Driving U.S. Route 1 from northern Maine to Key West; a new book

During the summer of 2014, I embarked on a solo drive that had roots stretching all the way back to epic road trips with my family as we followed my Air Force father on assignments here and abroad. In late-June 2014, I set out from my home in upstate New York to drive the entire length of U.S. Route 1 from remote, forested northern Maine to artsy, bucolic Key West. As it snakes along the East Coast for over 2,400 miles, this famous — but somewhat ignored — highway winds through some of our nation’s most complex, congested cities before passing through the wide-open expanses of the Carolinas and down into Florida.

Along the way, the super-fast I-95 beckoned me with it’s lure of no traffic lights and three lanes. But I ignored its siren call.

It was an eye-opening experience. From the fascinating people I met to the sites I visited, I was left with an indelible image of what used to be known as the New World to Europeans and others who first began landing here centuries ago. From the crafty ticket scalper at the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards ballpark to the Baptist minister in Aiken County South Carolina, the people I met along the way were the America I sought to see through the lens of this over 80-year-old road.

At the beginning of the trip, in Fort Kent, Maine, and at the end, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home.

When I finally returned home, I found myself with dozens of pages of notes, many recorded interviews, and hundreds of photos. I had no other choice but to sit down and write a book about the experience. That book is now available, as an ebook initially, on Amazon. I’m working on the paperback version now. If you click on the “buy” link in the graphic below, it’ll take you to the book site on Amazon.

A major shout out to my sister-in-law Deanna Gallaro for the fantastic cover she designed for my book.

So please, come along on this ride with me….You won’t be disappointed.

 

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Actions Speak Louder Than Words; Starbucks and Crisis Communications

Below is my Op Ed on the Starbucks arrest matter in Philadelphia, and how the company handled it. This column originally appeared April 27, 2018, in the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y.  (Photo credit: AdWeek)

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Starbucks Backs it Words With Actions

By Mark Marchand

Actions speak louder than words. Just ask Starbucks about the value of this old adage.

The large coffee house company is driving home a lesson many of us learned when we were young. To learn about responsibility and accountability, teachers, mentors, parents, and others employed this old saying to help us understand what we needed to do when something went wrong.  In situations ranging from merely uncomfortable circumstances with a friend or family member to a crisis that threatens the very future of an organization, we needed to know that words—regardless of how meaningful or eloquent they might be—won’t deliver a message effectively unless they are backed with actions.

Nowhere is this adage more true than in the breakneck, relentlessly competitive world of retail marketing and corporate America. Sure, go ahead and hire the best PR people and speechwriters, but don’t expect your message to take root unless the communication is accompanied by actions, some of which might cause short-term financial loss. Time and time again, the strategy has proven to deliver positive results over the long term.

The recent incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop is a great example. After asking to use the bathroom and being refused, two African-American men were told to leave the restaurant. They didn’t. Instead, they remained, waiting peacefully for a friend. A Starbucks employee called police and the two men were arrested and removed without incident. Bystanders repeatedly asked police what the men had done wrong and of course recorded the incident with their smartphones. The videos, pictures, and news stories went viral, causing a massive crisis for the nationwide coffee house company.

It didn’t matter that both men were later released without charges. Anger at Starbucks continued to grow. Three days after the incident, the Starbucks CEO released a heartfelt apology. He admitted wrongdoing and promised to take the necessary steps to ensure such an incident wouldn’t happen again.

But where other corporations might have handled the crisis with a “duck and cover” approach, Starbucks attacked it head on. They announced last week that they will close some 8,000 stores for a half day May 29 to conduct racial bias training with employees. That’s a bold move that tells the world Starbucks is dead serious about learning from the incident and using it to change corporate culture and practices. The decision could cost Starbucks millions in lost revenue. The MarketWatch online news site estimated the amount at $12 million. In its announcement, Starbucks also said it would work with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP.

No one can predict if Starbucks’ words and actions will work. This incident has severely dinged the reputation of a company that previously was known for social and environmental responsibility. Those who study crisis communications know that swift responses, meaningful apologies where a company admits wrongdoing, and substantive actions to address the situation and prevent it from happening again are a sound basis upon which to begin restoring a reputation.

Reputation management shouldn’t be the only goal, though. Crises such as these—including last year’s United Airlines customer-dragging incident—highlight isolated disconnects between the actions of frontline employees and the customer-centric values companies have developed and successfully used over the years. Perhaps the poor stepchild of some company PR programs—ongoing employee communications—needs to be strengthened.

Whatever the solutions to these problems might be,  and whether Starbucks’ strategy will work over the long haul, the company has for now demonstrated that the value and truth of old adages that helped us grow to be responsible adults are still important—even for complex, worldwide companies that generate over $22 billion in annual revenue.

Give credit where credit is due: Starbucks has taken ownership of the situation and is beginning to take the right steps to fix what went wrong on that afternoon in Philadelphia.

 

Mark Marchand, a former senior manager in public relations at Verizon, is an adjunct professor in the Journalism Program at the University at Albany. He teaches crisis communications and other courses there.

Cutting the cable TV cord: Our experience

(photo credit above: AARP)

By Mark A. Marchand

We reached the end of our rope with cable TV in December. It seemed that every month our bill from Spectrum (or Time Warner or Charter…it’s pretty confusing) was higher. When we asked about it, we were basically told that rates were going up, and would continue to increase to $200 per month later this year. That’s a lot for a family that buys the basic cable TV package with one set-top box, phone and internet access. We don’t buy any premium services like Showtime or HBO.

The final clincher was the poorly communicated, confusing Spectrum requirement that all older, analog TVs connected to cable TV without set-top boxes would no longer work on Feb. 1, and would require a free — for now — convertor box supplied by Spectrum. Not only did this create mass confusion, but many consumers here in upstate New York found themselves being billed for the box after being told they wouldn’t pay for a year.

Author’s note: Below is our rationale for making our move, as well as a look at the state of the cable TV industry. If you want to skip this for now, scroll ahead to the sections with steps in the title, or go all the way to the summary at the end.

Our decision

So we joined the millions of fellow Americans who “cut the cord.” To be more precise, as my friend and communications professor at the College of St. Rose Paul Conti pointed out to me, we really didn’t cut the overall cable cord coming into our house. He called the phrase a “cute one,” because we still receive internet access from Spectrum, as well as phone service. So it’s more accurate to say we cut the cable TV cord.

We weren’t alone. According to Variety magazine, the trend is accelerating. Some 22 million customers were expected to have cut the traditional cable TV, satellite or phone cord by the end of last year, no longer receiving the traditional channel lineup from a cable, satellite, or telephone company. The trend is particularly evident among younger adults. Today, many of them set up households without traditional cable TV, or landline phone service. Our sons live in the Boston area, for example, and never even considered cable TV or traditional phone service in their homes.

So how did we fill the gap created by chucking cable TV? It’s important to point out that both of us had grown weary anyway of the formulaic offerings provided by the major broadcast networks and other cable channels. Just how many NCIS-whatevers could we watch, or how many times could we be interrupted by commercials while viewing a one-hour show? (I timed some shows, which offered me just under 40 minutes of programming over one hour.) And the trend toward reality TV confounded both of us. We were uninterested in who danced with what star, or who might survive on some staged competition on an island. Trying to pick which bachelor or bachelorette might be chosen after a staged courtship process seemed boring.  All of this and more added up to many nights of “can’t we find anything good on TV?”

To be sure, I retained my lifelong fascination with live televised sports, much of which came over the major broadcast networks. While we still bought cable TV, I added to the mix by early experimentation with video streaming to watch my Boston Red Sox in a TV market dominated by the Yankees and Mets. And both of us loved watching good, well-scripted dramas and crafty comedy shows, while my wife kept track of world, national, and local news via broadcast news programs.

The choices of what we might do after ending our longtime affair with cable were legion. Websites, magazines, and blogs were filled with recommendations and ideas. We tried to approach the problem pragmatically by doing some homework.

First step: going retro

We started by going back, way back to the dawn of broadcast television. After some online research, we bought two inexpensive indoor high-def antennas online. Mohu makes some good ones. We knew we needed to still receive the local NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and PBS affiliates for local news, most major sports contests, and documentaries. We connected one antenna to our large smart TV in the family room, and another to an old cathode ray tube TV with a digital converter in our kitchen. The relatively cheap digital convertor was needed because Spectrum stopped providing older analog signals on Feb. 1, hence the need for the converter they supplied.

 

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An indoor high-def TV antenna from Mohu. The antenna itself is a light, thin piece of plastic.

The results were mixed to good. Initially, we giggled with delight over receiving the stations without paying a monthly fee, and the quality was pretty good. We received a high-def picture and our smart TV even gave us a sort of cable-like channel guide. For the most part, the signal was strong in our family room. We think it was due to its large, south-facing window. All of the local network affiliates have broadcasting antennas to our south. The signal strength varied, though, depending on weather conditions and where we were standing or sitting in the room. Sometimes, one of us  would get up and adjust the antenna position or location while the other watched. This led to amusing situations where someone would be up on a chair adjusting the antenna behind a picture frame while the other waited and watched for the picture to improve. Often, we’d ask the antenna adjuster to stay where they were, poised on a chair for example, when the picture came in perfectly.

The kitchen was and remains a challenge. We only use that TV to watch the news early over breakfast, or during dinner. Without a south-facing window, however,  we’re constantly adjusting the kitchen antenna location. On one day, the NBC affiliate comes in well. We might get up the next day, though, to find that we cannot receive that same station at all. This is a temporary solution. We’re planning a kitchen renovation soon. As part of the process, we’ll upgrade to a small flat-screen TV and stream video there. More on streaming in a bit.

One final note on receiving over-the-air signals:  It’s great for power outages. We have the misfortune to live in an area where the electrical grid is so shaky we invested over $5,000 in a permanent, natural-gas-fed 10kw backup generator about 10 years ago. It powers about three-quarters of our house, our furnace, our refrigerator, and other important rooms or devices when we lose commercial power from National Grid. Many of our neighbors have similar systems or smaller, portable generators. There’s no mistaking when the power is out in our neighborhood. The roar of generators is constant. When the power is out, that usually means we lose cable TV and internet access within a few hours. With the backup generator, we can power our TV and easily pull in the five local channels over an antenna. Not bad.

Second step: rebuilding our network and channel lineup

Next, we started to look at how we could receive a larger selection of cable-only or streaming-only channels of content. In short, we began searching for what could replace the “package” of channels from cable TV, and in that package we wondered if we could obtain more reliable signals from the local network affiliates.

For this we still needed internet access provided by Spectrum. There were no other reliable alternatives. (Note to Verizon: If you’re reading this, please send your fabulous FiOS fiber-optic-based video and broadband service here. Your DSL broadband service has technical limitations and is just not a viable solution). We also needed a standalone streaming device like Roku or a smart TV that has Roku built in. We have the latter. We bought a nice TCL smart TV well before we moved on from cable TV.

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An example of the nice TCL smart TV we bought, with a common on-screen menu for streaming choices.

By dropping cable TV, we reduced our monthly Spectrum bill from about $189 (soon to be $200) to $90 for broadband and the phone service my wife still needs for her writing and communications business. We set a goal: buy high-quality video service with all or most of the channels we wanted, and pay less than we paid Spectrum.

Spoiler alert: We did it, and it wasn’t that hard.

 Three good options

There are several good video content services that have sprung up in the wake of sweeping dissatisfaction with cable TV and subsequent cord cutting. Three popular ones are: Slingbox, HULU Live, and YoutubeTV.

We started by trying the popular HULU Live service. We were already familiar with HULU and had bought a limited service last year to watch their fabulous adaptation of Margaret Atwoods’s Handmaid’s Tale and a few other streaming programs. The new Live service was designed for cable TV refugees, offering over 50 channels and a library of streaming shows. It cost about $40 per month. The channel selection ranged from all the ESPN offerings to the Golf Channel to kids programming to news networks. It came very close to imitating the collection of channels on our old cable TV service. We only watched 20-25 of the cable TV channels anyway.

But over the course of six weeks we experienced some challenges with HULU. First, the streaming quality of live shows was average to poor. We’d try and watch a live sports event and could tell the picture was less than high def and the stream kept getting interrupted, causing oddities like hearing an announcer repeat the same line twice. Other shows not aired live, like an episode of a HULU original program, didn’t experience those same issues, but the quality of the picture was still sketchy. And the menu was not very user friendly. Although I watched HULU daily, I had to fumble around a bit to find where I wanted to go each time I launched the service. The cloud-based DVR service was limited in capacity and I never really learned how to use it.

The final issue proved to be the local network affiliates. In addition to live streaming problems, HULU only provided the local NBC affiliate. That feed was subject to the same transmission problems. We were on our own and forced to use the indoor antenna for the other local network channels.

We decided to move on from HULU. We looked at Slingbox briefly, but after talking to our neighbor who tried it — he’s far more technologically adept than we’ll ever be — we passed.

Success!

Our savior was the relatively new YouTubeTV. Like HULU, the service offered a broad cable-TV-like range of channels and networks, but it also included ALL the local network affiliates — not just NBC. We would only have to rely on the indoor antenna for PBS. After some initial confusion, I learned how to use the cloud-based DVR, which offers unlimited capacity. It even allows you to skip past commercials when you watch a recorded show.  One of my favorite features was the channel guide for live programming that is similar to but superior in many ways to cable TV guides. I had it all figured out within minutes.

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And the clincher? The quality of the picture is spectacular! We’re definitely receiving high-def signals, and there are no stutters and other interruptions of live streams. If you’ve invested hundreds or thousands of dollars on a smart, high def TV, this is the way to go. I honestly believe the video quality is better and more reliable than the signal we received from Spectrum.

Finally, even though it was a better product, YouTubeTV cost less than the HULU product: $35 per month. They have announced, however, that they are increasing the price to $40. We are grandfathered and can keep our cheaper price for now.

There are some issues with YouTubeTV because with any change of this magnitude there will be problems. They are not insurmountable. For example, you can’t quickly switch back and forth from one program to another. I’ll be watching a college basketball game and decide to switch to the Golf Channel to check in on a tournament. To do this, I need to back out of the basketball game, go into the channel guide, scroll around, select the Golf Channel, and then launch that stream. That can take up to 10 seconds. To get back to my hoop game, I reverse the process. For now, I don’t do that a lot. I’m a patient man. If I need to switch back and forth, I can put up with the delay.

It didn’t surprise me when I found out that Google owns YouTube and YouTubeTV. This giant in the internet and web world has achieved near perfection in designing a service that is more than a capable replacement for traditional cable TV. We’ll stay with them for the foreseeable future.

Other streaming content

I have purposely not discussed two other streaming products we buy. We have a Netflix subscription, and an MLB.TV streaming product so I can watch my Boston Red Sox. I didn’t talk about them because we purchased them when we had Spectrum cable TV, before we cut that cord, and we continue today. Thus, I didn’t include them in my shopping and price comparison.

The savings

Today, we pay $90 for Spectrum broadband and phone, and we pay $35 for YoutubeTV. Our monthly bill is now $124, or $65 per month less than we used to pay Spectrum for all three services. Over a year, that adds up to a savings of $780. And we’ve exercised our brains by learning an entirely new approach to watching TV.

I want to stress that this wasn’t simply about the money. It was the principle. We kept paying more to Spectrum for the same or lower-level of service. We have now arrived at a solution where we pay much less and receive the channels and networks we watched before — in high-quality video.

Summary

Let’s wrap this up and review the bidding:

  • Ditch cable TV from Spectrum. Keep broadband and phone, for now.
  • Buy and experiment with inexpensive indoor high-def antennas to receive local channels. This is very useful when the power and — usually — broadband service go out.
  • To replace the traditional cable TV package of service, explore the streaming content packages. Make sure you have a streaming device like ROKU, and take a good look at YouTubeTV. They have come the closest to designing a product that can replace a cable TV lineup, with a crystal-clear picture. Yes, you still need to buy broadband from your cable or other provider for this service to work. There are other potential alternatives in the future, such as a 5G fixed wireless system under development at Verizon…but for now, we’re stuck with the cable company.
  • Experiment with other streaming services, such as Netflix ($11 per month) to broaden your program choices. Amazon Prime is another good option for movies, etc.
  • One final thought: check your broadband speed from Spectrum or any other provider. To receive high-def, good-quality streaming video – and still access the internet from other devices in your house at the same time – you’re going to need at least 20 mb/s. If you’re looking for a good site to test your speed, here’s one I use a lot.

Good luck! I hope this summary of what we did helps. I didn’t write it to be critical of any one company or provider. I’m simply reporting on what we did to replace traditional cable TV. Please feel free to share your experiences, or to write to me at markmarchand56@gmail.com.

The Guggenheim Walk

(This is the second in a series of posts about hikes I’ve taken through New York City and elsewhere)

By Mark A. Marchand

New York City. There is, in my opinion, no other city in the world that so easily reveals an eclectic mix of history, arts, entertainment, business/finance, retail, architecture, and simply people from literally every corner of the globe. All are slowly unveiled while walking the avenues, streets, bridges, and alleys of The Big Apple.

Over the last decade, I have embarked on many New York City hikes to experience the wonders of this great metropolis. I recently blogged on my walk through history via the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. This time, I turned north after my usual Amtrak ride from Albany.

Doing the Guggenheim:

I’ve been to far more baseball and football stadiums than museums, so the word Guggenheim is an unlikely utterance to escape my lips. But escape it did, as the target for an early spring 2008, walk. I had never been there yet word of the facility, its unusual design, and its regularly updated collections of impressionist, post impressionist, and contemporary art had somehow reached me. And it was in an area of Manhattan that I hadn’t explored.

Situated along the upper east side of a Fifth-Avenue stretch called Museum Mile, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is easily one of the world’s most unusual-looking museums. Opened in 1959 and named for the famous businessman, art collector,  and philanthropist, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum soars about 100 feet above Fifth Avenue, just past the intersection with 88th Street. And because of its reverse spiraling upward design (sometimes referred to as an upside down wedding cake), it stands out starkly from the more common brick, concrete, cement, and metal structures that surround it. The building had a polarizing effect during design, construction, and after opening, but most architectural critics settled down and came to respect it for a design unduplicated elsewhere.

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The Guggenheim Museum in New York City (credit: Guggenheim Museum)

Macy’s and Herald Square

It’s a sunny spring day when I emerge from the east side of Penn Station, beneath Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets. Setting out north on Seventh, I pass a long line of appointment-bound travelers waiting at a cab stand. Pulling or carrying all manner of suitcases and other luggage, most are tapping their feet and inching forward anxiously toward the end of a double line of yellow cabs swooping in to discharge and pick up passengers. The ever-present honking from impatient drivers jars the mostly calm setting, intermittently disturbing the low hum and general din of passing traffic and literally thousands of conversations. Workers hawk newspapers and magazines from nearby newsstands. The odor of coffee and bagels drifts from small refreshment carts.

Since I must work my way east two blocks to pick up Fifth Avenue northbound, I turn right and cross Seventh onto 34th Street. At this intersection sits Macy’s of Herald Square — the granddaddy of all Macy’s, home to Thanksgiving Day parades, famous movies, myriad items for sale, and some of the best window displays in the world. As I walk east on 34th, pedestrian traffic is heavy on a wide sidewalk, framed on the left by the Macy’s display windows and large, decorative awnings. On the right are small trees in large concrete planters. Pedestrians crowd both sides of the planters, often jogging into the busy street to navigate around slower clumps of walkers.

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Macy’s of Herald Square (credit: Macy’s)

At Avenue of the Americas, also known as Sixth Avenue, sits one of the busier intersections in the entire city: Herald Square. Here, Broadway angles southeast to northwest across where 34th Street meets Sixth Avenue. The roads form a sort of crooked “X,” through which motor vehicles and pedestrians battle as traffic lights try to control the flow. It is not a situation for timid pedestrians or drivers. But because it is an extension of the retail mania that begins at Macy’s, cars and walkers slow to take in the scenery and electronic signs, further clogging the crossroads.

Just before Fifth Avenue on the right is the Empire State Building. Long since surpassed in the height department after opening its doors in 1931, it still stands out as one of the city’s most famous landmarks. It’s not that impressive at street level, but I can’t resist: I crane my neck upwards, almost falling backward in the process, to glimpse where the exasperated but fictional King Kong fought off small biplanes in the 1933 movie.

Fifth Avenue

I turn left on Fifth Avenue to head north. Here is where my “real” walk for the day begins. What lies ahead are 54 blocks or about five miles until I reach the Guggenheim at 88th. Traffic is one-way on Fifth, moving south toward Washington Square, opposite to my intended direction. The traffic is spread across six lanes, with one supposedly restricted to buses. On this pre-Uber day, it looks to me like more than half the traffic is comprised of yellow taxis, weaving back and forth across the lanes like a knot of furtive serpents. The taxis are in constant battle with large trucks, vans, private cars, and, pedestrians at each intersection. As traffic lights change at each junction, pedestrians charge forward like thoroughbreds fighting out of the starting gate.

I head north along Fifth. Even though it’s past morning rush hour, all lanes of the avenue remain congested, creeping along at 5 to 10 mph. The steady drone of traffic, bus, and truck diesel engines, and a low buzz of constant conversations and cell-phone chats is disturbed from time to time by honks and sirens. I plot a course slowly along the sidewalk on the left, occasionally bumping into walkers staring at their phones while I navigate through groups of tourists stopping to gaze and take pictures.

Fifth Avenue is known mostly as the world’s preeminent shopping Mecca. Some stores even carry the avenue name in their brand. Posh, high-end clothes retailer Saks Fifth Avenue is one of the most renowned.  Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Louis Vitton, Bergdoff Goodman, and many others appear on both sides. Heading north, I see retail businesses blending in with office buildings, coffee shops, restaurants, and historic landmarks such as the famous New York Public Library, which lords over the west side of Fifth at 42nd Street. The steps leading up to the century-old, marble structure are guarded by the oft-photographed statues of resting lions. Hundreds of visitors saunter up and down the steps.

Eight blocks north, Rockefeller Center appears on my left. It’s one of the top attractions in mid-town Manhattan. The 19-building, 22-acre complex is headquarters to businesses such as Comcast, formerly GE-NBC. I stop and stare at the blend of art-deco structures and more modern office buildings and skyscrapers. The bronze statue of Atlas is a favorite of amateur photographers, and today is no exception.

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Rockefeller Center (credit: Rockefeller Center)

Across the street on the east side of Fifth is the majestic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Completed in 1879, it was once one of the most physically prominent structures in the city. Today, even with its two soaring spires, the neo-gothic house of worship is dwarfed by business and commercial buildings that have grown up around it. Even though it looks out of place, St. Patrick’s remains one of the city’s most impressive architectural achievements. As I continue north on Fifth, the sharp light from the rising sun occasionally breaks through some of the skyscrapers to frame the upper reaches of the church.

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral (credit: St. Patrick’s)

Proceeding farther north, I begin to lose track of the numerous landmarks on each side of the avenue, so I just amble and allow the scene to unfold. Passing 58th Street, I spot the glass-walled Apple store across the street on the right. The squat box structure serves primarily as an entrance to the sprawling Apple store below street level. Shoppers pour in and out of the entrance like ants scurrying to and from an anthill under construction.

Directly across the street from Apple are the leafy courtyard and fountains that frame the front entrance of the venerable Plaza Hotel. Featured often in movies and magazines, the grand dame of New York City hotels remains one of the best — and most expensive — places to eat and sleep. And its views of this part of the city are without peer.

Central Park

Once I cross 59th Street, the character of Fifth changes in a flash. Within a few hundred feet, the skyscrapers start to disappear. On the east side of Fifth, they are replaced with mostly lower, older buildings. Many are offices but others are beautiful, brick-faced residential complexes. On the west side of Fifth, the buildings disappear altogether. They are replaced by the trees and green, open space of one of the world’s largest urban recreational areas: the 843-acre Central Park. From 59th, this unusual park stretches north for more than 50 blocks before ending at 110th Street. This green border of Fifth Avenue’s west side is interrupted only by the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 80th and 84th streets, part of a collection of nine well-known museums known as Museum Mile.

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Central Park (credit: Omni Hotels)

With over 20 blocks traveled, I pause to soak in the sudden change of scenery near the southern end of Central Park. The sidewalk here is a wide promenade made up of bricks and blocks instead of cement or asphalt. The walkway is broken up only by small patches of dirt from which trees sprout. There’s ample shade from the trees, so I sit for a while on one of the benches along the three-foot-high stone wall that forms the border between Fifth and the park. Despite heavy traffic, it’s much quieter here and I nod off for a few minutes. A prolonged honk from an impatient food delivery truck startles me awake and I continue the walk.

I find myself immersed in a wide variety of pedestrians, some dressed for work and hurrying, some wanderers searching for good park views, and even some parents or nannies pushing strollers or rushing with young kids in tow, dashing toward school or other appointments. The traffic clatter and density continue to decrease. I see many large, black SUVS with what appear to be professional drivers picking up and dropping off young families. Across the street more low-rise, older-style buildings house libraries, art collections, small office groups, doctors’ offices, and upscale homes or apartments.

Approaching 77th Street, I spot my first evidence of east-west cross street traffic on Fifth. This passageway allows a steady stream of traffic to enter the relatively quiet, nurturing green scenery of Central Park and cross to the west side of the city. For the first time since mid-town Manhattan, I have to wait for the traffic lights to cross, but I welcome the break. I take a few sips from a bottle of spring water I packed but thought I wouldn’t need. It’s a lot warmer now.

Approaching 88th a few minutes later, it’s hard to miss the buzz surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art, otherwise known as “The Met.” This historic museum sits on the west side of Fifth, and protrudes into Central Park. I’ve never seen it in person and I stop for 15 minutes to gaze at the massive entrance, framed by four sets of tall columns. Hundreds walk up and down one the widest set of entrance stairs I’ve ever seen. The stairways rival those of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Hot dog and other food/drink vendors line the sidewalk and plaza in front of the off-white and tan structure that stretches out from the main building on both sides, the result of additions over the years. Today it’s home to some 2 million objects. They range from ancient Egyptian artifacts to some of the world’s most famous, rare paintings.

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The Met (credit: NYC Arts)

Arriving at the Guggenheim

A few blocks later, I finally spot my target. The light tan spirals of The Guggenheim emerge to my right. The unique building is ensconced between two taller, office/residential buildings just north and south.

Hundreds of visitors are milling about the entrance. Many are looking at brochures as they plan their tour. I sit outside to rest for a few minutes, before entering and buying my ticket. There’s a lot to absorb and I have since forgotten most of it. What I do recall is the primary display I saw that day. A series of exhibits along the long, circular walkway (1,416 feet long) to the top of the building featured work by Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He has spent part of his career studying gunpowder and explosions. Many of these blasts, or the results of detonations, are depicted in paintings, drawings, sculptures and other presentations. I had no idea he was the artist featured during my visit, but I find myself fascinated as I try to decipher what it all means.

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Some of Quo-Qiang’s art (credit: the artist)

In the end, as I walk back down to street level, I admit I don’t understand much of  Guo-Qiang’s art, but I achieved what I set out to: I enjoyed a great walk and exposed myself to some fresh thinking based on artwork I had never seen before. I finally exit the museum around 3 p.m. My head is swirling with images of destroyed buildings, shrapnel tracks, and victims as I start the hike back south to catch a late-afternoon train home.

With a little time to spare, I stop at a posh bar along Fifth below Central Park, and order a glass of pinot noir recommended by the pleasant bartender. It’s one of the best glasses of red wine I’ve ever had. I order a second. My period of quiet reflection on the day is shattered when I pay the tab. Each glass was $25. Well, I think to myself, I’m in Manhattan … but perhaps on future missions I’ll ask for a price first.

Penn Station is swarming with home-bound commuters when I arrive for my Amtrak north. I  fight my way through thickets of briefcase- and pocketbook-toting office workers rushing to catch commuter trains to New Jersey or Long Island. I sigh with relief when I leave the crowds behind for a quiet seat on the train.

Another great day walking New York City is in the books.  My train starts chugging slowly north. Within minutes I’m asleep, my senses dulled by the rocking train and the expensive wine.

 

Walking from Manhattan to Brooklyn, 1880s style

By Mark Marchand

A set of bridges sits just south of where I live in Saratoga County, north of Albany. The small suspension spans carry interstate highway traffic across the Mohawk River between Albany and Saratoga counties. The bridges are formally known as the singular Thaddeus Kascsiusko Bridge, but most locals know them simply as “The Twin Bridges,” or even “The Twins.” I’ve gone along with this for years, but I’ve always felt twins was a better moniker for two not-that-similar looking, historic bridges that link lower Manhattan with Brooklyn.

Viewed via Google Maps from high above, the celebrated Brooklyn Bridge and its lesser known — but no less fascinating — partner The Manhattan Bridge form a loose “V” where they land within a few blocks of each other in Brooklyn. Since they are so close, they are my twin bridges.

I have hurtled over both while seated comfortably in cars, windows closed and oblivious to the sights and sounds associated with the crossing. But after years of reading about the Brooklyn Bridge and its storied history — combined with my lifelong love of bridges as engineering and construction marvels — I resolved to walk at least the Brooklyn Bridge, both ways. I ended up adding the Manhattan bridge for the westbound return trek after reaching Brooklyn, almost as an afterthought … but I was glad I did.

Setting off

In the fall of 2012, I pick a beautiful, sunny Sunday and head to Manhattan via Amtrak early in the morning. Since the Manhattan entrance for the Brooklyn Bridge eastbound is near New York’s City Hall and several miles from Penn Station, I take a taxi over. I want to save my legs for walking both bridges.

Departing from the cab, I plunge into a crowd of walkers milling about taking pictures of City Hall and other landmarks in City Hall Park. The aging, red-gray towers and shiny cables of the Brooklyn Bridge rise to my left. I head there right away.

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Entrance to Brooklyn Bridge, from the Manhattan side, near City Hall.

There’s lots of construction going on. Concrete Jersey barriers line the right side of the cement, upsloping entrance walkway. Farther up the ramp where the actual bridge begins, eight-foot steel barriers associated with the construction block my view of the East River on each side of the walkway. Yet I can finally see the lattice-work of steel cables rising above me and soaring to the first of the two main towers. From my vantage point where the concrete footpath turns into the wood planks of the actual bridge walkway, I can see the top of the first of the two towers with the year it was built, 1875, displayed between peaks of the two arches that soar close to the top. A large American flag sits atop the tower, flapping gently out toward the left in the light, southerly breeze.

At last I break free from the construction barriers and the full effect of walking the bridge settles in. To my right and left and below the walkway, cars and trucks stream past in both directions. About 100 feet farther below, the choppy, blue waters of the East River flow from left to right enroute to the Upper Bay, beneath the long and towering Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and, finally, into the Atlantic Ocean.

Geometry and engineering on full display

No matter how often you stare at pictures of this more-than-century-old bridge, you’re not prepared for being surrounded by a spectacular geometric feature. A spider-web-like array of steel cables that seemingly extends in all directions surrounds each side of the walkway. Some of the cables rise straight up, connecting to the thick main suspension cable that extend from ground level on each side before rising to the top of the two towers. Other cables crisscross those vertical wires at different angles and head forward to connect directly with the granite/cement/limestone towers. The net result is that pedestrians and cars/trucks are funneled through a complex labyrinth of cables that is unlike any other bridge ever built. On this morning, rays from the rising sun glint off the hundreds of cables, sparking a constant flickering as I continue my walk east, up toward the first tower nearest Manhattan.

These cables made the Brooklyn Bridge the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the United States, when it opened in 1883.

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The spider-web-like array of cables supporting Brooklyn Bridge.

I am not alone on this Sunday morning. Hundreds of other walkers , most of whom seem headed from Brooklyn toward Manhattan, crowd the wooden walkway. A white line is painted down the middle. Walkers are supposed to stay on one side and bicyclists on the other. I witness many near collisions as cyclists wander from their space to pass slower riders, while lost-in-thought amblers or young children stray into the paths of bicycles. Cyclists are constantly ringing their bike bells to clear traffic.

Approaching the first tower, I hear snippets of different languages from my fellow walkers. Expressions of wonder in Chinese, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages swirl around. We’re not far from Ellis Island in New York Harbor, so I’m reminded that well into the 21st century New York City retains its status as the nation’s great melting pot. On this day, I take comfort in that fact.

Almost everyone walking the bridge today is taking pictures: selfies, selfies with selfie sticks, group photos, pictures of the Manhattan skyline, tower pictures, and photos of the Statue of Liberty in the distance to our right and the Manhattan Bridge to our left. The clear blue sky is perfect for photos so I join the effort. Some of my best pictures prove to be of the receding Manhattan landscape, with a still under-construction Freedom Tower beginning to poke above its neighbors.

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Looking back at Manhattan. For the most part, cyclists stayed on one side; pedestrians on the other.

After passing the first tower, with the walkway still sloping upward, I pause to look back at the nearly 300-foot supporting structure. Did those construction workers and engineers in the 1870s, I ask myself, understand their work would still be standing and serving the traveling public well into the 21st century? The nation was still healing from the end of the brutal Civil War in 1865, and inventions like the telephone were just arriving. How can this bridge be so old and still working while many of the bridges we built since the late 1800s and much more recently only survive 50 years or so before needing major repair work or replacement? That fact alone makes this bridge so impressive.

Some vendors have appeared now. They’re hawking t-shirts, cold drinks, and souvenirs. I’m amazed by the cleanliness. No graffiti. Little or no trash. And I get the feeling I could even make this walk at night and feel safe. To walk the Brooklyn Bridge is to experience a collective warmth and kinship with those out simply to walk a bridge. The roar of traffic beneath us continues, joining in with the clip-clop of hikers wearing harder shoes and the voices of hundreds enjoying the walk and sparkling weather.

After peaking near the middle of the span and starting downhill toward Brooklyn and the second supporting tower, I keep pausing to look back for breathtaking views of Manhattan. I finally give up and capture a selfie or two. Nearing the end of the over-one-mile span I’m back on a long, curving concrete walkway that guides me to Brooklyn streets. I can’t help but chuckle to myself when I spot a cute message on a Brooklyn welcome sign: “How sweet it is!” It bears silent testimony to the pride and cockiness for which many Brooklynites are known.

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Entering Brooklyn.

About 90 minutes after starting the walk and at a traffic light where the bridge ramp ends, I turn left on Tillary Street and then left again on Jay Street to navigate to where the Manhattan Bridge begins. A few minutes later, I scramble up some steps to join the concrete walkway on the south side of this second bridge.

Return via the Manhattan Bridge

The visual difference between both suspension bridges is immediate and jarring. Where the Brooklyn Bridge oozes quaint beauty and a friendly, embracing feeling, the Manhattan Bridge appears at first to be harsh, metallic, and isolated from the rest of the city. From what I can see at the beginning, I am the only one on the walkway. I am so alone, in fact, I am a bit afraid. It is immediately apparent to me that fewer people walk this bridge.

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Entering the walkway on the Manhattan Bridge, to return to Manhattan. Subway cars to the extreme right.

The concrete/asphalt walkway is bordered on each side by older, rusty chain-link fencing. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s difficult to see the bridge structure and towers due to the closed-in nature of the path.  I spot the first evidence of graffiti, which becomes much worse as I near Manhattan. Walking up toward the first tower, a loud sustained rattling and whooshing noise envelopes me. Turning to my right, through the fence I see subway cars speeding by. They are so close, the breeze they create knocks my hat off and stirs up dust and trash. My cursory pre-walk research had failed to reveal that in addition to the seven lanes for cars and trucks on top, the middle level of the bridge has four subway tracks. I wonder how the bridge structure handles the constant banging and rocking from the heavy subway cars.

Approaching the first tower, I crane my neck upward. I can’t see much from my position. Vertical cables rise to meet the main, bridge-long cables that connect with the tower, and I can see the top of the almost Gothic-like tower. Not much else.

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Approaching the first Manhattan Bridge tower.

Halfway across the Manhattan Bridge, I’m still alone. Looking left I discover stunning views of the Brooklyn Bridge I just crossed. I crouch to poke my camera through a gap in the fence to take some of what I feel are the best bridge pictures I’ve ever seen.

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View of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking south from the Manhattan Bridge.

Still alone and nearing Manhattan, I stop to take pictures of a large collection of graffiti covering some cement columns and wall on my left. They are colorful and they appear new. Ahead of me, I spot my first fellow walker.

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Some graffiti on the Manhattan Bridge, something not seen much on the Brooklyn Bridge

The 6,800-foot-long Manhattan Bridge — opened in 1909 after eight years of construction — returns me to the city’s most well-known borough on the north side of Chinatown. From the ramp leading down into Manhattan, I can see numerous softball teams enjoying Sunday-morning games on artificial turf diamonds that are squeezed into sparse real estate in dense neighborhoods. Brick apartment buildings are everywhere. I’m tired now, so I wander around Chinatown until I find a good restaurant where I can sit and eat lunch.

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Chinatown in lower Manhattan.

Taking stock of my progress while eating, I find that walking both bridges involved about 7,000 steps, or approximately 3.4 miles over two hours. To me it was everything I expected and much more.

My strength returns after lunch, so I decide to skip the cab and walk the several miles back up to Penn Station, via Canal Street and right onto Broadway north through the trendy, artsy Soho neighborhood. Twenty blocks later, where Broadway crosses 14th Street, I’m tired again but stunned back into reality with the most unexpected visual treat of my walk: Union Square Park.

The six-acre commons with a multi-tiered plaza on the south side and trees to the north is teeming with people from all walks of life. Jugglers. Young and older couples. Scampering children. Street musicians. Souvenir vendors. Sixties-era hippies. Magicians. Dancers. I stumble into the middle of it all and I’m jostled from time to time. My senses are overloaded, and I’m developing a headache.  I spot a man dressed as a devil, complete with horns, carrying a cross and a sign asking everyone to repent. Atop the steps to an elevated plaza, a well-dressed man waves a baton, conducting a silent orchestra. Yet in the midst of all this commotion, some park visitors sit quietly on steps, reading books, smart phones, and newspapers.

It’s as if someone took a huge funnel and dumped a sampling of New York City into one place on this sunny afternoon. Later, on the train home, I struggle to capture in writing my impressions of the park, but mostly fail. I regret not stopping to take some pictures of Union Square.

I allow myself to be pushed along by the throng, finally reaching the north side of the park at 17th Street. I speed up again and complete another 20 blocks, arriving at Penn Station a half hour before my train leaves.

Sitting on the train and drinking a cold beer to cool down, I check my pedometer again. Walking from Chinatown to the train station took about 6,800 steps, or 3.3 miles. The total walking distance for the day was about seven miles. Yet in those seven miles I feel like I’ve seen so much more than I could have witnessed on any similar-length walk, anyplace. Not uncommon when one walks New York City.

Somewhere around Yonkers, I make a few notes and start reflecting on my day. My bridges walk ended up being my favorite New York City walk then, and it remains so today. I’m planning more, and I will be back.

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‘I’m Being Followed by a Moon Shadow…’

(Headline: Lyric from “Moon Shadow,” written and sung by Cat Stevens, 1971)

By Mark Marchand

It’s Aug. 21, 2017, and much of the Western Hemisphere is glued to TVs, the sky, and computer screens. Let’s meet our players for the afternoon’s drama.

First there’s the sun, the fiery provider of heat and light to our precious planet. Our own personal star is hurtling through the cosmos at a relative speed of about 45,000 miles per hour.

The second participant is our faithful satellite, the moon. At a distance of about 240,000 miles from its mother planet, the moon moves along at a cosmically pokey speed of 2,300 miles per hour.

Finally, there’s us: the blue, brown and white jewel of a planet orbiting the sun — 93 million miles away — at a fairly good clip of 67,000 miles per hour.

Normally, the speeds and movements of all three heavenly bodies mean little to the general public. We all have a vague sense of a complex pattern of movement that leads to days, nights, seasons, and tidal shifts. This intricate ballet of orbital mechanics gets even more difficult to grasp if we start considering the velocity of the Milky Way Galaxy where this dance is taking place. Let’s not go there for now, lest we start over-taxing our brain’s synapses.

On this late-summer day and for the first time on such a coast-to coast scale in almost a century, the speeds and paths of all three — sun, Earth and moon — came together for one shining, or dimming, moment. This rare large-scale solar eclipse in our area of the world happens when the moon creeps right in front of the sun as it delivers its full dose of heat, light, and radiation to Earth. For centuries, the sudden daytime darkness of eclipses sparked  fear and misunderstanding.  When astronomers and other scientists began to predict them precisely, solar eclipses instead sparked wonder and amazement among millions who turn to the sky to, hopefully safely, glimpse a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.

And it was everything scientists had hoped for. This eclipse lived up to the billing of an Aug. 14, 1932, New York Times story which promised that the next major solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017 — 85 years in the future — would be a golden opportunity to view an eclipse crossing the entire continent. It also helped that the weather cooperated. Here in Northeastern New York, partly sunny skies allowed most to witness the dark disk obscuring about 65 percent of the sun at peak.

Viewing it locally

I spent part of the afternoon viewing the eclipse on the roof of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s  Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, hovering near the Hirsch Observatory. With special solar viewing glasses provided by RPI, I joined hundreds staring at the sky in near 90-degree heat. At about 1:25 p.m., the show started.

Donning my special glasses, I looked upward. There, in the far right corner of the sun, I spotted a dark, semi-circular object moving slowly from right to left. As I stared, a smattering of ghostly clouds drifted across, also from right to left. They weren’t enough, though, to block our view of the sun.

 

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In front of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Hirsch Observatory.

The reaction from the crowd of children, parents, college students, professors, and university administrators was silence for the first few seconds. Then came the first “oh my gods.” There were the expected “oohs” and ahhs.” Most of the crowd was now turned in the same direction, looking straight up and then slightly to the south where the eclipse unfolded. Parents continually warned their children to place the special glasses over their eyes first.

Perhaps the best line of the day came from a young boy, about 10 years old. His eyes were locked onto the unfolding eclipse when he suddenly realized the shadow was growing larger. He tugged on his mother’s arm, trying to get her to break off from a conversation with another parent.

“Mommy, it’s eclipsing more!” he shouted. I realized then that while I had heard the word eclipse used as a verb, I had rarely heard the present participle version. The mother relented and terminated her conversation. Following her son’s instructions, she lifted the glasses to her eyes, and looked up. She gasped when she spotted the growing shadow, and thanked her son. Smart kid.

I tracked the eclipse as it grew closer to the expected maximum coverage of about 65 percent around 2:40 p.m. We live far north of the zone of “totality” where viewers from the nationwide northwest to southeast track  would see the sun totally obscured. Total coverage by the moon allows the usually invisible corona and solar flares to be seen without aid of telescopes and other scientific means.

 

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The sun totally blocked by the moon on Aug. 21, or “totality.” This allows us to view the normally invisible corona – a collection of high temperature gases – around the sun. (Photo credit CNN)

I wandered around the roof to talk with some of the amateur astronomers. I marveled at the “box and pinhole” viewing devices that RPI students had constructed in an effort to show visiting children how easy it was.

In between two- to five-minute viewing sessions, I stood beneath the shadow of the Hirsch Observatory dome to hide from the sun’s powerful rays. I had forgotten a hat and sunscreen, so I felt vulnerable.

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One of the eclipse photos I tried to take with the ‘selfie’ function on my iPhone. You can see the moon’s shadow creeping in from the left. Since this is a mirror image with the selfie function, the moon is actually moving right to left.

Why is a solar eclipse a big deal?

To begin with, eclipses are rare. They just don’t happen frequently, and seldom in such a manner that millions can witness it.

Online news sources, newspapers, and broadcast media outlets trumpeted the event for weeks. Much of the coverage focused on the mass migration of tourists and scientists to areas that would experience totality. Reporters and anchors talked endlessly about witnessing the scientific phenomenon.

For the people who accurately predicted the eclipse down to the second and have spent a lifetime studying the cosmos, the phenomenon  had a slightly different meaning: People stopped for a moment, no matter how briefly, to try to understand the science behind it all.

“All across the country, astronomers were in high demand as people of all ages sought help to safely view the sky and to understand the event that was unfolding before them,” RPI Astronomy Professor Heidi Newberg told me. “We are the seekers and the keepers of knowledge about the solar system, galaxy, and universe in which we live, and we are here for the public when we are needed.  It was heartwarming to see the public enthusiasm to look through telescopes and hear the exclamations of wonder at seeing the eclipse, whether through glasses, in projection, or through telescopes.”

She continued, “For me, astronomy is interesting every day.  Through small telescopes we can see craters on the Moon and sunspots on the Sun, and wonder about the processes that shape both of these features.  But for most of our visitors, it was a special event that induced them to take the effort to ponder the skies, and step through the door into my world for just a few hours.”

Prof. Newberg was spot on. Among friends, families, and acquaintances who rarely thought about the skies, the coming eclipse and related science was a common topic leading up to the afternoon of Aug. 21. I do hope that for some it fuels a lifelong interest in the branch of physics known as astronomy. Despite the fact that I studied chemistry in college, I have always considered astronomy a sort of all-encompassing science. Those who study and practice astronomy, after all, are trying to learn about where we came from, our place in the cosmos, and where we are headed. And are we alone?

Ending the day

Shortly before 3 p.m., as I noticed the moon’s shadow on the sun growing smaller, I headed downstairs to my car. I wanted to get home to allow my wife and our neighbors to view the waning eclipse through the special safety glasses. They were using home-built viewing devices made from cardboard boxes and cereal containers. These worked well, but I hoped to give them a direct glimpse before the shadow disappeared. They enjoyed it.

Later in the day, I tried to process the event and what it meant to me.  It wasn’t that difficult. Why did some people, I asked myself, who doubt the raw, empirical science of impending danger from man-made climate change so readily accept and act on alerts and explanations from scientists about the solar eclipse? The sciences associated with both are not that divergent. As I watched eclipse news reports later that night, I hoped that perhaps the day’s events would open the eyes of some to the important role of science in our 21st century world.

They don’t need special glasses for that.