Thursday 7 June 2012

I Love New York

In New York for the first time in 17 years I was anxious to revisit some places as well as to discover some new favourites. I wondered how the city would measure up to my fond memories of 1995 when I was there for a particular birthday celebration. Highlights of that trip were seeing Edward Albee's Three Tall Women on Broadway, the fantastic permanent collection at the Guggenheim, a great restaurant in Greenwich called Cafe de Bruxelles (sadly now gone) and a post theatre trip to Carnegies deli where I listened in to the conversations at the adjoining tables to hear a group of women complaining about their husbands and another one wondering what to wear for a special event.

The highlights of this trip were a little different. The city has inevitably changed and changed a lot. This time I managed to hear two great jazz performances - Dee Dee Bridgewater's birthday concert at the Blue Note and Yaala Ballin at the smaller, but very intimate Smalls Club in Greenwich. You can read my review of these gigs here. This was my first time at either venue and Smalls wins hands down. It is true to its name - small, down a flight of stairs and very laid back and friendly. The club has a policy of charging $20 dollars per person and you can stay for as long as you like - there are usually three sets on from late afternoon until after 1am and this is often followed by a jam session. Excellent music, great and friendly service from the bar staff and a generally good vibe put Smalls right up near my top of favourite things in New York.

Before moving away from music, I was a little sad to notice that many of the music stores have disappeared now due to people using the internet for either purchasing hard copies or downloads. I miss those days of browsing through rack after rack of vinyl looking for a particular track or album.

Something new since my last visit is the High Line - a disused elevated rail track transformed into a narrow, elevated, linear park. Earmarked for demolition some years ago, local activists campaigned successfully to retain the line as a public space. It is now home to a very pleasant walkway from Gansevoort Street to 30th Street, along Tenth Avenue, including significant planting, lawned areas, more natural areas, seating, public art, a water feature to cool your feet in on a hot day (and boy was it hot on the day I did the walk - 32 degrees and very humid) and best of all, terrific views of the streetscape below, the warehouses of the Lower West Side and the art galleries and shops that have sprung up partly as a result of the High Line development. At the southern end of the walk there is a small exhibition showing how the line fell into disuse before eventually being saved and now makes a real contribution to the quality of life of New Yorkers. A big thanks to my friend Josef for recommending the High Line to me. (Below - seen from the High Line!)

New York by Yekkes

I love the art deco buildings in New York. My favourite has to be the fantastic Chrysler Building, opened in 1930 and at the time, the tallest building in the world. 11 months later the Empire State Building was completed and supplanted it as the tallest building. However, since the demise of the Twin Towers the Chrysler is again the second tallest building in the city.

The Chrysler is a real New York icon with that fairytale spire and stunning decoration in the lobby. It still operates as a business building so visitors can only see the outside and the extremely grand lobby with its ceiling paintings of different transportation scenes from the 1920's. Believe me, it's worth making a visit just to gaze at the Edward Trumball ceiling paintings and the elevator doors - examples of art deco at its very best, not to mention the silver (metal) and glass entrance on Lexington Avenue.

The building has an interesting story attached to it. The magnificent crowning spire was built secretly in the fire shaft before being raised to the roof to surpass the Bank of Manhattan, the then recently completed tallest building in the world. Architect William van Alen designed the building for motor car millionaire Walter P. Chrysler, but was poorly rewarded when Chrysler refused to pay him, accusing him of accepting bribes from contractors. Incredible. Incidentally, just across the road you can find a great fresh food market selling fruit and vegetables, coffee, gourmet cheeses, pastries and cakes, confectionary and myriad other treats at the rear of the Grand Central Station concourse. Its a great place to buy a coffee and a snack after visiting the Chrsyler and before going on to more sightseeing or shopping on nearby Fifth Avenue.

New York by Yekkes

Still on an art deco theme, I had forgotten just how fantastic the Rockefeller Centre is. Located between 5th and 6th Avenues, it is a city within a city, with the central skyscraper building housing offices and surrounded by high quality shops, cafes and restaurants. These include the great bakery Bouchon where I had breakfast several times - try the sweet cheese Danish, which is delicious as was the mozzarella, pesto and tomato "sandwich de jour", fresh orange juice and good strong coffee. Another delight within the Rockefeller Centre is the satellite shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has a great selection of books, catalogues, stationery, jewellery, scarves, t-shirts and other items - all related in one way or another to current exhibitions or to the permanent collection. I found a wonderful little book called New York Deco filled with great photographs by Richard Berenholtz, as well as just the right picture book for my grand daughter! (Below - interior glass detail Rockefeller Centre)

New York by Yekkes

I took a guided tour of the Rockefeller Centre. For just $15, you get about an hour of delight with a number of interesting stories about the centre's development, the tea total, observant Christian Rockefeller family and their part in both implementing and overturning prohibition in the city. The story of the art in the Centre is also fascinating as Diego Rivera was initially commissioned to produce a number of wall panels for the main lobby. Despite being a committed socialist, he was happy to accept the commission but included an image of image of Lenin. Clearly this was never going to be acceptable to the uber-capitalist Rockefellers and when Rivera declined to repaint Lenin's face as that of an ordinary worker (as initially intended), the work was paid for and covered in drapes before being removed and replaced with a work by Jose Maria Sert with Abraham Lincoln as its centre point. Rivera was furious, calling this "cultural vandalism" but was able to reproduce the works thanks to one Lucienne Bloch, an employee at the centre who had photographed the original murals. The reproduced work now hangs in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. All this could have been avoided if either Picasso or Matisse had accepted the commission, but these two preferred choices of Rockefeller both rejected it, hence the offer to Rivera. (Below - deco detail over entrance to the Rockefeller Centre)

New York by Yekkes

The buildings that make up the centre are full of art deco motifs and decoration, including the shops that face Fifth Avenue and now sell shoes and other items of clothing - check the golden doors on the front of the stores and the figures from mythology above the entrances. The main entrance to the centre also features some pretty fabulous mythological figures and a quote from the Book of Isaiah "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times". Something to concentrate the minds of all those entering the building.

Also close to the Rockefeller complex is Radio City - the biggest theatre in the world, with 5931 seats available when it opened in December 1932, which can be expanded to 6,000 under certain circumstances. Another Rockefeller institution, there is usually a weekly art deco tour of Radio City but unfortunately this is currently suspended due to the demands of the current show. You can still have a tour of behind the scenes and have your picture taken with one of the famous Rockette dancers, if you like that sort of thing. I don't, so I didn't.

And as if all this isn't enough, you can also take a lift ride to the 67th floor and then walk up two more levels to enjoy stunning views of the city - Central Park, Harlem and the upper east and west sides on the north side, The Empire State Building, the Chrysler building and the many glorious skyscrapers on the south side. Emerging on to the viewing platform, I was surprisingly taken by emotion at seeing the fabulous Manhattan skyline topped by the Empire State and the view beyond to the sea and could understand why so many people have been drawn to this city over the years. I swear I could hear Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue which for me also signifies the grandeur of New York.

A short step from Rockefeller Plaza, back on 5th Avenue you can find the Fred French building. Constructed in 1927, architect H. Douglas Ives produced an exquisite building, featuring bronze panelling and terracotta on the outside of the upper floors and a highly decorative arch and lobby area. It is possible to wander in to the ground floor unchallenged and to take photographs (at least I did and the security guard just said "hi"). I was unaware of this building and found it by chance whilst out walking. One of the great things about New York is that its still possible to walk into the lobbies of lots of these wonderful buildings from the 1920's and 1930's without being given the third degree and to admire and enjoy the great art and craftsmanship inside. (Below, lobby of the Fred French building)

New York by Yekkes

And then there's food. I loved Dean and De Luca a high end cafe chain with great salads (choose from four types of lettuce and then have the sales assistant make up a salad of your choice), soups, pastries, coffees and cold drinks. I also enjoyed a lower end Chinese restaurant called Congee Village in the lower East Side which served delicious chicken in black bean sauce (congee is not my thing), had many Chinese patrons and was suprisingly cheap. I returned to Carnegie's Deli on 7th Avenue and have to admit I was massively unimpressed. Perhaps I was expecting too much having enjoyed it so much last time but the food was mediocre at best (my hot borscht resembled pink semolina), my boiled potato was baked in foil so not sure how they boiled it and looking around ridiculous portions were being served up to unsuspecting tourists who had opted for salt beef and other sandwiches. I assume they don't need to try hard to get custom, but its not exactly cheap, the food is poor and some of the waiters have a somewhat limited command of English. Apart from that...

Which leads me to service generally. I had some fantastic service in New York. People are friendly and helpful for the most part, almost everyone is polite and people greet you in shops and restaurants. Best examples of super New York service came at the already mentioned Smalls Jazz Club, Jack Spade's store in Greene Street, SoHo and also in Barney's where the elegant HB Nelson, their Gucci specialist (didn't buy any - don't get excited) held some items for me for a couple of days so that I could get them at the sale price. Nice one and thanks. On the other hand, there were some disappointments. 17 years ago I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel at 45th and Madison and loved it. Not so this time. Not cheap, very run down, very few facilities in the room (no drinks of any description were supplied), the telephone didn't work and although there were some really good staff (not least the men on the front door who take a lot of rudeness from people wanting taxis), there were also those who couldn't manage to look at you when speaking to you, gave monosyllabic answers and were generally unhelpful. Very disappointing and not one to return to.

I do like the friendliness in this city, but must admit to be slightly tempted to answer the ubiquitous "how are you today" with an honest answer, such as "well, I have arthritis of the spine, I have been attacked by killer mosquitos, my asthma is giving me trouble and I am seriously overweight".

But, to finish on a high note, I have very little hair - but it needs cutting often. I worry when I travel that I won't find anywhere willing or suitable to cut it. I need not have worried. I found my way to Ilya-Leo's Barber Shop at 33 Lispenard Street in the Lower East Side where my hair was expertly cut, my neck shaved and my head wrapped in a hot towel by an older Russian man with the deepest voice in the world. The gentleman who cut my hair and his one colleague were listening to a Russian radio station and there was a picture of the deceased Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson on the wall. I looked in the mirror when I got out of the chair. The other barber smiled and said "looking good". And indeed I was.

More to come.