Make the Road By Walking

Pedestrians - Times Square

Pedestrians – Times Square

“Sorry about that. I normally don’t slam the brakes but sometimes, I don’t have a choice.”

“It’s not your fault that these people never look.”

“I know, but I have to still be careful. Some of them are my future passengers.”

Pedestrians.

I can’t stand them.

Most of the people in my business would probably say the same thing if they were to be asked about those on foot as well. With tourism at a record high and the economy in the Big Apple in decent shape, there’s never been more of them to contend with during a shift. For the record, I haven’t hit one yet but I’ve had enough close calls that I still haven’t completely mastered the art of dodging them with ease. I don’t mean to bash them – after all, I learned my way around New York by being one for many years as well, since I hardly ever drove in from my humble suburbs of New Jersey. I could count the number of times I brought my vehicle across the Hudson River in the 15+ years between the obtainment of my driver’s license and my hack license. Thankfully, I was able to get a lay of the land via foot before getting behind the wheel for a living on a nightly basis.

The average walker in Gotham has had it better than ever in recent years. While traffic fatalities remain a problem, they are in the news more than ever now and with the new mayoral team set to take office late next week, pedestrian safety already seems like it will move to the forefront of issues that need to be addressed. Yes, there will always be taxis that jump the curb and people racing around way too fast in the wee hours of the morning but the changes that have been implemented lately are already a harbinger of what’s to come.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Great White Way.

For those unfamiliar with the street grid in Manhattan, Broadway is the major exception to the orderly layout of thoroughfares from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. North of Houston Street, there were to be 12 major Avenues running north-south and 155 total Streets running east-west, which was later extended upwards as more of Manhattan became settled. Older thoroughfares like Greenwich Ave. and the Bowery would remain in place but for the most part, the plan that was drawn up was remarkably close to the one that was laid out. Central and Gramercy Parks filled in some of the streets with a superblocked green space and the topography of the northern part of the island dictated that some streets (like 116) would not be able to stretch from river to river. Mother nature also showed some resiliency over mankind’s attempt in impose an order of enlightened rationality, without having to tear apart the existing urban fabric like what was done in Paris by Baron Haussmann. Although part of the Village was indeed demolished to make way for the southern extension of 6 and 7 Ave’s in the early 20th Century, very little changed when it came to the layout of Manhattan’s arteries, unless one takes into the account the reworking of the Avenues into one-way streets in the 1950’s.

That was until Mayor Bloomberg came along.

Led by Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, many thoroughfares were remade into “Complete Streets” during his 12 years as Mayor. Inspired by European cities, autos would no longer gain precedence when it came to deciding how the space on a given street would be utilized. Widening streets would no longer be an option, traffic calming measures would be implemented, and for the second time (the first being under Mayor Koch in 1980), bike lanes would be added to allow for the easier and safer movement of two-wheeled non-motorized vehicles. Hardly a week goes by now where someone at my garage isn’t complaining about bikes flying the wrong way down the lanes, traffic caused by them, or tickets being given out by the NYPD because a passenger wanted to be discharged in a lane and someone had a quota to fill that day. Toss in the addition of protected bus lanes on 1, 2, and Lexington Ave’s and the midtown bus lanes on Madison Ave being expanded from rush hours to all hours, and the ripple effect from the changes ended up affecting more than just those who had to make a living on the same streets that were becoming less and less spacious for motor vehicles.

So where did Broadway fit into all of this?

To put it simply, it didn’t.

North of Union Square, Broadway was a diagonal street that also served as a double-edged sword. When it crossed 5 or 6 Avenue’s, the result was a square that allowed for more sun and air to reach down to the streets, as well as for buildings like the Flatiron that were able to break free of the rectilinear mold that so many others were cast in. Where Broadway messed things up was in the traffic flow, as intersections that were two-phased were now forced to become three-phased. None of the streets were given sufficient time to get all of the traffic through the intersections. This called for some changes to the layout of Broadway and during Bloomberg’s tenure, an extraordinarily bold step was taken:

Broadway would be closed off to all traffic.

This didn’t take place along the entire length of it but through Times and Herald Squares, Broadway would no longer flow through them as it did for generations. There was significant outcry at first as drivers bemoaned the loss of more street space and were fearful of increased traffic on parallel routes. Even though this change was made before I started my current occupation, I could see that some of these fears were justified. Times Square is a complete mess now, as the increased space given for sidewalks has been nowhere near enough to compensate for the massive expansion in retail and office space that recent rezoning has allowed for. It’s torn apart nearly every night and since only one street flows out of it now, backups are quite common well after Midnight on most nights, when most of the rest of the City has quieted down.

As for 6 Ave, it flows better through Herald Square as the green phase on the lights is longer than it was when Broadway still went through it. While it is a plus, most of the rest of the Avenue of the Americas still gets congested during rush hours as the office buildings along it empty out and the buses jockey along the right-hand side of the street to get ahead of each other. Where Broadway still messes up the pulse of the City is in front of Lincoln Center, as it has to content with Columbus Ave and 65 St for valuable green time where they all cross. Since Broadway is a two-direction street north of Columbus Circle, further changes are not likely along it. Where changes will be seen is in how those outside of Manhattan will get from Point A to Point B.

The concept of Select Bus Service, which allows for express buses in dedicated lanes has taken off in the Outer Boroughs in the last few years and will probably be expanded under Bill de Blasio. If it gets people out of their vehicles, that’s great but already there has been an outcry along Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn as only *one* lane can now be used by cars that make their way down it. As New York grows in population and more people move to those Outer Boroughs, the ideas that first took root in Manhattan will branch out down major streets one by one. The difference is that Manhattan has a density seen in only a few other places on the Earth, while the Outer Boroughs have a lot more room to work when it comes to converting the layout of the streets there. Subways and until recently, metered Taxi service are lacking in many commuter and immigrant neighborhoods which has made the expansion of buses the preferred method of mass transit growth throughout much of the City. While many in Manhattan asked for SBS, many outside of it haven’t and it remains to be seen whether complete streets will be opposed more as the program takes off any further. Social engineering was easier in crowded Manhattan but in a less dense environment, would the conversion be met as receptively?

Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about that as the county known as New York still remains my home base and the one that I’ve gotten to know the best. One of the reasons I loved walking around it when I was still getting to know the layout of neighborhoods was that the traffic was so bad, and this was before the boom in tourism, drop in crime, and growth in people returning to New York from the suburbs led to more vehicles on the streets of the Big Apple. The number of yellow cabs has been capped for years, even though that’s set to change as more Outer Borough Taxis are added to the mix and the 1,500 medallions that were recently sold come online. It’s only a matter of time before Bus and bike lanes are expanded and more turn restrictions are added along the two-way crosstown rues like 23 and 34 Sts. Of course, emergency vehicles and the NYPD can turn wherever they want, but who’s going to ever pull *them* over?

I couldn’t imagine having to learn Manhattan by foot now, as Citi Bikes have permeated into every nearly nook and cranny south of Central Park and the attitudes of those riding them have threatened to make even the most relaxed of cabdrivers want to teach them a lesson or two. The calmness of backwater neighborhoods has been replaced by a frenzy that will only see temporary dips during the next recession, only to grow even further as upzoning results in more people needing to get around with less room to do so.

Someday when I’m not driving anymore, I’ll pick up where I left off in the ’90’s and set to re-explore what I can on foot. It won’t be the same as then, as everyone has their heads buried in their phones now and would rather let their apps be their brains instead of learning in ins and outs of neighborhood nuances on their own. I will fight the good fight and do my best to go where I want when I want, as more plazas, fences, security barriers, and closings will be put into place, all in the name of “security”, “flow”, “throughput”, and “efficiency”. The City I grew up with is still the one I desperately hold onto, even as it’s being remade into a playground for those who are totally unaware of the way things used to be. I know full well that I can’t go back, but I’ll refuse to go go forward without being dragged into the future. I can only hope that the planners and leaders of tomorrow take into account all modes of transit and show consideration for those who need to make a living on the street, no matter how they choose to get around.

“Don’t you think that bikes need some of the street too?”

“Look at this traffic. Do you think that anyone needing an ambulance is going to have one come on two wheels?”

Broadway, interrupted - Herald Square

Broadway, interrupted – Herald Square

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Suburban War

Olive Garden - Chelsea

Olive Garden – Chelsea

One of the perks of being a cabdriver is getting to meet people from all over who come to the Big Apple to visit friends, family, and of course, relax. From New Jersey to New Zealand, there’s hardly a country or corner of the Earth that hasn’t sent at least one person my way since I started driving for a living. Being that most of these people are unfamiliar with the city, I get asked a lot of questions, with one of the most common being one of the simplest as well:

“Where should we go eat tonight?”

I don’t mind answering this one even though my time spent imbibing is usually at Gray’s Papaya or from something on four wheels. What I read about and have tried in the past will go into any answer that I give along with one simple caveat:

“You better not eat at the Olive Garden – that’s not why you came to the Big Apple.”

Sure enough, I have to drive up 6 Ave. practically every shift to cruise for fares or to get people uptown and there hasn’t been a shift where I didn’t cringed just a wee bit when I went past the neon sign shown above. To add insult to injury, it’s on the same block as a Cosi and just a stone’s throw from Home Depot and Best Buy.

The running joke in New York now is how everything is located near a Starbucks, Duane Reade or Chase but lost in the shuffle is the fact that you’re more likely today to run into a Subway restaurant than an actual Subway station in Manhattan and that cannibalization no longer refers to an eating practice but for individual units in a franchise that are competing with each other instead of the competition. Indeed, the first TGIFriday’s was an actual singles bar that opened on the Upper East Side in 1965 but when you hear that name now, only place comes to mind as it’s natural location:

The Suburbs.

Most people reading this don’t know it but indeed, that’s where I grew up and still call home to this day. Suburbia was once the urban hinterlands of America but later took on an identity of its own when it became the home of these chains, along with tract housing, single-use developments, and loads of commercial buildings that popped up in the decades following V-E Day. Most importantly, it was the site of much of the growth in America in the middle of the 20th century and the final  destination of  those fleeing older urban areas during the years of forced integration and racial strife; helping to coin the term “white flight”. What current demographers are noticing now has been a reversal of that trend and nowhere is this more evident than in the Big Apple.

While much of the Outer Boroughs and edges of Manhattan fell into disarray during the decades of demographic upheaval, old industrial areas like SoHo were the first neighborhoods that underwent gentrification. Cast-iron industrial buildings that were abandoned due to an economy that was moving in a postindustrial direction were taken over by artists, LGBT’s, and squatters. New restaurants and shops followed as as rents increased, these urban homesteaders were forced out in search of cheaper pastures in which they could set up their wares, and the cycle repeated. Chelsea, TriBeCa, the Upper West Side, and other nether regions of Manhattan saw this process repeat itself but in the 21st century, there have been some changes to this pattern that are still worth noting.

The primary difference today is where these changes are taking place. Much of the Outer Boroughs that resembled war zones are now the sites of these latest rounds of gentrification from the ground-up. Long Island City, Williamsburg, “The Hub” in the South Bronx, and Bushwick are wthe ground zeros that the artistically hip and cutting-edge of young society are now setting up shop. Whether the ripples will radiate all the way out to East New York and Co-Op City remains to be seen but the edge of the “City” of New York still remains fluid even though the borders of the 5 Boroughs have been fixed for over a century now.

Second are the types of dwellings that the new residents are calling home. While adaptive re-use is still the preferred mode of redevelopment, glistening new towers on the waterfront or around transit hubs like Jamaica have shown that all new construction need not be confined to the Island of Manhattan. Land prices have risen so much that any site can be prime for redevelopment as long as zoning allows for the right type of building to allow for a return on investment. The Citi Tower in Long Island City was all alone for nearly 20 years but threatens to sit in a field of moderately-sized developments on the drawing board. Manhattan will still be the heart of Gotham when all is said and done but there were be pockets of developments that will rival the main island in terms of density and cutting-edge high-rise design.

Third are the types of retail developments that accompany the boom in housing. As a cabdriver, there’s very little as strange a seeing Toys R Us, Kohl’s, and Wendy’s in a suburban-style big-box development while taking a passenger down the Belt Parkway out to Coney Island or Manhattan Beach. I’ve lived within a stone’s throw from all of those for years, with all of them easily found on the local “strip” that could also exist on any 4-lane highway in America and conveniently, those 3 are within a mile proximity of each other, on my way to the Big Apple. Which brings me to my fourth point and the reason why I felt compelled to write this post…

Of course, that would be the trust fund babies that are populating much of the new growth in New York. Right now, nothing hurts me more than seeing how much money I owe the banks and the folks in Washington for the education that I worked for at Columbia. Time and time again, I hear passenger’s conversations about how unaffordable the rents are in New York and where everyone is going to go next, if they even want to stay in New York. One look at the glass-walled buildings and the neighborhoods they stick out of always brings a sneer as they discuss how the people that occupy them are living of their parents money while they shop at vintage clothing stores and take over parks and public spaces in Manhattan under the guise of bringing the 1% down. People in the ’60’s and 70’s were protesting old money, wealth, and the establishment while living in buildings that may have lacked heat, plumbing, or even permits. These days, everything comes complete with three month’s deposit along with access to the roof deck. Pushing the edge was never so easy since the new neighborhood was so much like the one back at home that would now be left behind. What better way to remind one of the old life left behind than to bring the familiarity and comfort of the ubiquitous chain with them?

As I have said time and time again, the New York that I grew up with in the 80’s has been relegated to pile of old photographs (remember those?) and books that I have up in my attic. Once in a while, I will pull them out and reminisce at how the city and its inhabitants used to look. While change is inevitable and a sign that the city is still economically viable and healthy, I wish that so much I loved about those days was still around with me today. While my Taxi will no longer be washed on the way to Yankee Stadium while waiting at a red light or will have to dodge the rotting pillars of the defunct West Side Highway, it would love to come across an automat, a vinyl record store, a NYNEX truck, or a three-card monte player. Instead, it’s more likely to come across a Target, Applebee’s, IHOP, or Walmart, even though the latter has yet to open within the city limits. Most importantly, I’d like the ride that I take during work to be quite different than the one I take during my rare off-night here in Jersey. While I can’t guarantee that my life’s path will ever see me reside in the Big Apple, I do hope that city won’t sell its soul in an attempt to appeal to everyone who wishes to live there. Chains are everywhere but there will only be one place good enough to be nicknamed Gotham and the day it becomes just like everywhere else is the day that moniker needs to be retired; for at that point, the city will no longer deserve to stand out amongst its peers.

Looking north to yet another Subway - Williamsburg

Looking north to yet another Subway – Williamsburg

Where the Streets Have No Name

Same view, different night

One of the first thing that drivers are required to do after entering Taxi School is to obtain a 5 Borough Atlas and study the hell out of it. A few of the questions – both open and closed book – are on the exam but as I always tell everyone who asks me, the real test begins when you put the key in the ignition and start taking fares. The rule book is a pain in the butt because, well, it’s a rule book and the odds of ever having to pull it out are slim to none. The most important thing to remember is where drivers are obligated to take people, where it’s illegal to pick up fares, and what to do in case of an accident. Traffic laws should be common knowledge before one decides to pursue this vocation so a violation of some combination of these above rules are what tends to end a lot of driver’s careers.

Streets are another matter. Like most New Yorkers, I had a really good idea of how Manhattan was laid out and worked long before I ever decided to drive a taxi. Even numbered streets went east, odd ones went west, and with rare exception, the Borough was arranged in a logical and orderly fashion. Hizzoner’s recent adjustments to Broadway and Sadik-Khan’s love affair with bike lanes have caused havoc for many of us but like most adjustments in the City, that has softened over time. For all the griping and grunting, those of us who have to navigate thoroughfares on a daily basis get accustomed to them and move on.

What the atlas didn’t tell you is what these streets and neighborhoods look and feel like. That only comes with experience and after all the passengers that I’ve met so far, the biggest learning experience for me is how these arteries function. Metropolitan, Bushwick, Bedford, and Nostrand Ave’s were only Subway stops in my lexicon before I drove them on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. Knowing where they were became secondary to knowing how they were and are evolving into. Restaurants would open weekly and bars that were empty a year or two ago would suddenly emerge as the next hot spot in the neighborhood; and potentially into a social locus.

For all the studying and reviewing what went where, nothing could have prepared me for what I confronted on a daily basis. Queens Boulevard is commonly known as the “Boulevard of Death” because of all the pedestrian fatalities on it in recent years but it was only when I started driving that I understood why it gained that moniker. Fourth Ave. in Brooklyn was mostly garages, gas stations, and industrial buildings but I can see Park Slope continuing it’s westward bleeding into it every time I make the right off of Flatbush Ave. and venture southward. As today’s Huffington Post New York elaborated on, many cabbies still refuse to take people out of Manhattan. Those that do are pathogens in the corpus that is New York, never leaving the heart and making their way to the capillaries that extend all the way to the Big Apple’s edge.

It’s not my business to worry about what other drivers do and don’t do. After Saturday night, it became apparent that I need an attitude adjustment in the other direction. At around 4:30 in the morning, someone in the exact spot pictured above said “Excuse me” and like a good driver that doesn’t mind giving directions (I’ve done it countless times since I started this job), I rolled the window down. Sure enough, it was an ambush and as the 4 punches landed on my face, I could only wonder what the world was in it for the person who assaulted me. The night dispatcher at the garage thought it was part of a gang initiation or an attempt to look tough for friends. A few of the other driver’s thought he was drunk or high on something. I was so shaken up and cleaning up the blood that dripped from my nose that I didn’t care and for the first time since I started work, I called out the next day.

Most victims of an assault are probably reluctant to return to the scene of the crime but in this line of work, the thick skin that eventually forms will prepare you for anything –  including this. I had no problem making the same turn, and taking this shot of the corner from the same viewpoint I had when I foolishly gave the invitation for my assailant to have his way with me. I had a damn good night before then and my two shifts since have been about as smooth as can be. New York in the 70’s probably saw a lot more of these events take place every night and I’m certainly glad that those days are in the rear-view mirror of the city. For all the risk that comes with being out at night, nothing can take away from the feeling I get when I enter a new neighborhood or see a new street for the first time and continue to see the beautiful diversity in people and the structures that they live and work in.

For anyone wondering, the President ate on the same street where this took place, three days later. Like most people who conduct business in the Big Apple, he’ll eventually forget where his meal took place and will only carry the memories of what transpired. The remainder of us who conduct our lives in New York will continue to watch lines and labels on a map come to life and eventually, work their way into our consciousness. We should be thankful to help record the wonderful narrative that is New York, even if most of the scenes aren’t recorded in any medium but our minds.

An anonymous rue in Brooklyn