NYC Back In The Day (Which Was A Wednesday): New York’s Past Beckons the Future By Andy Newman (Throwback)

(GRAFFITI The BMT Jamaica subway train, like many in the late 1970s, was covered in graffiti. The city declared victory over the urban art form in the late 1980s)

New York’s Past Beckons the Future

Published: May 24, 2008

Here they come, chugging down Fifth Avenue with their cargo of gleeful passengers: public double-decker buses in New York City!
The announcement on Thursday that New York City Transit might bring back the double-decker bus, last seen plying the streets on a regular basis circa 1953, is certainly good news to fans of good old New York.

But why stop there, oh city fathers? Surely there are dozens of icons whose time has come again. Automats! Subway tokens! The Board of Estimate! More and more of the city is becoming a museum of itself anyway, so why not go whole hog?

(SUBWAY TOKEN The mighty token was phased out in 2004 for the MetroCard. Last seen as a cufflink.)

And since we have the technology and the regulatory smarts now, why not retrofit some of those ancient fixtures for the modern era? Picture horse-drawn vegetable wagons, like those that worked the Bronx well into the 1940s, piled high with organic microgreens.

(THREE-CARD MONTE A game where the deck was always stacked.)

Three-card monte games with the house advantage capped at 2 percent.

(SQUEEGEE MAN Whether you wanted it or not, these streetside entrepreneurs would wet your windshield and expect cash.)

Polite squeegee men who check your oil and tire pressure while you wait at the light. When you think about it, the dustbin of history is a bottomless trove of riches.

(WORLD’S FAIRS The New York State Pavilion at the 1964 expo in Queens was featured in a climactic scene in “Men in Black.”)

The 1939 World’s Fair in Queens introduced a futuristic gizmo called a television; no less significantly, it led to the creation of what is now known as Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The 1964 fair featured the debuts of animatronics and the Ford Mustang and left behind the super-retro-cool stainless steel globe called the Unisphere. New York may have lost its bid to bring the Olympics here in 2012, but Expo 2020 is just around the corner, and the World’s Fair site is ready and waiting.

(FIVE POINTS The poor and overcrowded Manhattan slum was portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York.” )

It’s Saturday night. Want to see how the other half lives? Head on down to the intersection of Worth and Mulberry Streets. Now it’s a tepid agglomeration of parking lots and apartment towers, but back in the late 1800s, it was a great place to smell the vestigial stench from the Collect Pond, take in a street fight or two, get chloroformed, and wake up in a tumble-down hellhole with no money in your pocket, a big bump on your head and a great story to tell your friends.

Until the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1989, the New York City Board of Estimate, composed of the five borough presidents and three citywide officials, made most of the city’s major budget and land-use decisions. It may have violated the principle of one person one vote by giving sparsely populated Staten Island as much representation as Brooklyn (fourth-largest city in America, remember?), but at least it never directed millions of dollars to fictitious community groups, à la today’s City Council. Or if it did, it did so with more humor and panache.

(THE AUTOMAT The city’s last Horn & Hardart closed in 1991. Prices, as shown in this 1976 photo, were not the object.)

We’re not talking about Bamn, the new version on St. Marks Place. We’re talking about the old-school Horn & Hardart Automats, the last of which was on 42nd Street and Third Avenue and closed in 1991. The ones with the chrome-plated knobs and food behind little windows. But of course the fare would be updated to today’s Manhattan tastes and budgets. Tea-smoked duck in a foie gras foam, anyone? Just shovel $32 into the slot, now retrofitted to accept debit cards.

For much of the latter 19th century, historians say, Queens was the most prolific vegetable-growing county in the country. Brooklyn was no slouch either in the produce department, ranking No. 2 in 1879. The advent of refrigeration and the ever-increasing price of land in the city eventually made farming redundant here, but the geographically correct foodies known as locavores have shown a willingness to pay a steep premium for food grown within a day’s drive of home. So why not pay even more for a carrot grown in the shade of the No. 7 train? Community gardeners in East New York, Red Hook and the South Bronx are already taking their crops to market.

Smallpox sufferers to Roosevelt Island, please. Plague carriers report to Swinburne Island in Lower New York Bay. Got measles? Scarlet fever? Diphtheria? Plenty of room for you and your whole family on Hoffman Island, Swinburne’s neighbor to the north. New York’s 19th-century sick houses lie in ruins now, but no one else, unless you count cormorants, has come up with a better use for their former sites. With multidrug-resistant tuberculosis on the rise and SARS and avian flu lurking in the wings, it’s time to reinvest in the city’s infectious-disease infrastructure.

Walter O’Malley picked up his ball team and went west partly because the government refused to use its power of eminent domain to acquire land for him to build a stadium near the railyards on Atlantic Avenue. But the state seems to have no such compunction these days, having begun exercising eminent domain to clear a path for the developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-development next door to O’Malley’s would-have-been stadium site. With Atlantic Yards currently mired in economic woes, why not give the Dodgers a chance to come home? Even if half the city boycotts them, they’re still guaranteed to outdraw the Nets.

A good idea that was never really given a chance. In 1931, according to Robert Sullivan’s comprehensive history “Rats,” a dentist named Harry Unger planned to lead a gun-toting posse of 12 brave men onto Rikers Island, where the rodent community had become so populous that rats were swimming to the mainland and invading residential neighborhoods. The city called the posse off, concerned that they might end up shooting humans. Times have gotten a lot tougher for hunters everywhere since then. Guided hunts for trophy animals like bear and moose are now reeling from negative publicity, and the spotted-owl huggers keep getting new species added to the endangered list. But rats are as despised and as plentiful as ever, giving New York a real shot at marketing itself as a sportsman’s paradise.

In a more technologically innocent era, the shoulder-mounted radio was considered an aesthetic scourge right up there with graffiti and un-poop-scooped sidewalks. Now we have cellphones. Think about it: Would you rather walk down the street to the strains of the new T-Pain single or to a junior account executive loudly booking a hairdresser’s appointment?

(FRESH ICE Before refrigeration was universal, ice deliverymen, seen here in Harlem in 1936, were a fixture in New York. A block of ice and a fan could also provide some relief on a hot summer day.)

Sure, you can impress friends with your Sub-Zero fridge, but have you ever had oysters cooled on a bed of ice harvested from the Adirondacks and delivered to your door by horse-drawn carriage? Rocked your Scotch with chips of unfiltered upstate wilderness? Twenty-first-century climatic conditions might require a longer journey to get the goods, but like all the finer things in life, it’s worth the trip.

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