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In Cell Phone Age, Pay Phones Still Getting Upgrades

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INTRO: These days most New Yorkers may have cellphones. But there are still 11,000 payphones on the streets and in other public places  in New York. And the City is not planning to abandon them any time soon. As Anna Goldenberg reports, there are even efforts to modernize them.


Mark Thomas has been fascinated by payphones since he was a child.

Bring up sound of walking here.

The 50-something artist lives in Queens. As we walk down Broadway in Astoria on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he has a story about nearly every payphone.


I just wanted to point this one out, because I got this one fixed. This one was out of service for like five years. I made a 311 complaint.

He steps into the three-walled metal booth, picks up the receiver and flicks the silver hook switch to get a dial tone.

Sound of beeping.


That’s not a dial tone.


Invalid number. Please dial again.


Well, it worked for a little while.

The glory days of the payphone are over. But Thomas might be considered the keeper of the flame. He started a website called the payphone project in 1995. He collected numbers of more than half a million payphones across the country. The data was often used to solve crimes. That rarely happens anymore because most payphones don’t accept incoming calls. But making calls has always only been one way to use public phones. My walk down payphone memory lane with Thomas in Astoria gives a whole new meaning to phone sex.


These are great places to make out, by the way. My girlfriend and I, we like this one.

Fade down sound of walking.

Bring up room tone.

So are payphones often-broken, crime-busting, make-out-booths or public safety essentials? There are still situations when payphones do more than serve as a public refuge for private moments. Charles Jennings is a professor at John Jay College. He studies coordination and safety of first responders. Jennings says without payphones on the street, it could take too long to dial 9-1-1.


You know, there are plenty of cases where people observe an emergency, they may not have a cell phone with them, and they have to, either go to somebody’s house, knock on a door, or find another means to get someone to make that call.

Jennings says there are at least two other instances in which payphones can be life-savers: During natural disasters, such as hurricane Sandy last year, cell phone networks were overloaded. Because payphones are landlines, they are a reliable form of communication. And then, there’s the subway. Even though the MTA is working on expanding underground wireless and cell phone service, Jenning says that payphones in the stations still serve an important function.


The whole idea of if you see something, say something. Well, who are you going say something to, if you don’t have a way to communicate.

Fade down room tone.

Data from the City suggest that, on average, six calls a day are made from every pay phone in New York. And almost 2,000 emergency calls per day are placed from sidewalk payphones. Abandoning payphones completely is not an option for the City – but modernizing them is. This summer, the City will put out a call for proposals to get a new franchise partner for the City’s payphones. Stanley Shor from the City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications says the payphone of the future might have both old and new elements.


So that you still have the safety net of the emergency call but near the convenience of having wifi. We possibly have cell phone chargers, touch screens, various ways of someone using the city’s streets for telecommunications purposes.

To get a better idea of what a new payphone for New York might look like, his department launched a competition called Reinventing Payphones. The winners were announced in March. Last weekend, they showed off their inventions at a street fair.

Bring up sound of exhibition here.

The sidewalk in front of the New Museum at Spring Street and Bowery is filled with colorful stalls on Saturday afternoon. There is food, activists group – and lots of talk about payphones.

Bring up sound of windchimes.


So the noise you’ve just heard is the telephone collecting the sensor information and communicating it through the tones associated with numbers of the payphone. And that’s why we call it the Windchimes because it’s kind of the musical aspect of how this works communicating through the tones.

Nick Wong is an engineering student at Cooper Union and the project leader of Windchimes. His is the only group that has brought a life-sized prototype of their invention, for which they won the prize for best community impact. The phone looks and sounds almost like an old-fashioned payphone. He says there’s a reason the model looks old school.


So it works just like a normal telephone, so people are familiar with it when they step up to make a phone call.

Wong says there’s no handset because it’s the most fragile part of the phone. Instead, microphones and speakers are built into the wooden walls that are open on one side. On top, it has an environmental sensor, that can measure things such as temperature and air quality. That information could be helpful to city planners, health departments, and everyone else who wants specific environmental information from a location.

Fade down sound from street fair.

Wong’s model phone might not become the payphone of the future. But it is clear that communication on the streets will continue – in one way or another. This is Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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Learning from the Struggle of Survivors

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HOST: Commentator Anna Goldenberg is an Austrian Jew. In the 1950s, her grandparents – holocaust survivors – briefly lived in upstate New York. Now, that Anna is living in New York, she decided to visit the town where they lived to understand why they didn’t stay.


On a cold and bright day in January, I took the train from New York to Poughkeepsie, a small town around 60 miles north of the City.

I tried to imagine how different it must have looked almost sixty years ago when my grandmother came here.

She was 26 when she got there in 1955, as an intern in a local hospital. That’s about my age. But other than that, her life had looked vastly different.

My grandmother was nine years old when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938. And she was only fourteen when they deported her to a concentration camp because of her Jewish origin. The camp was in Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech republic. She spent two years there.

I was lucky, she said, when I asked her how it feels to have survived. She told me that she was once on the list to be transported to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ largest extermination camp.

Getting people on the train took hours, so she lay down in an empty barrack to take a nap. When she woke up, the train to Auschwitz was gone.

The camp was liberated by Russian troops in April 1945. My grandmother returned to Vienna to reunite with her family and study medicine.

I was full of hate, she said, and I wanted to go to Israel. She met my grandfather, a medical student and Holocaust survivor. He didn’t want to go to Israel. But he had a visa to the United States, and in 1955 there was an opening for two medical interns at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

The newlywed couple went there to work because pay was better than in Vienna. They weren’t quite sure how long they would stay.

There was enough food, was the first thing my grandmother said when I asked her about Poughkeepsie. But she discovered there was racial segregation even in upstate New York. People only socialized with members of the same race. One day she was told she couldn’t walk on the street together with a black intern.

I didn’t need that, she said. I’ve had enough of that during the war.

My grandparents returned to Vienna less than a year after they had left.

Growing up in Vienna as one of the only Jewish kids around was just a given for me. I sometimes enjoyed the expression of shock and disbelief that transformed children’s faces when I revealed to them that I didn’t get any Christmas presents.

It was only when I moved to the United States myself last year that I became more aware of my background. When I tell others that I am an Austrian Jew, they always ask about my grandparents. They want to know how my grandparents could forgive a nation.

After I came back from Poughkeepsie, I decided to ask my grandmother that question.

I wasn’t the only one who suffered because of the war, she said. Life afterwards was tough for everyone and we had to work together to survive.

My grandmother forgave, but she never forgot. And neither will I.


Anna’s grandmother, Dr. Helga Feldner-Bustin is coming to New York for her granddaughter’s graduation in May, but will definitely return to Vienna afterwards.

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Uptown Radio’s Local Newscast

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Excitement and Preparation For City’s Bikeshare Program

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HOST: London does it, Paris does it, Montreal does it. And now, bike sharing is in more than thirty U.S. cities. This May, New York will launch its very own system with more than 5,000 bikes. Anna Goldenberg reports on what effect it might have on the safety of cyclists in the City.

NARR: In a few weeks, New York City will break yet another record, when it launches the country’s largest bike share system. It is called Citibikes because Citibank is the main sponsor.

(Fade up ambi_bike station.)

Some New Yorkers got a first glance at it over the past few days, as new rental bike docking stations were installed in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

SHELTON: Looks like some sort of spaceship docking apparatus sort of thing.

New Yorker Matthew Shelton eyes such a bike share station near Brooklyn Bridge Park.

SHELTON: I’d imagine it’s for where the bikes are going to be set up.

He’s right – it’s also where the instructions for the program are displayed. The bikes can be picked up and returned at any of the 300 stations. Riders only need a registration, which costs 103 dollars a year, or 11 dollars a day. Online registration started earlier this week and 6,000 people have signed up.

Citibikes organizers have set up skills classes especially for inexperienced bikers.

(Fade up ambi_bike shop.)

On a Thursday night, around 15 people have come to the Red Lantern bikeshop in Fort Greene, where instructor Emilia Crotty goes through a slideshow.

CROTTY: If nothing else, follow these four rules. Yield to pedestrians, stay off the sidewalk, obey traffic lights, and ride with traffic, and not against it, like a runner would do.

But the majority of users will never have the chance to attend such a class. That’s because most are likely to be visitors, not full-time residents. Richard Conroy is the education director at bike new york which runs the Citibike classes. He says riding a bike in New York isn’t that different from anyplace else.

CONROY: I think what’s a little different about New York is the volume of traffic sometimes, and that there is a little bit of anarchical libertarianism on the part of all traffic users.

Citibike strongly recommends wearing a helmet, even though it is not required by the law for anyone above the age of thirteen. A Citibike annual membership comes with a discount for purchasing the protective headgear. John Kraemer is a professor of Health Law at Georgetown University. He conducted a study to find out whether bikeshare riders were more likely to wear helmets.

KRAEMER: In that population, only about a third wore a helmet when they were on a bikeshare bike. Compared to about seventy percent wearing helmets on their own bikes.

Kraemer says data show that wearing a helmet can decrease the risk of injury by two thirds – no matter what sort of accident you end up in.

KRAEMER: A lot of people think, a helmet can only protect me if I run into a tree and I hit my head. So, you know, in a city like New York, I am most likely to get hit by a car, and the helmet won’t protect me then. That’s the line of thinking.

He admits that there are logistical issues with requiring helmets for bike share riders – like where to store them.

But the very existence of Citibikes may make biking safer in the City, says Miller Nuttle of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

NUTTLE: The beautiful thing about bike share is that the more people ride bikes, the incidences of crashes actually go down because people are more accustomed to seeing people ride bikes on the streets.

It’s safety in numbers – and it has been shown to work in other cities with bike share systems, such as Washington DC. The new Citibikes are also designed to prevent accidents. They are highly visible and they weigh 45 pounds – which means that riders simply can’t go that fast.

This is Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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Sandy-Damaged Homes Receive Mortgage Relief

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Nearly half a year has passed since Hurricane Sandy hit the Tristate area. Immediately after the storm, the federal government offered housing relief to home owners whose properties were damaged. They were allowed to stop making mortgage payments for ninety days, so they could focus on repairing their homes. In January, the federal government extended that program, known as forbearance, for another ninety days. With that extension about to expire, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donavan announced a one-year extension. But it may not help all home owners affected by the storm. Anna Goldenberg reports.


If the original forbearance period for Federal Housing Administration loans would have expired on April 30, 300,000 families would have been faced with the return of their monthly mortgage bill. Donavan, who was the City’s chief housing officer before moving to Washington DC, said that was not acceptable.


It’s heartbreaking to think that a family could lose their home. To be victims first of a natural disaster, Sandy, and then of a man-made disaster, foreclosure.

He announced that the Federal Housing Administration would extend the forbearance period by twelve months. And he announced another change for FHA mortgage holders.


When homeowners reach the end of the forbearance period we’re offering them a streamlined modification that doesn’t require a cumbersome financial assessment.

That means that borrowers would not have to pay back the entirety of their mortgage after the forbearance period. Instead, the missing payments would be added to the principal balance of the loan and interest would be adjusted according to the current market rate.

It sounds almost too good to be true. And Franklin Romeo, who is a foreclosure attorney for Queens Legal Services, says it may be.


My primary concern about the announcement is that it doesn’t require the banks to extend the forebearance agreements so we will need to wait and see if banks will actually do that.

Romeo says the other problem with today’s announcement is that it does not affect loans backed by Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. It only affects mortgages issued through the FHA.


There would certainly be a sizeable number, but it is not the majority of loans out there.

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo sent an open letter to the Fannie and Freddie administrators asking them to extend the mortgage amnesty. The Washington-based corporations have not responded yet. This is Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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Non-Partisan Elections Might Prevent Political Corruption

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Host Anna Goldenberg talks to Rachael Fauss, the policy and research manager at Citizens Union, a non partisan government research group, about nonpartisan elections and how a change to this system could prevent political corruption in New York.

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Renting Out New York City

HOST INTRO: Affordable housing has become an issue in the mayoral campaign. Most of the declared candidates have called for an increase in the number of affordable housing units without offering specific proposals. Democratic frontrunner and City Council speaker Christine Quinn has called for an increase in the number of rent-stabilized units. Anna Goldenberg takes a look at the current state of rent-stabilization.


Rent stabilized apartments have been around in New York City since 1969. Today, they make up one third of the City’s rental units. Every year, the City’s Rent Guidelines Board decides how much the rent in the almost one million stabilized units is allowed to increase. This year, it set a two-percent-increase for one-year leases. That’s less than half of the rise that hit renters in free-market apartments in the City. The average rent-stabilized apartment costs half as much as a free-market unit in Manhattan.

Residents say that rent-stabilization leads to a different kind of residential environment. Tierso Perez is one of them.

Fade in ambi here

As he prepares to hop on his bike outside his building on the Upper West Side, a neighbor comes by to say hello.

NEIGHBOR: You’re riding a lot, right?

PEREZ: Yeah, I’m riding a lot.

NEIGHBOR: It’s beautiful today.

Perez has lived in his rent-stabilized apartment in the pre-war building for 20 years.

        Continue ambi through here


There’s a few people who’ve been here for a very long time, and they are all great neighbors and good friends.


 But Perez says that this has been changing. The owners have been renovating vacant apartments so they can charge higher rents. Once the rent exceeds $2,500, the owners can deregulate those apartments.

        Continue ambi through here


So there’s been a lot of transient movement, a lot of people moving in and out, because they find they can’t afford the renovated apartments, so unfortunately there’s been a lot of traffic.


 Those tenants who have managed to move into stabilized apartments want to stay, says Ben Gross, a legal research fellow at the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. Gross says they are protected from eviction by the law, but that doesn’t stop some landlords from trying to push them out.


Owners are very incentivized to find out if tenants are breaking any rules of the rent stabilization program, if they are not using the apartments as their primary residence, or are illegally subletting them, or anything like that.


The number of stabilized units in New York City is constantly shrinking. There are only half as many today as there were twenty years ago. Gross says that older New Yorkers are most likely to be affected by rent-stabilization.


About 8% of market-rate tenants are over 65, whereas 17.4% are rent-stabilized.


 A decline in rent stabilization would mean that people with low and moderate incomes would be forced out of Manhattan and the more expensive neighborhoods of Brooklyn, according to Matt Dunbar of the housing advocacy group Habitat New York City. He says this could change New York City’s character forever.


Diversity has always been a strength of New York City. And so, if you have a situation where neighborhoods become completely homogenous socio-economically, that would really have an impact on the City as a whole.


 Christine Quinn has proposed incentives for landlords to add 40,000 new affordable units in the City. In return, they’d get a 30-year property tax cap. One of her opponents, public advocate Bill de Blasio, has attacked the plan as a give-away for real estate owners.

This is Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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After Hurricane Sandy, MTA Seeks Alternatives to Subway

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The City’s 108-year-old transit system also suffered severe damages from Hurricane Sandy. While almost all subway service has been restored, the MTA is looking ahead and thinking about how the city can leverage its above the ground alternatives for the next time hurricane winds roll on in. Anna Goldenberg reports.

For most of us, the memory is still fresh. On the night of October 28, superstorm Sandy had its landfall on the Tristate region. The transit system had closed down in the early evening, but the damage was unprecedented.

We had eight flooded subway tunnels and two flooded vehicular tunnels.

Kevin Ortiz is the spokesperson for the MTA.

We had twelve subway stations with major damage or were completely destroyed. We lost an entire bridge and rail lines serving the Rockaways in Queens.

The subway tunnel that connected Manhattan with Brooklyn had been flooded as well. So the MTA had to provide alternative transport for the 1.4 million daily commuters. The agency turned to busses, recalls Ya-Ting Liu from the public transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

What the MTA did really effectively right after the storm was this program they called bus bridge.

330 busses from the existing fleet formed a free bus shuttle service. It ran for three days and got commuters from Atlantic Terminal, Jay Street and Hewes Street in Brooklyn to several locations in Midtown Manhattan. Liu says that expanded bus service is the way forward in public transport.

When it comes to really investing in our transportation system and trying to expand and provide greater transit service for everybody, bus really is the most economical and most efficient way to do that.

Bus service was also a focus of a New York state commission formed after hurricane Sandy. A preliminary report in January recommended the expansion of New York City’s Bus Rapid Transit Service, which currently has four lines. Unlike regular buses, the rapid buses run on separate lanes, which not only makes them faster, but also reduces traffic congestion.

Having several fast modes of transportation, such as bus and subway, is vital to make the system more resistant to storms, the commission said. Bus Rapid Transit will allow the city to adapt to job and population growth in the outer boroughs. Liu agrees with the commission’s report that the subway is too Manhattan-centric.

All that growth is happening in the outer boroughs. In the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island even. People are commuting intra-borough, between these boroughs.

Installing a rapid bus route that forms an East-West corridor in Brooklyn is therefore among the commission’s recommendations. Expanding the underground service is costly. The busses serve as a much cheaper subway on the ground.

I’m Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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Orchid Frenzy At Manhattan Flower Expo

Orchid Frenzy At Manhattan Flower Expo

Kovakia for $4,000

The orchid fragmapedium kovakia was for sale for $4,000 at the Blooms on Broadway horticultural expo. (Anna Goldenberg/ Uptown Radio)

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HOST: Of the strange addictions out there, Orchidelirium is probably up there. It refers to people who are addicted to collecting orchids. And it was actually a common condition among the rich in Victorian England. Breeding the delicate plants is still a popular hobby today. A new expo in Manhattan’s midtown sells a large variety of orchids to both addicts and lovers. At the show, Anna Goldenberg found stories of passion and crime.
N1: A trip to a shopping center changed Elle Ronis’ life more than a decade ago. She had to fix something around the house.

A1: So I needed to go and buy some cork at Home Depot and I bought my first orchid. (00:05)

N2: She was stunned by the beauty of the blossom. So she went back to buy more. Soon, her joy was dampened.

A2: I got a shock, because when the flowers went away, I said oh my Godness, what do I do now? (00:06)

N3: What she did was join several orchid societies. She learned how to breed her own orchids. Her basement in Stamford, Connecticut, currently contains around three thousand orchids. Elle Ronis is an orchid celebrity. [pause]  And, she is the organizer of Blooms on Broadway. The orales show, which started today in Manhattan’s Midtown, is the first such event in New York for six years. More than thirty vendors come from many different countries. The craze for cultivating orchids began in the 19th century among those who could afford it.

A3: Very wealthy people would have greenhouses and collections. And the more orchids you had, you know, the more status you had with the social set.

N4: For Dee Rabisi from New York, orchids are not about status. She is at the expo to add to her collection. Waiting for orchids to bloom takes years. Dee says that the wait pays off.

A4: Many of the flowers can last for two, three, six months. So you have a bloom all the time. Whereas when you buy cut flowers, in a week, they’re gone.

N5: Dee is convinced that there is an orchid for every taste. Orchids are among the largest flowering-plant families on earth. There are about 25,000 species. Because of people like John Leathers, more are added every day. He creates new hybrid orchids in his nursery in San Francisco.

A5: I can’t, I don’t think there are words that can express just the joy when you see something you’ve never seen before, and something you created. It’s almost, I don’t want to say, it’s almost like godlike.

N6: That might be a description for the orchid Jason Fischer brought from his greenhouse in Minnesota. It has a purple flower and a pouch at the bottom. Only a few thousand of these plants exist, because half of them die in the early stages of breeding. Fischer sells a single plant for four thousand dollars. The species was discovered in Peru.

A6: It was brought into the US by a person called Michael Kovach. And he did not bring it in with the proper import-export paperwork. So when that happens it’s basically considered illegal to own.

N7: In other words, it was smuggled. Kovach got away with a fine. He was also able to put his name on the species. It is called Phragmipedium kovachii.

This is Anna Goldenberg, Columbia Radio News.

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