Archive for August, 2011

Recap: OHNY Hidden Harbor Tour – Aug 16th, 2011

OHNY Volunteer Council member, Bob Moore, joined our volunteer crew last month for the Hidden Harbor Tour that was organized in partnership with the Working Harbor Committee. He recaps the evening and gives details about the harbor, landscapes and vistas that were seen during the two hour tour.

Despite the fact that the day dawned overcast and rainy, the clouds rolled back as the afternoon wore on an we were more than happy to see the sun begin to shine just in time for the OHNY/Hidden Harbor Boat Tour that took place on August 16th.  OHNY staff and passengers assembled at the Pier 16 dock at the South Street Seaport, all keenly waiting to board the Zephyr, a large three-deck tour boat.  We made it smoothly on board; all of us, that is, with the exception of one passenger who was seen making a mad dash down the pier and crossing the gangway just as it was about to be withdrawn!

passengers aboard the Zephyr

The ship backed out of the pier and proceeded a short distance up the East River and under the Brooklyn Bridge.  Our “hosts” for the evening were Captain Doswell of the Working Harbor Committee and Ed Kelly of the NY Maritime Association.  Both provided us with a continuously fascinating commentary on each site we passed in addition to a number of nautical and maritime facts.

Ed Kelly of the NY Maritime Association

The Zephyr then set course southwards towards Buttermilk Channel, a narrow stretch of water bordered by Governor’s Island to the west and Red Hook to the east.  Apparently Buttermilk Channel received it’s name in the early 19th century, when farmers were able to drive their cattle across when the channel dried out at low tide.

a full ship

We sailed onwards past the Brooklyn Passenger Terminal to the end of the Red Hook peninsula, where a Fairway supermarket and some art studios are now housed in the old brick warehouses.  Zephyr then entered the Erie Basin ,which has been transformed by the advent of IKEA. The once thriving shipyard has now been closed and our captains called our attention to the remnants of the old graving dock.  The basin is occupied by a large fleet of barges which operate short distances up and down the coast carrying oil fuel, cement and other commodities. These are important links on the transport chain.

colorful tugboat

We then proceeded out into the Red Hook Channel, past the Gowanus waterfront and the immense Brooklyn Army Terminal, the site of Elvis Presley’s  (the anniversary of whose death this day was) departure for Germany to carry out his military service. The Terminal is an enormous building which provided a gateway for much military equipment to be transported overseas to the war efforts in Europe.

making our way into the Kill van Kull

Heading westward, Zephyr passed the Statue of Liberty on its starboard side and proceeded towards the entrance of the Kill van Kull, another narrow strip of water which separates Staten Island from New Jersey.  Zephyr then passed under the Bayonne Bridge, a very picturesque bridge redolent of the Sydney Harbor bridge in Australia.  It is listed a s a National Historic Monument.  However, the distinctive bridge, with its parabolic arch and lower road bed, is now unfortunately causing a botttleneck in the port.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has plans to raise the bridge by raising the height of the roadbed by 60 feet,  a very difficult job that  is not due to be completed for several years.  This could have a severe economic impact on the port.

passing under the Bayonne Bridge

After passing under the bridge, Zephyr rounded Bergen Point and swung up to the north-right to enter Newark Bay, home to the huge Port Elizabeth and Port Newark container ports.  We passed the large ‘Arthur Maersk’ container vessel, owned by the largest container shipping company in the world, AP Moller of Denmark.  Much has changed in the shipping industry over the last 30 years or so.  So many of the goods which we take for granted stocked in local stores come from overseas, and Ed Kelly pointed out that were an accident to occur in the Kill van Kull, blocking entry to the port, dramatic consequences would quickly impact the tri-State area.

the "Arthur Maersk" container vessel

As Zephyr turned and headed for home, the sun was setting over New Jersey, casting the Bayonne Bridge into a beautiful silhouette.  Swinging leftwards down the harbor, we passed Robbins Reef light house, in which legendary lighthouse keeper Kate Walker once lived (rowing her children to school everyday in a row boat to Staten Island).  We passed the Statue of Liberty just as the sun was making its final exit.  Once we made our way back to South Street Seaport the reaction from all who disembarked Zephyr was universally positive.

gorgeous sunset at the end of the tour

(Images courtesy of Mitch Waxman)


Volunteer for the 9th Annual OHNY Weekend!

The OHNY Weekend is Saturday & Sunday, October 15 & 16, 2011.

Be a Part of Architecture, Design, History and NYC’s Unique Built-Environment!

Register here

Benefits of being an OHNY Weekend Volunteer 
meet people who share your interest in architecture and design
-an OHNY button that allows front-of-the-line access at non-reservation sites during the Weekend and an OHNY t-shirt
-celebrate at the wrap party on Sunday evening

Volunteer Responsibilities 
-volunteer for at least one 4-hour shift on either Saturday and/or Sunday of the OHNY Weekend
-manage OHNY signup sheets, meet and greet visitors, manage lines
-work with Program and Site Sponsors to ensure that visitors are welcomed and follow necessary building requirements

-mandatory attendance at one 2-hour training session (Tuesday, September 27 at 6:15pm / Saturday, October 1 at 9:45am)
-receive your site/program assignment and learn about what is expected of you as an OHNY Volunteer
-hear more about openhousenewyork and why our volunteers make OHNY Weekend a success
-pick up the OHNY button and t-shirt that all volunteers wear during the Weekend

For more information contact: 

Megan Elevado

Volunteer Coordinator
telephone: (212) 991-6470

Field Trip Friday: United Nations Headquarters

Last week the OHNY staff (all three of us!) stepped outside the boundaries of the U.S. and entered into international territory to visit the United Nations Headquarters located in Turtle Bay. If you walk inside the boundaries of the U. N. (between 1st Ave and the East River from 42nd Street up to 48th Street) you are, in fact, walking in an area governed not by the United States, but by the U.N., which has its own police and fire department and its own postal service. As you enter the U.N. Visitors Center, you pass an impressive line of flags, 193 in all, representing all of the member countries. They are laid out in alphabetical order starting with Afghanistan and finishing with Zimbabwe. Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s anti-gun sculpture titled Non-Violence sits outside as a symbol of international peace.

Outside the U.N.

Non-violence sculpture, donated to the U.N. by Luxemburg

The NY Headquarters, built in 1952, consist of four buildings: the Secretariat building, the General Assembly building, the Conference building and the Dag Hammarskjold Library, which was added in 1961. Rather than holding a competition for the buildings, the United Nations Board of Design was created, an international committee of architects that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace K. Harrison, among others.

U.N. General Assembly building atrium

U.N. General Assembly building atrium

The tour of the building started in the impressive Security Council, with its iconic circular wood table, a gift of Norway. The primary purpose of the Security Council is to promote peace and to discuss and defuse international conflicts. The Presidency of the Security Council rotates each month; each member country getting a turn.

U.N. Security Council

The other main highlight of the tour was the General Assembly, the main conference hall where all 193 member States of the U.N. meet to discuss international issues. It features a large golden wall that sits just behind the podium and upper booth areas that are reserved for the official translators (as seen in the movie The Translator with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn).

U.N. General Assembly

Along the tour, there are also a number of exhibits that represent the three main goals of the U.N. – peacekeeping and security, upholding and maintaining human rights, and social and economical development. Other exhibits serve as reminders of the international catastrophes that have taken place in the past due to war and conflict. You can see a status of St. Agnes that was found face-down in the ruins after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Also on view is the official document of the U.N. rejecting the denial of the holocaust.

St. Agnes statue

The tour is a great way to get an intimate view of how the U.N. functions and how it conducts international business on a daily basis. It also provides a sense of hope and solidarity, knowing that right here in New York, the U.N. is working to build a more peaceful and prosperous world.

The U.N. buildings are currently undergoing their first renovation since they were built. It is an extensive renovation that started 2009 and is scheduled to finish in 2013. Only the infrastructure of the buildings are being updated; the buildings, for the most part, will remain unaltered in honor of the international style and symbolic nature of the U.N. Headquarters. Access to the visitors center is free and open to the public daily from 9:00am – 5:30pm. Public tours will continue through the renovation and are now being conducted from the General Assembly building. For more information about tours prices and times click here.

The U.N. will also be conducting architectural tours during the 9th Annual OHNY Weekend taking place on October 15 &16. Stay tuned to find out more details soon!

Field Trip Friday: Brooklyn Grange

Last week our new program coordinator, Jailee Rychen, took an afternoon break from the office world of computers and ringing phones and headed out to Brooklyn Grange, a commercial organic rooftop farm located in Long Island City.

full view of Brooklyn Grange

From below, on the street, a passerby would never suspect that up above fruits and vegetables of all types (including 40 varietals of tomatoes, their biggest crop) are being grown and harvested from the 7th floor rooftop of the building.

a view of the Manhattan skyline from the farm

This is not your average city garden, this is a real farm. The experience of visiting Brooklyn Grange, especially for those who believe that the words “urban” and “farming” were never meant to go together,  will alter anyone’s previous notions of the divide between the urban and the rural.  As the farmers on the rooftop tend to their crops, they can also enjoy magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline.

flowering okra plants

Some interesting facts about the farm:

-It is a full acre (40,000 square feet) in size.

-It is made of 1.2 million pounds of ground soil.

-Underneath the soil is a green roof system that prevents the roots of the plants from penetrating the building and also has a system for catching and re-using access water from heavy rain.

-The farm is located in Queens (despite its name) because the location was determined only after the establishment of an LLC.

-They farm 9 months out of the year and in winter they grow cover crops such as rye, buckwheat and clover.

-They also have a chicken coop.

the chicken coop

Brooklyn Grange is also very dedicated to engaging with the local community and providing educational programs for school children, volunteers and others that are interested in learning about urban food production. They sell their produce to the public at multiple farm stands throughout the city (see their blog for information on specific locations) and supply a number of NYC restaurants. The farm also has a composting program that accepts organic waste scraps from the community; you can drop your waste with them at any of their farm stands.

Managing partner and co-founder of Brooklyn Grange, Anastasia Plakias,  gave Jailee a full tour of the farm (and few nibbles along the way). Being up on the rooftop farm is a peaceful experience in an otherwise chaotic urban landscape. It reminds you that even though we live in NYC, it is still possible to find fresh, local produce that has been cultivated and grown right amongst the concrete and skyscrapers of the city.

Brooklyn Grange is open to the public on Wednesdays from 1pm – 6pm.

Brooklyn Grange

37-18 Northern Boulevard

Long Island City

Meet Megan Elevado, our Volunteer Coordinator

Megan pumpkin picking and looking forward to the Fall!

We would like to introduce Megan Elevado, our Volunteer Coordinator for the 2011 OHNY Weekend.

Megan is a native New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn. After graduating from NYU, she worked as an event planner and fundraiser for non-profit cultural institutions in New York including the American Museum of Natural History and New York City Opera.  Megan is now in her second year of coursework at Parsons, pursuing a Masters in the History of Decorative Art and Design.

A Few Fun Facts About Megan:

– loves period films based in the 18th and 19th centuries

– favorite pizza is from L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn

– collects all things with elephants (pillows with elephant prints, elephant statues… if it’s elephant themed, Megan probably has it!)

– prefers British tabloid magazines to American ones

– is from the same part of Brooklyn as Larry David

You can contact Megan at for more information on volunteering for the 9th Annual OHNY Weekend, October 15 & 16.

The 2011 OHNY Weekend volunteer registration is now live! Sign up now!

Field Trip Friday: The Griswold Inn

Should you ever find yourself in Connecticut on a Monday night, it is in your best interest to stop whatever you are doing and head to the small town of Essex.   There, in a centuries-old establishment, you will find one of best traditions in New England alive and well: the sea chantey.

As heralded by the giant flag over their porch, Monday night at the Griswold Inn in Essex is Sea Chantey Night.  Last week OHNY intern Ted headed out to the Gris to celebrate his father’s 60th birthday with some beer and some old sailors’ songs.

If you arrive at 8:30pm on a Monday, the Jovial Crew should be just getting started on their first set in the Tap Room.  Flanked by dozens upon dozens of nautical paintings and led by Cliff Haslam, the Crew usually delivers three sets of chanteys, each more irreverent than the last.

The songs are exactly what you might expect to find in the repertoire of an 19th century mariner.  There are songs to be sung while rigging a ship, boozing on shore, pining for women, and remembering legendary ships of old.

The first set is largely kid-friendly, but after a short intermission the second set starts up and the songs are a bit saltier.  Also, it should be noted, audience participation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the crowd is always more than willing to join in.

If the infamous Birthday Song at the end of the second set doesn’t offend your delicate sensibilities, you’ll love the third and final set.  Here you’ll be regaled with songs that don’t hesitate to make joyful use of innuendo, euphemism, and puns, and yet others that skip the pageantry altogether and cut right to the chase.

Fun Tip:  Bring an unsuspecting friend on their birthday and don’t warn them about the vulgarity of the Birthday Song.

When you visit, don’t be afraid to take some time between sets to explore the rest of the Gris.  While the upstairs is, in fact, an inn and bed & breakfast, the first floor boasts a vast assemblage of maritime art and historical artifacts.

Amongst the dozens of paintings of ships you’ll find banners and posters from the Prohibition Era warning of the dangers of alcohol, as well as an impressive collection of firearms.

If you’re feeling particularly bold, you might ask one of the waitresses to show you the wine bar room with its moving mural.

The Jovial Crew tries to wrap things up around 11pm, usually closing with a classic like “Rolling Home” or “The Parting Glass.”   Afterwards, as the tabs are settled and the band breaks down their equipment, the lingering crowd often continues the festivities on their own.

Somehow the Jovial Crew manages to be historically authentic without coming off as kitschy.  This weekly event is less a performance or an act than it is a continuation of a proud and storied maritime tradition.  As has always been the case, songs are being constantly tweaked and new verses written, and the fluid art of the sea chantey is kept alive and well.

The Griswold Inn

36 Main Street

Essex, CT 06426

Field Trip Friday: Pleasure Beach

Last year OHNY intern Ted traveled to Bridgeport, Conn. to explore Pleasure Beach, a former seaside attraction and seasonal community. What he found was a glimpse of Bridgeport’s past, and a reminder of its current state of abandonment.

An abandoned sofa sits in the surf on Pleasure Beach

Unless you have a boat, the only way to visit Pleasure Beach today is to hike out across a mile long sand bar that connects the island to the neighboring town of Stratford.  The isthmus was built in the 1950s by the Army Corps of Engineers to help protect the wetlands just north of Long Island Sound.

When you arrive on the island, what you encounter is a ghost town.  Abandoned cottages line an unkempt street that stretches west towards two gigantic radio towers.  Further on, the skyline of Bridgeport can be seen behind tractor trailers and the rush hour traffic of I-95.

Many of the houses had been deserted long ago: wooden boards and planks that once barred the doors and covered the windows had since been ripped off or destroyed.  Plants and graffiti cover everything, what was once clearly a cozy beach neighborhood is now completely empty.

Plants slowly reclaim a porch on Pleasure Beach

Every so often along the street there was a vacant, rubble-strewn lot between the houses.  The trees on these plots were leafless and scorched, casualties of the arson that destroyed whatever house used to stand there.  All over the island there were signs of fire.

In fact, on the morning of our visit there were some freshly burned ruins of a cottage, the charred debris still smoldering and hot.  Elsewhere trees were blackened, and what used to be a grand carousel is now collapsed, reduced to a heap of blackened timber and ornate wooden flourishes.

A burnt tree stands next to the ruins of a cottage

At the far end of the island you find the remnants of its largest and most devastating fire, the swinging bridge fire.  On Father’s Day 1996, a careless motorist tossed a lit cigarette onto the bridge while crossing, igniting the creosote used to waterproof the timber and stranding hundreds of visitors and residents on the island.  Large iron nails stood in long rows along the burnt beams, exposed by the blaze.

When the bridge burned, it was widely assumed that it would be rebuilt quickly.  Unfortunately, the predicted price of a new bridge climbed rapidly into the millions of dollars and Bridgeport, the largest and most impoverished of Connecticut’s cities, was unable to afford it.

The seasonal residents were stalwart, and for a time many returned by boat summer after summer.  At the close of each season they would padlock their doors and board up their windows, their only defense against vandals and looters.  Every year, though, fewer residents would return.

A bicycle stands on the overgrown road

Everywhere you go on the island you can see the telltale signs of a forgotten seaside community.  Paperback books litter a yard, a bicycle stands rusting in the road, a baseball diamond is barely discernible amid heavy vegetation.

Next to the remains of the carousel stands a summer theater, its interior trashed and vandalized but still recognizable.  A visitor pavilion sits in front of a wooden boardwalk, ovens and refrigerators rusting away inside its kitchens.

The interior of the Polka Dot Playhouse

It was clear that the people who once lived here never expected to leave for good.  Inside the cottages beds were made, dishes and glasses lined the shelves, clothes were folded neatly in the bureaus and dressers.  Children’s toys were scattered in yards, fishing gear was stored in garages.

A trundle bed covered with debris

Since our visit to Pleasure Beach, demolition crews were sent to the island to raze the remaining cottages.  None of the nearly four dozen residential buildings remain.  The horses from the old carousel, however, survive.  After the bridge fire, the horses were removed from Pleasure Beach and installed in a new carousel at the Beardsley Zoo, also in Bridgeport.

The land bridge that connects the island to the mainland is now largely a protected habitat. Fences and signs alert pedestrians of the land’s status as a nesting area of the piping plover.  The plover is one of the main concerns to those who would like to rebuild Pleasure Beach.  As an endangered species, piping plovers and their habitats are protected from development under Connecticut law, barring anyone from building a road on the connecting land bridge.

So for now, the island sits vacant in full view of the interstate, the Metro-North line, and the Port Jefferson Ferry, a melancholy reminder of Bridgeport’s grand past.