New York City

Posted by Ellen

On the G-train, in Brooklyn.

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When Italian architect Renzo Picasso visited New York City in the 1920s, he correctly identified traffic and parking as bad problems that would become much worse over time.

There was no more land in Manhattan to pave over, so Picasso (no relation to that Spanish guy) took his cue from the skyscrapers and proposed to build the streets up vertically. He envisioned at least four transportation levels: trains up on top, express automobile traffic on the layer second to top, parking on the level below that, and local traffic on the bottom.

Picasso's vision for this American Multiple Highway, which he presented in 1929, was one of many utopian projects he sketched out for cities in the United States and Europe. None of them was ever built. 

Posted by Ellen

Mandrake, a plant of biblical, medieval, literary, medical, and comic book significance, blooms in April in New York City, in the garden of the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Mandrake flowers, shown here as buds just beginning to open, are pretty little bell-shaped blossoms, but they are traditionally of little interest. The leaves are heavy and heart-shaped and can grow huge over the course of a summer, but they too are mostly overlooked. With mandrake, a plant native to the Mediterranean region, it's all about the root.

Mandrake root is long and thick and often split into two legs, sometimes arguably resembling the human form. It's also powerfully sleep-inducing when ground and soaked; it was used as an anesthetic in antiquity and into the Middle Ages. In the bible, and perhaps also in the poetry of John Donne, extract of mandrake root cured infertility. In folklore all over Europe, a human-shaped mandrake root in your pocket offered protection even if the church was not on your side; Joan of Arc was charged with "habitually" carrying root of mandrake.

Mandrake was said to spring up in ground drenched with blood or semen from a man being hanged. If you pulled the plant up out of the ground, as Shakespeare warned us, its man-root would scream, and you could die from hearing the scream. There was a report as late as the ninteenth century of a British gardener falling down the stairs and dying after accidentally pulling up a volunteer mandrake.

(In Harry Potter, of course, young witches and wizards wore protection.)

In 1934, "Mandrake the Magician" emerged as the world's first modern costumed superhero, in a newpaper comic strip that ran continuously until 2013. The hero Mandrake's ability to instantly hypnotize bad guys may have been, pardon the expression, rooted in the medicinal tradition of the mandrake plant.

Posted by Ellen

One week ago, on a chilly but sunny New York afternoon, this espaliered pear tree in the Cloisters medieval garden was trying really, really hard to leaf out.

Posted by Ellen

Fulton Center, a new transit hub connecting four subway lines in lower Manhattan, opened to the public last week.

Hot

Posted by Ellen

This week in Brooklyn. Could be Philly.

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Last week, as we see here, our niece Amelia graduated from Parsons School of Design, winning her class's Golden Portfolio Award. 

Two weeks ago, our niece Melissa donned cap and gown for her Master's in Nursing from Penn. And next week, it'll be another niece, Olivia, crossing the stage at Bloomington High School South in Indiana.

For our family, this commencement season is shaping up as one for the ages. And now as the nieces venture forth, may they all find fair winds and following seas.

Posted by Ellen

One thing we have in abundance in America is abandoned railroad tracks. Many thousands of miles have been torn up and paved over with asphalt, repurposed for walking and biking through cities and suburbs. Many of these rails-to-trails are pleasant amenities, but few are interesting to look at or exciting to experience. Today, we turn our eyes to a few of those few.

New York City's High Line Park, which we last visited back in 2011, is a garden in the sky, snatched from the ruins of an industrial el line that once carried cattle and chickens to the slaughterhouses of lower Manhattan's Hudson riverfront. Both the industrial roots and the post-industrial decline are celebrated in the park: everywhere, the grit and grunge, patched brick walls and rusted steel fixtures, are lovingly preserved, with landscaping that looks a lot like weeds and old-looking new (creosote-free) train tracks in the flower beds. Amongst the weeds are miles of boardwalk for strolling and people-watching.

This photo was taken from the High Line's amphitheater, a performance space cantilevered out over Tenth Avenue, with glass walls that keep the sounds of the city at bay. Down below, about a block away on the left side of the street, you can glimpse the edge of a parking lot that is also being reimagined as performance space, for a senior project by a Parsons School of Design student, our own Amelia Stein. All of us Hole-in-the-Cloudsians are eager to follow the progress of this work by one of our own.

Posted by Ellen

In 1934, Carl Gustaf Nelson painted life in New York's Central Park, above, the way life ought to be; in 1932 and 1933, photographers from the New York Daily News aimed their cameras at Central Park's Hooverville, below, revealing life that was not being lived the way people ought to live. Both images tell something of the story, in an upstairs-downstairs sort of way.

New York's homeless citizens began building shanties in Central Park's Sheep Meadow late in 1931, by which time half the factories in the city had been shut down by the Depression and literally millions of New Yorkers were desperate for food and shelter. In 1930 and 1931 homeless people tried to camp in Central Park, but they were repeatedly arrested for vagrancy; as the economic situation became more and more dire, however, policemen and judges became more sympathetic to the "bums," and official eyes were averted as this and many other Hoovervilles emerged. Some of the shacks were said to be solid brick and stone houses with tile roofs, built by unemployed bricklayers.

The residents of Central Park's Hooverville said they had built their homes along Depression Street. Many of the shanties had furniture and at least one had carpets, but there was no electricity or running water, no sanitary facilities at all. In 1933, the city condemned the dwellings, evicted the residents, and demolished the shantytown. The official justification was public health.

Thus, by 1934, when Nelson painted his picture, Central Park had been officially reclaimed for the sole use of well-dressed, well-to-do people like the ones in the painting, people with warm apartments to go home to and indoor plumbing. The people of Hooverville had moved on, and they would keep on moving on, scraping by, somehow, till a government stimulus program, aka World War II, finally brought full employment back to America.