What I learned at the Department of Buildings

Earlier in June, I wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the demolition of the Kentile Floors sign. Scaffolding had appeared in front of it, and another blogger had discovered that the Department of Buildings had issued permits for removal of a rooftop object.

What no one knew, however, was what the owner was allowed to do. The permit referred to an illustration, but none appeared on the virtual filing. My research would require a field trip.

The next morning, I went to DOB’s Brooklyn office near Borough Hall to locate the visuals. For some reason, I thought I could waltz into a huge government complex right at 8:30 if I showed up right on time. I was wrong; there was a huge line out front, one that snaked around the columns of the building.

Read about what I learned >>

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Prospect Park is a dump today

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the mess The Great GoogaMooga made in our crown jewel the past two years, fear not: our neighbors duplicated the feat.

Prospect Park Memorial Day trash 1

In several of the park’s open plains, Memorial Day partiers failed to clean up after themselves. It’s a classic case of the diffusion of responsibility.

The areas with the biggest garbage problems that I saw – the Long Meadow and the space south of the lake – are generally filled with people on weekends anyway, so it’s unlikely there were leaders who could urge their guests to take their refuse with them.

Prospect Park Memorial Day trash 2

Parks were created, of course, to provide a refuge from the noise and grit of the city. It’s great to see that they’re still being used as a place of relaxation and occasional revelry. With that should come some measure of respect; I don’t think it’s that hard to bring a bag with you to carry out what you discard.

Ultimately, the Park has to pick up the trash – and the tab. Visitors will have to put up with the stink and the eyesore until that’s done.

Prospect Park Memorial Day trash 3

We’ll see what happens with the pop-up picnic in late June. “After drinking and dancing for a good cause,” says one announcement, “the dinner guests will play a part in cleaning up before leaving as if nothing ever happened.” At least this event will have some necks on the line if things don’t go as planned.

And if you do want to go for a run, I highly recommend the recently bechipped trails near Lookout Hill. Untouched by the masses yesterday, they’re always a great place to watch the cares and worries of the city melt away.

Prospect Park Lookout Hill trail

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The Vignelli subway map of the future

In a post yesterday on Curbed, I re-worked several maps to incorporate planned – but unbuilt – subway routes. The inspiration came from Joseph Raskin’s book The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System, in which the author, the assistant director of government and community relations for New York City Transit, digs through old maps and newspaper articles to see what might have been. (Sound familiar?)

Of course, I used the Vignelli diagram for one alternative, showing the Second Avenue Subway proposal from 1948. It’s slightly different from the current plan: it extends to Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and heads over the Manhattan Bridge on its way south.

I had previously featured this bowl of rainbow spaghetti in my diagram showing only accessible stations, and I thought it would be fun to edit it again to show the actual planned future routes of our city: SAS, the 7 train extension to Javits Center, East Side Access.

I don’t have Metro-North going to Penn Station quite yet, since it’s not in the books; actually, that would take some serious editing, as “Metro-North” won’t fit in the space between the A/C/E and 1/2/3.

Enjoy!

Vignelli MTA diagram with future routes

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How much does free private storage cost?

Over the past two weeks, my street has been under renovation. Two Thursdays ago, the Department of Transportation tore up the existing pavement, leaving what remained a chewed-up, muddy mess. They got around to repaving it yesterday.

This is one of the few times you’ll ever get to see a street completely clear; when they’re closed for parades or construction, you usually have barricades, cones, or emergency vehicles marring the view.

The street is 30 feet wide. What can you imagine doing with that much space?

St. Johns Place repaving no cars width

I can see a group of neighborhood kids playing a game of stickball, as once was the mode throughout the borough. Instead, almost half of that area is devoted to the free public storage of private vehicles.

Just as a mathematical exercise, let’s assume the parking lanes are 8 feet wide and a long block measures 750 feet. That means there is a total of 12,000 square feet of free parking space on a block. Let’s knock that down to 10,000 square feet to account for “no parking” zones in front of fire hydrants, schools, and churches.

St. Johns Place repaving with cars

The average cost of residential space in my zip code is $892 per square foot. That means the total value of the street space that the city gives away for free is nearly $9 million. And that’s on my block alone.

Of course, that doesn’t even take into account the quality-of-life issues germane to a car-centric environment. That remaining 14 feet of space in the middle of the road is useless to people unprotected by a steel cage; I’m guessing you can’t picture anything fun happening in the photo above, which I took this morning.

With a deal like that, it’s no wonder many residents get up in arms when a proposed improvement for all users threatens to “take away” even one of these spots.

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Six lessons from running this year’s Boston Marathon

Last April, I wrote about my experience running the final 6.2 miles of the Boston Marathon as an unofficial “bandit” – and being in the city in the aftermath of the bombings. Even before the last Patriots’ Day made its terrible turn, I was dead set on participating in this 118th installment, having qualified at the Brooklyn Marathon in November 2012.

Near mile 18. (Nicholas Guerrero)

Near mile 18. (Nicholas Guerrero)

This year, as I’m sure you know, had a much different feel; for my part, in the midst of sensing the expectations from a city still healing, I would be running the full course as one of 36,000, the second-largest field in Boston history.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two weeks now, wondering if my thoughts were somehow colored by the usual post-marathon blues. At some point, I decided I had to hit “publish” and walk away; as they say, art is never finished, only abandoned.

This isn’t about being Boston Strong or Taking Back The Race or any of the countless other slogans that were (rightfully) bandied about this weekend. It’s about some of the small joys of running, and why I continue to love it, three years after running that single block around my new Park Slope apartment, the first foray into a new habit that quickly turned into an addiction.

External motivators are critical.

I like to think I’m very self-driven, but even the best of us has to rely on an outside influence from time to time. For the past few training cycles, I had logged my training on giant posterboard in my kitchen, very visual reminders (along the lines of “don’t break the chain”) of the work I wanted to do. I didn’t do that this time, and I paid for it, with skipped workouts and postponed long runs.

My first-ever training schedule, for the 2012 NYC Half.

My first-ever training schedule, for the 2012 NYC Half.

Keep reading >>

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Spring is here: turning on the parks’ drinking fountains

I spent last Tuesday morning with a few plumbers from the Parks Department. They were turning on the water in a couple of parks in Queens, and invited me to join them. The resulting story was featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal‘s Greater New York section this past weekend.

I had a great time with the staff – Gus Menocal, the supervisor of Queens plumbers; James Schmitt, the plumber responsible for southwestern Queens; and Robert Rivera, an assistant. Also with me were Vickie Karp from the Parks media department and photographer Steve Remich.

A few paragraphs had to be cut for the sake of length. Here are a couple:

Mr. Schmitt had forgotten about one winterizing valve, though, which became apparent when a puddle started forming on the other end of the park. “Not a big deal,” remarked his supervisor. ”This is a brand-new park for us, so there’s a learning curve.”

Before turning the water on, the plumbers missed one of the "winterizing valves", which bleed water from pipes over the winter to prevent freezing.

Before turning the water on, the plumbers missed one of the “winterizing valves”, which bleed water from pipes over the winter to prevent freezing.

At the 77-year-old Windmuller Park, which sits atop a hill in Woodside, one winterizing valve proved hard to find. Mr. Schmitt probed at the leaf-covered ground with one of his valve keys, listening for a ping. “We leave ourselves clues,” Mr. Menocal explained. “Here we made a mark on the pavement” – he pointed to a red hash sprayed on the pathway – “but still the valve got lost under the debris.” He fetched a metal detector from his van; even with the technological assistance, it still took him a full minute to find the cover.

The hidden winterizing valve.

The hidden winterizing valve.

Fun fact: plumbers refer to drinking fountains as “bubblers” due to the bubbling nature of the water when the head is removed.

Again, you can read the full story here. More of my own photos follow.

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Please, stop making ‘alternative’ maps of the NYC Subway

Every month, it seems someone with perhaps too much time on his hands unveils a newer, “better” version of the diagram of the New York City subway. If you’ve got plans to make a serious bid of your own, I have a suggestion:

Stop.

The latest entry comes from Serbian artist Jug Cerović, who first created a revised subway diagram for Paris, his current home. He liked it so much he decided to make eleven more based on self-designed principles. Here’s the one for our city.

Jug Cerovic NYC Subway map

It’s colorful and legible, sure. The problem here is Cerović, like many other mapmakers before him, is trying to forge a compromise between the two competing elements in diagram-design: geography and network. As Massimo Vignelli has pointed out, geography is useless when you’re in the subway; all that matters is getting to where you need to exit the system.

Right off the bat, there are several things I don’t like in Cerović’s design. He uses different colors for various lines, but unlike the Vignelli map, he merges some of them, it seems, based on their local/express status in midtown. (Look at the C/E, 4/5, and B/D for examples.) Consistency is key; otherwise, why bother?

Since he’s apparently not angling for a pure diagram, let’s examine the geography. For starters, Coney Island is due east of the Financial District, and the A/B/C/D isn’t anywhere near Central Park, despite running right along its western edge.

As Bill Cosby said, ”I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

The simplicity of the Vignelli map: "No dot, no stop."

The simplicity of the Vignelli map: “No dot, no stop.”

Most of the media responses have baffled me. Wrote The Atlantic Cities, which I expect to have a better analysis: “Some might argue that uniformity [of his 12 designs] wipes out the cities’ unique identities. But Cerović says he tried to make each map very different through overarching symbolic shapes.”

It’s a freakin’ subway map. Who cares about “unique identities”? Just show me how to get where I need to go.

The right play – and I understand Paris does this – is to have two complementary diagrams. One shows the network in an easy-to-read, spaced-out format, like Vignelli’s does, with token attention to landmarks; the other is geographically accurate, for those who need to find the appropriate stop. The system’s local maps are already filling this role to large extent, but a system-wide design might have an index for popular attractions (e.g., “Empire State Building: BDFM or NQR to 34 St/Herald Sq”).

If you’re unconvinced, just take a look at what the master himself has to say about several other designs. And please, unless you’re able to make a network diagram better than Vignelli’s, or something totally fun and unserious, put away your virtual square rule and get outside.

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