Primates of Park Avenue

primates-of-park-avenue Dr. Wednesday Martin says she’s studying the rich Upper East Side housewives the way Margaret Mead studied the Samoans. Unfortunately for Dr. Martin, I am NOT convinced on any scale. She comes off more like the odd kid out in a junior high school classroom, pissed off at everyone because she hasn’t been invited to the party. If she said that this was written as a satire, then I’d say it’s great. The real estate broker who deals in high end apartments, dressed head to toe in Chanel and carrying a $500 handbag. As for the apartment hunter, you’d better dress like you have money or nobody will take you seriously.

Fortunately, we do get to see how “the other half lives” in New York. Fancy apartment buildings insist that renovations only be done in the summer, so that the rich residents can escape by going to their country houses. The neighborhood is full of children’s boutiques, stocked with $100 outfits for toddlers. After a while, it sounds a little too much like a cross between Eloise and The Nanny Diaries.

As I mentioned before, Martin’s technique doesn’t work in the end. She’s using her anthropology training to write about rich people, and it’s not an academic treatise. It’s not even on par with a Merchant-Ivory tragedy about the upper classes. There’s nothing dynamic, and from the very beginning she has no reason to want to live among these people. What’s interesting about a woman who doesn’t have to work, doesn’t have to do any childcare, and has a $2000 purse?

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Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

times-square-red-times-square-blueThis is an old book, published in 1999, right before the New York City nostalgia craze began. The author, Samuel R. Delaney, is a science fiction writer and professor at Temple University, descended from the illustrious Delaney line, from whom also descend the Delaney Sisters who authored Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First 100 Years. He reminisces about going into the old Roxy Theater and having sex with men in the balcony, among other vices. In the first chapter, 1996, the old Times Square had mostly disappeared. AIDS had driven the health department to shut down a lot of venues, then the porno theaters closed, and the city was looking to tear down the whole block.

Delaney admits that it was always the same crowd at the porno theaters, and there wasn’t much business there. He writes about using his visits to cruise for gay sex as a starting point for the book, and he gives some information about a few of the people he met there. But he doesn’t really describe the places, and a lack of photos is confusing.

I know for a fact that by the 1990’s there was hardly any profit to be made there anymore. The coin-operated peepshow booth had cut into the theater business, then the VHS rental cut into those by letting you watch it in private, and then the internet put all three of them out of business. Most of the porno theaters were decrepit and falling apart by 1990 anyway.

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

Cyclicityona-gridsts who’ve ridden through New York and London will notice the difference between their streets, same thing with Rome, Milan, and Tokyo. You’ll see how US cities are plotted on a grid of perpendicular lines, like a giant chessboard, while old cities are not. European and Asian cities plotted their streets along valleys, streams, and hills, while the founding fathers wanted the whole of the USA plotted on a grid.  It would become a fundamental influence of American urban planning.

Prior to reading Gerard Koeppel’s City on a Grid I read an earlier book called The Greatest Grid, which includes photographs of Manhattan when it was just farmland. While the earlier book is strictly visual, City on a Grid dives into the scientific origins of America’s gridded cities. Koeppel gives a more historical bend on the gerard-koeppelgrid, which originated in Europe. It was a circular form that would begin with a fort on a hill (typical of Europe) and the town would be settled around it in a circular formation. The difference, according to the author, is that European cities were rarely confined to an island like Manhattan. I don’t necessarily agree with this, because Venice is an island and the streets are somewhat gridded, though the alleys are hard to navigate. However, compared to Manhattan, Venice is a labyrinth. The Paris of today has its origins in urban planning, when Baron Haussmann bulldozed through the Victor Hugo Paris of alleys and warrens in favor of spacious boulevards. The older streets, left untouched, still follow the old pattern.

cityonagri3  The first chapters of the book discuss political wrangling and finance problems, because in the early days of the nation, Congress had less authority to tax the people, so it was harder to get Federal money for anything. As for the city, the streets of downtown Manhattan used the old English survey, which what they still follow.  Try navigating below City Hall Park and you’ll find yourself in a rabbit warren. Koeppel also goes into the origin of the names, such as Delancey, a pro-Loyalist banker who had his lands confiscated, and the Bowery, originally Pete Stuyvesant’s “boerie,” or farm. Canal Street wasn’t really a canal, as the name suggests, but a drainage ditch for the polluted Collect Pond. If you’re interested in how the streets got their names, there are many websites devoted to city street necropsy.

cityonagrid   Much of the city’s grid had to do with the need for housing. Tall buildings were unpopular in the days before elevators, and it was the gradual development of steel girders, heavy equipment, and elevator safety brakes that made the skyscrapers possible. These building projects would not have been possible if they weren’t on a grid. Like I said before, finance was a big part of it, because businessmen needed the large buildings. Neither the wealthy nor the poor wanted smelly ponds and canals, so there was both financial and political incentive to fill them in. Yet in the end, the biggest obstacle is always where to get the money. At no time in history did the Americans ever like taxes.