Patience and Fortitude



If there were ever any unofficial sentinels in The Big Apple, one would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the two lions carved out of Tennessee marble that guard the main entrance of the Steven A. Schwarzman building on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Most New Yorkers call it the main branch of the New York Public Library as it faces a key intersection in Manhattan’s street grid, and an important place in the city’s civic life.

What many residents and visitors might not know is that these these quiet guards have a name, with a story behind it. The one on the south side of the plaza is named Patience while the northern one is Fortitude and were given their monikers by longtime Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the Great Depression. Aside from busting slot machines and reading the comics over the radio for kids during a newspaper strike, the designations that he bestowed on them were his way of enhancing the quality of life for New Yorkers during a low point in Gotham’s history.

The same could be said about the building behind them as well. Designed in the classical style by Carrere and Hastings, the library replaced the main reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct system as it opened two weeks after the lions were dedicated in May of 1911. Around the same time, such gems as the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges, Woolworth Building, original IRT subway stations, and Municipal Building were constructed as all of them enhanced quality of life for Gothamites and helped to unify a city that was consolidated in 1898. It’s not only a testament to their durability, design, and engineering that all of them are still in use today, but that many have undergone significant renovations in recent years to ensure that future generations will be inspired and have their lives enhanced by these civic structures.

In the case of the lions, as noted architecture critic Paul Goldberger put it, they are indeed “New York’s most lovable public sculpture”. With so many statues, monuments, and public art commissions scattered around the 5 Boroughs, his statement carries quite a bit of gravitas as it’s hard to disagree with him. Not only is a lion on the seal of the New York Public Library, but both have graced postcards, t-shirts, countless souvenir books, newspaper articles, and even been on the cover The New Yorker several times in previous decades. Never have they been ignored, neglected, covered in graffiti as they have silently kept watch over the city as it’s construction and reconstruction have continued unabated around the clock.

That was until two months ago. While they have not been forgotten in the midst of  the current pandemic, they may be silently called to take on a new role during these unprecedented times. With so much of the current city and state leadership fiddling as Gotham silently burns, some have called for a New Deal-style of public works and construction in order to help with the long-expected recovery. While the lions were not a WPA or CCC project like many libraries, courthouses, post offices, artworks, and civic buildings that dot our republic, they have served as proof that a well-constructed, timeless, and accessible enhancement to the cityscape not only employs planners, architects, skilled laborers, and craftsmen through good and bad times, but pays back aesthetic and cultural dividends for ensuing generations.

There were countless instances over the years where I’ve gone by the lions before my shift or during it and have smiled as I watched kids climb up on them, tourists get a picture in front of them, or people enhance them via a cap, shirt, or garment from back at home. Even when I paid a visit the library steps last week, both were “reading” a book that made the 125 most-checked out list in New York Public Library history. Patience had Beloved by Toni Morrison and Fortitude had The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. While I don’t know what any of the other 123 titles are off the top of my head, it had me wondering what they were and what the idea was behind the campaign – which is what any good interactive piece of art should do to engage passerby.

So much of modern society is built on electronica, whether it would be the 5G Networks that stream our video, the screens we watch them on, or the continued miniaturization of the devices that are both in our homes and pockets. Repeated predictions of the demise of the public library have gone unheeded as they serve a more important function now then ever before. Whether it’s internet access, interlibrary loans, housing information for a prospective job search, hosting classes for kids, or the group conference rooms for meetings or lectures, libraries help to keep the social fabric of a community together in an age where more and more people are apart from each other and continually on the go. The relentless march of progress seemed to make the library as we know it as obsolete as carbon paper and typewriters while the current pause in society’s technological trajectory has made many question whether the 21st-century lifestyle is economically, ecologically, and mentally stable.

The answer to that remains to be seen. Two recent articles in The New York Times have gone into great depth to explain which neighborhoods New Yorkers have left from and where in the Tri-State area, and America, they’ve gone to as the city slowly starts to emerge from it’s two-month long lockdown. Whether they’ve relocated to second homes, relatives quarters, or have rented Airbnb’s is up for debate as well as whether the moves are temporary or permanent. Once the numbers from this year’s census are released, officials will have a better idea of how many people have skipped town for safety reasons and how many have left for good. No matter the final numbers, those who have stayed behind face a monumental task of bringing the city back from it’s first pandemic in a century. A lot of sweat, grit, and determination will be needed to get New York on it’s feet again and help the rebuilding process as thousands of small business are expected to struggle or go under while billions will need to be cut from the city payroll to balance the budget. No one expects the return to be an easy task, although Gotham has overcome bigger obstacles and challenges in recent decades. As has been seen during the Depression and in ensuing decades, a little patience and fortitude might be what New York needs to weather the storm…




Fun City


Socially distant – Grand Central

It’s hard to imagine that there would be any fun to be had in New York right now, given that much of what makes the place run has been shut down for nearly two months. Without any concerts, Broadway shows, sporting events, tourists in town, and office workers streaming in and out of buildings, much of what makes the city run has ground to a halt with a full opening always being just over the proverbial horizon. This was evident during the last time that yours truly worked back on March 9th, as I came back to my garage after a slow night, slid the key under the slot to the dispatcher’s office, and simply told him that “you’re not going to be seeing me around here for a while”.

There’s no need to rehash what happened in the months leading up to that fateful night. Uber lost $8 billion dollars last year and Lyft was also far away from being profitable as neither stock had rebounded to it’s IPO price as of the time of this writing. Medallion owners were still hurting financially and the number available cabs at my garage continued to slowly dwindle as they kept in step with number of drivers who showed up for a typical shift. As disheartening as the industry was, nothing could have prepared it, or myself, for what happened when the Corona Virus landed on American shores.


#NewYorkTough – Rockefeller Center

For the first few weeks, I didn’t mind the time off. There were periods in recent years where I got into the Toyota in my garage, instead of the yellow one with a roof light and meter, and headed out west to get away from it all. As much as I forgot about the nightly grind of being on the streets, it was comforting to know that there were fares to be had whenever I returned home as I was usually back on duty within two days after pulling home after weeks on the road across America.

Now the tables had been completely turned. Most of the workers at my garage, many of whom had been there much longer than my time on the streets, had been laid off with only a skeleton crew remaining. Some nights saw nearly zero cabs going out as accompanying airport traffic was off by more than 90%. Never before had it looked to bleak for yellow cabs but this time around, those in the service, hospitality, tourism, and restaurant industries were in the same situation – although those workers had watched their incomes plummet overnight instead of gradually over recent years.


Embrace the Absurd – Times Square

With the onset of warmer weather, the urge to get out and about only increased until I decided that I had enough with being cooped up, catching up on books, and calling friends that had fallen out of my life long ago. No, it wasn’t time to take the cab back out to search for signs of life but to do something a bit more drastic while crossing something off of my bucket list at the same time.

I took a CitiBike for the first time.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking and it’s probably the same thing that crossed my mind:

Why on Earth?

Glad you asked!

If you know me well enough or have read enough past posts, it should be apparent that cabs and bikes get along as well as the Hatfields and the McCoys. Throngs of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and signal re-timings over the years, as well as complete street redesigns, have favored vehicles on two wheels at the expense of those on four as our efforts to influence the flow of traffic a bit more in our favor have fallen on deaf ears. With the rare sunny day and a sunnier disposition on my behalf, I figured it was time to give it a go for a bunch of reasons.


Crystal Clear – Times Square

First of all was to get some more exercise than just my daily errand-running on foot around town. Walking is my favorite way of clearing my mind here in suburbia and long, long before I drove for a living, it was my preferred way of getting around Manhattan. This was back in the time when Tompkins Square was full of homeless and runaways, the village had record and book shops, and the far West Side was truly an overlooked wonderland. I wasn’t in the city a whole lot either as it was a chance to get away from the closed-minded and conformist town that I grew up in and go run around Oz for an afternoon. Those days were probably my favorite in New York as the city was still varied, affordable, and not an overt foothold for the world’s excess wealth. Without even trying, I learned the streets below 14th Street, which gave me a leg up when learning the Manhattan street grid during my brief stint in Taxi School.

Secondly, I wanted to be out and about again but not in the way that I was accustomed to. With traffic counts being so light and knowing where the protected bike lanes were like the back of my hand, it wouldn’t be like the barrage of messengers and food deliverers that I had to dodge three or four nights a week. I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere and thankfully, my legs would keep me from going *too* fast – unlike just about everyone else that passed me on their way to whatever could be important in the middle of a pandemic.

Finally, I had to know whether the system of protected bike lanes, unprotected bike lanes, street re-stripings, directional bike signs, and all the other infrastructure that the city installed in recent years was about to ensure a smoother ride from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn and around Kings County once I made my first stop. I’d seen a bunch of maps on Streetsblog and other sites that showed the progression of cycling enhancements and there were quite a few CitiBike racks near my garage that were installed in recent years but for a novice like me, were they enough to win me over and have me ride one the next time I needed to get around town above ground?


2-wheeling it – Penn Station

There’s an old saying that once you learn how to ride a bike, that you never forget how to and that was the case for me, as much as I had to shake the proverbial rust off of myself first. I came prepared – with the right clothing, a helmet, and facial mask in tow as I wasn’t in any rush to head downtown from Times Square. The first portion of 7 Ave that I rode down was lacking for a bike lane but one was put in through Chelsea and the West Village recently and that was more than enough to get me most of the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time I made my first stop near the Gowanus Canal, I could feel my quads thumping and they’d only be put to the test again as I crept my way toward the Navy Yard, around it, and up to my familiar stomping grounds by my garage.


Pulled over – West Village

Did I enjoy the exercise? Sure, even though my legs felt like tree trunks for the next day or so after I docked the bike at the end of my ride. There was no doubt to me that the system works and even on two wheels, I was still passed by a ton of messengers and 10-speed pros as I even had to weave my way around several double-parked Uber vehicles. It helped that I had a sunny, mellow day outside and plenty of other riders who were patient with me as I navigated barricades, waterfront enclaves, and intersections that were just a bit different than what I was accustomed to breezing through with passengers in tow.

What went through my mind during my mind was how much has been written about the long-term effects that the virus will have on society once it’s run it’s course and becomes a footnote in history. Will people be kinder and more patient with each other? Are schools and offices as we know it doomed, as people choose to work and teach from home while cherishing precious family time together? Can people take mass transit and still be comfortable and socially distant, while patronizing subways and buses to keep them afloat? Most importantly to me, will the taxi industry survive with so many New Yorkers choosing to work from home, walk, bike, drive to stay socially distant, or just forgoing the city and it’s pitfalls altogether as they move on to greener, and less stressful, pastures?


Sunset – Williamsburg

These trying times were not the first instance that bikes gained a foothold in the transportation network as the Lindsay administration closed Central Park to automobiles during certain days and even proposed to make Madison Ave. into a car-free mall. A  little over a decade later, a bike lane was instituted on 6 Ave during the 1980 transit strike by the Koch administration to handle midtown commuters. Both instances happened during times of upheaval, which resulted in some thinking outside of the proverbial box. Although those measures turned out to be temporary, the lack of leadership by the current administration has many clamoring for closed or narrowed streets to allow for more room for those wishing to walk or bike while practicing social distancing at the same time. What the results are is anyone’s guess but it’s likely that the transportation system that we’re familiar with, as well as the livelihoods of Gotham’s citizens, will not revert back to what they were before the Corona Virus came to America.

In the meantime, all of that was a distant thought as I paid a visit to the garage to see what was (or more importantly, wasn’t) going on before hoofing it by foot to the subway for the return trip home. With the world seemingly spiraling out of control with no end in sight, it was nice to slow things down for an afternoon and take things at my own pace. After all of these years and repeated disruptions, I was grateful to still have a chance to see the city anew and prepare for whatever tomorrow brought.


The once and future city – Williamsburg