Of a Feather

A 105-year-old group of binocular-toting Brooklynites is fighting to keep the borough’s avian habitats safe.

Photo by Mike Hicks

Photo by Mike Hicks

The grass is still wet from the rain as the morning light pushes through the fog on a brisk spring morning in Prospect Park. The paths are dappled with joggers, cyclists, strollers, and dogs, yet no one notices our group of twelve, necks conspicuously craned and binoculars pressed up to our faces. It’s only 7:30 a.m., but this walk with the Brooklyn Bird Club began 30 minutes ago.

“Did everyone see it?” Steve Nanz, the leader, asks as he adjusts his telescope and points it into the branches. “Has everyone seen the palm warbler?” When we all answer affirmatively, he puts his scope on his shoulder and moves on. The rest of us let our binoculars hang around our necks and follow to scout out the next bird.

Birders, like the creatures they seek, often go unnoticed until someone points them out. Once you know how to find them, they seem to be everywhere. In Brooklyn, they are particularly overlooked despite being a robust constituency of the borough’s incredible natural habitats, such as Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Once one looks beyond the pigeons pooping on park benches and sparrows pecking at the trash, hundreds of new birds come into view. The borough is one of the best places in the world to to go birding, and the club’s 250 members — in the face of park visitors and ecological disasters that pose a threat to avian habitats — are working to keep it that way.

Founded by Edward Vietor in 1909 as the Bird Lovers’ Club, the Brooklyn Bird Club has waxed and waned over the course of its 105-year history. Today’s club, though, is as strong as ever. Having always aimed to educate the public on the birds that make their homes in Brooklyn or pass through each year, the club focuses on conservation and on sharing the joy of birds with other Brooklynites. In 1918, Vietor gave a lecture at the Brooklyn Museum on various local species, a tradition that continues today. As early as 1920, the club donated books to school libraries and held contests for students in which they awarded medals to the best bird essay or poster illustrating bird life. To raise awareness and encourage fundraising for conservation efforts, the club has long hosted an annual Christmas Bird Count in December and a Birdathon in May for International Migratory Bird Day. But what the club prides itself on is providing free guided walks throughout the borough, into Queens, and even outside the city to places like Doodletown, Sterling Forest, Nickerson Beach, and central New Jersey. All trips are open to beginners and experts — even those who haven’t paid the $20 annual dues.


Putnam Rolling Ladder Co. 

Crannied between Soho’s modish storefronts and trendy cafes leans a five-story warehouse stocked with nothing but wooden ladders. This real estate is worth millions but rather than being sold to the scene, it sits half-empty, rich in an industrial heritage. Its owner, The Putnam Rolling Ladder Company, is one of the last remnants of the manufacturers that once dominated lower Manhattan, and it’s alive by the sheer will of a family committed to their product and engrossed in its tradition.

Putnam makes several different types of ladders but its crowning eponymous product is what makes it unique. The rolling ladder, known for its elegance, durability, and customization, is made from the best grade of hard woods and its steps are reinforced with rods and screws, not nails. It has been impeccably designed to attach to book shelving with a variety of options: The top slide mechanism allows the rolling ladder to be pulled out for use or pushed back against shelves; The roll type top fixture permanently attaches a ladder to the track; The hook slide top fixture allows a ladder to be moved from one track to another.

Putnam’s rolling ladder has been purchased by George Bush, Al Gore, Yoko Ono, Diane von Furstenberg, Annie Leibovitz, Stephen Colbert, Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, and many other prestigious clients. Anyone walking off the cobblestones of Howard Street into the endearingly cluttered first floor office, however, will find that quality is not the same as pretension. Clients pay on average $2,000 for a Putnam rolling ladder because as Gregg Monsees, the company’s president, put it: “We’re the best. We’re the oldest. We’re the most versatile.” And it’s true—it seems no other company can compete with the customized ladders that elegantly roll along bookshelves throughout the world, Funny Face-style. These ladders, which often appear in the background of photos in The New York Times’ style pages, are a fetish object that this company, so committed to its old-fashioned business processes, consistently provides.

Founded by Samuel Putnam in 1905, the company’s original motto, as stated on its first catalog, was simple: “For all kinds of shelving that is more than man high.” As the city was being built up, so was the space behind and in front of its counters. The clients listed in the back of its original catalog included hardware stores, insurance companies, architects, shoe vendors, druggists, silk and ribbon purveyors, grocers, clothiers, sellers of hosiery, gloves, and underwear; of notions, collars and cuffs; of laces and embroideries. The niche evolved while the product remained the same.


Street Food: NYC 

In New York City, street vendors are a distinct part of the local cuisine, sometimes taken for granted because of their convenience and affordability. But inside each food truck or behind each cart is a person who is making a living with long hours and an eagerness to serve. On an unseasonably warm February day, we strolled through Manhattan to meet some of the folks who feed on-the-go New Yorkers and were given a brief glimpse of the city from their perspective.


Süleyman Ertaş: Textile Designer and Salesman, Istanbul, Turkey

Deep inside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a small store brimming with colorful fabrics. Süleyman Ertaş sits behind the counter, smiling, wearing a knit cap and plaid shirt. He is one of the most renown figures in traditional textiles, specializing in making authentic Turkish cloths, particularly peştamals, the towels used in Turkish baths. Dr. Ertaş welcomed me into his shop and spoke just enough English to answer a few of my questions.


Testify: Live Storytelling in NYC

A line of New Yorkers throttles a Greenwich Village block. It's hard to tell where the queue ends, but it's clear that anyone who arrived less than an hour early won't be among the 250 who fit in The Bitter End. The bar once provided a stage for Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan, but now settles for run-of-the-mill singer-songwriters and bands. Occasionally, however, the bar's old magnetism is revived, like with tonight's appearance of "The Moth." There's no celebrity name on the marquee, no up-and-coming band on showcase. Instead, a few names will be drawn from a hat and the winners will come forward to tell true first-person stories.

In an age of flashy technologies and star-studded stages, The Moth—real people telling real stories to a live audience—has not only revived the old tradition of raconteuring, but turned it into a cosmopolitan pleasure. While similar storytelling organizations are launching throughout New York in numbers that seem to rival the city's stand-up comedy scene, the nonprofit organization has developed a national following, with storytelling events in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit, and has plans to open in five more U.S. cities and possibly even in Europe within the next year. About 21,750 people attended a Moth storytelling event last year, including 11,250 at New York's 48 shows. Meanwhile, the organization has launched MothUP, a satellite program encouraging fans to start mini-Moths in their own living rooms—85 of these groups launched in 2010, from Britain to South Korea. The Moth's online audience is even larger: an average of 1 million recordings from its shows are downloaded each month, putting it consistently at the top of the iTunes most-popular podcasts. The Moth Radio Hour, which debuted in 2009, is now on more than 200 stations in its third brief season, making it one of the most successful public radio show launches in years.

But New York remains Moth's center, if only in how carefully the events have been designed to combat the phoniness, flash, and isolation endemic to the city. When poet and novelist George Dawes Green (The Caveman's ValentineThe Juror) moved from St. Simon's Island, Georgia, to New York City in 1997, he pined for the authenticity of his friend Wanda Bullard's porch, where he spent many muggy summers listening to his friends' tales.

"You go out to cocktail parties and New York is filled with these giant egos so you try to tell a story with any subtlety and you have about ten seconds before you're interrupted," Green told Christianity Today. "There was a certain shallowness at these parties, even parties with really interesting people. I wanted to get more from them. I wanted a sense of depth and sharing." Green invited some friends over one evening for a night of stories, and the first Moth meeting convened in his living room. As rumors of Green's mesmerizing story nights spread, The Moth quickly outgrew Green's apartment and filled larger and larger venues. Now it hosts three kinds of events: its open-mic Story Slams, Grand Slams (in which audience favorites from the Story Slams compete against each other), and The Moth Mainstage, curated nights in which novelists, actors, scientists, and others are preselected to tell their stories. The rules stay the same: No notes are allowed, it must be a story with a beginning and an end (no standup routines or rants), it must relate to the night's chosen theme, and (most importantly) it must be true.