Category Archives: culture

The Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Station

From Untapped Cities

Like the rest of Grand Central, the Campbell Apartment serves as a testament to the grandiosity of another era. But this testament is one that can be imbibed. If appropriately attired, enter a room resplendent from paraphernalia of the past and sip on cocktails from the fin de siècle in this virtual museum to the opulence of New York’s high society of the past.

Though it did have a kitchen and butler, this was once the office, not apartment, of tycoon John C. Campbell. President of the Credit Clearing House, Campbell rented the space to be closer to the hub of the New York Central Railroad (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s train empire), of which he was a major stockholder. Rumor has it that he used to sit behind the massive desk (that to this day takes up much of one side of the gorgeous 25 by 60 foot room) half nude, as he detested wrinkles in his trousers. The Campbell Apartment deteriorated drastically after its namesake vacated it in the ‘50s, and like everything else in the terminal, it fell on hard times. Metro North claimed the space as first a signalmen’s headquarters and later a police station, temporarily detaining criminals in what was once Campell’s wine cellar and storing their firearms in his curio cabinet. It was restored to its original glory in the late ‘90s, and is an excellent place to get a real taste of the decadence of Grand Central’s past.

Grand Central Station also holds a tennis court, a top secret room, and a secret railway line that is only used when the President is in town. 

Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes

From the BBC

It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1930s and it’s designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life.

The maternity package – a gift from the government – is available to all expectant mothers.

It contains bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products for the baby, as well as nappies, bedding and a small mattress.

With the mattress in the bottom, the box becomes a baby’s first bed. Many children, from all social backgrounds, have their first naps within the safety of the box’s four cardboard walls.

Why?  As one Finlander says

My partner Milla and I were living in London when we had our first child, Jasper, so we weren’t eligible for a free box. But Milla’s parents didn’t want us to miss out, so they bought one and put it in the post.

We couldn’t wait to get the lid off. There were all the clothes you would expect, with the addition of a snowsuit for Finland’s icy winters. And then the box itself. I had never considered putting my baby to sleep in a cardboard box, but if it’s good enough for the majority of Finns, then why not? Jasper slept in it – as you might expect – like a baby.

We now live in Helsinki and have just had our second child, Annika. She did get a free box from the Finnish state. This felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life. And now when I visit friends with young children it’s nice to see we share some common things. It strengthens that feeling that we are all in this together.

Okay, I love this idea.

The Twilight of the Indoor Mall

The Awl looks at the death of the mall

In the nineteen fifties, people with money began leaving the cities in unprecedented numbers. They were getting married, getting jobs, starting families, and buying houses—they were moving to the suburbs. A Time Magazine article in 1954 observed: “…since 1940, almost half of the 28 million national population increase has taken place in residential suburban areas, anywhere from ten to 40 miles away from traditional big-city shopping centers. Thus, to win the new customers’ dollars, merchants will have to follow the flight to the suburbs.”

They did, and the suburban shopping mall was born.

But the original idea for the mall was not just about retail. Victor Gruen, the father of the suburban shopping mall, envisioned something much bigger. He wanted outdoor areas, banks, post offices, and supermarkets; he wanted to give the suburbs a soul, one inspired by the public squares of European cities. But that never happened. Instead malls were faceless, sprawling. Gruen was so disappointed with what malls became, he gave a speech in 1978 in which he said, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” Malls turned out to be the very monoliths of soullessness that Gruen had tried to overcome.

It’s not just that there are better malls than Collin Creek in the Dallas area. It’s that there are so many malls; Dallas has more shopping centers per capita than any other city in the United States. And according to some estimates, fifty percent of indoor malls nationwide will die over the next two decades—partly because some shoppers are opting for newer, better malls, but also because, as a recent Guardian article put it, “the middle class that once supported” mid-market malls is dwindling. Or, put yet another way, by retail consultant Howard Davidowitz: “What’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money.” Which, of course, wasn’t always the case.

As these old malls die off, they’re being replaced more and more by upscale, outdoor shopping centers—with lofts, grocery stores, offices, public meeting areas, and day cares. At least four have popped up in Dallas within the past ten years, and they’re always packed. Sixty years after Gruen’s ideas were bastardized by short-sighted developers, they are finally seeing their day. Inklings, maybe, of the suburbs finding their soul.

To counter this, maybe there is some life for malls in winter cities.

You can hardly blame the Finns for wanting to shop in giant, self-contained malls. After all, winter tends to start early in Finland (like, November) and end late (say, in April). Temperatures in Helsinki, which is at the nation’s extreme south, with a relatively mild maritime climate, rarely get above freezing in the coldest months, and have been known to go as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In late December, the sun in Helsinki doesn’t rise until well after 9 a.m., sets soon after 3 p.m., and stays low in the sky — only getting to about 6.6 degrees above the horizon on December 27, for instance (compare that to New York, where it reaches an altitude of 26 degrees on the same day).

So it’s no surprise that the idea of walkable urban centers are a hard sell in Finland. Still, some in the nation are calling for Finland to rethink its love affair with the shopping mall.

Yet recently I have been shocked at how quiet Confederation Mall is (a ghost town), Lawson Heights Mall, and Midtown Plaza is when I am in there.  Then you look at how busy at the same time other places are.  Maybe we are growing tired of malls as well. 

The worst person in America

From Slate

Dear Prudence,
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

—Halloween for the 99 Percent

Dear 99,
In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

—Prudie

America’s underground Chinese restaurant workers.

From the New Yorker

There are more than forty thousand Chinese restaurants across the country—nearly three times the number of McDonald’s outlets. There is one in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 2,043), and one in Old Forge, New York (population 756); Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania (population 1,085), has three. Most are family operations, staffed by immigrants who pass through for a few months at a time, living in houses and apartments that have been converted into makeshift dormitories. The restaurants, connected by Chinese-run bus companies to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, make up an underground network—supported by employment agencies, immigrant hostels, and expensive asylum lawyers—that reaches back to villages and cities in China, which are being abandoned for an ideal of American life that is not quite real.

Rain, who asked that I use his adopted English name to protect his identity, is reedy and slight, with a wide face and sloping cheekbones. He is observant, in no hurry to speak, but he is more cagey than timid. Like his boss, and like everyone else who works at the restaurant, he is primarily concerned with saving as much money as possible. He needs to pay the snakehead that got him to the U.S. and send money to his family in China. He harbors the vague suspicion that everyone around him is angling for more money, less work, or some other benefit at his expense. So, instead of conversation, Rain occupies himself with the math of a transient cook: the time it takes to clean the shrimp, the days before he can visit his girlfriend in New York, and the balance of his debts. At night, he lies on a cot in his boss’s otherwise empty living room, mulling the slow processing of his green card. During the day, if he’s feeling bold, he walks across the strip-mall parking lot to order lunch at Subway, pointing at the menu when he doesn’t know the English word for something.

“I understand why he acts like this,” Rain told me, about his boss. “He’s been working in that restaurant for almost twenty years. He goes back and forth between the restaurant and the dorm where we live. Back and forth, back and forth, every day for years.” The boss’s wife and kids are in China. “You do this kind of work for that long, and you start to lose perspective.” Rain pinched his fingers together. “Your world is this small.”

It can get kind of better

Six mornings a week, the boss picks up Rain and the other workers from their dorm and takes them to the restaurant. Their preparations have a catechistic order: first the rice cooker, then dishes for the buffet, then those for the lunch rush. Twice a week, a Chinese-run company brings supplies, and everyone gathers to butcher meat, hacking it into small pieces for quick cooking. They put on rubber gloves and pour salt and cornstarch over the meat, mix it by hand, then seal it and put it into the freezer. Chinese kitchens in the U.S. have none of the badinage that makes for good reality TV. In Rain’s kitchen, the only person who talks is the boss, complaining. When a buffet tray gets low, a waiter calls through an intercom, set at a startling volume: “We need more pineapple chicken up front!”

When Rain arrived in the U.S., he assumed that he had a fair proficiency with Chinese food. His father had prided himself on his culinary skill, and his mother was a capable cook, too. She taught him when to add spice to a dish, when to temper it with Chinese celery. Rain worked briefly as a fry cook in his village, and found that he had absorbed some of his parents’ knowledge. “Even if I’ve never cooked a dish before, I can think about it and draw from my experience,” he said. Having grown up on his father’s subtly flavored fish soups, he was surprised by American Chinese food. Americans seemed to eat like kids: they love starches and sweet things, and are frightened of meat and fish with bones in it. “Americans eat all that fried stuff,” he told me. “It’s not healthy.” Real Chinese food is more refined: “You have to spend a lot of time studying and really understanding it.”

In Maryland, most of the patrons seem to come for the buffet and eat as much as they can. Still, Rain loves watching people in the dining room. “I like seeing a clean plate,” he said. “I like it when people take the first bite of my food and they start nodding their head.” He spends hours trying to create a perfectly round Chinese omelette. “There’s a lot of kung fu in making egg foo young,” he told me. “If you have time, you’ll make it really perfect. You’ll make it bigger, better-looking, rounder. They’ll think, I spent so little money and I got such good food, and on top of that it’s good-looking. And then maybe they’ll come back.”

Rain viewed the job in Maryland as an opportunity to expand his repertoire. “In a takeout restaurant, people order the same dishes over and over,” he said. At a bigger restaurant, he could learn new dishes. And his salary—twenty-eight hundred dollars a month—was good, but not good enough to arouse concern. “If you come across a job paying three thousand, you think there must be something wrong with that restaurant,” he told me.

Rain lives with five co-workers in a red brick town house that his boss owns, part of a woodsy development near the restaurant. The house is tidy; there are three floors covered with white carpeting, and each worker has been supplied with an identical cot, a desk, a chair, and a lamp. “Some bosses don’t take care of the houses,” Rain said. “If they’re renting the house, especially, they don’t care. The rooms will actually smell.” Every restaurant worker has a story of sleeping in a dank basement or being packed in a room with five other people. Many complain of living in a house that has no washing machine, and being forced to spend their day off scrubbing their grease-spattered T-shirts in a sink.

So this is why he stays

For many restaurant workers, the decision to come to the U.S. is irrevocable. But, as the disappointments of immigrant life accrue, it can be hard not to imagine that things might be better elsewhere. Chinese-Americans, despite a good public image, suffer higher rates of poverty than the general public. Mental-health problems are an increasing concern in New York’s immigrant communities. In parts of China where the growing economy has given people more options, the allure of working in the U.S. has faded. This February, in a hostel in Queens, I met a woman who had just returned from a difficult day of job hunting. “I thought America would be heaven, and all it is is cold!” she complained. She returned to Beijing after four months. In Fuzhou, a taxi-driver told me that he was glad his attempts to emigrate had failed. “My father says that having a son in the United States is like having no son at all,” he said.

Rain tried not to dwell on returning to Maryland, where he was due in a few days. Everyone else who had worked at the restaurant when he started had been driven off by the boss’s temper. “And it’s so far away,” Rain said. If he could find a job somewhere closer, he could see Annie every weekend. As his family’s only son, Rain feels increasing pressure to send money home to his mother. But, he reasoned, everyone who comes to the U.S. should be prepared for hardship. “Everything we do, we do for the next generation,” he said, and added, “No matter what, it beats sitting around in the village.”