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

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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.

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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.

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.”

 

Where Do All the Christmas Trees Go?

shaking-out

A front-end loader shakes a mouthful of uncleaned Christmas trees onto a field at Randall’s Island.

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PINE-SCENTED air fills your lungs from a hundred yards away. Where is this smell coming from three weeks after Christmas? Crossing the little bridge from Ward’s Island to Randall’s Island, it becomes immediately apparent: you have arrived at the Randall’s Island Christmas tree recycling site.

On a cold night in mid-January, a front-end loader works tirelessly between two huge piles of trees on either side of a large field. The height of a one-story building and half a block long, these piles of trees dwarf the loader and the attendant pickup trucks. One pile contains Christmas trees straight from your sidewalk, carried to Randall’s Island by specially appointed Department of Sanitation trucks. These trees come from all over the city to this island in the East River and are laden with the usual Christmas debris: tinsel, plastic, ties, ornaments, and a dash of regular street garbage.

The second mountain of trees is garbage free. To clean the dirty trees the front-end loader grabs a bucketful from the pile, drives into the middle of the field, raises its bucket in the air and rocks awkwardly back and forth until the entire load is strewn across the field. The loader repeats this step until the field is covered with a layer of debris and trees, trunks and all. Next a crew of pickers, still warm from waiting in the cabs of their trucks, descends on the field. All the foreign material is picked out by hand and thrown away. Finally, with a telephone pole clamped in its jaws, the front-end loader plows the cleaned trees into a giant mound at the edge of the field.

Randall’s Island is the central Christmas tree recycling site for the entire city of New York. According to the city’s Office of Public Affairs, approximately 135,000 trees are at Randall’s Island at any given time during the post-Christmas mulching season.

The cleaned trees are fed into a wood chipper. The mulch is then redistributed across the city to help trees, plants and flowers in the city’s parks. Mulch helps plants to retain moisture and insulates their roots. It also deters the growth of weeds, prevents soil compaction, and adds nutrients to the soil when it decomposes. Mulch is also given to community gardeners and volunteers to spread on street tree beds. Visitors to one of 35 Mulchfest sites (check the DSNY website or call 311 for details) can take home a biodegradable bag of mulch for his or her own tree or garden.

Little pine trees are grown on farms far from New York. They are transported to the city, hawked on the street by vendors, and bought by innumerable New Yorkers as Christmas trees. When the holidays are over, or the needles start to fall off, or you just want your living room back, Christmas trees are set out on the curb, more or less as trash. After all the collecting, cleaning, and mulching, the story’s real conclusion is much more elegant: little bits of pine trees in parks and tree beds all over the city.

 

Approximately 135,000 trees are at Randall’s Island during the season. These have yet to be cleaned.

Approximately 135,000 trees are at Randall’s Island during the season. These have yet to be cleaned.

A front-end loader, with a telephone pole clenched in its jaws, plows cleaned trees into a mountainous pile.

A front-end loader, with a telephone pole clenched in its jaws, plows cleaned trees into a mountainous pile.

Mulched Christmas trees end up at city parks, like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Mulched Christmas trees end up at city parks, like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.