Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Visit the Real NYC Part 4 - The Lower East Side

The Lower East Side (see map) has been the home to immigrants for over 100 years. In the late 1800's it was it's population was primarily Jewish, In the 1950's the population shifted to mostly Puerto Rican and then Dominican. Then in the 80's and 90's Chinatown expanded into its boundaries. Today it is another neighborhood undergoing gentrification.

The Lower East Side (LES) was the first U.S. home to many Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants between the 1880's and the 1950's. It was an area of tenements and slums when Jacob Riis launched a photo essay campaign to push government to do something about the conditions there.
 During the urban renewal drive of the 1950's and 1960's most of the tenements were replaced with modern apartment buildings and projects.
One interesting architectural result of the drive to clean up the tenements is this:

You might have noticed that many apartment building that were built after the turn of the century do not have flat sides. That is because building codes were changed. The early tenements had windows only in the front and back of the building. This made it difficult to circulate fresh air. Then the codes were changed to force builders to create air shafts these often small spaces allowed some air to circulate through an apartment.

Jewish History and Culture 

The center of LES was home to mostly Jewish immigrants. That history can be seen in several remnants. Along Houston Street (the northern edge of LES) there are three culinary treasures. One is Katz's Deli, home to world best pastrami sandwich in, my opinion, and the place where Sally showed Harry a thing or two about "faking it" (I'll have what she's having).
The best pastrami in the world

The second is Russ and Daughters, a place to find smoked fish and other appetizers that are out of this world.

Try the smoked whitefish chubs
There is a lesser known gem just a little further west on Houston St. - Yonah Schimmel's Knishery. If the only knishes you have ever had have been deep fried, get yourself to Yonah Schimmel's. I don't remember the first time I had a Yonah Schimmel knish. I think it was on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach. My grandmother used to rent a vacation apartment there, leaving the heat of the Bronx for the cool ocean front of Brooklyn.

The knishes are baked heaven, 3 inches thick and about 4 inches on a side, they are almost a meal by themselves. The savory knishes are potato based, but they also offer kasha, spinach, sweet potato,and mushroom.The sweet knishes are cheese based and come with fruit fillings - cherry, blueberry or apple.
they also have a chocolate knish.
Alec at Yonah Schimmel's
The Jewish past of LES is also seen by buildings and signage around the neighborhood.

specializing in headstones with Hebrew writing

The Pig & Khao where S. Klein used to be

 There are also several former synagogues in the neighborhood. The Eldridge Street Synagogue has been totally restored and serves as a museum. There are several others that have become churches. I found this old synagogue at 58 Rivington Street

Emory Roth Synagogue
 Designed by the Hungarian-American architect Emory Roth in 1903. This beautiful building has a distinct European feel. Today it houses artist studios.

 Another remnant from the old LES is the Essex Street Market. It is one of the few indoor, multi-vendor markets in NYC. The only other two I can think of are La Marqueta in El Barrio and the Arthur Ave. Market in the Bronx.


 With vendors of prepared food, groceries, cheese shop and bakeries there is a wide choice of food if you want to pick up a bite to eat while you are walking around.


 As I said before, LES is undergoing gentrification. More and more, working class families are unable to afford to live here, and these changes are bringing new businesses. Art galleries, high end restaurants and bars are moving in. But if you want to see how people lived on the LES you should visit The Tenement Museum, on the corner of Orchard Street and Delancy Street. Take a walking tour or see the apartments of the museum, it is worth the trip, even just to browse their Museum Shop.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Visit the Real NYC Part 3 - Greenwich Village

I had the chance to walk around Greenwich Village (see map) for the first time in several years. I know that this is going to sound like a "grandpa is complaining about change again" blog, but I was really disappointed in what I found.

Let me start by saying that I was a teenager in the 1970's. I spent a lot of time wandering around The Village. I loved that there was an edge to it. West 8th street had a great mix of head shops, record stores, stores that specialized in really good band tee-shirts and posters. It was a place where 20 drama club nerds could end up after a successful show and dinner in Chinatown, sitting in Washington Square Park with a jug of wine, not worried about being hassled by the police. There were inexpensive restaurants and bars. There was the 8th street Playhouse:

Home to the "Midnight Cult Classics", especially Rocky Horror Picture Show!

Yes, it was edgy and seedy!  That was the whole point.

There was an honesty to the village. Anyone could come. Everyone could be who they were. This led to birth of political movements.

Stonewall riots http://gvshp.org/
It was home to movements of music and culture. From the Folk revival of the 50's and 60's to the Punk rock movement of the 80's many up and coming artists found their home in Greenwich Village.

So what is Greenwich Village like today?

Well, Greenwich Village is still worth the trip to visit. There are many architectural treasures to be seen, just above street level.

Row of houses along 6th Ave.
Jefferson Market Public Library
On 6th Ave and 10th street is the Jefferson Market Library. Built in 1877 as a courthouse it was designed by Fredrick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux. The building was voted one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in America in 1880. and was the site of the trial of Henry K. Thaw for the murder of Stanford White. For more on the first "trial of the Century" see here. See more of its history here.

8th Street Today

As I said earlier, 8th street used to be one of my favorite places to hang out. I would spend hours in the poster and t-shirt shops. I used to go to a place called Mamie's for ice cream sundaes. And i used to go to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show with my friends. It was a place where someone who didn't have a lot of money could come and hang out for an evening and feel like they were welcome and belonged here.

Today 8th street has become a gentrified, and expensive. The restaurants are all upscale. Now, it is home to one of my favorite "coffee-snob" places - Stumptown
The best coffee roasters and brewers around
Stumptown Coffee (see here) is an amazing place - not you neighborhood diner. In fact it makes Starbucks look inexpensive. But the coffee it produces is out of this word.Every month or 2 I treat myself to a cup of their fresh brewed drip coffee - a pot of coffee made just for me with the care usually given to a Japanese tea house.


On the other hand there is also 5oz. Factory. This store sells frozen custard and fried Wisconsin Cheese curds. But taking advantage of being on 8th street their prices start at over $7 for the cheese curds. Way beyond what I am willing to pay.

But all is not forsaken. For Washington Square Park is still the heart of Greenwich Village, and it has been rehabbed and is back to jewel status.

Washington Square Arch
 Over the past decade Washington Square park has been totally rehabbed. The benches have been replaced, and there are new playgrounds for kids. Meanwhile the old trees are still there giving shade as they have for decades.

And the feel of the park as a town square is still there. Near the Arch you will find the drummers and guitar players who have been there since the 1950's still congregating. The fountain is a performance space for acrobatic troops. The southwest corner is still home to chess players ready for a game. But be on your a-game before you sit down because they are good and will take your cash.

In other words, if you want some place to come and sit and watch people Washington Square Park is on of the best places in NYC.

One of the more interesting performers is the Washington Square Piano Player. 
Colin Huggins entertaining the crowd
Every weekend, weather permitting, Colin Huggins brings his Baby Grand to the park and plays for tips. From 60's rock to swing and blues to Liszt and Rachmaninoff. He plays and people dance:

One place that is definitely worth the stop is Porto Rico Importing Co. This was the first store I had ever seen selling fresh roasted coffee. Walking into this shop, which has been on Bleecker Streetsince 1907  near 6th Ave is a delight for all of your senses.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Visit the Real NYC Part 2 - Marble Hill and Inwood

Whether you live in NYC or are coming to visit, the northern tip of Manhattan is a fascinating place to visit for history, geology and food.

Marble Hill

Today the neighborhood of Marble sits in the boro of The Bronx, just across the Broadway Bridge from Manhattan (see map), but that wasn't always true.

For most of its history Marble Hill was a physical part of the island of Manhattan. It was separated from the Bronx by a river called the Spuytan Duyvil by the Dutch settlers.  Marble Hill was the home to quarries that provided much of the marble for the early buildings in NYC. Then the Erie Canal opened and the Hudson river became the major route for food and freight to and from the Great Lakes. Engineers looked for a way to shorten that route and decided to carve up the northern tip of Manhattan. Using the quarries that were already there  they opened up larger shipping channel to the Harlem River and thus Marble Hill became physically attached to the Bronx.
Marble Hill from the Broadway Bridge

You can still see the marble that is under Marble Hill if you take the time to look. Here is a picture taken from the Broadway Bridge, which carries Broadway and the #1 subway line between the Bronx and Manhattan.

Spuytan Duyvil shipping canal

One really fun way to see NYC is on the the Circle Line which cruises around the island of Manhattan. It is around a 4 hour cruise, and it has views that you can't get anywhere else.


If you cross into Manhattan you enter the neighborhood of Inwood (see map). The Inwood neighborhood blossomed in the early 20th century as a home to newly arrived immigrants. With the building of the IRT  #1 subway which stretches from South Ferry to Van Cortlandt Park, upper Manhattan became accessible to those who worked downtown.
 As you walk down Broadway you find a remnant of bygone days - The Seaman Arch:

The Seaman Arch
 Now home to an auto repair shop, in the mid 1800's this arch was the entry to the 25 acre summer estate of the Seaman family.

Continuing on you get to Isham Park which is between Broadway and Seaman Ave north of Isham Street. The park is marked off along Broadway by by stone wall made of local rock. You can see large pieces of marble along with pieces of gneiss:

Pieces of marble and gneiss
Isham Park also has an outcropping of rock that has been gouge by glaciers over 20,000 years ago. The striations all go in a north-south direction and were made by rocks that were dragged over the bedrock as the glaciers advanced and retreated. These rocks are along Isham Street near Seaman Ave.

Across Seaman Ave is Inwood Hill Park, home to a geologic anomaly - a horseshoe valley. This valley is the result several different geologic processes.

This map shows the 2 horseshoe valley in Inwood Hill Park
The geology of this area is rare, and people come from around the world to study it. The basics are this - The western part of the Bronx and Manhattan are composed of 3 ridges of gneiss - Riverdale, University Heights and Grand Concourse, with Broadway, Jerome Ave. and Webster Ave. sitting in the valleys. These ridges and valleys were formed when layers of gneiss and marble were "upturned" which allowed the marble to eroded away and leave the gneiss behind. This same process caused the erosion that formed the horseshoe valleys in the park.

Inside the Horseshoe Valley - Inwood Hill Park
 Walking into the Inwood Hill Park you can feel like you have left the city for another place. The noises of the street fade away and you are completely surrounded by trees, flowers and animals.

Inwood Hill Park

Some of the paths have not been maintained as well as in other parks, but if you walk through the paths you will come to hills which house the Indian Caves. Anthropologists have found stone tips and arrow heads used by Indians dating back hundreds of years.

In fact this park sits on the site Peter Minuet "bought" Manhattan Island from the local tribe. What they thought they were selling is not really known.

Indian Cave - Inwood Hill Park

Indian Cave

Indian Cave
 Walking back north from the valley there is a beautiful tidal pool .

Across the Spuyten Duyvil sits an icon that dates back many decades:

This C represents Columbia University. Now it is not true that Columbia has bought ALL the real estate in northern Manhattan, at least not yet, but it is there because the Columbia University Crew team has been based at the tidal pool here at 217th street:

Columbia University Crew House
This area is also home to Columbia's Baker Field, where generations of CU football players have taken on the best of the ivy league - and usually lost.

There are several good restaurants in the area. I recommend three:

Inwood Local (see here) is a really good beer and wine garden. good drinks and high end bar food. Inwood Local is on Broadway between Isham street and 207th street.

If you want something more substantial walk down to Dyckman Street and choose between Mamajuana's Cafe and Papasito Mexican - both have good food and great drinks, if they are a little over priced.