Friday, November 27, 2009

Back in Time: Walking the Wickquasgeck Trail

That Broadway has played such a central role in recent events is fitting given the history of this street. It is perhaps New York City's oldest thoroughfare, growing with the city from its days as a coarse settlement to a bustling hub on the eastern seaboard. And in fact, it may be older than the New Amsterdam settlement:
The Manhattan Indians used the Wickquasgeck name for the path they took through the center of the island to [the] northern reaches. Coming south along it, Indians of various tribes reached the Dutch settlement at the southern end of the island. The Europeans could likewise follow it north—through stands of pin oak, chestnut, poplar, and pine, past open fields strewn with wild strawberries ... crossing the fast running brook that flowed southeast from the highlands in the area of Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, more or less where the Plaza Hotel stands, to empty into a small bay on the East River—to hunt in the thick forest at the island's center and to fish the inlets that penetrated the eastern coast. As it was clearly destined to be the most prominent lane on the island, when the Dutch widened the path they referred to it as the Gentlemen's Street, or the High Street, or simply the Highway. The English, of course, called it Broadway (Shorto 2005: 60).
Well, the strawberries are long gone, but today we are going to walk the Wickquasgeck Trail—well, part of it anyway—and follow in the footsteps of early Dutch venturing into a lush wilderness and Native Americans coming to trade with the Dutch West India Company.

We begin our walk at the southern end of the island, at the site of Fort Amsterdam. The Fort provided protection for settlers and served as a business center where trade for the Dutch West India Company took place. When Keift's War prompted retaliatory attacks from the Native American population, settlers would have taken refuge at the Fort—close your eyes and imagine them huddled here for protection. The area would grow to be a hub of activity—adjacent Bowling Green was at times a market and a promenade. It was also the site where Peter Minuit made the famous trade that shifted "ownership" of the land to the Dutch from the Lenape. Today, the Alexander Hamilton Customs House stands at the site, which is also home to the New York branch of the Smithsonian's American Indian Museum. As Shorto notes, it is somewhat fitting that the site now preserves American Indian artifacts when it was meant to keep these people out. [Image Top Left: US Custom's House Nov. 2009, original site of Fort Amsterdam. Image Bottom Right: Bowling Green, Nov. 2009.]

Broadway remains a bustling artery through the city. Running north-south, parallel to the Hudson River, it is the only avenue to span the length of the island. The names of surrounding streets—Pine, Cedar, Spruce, Beaver, etc.—remind us of the woods that populated the land and of the heavy trade in furs that occurred here. Broadway was a choice residential area until the early 19th-century, when well-to-do residents began to move uptown as Manhattan expanded. The shipping industry moved in and the area came to be called "Steamship Row" (see page 8) for the shipping industries that took up the vacated town houses. [Image Left: Broadway, looking uptown. Nov. 2009.]

To follow the Wickquasgeck Trail, we need to continue along Broadway to Vesey/Ann Streets. It is here that present-day maps diverge from the original trail. To follow the original trail, we need to follow Park Row into the Bowery. The Bowery is another remnant from New York City's days as a Dutch settlement. The name Bowery comes from the Dutch bouwerie, meaning farm. And the area was perfect for farming in the days of the early colony. First settled by Africans, the Bowery was well outside the original settlement, and offered a respite from hectic daily life in the port settlement (as well as the settlement's taxes). [Image Right: Broadway diverges from the Wickquasgeck Trail at Broadway and Ann Street. Broadway is seen here on the left. The trail continues down Park Row, shown here on the right. Nov. 2009]

At some point as Director-General, Peter (he preferred Petrus) Stuyvesant packed his wife and two young sons and his belongings into a wagon, and traveled to the Bowery to set up a farm. Perhaps his wife had gotten tired of living in the Fort—with two young boys and soldiers thundering in and out, it can't have offered many chances for peace and quiet. Whatever the reason, Stuyvesant would live out his days here after the colony was seized by the British—petitioning to do so after answering summonses by the Dutch to answer for the management of the colony. Today, Stuyvesant Street is the only remnant of his vast estate. He is buried in his family's vault located next to St. Marks-in-the Bowery. St. Marks was constructed in 1799, but prior to that, in 1660, Stuyvesant ordered a family chapel, the Dutch Reform Chapel, to be built on that spot. [Image Top Left: Stuyvesant Street is an short diagonal road that intersects 9th Street. Stuyvesant's Manor would have stood approximately where the red van is located. Nov. 2009. | Image Bottom Right: Stuyvesant's family vault at St. Marks. Judging by the stains on the marker, it would seem that the stern Director-General remains none too popular. Nov. 2009.]

Back on the trail, we would continue along the Bowery which becomes Fourth Avenue to 23rd Street—the edge of Stuyvesant's property. From here it is harder to follow it as it passes through present day buildings, but it crosses the northern end of Central Park westward to join Broadway, which continues through the Bronx, eventually becoming Route 9. [Image Left: Bust of Petrus Stuyvesant in graveyard of St. Marks near family vault. Nov. 2009].

At the end of the Wickquasgeck Trail we would perhaps have encountered a American Indian village. It would have been a journey that took days, not hours. Who would have thought that a simple footpath would evolve into one of the most traveled routes in New York City.

I urge you all to step off the beaten path today—walk off the turkey and stuffing and explore. Let me know if you uncover any history along the way.

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Culture in Action 4: Sitting Down at America's Table With the AJC

On Monday, I attended a Thanksgiving program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) called America's Table. I was delighted to be invited as the guest of longtime AJC member, Dr. Jo Renee Fine. Unsure of what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the audience and the panelists—who mingled freely over hors d'oeuvres, greeting newcomers like myself with openness and genuine warmth. The group that assembled in the auditorium at the New York Historical Society featured representatives from Bangladesh, Russia, El Salvador, the Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Japan, Panama, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and more. They gathered in the spirit of diversity to discuss immigration reform. [Image Right: New York Historical Society, Nov. 2009.]

America's Table refers to the name of a Thanksgiving reader that the AJC developed post-9/11 to provide comfort to its members—a reminder that our success as a nation is rooted in the acknowledgment and celebration of diversity. The various interethnic and interreligious programs sponsored and supported by the AJC attest to one of the organization's mission "to welcome and honor the strangers among us." The message that AJC sends through America's Table is that America's diversity is its strength—that the phrase "we are a nation of immigrants" is more than just a sound bite. From the earliest Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam, including Joris Jansen Rapalje and Catalina Trico, to the immigrants processed at Ellis Island until as recently as the 1950s, and the the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States today, both documented and undocumented, this nation is shaped daily by their presence. [Image Left: AJC America's Table reception, Nov. 2009.]

I chose to label this post as a part of the "Culture in Action" series because more than anything, it provided a glimpse at the democratic process in action. The AJC is helping to mobilize the immigration reform movement. As an undergrad, I worked closely with the Trinidadian immigrant population in Richmond Hill, NY, tracking their transition to the mainstream via the adjustment to capitalism and the acquisition of material goods. I remember the difficulty I had infiltrating this group and making contacts despite the fact that I myself am Trinidadian. Part of the difficulty I encountered stemmed from the fact that so many of my would-be contacts were undocumented or possessed a tenuous status—having overstayed a visa, or in the process of applying for status adjustment. Many had never heard of anthropology, and were convinced that I would report them to immigration services. Many did not understand the immigration system, and fell victim to unscrupulous lawyers who drained families of their life savings without securing them the status they so desired. I can remember clearly the worry about their future and the future of their children, the loneliness felt for a life left behind in Trinidad, and the determination to succeed. [Image Right: Filling in the auditorium at the New York Historical Society, Nov. 2009.]

Immigration remains a messy issue. For all the people following the "proper" channels to citizenship, there are many who are not. There are also countless others on the "proper" track who are mired in red tape and who have fallen through the cracks in a very broken system. Congressman Anthony Weiner was present to speak about the strength it takes to leave behind all that is familiar, to uproot yourself from your home and your traditions, and set out to make a new life for yourself. His declaration that immigration reform will happen in 2010 was met with a resounding cheer—with the aside that if it were up to the 100 or so people in the room, immigration reform could be hashed out in about an hour. He was followed by newly elected Congressman Ydanis Rodriguez, himself an immigrant serving immigrant communities in Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill. Rodriguez said we didn't need to look to Africa or Asia to find people in need, not when there are tenants at 562 Academy Street who have been living without gas for the last three years. [Image Top Left: Congressman Anthony Weiner speaks at the America's Table program, Nov. 2009. | Image Bottom Right: Newly elected Congressman Ydaris Rodriguez speaks with religious leader, Nov. 09.]

Immigration reform will take more than an hour to sort out. Regardless of your stance on immigration issues, regardless of whether you are a new citizen, a first-generation American, or your family can trace themselves to the Pilgrims and other early settlers, remember that we're all here because someone had the strength and determination to start over. The AJC created the Thanksgiving reader in the hopes that its message would be shared around the Thanksgiving table. I leave you with an excerpt from the 2009 reader:
In America, our differences resonate in our names, language, food, and music. They inspire art and produce champions and leaders.

We feel free to disagree.

We are a family, and what is a family gathering without debate?
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding Traces of New York City's Dutch Heritage

While we tend to think of the history of New York City in terms of the English settlement, the truth is the city's foundation is decidedly Dutch. I say this without any disrespect to the original inhabitants of the land that so enraptured the early Europeans, but it's true. And it is the Dutch I wish to speak of today. Believe it or not, much of the New Amsterdam colony has remained—names of places in and around the city, as well as throughout much of the New England region, remind us of our Dutch heritage: Stuyvesant, the Bouwerie, Greenwyck (Greenwich Village), Breuckelen (Brooklyn), Parelstraat (Pearl Street), Fresh Kills, Gravesende, Van Cortland, Nieuw Haarlem (Harlem), Vlissing (Flushing), Lange Eyelandt, as well as Roode Eyelandt and many more, attest to a Dutch presence in our history. And the truth is that had we solely been an English colony, the flavor of New York City would be immensely different today. While the English Puritans were establishing mono-cultures to the north in Boston and the surrounding areas and to the south in Virginia, New Amsterdam was already a bustling model of diversity. As a port settlement, its main concern was business (which remains true today), so people of many different backgrounds, religions, and races—and characters—settled here from its earliest inception. [Image Right: The Jansson-Visscher 1656 Map, Dutch North American colonies; reprinted 1685. Public domain.]

As a port New Amsterdam was as boisterous as New York City is today, and it wasn't long before the Dutch West India Company's Director-Generals felt they needed to instill law and order. Peter Minuit attempted to do this with a Thursday counsel in the rudely constructed Fort Amsterdam. Subsequent Director-Generals, including William Kieft and Petrus Stuyvesant, conducted government business out of the Fort as well, which also provided a base for trade for the Dutch West India Company. It was definitely an important site in the development of the colony—providing a sense of protection and serving as a point of contact with the mother land.

Image Above: Map of New Amsterdam, c. 1660. Fort Amsterdam is the quadrangular structure at the tip of the island. Note the shoreline. Source: New York Historical Society. Public Domain.

The colony was growing in leaps and bounds, and perhaps understanding early that to effectively run a colony with such a diverse population you needed to be in touch with its residents, Director-General William Kieft had a stone tavern constructed on the corner of Coenties Slip and Pearl Street in approximately 1642. At this time, taverns did more than just serve your favorite brew: They were meeting places, inns, and the den of politicians. (Although, in truth, Kieft may have commissioned the building partly because he needed a place to send the guests he was forced to entertain in the Fort.) So it was that the Stadt Herbert became the first City Hall of sorts in New York City—though it would not be officially commissioned as such until 1653 under Stuyvesant. At that time, its name was also officially changed to Stadt Huys (literally, State House) or less formally, City Tavern. In 1653, when the signing of the municipal charter officially named the settlement as a city, the town officials stated as their first piece of business that
"herewith [to] inform everybody that they shall hold their regular meetings in the house hitherto called the City Tavern, henceforth the City Hall, on Monday mornings from 9 o'clock, to hear there all questions of difference between litigants and decide them the best they can" (Shorto 2005: 257).
And so, without much pomp, the first City Hall was installed on the island of Manhattan, just feet away from the water's edge in what would become the downtown area. However, long before it's official establishment as City Hall, it was a meeting place for organizers and activists, such as the Board of Nine, which included Adriaen van der Donck, who quite possibly conceived the term "American" and was perhaps the early colony's most enthusiastic supporter. [Image Right: City Tavern on the East River water front, c. 1655.]

Of course, even in its early days, New York City was a place where progress was often cited as a reason for development. Stadt Huys served as City Hall until 1697, when Lovelace Tavern, which stood next door, assumed the honor. Lovelace Tavern was constructed in 1670 by New York's second English governor, Francis Lovelace. The English had seized the colony in 1664 and perhaps the movement to this site was in part to eradicate the Dutch hold on the colony in the minds of the residents, who were permitted to stay and hold on to their possessions after the transfer of power. The colony itself had also at this point been renamed for the Duke of York (only history would ever know it as New Amsterdam again). It also underwent a transformation—when the Dutch temporarily reclaimed the city (which they then named New Orange), it had begun to resemble London faintly. In any case, Lovelace Tavern served as a temporary home for City Hall. It apparently burned down in 1706, and City Hall was then moved to the site of Federal Hall on Wall Street. (City Hall would come to reside at its present location in 1811—and it is the oldest building in the United States to have been used continuously as a city hall. FYI, the Bowery Boys have an amazing photo up of City Hall from 1855. Check it out!) Though all physical traces of the original City Tavern have been lost, when construction for the building at 85 Broad Street commenced, the foundation for the neighboring Lovelace Tavern was uncovered in New York's first archaeological excavation. The foundation was ultimately incorporated into a permanent display at 85 Broad in an effort to preserve the city's history.  

[Image Left Top: Archaeological display at 85 Broad in Lower Manhattan. Image Above: Stone foundation of Lovelace Tavern, c. 1670] 

In excavating the site, additional glimpses into life in the early days of the colony have been revealed. An early 18th-century well was uncovered that is said to have resided on land belonging to longtime residents, the Philipse family, of the Philipse Manor. The well extended down to the waterline, reminding us that the East River's waterfront once ran along what is now Pearl Street, and that a fair portion of downtown Manhattan was actually physically constructed as the colony grew. It provided water to the entire block, and when the waterline was pushed back and it was no longer used, it was filled with everyday items—it became a trash receptacle. That the cistern had been installed at this site by the early to mid-1700s tells us that the neighborhood was evolving. Buildings were being torn down and new ones erected, or re-purposed. We're placed in a moment of great change in the history of New York City.

[Image Above: 18th-century cistern in lower Manhattan.]

While New York City continues to evolve, its past echoes faintly in the Dutch-revival buildings downtown—none are original: the original architecture vanished in the fires of 1776 and 1835. The Dutch have left a legacy in the places that bear their names. And they have left a legacy in diversity, which they tolerated since it helped business. Of course, tolerance should not be confused for equality; they did not accord everyone the same rights in the colony, though everyone had some rights. The legal records that have survived provide evidence that slaves filed suits against Europeans regularly; that some slaves were freed by their owners; and that Europeans were sometimes employed by freed slaves. In this rambunctious port city, Africans were some of the most stable residents of the island. Intermarriage between persons of different nationalities and religions also occurred here with greater frequency than other colonies. Thus, it seems that while the landscape has evolved through the ages, the character of the city, that brisk business settlement where tolerance can be expected, remains.

I encourage you all to go out and learn a bit of the early European settlers in your neck of the woods—you might be surprised by their resolve. And for an amazing depiction of the colony of New Amsterdam, Russell Shorto's Island at the Center of the World is strongly recommended.

Here are some additional scenes of the old colony:

Image Above: Coenties Slip and Pearl Street, c. 1665. The site of the City Tavern, New York's first City Hall. Note the shoreline of the East River. The City Tavern was also less than a two minute walk from Fort Amsterdam, putting it within easy reach of the Director-Generals—and their guests.

Image Above: The corner of Coenties Slip and Pearl Street, Nov. 2009. No trace of City Tavern remains. However, the yellow bricks in the foreground represent the foundation of City Tavern, which was reconstructed using old maps. The gray paving stones in the background mark the foundation of the Lovelace Tavern. To the left, businesses now line Pearl Street where the East River once met settlers hunting for oysters and looking for Dutch ships.

Image Above: Pearl Street, across from 85 Broad, Nov. 2009. Businesses along where the East River waterline once existed.

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Myth of Yams and Pumpkin Pie: Remembering the Past This Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving approaching, elementary school-aged children in the United States are preparing to play yams in school plays, in which they may also sing songs about pumpkin pie and cranberries. They will dress up as Pilgrims with black hats and large, shiny buckles. And they may mime a feast with Native Americans, signifying the beginning of a tradition of giving thanks in November. Their parents will undoubtedly be delighted—as they should be: every child needs a picture dressed as a yam.

These elements of Thanksgiving that will be put on display are the same half-truths that I was taught as a child. Of course, it's not as though it's an intentional effort to mislead the public about the holiday, but Thanksgiving is a constructed holiday—over the years we have pieced together history and popular customs to create this national festival. It is based on a feast of thanksgiving, which was a religious event, where the celebrants give thanks to their god(s). Many different people have marked this occurrence. The tradition of giving thanks after a good harvest year, for example, was marked by the Celts—giving us Samhain and ultimately Halloween. In North America, the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek, and others held harvest festivals. So the practice wasn't unique to the early settlers at Plymouth. In fact, Thanksgiving was not declared a national holiday until Lincoln's proclamation in 1863—commissioning a Thanksgiving observance on the last Thursday in November. Prior to this, states held their own thanksgiving festivals, and they weren't always in the fall. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed a bill into law setting Thanksgiving as the third Thursday in November. The move was calculated to help retailers combat the Depression with a longer holiday sales period.

[Image Above: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe.]

While the 1621 celebration at Plymouth has long been regarded as the first Thanksgiving, historians now know that in 1619, the settlers at the Berkeley Plantation held a mass of thanksgiving to mark their safe arrival at the settlement. Other half-truths that have survived include:
  • The Pilgrims made pumpkin pie (this recipe didn't exist at this point); had ham (no evidence suggests that pigs were butchered at this point); and ate yams (which were uncommon). More on the original Thanksgiving menu here.
  • The Pilgrims and the Native Americans had a dignified meal where they displayed impeccable table manners. Actually, no one used plates or silverware. Instead, they used a cloth napkin to handle hot pieces of food, which was likely just set out on every available surface, including tree stumps, and eaten over three days. The image of a perfect family meal is purely constructed—it was probably a bit more chaotic (like most of our Thanksgivings). [Image Right: Saying grace before carving the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Earle Landis in Neffsville, Pennsylvania c. 1942. Public domain.]
So who cares? What does it matter if we teach our children that the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock ate pumpkin pie and had cranberry sauce? That they wore funny black hats? These half-truths come to make up our national history. And while it can be difficult for facts to survive the ravages of time, new technologies and methods have made it possible to us to piece together the artifacts we find to paint a picture of the past—an accurate picture. New technologies and methods have made it possible for us to understand what the landscape looked like when early settlers arrived, and how they would have interacted with the land. This information helps us better understand our history as a people and our tendencies as a nation.

In this spirit, I am dedicating this week's blog entries to history that has survived—history that is around us, that has shaped us, that we walk by everyday without seeing. And I dedicate it to diversity. Thanksgiving in the United States is marked by people from different cultures and religions; it is a time to come together. I hope you'll enjoy these excursions with me.

Were you ever a dancing yam? What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Share your stories below. Also, if you're interested, you can read a rebuttal of the Thanksgiving "debunkers" here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

UPDATE to Sleeper, Squeezers, Lurkers, and More: Sexual Harassment Wide Spread on Mass Transit

In yesterday's post on subway behaviors, I touched briefly upon sexual harassment on mass transit, noting that the MTA in New York City had launched an anti-harassment campaign that included posters encouraging people to report these crimes. Today, the NYT featured an article in the New York Regional section that states sexual harassment on mass transit remains widespread, and is believed to be greatly under-reported.

Here are some facts reported by the article:
  • Peak hours for harassment are between 8 - 10 am and 4 - 6 pm, during rush hours.
  • The subway lines where this behavior is most prevalent include the 4, 5, and 6, particularly between Grand Central Terminal and Union Square.
  • The average offender is male, aged 37.
  • The majority of victims are females, aged 17 and older.
  • This year, police have made 412 arrests for sexual offenses.
    • Of this number, 71 had prior offenses on record.
    • Of the 71 with prior offenses, 14 were registered sex offenders, with 5 being in the most serious level of sex offender.
It's a jungle out there, folks. Be careful. And if you want to share a subway story, please add it to Sleepers, Squeezers, Lurkers, and More: Interacting With Subway Riders in Their Natural Habitat. Safe travels!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sleepers, Squeezers, Lurkers, and More: Interacting With Subway Riders in Their Natural Habitat

In a city that values personal space, we sure spend a lot of time in close contact with one another, particularly on mass transit. I personally will only board a packed subway car if I am running late and have to get somewhere immediately, otherwise, I'm perfectly content to scope out the platform, note where the doors open, and wait for the next train (this behavior makes me a camper, as we will discuss shortly)—if I have learned anything traveling via mass transit, it's that there is always another train.

Perhaps believing that my commuting strategy had lulled me into false beliefs about the success of my commuting strategies, the subway gods decided to remind me of the value of personal space recently. The 2/3 subway lines were down, which meant that I—as well as hundreds of other people who normally take those lines—was forced to find alternate routes. Having resigned myself to missing my regular LIRR train, I opted to follow my rule of letting the crowd go before me. And as usual, it worked. (Or seemed to.) A train came, and everyone piled in—they would have ridden between the cars if the practice hadn't been outlawed. Just to be safe, I let another train roll through the station. It was moderately full, but boardable, but I was already off schedule at this point, so I figured I might as well wait for a more comfortable experience. Not too long after, surely enough, a quick peek down the tunnel revealed the dim glow of the headlights of an oncoming train.[Image Left: Looking for the train down the tunnel. The dim glow of headlights mean it won't be too much longer.]

The train arrived and it was virtually empty, so I boarded and stood by the door because I only needed to go three stops or so. Well, what I hadn't banked on was how crowded the trains must have been when they got to the stops after the station where I boarded. So if the trains had been merely crowded by my judgment at my station, they were virtually unboardable by the time they got to subsequent stations, which meant that people had no choice but to wait—until the train I was on arrived, and they flooded the car. I'm a petite person, so I quickly found myself pressed against the glass. Sideways. Under someone's armpit. Yeah. I had a pang of claustrophobia and had to remind myself that I would be getting off soon. I closed my eyes and breathed (though not too deeply) and tried to subtly adjust myself into a slightly more comfortable position. For those of you who don't live in an area where mass transit can get this chaotic, to help you fully appreciate this experience, I've included the following Seinfeld clip where Elaine Benes gets stuck on a train on her way to a wedding:

Despite leaving a facial imprint on the glass door, I could understand why the train was crowded—service interruptions and delays aren't fun for anyone. I doubt anyone on the trains that afternoon had an enjoyable ride. But what about when personal space is invaded when there is no reason for it?

Last week, while having dinner with my good friend James, we got to swapping commuter stories. We were talking about large backpacks, and prime spots on the train (he prefers to stand by the door instead of taking a seat—consequently, I have categorized him as a door dweller), when the conversation turned to people who seem oblivious to others around them—the ones bump you with their backpacks, blast their iPods, occupy multiple seats, etc. On his way to meet me for dinner, James fell victim to a close-stander. Surely you've heard of close-talkers (which, interestingly, is another Seinfeld phenomenon)? Well, close-standers are oblivious to personal space boundaries. They will stand inches away, their hair in your face, knocking your book or personal device out of your hand, and they do this without any need for it, and without seeming to know they are doing it. Close-standers do this when there is more than ample space on the train to accommodate everyone. Perhaps they are used to traveling only during rush hour when close-standing is mandatory; perhaps the trains and buses they ride are always crowded; perhaps this is their way of getting human contact—no one really knows, but close-standers sometimes create uncomfortable situations for those around them. [Image Right: A door dweller stakes his claim. He could also be a packer, but his manuevering to remain in the door caused me to classify him as specified.]

Before we go on, it might bear discussing the different categories that subway riders can be grouped into. All sorts of characters ride the subway and, like any good cast, they know their parts well:
  • Campers. Commuters who know where to stand so that the doors open in front of them, enabling them to board the train firs,t are campers. They get very annoyed when non-campers, or lurkers, try to push past them and board before them. There is definitely something obsessive about campers, but they are relatively harmless. If they do get bypassed somehow, they may be annoyed, but they follow the crowd—or re-position themselves and wait for another train. [Image Right: Campers board a train during morning rush hour.]
  • Close-standers. People who stand "thisclose" to you despite the fact that it is not crowded and everyone can be afforded some personal space. It is believed that close-standers are oblivious to their needless violation of personal space. If space permits, you can try moving away from a close-stander, but you do want to be aware that close-standing could mask sexual harassment, which has also been on the rise on mass transit (more on this later).
  • Door dwellers. These are travelers who prefer to stand—in the doorway. They don't rush for seats, but strategically place themselves in the doorway, which is considered prime real estate on mass transit systems, to minimize having to shuffle around the subway car to accommodate the ebb and flow of passengers. Door dwellers usually also know which side of the car to stand on to minimize having to move out of the way to permit people to exit and board the train. They will grow extremely irritated if a new boarder tries to usurp their position and they have also been known not to step aside to let people on or off the train for this reason. Do not attempt to secure the door position if a door dweller is already in place, but assert your right to move past him or her.
  • Lurkers. These are people who try to bypass the efforts of campers and door dwellers. They want the positions these people have managed to secure, but lack the resources and abilities to claim them on their own, so they wait for opportune moments when they can sidle by. They will wait for the last minute before boarding the train in an effort to oust the door dwellers. They also try to come in from the side to bypass campers. Lurkers are very good at what they do. However, they do tend to be older travelers, so perhaps it's a travel strategy: if older travelers don't plot in this way, they may get shuffled out of the way. If you think a lurker is making a move that will result in your comfort and hard work being compromised, stand your ground. They don't like to make eye contact, so looking at one squarely in the eyes is often enough to deter their behavior.
  • Packers. People carry large bulky items with them. In all fairness, though, packers need to be distinguished from folks for whom the subway is their main method of transportation and who really have no other option for transporting bulky items. The term packer is therefore reserved for those people with super large backpacks they refuse to take off when they board the train. If you encounter a packer, you would be best advised to practice defensive maneuvers. I have been hit by a large backpack, and it's quite a weapon. Recently, I witnessed a packer on the train whose backpack was easily 50 pounds or so. In turning around, she easily cleared a swath of passengers from her vicinity. They were not happy, and she met their protests with protests of her own.
  • Pole huggers. The folks don't want to share pole space with you—they don't care if you fall down or into other riders when the train stops suddenly because you had nothing to hold onto. These folks can be identified by their possessive nature toward the pole: They will crook an arm or elbow—sometimes even both arms—around the pole, or lean against it, and effectively block anyone else from using it for support and stability.  Pole huggers will relent as more people crowd around them and reach for the pole. Securing a place at a pole is simply a matter of showing the pole hugger you do not recognize their ownership of the pole. [Image Right: A pole hugger leans on a pole in the center of the car.]
  • Sleepers. Early morning trains are where you can find the sleeper species, although they have appeared at other times as well, and seem to be straying from their natural habitat as the economy worsens. It's one thing to close your eyes until you get to your destination, another thing to fall so deeply asleep that you head, and soon your entire body, is leaning on a stranger. The best thing to do if you encounter a sleeper is to prop him or her back up. If the sleeper continues to fall on you, you are then entitled to poke or prod the person and inform them that they are sleeping on you. This is New York, however, so be prepared for the person to just stare at you. 
  • Sprawlers. Oh yes, the sprawler category. Sprawlers tend to be men, but women can sprawl too. It's not enough that they have a seat, they feel the need to sprawl out so that no one can sit on either side of them. They do seem to prefer end seats, which minimizes their impact. The best way to combat a sprawler is to say "Excuse me" and then take the seat. The sprawler may grumble, but will relinquish inches allowing you to sit. Be advised, however, that the sprawler will continue to sprawl, so it will still be an uncomfortable experience. [Image Right: A spawler prevents anyone from occupying the seat next to him.]
  • Squeezers. Squeezers will try to fit into a seat when they cannot fit. They do so anyway, and rather than perch on the edge until more room becomes available, they insist on sliding all the way back to sit "properly" in a seat causing people on either side extreme discomfort. There is no known effective way to deal with squeezers—though I suppose you yourself can stand.
We could go on listing categories extensively, but I think we have the basics. Now that you have an understanding of the cast of characters, let's return to James' story. The train was relatively empty, and so he was able to claim the preferred domain of door dwellers. When the train pulled into a subsequent station, the doors on the opposite side of where he was standing opened and a woman boarded. She crossed the aisle to stand in front of James with her back to him. And slowly the space between them seemed to diminish. According to James, "she was all up in my business!" As the train rocked back and forth, she bumped him a few times. James didn't confront her, but he was perplexed—with all the space available, it seemed ridiculous that she would crowd him as she did.

So I proposed a few suggestions to James to explain the woman's behavior:
  1. She was a door dweller too.The problem with this argument is that there were other doors available, so she could have claimed one as her own.
  2. She was attempting to flirt by pressing her rear into him. James nixed this idea because, while was uncomfortably close, she didn't seem to intentionally bump him. Also, James believes that it would have just been a weird way to pick someone up. She never once made eye contact with him—it was as though she didn't know he was there.
  3. She was a close-stander. We seemed to come to an agreement on this point. James felt her behavior was unwarranted, but she also seemed clueless—classic signs of a close-stander.
Riding the subway is a unique social experience. As mass transit, it is used by people of all cultures and backgrounds, and undoubtedly people have different notions of what are socially acceptable interactions. However, quite a few of the categories above can create uncomfortable situations as you find yourself in close bodily contact with strangers as a result of their actions. An alarming trend that has grown out of this is the rise of sexual harassment on the subways. In close quarters, people are groped, and according to the comments in response to the campaign, been ejaculated on and rubbed up against. One emptier trains, or when riding late at night, riders have reported men exposing themselves. It's clearly a jungle out there. The Holla Back blog provides a forum where people can share their subway harassment stories—be warned if you visit the site that some of the stories are quite explicit. The MTA launched an anti-harassment campaign, but it remains to be seen how effective it has been.

[Image Above: Anti-harassment ad on the subway.]

This particular type of unpleasant subway interaction aside, many of the offenses attributed to these categories seem to stem from a brand of social indifference. People don't care because their interactions with one another are largely minimized by the cushion they carry in the forms of iPods, PDAs, smart phones, and even books and magazines. But many of these categories simply represent commuting strategies. I am certain that campers and door dwellers have been around for some time. Packers may have emerged as a result of current economic times. But it is also true that the norms of social behavior are changing. Of course there are those who simply feel that others should accommodate them. I have observed this with packers and sprawlers and squeezers in particular. The nature of social interactions is changing as a result of new technology and media. It is yet unclear as to how the social order will evolve.

Have a category to add to the list above? Want to share a subway story? Join the discussion below!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Price of Fear: The Rise of Anti-Vaccination Movement and the Decline of Public Health

To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate? That seems to be the question. Growing numbers of concerned parents seem to be choosing the latter if the exceptionally low turnouts at New York City's free H1N1 vaccine clinics are any indicator of public opinion. In a city where free giveaways disappear in minutes, this is certainly surprising. Organizers are trying to determine if people are shying away due to assumptions about the populations the free clinics tend to serve, or if it's fear of the vaccine itself. They are hoping word of mouth will relay that the clinics are clean, safe, and FREE, and increase use in the coming weeks—lives may depend on it.

Last month, I discussed the panic surrounding the H1N1 virus and the anxiety about the vaccine. This month, Wired's feature, An Epidemic of Fear, traces the anti-vaccine movement and pediatrician Paul Offit's efforts to neutralize the propaganda spawned by the belief that vaccines can result in neurological impairments in children, including autism. As co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine, Offit has been hyped as pharmaceutical spokesperson whose only objective is to have your child injected with as many vaccines as possible, so he and his pharmaceutical overlords can turn a profit. He has been called a "biostitute" by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And countless other politicians and celebrities have joined in denouncing Offit publicly. [Image Left: H. Fred Clark and Paul Offit, the inventors of RotaTeq, a pentavalent rotavirus vaccine. Credit: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.]

Offit maintains that vaccines do not cause autism or any of the other conditions that have been attributed to them. He supports this claim with actual evidence—not pseudoscience, not half-truths, but evidence. While some claim that autism is the result of toxins that must be flushed out of the system or a vitamin D deficiency, the scientific community continues to find evidence that the autistic spectrum may be largely genetic:
Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethyl-mercury used in vaccines until 2001) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems.
Vaccines and autism have been linked because the signs of autism and other neurological impairments begin to show at about 18 - 24 months—coincidentally, just about when children are getting multiple vaccines. Brandishing this correlation as proof, vaccination rates in certain parts of the United States have fallen so low that certain childhood diseases which had been eradicated are reappearing at pre-vaccine levels, as in the case with the recent outbreak of mumps in Brooklyn. And unfortunately, the non-vaccinated tend to cluster, so the risk of disease which increases the chances of an outbreak becomes greater in certain areas.

The anti-vaccine movement is not new. In the 19th-century, when Edward Jenner produced the vaccination for smallpox, people were hesitant to take it because they did not understand how it worked. (Jenner developed the vaccine in 1796, but it would take approximately 100 years for scientists to have the tools to understand how it worked, and even more time would have to pass before the right tools were available to understand the cause of smallpox.) Despite the institution of the Compulsory Vaccination Act in 1853, people still refused the vaccine, and thousands died. Smallpox broke out again in England and Wales. However, Ireland and Scotland, where there were high vaccination rates, did not suffer from this outbreak. A look at more recent events in the history of the anti-vaccine movement is available here. Despite this type of actual physical evidence, the question remains: why the fear? [Image Left: Edward Jenner.]

Offit maintains that the early anti-vaccine supporters were fantastic marketers. In 19th-century England, they were able to command the written word with spectacular flourish. It was a time when people hungered for information, which was disseminated via carefully constructed pamphlets, and the anti-vaccine proponents were professionals at utilizing this medium. Interestingly, communication and sharing information is also a reason that the anti-vaccine movement continues to survive today:
The Internet offers a treasure trove of undifferentiated data, research, speculation, half-truths, anecdotes, and conjecture about health and medicine. It is also a democratizing force that tends to undermine authority, cut out the middleman, and empower individuals ... Thanks to the Internet, everyone can be their own medical investigator.
Echoing recent discussions on this blog of late, it seems that the issues of authority and identity on the Internet are once again in question. The Internet has made it easy for everyone to market their ideas and causes. There are online communities and Facebook pages where you can go to get and share information, you can sign up to follow Tweets from "experts"—the point is that it is easier than ever to share information and to spread information. Social bookmarking tools mean that the click of a button can post a story on most major social sharing sites. This means that facts are stacked alongside half-baked theories.

Referencing the discussion on the management of knowledge by Cori Hayden's in When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico, it's great that the Internet has provided people with the tools to access information and produce information based on their own evaluation of available material—information should not be owned and used solely for the purposes of big pharmaceutical companies. However, people should be accountable for the information they post. But I suppose this is only a stones-throw away from the type of policing Park Dae-Sung was subject to. The ways in which the Internet can be utilized ethically remains a gray area.

But that still leaves the question of why people continue to believe in the anti-vaccine movement despite the success of vaccines. Astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that belief in pseudoscience prevails because science can be cold and cruel and unyielding, whereas pseudoscience allows for hope. According to Sagan,
"There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community."
That is, every parent wants to believe that a sick child can be healed, and it is easier to believe this if you can point a finger at something concrete as the underlying cause of the illness. Vaccines are an easy target. They work by introducing a foreign agent into the body, which the body attacks and remembers how to attack in the future. The foreign agent can be killed microorganisms (used in vaccinations against flu, cholera, bubonic plague, polio and hepatitis A); live, altered microorganisms (used in vaccinations against yellow fever, measles, rubella, tuberculosis, and mumps); toxic compounds as is the case with diphtheria and tetanus shots; protein subunits; conjugates; as well as a number of innovative agents. The thought of introducing anything foreign into your body, willingly, is frightening, granted. You essentially must infect yourself to protect yourself. Post-vaccination, you may feel effects of the foreign agent: the flu vaccine may leave you feeling achy, feverish—in essence, flu-ish. The vulnerability that people are subject to is unpleasant and undoubtedly unsettling. It is easy to lay blame at the feet of vulnerability—vaccines made you vulnerable, so they are responsible for the resulting ill consequences.

But there is something else beyond the discomfort, beyond the fear of the foreign agent—we've forgotten. Science has gotten so good at protecting us that we haven't really faced an epidemic recently, and the benefits of vaccines are fading from present day memory. Historian David M. Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story, provides the two following examples of the response to vaccination in the face of need:
In 1947, a man newly arrived in New York City from Mexico died of smallpox. The authorities “lined up the entire city” and vaccinated everyone, even those who had already been vaccinated.
Then there were the polio vaccine trials of 1954, in which parents volunteered more than a million children to receive either an experimental vaccine or a placebo.
According to Dr. Oshinsky, in the first example, the entire city was revaccinated, and without resistance because people seemed to understand that the risks associated with the vaccine were far less than the risks associated with getting sick. In the second example, epidemics were still a part of the recent collective memory, so people were aware of the risks again. In this age of information, we seem to have rationalized ourselves out of taking preventative measures to ensure that we remain healthy.

The anti-vaccine movement survives on the strength of network connections. We want to belong to the group, so when others in our community assume a cause, we are more likely to be sympathetic to that cause than others. We know the person promoting the cause—they're not "crazy" or misguided, after all. We know their story, their plight. In this case, we may have witnessed their pain and the struggles they have faced with their autistic child. And, as noted, the Internet means that these people can speak knowledgeably about their child's challenges—who can speak better about the subject of autism and the challenges of raising an autistic child than the parents of an autistic child? So others sympathize, and with that sympathy comes an inkling of fear for their own children. And perhaps some guilt. And maybe also a belief that their neighbors expect support. So the network propagates the belief that vaccines can be harmful.

But what of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical and health reasons? Children with cancer cannot be vaccinated—and it is not by choice. With the risk of death looming from preventable diseases, these children cannot afford to associate with those who can luxuriate in the choice of vaccination. They need us to be vaccinated in order to survive. Vaccines are not risk free, but they greatly reduce risks associated with facing certain diseases unarmed.

Is it there a disconnect between science and the general population? How is it that in spite of the wonders of the web, information is distorted?

For more information on vaccines, you may want to visit the CDC's FAQ on vaccines. And here is a list of myths versus facts concerning vaccinations.

You may be also be interested in viewing the responses to the Wired article here, but please feel free to chime in below.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Internet—The Freedom to Be Who You Want to Be?

Internet use is rapidly evolving. As more people log online, they are finding that the freedom to voice their opinions and thoughts is almost limitless—anyone can start a blog, and almost anyone can chime in on a debate, and anyone can be an expert. The Internet puts information at everyone's fingertips. A few keystrokes can call up information instantaneously on virtually any topic to anyone with the time to read and quasi-digest the information. And you can act within the illusory comfort of anonymity. You can share your opinions without divulging your identity, or create an entirely new identity to support your comments, and you're untraceable to both John Doe and Joe Plumber. I've explored this issue of authority on the Internet previously, with the story of Park Dae-Sung—the Korean man who authored himself as an expert on economics and gained a massive web following as his financial predictions proved true—asking how the Internet blurs the "ownership" of knowledge. A story about a usurped identity has added to this discussion.

The NY Times published an article discussing the arrest and prosecution of Raphael Golb for assuming multiple identities, both fictional and factual in nature, to support a theory on the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The prevailing theory is the the scrolls were produced by the Essenes, a sect of Jews thought to have lived at Qumran. The scrolls contain Biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian texts, which reveal new insights into the literary history of the Bible and the practice of Judaism under the Second Temple period. Golb supports a theory put forth by his father, Norman Golb, a professor at the University of Chicago, who believes that the scrolls were produced by multiple libraries in Jerusalem and hidden in the caves when the Jews fled the Romans during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to authorities,
He used pseudonyms to post on blogs. Under the name of a professor he was trying to undermine, prosecutors charged, Mr. Golb wrote a quasi confession to plagiarism and circulated it among students and officials at New York University.
The practice is not quite so uncommon—sock puppets have long been used to support ideas and denounce others, but Golb apparently adopted the identities of real scholars to discredit opponents:
Prosecutors said Mr. Golb opened an e-mail account in the name of Lawrence H. Schiffman, the New York University professor who disagreed with Mr. Golb’s father. He sent messages in Professor Schiffman’s name to various people at N.Y.U. and to others involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate, fabricating an admission by Professor Schiffman that he had plagiarized some of Professor Golb’s work ... [He] also set up blogs under various names that accused Dr. Schiffman of plagiarism.
This bring us back to issues of authenticity on the Internet. How can identities and knowledge be managed in this medium? Is there a need for identities to be managed in this forum? In this anonymous world, reputation has come to be extremely important. Prosecutors are proposing that Golb committed a form on identity theft—but online you can be anyone. Daniel Lyons used this to his advantage when he began to blog as Steve Jobs on The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Despite speculation that the Apple magnate was actually behind the postings, the blog had a high readership. Park Dae-Sung took advantage of the same web principle to leverage his desire to write about and discuss economics—he authored himself as an authority using the confidence inspired by the Roman goddess, Minerva. In both cases, the men were found out. In Park's instance, his real reputation was wrecked. Lyons, however, enjoyed continued popularity.

Repeatedly posting under a user name eventually grants that user a reputation. Other readers are able to judge for themselves whether the authority can be trusted. When a real world identity is mobilized on the internet, it brings with it its existing reputation: Lyons did not intend to hurt Jobs' reputation, but Golb did set out to mar Schiffman's standing, and Park was guilty of misrepresenting his expertise. As an increasingly important source for information, there is a need to preserve the integrity of web representations, but it must be done without imposing limits on the free exchange of information that currently occurs.

How do you think knowledge/identities should be managed on the web? Let's discuss below.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Negotiating Private Beliefs and Public Behavior With the Meter Running

Last week was a relatively busy one. While the Yankees were being paraded down Broadway and Mayor Bloomberg was holding on determinately for a chance at another term in office, regular people were contending with the social order. Last week Paul Bruno and his partner, Erick Ruales, were ejected from a New York City cab because they were engaged in public displays of affection in the backseat. Bruno and his partner allegedly "sat close," possibly hugging (maybe they shared a kiss), which the driver, Medhat Mohamed, found distracting and felt compromised his ability to get them to their destination. Mohamed was ultimately concerned that their snuggling was a precursor to sex, and two blocks into the ride, demanded that they exit the cab. Bruno and Ruales were appalled at their treatment and have filed a complaint against the driver. The Taxi and Limousine Commission is currently investigating. If Mohamed is found guilty of a "service refusal," he could be fined. According to the Post (which has surprisingly provided in-depth coverage of the story—the newspaper has a reputation for tabloid-quality writing), "the first offense is a $200 to $350 fine, the second a $350 to $500 fine and a 30-day suspension, and the third strike is license revocation." [Image Right: Paul Bruno, Credit NY Post.]

While the Village Voice has wryly noted that being kicked out of a cab is a mark of a true New Yorker, in a city whose history is steeped in diversity, tolerance is a city standard—and in an interesting twist is seemingly being preached on behalf of both sides: The public response has provided support for both Bruno and Ruales, and Mohamed as well. The cabbie's supporters state that he has a right to a work environment where he is both safe and comfortable. And he does. However, he is also a service provider. He is not a city worker, but he engages the public on a regular basis. It is his livelihood. In his line of work, his job is take people—provided they don't present a threat to his well-being and can pay the fare—from Point A to Point B. Of course he has to right to ensure that his personal safety is not compromised—but at what point do such decisions come to be regarded as profiling? Is he given a set criteria against which to measure safety? Hardly, because the issue of personal safety is not a concrete measure. The line separating these types of decisions is a fine one, open to personal beliefs, which is not a fair measure for either party.

In Minnesota, Muslim cab drivers objected to transporting passengers who had been drinking or who were carrying alcohol, such as wine, from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport because it violated the terms of their religion. According to one driver,
"The one who drinks, the one who transports, and the one who makes a business of it, they have the same category."
These drivers argued that transporting passengers who have been drinking or who are carrying alcohol violated their religious freedom. And they are right. However, like Mohamed, they have entered a profession that requires them to work with all members of the public. As a result, the Minnesotan cab drivers have also faced investigations for service refusal, although the Metropolitan Airport Commission is working with them to mediate the situation. They suggested that cabbies who would not transport passengers carrying alcohol install lights on their roofs to indicate their non-alcohol stipulation, but this policy met a poor reception. For now, cabbies must move to the back of the queue, which could mean another three hour wait between fares. This is an industry that relies on people's need to travel when they themselves are unable to to provide the transportation. In New York City, inebriated party-goers are encouraged to take advantage of mass transit options, which includes cabs, to protect both themselves and other motorists from drunk driving accidents. Is there room here for this type of negotiation?

People get kicked out of cabs all the time, for being disorderly, for getting sick, and for getting too frisky in the backseat. But Bruno and Mohamed have raised issues of discrimination and religious beliefs. The medallion holder for Mohamed's cab has stated that according to Islam, displays of affection between same-sex couples are unacceptable. To avoid penalties and possibly losing his license, Mohamed has has to prove that his discomfort was not caused by the sexual orientation of his passengers, that he would have accorded a straight couple with the same treatment. Mayor Bloomberg has denounced the cab driver (with the politician's disclaimer that he does so only if the story is as stated) saying that
"Somebody's orientation has absolutely nothing to do with whether they can ride a taxi. That kind of attitude doesn't fit with what this city's become."
Is there room for Mohamed's religious argument? In discussing this case with someone, he argued time and time again that despite the civil right issues, Mohamed is an independent operator, and like other businesses, he has a right to determine how he will do business and with whom. But in a business that has such a broad reach, is this argument justifiable? When working with the public, where does the line between personal beliefs get drawn? PDA's are everywhere. People hold hands on the street, they may kiss at the bar, and I won't get into what I've seen happen on the subway. If there is to be a standard for public behavior, then it needs to be explicitly stated and enforced—and not by a New York City cab driver, whose sole responsibility is to get his fares to their destination quickly and safely.  But beyond questions of public decency and disorderly conduct, which are fairly subjective judgments, how can such a standard be set? The law states with regard to public decency and disturbing the peace that persons whose behavior
endangers the public peace or health or which openly outrages public decency for which no other punishment is expressly prescribed by this code, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
In other words, there is no concrete measure—anything found offensive can be filed under this heading. Did Bruno and Ruales endanger the public peace? Did they openly outrage public decency? Are they guilty of a misdemeanor? On whose measure are they to be judged? Did Mohamed endanger public peace or outrage public decency? There is clearly a lot of room here for interpretation. And the interpretation can be colored by personal biases. Is this a case of personal belief coloring business practices? Talk back below. [Image Left: Medhat Mohamed. Credit James Messerschmidt, NY Post.]