Friday, January 16, 2009

Do Svidaniya Brighton Beach: Brief Visit to Gawk at Furry Streetscape a Success!

IF YOU SEE ANY FUR COATS on a Coney Island- or Brighton Beach-bound subway train, there's a good chance the owner's destination is Brooklyn's own Little Russia-by-the-Sea. Heading out on the F train earlier today, I spotted the first clue that confirmed I was headed to the right direction: A woman in her 50s bundled up in a sable coat with matching fur-covered pillbox-type hat. With her there was a Bed Bath & Beyond bag carrying some sort of comforter and a second bag with an overly earnest looking Raggedy Ann doll.

Because the train was late, it ran express out the Culver Line. As the train pulled into the W. 8th Street station, the woman stood up to exit -- I surmised she wanted to transfer to a Q train to Brighton Beach, like me -- the F train pressed forward to the Stillwell Avenue terminal. The woman made a sour face, looked about the train car and sat back down, clearly miffed. Raggedy Ann continued to look out of the bag, not phased.

Fifteen frigid minutes later, and a transfer to a Q train at Stillwell, we were in Brighton Beach. Like neighboring Coney Island, much of the action is on the boardwalk. But not in January. Instead of using the seaside promenade as a parade ground, the fur-festooned Russian residents of Brighton Beach take to their boulevard under the tracks.

If PETA organizers were looking for a good place to stage an anti-fur action, Brighton Beach Boulevard in January is the place to be. But I wouldn't want to face off with the locals, a fierce bunch hardened by the icy winter sea breezes and sharp-edge typography of the Cyrillic alphabet that dots the main drag under the B/Q train tracks.

Six years ago this weekend, I was visiting friends in Manhattan and ventured out to Brighton Beach, went to M&I International Food and gawked at the birch sap for sale while a Russian friend of mine bought caviar in bulk. Over yonder, a babushka was seated on the stairs, selling tubes of lipstick, perfume and eyeliner neatly arranged on the stair steps. (A health safety violation? Izvinite!) I didn't go in this time, but a recent review on Yelp aptly sums up the atmosphere: "The customers are rude and will push you without apologizing or saying excuse me, but that's most of Brighton Beach."

Six years ago, it was frigid, much like today. But instead of sunshine, it was cold, gloomy and snow was blowing through the elevated tracks. It was Brooklyn's own little Arctic Murmansk.

From my memories of that trip to Brighton Beach -- my first time there was back in the early 1990s -- it was the first time I'd ever seen fur coats en mass. Growing up in Michigan where it was indeed cold, fur coats might have been looked upon as a little too showy, reserved only for a select few woman of a select stature in town. In middle school, a friend had said the way to judge a woman in a fur coat was how wide the strips were: The thinner the strip, the cheaper the pelt and the cheaper the coat. And why would you want to be showy with a cheap fur coat?!?

In Brighton Beach, it's mostly wide strips at least from my informal survey. And it seemed that more than half of everyone on the street was bundled up in fur. Russians, you see, take the cold very seriously.

I blended in with the streetscape wearing my dad's old sheepskin coat from the 1960s. Plus, as someone who is half Latvian, I looked sort of Russian. (But never tell that to a Latvian, just in case you don't know your Soviet history. Stalin, gulags and occupation are never leisurely topics of conversation.)

Stepping into an all-Russian book and gift store, I walked through, looking at the array of titles, trying to do a rough translation from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet. (Like that was going to help me figure it out ...) I carefully moved from section to section, trying to figure out an escape that would involve avoiding having to move around anyone. An encounter might have necessitated an uncomfortable conversation in my non-Russian.

I found my route out, snaking through what I think was the religion section and to safety on the street.

While six years hasn't changed the Brighton Beach strip that much, there's now a Starbucks and a Bank of America. While getting cash from the ATM, Russian voices dominated. And there was more fur in the lobby!

And while the fur today wasn't as dominant as it was six years ago, there were some show-stoppers: There was the woman in something that looked too orange to be natural. Then there was an elderly man in a Rascal-type scooter wrapped in a black fur thing, and matching ushanka, ear-flaps up and looking absolutely miserable. And then there was the otherwise striking woman with a brown fur bonnet showing off some Snuffalopogus-style Ugg things. She got looks from some of the locals hanging out. You don't see something like that every day, not even in Brighton Beach in January. Too bad it was too cold to take many photos. I got a couple, but Bill Cunningham should really swing through.

And while it's hard to tell how the recession is affecting retail sales along the strip, you can get something furry starting at $999, as you can see in one of the photos here.

My toes frozen, it was time to leave for the warmth of home.

Sidenote: Do they make fur-lined Snuggies?

First photo by Flickr user arimoore; the rest by Michael E. Grass

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Might Possible UDC-SEU Merger Eliminate Directional Confusion?

IS THERE SOMETHING in my sidewalk stature that suggests I excel at giving street or transit directions? In the past three days, I've been asked for directions on four different occasions including yesterday's "Yo, where's the bread store?!?" question from a lost driver on Court Street here in Brooklyn (Caputo's, naturally!) to some French twentysomethings lost in the maze of the Atlantic-Pacific Street subway complex trying to get to Times Square (Uggh, really? Times Square? Either the 2/3 express via 7th Avenue; the N or Q express via the Manhattan Bridge and Broadway; or the R local via the Montague Street tunnel and Broadway ... Sacre bleu! Choices!).

While it's indeed easy to find Times Square when you emerge from the subway, I wonder what the navigational mess it'll be if the University of the District of Columbia combines forces with Southeastern University in Southwest Washington, D.C.

From The Washington Post's Susan Kinzie we learn that the University of the District of Columbia plans to open a second campus for two-year community college programs. Sources tell The Post that UDC hopes to merge with Southeastern, which is a private college.

From my observations, a merger could mean other things, including the elimination of the pesky-but-not-really-important directional confusion surrounding the whole Southeastern in Southwest D.C. thing.

But there's more navigational madness: Just examine the official directions on!

The following are just the first four parts of the eight-part step-by-step instructions on how to get to the Southeastern campus from the L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail station:

• Exit L'Enfant Plaza Station using the L'Enfant Plaza exit. This exit is marked by signs throughout the station and distinguished by a round portrait of an astronaut standing straight up with arms to the side (not angled and waving).
• There should be a shoe shine station at the top of the escalators and a newsstand to your left. Take a left. [ed.: This is the site of Gene Weingarten's Joshua Bell experiment]
• Exit through the bank of doors and go down the stairs. You will now be facing the back of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] building. A small park should be at your right and the HUD Creative Child Development Center [a gated playground] at your left.
• Take a left at the playground and pass briefly under the HUD building, heading towards the parking lot and the street.
And that's all before you have to cross over the I-395/Southwest Freeway! (Which Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry wanted to turn into a ceremonial extension for Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, which violates some basic cartographic and wayfinding principles.)

Photo of Southwest Freeway/Michael E. Grass Archives

You could, however, just use the Waterfront-SEU station on Metrorail's Green Line, but SEU's directions from there require seven different steps, including exiting through a parking lot adjacent to the M Street SW Safeway location.

Anyhow, as The Post notes, UDC doesn't have a second location in mind. But let's say Southeastern's campus is combined with UDC. Does that require a name change for the Waterfront-SEU station? Metrorail station name changes aren't always so easy.

UDC's Van Ness campus (... do I dare say it? ... near North Cleveland Park!) was once located at Mount Vernon Square, where the Washington Convention Center is today. It's been known under different predecessor names and existed as different institutions since it was founded in 1851, e.g., Miner Normal School, Wilson Normal School, Miner Teachers College, Wilson Teachers College. UDC as we sort of know it today formed as a merger between D.C. Teachers College, Washington Technical Institute and Federal City College in the 1970s.

See UDC's full official evolution on the official history page and background info and related links below.

Maybe this new move will ease the school's identity crisis ...

» "UDC Plans to Operate Two Campuses" [WaPo]
» "UDC History" [UDC]
» "Locations and Directions" [SEU]
» "Southwest Freeway: Isn't It Already Named for Dwight Eisenhower?" [Washington Oculus]
» "'Change Agent' to Lead UDC" [WaPo]
» "UDC is a School to Retool" [WaPo]

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

LONDON: A Pre-Post-War Post-War Reconstruction Plan for the City

I'VE BEEN EXAMINING a most fascinating preliminary report published in 1944 by the British government on the post-war reconstruction of the City of London. it was originally private and confidential, but released for publication in July 1944. So as German bombers targeted the City of London -- note Big-C City, not little-c city ... as in the heart of the financial capital, near St. Pauls and adjacent to the Tower of London -- planners were already planning for the post-war reconstruction.

The City had already been largely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and despite a plan by Christopher Wren that would have imposed a new street plan, the City was rebuilt largely along the same meandering, helter-skelter medieval non-pattern. Enter the 19th century: Railway companies brought trains into the heart of the capital. Traffic increased. Congestion built. And post-war rebuilding provided an awful nice excuse to acquire property to widen streets, build new ones, open up land around historic properties (like St. Pauls).

Anyhow, it's been great to examine the the full-color pull-out maps that include land surveys of the City from before the war (1936) and during the war (1943) where a large swath of the City was colored in orange for "Opportunities and Considerations" for redevelopment. (Orange is also a color that could be associated with Blitz fires!)

For those familiar with the City, Upper Thames Street (mapped below) and Lower Thames Street, which is your quickest best driving between the Tower and Blackfriars Bridge, was proposed at the time. A ring road that would have formed a northerly arc from Holborn Circus to Liverpool Street Station via Barbican (itself, a major post-war design landmark) was proposed but never built.

View Larger Map

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