May 21, 2014

New York City ~ it's the people

Things I found of interest during my first trip to New York City:

I imagined a dirtier, grimier, more polluted city. It isn't. In fact, Manhattan seems quite clean and orderly for its population density. The garbage bags appear through the day, and then, somehow, disappear.

There are surprisingly few panhandlers on the streets. In Manhattan the homeless are largely invisible. The why of that is of concern, especially when we know there are over 50,000 in municipal shelters every night and thousands more living rough. Why aren't they more visible? It's easier to see the rich; they are everywhere as are the working class citizens who serve them. Where are the homeless?

Transit is great. It's relatively inexpensive, easy, dependable and safe. There isn't the graffiti on the subway cars here that one sees in some of the major international cities.

There is a great deal of horn honking going on. Short toots for no reason at all and a wall of sound for something more important, like waiting more than 15 seconds for a delivery truck driver to finish his job. Or maybe they were honking at Jeem for standing in the street.

Yellow cabs are everywhere. Except when it rains of course.

For a city that never sleeps, it's relatively quiet when you are away from the tourist centres. Where we stayed, finding a cafe or coffee shop open past midnight was not always easy, the 3 Star Diner being an exception (open 24/7) and a retro kind of place in every sense. So retro it isn't fashionably retro.

There is a wonderful sense of making the best of the old city, yet celebrating the new when it works. New York is a walkable city and the architecture is stunning at every turn.

Conversations are easy to start in cafes, coffee shops and bars; not every person is spiritually attached to their smart phone. New Yorkers seem to love talking with people and about almost anything.

The people are amazing. They are friendly and eager to help. Look at a map in a subway station and only a moment goes by before someone says "Where do ya wanna go?" They seem genuinely proud of their city. They don't need to be told they live in the greatest city on earth. They know. It's the people that make this a great city.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

May 20, 2014

Everyone is taking pictures ~ "slaves to their gadgets"

Everywhere, everyone seems to be taking photos. With their phones and with their cameras, it is never ending. Of a scene, of themselves and sometimes of both. It's as though it didn't happen, or I wasn't really there, unless there is a photo on my wall (the digital wall on a social media site, not an actual wall).

Earlier in May the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke for many of us when he ranted against the constant photo taking, the selfies, the apparent inability to set the phone down...

"You are slaves to your gadgets" he said, without knowing he was being recorded. His rant went viral.

It's true: all those people taking photos. Sending live transmissions and talking while they are "shooting" the World Trade Centre or the Statue of Liberty. All the time. Everywhere. Some people take pictures of each other taking pictures of each other.

Still others take photos of people taking photos. What's with that I wonder? But wait a minute, I'm one of those people.

I don't think of myself as a slave to my gadget, and no selfies for me. I use the camera's timer.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

May 19, 2014

The heart of the American Dream: The Church and The Exchange

In the heart of what was once the Occupy Wall Street movement stands a wonderful old Anglican church called Trinity.

This is the third Trinity Church to stand in this location; the first was built in 1698. Many of the grave markers reveal a time before the American Revolution.

Behind the church, behind the grave yard, is the centre of American business: The New York Stock Exchange. It was founded in 1792.

There is a contrast between the old and new here. Just as there is in this country. The Occupy movement fizzled, though the questions about distribution of wealth remain. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the Times about economic disparity and the American Dream, how that dream has faded, perhaps even disappeared, and became the Canadian dream.

In his column, Kristof mentions three facts that might seem surprising to many Americans, especially here in the wealthiest of all cities:
  • American women are twice as likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth as are Canadian women
  • the six heirs to the Walmart estate are worth as much as the bottom 41percent of all US households put together
  • the top 1 percent in the US have wealth and property worth more than the entire bottom 90 percent

Kristof suggests at the end of his piece that the American Dream be brought home from exile, which might imply that the Dream was somehow removed from America, in this instance by Canadians. The truth is that the Dream was stolen by the rich and powerful of America itself, with the acquiescence of the Church and the deliberations of the best government money can buy. Getting it back, both the Dream and the government, will not be easy.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

May 13, 2014

J. G. Melon and... Grade Pending

Throughout New York City, one sees a variety of "grades" posted in windows of all kinds of restaurants and coffee shops; any place that serves food.

There are three grades, well four actually: A (the best), B (not bad apparently) and C (well, it isn't as bad as it sounds). The fourth rating is "Grade Pending" which can be taken several ways.

The idea is that the greatest city on earth should have the best restaurants on earth... and maybe... they should have some sort of hygiene standard, a regulated "official" kind of standard.

Enter the NYC Health Department which promises to visit, and pass judgement, on every coffee shop, food cart, bagel shop and restaurant in the five boroughs of New York City, and do it every year. Most of the food carts are Halal and serve the same hot dogs and pretzels throughout the city, so that's easy enough. Boring comes to mind. Vancouver's food cart business is extraordinarily different from what we saw in NYC.

Most establishments show the posters in their windows and most of the signs we saw were A or B. In our travels we didn't come across any establishment boasting about a C. The designation made a difference to us though I'm not sure why. Our favourite coffee shop was rated A, yet cited for some minor infractions, including providing possible entry to vermin. Lupa, the popular restaurant in SoHo where Justin Timberlake's doppelganger works, was given an A, though the unisex washrooms (common in Manhattan) were slightly off-putting.

A wonderful find for us was actually rated "Grade Pending." J.G. Melon on 74th Street and 3rd Avenue on the Upper East Side has been around since 1972. One would think they would have a handle on the New York City Health Department by now, but no, the hygiene rating is "Grade Pending."

J.G. Melon doesn't have a website. They don't take cards. They don't have a cash register or any POS terminals. One lone video screen hangs from the ceiling and it doesn't seem to have any volume. Classic hits from the 70s and 80s can be heard, but only just, making conversation with a neighbour possible and enjoyable, and New Yorkers delight in the adventure of conversation, as did we.We talked with other patrons and with Neil of course.

Neil was our bartender and he poured generously, as would I if cash were the only denomination of choice. Sherry asked for sparkling wine and Neil said "No sparkling wine here. Just champagne." Well. I'm not sure if Neil and I have the same understanding of the actual definition of champagne, though it didn't really matter. Jeem, of course, was continuing his quest to try a variety of bourbons and Neil was helpful and generous in that regard.

The place seems a throwback to another time. I don't know if it is the 1970s or something trying to be the 1970s, but time seems to have stopped around 1973 in this Upper East Side institution. It was a weird and wonderful place in which to find ourselves after a rainy afternoon in Central Park, regardless of the Health Department grading.

J.G. Melon provided the background for a scene with Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer. The former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, said the burgers here are the best in the world. On Urban Spoon it has a rating of 86%. On Trip Advisor it gets 4 of 5 stars. And its decor, apart from a kitschy and post-Nixon time frame, devotes most of its wall space to pictures of watermelons. What does that tell us I wonder?

Though Jeem was tempted, especially after seeing a few go by, he passed on the burgers. After all the hygiene grade is still pending. However. The drinks, the people and the substance of the place are first rate all the way. This is a place... to come back to one day. Soon. I hope Neil is still here.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

You can see all NYC restaurants and their ratings here on the NYC Health Department restaurant ratings map from the New York Times, interactive and updated regularly.

May 08, 2014

New York City at night... and poverty and homelessness

Sometimes the photos can speak for themselves.

The rain and the lights and the people. This is a bright, brassy city even in the rain.

Everywhere we walked in the city through the night, on any night, it felt safe and comfortable. After an off-Broadway show it was easy to walk and take the subway to our next destination, which might be home or to a late night meal.

There is another side to NYC that we didn't really see. Perhaps if we had spent more time, or had stayed in a different neighbourhood, we would have seen some of the poverty and homelessness that plagues this great city. We know about American cities and their homeless; they must be here somewhere. And they are.

In New York there are about 54,000 sheltered homeless people. About 22,000 are children. These folk can be measured because they spend nights in municipal shelters. There are many thousands more living rough, sleeping in parks, subway stations and the narrow streets of the CBD. No one knows the number of people living on the streets. We do know from the measured homeless that about 53% are African Americans and 33% Latino, sightly disproportionate with the general population.

We also know that poverty is a serious issue here, though walking around doesn't give that impression. This city appears to be all that one would expect from the richest city in the richest country on Earth. However, according to the federal government 21% of all New York residents fall below the official poverty threshold. For those 65 years and older, almost 20% are below the poverty line. In this great city, fully 33% of all families headed by a single mother live in poverty.

Manhattan has the dubious distinction of having the biggest income gap of any city in the US. The mean income of the lowest fifth of the population is $9635. The top fifth of residents has a mean income of $389,000 while the richest 5% showed an income of just under $800,000.

This is a beautiful city, full of wonder at every turn. And if the numbers for New York City trouble you, please recall that 20% of all families in BC now live below the official poverty line, and homelessness in Vancouver has increased by 350% in the past three years alone. Numbers, just numbers. Or...

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.