Sunday, February 3, 2008

Urban history, cheap at half the price

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Urban history, cheap at half the price

David Hawpe
» View previous columns

Here is some advice for those of you who own businesses, and who finance employees' expense accounts: Stop paying for business trips.

Like every other newspaper with which I am familiar -- indeed, like most businesses I know -- we have been cutting back on expenses. Among the ways we do that is (how can I put it gently?) managing travel more effectively.

Some trips that I used to take for granted, and take at company expense, now take a hunk out of my personal bank account.

What I have discovered, as a result, is how to economize.

Last weekend, I spent only $34 during two days in New York City.

First, instead of driving my pickup to the airport and parking it for two days, I rolled my wife out of bed at 5 a.m. and had her drive me to Louisville International. Savings: $18.
I gulped down a big glass of juice before we left the house. That prevented a case of ABN (audible belly noise) until beverage service began on my flight to La Guardia.

Once on the ground in New York, I followed the advice of my colleague Betty Bayé (who should know, since she grew up in The City) and took the M60 bus to the Upper West Side, where I walked a block through West Harlem and transferred to the subway at Broadway and 125th Street. Total cost: $4, as opposed to $30 for the alleged virtues of a cab ride.

I say "alleged" virtues because, as Betty predicted, I learned a lot more about The City by chugging through it slowly on a city bus, and by watching the Broadway-Seventh Avenue IRT passengers come and go, than I would have learned if I had clutched the seat belt strap while my taxi careened down East River Drive and my cabbie jabberwocked and gesticulated his way through crosstown traffic.

I had no trouble getting help. The M60 bus driver was very kind. She gave me a couple of options, including two different subway lines and a bus route downtown. And when I finally made it to the information booth at the great elevated 125th Street subway stop (high atop a spectacular 55-foot-high, 168-foot-wide arch, reachable by an escalator that was not meant for acrophobics), the man in the information booth was most patient. He explained how to buy a one-way card from the machine. He told me which train to take (the No. 1). Having heard my Southern accent, he delivered these instructions very slowly.

The elevated subway station at 125th Street and Broadway in New York.

The view from the 125th Street platform was spectacular, stretching out through Harlem in one direction, toward the Hudson River in another, and down onto Manhattanville, in part of which Columbia University intends to expand. The school will build in a 17-acre area comprising four big blocks from 129th through 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, and on three parcels along the east side of Broadway from 131st through 134th.

This planned incursion is controversial, but then the relationship between Manhattanville and Columbia has been touchy since the university began construction of its current Morningside Heights campus in 1896.

But then so was the elevated subway line, when they started pushing it through the neighborhood in the summer of 1901.

Sound like a West Harlem history buff, don't I?

Pacing the platform last weekend, in the bright cold, I was fascinated by the architectural moments, the technological intrusions and the human energies all around me. It was a riot of contradictions, created by 200 years of important urban history. I promised myself to Google it when I got home. When I did, I found all sorts of neighborhood stories and took a video tour of what Columbia plans.

I never would have seen it, or decided to study it, if I had just cowered in a cab from La Guardia to my hotel.

Did I fast to avoid spending money in New York? No, I just timed my arrival to ensure that I would get lunch via the Associated Press on Saturday, dinner with AP colleagues that night, and breakfast free at the hotel on Sunday morning. (I took full advantage of the buffet -- bacon, sausage, eggs, bagel, juice, milk and an apple for the wait at the airport.) They'll send me a bill for the AP dinner, but at least we got a group rate.

A last-minute departure forced me to take a $30 cab ride back to the airport Sunday afternoon.
Entirely free was the Saturday morning bus-and-subway tour, which provoked me to look into some New York City history, and set me to studying the complex, invasive infrastructure of modernity that has developed, over more than a century, along that part of a famous urban river course.

The 8664 types would hate it, I suppose. I thought it was fascinating.

David Hawpe's columns appear Sundays and Wednesdays in the Community Forum. His e-mail address is

No comments: