10 weird things I accidentally learned about New York

By Thu-Huong Ha

  New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! Here’s one of my favorite images of it, created by George Schlegel lithographers in 1873, while the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction. Image: Wikipedia

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town! Here’s one of my favorite images of it, created by George Schlegel lithographers in 1873, while the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction. Image: Wikipedia

New York is a playground of absurdity. I’ve lived here on and off for the past decade. Since I ate my first workday lunch in a “park” in downtown Manhattan, I've been blindly accepting everyone's inexplicable behavior in this city, not least of all the block-long cronut line I pass on my way to work every morning. So when I started curating the speaker program for TEDxNewYork it seemed a productively impossible task: to expand my view beyond my own little pocket of the city.

New York is an extrovert, leading and looking forward, not looking underground, inside or backwards. So finding local speakers with ideas that haven’t yet surfaced has been surprisingly difficult. But during our curation research, my team and I fell down a lot of research rabbit holes, each leading to something we just didn’t know about New York's underbelly. Doing research like this means a lot of nights on the Internet -- Wikipedia lists, New Yorker archives, the tables of contents of academic publications, Reddit -- but also just talking to people -- to strangers in bars, to your friend about their dissertation, to others standing on the subway platform. Once people know you’re looking for local stories, they start volunteering weird information. When you hear about a person, place or thing from multiple sources before NPR or The New York Times has caught on, you start to connect the dots as to what’s about to break out.

Keeping your ear to the dirty Manhattan ground doesn’t always yield great TEDx Talks, but it does make for good watercooler conversation. Below, 10 facts we learned from our research that we thought you’d enjoy.

  1. City Hall used to be a place for "sturdy beggars." In 1735, New York built its first almshouse where City Hall is today. According to urban archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, one of our speakers, "It served five groups: 'Poor Needy Persons,' 'Idle Wandering Vagabonds,' 'Sturdy Beggars,' 'Parents of Bastard Children,' and the 'bastard' children.” .
  2. If you drop your Blackberry into the subway tracks, you can get it back from these guys. Dubbed “the fishermen of the subway” they use homemade tools to recover the things New Yorkers drop on the tracks. .
  3. One fire hydrant and a badly designed parking spot can net the city $33,000 in a year. But: Thanks to speaker Ben Wellington, who first posted this data on his blog, the city also shows that it can self-correct. .
  4. Some subway buskers have agents. We were surprised to discover this when we approached one. .
  5. New York State is buying out 750 homes in Staten Island and Long Island as a strategy to protect against future hurricanes. The City, which normally favors rebuilding over demolishing, turned down residents, so the people of Staten Island went over their heads to the State. A friend in an urban planning program at MIT told me about this over a beer one night recently, and I can’t say I’ve met one Manhattanite who knows about it. .
  6. The ubiquitous voice of subway announcements lives in Maine. Her name is Carolyn Hopkins, and she does non-New York gigs, too: She’s the voice of 200 different airports. .
  7. As of June this year, New York now has a Morbid Anatomy Museum. You can take workshops there on some pretty weird stuff. .
  8. There are only two states in the US that automatically charge 16- and 17-year-old as adults, and New York is one of them. Unhealthy jail systems have been in the news quite a bit since Preet Bharara, the US attorney in Manhattan, published a lengthy report in August on treatment of teens in Rikers Island. Now as solitary confinement for teens at Rikers comes to an end we turn to our speaker Ismael Nazario, who was in solitary in Rikers for over 300 days before ever being convicted of a crime, to hear his story. .
  9. The James A. Farley Post Office, the enormous historic building next to Penn Station bears the inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” You can take a tour of the nearly empty building, or even have a fashion show. (You can also try to have a TEDx event there. Not that we would know.) .
  10. Oh, and one thing everyone knows: The Rent is (still) 2 Damn High.