Elim Street

I took this photo in downtown San Francisco almost three years ago as an exercise in cityscape photography.

What I did not know at the time was that the most interesting feature was neither the old brick buildings nor the forlorn lot, but rather the alleyway barely visible on the left side of the image. This is Elim Street, the second narrowest street in San Francisco. I explored this tiny alley in detail earlier this month, with both my big camera and iPhone on hand.

On the southwest side (adjacent to the lot), it is wide enough for a vehicle. But beyond that, it narrows down to just 2 meters, or 6.6 feet.

No stopping seems like a good idea. 6.6 feet between two large old buildings feels dark and closed-in as one might expect. I don’t quite have the arm span to touch both walls, but someone only a little taller would be able to do so.

Looking upwards, the narrow slit of sky is especially bright.

The eaves of the two buildings come quite close together at the front of the alley on 1st street.

Here is some pipework on the older brick building in the alley.

Apparently Elim Street has existed this way for quite a while. But it is uncertain how long it will last in the heavy redevelopment of downtown San Francisco. It could get squished out of existence. Or new buildings could celebrate this narrow street with their architecture. I hope it is in fact the latter.

Fun with Highways: the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge

Today, we visit the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge to mark the passing today of former New York Mayor Ed Koch. The bridge, which carries New York State Route 25 from Queens to its terminus in Manhattan at 2nd Avenue, is known locally at the “59th Street Bridge.” It’s actually over 100 years old, having opened in 1909.

[By Lasse Fuss (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Queens side connects to a tangled nexus of ramps that are mixed up with elevated subway structures. And as these structures are all aging, they become interesting photographic subjects. The bridge was named in honor of the former mayor in 2010.

Here is cute video that has been circulating today, in which Mayor Koch welcomes passersby (including the current mayor) to “my bridge”. (You need only watch the segment until about 2:00)

It’s very typical of his style, being a larger-than-life character but also a bit self-deprecating. It is quintessentially “New York”. From the New York Times obituary:

…out among the people or facing a news media circus in the Blue Room at City Hall, he was a feisty, slippery egoist who could not be pinned down by questioners and who could outtalk anybody in the authentic voice of New York: as opinionated as a Flatbush cabby, as loud as the scrums on 42nd Street, as pugnacious as a West Side reform Democrat mother.

I did have the opportunity to meet him twice on visits back from Yale to New York City, as part of the Yale Political Union. Although my colleagues seemed to treat him rather coldly, I was quite happy for the experience.

Fevered dreams

After a relaxed and healthy Saturday (including a 4-mile walk through SF), I found myself all-of-a-sudden quite sick for the second time this month early on Sunday morning, including a fever. It dissipated by midday, but not before some interesting fever-induced dreams. Here is one of them:

It took place in Western New York, but the landscape had been replaced with a relatively flat desert environment. At the south end was a transplanted version of Yale – there was still the New Haven town green, but the university had different architecture, more columns and arches. A large numbered highway (I don’t remember the number) snaked its way north from the university into the desert along the southern edge of a large shallow lake. The road then split into two that were labeled “Masculine Dr.” and “Feminine Dr.” on Google Maps (yes, Google Maps appeared in the dream). Zooming out, the lake was shaped exactly like the entirety of all five Great Lakes in miniature – probably about the size of one of the Finger Lakes.

Dreams aside, I recommend to readers in the U.S. that they get a flu shot this year.

Fun with Highways: California 247 and 18

After a few cold weeks in the city, I am looking back fondly at my trip to the desert this past summer. Today we look at the final leg of that trip, leaving Joshua Tree on Highway 247. I had been curious about this highway which heads north from Yucca Valley at a junction with Highway 62 out into the desert hills. There is actually quite a bit of residential development near the start of highway, with a great many dusty side streets with a diverse collection of homes. I acquired one of my sculptures at the home of an artist there several years ago. But on this occasion, I kept going north. One of first reassurance markers was, appropriately enough, next to a joshua tree.

The narrow two-lane highway wound its way uphill between a rocky ledge to the west and a desert valley to the east, with occasional rocky outcroppings. A few of them had graffiti on them. Perhaps I should have taken a photo, but I feel differently about graffiti on natural objects than I do on walls. Eventually, the road turned from north to east-west and entered a wide, flat valley, with the classic “road in the middle of nowhere” appearance.

The day was pleasantly hot, probably in the low 90s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius), a far cry from the triple digit temperatures at the start of this trip. There was a moderate breeze at times, but not too much. So standing on the side of the road here was an opportunity to experience silence punctuated by the occasional passing vehicle. It is rare that I have the opportunity to hear moments with so little sound, but so much other sensual information in the texture and temperature of the air and the sparseness of the visual space.

Highway 247 then enters the town of Lucerne Valley on the edge of the Mojave desert. It does not have much in common with Lucerne in Switzerland. The lakes here are dry lake beds, but like the more famous Swiss town it is surrounded by mountain ranges. Here, 247 turns north towards Barstow, so I switched onto Highway 18 heading east out of town. This odd highway winds around the mountains and valleys of San Bernardino county through a variety of geographies. The section that I traveled started with crumbly red-brown rock formations up against the sparse commercial development of the town. After an empty section, the road entered the town of Apple Valley where the landscape turned all of a sudden into suburban development and the highway became a multilane expressway known as the “Happy Trails Highway”. The sharp contrast was a little jarring, but not unexpected given the history of development in the deserts north and east of Los Angeles. But this was not the stark industrial development as I had seen in New Topographics a couple of years earlier, it was just dull suburban sprawl. Upon entering Victorville, Highway 18 becomes a regular city street along with Business Loop 15.

From here, I was able pick up I-15 and ultimately wind my way north along more familiar highways back to San Francisco.

On and off the 1 and A trains in The Bronx and Manhattan

Each trip to New York has been characterized by particular subway lines, and on this trip is was the 1 (Broadway / 7th Avenue) and A (8th Avenue Express). I usually began in the Bronx, not far from where I encountered the Bronx cat, getting on the elevated section of the 1 over Broadway.

At 168th Street, I regularly switched from the 1 to the A. This is an odd station. The tunnel for the 1 train is quite deep underground and the platform is in cavernous curved hall with old-time light fixtures.

It is an eerie place, but was the most important transfer point of this trip. The tunnel connects to the more conventional station for the A train above via elevators, the only station I know of that is arranged this way. From 168th Street southward, the A served as an efficient spine along the west side of Manhattan, connecting to Chelsea, the village, and on into Brooklyn.

This worked well, until the elevated section of the southbound 1 was closed last Monday. After weighing the options, I decided to walk the route instead. It was actually the first time I had ever walked on Broadway south of West 230th Street – in all the times I crossed the Broadway Bridge over the Harlem River, I had never done so on foot. The view from the bridge looking over towards Spuyten Duyvil and the Hudson River beyond is quite scenic.

Broadway continued south from the bridge to the Inwood section of northern Manhattan. This is another area I had never walked through before. Among the more interesting things was this mysterious looking archway behind some storefronts on Broadway near 216th Street.

I had seen it before from the elevated tracks, but now on foot I had a chance to take a closer look. It seemed to be incorporated into one of the auto-repair places, but nonetheless completely out of place from the current landscape. I posted it to Facebook and Twitter as the “mystery arch”, and a friend pointed me to some information about the arch and associated mansion. It is in fact The Seaman-Drake Arch, and its story from a grand landmark to a forgotten one is a bit sad. But it is still there, even surviving a 1970 fire, and could be restored and protected if there is enough interest. (It was still for rent as of this 2010 article).

Broadway continues south to 207th Street, where the A line begins. Before descending into the subterranean station, I saw a sign reminding us that this section of Broadway is in fact U.S. 9.. But rather than following the highway, I descend the stairs to catch the A and resume my regular journey.

The chance to explore a new neighborhood, so close to one I already knew, was an unexpected gift from what was annoying subway-line closure. I will have to come back to see more detail sometime (when it is warmer).

Wordless Wednesday: California 41

This is one of the new pieces I have this fall for San Francisco Open Studios!

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