Green-Wood Cemetery’s Niche Market

This piece first appeared on October 29, 2014, in slightly different form, on the Archtober blog of the Center for Architecture and Architects Newspaper.

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THE TREND in burial at Green-Wood Cemetery is decidedly toward cremation. Built in 1838, and the final resting place of 570,000 people, it is “literally running out of space,” according to Green-Wood President Richard J. Moylan. He estimates they’ll run out of space for in-ground burials in the next five years. “We could pack them in tighter, but that would ruin it,” he said.

The new Tranquility Gardens and Chapel/Crematorium, by PBDW Architects, focuses on the tradition of cremation, and specifically targets the growing Chinese population of nearby Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For some reason Asians are the dominant cremators and niche buyers. The architects have even included what look like elegant stone grills to accommodate traditional ceremonies where money and other materials are burnt.

Anne Holford-Smith, AIA, LEED AP, said her firm consulted a feng shui expert when designing the gardens and columbarium. “To make sure we don’t commit too many sins,” explained Moylan.

The “qi” flows well through the garden, which is dominated by a shallow pond, complete with koi fish. A footbridge over the pond supports a striking glass obelisk whose interior offers a place for contemplation. The path leads to the columbarium, Latin for dovecote, a building filled with niches to house urns of cremated remains.

“We really fell in love with the glass,” said Holford-Smith, explaining the dominant motif of the horseshoe-shaped columbarium that circles one end of the pond. PBDW wanted to bring “the outside inside, and the inside outside,” she said. Although they are somber and richly textured, the rooms have an airy openness, with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the rolling hills of the old-fashioned cemetery beyond.

Intimate spaces have curved walls of niches and discrete seating areas with upholstered furniture and soft carpeting. Orchids sit on coffee tables. The only sound is the rushing of air.

PBDW worked in several different materials, which Green-Wood offers at different price-points for its “niche” customers. Transparent glass is the most popular, followed by opaque granite. Frosted glass is not a big seller, and no one seems to want the wooden niches with folding doors and little locking compartments.

Apparently the columbarium’s customers want their jade urns, complete with small pictures of their deceased loved ones, visible to all passersby. Moylan explained that niches at eye- or heart-level are the most expensive. “It’s all location, location, location,” he said.

Times Square Reconstruction Seeks Calm Within the Chaos

This piece first appeared on October 28, 2014, in slightly different form, on the Archtober blog of the Center for Architecture and Architects Newspaper. Continue reading

“LOOKING FOR calm within the chaos,” was how Nick Koster, RA, LEED AP, of Snøhetta, described the firm’s design for the Times Square Reconstruction. Just then a topless woman dressed as a super hero sashayed past the Archtober tour group, which contained about a dozen school children.

Snøhetta’s plan for Times Square is successful because it doesn’t assert itself as a piece of architecture or design; instead it serves as a foil for the craziness around it. At one of the brightest and loudest intersections in the world their goal was to create a space, “that’s open and flexible and can be used by a lot of different user groups for a lot of things,” said Koster.

Broadway and 7 Avenue form a bowtie shaped four-acre space as they cross between 42 Street and 47 Street. Snøhetta’s challenge was to design a public space along the closed two-acre portion of Broadway. The constraints were many and various, from the “guests of the street,” as the city calls the utilities like Con Edison and Verizon whose cables lie beneath Broadway, to the Shuttle Train subway tunnel, which at some points is just three inches below the sidewalk.

To unify the new public space the firm chose an iconic paving scheme anchored with fifty-foot stone benches, which are not yet installed. The dingy gum-covered sidewalk was demolished. What was once the street was raised to sidewalk level, and separated from the cross streets with a new granite curb.

The former street and sidewalk were covered with a pattern of quartz-finished pavers punctuated by stainless steel bolts. “We wanted something really subtle that captures the light,” said Koster. Claire Felman, of Snøhetta, explained that the bolts are reminiscent of the marquis lights of “the great white way,” an older iteration of Times Square.

Koster said a major objective was “the act of de-cluttering.” Events and vendors who use the plaza need electricity, but Snøhetta wanted to do away with the droning generators and wires that line the pavement. The solution was subterranean wiring built into the benches. The monolithic benches are also intended to direct the flow of pedestrian traffic and create quieter sub-spaces, as Koster put it, “a place of rest that people need.”

Uptown at the Airport

This piece first appeared on October 7, 2014, in slightly different form, on the Archtober blog of the Center for Architecture and Architects Newspaper. Continue reading

“THE MEMORY of having a really appalling cup of coffee served to you by someone who woke up on the wrong side of the bed can really ruin your experience,” said Jeremy Brown. Service is the obsession of the senior design manager of Virgin Atlantic Customer Experience, who was leading the Archtober tour of the new Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. Virgin and Slade Architecture have spared no expense and left no detail unattended to in the pursuit of creating a memorable experience.

Virgin’s clubhouses all intend to reflect their locations, so Slade focused on a mid-century notion of “Uptown” Manhattan. Far from Harlem, Slade was thinking of Mad Men-era opulence, and layered, inviting open spaces, with the Eero Saarinen TWA terminal visible across the tarmac.

The entrance is totally white, with only subtle variances in texture. Brown said he didn’t want to use “a sledgehammer of red to cover everything.” The “Upper Class” passengers, for whom the lounge is intended, are accustomed to subtly. The only red is the uniform of the Virgin “colleague”– their word for employee – at the front desk.

Framed by the entrance, the clubhouse’s central seating area beckons alluringly. Hayes Slade, AIA, explained that from the very first, experiencing the clubhouse must be intuitive. Working from the uptown metaphor, the clubhouse is organized around a “central park” space anchored by the bar, around which, Brown admitted, the experience of the clubhouse tends to revolve.

The unusual but cozy furniture, designed by Slade Architecture and fabricated by Situ Studios, is meant to evoke the landscape of the park, “comfortable but not what you’d have at home,” said Slade. A semi-transparent wall of walnut fins screens the space, their irregular heights meant to evoke the skyline around the park.

Leaving the central park space there are various sitting and dining areas, some intended for conversation and others for solitude and work. There is even a spa, complete with a massage table and showers. High-quality materials like solid wood, leather, and wool are used throughout – materials that, Brown said, affluent passenger would be used to living with.

Slade and Virgin agree that details matter. James Slade, AIA, LEED AP, said the intention was for “perception to engage the occupant.” The traveler who has a longer stay will notice details like custom-made Empire State and Chrysler Building wallpaper in the dining room, a hotdog cart and apple wallpaper in one private nook, and Park Avenue blueprints in the bathroom.

The experience is meant to be flawless, avoiding even one bad cup of coffee. “Service, and the memorable experience you can have in a beautiful place,” should be the only take-away, Brown explained.

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.