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Manhattan's Hills and Dales

Ordinarily, I would not have gone out yesterday. At all. But friends who live in Westchester were stopping by at seven or so for a drink and a nibble, after which we'd head across the street to Maz Mezcal for dinner.

It behooved me to buy the nibbles, to wit, the wonderful frozen pastry treats at Eli's. This meant walking up and down an avenue (Second or Third) for six blocks of sun - unless I was willing to wait until the later afternoon. But I wanted a chef's salad at Burger Heaven, so I had to prepare to melt. I should note that I crossed 86th Street outside the building, so that I could get to Third Avenue in the shade, even though it meant crossing 86th again to go the restaurant. After lunch, I made my way down Third.

I was determined to notice something, so that I could write it up here. How fake is that?

I need to write a brief page in which I explain the malady that makes it difficult to look around while I'm walking, because I'm tired of complaining that all I see when I go for a walk is footwear and cement. With effort, however, I can push my shoulders back and see if anything startling is going on. The scene declined, however, to startle. It was really too hot and almost too humid for startling. So I fell back on the timeless, or, at any rate, the pavement.

I noticed that I was walking downhill. From memory, I knew that the incline would continue until 73rd Street, to the foot of Lenox Hill.

If you haven't spent much time in Manhattan, or outside of Midtown Manhattan, you may be forgiven for supposing that our third dimension is variable only with the help of stairs and elevators - that is, within buildings. New York is obviously not San Francisco, and not Pittsburgh. But it is not flat. Flattened, yes, but still inclined to slope. The most common natural feature of the landscape is the granite outcrop that may be no taller than I am, or it may be several storeys tall. Most of these have been blown up or otherwise cleared away, but, from Chelsea to Harlem, the central ridge of Manhattan rises tens of feet above the water line.

("Tens of feet" is pretty wet, I agree, but I couldn't find a usable figure on the Internet. I did come upon this USGS cross section, however.)

The terrain of the Upper East Side is Manhattan's most varied, south of Morningside Heights. Just try walking across 96th Street from First Avenue to Madison Avenue, and you'll see that "Carnegie Hill" is more than a realtor's pretension.

If I'm going to walk from 86th and Second to 87th and Third (to replace the cushions on the balcony furniture, say, at Pier 1 - something that cannot be put off for a fourth season next April), I will invariably head for Third and then turn right. To walk up Second Avenue to 87th and then across to Third would be foolish, because that would mean walking downhill a ways and then up the much steeper grade of 87th. The preferred route offers the relatively gentle slope of 86th Street between Second and Third; Third Avenue between 84th and 90th Streets is that roadway's highpoint, its part of the shoulder of Carnegie Hill, and between 86th and 87th it's just about flat.

Observe: I wrote "up Second Avenue" and "across 87th Street." Those are the conventional terms used everywhere in town. "Up" means north(east), "down" means south(west), and "across" means either west-northwest or east-southeast. In terms of elevation, however, I should have written "down Second Avenue" and "up 87th Street."

I have always heard that, in the old days, when the neighborhood was known as "Germantown" and had the breweries to match, barrels of beer would be rolled along Third Avenue from the Ruppert Brewery at 90th Street and then down the slope of 86th Street, right to the barges in the East River. Carl Schurz Park and the FDR Drive would make that stunt rather impossible nowadays, and, who knows, it could easily be an urban legend. I would really like to see a photograph. Rolling beer down a cobblestoned hillside: wouldn't that cause explosions?


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Jacob Ruppert, Jr. (known as The Colonel) is not only well known for his beer, but more importantly, he bought the New York Highlanders (with his wonderfully named, short-lived partner Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston), changed their name to the Yankees, added the pinstripes which they are famous for, bought Babe Ruth from Harry Frazee of the red sox, and built Yankee Stadium.
He lived until 1939 and by then the Yankees had become the dynasty we all love, admire, and respect, unless you're a mets fan or, heaven forfend, a red sox fan, in which case, my condolences.

Rarely do I encounter anyone who routinely takes note of and recalls the rises and dips in the urban terrain and having spent most of my formative years in Houston which is flat as a pool table you wouldn't think that I would have the trait. However, a number of people have pointed out to me over the course of my life that when I give directions or describe a location I always mention going up or down, as in, '... go down a gentle slope to the corner and then turn up the next street to the right, just around the sweeping curve to the left about half way up the rise you'll find ...' Oklahoma, Central Texas and now Tuckassee have given me many opportunities to use the skill, but it doesn't seem to be of much concern to anyone else, at least not until now. Thanks, RJ, for looking out for us.

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