Archive | June, 2013

Sixth Avenue & 42nd Street (Part Three)

24 Jun

One final look at how Bank of America got to where they are today.  We left off somewhere in the heady days of 1980s style deregulation, bankruptcy and greed.  My last post was pretty dense, I know, but one thing I wanted to emphasize I guess is that even when these giant corporations fail they don’t really seem to go away.  They declare bankruptcy, they get restructured and then another giant corporation buys them and everyone continues to make shit loads of money – except for all the little folks who got laid off of course.  Even when regulators force a giant corporation to divest some of its holdings they just form into another giant corporation (which is then inevitably bought by another giant corporation).  It seems they can’t lose – and yes, the government is certainly implicated in all of this, because, of course, these people are the government.  We actually have a very strong safety net in this country, it’s just that it’s only for the people at the top.  (It’s too bad the Tea Party folks are assholes about everything else, because I think they’re actually pissed off about this kind of thing also.)

Anyway, getting back to good ole’ Bank of America, there seemed to be a little break in their interstate acquisitions after they acquired Seafirst Bank (on the brink of being seized by the federal government in the early 80s), I guess because BoA was going through some troubling times themselves.  After some big, big losses in 1986-87 and the ensuing decline in their stock value BoA had to scramble to fend off hostile takeover attempts – including from First Interstate Bancorp, who as I mentioned last time around were originally Bank of America branches themselves that BoA had been forced to divest (see I told you, none of these businesses actually ever go away!)  Bank of America survived that scare, mainly by selling off its subsidiaries to various other corporations, like Charles Schwab and Chrysler (now owned by Fiat by the by), so that by the early 1990s BoA was back on its feet and in a strong enough position to buy its one-time California rival Security Pacific Bank in what was the largest bank acquisition in history up to that point.  The deal included a number of banks in several states throughout the western U.S. that Security Pacific had themselves just recently acquired, so Bank of America was back in the interstate business big time baby!  Around this time they acquired Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company (as mentioned in my last post).  With all these new goodies they were the largest bank in the United States (in terms of deposits) until a little mom and pop number out of Charlotte, North Carolina called NationsBank Corporation overtook them.

Now I don’t think I’d ever heard of NationsBank before, even though they were briefly the largest in the nation, but here’s one reason why: they’re Bank of America now!  The two banks merged in 1998 – though in truth NationsBank acquired Bank of America (translation: NationsBank won (and maybe I should have been writing on their history this whole time)).  Even though NationsBank was the survivor of the acquisition (once again the largest in history) they took Bank of America’s name and still operate under Bank of America’s federal charter – though their headquarters remained in Charlotte.  Once the two banks merged it seems there was no stopping them.  Succinctly put (because it’s kind of depressing to dwell upon) since 1998 they’ve gone on to acquire: FleetBoston Financial (the 7th largest bank in the U.S.), MBNA Corporation (the world’s largest independent credit card issuer), a 6% stake in the Brazilian Banco Itau (now Itau Unibanco, the 10th largest bank in the world), U.S. Trust Corporation (making BoA the largest manager of private wealth in the U.S.), LaSalle Bank Corporation (making BoA the largest bank in the Chicago market), Countrywide Financial (making BoA the leading mortgage originator and servicer in the U.S.), and lastly Merrill Lynch (solidifying in a major way BoA’s place as one of the biggest financial service companies in the world).

Then the whole crash thing happened in 2008 – largely because of the housing bubble bursting and subprime mortgages catching up to everyone and whatnot (just a reminder Bank of America was the leading mortgage originator and servicer in the U.S.).  Then Bank of America got something like a $138 billion bail-out from the federal government to ensure they’d survive the whole financial turmoil the crash unleashed.  To date – and to the best I can determine (it’s really hard to understand all this) – Bank of America has paid something like $27 billion in fines, lawsuits and paybacks to the government and affiliated parties.

I’d say that I offer all of this without comment or judgement, but I think I’ve already commented and judged.  You can think whatever you want though.  For now I think I’ll go back to writing about libraries and parks.  They’re so much nicer.

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The Bronx River Parkway

19 Jun

Back to the suburban wilds again – this time central Westchester County.  I took a drive around these parts the other day and coming home along the Sprain Brook Parkway, which runs into the Bronx River Parkway, I got a little glimpse of the original intention of parkways in general: namely that they were supposed to be like parks that you could drive on.  You still get that feel in places and, as opposed to say, coming into the city on I-95 for example, it almost feels like a stealth approach – especially this time of year when the trees are all in full regalia, blocking the urban scenery.  One minute you’re driving past the almost beautiful and totally unexpected Grassy Sprain Reservoir, saying to yourself, “What the hell little lake is this?” and the next minute (or sure maybe 15) you’re in the South Bronx.

Which again, I guess was pretty much the intention.  The term parkway was actually coined by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux way back in the 1860’s and envisioned as a landscaped road for “pleasure-driving” (horses and carriages naturally).  Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, designed by Olmsted and Vaux has the distinction of being the oldest parkway in the country, nay, the world – running from Prospect Park to Evergreen Cemetery.  If you can picture Eastern Parkway today you can imagine why it’s actually a great example of why parkways aren’t exactly what they used to be.  The problem is we’ve got these things called cars now, that go really really fast and that a lot of people own, and so because of them we’ve got something else we call traffic and something else we like to call holy shit this is a really dangerous road to drive on.

So yeah, that’s the problem these days with the Bronx River Parkway too.  It honestly is a pretty road in places, especially considering its location, but it’s hard to really enjoy when you’re going 65 mph just to keep up and then slamming on your brakes as you hit a logjam (good word though, right?).  Of course the reaction of a lot of people in charge of these kinds of things is to make the Bronx River Parkway more like an interstate in general – get rid of its many curves, widen it, homogenize it, that kind of thing; again: make it easier to drive really fast on.  But believe it or not there are people who are opposed to that kind of thing.  Yes, there are actually people who want to try to keep the Bronx River Parkway pretty.  In fact the National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated the Bronx River Parkway as one of the 11 most endangered historic spots in the country.  In the country!  Man, I’m not kidding when I say this is one reason that I love America.  I mean, I’m sure they’ll probably lose eventually (I don’t know, if they haven’t already), but at least these kind of groups exist.  The same thing is not happening in China.

Yonkers_Bronx-River-Parkway_1922

The Bronx River Parkway was actually the first road in the U.S. built through a park (Bronx Park – home of the zoo and the botanic gardens), as well as the first  to use a median and the first with bridges to carry traffic from cross streets over it.  At the time of its construction, in 1907, it was the first limited-access highway in America, although the first leg of it, in Westchester County, didn’t open till 1922.  All right you might say, but does it really matter?  It’s just a highway right?  Ture, true, but we can still try to make our highways kind of pretty, can’t we?  And instead of making it easier for cars to drive on make it harder instead, you know to decrease incentives to drive in general (with the added benefit of probably pissing off a lot of Republicans – a la the current rabid hatred of New York’s bike shares.)  Hey and speaking of bikes and decreasing cars on the road it turns out that Westchester County closes a 7 mile stretch of the Parkway most Sundays in May, June and September for bike riding.  You can cruise along slow enough to actually catch glimpses of the Bronx River, which the Parkway parallels and from which it gets its name.

Anyway, my intention in even writing this to start with had been to talk about the Bronx River – one of the only (if not the only, and certainly the longest) fresh-water rivers in New York City.  But I was driving so fast on the Parkway that I didn’t even have time to take it in.  Ah well.  Maybe I’ll take a bike ride one of these days and let you know.

The wilds of suburban New Jersey

7 Jun

I just spent a couple weeks deep in the suburbs of New Jersey.  The more noticeable landscape is about what you’d expect: strip malls, big box stores, cookie-cutter developments and not too many sidewalks.  But the funny thing along with that is how close nature is too – though you might not notice it at first.  I didn’t notice it at first, though there was basically a forest right outside the back window.  And it turned out that less than a mile away was one of the largest freshwater marshes in New Jersey: the 3,100 acre Troy Meadows Wetlands, complete with a 2-mile boardwalk for strolling.  You’d never guess it while you were shopping at the Pathmark.

Troy Meadows, along with the much bigger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge nearby (plus many other smaller swamps and marshes), is all that’s left of the ancient Lake Passaic.  Lake Passaic was apparently formed at the end of the last Ice Age (we’re talking around 20,000 years ago) when runoff from the melting glaciers, trapped by the hills those glaciers had themselves created, led to a massive body of water about 350 feet deep at its largest extent, covering a good chunk of northern New Jersey.  In addition to leaving behind a bunch of swamps the lake changed the course of (and perhaps created) the Passaic River, forcing it to meander ever northwards till it could find its way around and through the Watchung Mountains.

The 80 mile long Passaic River continues to meander all over the place today.  It’s a much more noticeable river on its lower end as it passes through the Meadowlands and heads towards Newark.  At that point, so close to the ocean, it’s considered a “mature” river: wide and slow moving and feed by many tributaries.  Closer to its source its much narrower and fast moving – you can sometimes catch glimpses of it from Interstate 80 (which criss-crosses it several times) that look almost sylvan.  One of its tributaries, the Whippany River runs right through Troy Meadows Wetlands – though technically the Whippany is a tributary of the Rockaway River, which it runs into a few miles later (the Rockaway then runs right into the Passaic).  If I lived around here I’d probably be the creepy dude that was always lurking around these river’s edges, but shit, there’s still some wildness out here you know!  And I haven’t even mentioned the Great Falls yet: the Passaic’s impressive 77 foot waterfall.  I’ll save that for another day (by the way this picture isn’t them).

Upper Passaic

But for now we’ve still got mountains to discuss: suburban mountains!  The Watchung Mountains that I mentioned earlier are much older by far than ancient Lake Passaic and their formation had nothing to do with the glaciers.  The Watchungs are of volcanic origin and first formed something like 200 million years ago; they currently inhabit the region known as the New Jersey Piedmont – running roughly north to south for about 40 miles or so only 20 miles or so from NYC.  They’re made of basalt rock I guess which is much more erosion-resistant than the other rock and sediment layers around it; as those other layers were worn down, viola: the Watchung Mountains are what remained.  And okay “mountains” might be a little bit of a stretch as they’re only about 500 feet high, but still – we’re talking about suburban northern New Jersey here.  Today the Watchungs are basically a ribbon of green cutting through one of the most densely developed areas in the country.  The 40 mile or so Lenape Trail (established in 1982) running in an arc from Newark to around the town of Roseland is one way that you could see it all, or at least some of it, on foot.  The Lenape Trail is named for the Lenape Indians that used to dwell around these parts, and from whom the Watchung Mountains got their name.  That was before the Lenape were driven out of here of course; today most of their ancestors can be found in Canada, Wisconsin and Oklahoma – but hey, they got the trail named after them so it wasn’t all bad news!

WatchungVista

The Lenape Trial is actually part of the much larger Liberty Water Gap Trail: a 130 mile trail running from the Statue of Liberty to the Delaware Water Gap, made up of a number of shorter hiking trails that are all connected.  That’s kind of amazing isn’t it?  You could walk this trail east to west across pretty much the entirety of northern New Jersey.  Yeah, if I lived out here that would have to be my kind of jam, you know?  My point being (which is maybe always my point) there’s shit to do almost anywhere!  Get all suburban on me.