Start spreadin' the quick-and-dirty engineering

THERE'S ONE thing he loves about New York, my friend John. He likes that the buildings and subways are working systems that only look decayed.

He was visiting me, so I took him to Roosevelt Island, a smidgen of land between Manhattan and Queens with two hospitals, some apartments and a lot of nice views. We rode the bus there so I could show him my neighborhood. There's so much brick here, more than on the West Coast, and the bus route danced with the green stanchions of the elevated rail.

We heard the train whoosh by,

but who cares about speed when you can talk politics with a friend and show him misspelled signs on store awnings?

The view shifted from tree-lined to sea-lined when the bus crossed the bridge to Roosevelt Island. People have put hospitals, mental asylums and prisons on it, as people are wont to do on islands.

We walked down to the southern tip, where planted and overgrown greenery shaded a ruin from view. It used to house smallpox labs or patients, and now it can't even protect itself from the elements. There's a chain-link fence giving it a wide berth, but even from the other side we could see that the ceiling, windows, floors and walls were magnificently wrecked.

Ivy and other chlorophyll sprouted between the bricks and up through the holes.

"It looks like a cut scene from a video game," I said. It's where the kids go exploring in a horror movie, camping in tents on the precipice of the second floor.

I showed him the gentle slope just beyond the ruin, where practically nobody disturbs the weeds and the gravel. We only saw fellow explorers every five minutes or so, which counts as being alone when you live in a big city. We took in the inexplicable signs of the city, the cold dark waters, the disgruntled seagulls, the bridges and skyscrapers and chain-link fences all around.

On Roosevelt Island's long shores sit more wooden benches than I've ever seen anywhere else. An amateur guide once told me "they" set out all those benches for the patients. We passed through a group of patients lounging and frowning in gurneys and wheelchairs, and took up a bench with a view of the United Nations building.

At least, we think it was the UN building. Didn't "Animaniacs" have a song about the UN called "Down By the East Riverside"?

Desultory talk got more sultory as we stared out at the water and the bridges. We chitchatted about infrastructure. It takes a long time to build anything interesting. Subway lines people have wanted for decades stall over money, planning, all the underground pipes to dig around. City real estate gets expensive, so people build up instead of out, but higher skyscrapers require more engineering.

But there is a perception that things happen faster in New York, that New Yorkers are more OK with quick-and-dirty solutions as long as they work.

The Bay Area has a more holistic, organic reputation, where people prefer to wait till they can find sustainable, ethical and fulfilling options.

New York has a different kind of gradualism: As long as you're getting things done and making progress, you'll iterate toward the best solution.

I work with software engineers all day, so now I see how software is different. In physical engineering, we don't want to waste material, and we can make detailed plans because it's not like this is the first bridge ever built. It's like surgery: You can, and want to, plan ahead carefully. But in software, we need to innovate and try out blind alleys, because new challenges arise. Exploratory coding can waste time, but you can delete it with one click.

I am beginning to believe life is more like software and less like surgery. For most of the bug fixes and features I need to implement, I really should just get something done, get over my fear of imperfection and cooties. If I say something is a priority to me but I'm waiting for some utopian, optimal moment to do anything about it, then it's not really a priority, is it?

Near the ruins, gulls pecked and swooped in front of us. I can't imagine the hospital patients feed them much. Morning glories opened over old concrete and ivy crept another centimeter over broken brick in the humid cool.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at