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Washington Heights

September 19, 2017

If you look up Washington Heights in the New York Lonely Planet guide you’ll find that it is rather low in the list of priorities. Aside from the Met Museum’s Cloisters outpost and the Hispanic Society of America’s galleries (alas, the latter closed until 2019), there’s a mere smattering of minor sites. In other words, a normal tourist probably would never make it up this far. Harlem, sure, there are some big and famous places and everyone’s heard of it. But Washington Heights, I never even heard of it before I came here!

I shall provide you a map so you know where I’m talking about, and another map which is very much out of scale and demonstrates the neglect (particularly because Hamilton Heights seems to have been partially an invention of people who didn’t want to be a part of Harlem):

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The geography here is high (as the name implies), containing Manhattan’s highest point and some pretty steep streets down to the river on either side. It was also the site of a fort of George Washington’s during the Revolutionary War, hence the name (and later the gigantic George Washington bridge, which carries more traffic per day than any other in the world). Manhattan is much narrower up here which means we can easily stroll down to either the Hudson or the Harlem rivers.

And as the title of the book on the history of Washington Heights I’m reading at the moment (Crossing Broadway) implies, it’s quite different on either side. Especially where we are, on the corner of Broadway and West 165th Street, towards the Hudson you have the enormous New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center complex and apartment buildings which are very tidily maintained (many of which are, like our building, owned by the New York-Presbyterian housing company).
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On the east side heading for the Harlem river things look more run down, but there are also a lot more shops and non-apartment things happening. Throughout the area, though, it’s non-stop 6-ish storey buildings in a similar style (mostly packed closer than this but you get the idea – the hospital is one of the only things not this height within a reasonable walking distance:

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One of the defining things about the population of Washington Heights in 2017 is the more than 75% of residents who are Hispanic, with the Dominican Republic being the most heavily represented country of origin. As a result, walking down Broadway to the supermarket the most common language by far is Spanish, and gangs of old men sit around discussing, arguing, playing cards or dominoes, usually to the accompaniment of, and occasionally dancing to, merengues and other Latin dance music I am too ignorant to properly identify. Whereas heading to downtown New York I have a strange sense of not really being in a foreign country at all because of the familiarity and the ubiquity of the culture, up here feels like we are in another country for sure.

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Back in the 80s there were fears that the entire neighbourhood would collapse under the crack epidemic, gang violence, and institutional problems. But somehow (haven’t got that far in the book yet) it has pulled out of that and though there are some spots we’ve been at night that feel a little scary or give you the sense you probably shouldn’t hang around too long, it really is a lovely place all up, we reckon.

I’ll definitely have more to say about Washington Heights in future installments, but for now I’ll conclude this brief survey with a little visual summary of some of the places we’ve wandered.

Down to the Hudson, you can head down to the last active cemetery on Manhattan:
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You then navigate under/over a major highway:
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to get to the river, where you have a beautiful view of the bridge, the New Jersey Palisades, and the downtown lights:
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There’s even the last lighthouse on Manhattan!

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In the other direction, you can pass by the oldest tree in Manhattan:

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And the oldest house in Manhattan:
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and come out to the Harlem river, where the High Bridge takes you across to the Bronx. Sorry I don’t have any pictures of that! But I hope you can see that even in this part of town neglected by the guidebooks there is plenty of interesting life, nature, and stories.

Until next time,
Giles

ps. we’ve also seen (so far) a bat, a raccoon, 3 skunks, lots of squirrels, cockroaches, rats, Canada Geese, and a bunch of birds I’ve never seen before!

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Administrative matters

September 15, 2017

Note: In keeping with the subject matter, this post is late, excessively detailed, and too long. Sorry!

As you may know, I am a US citizen, even though I haven’t lived in the US for very long at all – a few months after I was just born and another few months when I was 14. So to move over here was not quite as administratively trivial as it could have been. Though as I have gradually come to realise, nothing in America is administratively trivial.

First of all I had to renew my passport, which I was actually organised enough to do about 18 months ago, around the time that Lis headed off to NYC for her auditions, just in case I would need it. I managed to actually do it all, not online exactly, but via post to the Auckland consulate, so I avoided the trip up there. However, to get a Social Security card I did have to make a trip, which turned out to be a bit of a mission!

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Moving in

September 5, 2017

Welcome back! The next chapter of our New York life is how we moved into our very own apartment.

It began with Lis heading off for her ‘first day of school’ which she had to be up bright and early for. This left me with all 8 of our suitcases to transport around 60 blocks north. Rather than faff about we decided to just hire a giant SUV to pick us up and filled it with bags – as a one off cost it was totally worth it compared to trying to fit things on the subway or a regular taxi.

It’s surely always a little stressful to be moving in to a place you’ve never seen and have no idea what it will be like, but the signs were good from the first view of the lobby:

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It’s a renovated six-storey 1930 apartment block, the same height as basically everything else around here – no giant luxury towers this far uptown as yet. The floors aren’t exactly level but aside from that it is ideal for us.

I managed to have an apartment all set up for us when we arrived because I got a job at the Columbia University Medical Center, which is affiliated with the New York Presbyterian Hospital, which has its own real estate side project which is designed to supply accommodation really close by to the hospital and other facilities in Washington Heights. This was such an amazing stroke of luck, given the painful process that is finding accommodation in New York, especially when one has no credit history or local references! Having a place a couple of blocks walk from my work and four subway stops from Lis’s school is wonderful, and since this isn’t the trendiest part of the city it’s relatively cheap too. It really did work out perfectly and still feels ridiculous that it was such a painless process (aside from nervously watching my express courier-ed bank drafts flying from NZ to New York!).

So with the help of the very friendly people I’d been emailing about the accommodation, I got the keys and got all my bags upstairs and into the apartment:

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They even gave me a spiffy branded mug:

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We of course did not bring any furniture, so our bed that night looked like this:

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We did get to make use of the beautiful possum-merino blanket that Lis’s sister gave us though!

Sleeping on the floor is really not a lot of fun and so our first mission was to find a mattress. We had a mega-IKEA journey planned out, but decided that going to a local place for a quick delivery and to try things out was the best plan. This also gave us a chance to walk up past some major landmarks like the George Washington Bridge and get a feel for the neighbourhood (more of this to come in a later post!).

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We found something we liked at an amazing shop full of very intense chandeliers:

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We still didn’t have anything else to go in the apartment though, and on our second evening in the apartment we took the bus to IKEA in New Jersey to get most of everything. This meant we got to take the busiest bridge in the world! (most vehicles per year basis, according to wikipedia)

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The view out the bus of many leafy streets and your stereotypical suburban American houses was kind of fun, as was the suburban extra-large mall insanity. After only a couple of days in Manhattan everything seemed mega-sized:

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The other hilarious part of this trip was that we got off the bus one stop early by mistake and had to walk from this part of the mall to IKEA. This turned out to be incredibly difficult to do without crossing major roads and climbing small fences and such. It felt almost like it was literally not possible to get there on foot. But after much circling and guessing and not being run over we did make it, and got to wander the show room bewildered by the choices and trying to figure out how to actually come up with a reasonable list of things.

Initially we’d assumed a couple of hours would be enough, but by the time we got out of the home delivery queue and sorted everything we’d been in there for about four hours, plus the bus ride home, and it really was the most exhausting experience. But did mean that in a few days time we had a huge amount of stuff including all the essentials like a bed, sofa, and kitchen table. Much construction work followed:

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It was a bit like grown up lego to be honest, which was fun. And we only managed to get one thing totally wrong by getting the king sized bed slats for our queen sized base. I got to do an extra bus mission to return them which was not quite as bad as I expected it might be. Meanwhile Lis was unpacking her clothes:

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We then spent the next several days gradually picking up bits and bobs as we realised we needed them, things like mixing bowls, containers for leftovers, jug (took forever to get the guy to understand what we were trying to ask for, ‘kettle’ also seeming incomprehensible), toaster, measuring spoons, as well as the more decorative things like plants and rugs.

As of the time of writing, we are pretty well set I think. We have cooked ourselves dinner for the last several days in our little kitchen, and are feeling very much at home. It’s been a continuation of our mad rush organising and doing a million things, but now that we can actually relax and do nothing in the evening it feels incredibly luxurious. At last it feels like the non-stop planning-stressing-organising-wedding-flying-moving period is over and we can go back to a more normal level of busy, working and studying and exploring the city!

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Getting there

August 28, 2017
tags:

By road, sea, and sky

Our journey began on the 14th of August with the trip known to google calendar as ‘Boat to new life’. I’d packed everything I wasn’t throwing out or giving away into my car (parked outside the apartment because I’d handed in my parking garage clicker earlier in the day) and slept on my mattress in my sleeping bag in the lounge so that I could be sure I’d done my duty and cleaned up my room properly.

I arrived at the Blue Bridge terminal for check in at about 6.45, and got a text from Lis saying that there had been a crash and the Hutt motorway was backed up for miles. One of many potentially catastrophic things that could have gone wrong! But fortunately it cleared in time and we checked in right on time, not that they probably would have minded us checking in late anyway because we sat around for about 20-30 minutes before we could drive on anyway.

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Haiku for Jeremy

June 10, 2017

Wellington’s seasons blur
It’s colder now that it’s June
Yet May’s windy threats
Relent to brittle stillness

I had a dream involving hera lindsay bird

May 19, 2017

I had a dream involving hera lindsay bird

It happened during a dark and stormy night
Well it wasn’t even that stormy and night is aways dark
But it rained a lot and the reason I probably remember this dream involving hera lindsay bird
Is that the rain woke me up

Anyway
Within this dream involving hera lindsay bird were several recent events and thoughts of mine which I’d had during waking life
Which is one theory of dreams according to my understanding

For instance

I have lately decided that I should try to ‘get into’ poetry more and have purchased and read several books from hera lindsay bird’s employer Unity Books
And though these have included popular NZ writers like Kate Camp
Bill Manhire, and Ashleigh Young
Alongside Jenny Bornholdt
Who was posthumously recommended by former Unity Books staff member Nigel Cox in his book Phone Home Berlin
(Which I only just finished because I had been putting off reading his last words)
And whose collected poems include one with a description of Nigel in life and ashes

In spite of these connexions
None of the books I bought were the debut collection by hera lindsay bird
The reasons for this are complicated and only partially explained in this poem

I have however read some of hera lindsay bird’s poetry via popular website The Spinoff whose sponsors include Unity Books

And have also read some interviews with hera lindsay bird
By people like Steve Braunias, which were clearly conducted by internet writing rather than in person
Because nobody would talk like that in real life and Steve would have seemed like even more of a creepy older man wanting the approval of the new hip generation
If he’d said those things to hera lindsay bird’s face

Anyway

I suppose my dream, like this poem, was not about hera lindsay bird but my own strange version of the literary phenomenon sweeping the nation

In this dream, a setting on a rooftop somewhere in Wellington
Decorated somewhat like the Lux festival
Except more ‘arty’ because arty types such as hera lindsay bird were in attendance as part of some sort of exclusive opening event
And much larger than any known rooftop space on Wellington
(such inaccuracies are common to dreams as I’m sure you know)

This setting provided the backdrop to myself and hera lindsay bird engaging in conversation
Typically for a dream, I don’t know what we discussed exactly except that hera lindsay bird seemed to be “into” me
Noting this and being a generous person
I asked her whether she would like my number
A poetically subtle reversal on the usual request for the other’s number
Reflecting the supreme confidence which I apparently possessed in this dream

Of course she accepted

And at some later time instantly occurring in dream land
I think in a garden bar or such
We were talking again, and to avoid any heartbreak I worked in a reference to “my girlfriend”, which seemed to depress hera lindsay bird who was “into” me
And we continued and finished the conversation politely
but never met again (obviously I didn’t dream forever after but you know how it is in dreams where such things are known)

Of course the only reasons for telling people about your dreams are:

1. Something so weird and strange happened that it is immediately interesting

or

2. It is some sort of “meaningful” dream and you want to have a reason why you dreamed that

In this case I enjoyed the combination of unconscious poetic critique and examination of an author I haven’t actually read

and

The nostalgic reflections of my past romantic and poetic adventures through the shattered kaleidoscope world of my dream

And of course the opportunity to write all this up in a style aping not the real hera lindsay bird
But my own version of her poetry
As filtered through my dream version of her
Seemed too good to waste

So the main thing I guess I am aping is this pop culture deliberate bad lowercase internet meme writing carelessness
Into which are smuggled the same poetic revelations through metaphor that have always been revered
But in a way that seems like they are accidents
Though of course hera lindsay bird’s academic history means that this in itself is clearly a put on of the order of Pierre Menard

In my own case as a PhD in Physics who works for Statistics NZ and is pretending to know what I’m doing on the poetic stage
which I guess makes me sort of the governor Sancho to dream-hera lindsay bird’s Menard
In this literary metaphor which is already too fancy to get away with
When trying to pretend to naivety

Anyway
This view of hera lindsay bird as a true romantic at heart hiding behind blah-zzz irony but itching to release the beauty of language upon the masses
In the same way that Smelly Cat was released upon us all
Is much like the psychology that leads to the all too common older man wins over defensive young woman via intellect genre
That no doubt hera lindsay bird loves dearly
But which, honestly, the last thing I want to here is pretend that I’m in any way interested in
or more importantly attractive to
hera lindsay bird
This is my dream not hers
and
I got a girlfriend that’s better than that

So the thing to do here would be to use this dream image to suddenly illuminate that feeling that we have all had of idealising, dreaming, reading too much into small moments of common conversation with a fascinating and wonderful person
only to realise that either they are way too into the television sitcom “Friends” to be someone you could go out with
Or they have a boyfriend
Or you suddenly realise that maybe they are into you but you really didn’t mean to break their heart and you feel bad but also not even sure that you have

Ideally perhaps in this context it would be most twistingly ironic to do this by throwing in a reference to some dreamy Yeats or other that ‘everyone’ has heard of but really only poetry nerds would get

However

I haven’t yet got far enough through the collected works of Yeats which I bought the other day from Unity Books
To have such a reference at hand

So if you would be so kind

Imagine yourself at the edge of a glassy lake
In the centre of which, atop a tiny island is balanced a moss-crumbled castle
which an ancient prince constructed to imprison himself
After his fair maid chose another
And at the limits of hearing, when a certain soft breeze blows
The strains of an old song can be heard:

Sometimes love don’t feel like it should
But baby
it hurts so good

For the Birds

March 21, 2016

For the Birds
Mark Anderson, Jony Easterby, Kathy Hinde, Marcus Mcshane and Tane Upjohn-Beatson, Johann Nortje and Cameron May, Ulf Pedersen, and Esther Tew
Otari-Wilton’s Bush
Friday 11 March 2016

Otari-Wilton’s Bush is a special place even on a normal day. It’s a little patch that’s been relatively isolated from human destruction and contains amazing things like an 800 year old rimu tree and of course an abundance of birds. This event/installation worked with the aura of the bush and created a series of lovely spaces that included humour, fear, beauty, and most importantly a whole lot of wonder.

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