Monday, April 27, 2015

Second Postcard from New York City April 26 2015

More than elsewhere, in New York many things stay exactly the same year after year … but this time a few things have changed. 

After many years of decline, stagnation and recession finally there are numerous interesting and important building projects either underway or completed (see some photos below).  The new Renzo Piano designed Whitney Museum just opened and is another added reason to visit the ‘High Line’ garden walk (see below).  The Freedom Tower is now officially called World Trade Center One … but it remains to be seen if the name will stick. 

For only the second time since 9/11 the skyline has changed dramatically with the completion of a 96 storey square white residential building on 57th Street and Park Avenue.  It looks very out of place in up-town shopping region where the only other comparable building was part of the Carnegie Hall 100 year restoration project on 57th Street and 7th Avenue.  And the apartments are selling from 7 to 30 million!  It even makes Sydney real estate prices look low!  The building can be readily seen from the air as well as from the roads around JFK airport and well before the usual Manhattan skyline comes into view.  In fact it needed Federal Aviation approval it is so tall!  At 425 metres high and ignoring the spires, "432 Park Avenue" is taller than the Empire State Building (380m) or the Freedom Tower (417m).  And to my mind it does not have the architectural merit of many other towers in New York and elsewhere.  See photos below and media story about the construction: 

An impressive piece of modern architecture is the new faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on West 59th Street.  The building comprises a huge stepped atrium and rooftop grass like our Parliament House.  These all connect along 59th Street with the older buildings which front 10th Avenue near the Hudson River.  There is also a feeling that the new fits in with the adjacent buildings, both new and old. 

The "High Line" is a project to re-use an old elevated goods railway as an urban garden and walkway - and has been enormously successful against the odds.  See my description and some photos for those interested:

Pecan pies seem like a favourite staple food in New York and we have done a tasting, preferring the Fairways to the Zabars this year (last year it was contrary-wise).

One hears Australian accents frequently, especially at tourist destinations.  In my experience Americans are invariably pleasant, welcoming and inquisitive when meeting Aussies.  I hope we don't blot our copy book or out-stay our welcome!  The Metropolitan Opera House has put on some wonderful works during April: see

The most common blooming tree in New York streets is probably the Bradford Pear with masses of fluffy white blossom currently, portent of the warmer weather which is starting.  After the magnolias, forsythia, daffodils and tulips come the last major spring glory the Japanese Kwanzan pink double cherry blossom for which Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are rightly famous (see time-lapse video on: half way down their web page). 

The subway transport system is a miracle a century old but still going strong.  While invented in London, the slick Manhattan version uses four tracks for each line, one being express, stopping every 10 to 20 streets and the other ‘via local’ stops every 7 to 10 streets (there are 20 streets to the old mile).  However, the old rolling stock needs attention and breakdowns are common with doors, lighting and even motors breaking down at times causing delays.  Nonetheless, it means that despite surface traffic, snow and other impediments, the subway can usually take one from point to point with efficiency and at modest cost ($2.75 per ride regardless of distance travelled). 

Australians who have not travelled overseas may not know that we are one of the few countries where pedestrians walk on the left.  Even in England people tend to keep to the right.  And revolving doors and escalators usually go in the opposite direction from us.  Another unnerving thing is that doors on most public buildings open outwards in America due to changes in building codes after a disastrous fire in a Boston nightclub in 1942 killing almost 500 people.  Older Sydney-siders may recall the Rembrandt Hotel fire which also caused a tightening of fire laws.  So this is just another thing one has to get used to when in America – apart from the language (don’t use ‘queue’, ‘fortnight’, 'footpath', ‘bookings’ or ‘zed’). 

Manhattan streets (but not avenues) unfold an extraordinary daily parking ritual to facilitate street cleaning.  One side is cleaned on alternate days.   The street needs to be clear when the council sweeper passes by, yet with nowhere else to park and others keen to take any vacated spaces a ‘parking dance’ goes on.  To guard their proprietary rights, drivers will sit in their cars from a certain time waiting for the street sweeping machine to come.  Then in succession they pull out at 45 degrees, blocking off the street but permitting the council vehicle to pass behind them, cleaning the gutter (imperfectly in many cases I have seen).  Then in sequence the drivers reverse their cars back into their original space (or they try to).  These unique Manhattan provisions are ‘suspended’ on religious and legal holidays, which is also very ‘New York’!  [some religions ban driving on certain days - but don't be surprised - it used to be illegal to hang out washing on Sundays in Australia!]

My medical contacts have taken me to the origin of methadone treatment at Rockefeller University as well as to the Columbia University Faculty House on Morningside Park, Bellevue Hospital Opiate Clinic, West Midtown Medical Group (methadone, buprenorphine and general practice), Drug Policy Alliance, New School University where I attended the NY State Psychological Society conference on the addictions and harm reduction interventions.  I have been in touch with Ethan Nadelmann, Ernest Drucker, Herbert Kleber, Mary Jeanne Kreek and many other key players in our field of drug and alcohol treatment, research and policy. 

Heroin overdose is the major problem in the US presently, reaching crisis proportion according to some figures.  The present stimulant epidemic in Australia was experienced in the US ten years ago and opinion seems to favour a multifactorial cause for the observed behavioural disturbances.  One lesson which has (or has not) been learned is that cracking down on one drug with legal sanctions often paradoxically causes increased harms, such as by encouraging the use of other more dangerous drugs (eg. so-called 'synthetic cannabis'). 

While I am grateful for the welcome I receive, it is somewhat discomforting to come to a place where profoundly poor people are not given the most basic of needs and also where there is a substantial underclass of people who are not citizens (‘illegals’ or economic refugees).  I would feel better if I could contribute in a meaningful way to help such folk.  The exodus across the Mediterranean is equally shocking, thousands taking great risks while fleeing war-torn Africa and the Middle East.  One feels that the entire western hemisphere has failed our fellow human beings in the third world.  And worse, some actions of our governments over a century have led to instability due to propping up artificial regimes favouring the west rather than their own people.  Now we have instability in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine … and American drones just about everywhere with a murky rationale for their extra-judicial killings (as long as the victims are not American citizens).  I will give a little more (or a lot more if I am able) to Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross/Crescent. 

From Andrew Byrne ..

Some examples of new buildings going up next to old ones.

31st Street, lower floors complete, upper still covered in orange plastic.
432 Park Street between 57th and 56th Streets.
 Amsterdam Avenue long abandoned building project now completed.  Next door is the new Lincoln Square Synagogue near 68th Street.
 Old Sony Building 56th St and Madison Ave.
New construction on 34th St near Empire State Building and ?Lexington Ave.
Bradford Pears in flower in Broadway
Demonstration on 71st St about inadequate minimum wage in America