Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

November 25, 2012

There is a festival of doom in the Sunday New York Times today, with multiple articles on the threat to coastal cities in the USA posed by rising sea levels.  It includes a mournful, fatalistic essay by James Atlas, and a suite of interactive graphics that allow users to see just “what could disappear.”

This quote from one article pretty much sums up the message:

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

A few things to note here:

  • This paragraph assumes that the predictions based on models are all correct, and that the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) hypothesis is proven, “settled science.”  It’s not really that certain.  Or rather, the models themselves display tremendous uncertainty.
  • Also taken pretty much for granted is the fact that humans are not going to give their economy a thoroughgoing overhaul into the world of Green, so we might as well get ready!
  • Unmentioned is the fact that in many places, e.g. NYC, sea level has been rising steadily for centuries.  In NYC, it has been at a rate of about 1-foot per 100 years.
  • The word ‘could’  is used many times:  this paragraph is a worst-case scenario.

I had a professor of Ancient Art once who liked to say, “Civilizations come: Civilizations go…”  In archaeology, ‘civilization’ is synonymous with ‘city’.  Many cities have seen their harbors silt up, their water supplies disappear, their precincts inundated with lava or sea water.  It’s part of history.  Many other cities have survived for millenia by adjusting and changing.  When the writer says “It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase,”  he is displaying a lack of insight and imagination.  Yes, it would be hard to imagine how our cities could survive direct hits by meteorites either, but that’s not likely to happen.

I would suggest the following scenario as likely:  The climate will change, but most likely not in the drastic way some scientists predict.  Seas will continue to rise where they are rising now, and perhaps in other places as well, perhaps a bit faster, but slowly, over centuries.  Unlike Holland, where inundation brings national catastrophe approaching eradication, most places can adapt slowly, and they will adapt.  People will make decisions, slowly, haltingly, stupidly or with foresight, about when and where it is worth rebuilding.  Change happens even in NYC – most skyscrapers are not built for the ages. Lower floors can be abandoned or ‘repurposed.’  It all takes time, and we have time, plenty of it.  Things will change.  The only impossibility is keeping them just as they are now.

There is a bright side to all of this.  Think of the economic stimulus potential of a huge program to raise local airports and critical infrastructure above the flood level – the greatest ‘shovel-ready‘ public works program in history!


Another Landmark

November 20, 2012

Another downtown favorite, just around the block from the Corbin Building.  This is the Keuffel & Esser Building, built for the firm of K & E, maker of pens, drafting supplies, and slide-rules (Anyone ever use one of those?  Before my time!)  Now completely obscured by scaffolding, but soon to be revealed in all its glory. 

This is the NYC Landmarks Commission report.


Corbin Revived!

November 19, 2012

click for more info

I had noticed this building pre-9/11, and wondered about it. It was black with soot, but there was something of interest there.  It is The Corbin Building, by Francis Kimball, considered one of New York City’s first skyscrapers, although it is only eight stories high!  Now the exterior has been lovingly restored as part of the  rebuilding, and improvement, of the hideous Fulton Street subway stop. (Many a wretched hour I have spent at that stop, trekking futilely from hall, to stair, to platform, in search of the proper train.  So far, I have seen a vast improvement.)

The restored building will include the pyramidal towers seen in this old photo, which have been missing for decades.  The restoration brings to light the beautiful tones of the cleaned stone, which contrast with the ornate, Moorish terracotta designs, and the Victorian cast-iron relief of the bay windows.

It was pretty hard to get a view of this narrow building on a narrow street, clogged with traffic, pedestrians, and massive construction scaffolding works, but here’s what I managed.


Calatrava White Elephant?

June 27, 2012

I am a civil engineer, so I cannot help but be thrilled at the sight of the Calatrava PATH terminal taking shape (the elliptical foundation in the middle of the photo) beneath my window at World Trade Center site – it will be amazing!  And the memorial park itself is pretty nice too – I visited it for the first time last week.

Of course, the base of the Freedom Tower looks disturbingly like Godzilla’s foot stamping on Bambi, but no matter.  They’ll fancy it up…a bit.

In the end, as I gaze down at the massive construction site, with more people and money moving in and out of it than some entire countries no doubt, I wonder about that PATH building:  let’s forget the money-losing tower for now.  What is it for?  Penn Station handles more than seven times the number of passengers, and this terminal will do nothing to increase capacity.  It will simply look fantastic.  Is it worth $3.5 billion, and counting?  That would buy a lot of nitty-gritty upgrades for the cars and tracks that actually move people around the city.

I have to conclude that it’s a colossal waste of money, what used to be known in architectural circles as a ‘folly’.  All those bridge and train tolls gonna rise…$3.5 billion and counting.  We will pay for the megalomania of the PA NYNJ directors.  From the Wiki article:

A large transit station was not part of the 2003 Memory Foundations master plan for the site by Daniel Libeskind, which called for a smaller station along the lines of the original subterranean station that existed beneath the World Trade Center. Libeskind’s design called for the space to be left open, forming a “Wedge of Light” so that sun rays around the autumnal equinox would hit the World Trade Center footprints each September.

In early 2004, the Port Authority, which owns the land, modified the Libeskind plan to include a world-class transportation station downtown that was intended to rival Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

For a little perspective, consider that Grand Central, completed in 1913 for $80 million, $1.9 billion today, has 44 platforms, on two levels, and 67 tracks.  It was built with private money, and marked a tremendous advance in the design of complicated rail terminals, besides being a Beaux Arts monument.  The PATH terminal will have, uh…four tracks?

If I go back to using the PATH, I will go from Hoboken, left and center, to NYC, at the right, in the photos below.


State of the Police

March 15, 2012

News on the incredible case of Adrian Schoolcraft, who was thrown into a mental hospital for six days to try to cover up his documenting of NYPD abuses.  What with periodic shootings of young black men, subsequently found to be unarmed, and things like this, it’s hard to feel trusting towards New York’s Finest.

He’s not so crazy after all.

An NYPD report supports the claims made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, the Brooklyn cop who accused the NYPD of throwing him into a mental hospital because he complained supervisors were cooking the books to make the crime rate seem lower.

The 95-page report was completed in June 2010 but never released. Jon Norinsberg, Schoolcraft’s lawyer, called it “a very strong vindication” of Schoolcraft’s claims.

“It’s unfortunate that this has not been disclosed to the public,” Norinsberg said. “But it will all come out when this goes to trial.”


Occupy Wall Street

October 3, 2011

I work a block or two north of Zucotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street demonstration has been going on.  When I checked it last time, a couple of weeks ago, there was a young woman holding up a sign saying, “Blame Barney Frank!”  Hmm…better choose your targets more carefully, sister, is what I thought.  Today, the crowd, many of them encamped, was much larger, and the slogans were various.

A generally scruffy bunch – goes with sleeping outside in a park, I guess – some with pretty wacked out messages.  A wondering crank denouncing adultery was on his own.  More common were protesters against The Federal Reserve System, fiat money, central banking generally, and so on.  This group is heavily influenced by the intellectual wing of the anti-establishment wave, some of which sloshes in the Tea Party’s cups, and is libertarian, pro-silver, and a bit loony as far as I can tell.

Most of the people were simply angry at the usual and well documented offenses of “Wall Street.”  Oversize-bonuses for CEOs while people get evicted from homes; hand-outs, bailouts, guarantees, and golden parachutes for the financial élite while most people hunker down and suffer.  The capture of government and politics by the super-rich, and so on.  One sign that I liked a lot said, “Lay off CEOs, not teachers.”  Pretty good idea, pretty simple.

There was a man there making buttons with a T-shirt that said Un-Locke America, and had a picture of venerable John Locke with an international ‘NO’ sign on top of his face.  “A pretty smart guy, but a schmuck,” is how the man described the granddad of British Empiricism and the intellectual godfather of our American bourgeois revolution.  In particular, he took issue with Locke’s ideas of natural rights, and property rights being prior to all governmental arrangements.  That was all a convenient assumption for a 17th century philosopher to make, and so very congenial to his patrons and his class.


Cartels

September 3, 2011

These days, I have garbage and economic cartels on my mind.  And Wall Street, of course.

In New York, the Department of Sanitation picks up residential garbage, but commercial waste is disposed of by private carters.  In the 1950s, the Department still picked up commercial waste on residential streets, i.e. streets that mixed apartments and businesses, but they discontinued that policy which opened up a vast market for private carters.  The Mob saw a great opportunity and moved in with force.

Until the late 1990s, the Mob controlled the collection and disposal of commercial waste with a cartel that all businesses were required to join.  Refusal was not a viable option.  It was, as they said, “A beautiful thing.”  Recalcitrant trash haulers were intimidated, firebombed, or beaten to a pulp.  Members of the club charged businesses exorbitant rates:  three, four, five, ten times what the cost would be in a market with competitive bids.  If any business protested, mom and pop grocer or Fortune Five Hundred multi-national, the answer was the same:  “Pay up!  Who youse gonna call?”

If a carter got out of line and actually submitted a bid for service that was below the cartel price, the Mob came down hard.  If the carter actually won the job, taking the “stop” from a cartel member, howls of protest were heard:  “He stole my stop!”  Restitution would be paid, or the stop would be forfeited.  The heavies in the cartel would try to set the rebel straight.  Submitting low bids did nobody any good.  It only ‘educated’ the customer that the price structure was simple gouging.  “And when that happens, who wins?  The customer wins”  Can’t have that!  It was the American way.  As the gangsters liked to say, “Hey, it’s a free country!”

I learned all this from a book called Takedown:  The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.  It’s an in-depth recounting of a three-year NYC undercover operation that resulted in the complete destruction of the mob cartel.  It began by chance, when a detective interviewed an honest carter who just wouldn’t knuckle under:  some thugs walked in and asked who he was.  The carter, thinking fast, and knowing that being caught talking to a cop was a death sentence, said “That’s my cousin Danny.”  Thus was Rick Cowan, Irish NYC detective transformed into Danny Benedetto, member of a large Italian-American family that had been in the wastepaper business for generation.  He carried a wire and worked himself into the cartel for years, living a double life that I cannot imagine.  As Danny, he paid enormous amounts of extortion to the Mob, and got it all recorded.  The principals, among the Alphonse “Allie Shades” Malangone at the top, were convicted, fined, imprisoned, and debarred from the industry in perpetuity.

Reading this book, I reflected on the similarities between the mob cartel and the wall street cartel.  They both have beautiful things going.  Wall Street buys the politicians, makes the rules, comes up with derivatives that serve no purpose other than to generate massive fees, produces junk mortgages, and it’s all legal.  Transparency is anathema them all.  But what really got me, was a certain catch phrase.  When a cartel member was bumped from an account by an honest low bid, the cry was,  you have to make me whole! That is, pay me extortion to compensate me for loosing my good deal.  I thought I heard that during the Bear-Stearns debacle.

“In this room are people who have built this firm and lost a lot, our fortunes,” one Bear executive said to Mr. Dimon with anger in his voice. “What will you do to make us whole?”

After the takedown, prices for commercial waste collection in NYC fell by 40%, and in some cases much more.  The service vacuum left by the exit of the mob outfits was filled by big companies coming in, and they promptly began to raise their prices.  As a friend of mine who is an expert said on an NPR production about the topic a few years ago, prices are nearly back where they were under the cartel.  And the carter who started it all remarked, “The only difference between the Majors and the Boys is that the Majors won’t really kill you.”  Well…that’s a pretty big difference even so.

This is an excellent book to read if you want to know what the Mob is really like.


Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.


Triangle Shirtwaist

March 24, 2011

 

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.  In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below.  The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families.  The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.  

The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated.  There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations.  Such was sweatshop life in those days. 

This was my grandmother’s generation.  My father’s mother was one of five sisters.  The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places.  One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came - she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California.  Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty  years.  Such choices they faced!

Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.


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