Category Archives: New York City

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.

A Literary Walking Tour of Midtown New York City

For most visitors to New York, Midtown means the theater district and shopping.  But, it also offers great strolling opportunities for lit lovers.  I often start my mornings in this area with breakfast at Pain Quotidien (40th and 6th).  It’s a chain, but very cozy, especially on a blustery New York winter day, and they offer great bread, pastries, fresh OJ, and killer oatmeal.   If it’s warm, get coffee and croissants to go and eat across the street in Bryant Park.

Carb-fortified, I started my walk at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd, adjacent to Bryant Park and gave a nod to Patience and Fortitude, the lions that guard the entrance.  They’ve had several names since the library was dedicated in 1911, but Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave them these names in the 1930s because these were the qualities he felt New Yorkers needed during the Great Depression, qualities we need now, actually.

Books aside, the building’s colossal Beaux
Arts architecture and majestic ceiling frescos make the library worth the trip. Yet, for book lovers, the sheer size and solidity of the place, with its grand staircases and the giant Rose Reading Room, give a feeling that books—in  whatever form–will never go away.  They also have a great gift shop. Check the Web site for current exhibitions.  When I was there, among several others, they had a exhibit on Mark Twain, “The Skeptic’s Progress,” held jointly with my next destination, the Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison (at 36th ).

Financier and book/manuscript collector Pierpont Morgan built this library to house his collection (If this was his library, I’d love to see his house!) and the library has been adding to the collection ever since.  They also added a modern wing.  The original section of the library was restored this year.

When I was there Charles Dickens’s hand-written manuscript of A Christmas Carol was on display. And the Mark Twain exhibit, in honor of the 175th anniversary of his birth, was a treat for any Twain fan, loaded with photos and original hand-written letters and manuscripts.

Then, I hiked and window-shopped my way back up Fifth Avenue.   Since it’s the holiday season, the tree at Rockefeller Plaza (at 46th) and the store windows along Fifth Avenue are worth the exercise.  Pay homage to Holly Golightly at Tiffany (at 57th) (see also the story of Summer at Tiffany) and check out the jewelry boxes in the windows at Cartier (at 52nd) from which truly breath-taking jewelry emerges. I spent quite a bit of time gazing at the crazy gorgeous windows at Bergdorf-Goodman (at 58th), which are works of art every year.   Then, with Eloise in mind, I wandered by the Plaza Hotel. If you’re feeling wealthy, stop in for lunch or afternoon tea (including a Tea with Eloise menu) at the Palm Court. If you’re feeling really wealthy, you can stay in the Eloise Suite, which starts at $1125  a night.  If not, looking around is free, which is what I like.

And, if you can’t make it to New York during the Christmas season, it’s also free to take a video trip to see Bergdorf’s windows, entitled “Follow Me.”