New York electric ferry service

As I was pulling up to the terminal at LaGuardia yesterday I snapped this photo of an old American Airlines facility, and not long after read about a company planning to launch New York’s first electric ferry service. The new electric ferry launch is planned for next year, to coincide with New York’s temporary closure of the Manhattan/Brooklyn L train. Micah Toll writes:

SW/TCH E-Mobility (presumably pronounced “switch”) is a new electric transportation company based around multiple modes of EV commuting. The company is planning to offer NYC’s first electric-powered ferry combined with a seamlessly integrated e-commuting fleet onshore. …

Their flagship e-ferry will be an innovative 150-passenger battery-powered ferry used to connect Williamsburg with the East side of Manhattan. The electric ferry will give SW/TCH members a way to beat the L-train shutdown while enjoying a comfortable, stylish, and emission free commute across the East River. …

The electric ferry, and all electric boats in general, feature a much quieter ride due to the lack of a standard diesel or gasoline engine found on most ferries. In addition to a more peaceful ride, the electric ferry will also include a large bar, coffee shop-style seating and outdoor decks, as well as membership perks such as locally crafted coffee and daily specials onboard. …

For the electric ferry, SW/TCH has partnered with Clean Marine Energy (“CME”), an impact-investing group focused on lowering emissions from the marine shipping industry through cleaner fuels and vessel electrification.

The electric ferry is planned to launch in 2019 and will be privately run by an existing ferry operating partner.

SW/TCH’s vision is perhaps overly complicated. Why not simply produce the electric ferries and focus on their success? But the vision for a seamless experience of hopping on the ferry and hopping off to electric scooters or whatever makes sense, insofar as commuters are going to need continue to their destinations in a cost/time efficient way. I’ve read about electric ferries before and I’d like to ride this one next year.

Eighteen hours in New York

A few scenes from a very brief visit to New York for last night’s Human Life Review dinner. Afterwards on the walk south on Park Avenue, as I was headed back to my Midtown hotel at 30th and 6th, I stopped to admire the Empire State Building. It was lit up in the colors of the American flag, shimmering white and alternating solid reds and blues.

It’s a wonderful city.

‘Great Defender of Life’ Dinner

I’m in New York today for the Human Life Review/Foundation’s “Great Defender of Life” Dinner. J.P. McFadden founded Human Life Review/Foundation in 1975; the Review is “an academic-quality journal devoted to civilized discussion of legal, philosophical, medical, scientific, and moral perspectives on all life issues.” In practice this covers “not only abortion but also euthanasia, suicide, neonaticide, genetic engineering, cloning, fetal and embryonic stem cell research and experimentation, and new issues as they emerge.”

Human Life Review’s archives might as well function as an archive of the American intellectual life movement since Roe, and its writers and contributors have in many ways charted out how to return America to a place where authentic, life-affirming choice is possible without the violence and self-harm inherent to our present system of law. Human Life Foundation, meanwhile, publishes the journal and also has provided something like $1.5 million to New York pregnancy resource clinics over the years.

Tonight’s “Great Defender of Life” honorees were David Quinn and Edward Mechmann, and each provided moving and passionate witness for the work of life in Ireland and New York, respectively. Prior to tonight, I had visited the Union League in Philadelphia and the Union League Club of Chicago, but never in New York. These are independent clubs, all created during the Civil War Era for the purpose of raising moral, a spirit of fraternity, and importantly financial and political support for the Union and anti-slavery cause. These institutions are monuments to another era of American conflict, and they’re also lasting symbols of hope for healing and a return to social unity.

David Quinn is Ireland’s best known commentator on religious and social affairs. He has been writing a national newspaper column since 1994. He wrote for The Irish Independent (Ireland’s biggest selling daily paper) for 12 years. Currently his column appears in The Sunday Times (Ireland edition). He also writes a weekly column for The Irish Catholic, Ireland’s biggest-selling Catholic paper. He was editor of The Irish Catholic from 1996 until 2003. He frequently appears on radio and television programs and also contributes to numerous magazines overseas, including Human Life Review and First Things. He has been a leading pro-life voice in Ireland for more than two decades. David is also founder and Director of The Iona Institute which promotes the right to life, marriage and the family, and the place of religion in society.

Edward Mechmann is an attorney with the Archdiocese of New York, where he works on public policy education and advocacy. He is the Director of Public Policy, and has worked for many years with the Family Life/Respect Life Office. He is also the Director of the Safe Environment Office at the Archdiocese, where he oversees their child protection programs.

Union Carbide Building

Justin Davidson writes on the planned demolition of the Union Carbide Building in New York and reflects on what is lost and gained with its replacement:

If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means…

The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. …

Together, Bunshaft and de Blois helped create the look of 1960s America, the cocktail of luxe and simplicity that defined the big corporation. They amplified the power of straightforward geometries. Taut planes, gridded frames, and straight lines so beguiled architects that even today their successors haven’t shaken off the wonder of those feats. Before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone. De Blois and her cohort produced designs that exposed every imperfection and didn’t forgive. …

Modernism’s newness thrilled the critic Ada Louise Huxtable. In 1957 she voiced the hope that, if good enough architects did a good enough job, the new style would “deliver us from the present anarchy and return us to this perennial ideal” of “serenity, harmony, and repose.” It didn’t work out that way. In order to celebrate her new 20th century Renaissance, Huxtable had to write off what she saw as the over-ornamented masonry hodgepodge of apartment buildings and hotels that the new Park Avenue declared obsolete. The architectural historian Vincent Scully could not abide such deliberate slate-wiping. Glass buildings, he wrote, derived their meaning from contrast with their chunkier predecessors, the pleasing contrast of a crystal and stone. The new towers pulled back from the sidewalk to create plazas, lining up in a parade of quasi-military uniformity. For Scully, they destroyed the street.

Glass buildings soon destroyed entire cities, too, as efficiency muscled out elegance. A style predicated on mass production has kept on grinding out widget-like skyscrapers that are equally at home, or equally alien, in downtowns from Düsseldorf to Jakarta to Santiago de Chile. It’s a fair bet that, whoever designs the next iteration of 270 Park, it will belong in the lineage that began with Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft, and de Blois.

The Union Carbide Building deserves to continue existing, not because it was in the vanguard of a movement with a dubious urban legacy, but because it’s among the finest of its kind. The clear glass membrane, stainless steel fins, and slender bones combine to give it a texture and personality that so many imitators lack. It achieves regularity without monotony, the rhythm of its façade marked by syncopations: the low street level and double-height lobby above, the two bands of blackness that segment the tower and frame the illuminated grid of offices. While at the Seagram Building a few blocks away, Mies bordered the façade in bronze I-beams, here de Blois has the columns stand back from the corners so that the walls seem to meet in the lightest of pencil lines. …

And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.

I don’t think the Union Carbide Building is a beautiful building, but I can see the value of its preservation in light of Justin Davidson’s context. But as he pointed out, a key part of the modernist architectural movement was to instill an attitude of disposability into architecture.

It’s certainly the case that the post World War II international order, and the globalization of commerce and markets that it helped foster, has resulted in less distinctive places. That makes sense. A more culturally integrated world would naturally be a more architecturally integrated world, wouldn’t it?

World Youth Alliance Solidarity Forum

Nadja Wolfe and Lord Pomperada from World Youth Alliance invited me to speak earlier this month at their International Solidarity Forum:

The International Solidarity Forum (ISF) is an annual training event hosted at the World Youth Alliance and United Nations headquarters in New York City. The forum brings together WYA members from around the world and subject matter experts to participate in lectures and discussions on topics relevant to ongoing international policy debates. Previous themes include Sustainable Development, Maternal Health, HIV/AIDs and Good Governance.

This year’s theme was Human Dignity and Bioethics. It was a pleasure presenting with Dr. William Breitbart of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His talk precedes mine, and it’s worth hearing particularly for his development of a “meaning centered psychotherapy” for advanced cancer patients. He touched on the scandal that is the Netherlands policy of legal euthanasia for huge number of people with clinical depression, psychiatric illness, psychotic illness, etc. His “dignity conserving therapy” is compelling:

World Youth Alliance has an incredible purpose, and the members I’ve met seem to be uniformly remarkable people:

WYA works at international institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States, as well as with young people from around the world to build a culture that supports and nurtures the dignity of each human person. We bring young people to international conferences and into dialogue with ambassadors, diplomats, and political leaders.  We focus on: international policy and human rights, economic development, social development, global health, education.

WYA trains young people of every background from every corner of the world in each of these areas, training them to advocate for the human person and develop creative solutions to real world problems.

Afterwards Lord Pomperada presented each of us with a certificate, which was a nice gesture. After lunch I headed to Penn Station, and thankfully my train was one of about half heading south that wasn’t cancelled due to the snow.

Penn Station snowfall

I was in New York on Wednesday for a talk on bioethics and human dignity to the World Youth Alliance’s 15th Annual International Solidarity Forum, and left the city that afternoon just as the snow was falling in earnest. Here’s the scene from just outside Madison Square Garden, before I headed down the steps into the modernist dystopia of Penn Station:

Luckily, my 3:35 Amtrak to Philadelphia was one of those which wasn’t cancelled outright, though it was slowed and delayed enough by both the weather and electrical failures across the line that we didn’t pull into 30th Street Station in Philadelphia until past 8pm. I didn’t mind this, and took advantage of the time to take a nap and get a modest dinner in the cafe car, along with a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.

McSorley’s and wholeness

Maria Popova writes on wholeness, and the ways in which our intentior life lives in harmony (or not) with our public identity:

Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective: “Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.” …

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

“One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.”

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

I woke up in New York’s Financial District to the above in my inbox this morning, and thought it was an appropriate reflection on the topics of our interior life, wholeness, and the identity politics of our time, because I spent last night at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village with Peter Atkinson:

McSorley’s is one of those places that stands outside of time, to a large degree—if you let it. It’s the sort of place where it’s still literally possible to almost meditate, if you want, in a public place. You’re surrounded by 163 years of history, real historical memory and the artifacts left behind by real people who stood in the same Ale House you’re standing in now. It’s custodians over the years have respected McSorley’s as they’ve inherited it, and not tried to make it more relevant, or to change it with changing times. What they’ve come into, they’ve passed along, unchanged in only the smallest and most necessary ways—no more live cats wandering the place, for instance, thanks to stricter New York health codes.

But McSorley’s seems to me to be an example of the sort of “wholeness” that Maria Popova writes on above, albeit in physical/place form rather than personal form. It is confidently what it is, and doesn’t explain itself or adjust itself to changing fashions for the sake of anyone’s affections. It has earned the love and returns of so many generations because it is authentic, meaning that it simply is what it is.

A place like McSorley’s might also just provide the context for a discovery of a renewed interior life, especially in the quiet mid-day hours of a Wednesday, for instance, when you can see the dust falling through the air with a burning stove fire nearby, and the warmth of generations seeming to envelope you in one of the few public places in the world that doesn’t seem to want anything from you, in particular, other than to sit and be for a while.

Vita Institute in New York

Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture hosted a one-day seminar-style version of its Vita Institute in New York today at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture. I discovered this was happening only a few weeks ago, registered just before it reached capacity, and just finished this day of talks:

The Center for Ethics and Culture is proud to offer an exclusive installment of its elite pro-life training program for the faithful of the Archdiocese of New York.

Join us for a full day of instruction in the fundamentals of life issues with our world-renowned scholars in biology, philosophy, theology, and law. No prior knowledge of these disciplines is assumed or required; sessions are aimed at enthusiastic pro-life advocates seeking to hone their skill and enhance their knowledge to better advance the Culture of Life. In addition to intellectual formation, participation in the NYC Vita Institute will connect you with a community of like-minded champions for the most vulnerable members of our society.

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Biology: When Does Life Begin?
Fr. Kevin FitzGerald, S.J. (Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University)

Abortion: Law & Policy
Prof. O. Carter Snead (Notre Dame Law School)

Prenatal Screening, Diagnosis, and Selective Abortion
Mary O’Callaghan (Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture) & Katie Shaw

Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York

Abortion: The Philosophical Arguments
Prof. Frank Beckwith (Baylor University)

Abortion & The Church: Resisting a Throw Away Culture
Fr. John Paul Kimes (Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

Cardinal Dolan’s remarks were basically a welcome to the participants, and by far the shortest of any of the sessions. Dolan primarily spoke on the past half century of New York City’s witness to life in a culture that has enshrined a sort of official indifference, with a default stance of skepticism toward life-affirming attitudes, to the situation of vulnerable persons:

Afterwards I met my friend Peter Atkinson at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral for mass, and we caught up over dinner at Lombardi’s Pizzeria nearby.

Windswept New York

After a delay out of Washington of roughly 90 minutes, my Amtrak train departed Union Station for New York around 11:30am, and got me into New York around 3pm. Scenes from today’s travel below, particularly the video that I shot, inspired by me musing about the possibility of the Hyperloop, and how strange this normal-seeming experience might be in a few decades or years:

Freezing in New York, and I only went outside to exit the 1 train at Rector Street for my hotel. Tomorrow is the Vita Institute’s New York seminar. Thinking of attending the full week Vita Institute at Notre Dame this summer.

Robert Caro: On Power

Robert Caro’s “On Power” is a great 100 minute reflection on what has basically been the theme of his entire, extraordinary writing career. I transcribed this particular excerpt from his narration, where he talks about the impact of one of the most colorful stories from The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I read earlier this year:

For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the [Northern State] Parkway one foot. Jimmy Roth, who had watched his father and mother sweating side by side on the land, told me about how in years to come his father would keep talking, over and over, about what had been done to them. “I don’t know that I blame them for talking so much about it,” Jimmy said. “I’ll tell you, my father and mother worked very hard on that place, and made something out of it, and then someone just cut it in two.”

Ina found some of the other families who were dots on the map, and I talked to them, so over and over I heard similar stories, about how Robert Moses’s Northern State Parkway had ruined their lives, too. The injustice of it. The wrong of it. There had been no need for the Parkway to run through the Roth’s farm. Looking at the maps it was clear that the route could have been moved south a tiny distance that would have saved the Roth’s farm and their lives, and the farms and lives of 22 other families with very little difficulty. To the south of their farms was an empty area of farmland. Robert Moses just hadn’t wanted to be bothered moving it, and because the Roths didn’t have any power, he hadn’t had to be bothered. And that was a lesson for me: regard for power implies disregard for those without power.

And the Northern State Parkway is very clear demonstration of that. The map of the Northern State Parkway and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, is a map not only of a road, but of power, and what happens to those who are unwitting caught in power’s path.

In the moments when I learned about James, Helen, and Jimmy Roth, things changed for me. My idea of what the book should try to be changed. I saw what I hadn’t seen before. If my book was to analyze power fully and honestly, in all its facets, when I got to the Northern State Parkway, the story, if it was to be an honest story, could not only be about the construction of the consequences of the Northern State Parkway and the power of the robber barons. The story of the farmers was a part of the story of the Northern State Parkway, part of the Robert Moses story, part of the picture of power I was trying to learn how to draw, and not an incidental part, either.

And that, I saw now, in that moment, was what I wanted my book to me. What I guess I always wanted my book to be. What my book had to be, if it was to accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish.

In order to write about power truthfully, it would be necessary to write not only about the man who wielded power, and not only about the techniques by which he amassed power and wielded it, but it would be necessary also to write about the effect of power, for good or for ill, on those on whom it was wielded, on those who didn’t have power. It would be necessary to write of the effect of power on the powerless.

There are, of course, personal implications in a decision like this.

It took Caro seven years to write The Power Broker, necessitated the sale of his house, involved desperation, and ultimately came to fruition to some degree from sheer luck. The Power Broker manuscript numbered more than one million words, in telling the truth of both the triumphant genius of so much of New York and Robert Moses, as much as it tells the truth about the true human costs of achieving the New York that today we think of as having been there as long as anyone remembers.

Robert Caro spoke with Jeff Slate about On Power, which was assembled from two recent speeches, specifically addressing the question, “Do we need a Robert Moses today?” His answer:

Well, the quick answer to your question—“Do we need someone like Robert Moses?”–I would say no. He caused such immense human hardship, many times when he did not have to. It was a use of power that ruined the lives of people where there was really no reason to, except that they didn’t have power and he did, so he could run over them.

On the other hand, as I tried to show in the book, we do need someone with vision. You know there are very few people who saw this immense vision that Robert Moses had. Put it this way, in each of his twelve offices he had a huge map. There’s a picture of one of his offices in The Power Broker, and the map takes up a whole wall. And when I was interviewing him–when he was 78 or 79, but had boundless energy–he’d jump up with his pencil in his hand and he’d start sketching in the air, saying, “Can’t you see, we’ll put a highway here to Fire Island that’ll hook up back to Long Island there.” He saw this entire Metropolitan Region–New York, Long Island, Westchester, and the parts of New Jersey near New York City–as one picture and he was uniting it all. Because he had that vision and he put that energy behind all of his work.

So Robert Moses’ don’t come along very often, and you need the genius of a Robert Moses, and I tried to show that in the book. But you also can’t let someone like that have power, unfathomable power, with no check on him, because look what happens. I think his career is an example, among other things, of what happens when you give power with no check on it to somebody.

What’s so revealing about The Power Broker is that Robert Moses seized upon the unrealized power of public authorities to do more than any elected official ever could, due to the traditional limits and checks on the power of elected officialdom. In this way, Moses’s power was inexplicable and impossible to anticipate.

Discovering how to effectively empower someone with the scope of Moses’s vision—while at the same time limiting his power—is consequently a riddle.