [MTA]
    - Vote YES on 2 for Better Transportation [Straphangers]
    - On November 8, Vote Yes! for Proposition Two, The Transportation Bond Act [Transportation Alternatives]
    - The Transportation Bond Act: Vote Yes [Jeremy Soffin at Gotham Gazette]
    - Vote Yes NY
    - Governor Pataki Announces His Support for $2.9 Billion "Rebuild and Renew New York" Transportation Bond Act [Governor Pataki]
    - Transit referendum — good for Downtown and beyond [Scott Stringer at Downtown Express]
    - Vote Yes on NY Prop 2 [RPA: Spotlight on the Region, Oct. 20, 2005]
    - Transportation bond act is good move [Joseph Dolman at Newsday]
    - The Bond Act [PDF: Elliot G. Sander in the New York Transportation Journal]
    - Hil joins chorus to pass bond act [NYDN]
    - Posted at 9:56 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

    Bloomberg for Mayor
    Either one of the two leading candidates for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg and Fernando Ferrer, would make a good leader. Mr. Ferrer led the Bronx through a tremendous economic revitalization that he may rightly take some of the credit for. He is tactically right to attack Mayor Bloomberg's public support for President Bush, but I'm not convinced that Mayor Bloomberg is a true Republican at heart, or that his endorsements of Republican policies are anything more than perfunctory nods to curry favor with official Washington. True, as the Republican mayor of the convention's host city, the mayor spoke at the RNC, but he received only polite applause and gave it his minimum effort and attention. Much more importantly, I've been impressed with four of Mayor Bloomberg's transportation and land use decisions in his first term, and these will lead me to vote for him a second time.

  • His veto of the City Council's vote to disable parking meters on Sundays. This bill, which passed despite his veto, will cost the city millions of dollars in lost revenue and will add yet another subsidy to motorists. It will encourage people to hog up spaces all day long and with fewer spaces available, people will spend more time driving around looking for parking, adding to congestion and pollution on neighorhood streets.
  • His hesitant attempt early in his administration to place tolls on the East River Bridges. One hopes that as a second-termer without the hope of being re-elected, Mayor Bloomberg would take this important but politically unpopular step to discourage traffic and boost city revenue. More.
  • His veto of the City Council's vote against landmarking the Cathedral Church of St. John the Devine but not its grounds. Had it not been overridden by the City Council, the Mayor's action would have helped create a more vibrant neighborhood in lower Morningside Heights and a financially and structurally healthier Cathedral.
  • His use of the Lexington Avenue subway to get to work. Unlike his predecessor, who traveled around town in a menacing SUV with tinted windows, Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway, with the people. It's unclear whether he rides the train to work every day, but still, this restores the people's confidence in the subway and tacitly reminds people that it's the best way to get around the city (short of bicycling or walking). It also gives the mayor a more visceral understanding of how crowded the Lexington Avenue lines are and how critical it is to get to work building the Second Avenue Subway to alleviate this.

    Because of these actions, the mayor has proven himself a responsible thinker with the whole city in mind on a number of land use and transportation issues where the Democratically controlled City Council has not. Hopefully a second term would see a more emboldened Mayor who might have the political capital to push for congestion pricing, which has radically altered the streets of London, and would work here too.
    - Posted at 7:22 PM | Permalink | Comments: 8 | Post a Comment |  

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