Friday, May 25

ride to the sea

This week I fulfilled a long-time wish and rode my bike down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island.

IMG_0302aThis tree-lined path starts just south of Prospect Park and continues about 5 miles until reaching the Atlantic Ocean. It's a lovely ride, if a bit bumpy.

Culturally, the route was dominated by orthodox Jewish communities: it seemed that there was a Hebrew school or Synagogue on every block. The most unique of these buildings, from an architectural perspective, was the Mirrer Yeshiva, which seemed to have been redesigned mid-construction. At first glance, I thought that the school was adding a rooftop addition to take advantage of unused FAR, but closer examination revealed that the steel had been exposed for some time. I've never seen a building quite like it.

IMG_0429.JPGThere are basketball courts on the roof of the brick structure below the two steel floors. Oy, what a design!

Ocean Parkway also passes several unique features of Brooklyn's built environment. In between Avenue H and Avenue I, for instance, the boulevard passes over the Bay Ridge Line, an underutilized freight line that once linked the piers of Sunset Park to a rail hub in western Brooklyn at Broadway Junction.

IMG_0430.JPGThe Bay Ridge Freight Line.

Several years ago at an old job, I examined the feasibility of re-using the Bay Ridge Line as a cross-Brooklyn light rail route. Adapting the right-of-way for light rail would be a relatively inexpensive way to link areas without transit service to existing subways.

Combined with other efforts, such transit improvements could spur substantial economic development in the area. Ultimately, however, the proposal was dropped from the final report I was working on. I still think it's a great idea.

bayridgeline_aBrooklyn Google map with subways, via OnNYTurf. The Bay Ridge Line is the hatched double black line curving from east to west. The route of my ride, Ocean Parkway, is between the orange and yellow/orange lines in the center of the map.

But back to the ride...

At Avenue U, in a landscape of single-family homes that bore little resemblance to the Brownstone Brooklyn I left at the start of my ride, I passed a mysterious cast-iron tower unlike any I'd ever seen in the city before. I wondered if it was perhaps a remnant of Brooklyn's once comprehensive trolley system, but found no evidence that Ocean Parkway ever had streetcars. As it turned out, the tower had a far less romantic origin.

IMG_0308.JPGObsolete sewer ventilation tower. Many thanks to Forgotten-NY's Kevin Walsh for the explanation.

Finally, I reached Coney Island. The ocean was beautiful.

IMG_0314.JPGConey Island Boardwalk.

On a whim, I departed from my plans and headed east, away from Coney Island. Before long I reached Brighton Beach, one of New York's classic Russian neighborhoods. The boardwalk wasn't crowded, and the few people I saw certainly weren't speaking English.

IMG_0338.JPGAt least I could understand the URL at the bottom of the sign.

Eventually I made it to Kingsborough Community College, which has a beautiful campus at the entrance to Jamaica Bay. Across the water I saw Breezy Point, where I helped plan a marina that would have hosted sailing if New York had won its NYC2012 Olympic bid. I eyed the shore sadly, thinking about what an amazing venue it would have been.

Rounding the tip of the peninsula, I reached Sheepshead Bay, one of my favorite parts of the city. Besides City Island in the Bronx, Sheepshead Bay is the most 'New Englandy' part of New York City with active fishermen and a harbor filled with bobbing sailboats. (Check out the blog Sail Brooklyn for more about Sheepshead Bay.)

IMG_0386.JPGYou can just see the top of the Verrazano Bridge in the distance.

Riding slow to soak in the scenery, I was nonetheless going fast enough that an unseen speed bump flipped me neatly over my handlebars, almost ending my ride. Refusing medical attention from a startled security guard, a quick survey found my bike and body functional enough to continue -- my helmet had spared me a trip to the hospital. Bloodied but not beaten, I headed back to the beach.

IMG_0398.JPGThe New York Aquarium. Stupid place for a wall.

Back on the Coney Island boardwalk, I noticed the sorry state of the New York Aquarium, which was once located at Castle Clinton in Manhattan's Battery Park. Fortunately, the Aquarium is about to be rebuilt with a design by Enrique Ruiz-Geli, my favorite of a new crop of Catalonian architects transforming Spanish design.

Ruiz-Geli's design for the New York Aquarium. (Via Gowanus Lounge)

The new plan, which I love, interacts with the boardwalk much more than the existing building and has the potential to create a powerful waterfront-based aesthetic experience like that of the Milwaukee Art Museum, which was designed by Ruiz-Geli's Spanish compatriot Santiago Calatrava.

Further down the boardwalk, I felt conflicting emotions as I checked out Astroland in its final year of operation. On the one hand, I fear that new developments might destroy the kitschy charm that has given Coney Island its unique character for so long. On the other hand, I felt that some aspects of the boardwalk are ready to be retired. 'Shoot the Freak', for instance, which encourages children to fire paintballs at a 'live human target', is best left in the past.

IMG_0405.JPGAstroland Park may be closing, but the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster will survive, thankfully.

Heading back to Ocean Parkway and concluding my adventure for the day, I reflected that there was nowhere in the world quite like Brooklyn. I had seen but a thin slice of the borough on my bike ride, but witnessed a rich diversity of landmarks created by the people of the city. From temples and trains to roadways and restaurants, the environment of Brooklyn was one truly reflective of the broad range of people that live there.

IMG_0418.JPGThe Coney Island Parachute Jump.

Sadly, I'm leaving Brooklyn soon to move west. It's tough to leave, but this unique city will always have a place in my heart. Will I miss Brooklyn? Yes. Will I remember it forever? Fugghedaboutit.

Sunday, May 6

williamsburg cinco de mayo (in pictures)

I spent my Cinco de Mayo in Williamsburg. The weather was perfect and I took a lot of photos. (As always on this blog, you can click the photo to go to its source. All photos in this post are from my flickr account.)


I started the day at Peter Luger's where I met some friends for hamburgers. Luger's has some truly delicious burgers.

Parting from my buddies, I wandered to the waterfront where I admired the beauty of the Williamsburg Bridge. It differs from NYC's other suspension bridges in two ways. First, its canted towers tilt towards the center of the bridge instead of going straight up. Second, only the center span is suspended by cables -- the approaches are supported from below by steel supports.



Walking north, I soon came to the Domino Sugar Refinery, an extremely endangered historic building. I'm worried it will meet the same fate as the Revere Sugar Refinery that was demolished earlier this year in Red Hook.


I managed to take one picture of the hulking factory as a spandex-clad cyclist zipped by on a recumbent bike.

Past the sugar refinery I was delighted to discover Grand Ferry Park, a tiny spot of public space on the waterfront I'd never been to before. Great people-watching.




Sneaking past a chain link fence, I found an abandoned dock on the riverfront side of a big warehouse. I think this crane is great.

Continuing into Greenpoint, I noticed this rusting contraption on the roof of a building. It reminded me of the Becher's industrial photography.

I made sure to swing by the ruins of the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse.


And I also checked out the Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory, which looks like it will be designated as a historic landmark soon.


Eventually I made it to the rooftop BBQ I'd been headed to all along. Great views of the city.


buzz off

Across America and Europe, honeybee colonies are collapsing from an unknown cause. Some beekeepers in the eastern United States are reporting 70% loses in the past year. Bees are critical for the pollination of many crops including apples, almonds, and tomatoes. The widespread collapse of their hives has serious implications for the world's food supply.

A honeybee laden with pollen. Photo by mommamia.

No one is sure of why the bees are vanishing, though there are many theories. Some believe that radiation from cell phones is to blame. Indeed, the industrialized nations suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) are among those with the highest cell phone usage.

Cell tower in Massachusetts. What are they trying to hide? Photo from More antenna camouflage here.

The science behind cell phone radiation is questionable, however, and most apiarists think other factors are to blame. (In fact, the authors of one oft-cited study say their findings were misinterpreted and and they "cannot explain the CCD-phenomenon itself and want to keep from speculation in this case.")

An 18-wheeler being loaded with beehives for transport. Photo from Wikipedia.

Some believe pesticides are to blame for the current rash of colony collapses. In a great article for OnEarth Magazine, Sharon Levy shadowed beekeeper Jeff Anderson as he travelled across the country with his colonies as a pollinator-for-hire. On his annual transcontinental migration, he rigorously avoided farms in areas where pesticides like Sevin and Penncap-M are used, even though many such chemicals are legal. If just one bee harvests pollen from plants sprayed with these compounds, the poison can spread through the whole hive.

A healthy colony abuzz with workers, stored pollen, and eggs. Photo by Dan Winters.

Others believe that some form of parasite is to blame. Varroa mites, first discovered in the US in 1987, have reduced bee populations but they aren't thought to play a large role in the current collapses. Instead, researchers are focusing on bacterial, viral and fungal infections. In some cases, however, so many pathogens are found in the dead bees of collapsed colonies that it suggests the infections are a symptom of weakened defenses, and not a cause.

Bee-made vase by Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny of Studio Libertiny. Via Inhabitat.

In his journal, David Byrne, asks: "[could] GM agribusiness could be trying to eliminate bees"? Whether there's a conspiracy against the bees or not, a German study found that one variety of genetically modified corn with DNA from bacteria may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry." At the same time, the director of the study admits, "perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."

The Ancient Beekeeping Museum, Stripeikiai, Lithuania. Photo via Wikipedia.

Perhaps there is no one reason the bees are disappearing. Maybe we've reached a critical tipping point in the fragile symbiosis of plant, bee, and human. For millennia, beekeepers have worked at the intersection of the built and natural environments. As humans explore new ways to manipulate that boundary with techniques like industrial farming and GM crops, we may be upsetting the balance. As a society finally acknowledging our role in global warming, we know that we can no longer protect nature passively: we must actively manage the relationship between the built and natural environments.

Wednesday, May 2

axiometric tribeca

An e-mail from an old co-worker reminded me how much I love axiometric maps. (I also like axonometric projections. I'm not totally sure what the difference is...)

I wonder how different this map would look today with all the new construction. Check out this axiometric comparison of DUMBO in 2002 and 2005.

The 1994 axiometric map above from MapPoster emphasizes a point I made in the Built Environment Blog last year: Tribeca is defined by its edges. (Wish I'd found this image for the original post.)