While Ambassador Huebner is away, we are continuing with our travel series on great American destinations to visit. In this installment our Consul General in Auckland Jim Donegan takes us on a trip around his hometown – New York City. Jim offers us an insider’s perspective on Gotham that only a life-long Mets fan can provide…
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NEW YORK CITY
by Jim Donegan
“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” John Updike
“New York is the only city in the world where you can get run down on the sidewalk by a pedestrian.” Russell Baker
There are probably as many opinions about my home town as there are people who live in it or visit it. It has been that way since its founding by the Dutch in the early 1600s, its British colonization, its time as the first capital of the United States, through waves of immigration, and through fiscal crises and crime scourges that almost brought it to its knees.
Today, New York is cleaner, safer, and more accessible than any time in the past 50 years. In typical New Yorker fashion even this positive trend meets with mixed reactions – many of its denizens miss the rough edges and sense of pride that came with surviving in the city back then.
One thing most New Yorkers do agree on is that visitors to the city should explore further than the typical 2-3 weeks spent in the confines of Manhattan, usually between 14th and 96th Streets and 1st and 8th Avenues. New York has so much more to offer than just the high-rise glass towers and luxury condos that largely occupy Manhattan these days.
To get a true sense of the city’s character, history, and rich diversity, one must head north of Central Park and into the outer boroughs. As a native, I’ve found that one of the best ways to discover the city is on a bicycle (sightseeing in an automobile is next to impossible). A bike allows the freedom to change directions and duck into small parks and alleys happened upon by chance, while also offering riders the ability to move quickly from site to site.
The tour I describe below represent a week’s worth of activities generally experienced only by native New Yorkers. If biking isn’t your thing, I’ve indicated in parenthesis the subway stops nearest to each site. To start, take the 1 train to 96th Street and rent your bike from West Side Bicycles just off Broadway; great prices and they will provide maps and advice for novices.
Once you are mounted, head north to Morningside Heights to 110th Street where you will find the Cathedral of St. John the Devine. For me, it is far more impressive than its more famous cousin St. Patrick’s, and far less crowded. The Cathedral is 601 feet (186 meters) in length, and has the longest Gothic nave in the United States, at 230 feet (70 m). It has an incredible structure at the west end of the nave, installed by stained glass artist Charles Connick, made of 10,000 pieces of glass – the largest rose window in the U.S. (1, 110th)
Just east of the Cathedral is Morningside Park, a great place to see outcroppings of the manhattan schist, the rock which is the foundation of the tall buildings further downtown. Now head west on 116th Street to the Colombia University campus. The university was founded in 1754 as King’s College by royal charter of King George II, and it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States. When you enter the Quadrangle, you will recognize the steps and administration building where a number of 1960′s Vietnam War protests took place. The staff is always keen to give visitors tours of the campus, so check in with the information office on 116th and Broadway. (1, 116th)
Move just northwest now to Grant’s Tomb where our 18th President Ulysses Grant is entombed there with his wife. Grant was the commanding general who won the American Civil War for the Union, and the memorial contains a number of displays and information that Civil War buffs will love. Constructed of Doric columns on the lower level, the cupola rises 280 feet above the banks of the Hudson River. There are great views from the top of the grounds.
Now roll down the hill to Riverside Park and turn north along the bike path on the Hudson River. You will likely see anglers casting from the rocks; fishing the Hudson is a great way to spend an afternoon. Striped bass and bluefish come up to feed along the lower Hudson. And yes, you can eat the fish.
Right around 178th Street you can check out the Little Red Lighthouse. It was constructed in 1921 as part of a project to improve Hudson River navigational aids. When the George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931, the lighthouse was considered obsolete, as the bridge pier was illuminated. The proposed dismantling of the lighthouse in 1951 resulted in a public outcry, leading to its preservation by the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation. Now a New York City Landmark, the lighthouse was re-lighted by the city in 2002. The Little Red Lighthouse Festival happens each year in early October and is a great opportunity to visit the site. (A, 175th)
Look up from the lighthouse and you will see the George Washington Bridge, which connects New York City to New Jersey. Its exposed steel towers, with their distinctive criss-crossed bracing, are the bridge’s most identifiable characteristics. French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret said that “the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers.” (Note – if you cross the Bridge you will be in New Jersey.)
From the Bridge there is a fairly steep climb up the bike path to Washington Heights. Take some time to explore this neighborhood. I was born there, and back then the area was a mixture of Greek, Irish and Jewish immigrants and their first and second generation offspring. Today Dominicans comprise the main ethnic group, and Spanish is the first language in many of the stores and restaurants. “El Malecon” on Broadway just below the Bridge has some of the best Dominican food in the city. (1, 191st)
The area is named for Fort Washington, built to defend upper Manhattan and the Hudson River from the British during the Revolution. The Fort and New York fell in the winter of 1776, remaining in British hands until the end of the war. The remains of the Fort and some informational displays are in Bennett Park, between 183rd and 185th Streets along Fort Washington Ave. The park is also the site of the highest point in Manhattan, so check out the views; in the fall after the leaves drop the sightline clear down to the Battery is unobstructed.
Continue North through Fort Tyron Park to The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum and adjacent park were created through an endowment grant by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who also donated the majority of his medieval art collection to the museum. Although it looks much older, the main structure was built in the 1930s to resemble a European medieval abbey. The Cloisters collection contains approximately five thousand European medieval works of art, with a particular emphasis on pieces dating from the 12th through the 15th centuries. (A, 190)
Now cross into the Bronx via the Broadway Bridge to Marble Hill, and head north through Riverdale and into Van Cortland Park. One of New York’s largest parks, it boasts an impressive 1,146-acres (464 ha) of green space, which includes America’s oldest public golf course. On a summer day you can watch any number of sports being played here – soccer, softball, cricket, hurling, football – reflecting the area’s rich ethnic diversity. (1, 242nd)
For a taste of what a true Italian neighborhood was like back in the 50s and 60s, head east from the park to Arthur Avenue. While “Little Italy” in lower Manhattan has been overrun by tourists, the Arthur Avenue enclave remains a true Italian-American experience. The neighborhood has diversified over the last 30 years, but many of the original old establishments remain, and families who moved out to the suburbs still return to eat in the restaurants and shop for authentic Italian ingredients at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. Two of my favorite places are Dominick’s Restaurant and Mike’s Deli, where you can get a great authentic Italian sandwich. (5, 174th)
After you’ve had your fill of Italian food, make your way southwest along Jerome Ave. and cross back into Manhattan via the Macombs Dam Bridge. Go south down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and you will be in the heart of central Harlem, another area of the city which has experienced a resurgence over the past 10 years.
Continue south to Strivers Row at 138th/139th Streets, a collection of beautifully preserved townhouses built in the 1890s that attracted black professionals of the time – “strivers” – and remain some of the most desirable residences in Harlem. Among those who lived in Strivers’ Row were Eubie Blake, W. C. Handy, Dr. Louis T. Wright, Henry Pace, heavyweight boxer Harry Wills, comedian Stepin Fetchit, actor/singer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and preacher/congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (2, 135)
If you like soul food Harlem is a paradise; probably the most famous restaurant is Sylvia’s, just off 125th on Malcolm X Blvd. For me it can be a bit pricey and difficult to get a table, particularly when a tourist bus unloads at the curb. For a more authentic experience try Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too at 137th and Lenox. It’s much easier to get in, the crowd is more local, and the catfish is the best I’ve ever had. The fried chicken here is also well known but be warned it’s a massive meal.
Follow the East River Down through the Upper East Side to the 59th Street Bridge and cross over into Queens. The neighborhoods along Roosevelt Avenue as you move east are indicative of the changes the city’s ethnic makeup over the past few decades. Astoria retains much of its character as a Greek-American neighborhood, but the growing Arab population includes immigrants from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Some of the old industrial sites have been turned into art studios and museums; one worth stopping at is the Kaufman Astoria Studios Museum of the Moving Image, which is still a working studio and contains excellent exhibits on the history of film and digital production. (N, 30th Ave.)
Continue east to Corona, the home of jazz great Louis Armstrong from 1943 until his death in 1971. One of New York’s hidden gems is the house he and his wife Louise lived in (107th Street just off 34th Avenue), which is now a museum of his life and works. No one has lived in it since the Armstrongs, and the house and its furnishings remain very much as they were during their lifetime. The staff is more than happy to answer questions, play recordings, and let you browse through the many books, letters and Armstrong’s own paintings that line the walls and shelves. (7, 103rd St.)
Head further east and you’ll hit Flushing Meadows/Corona Park and CitiField Stadium, home of the New York Mets. It is the only place in the city where you can see Major League Baseball played without the designated hitter, as it was originally intended. The team was founded in 1962 as the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York, hence the “Mets” nickname. I’ve been a fan of the Mets since I was old enough to watch baseball, and always will be. The team has been struggling of late, but I predict that the combination of returning veteran talent and up and coming stars will keep them near the top of the league this season. As you can tell, the Mets have the most optimistic sports fans in America – this year is always going to be “the year.”
Also in the Corona Park is the National Tennis Center, home of the US Open. If you time things right in late August/early September, you can watch the Mets play a baseball game during the day, then walk across the park to see the Open under the lights.
From the southern end of the Park head south to the end of Lefferts Blvd. and then west along the path following Jamaica Bay into Brooklyn. The wetlands to the south are the Gateway National Recreation Area, known for excellent bird-watching, particularly during migratory periods. (A, Broad Channel)
At the end of the path is Emmons Avenue and Sheepshead Bay, where fishing boats still take anglers out to catch flounder, fluke, bluefish, striped bass and various other fish. If you want to go out fishing be at the dock around 7am, or if you just want to buy some fresh fish, come back around 4pm when the boats return. If neither method results in securing a fish, walk across Emmons to Randazzo’s Clam Bar for a great seafood meal. (B, Sheepshead Bay)
Further west along the Brooklyn shore is Coney Island, where you will find the original Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the Cyclone roller coaster. Built in 1927, the Cyclone is the centerpiece of Coney Island and an enduring symbol of the area’s legacy as a popular holiday spot for New Yorkers. Made of wood, with joints that sound like they will pull apart as the cars hurtle over them, there is no other coaster ride like it in the world. If you are there in late June check out the Mermaid Parade, by far the most outrageous costume party in the city. Have a beer at Ruby’s Bar, in business on the Boardwalk since 1934 and another New York survivor. (D, Coney Island)
Travel north now through the center of Brooklyn on Ocean Parkway to Prospect Park. Designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Central Park, it is a great place to see what Brooklyn looked like before development – much of the rock formation and plant life is natural. The park is also a good spot for a pickup game of softball or basketball. (2, Grand Army Plaza)
Go east out of the park on 9th Street, over the Gowanus Canal (definitely do not jump in to cool off) to the Ikea at Red Hook. Personally I never shop at Ikea, but there is a free ferry from the pier in front of the store to Pier 11 in lower Manhattan.
From Pier 11, head to northwest to the Raccoon Lodge on 59 Warren Street, just off West Broadway. It’s a pretty ordinary bar for the most part, but when you go in and look around, you’ll notice the shelves, walls, and mirrors are covered with firefighters’ helmets, equipment and paraphernalia. The Raccoon was one of the few places in the neighborhood that could stay open after September 11, 2001. It was just far enough from the debris fallout but close enough that firefighters and rescue workers needing to quench their thirsts could walk to the bar for refreshment. They left many mementos behind in appreciation. (2, Chambers St.)
Some Good Stuff in the Middle
Despite what I said at the beginning of the blog, there remain some cool things in the middle of Manhattan.
Head up Hudson Street until it turns into 8th Avenue; at 23rd Street is the Hotel Chelsea, a 12 storey red brick gothic looking building that has had some pretty famous residents, including Mark Twain, O. Henry, William Burroughs, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop. It’s also where Sid Viscous of the Sex Pistols stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in 1978. (1, 23rd)
Check out the events publications while you are in town (The New Yorker, or the Village Voice which is free) and if there is something going on which appeals to you at Madison Square Garden, by all means get a ticket. The acoustics are great for sound, and the venue always draws the top names in music. The “Garden” is also the home to two major professional sports franchises, the New York Knicks basketball team and the New York Rangers hockey team. The atmosphere is electric, and particularly more so when rival teams from Philadelphia or Boston come to town.
Now head north up the west side of Central Park, to the point where Broadway and Amsterdam intersects 72nd Street. This area is Sherman Square, named for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. Directly across Broadway from the square is Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint which opened in 1962 and makes the best burgers in town – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (1/2/3, 72nd St.)
A great place for music is the Beacon Theatre, just opposite Nick’s. It opened in 1929 as a movie theatre, but for the past 30 years has been a concert hall for all types of music. It is an annual tradition for The Allman Brothers to play about three weeks worth of shows in March. With seating for only 3,000 people, the concerts are intimate and well worth the price of a ticket. After the event head a couple blocks north to the Dublin House, one of the last of the old-time Irish pubs in the area. (1, 79th St.)
Meander your way north on the streets between Broadway and Riverside Drive through the West Side Historic District to see some classic turn of the (20th) century brownstone apartments. At 96th Street and Broadway, you’re back where you started; turn your bike back in to West Side Bicycles. If you are still hungry, head back across Broadway to 93rd Street to Perfecto Pizza; in my opinion the best in town.
The only thing constant about New York is that nothing stays the same for long. So if anyone does this trip around the city and finds that anything has changed, disappeared or been renamed, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, if you are considering a trip to my hometown, checkout the city’s tourism portal NYC – The Official Guide or I Love New York.