Sunday, August 25, 2013

Manhattan's Upper East Side: Land of the Invisible Rich and Famous

After last week's excursion to the Lower East Side, I thought it was only fitting that this week I visit that area's most starkly contrasting counterpart: The Upper East Side. If you are not familiar with the layout of  Manhattan I should point out that these two areas do not border each other. There is a lot going on in the space between. Still, the two neighborhoods represent the extremes of the urban experience. The learn more about the Lower East Side, read the previous post. Today we take a bite out of the Upper Crust.

I began my day by visiting the Museum of the City of New York, located at 103rd and 5th Avenue. This is technically East Harlem, but logically, it is still the Upper East Side. To do this I had to take the 6 train, for which I have no great fondness. It is slow and crowded and it runs up Lexington which is always several large blocks over from anywhere than I am actually trying to visit. But I digress.

The museum is fairly new, and there are only a handful of exhibitions, but it was an informative and interesting jaunt. There is an exhibit focusing on the activism in New York City, another focusing on the current state of housing and how the city intends to make room as the city continues to grow. There was a hallway full of paintings of sailboats which I am sure were quite lovely. I have to admit I have very little interest in sailboats so I did not linger long in that hallway other than to stop and make sure there were no hidden pornographic elements in the paintings (there were not).  My favorite exhibit was one dedicated to Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I am a sucker for an impressive cemetery and I am excited to make Green Wood my next excursion. I could write a full review of the museum but I think it's best if you just visit yourself if you get the chance.

I arrived at the museum at 10 AM when it opened, and after about an hour or so of having the place to myself  the various school groups and tourists started trickling in so I decided to take my leave at around 11:15. I had recently read an article about the "wealthiest apartment building in the world" which was on Park Avenue, so I decided to take a stroll down the infamously posh pavilion. *note: Park Avenue is not a pavillion by any exact definition of the word. I am just fond of alliteration.

For those of you who don't know, The Upper East Side is where all of the big money families have been known to dwell when they choose to be in the city. I am still getting a handle on exactly why the money went where it did and when, but I offer now a very brief synopsis of my understanding thus far:

 What is nowManhattan began as a merchant town. This was when the city was only what is now the financial district and the lower sea ports. Once upon a time no one expected to expand much past what is now City Hall. The Island's unique orientation to the ocean and the Hudson river, as well as the timing of its settlement, made it the ideal port for all kinds of importing and exporting, including African slaves. Manhattan became wealthy quickly. This wealth lead to the commissioning of better boats, so the shipbuilding industry also thrived. Eventually the merchants realized it would be most adventageous if Manhattan were also a manufacturing bed. The numerous but small factories provided work for immigrants, who flooded in at a high volume. The rich moved away from lower manhattan (because eeeewwwww. Poor people!). Elevated trains were built and thus Manhattan became America's first city of commuters.

These new modes of transportation also made it easier for women to get around on their own, and midtown became a shopping mecca. I am still looking into how or why, but at some point at least a few very rich people decided to build lavish homes on Park Avenue, and all of their friends followed in step until the Upper East Side possessed such cache that it was where everyone wanted to be. Obviously there is much more to it than that, and the events that lead to the drastically divergent development patterns of the Upper East and Upper west sides is something I intend to spend more time on in the future. For now I hope this demystifies some of the Upper East Side's allure. It's mostly just rich people keeping up with each other.

Park Avenue is not particularly impressive from ground level. Every building that stopped me in my tracks turned out to be a school or a museum or a foreign consulate of some kind. The residential buildings are much less attractive than some of the other pockets of storied looking brownstones in other parts of town. The buildings are large and the windows are small. If you crane your neck you will notice hints of lush, envy inducing rooftop garden patios but from the ground its not much to see.

Park avenue may very well be home to the rich and famous, but the thing about the rich and famous is that they don't do things for themselves and you won't find them on the 86th street 6 train platform. The people I saw were mostly dog walkers, doormen, and for some reason, a lot of slutty teenage girls. I think this has something to do with the show "Gossip Girl" which is set at private high school on the UES. I assume these girls are lurking about hoping to find and snag their very own Chuck Bass. Or these are girls who ATTEND one of the fancy UES private schools and this is how they dress when they're cutting class. Teenagers, man, I just don't know.

I was ready to be impressed. I wanted to bask in opulence and I guess that's just not possible from street level. I'm sure inside any given building there is a world of lavish decadence but there is a doorman in every ornately ornamented doorway ready to shoo away anyone trying to catch a glimpse. Sometimes when they are shooing you away they will also pay a very polite compliment to your bottom, but it is discouraging anyhow. It's a nice place to live but there's no need to visit.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Casual Stroll With History: Exploring The Neighborhoods of Greater NYC (Introduction and Manhattan's Lower East Side)


Feel free to skip this introduction if you're mostly interested in my day on the Lower East Side. Just scroll down. It's not hard.

At the height of summer heat in late July of 2013 I found myself frustrated with New York City for its lack of grace. I convinced myself that the nice parts of the city were so off limits to me and my limited resources that I shouldn't even bother visiting. My whole experience of the city became the 10 minutes I spent on the street walking from the train to my workplace in Herald Square, my time on the train itself, and the humble offerings of my own neighborhood, which are hearty but somewhat charmless if you have no one to share them with, which I didn't at the time. 

Just when I was ready to write the city off I decided to buy myself a ticket on a Friday evening after work to go see a comic by the name of Mike Birbiglia workshop some of his new material at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village of Manhattan. I was in a funk and his material tended to hit close to home in a comforting way. I arrived at 5:30 PM in anticipation of an 8 o' clock show because I didn't have quite enough time to get home to Queens first. So I just walked around, and I enjoyed the walking quite a bit.  The eclectic smattering of architecture is really quite remarkable.  I have an aversion to the blindingly hip crowd that stomps around down there, and I cringed at their omnipresence, but it made me wonder who used to be here, and who else before that along with the hows and whys. Before I knew it my curiosity had spiraled and I wanted these questions answered for every single neighborhood in every borough of New York City.

Some of these neighborhoods I have never seen and don't even really know where they are exactly. So the first step is just to see things, and to see them deliberately. That is where this blog comes in. I am going to go see as many neighborhoods as I can think of and then write about each one. The second step is research. I will answer the questions I have about each neighborhood and write about that as well. They need to be two steps otherwise I will never be ready to write anything. Later, I will bring the two together hopefully in a form that looks something like a book.

Without further delay, here is the account of my first excursion (I apologize for the length of this post. I know my friends and family who read this are delicate creatures with limited free time, and screen fatigue is a real thing).


Day 1: The Lower East Side (Manhattan)

Geography: Due to the ebb and flow of cultural enclaves in this area, the actual geography seems difficult to pin down, but the most recurring description I have found is that its borders are East Houston st on the North, the East River on the East, the Manhattan Bridge and Bowery on the West, and Canal street to the South.

General Background:Manhattan's Lower East Side is, from what I already understand (which isn't much), one of the most historically rich areas of the city. Immigrant populations came and went and coexisted with varying levels of harmony and conflict.  They worked the jobs that needed to be done but no one wanted to do and lived in horrible, overcrowded conditions. Unlike other neighborhoods that have had cycles of wealth, such is not the case here. Not since Mr. Delancey sold Delancey farm has there been much other than a pit of festering hope. The people who came, and they came from all over, created communities for themselves and then abandoned them when they either had enough money to move on or became ostracized by the next wave. Only within the last 10 or 15 years has gentrification started to occur. This is an extremely reductive, and possibly inaccurate explanation but I haven't actually done the annotated research yet.

My Day In The Lower East Side:
 It's important to wear leather boots with shorts when you are on any kind of adventure.

 I wanted to start my travels on the right foot, and I figured I could use a little guidance. My original plan was actually to spend the day at the Historical Society on the Upper West Side doing research and THEN decide where I wanted to go first, but this was on a Monday (one of my days off) and the Historical Society is closed on Mondays, much to my dismay. A coworker had previously recommended the Tenement Museum on Orchard St and I knew that they do historically guided walking tours of the Lower East Side itself, and that sounded perfect. I selected a tour called "Then and Now" at 12:30 PM on Monday, August 12th.

The thing about the Lower East Side is that it is not old in a beautiful way because there is no "former glory" to this neck of the woods.  It is old in kind of a "can't be bothered to make this better" kind of way. There have been waves of rebuilding and upgrades to meet safety codes, but gentrification has only recently started to kick in. The result so far is just that there are several enormous, conspicuous, beacons of modernity looming above the somewhat tatty surroundings. It borders Soho so there are sweet little boutiques and trying-to-hard cafes spilling over, but mostly it is smelly and loud and not very pleasant. I offer this information as an explanation for why I chose such a distinctly tourist-aimed approach to seeing the area. I simply was not going to be able to bring myself to spend more than an hour down here unless it was something for which I paid $20, or if it was sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking something fizzy being entirely unproductive.

I arrived at the Tenement Museum shop from which the tour would embark at around Noon.  I was immediately struck with the desire to buy several old-timey transit map posters and one or two very expensive hardcover art books. And Perhaps an umbrella decorated with a colorful map of Manhattan. And who DOESN'T need a mug listing all of the boroughs in different sized fonts?  I might have a weakness for museum gift shops. Luckily, they have a video about the history of the area running on a loop in a small theater in the back and this kept me adequately occupied until it was time to leave.

There was a lot of walking and stopping and looking and being talked at, which is how I know what little information about this area I already know. We went to Allen Street, over which an elevated train ran from the mid 1800s until around 1930-something (this timeframe could be wrong. I was not taking notes). The train was coal fueled and spouted all sorts of nasty crud onto the streets below as well as creating a dark passageway that served as an excellent incubator for unsavory activity. The result was the nations longest operating Red Light District. I can only assume that this entire street is now haunted by prostitutes who were either murdered or perished of Cholera, and this pleases me greatly.

We moved to another street where China Town vendors come to pick up and drop off a variety of goods including fake purses, glass dragons, and produce. Unsold produce, both animal and vegtable, is returned at the end of the day so that it might enchant the street with the aroma of decay. Right in the middle of this stinky ordeal there is a Greek Synagogue. We discussed how Jews from varying parts of the world all came at similar times, and were not necessarily very nice to one another. A brother-sister duo in their 60s, who were very vocal in identifying themselves as Eastern-European Jews, were a bit too quick to answer another group member's question about whether Greek Jews were more integrated in the broader Jewish community these days."Oh no. Not so much with the Greeks."

A young boy of about 10 in the group inquired about an impressive display of shoes thrown over a telephone wire. The tour guide grew flustered and muttered something about "Adult themes...grown ups can ask later if you want to know." The answer is that drugs and/or prostitutes are allegedly available on that street if you must know. I heard the boy whisper repeatedly to his mother "Now I'm curious." That boy will end up accidentally buying crack before his 18th birthday. I'm quite sure of it.

One particular building that we stopped at began its life in the late 19th century as a Protestant Mission. They built there in hopes of converting some of the Jews that were rapidly moving into the area. Finding no success, they gave up and sold the space to a Jewish congregant for use as a temple. Then the Jews started moving out of the area, so they sold it to a  Dominican 7th Day Adventist church who occupy the space to this day. The visual result is amusing. There is a large half oval that was once a stained glass window. You can still see the border, but now all that remains is one small round window containing a Star of David. The 7th Day Adventists didn't even try to renovate and just went ahead and stuck a big old cross over the Star of David window. You can still see the star clearly. 

We ended the tour at a building called Blue, which is one of the modern giants of the neighborhood. It is constructed in different shades of blue glass. Supposedly this is meant to represent the diversity of the area. I think it's just meant to make it look exclusive. Either way, apartments at Blue run in the millions. There was a lot of discussion about what this means and whether its good or bad for the surviving lower class families in the area. That debate doesn't interest me much because I don't really understand why ANYONE wants to live in that area let alone pay millions of dollars to do it.  One point of discussion was that these developers are coming in and buying the air rights from everyone else on the block in order to guarantee unobstructed views. That is why the aesthetics from the ground are so visually disturbing. I don't want to talk much more about that because A) I haven't done the research and B) I am not a real estate lawyer.  Either way, the end of the tour was a bit boring. 

After discussing Blue we went our separate ways, or at least I did. I hope I didn't get my tour guide in trouble by wandering off but I don't think I was expected to return to the shop with the group. I didn't want to face the temptation of the expensive gift store again, and furthermore the guy who sold me my ticket was a little too good looking and a a little too friendly and a little too quick to notice on my billing information that he and I live in the same neighborhood. This was probably just incidental politeness from a career in customer service, but I had recently weathered the demise of a 5+ year relationship and I was just not equipped to handle a second interaction with him.

My original plan actually was to buy a book at the gift shop, eat lunch at one of the famous establishments in the area (they abound) and do a little research and writing while I ate. After considering the price tag (both financial and emotional) on that particular plan I opted instead to go to the Housingworks Bookstore and Cafe. It's technically in Soho but well within walking distance. If you have never been, and if you enjoy books, grilled cheese, and beer I would highly recommend this location. Housingworks is a Thrift chain in New York which benefits causes supporting people living with HIV and AIDS. This particular location just has books but they also offer clothing and furniture, much of which is pretty high quality because rich New Yorkers get bored with their things even faster than the rest of us do.  I found two excellent resources, which I'm sure I will reference frequently once I have read them. I was able to sit and read in a very relaxed, bookish space, and have a local beer, a very satisfying grilled cheese, and tomato soup all for $15.  Had I not insisted on the beer it would have been even more agreeable. The two books, both of which were imposing tomes and one of which was hardcover, came in at $13 for both.

Understanding the Lower East Side is integral in understanding the development of New York City as a whole, and I intend to follow through on learning the history. The actual location, though, is not one that I am eager to return to. Unless, of course, if drinks are involved.

I apologize for carrying on at length but I'm really quite excited about this project. I'll do my best to edit the blog aspect down to the highlights and then get the longer finished product out in a more official format. On that note, If anyone knows anyone who works at a publication who is loose with stipends and might be interested in my little adventure, please let me know.



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fun With History: New York City Neighborhoods

When I moved to New York I wished very much that Bill Bryson had written a book about it, detailing the culture and history of every neighborhood in every borough in his casually likable but credible voice. I want "Notes from a Small Island: Greater NYC redux". It occurred to me today though that I could just write it. I can go to a different neighborhood each week, research it's history, and write about what I see while I'm there. I can visit any notable museums and any particularly famous institutions (as long as they are in my price range). This blog can serve as a way to take notes and then I'll compile everything at the end of the week.

Monday, which I have off, can be for museums, lunch at storied establishment, and library day.

During the week I get off at 5 PM so as long as the neighborhood doesn't take too long to get to I can buzz over for a couple hours of sight-seeing and note taking. I work on W35th street which means I have pretty much any train at my disposal.

The far off neighborhoods will have to be saved for Mondays, or Sundays if public transportation in cooperating. Sundays, I think, will be mostly for writing and research (and cleaning my room since this is shaping up to take up pretty much all of my free time).

I'll still need to find time to go to the gym at least 3 times a week because I just signed on for a year. The good news is that I paid the extra ten bucks a month to be able to go to any location, so any neighborhood that has a Planet Fitness is a neighborhood that I can go to after work so I have time to do both.

I think this is a great plan and I intend on starting tomorrow. I would start today but I haven't been anywhere yet and Sundays really are my laundry and cleaning day.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Loud and Lonely Apple

In a city where one is rarely more than 100 Yards (either horizontally or vertically) away from another person, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the potential for human connection. Those connections aren't always easy to make though, and physical proximity is not an antidote for feelings of isolation. New York City is a magnet for those of us who have no interest in an insular lifestyle. We want to be a part of everything and anything. We want to be at the center of the universe. With the exception of enclaves only known by those who grew up here or went to school here or have family here, there is a certain lack of community.

I, who moved away from the state where I spent the first 24 years of my life, who recently lost the most important non-familiar relationship in my life, who has a bit of trouble relaxing around new people, and who frequently has less than $500 in my bank account, am having a hard time finding a consistent emotional center. There's nothing I can point to in New York and think This is my home and these are my people. To flatter myself enormously, I am like a comet that dips in and out of larger entities' gravitational pulls (I'm sorry if this isn't how it works I'm not a fucking scientist) but hasn't hit ground yet. Sooner or later I'm bound to smash into someone's backyard and really fuck up their gardening but for now I'm destined to spend a lot of time out in space counting my craters. It's not a bad ride but it gets tedious.

In Vermont there is nothing but space and being alone feels natural and serene. Loneliness is meditative. In NewYork loneliness feels like a failure. I resent this because the emphasis on narrowly defined "happiness" in American culture is misguided and ultimately the cause of much deeper despair.  Observant, intelligent people should feel lonely sometimes even when they are surrounded by love and support and it shouldn't be some dark secret that no one wants to talk about. But in New York it's hard not to walk outside and think "how fucked up must I be that I don't have 100 new friends by now?".

I ride the 7 train to and from work and as I see the whole Manhattan skyline scroll through the train windows I feel it pressuring me to be shinier and generally better at life than I am. Ultimately I think this is a positive thing. It is part of the reason of why I am here. But when things are going wrong and the only thing that can make them right is time, it's hard to take on the challenge with confidence and enthusiasm.

I'm hardly an expert but I function well enough as a human being that I have to assume that I am not the only one who feels this way. I am not the only one who can't figure out how to get invited to garden parties (seriously someone please invite me to a garden party already) or gallery openings. I actually have almost zero interest in gallery openings but you see the point.  Loneliness is New York City is an anxious affair. If there are others like me though, they probably stop and look around once in a while and notice that while they were busy worrying, they were quietly making it just fine.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Just woke up from very vivid dream.  Decided it needed to be recorded. I will publish without editing and review in the morning. 2:36 AM. Last time I looked at the clock before falling asleep it was right around midnight. Woke up in a clear, alert state; tingling. I've rolled off my pillow despite having a twin bed. My audio book that I fell asleep listening to is just finishing. I don't feel any need to analyze this Im just so impressed that I remember so much. I might even go back and try to draw pictures to go along with the story. That's how exactly I remember the details. This really hasn't happened in a very long time.

*note from writer from 3 AM when I've woken up a bit and read through what I wrote. I want to make it clear that it's been a very long time since I did any kind of drug that would incur anything like what I described in the dream. Did I used incur correctly? That's a problem for daytime Emma.

The following is what I wrote as soon as I could:

 Spooky cult DRUG CLUB called the rabbit hole or some shit. I acutally think the name might have changed a few times in the dream. Mad Hatter type figure with one fang that is dripping green on sign. From the street you can look down onto a patio which is one story down from street level and there are dreamy stary people lying all over each other all the time just looking straight up out of their minds but in a really happy way. Absynthe? I go in because I'm curious.

To get in, you go to a lobby which is dark and small with a few reddish lights and you have to have a conversation with some guy downstairs on the phone (or maybe his voice was on a speaker in the room) and there's a tongue that becomes a slide. (I cannot explain the mechanics of this. It just was) At first I don't get in because I dont like the questions (I dont remember what they were but they seemed really personal and made me me scared) so I leave. Then some vaguely european lady named Rita keeps calling me trying to get me to come back except  I don't know where she's calling from so that didn't make sense.

We (myself and some cast members from various seasons of SKINS? Not sure) decide to go back together. We somehow go down the tongue slide without having to answer questions. I guess maybe because I was there before. I remember thinking in the dream that I didn't understand how all those people I saw outside could look so happy having had to go through what I went through to get in. In the dream I never remember what I drank or ate or who I spoke to when I got there.

If I remember correctly we went once, I blacked out but woke up still in the club and everyone else seemed to have a lot of fun. It was a lounge set up and pretty normal looking despite what the upstairs is like. There was only going down the slide and then "waking up" later not knowing what had happened. My friends, maybe actually someone from gossip girl? still not sure where I conjured these people from,  were very confident and manipulative and apparently liked drugs a lot. The second time we go I black up and wake up on the subway with one of these new friends. This one has red hair and that is all I remember. I say something like "oh thank god we're not still in that club!" and he gives me a strange look.

We get off the train and I am obviously on some kind of drug because I see a ledge and I keep freaking out that I'm going to fall off, like I really feel like the ledge is pulling me towards it, so I get on the ground and sort of scuttle backwords from it crab style screaming please help I'm going to fall just hold my arms or something! Someone grabs me and then I black out again. When I wake up I can't open my eyes or see anything but I know that I am spewing foam from my mouth. Like the kind you get if you put an alka seltzer tab directly in your mouth but more. I keep spewing until finally I can stop and then I can see again and there are now three people there and one of them is covered in foam but theyre laughing so I laugh too. I feel confused because I thought obviously the next step is that we all investigate whats going on with this place but apparently its just a grand old time for everyone but me. "Oh yeah, that one is crazy" one of the random actors who I still can't place says to me. How do they all know what I took but I don't? What's going on here (these are the things I was thinking in the dream right before my eyes snapped open). I was out of breath which makes me think I had actually stopped breathing during the foaming mouth part of the dream.