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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

American Express

I have met grown men - secure, strong, worldly men who are absolutely terrified of cities, particularly New York City. To city lovers like myself, these fears seem completely irrational. I understand the fear perhaps of an older person or single woman walking in a dangerous neighborhood at night - this is courting trouble. But a grown person in a vehicle in broad daylight with an entire family in tow? What can really happen? If you get lost, you will eventually get unlost. In my experience, the worst that will happen is that you will be very inconvenienced for some time.
The worst scenario to me is breaking down in an automobile in the city. Fixing a flat or getting a battery boost, simple acts elsewhere, can be a real headache here. Services are not readily available and waiting for roadside service on a busy highway in a traffic congested city is certainly not pleasant. And if one would have to overnight in a hotel, that would be mighty expensive or very inconvenient.
There is no plethora of basic services like tire repair - places like that in the photo are generally found in poorer neighborhoods and in out of the way locations. Unless you know a neighborhood well, these places are destinations - the likelihood of finding them when you need them is rather remote. And escalating rents have conspired to make these places all but non-existent. The scarcity has made this type of subject a popular photo.
Certainly being lost in a city or having trouble here, like getting a flat tire, is more troublesome than the same problem in the suburbs and there is perhaps some risk of exploitation by opportunists (although our suburban or country brethren are not immune from this). In most cases, however, a little cash or credit card will be all that is necessary to extricate oneself from virtually any situation. I remember a conversation with a client of mine when I was younger and very inexperienced in travel. She was much older, nearing retirement and planned to settle somewhere on the coast of Italy. At the time, this seemed such a fantasy and unfathomable to me for a number of reasons, language being one of them. When I asked whether she was concerned about not being able to speak Italian, she replied, she was not at all worried, because "they all speak American Express" :)

Monday, 17 November 2008

Undiscovered Beach

This is a beach Manhattan. It is not the palm-fringed beaches of Phuket, the reef-protected lagoons of Bora Bora or the rocky coast of Maine, but it is a beach and if I may say so, a rather attractive one. I was really stunned to run across this by accident on an excursion to the George Washington Bridge.
Admittedly this beach is in Washington Heights, quite a jaunt from from any place that generally comes to mind when discussing Manhattan. And many would argue that this area is further from midtown Manhattan than many areas of Brooklyn or Queens and to champion it as Manhattan is only to be technically correct. That's fair.
So let me rephrase. This small beach is within the five boroughs and accessible by subway, only a short ride from midtown Manhattan.
But there is no need to promote it, for if you find it a little too far, too inconvenient or out of the way, I am sure its habitués will be quite happy to enjoy this little secluded spot of sand with its rocky outcroppings alone and leave it undiscovered ...

Note about the beach: The beach is part of Fort Washington Park, located on the West Side of Manhattan along the Hudson River. This cove is roughly opposite 171st Street.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Swimming Against the Tide

On New Year's Eve in 2007, I wrote of the ball drop in Times Square - see here. At the time I was disappointed to learn that prior to the drop, the ball was displayed at Macy's, and I did not get a chance to see it closeup. On a recent visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the ball was already installed on the main floor - and that I now I had completely forgotten about this recent tradition.
It feels like Christmas promotions and retail store decorations come earlier every year as the push to maximize holiday business accelerates. At one time, Black Friday (see posting here) was the demarcation point for the start of the Christmas countdown - even at that time it seemed rather early to begin preparations over one month in advance. But any retailer has little choice in order to keep up with the competition. It is difficult to swim against the tide - barring some supreme effort, most will be swept by the current. This very posting is driven by the same pre-holiday frenzy - the ball is on display early. To write about it later, would look like I missed the boat. Even though I do not see this blog as competing per se with conventional journalism, I still feel an obligation to "do" certain stories in a timely manner.
Additionally, everything moves so much more quickly - in the electronic world, almost immediately. We no longer have the luxury of doing things at our pace - the speed of everything around us often dictates when we must do things. Of course there are many ways and situations where one can buck the trend - to appreciate things on one's own terms is a laudable goal and can provide respite from the pressures of living in a technological world.
But for me, at Christmas time, readers here do not want a rebel, an iconoclast, or a man who swims against the tide. They want to see all the trappings of the holiday season - the windows at Saks 0r Tiffany's, the tree at Rockefeller Center, Santa at Macy's. And perhaps I do too, for sometimes I tire swimming against the tide ...

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Waldorf Salad

I have a relatively restrictive diet these days, so it is hard for me to justify spending $95 on a brunch. But if I did feel I could take advantage of the offerings, I would certainly try the Sunday brunch at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. I have written of this hotel a number of times before - if you have not been there, I highly recommend a visit. Seeing the public lobby space is a voyage to a time gone by.
Staying at this grand dame is not as rarefied an experience as one might expect. It has become the hotel of choice for my family's occasional visits to New York. With Internet discount websites, very good deals can be had on rooms at the Waldorf.
In the course of my visits there, I have watched the magnificent spectacle that is the Sunday brunch. This minor weekly event is served in the Main Lobby of the hotel, so the nonparticipant can easily see the offerings in what has to be one of NYC's finest brunches. Diners are seated in the Peacock Alley restaurant (opened in 1931) and private dining salons.
The sumptuous brunch is put together by French chef, Cedric Tovar, who earned his reputation at legendary, Michelin-starred Parisian restaurants like La Tour D’Argent and Plaza Athénée Hotel Paris. I'm impressed that such quality can be maintained in a large, buffet style meal - buffets can very frequently become feeding at the trough - selecting food can feel like picking over someone else's leftovers and quite unappetizing. At a first class offering like this however, you can put any of these concerns aside.
The food choices themselves are, of course, spectacular, both in quality and range. Everything imaginable is available. Not to mention that technically, this is a no holds barred, all you can eat affair with no restrictions. I doubt, however, that this brunch attracts the typical all you can eat urban or suburban forager.
And yes, unlike Fawlty Towers*, they do serve Waldorf salad ...

* For those unfamiliar, Fawlty Towers was a brilliant British sitcom from the 1970s starring John Cleese. Only twelve episodes were made but a lasting legacy remains. In one episode "Waldorf Salad," an American guest is frustrated in his inability to order a Waldorf Salad. Proprieter Basil Fawlty, unfamiliar with the salad or ingredients, feigns knowledge - the skit quickly escalates, with Basil going into an outrageous charade. Highly recommended, as are all the episodes.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Phoenix Rising

West Eighth Street is an anomaly is this city. As one New York Times writer said, this one block seems to be defying the laws of gentrification. The center Village is one of the most expensive and desirable neighborhoods in New York City with multimillion dollar apartments as the norm, yet West Eighth Street's merchants are a motley crew of businesses that cater primarily to tourists. Once known as the "shoe block" the street sported dozens of shoe stores. Only a handful remain.
The most telltale sign of trouble are the closed stores. Depending on the day, it is possible to see as many as 20 plus stores vacant on one city block.
But lately there have been signs of hope that West Eighth Street may rise again with the opening of two cafes, a winebar, and Elettaria at 33 West Eighth Street.
We residents hope for this, not because we embrace gentrification and rising rents, but because we would like to see quality businesses, at least some of which provide useful services to the neighborhood.
Elettaria does not exactly fit this description, but it could be one of the first signs of a break from the type of retailers this street has seen for as long as one can remember. The restaurant has had a lot of buzz and media coverage. It is extraordinarily upscale and chic for the street, albeit even a little intimidating - until recently it didn't even post a menu in the window. The food reviews are generally quite good with articles appearing this year in both the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times. The menu is unique - an Indian/Filipino/American fusion. Chef Akhtar Nawab and partner Noel Cruz have pedigrees that include the Grammercy Tavern, French Culinary Institute, and Craftbar. Negative reviews appear to be primarily leveled at the service.
There was a time where Eighth Street and its environs actually had the types of places emblematic of its artistic heritage - the original Whitney museum was here, as was the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture (still operating). In the early 1900s, the area was already an established art district - see my posting on Macdougal Alley. From 1900-1950 there was a community of some 200 artists who lived and worked in the two blocks north of Washington Square - see my posting: Left Bank New York. Elettaria's space was formerly a club, the 8th Wonder, where Hendrix and others played in the 1960s. Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios is still in business on the block.
One neighborhood activist I know predicts that Eighth Street will rise again. I hope so ...

Note About the Restaurant: The name Elettaria is a species of cardamom, one of the world's most expensive spices. You can visit the restaurant's website and menu here.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Hell or High Water

I'm running out of superlatives. Or perhaps, more precisely, I am running out of synonyms for words like amazed, stunned, astonished or shocked. Please go here and look at this series of 8 photos. See what I mean? Exploring this city is like going to Paris - you start to bore yourself with superlatives - like crying wolf, they start to lose their impact when used so often.
Of course, I could just let the photos speak for themselves. After all, this is supposed to be a photoblog which is typically driven by the images, with minimal or nonexistent text. But this website has metamorphised over time and the writing has become as important as the photos. I believe most regular visitors here enjoy reading, much as I enjoy learning and writing. So now there is an expectation.
These photos of the New York Yacht Club were taken whimsically. I did not even know this place existed, however it was spectacular architecturally. I did enter the premises and was immediately told that no photography was allowed. I had no idea what the interior looked like or whether visitors were permitted to tour the place. Had I known, I would
The New York Yacht Club clubhouse is located at 37 W. 44th Street. It was designed by Warren and Wetmore, the firm also responsible for the exterior of Grand Central Station.

From Christopher Gray of the New York Times:

Founded in 1844, the club had several modest headquarters for its first half century. But the activity of yachting became so luxurious that by the 1890's -- with giant steam yachts of 200 feet or more -- a new clubhouse seemed in order.
A competition attracted entries ranging from the boring -- R.H. Robertson's plain design could have been a small-town businessman's lunch club -- to the opulent -- Howard, Cauldwell & Morgan's giant, modern French design with three windows shaped like the prows of oared galleys.
The winning design was the first major work of the new partnership of Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore. They produced a rich, five-story limestone front with three windows patterned after the sterns of early Dutch ships and a large terrace at the fourth floor topped by flagstaffs and a giant wooden pergola and trellis.
It is the model room, though, that will astound the uninitiated visitor. Behind the facade's three great windows, the model room stretches back almost 100 feet under a giant floral stained glass ceiling. Ringed by a balcony with a galleon railing, the room contains hundreds of full- and half-hull ship models, including one of every defender of the America's Cup.

After looking at photos of the interior, I'm going to see those rooms in person, come hell or high water. And if high water comes, what better place to be than the New York Yacht Club? :)

Note: Membership to the New York Yacht Club is by invitation only. To tour the building, you must be accompanied by a member.

Related Postings: Transportation, Grand Central, Passing Time, The Oyster Bar, Just Passing Through.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The New Yorker

When you find at a place with a name and location like this, you assume it has a rich history and many a story to tell. However, as typical with many things in New York City, a little investigation will reveal much more than you ever imagined.
The New Yorker Hotel, 481 Eighth Avenue at 34th Street, clearly outdid my expectations. The exterior signage in the photograph looked much too new to be original to the structure - some reading confirmed my suspicions and led to some fascinating reading. Designed by Sugarman & Berger, the New Yorker opened in 1930. The building's art deco architectural style with tower set backs resembles the Empire State Building (which lies 3 blocks east and was completed in 1931).
Names, dates and figures, the bane of many a history student, are often necessary to give a true feeling for a place. Many specifics are easily forgotten, but hopefully the impression remains that this was quite a place - the facts about this place are truly amazing. Of course it's central location in midtown is a big plus - walking distance from Port Authority Bus Terminal, Macy's, the Javitts Center with Penn Station across the street.
The New Yorker hotel, a marvel of its day, was the largest hotel in New York with 2,500 rooms. In addition to the ballrooms there were ten private dining "salons" and five restaurants employing 35 master cooks. The barber shop was one of the largest in the world with 42 chairs and twenty manicurists.
There were 92 telephone operators with 3200 phones and 150 laundry staff washing as many as 350,000 pieces daily. This was all supported by America's largest private power plant, which the New Yorker had installed down in the sub-basements. There was a ten-room hospital, a theater ticket office, a transportation department. Some of the rooms had private sky terraces or roof gardens.
With the arrival of the Big Bands, the stage was set for the "heyday" of the New Yorker Hotel. The famous bands of the day played at the New Yorker, including Benny Goodman, both of the Dorsey's and Woody Herman. This atmosphere not only drew in business travelers and tourists, but also attracted the elite of society as well as political figures and business leaders. The Brooklyn Dodgers, with Manager Leo Durocher, headquartered here for the 1941 World Series, and Joe DiMaggio lived here when the Yankees were in town. The 1950's - 60's did not turn out to be as prosperous as previous years, and The New Yorker closed its doors in 1972.
A less savory piece of history is its decline and closing in 1972 and purchase by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church in 1975. The building was used by the church until 1994 when it reopened as a hotel (since 2000 it has been part of the Ramada franchise) and has gone through extensive renovations. It will maintain the classic Art Deco style but will see many upgrades to bring the hotel up to contemporary standards with amenities like flat panel, HD televisions and free Wi-Fi.
It's roster of residents included one of my personal favorites - the eccentric electrical genius Nikola Tesla, who spent his last 10 years in near-seclusion in Suite 3327, largely devoting his time to feeding pigeons and meeting dignitaries on occasion. He died there in January, 1943 ...

*If you are not familiar with Tesla's life and work, I would highly recommend reading about this cult figure. Tomes have been written both off and online. Here is a good starting point.

NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTO AND SIGN: The iconic, bright red “New Yorker” sign on the top of the hotel is part of the New York City skyline. Even though the New Yorker Hotel is currently undergoing a $65 million renovation, the red sign will remain a fixture of the New York City skyline, preserving the impressive view, far into the future. The sign was installed in 1941 and went dark in 1967. The new bright red sign is a six-story, LED banner and the largest of its kind in North America. It is also the highest off the ground for any LED sign as it is affixed to the top four floors of the New Yorker Hotel facing the West Side of New York. It can easily be seen from as far away as New Jersey as it stands out in midtown New York.