New York: NYC Overview

Daniel Emberley, August 2004

You’re a tourist in New York City.  You’ve been to the Empire State, Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Museum of Modern Art.  What to do next?  Friends gave Michael and I the great gift of their apartment near Columbia University for the month of August.  Here’s what we saw and did.

What, You Don’t Know New York?

Almost anything a visitor wants to see is either on Manhattan, or accessed from Manhattan.  The other boroughs, from the north and clockwise, are the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Richmond (aka, Staten Island).  You can skip these if you’re doing the usual spots.  Manhattan has at least two downtowns.  Wall Street, at the southern tip, is the historic downtown and financial district.  In the 1920’s, as trains started crossing in the blocks between the 20’s and 50’s, Midtown became a second downtown.  In reality, very few people go regularly to the old downtown unless they work for a big financial firm; Midtown serves as the center of the city.  On the subway, “Downtown” means toward Wall Street, and “Uptown” means away from Wall Street.

The subway is the most efficient way to get around New York.  There are tons of lines, serving all the boroughs except Staten Island.  It can get confusing.  You can ignore most of them, since most everything you want is on Manhattan.  The three sets of trains to know are:

1, 2, 3, 9: the Seventh Avenue/Broadway lines (red on the maps)

A, C, E: the Eighth Avenue/Central Park West lines (blue on maps)

4, 5, 6: the Lexington Avenue lines (green on maps)

The red and blue serve the West Side, and the green the East Side.  These sets of tracks have express lanes in the center, and local lanes on the sides.  If you’re nervous, just take locals (1, 9, A, C, 6).  Express trains make limited stops on Manhattan, but become locals as they branch off to serve outer areas.  They can be great timesavers once you master them.  All of these trains are using the same tunnels, so many trains may stop on the same platform.  Which trains stop at which platforms, and when, are clearly marked on signs above the platforms.

When in doubt, ask someone.  New Yorkers love telling people where to go (seriously).  They’re justifiably proud of their subway, and want you to get places to spend money.  Unlike locals in most other cities, they almost always know their way around, or will tell you if they don’t.  Any ticket agent will give you a system map.  Ticket agents will not sell you tickets; use a credit card to buy one from a vending machine at the station entrance.  These “swipe cards” can be used on trains and buses, and will give you automatic transfers if you make that transition within an hour of a swipe.  Use the maps at the entrances for guidance, as the ones on trains are smaller and harder to read.  There usually aren’t maps on the platforms proper.

There are tons of other train systems.  Long Island Railroad will take you from Penn Station to Long Island.  The Hudson River MTA trains go north from Grand Central.  New Jersey Transit runs from Penn, as does Amtrak.  The Staten Island Railroad runs only on Staten Island, and begins at the ferry terminal.  PATH trains are like a mini-subway from Penn Station, Greenwich Village, and the World Trade Center site to Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark.  Confused?  Ignore all that; stick with the red, blue, and green locals.

Still confused?  Take a cab.  They’re cheap and easy.

All of that said, Michael and I have been to the major sites before.  We had a list of museums/parks/sites we wanted to see, but also wanted to check out neighborhoods we’ve heard of and think might be worth a future real estate investment.  Here’s what we hit, with recommendations, if you’re interested in doing any of them and want to see things that are reasonably close together.

8/4:  The apartment is up near the Columbia University campus in Morningside Heights.  That’s east of Broadway, 116th is the cross street.  From the 116th stop on the 1 train is a lovely walk through the main university quad, where Barbra Streisand sang the opening credits of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”.  We really liked that walk as a morning entry and afternoon welcome home at the end of the day.  The apartment faces Morningside Park, a cliff-turned-park.  Next door is the Church of the Virgin in the Grotto, French Catholics with a replica of the Fatima miracle as a main altar.  South of that is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, still under construction after a century but beautiful inside, and with great grounds.  I took the Washington Deluxe bus up from DC, it is cheap and easy, running between 15th and K in D.C. and Penn Station in New York.  I got in early, remembered how to ride the subway, and cased the neighborhood.  Michael joined me later, having caught the bus up after work.

8/5: We took the Broadway Express to Fulton Street.  The half-price ticket booth in Times Square has very long lines and opens later.  Their satellite window on Fulton, in South Street Seaport, opens earlier, has shorter lines, and more options.  We got tickets to “Caroline or Change”, then walked to the ferry terminal for Staten Island.  The ferry gives a great view of the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island (sit on the right side for best view).  The ferry used to be a cheap tourist attraction; now it is a free one. 

Richmond Borough Hall in Staten Island is a very cool Beaux Arts city hall.  Overall, though, we were disappointed by Staten Island.  It’s a lot of boring wood and brick two- and three-family homes with little style and less maintenance.  Too bad, we were hoping to find Victorian homes worth renovating.  Looks like any of that was replaced in the 1950’s; it may as well be New Jersey, except Jersey is at least convenient.  The SoHo house ware store Fisher’s Eddy has a Warehouse here, but there wasn’t anything terrific for sale.  We walked from St. George, where the ferry lands, through a slum/neighborhood called New Brighton.  Don’t bother.  With all our travels through deepest New York, this was the only time we felt unsafe, although even there we were not harassed.

Our goal was Snug Harbor Cultural Center.  This had been a retirement home for seamen, established in the 1820’s.  The “Snugs” moved to North Carolina in the 1960’s, and the City has turned the Greek Revival campus into an arts center.  The art on display was not spectacular, but the buildings themselves are.  Parts of the grounds have been converted into the Staten Island Botanical Garden, which is amazing.  The highlight is the Chinese Scholars’ Garden.  It was built in the last decade by Chinese artisans in China, then bricks, mortar, and artisans shipped to New York to recreate it here. 

The bus back to the ferry took a long time to arrive, but got us quickly back to St. George when it finally came.  Overall, Staten Island was a disappointment; the best thing about it is the ferry.  Coming back <smile>.

“Caroline or Change”, a musical by Tony Kushner, is about a Jewish family in Louisiana and their black maid in the 1960’s: good, but we saw better.

8/6:  Today’s borough was Brooklyn.  We did the Fulton Street ticket booth again, for “Bombay Dreams”, then caught the 2 Express to Nevins Street, for lunch at Junior’s.  Junior’s is a regular stop for us; they have the best pastrami, tongue, matzo balls, and cheesecake; plus free pickles, coleslaw, and beets.  We walked up Flatbush Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn’s Civil War Memorial at the corner of Prospect Park.  The neighborhood southwest of Prospect Park is Park Slope.  Park Slope’s reputation is of yuppie families replacing lesbians and co-op member vegetarians.  It is one of the best areas we saw, reminiscent of the Victorian mansions/townhouses of DuPont and Logan Circles, but nicer.  Wonderful bakery on 8th Avenue.  If we could afford it, Park Slope would be a definite real estate contender.

Prospect Park was designed by Olmstead and Vaux, contemporaneous with Central Park in Manhattan, but completed sooner.  We liked it better: the lay of the land is more graceful, it is easier to understand, and in great condition.  Well-marked paths lead you to specific areas.  The northern part of the Park forms the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, one of the best formal gardens we’ve seen. 

Just west of the Garden is the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  The museum was designed to compete with the Met, and it does so successfully.  It recently got a new entry involving a glass-roofed proscenium, fountain, and public space that is terrific.  Their period rooms are the best in America: they show a variety of Colonial interiors from New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South, the only place we’ve seen where you can compare the regions easily.  Great Egyptian and Asian, European and American art, and contemporary art collections.  They had good temporary shows of new art by Brooklyn artists, and a fashion designer from the ‘80’s (Michael Kelly?).  Alexis Rockman is a contemporary artist who was trained in painting diorama backgrounds at the American Museum of Natural History; his paintings combine science, art, and science fiction.  The Museum had commissioned him to create a landscape of Brooklyn projected forward a few millennia, with evil looking flora and fauna on an apocalyptic waterfront facing Manhattan: most excellent.

The 2/3 trains took us from the museum back to the apartment, then down to Times Square for “Bombay Dreams”.  This was the biggest and best spectacle we saw on stage; a Bollywood musical brought to life with thin plot and extravagant sets, dance, and costumes.  Fountains came out of the stage to create the wet sari number; you won’t see that in the road show!

8/7: New York runs the largest university of any American city, City College, aka CUNY (part of the SUNY state university system).  Their main campus is a grey stone Gothic Revival collection on 135th Street; we walked up from the apartment.  Nice.  The neighborhood north of Morningside Heights was not sensational, although dramatically sited on cliffs.  The same old 1900’s 12-story apartment buildings, with fire escapes on the façade and retail on the first floor.  It’s a very efficient machine for living, seen all over New York, but not worth buying in unless the rest of the neighborhood is cool or convenient.  This wasn’t.  We caught the subway to Chinatown, where we had dim sum with our friends Winston, Jee and Billy.

The borough du jour was Queens, specifically the Dragon Boat Festival in Flushing Meadows.  We caught the 7 train to Shea Stadium, and walked around the old 1939 and 1965 World’s Fair sites.  The Queens Museum is housed in the City’s 1965 pavilion.  They were showing baseball art inspired by the Mets and Yankees (yawn), but the highlight was the diorama of New York.  This remains from the 1965 Fair, a scale model of all the boroughs with buildings, ferries, and bridges in three dimensions.  It was renovated a few years back, and is kept current as construction in the city advances.  At the Fair people rode in cars over the model; today you walk on a glass ramp.  Amazing; the best way to get a grip on the layout of New York.  Borough maps help you pinpoint neighborhoods/landmarks in the model below you.  It reminded us of the model of ancient Rome in Rome’s Museum of Civilization, but in better shape and more useful.

Turns out the Dragon Boats were racing so far away in the park that we gave up on them.  Instead, we walked east through the neighborhood of Flushing.  This is a solid blue collar area of duplexes with small lawns; once Archie Bunker ethnic, now a mix of older Jews/Catholics with large Indian and Chinese populations.  The restaurant rows on Main Street go from a Pakistani/Indian village to a variety of Chinese ethnicities as you approach the LIRR station and the termination of the 7 Line in downtown Flushing.  We shopped, we ate, we headed back to Manhattan.  The 7 is largely an elevated train, so we got to scope out real estate along the run.  Nothing really grabbed us until Long Island City, almost in Manhattan.  Long Island City deserves its own mention, below.

8/8:  Michael went back to DC, but Dan stayed on for art.  After seeing Michael off at the bus stop, I took the 4 Express up to 86th Street for a run down Museum Mile.  A short walk west from Lexington brings you to Central Park, Fifth Avenue, and Museum Mile. 

The National Academy of Design is in the old Huntington Mansion at Fifth and 89th.  Huntington was a Southern Pacific Railroad heir, married to sculptor Anne Hyatt Huntington.  They hired Ogden Codman, one of my favorite architect/designers, to expand their Beaux Arts townhouse into a pile.  Great staircases.  The art, donations from Academy members upon their being made members, is not terrific, but the setting made it worth the price of admission.

The Neue Gallerie/Kunsthalle, at Fifth and 86th, shows German and Austrian art of the Secession, Weimar, and post-War periods in a fantastic converted mansion.  If you love Klimt, Schiele, Beckmann, or the Bauhaus, you must go.  If those sound like options on a dessert cart, skip it and just get a struedel in the cafe.

The Cooper-Hewitt is the Smithsonian’s collection of design, housed in the Carnegie Mansion further north on Fifth.  If you’re coming from D.C., bring your Smithsonian membership card for free admission.  Unlike the two previous mansion-townhouses, this is a legitimate, stand alone, honking big mansion with grounds.  Most of the museum was being reinstalled, but they had two good temporary shows.  “Future Shack” showed a possible emergency housing option made from a shipping container.  “Revolutions of 1848” covered the confluence of industrial design change in mid-19th Century.  Their shop is one of the best in New York.

The Whitney, south on Madison, was showing art by Ana Mendieta (self-absorbed feminist hoo-ha from the 1960’s), LO/TEK (another house from a shipping container, better than the one at Cooper-Hewitt), and the permanent collection.  A treat was murals that Thomas Hart Benton had done for the original Whitney space in the 1930’s, sold when the Museum moved to its Breuer building in the 1960’s.

8/9:  I’m usually too nervous the day I travel to do much, but surprised myself this trip.  Caught the shuttle train (every five minutes between Times Square and Grand Central) to Park Avenue, then walked around the East Side and Midtown.  The Ford Foundation Building, by Roche and Dinkeloo, 1967, is a modern skyscraper that attempted to provide a neighborhood amenity, its atrium serving as a tall public green space.  Due to security concerns, that green space is no longer available to the public, but a nice security guard let me sneak in; and even gave me information on the architecture.  Tudor City, adjacent, is a village of 1920’s red brick high-rises with a vague Hampton Court appearance, very swank.  North up the East Side is Sutton Place: an expensive but ugly street, whose apartment buildings are too tall and not terribly convenient.  At 59th Street are several blocks of design stores; just south of the Queensboro Bridge overpass is Terence Conran’s Manhattan store.  Very chic; nicer and more upscale than the Conran’s store chain had become before it closed in the early 1990’s.  Behind the store (most of which is underground) is a lovely little park with horrible noise from the bridge.  The Food Emporium is a convenient place to pick up lunch to eat in the park.

Had hoped to take the aerial tram over to Roosevelt Island, but when I got to the tram terminal just north of Queensboro it was closed for annual maintenance.  Instead, I hiked west to the Villard Houses at 457 Madison, at 51st Street.  This was an early (1870’s?) attempt to build row houses that don’t look like row houses, but work together to give the impression of a French Second Empire palace.  Pretty swank, renovated in the last twenty years to a chic hotel and retail, including Urban Center Books, a nifty store stocked with architecture and planning books.

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was architect of the Nebraska State Capital, and the National Academy of Sciences Building I worked in when I first came to D.C.  He also did St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue, a Romanesque complex that incorporates an earlier Stanford White entry portal.  Great interiors, by his usual team of Lee Laurie (sculpture) and Hildreth Meiere (mosaic).  Walked from there to Temple Emanu-El on Fifth at 65th Street.  This Jewish temple attempted to compete with the Christian churches that New York’s elite had used to announce their control of space, sort of an architectural challenge to WASP hegemony.  The interior mosaics are also by Meiere.  The temple and a museum are posted as open to visitors.  It was very closed, but the security folks escorted me to the sanctum when I explained what I wanted to see.  New Yorkers can be very nice people.

From there, caught the 4 to the E to Penn Station, and the Washington Deluxe bus home.

8/15:  Michael didn’t have as much travel time as I did, so I caught the next week in New York on my own. 

Took Deluxe Bus to Penn, walked from there to the Museum of Arts and Design at 53rd and Fifth.  This block of 53rd is more famous for the Museum of Modern Art, which should be reopening here this year after a multi-year addition/rehabilitation.  The Museum of Arts and Design was formerly the American Craft Museum; I think the name change was as much to distinguish it from the Museum of American Folk Art (same block) as to recognize its high-craft/design leanings.  This is a nice one-hour museum; they generally have one show upstairs and another down.  The big event now was on fabric designer Jack Lenor Larsen, who did amazing work with innovative materials (nylon, mylar, polyester) and techniques (ikat, batik) in the 1950’s-70’s.  He created curtains for Brasilia and for Lincoln Center.  Terrific show, pairing large swaths of his textiles with his collection of tribal arts and contemporary craft. 

Around the corner in the base of the IBM Building is the Dahesh Museum.  This institution was pivotal in getting the art world to re-examine Academic art of the late 19th Century.  Very classy, sometimes trashy, excellent quality canvases of Greek slaves, Roman loungers, and Egyptian myths painted in London and Paris in their national schools of painting.  This is the stuff Turner and Monet and Renoir rebelled against, just being appreciated again after decades of being ignored by art historians.  If you’re not comfortable looking at modern art, this would be a good entry point, with each canvas presenting an accessible story and technique that is easy to respect.

8/16:  I’d heard about Roosevelt Island for years.  It was a prison and hospital site for the City and State of New York for over a century, redeveloped into a planned residential community in the late 1960’s by John Burgee and Philip Johnson.  I expected to hate it.  Caught the F train over into a cool Goddard-sci-fi-like station with mega-escalators and red tile.  Was quickly won over.  Yes, this is rows of near-identical concrete apartment blocks, with boring retail on first floors.  The setting, however, gives incredible views of Midtown and of Queens.  There is a riverfront promenade around the island.  Old hospital, church, and prison buildings have been saved for redevelopment.  There are almost no cars; a bus runs folks around from the subway and tram, but everything is walkable in under 30 minutes.  Perhaps the best thing is that, being an island, there is a sense of being a community apart from the major bustle of the boroughs on either side.

The original building of the New School for Social Research, just north of Washington Square in Greenwich Village, is famous for its murals by Orozco.  The Mexican artist had covered the walls of a dining room with tributes to labor and Communism in the 1930’s.  The campus security guard was amused when I asked for access, and sent me up the elevator.  Turns out the school is using the room as storage for institutional furniture.  Oi veh.  But, the room was unlocked, I found the light switches, and got to meditate in the grandeur of art completely alone.  To the school’s credit, the murals appear in good condition; perhaps they’ll figure out a better use for what they’ve got.  There are supposed to be Thomas Hart Benton murals in the building, also, but I couldn’t track them down.  Guess even I have limits on how many stranger’s offices I’ll barge into.

Walked north to the Union Square farmers’ market, then east and south through Stuyvesant Square, the East Village, and Tompkins Square Park.  This was edgy and new twenty years ago, but now you see more baby strollers than Mohawks.  Even Sex Pistols grow up eventually.  The architecture is undistinguished, the same tenement rows you find all over Lower Manhattan, likewise the retail.  Liked the Essex Street Market, a LaGuardia-era farmer’s market housed in a utilitarian Deco building above the Delancy Street F train entrance.  This has not been gentrified, but is still selling poultry and produce to the neighborhood.

To my surprise, the F train is all tunnel, rather than elevated, north and east to Forest Hills, in Queens.  Got off at Kew Gardens, and walked west toward Forest Hills proper.  Forest Hills is known as a middle-class railroad suburb from the 1920’s that has retained its value through today.  A lot of pseudo-Tudor-country-house apartments served by Gap/Banana Republic retail under the Long Island Railroad underpass on Austin Street.  It reminded me a little of Longwood, in Brookline, Massachusetts.  I thought I’d been in the high rent district, but as I got closer to the LIRR station in Forest Hills proper, went from Longwood to Chestnut Hill, or Lyon Village to Chevy Chase.  Apartments yield to big ol’ houses with yards.  The station complex is a brick turreted commercial plaza.  You expect to see Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby descending to the Starbucks.  A few blocks north of the LIRR is the subway stop, which whisks you back to Manhattan.

There’re lots of free performances in the city in the summer.  Lincoln Center Out of Doors presented a Hawaiian dance troupe in the plaza under the stars.  It was fun, but worth the price of admission.  If your New York nights are limited, pay for show tickets. 

8/17:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art isn’t exactly off the tourist trail, but my previous visits had all left me feeling like I’d missed stuff.  This time I attempted to get to every gallery.  I failed: there’s too much to the Met for any one visit, and they close galleries on a rolling basis to ration out funds.  I did get to the roof garden, where they were showing Andrew Goldsworthy, and to a Costume Institute show of Louis XVth-XVIth clothing in the rooms of the same period.  The Costume Institute proper was under renovation; I need to put it on a future agenda.  Okay show of American Impressionist Childe Hassam, excellent one of Art Deco decorator Emile Jacques Ruhlman.  Saw the whole American Wing, most of Asia, Egypt, and Europe.  They’ve shifted the cafeteria out of its formerly cool courtyard space into a mundane basement area, but moved the Queen Mary murals that had made the old space so fun into a proper gallery setting.  

Walked east through Yorkville, a dull apartment neighborhood, then north to Gracie Mansion and parks along the East River.  The Mansion and parks are great, but I should have caught a cross-town bus and skipped Yorkville.  From there west to the Conservatory Garden in the north part of Central Park.  These are spectacular formal gardens just off Fifth near 104th Street.  Michael and I had seen before, but they’re worth the replay.  Headed west across the Park, exiting at the northwest corner and up along Morningside Park to the apartment.  That was too long a walk, and mostly uphill.  It would have been wiser to reverse it, going downhill from Morningside Heights to the East River. 

Too much park, not enough city.  Caught the express train to Times Square, walked with the crowds, got dinner at the Times Square McDonald’s on 50th Street and Broadway.  Worth it, no joke: they have a diorama of New York City upstairs, with fun models of the buildings you expect (Empire State, Rockefeller Center), and things you don’t, from the boroughs: Yankee Stadium, Unisphere in Flushing Meadows, Coney Island.  No, this is not chic dining in the latest cutting-edge restaurant, but it is a uniquely New York experience, at under $10.

8/18:  I’d been avoiding Morningside Park.  It was right outside the apartment, but I’d last walked through it as a 17-year old interviewing at Columbia, and it had been pretty dangerous.  Plus, the Park landscape is very steep, descending in terraces of steps to Harlem.  But, the rumor was that apartments even in Harlem had caught up with Manhattan prices; and the neighborhood was much better.  It is.  The sun was bright, the Park lovely and well maintained, and the folks I ran into were students and professionals heading up the Heights to the university.  Caught the C train on St. Nicholas Avenue to Brooklyn.

Pratt Institute advertises its campus as a sculpture garden.  They do install sculpture by Modern and new artists, and it is well marked and easily accessible.  Unfortunately, the campus has a cheap industrial look, not unlike George Washington or Northeastern University, and the sculpture on view was not exceptional.  Maybe next year’s installation will be better.  Walked west from there through the Clifton Hill and Fort Greene neighborhoods.  There are decent 1840’s row houses, in well designated historic districts.  Fort Greene was one of Washington’s fortifications in the Revolution, turned into a park at the urging of Walt Whitman, and landscaped by Olmstead and Vaux.  Nice.  Stopped into Junior’s on Flatbush for a brownie (had to keep my sugars up, a shame it was too early for lunch), and into downtown Brooklyn.

The New York Transit Museum started in an abandoned subway station near Borough Hall in 1976.  It has become the premier museum of transit in America, one of the best in the world.  Like the sewer museum in Paris, it’s all underground, so a little disconcerting to locate: when you find the Department of Education office building, it’s under that.  The upper level, the former ticket area, has shows of subway maps, digging the tunnels, the bus system, and other transit serving New York: PATH trains, LIRR, etc.  The lower level, the subway platform proper, is full of cars no longer used on the lines.  The most fun part may be seeing the 1970’s ads on the cars, faded but still in place from when the cars were retired.  You can enter the signal tower on the platform; that’s the room where staff can monitor trains and switch them between tracks.  Since the line this station is on is still active, you see what real life subway managers see as trains move through the system.

Walked up to Brooklyn Heights, an 1820’s suburb of Manhattan formerly connected by ferry, but now on the subway.  Patty Duke lived here; it’s another neighborhood that’s stayed pretty middle class over the decades.  There are lovely row houses and a few grand apartments, with terrific views of Wall Street across the river.  The Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, on Hicks Street near Henry, was Henry Ward Beecher’s pulpit in his battle against slavery (daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”).  This is an active and activist parish.  The main church was being renovated, but I walked around under the scaffolding admiring Tiffany windows until the contractors kicked me out.  Heading west you come to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, one of the best places to see Manhattan, and a great place to sit and read.  I caught up on the Village Voice and other freebie newspapers I’d picked up, then headed back to Penn Station from the Clark Street subway station on the 2/3 expresses to catch the bus to D.C.

8/24:  I was sick of the cheap bus, so splurged on roundtrip Amtrak fare.  Plus, we were going to be leaving town as security started locking down for the Republican National Convention, so figured the train would be more predictable.  Technically, the bus should have been easier, but since their regular pick-up is inside the security zone, it looked iffy.  Even though Amtrak’s trains in Penn Station are directly below Madison Square Garden, where the convention would happen, we didn’t see how the Republicans could shut down the station and subway access.  They didn’t.

I checked into the apartment to make sure all was safe, then walked west to Riverside Park and up to Grant’s Tomb.  The Park is another Olmstead project, a jewel of terraces over the Hudson River.  Grant’s Tomb is a great classical capstone to the Park.  It was surrounded by newscasters doing prep work for the Convention (Grant was a Republican, after all, and Giuliani doesn’t have a mausoleum yet), but open to the public.  A pleasant Beaux Arts monument, but not sensational.  What makes it fun are the mosaic benches on the grounds around it, a public works project from the 1970’s that looks the way I imagine Gaudi’s serpentine tiles look in Barcelona. 

Took the local to 79th Street and the American Museum of Natural History.  I’d never been here before, figuring it was just another big science museum.  It is, but it isn’t.  A.  It is the granddaddy of most science museums you’ve ever seen; what they’ve done with taxidermy in dioramas was trailblazing in 1890 and remains so today.  B. It has cool murals dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt in the lobby, and great Beaux Arts architecture.  The new glass cube and sphere just completed for the Rose Hall of space/earth science are sensational.  C.  It is HUGE.  It took me five hours to cover the exhibits, and some, like the bird hall, I breezed through.  Personal highlights were the Asian culture hall, North American mammals, hall of sea life, and the scale exhibit in Rose Center (taking you from the scale of the universe to the scale of a quark in an easily understood walk).  There is a decent cafeteria, and excellent gift shops.  Bonus, you can enter the subway (B/C trains) directly from the Museum’s 1st basement level.

The B train takes you express to Brighton Beach, on the eastern edge of Coney Island.  No, it’s not an island anymore, it’s a peninsula joined to the south edge of Brooklyn.  The subway drops you in the heart of the Russian community that has taken over Brighton Beach.  Vendors sell pastries and dumplings and delicious things you’ve never heard of from street stalls; you’re surrounded by stout women yelling at kids in Russian and their husbands in too-skimpy bathing suits.  The beach proper, a block away, must be like their dream of a Black Sea resort.  You can walk the boardwalk west to Coney Island proper, it’s about a half hour, and a beautiful ocean walk.  There are some unfortunate housing projects in areas that once held amusement parks (Luna Park Apartments are particularly hideous), but it did not seem unsafe, just mildly seedy.  Remember the movie “The Warriors”, with a Coney youth gang trying to make it home from the Bronx?  It’s much safer than that, although the Warriors do get a mural on the side of a hot dog stand.  There are still a few creepy sideshow barkers (“Shoot the freak!”), and one amusement park with Ferris wheel and rides left over from the 1965 World’s Fair.  For the most part, though, people come for the beach, and it’s lovely.  I thought about getting dinner at the original Nathan’s, but you know, they serve the same nasty menu there as at any food court Nathan’s you’ve ever seen. 

Picked up the D train at Stillwell back to Manhattan.  This was a mistake; it was slow and jerky.  Try the F.  The neighborhoods you can see from the elevated train, Bensonhurst and Borough Park, are not contenders for gentrification any time soon.  The housing is boring and in poor condition, block after block of the NYC apartment, with trashy discount retail below.  It looks like there might be some nicer properties further from the El, on Ocean Parkway (logical), but I was too tired to explore.  The D train intersects the 1 at Columbus Circle, so made it home from there to meet Michael, in on a late bus.

8/25:  Michael wanted to see a friend in Newark, and we hadn’t touched any of the neighborhoods in New Jersey, so today we explored the wilds across the Meadowlands.  We got half-price tickets at Fulton Street for “I Am My Own Wife”, then picked up PATH at their new WTC station.  We’re not sure if this is permanent, or just something to allow commuters access until a new transit center is constructed at Ground Zero.  It’s a pretty slick glass and metal station, and the only thing done at Ground Zero (currently a series of concrete levels filling up the old hole, probably as parking and future building foundations).  PATH whisked us to Penn Station Newark.  We explored downtown Newark, then Michael met his friend and took the Newark subway (a third system) to visit.  I walked up to the Newark Museum.  This is amazing, a combination art and science museum, with some great collections.  The American art, in its own wing, is terrific, as is the exhibit on the natural history of northern New Jersey.  Best, though is the decorative arts collection, in the former Ballantine Mansion.  Remember Ballantine Ale?  Same family.  They built an Italianate mansion on what was then chic Washington Square (now office towers and public charities).  The house has been renovated to 1880 and incorporated into the Museum.  It alone is worth the price of admission.  I skipped the temporary show on the “Art of Bruce Springsteen” (some things are too unfortunate to be made up). 

We met at the Museum and explored a little of downtown Newark.  It has more going for it than we would have expected; the Prudential Insurance skyscraper complex is pretty cool.  Overall, though, it looked like the economic success that hit New York in the 1990’s skipped Newark.  We want to get back and explore Jersey City and Hoboken, which are supposed to be Victorian, renovated, and cool, but for now headed back to the City.  “I Am My Own Wife” is a one-man show about an East German transvestite who had survived the Nazi and Communist eras as a furniture collector/museum founder.  It won the Tony’s for best play and best actor, and deserved them.  We were not sure we wanted to spend Broadway money at a straight play, but it turned out to be the most thought-provoking of all the performances we saw. 

8/26:  Brooklyn was calling us again.  We started at Brooklyn Heights, and walked under the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges to DUMBO (“down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”).  This is being hyped as a place for artists to get former factory space and create the next SoHo.  There are plenty of cool spaces, and many close to the East River have already been converted to loft condos.  Suspect the prices went up before most artists were able to get a stakehold, but there is still a strong Salvadoran community.  We found the Jacques Torres chocolate factory/outlet, a movie being filmed, and lots of interesting industrial buildings, but not a lot of artists or galleries.  Still, a definite contender for future residence. 

We walked around the Brooklyn Navy Yard (very ugly, don’t do it), then north to Williamsburg.  This neighborhood, across the Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side, was one of the first places immigrants moved to from the 1890’s tenements.  Interesting.  Much of it is still a major Orthodox Jewish community, in ugly contemporary concrete housing projects.  Passing under the bridge, and then north on Bedford Avenue, artists and wannabes have moved in and established organic grocers, art galleries, and funky shopping.  Another contender. 

We started walking north to cross the creek that separates Brooklyn from Queens, when Michael realized we were on a bus line that ran the same route we’d planned.  We caught it north to Queensboro Plaza, in Long Island City.  This is the western edge of Queens, on the East River across from the UN and Upper East Side.  It is full of current and abandoned factories, stacks of rail and highway intersections, and tenement/apartments squeezed in between.  I’d previously explored the riverfront here and liked it.  The industrial stuff has development potential, which is being jumpstarted by major art money.  The Museum of Modern Art renovated a building here as its temporary home, and there are museums here for African Art, Isamu Noguchi, and contemporary art and performance.  We went to the Fisher Landau Center for Art, a former factory now showing the contemporary art collection of Emily Fisher Landau.  They had lots of Ed Rusha’s and 1980’s photos up; it was well curated and top quality stuff.  

We picked up the N train at 39th Avenue, which ran us to Bloomingdale’s on the East Side.  We walked back to the Queensboro Bridge, and I showed Michael the design stores, Conran’s and Food Emporium discovered earlier. 

8/27:  We kept this a Manhattan day.  Took the 1 north to 168th Street in Washington Heights, which is a Dominican neighborhood full of the typical apartment blocks.  Sylvan Terrace, a row of 1820’s wooden row houses, led to the Morris Jumel Mansion at 160th and Edgecombe.  This had been built by Tories as a summer house, was used by Washington as a headquarters during the Battle of New York, then sold to a merchant whose widow married Aaron Burr.  It’s a house with history, one of the few country houses still on Manhattan.  It is privately run, but inexpensive and worth the trip. 

We got a delicious Dominican plate lunch on Broadway, then went to the Hispanic Society in Audubon Terrace.  The Terrace was built as a Beaux Arts museum complex by the same Huntington who gave his house to the National Academy of Design (above).  The museums housed his favorite things: coins, Native American treasures (now the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum), the American Institute of Arts and Letters, and art from Spain, Portugal, and their former colonies.  The terrace itself is very grand, anchored by a statue of El Cid by Anna Hyatt Huntington.  The Hispanic Society is the only institution still there readily open to the public.  After decades of turning inward, it is starting to reach out to the larger community and museum world.  It has drop dead Goya and Velazquez paintings, glass, leather, tile, and metalwork, and an entire room of murals by Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla.  Amazing, barely discovered (there were five visitors in the museum, including us), and free. 

Taking the local and express trains south, we got off at Rector Street to explore Battery Park City.  This is an area of landfill north of the Battery and west of Ground Zero: it was created in the 1960’s by filling the areas between piers with soil removed to dig the World Trade Center foundation hole.  Most of it is decent residential towers, with an office complex on the north by Cesar Pelli.  Sort of like Roosevelt Island, it feels both part of New York, yet separate.   

The Skyscraper Museum, behind the lobby of the new Ritz Hotel on West Street, is really just one big gallery, but brilliantly installed so that a fairly low space designed for retail explodes vertically via mirrored ceiling and floor.  The shows could be better, they lack a narrative, but as the first exhibit by the Museum in its first permanent space, it works. 

We walked the esplanade, overlooking Statue of Liberty and Jersey City, then walked into Pelli’s Winter Garden for an ice cream.  North of the Pelli towers is the Irish Hunger Memorial.  I had VERY low expectations of this, and was blown away by how terrific it is.  An acre of Irish tenement farm has been moved to lower Manhattan and thrust upward on a stone base.  It sounds hokey, but walking through the stone entrance and into the farm is a revelatory experience.   

We took the C train north to 34th Street to do some shopping in Chelsea, forgetting that the RNC lockdown around Penn Station had begun.  We were able to walk south on Eighth Avenue, but wasted an hour between snow fencing and police barriers.  Tedious.  Michael discovered beauty that I had never seen before in the highrise co-op buildings of Penn Station Housing.  We got to the funkier shopping south of 23rd Street, picked up dinner at organic outlet Better Burger, and headed back uptown to pack. 

8/28:  We started our last day in New York in the Meatpacking District.  This is where Manhattan’s meat supply comes in and is packaged, north of Greenwich Village and south of Chelsea.  Being between the old and new gay neighborhoods, the pressure was too great, and in between the slaughterhouses are exclusive clubs, fashion boutiques, and trendy restaurants.  The vision of Naomi Campbell wading over the rivers of blood does nothing for me, but it seems to be the area of the moment.  Some decent design/furniture stores; we took a break in the Bodum store and walked out owning a French Press coffeemaker.   

We walked down Bleeker southeast through Greenwich Village.  We were surprised to discover how attractive the Village still is, after all these years of being trendy/tired/trendy and tired again.  We met up once again with Billy and Winston in Chinatown for dim sum, then took the F train to 4th Street and Washington Square.  Our friend Eleanor was in town from D.C. for the protests.  She met us for a street theater/protest organized around a giant Monopoly game.  Fun.  We caught the subway back to the apartment, made sure all was in shape for our returning friends, grabbed our bags and headed back to Penn Station to take Amtrak home.   

So, what did we miss?  Here’s what was on our list of things to see and do that we didn’t get to.  Good to know there are reasons to return! 








Personal articles main page


Return to main page