Crisis in the streets of New York

As a native New Yorker now returned home for good, I feel it’s time to begin making my civic contributions, to start solving the real problems our city faces. Believe it or not, dear reader, I didn’t go to school just to summarize business books that are way longer than they need to be. I aimed to make a real difference in this world. And now that I have this platform of ten regular readers to amplify this message, I feel it’s time to combine my advanced degrees, my Public Policy bachelor’s and my MBA, to solve the real challenges facing the city that I know and love.

Let’s talk about the dangers of unregulated umbrella utilization.

 Source: New York Post
Source: New York Post

An unchecked weapon

Throngs of people in the most crowded intersections of New York are a norm. But on a rainy day, they become weapon wielding mobs devolved to basic instincts. Survivors duck-and-weave around errant metal supports. The more alpha types deliver full body-checks to fumbling pedestrians who stand in their way. In the worst cases, these incidents can be fatal (I assume).

My last brush with an umbrella in the streets left me changed. The first thing I remember was a wall of black driving towards my face, with only moments to dodge out of the way. I pivoted outward to the right, but too late. A metal prong scraped my chin as I tilted my head sideways to minimize the blow. I turned to see a five-foot-nothing Latina woman striding away with a gulf umbrella big enough for a family. The ratio of umbrella to human was like none I had ever seen. “Assault!” I shouted after her. “That’s assault! Umbrella assault! Assault with a deadly umbrella!” She paid me no heed. Neither did the passers-by. It was, Times Square, after all, where the standards of humanity are at their lowest. And did the police care? No. I was almost temporarily-permanently blinded by a metal spike that could have gouged out both of my eyes simultaneously (I assume). But the police didn’t even create a case file. There are certainly moments in New York where I wish for acute blindness, but this is not how I imagined it happening.

Umbrellas are intended for battling the elements, not each other. There’s only one solution that I can see. I mean that will literally allow me to see past the sea of umbrellas. And that’s umbrella regulation.

It’s a solved problem

Regulation has addressed the same cornerstone issue in the roadways that plague our sidewalks: capacity constraints. As early as 1652, New Amsterdam had speed limits for wagons and carts. Regulating behavior of vehicles makes our city’s pressured capacity more manageable. Providing basic guidance for how to properly use umbrellas, such as up-and-down etiquette and other fundamentals of urban umbrella wielding, could reduce accidents and unlock sidewalk capacity, just as road vehicle regulation has.

As it stands now, with no rules to give order to umbrella traffic, you take your life into your hands when you turn a corner blind on a rainy day.

There is literally nothing more dangerous than turning a corner in the rain in New York, according to recent statistics. Umbrella related eye gouges are up 14% since 2009 (I assume). The positive trend line below can only be umbrella traffic accident reporting, since no New Yorker actually drives.

 Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com
Source: newyorkpersonalinjuryattorneysblog.com

Setting standards

According to careful research conducted by NYAEG, New Yorkers Against Eye Gouging, umbrella accident incidence rates would be dramatically reduced if we introduced transparency and scale requirements.

Transparency

Regulation has a bad reputation because often there is a lack of transparency. But transparency is exactly what we need in New York. Specifically, we need transparent umbrellas. On a normal NYC day, you can see up and down city avenues for miles. But on a rainy day, visibility is reduced to legal blindness by a sea of black umbrellas. All because umbrellas are too freely distributed.

Scale

Short people usually get the short end of the stick. When it comes to umbrellas, that seems only reasonable. Yet like Napoleon’s land grab across Europe, the vertically challenged demand sidewalk space beyond normal proportions. It’s getting out of control. The other day I saw a four-foot tall woman carrying a circus tent. An actual circus tent. We need to bring reason back to how we allow sidewalks to be used.

A new licensing system

The automotive industry has solved the challenges of transparency and scale. Headlight standards ensure visibility for all drivers. Classes of license ensure that a driver can handle the size of the vehicle they are navigating. We can do the same with umbrellas. We must make transparent plastic the standard material. And we must limit umbrella sizes by mastery and height requirements.

Below is a simple system that could be implemented immediately.

Umbrella License Class Descriptions

Class Qualification Eligible to Use
Class D (the most common license) Stay to the right while walking; stop at lights outside of pedestrian crossing path Clear bubble umbrellas, wide enough for individual use only
Class A Same requirements as class D; also distinguish a fast vs. slow lane on the right half of the sidewalk (also known as, commuter and tourist lanes) Clear umbrellas wide enough for two to three people
Class G Same requirements as Class A; also implement up-and-down etiquette; top of umbrella consistently held at 6 feet or higher to ensure clearance of the average New Yorker Transparent golf umbrellas

Standard issue umbrellas for the average height would have the following dimensions.

Each standard deviation from average height would result in linear size increase or decrease to the umbrella issued, while maintaining the same aspect ratio.

Enforcement

Of course regulation is nothing without enforcement. And so I propose that the NYPD create a special task force, with the Rainy Day Fund, to ensure that people are wielding the appropriate umbrella for their license. Penalties for law breakers should start at 2 -3 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Objections addressed

Now I’m sure you’re thinking, what about advanced umbrella wielders? Why deny them the colorful expression of opaque umbrellas? We need to hold a high bar for such luxuries, considering the public risk posed by opaque umbrellas. These pedestrians need to be Formula 1 quality, people who can puddle-jump and pirouette like a Broadway dancer trying out for Singing in the Rain.

You also might think, what about mothers with children who don’t qualify for Class G licenses? There is no limit to the number of times adults can apply for licenses, for a low $20 fee, to cover the test and the cost of a street umbrella. Children can get a learners permit at age 16. We need to think about public safety above individual convenience. It may seem over the top, but that’s the point — to see over the top. I want to see over the top of everyone’s umbrellas. Those who just can’t meet the new city standards, will just need to invest in a good raincoat. For those folks, I can recommend a great one.

A vision for the future

Regulation adds efficiency when you’re at capacity, and New York sidewalks will always be at capacity. With such a longstanding problem, I have to wonder, where is de Blasio’s leadership? He’s too busy running for president. Too busy to imagine a world where rush hour swells at sidewalk intersections looked like lanes flowing smoothly rather than a fan of people taking both the right and left of the sidewalk. (I’m looking at you, New Jersey commuters at Penn Station.) This is the world we could have, with effective umbrella regulation.

A fork in the road at Stuyvesant High School – race, opportunity, and the SHSAT

 Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Reading the op ed of Alina Adams, a mother and wife of African American Stuyvesant High School graduates, I must agree that the debate about the New York Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) has been improperly framed. As one of the minority Stuyvesant graduates that are the focus of the SHSAT test debate, I agree that shifting the discussion to be about the test rather than the system, and race rather than socioeconomics is a mistake for New York. I say this as someone who almost did not get into Stuyvesant, but whose life was so drastically changed by it.

There are big moments in every lifetime that define who we are as much as the course we take through life. Sitting in that exam room on that sunny fall day was one of those moments. I still well up from time to time when I look back on it and realize just how close I was to a different life, a different, more confined world, a different smaller me.

In 8th grade, a teacher told me that I should take a test for a school in the city called Stuyvesant. I hadn’t heard of it, but I was most definitely off-ramping from private school to public school in 9th grade because it was no longer financially sustainable for my parents. As I mentioned the test to other teachers, and a new friend that was school shopping, the common chorus was that Stuy was a better option than Tottenville, which I vaguely understood was an option, or Curtis, the zoned school which had an abysmal graduation rate.

Finally the test day came. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was woefully unprepared. You see, I hadn’t done any preparation at all. Everyone I asked about the exam had simply told me that math and reading of some sort would be covered. I assumed that the test would match up to what I was already learning in school – why wouldn’t it? The point of school, as I understood it, was to prepare you for whatever comes next. So I sat there, focused, and plowed my way through. I got in, and months later learned that it was only by the skin of my teeth. A classmate shared that the cutoff was around 530 that year, and my score was only 5 points above it. I further learned that most people had actually studied for the test, some for up to 18 months, spending Saturdays and perhaps Sundays memorizing the content of the exam. Looking back on it now, it seems so obvious, but why had no one ever mentioned it? Why did I only learn that Stuyvesant was the 10th best school in the nation once I was there? I still have no answers, and also have no doubts that the same story is playing out today for many others.

My world changed at Stuyvesant. Stressful though it was, I was empowered to be everything I wanted to be and do anything that excited me. The multifaceted stimuli of the people and the place kept me continually on the edge of my own interests and goals. I made friends across the spectrum of wealth, which wasn’t hard to do with a sizable free and reduced lunch qualifying student segment. I never felt poor the way I heard some of my private and boarding school counterparts seemed to. Most importantly, the multitude of student groups made it feel like anything you were interested in, you could do. When surrounded by that attitude everyday, it easily unlocks something within you. For me this manifested itself in my junior year, when I founded a mural that still stands at Chambers St. and the West Side Highway. I planned, socialized, sought and ultimately received support from the Parks Department to create it. Writing about that experience got me into Stanford University, another “yes and” environment full of aspirational dreamers, where support and resources are a given. Another fork in the road, moving me further from the under-resourced neighborhood I grew up in and expanding the people and places to which I was exposed.

Alina writes that if New York grade schools weren’t so terrible, the SHSAT wouldn’t be so hard for so many minority students. That much is clear from my own experience. But awareness of both the test and the preparation opportunities are equally important to gain equity of access. I am grateful for my luck and opportunities. I equally have friends that opted out of Stuyvesant and went to other New York high schools, and they turned out as wonderful humans. But the set of good high school options is entirely too narrow, as AOC recently argued in a town hall. With New York education in the current state it is in, a fork in the road this significant, determined by just a few points, is not nearly enough leeway.

My first Jewish Christmas

This Christmas we celebrated the family Christmas as they do in Eastern Europe and the Dominican Republic – on Christmas Eve – and reserved the 25th for my first Jewish Christmas! Honoring my 1/16th heritage, I made an early start to the new year with a new experience. Never had I realized that the burgeoning non-Christian population doesn’t just hunker down for indoor hibernation during other religious holidays: they keep NYC the City that never sleeps! 

We started at Katz’s famous deli, best known for the filming of When Harry Met Sally, commemorated by a sign that reads “I hope you have what she had!” dangling above their table. The line was non-stop, but we lucked out with seating within 5 minutes of arrival, between the breakfast and lunch waves. Their pastrami never disappoints. 

 Katz's deli is always hopping from counter end to counter end
Katz’s deli is always hopping from counter end to counter end

Next we hopped a cab to Herald Square to catch a movie. The Greatest Showman was indeed the greatest show! From there we were a short walk from the new 7 stop on 34th Street, which took us straight to Flushing for some epic dim sum. There were enough people out that I had to navigate the sidewalks midtown style. Our restaurant had the typical buzz of a Chinese restaurant, with green tea flowing and rapid service keeping the traffic moving. After a 15 minute wait, we were seated and ready for some duck, scallion pancakes, pork dumplings, and other deliciousness. Many belly-fulls later we contemplated whether to double down on more movies and food. The group split in two then, half for the Transit Museum exhibition in Grand Central and half for home and hot cocoa. Much like Friendsgiving, we were filled with warmth from a grateful day – and the repeated cold-to-warm transition that marks the start of winter!

Arbitrage Opportunities in the Christmas Tree Market in Lower West and Central Manhattan

Christmas Trees are sold at different prices in NYC. Here’s a map.

P.S. You should do a careful cost/benefit analysis of how much you are willing to pay vs. how far you’re willing to carry a Christmas Tree (and how manly you’ll look doing it). This is also known as the Traveling Salesman Problem.

P.P.S. This post is a post-purchase reflection. We picked up a tree wandering back from the bar the night after Thanksgiving. Tipsy purchases are always efficient! We got a mid-priced tree 🙂

Top 5 Things to Rent vs. Buy in NYC

No, I’m not talking about houses – it takes no careful analysis to know whether your income, savings or inheritance (for the lucky) can permit the luxury of purchasing your NY standard 500 square foot apartment. No, I’m talking about all the quasi-consumables. Ice skates and bicycles, tuxedos and fancy dresses. This isn’t like choosing whether to make your girlfriend your wife (although mixed signals with your bicycle could cause similar bodily harm). These decisions are only emotional in so much as your crowded apartment effects your psyche. When adapting your lifestyle to NYC’s space constraints, you’ve got to get practical and make some tradeoffs. 

Now I’ll admit that historically I’ve been a hoarder. I’ve got toys from the beloved Love Saves the Day (RIP) that I’m glad to have kept. But beyond a few choice mementos, my frequent moves and witnessing of various grandparents’ downsizing experiences has led me to embrace the asset-light life style. However, this must be carefully balanced against your actually daily experience. You want just enough stuff to feel the freedom to be comfortable, but not so much that you’re tripping and swimming in it. Here are what I consider to be the Top 5 Rent vs. Buy decisions for young adults, moving every year, from small apartment to small apartment.

Fancy dress – Buy

This answer differs slightly for men and women. My start-up uniformed fiancé (shirt and jeans) confirms that every man should have a tuxedo. I must agree for lack of first hand experience. For women, I also think it’s important to have a few staples: Your LBD, and a couple of cocktail dresses. Beyond that, particularly if you get into ball gown territory, you have to start looking at expected utilization of a prospective dress versus the cost of purchasing it. A CMU paper estimates that Rent the Runway charges roughly one tenth of the retail price of a dress on average. That means you would need to expect to wear a dress 10 times to make it more valuable to buy. Ask the average girl on the street, and most of them only expect to get 6-7 wears out of a dress. Of course there is some emotional satisfaction in knowing you have abeautiful dress at hand that looks gorgeous on you, and that should factor in, too. As should your closet space.

Bicycle – Rent

Now this brings in not just utilization, but safety and convenience factors. Owning your own bike means finding a parking space whenever you plan to use it and having a sufficiently high (or low) quality, that it can’t easily be stripped (or tempt stripping). For convenience in the way of no storage or property concerns, Citi bike wins easily. On the other hand, if you want to have more personal control over the quality of the breaks and steering, having your own bike is a better guarantee of quality. There are also a number of creative indoor bike racks that conserve in-apartment space – though this may still not be a full solution for walk-ups. So in short, it depends.

Partyware – Rent

Ok, this comes down almost purely to space constraints. Funky drink glasses can likely be accommodated. Extra chairs are more questionable. Most Manhattanites opt for standing parties over sizable dinner parties, no doubt subconsciously because of this constraint. But if you are gearing up for a Friendsgiving, you may just want to rent some chairs and a table. Partyrentals.us can rent a rectangular table and 8 chairs for less than $30 a day. So spare yourself the overstuffed closet.

Powertools – If you rent, rent; if you own, buy

This is a tough one, because you may just think “I’ll need that tool again some day”. We ended up buying parts to what added up to a $90 hole in the wall to run our internet cables in the closet to tidy up our living room. Would a rental have been possible? Home Depot makes anything look possible

Let’s start with the basics: everyone should have a drill. Beyond that, the basic heuristic is, if you’re going to hire someone with the tool already, don’t buy it. And for small projects, if you rent, rent, and if you own, buy.

Holiday Decorations – Rent

Now that Turkey Day has come and gone, we’ve definitely had this question for Christmas Trees! This is more of a buy-and-keep or buy-and-throw-out decision for apartments, though there are plenty of rental businesses serving storefronts and the like. The reality is, plastic trees suck anyway, and there’s no way I’m giving up closet space for one. We went for the real deal. More on that on my next post about Christmas Tree pricing.