I went to New York last weekend for no other reason than to see what’s happening on the fringes of America. When you have Donald Trump treating Sarah Palin to dinner at a pizza franchise, well . . . it just doesn’t get any fringier than that. But of course, I was looking for something a bit more substantial in places where limousines are banned and tour buses like Sarah Palin’s are little more than canvas for graffiti artists.
Our visit, my wife and I agreed, would not include the usual tourist attractions, or “dinner and a show” in the midtown theater district. We would traverse the city by subway, visit neighborhoods we’d never seen, eat at restaurants that require no reservations, and feel the city as much as see it. We went to New York, in short, for a vacation.
Start in Chelsea
We stayed in Chelsea, a lower west side neighborhood of tenements and townhouses now undergoing a renaissance of art, culture and, invariably, commerce. It wasn’t that long ago that Chelsea was a hit or miss amalgam of welfare hotels, public housing projects and walk-up apartments. It has always had a bit of an artistic bent epitomized by the iconic Chelsea Hotel (222 W. 23rd Street, $259 a night). Since it opened in 1883, the Chelsea has been home to a legion of writers and musicians, everyone from Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe to Sid Vicious and The Rolling Stones, and the faded lobby still displays some of their art.
Most of its 224 rooms are still given over to long-term rentals for artists and special residents, but 103 are available for overnight guests. Unfortunately, since Patti Smith recounted her days living there with Robert Mapplethorpe in “Just Kids,” those rooms are usually booked well in advance. That sent us down the street to the boutique Gem Hotel (300 W. 22nd Street, $211 a night.) an old welfare hotel rehabilitated a few years ago into a 16-room boutique inn.
The rooms are small, many no bigger than a YMCA dorm room, but they are stuffed with all the modern conveniences––queen beds, fluffy pillows, widescreen TVs, internet WiFi, iPod charging station. A rooftop deck and attentive staff made it the perfect jumping off point for our New York exploits and an oasis of calm when we returned.
High on my wife’s list of must sees while in New York was the Alexander McQueen exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (83rd and 5th Avenue, $20 suggested donation). McQueen is not on everyone’s radar, unless you live in the high fashion world of Gucci, Givenchy and, of course, Alexander McQueen. But the line to see this retrospective of his collections––he committed suicide in 2010 at the age of 41––snaked back nearly a block through the museum’s galleries of ancient tombs, monuments, sculptures and religious paintings, an odd forum for such a provocative designer.
From the age of 20, the British designer has been shocking the fashion world with low-cut trousers aptly named “bumsters” and collections centered around the themes of rape and human cruelty. (In this exhibit, his elaborate concoctions of leather, feathers, and treated fabrics all appear on mannequins fitted with sado-masochistic head gear.) McQueen’s runway shows were renown for their drama and rebelliousness. He paraded his models through a torrential downpour one year, set them up as chess pieces on a game board in another, and employed robotic spray painting machines at another to coat white cotton dresses in an array of random colors. He also used lighting, video and stagecraft in ways that set a new standard for high fashion presentations.
In the exhibit, the full range of McQueen’s clothing, accessories, runway presentations and special multimedia installations show a talent that was not only adventurous, but disciplined, and hardly exhausted when he died last year.
The High Line
From high fashion, we dipped back down to Chelsea for a stroll along The High Line, an old elevated railroad spur that has been turned into an urban parkway lined with gardens and meadow flowers. At dusk, hundreds of New Yorkers walk or jog along the promenade that winds from Gansevoort Street, one block below 12th street in the Meatpacking District, to 30th street in Chelsea, giving spectacular views of the city skyline.
Once slated for demolition, the High Line was saved by nearby artists and community activists who convinced the New York Park District to pour $50 million into converting the elevated line into a parkway. Besides the various horticultural plantings (210 species in all), the walkway periodically opens up into small plazas that host temporary art installations and performances.
All this is of interest to Chicago because we have a similar elevated rail line running almost three miles from Lawndale through Bucktown to the edge of Lincoln Park that community residents here would like to turn into a similar Bloomingdale Trail. A local architectural competition has developed drawings for the site. The Chicago Park District has purchased identified and purchased land for pocket parks that might serve as access points. Missing at this stage, of course, is the $40 million needed to make the conversion. But the example of The High Line in New York demonstrates that nearby private development can more than offset the cost.
Madison Square Park
From the High Line, we walked east to Park Avenue for dinner at Via Emilia (57 E. 21st Street, $22/person) featuring the food and wines of north central Italy. The modern open décor left you wanting a bit more privacy, but the food more than lived up to expectations.
On the way back to the hotel, we stumbled into Madison Square Park (22nd and Broadway), a three-square block public park at the foot of the Flatiron building teeming with summer activity. People waited in a line as long as a football field to get burgers from the park’s popular Shake Shack pavilion. Once they had them, they spread out on the lawn under a towering white facial mask designed by Jamie Plensa, the Spanish artist who also created the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, or sit at tables along the park edge.
Across the street from the park is the latest draw to the area from famed restaurateur Maria Batali. Eataly (200 Fifth Avenue) is an upscale market in the old Toy Fair tower that features four restaurants and takeout counters for coffee, gelato, meats, pastas, vegetables, breads, wines and liquor. Think of it as an Italian Whole Foods for shopping, dining or just hanging out with friends. We stopped in to sample the gelato, but took it outside to enjoy the night air.
Homage to September 11
Our Saturday began with a ride down the subway line to the Chambers Street station where construction crews are busy rebuilding on the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers. The station is at the foot of the old St. Paul’s Church, the oldest public building in Manhattan. George Washington worshipped there in the 1760’s and 9/11 recovery workers received round the clock care there after the chapel miraculously survived the towers’ collapse. The church today serves as a museum of memorials left at the site and offers guided tours of the grounds.
We have a friend who lives in Brooklyn so Saturday was also the perfect day to break out of Manhattan for lunch on the other side of the East River. We took the M and met up with our friend at the waterfront park in Williamsburg, a growing hub for the New York indie rock, hipster culture.
Every weekend, waterfront park is the scene of an outdoor market of organic food vendors, and the occasional concert or flea market, so we feasted on fish tacos and mango-flavored Arnold Palmer slushies from Kelvin Natural Slush Company in the shadow of the landmark Domino Sugar factory.
On the way back to Chelsea, we also stopped off in the East Village to visit the e-flux Gallery (41 Essex Street). The gallery worked its way into my heart this month by holding a show of old guerrilla TV videos I curated many years ago with Tom Weinberg. When we rang the bell, a young girl allowed that only a handful of friends showed up for the screening, but they all had a good time and everyone went to dinner together afterward. And I left thinking that’s my kind of gallery.
While the Chelsea Hotel may have been booked for the weekend, the El Quijote restaurant next door (226 W. 23rd Street, $25 per person) is equally famous and easier to get into if you show up before 7 PM. If you can make your way through the packed bar to the kitsch-covered walls of the back dining room, you know you are not in your typical Manhattan dining establishment.
The family-run restaurant is in its fourth generation since opening in 1930. It features Spanish cuisine and the menu boasts that the seafood is caught on an Atlantic trawler the owners purchased to fill their own demand. The specialty, which I can heartily recommend, is a double dose of two 1 1/4 pound boiled lobsters for $32 washed down with a glass or two of Estrella beer.
It’s never a bad idea to start Sunday reading The New York Times, and the rooftop garden at the Gem Hotel was the perfect place for it. With bags packed and coffee in hand, my wife and I still wanted to hit one of Chelsea’s famous landmarks, the 26th Street Flea Market (between 5th and 6th).
On any given Sunday, you might find Gwyneth Paltrow or Robin Richman digging through the junk for secret treasures. On this Sunday, the treasures were either too secret of too big to fit in our suitcase. So we just grazed the junk tables, moving on from the open air market to The Garage (112 W. 25th) an indoor version run by the same management, and finally settled on a piece of history no political buff should be without: a 1968 record of Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention ($8). I know, it’s not much, but somehow it’s just what I came for.
To shop and not to buy, to eat and not get full, to see friends without regard for the lapses in that friendship, to leave with no sorrow––and maybe to have a few dollars left in the wallet: now that’s what I call a vacation. Maybe we’ll come back again next year.