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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Boroughing In

Last time was the easy part. I’d been wanting to write about New York City, and I focused on the core of the Big Apple — Manhattan Island, whose power, glamour, and jaw-dropping scale form our image of the city as a whole.

But there are four other boroughs, or administrative divisions, including one that was once every bit as powerful and prestigious as Manhattan. And except for following the New York Yankees baseball team in the Bronx or the New York Mets in Queens — or reliving the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers team that split for Los Angeles in 1958 — most Americans don’t give them much thought.

I’d wager that 7 out of 10 of us couldn’t even name the fifth borough, not mentioned above. Nor could they tell us much about it, even though close to half a million people live there. That puts this mystery borough ahead of entire big cities such as Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; and Miami, Florida, in population.

One hint: To a visitor it seems as if as many seagulls as people live in this place. More later.

In 1898, when Manhattan Island seemed full to capacity before cities knew how to grow up as well as outward, New York City planners simply annexed their neighbors and created five boroughs, instantly doubling the population and tripling the city’s size.

Not everyone submitted meekly. Brooklyn, a proud, independent city of 850,000 people, had been connected to Manhattan, but only via the world’s longest suspension bridge — its bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge — and residents were starkly divided over the referendum to create a Greater New York. Its business leaders favored the idea on the myopic assumption that Brooklyn, with its bustling shipyards, would dominate the giant new city.

After all, at that point Brooklyn was the nation’s fourth-largest city, behind only Philadelphia, Chicago, and the leaner New York. Even Emma Lazarus’s fabled poem, “The Colossus” — “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — chiseled on a tablet at the Statue of Liberty, speaks of “twin cities,” of which Brooklyn was one.

But to Brooklyn’s dismay, it was Manhattan where money and power would concentrate. Brooklyn receded into a mostly residential, and resentful, satellite of "The City."

Queens's westernmost villages, just past Brooklyn on Long Island, were already Manhattan’s vegetable garden. Foreseeing improved roads and city services, they agreed to annexation.

But the villages in the middle of the island declined the invitation to unite with the big brute of a city.  In 1899 they formed their own county, Nassau, and went their own way.  Ritzy Suffolk County, even farther east on the island, never had to deal with all this citifying.

North of Manhattan on the mainland, much of the Bronx had already been gobbled up by New York City.  When the remainder was asked whether it, too, wanted to join in the fun of building a super city, its residents said no. 

But the whole of the Bronx was annexed anyway.  Not sure how that got done.

The folks on Staten Island — aha! the mystery fifth borough is revealed — succumbed quietly to annexation.

Let’s take New York City's four add-on boroughs one by one:

Brooklyn is a far different place from congested Manhattan, for sure. But not an inferior one by any means. In a New Yorker magazine essay in July 1996, Kennedy Fraser wrote, “Roses smell sweeter in Brooklyn [and] even the birds sound innocent, like youths from the old neighborhood singing a cappella.” Brooklyn is New York’s most nostalgic borough, reminiscing to this day about “dem Bums.” They were the aforementioned Dodgers — named for the nimble “trolley dodger” baseball fans who wove their way past Flatbush streetcars to the stadium, Ebbets Field.

Flatbush is one of many colorfully titled Brooklyn neighborhoods. Gravesend, Bath Beach, and DUMBO — an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” — are others. How’d you like to live in DUMBO?

Like the other boroughs, Breuckelen was chartered in 1646 as a place for the Dutch to build country manor homes and vegetable farms. Ferry service to Manhattan was spotty until Robert Fulton demonstrated his new steamboat in 1807. Brooklyn’s own city center grew on high ground, surrounded by stately brownstone row houses and apartment buildings.

Brooklyn was inundated by immigrants, beginning with Irish and Germans in the 1830s. It was poor Irish — already speaking English with a brogue and trying to cope with American idioms mixed with remnants of Dutch — who first developed the much-mocked “Brooklyn accent.” Hollywood characters like the “Bowery Boys” shamelessly exaggerated it: “Youse meet me at Toity-toid and Toid Av’nue.”

So fiercely did Brooklyn trumpet its self-sufficiency, even after it lost its independence, that other New Yorkers grumbled about the bristling “Brooklyn attitude.” For decades, its docks and marine terminals were more than a match for Manhattan’s. The historic U.S. Civil War ironclad warship Monitor had been built and launched there in 1862. And if not a landmark, Floyd Bennett Field, the modest airfield that juts out into Jamaica Bay, should be on any trivia-lover’s tour. It was there in 1938 that Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan took off on a westward flight for California and ended up, 28 days later, in Ireland.

Brooklyn has its own spectacular, 213-hectare (526-acre) green space, Prospect Park, designed by the same men who created Manhattan’s treasured Central Park. Revered as the “City of Churches,” Brooklyn offers a full day’s tour of impressive houses of worship.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is the oldest continuously active performing-arts center in the nation.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has an unusual, if not unique, Garden of Fragrance especially for the visually impaired. And an abandoned subway station in Brooklyn was chosen as the city’s transit museum.

I’ve spent many days in Brooklyn — vicariously — at Coney Island. Along with Atlantic City in New Jersey, Coney Island (actually a peninsula) provided the setting for hundreds of idyllic picture postcards in the early 20th Century, when family fun at the shore was considered exotic.

People wrote “Wish you were here” to their loved ones and friends from the Luna Park amusement rides, Surf Avenue game arcade, and Dreamland Tower and lagoon at Coney Island.

And despite the common tale that the Statue of Liberty was the first sight beheld by New York-bound immigrants to the New World, it was actually a huge elephant. Not a real one or a big model. The Elephant Hotel (and brothel) at Coney Island was built in the shape of a pachyderm.

The Bronx got its unusual name from the area’s first settler, Danish immigrant Jonas Bronck, or more particularly, the Broncks’ family farm. With the building of King’s Bridge over the Harlem River around 1700, the Bronx became New York’s mainland connection. Farm-fresh Bronx produce soon found its way onto Manhattan Island, as did fresh water, piped in from clear springs. Until the 20th Century, the Bronx remained a land of farms, manor homes, and modest factories — including a giant snuff mill.

The Bronx was one of the first parts of New York to succumb to rampant subdivision and apartment construction that would lead to an oversaturation of low-income housing. The sad cycle of decay and abandonment followed, and wealthy landowners sold off their Bronx estates in favor of places in the “real” country, farther from the city in Westchester County.

Years later in the 1970s, when the people who took their place themselves moved farther out, to Westchester or the New Jersey suburbs, whole Bronx neighborhoods were left to the predations of vandals and drug dealers. Even the Bronx’s big courthouse was moved to safer ground, as was the original borough hall. New York University moved out of its Bronx campus entirely.

But the mighty New York Yankees’ baseball team — the “Bronx Bombers” — remained and triumphed. They have played in the “world” championship series 40 times since 1927, winning 27 titles, including last season’s.

Borrowing Jerome Kern’s song lyrics from “New York, New York” that “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” the Bronx is “up” again, and not just geographically. Much of the blight is gone, and new city and private colleges have created a steady employment base. The Grand Concourse, a string of 1930s Art Deco residential buildings, has been renovated. And two New York cultural fixtures — the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden — are thriving.

In Queens, the largest and most residential borough with more than 175,000 single-family homes, neighborhood pride has lingered through decades of rapid urbanization. Places like Flushing, Floral Park, and Long Island City have clung to their separate identities.

Flushing, by the way, did not get its name from some Duke of Flushing or a primitive commode. It’s a rough English translation of the Dutch word for “flowing waters,” presumably from a pretty Long Island stream.

One of the most fascinating Queens neighborhoods is Steinway — once a company town built by German immigrant Wilhelm Steinweg, who Americanized his name after his brilliance at building pianos was affirmed. Some of Steinway’s row houses are still in use, and the company continues to craft pianos at a factory in another part of Queens.

Many Queens neighborhoods are 20th-Century creations, their modest homes built to satisfy the demands of returning veterans of world wars I and II. Even after the last farmers departed for Nassau and Suffolk counties, farther out Long Island, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation retained a 19-hectare (47-acre) vegetable farm. Its barnyard and fields are open to visitors, including amazed inner-city schoolchildren.

Queens’s population explosion was stoked by two worlds’ fairs held in Corona Park in Flushing Meadows in 1939-40 and 1964-65. The first was organized around the Trylon, a huge conical column, and the Perisphere, a giant globe. The star attractions in 1939, though, were the first public demonstrations of television in the fair’s “World of Tomorrow.”

The centerpiece of the ’64 fair was the “Unisphere,” a 43-meter-high structure that represented “Peace Through Understanding.” It still stands, as does a wave-shaped pavilion that today houses the New York Hall of Science, a hands-on science and technology museum.

A truly remarkable remnant of the 1964-65 fair is the Panorama of the City of New York, the world’s largest architectural model, which fills a spacious room at the Queens Museum of Art. It depicts — now ponder this for a moment — 895,000 individual miniature structures at the scale of one inch to one hundred feet (about 2.5 centimeters to 30 meters). Not just familiar bridges and skyscrapers, but also smaller office and apartment buildings and even houses in their exact locations in all five boroughs.

Not really Queens tourist attractions, but receiving plenty of visitors each year, are New York City’s two airports — John F. Kennedy International and the much older La Guardia. I’m not counting the mammoth, newer Newark International Airport over in “Jersey.” LaGuardia dates to 1939. “JFK,” which opened gradually to minimal air traffic in the 1940s, is noted for its futuristic terminals, including the Trans World Airlines hub, designed by Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American who also designed the towering Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; and “Black Rock,” the headquarters building of CBS TV and radio in downtown Manhattan.

Nowhere in New York City has the impact of a new tunnel, bridge, or expressway been as dramatic as in Staten Island. Through most of its history, hilly Staten Island, a mere 22 kilometers long and 13 kilometers wide, had been almost an afterthought. It was 37 years after the Dutch settled New Netherland — before they got a foothold on Staaten Eylandt in 1661 following repeated bloody battles with indigenous Lenape Indians.

The English who soon supplanted them called the place “Richmond” after a duke of the time. The name was changed back to Staten Island in 1976 because, or so the story goes, Borough President Bob Connon got tired of hearing the other borough presidents ask him, “How are things down South” — a not-especially-clever reference to Richmond, Virginia.

Well into the 20th Century, Staten Island residents were islanders in temperament as well as fact, savoring their serenity at night and on weekends after ferry rides to and from work in Manhattn. They may have been tied to New York City officially and financially, but the only bridge led to New Jersey. There was plenty of open space around Staten Island’s 62 separate villages and seashore communities. Life was pleasant, safe, relatively undisturbed.

Then, in 1964, the city completed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, named for an Italian explorer who first sailed into New York Bay in 1524. The bridge connected the island to Brooklyn on Long Island, changing Staten Island forever. In the classic pattern of moving out and up, tens of thousands of Brooklynites (and others) moved in, seeking a piece of tranquilty. Over the next 20 years, the island’s population doubled, and resort-like Staten Island was soon awash in strip shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. Its winding roads were overwhelmed by traffic.

Remember those seagulls that I mentioned way up top? They became a Staten Island institution beginning in 1948, when the city first dumped its household refuse into a landfill in the island’s Fresh Kills wetlands. Its promise, and everyone’s expectation, was that the dumping would be short-term and the garbage pile limited in size. But 50 years later, the scows were still docking, the trucks were still rumbling, and the stench was still rising. The garbage mound grew taller than the Statue of Liberty and could be seen from space with the naked eye.

But the city has begun converting the big dump into a public park and wildlife sanctuary, Freshkills Park — destined to be three times the size of Central Park.

In every New York City borough, change has brought stresses and challenges. South Asian, Vietnamese, African-American, and Russian neighborhoods have sprung up where Greeks, Italians, European and Syrian Jews, and Anglo-Saxons once carved out enclaves. “We’re a social laboratory,” one Bronx resident told American Way magazine. Old-time New Yorkers worry still about immigrants taking away jobs, eating away at the tax base, abusing welfare. But by now they’re pretty much used to strange foods from multiple cultures, and sidewalks that are a babel of confusion.

For all the complaining, the brashness, the cynicism and gruffness, hard-driving, self-absorbed New York eventually accepted them all.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!) 

Babel. A gathering or scene of noise or confusion. The name comes from the biblical Tower of Babel, which was built with the idea of reaching heaven. God foiled this plan by garbling the builders’ language so that they could not understand each other.

Myopic. Nearsighted, and often shortsighted, too. One who has a myopic view of things focuses only on what’s in front of him and does not consider the bigger picture.

Not just an elephant, but one of several kinds of large, hoofed animals that include rhinoceroses and hippopotami.

A flat-bottomed boat or barge used to haul garbage or bulk freight.

A kind of smokeless tobacco made from ground tobacco leaves. It is “snuffed,” or snorted, through the nose.

Indirect or second-hand. One can enjoy an exciting sports event vicariously on television or through a friend’s description, for instance, rather than in person.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ginormous Apple

As the rocker Alice Cooper once put it, I’ve been “Big Apple dreamin’.” For me and anyone else who’s beguiled by New York City’s grandeur and charms, only a few months — a couple of years at most — can pass before the itch to visit again needs scratching.

You, too, may have put big, brash New York on your list of dream destinations. So I thought I’d tell you about the place in two blogs: Today, Manhattan, the little island that you’d think would sink from the sheer weight of its skyscrapers. Next time, the city’s four other boroughs, or administrative divisions, where 78 percent of its 8.3 million people live.

New York City wanted badly to be the capital of the new United States, and it was just that for five years beginning in January 1785. Four years later, George Washington took his oath of office as the nation’s new president on the balcony of the old city hall that had been reworked to house the federal government. But when Congress decided to create the entirely new city of Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital in 1790, then moved operations to Philadelphia while Washington was made ready, Manhattan Island set about becoming the capital of the world instead.

In order to rival London and Paris and other great cities, New York eventually gobbled up Brooklyn, all of Staten Island, much of Queens County on Long Island, and a foothold on the mainland in a place called “the Bronx.” The annexation was completed in 1898 as part of a “Greater New York” initiative in which citizens of those pastoral boroughs were assured that they’d getter better streets, city services, and clout in the state capital of Albany by helping to form the nation’s first mega-city.

What instantly became the planet’s second-largest city (behind London) of 3.4 million people soon took on the world in manufacturing, finance, communications, and the arts. The other boroughs kicked in shipyards, factories, and the like. But most folks elsewhere, and some New Yorkers themselves, came to think of little Manhattan Island, just 20 kilometers long and 4 kilometers across at its widest point, as New York City.

No one can say with certainty where the name “Manhattan” came from. The branch of Algonquin Indians from whom the Dutch West India Company bought the forested island in 1626 for 60 guilders’ worth of baubles — about $1,000 at today’s value — had a word for “island of the hills” that sounded to the Dutch like “Manhattan.”

Or perhaps the name stuck after an unknown Englishman sailed up the Hudson River in 1607 and left behind a map that labeled the island “Manhattan.” He may have met those same Indians.

Almost a century after Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing in French employ, discovered but did not explore New York Bay , Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the service of Dutch merchants, started off from Amsterdam to find a shortcut to the Orient in 1609. His ship, the Half Moon, sailed around the top of Norway and into the Arctic Ocean. But conditions proved so miserable that Hudson reversed course and headed west instead.

Six months out, he was zipping along America’s east coast when he came upon the bay leading to what is now the Hudson River. Proceeding up it, he met and traded with various Indian tribes. When he reached home in Holland, his patrons were intrigued. Perhaps there were riches and a niche for the Dutch in this land to the south of French Canada and north of English Virginia. One thing led to another, as one says while skipping over a lot of history, and a new mercantile consortium called the Dutch West India Company was founding and colonizing “New Netherland,” beginning with the settlement of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of this intriguing New World island.

By 1630, New Amsterdam was a prosperous, cosmopolitan town — too cosmopolitan to suit New Netherland’s new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who was aghast to find its 1,000 or so residents speaking 18 languages. He expelled many of the non-Dutch speakers and made life miserable for the rest. But he came to regret it when English colonel Richard Nicholls, alerted to the plight of English settlers, showed up in 1644 and demanded that Stuyvesant surrender the entire New Netherland colony, which, on maps at least, had spread to all of what is now parts of four states.

Since most of the Dutch were farmers, not fighters, the peg-legged Stuyvesant could only sputter and acquiesce without firing a shot. Nicholls immediately raised the Union Jack and changed the colony’s name to “New York,” after the Duke of York, who had sent him.

The Dutch influence would linger, however, notably when novelist Washington Irving’s fictitious narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, detailed a history of the colony. “Knickerbocker,” originally a derisive term for the first Dutch settlers — mocking their baggy knicker pants — came to mean any New Yorker.

Come to think of it, the players on the New York Knickerbockers basketball team wear longish, puffy pants to this day.

Irving also borrowed the term “Gotham” from an obscure Dutch story and applied it to teeming Manhattan in a series of sarcastic essays. A couple of centuries later, Gotham would be home to two of history’s most daring comic-book heroes: Batman and Superman.

Little did Colonel Nicholls know what a strategic place the English had acquired on Manhattan Island. Only later, when exploration moved inland, did they realize that both the burgeoning nation’s heartland and Europe could be reached more easily from there than from any other New World port.

With trade came banks, insurance companies, investment houses, wharves, factories and — eventually — skyscrapers that became the symbol of braggadocious American capitalism.

And all this commerce required a lot of people. Millions of them. And they needed places to live. In two years alone — 1847, when a terrible potato famine struck Ireland; and 1848, when revolutions resounded across Europe — the call for laborers was answered with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By the time Frédéric Bartholdi’s 225-ton Statue of Liberty rose to welcome other “huddled masses” in New York Harbor in 1866, Lower Manhattan was a crowded industrial and tenement district. And an even greater surge of humanity would soon follow as millions of Italians and Russian Jews debarked at the Ellis Island immigration station. New York was not the Big Apple then but what I liken to a Big Onion, with distinct societal layers and simmering ethnic tension.

Beginning in 1811, city commissioners laid out the mostly empty Upper Manhattan in a logical grid of long north-south avenues and orderly east-west cross streets. As a result, to this day people who can hardly find their way around middlin’ cities elsewhere navigate teeming New York with ease. Multi-unit “walk-up” buildings rose along these arteries. Their apartments were eagerly rented by young couples, large immigrant families, and single “bohemians” such as Calvert Vaux, who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, had just laid out Central Park.

Fancier-schmancier apartment buildings soon followed on Fifth Avenue, the city’s most fashionable boulevard, where promenading in the “Easter Parade” was a highlight of the social calendar. Buildings like the 1884 Dakota on 72nd Street were veritable palaces with great iron gates, grand courtyards, hydraulic elevators, and staffs of managers and servants. The Dakota — destined for infamy decades later as the home of Beatle John Lennon when he was shot and killed by a deranged fan — took its name from the very remoteness of its setting on what at the time seemed like the eastern equivalent of the vast Great Plains.

When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, its torch, reaching 46 meters (151 feet) into the sky, was taller than any structure on Manhattan, save for the 83-meter-high western tower of the new Brooklyn Bridge. But a year later, the face of the island changed forever when architect Bradford Gilbert erected the city’s first steel-skeleton skyscraper, the 13-story Tower Building on Broadway, on a plot that was barely six meters wide.

Within 20 years, no church steeples, no factory buildings, and almost no tenement apartments could be seen in a panoramic view of the city shot from Brooklyn. They were all obscured by soaring office buildings.

As Manhattan became, in writer Robert Alden’s words, “the cockpit of commercial interchange,” one after another corporate tower became the world’s tallest structure. Eventually the city housing commission had to pass “setback laws” that forced developers to move their skyscrapers back from the street in order to preserve a modicum of light, air circulation, and human scale.

Who among the Americans who rode a bus or train through a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan for the first time and alighted to behold these canyons of steel will ever forget craning their necks till they hurt, looking upward in awe.

I was one of the first-time gawkers at the great Empire State and Woolworth buildings after the bus that brought us from Ohio on our senior-class trip unloaded one day in 1960.

A triumph of Manhattan architecture and prestige, completed in 1953, was the world’s diplomatic headquarters, the United Nations. John D. Rockefeller [7]personally donated $8.5 million to acquire the site, which replaced six blocks of slaughterhouses along the East River.

Nine years later the city modified its setback law to permit extra floors high above the skyline, provided the owners would add “public plazas” at street level. This, and the growing fascination with glass as a façade element, led to still more cloud-tickling buildings, many of them undistinguished vertical boxes of glass and steel.

In the early 1970s, the skyline was pierced by the latest “world’s tallest” structure, the Port of New York Authority’s twin, 110-story World Trade Center Towers. Their 929,000 square meters (10 million square feet) of office space were seven times that of the Empire State Building.

The 1972 book, The Mid-Atlantic States of America, quotes Anthony Lewis, then the London bureau chief of the New York Times, as remarking when he first beheld the World Trade Center, “It was a sight that cried out: money! power! technology!” The Twin Towers so symbolized capitalism that, as Americans will long remember, they twice became the target of international terrorism: A truck-bomb exploded in a basement garage in 1993, killing 6 people and injuring more than 1,000. And in a double murder-suicide mission, Islamic terrorists piloted hijacked passenger jets straight into the towers on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Much of the world watched the Twin Towers crumple into a pyre of steel, glass, and concrete in which 2,752 workers, rescuers, and bystanders perished. You may or may not know that a 550-meter (1,776-foot)-tall memorial, Freedom Tower, is beginning to rise where the Twin Towers stood.

Well before our new century, Manhattan had reached the crest of the nation’s economic mountain, and its cultural pinnacle as well. Stage actors can be favorably reviewed and well paid, but they are not stars until they make it on Broadway’s “Great White Way” in the only city with the population, refined tastes, and money to support more than 30 Broadway theaters, Off-Broadway testing grounds, and Off-Off-Broadway amateur (often experimental) houses.

Even New York’s subway is often copied. The subway’s ingenious system of local and “skip-stop” express trains, running past the same stations on parallel tracks, has been emulated in many cities. The packed, lurching trains carried waves of ethnic succession up the island and into other boroughs. Hell’s Kitchen, long a West Side Irish settlement, for instance, is now primarily Hispanic; and “Little Italy” keeps shrinking as Chinatown expands.

Harlem, up toward the top of the island, was settled by Dutch farmers and took its name from the industrial city of Haarlem in Holland. But Harlem, New York, eventually became the intellectual, cultural, and symbolic capital of Black America.

Manhattanites take pride — and respites — in the 341-hectare (843-acre) Central Park, one of the most important landscaped green spaces ever created. During the 1850s, the city had gradually bought up a tract of swampland that one report called a “pestilential spot where rank vegetation and miasmic odors taint every breath of air.” Over a 20-year period, architect Vaux and landscape architect Olmsted transformed the enormous bog into a playland of lawns, gardens, rock outcroppings, skating rinks, castles — even a zoo.

Along the “Museum Mile” on Fifth Avenue, the city boasts a profusion of Upper East Side cultural institutions anchored by “the Met” — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Western Hemisphere’s largest art museum. The building is owned and maintained by the city, but its artwork is paid for by endowments, membership fees, and admission revenue.

Even the grand New York Public Library, the 1911 flagship of a system of 82 branches, has become a tourist attraction. People come not just to peruse its 125 million books, but also to gape at its architecture, artwork, and main reading room, which is as long as a football field.

Above all — just ask a New Yorker — Manhattan is a collection of eclectic neighborhoods. You may have heard of Greenwich Village, long a bohemian enclave and the cradle of folk music; SoHo and the TriBeCa triangle, where grungy tenements have been turned into cozy loft apartments and art galleries; apartment clusters that ooze wealth on the Upper East Side; and Times Square, which is actually triangular. Sometimes called “the Crossroads of the World,” it’s home to pulsating billboards and the famous flagpole down which a 91-kilo (200-pound) lighted ball slides just before midnight each December 31st as throngs below count down the seconds to a new year.

Except for a few sanctums of relaxation like Central Park or the coffeehouses where you might bump into our VOA New York Bureau buddy Adam Phillips, Manhattan is an urban dervish in perpetual motion, always on some sort of deadline. New Yorkers do not exaggerate when they say Manhattan never sleeps, as anyone who has peered out a hotel window there at three in the morning can attest.

I’ll vouch for it; more than once, honking taxicabs kept me awake in a tiny Manhattan hotel room whose beds were, I swear, as hard and narrow as ironing boards.

New Yorkers don’t even notice the din. They walk faster, talk faster and — in order to survive in the toughest town in the land — often think faster than everyone else. There’s never a lack of something to do or see on this island of 1.5 million residents, a million more workers, and a half-million weekly visitors. Manhattan, purchased for those 60 guilders’ worth of trinkets four centuries ago, is today a world capital of finance, culture, diplomacy, communications, and sheer excitement, if you’re up to it.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Acquiesce. To give in, concede to another’s point of view.

Braggadocious. Describing the behavior of one who boasts or shows off to excess.

Ginormous. A modern, made-up word melding “giant” and “enormous” into something really, really big.

Miasmic. More properly “miasmal,” a description of a noxious atmosphere, say near a foul-smelling bog or open sewer.

Modicum. A moderate or token amount, as in “a modicum of truth.”

Sanctum. A sanctuary or place of quiet privacy.

Monday, June 14, 2010


While daring dashes into the unknown can be exhilarating, humans by and large prefer comfortable routines. Especially as we age, sharp course alterations threaten, scare, even debilitate us.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli 500 years or so ago. The Florentine diplomat was, himself, a provocateur and change agent who approved of using any and all means, including cunning and deceit, to shake things up and get one’s way.

And dealing with change hasn’t gotten any easier.

“We would rather be ruined than changed,” wrote the Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden.

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” rued U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who couldn’t get his own country’s Senate to approve his League of Nations idea.

Leo Tolstoy, the Soviet author of War and Peace, understood. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” he noted.

Far from the world stage, entrenched in ordinary jobs and lifestyles, most of us particularly resent and resist change when someone else thought of it and is forcing us to go along.

For millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the current economic downturn — or have had to learn strange new skills to keep them — change has rattled their world, assaulted their peace of mind, depressed and angered them.

My own profession has been tormented by change.

You may recall my blogs about the once-smug, now-agonized newspaper industry, whose readers and advertisers have fled to newer, more portable media in such numbers that a lot of trusted old papers have simply given up, stopped the presses, and shut their doors.

Traditional broadcasters have fared only slightly better. There are so many options available on cable, over the airways, even out of the sky via satellite that broadcasting stations and networks are struggling for audience share and revenues. They’re not goners yet, but they’re looking awfully gaunt.

As Jill K. Willis wrote two years ago in South Carolina Business magazine, the old idea of “appointment journalism” — in which you could count on your audience to pick up your newspaper and read it each morning, turn on your radio station on the way to and from work each rush hour, and catch your TV newscast each evening — is not just dying. Willis says it’s dead.

“People are receiving news all day via the Internet, radio, i-Pods, cell phones, and other mobile devices,” Willis wrote. “So now, seasoned journalists in newsrooms all over the world are scrambling to adapt to high-tech information dissemination.”

For this old paperboy, newspaperman and radio news manager, this is painful. I’m the king of appointment journalism, beginning with that stoop to pick up the newspaper on the lawn each morning.

But unlike the dread of today’s newspapermen and women, my own comfort level, and that of most of my Voice of America colleagues, hadn’t been dangerously rattled. After all, VOA funding — and our jobs — don’t directly depend on snaring high audience ratings or scooping up advertiser dollars. While many of us have stuck our toes into the Web world because it’s fun — witness this blog (are you having fun yet?) — we remain snugly rooted in traditional newsgathering, writing and rewriting, and broadcast programming.

We were, that is, until 15 of us were whisked off to Jill Willis’s stomping grounds in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia — and not just for the mustard-based barbecue.

We already knew that change is in the wind. Rumored for three years, a “re-org” — a reorganization of our central news and information division — is finally at hand, perhaps while you’re reading this blog.

In South Carolina, we learned that this will require “convergence,” an updated way of thinking and plying our craft that, at first, sounded kind of ominous.

For sure, it will mean change — in thinking, newsgathering, job descriptions, perhaps even the seating chart. And change brings angst as well as opportunity.

You may wonder what our “re-org” has to do with you. How will our nips and tucks and flourishes better serve your needs?

That’s just it. We’re not entirely sure that we have been serving them as fully as possible while you change your information habits with breakneck speed.

You are reading and writing blogs, browsing for information on all sorts of devices, and sticking around only briefly once you find it. Forget about “brand loyalty.” If we can’t give you what you want when you want it, and tell you really interesting stories when you’re there, you’re history.

Enter “convergence.”

As I began to explain, 15 of us managers and working stiffs — hard-news and feature types, young and (shall I say) “seasoned” — spent a week at Newsplex at the University of South Carolina.

Newsplex was founded eight years ago by two international news organizations whose owners realized, even then, that you were deserting traditional media for new “delivery platforms” such as the Web and mobile phones that better met your needs.

To reach you, they needed to bring together — converge — all sorts of human and technical resources and “skill sets.”

For our part in the here and now, this suggests something that that our executive editor calls “story-based” journalism.

That doesn’t sound so radical. Journalists have covered stories since Daniel Defoe tramped all over England in the 17th Century, gathering material for his pamphlets. (The author of Robinson Crusoe, about a shipwrecked sailor, he was a pretty good fiction writer, too.)

But focusing on stories across several media that click with you, pique your interest, leave you wanting more — not just in our accounts of breaking news but also in VOA analyses, blogs, videos, slide shows, and audio essays — is rather revolutionary in a newsroom that reveres tradition and has a long one.

The VOA News “re-org” is almost certain to include a whole new kind of editing position. Randy Covington, our Newsplex training impresario, calls it “story conductor.”

I can picture the baton flashing and long hair flying.

As things stand, an array of editors weighs in on the newsgathering and storytelling processes. We have, as my mother might have put it, more editors than we can shake a stick at: assignment editors, duty editors, copy editors, managing editors, Web editors. Once stories are planned, they figuratively bounce along conveyor belts, where their assembly is directed, words burnished and paragraphs tightened, defective parts pulled out and replaced, ribbons such as headlines and lovely images put on them, and the final product inspected and sent off on a journey around the world.

In the convergence model, the “conductor” and the reporter (I’ve got dibs on one of the bassoonists’ chairs) will carry the story from concept to coverage to creation. Together, we will — to use another of our executive editor’s terms — own the story. Devise it. Care about it. Give it life and special meaning. Prepare and deliver it using several of the “orchestra’s” written, visual and audio instruments.

The product will be, we hope, full and robust and memorable.

You’ll still see VOA reporters, microphones, and cameras at big, breaking news events, world hot spots, and places where U.S. policy is determined and debated. And people like me will still be poking about in interesting places across America.

But our story conductors (I still see the swirling hair) will also be guiding unique VOA stories that you can access in many places. I can’t get used to calling them “platforms.”

VOA’s reporters, videographers, producers, bloggers (ahem!), Web writers, graphic designers, and other journalists will all be challenged to deliver stories so compelling that you’ll want to check in with us again and again and again.

It rattles me a bit to say this, but the truth is that while our “conductors” and we make beautiful stories together, we’ll have a younger audience in mind.

Don’t fret if a gray hair or two has popped into your head; we won’t suddenly turn cool and cryptic and frivilous. But we want your kids and even your grandchildren as young as teenagers to check us out, and to participate in our information products through comments, social media, polls and the like.

It’s a cliché but true: younger information consumers are our future. To be relevant, we need to get with it, and with you.

Even before the 15 of us who “converged” in Columbia fiddled with newsroom diagrams and flow charts, we identified likely obstacles to change. It wasn’t hard. You’d hear the same grumbling in the face of change everywhere:

“What if my position is threatened or, gulp, eliminated?”

“It took me years to get comfortable. I don’t want to work much harder. And I certainly don’t want to fool with all that fancy technology.”

“This re-org will never work. Prima donnas won’t stand for it, and deadbeats will drag it down.”

“New media? Story conductors? That’s not journalism. What about our reputation?”

I should point out that at least half of the “Columbia 15” — many more than 7½ people, actually, especially the youngest among us — immediately and eagerly embraced the concept of a story-based, audience-friendly news operation.

They’re already working across many media, seizing every bit of training, and bringing technology to bear at every turn.

And not a one of us thought VOA’s standards, stellar reputation, or commitment to fairness and accuracy would suffer from a tune-up. As Aristotle once said, “Change is in all things sweet.”

I’m no pioneer in these matters. I’m settled, happy. I avoid most change when I can.

Aristotle doesn’t resonate with me as much as Benjamin Franklin does. The great diplomat, scientist, printer, and satirist nailed it, I think, in the nascent days of our republic.

“When you’re finished changing,” he wrote, “you’re finished.”

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Deadbeat. Technically the term refers to those who don’t pay their debts. But more broadly, it refers to lazy sorts — loafers and slackers who have an aversion to hard work.

Gaunt. Emaciated, bony-looking, often with sunken eyes.

Nascent. Beginning or emerging, as in the “nascent days of the empire.”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Emancipation Day

What would you call May 8th if you wanted to make it a holiday? Mayth? Would September 1st be Septemberst?

No such holidays exist. But there is a similar one — in June, on the 19th. It’s a day of great significance to all Americans and African Americans in particular.

It’s called “Juneteenth,” and a lot Americans, blacks included, have never heard of it.

June 19th is sometimes called “Emancipation Day” or “African-American Independence Day.” Here’s how it came about:

In 1863, two years into the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in the rebellious southern Confederacy free.

Lincoln’s proclamation was mostly a symbolic gesture, designed to unsettle the enemy and instill hope in the oppressed. It had little practical effect, since the Union was not yet in a position to enforce it. Slavery had to be wrenched from wealthy white southerners at the point of a bayonet. Months after the rebel army surrendered in April 1865, defiant slaveowners continued to hold human chattel in Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states.

In June of that year Union general Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, the island city that was then the most prosperous place in Texas. Much of the populace there — slaves in particular — had no idea that the U.S. Civil War had ended 2½ months earlier or that the era of slavery was over.

There was much speculation as to why Granger took his sweet time getting to Texas. Galveston Island was, admittedly, a “haul” from New Orleans, the nearest big southern city in Union hands. But conspiracy theorists speculate that Granger and his men wanted to give plantation owners time to harvest one last cotton crop before halting their inhumane enterprises.

Granger’s order freeing America’s last known slaves and read in Galveston’s town square on June 19th, 1865, took note of fears that freed slaves who had relied upon their overseers for sustenance would be set loose on towns and military camps:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

Up in Washington, the U.S. Congress was of a mind to punish the defeated South and codify the rights of freed slaves. It quickly passed the 14th Amendment to the national constitution, granting slaves — who had been little more than property under the law — full citizenship and all the benefits that came with it.

When most southern states refused to ratify the amendment, Congress declared martial law, dividing the region into five military districts and dispatching troops to enforce what was called the “reconstruction” of the South.

In 1870, five years after the war’s end during the term of President Ulysses S. Grant — the former supreme commander of the Union Army that had swept to victory in the South — Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens full voting rights as well.

But Reconstruction could not, and did not, last. Although blacks temporarily rose to power in many of the places where they had recently been enslaved, whites scorned them at every turn and maneuvered for a quick return to power.

President Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, gained office in 1877 after an election that he actually lost. U.S. presidents are chosen, not in the popular vote, but by a few electors selected by the winning political party in each state. Deals can be made, and Hayes made one. He got the presidency after agreeing to pull federal troops from the South.

The soldiers’ departure brought a quick end to any illusions that blacks would share power. Reigns of terror and repressive state laws ushered in almost a century of systematic racial segregation.

Nevertheless, blacks throughout the South came together whenever they could on June 19th for home-cooked meals, prayer, fervent singing, Juneteenth stories, and re-enactments of General Granger’s proclamation.

According to the Web site, which describes efforts by American expatriates to spread the celebration around the globe, “Dress was an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously. . . . During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the [Juneteenth] emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters.’”

At Juneteenth’s height in 1930, 75 years after General Granger’s proclamation, an estimated 200,000 people attended an Emancipation Day celebration at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. But slowly — especially following the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s — the informal holiday lost its luster as blacks began to feel more a part of the American mainstream. They switched to much more lavish American Independence Day festivities on July fourth.

Juneteenth slid nearly out of sight and mind, and even history textbooks failed to give June 19th any special meaning. This disappointed acclaimed concert pianist and composer Robert Pritchard of the historically black Lincoln University in Philadelphia. He had led the push to expand “Negro History Week,” begun in the 1920s, into a full Black History Month.

“The rights and freedoms of the Declaration of Independence referred to Euro-Americans only, because my ancestors were slaves,” Pritchard said. “But by 19 June, 1865, every word — every one of the high principles —really became apropos to Americans of all colors, creeds, cultures, and countries of origin.”

Texas blacks — and many whites and Latinos, too — however, did not lose sight of Juneteenth. In 1980, the state enacted a bill to create an official June 19th state holiday — the first in the nation — devoted to African-American culture. (There was some justice and balance in this as Texas also marks Confederate Heroes’ Day on January 19th. Not too many Confederate heroes were African Americans.)

State Representative Al Edwards of Houston sponsored the legislation that set aside Juneteenth as something more than a ceremonial holiday like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. All state employees — save for a skeleton crew of people to keep the offices open — get the day off.

On many a Juneteenth, Edwards told me, his father and other parents on his block slow-cooked beef barbecue in pits dug in the earth. There were baseball games and church services. People drank Polly’s soda pop, a sweet red drink with a lemonade base.

In 2005, a small Juneteenth statue depicting a black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation was erected outside Galveston’s Ashton Villa house museum, and there are plans to mount a larger version on the capitol grounds in Austin.

Not everyone is thrilled, however, that the person depicted in the sculpture is none other than Al Edwards.

Over time, about half of the other 49 U.S. states declared their own Juneteenth holidays. And for years, the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., a Mississippi ordained minister and family-health physician, has led a campaign, thus far unsuccessfully, to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

I remember coming across a plaque outside a building in Baltimore, Maryland. “Juneteenth National Museum,” it read. Inside, I found a cluttered basement office with no exhibits, save for a painting or two. It was a virtual museum only, with an active Internet Web site.

When I looked online a few days ago, the site was gone. But on another Web site listing Juneteenth events across the country, the national museum got a mention, along with a notation that it offered underground-railroad tours. (The underground railroad was not a rail line but a network of safe houses, kept by abolitionists and others, for escaped slaves who were fleeing north.)

I reconnected with the Juneteenth National Museum’s director, community activist Morning Sunday Hettleman, who for years has organized Baltimore’s June 19th celebrations. She told me the museum’s funding has been a casualty of Maryland’s severe budget shortfall.

But this year’s celebration will go on as scheduled. It will take place at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, famous as the site where Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — our eventual national anthem. During the festivities, historic re-enactors will tell stories, not of “bombs bursting in air” as British warships besieged the fort during the War of 1812, but of the black carpenters and other artisans who built many of the fortifications there and at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where the Civil War would ignite 53 years later. They will mention, too, that the servant who alerted Key that “the star-spangled banner still waves” after the British bombardment was a black man.

Morning Hettleman told me she and others needed to keep Juneteenth alive because northern blacks, in particular, had lost touch with what it stands for.

“As a matter of fact,” she said, “when I first went to some of the leaders in the African-American community to ask them about helping, they said there had been more freedmen than slaves in Maryland, so celebrating Juneteenth was unnecessary. I went ahead and prepared. I had dancers. A friend of mine had made all this food, and when only 10 people showed up, I was in shock. So I realized there had to be a massive education process.”

These days across the South, especially, many more than 10 people show up for the picnics, presentations, and the singing of lyrics such as “I’m on my way to Freedom Land” from old Negro spirituals.

Ten years ago, I met Sharon Pinchback, a U.S. Postal Service worker and mother of three, who had been crowned “Ms. Juneteenth” at the previous year’s event. She had a fascinating perspective on the Juneteenth commemoration:

“Most African Americans think of their past as slavery, starting from slavery,” she told me. “Not starting from Africa, but starting from slavery. And they really don’t want to relate to that any more. So when you bring something positive to the table, they are really ready to absorb it. They are proud of it, but they just didn’t know about it.”

There aren’t Memorial Day-style parades or monster Independence Day-type fireworks at any Juneteenth celebrations that I know of. They are modest, prideful affairs. Americans whose ancestors lived in chains on our soil want to remind others that the passage from slavery into freedom is not irrelevant old news or a trifle. Each June 19th, Juneteenth’s supporters mark freedom’s blessings by gathering where they wish, singing what they wish, reciting the Emancipation Proclamation if they wish, and perhaps, if they wish, lifting a can of Polly’s Pop as well.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Abolitionist. A reformer who, through writings and speeches, works to end slavery.

Chattel. Personal, movable property, including furniture and jewelry, as opposed to “real” property such as land. At times, humans have been chattel as well.