The Brooklyn Rail

December 23, 2011

Here’s a publication worth noting:  The Brooklyn Rail, a Brooklyn (New York) based non-profit organisation that distributes its journal free of charge, with all staff, editors, and contributors working on a voluntary basis – and relying exclusively on the philanthropy of foundations and individual donors to meet production, operation and program expenses.  Originally founded by playwright Emily DeVoti in the (northern) autumn of 1998, the original “intent was to create a broadsheet containing a short series of slanted opinions designed to be read on the L train back and forth to Manhattan.”  It distributes 20,000 free printed copies around New York City and is available on the web – no subscription, no charge.

It unashamedly leans left-ward and boasts a stellar group of supporters including writer Paul Auster.  Fascinating model of a non-profit media organisation.  Worth checking out.

American College Football, New York Style

December 22, 2011

During my recent two month (northern) autumn stay in New York City, I was particularly keen to watch some American college football.  I grew up with it, first attending every Rutgers University game with my parents and then later my high school and my respective universities, including my first year at Dartmouth College when the “Big Green” went undefeated.

So try looking for college football in New York City; it’s astonishingly hard to find.  In fact, New York must be unique in American cities in this way.  Los Angeles has UCLA, University of Southern California and a host of smaller colleges and universities with active football programs.  San Francisco Bay area has powerhouses UC Berkeley and Stanford, as well as a number of others.  Boston has a number (think Boston College, Harvard), as does Chicago (Northwestern).

Certainly many of the powerhouse football colleges in the USA are not located in their states’ largest cities, as many are in state universities.  But New York is unique:  there are, in fact, thirteen different State University of New York campuses with inter-collegiate football programs:  Albany, Alfred State, Alfred University, Brockport, Buffalo State, Buffalo University, Cortland State, Erie Community, Hudson Valley Community, Maritime College, Morrisville State, Nassau Community and Stony Brook.  But unless I have my geography wildly wrong, none of these are in New York City – and only the University of Buffalo (which is almost in Canada, for goodness sake) actually has a football program of note.  Funny, that: think about the surrounding states (all with smaller populations):  New Jersey with Rutgers in the big leagues for some years now, Penn State in the “uber” big leagues and even University of Connecticut.

So clearly New York is not a college football state:  in fact (and I have not read any analysis of this, although it may exist), New York State’s public universities must surely be amongst the least visible state football programs in the USA (did you know that the University of Buffalo was actually a state school?) – although a number of private colleges (Syracuse particularly but also Cornell, Colgate and many others) are reasonably strong.

All of which makes watching live (as opposed to television) American college football in New York City a challenge.  There are only three NCAA “Division 1” college football teams in New York City:  Fordham University, Columbia University (see below) and Wagner College on Staten Island, none of them with football programs of note.  It was not always thus:  in 1870 Columbia played Rutgers in the second football game in history, and for many years provided high level competition to Rutgers and others.  The Fordham teams from the late 1920s through the 1940s were some of the best in the country, appearing in the 1941 Cotton Bowl and 1942 Sugar Bowl.  But Fordham dropped its football program in late 1954, only reinstituting it in 1970.  In some ways Columbia football sank even lower:  from 1983 to 1988 the Columbia football team lost 44 games in a row, still an NCAA record.

Other universities in New York City?  New York University? A great and growing university, but no football team (discontinued after the 1952 season; too Greenwich Village?).  City University of New York? – City College dropped its team in 1951Brooklyn College dropped its football program after the 1990 season due to lack of funds.   So what makes New York City so immune to the charms of college football?  According to Nate Silver in The New York Times (September 2011), New York indeed is the American metropolitan area LEAST interested in college football, with only fourteen percent of the population following that sport.  The following table (from Silver’s article) shows the “most popular college football teams in the New York City TV market”:

Makes for interesting reading, doesn’t it?  What’s missing?  Actually, New York City-based teams are missing.

But this city does love sport:  think of the most successful baseball team in history, the New York Yankees. And the Mets and the (former) Brooklyn Dodgers; the city has hosted fourteen World Series to date.  And professional football: the Giants and the Jets (even if both of them actually play in New Jersey), the Rangers and the Islanders ice hockey teams, the basketball Knicks, the “Red Bulls” soccer.  And in fact, New York is unique in the USA in that it has more than one team in each of the most popular professional sports – baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey.

But still, no college football of note.  So for that reason on a glorious warm and dry Saturday this autumn, I attended a Columbia University football game at Baker Field at the very top of Manhattan, just below the Bronx.  According to the Ivy League football website, there were 3003 attendees, including we three from Australia.  The distance from the main university campus (and its somewhat “down-market” location) certainly does not add to the audience appeal.  Just take the “1” train uptown – whoops, if it is running on weekends that far north (it wasn’t the day we went; sigh).  (Click here for Jake Novak’s hilarious analysis of how to get to Baker Field.)  But it only cost $10 to get in (by contrast, University of Michigan general admission prices ran from $70 to $85/ticket this year, and up to three times higher for premiere seats).

Columbia lost, although they played their heart out.  As football games go, it was low-key:  at half-time Columbia fielded a marching band of about 18 (just about as far as you can get from the Michigan or Ohio State hundreds), a band much more notable for its intellectual stunts and outrageous behaviour than anything else.  But the football team’s pale blue uniforms looked great against the green Astroturf field, with the Hudson River and the Henry Hudson Parkway toll bridge in the background, set against the steep rising green Palisades of New Jersey in the distance.

Columbia’s football team was not bad this year – in fact frequently held the lead in a number of games but somehow managed to lose every one until the season’s end.  Columbia had one win and nine losses – curiously beating Brown University, the Ivy League leader, in their final game (after giving up 61 points to Cornell the week before).  As they say, go figure.  Not surprising that the University changed its coach in late November.  So New York college football seems inevitably mired in low interest and low appeal.  The moral of this story:  as great as that city is, if you want a real American college football experience, go just about anywhere but New York City.

PS:  I am not the only person who has noted the absence of competitive college football in New York City.  Last year (2010) was the first game of the creatively named “Pinstripe Bowl” (don’t you love that name?), which takes place at the new Yankee Stadium.  And this year – December 30th – the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights (Big East) go up against the Iowa State University Cyclones (Big 12) at this event.  The Pinstripe Bowl website proclaims the unusual fact that last year’s game was “the first college football bowl game played in the Bronx” since 1962 (American sports statistics are rich, are they not?).

(PPS:  Note to Highland Park High School, NJ, football fans:  HP’s football team beat Metuchen this year, 28 to 21; I arrived at the field just as the team buses were leaving. Maybe next season I will see my team win.)

Public Interest Journalism Foundation

December 21, 2011

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation here in Australia – of which I am a Board Director – has just issued its latest online newsletter, and it’s worth checking out.  Included are links to the address by Jay Rosen (NYU journalism and media), who was an international guest of the Foundation at “New News 2011” conference in August 2011 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Click here for the newsletter.

City Planning Still Matters

December 21, 2011

City planning still matters, at least in New York City.

I live (most of the time) in Sydney, Australia – and as beautiful and wonderful as this city is (and it is), let me assure you, planning no longer matters here (or did it ever?).  Why do I care?  Well, I do, partly because I worked for many years as an urban planner (or, more accurately, “social planner” and I don’t mean the party type) and studied planning at the University of California at Berkeley – to this day still my most stimulating and satisfying academic experience, anywhere.  And … and this is a very big and … I still care about the liveability of cities.

As readers of this blog may know, I spent the months of September and October 2011 living in New York City.  One of the (many) unusual things that struck me was that debates over city planning were still current.  People were actually talking about Jane Jacobs (Death and Life of Great American Cities) and Robert Moses (see Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York) when I was there.  In fact, there is a great revival of interest in Jacobs and Moses.  Here are a few recently published books with links:

–          Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint

–          Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, by Sharon Zukin (in an obvious bow to Jacobs’ book)

–          Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, by Max Page

–          Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York by Timothy Mennel

Some of this interest may be due in part to a recent redevelopment controversy in downtown Brooklyn that has been chronicled in the Oscar (15-film long-list) nominated feature length documentary The Battle for Brooklyn.  This film chronicles the seven-year battle of one man, Daniel Goldstein, and his community to save their homes from being demolished to make way for a new basketball arena as part of the largest development plan in New York City history.  Want to know more about the controversy, go to this blog written by journalist Norman Oder –   (My review of this film coming soon.)

If you want to understand the background to this development proposal, all you need to do is to look closely at a subway map of New York City.  Notice how so many subway lines come together in downtown Brooklyn:  the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, B, C, D, M, N, Q and R lines all stop within a short radius of downtown Brooklyn.  In fact, if you want to work in downtown lower Manhattan is it much much easier to live in parts of Brooklyn and commute than in most of Manhattan.  Imagine, if you will, living in the Upper East or Upper West Sides – Brooklyn is easily more accessible.  Most visitors to New York City don’t realise or think about this, but believe me – New Yorkers understand.  Brooklyn has been well and truly “found” – at least those parts of it with historic housing and convenient to Manhattan.

Rural Telecommunications Review submission

December 19, 2011

Amongst the many telecommunications reviews currently underway in Australia (think the Media Convergence review and others) sits one of profound importance for rural and remote Australians:  the Rural Telecommunications Review, which is being headed by Rosemary Sinclair. This review is due to report by 5 March 2012 (soon!) and is charged with the following:

In its review of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, the committee will have particular regard for initiatives that enable regional communities to participate in, and realise the opportunities of, the digital economy.

I have put a submission to this review, which is in part based on my digital inclusion paper, but extends the discussion further with particular regard to rural and remote Australia.  My submission is available here, and a list of all submissions to the Review can be seen here.

Apples Apples

December 18, 2011

Back in the early 1970s as part of my pursuit of my utopian dream and my Jewish identity, I lived on Kibbutz Gonen in the Upper Galilee of Israel for a total of almost twelve months, in two different periods.  During most of that time I worked in the apple orchards, in the middle of the Huleh Valley.  I picked apples in the season, I pruned the trees in the winter, I sprayed the trees in the spring and I sorted them in the sorting “factory”.

I share this information with you so that you, the reader, will understand that I do indeed know apples.  In Hebrew, for instance, the “Granny Smith” apple is called – to the best of my recollection – “Grannismeet”.  And the “Rome Beauty” is called “Yofie Roma”.

And here’s something which I did NOT know, from an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker of November 21, 2011, entitled “Crunch: Building a better apple”:

The Granny Smith apple was originally discovered growing on a compost pile on a farm in Australia in the 1860s, and of course became the logo for The Beatles’ “Apple Records”.  But the newer forms of apples all are different: “Instead of standing mostly for places and people” (Granny Smith, Rome Beauty), newer apples “stand for images, sounds and ideas – Royal Gala (a personal favourite!), Pink Lady, Jazz.”  Have a look below.

Walking and seeing the city, part 1: Broadway

December 18, 2011

With this post I start a new category entitled “walking and seeing the city”.  It is based on a course I took in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of City and Regional Planning, taught by Professor Allan Jacobs – and subsequently turned into a book by him, entitled Looking at Cities.  Each week in that course (on a Friday afternoon), we would spend about six hours walking new neighbourhoods of San Francisco, analysing them as we walked (amazing – I don’t remember it ever raining on us!).   I dedicate this section of my blog to Professor Allan Jacobs, whose influence has lasted much longer than he knows.

Here is my current vote for the most interesting “long” street in New York City:  Broadway.  Broadway certainly deserves a number of books about it (think of course of theatre, Times Square, etc), but here I am talking about the street itself, which starts in lower Manhattan.

I lived in Manhattan for the months of September and October 2011 and during that time I estimate that I spent at least 150 hours walking the streets of New York City.  It was mostly Manhattan, although I did spend some time in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn.  I calculate that I examined every neighbourhood in Manhattan south of about 96th Street (east and west).  Because I lived on the west side, I did not do enough of the East Village, Lower East Side and Upper East Side, but I did visit.

Every weekday morning I dropped my daughter to her school in the Upper West Side and walked back to our flat on West 27th Street from Columbus Circle at 7.40am.  And every morning I took a different route, almost always cutting back and forth and often heading north through the park to come down the east side.  So here are the streets which I went down (actually in this order as it seemed logical that way):  Twelfth Avenue, Eleventh Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Ninth Avenue, Broadway, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Third Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue and York Avenue/Sutton Place.

I am not the first person to spend time in New York City and walk it.  Alfred Kazin’s autobiography (1969) is entitled A Walker in the City.  Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (2007) frequently discusses his travels around the city.  Philip Lopate’s book Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (2004) is just that: a whole book devoted to his walking the waterfronts of Manhattan, including The Battery, Battery Park City, The World Trade Center, Tribeca, Soho/Greenwich Village, Chelsea, 42nd Street to Riverside South … and on he goes (we have not even hit the East Side yet).  Lopate also edited the fabulous collection Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (  ).  In the introduction to that collection, Lopate talks of the “walking around poem” (which I had never heard of before), which “is a species of travel literature in which the writer puts himself through culture shock in his own city.”  Various peripatetic poets – including Walt Whitman – used this as a “solution to the problem of integrating the random stimuli of modern life” (p. xx).  And there is also E.B. White’s (1949) Here is New York, about his own walking the city.

And then there’s Broadway, that great street that runs all the way from The Battery downtown up through the top of Manhattan where it crosses into The Bronx, not far from Baker Field, Columbia University’s football stadium (although almost no tourist maps show Broadway above 135th Street – Columbia and City University of New York).  I cannot attest to how Broadway has fared over history, but let me describe to you the parts of Broadway which I know.  It is delightfully diverse, filled with shopping, cafes, of course, theatres and – in mid-town with street studios of major television networks (I watched ABC’s Good Morning America three times from the sidewalk at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway – just go there any weekday between 7.00am and 9.00am, a great New York tourist attraction, and it’s free.

Curiously, there is one part of Broadway which seems lagging:  just south of 42nd Street the street seems to lose all of its energy.  The street appears to narrow, the buildings get smaller, the people disappear and the shops become marginal.  It lasts that way for a few blocks and then picks up coming up to Macy’s and Herald Square (35th-34th Streets): that 34th Street shopping district (and only a block to the Empire State Building) is very dynamic.  But Broadway loses energy once again south of Herald Square until it gets close to Madison Square Park and the glorious “Flatiron Building”, which is located on a triangle block between Broadway and Fifth Avenue just south of West 23rd Street.  This building is truly one of the most fabulous which New York City has to offer.

Film review of New Year’s Eve

December 18, 2011

The new film New Year’s Eve (directed by Garry Marshall) tries so hard to be a film in the current “moment” but somehow feels dated, like it could have been made any time in the last twenty years – or the next ten.  Released here in Australia in mid-December, it features one day – December 31st 2011, turning into January 1st 2012 – thus is set in the immediate future, that is, literally two weeks from the date I am writing this.  If that’s not an attempt to sit in this exact “moment”, I don’t know what is.

The film is pleasant, albeit derivative – if you have seen Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day (2010) and Love Actually (UK, Richard Curtis, 2003), you have seen it before, with Love Actually well … actually much superior to the other two.  That’s mostly because what happens between the characters in New Year’s Eve does not affect us very much, despite an outstanding cast, including Robert de Niro (who does not get out of bed the whole time), Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Jon Bon Jovi (looking great, I should say – and well-cast as a singer), Abigail Breslin (as a 15-year old desperate to go to Times Square to “watch the ball drop” with her boyfriend and get that kiss), Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cary Elwes, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hector Elizondo, Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl.

New York City plays an important role in this film – we see Mayor Bloomberg playing himself (although much more low key than in real life), and – aside from featuring Times Square – we prominently see the Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum of Art with its Panorama of the City of New York (both museums prominently named/signed – even, as I recall, in a toilet at one point; have you ever seen a museum name in a toilet before?  me neither), Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Tiffany’s, the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations and the Myrtle Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.  Garry Marshall was born in The Bronx, so he should be forgiven (in fact, applauded) for making New York City possibly the most well-rounded character in his film.

Thumbs down to the hospital sequence with two couples vying to win the $25,000 prize for first baby born in the New Year (not funny).

Reviews of New Year’s Eve have not been good (currently sitting at 7% positive – that is 9 out of 121 reviews on Rottentomatoes website), although reportedly audiences are much more positive – and it grossed about US$27million worldwide in its opening weekend – not bad, although not likely to be a blockbuster hit.

At the end of the day, New Year’s Eve aimed low and hit its target.  But it certainly is not the “moment” film of late 2011 in the same way that Friends with Benefits became the “Zeitgeist winner of the summer” (David Denby in The New Yorker) with the couple taking their “no-emotion pledge by laying their hands on a tablet Bible app”.

The Kevin Costner Effect: They keep on coming

December 18, 2011

According to The New York Times (“New Dreams for Field”, 30 October 2011, Sports p. 1), the fans are still coming to the baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character built in the 1989 film Field of Dreams (news flash: Field of Dreams  is screening on free-to-air Australian TV on digital channel One -“1”- on Thursday 22nd December at 8.30pm). Writer Ken Belson reports that the farm where the field was built (Dyersville, Iowa), whose owners have maintained the baseball field, has now been sold to new owners who are planning on maintaining it. In the first year after the film was released, about 7,000 people showed up to see the field; the following year that number doubled and “some brought their fathers’ old gloves and left them in the cornfield.  Others exchanged wedding vows or scattered ashes of deceased relatives.”

The powerful reaction to this place reflects three enduring, important and enduring themes in American life:

– the longing for a “historical past” which was simpler and filled with traditional values;

– the significance of farms and rural America in the consciousness of Americans as a place where the “real” America lies, irrespective of the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans actually live on farms:  according to the US Dept of Agriculture, the figure is less than two percent; and according to the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, “the desertion of the small family farm constitutes the largest population movement in American history” and “the family farm is one of the last homes of old school American ethnicity and beliefs”; and

– the paramount and indeed spiritual importance of place, physical space – even in this digital, hyper-connected and networked world.

The lasting impact of this film, with its tag line “If you build it, they will come” also has helped to establish (or at least reinforce) what I call a significant fallacy in construction:  that somehow if we just build a place/space/building you name it, people will show.  Yes, they will come, but only rarely.  To Kevin Costner’s character’s field – and indeed even to its real-life location some twenty-two years later.

But not necessarily to everything.  In my recent (November 2011) presentation to the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney (click here for details of this paper, including a link to the full downloadable paper), I call this belief of building and the coming “The Kevin Costner Effect”.  In the paper, I caution that this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the development of broadband networks and infrastructure like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN).  The reason for this caution is that some twenty percent of the population in countries like Australia, the USA and the UK will not automatically “arrive” on broadband – emphasising the necessity to promote and systematically plan for digital inclusion.

The digital divide still grows

December 13, 2011

A recent (3 December 2011) article in The New York Times by Susan P. Crawford has again emphasised the growing digital divide – and the importance of bridging it to promote full digital inclusion.  In the article, Crawford (who is professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy), writes that:

Telecommunications, which in theory should bind us together, has often divided us in practice. Until the late 20th century, the divide split those with phone access and those without it. Then it was the Web: in 1995 the Commerce Department published its first look at the “digital divide,” finding stark racial, economic and geographic gaps between those who could get online and those who could not.

Yes, first it was simple access to the telephone, then to a computer, but now it is something much more complex – access to full broadband.  She writes of the “two separate marketplaces” for the internet:

High-speed wired and second-class wireless. High-speed access is a superhighway for those who can afford it, while racial minorities and poorer and rural Americans must make do with a bike path.

Remember that image – “the bike path” – in contrast to the superhighway the economic elite are travelling on.  She continues:

Just over 200 million Americans have high-speed, wired Internet access at home, and almost two-thirds of them get it through their local cable company. The connections are truly high-speed: based on a technological standard called Docsis 2.0 or 3.0, they can reach up to 105 megabits per second, fast enough to download a music album in three seconds.

It’s true.  In my recent two month stay in New York City, we easily had that 100 mbs – all provided through the local cable TV company, a peculiarity of American television distribution that we have not seen replicated in Australia for a host of technical, economic and geographic reasons.

Another article (7 December 2011) highlights the desperate situation for the growing number of poor Americans:  Christina Gagnier writes in The Huffington Post about a new digital literacy program in California called “Jobscout”, which hopes to create a model that can be expanded nationally.

As I write in my paper on digital inclusion in Australia, digital literacy is only one of many barriers to full digital participation, but it certainly is an important one.

And that’s what we need:  models for digital inclusion that are “scalable” (to use an over-used word) and applicable to a number of places.  Let’s hope that the new “digital hubs” program of the Australian Government Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy can start to do this, but much more needs to be done – and quickly.