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?

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Yin to the Queensboro Bridge's Yang

In my last post, I described how the Queensboro Bridge is a utilitarian cantilever span dressed up with decorative touches, such as masonry towers, domes and finials.

Well, it occurs to me that another bridge is the exact opposite of the Queensboro: the George Washington.

Photo courtesy of

During the whole Bridgegate scandal, I learned an interesting fact about this span: Its signature look was basically created by accident.

From Wikipedia:
The original design for the towers of the bridge called for them to be encased in concrete and granite. However, because of cost considerations during the Great Depression and favorable aesthetic critiques of the bare steel towers, this was never done. The exposed steel towers, with their distinctive criss-crossed bracing, have become one of the bridge's most identifiable characteristics.
So with the Queensboro, they made a cantilever bridge beautiful by gussying it up. With the George Washington, they made a suspension bridge beautiful by stripping it down.

Both bridges have their fans. While F. Scott Fitzgerald praised the Queensboro, the French architect Le Corbusier was #TeamGWB.

From Le Corbusier's 1937 book, "When the Cathedrals Were White":
The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh.
Maybe so, though I doubt the people stuck in traffic last year were quite so elated.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Up-Close Beauty of the Queensboro Bridge

When we moved to New York, I had an instant prejudice against the Queensboro Bridge. After all, it's a cantilever bridge. And cantilever bridges are ugly and dangerous.

That's the lesson we were taught with the Bay Bridge. The suspension portion of that span is majestic and sturdy (even if it lives in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge); the cantilever half was an eyesore and had to be torn down because it proved unsafe in the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was replaced, naturally, with a suspension bridge.

The old span will take years to be fully demolished. So now it sits beside its gleaming new replacement, looking all the more pathetic.

Photo courtesy of Demolition News.

Anyway, back to New York. After two years of living and working near the Queensboro Bridge, I find I'm warming to it.

Sure, it looks like it was built with an Erector Set — with none of the minimalist grace of a suspension bridge. Forget about actually driving on it either: 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.

The span is actually a double-cantilever bridge, with one crossing the river on each side of Roosevelt Island. From a distance, the look is purely utilitarian. Also, what the heck are we supposed to call the thing? The 59th Street Bridge? The Queensboro? Ed Koch? There seems to be less consensus on this than any landmark in New York. (Officially, it's the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.)

But when you get close up — something that's easily done on the Roosevelt Island tram — the Queensboro Bridge reveals its charms.

The architect Henry Hornbostel designed the bridge's decorative touches, which are surprisingly ornate at close range. The bridge opened in 1909, after all, which was the heyday of the City Beautiful movement.

It has masonry towers with domes at the top, and its latticework is crowned with beautiful finials.

Photo courtesy Wired New York.

But some of the bridge's original features are no longer intact. Below you see the base of a lamp that was removed in 1975 so the Roosevelt Island tram could be built.

This gorgeously intricate object is now sitting in an inauspicious spot next to the tram station on the Roosevelt Island side. Before that, the lamppost base was lost for more than 35 years. (Someone found it in 2011.) Given the turmoil of 1970s New York, it was probably pretty easy to lose stuff.

The good news: This piece of history will soon be relocated to the front of Roosevelt Island's Visitor Center Kiosk, and perhaps more people will stop to reflect on the Queensboro Bridge's hidden beauties.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I May Not Be a Real New Yorker, But I'll Happily Drink One

We had a rare night out this weekend and got introduced to a new cocktail: the New Yorker.

It's less cloying than other urban-themed drinks, such as a Manhattan or Cosmopolitan. A New Yorker is basically just whiskey with a dash of grenadine and a lime garnish. In other words, it's not sweet and somewhat manly (just like this fine city?).

At the Chat Bistro Noir, where I tried my New Yorker, they like to use red wine instead of grenadine. Even better! (And they didn't try to substitute a lemon for the lime.)

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Power of Self-Publishing

Lucy was destroying the kids' books, so Elliot made his sister her own book, "The I Love Lulu Book."

It was a nice defense tactic (and very sweet), but now I hope she doesn't destroy this one.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Eleanor or Alice? A Tough Decision Even for the Chief Decider

The New Yorker published a profile of John Green, the author of "The Fault in Our Stars," and it has a couple of name-related tidbits.

After my post last month about Hazel (the protagonist of "TFIOS"), I was interested to learn that Green was inspired by a real-life teen named Esther — another name that deserves to be more popular.

Green and his wife Sarah have two kids: Henry, 4, and Alice, 1. (They have good taste!) Apparently they asked Obama for help naming their younger child, but he was useless.
When Sarah was pregnant with Alice, the Greens did a Google Hangout with Barack Obama, during which they asked him which name he preferred: Eleanor or Alice. The President demurred, saying, “The main thing is, tell either Eleanor or Alice not to forget to be awesome.”
I don't think I could have chosen between these names myself. (Fortunately, I was able to use them both.)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Self-Sufficient At Last: Part 2

A year ago, I was delighted that Elliot was able to push his sisters' stroller without assistance.

Well, now he's able to read to them — an even bigger help.

He's also able to spin them around until the point of collapse, but that's less useful.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

What Your Name Says About Your Age: Part 2

One final thought on that Nate Silver baby-name post: He might have found a shortcut to picking names with "elephant charts."

An elephant chart is a term I invented to describe names that peaked 100-plus years ago and are now making a comeback. Here's the chart for Lucy, which as you can see, looks a little like an elephant's back, head and raised trunk.

If you're named Lucy (and aren't British), it probably means one of three things: You're very old, you're very young, or you're very dead.

There are few middle-aged Americans named Lucy. And that's why it's such an appealing baby name. It has a classic feel, and yet people my age haven't known many Lucys. So it seems fresh. (We now know three Lucys, including ours, in our apartment complex alone: ages 5, 2 and 1.)

Well, Nate Silver created a chart that might identify the same basic characteristics. It lists the names with the widest age spreads — in other words, ones that are shared by the very old and very young.

Almost every name on here is a home run, especially the girls' picks. (The boys' names start to fizzle a bit after Sam.)

If you're an expectant parent, you could practically throw a dart at this chart and your kid will be a perfect fit for Park Slope or Noe Valley.

My work is finished here.

What Your Name Says About Your Age

There was some smart analysis last week from Nate Silver's 538 blog, which showed how to calculate the median age of a person based on their name:
There are quite a lot of websites devoted to tracking the popularity of American baby names over time. (The data ultimately comes from the Social Security Administration, which records birth names dating back to 1880.) 
But we haven’t seen anyone ask the age of living Americans with a given name. The method for determining the answer is quite simple: All you really need is the SSA’s baby name database and its actuarial tables, which estimate how many people born in a given year are still alive.

They also calculated the "youngest" names, which weren't too surprising. Ava, Isabella, Lily and Sophia had the youngest median age among girls, while Liam, Jayden, Aiden and Mason were the youngest among boys.

It's also clear why the two "oldest" women's names — Gertrude and Mildred — are ranked that way. Unlike with other old-lady names such as Ruby, Pearl and Violet, parents aren't picking Mildred for their babies. (Hello, it has the word "dread" in it.)

This analysis is fascinating, but I've been doing informal age assessments based on names for years.

The other day I encountered a woman of indeterminate age (she could have been anywhere from 35 to 45) and learned her name was Sharon. Mentally, I added 10 years to her age.

Now, I'm a baby-name geek, so maybe other people aren't doing this. But it probably happens on a subconscious level.

So again, this is why I repeat a bit of advice I gave last month:
You’re always better off picking a name that’s rising in popularity. Also, think twice about giving your kid a name that peaked 15 years ago (Lauren or Nicholas). When that child is 25 or 30, you don’t want him or her to be saddled with the name of a middle-aged person.
Life is hard enough without your parents prematurely aging you at birth.