Monday, July 21, 2014

I Guess This Really Is the Best-Kept Secret in New York

Sunday morning we promised to take the kids to Victorian Gardens, the amusement park inside Central Park. But we got off to a late start and didn't show up until close to 11 a.m.

We were scared it would be overrun by then. After all, it was a beautiful day in New York (high of 79 degrees, and a not-too-terrible 51 percent humidity).

But our fears were unwarranted. It wasn't crowded at all, and there were no lines for anything.

What is going on here? If this amusement park were located in the suburbs, it would be packed with screaming children on a beautiful Sunday in July.

Instead, it's quiet because it' the heart of a city of 8 million-plus people?

Something doesn't make sense. I realize a lot of Manhattanites don't have kids, but still...

The Victorian Gardens marketing does acknowledge that it's the "best-kept secret in New York City" (I'll forgive the hyphenation fail below). I'm used to that being a meaningless statement. In this case, it really appears to be true.

Victorian Gardens also is relatively inexpensive (even Atlanta-area attractions seemed to be pricier).

And if your kids are shorter than 36 inches, they get in for free. Not that everyone in this city cares about getting a good deal. As I was encouraging Alice to take off her shoes in an unsuccessful attempt to beat the system, a family of more affluent Manhattanites squeezed by and happily paid full price without bothering to measure their small children (a reminder that money is no object for many of this city's residents).

Inside, there were virtually no lines for any rides. And if you wanted to ride something twice, you just stayed in your seat.

The carnival games were so empty that you were guaranteed to win a prize (so long as you beat at least one other person). When Alice and Elliot played each other, we were essentially paying $8 ($4 each) to win one stuffed animal. Not such a terrible arrangement — as long as the kids didn't fight over who got to keep it.

So I would say that I strongly recommend checking out Victoria Gardens. Except wait...I don't want to ruin a good thing.

Please don't come. It's terrible.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Photo That Shows Why Central Park Is Amazing

I snapped this photo of Elliot clambering on the rocks in Central Park.

To me, it crystallizes what makes Central Park special.

It mixes moments of bucolic splendor...

...with being in the largest city in the United States.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Last Streetcar in New York

New York's transit system is a marvel, especially compared with San Francisco's Muni. But there is one area where the Big Apple can't match the City by the Bay: streetcars. I love the New York subway and the tram, but I still miss the rattle of streetcars on Market Street and the rumble of cable cars climbing California Street.

Well, it turns out that the very last streetcar in New York City rolled over the Queensboro Bridge more than 57 years ago. I learned that from this fascinating video posted on the Roosevelt Islander blog.

Before 1954 — when a bridge was built from Queens — this trolley was the sole way to reach Roosevelt Island, then known as Welfare Island.

From Roosevelt Islander, which cites NYC Roads:
When the trolley would get to the Roosevelt Island stop, "riders descended a small staircase to a catwalk underneath the roadway, where they entered an 'upside down building' (the entrance was on the roof) in which they took elevators to street level. Trolley service ended with the completion of the Roosevelt Island Bridge in 1955. The old elevator buildings were demolished in 1970."
Can you imagine this bizarre portal being the only way on or off the island?

Of course, there was much less reason to visit this place back then. The plan for apartment buildings on the island wasn't adopted until 1969, and that was followed by years of construction.

The trolley-free Queensboro Bridge today.

For any local readers who want to see more of the Queensboro Bridge Trolley, there's a new exhibition on the streetcar featuring photography by Sid Kaplan. It runs until July 24 at the the Octagon Gallery (888 Main Street).

The trolley video also solved a personal mystery for me. When I wrote my paean to the Queensboro Bridge last month, I griped about how confusing it can be to cross it: "Depending on what onramp you use, you may be forced to drive in what appears to be a breakdown lane and stay in it the whole way across."

This was one of the abandoned streetcar lanes!

If I had known I was traversing an august stretch of transit history, I would have appreciated it more.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

This Is *Literally* Great: Weird Al's 'Word Crimes'

I haven't been this delighted by a "Weird Al" Yankovic song since the 1980s, when I would dutifully buy his albums on cassette and play them on long car rides. (It's probably just as well that the album era is over, because Weird Al's records forced you to listen to a lot of polka.)

This video combines a parody of "Blurred Lines" with some clever animation from Sacramento illustrator Jarrett Heather. It helps that it deals with one of my favorite topics: grammatical mistakes.

This is easily the best grammar-centric YouTube clip since "Semicolon" by the Lonely Island.

I still hum that one to myself sometimes...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Little Green Men (But No Women)

A couple years ago, I reported on an exchange I had with our 4-year-old neighbor. She asserted that any creature with wings had to be a girl.

Well, I had the flip side of that discussion this morning with Alice, 3. She spotted this green woman on a plastic cup and asked about her.

"Who's that, Daddy?"
"Some kind of alien."
"But it's a girl."
"Aliens can't be girls?"
I was taken aback by this, but I guess our culture mostly presents aliens as male. They're called Little Green Men, after all, not Little Green People.

So now I'm on the hunt for good female alien role models for my daughter (there's a sentence I never thought I'd type).

I came across this video on the "Top 10 Sexy Female Aliens," but it doesn't seem appropriate for a 3-year-old.

There's always the female alien from "Aliens," but murdering an entire unit of Colonial Marines is not the kind of behavior we're trying to pattern for Alice.

This may take awhile...

Monday, July 07, 2014

One Way of Measuring Sprawl

I'm still in Atlanta this week and I did something unusual today: got into a car and drove solo. (Living a car-free existence in New York, I feel like this is a pretty exotic experience.)

Anyway, I noticed that traffic was far worse as I got outside of Atlanta. When I reached the so-called perimeter — Interstate 285, which rings the city — more cars poured onto the freeway.

Atlanta traffic. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This got me thinking: The city of Atlanta itself is a tiny part of the region. It has a population of about 444,000, which means it's smaller than Sacramento or Mesa, Ariz. That's crazy for a place with a total metro-area population of about 5.5 million.

To gauge just how unusual this is, I looked at the 20 largest metro areas in the U.S. and measured the percentage of residents living in the region's major city.
Portion of metro population in largest city:
San Diego: 42.2%
New York: 42.1%
Houston: 34.8%
Phoenix: 34.4%
Los Angeles: 30%
Chicago: 29%
Philadelphia: 26%
Baltimore: 22%
San Francisco: 18.54%
Dallas: 18.47%
Seattle: 18.1%
Detroit: 16%
Boston: 14%
Tampa: 12.3%
Minneapolis: 11.6%
St. Louis: 11.3%
Washington, D.C.: 10.9%
Atlanta: 8%
Riverside: 7.23%
Miami: 7.17%
Regions like Atlanta, Miami and Riverside/San Bernardino were below 10 percent. I feel like that means citizens don't have as much pride and money invested in the local urban area. In Atlanta, for instance, cultural institutions have moved outside city limits without much backlash.

Note, though, that this isn't a perfect system. Texas cities such as Houston have basically annexed every municipality around them, creating a situation where you have a lot of sprawl despite there being one giant metropolis at the center of it. San Diego, which ranks No. 1, is basically in that situation.

The 405 in San Diego. Photo courtesy of KCRW.

Even some fairly dense cities like Boston and D.C. score poorly, mostly due to building restrictions that make it tougher for people to live at the urban core. (But I would argue this spotlights some failures in urban planning.)

In any case, it's an interesting way of viewing our nation's urban areas. And I think most of us would agree that the best metro areas are places in which people want to live in the inner city — not ones where residents flee for the suburbs.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Safari in Georgia

It already feels like we're traveling with three wild animals, so going on a safari seems redundant. Still, everyone had a good time at the Wild Animal Safari, a 5-mile drive-thru tour of giraffes, rhinos and other animals in rural Georgia. (It's the South, so even the zoos are drive-thru.)

I have to admire the safari park's business model: They get their customer to feed the animals and even pay for the food.

The downside is some feeders aren't especially qualified, as you can see from Alice's 0-4 attempt to throw a pellet in a steer's mouth.

Things got precarious in the middle of our drive when our 5-year-old had to go to the bathroom. You're not allowed to leave the vehicle, so the poor guy had to handle his business from an open doorway. I assume this is how they handle it on the African plain.

In the end, the biggest challenge was dealing with all the slobber. This bison's tongue is going to haunt my dreams for some time.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Apparently the Second Amendment Also Applies to Nerf Balls

While at Stone Mountain, we took the kids to an indoor activity area that had hundreds of small foam balls flying around the room.

The idea was to scoop up the Nerf-like balls and put them in pneumatic tubes or use them to play games. The kids also had fun just letting the balls rain down on them.

There were only two rules: No running and no throwing the balls.

That made sense, I thought. You don't want kids hurling projectiles at one another, even if the balls were pretty soft and harmless.

Then I got to the second floor, where there was a row of machine guns set up to blast the balls at hapless victims down below.

Welcome to the South, where the right to bear arms shall not be infringed — even in a kids' activity center. But there's no problem restricting regular arms (the throwing kind).

The most alarming part: Our 3-year-old took to the machine gun with the enthusiasm of a Navy Seal sniper.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Red Tram With a Very Different View

We're on vacation in Atlanta this week, and apparently the theme of our trip is "doing New York things slightly differently."

When we arrived on Saturday, we almost immediately went to a restaurant called the New York Pizza Exchange. (Sadly, I didn't bring a New York pizza to exchange, so we had to pay with cash.)

Things got weirder when we went to Stone Mountain (the fictional home of NBC page Kenneth Parcell) and rode a familiar-looking red tram up the mountain.

When the tram operator was explaining things to us (like how the ride gets bumpy as it passes the support towers), I was tempted to say, "Yeah, we've got this."

I made a video of the ride, so you can compare and contrast with the Roosevelt Island version.

Helpful hint if you're having trouble telling the difference: Roosevelt Island has fewer monuments honoring the Confederacy.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Blissful Roosevelt Island Day

I sometimes have misgivings about where we live (the climate, the East Berlin architecture), but today it was hard to see Roosevelt Island as anything other than a utopia.

The weather was near-perfect (even by California standards), it was the first day of summer, and it was Roosevelt Island Day! (Why doesn't every place have a special day named after itself? Is there no Manhattan Day or Queens Day?)

The island puts on a big festival, with lots of fun stuff for kids. We rode rides, ate cotton candy and yarn-bombed a tree.

I made a video documenting the occasion.

We've only lived here for a little more than two years, but I swear the kids have ridden that spinning-apple thing at six different events. The island trots it out for everything (Halloween, festivals, what have you).

If someone at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. has that spinning apple on their books, I can assure them it has paid for itself by now.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Did Anyone Write Stuff Down in the '70s?

I mentioned on Friday how a beautiful Queensboro Bridge lamppost base was lost in the 1970s — only to be rediscovered in 2011.

Who are these people? No one remembers.

I also saw a story last week about the removal of the notorious Legs rope sculpture from the Embarcadero BART station. The artwork was put up in the 1970s, but no one's quite sure when exactly. According to the Chronicle, "There's some debate over whether the sculpture was installed in 1976 or 1978."

So a massive piece of art was erected in one of the busiest transit stations on the West Coast, and the newspaper of record can't say definitively when it happened?

Here on Roosevelt Island, we have the Meditation Steps, which provide a serene view of Manhattan. They could reasonably be described as a landmark, and yet no one's even certain of the decade they were installed in. (It was either the late 1960s or early '70s.)

I realize people weren't microblogging and Instagramming every gallery opening and street fair in the 1970s, but come on. Was no one keeping track of anything?