Only in New York: An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating and Irrepressible Cityby Sam Roberts
No one denies that New York City is unique—but what makes it sui generis? Sam Roberts, longtime city reporter, has puzzled over this in print and in his popular New York Times podcasts for years. In Only in New York, he writes about what makes New York tick and why things are the way they are in the greatest of all cities on earth. The forty/i>/i>
No one denies that New York City is unique—but what makes it sui generis? Sam Roberts, longtime city reporter, has puzzled over this in print and in his popular New York Times podcasts for years. In Only in New York, he writes about what makes New York tick and why things are the way they are in the greatest of all cities on earth. The forty essays in this book cover a variety of topics, including:
• Why do we have doormen?
• Is it noisier in the city or in the country?
• Are New Yorkers really as liberal as the rest of the country thinks they are?
• Why wasn't Manhattan's cross-town street grid oriented by the points of the compass?
• If a neighborhood loses its tony zipcode, does it lose its cachet?
A winning and informative gift book for every fan of "the city", Only in New York is elegantly written and solidly reported.
"Currently the Urban Affairs reporter for The New York Times, Roberts has covered the city for 40 years. So as we locals say, he knows from, and it shows in this fabulous collection of essays. With wit and grace, he tells stories of its citizens — some illustrious, others not; some living, others long dead. But the story he's really telling is that of New York, and he nails it."New York Daily News
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Only in New York
An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating, and Irrepressible City
By Sam Roberts
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Sam Roberts
All rights reserved.
THE BIGGEST APPLE
The Census Bureau announced recently that no American city is home to more Hawaiian and Pacific Islander–owned businesses — 2,400 of them — than ... Honolulu. Well, big surprise. But what surprised me was which city is second: New York, with more than 2,300.
With about 8.2 million people in all, New York is a city of superlatives. But just how big is it?
Well, New York has more Latinos than any other city, twice as many Asians as Los Angeles, twice as many blacks as Chicago. More American Indians live here than in any other city.
It's so big that more people speak Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Yiddish ... and English. It's home to more who identify their heritage as Italian, German, Scottish, Nigerian, or Swiss than any other American city. More who claim Irish ancestry than any city in the world — including Dublin.
More people born in Pakistan, France, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Ghana, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic, and almost every other country (except, pretty much, for Cuba and Mexico) live in New York than in any other city in the country.
New York even ranks first in the number of people who describe themselves as having been born at sea (including some who still seem to be at sea).
The city also has more lawyers, doctors, teachers, security guards, construction workers, firefighters, railway workers, and more people who work in arts and entertainment and more people employed in manufacturing.
It doesn't lead in agriculture, although it ranks a pretty respectable tenth nationwide among cities whose residents say their occupation is farming, fishing, or forestry.
New York has more students enrolled in every grade, from kindergarten through graduate school; more who have not graduated from high school and more with doctoral degrees.
The city also ranks first with more people in every age group (including 121,000 who are age eighty-five and older).
New York has more people than any other American city who don't own a car, more who car-pool to work or take public transportation, including taxis and ferries, more who ride their bicycles or walk to work, and more who work at home. San Francisco edges New York, though, in the number who say they commute by motorcycle.
More New Yorkers live in jails, nursing homes, college dorms, mental wards, and religious quarters — like convents — than in any other city.
Now, of course, a few of those numbers might be statistical anomalies, especially since the census relies largely on self-identification. For example, there are undoubtedly a lot of American Indians in New York, but the total might, in fact, be inflated by some Asian Indians who also consider themselves American and described themselves that way — incorrectly by the government's definition — on the census forms.
In the late nineteenth century, some New Yorkers had the elitist notion that only four hundred people in the city really counted. The author O'Henry credited "a wiser man" — the census taker — with what he called a "larger estimate of human interest." O. Henry memorialized them in fiction as "The Four Million."
Enormous as New York must have seemed then, his four million of a century ago have doubled.
New York has more than twice as many people as the nation's second biggest city, Los Angeles. New York is home to more people than the next four top-ranked cities in population — Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Phoenix — combined.
No group categorized by ancestry or age or birthplace abroad or occupation or degree of education dominates, because, as Theodore Dreiser once wrote, New York "is so preponderantly large."
In every category, each separate New York superlative is subsumed by the biggest superlative of them all: the Eight Million.
— June 27, 2006
THE (HOW) BIG APPLE?
Debate persists about why New York is known as the Big Apple. But you'd think by now we'd be able to say precisely how big it is.
Recently, I needed to verify New York's exact size for an article I was writing. I started with the Green Book, the city's official directory. There, between a meticulous description of the city seal and a calendar of budget deadlines, was the figure: 321.9 square miles.
Frankly, I've always been a little wary about the current edition of the Green Book because its cover is bright orange — to commemorate Christo's Gates, which graced Central Park in 2005.
So, ever skeptical, I checked further.
The Census Bureau says New York encompasses 303 square miles. The Encyclopedia Britannica said 309. The National Geodetic Survey referred me to Wikipedia, which said 322, and to the city's official tourism Web site, which says 301.
Nothing about New York is static, of course. Every statistic is merely a snapshot of a moving target. And some numbers can suggest false precision.
I remember during the city's fiscal crisis in 1975 covering a meeting between Walter Wriston, the chairman of Citicorp, and Deputy Mayor Jim Cavanagh. Wriston asked what seemed like a relatively straightforward question: Exactly how many people worked for city government? Cavanagh stammered, then finally fished a slip of paper out of his pocket and revealed the number: 397,402.
But an economist working for Wriston noticed that the paper was completely blank.
"That," Wriston later recalled, "was when I knew we were in trouble."
Earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg vowed to revoke some of the 70,000 or so official parking permits that had been doled out by the city to private vehicles. The mayor kept his commitment — but only after a more thorough inventory found that the actual number of permits was more than 140,000. No wonder there's no place to park.
Which brings us back to the size of the city.
For centuries, its boundaries have been altered by nature and by the hand of man. We lost territory in 1899, when Nassau County was created. And again a century later, when federal courts gave most of Ellis Island to New Jersey.
Meanwhile, thousands of acres were added by landfill, much of it for development in Lower Manhattan and for runways at Kennedy and La Guardia airports.
When I called city officials to reconcile the competing land area figures, it turned out that the mayor's yen for precision had already prompted planners to recalibrate their own estimate. Instead of the 322 square miles that the Green Book had stated definitively for 20 years, geographers discovered that the city really encompasses just under 305 square miles.
Miraculously, Michael Miller, the planning department's deputy director of information technology, had resisted the temptation to immediately phone home and inform his wife: "Honey, I shrank the city."
By seventeen square miles, no less! A difference of seventeen square miles may not seem like much, but consider this: That amount of space could accommodate thirteen replicas of Central Park and two dozen countries the size of Monaco. If it were populated at the same density as Manhattan, New York might be home to a million more people. The vacant land would be worth about $1 trillion.
But Miller emphasized that the lower estimate shouldn't make us feel any more dense. He attributed it almost entirely to more precise measuring — not to shoreline erosion or to rising sea levels caused by global warming.
After my call, the Planning Department promptly notified the editors of the Green Book just in time to meet the deadline for the 2008 edition. It's due to be published with the more accurate land area figure. And with the familiar green cover.
— May 22, 2008
A STREETLIGHT NAMED DESIRE
There are 330,000 streetlights in the naked city. This is the story of only one of them. But it vividly illuminates the frustration ordinary New Yorkers sometimes endure and the hurdles Mayor Bloomberg himself faces in improving the city's quality of life — and light.
The streetlight in this story is on the north side of East Ninety-sixth Street, between Madison and Park. If you can't get a streetlight fixed on the Upper East Side, then where can you?
Yet what began in January 2007 as Martin Daniels's routine complaint to 311, New York's call center for non-emergencies, became a misadventure in Alice in Wonderland bureaucracy. It's a turn of events that city officials are still at a loss to fully explain and it apparently ended only after Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum intervened.
Daniels is a sixty-six-year-old semiretired computer programming analyst. Most people might see a burned-out streetlight and look the other way. For Daniels, that would have been out of character. He is one of those confessed New York nudniks. Dozens of times a year, he telephones city officials about a smorgasbord of local irritants that are supposed to be fixed sooner rather than later and without the intercession of per sis tent citizens.
This time, with the streetlight broken after a few days, Daniels could no longer restrain himself. Meanwhile, his wife, a nurse, had to navigate the darkened Ninety-sixth Street corridor when her shift ended. Fed up, he finally telephoned 311.
Which prompts the proverbial question: How many months does it take to change a lightbulb?
In this case, the city admits to at least eight months. Con Ed and Daniels insist that the repairs took fully a year and a day.
Glitches combined to thwart Martin Daniels's attempts to be a good citizen. To begin with, the city's Streetlighting Maintenance Code Sheet lists nearly fifty potential defects. Mechanical complications were compounded by miscommunication. The city switched contractors.
But whether the repair on East Ninety-sixth Street took twelve months or only eight months may seem beside the point when the city says the average time to fix a defective streetlight has been reduced to just two days — down from nineteen days three years ago. Even if the repair is more complicated and requires Con Ed's intervention, the average last year was under thirteen days, compared to nearly eighty-four days in 2005.
That's assuming only one agency, the Transportation Department, is involved. In Bowling Green Park, in Lower Manhattan, a jurisdictional dispute appears to have delayed the repair of eight decorative light fixtures for four months.
Martin Daniels's charge of his one-man light brigade, as reported in the Times, resonated with scores of readers.
Some expressed surprise at how quickly their own complaints have been dealt with by the city — compared with, as one pointed out, the eighteen-month delay in pruning a tree in Bulgaria.
Still others were amazed that anything works at all. A Texan wrote, "Before writing a silly but populist story like this, you could have done a little math and figured out that most likely the problem is that there are too many lights, not enough days in the year and not enough people to work on all of them."
One reader described 311 as "a ploy of Orwellian dimensions," adding, "While pretending to be the all-empowering agency that enables us to speak directly to the city, it is in fact a foil that stands between us and the departments within our government with whom we need to communicate."
Readers also wondered why it's taking fully five years to renovate Frederick Douglass Circle, on the northwest corner of Central Park. Why, while some streetlights don't go on at night, do some seem never to go off during the day?
How many lightbulbs does it take to drive a lifelong New Yorker out of his Manhattan neighborhood?
After his wife retired, Martin Daniels decided to move south. In this case, about a half-mile south, just six blocks from the mayor's townhouse. It's a neighborhood where, he figures, public officials are more responsive to citizen complaint calls.
"I'm not going to give up calling," Daniels told me, "but the number of phone calls will be down."
— February 12, 2009
Fleet Week in New York: The city is teeming with men and women in spiffy uniforms, which means that romantics — gay or straight — who've been raised on old war movies can sidle up to any bar in Midtown and finally get their chance to say, "Buy this sailor a drink."
New York State is credited as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
And more military veterans live here than in any other metropolitan area in the country.
But the number of veterans in New York and the rest of the nation is dwindling.
And New York's rich military history has been largely forgotten.
Truth is, I was reminded of it myself only recently by my wife, who runs the nonprofit National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, which just started running a water tour called America's Frontline.
New York is where the first cannonball of the Revolutionary War smashed into the roof of Fraunces Tavern, which still stands in Lower Manhattan.
Where George Washington saved the Continental Army by evacuating it by boat from Brooklyn Heights.
Where the artillery of interlocking harbor forts kept the British from firing even a single shot in the War of 1812.
Where The Monitor was clad in iron during the Civil War.
Where the battleship Maine — remember the Maine? — was launched.
Where German saboteurs touched off the Black Tom explosion of munitions bound for Europe in World War I.
Where a German U-boat surfaced off Coney Island in World War II, but was thwarted from entering the harbor by submarine netting.
Where the battleships that began and ended the war in the Pacific — the Arizona and the Missouri — were built.
And where America was attacked in 2001.
On the military history tour, Lee Gruzen, a writer, recalls her evacuation from Lower Manhattan that morning on a small boat that ferried her to Jersey City.
She recalls, "I felt as if I were reliving a memory of other evacuations in the oddest, most primal way. I've lived on the water my whole life. My ancestors have all lived on the water. And one of my ancestors was with George Washington after the Battle of Brooklyn when the American forces were overrun. And thankfully, they were able to be transported by a whole collection of volunteer vessels to take them from Brooklyn to Manhattan, which, of course, made the whole American Revolution possible and successful."
9/11 inspired stirrings of patriotism and pangs of goodwill toward New York, but how many Americans remember that New Yorkers accounted for a third of Union casualties at Gettysburg and one sixth of the troops America sent overseas in World War 1?
As recently as 1980, the 660,000 civilian veterans in New York City accounted for 12 percent of the adult population. By 2000, the 470,000 remaining veterans made up less than 8 percent. Today the number has declined to fewer than 260,000, or only 4 percent.
Thousands of reservists and National Guard soldiers from the city — including 1,000 or so municipal employees — are on active duty overseas. About 2,500 relatively recent vets are attending City University under the G.I. Bill.
But fully half of the city's veterans are sixty-five and older.
As recently as last year, the city hosted sixteen parades to commemorate Memorial Day. The latest Fleet Week schedule for 2007 lists ten.
Andrew Carroll, who has edited anthologies of letters from veterans, recalls, "To many young people today, World War II is as much ancient history as the Civil War was to the generation who fought in the Second World War. But to the veterans who are now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, the memories are so raw and so vivid, the war still seems like yesterday."
Many, he says, "expressed to me a fear that war — and not any specific conflict, but warfare itself — was increasingly being romanticized in the popular culture, particularly with video games, movies, television shows, and fashion."
And it's not just about nostalgia, Carroll explained. "With the passing of every veteran," he said, "we lose one more voice to remind us of the harsh realities of warfare and the sacrifices demanded of those who serve, as well as of their loved ones on the home front."
— November 8, 2007
Excerpted from Only in New York by Sam Roberts. Copyright © 2009 Sam Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
SAM ROBERTS is the Urban Affairs Correspondent for The New York Times. He was formerly city editor for The New York Daily News. His reporting has won prizes, including awards from the Newspaper Guild of New York and the Peter Kihss Award for the City of New York. He's written three books, including Who We Are Now, and The Brother, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His magazine articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, New York Magazine, and Empire State Report. He lives— where else?—in New York City.
Sam Roberts is the Urban Affairs Correspondent for The New York Times. He was formerly city editor for The New York Daily News. His reporting has won prizes, including awards from the Newspaper Guild of New York and the Peter Kihss Award for the City of New York. His books include Who We Are Now and The Brother, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His magazine articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, New York Magazine, and Empire State Report. He lives--where else?--in New York City.
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