Lessons From the Leftover Vault

(by kdcosta) Jul 22 2011

There are secret places all over New York City--that is, if you can manage to escape the glare of lights and the siren-song of the tourist traps of midtown—but often, they work hard at being a secret and brandish badges of exclusivity. Then there are places that feel like a secret, and when you stumble upon them, it's piques the imagination.

History functions similarly. Sometimes, it teases: you know it’s there, and you have to follow the trail to uncover it. And other times, it remains completely hidden until the right circumstances jostle it from its hiding place.

A friend introduced me to a fantastic spot downtown called Trinity Place—it’s dark, the booths will swallow you, and it's rarely ever super crowded. It's a subterranean location, and it's easy to miss as you walk by because the windows seem to gradually melt into the sidewalk. I know. It doesn't sound particularly striking, but that's because you actually have to walk through the doors to be swept off your feet: Trinity Place boasts two 35 tonne bank vault doors that date to 1904.

Trinity Vault

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A Tale of Two Undergrounds

(by kdcosta) Feb 24 2011

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

Explorer hikes in Tibbetts Brook, which runs through a Bronx sewer. Credit: Steve Duncan, NYT

"To be happy, stay hidden." - Yopie, Parisian cataphile

Ever since reading Jennifer Toth's The Mole People as a teen, I've been intrigued by the metropolitan underground. Cities teem with life, and change happens at a dizzying pace. But what lurks beneath the streets remains a mystery to many—it almost remains a realm lost to time. Yet, to think of this space as stagnant would be foolish: from Paris to New York City, the subterranean has a life and character all of its own. And if you look closely, you'll find traces of the urban centers on the surface—almost as though these spaces contain seeds of the personalities that thrive above ground.

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Twelve Months of The Urban Ethnographer

(by kdcosta) Dec 07 2010

I haven't been blogging here as much as I would like to, but I thought I would try to regain my stride by participating in Drugmonkey's twelve month meme:

The rules for this blog meme are quite simple. Post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.

I don't have a full twelve months on The Urban Ethnographer, and since I back posted some items from Anthropology in Practice, I don't quite fit the first of the month requirement. Still, it's an interesting snap shot at the sorts of things that I've shared.

Jan: I had some time at Penn Station yesterday before my train was announced, so I hung around on the concourse level for a change instead of descending immediately to the track.

Feb: Long after New York City is gone—perhaps reclaimed by nature per The World Without Us—I’m certain we’ve created a record that should survive long and well enough to offer glimpses into life in New York City.

April: Recent mob outbreaks in Times Square have people concerned about rising levels of violence in the city.

June: As the MTA prepares to roll out a new, user-friendly subway map this month, I thought it might be the right time to take a look at some artifacts from the subway’s history.

July: There is no question that we build upon that which precedes us—quite literally, in some cases.

Aug: I’d like to do a photo series, so every Friday I’ll share with you an image from something I’ve encountered on my travels.

Sept: My local supermarket has the required handicapped parking spaces in front of the store, but it also has “Customer With Child” parking, a convenience that has lately been the source of a few parking lot disagreements.

Oct: Hey, Drivers, is there a traffic light you know you have to make?

Nov: On Sunday, National Geographic launched a new series on animal migrations.

Hmmm ... January's post reminds me that I had some detective work to do regarding Penn Station! Could that rumbling be a new blog post forming? Quite possibly ...

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Daily Migrations

(by kdcosta) Nov 09 2010

On Sunday, National Geographic launched a new series on animal migrations. I didn't get to watch the inaugural show (I'm sure I'll catch a rerun later this week), but I did get a chance to read the Great Migrations feature in this month's magazine. It's really a bit humbling to think about the great distances that so many species travel successfully—and repeatedly—guided by instinct and determination. As biologist Hugh Dingle is quoted:

These critters are hell-for-leather, flat-out just gonna get there.

Dingle identified five characteristics that mark animal migrations, which include

  • prolonged movement outside normal zones of habitation
  • a linear path
  • special preparatory behaviors such as overfeeding
  • accumulation of special energy reserves for the trip
  • dedication to the trip without wavering

These traits can occur in varying degrees in any migration—even “minor” excursions can be important enough to warrant preparation. For example:

(D)aily vertical movements by zooplankton in the ocean—upward by night to seek food, downward by day to escape predators—can also be considered migration. So can the movement of aphids when, having depleted the young leaves on one food plant, their offspring then fly onward to a different host plant, with no one aphid ever returning to where it started.

I witness and participate in a migration on a daily basis: my commute to and from work. Seriously—as I watched my fellow commuters at Penn flow around me last week when I stopped to listen to a busker, it struck me that we exhibit Dingle’s characteristics above:

  • The commuter rail systems (LIRR, NJ Transit, and MetroNorth) bring people to New York City from great distances; there are people who travel up to three hours each way to get to and from work in Manhattan.
  • Commuters are moved along in great waves of people that are most efficient when they move together linearly as a group. As a result “corridors” of travel emerge where people move in streams (see video below).
  • Many commuters purchase snacks for the ride home. Or they ensure that their electronic devices are charged for the ride, enabling them to listen to music or read digital books.
  • Commuters often travel with caffeinated beverages or other forms of refreshment. They will nap on the trains as if recharging for the next leg of their journey which may require them to navigate a subway or operate a vehicle.
  • Commuters are fixed on their destination particularly when it is homeward bound. When the LIRR experienced severe delays a few weeks ago as a result of a tornado that swept through the area, they found alternate means of getting home.

Migratory patterns are everywhere. Groups forced to act in concert will move together. There’s a certain security to it. Animals migrate for better grazing grounds, to survive the season, and for mates and parenting benefits. There is some evidence that suggests our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals also followed migratory patterns likely for similar reasons. The daily commute moves people from their families to a means of support—sounds like an adaptation to me. Commuting may not have the beauty of sandhill cranes rising in unison, but its purpose is still the same.

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Mad Science! Creating a River of Slime

(by kdcosta) Oct 29 2010

River of Slime. Copyright Columbia Pictures

It's pink. It's angry. And it wants you to be angry! It's the river of slime that the Ghostbusters saved NYC from in the 80s. Fortunately, Vigo has been banished--permanently, since there haven't been any instances of of giant Stay Puffed Puft Marshmallow men and the Statue of Liberty has remained firmly anchored in the harbor. But all the same, it might be sort of neat to create your own river of slime to deploy--as long as it was slime that lacked the ability to be emotionally manipulative:

Well, now you can! PopSci has a five minute video on how you can make your own rheopectic slime! What's rheopectic slime? It's slime that doesn't follow Newtonian laws:

Most fluids get less viscous the more you manipulate them--think of how honey or oil become "wetter" as they warm up and more solid as they cool. Those are Newtonian fluids. But non-Newtonian fluids do the opposite: they get more solid the more they're manipulated. So if you let this slime sit on a surface, it will pool out into a flowing mess, but if you play with it, it becomes thicker and bouncier. You can even form it into a ball.

This would have worked perfectly for the river of slime--the slime would have done all the work on it's own in terms of "flowing" forth and conquering the city. To recreate the effect, all you have do is let the slime loose on a flat surface. Maybe strategically place a few miniature figures in the way? So, grab some Borax (use less for flowing slime, more for slime you want to shape), pink food coloring, glue, and water, and get to it! Here's the video: DIY: Make Your Own Slime.

Disclaimer: Kids, don't try this alone. Grab a parent and do it together. Do not eat the slime. (why would you want to? It's slime!)

For even more fun, mad science/scientist posts today,  visit the Scientopia homepage to see what's been brewing on some of the other blogs.

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Residents of Trinity: Robert Fulton

(by kdcosta) Oct 26 2010

Last week we stripped Trinity Church back to its foundations. This week I’d like to take a look at the history the building watches over. The churchyard is the final resting place for a number of revolutionary soldiers and Daughters of the Revolution, as well as a number of notable New Yorkers who helped shape the destiny of the colony. Let’s take a look at one of these churchyard residents.

Grave Marker for Robert Fulton at Trinity Church

There are two large markers in the churchyard: that of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. As the story of Hamilton is widely known, we’ll focus on his neighbor Robert Fulton, the American engineer and inventor credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat—the North River Steamboat. Fulton’s creation ferried passengers between New York City and Albany. It seems fitting that Fulton has a place here at Trinity not just because he had a major influence locally, but because he shared something in common with Richard Upjohn, the architect for Trinity Church: both following a passion that was different from their intended profession.

Though Fulton demonstrated an interest in all things mechanical at an early age, he also learned to sketch at an early age and appears to have been influenced by family friend and artist Benjamin West to pursue a career as an artist. He moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the city of Philadelphia in his late teens where he made a living doing landscapes and apparently made some powerful friends, including Benjamin Franklin. In 1788, at the age of 23, Fulton decided to go to England where he lived with West and earned an income painting portraits and landscapes—but like those driven by other interests, he continued to develop and tweak mechanical tools and paraphernalia—similar to the way Upjohn continued to study architecture while working as a woodworker to make ends meet.

Sketch of the Nautilus, Fulton's submarine. Credit: Wikipedia

Fulton did not invent the steamboat. The technologies necessary for this endeavor were fleshed out by the French inventor Denis Papin in the late 17th-century. His ideas were expanded on by his English and German colleagues (similar in many ways to the DIY revolution of today). And eventually the steamboat grew out of the efforts of Claude de Jouffroy in 1774. In the U.S., it was not until 1787 that a successful steam powered boat was developed by John Fitch, who hosted a demonstration on the Delaware River, but failed to secure a monopoly on the patent which is actually what opened the door for Fulton's success.

Meanwhile, Fulton would move to France in 1797, where he was recognized for his inventions, and was able to learn about steamers from James Rumsey and Claude de Jouffroy. He set his sights on submarines, and designed the Nautilus, which survived submersion for a full hour at a depth of 25 feet (7.6 m). He tried to get the French government to subsidize the plans for the Nautilus, but they were not interested, and he turned his sights back to steamboats in 1801 after meeting Robert Livingston, the US Ambassador to France. The two designed and built a steamboat that they sailed up the River Seine, only to have it sink after the run. Not one to be discouraged, Fulton tried again, and the result was the North River Steamboat.

Replica of Fulton's North River Steamboat. Credit: Wikipedia

Fulton’s legacy in New York echoed in the fish market that bore his name for more than a century. The market was successful partially as a result of the ferry service that brought customers across the East River from Brooklyn. When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, declining ferry service was a primary reason the Fulton market faltered and eventually found it necessary to refocus its business. His physical mark on the city is preserved today in the streets that bear his name in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that stand like the halves of broken trail on either side of the East River.

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The Vigilance of Trinity

(by kdcosta) Oct 20 2010

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Digital ID: 801103. New York Public Library

Trinity Church, N.Y.C. 1791. Credit: NYPL Digital Archives

Standing directly at the western end of Wall Street, Trinity Church is perfectly framed. Seriously, the young colony could not have chosen a better spot. Today it looks a bit out of place at first glance, but its Gothic spire and dark exterior seem to hold the nearby skyscrapers at bay—which is fitting since this building reigned as the tallest in the mid-nineteenth century. Sunlight and shadow coexist perfectly on the grounds, making the surrounding churchyard a refuge from the busy city that flows around the land. Buildings have lives of their own. They have histories, and they mark and record the history, culture, and time that passes around them. Trinity Church, which is one of New York City’s oldest houses of worship, is no different.

Wall Street, N.Y. Digital ID: 809984. New York Public Library

Wall Street, N.Y. 1847. Credit: NYPL

Wall Street, N.Y. October 2010

In 1696 the Anglican community of the growing colony petitioned Governor Benjamin Fletcher for land for a parish. He approved the sale of the downtown plot to the Crown, which then issued a charter to the parish with a rent of 60 bushels of wheat annually. The church appeared to be well received. In fact, legend has it that even famed Captain Kidd pitched in to help with construction. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776, which was believed to have been set intentionally and destroyed twenty-five percent of the city. Rebuilt in 1790, the roof of the second building collapsed under the weight of snow 40 years later, and the third building—the one that stands today—was constructed in 1846.

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The Smell Next Door

(by kdcosta) Oct 12 2010

Truffles from Mont-Ventoux. Shared by Poppy on Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways a smell can help trigger a memory. Yesterday, I saw this article in the New York Times about a smell that's driving people away. It seems that residents in one luxury condo building are coping with a smell of a different sort: truffles.

The problem started after Urbani Truffles--an Italian truffle company--purchased a retail condo in the building and began using it to store boxes of the high-end mushroom. While truffles may be wonderful when served over your favorite dish, they're actually quite pungent. And it's creating a problem for folks who want to rent or sell--or just live--in the building.

The story reminds us of how personal smells can really be. Real estate agents, who are professionals at marketing undesirable spaces, are having a hard time masking this particular odor:

One [agent's] clients sold his 12th-floor penthouse in Gramercy Park after a bakery moved in and he couldn’t tolerate the odor of onion bagels. (Another family, she noted, bought a TriBeCa loft over a spice shop because they found the smell of curry comforting.)

Maybe the building needs to start marketing to truffles aficionados.

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Smarter Traffic Solutions–But Will They Work in the City?

(by kdcosta) Oct 06 2010

Hey, Drivers, is there a traffic light you know you have to make? You know the one--it takes ages for the light to change from red to green, and the green light is only what feels like a few seconds long. Well, what if there was a smarter traffic light? What if it could sense the traffic flow, and change to match the volume of cars on the road? According to ScienceNews, researchers from the Santa Fe Institute are working on just this particular solution (see original working paper here.) It sounds like the end of road rage, but will it work in New York City?

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Women’s Health Writeup Roundup: The Best Cities for Women

(by kdcosta) Sep 27 2010

Sci had a great idea to dissect the articles in Women's Health and take a look at the information being offered to women on heath, wellness, relationships, and life. It meant taking a good, hard, in-depth look at the popular expert material offered to female wellness consumer. The results were a little alarming. Take a look around Scientopia today for more on beauty tips, doctor's visits, fidelity, and more.

Hey ladies, want to feel better? Or have a stronger heart? Maybe you'd like to prevent breast cancer? Or find a hot date, or just live longer? Well, what if I told you that I could show you the secret to achieving one of these goals? Really, pick one and I could give you a little assurance on how you'd just taken a preventative measure. How? Well, according to this slideshow from Women's Health, it all depends on where you live. They've identified the best cities for women interested in pursuing one of the objectives above. But before you pack your bags, let's take a look at the information they're really offering.

First Women's Health reports that San Jose, California has the second lowest depression rate in the nation. The reason? More women reported working out at least twice a week in comparison to other places surveyed. Exercise releases endorphins which increases positive moods--that's great, but does it really mean that if you live in San Jose you'll be more likely to exercise? It's possible. Over time, you may be more influenced by your peer group, and if they're into exercising, then you might take up that activity. But that's not a guarantee.

The other benefit of living in San Jose, apparently, is the serotonin:

San Jose averages 300 sunny days a year, so residents soak up mood-boosting serotonin and vitamin D (five to 30 minutes in the sun twice a week is all you need).

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate the cardiovascular and muscular systems, and parts of the endocrine system. And some research has suggested that low levels of serotonin may be linked to the onset of depression. While sunlight may help boost serotonin production, it does not account for the sole means of your serotonin supply. Your body naturally produces serotonin in levels that are related to diet, exercise and stress. Just so we're clear, "soaking" up the sunlight is not the only way to get serotonin--in fact, you've probably got the right supply already. Not that there's anything wrong with getting some fresh air and exercise and enjoying the sunlight (while wearing sunscreen), but living in San Jose will not necessarily restore your body's chemical balance.

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