New York City

InstaBlog: "The Apartments"

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These buildings, metonymically known as "The Apartments," are locally infamous to New York drivers. Located above the Trans Manhattan Expressway (I-95) on the approach to the George Washington Bridge, they are a perfect visual marker to mark the pace of the interminable traffic to and from New Jersey.

The expressway itself was carved out of Washington Heights in the very early 1960s, gouging a trench between 178th & 179ths Streets. In an early attempt to appease the growing anti-expressway crowd, however—not to mention in an act of “urban renewal” hubris to show they could build the city of the future—the planners of the era decked the highway as much as they believed they could. This included building the George Washington Bridge Bus Station and these four buildings, which represented the first time air rights above an expressway had been sold.

The final result is, to be clear better than most urban expressways—although that is a textbook example of damning with faint praise. Traffic and traffic noise is constant, as is pollution from the trenches, which give a bird’s eye view of 12 of the busiest highway lanes on the planet. Architecturally, the buildings themselves create a fascinating, almost dystopian vision. Their harsh exteriors, stained by decades of exhaust fumes, mixed with the plethora of antennas, windows, fans, and air conditioners shooting high into the sky makes for a very cyberpunk-esque view.

The life of the city goes on, but the sight of people having to live and walk so close to this mess of traffic is always a sad one.

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InstaBlog: Sometimes, you just have to admit you were wrong.

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Sometimes, you just have to admit you were wrong.

For the past few years, I've watched this hotel—a Holiday Inn—being built in the Garment District, at 39th & 8th Ave. The developers clearly received a height bonus for including a public plaza, one of New York City's many so-called privately-owned public places (or POPS). POPS have a sad history: not only have they more often than not been dead, lifeless afterthoughts, but developers had an incentive to make them that way—after all, they had no desire for non-tenants to hang out on their property.

InstaBlog: Avenue U Odds & Ends

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There are just some odds and ends left to finish out my Avenue U walk. My original plan had been to continue all to Marine Park (the actual park, that is, not simply the neighborhood). But with daylight quickly fading (damn axial tilt) and my energy running low, I cut my trip short just shy of my destination. And yet, it seemed appropriate, as the walking neighborhood had already started to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric one.

Leaving Sheepshead Bay's Chinatown, the streets continued to be very active: full of shops, people, and buildings of different ages. You can feel the cultural mix: a Russian shipping store advertises in Spanish near a Banco Popular, all near a plethora of other local stores. The differing building ages, from late 19th Century storefront homes through 1950s & 60s faux tower-in-the-park apartments (with appropriately street-deadening ground levels), create an interesting and varied walk. A newly reopened cobbler’s caught my eye with its classic sign: it had not been redone at all, making the shop feel like it had been there forever. Side-streets were equally of mixed architecture, generally composed of row houses and tightly packed suburban homes, mainly from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.

The further I got from the Brighton Line & Q train, however, the more the neighborhood streetscape began to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric landscape. Stores became further and farther in-between. Pedestrians became fewer and fewer, making the sidewalks seem huge. Parking lots—something blissfully absent elsewhere on the avenue—became common. Abandoned stores also became more numerous, although never dominating the environment, and included a particularly striking old video rental business. It was clear the further I got from the subway, the more auto-focused the environment became.

This all culminated at Gerritsen Avenue, a car-centric road with little positive to say about it. Deciding to head home, I found myself waiting over 20 minutes for a B31 bus, an acceptable wait for transit in such a dense area—no wonder cars are the norm. Interestingly, the population of Avenue U itself seems to use buses extensively. Every ten or so minutes a bus full of people trundle up or down the street, palpably connecting the neighborhood. Here, however, I felt as if I might have been in a suburban county.

It may have been an ignoble end to my Avenue U walk, but all in all it was still a great look at another rarely visited part of urban Brooklyn.

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InstaBlog: Avenue U's Chinatown

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Continuing down Avenue U further into the northern reaches of Sheepshead Bay, as you approach the Brighton Line Q station, you run into one of New York City's newest (and Brooklyn's second) Chinatown. As often happens in tightly packed urban communities, the fade-in of Asian groceries, convenience stores, and the like is incredibly quick; one moment you are in outer Brooklyn, the next, you could mistake for Canal Street in Manhattan. That is an appropriate comparison: like New York's original Chinatown, this one is primarily made up of Cantonese speakers and others from the South of China. Some have hypothesized that the reason this neighborhood has sprung up here—instead of equally affordable areas—is that it is a one seat ride on the Q to Canal Street.

InstaBlog: Unacceptable Sidewalk

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No one should have to put up with this: the sidewalk on Avenue U just past Ocean Parkway is a mess. It's bad enough that the construction fence has taken up a good chunk of the sidewalk, but the concrete itself is completely unmaintained and falling apart.

InstaBlog: Avenue U, Sheepshead Bay

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When I think of Sheepshead Bay, I tend to think of the area around the bay itself, with its docks, restaurants, and the like. If pushed, my mind then goes to the streets and neighborhood north of the Belt Parkway, surrounding the Sheepshead Bay station on the B & Q trains. On a map, however, the neighborhood continues well north and inland, encompassing (just) this stretch of Avenue U west of Ocean Parkway. Places like this, to me, highlight the difficulties of labeling neighborhoods—not only how arbitrary boundaries can be, but how our mental maps leave many hazy, hard-to-describe lands between them.

InstaBlog: Ocean Parkway

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Ocean Parkway—seen here as it crosses Avenue U on the border between Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn—may be a classic, late 19th Century urban boulevard. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

InstaBlog: Avenue U, Gravesend

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Last October, I decided to walk along Avenue U in Brooklyn, starting from the F station in Gravesend*. Walking down from the elevated platform with the crowd, I couldn't help but notice the makeup of the commuters: a surprising amount were the traditional Brooklyn & Long Island stereotype—middle aged, middle class whites, speaking in the (remains) of their famous accent. Once a huge percentage of the population, I had thought almost all had either moved to the suburbs, retired, or been priced out of the city. Nice to see that even in modern Brooklyn, there’s still some space for what has to be a shrinking but historically important community.

InstaBlog: Avenue M, Midwood

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Walking down Avenue M into the heart of Midwood, and in particular, the center of its large Jewish community.

InstaBlog Collection: Avenue U Walk

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Avenue U, Gravesend

Last October, I decided to walk along Avenue U in Brooklyn, starting from the F station in Gravesend*. Walking down from the elevated platform with the crowd, I couldn't help but notice the makeup of the commuters: a surprising amount were the traditional Brooklyn & Long Island stereotype—middle aged, middle class whites, speaking in the (remains) of their famous accent. Once a huge percentage of the population, I had thought almost all had either moved to the suburbs, retired, or been priced out of the city. Nice to see that even in modern Brooklyn, there’s still some space for what has to be a shrinking but historically important community.

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