Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital

bellevue    Dr. David Oshinsky is a history professor specializing in medical history. He did a previous book on the Polio epidemic in the USA, and this book tells you a lot about how medicine in the USA changed over the years, on both social and scientific levels. He begins with Washington Square, originally a potter’s field until around 1830. While I was aware of the park’s origin as a dumping ground for the indigent dead, I didn’t know how much the plagues had to do with it. In 2009, when the park was redone, workers found a headstone from a 1799 Yellow Fever victim, which was unusual because none of the interred would’ve had the money for a headstone. The plague must have been so extensive that the regular cemeteries were full, otherwise a man of means would not have wanted to be buried there. It was the Yellow Fever and Malaria outbreaks that brought about the need for a public hospital at the city’s expense, and it ended up at an old alms-house in Kip’s Bay. Since medicine was not much good in those days, it wouldn’t cost much.

One of the most interesting chapters is on the Civil War and how it became a proving ground for a lot of the physicians who would go on to work at Bellevue. The Draft Riots became a test of how the city could handle a mass emergency, thanks to all the injured police and National Guard that had to be treated. The superintendent Frank Hamilton saw how badly things went on the battlefield, where the best a surgeon could do was amputate a leg (few had the skill to remove a bullet or properly stitch the cuts.) There was little use for a hospital if there was nothing that the doctors could do anyway, and since there were no antiseptics at the time, you were likely to die of infections.

Medical ethics are heavily covered in this book, because Bellevue’s doctors used have absolutely none. There would be improvements to the building, like a new mental patient wing, that quack doctors would use to experiment with insulin shock treatment and electroconvulsive therapy. Dr. Loretta  Bender, their head of juvenile psychiatry, used ECT with reckless abandon, finding it a convenient way to deal with massive numbers of patients. It wouldn’t end until the 1970’s when there was more advocacy for medical rights. While medical improvements happened throughout the USA, the massive number of indigent patients meant that Bellevue was a great place to do experiments.

The author doesn’t mince words about the 80’s. The crack epidemic would flood the hospital’s mental wards with addicts, along with all the mental health problems associated with drug use. A doctor was raped and murdered in 1989 by a mentally ill crack addicted homeless criminal, living in a utility closet and sneaking in and out undetected, thanks to a stolen uniform. 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy would further test the hospital’s capabilities, thanks to the power outages and patient influxes. Unlike the days of old, patients are more likely to seek medical help now that they know they won’t be experimented on or have limbs amputated. While 9/11 brought a sudden patient influx, Hurricane Sandy made it harder to manage what the hospital already had. The patients had to be carried down the stairs, and fuel brought in for the generators.

The author does an amazing job with his research and he uncovers all kind of bizarre and shocking things about the city that I hadn’t known. He ends with an acknowledgement of all the previous books about Bellevue, including some that are still in print. I would recommend reading this book along with two earlier ones; A Finger In Lincoln’s Brain, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Both are about how medicine changed in the USA over the years, and how doctors often used patients as Guinea pigs.

Bellevue is a piece of NY history that you can use to tell if the city is functioning or not. There was a time when more patients left dead than alive. It was once filthy, then got cleaned up, then came drug addicts, then came improvements. The infamous hospital is a something of a measuring device for how the city of New York manages things. Despite the terrible reputation, Bellevue saves more lives than ruins them. When asked how the hospital handled all those patients on 9/11, I heard a doctor say it was easy compared to the hordes of heart attacks that they handle daily. Huge influxes of patients are a regularity at the hospital, and you’re more likely to die of a heart attack than a cut from flying glass. But for decades, Bellevue, like most US hospitals, was not a place to go if you got sick.

 

The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York

bowery-boys   New York City was once a functioning seaport, both for cargo and passenger vessels. At Number 1 Broadway there’s a coat of arms for Melbourne, Australia, because the Melbourne shipping company had offices there (even though few Australians ever came to the USA in the old days.) Nearby is Fraunce’s Tavern, where the American Revolution began, and ended. It was hit by cannonfire in the Revolution, then bombed by Puerto Rican terrorists in 1975. There are kooky houses, like the white farmhouse at 121 Charles Street in Tribeca, trucked there from the Upper East Side in 1967. Nearby is Weehawken Street, named after the boats that brought food from New Jersey farms to the local market. I’m already familiar with this street, because there’s a bike store on the other side by the West Side Highway. Weehawken Street is kind of like a “back street” for the highway, with a tiny house that might receive protected status.

The problem with this book is that there isn’t really anything new. A lot of the information has already been posted on long-established websites like Forgotten NY and . Some of the locations discussed here, like 121 Charles Street, could be extended into in-depth studies. Whose idea was it to bring the house downtown? Why not the other wooden houses on the Upper East Side? Who were the original owners?

There is much to learn about old New York, and though this is a new country (at least in relation to England) the city is relatively old compared to others in the USA. The Bowery Boys could turn this book into a much more extensive portrait of the city’s history.

Serpico

serpico-newFrank Serpico was definitely a smart, dynamic, and ambitious police officer, if everything in this book is true. History treats him as a martyred hero, with all the praise for risking his life and being brave enough to do what others didn’t. However, I find some holes in the story, with regard to how much he really accomplished. Despite being a working class Italian cop from Brooklyn, he doesn’t come off as street smart. Throughout the book he seems to go out of his way not to be trusted by his peers, and that’s not a way to accomplish anything. He cultivates the most bizarre image and persona, hiding behind a beard and funny clothes, constantly trying to reinvent himself. It’s one thing to adopt the look of a shabby hippy in order to go undercover, but Serpico wanted to be a hippy and a cop at the same time. He does things that undermine his credibility, and complains constantly instead of taking care of things himself. After reading this book, I have to wonder if Serpico is really worthy of all the praise that he received.

serpico-old For some reason it took Serpico a decade to become a detective, despite having a college degree, multiple languages, a great arrest record, and top marksmanship skills. He was accused of being a peeping tom, which may or may not have been true, but even without an accusation like that, he comes off as a troublemaker. He’s always complaining about the other cops, but never makes any effort to improve things for his fellow officers. There’s a part where he finds all the night shift officers camping out in a basement (known as “cooping”) so he goes out on patrol by himself. That’s good, he takes the initiative and makes an arrest. But he could have tried to convince one of them to go along with him. He takes issue with the corruption in the plainclothes division, but he could have asked to be reassigned to uniform. Not the best way to become a detective, I agree, but he could still have accomplished great things. It was a waste for him to stay in a division for which he had nothing but disdain.

More outrageous and bizarre incidents follow. He shoots a fleeing suspect in the back (without knowing if he’s armed or not) then patrols his own neighborhood (a big no-no) while disguised as an old man and carrying a sword cane (not allowed.) His superiors aren’t happy, and no wonder, because he’s violating the rules to arrest a mugger (and the charges would probably be dropped anyway.) He spends half his time complaining about corrupt cops, but what does he expect? These cops were paid crap, the bookies never got sent to prison, so why would the vice cops make any effort? It’s no wonder the cops serico-originalwere all taking payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, drug dealers, and professional burglars. It wasn’t cops like Serpico that destroyed the numbers racket, but the legalization of the New York Lotto.

History credits Frank Serpico with exposing police corruption, and that’s how we’ll all remember him. Whenever we hear the name, we’ll think of the Knapp Commission, and the lone honest cop versus the dirty pigs, and all of his hippy heroics. However, a lot of what he’s credited with was done by another cop named David Durk, and that’s where things get weird. Durk was older than Serpico, had fewer years on the force, but somehow got promoted faster. The two of them were certainly an “odd couple” in every sense of the word; Durk was the tall blonde Jewish guy, and Serpico was the scruffy little Italian-American hippy. A lot of readers, not just myself, think that the media focused on Serpico exactly because of that – he was an Italian – and they needed him to the be the big hero! The Valacci Papers and The Godfather had hit the bookstores, furthering the stereotype Italian-American criminal, and in Officer Serpico the media found a more positive role-model. As for Durk, who risked his career to expose corruption, he’s only a footnote in this book. Even the movie skips him over, turning him into a waspy character named “Blaire.”

After the events of this book, things didn’t go well for Serpico. He got shot in the face and it left him partially deaf, then he left the force and lived in Europe for a while, came back to the USA in the early 80’s. In the 1990’s he was in the spotlight again, thanks to the Abner Louima case and the new debate on police brutality, but few really cared about his opinion. As for David Durk, he got promoted to Lieutenant, but the NYPD stuck him in boring jobs he didn’t like, and when he retired he got screwed on his pension. Like Serpico, he left the city for upstate New York, but spent the rest of his life trying to bring attention to police corruption, and his efforts were mostly ignored.

After reading this book, and a few others about this topic, I wonder if Serpico and Durk are some kind of little-and-large comedy act? You have the scruffy little working class Italian American hippy weirdo, and the well-dressed straight-arrow upper-class Jew. When I wonder why both of them ended up with less-than-ideal ends, it dawns on me that they had issues to begin with. Both of them seem deluded and unable to face reality. They both had fantasies of making some radical change to American life, which everyone knows doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly can’t be accomplished by only two men. They would have to have been crazy to do what they did, taking the risk that their fellow cops would mark them as rats.

It was the same crazy attitude that led to their undoing.

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?

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.

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel By Nicolaia Rips

trying-to-float For a New Yorker, few things could be cooler than living in the Chelsea Hotel, residence of great artists, writers, and underground filmmakers. The place is adorned with great artwork, and the owner, a sentimentalist despite himself, used to let eccentric people live there without paying the rent. It was the home of Andy Warhol’s superstars, and residents included (at different times) Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, Dylan Thomas, and Dee Dee Ramone. From the get go, Nicolaia Rips makes her status clear; she grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, but she wasn’t invited to any cool parties or treated like royalty. If you think this is about a kid who grows up in the Warhol crowd, think again, because she’s too late. Warhol was long dead by the time she was born, and the Chelsea residents she writes about are all old. She’s the daughter of eccentric weirdos and the kids at her school all have
rich celebrity parents. She’s a free-range kid who doesn’t fit in with the socially precocious and over-sophisticated children of the elite. She’s born into an artsy crowd that’s dying off.

While this may sound harsh, keep in mind that she was born around 1998, so by that time there weren’t a lot of less-affluent educated families in the area anymore. She makes a horrible impression on her first day of kindergarten because (a) she doesn’t know how to read yet, and (b) her parents haven’t hired a million tutors to teach her Chinese, opera singing, and how to play the harp. She’s basically a kid, that’s it, but her classmates have been taught to be little grownups with fancy manners. When she causes a disaster at a rich upstate pool party, I wanted to cheer.

chelsea-hotel Rips exposes the city elite’s self-delusion of talent. She has a dance teacher who’s obsessed with the avante-garde, and on the first day of class the child is ridiculed for wearing a tutu. The dance program is all “modern” dancing, while the teacher despises kids who want to learn ballet or tap. When I read this chapter, the first thing that entered my mind was Holden Caulfield. The teacher has the same mindset, ranting about “phonies” and overcome with grandiose views of herself, even though she’s only a dance teacher for six-year-olds. Holden would’ve thought she was a genius for turning up her nose at conventional arts, but his sister Pheobe would probably have seen right through her. As for her classmates, the parents are like something out of The Nanny Diaries, pushing their kids to do activities that aren’t age-appropriate.

A lot of the blame goes to the author’s own nutty parents. They don’t get her to school on time, and she nearly gets held back, though her father has plenty of time to play pranks on the local dry cleaners. She gets into LaGuardia High School, that is good, but she still doesn’t fit in. Most of the white kids in the city by 2012 came from rich families. There aren’t a lot of kids in the city who come from families that are educated by not wealthy. It seems as though her parents were steering her chelsea-hotel2towards kids who came from rich families, rather than the ones that have decent social skills. Not all city kids are rich or sophisticated; as a private tutor I saw every kind of city kid, and not all of them push their children to excel.

Trying to Float is a great memoir, a cross between the manic Eloise and the cynical Holden Caulfield. Unlike most memoirs about crazy childhoods, it’s written by an 18 year old, so everything that happens here is still fresh in her mind. There were other children who lived in the Chelsea, like actress Gabby Hoffman, but she left around 1990. I was there twice in my life, once for a friend’s party in one of the rooms, and once while my apartment was being fumigated. Based on what I remember, I would like to have read a better description of the building, the famous art collection, the other things about the neighborhood. The problem is that when you’re a kid you don’t observe things the way an adult would, so it’s difficult to understand the mood.

Kids who grow up in Manhattan are often classed as spoiled and socially precocious, though the author doesn’t fit the stereotype. When compared to other similar writers, she could be part of what I call the “why is that kid here” school of memoir writing. Dalton Conley, author of Honky, was the only white kid in a Lower East Side housing project (obviously not sophisticated) and his memoir is all about social class structure. Then there’s The Basketball Diaries, where the working-class Jim Carrol attends Trinity School, plays basketball, and does heroin. As for MacCaulay Culkin, he hasn’t written a memoir, but his childhood on the Upper East Side involved dysfunctional parents and squalor. Let’s face it, growing up in Manhattan is great or horrible. Trying to Float pulls no punches and gives us both.

My research into the author tells me that her book began with complaints. Someone advised her to write them all down, and the long collection of gripes became her memoir. Currently she and her family live on the Upper East Side while the Chelsea Hotel is being renovated, and according to her, the neighborhood has nothing to do. I didn’t like it much myself when I lived there 17 years ago, and I don’t like it much now.

I wonder if people like her parents would’ve been better off in the Westbeth building, where most of the artists lived. There would’ve been a lot more kids there, and she wouldn’t have been such a misfit. Something tells me Rips will publish another memoir later on. I look forward to it.