A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Monday, November 30, 2015

SIGHT: The center(s) of New York City

According to the Department of City Planning, the geographic center of New York City happens to be in the vicinity of 365 Stockholm Street, in Bushwick, Brooklyn: a brick townhouse with a bright red door. As I approach, I notice two men sitting on a stoop. “Excuse me,” I say, “but did you know that you are sitting at the geographic center of New York City?”

“No way! Right here?” says the older of the two, who’s wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and a Bluetooth chip.

“Lance grew up right on this block!” his friend says. Their eyes light up. Kenny also grew up in the area. A pizza delivery car pulls up and they kindly invite me in for a slice; I decline.

Lance’s family owns the adjacent parking lot, which used to be a church where he once attended Boy Scouts; it burned down around 1970 and is now leased to the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, which runs along the entire eastern side of this block, and whose flower beds seem to coordinate with the awning and fire hydrants.

The urologist a few doors down, Dr. Rosenthal, has been there “as long as I can remember,” Lance says.

Lance tells me he’s seen this block change “from Italian and German to gangland—crack, heroin, prostitutes—to yuppies.” 

“But they don’t like to be called yuppies, Lance,” Kenny interjects. “We call ’em bohemians.” And sure enough, this block at the center of the city runs the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow: at one end is a café fitted with Edison bulbs and a chalkboard. A customer with a cello strapped to her back stands at the counter.

At the other end is a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts; two teens with guitars and a cardboard sign panhandle outside. I peer at the center of the city through the center of my doughnut.

Two young children play with a ball beneath the falling leaves. “Are you Puerto Rican?” one asks. “I don’t know. My mom is Puerto Rican and I’m cold as dammit,” his friend replies. Jackhammers pound outside Yo! Orthodontic Braces.

Lance says there have always been murals in this neighborhood. The side of a Rite-Aid is painted with a poetic tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge, and a sort of electronically outfitted whale swims across some aluminum siding.

It's time to move on, as there’s a second center of New York to explore: the population center, which (according to the DCP) lies in Maspeth, Queens, near the employee parking lot for Big Geyser bottling company. The lot abuts the sulfurous shore of Maspeth Creek, at the intersection of Galasso Place and 48th Street. In the distance you can glimpse the spire of the Empire State Building, though it feels miles away from this desolate junction.

Lone men wearing backpacks pedal past on bikes, presumably coming from shifts at the nearby warehouses and factories: a Chinese importer that offers everything from bras to flashlights under one roof; Freihofer’s, whose baked goods claim to be “the pride of the neighborhood.”

As I wander along some railroad tracks that lie alongside the Big Geyser factory, I hear a whistle.

Across the street, a white-haired man, who introduces himself as Carlos, from Argentina, has just finished installing a sign for Maya Foods, an Indian spices company whose logo is “Add Flavor to Your Life,” and whose pumpkin-festooned stoop and café table add the only element of cheer—not to say expectation of human visitors.

“Did you know you’re standing at the population center of New York City?” I ask him. He looks around him at the empty streets, the empty parking lot, the stagnant creek and barbed-wire fences and trailers plugged into loading docks. He urges me to roll up my car windows, warning, “You never know who might come by around here.” Carlos agrees to pose at the population center of his adopted city, where he and I are the only people around.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

SMELL: United Pickle factory

The other day a companion and I sat down on the red-leather stools at the counter of Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, the 1929 diner in the Flatiron District. He ordered a vanilla milkshake and I asked for pickles, which arrived sliced in half in a brown melamine dish. They tasted just the way a New York pickle should taste: firm, rubbery, squeaky outer flesh giving way to a slightly seedy, slushy, salty inside. There was a snipping sound to each bite and a garlicky sting in the crunch.

A month earlier, in search of the roots of this iconic New York City food, I'd visited United Pickle, a fourth-generation family pickle factory in the Tremont section of the Bronx, founded in 1897 "with a horse and wagon." United also owns the trademark brand Guss' Pickles, one of the Lower East Side sidewalk-barrel vendors of the early twentieth century, featured in the film Crossing Delancey and on countless walking tours through the 1990s. Most important, however, United holds the rights to Guss' secret thirteen-spice recipe, passed down over more than a century.
Image courtesy of United Pickle
United's owner, Stephen Leibowitz, is undeniably a pickle man. He claims he was born in a pickle barrel to a pickle family, and that pickle juice runs through his veins. His business card reads "Chief Pickle Maven," and as he strides toward me across the brine-soaked factory floor he announces his arrival with "Here he is: the Big Pickle himself."

The factory smells tangy and prickly: like garlic, brine, dill, and spices, evoking the sawdust and chrome of old-school New York City delis like Eisenberg's. People think that milk and pickles don't mix, but the building used to be a Borden milk factory; today brine rather than milk drenches the historic cobblestone floors.

Walk into the factory, on a desolate stretch of northern Park Avenue, and the first thing you'll notice is cucumbers: in buckets, in bushels, on pallets, spilling out of boxes. The factory goes through about eighteen million pounds of cucumbers per year, spends $150,000 year on water (for brine and washing), and uses three trailers a week of salt.

Here's how you transform a cucumber into a pickle spear like the ones I ate that afternoon at Eisenberg's (Eisenberg's pickles, however, are made by Mr. Pickle, not United). Using a forklift, hoist a forty-bushel box of cucumbers and dump it out onto the conveyor belt.

Sort through the cucumbers and pick out the ones that are crooked or less than 4 inches long: these will get made into chips or relish.

Shuttle the cucumbers into a "shuffler," which corals the mass of slippery vegetables into orderly rows to be fed into the slicer.

Each pickle shoots along the slot in a blur, like a rocketing green torpedo,

blasts through the slicer, which quarters it, and is launched into a plastic tub, which curbs the momentum. It drops through a hole onto a conveyor belt below.

It rides up the belt with hundreds of other spears, where someone picks out any broken or otherwise errant pieces. All Guss' pickle spears are uniform.

Steve presents a perfect specimen.

The spears drop into a bucket. A worker squirts brine from huge vats into the bucket through a hose, and the buckets are capped by a machine to ensure a tight seal.

A point of pride of United Pickles is the meticulous count: Steve guarantees 270 to 300 spears per bucket, give or take 10 percent.

To this end, every fifteen minutes, for twelve hours a day, a worker counts the pickles in a randomly selected barrel while a coworker watches. 

When I stepped up to the cash register to pay for our snack, the cashier charged me only for the milkshake. "The pickles are always free here," she said. Eisenberg's owner, Josh Konecky, as tall and barrel-shaped as a pickle himself, smiled at us and said, "What's a milkshake without pickles? What's Eisenberg's without pickles?" And indeed, what's New York City without pickles?