9/11, Gratitude and The New York Islands on Two Wheels

I have New York on my brain. Maybe the third time really is a charm, as my August visit was my third recent trip east to help my father through back surgery and rehab. Or maybe it's just that the place still sings to me, perhaps clearer than ever, after thirty years away.

To close the New York deal, I am reading Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, about the 1977 blackout, New York politics and the Yankees. The excellent read which I started on my flight back to the Best Coast is transporting me to my childhood in New York in the '70s. Spared the trauma of poverty, war and hunger, the closest this son of privilege has ever gotten to real hardship was taking in the piles of cinder block rubble of once thriving Bronx and Harlem neighborhoods through the window of the southbound Jerome Avenue Number 4 and Harlem Line trains. I'm not comparing what I saw out the train window and what others lived daily. But nonetheless, it made me the unsettled by inequity soul that I am today.

"1977 had it all. The good the bad and the ugly," says Peter Madonia, COO of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Bronx-raised veteran of New York City politics under influential mayors including Ed Koch and Mike Bloomberg.

Over breakfast in midtown, Madonia has my pen flying across the page with tales of his days at City Hall and recalling New York's path from near bankruptcy in the '70s to 9/11 to the current economic juggernaut that most of us cannot afford.

Recounting his time at City Hall and about the way the press can burn you, Madonia tells me about a smart kid who worked for him who stupidly "used his tin to get a better seat on a flight" and how the tabloids were all over it.

To my chagrin, people in L.A. don't talk like that; though Jimmy Breslin would have had a field day watching the Mayor, City Council and Board of Supervisors stumbling their way through a homeless epidemic that has tens of thousands of the sans abri pitching their tents on our residential and downtown streets, freeway underpasses and neglected parks throughout the City and County.

In a less medicated city we would all be up in arms challenging the Mayor, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors with calls of "Who's in charge here?" and "Why has the problem only gotten worse on your watch?"

Prop HHH, the $1.2 billion homeless housing bond issue on the November 2016 ballot, has my vote though I doubt it is enough without local ordinance enforcement and common sense on the part of the courts and "homeless advocates" to get the homeless off the streets and into housing.

Is this what you call livability for the homeless as well as renters and homeowners alike? How long will it be before the latest crop of urban dwellers with the resources to do so moves on to one of KB Homes' odorless and colorless gated communities in Santa Clarita? And then what will L.A.'s tax base look like?

I love this sunkissed city as much as anyone but the mini favelas that have sprouted up on 7th and 8th Streets near my home in Koreatown aren't good for anyone including the homeless. As even the tourists can tell you, no L.A. community, rich or poor, is free of the growing shantytowns.

But then, I digress, as I'm here to sing the praises of a city, The City, that has successfully transformed its parks, waterfront and once neglected harbor islands into inviting places to stroll and bike and play. How it pained me to think of decrepit Bundy Triangle Park in West L.A. while I took in New York's countless, activated pocket parks and traffic triangles buzzing with civic life. There is a lesson here for us Councilman Mike Bonin!

Gone is the "Know who you blow" graffiti that once graced the wall of a meat packing building near 14th Street and 11th Avenue. In its place is The High Line, a gold-plated Chelsea and Hudson River waterfront too busy 24/7 for the prostitutes who used to make their living there.

This trip to New York my best friend was my bicycle and my favorite places, New York's islands and waterfront. The Hudson, the Harlem and East Rivers wowed me with their mostly contiguous bike lanes and bike/pedestrian bridges like the 103rd Street link I rode to Randall's Island from East Harlem. Instead of riding New York's ubiquitous trains and buses, in muggy August I mostly biked and walked my way to The Hospital for Special Surgery where my father was recovering.

How the New York Islands have changed since I first heard The Weavers sing Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land.

Back in L.A., I am still feeling it. Governor's Island, Randall's Island, Roosevelt Island and of course Manhattan. Even in The Bronx (not an island), I took in beautiful Bronx Park, countless Art Deco specimens and a half dozen movie palaces that survived the fires of the '60s and '70s only to be repurposed as gyms or appliance stores. I saw it all on two wheels, biking from Westchester along the Bronx River Pathway, through The Bronx to The Hell Gate Pathway to Randall's Island and on to Manhattan.

Growing up I loved riding on the Bronx River Parkway on Bicycle Sundays, a summertime open streets event that predates CicLAvia by decades.

I asked Janette Sadik-Khan, the former NYC transportation commissioner now with Bloomberg Associates, about the transformation that she and others engineered in New York.

"For all their density, even the biggest cities are really the sum of their smaller places. Connections between neighborhoods can be as important as connections with downtowns, but if you're driving or taking transit, the shortest distance between these in-between spaces isn't always a straight line. Natural and manmade boundaries in urban geography and transit routes can cut neighborhoods off from one another or make them inaccessible. As cities like New York rediscover and reclaim their waterfronts, islands, and industrial neighborhoods, bikes are an agile transportation option that can bridge these boundaries and bring out-of-the-way places within reach."

Yesterday, at sunset, I joined a friend for a ride out the Ballona Creek bike path to Marina Del Rey and Venice. Here too, the homeless live on waterfront property while they await the City and County's help or broom.

Maybe New York and Los Angeles are not that different after all. Both are massive, socioeconomically diverse cities facing daunting challenges from affordable housing to transportation, economic inequity, homelessness, failing schools, climate change and challenges to desired livability.

Watching the sunset from the sand a short distance from the bike path in Venice, the sounds of the homeless packing up and bedding down for the night is almost out of earshot. Almost.

Gratitude. As we remember the lives of those who died on 9/11 and the thousands here and elsewhere who have no home, let's look after one another and say no to the status quo.

Yours in transit,
Joel