After Hastening Gentrification, A Brooklyn Super Has Regrets

This story first appeared on May 12, 2014, in slightly different form, on Gothamist.

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725 Fourth Avenue.

725 Fourth Avenue.

NEW YORK CITY’S affordable housing stock is shrinking. A recent report issued by the Comptroller’s office noted that families making less than $40,000 a year “literally may not be able to find an apartment they can afford.” How did this happen? Sergio Allejandro Duarte knows. He used to be my super.

From his tidy subterranean office, the 58-year-old super tends to the needs of 725 Fourth Avenue, a rent-stabilized brick building with 167 units, built in 1928. I met him in 2004, after I signed the lease on a newly renovated three-bedroom apartment at $1,350 per month. Though my neighbors in the building were paying half that amount for the same size apartment, I still thought it was a good deal.

My roommate and I weren’t aware that the new cabinets and freshly lacquered bathtub were the result of a systematic campaign to renovate the building and raise rents.

Born in Ecuador, Duarte came to the United States with his family in 1967. His father, Joseph, did maintenance for Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The younger Duarte, equipped with certificates in plumbing and electrical from Bronx Community College, became superintendent of 725 Fourth Avenue in 1998.

He said he was hired with a mandate to clean up the building, which meant “trying to get all those people who were involved with drugs out.” By all accounts the building was a dangerous place at the time: the doors were propped open, prostitutes attended to johns on the roof, drug dealing and violence were commonplace.

Duarte began by winning the residents’ trust, which he did by hiring the most destructive young male tenants to work for him. His first hire was the man who disarmed an angry tenant while Duarte was investigating a complaint of drugs and sex on the roof. Then one “problem” tenant died in a car accident. A few went to jail. Several others started working and had less time to hang around.

Once he had the tenants’ trust, Duarte put the word out: “In the future, if you need money, you could easily sell your apartments. The owner will pay you to move out.” Duarte was authorized to offer renters cash for their lease. The owner knew that with the old occupants gone he could raise the rents and more than recoup the cost of the buyouts.

Sergio Duarte at work.

When Duarte started as the super, the highest monthly rent in the building was $700; the lowest was $100. Many families had lived in the building for years, the apartments passed down from generation to generation. “I didn’t want people to think, ‘I want you out,'” Duarte said. “I just wanted to fix the building.”

But if a tenant would move out for $5,000—or some higher negotiated amount—he would pay them. As people began taking the money, Duarte began to question their wisdom: “What are you going to do with $5,000, even $20,000?” He knew the money wouldn’t last long, especially for an entire family. He also knew that accepting a buyout was seldom in the tenants’ best interest. After the fourth of fifth one, Duarte said, “I felt like I was doing wrong,” but people kept coming, and if he wanted to keep his job and support his family, he had to continue paying out. Twenty families left in the first round.

After September 11, 2001, Duarte had people calling him about moving to Brooklyn. At the same time, 725 Fourth Avenue came under new ownership. The new owners “saw the potential” of the building, Duarte said. They approached it with “the mentality of the investor,” and aggressively pursued buy outs.

My fifth-floor apartment had a lovely view of New York Harbor. In fact, the building was built to house dockworkers. By the time I arrived, the docks were rotting, the jobs were gone, and, for the first time since the building was built, rents were too high for the working class. The Puerto Rican families were being bought out and wealthier, whiter people like me were on their way in. Today the building is racially diverse but only because wealthy people come in all colors. Currently a one-bedroom goes for $1,700, a two-bedroom for $2,200, and a three-bedroom for $2,600.

The courtyard.

Back in his office, Duarte pulled out a binder of floor plans. He opened it to my old apartment, A5. He lives in the same layout, two floors below. It was so familiar: narrow kitchen, living room, my closet-less bedroom, two bigger bedrooms, bathroom. It turns out that the space next to the kitchen was originally a dining room, but between tenants Duarte’s crew walled that off to create my bedroom. This practice had become common in the post-9/11 boom. Today most of the dining rooms at 725 Fourth Avenue are gone. Apparently pre-war dockworkers liked gathering the family together for a meal more than up-and-coming Brooklynites.

Former tenants still stop by 725 Fourth Avenue to chat with the super. Some tell Duarte that taking a buyout was the biggest mistake of their lives. He is sympathetic, but said, “I never pushed anybody out. They asked me, and I made an offer. I hoped they didn’t take it.”

Vilma Perez took it. “They gave me $20,000. I think it’s not enough,” she said of the buyout she accepted in 2008. Perez, 58, said there had been a fire in the apartment below hers, which resulted in her windows being broken. She claimed that the owner refused to fix them for three months so she would move out. That two-bedroom cost her $535 a month; now she pays $1,200 for a slightly smaller apartment farther out in Brooklyn.

“When I move from here, I’m moving to Florida,” said Perez, who is on a fixed income and takes care of her schizophrenic grandson full-time. “I can’t pay more money. It’s too expensive for me,” she said of New York.

Perez, whose son was among those first hired by Duarte, still visits the building once a month to see him and her other friends—the parents and grandparents of the kids I used to hang out with. Those kids are nowhere to be seen. Perez speculated that the owner wanted to get rid of the children, mostly Puerto Rican, because they hung around and made the courtyard look bad. Today, she said, “They rent only to white people, students.”

I was one of those students. I ended up moving to Lefferts Gardens in 2007, where I paid $250 a month for a room I shared with my girlfriend. On my new, mostly African American block, I wasn’t an obnoxious gentrifier, but I didn’t make any friends, either.

“I feel that I have done everything in my power to change this building, to help this building and community,” Duarte said. Still, he continued, “I feel a little guilty that I misled these people in selling their apartment, because now the rent is so high—I couldn’t afford it.”

Sergio Allejandro “Alex” Duarte.

To be fair, few could have imagined in the late 1990s that Brooklyn could be as expensive as it is today. Duarte’s 25-year-old daughter, just out of dental school, recently moved back home after struggling to pay rent in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.

With its leafy courtyard and proximity to the 25th Street R train station, 725 Fourth Avenue is a nice place to live. The drugs and abandoned cars are mostly gone. The buy-outs have stopped. Tenants still ask about them but Duarte can’t make them an offer. The owner decided that tenants who want to leave will leave on their own and it will cost nothing.

In one storefront on Fourth Avenue, there used to be a half-empty bodega that sold lottery tickets. Now it’s a coffee shop decorated with vintage seltzer bottles and birch logs placed just so. It serves smoked duck sandwiches and paninis with Italian names. Duarte and his crew worked on the renovation, but he hasn’t been in much since. “I can’t afford to buy a cup of coffee in there,” he said. “Very soon New York is going to be a city for rich people.”

In March, Duarte was told that he was being let go after sixteen years. He will have to move out by the end of June. When I last saw him, he was handing out resumes and looking for an apartment.

Following Seas Trailer

In 1960, Bob Griffith sailed into Honolulu Harbor and met Nancy. On their 53 foot cutter Awhanee they spent the rest of their lives trying to find the balance between family and adventure.

Taking The Road Not Taken

SECAUCUS, New Jersey, is not on the Lincoln Highway. The original Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road in the United States, ran along 42nd Street in Manhattan, across the Hudson River by ferry to Weehawken, New Jersey, then south to Philadelphia and points west. The Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) chose the Holiday Inn Meadowlands in Secaucus to kick off its centennial tour because Holiday Inn was a sponsor and because, in the words of one member, “There are Holiday Inns all along the Lincoln Highway.” Continue reading

The LHA was responsible for getting the road built, beginning in 1913. To celebrate the highway’s 100th birthday, the association sponsored a drive across its entire length in June 2013. They expected 270 people, 140 vehicles, and participants from as far away as Australia, Norway and Russia. The tour had two parts, one beginning in San Francisco (the highway’s western terminus) and an eastern contingent leaving from New York. The two tours met in Kearney, Nebraska, roughly halfway across the country.

The Lincoln Highway Association centennial celebration pre-tour dinner at the Holiday Inn Meadowlands, Secaucus, New Jersey.

The Lincoln Highway Association centennial celebration pre-tour dinner at the Holiday Inn Meadowlands, Secaucus, New Jersey.

The Holiday Inn Meadowlands lacked every conceivable charm that could be conjured by the image of a tour across America’s oldest highway. Set among a panoply of malls, parking lots, chain stores, and new asphalt sealant, the Holiday Inn was large and clean. The lobby contained a water feature, a bar and a Starbucks. The LHA dinner was upstairs in the Essex Room, a small fluorescent-lit banquet hall. Inside were about a hundred middle aged to elderly men and women. A buffet was at one end of the room and a kind of gift shop and registration center at the other.

Upon closer inspection this shop proved to be the Lincoln Highway Trading Post: Postcards 50 cents, bandanas $9.95, stickers $1, patches $3. Manning the trading post was Brian Cassler from Canton, Ohio, high school student, and by far the youngest person in the room. Brian was spending his summer vacation on the tour with his father, Jim Cassler, a commercial printer and the tour organizer. Jim was also a Civil War re-enactor and would be performing for the tour when it got to Gettysburg.

Lincoln Highway parephenalia on sale at the trading post.

Lincoln Highway souvenirs on sale at the Lincoln Highway Trading Post.

“People used to get on the roads to have a good time, not make good time,” said Tim Wunsch, in town from Fort Morgan, Colorado, with his wife, Judy. He was signing up drivers and handing out packets and badges. Judy said they got interested in the highway when Tim accidentally attended a seminar on it at a local museum. A truck mechanic and welder by trade, Tim drives the “sweep vehicle,” whose job was to pick up people whose cars had broken down. For him the LHA was an important social network. That’s how he met Jim Cassler, who has become a good friend. Judy Wunsch said that most people in the association are retired and have a personal relationship with the road. She drives along it all the time in Colorado. Almost no one in the room seemed to be from New York.

Kay Shelton was late to dinner because her cabdriver couldn’t find the Holiday Inn. A brisk and efficient woman, perhaps the youngest in the room after Brian Cassler, Shelton had flown in that afternoon. She teaches geography at a community college outside of Chicago. The Lincoln Highway runs by her school. As LHA president, she was flying to San Francisco the following morning at 9 a.m. to see off the western leg of the tour.

Talking into a bullhorn in the middle of the room was Jim Peters, PR man for the LHA. As caravan participants bent over cold-cut sandwiches and pasta salad, Peters detailed every dusty particular of the route.

Outside, in the balmy air of early summer, about two dozen classic cars were parked in the Holiday Inn’s massive garage. The cars would make the trip to Kearney, and a few stray guests took pictures. Valet parked on a flatbed was a 1918 Dodge Brothers Army Staff Touring Car. According to Jim Cassler, Dwight D. Eisenhower had driven something similar when he traveled the Lincoln Highway with the U.S. Army in 1919. Cassler says it took Ike so long, 62 days, that he realized the need for a more efficient road network. This led to the creation of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System—the bigger, faster network of roads that ultimately rendered much of the Lincoln Highway obsolete.

A 1918 Dodge Brothers Army Staff Touring Car like Dwight D. Eisenhower might have driven in 1919.

A 1918 Dodge Brothers Army Staff Touring Car like Dwight D. Eisenhower might have driven when he traveled the Lincoln Highway in 1919.

Monuments to Getting There

AM 1.2

The Ames Monument, built to mark the highest elevation of the original transcontinental railroad, 8,247 feet.

A STRETCH of concrete, running roughly perpendicular to the embankment of US-30, would have passed by the car window unnoticed if Matt West hadn’t pointed it out. We were driving across Wyoming and Matt West, a teacher of ceramics and art at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, was our unofficial tour guide.

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He pulled onto the shoulder. Walking down the embankment and climbing a small fence, we stood on a strip of concrete about 15 feet wide. It didn’t look like much—perhaps a narrow parking lot, or a concrete apron around some lost factory or school. Weeds grew up between cracks in the pavement.

It was a sample mile of the Lincoln Highway. Begun in 1913 (a coast-to-coast drive is set to mark its centennial in June), it was the first transcontinental highway in the United States. The Lincoln Highway was the idea of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder and automotive entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, with help from Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Co. The Lincoln Highway Association would work with municipalities to erect a sample mile of road outside of a town, in an effort to entice the state to build the rest. The promotion worked, and the road was built across the entire length of the country, but some of the sample miles, like this one, were never incorporated into the final road.

A sample mile of the Lincoln Highway.

A sample mile of the Lincoln Highway that was never incorporated into the final road.

The Lincoln Highway followed the route of the transcontinental railroad, which is largely responsible for the existence of Cheyenne, and many other cities. During construction, the Union Pacific Railroad established camps for its workers every 50 miles or so along the right of way. Some of these camps faded away, but many turned into the present-day cities of Wyoming. Just look at the mileage chart in your road atlas. The distance from Sidney, Nebraska, to Cheyenne—100 miles. Cheyenne to Laramie—49.4 miles. Laramie to Rawlins—99.9 miles. Rawlins to Rock Springs—107 miles. Rock Springs to Evanston—104 miles.

Getting back in the car, we merged onto Interstate 80, the first coast-to-coast interstate highway, completed in 1986. It absorbed some of the Lincoln Highway and follows the transcontinental railroad closely. Like the two earlier transcontinental routes, I-80 runs contiguously from New York City to San Francisco.

Between Cheyenne and Laramie the landscape seems to flow, the land undulating with rock formations and scrubby plains. From beneath a rise in the plain a distinctly unnatural shape pokes above the surface of the earth. It looks like the stuff of conspiracy theories—something from another world or a lost civilization, captivatingly inexplicable. Exiting the interstate, West directs the car onto a paved one-lane road, then a dirt road. The country around us is barren—no trees, no buildings, a few houses in the middle distance, and the rolling brown mountains beyond. A stone pyramid heaves into view.

Built in 1882 by the Union Pacific Railroad, the pyramid marks the highest elevation of the original transcontinental railroad, 8,247 feet. It stands 60 feet tall and 60 feet wide, and is made of granite blocks quarried nearby. The pyramid also serves as a monument to the Ames brothers of Massachusetts—Oakes (1804-1873) and Oliver (1807-1877), owners and backers of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Bas-reliefs of the two brothers, by the prominent 19th-century American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, adorn the top of the Ames Monument, as it is officially called. Saint-Gaudens sculpted memorials for Abraham Lincoln, Peter Cooper, and William Tecumseh Sherman in cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. But his reliefs of the Ames brothers are seemingly without an audience, gazing not at an opulent metropolis, but at the badlands of Wyoming.

The sample mile and the Ames Monument both leave visitors with a sense of something more than their specific historical significance. In the narratives of the transcontinental railroad, Lincoln Highway, and I-80, Wyoming figures not as a destination, but as a place on the way to somewhere else. The sample mile and the Ames Monument are somehow lost, without context. And today these monuments seem to stand not for a logistical achievement, but for the feeling of being passed by.

AM better150

Another view of the Ames Monument, located off US-30 and I-80, between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming.


A Quality Car Wash, for Those in the Know

Julio Almonte, originally from the Dominican Republic, operates a hand car-wash on 202nd Street and the Harlem River, in the Inwood section of Manhattan.

Julio Almonte, originally from the Dominican Republic, operates a hand car-wash on 202nd Street and the Harlem River.

ON THE last block of East 202nd Street, in the Inwood section of Manhattan, Roi Rodriguez leans against a corrugated metal wall, checking his iPhone, while Julio Almonte and an assistant wash his car. Almonte doesn’t work in a building. His business doesn’t even have a name. He washes cars on the street. All he needs to clean Rodriguez’s car are a few buckets, some rags, a Shop-Vac, and a pressure washer powered by a small generator. Inside his van is a 250-gallon tank filled with water. At the end of the day – Almonte  works from 8 am to 7 pm – everything fits back inside the van.

In a small no-man’s-land bounded by the Harlem River, the New York City Housing Authority’s Dyckman Houses, and a Con Edison facility, exists an unofficial car wash district. The sound of the generators is everywhere, bright yellow rags dry on chain-link fences, and soapy water flows down the gutters while men power-wash the soap off newly cleaned vehicles. Plastic chairs are set up in the shade for customers to sit while they wait. The sidewalks are littered with each operation’s attendant van, buckets, and hoses. There is no reason to come to this little neighborhood of parking lots, auto-body shops, and nightclubs during the day – unless you want your car washed. Continue reading

Julio Almonte, 67, was born in Monte Plata in the Dominican Republic but now lives in the Dyckman Houses, a block from where he washes cars. He worked at a traditional brick-and-mortar car wash until about a month ago, when he decided to go out on his own. He makes a lot more money this way, he says. Almonte speaks no English, but his current customer, Roi Rodriguez, who is Dominican but was born in New York, offers to translate.

Almonte charges $15 for a car wash ($20 for vans), and $15 for a wax. “It’s about the same price as a regular car wash,” says Rodriguez. The difference is quality. “I really like their work ethic, they seem like they’re hands-on, into it. They don’t get paid much at a regular car wash. I wouldn’t expect their heart and soul to be into it.” For $15, Almonte and his assistant have already been working on Rodriguez’s car for half an hour.

Almonte’s van has been customized for car washing. Inside is a 250-gallon water tank that connects to his pressure washer, which is powered by a portable generator.

Almonte’s van has been customized for car washing. Inside is a 250-gallon water tank that connects to his pressure washer, which is powered by a portable generator.

There are at least five street car washes on the blocks of 202nd Street and 201st Street that dead-end into the Harlem River, and the block of 9th Avenue that connects them. It’s a perfect location: just north of the end of the Harlem River Drive and just below 207th Street, a major thoroughfare that leads into the Bronx via the University Heights Bridge. Ninth Avenue is a natural short-cut between the two: a one-way stretch heading north that conveniently bypasses the lights and traffic of 10th Avenue and its intersection with 207th Street. Nobody lives on these few blocks, so there is no one to complain about the noise or the mess, and there is always lots of parking.

I approached several other street car washers, but they were reluctant to speak to me. From his chair in the shade, one customer agreed with Rodriguez, saying that he came here because it was a little cheaper and his car got more attention than at a regular car wash. Another customer said he knew of other street car wash zones in the Bronx and elsewhere uptown, but that he had been coming to this neighborhood to get his car cleaned for more than 10 years.

One car washer, whose friend happened to be nearby and could translate, said that he had been washing cars here for years, but didn’t want to be interviewed because he recently had been having trouble with the police. He suspected a fellow car washer was calling the cops on him in an effort to take his spot.

The sidewalk in front of Almonte’s car wash, with two chairs for waiting customers. At least four other illegal hand car-washes operate nearby.

The sidewalk in front of Almonte’s car wash, with two chairs for waiting customers. At least four other illegal hand car-washes operate nearby.

Washing cars on the street is illegal. Rodriguez looked up the relevant statute on his iPhone as he waited. “It’s a parking violation,” he said. “Washing or fixing a car on the street.” Down the block from where Almonte was working, several city employees were washing two front-end loaders with water from a fire hydrant. No one seemed worried about getting in trouble. “I don’t see it being a big problem,” said Rodriguez. “They’re working, trying to earn a living, it’s definitely an honest way of doing it.”

He decides to spend another $15 for a wax. Almonte asks for the keys and pulls Rodriguez’s car onto the sidewalk, alongside the corrugated metal wall. He goes to his van for waxing supplies, and begins meticulously buffing on the wax. The way he was doing it, it figured to be another half-hour job.

The Salvagers of Great Kills

A sailboat washed up against the breakwater of the Port Regalle condominiums, awaiting salvage.

A sailboat washed up against the breakwater of the Port Regalle condominiums, on Great Kills Harbor in Staten Island, awaiting salvage.

ACROSS a field of mud that used to be a park, a sailboat was washed up against a bulkhead on the eastern side of the Port Regalle townhouse condominiums, perhaps the most vulnerable location on Great Kills, a natural circular harbor on Staten Island’s south shore. Of the dozens of boats wrecked in Great Kills by the hurricane, most had already been salvaged but, for whatever reason, this one remained. Above the boat a man stood on a second-story balcony and threw bread to ducks and swans in the water below.

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“I left the day before [Sandy] and came back the day after,” he said. Most ground-floor apartments in the complex still appeared heavily damaged: walls missing, tarp and plywood everywhere. Staircases that should have lead from the balconies to the ground were torn away. The man seemed trapped up there. “They’ve been working nonstop since the storm,” he said, speaking about the contractors, “but my apartment’s fine.” On the quiet bay the din of reconstruction was clearly audible.

Three and a half months after hurricane Sandy, there was still a lot of work to be done. Peach-colored and vaguely Mediterranean, Port Regalle is a luxury housing development built in the 1980s that advertises itself as the only Staten Island condo community with its own marina. Post-Sandy, this marina, and several others in Great Kills Harbor, have been a boon for Bay Harvest, a local salvage company owned by Tim Ryan. A commercial fisherman by trade, Ryan, 31, says his company salvaged 95 percent of the boats wrecked in Great Kills Harbor. He preserved his own boats by sailing them around the southern tip of Staten Island, at Tottenville, and docking them in the lee of the island. The day after the storm his newly painted boat was one of the first to enter the harbor. He beheld a scene of devastation.

“I haven’t had a day off since the storm,” said Ryan in late February. “Christmas, we took a half-day.” He estimates his company salvaged more than 20 boats in Great Kills Harbor, many from the bottom, some from far inland, others from atop 15-foot-high breakwaters. It’s easy to believe when you look around Port Regalle: a patio above the marina and an adjoining park, both at least 15 feet above the water, were littered with boats after the storm. Ryan says boats had smashed through people’s first-floor apartments.

Bay Harvest owner Tim Ryan (right), with his cousin John Malden. They are rebuilding the marina at Port Regalle, a condominium complex in Great Kills, Staten Island.

Bay Harvest owner Tim Ryan (right), with his cousin John Malden. They are rebuilding the marina at Port Regalle, a condominium complex in Great Kills, Staten Island.

To salvage a boat Ryan first has to figure out who owns it. “The insurance company calls me with the make and model of the boat, and I go look for it and take pictures,” he says. Once ownership has been established, salvaging can begin. If the boat is underwater, Bay Harvest’s divers swim down and place float bags, like balloons that can be inflated from above, under the boat to raise it up. Then, if the boat is holed, Bay Harvest makes whatever emergency repairs are necessary to get it floating and tows it to the nearest boat ramp. Salvaging a boat is not cheap. “Big insurance companies don’t have a problem paying,” says Ryan, “but dealing with an individual we demand payment up front.”

Most of the boats had been salvaged by late February, but Bay Harvest is also tasked with rebuilding the docks at the Port Regalle marina, a job that should keep them busy for months to come. When I arrive, Ryan and his cousin John Malden are dragging a huge beam down the beach. It was part of a wall they had been building at the marina but, before they could secure it, the beam had come loose in a recent storm. (“The last blow popped it out.”) About one foot square and 9 feet long, the piece of wood required two men to drag it, and the addition of Will Muller, another employee of Bay Harvest, to pry it into place at the bottom of the wall. The men then piled “rip rap,” or rocks, along the bottom of the beam to keep it in place. The next day they planned to secure it with long bolts driven through the vertical piling and into the thick wood.

The man on the balcony at Port Regalle looked down at the wrecked sailboat. The sail had partially unfurled; two of the torn ends were tied to the railing above the bulkhead, and it was luffing loudly. “Could you do me a favor,” he asked, “and untie that? The noise drives me crazy.” I untied the sail and let the torn ends fly in the wind. “Thanks, have a good one” he said, and turned to go back inside.

Looking for Lago Texcoco

FLYING into Mexico City, there is the distinct impression of arriving in a giant bowl, surrounded by mountains and filled with an overwhelming amount of city. This is the Valley of Mexico. Today the valley traps smog, but it used to trap water. Most of the contemporary city is built on an ancient lake. From the air it’s not hard to imagine water in the bowl.

What remains of Lake Texcoco, once the largest lake in the Valley of Mexico. Only the deepest portion on the eastern edge of Mexico City has escaped development.

What remains of Lake Texcoco, once the largest lake in the Valley of Mexico. Only the deepest portion on the eastern edge of Mexico City has escaped development.

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When the Spanish arrived at the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, it was on an island in the middle of a lake called Texcoco. After their conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish built what is now Mexico City on the site of Tenochtitlan. They filled in the lake as the city expanded toward the mountains. And through the centuries as the city grew, the lake shrank.

But in the mega-city of today the lake is still present in several striking ways, if you know where to look. All over the city, 16th-century Spanish buildings are tilting at noticeable angles as the foundations sink into the infirm ground of the lake bed. And there are still small bodies of water and low-lying areas on the outskirts of the city that have escaped development. The largest of these ancient spaces is on the city’s eastern edge. It is the deepest part of the original Lake Texcoco.

I set off for what is left of Lake Texcoco one morning in March, assuming that a place so inaccessible and so ancient must have something to reveal. The closest subway station to any part of the lake is Ciudad Azteca, the last stop on the B-line. According to the map, any street heading east from the subway line should dead-end into the lake, or at least into the highway that forms the lake’s western shore.

The highway Circuito Exterior Mexiquense runs along the edge of Lake Texcoco. Across the lake, the mountains that define the Valley of Mexico are barely visible.

The highway Circuito Exterior Mexiquense runs along the edge of Lake Texcoco. Across the lake, the mountains that define the Valley of Mexico are barely visible.

This “Aztec City” is actually a newly suburban district of shopping malls, big-box stores, multiplex cinemas and hospitals. Mexico City is growing rapidly—the subway line here opened in 1999. East of the train, the Home Depot, Pizza Hut and Wal-Mart gave way to small, brightly painted cinderblock houses and rows of waiting buses as I walked along Calle De Los Guerrero toward the lake. Following the northern wall of Jardin Guadalupano cemetery, past stalls selling flowers and plastic graveyard decorations, through a little neighborhood, I came to a barbed wire fence separating the neighborhood from the highway. Beyond the highway was the lake. Stepping through a hole in the fence afforded a slightly closer look.

And there it was, a vast and dusty waterless expanse, seeming to stretch for miles to the distant hills at the other side of the valley. Little twisters of dust spiraled off the dry plain. I could see a few low buildings, networks of pipes, and the occasional truck. Instead of a distinct location, Texcoco just looked like space, the kind of open space whose absence is so conspicuous in contemporary Mexico City. Even though I was alone on the shoulder of a highway, with cars whizzing by and dogs rooting in garbage behind the fence, I felt like I could pause here and breathe. By Mexico City standards it was almost peaceful.

Still, I was struck by Texcoco’s unexceptionalness. It was disappointingly familiar—from across the highway, Lake Texcoco could have been anywhere in rural Nebraska or Wyoming. Nothing was revealed. The forces that had filled in and paved over the rest of the lake to build the giant city behind me were not in evidence.

I turned around, and headed back to the hole in the fence.

In Queens Bangladeshis Demand Capital Punishment

THIS past Valentine’s Day many New Yorkers were rushing home from work, stopping at the deli to buy flowers, heading out to a romantic dinner with a loved one. But in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, the Bangladeshi community was concerned with another thing entirely.

Bangladeshis gather in Jackson Heights, Queens, to protest the February 5 verdict of a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshis gather in Jackson Heights, Queens, to protest the February 5 verdict of a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh.

At a busy pedestrian mall, near the intersection of Broadway and Roosevelt avenues, about 40 people were crowded together, chanting angrily in unison. They wore headbands and carried signs written in Bengali. After a while each member of the group lit a candle and laid their posters down on the street. Framed by candles, the tableau resembled an altar. One poster showed men’s faces on a red background framed with rope, a noose. The crowd continued to chant. Continue reading

“We are demonstrating against war criminals of Bangladesh,” says Mumu Ansari, a small woman with intense eyes, who pulls away from the group to talk to me about the protest. “We want capital punishment!”

According to Reuters, on February 5 a Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, a senior leader of the country’s biggest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison. Mollah was found guilty of charges including murder, rape, torture and arson during Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. During the conflict about 3 million lives were lost and thousands of women were raped. For the protesters in Jackson Heights, Mollah and his party symbolize all of this violence and trauma.

“They are rapists—they murdered our Bangladeshi people—thousands of mothers and sisters, and now the court gave them life imprisonment. We don’t want that,” continued Ansari. The protest in Jackson Heights was in solidarity with other massive protests, also demanding the death of Mollah and other accused war criminals, around Bangladesh.

Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947, but in 1971, after a nine-month war between Bangladeshi nationalists, who were backed by India, and Pakistani forces, it became independent. Some factions in Bangladesh opposed the break with Pakistan, and numerous abuses were committed.

Mistrustful of the Bangladeshi justice system, protesters demand capital punishment for war criminals to prevent the possibility of further crimes.

Mistrustful of the Bangladeshi justice system, protesters demand capital punishment for war criminals to prevent the possibility of further crimes.

Jamaat-e-Islami was accused of opposing the campaign for independence from Pakistan and helping the Pakistani army during the war. According to Reuters, Jamaat denies this. The party is still active and powerful in Bangladesh and has dismissed the tribunal as motivated by its political rivals. It has called for general strikes and protests of its own in the capital city Dhaka and around the country.

The tribunal delivered its first verdict in January, sentencing a former member of Jamaat-e-Islami and popular Islamic preacher, to death. A precedent therefore exists for capital punishment in these cases. It is unclear why Mollah was given a lesser punishment.

Capital punishment is frowned upon, if not banned, in much of the developed world; a nation can’t join the European Union if it has the death penalty. War criminals tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, including Charles Taylor of Liberia and Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia, are not put to death.

Why isn’t life in prison sufficient in Bangladesh? Bulbul Hasham, another vocal protester in Jackson Heights, explains: “If the regime changes, if the government changes, there is always a fear in third-world countries that they can be freed and they can do the same killings and tortures again.” Hasham says that if there were laws and regulations in Bangladesh like there are in developed countries, as in the United States, he would be satisfied with life in prison. But, in Jackson Heights at least, Bangladeshis seem to have little faith in the government or legal system of their homeland. Many believe that they will be safe only if these war criminals are removed from the face of the earth. “We are Bangladeshis,” Ansari insists, “and as Bangladeshis, we want war criminals to hang.”


Port of New York: Modernized, Mechanized and Thriving in New Jersey

STANDING on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, or driving along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway beneath it, a pedestrian or motorist is afforded a gorgeous view of downtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront. This stretch of the East River, on the Brooklyn side, is in the process of undergoing a major transformation from a decaying series of  dockside warehouses to the popular and accessible Brooklyn Bridge Park. Continue reading

The Brooklyn piers that Marlon Brando’s character worked on and fought on in the 1954 film On The Waterfront are almost completely unrecognizable. Where Brando stood in 1954 you can probably stand today and toss a Frisbee.

Similarly, the piers on the west side of Manhattan were dangerous eyesores until the city started converting them into parks and bike paths in recent years. Few piers remain in their mid-twentieth century form. One exception is Pier 57. According to Marc Levinson, whose book, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger[i], gives a comprehensive history of container shipping and its impact, Pier 57 was rebuilt in 1960 for Grace Line’s combination passenger and freight service, and it was made obsolete by the burgeoning airline industry almost before it opened. It stands vacant today, a quiet monument to the city’s misguided development of the port at a crucial juncture. Just to the south, Pier 54 is the occasional site of movie screenings and art events, but most of the time it is an empty asphalt slab extending out into the water. Many more piers are evidenced only by row upon row of wooden pilings stretching into the Hudson River.

It would be easy to conclude from this that shipping in New York is a thing of the past. It would be easy to assume that everything comes into the New York area by truck or airplane, and that the seaport is a combination museum–shopping mall with a few novelty boats docked out front. In fact, New York’s port is bigger, faster, and more efficient than ever before. It’s just not in New York.


The MSC Alessia awaiting Coast Guard inspection in Lower New York Bay.

Today much of the world’s goods are shipped in standardized metal boxes, or containers. Contemporary containers are intermodal, which means the container can be carried by more than one mode of transportation—from a ship to a train to a truck, or any combination of the three—with no modification. The idea behind shipping containers is simple: the more efficiently you can move goods, the cheaper it is to move them. And it is far cheaper and more efficient for cargo to conform to the container than for the container to conform to the cargo.

Of course for most of human history it was the other way around; the container conformed to the cargo: bags for rice, pallets for bricks, casks for rum, etc. These bags or pallets or casks were stored in the holds of ships and were unloaded laboriously more or less by hand. This type of irregular cargo was and is known as break-bulk.

“It was kind of wild and woolly. You’re out there just port to port, the captain would get orders and you’d go,” recalls Jeff Heehs, who crewed on the break-bulk freighter Del Rio, operated out of New Orleans by Delta Lines, in 1973. Heehs, who now lives in Brooklyn, had a career at sea that spanned the decline of break-bulk shipping and the rise of container shipping. He says the Del Rio carried mostly bulk agricultural products and machinery.

Horizon Consumer

The Horizon Consumer, formerly the Sea Land Consumer, at the Port of Tacoma. Much of the old Sea-Land fleet is now operated by Horizon Lines. This ship was built in 1973.

In 1980 Heehs caught his last ship, a Sea-Land Services container ship out of Port Elizabeth, in New Jersey. He says the main difference between unloading a break-bulk freighter and a container ship is the number of people involved. “You’d be in port four or five days on a break-bulk, and you’re in port for eight hours on a container ship, and you’d move more stuff in eight hours than you did in those four days. A person has to be around to guide the container in, but you have three or four guys on deck instead of 50.”

Container shipping was born when a ship called the Ideal-X carried 58 containers from Newark to Houston in 1956. The Ideal-X was owned by Malcom McLean, who is credited with inventing container shipping and whose Sea-Land Services, Inc., was the first container shipping company. It would take decades for the effects of containerization, a veritable revolution in the shipping industry, to be fully felt and fully capitalized on. Levinson points out that, more than containers, container ships, or container ports, McLean’s innovation was the realization that shipping is not about boats or trucks or trains but about the logistics of moving freight.

“Containers vastly increased the capacity of ports to move goods, vastly increased the tonnage that they could handle,” says Heehs. “The ports are the bottleneck. International trade has increased because of globalization, because of trade liberalization.” Containers were “a big factor in the globalizing of supply chains and manufacturing,” he adds.

In the break-bulk era, the cost of shipping was so high that manufacturers would endure high labor costs and high real estate costs in locations like New York City in order to be closer to their consumers. But with the advent of containerization, says Levinson, shipping costs fell so low that it became profitable for a company to make its products half-way round the world where production costs, raw material, and labor were cheap—places like China and Bangladesh—and ship products around the world to sell them.


The USAC Shuaiba, a Panamax-class vessel, arriving in Upper New York Bay.

Due in large part to container shipping, the port for New York ended up almost entirely in New Jersey. According to Levinson, this happened for two reasons: geography and politics. Shipping companies, city planners, and politicians everywhere underestimated the importance of container shipping. That a fringe technology would in a few decades dominate the entire industry was something almost no one fully anticipated. But New York was especially entrenched in business as usual, was still wedded to the old notions of shipping break-bulk, and was unwilling to take a risk on an untested and expensive new method of shipping.

Unlike break-bulk shipping, container shipping needs massive on-dock space—ideally encompassing storage for containers and an area for trains and trucks to be loaded with containers right off the ship. The trucks need ready access to highways, and the trains need ready access to major long-distance rail routes. The ships themselves have grown steadily larger since container shipping began for the simple fact that the more containers a ship can carry, the cheaper it is to ship each container, so a container port also needs extremely long and deep berths.

Throughout much of the city’s history, goods arriving in New York by train from the rest of the country had to be sorted in one of the massive railyards on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Then the rail cars had to be loaded onto barges and floated across the harbor to docks in lower Manhattan, a slow and expensive process. Levinson says that in the 1920s, when trucking goods over roads began to steal market share away from the railroads, New York was equally ill equipped to receive or dispatch freight by road. Being mostly a city of islands, New York has limited access to interstate highways and relentless traffic at the city’s few access points. Most limiting of all, New York has no space. Many of the older piers weren’t even wide enough for a truck to turn around, so how could they ever accommodate dozens of trucks and several giant cranes, on dock space for hundreds if not thousands of containers, and deep-water berths for giant ships? According to Levinson, by 1959 the city Planning Commission was quietly suggesting that the port might not be the driver of the city’s economy that it had been for the previous hundred years.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was created in 1921 as a bistate agency to build and manage bridges and tunnels between New Jersey and New York. According to Levinson, in the 1940s the governors of both states asked the Port Authority to take a look at the region’s seaports. The Port Authority studied the situation and made proposals to both states. Unwilling to cede control of its ports to an agency over which it had no control, New York rejected the Port Authority’s proposal.

Newark, however, was glad to accept help from the Port Authority. Newark had a vast tract of tidal marsh that was mostly undeveloped, and it had ready access to an established network of long-distance rail routes and the newly completed New Jersey Turnpike. Newark agreed to lease its docks and its airport to the Port Authority in late 1947. Between 1948 and 1952, the agency spent $11 million to dredge channels and rebuild wharves. Throughout the early 1950s it lured one major shipping company after another away from docks in Brooklyn and Manhattan to the burgeoning Port Newark.

In 1953 Malcom McLean signed a contract with the Port Authority to develop a small container terminal at Port Newark. In 1955 the Port Authority announced plans to develop a 450-acre tract of private land south of Port Newark. The new Port Elizabeth, the largest port project ever before undertaken in the United States, was intended to be primarily a container port. The new Sea-Land terminal at Port Elizabeth, the first purpose-built container terminal, opened in 1962. Sea-Land flourished and Port Elizabeth was soon the biggest and busiest port on the East Coast.

The Port Authority eventually developed two container terminals in New York City proper: the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island and the much smaller Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn. But it was too little too late, and neither terminal handles a fraction of the tonnage that passes through Port Newark or Port Elizabeth, now collectively known as Port Newark/Elizabeth­–Port Authority Marine Terminal.

conrad s

The Conrad S being loaded at the Red Hook Container Terminal. This small terminal, on the once great Brooklyn waterfront, is the only facility in Brooklyn equipped to handle containers.

Today the Port Authority is spending billions to modernize its terminals and keep up with the shipping industry’s relentless growth. Currently the size of the locks at the Panama Canal is the major factor restricting the size of ships worldwide. According to the Panama Canal website, the maximum size of a vessel, known as Panamax, that can fit in the existing locks is 965 ft. long by 106 ft. wide with a draft of 39.5 ft. But a new set of locks is under construction, to be completed in 2014 at a cost of $5.25 billion. This new larger set of locks will allow a ship 1,200 ft. long by 160 ft. wide with a draft of 50 ft. to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans without going around South America’s Cape Horn. These new post-Panamax vessels will be able to carry two and a half times as much cargo as a Panamax ship.


The CMA CGM Tancredi entering New York Harbor by way of the Verrazano Narrows. The Tancredi is larger than Panamax size, but vessels built to accommodate the new locks at the Panama Canal will be even bigger.

This soon-to-be-standard new ship size demands longer docks, higher bridges, deeper berths, and bigger cranes than ever before. Ports that cannot accommodate these ships will become less competitive and lose market share—and ultimately revenue and jobs in their respective regions—to the ports that can.

The Port Authority began dredging the New York Harbor and related waterways and berths to the new post-Panamax depth of 50 ft. almost 10 years ago. According to the Port Authority’s 2012 Port Guide, expansions and capital improvements are underway at nearly all its facilities. The most significant improvement is the elevation of the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge connecting Staten Island to Bayonne, New Jersey. The current height of the roadway, 151 ft., is too low to accommodate a post-Panamax vessel. At a projected cost of $1 billion, the Bayonne Bridge remodel, slated for completion by 2016, will raise the roadway to 215 ft.


The OOCL Kobe sailing under the Bayonne Bridge, whose roadway will soon be raised to make way for even larger post-Panamax vessels.

With 21 million tons of cargo imported and over 3 million containers handled in 2010, the Port of New York and New Jersey has never been busier. Also in 2010, the most recent year for which the Port Authority has data, the port handled over $104 billion in imports and over $42 billion in exports. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York stated, in a November 2012 press release, that the value of all cargo that moved through the region’s ports (imported and exported) in 2011 exceeded $185 billion. Despite these almost incomprehensible figures, very little of this cargo crossed the docks in any borough of New York City.

Standing at the Verrazano Narrows or driving along the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn or Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, you might notice one of these huge (and soon to be huger) container ships on its way to or from one of the Port Authority terminals. But shipping in the region is, today, unseen by most New Yorkers, even though their lives largely depend on it.

Port Newark and Port Elizabeth bear no resemblance to the waterfronts of the past. They are labyrinthine networks of roads and on-ramps, gates and checkpoints, train tracks and fences. Stacks of containers are everywhere, standing six or seven stories tall, and everywhere there are trucks carrying containers—dropping off empties or departing with full ones. The shipping container might be one of the most apt symbols of modernity and globalization precisely because it is anonymous and ubiquitous—where it goes is arbitrary and what it carries is arbitrary. It is simply a logistical puzzle piece, a number in a computer, a piece of data. The science of logistics is now the essence of shipping. Ship captains, stevedores, ship owners, and terminal operators look at computer screens or sit at banks of controls most of the day, going outside just to make sure the machines are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Today shipping in the New York region is out of sight and inaccessible. It takes place far from the center of the city and has a radically different form than it did a century ago. The waterfronts of Brooklyn and Manhattan are used for leisure or stand empty, while the waterfronts of neighboring New Jersey are filled with trucks, trains and ships and are conspicuously devoid of people.

“The old sailors didn’t like it. It’s not like being a true sailor anymore, just watching boxes come and go,” Heehs says of the move to containers. “It was more interesting and colorful on break-bulk—watching things come and go and people come and go, instead of these anonymous boxes.”


[i] Levinson, Marc. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.: 2006.