Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What do Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Skyscraper Museum have in common?

This is a burning question. I'll put you out of your misery. The answer is: they both live in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Downtown Manhattan right now.

We made our way down to the tip of Manhattan (yes, past the World Trade Center site, around the Stock Exchange, through Battery Park for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty) and to Battery Park City. I hadn't known the distinction before, but check out the cool origins of Battery Park City:

By the 1950s, Manhattan found itself with a boatload (no pun intended) of "finger piers" adjacent to the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. These piers- and there were dozens of them- were outdated and pretty much useless because they were way too small to accomodate modern-day cargo ships. Not only were they not useful, they were becoming blighted, attracting crime, and generally starting to infect the valuable parts of the Financial District. On top of it all, the Financial District was lacking enough modern office space (the kind that could accomodate those new-fangled computers and such) and businesses were leaving the area altogether.

So by the 1960s, somebody (actually, it was businessman David Rockefeller, with the support of his then-NY-Governor-brother Nelson Rockefeller) got the bright idea to 1) build the World Trade Center complex of buildings and 2) use the considerable amount of excavated earth to 3) fill in the outmoded pier area. They literally dumped zillions of acres or pounds or whatever of dirt right onto the piers. In this way, the shape of Lower Manhattan was significantly altered and Battery Park City now stands on top of the old piers/on top of the dirt from the World Trade Center excavation (looks like a bulge on the left side of this map). COOL, huh?

As an aside, I think the developers of the WTC were supposed to pay a bunch of money into a fund to build affordable/subsidized housing in Battery Park City, but my quick research gives me the feeling that the rich guys didn't want The Projects anywhere near their fancy new skyscrapers, so the money went elsewhere. Today, BPC seems to be full of only high-end housing and beautiful jogging paths along the Hudson River overlooking New Jersey across the way.

As if Battery Park City isn't cool enough already, just by virtue of its "birth" as a landfill site atop the skeleton of the old 19th century pier complex, it also is the site of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, which happens to also house the very cool Skyscraper Museum. But when we showed up at the Ritz Carlton, we were greeted by literally a hundred security guards, dozens of NYPD vehicles, a Coast Guard ship stationed off shore. We practically had to get a cavity search to get within 100 yards of the Ritz (ok, not really, but it was pretty weird to have to go through full airport-style security on a public street). What gives, I innocently asked one of the gentlemen wearing an ill-fitting suit and talking into his sleeve periodically.

DUH!!! It is the big UN meeting in town and, of all people, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was staying at the Ritz, hence the crazy security action. Not only was he staying there, but they were having some sort of ball that Saturday night and by the time we left the museum around 6 pm, the tuxes and gowns were arriving en masse. Too funny to see so many very important people, dressed in their finest, be super pissed-off that they couldn't drive up to the hotel and that they had to go through the un-glamorous security process in their ultra-fancy clothes.

The next day, Sunday, we were walking past the Waldorf=Astoria (don't blame me for that stupid "double hyphen" on the name, that's the official spelling) near our own hotel in Midtown, and security was even crazier. Turns out, that's where President Bush was staying!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lower East Side of NYC: CRAZY melting pot that it is

Pardon the low quality of these images, but they are taken from my phone camera. I just had to capture the incredible diversity we saw in New York City last weekend. These were all taken within a single block of Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

First, we have an image of a business that has been selling pickles out of barrels in this same spot for 100 years- Guss' Pickles. They don't sell them anywhere else, and they probably taste the same as they did 100 years ago when the Eastern European immigrants bought them from the same barrels. This was taken right outside of the Tenement Museum we visited, and man, did that guy know how to SLING PICKLES! He was fast and didn't waste his words. He'd be the Pickle Nazi, in fact.

Today there is a line (as you can see) of people waiting to buy these babies. And a tiny bit of google-searching tells me that - you heard it here first- September 16th was the 7th Annual International Pickle Day!!

Then we walked a block, crossing Delancey Street, to the heart of The Bargain District where the street was closed to cars and vendors were selling every kind of crazy imported cheap-o thing you can imagine. That's where I caught the second photo of DeMask- your standard-issue local dominatrix/leather shop, of course!

Finally, I took the third shot right across the street from the Leather Shop. Not sure if you can tell what's going on inside the shop, but that's a serious Hassidic Jew- earlocks and beard and snappy skull cap- selling naughty-nighties to a large African American woman. GOTTA LOVE AMERICA!

$1,000 per night, and -woo HOO!- it's Bed-Bug Free!!

I recently blogged about how ridiculously crazy the hotel rates are in Manhattan. I'm talking like $450/night for the Red Roof Inn-crazy. I'll stop myself here because I can feel my chest getting tight at the thought of my fruitless search for a weekend bargain.

When we were in NYC last weekend, we visited the Lower East Side when we went to the Tenement Museum. The Lower East Side ("LES") was extremely sketchy for probably the past 150 years. Super densely-packed, and generally the first-stop-neighborhood for the poorest immigrants to arrive in steerage through Ellis Island.

[Time Out: U.S. Fun Fact: Did you know that if you came across the Atlantic in 1st or 2nd class, you were admitted to the US no-questions-asked? It was only those passengers who arrived in "steerage" (think Leo DiCaprio in "Titanic") who had to get TB tests, physical and mental screenings, and all the other processing hoops associated with Ellis Island. Basically, money bought you free admission to the United States of America. The poor? They had to at least not be crazy or infirm. Otherwise, they got sent right back home!]

LES has stayed very dangerous and crowded and dirty from about 1810 until probably the past 10 years, when the outrageous real estate prices in Manhattan spurred gentrification of even the shabbiest areas (I'm massively generalizing here, but you get the idea).

So I was excited to see that there was a new, boutique hotel (a converted tenement house) on shabby/funky/chic little Orchard Street on the LES. With the faint hope that I had found my diamond-in-the-rough, new and still-undiscovered lodging spot, we popped in to the Blue Moon Hotel to check the rates, after taking the tour of the museum.

The lobby was gorgeous and funky- sort of a throwback to the 1920s- very authentic to the neighborhood, except that it was nice and not a flea bag hotel. Wait, maybe it is? read on.

We were greeted by a man in the lobby who, shall we say, matched the place. He must have been the owner because it was clearly 1926 when he woke up and got dressed- wearing one of those funky cabby/newsboy hats, turned to the side, and some unusual sort of corduroy vest and pants combo. Fashionable, but definitely eccentric. So we asked him about the rates for future reference.

So he is trying to sell the place to us, and he leads off with THIS gem/tidbit of marketing info: "The Blue Moon Hotel is CERTIFIED BED BUG FREE." And he points to a framed certificate on the wall- I'm not making this up- it was nicely framed and had a drawing of a nasty bed bug with a big red "zero/slash" around it. GNARLY.

Then the lady at the reception chimes in, and she starts bragging about how a real beagle dog came and did the sniff-inspection, and that was supposed to really impress us, to show us exactly how bed-bug-free this newly-opened hotel was.

Excuse me? I had never thought about bed bugs until they flagged the issue for me. Now I go online and google "New York City" and "bed bugs" and I find that this is apparently a huge issue. I even found a blog dedicated solely to NYC bed bug problems!

I have to stop because I don't even want to know any more about this topic. So back to the initial question, how much do I have to pay to stay in a bed-bug-free, converted tenement in a "transitional" part of the Lower East Side, a.k.a. "the Bargain District"?


OK, OK, so the "pied a terre" room was actually spacious and very nicely appointed, and the $1,000 room was very big and downright homey, with a balcony and view, but PLEEZE! Again, who is paying $1,000 per night to stay in the 'hood?

Ugh. There go my hopes for a secret hotel "find" in the worst part of Manhattan!

NEXT coolest thing we saw in NYC: a bathroom?

While walking around SoHo on Saturday afternoon, we were looking for a place to escape the brief rainshower. We walked past a little restaurant and loved the name, "Peep." It looked trendy/funky and the $8.50 three-course price-fix lunch seemed like a typo, so we were intrigued and checked it out.

As if the super-chic interior design and uber-tasty food weren't enough to make us extremely pleased with our choice, the post-lunch visit to the bathroom sealed Peep's place in my heart forever.

The restaurant is very long and narrow. Sort of feels like a bowling alley/lane, with banquette tables all along one side and miscellaneous things on the other side. Half of one whole wall was solid mirror, and the kitchen is at the very back. So it wasn't obvious where the ladies room was, and I had to ask the waiter. "Behind the mirrored door." OK, so there's no "women's" sign and the mirrored door just blends in with the mirrored wall. Nothing too crazy, right?

But open that mirrored door and you will never be the same again. The bathroom is basically a box of 2-way glass/mirror that sits in the middle restaurant. It's really dark inside the bathroom, which is apparently necessary because otherwise the diners on the outside- who are like 2 feet away- could theoretically see right in! I fumbled around for a light switch, not knowing that I wasn't supposed to find one, or that, if I had, the bathroom would become an exposed light box for the whole restaurant to see!

You have no idea how strange it is to be - excuse the details here- sitting on a toilet, doing your business, staring at some lady two feet away who is chomping her pad thai noodles and chatting happily with her boyfriend, oblivious to the horrors that might be transpiring on the other side of the glass!

I emerged from that bathroom a different person. I couldn't even talk for a minute, the impact was so deep. I returned from the loo, mouth agape, with a look of shock on my face. "What is it?" John asked, curious. "Go to the bathroom." "But . . ." Me: "Just go. Trust me. It is a life-altering experience."

Roosevelt Island: the Coolest Thing in New York City?

We went to New York City last weekend and we saw so much and walked so much- let's just say my blisters have blisters. I hardly know where to begin- it was 48 hours that could launch a thousand blog entries, I think.

So I'll just start chronologically: We arrived by bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Friday night. The Port Authority is right next to Times Square so it's crazy to arrive from a Binghamton/bus trip bubble and emerge into the blinding insanity that is Times Square at night. Note: I swear it's not weird to take the bus in New York. There's no train service from Binghamton to NYC, and driving in the City is also crazy, so the bus is the preferred option (3 1/2 hours each way, $72 round trip, in case you are curious).

It was nearly 9 pm by the time we got checked into our hotel (which was awesome) and were ready to explore, but I had a plan, a destination- Roosevelt Island!!

You've never heard of Roosevelt Island? Well, unless you are a HUGE dork, you really have no reason to know about it. It is a small (I think 150 acres or so) skinny island wedged in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It's just off-shore from the Upper East Side (which is posh) and it was known as Welfare Island until the 1970s.

Here's the history in a nutshell: State of NY buys it in the 1800s and uses it for various undesirable purposes. It has been home to an insane asylum, smallpox hospital, prison, almshouse . . . if no one wanted to live next door to it, they stuck it on the island, basically. There was some sort of limited bridge access through an industrial area of Queens, I think, but it wasn't open to the public, really. Who would want to go there, anyway? It was just a bunch of decaying institutions.

Then in the 1960s, the island became a living laboratory, of sorts. Some of the NY state and local urban planners decided to make a planned, socially engineered community. Gov. Rockefeller and the Mayor of NY argued about how to do it, but the upshot is that they put together a plan for a community made up of all income ranges and all ethnicities. There is Section 8 (federally subsidized) housing, income-limited (middle-class) housing, and even some "market rate" (non-subsidized) housing. There is even an apartment building that caters to UN employees (the UN is headquartered just across the river in Manhattan) so there's a huge mix of ethnicities and cultures.

The result is that, 40 years later, you have 10,000 people of all incomes and colors and cultures living on this island that is a 3 1/2 minute tram ride (they added the tram for commuter service in the 1970s- it runs every 15 minutes and costs $2) from Manhattan, and yet light years apart from the hustle and bustle and filth and crowds of the city.

You basically have Small Town, USA plopped right into the middle of the East River. With incredible views of Manhattan, to boot! There is some car access via some bridges that were added in the 1980s, and there's even a Subway stop now, but you still don't go there unless you have a reason to.

As you can imagine, with access limited like this, and with that small-town-island feel, crime is virtually non-existent. There are biking/jogging paths around the perimeter of the island, and a shuttle bus (cost $0.25) runs every 15 minutes in a loop around the island. "Around" isn't really accurate, since there's really just 1 street (you guessed it, "Main Street") that forms a spine on the island so the bus really runs up-and-down the island (and not "around").

The tram ride (which conveniently starts adjacent to my new favorite grocery store, underneath the Queensboro Bridge, that I recently gushed about) is one of the most incredible experiences ever- it's like a ski-left tram but instead of rising above the alps, you are floating amidst a sea of residential skyscrapers!! I can't find a photo of it at night, all lit-up, but it was just . . . indescribable. And definitely the best ride in town for $2.00!!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New York City: Land of Discounts on Big Dreams?

I've often heard New York City referred to as the "City of Big Dreams" or something like that. So when I was very glad to find that I can buy those Dreams for only $0.99!
The best part, though, is that the sub-text on the awning reads "Everything $1 and up"- huh?
P.S. For those of you who think I only make fun of Binghamton, that's not true. I make fun of everything - it's just that Binghamton has been my entire world recently. Now that I'm branching out to NYC, expect equal-opportunity teasing.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

So THIS is how the rich do their grocery shopping!

I don't know if these photos can possibly convey how cool this thing is. It's "just" a grocery store, kids. But it's hands-down the coolest one you'll ever see. Here's the deal:

We finally made it to New York City for a day trip on a charter bus last weekend. I've been there plenty of times before, and we only had about 8 hours so we couldn't be too ambitious (even squeezing out 8 tourist-hours makes for a loooooong day when you factor in the additional 7 hours of round-trip driving), but for this birthday-weekend-trip, I was determined to find and explore something unusual, something cutting-edge, to really make it memorable (and to make me a far cooler and more urbane person, as a result, of course!)

I remembered an incredible visual presentation I had seen when I was working in Los Angeles, which talked about the mind-bending ways that architects around the world are able to re-purpose old structures in ways that give them new life in a modern world. The project that stuck in my head all these years was this grocery store.

I've seen a boatload of adaptive reuse projects, all over the world- turning the old L.A. Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery into an artists' colony, converting an old power plant on the Thames into the Tate Modern Art Museum, taking a 1915 Portland elementary school and transforming it into an entire microbrewery/hotel/restaurant/bar/music venue-complex - but this NYC grocery store might take the cake.

The grocery store is located UNDERNEATH - sort of the "armpit" if you will- the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge. Apparently this space was the site of an open-air market until the 1930s, so there is some precedent for its current incarnation, but it had been used as storage space for the NYC transit department for decades. It's the underbelly of a bridge, you understand!

Well, this bridge isn't any ordinary bridge, because its underside has very beautiful arches with detailed tilework that is apparently done by a famous Spanish architect named Guastavino, who also did lots of NYC's subway stations. Still, somebody had to have some serious artistic vision to think that what must have been a filthy, dark space could ever become an uber-swanky grocery store - where people buy fresh food!- on the Upper East Side, sharing the neighborhood with some of the priciest condos in Manhattan.

Sharing the space with the grocery store is an adjacent special event space called Guastavino's (named after the tile guy) which is so cool that it was apparently the site of "Sex and the City" cast parties (somehow that gives it the NYC stamp of approval).

The top photo shows the bridge and the outside of the space, which sports a mini-park and a (straight outta London) Conran Shop (it's a high-design home furnishings store, sort of like Ikea but about 50 times more expensive). The middle photo is an overview of the grocery store. The bottom photo was taken in the loft-area where we sat and ate our sushi, and shows more detail of the vaulted ceiling.

OK, I'll quit raving now, but- take it from me- if you are ever in NYC, it's a 15 minute walk from the southern edge of Central Park, due east, to the coolest grocery store you'll ever see.

The People's Republic of Ithaca

John has been working very hard since I arrived in Binghamton, and we really haven't taken the time to "get out" much. For my birthday, which isn't my favorite day to begin with, I was determined to bust out of my Southern-Tier-induced malaise and find a place with a different state of mind. I didn't even care what state of mind, just something different than the homogenous place we find ourselves living.

I had been nearly blind to the fact that such a strange, foreign land exists only 60 miles from us, in Ithaca, New York.

If you've heard of Ithaca, it's probably because the small town (population about 40,000) is home to the Ivy League's Cornell University. Maybe you've heard that it's "really freakin' cold up there," which perhaps makes it (reportedly) the "suicide capital of New York," that it has awe-inspiring natural beauty marked by lots of gorges (inspiring the favorite "Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt- get it? gorges?, and yes, I wear mine proudly), or maybe even that (at Cornell) it is home to the country's first and most prestigious School of Hotel Administration (which is cool because the school's "lab" is a 150-room on-campus, full-service hotel where your fresh-faced or, alternatively, hungover "doorman" is really a sophomore working his way up the school's management-ladder-curriculum.)

I had been to Ithaca a couple of times before- once in 2004 when I first came to visit John (and he wisely and immediately squired me out of town and we stayed up there at a great B&B, thus partially shielding me from the bummer that is Binghamton in February) and once in early 2006, when I had just moved here. But on those visits, it didn't strike me how incredibly different Ithaca is from its environs in upstate New York.

But I've been living here 1 1/2 years, now and on this visit, Ithaca's . . . uhm, unique? culture practically hit me over the head. I guess I've grown used to the rest of Upstate's decidedly rural, somewhat redneck, and extremely conservative ways. You gotta picture this- to get to Ithaca, we drove on 2-lane Route 96B through miles and miles of tiny farming communities that still have road signs indicating that drivers should watch out -not only for deer- but for horse and buggies!

Not so in Ithaca, or, as I like to call it now, The People's Republic of Ithaca.

Not only does Ithaca look and feel like an island full of dreadlocks and same-sex couples amidst the farmland of Tompkins County, but the residents apparently pride themselves on their different-ness. My favorite is that they even have their own currency, called "Ithaca Hours," which is apparently some effort by the hippie-locals to enable people to trade goods and services without using that pesky federally-printed green paper junk. "Ithaca Hours" are a big hit at the local Cooperative Market (along with patchouli oil, environmentally-friendly incense, anything "hand crafted in Nepal" and anything derived from hemp).

My other favorite Ithaca "fun fact" is that the "alternative" weekly newspaper(I'm not making this up- I tried to link to the Ithaca Times website, but I'm getting an error message that says "unable to connect" -how appropriate!)- you know, the freebie that has all the ads for medical marijuana in the back?- it has a larger circulation than the traditional newspaper!!

Anyway, we had a wonderful dinner at restaurant on the Commons (thanks, Mom & Dad!). That one restaurant had more ethnic diversity, I believe, than in all of Binghamton. I think I counted 6 "flavors" of people- so exotic! As a bonus, it was enlightening to spend the dinner observing the mating/dating/PDA habits of college lesbian couples, courtesy of the two young ladies sitting near us. Only an hour's drive and I felt like we had taken a trip to a strange land. Definitely a good change of pace, and a birthday to remember!