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Posts tagged ‘Washington Heights’

Urban Orchard?

Urban Peach Orchard

Urban Peach Orchard? ©JustHavingFun

People plant fruit trees because the blossoms are beautiful. They bloom in the spring about the same time as the early flowers such as daffodils and tulips. Fruit trees frequently make up a portion of formal plantings that bloom in sequence. Think of the cherry blossoms that adorn Washington, D.C.

As a child I learned how to identify plants by their leaves and trees by their bark in nature studies classes. I would spend hours hiking in the woods marveling at the diversity of species in my area. I retained these skills into adulthood and at some point became a gardening enthusiast. Although I lack a garden now, I enjoy looking at other people’s plantings. I like seeing how each apartment building distinguishes itself from the next in the foot-wide strip of soil between it and the pavement. Hence, I stop to “smell the roses”—or Rose of Sharon—whenever I can.

There are few fruit trees in Washington Heights. It is a Jewish custom to say a particular blessing over a blossoming fruit tree in the springtime, in the Hebrew month of Nissan (approximately mid-April to mid-May). Since most New Yorkers can’t identify fruit trees by their leaves and bark, lacking the nature studies classes I enjoyed, some Jews took it upon themselves to publish a map identifying the fruit trees in the certain neighborhoods! Some people even hang a placard from fruit trees with the text of the blessing to aid their fellow Jews. There is one such tree on Bennett Avenue across from the Mt. Sinai Jewish Center. I visited that tree and said the blessing at the appropriate time last spring.

I knew about this particular tree on Overlook Terrace without seeing it on a map. I’d espied it and watched the fruit all summer. It’s unusual to see fruit tree blossoms that actually come to fruition in the city. It’s even more unusual to see one of these trees smack dab up against a building, adjacent to a fire escape, hiding behind a hedge of exuberant Rose of Sharon. Peering at the tree, I spy little blushing peaches emerging from under the leaves! It lives! It is growing!! Next to the subway station yet!!!

There used to be farms in this part of Manhattan. Oh, it was long ago, but it is indeed documented. What would those farmers say about their acreage now? How could this tree happen to grow precisely here? Did an opportunistic peach pit grow between the hedge and the bricks? Not likely. Unsprouted peach pits that are hundreds of years old have been excavated from the trash heaps of Old New York. These hard hearts don’t sprout easily. Could someone actually have planted this tree? Maybe. There is evidence it is cared for: it is tied where it intersects the top of the ground floor window. There’s a scar where it had been pruned.

Will these peaches rot on the tree, get pecked by birds, or be plucked by the person whose window they cover? Someday I expect I will emerge from the subway station and see some nouveau urban farmer climbing a ladder to harvest the peaches. Straw-hatted and overall-clad, he will set each booted foot carefully on the rungs as he climbs. He will test the ripeness of each with a little squeeze. He will pluck each one and lay it in a wicker basket depending from his arm like in an old-timey painting. Thus he will reanimate the ghosts of long ago farms in this part of the island. A fanciful dream, but what a dream!

Up the Steps!

Fit Friends on W 187 steps

Fit friends on the steps at West 187th St.

I’m from the city that has the most “stair streets” in the USA, Pittsburgh. I understand their utility. Too steep for a street but gotta go there? Put in steps.

“On some of the steepest hills, steps even double as legal streets. Known as ‘paper streets,’ these staircases appear on maps as valid thoroughfares – an often consternating surprise to unsuspecting visitors.”(1)

I don’t have to like them, though. <grumble, grumble>

Like those in my hometown, the steps at West 187th Street are not for the faint of heart. I chug up and down them reluctantly, when I really need to… because I’m too lazy to walk three blocks to take the elevator. Despite being the venue for an art project commemorating the Revolutionary War—for which I fail to connect to the historical past—these steps harbor a pedestrian functionality. At best they are a shortcut from Fort Washington to the valley (Broadway) below. At worst they are an insurmountable obstacle. For the thousands (my guess) of people who use them daily, they are just another way to get from low to high or high to low without detouring south to the A train station to use the elevator or walking up/down the long, bleak hill on Overlook Terrace between West 190th Street to West 187th St. So you see all sorts of people there: old, young, pregnant, and occasionally those with shopping carts or strollers.

Among these (primarily young) people are fitness buffs, determined souls who actually decided to run up and down the staircases! I’ve counted the steps (135) and the landings (8) and usually cannot walk up the entire staircase without stopping for a breath about two thirds of the way there. HOWEVER, I have a new world’s record to announce: I walked all the way up on Wednesday morning without a break! After coming all the way down I stopped to photograph these brilliantly glowing young people(2) with their own camera when they were trying to use a water bottle as a tripod. Then I asked to take my own shot and use their picture in my blog. New friends. How happy they made me!!

While my old knees won’t let me aspire to running up and down, and my lungs protest asthmatically, I can still aspire to climb and breathe freely! Care to join me?

 

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1. Albrecht Powell. Steps of Pittsburgh: Explore Pittsburgh’s Many Steps & Staircases. http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/about_pittsburgh/a/steps.htm, accessed June 6, 2015.
2. If you know these people, please shoot me an email so I can thank them again.

A Street’s Face Changes

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Fire at Forward & Shady 5-14-15

Last night’s news shocked me: an iconic building in my Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill burnt and was demolished overnight. With this loss, the landscape of my childhood and adult world changed forever.

Now, changes to my new neighborhood threaten my mental map. Every time I walk in Washington Heights I take in the sights. Already in the 4 years I have been here the cityscape on the short blocks between 181st and 187th Streets on Broadway has changed: the Crystal Party Supplies store is gone, with its remarkable rainbow-colored awning; the Rammco gas station is now an Exxon; and Hobby Land next to that is closed. Two seemingly successful restaurants near the corner of 184th Street closed: Altus, and El Condé Steak House, although recently remodeled. The movie theater I never went to on 181st Street is long gone.

In my old neighborhood, I walk down the streets and remember what stores used to be there: a butcher, a bakery, a typewriter repair shop. When strolling the side streets, I recall landmarks by my childhood pals: Beverly’s family lived on such-and-such street; Frani’s old house’s trim is now painted blue; my friends have lived in Gail’s house longer than Gail’s family lived there. I note what landscaping has changed and which stores are new. Empty storefronts niggle me like loose teeth.

However, I lived in Pittsburgh most of 40 years and changes went more slowly than what I now perceive as a racing trend. So, too, do the empty storefronts and the changing landscapes in my new neighborhood tug at my sensibilities. If so much change has occurred over only four years, instead of the forty years in Squirrel Hill, what anchors will current residents have for their memories?

In Pittsburgh it’s common to give directions in terms of where something “use ta be.” “Ya know where that Gulf Station use ta be near where the Isaly’s was?” Or, “Go three red lights dahn past where the Foodland use ta be.”  But if you haven’t seen the Gulf Station, Isaly’s deli, or the Foodland supermarkets as landmarks, how do you mentally map your space? Already I can’t remind myself that Social Security’s in the block just past the Party Store… because it’s gone.

It’s hard to feel settled, even after 4 years, when there’s not much distinguishing to anchor my mental map. I want a mental map as robust as that I have of Squirrel Hill and am finding flimsy material instead. But still, I persevere.

Creepy Tunnel Awaits Public Art

Creepy Tunnel at 191st St New vs Old - DNAInfo

Photo credit: DNAinfo/Lindsay Armstrong

I disliked using the 1-Train Uptown because of the tunnel. Until a few months ago, it symbolized the Portal to Hell, how lost souls would gain entrance to the netherworld. But not now.

How it used to be: After exiting the 191st Street Station, the dark, dank, dirty and seemingly-endless long tunnel from the station to Broadway captivated my imagination. I envisioned the helpful city planners and happy artists painting beautiful murals several years ago. But we all suffered the reality of ugly black graffiti, stuck-on posters that someone burned while on the wall, and dirty ineffective lighting fixtures. I even complained about the illumination to the local precinct police. Tunnels don’t bother me; I’m from Pittsburgh, a city replete with tunnels. The specter of violence and/or unsavory occurrences spooked me although regular, law-abiding people traversed it daily. My mind simply worked overtime. I wasn’t scared, just leery (and lazy, weary of walking uphill once I exited on Broadway).

Now: The Department of Transportation replaced the lighting with brilliant and energy efficient LED lights last autumn. That transformed the tunnel. It’s still dank and long, but doesn’t awake my automatic dread response. I wish I had a bike or skates to float along its inviting length. Along with the platform renovations, LEDs make the 191st Street Station a safer and more desirable destination.

Public art waits to happen here. See DNAInfo: City Seeking Artists to Paint Murals for ‘Creepy’ 191st Street Tunnel. I moved to the neighborhood after the “new” mural was already blighted, so I never got to see it in its glory. Curse the taggers and graffiti “artists” who’ve already marred and mauled the tabula rasa of newly painted walls! I, for one, happily await new, creative artwork (not spray paint) that will uplift community spirit and beautify our corner of Washington Heights.

Coolest Subway Stations?

Photo credit: Kristine Paulus  - , used under CC BY-NC 2.0

The entrance to Narnia a Hobbit hole? – Photo credit: Kristine Paulus , used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Did you know that the A train’s 181st Street Subway Station (IND) is on the National Register of Historic Places? I wouldn’t have known that had I not seen am New York’s article on the Coolest Subway Stations in NYC. So is the 190th Street Subway Station. Of the eight locales featured, the station entrances on Ft. Washington (181st) and Bennett Avenues (190th) ironically earned their attention in the company of the gleaming new Fulton Center station, where virtually every line converges, and the gleaming Smith-9th Streets station (F & G trains).

“The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” states the NRHP website. Four local subway stations became listed in 2005. Including those mentioned above there are the 168th and 181st Street Subway Stations (IRT, 1 train). Renovation is ongoing in these stations (as well as the 191st Street station), restoring the old tile, upgrading the facility, and counterbalancing the lack of modern functionality of the early 19th century designs.

The amNY article only highlighted the station entrances and didn’t distinguish the relative pleasantness or ease of use of the underground facilities, both of which I find lacking at these stations. Still, it’s kind of “cool” to have my local stations called out for their art deco styling (181st) and Narnia-like mystique (190th).

I’ll want to explore this further.  I want to see the petition for adding the 181st Street Station on Ft. Washington (and not its art-deco counterpart at 184th St. and Overlook Terrace) to the NRHP, which is not on the website. What, actually, is registered? The façade? The peeling doors? The vestibule? The concrete entrance fronting the elevators?

We shall see, because there is a mystery to get to the bottom of, and I’m the person to do it.

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