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02/20/12 4:00am

Downtown Brooklyn is a clutter of glassy high-rise condos and office towers, but inasmuch as it’s possible to mar such an unremarkable skyline, the Brooklyn House of Detention does it. Its ugliness makes it oddly timeless, its coarse exterior offering few hints as to when or why it was built. Towering over both the Atlantic Avenue antique-ing corridor and the Cobble-Boerum Hill brunch belt, the BHoD seems outside of history, an intervention from a bygone age of recklessly bad urban planning, and even worse public design. But seeing as there are over 17,000 inmates in the New York City prison system, and nearly 7 million Americans in the correctional system nationwide, the BHoD is discomfortingly of its time and place as well. So what better indulgence of basic curiosity and latent socio-political anxieties than an open house of the place, offered by the New York City Department of Correction on the occasion of its impending re-opening?

The open house, which was offered on a sunny Saturday morning in early February, covered all your prison highlights—the visiting rooms, the control room, examples of standard-issue prison riot gear. But let’s start in the kitchen, which will largely be inmate-staffed when the BHoD, which was built in 1956 and closed in 2003 after a decline in the city’s prison population, resumes housing prisoners in mid-February, thanks to the demolition of some deteriorating buildings at an already overcrowded Rikers Island. The most jarring thing about BHoD’s industrial kitchen, which includes large metal vats and an ominously named piece of machinery called a “blast chiller,” were the thick glass windows, tinted just enough to let in some humane amount of outside light, without offering any concrete sense of an outside world. There’s an untinted sliver of window running along the the crease just below the ceiling, offering inmates a somewhat irrelevant pin-box view of neighboring rooftops and the weather. The result is an amber, post-nuclear ambience almost calculated to accentuate the BHoD’s stainless steel and cinderblock aesthetic. Real sunlight, real food, a non-oppressive color palette—the kitchen vividly communicated that these are privileges for the free.

The same goes for breathing room. There’s no central dining hall: inmates eat with the 15 other members of their “housing tier” in a “day room” located a few feet from their cellblocks. On most floors, the ceiling is maddeningly low, and the lack of natural light gives a subterranean feel to the many snaking corridors. Spend more than 30 minutes here, and the mind undoubtedly becomes a cramped space as well: the day room bulletin board included reminders that inmates’ phone calls are probably being recorded, and inmates are banned from brining pictures of themselves into the facility, for fear they could use them to make fake ID cards and escape (if they bring in a family photo, they have to crop themselves out). It’s worth pointing out that the 760 or so inmates who’ve begun moving in are all awaiting trial for crimes punishable by no more than a year in prison, and are officially considered “low to medium classification” in terms of potential for violence or danger to correctional staff.

Speaking of which, “New York’s Boldest” all seemed genuinely enthusiastic at the rare opportunity to show off their domain to scores of curious outsiders. An affable, uniformed man saw me taking notes and asked me if I’d ever been inside a prison before. No, I had to admit. What did I think? Well, I said, noting the dreary 1950s-ness of the place, I was surprised to see that it was so, well, low-tech. I expected it to be a bit more like the prison scene in Face/Off, you know? You hear that, the correctional officer said to a couple of nearby colleagues. He thought it would look like the prison in Face/Off! Laughter all around. The BHoD’s main lobby had fliers for a retirement party out in Queens, an oddly poignant reminder that there are 500 corrections employees for whom this prison is a workplace rather than (or perhaps in addition to) a towering fortress of concentrated misery.

The corrections officers’ laughter at my faux pas accentuated just how little contact the vast majority of us have with said misery, even as it stares at us from the foreground of the Brooklyn skyline. Maybe this explains why so many of the people who turned out for the open house looked like locals: white, sharply dressed, beardy and in their late 20s to early 30s. At least one guy was rocking a Baby Björn. Back on the outside, I chatted up a fellow in stylish jeans and a rainbow-pattern scarf, whose girlfriend said in an accent that I think was Swedish that the prison tour had appealed to her nerdly interest in “logistically challenging issues,” like public transit or water treatment. “I think a prison makes sense here,” the man said. “It brings a little reality to the neighborhood.”

09/01/10 1:00am

The Pulaski Bridge is one of the more surreal spots in the city. On one side of the rattling drawbridge—which feels like it could topple into Newtown Creek every time a bus rolls by—is the bright Midtown skyline; on the other, a limitless industrial landscape dotted by natural gas terminals, oil refineries and warehouses. Underneath sits the biggest oil spill in American history, at least until a month ago: 200 years worth of industrial byproduct seeping into Newtown Creek and the adjacent groundwater. As a result, over 1,500 homes in Greenpoint’s formerly industrial Newtown Creek waterfront sit above a sprawling toxic plume, a veritable river of oil that is all but invisible from the bridge. But it’s there all the same, even if no one knows its true extent.

“When we started working with the neighborhood, we were pulling about 150,000 gallons of oil a year,” says environmental investigator Bob Bowcock of efforts to extract oil from Greenpoint’s soil. “Now they’re pulling about that much a month.” Bowcock, the lead investigator for a group of Greenpoint residents suing chief polluter Exxon-Mobil, says there could be more than 30 million gallons of oil in the creek and the adjoining neighborhood—even though an oil pump on Newtown Creek has already extracted 17 million gallons. Worse still, the oil under Greenpoint is “gasoline refined product” loaded with carcinogenic materials like benzene, which is both highly flammable and leads to birth defects. “There is a layer of free product floating underneath the homes of the residents of Greenpoint,” says Bowcock. “It’s like living on top of a leaking gas tank.”

Michael Heimbinder, of the Newtown Creek Alliance, blames the oil spill on two centuries of unsafe industrial practices, and says the spill has been ongoing “from the day that refining operations were started on Newtown Creek in the 1860s.” He explained that Newtown Creek was one of America’s busiest industrial waterways at a time when there was no such thing as corporate responsibility. “When you produced waste, you dumped it in the nearest water body,” he said.

But much of the oil came from a waterfront site owned by Standard Oil and its successor company, Exxon-Mobil. Bowcock says that from the 30s through the 50s, Exxon dumped its Greenpoint facility’s byproduct into open containment pits, which began leaking into the creek in the 1950s after the area’s groundwater pumps were shut off. Over the following decades, millions of gallons of oil seeped into Newtown Creek and the surrounding soil. The health effects have been catastrophic. Longtime resident Laura Hoffman saw her parents die of brain diseases related to the area’s high toxicity. “Brain cancer used to be a very rare thing,” she said. “In my lifetime I’ve known maybe 12 people who have had brain cancer, which is a lot.”

Luckily, Heimbinder says that Newtown Creek could be declared a superfund site by September, meaning that the federal government would coordinate all cleanup efforts in the area. And Greenpoint residents are in the process of suing Exxon, which would establish some accountability for decades of pollution. “This community deserves a lot” says Hoffman, a co-plaintiff in the suite. “The entire community of Greenpoint is one huge brownfield.”

Currently, a boom near the creek’s mouth stems the flow of oil into the East River. Visible from the Pulaski Bridge, it is similar to the ones being used in the Gulf of Mexico, and a reminder of one of the most jarring aspects of the Greenpoint spill—that a miniature version of Gulf-style devastation has been ongoing for decades, a few hundred yards from midtown Manhattan.

03/19/08 12:00am

As most New York cyclists will tell you, to bike in this city is to take your life in your own hands. But most New York cyclists will also tell you that the only way to experience this city is from the saddle of a bicycle. It may be dangerous, it may be aggravating, but the freedom is worth it. In fact, the devoted New York cyclist will take perverse pride in braving the daily barrage of enormous potholes, blindsiding buses, maniacal taxi drivers and overzealous cops. But does it really have to be fraught with such danger? Well, no. New York is woefully behind dozens of other major cities when it comes to bike infrastructure, and it’s a damning indictment of our local government’s attitudes toward transportation that so many of these ideas seem utopian even in light of $100 barrels of oil.

WHAT OTHER CITIES HAVE DONE

Portland, Oregon has a rapidly expanding network of bike boulevards: shared, low-density roadways that give right-of-way to bikes at intersections and are designed to give cyclists priority over cars. Curbside bike racks have replaced — or, in cycling parlance, reclaimed — parking spots previously reserved for motor vehicles. Consequently, a full 3.5% of people who commute in Portland do so by bicycle.
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Paris recently instituted a very cheap bike rental program for local commuting, with over 20,000 bikes available at nearly 1,500 rental stations (that’s one about every 250 yards, citywide). Not only has the massive increase in cyclists across the city eased up on transportation infrastructure and reduced air pollution, Parisians have come to realize that bicycling is actually the fastest way to get anywhere in the city. Win, win, win.

Berlin has some of the most developed bike-lane infrastructure in the world, with two-way, pavement-buffered routes all over the city. There are even specific traffic lights for cyclists (and of course, it being Prussia, they’re all strictly obeyed). Public transit also considers the cyclists’ needs, with specially designated spaces allowing for bikes on trains. Just don’t forget to buy a ticket for your bike. Seriously.
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But it’s not just the gentrified First World taking significant steps toward a bike-friendly existence. Over the last ten years, Bogotá, Colombia has gotten pretty serious about changing its transportation patterns by putting a moratorium on large-scale infrastructural improvements to accommodate automobiles and beginning a steady rollout of hundreds of new buses, and, perhaps most significantly, instituting a policy whereby the city’s main arteries are closed to traffic one day a week. All of which has made the city better for cyclists.

WHAT WE NEED TO DO

Replacing existing, shitty bike lanes with fully separate routes, a la Berlin. Useful crosstown routes like Canal Street get heavy truck traffic and usually don’t have bike lanes. Meanwhile, the bike lanes we do have are fairly anarchic places, and get taken up by parked cars and idiots riding against the flow of traffic. It also doesn’t help that they’re on the left side of the road, and whichever hapless transit wonk decided to put them there deserves the New York cycling community’s undying scorn.

More greenways. I’m sure someday our city will wise up and build a Delancey Street greenway, or close Bedford Avenue to traffic, or construct an eastside greenway that doesn’t route bikers along Second Avenue, or close Second Avenue off to traffic altogether. Hey, we can dream. And while we’re at it, what about tax breaks for cycle-commuters? Or theft-prevention programs like the one in Amsterdam? Maybe even free commuter bicycles for low-income adults, as with Portland’s “create-a-commuter” program?

Congestion pricing. More money for infrastructure, fewer cars in Manhattan. It’s a pretty simple equation. And it would be a visible, unmistakable sign that the city is willing to make a long-term commitment to sustainable transportation. And it’s a commitment that congestion pricing cities like London, Stockholm, Santiago and Singapore have already made.

Changing the adversarial relationship between cars and bikes. Ok, this is a little more complicated than just adding bike lanes. Cyclists have a lot to contend with: harassment, getting killed, police confiscation of bikes not chained to city-approved bike racks, etc. According to Wiley Norvell of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, only about a half a percent of New Yorkers cycle commute on a daily basis. If ridership grows, and cyclists become more and more visible, hopefully a little familiarity will breed conciliation.

WHAT WE’RE DOING ALREADY

New York’s bike lanes might be in bad shape, but the network is growing at an explosive rate. “There’s been a ten-fold increase in bike lanes” in the past few years, says Norvell; better still, buffered, European-style cycle tracks, like the one that recently opened on Ninth Avenue, could mean more bike lanes that actually separate cycle and auto traffic. Norvell thinks that protected bike lanes could convince hundreds of thousands of people to make the switch to cycle commuting, a development that could have a major, long-term impact on the city. So could the 1,800-mile expansion of bike lanes outlined in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability initiative.
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The greenways don’t exist yet, but they might someday. The city already has plans to expand the East River greenway, while the popularity of the Hudson greenway — which is America’s most trafficked bicycle path — will hopefully convince it to expand bike-only routes.

01/16/08 12:00am

A plotless study in rural Turkish child psychology could be either a tedious, unmitigated cinematic disaster or high art. If you’re conditioned to heavy, atmospheric fare, Reha Ardem’s carefully paced look at the social and familial minutae of an isolated Turkish mountain village falls squarely into the latter category; if you’re not conditioned to it, I’m guessing you’ve never been to Anthology Film Archives. This is definitely one for the arthouse snobs, but it’s also a surprisingly sensitive look at the inner lives of bored, rural Turkish youth: we have the potentially patricidal Ömer, who goes lackadaisical afternoons with fellow second-graders Yildiz and Yusuf, who don’t do anything more exciting than trap scorpions, argue with their parents, and climb a couple of rocks. Not an awful lot of action for a two-hour film, but the interaction among the children, as well as the stunning mountain scenery and almost unerring sense of place (the village is arguably the film’s most vividly developed character) give Times and Winds a depth that belies its thin — even nonexistent — plot. The children are as complex as the social and physical landscape they’re set against, and the film slowly amounts to a rich, compelling whole.

Opens January 11 at Anthology Film Archives