A checkered past

Checker Cab – Greenpoint

The fare hike that went into effect last week came and went without a lot of fanfare. Much was written about it over the summer when it was debated at a series of TLC meetings but many New Yorkers thought that those in my profession were due for a raise that was a long time coming. The big debate was not how much to raise the fare but what percentage of it would ultimately end up in the driver’s pockets and not in the hands of the medallion owners and garage operators. Lost amidst the hubbub of the hike and the throngs of groggy commuters returning to work this week was the other change that coincided with the new rates – that being the new logo on the side of the Taxicabs themselves.

The old Taxi look

For the last few years, all of the Taxis in New York had the look seen above, with the “NYC” in the official font next to the Taxi logo on the front door and the rate chart on the back door. On the back of cab was the strip as I call it – the checkerboard pattern that was found on cabs back when an actual company called Checker supplied the cars that roamed the city streets. As the models where replaced and the company went out of business, the pattern became smaller and smaller over the years, until it was finally relegated to just a tiny reminder of the way things used to be.

Until the fare went up last week.

The new Taxi look

This is how your ride in a yellow cab will now look on the outside. The “NYC” that was so prominent has been shrunken down, the fare chart has been simplified to two symbols, and the work “Taxi” has been replaced by a big, black “T”. The thinking behind it is that New Yorkers, and visitors, should know what a yellow vehicle that doesn’t carry kids around all day should function as, so why bother labeling it as such? All of the marketing wizards could do was come up with this but I guarantee that a bunch of us who actually drive the vehicles all day could design something just as informative and not charge the city an arm and a leg for it in the process.

What bothers me the most is what’s on the back and that would be nothing. Like the automat , the subway token, and the old “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs, the checker pattern on a Taxi has now been relegated to the dustbin of Gotham’s past. In order for the Taxis to charge the higher rates, the exterior had to be changed along with the upgrades to the meters. A few of the cabs this past week still sported the old design, which only had one advantage: Smart New Yorkers knew that they were charging the old rates and would hail them instead of a upgraded Taxi. This won’t go on for long but given how expensive everything is today, I had a few people tell me that they were attempting to do that when looking for a ride.

Economics aside, the new design marked another indication of the homogenization and globalization of New York. Pictures and symbols continue to expand as more people from around the World continue to visit the Big Apple. The less English they have to come across, the easier they can get around. Soon, the subway will be fully automated, Street signs will get bigger than they are now, and smartphone apps will ensure that no one will ever get lost again when navigating the city. It’s bad enough that the cabs have maps, GPS’s, and endless commercials on the backseat screen, all in the name of progress. If nothing else, a Taxi should say what it is, let anyone think that a black car has the same role that a yellow one does on the city streets.

Soon, the Crown Victorias, SUV’s, and Prius’s will all be scrapped in favor of the NV200, a.k.a. the Taxi of the Future. What seemed so common today will be old hat in the coming decades as change will inevitably take hold and thrust all of us into the future. These “upgrades” will be fully present in a new fleet that will be more environmentally friendly, accessible, and better designed, but the real shame in it will be in the scrapping of what made Taxis so beloved in the past. As all of this takes hold in the next few years, one question never seemed to cross the minds of the designers:

Would it have hurt to keep the checkerboard pattern as it was?

Way out West Side

The West Side as the edge of familiarity – courtesy of Saul Steinberg

“Hey there, where to?”

“11 Ave. and 30 St.”

“Oh, that’s where the Ohm Building is.”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“I’m a cabdriver, we should be on top of these things.”

“Well, that’s good to know.”

“Do you enjoy living there? I watched that go up and right now, that’s the only residential tower over in that neck of the woods.”

“Yeah, that’s about the one drawback of it. It’s still out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t expect that to last long. Once the extension of the 7 train opens late next year, all of that’s gonna change.”

“That’s true. I have to say though, July 4th was amazing. All of us who lived there were invited to the roof deck for a big party. They had a DJ up there with lots of food and we were also given the best view of the fireworks in the entire city. It was a wonderful experience.”

“I worked that night and I’ll take your word for it. The one time I walked into the lobby, they had dance music playing and lots of lights going like it was a club.”

“Haha. Yeah, it’s pretty happening in there. Most of the units are sold and people enjoy living in the Ohm, even if it’s off the beaten path.”

“Why do you like living there then?”

“It’s a lot cheaper than the other new towers that are being built and the walk isn’t really that much farther out than I thought it would be.”

“You’re talking about a place like the MiMA Tower, right?”

“Exactly. This was a much better deal.”

“What kind of work do ya do, if ya don’t mind me asking?”

“Oh, I’m a Lawyer…”

Five or ten years ago, this conversation would have been impossible to envision. It wasn’t just because I had a different occupation, but because no one would have lived this far out on the West Side of Manhattan. Since the rental market is still too big for its britches, Manhattan has been forced to look up, and out, for expansion. What’s ripe for the taking? Of course, that would be the West Side.

Horace T. Greeley was once quoted that one had to go West for prosperity but anyone who would have taken his advice was bound to see America as Saul Steinberg pictured it in the iconic March 29, 1976 New Yorker cover shown above. When the Dakota apartment tower was constructed, it was called that because people who considered moving there may has well have moved out past the 100th meridian. Central Park West is still considered one of the premier addresses to call home today but when it was first built, the Dakota was out in the middle of nowhere…

…which also happens to be the case of the Ohm Tower. These days, buildings need flashy names, big name designers, and a star marketing team to sell them. The MiMA Tower has posters on newsstands and the few remaining phone booths touting how it’s in the middle of so many neighborhoods, since most people are concerned with where and not what or how much it will set them back per month. Real estate, of course, is only about three things – location, location, and location. Given that I have to commute from the hinterlands of the above cartoon, it’s shocking to hear how many people in the Big Apple will confine themselves to a set of parameters. Living on 97 St as opposed to 94 St or two avenues over from where your coworkers go home to at night shouldn’t be a big deal but to some, it’s more of a status symbol than any promotion or corner office that they yearn for.

The West Side encompasses many diverse neighborhoods with divergent histories but one thing has united them through the recent decades of the city’s history, and that’s rail. The opening up of the Contract 1 IRT Line in 1904 opened up the Upper West Side to development of giant apartment houses along upper Broadway that still dominated the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights to this day. Of course, the line cuts east as it makes its way down to Columbus Circle and the line that defined the Middle and Lower West Sides was actually one that carried freight. 10 Ave. was known as “Death Ave.” due to the tracks being at grade but planners like Robert Moses had something better in mind, and that was grade separation.

North of midtown, the rail line was mostly covered up by what became Riverside Park with the railyards between 59 and 72 Street having become the site of Donald Trump’s massive Riverside South Development. The Freight Line that ran south from Penn Station ceased operations in 1980 and now, it has become one of the most successful urban rails-to-trails parks in the world. Of course, I’m referring to the High Line, which has remade the Lower West Side into a tourist and recreation mecca.

In between the two still stands the last gigantic undeveloped site in Manhattan and the future site of Hudson Yards. Coach has already signed on for a 50-story tower on 10 Ave, a stone’s throw from the Ohm, but the Related Companies has much larger ambitions for the open space where passenger trains are stored while not in use at Penn Station. Cabdrivers love the streets out there for runs since they are largely free of traffic and pedestrians unless the Lincoln Tunnel approaches are overflowing. I don’t tend to find a lot of fares out that way, since the Javits Center is still a giant black mark on the city in more ways than one. Of course, all of that would have changed in an alternative universe.

I say that because the London Olympics just concluded and as many news organizations recently reminded their readers, scores of officials wanted the 2012 Summer Games to be played in where else – New York. The Olympic Village may have been in Queens along with many of the facilities in Flushing Meadows but the grand center of the whole spectacle would have been on the West Side. What was once home to the Jets of the singing sort would have housed the Jets on the gridiron once the games were over and the mess was cleaned up. Residents were up in arms over the idea of a stadium taking up valuable real estate in an area starved for parks, schools, and other amenities that would have been much more utilized by the locals.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys. It was an example of what I dubbed the “Third British Invasion” (which also included Depeche Mode, Erasure, and New Order) – sassier, full of synth, and more upbeat than the earlier work of U.K. sensations like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin. It had a chorus that referred to the differences between the posh West End of London and the gritty East End that was home to a long-running soap set there and later on, the Olympic Games that I mentioned above. Back in the 80’s, the island of Manhattan was the inverse of London’s layout with the West Side was just as gritty as the East End was. The Westies were losing their grip, the last remaining section of the Miller Highway stood unused until it’s untimely demolition in 1989, and rents there remained significantly lower than on the blocks that were crosstown.

Like all things and places old, it was resigned to two fates – oblivion or renewal. In the 21st Century, it’s obvious in which direction the neighborhood is heading in. In another 20 or 30 years, it may impossible to picture the blocks west of 8 Ave as once being the home of garages, warehouses, and blue-collar Manhattanites. Many of them are pushed so much further uptown or to the Outer Boroughs now as to render the neighborhood as a blank slate upon which to build anew. Although the architecture has been some of the most cutting-edge in the Big Apple, the exclusion of the much trumped-about 99% leaves much to be desired. Parks and open space can indeed be used by all but what made the neighborhood so colorful for so long was the cast of characters that called the place home. The increasing homogenization underneath all the crazy facades and glistening towers is not something that the City should be proud of. So much of Manhattan can already lay claim to housing residents with too much in common. The West Side has always been the proverbial cutting edge of New York and still deserves to be so, even as waves of change threaten to commodify so much of what made it unique in the first place.

The Ohm and northernmost section of the High Line as seen from the West Side Highway