Category Archives: New York City

Walking the High Line, NYC

A couple of weeks ago, I walked the High Line in New York City for the first time since

Billboard art by John Baldessari on the High Line in New York City.

the new section was added.  The High Line is an elevated park that was originally an elevated railroad line, built in the 1930s.  It lifted freight traffic 30 feet above the ground removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s  largest industrial district. It went out of use in 1980, but when it was under the threat of demolition, Friends of the High Line worked to preserve it as an elevated park.  So, think railroad bed turned garden. The first section, from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, opened June 9, 2009. The second section, from West 20th Street to West 30th Street, opened last spring.

I thought it might be dull to walk the High Line in winter, but there’s plenty to enjoy, with winter plantings, art installations, and impressive views of the New York skyline, especially the Empire State Building and the Hudson River.  This time, we got on at 14th Street and walked north to 30th Street.  Along the way there are great restaurants and bars.  We  then wandered through a few of the art galleries that now populate the Chelsea neighborhood in droves. Gallery openings take place on the first Thursday of the month.  To get a glimpse of the New York art scene, read Steve Martin’s Object of Beauty.  It’s not my favorite book, but he knows and describes the New York art scene well. We capped off our walk with lunch at the Chelsea Market.

On an entirely different subject, I had to add a photo of a dog I saw at the holiday market at Union Square, who didn’t seem to be too humiliated to be wearing this outfit.

Advertisements

Book Publishing and Selling May Change But the Landscape of Literature Remains

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how e-books are totally changing the world of reading, forcing bookstores out of business, panicking print publishers, and leaving authors confused about where to get their books published.  A recent article in the Los Angeles Times urges readers to visit literary sites in New York City before they disappear. The article discusses bookstores in particular, which have been struggling for quite while, first with the rise of giant chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders (which recently bit the dust itself), then with Amazon and Internet book sales, and now with electronic books.  For example, there used to be forty-some bookstores on Book Row along Fourth Avenue in New York, a book-lover’s nirvana.

I wish I could have seen that, wandered the stacks, and talked with the owners who I imagine as eccentric, bespectacled, and just oozing knowledge about authors and what to read next.  I would have been a loyal patron. The Strand bookstore is the lone survivor of Book Row, and had moved to 12th and Broadway.  Take a look at their video. The Strand and most other bookstores seek to do things not available in the online world such as events with authors (live and in-person!), children’s activities, and other activities that make them unique.  A post on literarymanhatten.org sites the example of “another independent bookstore making the most the downfall of corporate chains. Housing Works Bookstore Café. Part Bookstore, part café, part thrift shop and part HIV/AIDS outreach program.  “Housing Works,” they say, “understands the value that creating a community can give to a bookstore.”

Birchbark Books in Minneapolis offers all sorts of community-building book/author/dinner events and the store has a special focus on Native American literature and concerns.  They’re hosting screenings of “H2Oil,” an acclaimed documentary film about the devastating effects of the Alberta Tar Sands. Marty Cobenais from the Indigenous Environmental Network will speak about the campaign to stop tar sands pipelines in the United States. Bookstore owner Louise Erdrich will be giving an introduction.   Another example, with a more light-hearted focus is Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas, the world’s only combined beauty salon and bookstore.  It’s owner, Kathy Patrick, has turned turned the love and books and book clubs into an international pursuit with the many chapters of her Pulpwood Queens Book club.

Whatever huge upheavals the book business encounters, one thing won’t change—the places (real and fictional) that literature evokes. For adventurous lit-lovers, there’s nothing like visiting the places they’ve seen in their imaginations—the London of Dickens’ characters for example, the Stockholm of Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or the wide open Texas spaces of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, to name just a few.  And, I maintain there’s no better way to gain a sense of a place before you travel there than to read about it. I enjoyed seeing at good example of how reading amps up the anticipation of a trip, too, in a blog post about an upcoming trip to Spain on The Orange Barrow that features the blogger’s reading list.

So, next time I’m in New York I’ll walk by Tiffany’s with Holly Golightly, through Washington Square with Henry James or through Harlem with Langston Hughes, and rest assured that there are locales of classic literature won’t soon disappear.

Improv Everywhere: Who Says You Can't Have Cheap Fun in NYC?

Improv Everywhere Fun in New York City

Have you seen the guy in the cell phone ad that launches into a flash mob dance routine in New York’s Grand Central Station but discovers he’s the only one dancing?  Improv Everywhere is one group that organizes choreographed events where, hopefully, everyone joins the action at the same time– for their own joy and the obvious entertainment of spectators–all for free. Check out the video of the mass-scale fun in the Hudson River Park.

A Literary and Culinary Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge
Manhattan to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in New York City and  walking its span over the East River (just over a mile) is one of my favorite things to do there. A dedicated pedestrian walkway, the Promenade, runs over the center of the bridge and below an estimated one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which makes it hard to imagine what it was like before the bridge connected the two cities of New York and Brooklyn.  How did the Brooklyn hipsters get to the other side? By boat.

Hike along the wooden Promenade… Cables composed of 3600 miles of steel wire weaving like a spider web around you, the 276½ feet foot towers rising above, the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbor to one side, and the view of the city’s massive skyscrapers all around combine for an experience that makes you feel humming with energy.

Reading David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge – The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, adds an extra dimension to a walk across the bridge. McCullough tells the story of the fourteen-year effort of building the bridge, which finally opened in 1883. It was at the time an unimaginably daring feat of engineering, exemplary of America’s Age of Optimism. As someone who lives not too far from the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis four years ago, the enduring solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge seems even more impressive.

I was particularly fascinated by McCullough’s description of how caissons (used to plant the footings of the huge towers) work.  But, The Great Bridge is more than an explanation of civil engineering. McCullough also weaves in the politics and personalities of New York’s movers and shakers at the end of the Gilded Age, particularly the remarkable designers of the bridge, John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who was tragically debilitated by “the bends,” known as caisson’s disease, during the building of the bridge. For a nice discussion of the book, see the Past as Prologue blog.

Bridge-walkers disagree about which is the best way to go, Manhattan to Brooklyn or vice

Street art in DUMBO

versa.  Some recommend taking the subway to Brooklyn and walking back to Manhattan, which offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline.  However, I enjoy going the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn route, with the incentive of all the great food that awaits near the end of the bridge on the other side. So, find the pedestrian walkway near City Hall in Manhattan and stroll across the bridge to the DUMBO neighborhood. That’s an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” but DUMBO is also under the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the end of the bridge it’s a short walk to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, under the Brooklyn Bridge at 19 Old Fulton Street.  There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it.   Then, it’s time for more carb-loading, which you can justify with all that exercise you’ve done walking across the bridge. Almondine Bakery, 85 Water Street, which New York magazine calls the best bakery in the city, is a great place to stop in for coffee and pastry.  It’s especially cozy when the weather’s bad.  Or, pick up amazing chocolate-packed cookies, or homemade ice cream sandwiches at Jacques Torres  at 66 Water Street and head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The Cove section of the park lies between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge and offers an terrific Manhattan view.  It’s also one of the few places on the New York City waterfront where visitors can actually get down to the water. Its a rich habitat for fish, crabs, and birds of the New York Harbor Estuary.

New York, bridges and chocolate…what could be better?

McSorley's Old Ale House-Glad to see this NYC institution still going

I was happy to read in the New York Times that McSorely’s Old Ale House is going, even if its without the old chicken bones. Writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Menken, the McCourt brothers), artists, and politicians have whet their whistles here since forever.  e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place

I was sitting in mcsorely’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil…

Some things just should not change.

An Immigrant Tour of Lower Manhattan: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading– Part 2

New York City is one of the best places in the country to taste (quite literally) the 
immigrant experience, particularly that of the great wave of newcomers who arrived in America at the turn of the last century. Prep for your trip with books such as Jane Zeigelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families In One New York Tenement, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, or Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Plan to start on lower Manhattan’s west side at Battery Park and work your way across lower Manhattan for an immigrant history “trifecta.”

First, board a Statue Cruises ferry (operating out of Battery Park) for a trip to Ellis Island and turn on your imagination. The Statue Cruises ferry out of Battery Park in lower Manhattan stops at Liberty Island first. From there, the boat stops at Ellis Island, then returns to New York City. You can choose to stop both places or just go to Ellis Island.

This small island in New York Harbor was originally part of the harbor defense system. Its size belies its importance in U.S. history; it was used as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954 and over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Its main building was restored after 30 years of abandonment and opened as a museum on September 10, 1990 under the management of the National Park Service.

It takes some effort to imagine these gigantic halls filled with people, but an array of tours, movies and exhibits fill in the picture. This is where steerage and third class passengers underwent medical and legal inspection. The day I went with my family to Ellis Island the weather took a nasty turn after we arrived. Awaiting our return ferry, the waves were crashing on shore and we felt like part of the “huddled masses,” so close, but yet so far.

The return trip to Manhattan offers a fantastic view of the city and you can imagine the excitement and trepidation new arrivals must have felt as they finally reached their destination. Yet, for many new arrivals, America wasn’t exactly the “land of milk and honey” that many anticipated.  The Tenement Museum offers a glimpse of what life was like for Irish, Italian and eastern European families once they landed. It takes a little effort to get there and don’t look for a big museum a la MOMA. The office where you purchase tickets is at 108 Orchard. Then your tour group walks to the actual tenement building at 97 Orchard.

The Tenement Museum is one of my favorite places in New York City and provides a vivid contrast to today’s Fifth Avenue and Times Square. No Gilded Age J.P. Morgan opulence here. They’re not kidding; this is a real tenement. You can only see it with a tour (book ahead, the fill up). I visited  “The Moores: an Irish Family in America.”   I also spent quite a bit of time afterward visiting the gift shop, which ranges from literary to funky.

Part three of the immigrant tour brings a reward for your trek across Manhattan:  food. Of course ethnic food abounds in New York, but for me a nibble in one of these lower east side establishments is an authentic way to cap off the tour. Katz Deli (205 East Houston) is just around the corner from the Tenement Museum.  It’s one of the last of the delis that used to fill the neighborhood and was also the location of Meg Ryan’s famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally. The food is worth every artery-clogging bite.

Or try your hand at eating for some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell Street). If you haven’t sampled soup dumplings, there’s an art to eating them which you can view in Joe’s rather lengthy “Kill Soup Dumpling” video.  (Skim through it.)

Joe’s is in the heart of Chinatown, which has been a hub for numerous waves of immigrants in the city. This is the “Five Points” neighborhood, the setting of Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie of the same name. (I love the names of the Irish gangs of the era: the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, the Slaughter Houses, the Swamp Angels.)

Not full enough? Loosen your borcht belt with a little Ukranian food at Veselka (144 2nd Avenue). You can rationalize all this eating with the fact that you’re gaining not only weight, but also a greater cultural perspective.

Just Kids: Touring the Lower Manhattan Art Scene with Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe

I just finished reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, the story of her life with the artist and photographer Robert Maplethorpe, a life dedicated to art and to each other. Smith and Maplethorpe met in New York in the late 1960s, while they were in their early twenties and through most of their journey together they lived like stereotypical starving artists—homeless, jobless, hungry, and itching from various vermin.

Of all her talents—art, punk rock, poetry—I’d say Smith is best at writing, which she demonstrates in this beautifully crafted memoir that’s hard to put down. I’m always fascinated with how writers, particularly memoirists, pick and choose the details they include in their stories.  Smith offers less a photographic view than an impressionistic view of their lives, weaving together some (mercifully not all) of the seemy side (she seems surprisingly unfazed at the possibility of contracting gonorrhea from Maplethorpe) with fascinating encounters with the artists of the day including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg.

The book offers not only a fascinating and tender look at their relationship but also a tour of the Manhattan in the last period of 20th-century artistic ferment. Many hot spots such as Max’s Kansas City are long gone, and gentrification has pushed the art scene into the Meatpacking District, Brooklyn and beyond. Yet, there are still places that carry on the bohemian tradition, though like most of the parts of the city, they’re cleaner, nicer and more expensive than in the 60s. The biggest change has been in the Times Square area, which now fills with crowds of tourists and Disney characters instead of hustlers, addicts and panhandlers.

Ditto for the iconic Washington Square Park, which was refurbished over the last couple

Washington Square Park has been refurbished....
...but still has its share of crazy people.

of years. Not to worry, there’s still enough questionable activity there to make it seem bohemian.  Smith tells the story of a couple of tourists who saw her and Maplethorpe hanging out there.  One asked the other if they were artists and hence people they should photograph. The other said no, they’re “just kids.”

You can still go to Coney Island as the pair did when they could only afford one hot dog at Nathan’s. And, if you’re particularly dedicated to experiencing the life at the Hotel Chelsea  www.hotelchelsea.com where Smith and Maplethorpe lived for many years, you, too, can stay there.  The rates are exponentially higher than in the early 70’s, but from what I can see from TripAdvisor reviews, you can have an authentic Chelsea Hotel experience—complete with the bugs, stains and loud music and with the same furniture and carpeting from Smith and Maplethorpe’s day.  Better, perhaps, to fork out $40 for the occasional tour the Chelsea offers and actually sleep in another hotel.

The St. Mark’s Poetry Project where Smith performed is still going strong. To get another taste of the poetry scene, head to the Bowery Poetry Club and Café, especially on Tuesday nights for the Urbana Poetry Slam. If you get a chance, eat dinner at DBGB, across the street (by contrast, new and very trendy).

Looking for more of the history of Greenwich Village? Take a Big Onion Walking Tour, which travels into the tiniest and most charming streets of Manhattan, so unlike the concrete jungle beyond the Village borders.  These are the haunts of William Faulker, Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac and his Beats buddies. Some of the buildings, which date back to colonial times, served as slave quarters and servants’ houses but are now the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city.

Top off your walking tour with a latte and a giant cookie at the cozy Grey Dog Coffee Shop on Carmine Street.   I love that they serve my latte with the froth in the form of a dog’s paw print. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist.