Sunday, December 16, 2007

Raise your hand if you want to live in a place called "DUMBO"

I DO!! I DO!!

DUMBO is the unlikely name for one of the coolest still-emerging artsy/funky/hipster neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I won't call it "the next SoHo" because that's probably Chelsea, which is a bit grittier, much gayer, art gallery-filled neighborhood on the lower westside of Manhattan, in the former cold-storage and meatpacking sort of area. Also, it appeared to us that most of the people who live in DUMBO (clever marketing name for an unlikely neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass- get it?) are probably better characterized as affluent Yuppies who appreciate art, but earn a paycheck on (nearby) Wall Street, rather than starving artists eeking out a living in illegally converted loft spaces. (Although I think the starving artists have simply been priced-out of the area, at this point in its evolution.)

The grossly-simplified, thumbnail history of DUMBO is as follows: In the late 19th century, it was an industrial/manufacturing zone- Brooklyn's industrial waterfront- that produced things like the first corrugated cardboard boxes (that enabled mass-production of pre-packaged food), Yuban coffee, liquor distribution and storage, etc. As manufacturing in NY declined over the early 20th century, the place emptied out and left hulking industrial buildings behind. By the 1960s and 70s, artists had begun to creep in (the SoHo effect).

In the 1980s, a guy named Walentas discovered the area and pegged it as a natural low-priced landing spot for artists priced out of Manhattan. He bought up a big chunk of the long-abandoned industrial buildings, gave it a sassy new name (it was formerly known as Gairville or Fulton Ferry), enticed artists across the Hudson River (it's just 1 stop from Wall Street on the A train) with cheap rents and lots of art space, fostered a sense of community, upscale specialty retail followed, yada yada yada . . . he held strong to his vision (reminds me a lot of Tom Gilmore's downtown L.A. Old Bank District neighborhood) and, 20 years later, he is cashing out with million dollar condos converted from buildings that had sat empty, in some cases, for nearly 100 years!

It's such a cool area, nestled under the bridges with (sometimes deafening) cars roaring overhead. It achieves that trick that urbanites often forget- the best views of the city are had from just outside the city, and the views of lower Manhattan from DUMBO simply kick butt.

Just curious . . .

What other kind of food is there?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Down a dark alley in the Bowery you'll find . . . NYC's coolest restaurant?

Let me state one fact from the outset, in case there is any doubt: I am NOT cool. Occasionally, however, I mingle with those who are, and, being the sponge I am, a bit of it rubs off on me. Thanks to a suggestion by my in-the-know former-Manhattanite colleague Delphine, my dinner in NYC at Freemans Restaurant is a great example.

Last weekend, we went to NYC to meet up with John's dad, his brother, and a couple of his cousins in from Indiana and Albany. Friday night was "ladies night out" and these fun, adventurous ladies were trusting enough to follow my lead to . . .

All of the above photos were taken in a dark, scary alley in the Bowery (yes, The Bowery- historical Skid Row of NYC), at the end of which is uber-hipster restaurant, Freemans (named after its location, since it is so cool it doesn't even have a proper mapquest-able address.) The place feels more like a speakeasy than a restaurant, since my online efforts to pinpoint its location consistently led me to places that were decidedly wrong. (I'm apparently not alone, since the NY Times called it a restaurant "hiding in not-so-plain sight.") Even the website is only 1 page- when was the last time you saw a one-page website? It's almost retro- like a yellow-page listing. And nary a map or menu in sight, you'll note.

So who gets the bright idea to put a restaurant in such a daunting location? Somebody with a nose for marketing, apparently, because the place has been open for 3 years and it's still HOT HOT HOT. The story goes that even the Bush twins had to endure the requisite never-ending wait for a table.

To give a sense of how too-cool-for-itself the place is, here is an approximation of the conversation I had at 6:30 pm (so early it's practically lunchtime, by NYC standards):
Me: "How long is the wait for 3 people?"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "It would be obnoxious for us to have that conversation." (his exact words)
Me: "Huh? Would you translate that please?"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "We can start to think about taking names again in 30 minutes."
Me: "Annie, party of 3"
Exotically gorgeous, dreadlocked, confused-looking host: "Come back in an hour-and-a-half."

What are we going to do in the Bowery for an hour-and-a-half, you ask? Aha! Follow me!

It's not every week that a world-famous, important new museum opens up, but one opened this month in, where else, the Bowery! The New Museum is the generically-named museum housed in a decidedly non-generic, cutting edge building that is worth a visit in itself. In fact, the building is about the only thing worth a visit, because the art is really crap- all that modern stuff that gives "modern art" a bad rap in the eyes of the average Joe. Times like that, I always try to remind myself that somebody has to push the envelope, otherwise we'd all still be looking at portraits of old, dead, rich people.

One of my favorites was a "performance art" piece by a lady who walks around the City, spouting random things, reading old letters, etc. as she stomps around the neighborhood. Wow, in my 'hood, we just call that a wacky, screaming, homeless person, but maybe it's "the new Warhol"- who knows? Only time will tell, and that's the exciting part.

NYC: Making big $$$ underneath bridges and down dark alleys (and not by selling drugs!)

I recently wrote about an incredible space we found on a recent trip to NYC - an upscale grocery store set underneath the amazing vaulted underside of the 59th Street Bridge.
That expedition prompted a certain father-in-law of mine, who shall remain nameless, to (rightfully) razz me about my unusual taste in "tourist attractions." I proved his observation correct when we were in NYC together last weekend and- where did I take people?- among other places, to a restaurant located underneath the Park Avenue Viaduct and second, to another hipster restaurant located at the end of a scary, dark, graffiti and razor-wire covered alley!

The first place is called Pershing Square, and it's directly across the street from Grand Central Terminal in mid-town Manhattan. (If you are reading this and wondering whether I was drawn to the place because it shares a name with Downtown L.A.'s most famous park, you are correct!) The first photo, above, shows the entrance to the place, and the second photo gives an idea of the crazy context- the joint is shoved into the right-hand-side armpit of the viaduct where Park Avenue has to jog around Grand Central (look for the bright lights under the viaduct- that's the "Pershing Square" sign).

The cool thing about this bizarely-located restaurant is that it is actually housed in prime retail space, where literally a hundred thousand people must pass by each day. The thing that is really striking about NYC is that real estate prices are so sky-high, particularly right now with the strong economy, that they are making use of every nook and cranny, no matter how odd it would seem. The New York Times gives this thumbnail history of the disused Pershing Square Restaurant under-the-viaduct space:

"The viaduct site was once home to a trolley barn. Later occupants included a U.S.O. center and the city's first Convention and Visitors Bureau. Its last incarnation was as a discount store, which closed in 1992." Sounds like an enticing spot for a fine dining establishment, right??

Next example of this hermit-crab theme: Freemans Restaurant. I think I'll move this one to a separate entry . . .

Yes, it snows in Binghamton

Unlike last year, when it hardly snowed at all, we got a great dumping last weekend, with a big "Nor'easter" expected again, starting tomorrow.

This was the view out of my 7th floor, Downtown Binghamton office window this week, overlooking the Courthouse. Beautiful, huh? We even closed the office early one day- I cannot believe I live in a place where "SNOW DAY" is in my vocabulary!