Hidden New York: The 1811 street plan

A year or so ago my son and I were watching a History Channel show on how researchers had 1811 Steet Gridreconstructed the original topography of Manhattan, before developers flattened most of the hills south of 96th Street. One segment focused on a couple of geographers who used GPS to find original markers from the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which laid out the dreary grid that defines the island north of 14th Street.  The markers – iron bolts sunk into the ground at each planned street intersection – would have been uprooted where streets were built, but might still survive in Central Park.

I went to look at a marker they found, couldn’t find it, and ended up contacting Reuben Rose-Redwood, who teaches geography at Texas A&M and was featured in the History Channel show. Reuben couldn’t have been kinder; he answered:

“As for finding the iron bolt, I actually sometimes get lost looking for the bolt myself! So, my best advice is to look on GoogleMaps for the intersection of what would have been 65th Street and Sixth Avenue.”

After a bit of climbing around the rocks just off the 66th Street Transverse, I snapped this picture with my cell phone. The bolt is sunk deeply into the Manhattan schist, which is the only reason it survived almost 200 years.

Where there’s one marker, could there be more? Probably not. After all, I had a hard time finding it even when I knew where it was. The professionals know exactly where the markers should be, and this is the only one they’ve found. Says Reuben:

188 survey bolt
1811 survey bolt

“We’ve already looked through Central Park and Marcus Garvey with GPS and Randel’s survey notes in hand. Based on his field notes, we know where all of the bolts should be. We’ve gone to all the locations and can’t seem to find any others (which may be underground or destroyed).”

But there’s hope. What about Morningside Park or an eastern sliver of Riverside Park? It looks like the original grid included parts of both of them. If anyone has a GPS unit and wants to go looking for more bolts, leave a message in the comments.

My Black Wife

She doesn’t look blackish. In fact, she’s a blond. Her mother is Swedish, and she has a bunch of second cousins in Jonkoping.

But it turns out that her grandmother, Jane Helm of Drake, Missouri, was passing all her life. And she carried the secret to her deathbed.

Suddenly it all made sense. The face powder. The parasol. The elbow-length gloves. The high-necked dresses. It wasn’t Victorian formality carried into the 20th century. It was a cover-up.

The evidence of Jane’s ancestry comes from two sources: Census records and a mitochondrial DNA test.

Jane Helm had a brother – my wife’s great-uncle. Born April 4, 1893. Strangled by the umbilical cord. The mother’s “nativity” is Negro. The son’s race is black.

We don’t have the birth certificate for Jane. But we know that the mtDNA test, which traces ancestry through the mother’s line, lists L-type haplogroups, which are typical of West Africa, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Jane Helm’s father came from Switzerland to America, bought a farm in rural Missouri after the Civil War and married a black woman. I imagine that only a foreigner would have done it. Southern Missouri is still the South, even today.

The ironic part is that Jane’s living children, even after seeing the mtDNA results and the Census records, won’t accept her heritage. They talk about the “Mohawk” in the family – a phrase that Southerners tell me is a codeword.

From Mother Earth News to SWAT in 9 Steps

Amazon’s “Customers who bought X also bought Y” function displays thousands of paths through hundreds of demographic niches of America’s magazines. You don’t need Amazon to tell you that readers of ‘Guns & Ammo’ are more likely to buy ‘Handguns’ than ‘PETA News.’ But what Amazon can tell you is which magazines Dale Gribble and Comic Book Guy have in common. The hub ‘zines – those that unite groups with little else in common – provide a glimpse into the subjects that draw us together as Americans.

Inspired by the polarized political book networks on Orgnet, the power of Perl and the help of Adi Agafitei, I spent some time spidering around Amazon and dropping the results into Pajek, a free data visualization program from Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana. The resulting networks show a handful of magazines that link us all – families and singles, women and men, liberals and conservatives, teens and boomers, Hummer-drivers and tree-huggers…you get the idea.

Magazine map

The network shows all of the shortest paths from ‘Mother Earth News’ to ‘Special Weapons Assault Team: The Magazine for Prepared Americans.’ The hub is ‘Popular Mechanics’, which I spent hours studying as a teenager. Men who read Popular Mechanics love their home workshops, and what is ‘Family Handyman’ but ‘Mother Earth News’ without the green baggage? Men who read ‘Popular Mechanics’ also like to hunt, fish and tinker with cars. From hunting it’s not a big step to ‘Guns and Ammo’, and from there it’s only a tiny step to assault weapon porn.

Popular Mechanics is a huge hub among men’s magazines. But it’s not the biggest. That distinction goes to Wired. More later.

Barack Obama Embellishes His Resume

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of Barack Obama, the Illinois freshman senator and hot young Democratic Party star. But after reading his autobiography, I have to say that Barack engages in some serious exaggeration when he describes a job that he held in the mid-1980s.I know because I sat down the hall from him, in the same department, and worked closely with his boss. I can’t say I was particularly close to Barack – he was reserved and distant towards all of his co-workers – but I was probably as close to him as anyone. I certainly know what he did there, and it bears only a loose resemblance to what he wrote in his book.

Here’s Barack’s account:

Eventually a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool.

First, it wasn’t a consulting house; it was a small company that published newsletters on international business. Like most newsletter publishers, it was a bit of a sweatshop. I’m sure we all wished that we were high-priced consultants to multinational corporations. But we also enjoyed coming in at ten, wearing jeans to work, flirting with our co-workers, partying when we stayed late, and bonding over the low salaries and heavy workload.

Barack worked on one of the company’s reference publications. Each month customers got a new set of pages on business conditions in a particular country, punched to fit into a three-ring binder. Barack’s job was to get copy from the country correspondents and edit it so that it fit into a standard outline. There was probably some research involved as well, since correspondents usually don’t send exactly what you ask for, and you can’t always decipher their copy. But essentially the job was copyediting.

It’s also not true that Barack was the only black man in the company. He was the only black professional man. Fred was an African-American who worked in the mailroom with his son. My boss and I used to join them on Friday afternoons to drink beer behind the stacks of office supplies. That’s not the kind of thing that Barack would do. Like I said, he was somewhat aloof.

…as the months passed, I felt the idea of becoming an organizer slipping away from me. The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary; money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors—see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand—and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.

Barack was not promoted. Instead, he did the same thing that I did in my first job out of college: Volunteered for more interesting work (writing articles) than the work he was hired to do (copyediting a reference service). As far as I know, he always had a small office, and the only secretary in the company worked for Norman, the president. Barack never left the office, never wore a tie, and had neither reason nor opportunity to interview Japanese financiers or German bond traders.

Then one day, as I sat down at my computer to write an article on interest-rate swaps, something unexpected happened. Auma called. I had never met this half sister; we had written only intermittently…[several pages on his suffering half-sister] A few months after Auma called, I turned in my resignation at the consulting firm and began looking in earnest for an organizing job.

All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks. Luckily, an angel calls, awakens his conscience, and helps him choose instead to fight for the people.

Like I said, I’m a fan. His famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention moved me to tears. The Democrats – not to mention America – need a mixed-race spokesperson who can connect to both urban blacks and rural whites, who has the credibility to challenge the status quo on issues ranging from misogynistic rap to unfair school funding.

And yet I’m disappointed. Barack’s story may be true, but many of the facts are not. His larger narrative purpose requires him to embellish his role. I don’t buy it. Just as I can’t be inspired by Steve Jobs now that I know how dishonest he is, I can’t listen uncritically to Barack Obama now that I know he’s willing to bend the facts to his purpose.

Once, when I applied for a marketing job at a big accounting firm, my then-supervisor called HR to say that I had exaggerated something on my resume. I didn’t agree, but I also didn’t get the job. But when Barack Obama invents facts in a book ranked No. 8 on the NY Times nonfiction list, it not only fails to be noticed but it helps elevate him into the national political pantheon.

Looking Out for No. 2

For the past few months I’ve been teaching myself to write spiders – little Perl programs that crunch through URLs and download data. In the spirit of learning by doing, my first project was to grab 5,000 health inspection reports for Manhattan restaurants from the NYC Department of Health website.

The reports list a lot of yucky things, from spoiled food to rat droppings, that you’d rather not know. I’ll tell you one thing, though – after going through this exercise, I’ll never buy the cheap sushi at Daikichi again.

Here’s a narrow slice of what I found: the average number of violations per restaurant for Manhattan chains with five or more locations. Most of the violations aren’t too bad. But unless you like raw sewage, stay away from the Popeyes on Fulton Street.

Over 2 Violations per Location
Café Metro
Ray’s Pizza
Sbarro’s

1.5 to 2 Violations per Location
Andrews Coffee Shop
Blimpie
Burger Heaven
City Market Café
Cosi
Daikichi Sushi
Europa Cafe
Kennedy Fried Chicken
Le Pain Quotidien
Pronto Pizza
Ranch 1
Teriyaki Boy
TGI Friday’s
Zaro’s Bread Basket

1 to 1.5 Violations per Location
Au Bon Pain
Baluchi’s
Barnes & Noble Cafe
Burritoville
Chipotle Mexican Grill
City Perk
Cremalita
Crown Fried Chicken
Domino’s Pizza
Jackson Hole
Popeye’s
Subway
Tasti D-Lite
Zaro’s Bread Basket

0.5 to 1 Violations per Location
Burger King
Dean & Deluca
Dunkin Donuts
Haagen Dazs
Hale & Hearty Soups
KFC
Krispy Kreme
McDonald’s
Pret a Manger
Starbucks
Wendy’s

Less Than 0.5 Violations per Location
Ben & Jerry’s

A few observations:

It’s easy to despise the big fast food chains, but when it comes to cleanliness, they seem to have their act together. Just compare Burger King to Burger Heaven or KFC to Kennedy Fried Chicken. (Subway doesn’t count – it’s a network of franchisees rather than a centrally managed operation like McDonalds.)

Pizza – or any restaurant where food is left out for long periods – is a bad bet.

Violations aren’t likely at chains where the food arrives in sealed containers and doesn’t need to be prepared before serving. The prime examples are ice cream shops like Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s. Coffee and baked goods (Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dean & Deluca’s) seem to be relatively safe as well.