Summertime 2013. This is my first summer trip to this sprawling anathema mythicized by navigational cover ups: the winter chill when Central Park curls up in its snow blanket; the glitter and gold of Fall; the sprightly pink glow of Spring when cherry blossoms perk up the city and Summer of blue skies and surf and exodus to the beaches and the greens. The constants are the icons tuned to mesmerized outsider footsteps….Times Square, Brooklyn, Bryant Park, the rattling elevators of Macy’s, the gentrified malodorous Subway system, the stoic red brick row houses of Queens, Central Park, the aging dowager with countless Botox uplifts or a grandmother welcoming strays into her fold, the arty labyrinths of East Village and the glitzy MET and Broadway and like a greedy visitor I rush from one paid gig to a free one balancing my time and dollars as much as I can.
“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies”.― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, my initiatory foray was to Gantry Park in Long Island City, a waterfront boardwalk presenting a spectacular view of Central Manhattan skyline including the Empire State and the United Nations buildings. The sun, probably sidelined by wedding photo shoots glared down on the young couples but, in compensation for rude behavior, brightened up the manicured gardens and the restored gantries of the twelve acres along the East River. The gantries are reminders of an industrial past of rail car floats and barges and with another permanent fixture, the 120-foot long and 60-foot high neon Pepsi-Cola sign, an epergne of the Park. I have not seen the movie The Interpreter (Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman) but told that the sign features in the last scene.
The next water-side trip was to Rockaway Beach, a two-hour journey from Manhattan by train on a clear, welcoming week day. Rockaway Beach is a seven-mile stretch of sand that extends the entire length of Rockaway Peninsula in Queens and as we walked along the boardwalk the peaceful ambiance was at odds with the recent devastation by Hurricane Sandy. The beach, made accessible a week before, had families, sunbathers (some in the buff), youngsters and residents from nearby condos carrying their chairs, umbrellas and sun glares extracting maximum of the sun and surf. Rockaway Beach ended up as a clear favorite over the commercialized Coney Island.
Aqua remained the flavor of the trip and we added Coldspring by River Hudson to our outings list. The seventy-five minute train ride from Grand Central along the scenic river front stops at the single platform connected to the Main Street, a quintessential 19th century façade of cottages, eateries, and gift and art shops. Coldspring, a trading hamlet (1800s) and a foundry town (1818) attracted New Yorkers and tourists with its salubrious environs and the accompanying sailing, hiking and historic sightseeing facilities, art galleries and antique shops as a weekend getaway. The shuttle service lady tried to convince us to take the Boscobel tour or we would we miss an opportunity to see a neoclassical mansion (on way to Garrison) with a panoramic view of the Hudson River and the highlands. But we preferred the bracing promenade walk along the river made fresher with ice cream from Moo Moo’s Creamery and admiring the acrobatic skills of sea gulls from the Bandstand
Another new find was the trendsetting, innovative, culturally diverse Astoria across the East River. In the 1800s Astoria was the recreational playground for the Manhattan rich and whose residential traces are still around 12th and 14th streets of what was then Astoria Village and now called Old Astoria. The Dutch, Germans, Italians and Greeks were next in queue with their delis, bakeries and pizzas, showcasing their cultural and culinary skills. South Asians, South Americans, Middle Eastern and European communities added to this potpourri of cultures and smells that linger in facades, shops and cuisine. A walk down 30th Avenue, Steinway Street and Ditmars Boulevard including the rumbling old Broadway station and congested alleys, is a lesson in émigré culture. Astoria is a popular film and tv locale, the block of 37th Street between Ditmars Boulevard and 23rd Avenue used as external reference as the block where George Costanza’s parents lived in the popular sitcom ‘Seinfeld’, and in the month that we stayed in Astoria we came across ‘shoots’ on the streets and restaurants. Visited Socrates Sculpture Park, an outdoor museum and public park where artists create and show sculptures and multi-media installations; the Isamu Noguchi Museum designed by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi; Astoria Park along East River, a place to spend lazy winter and summer afternoons; the Kaufman Astoria Studios presently undergoing expansion to accommodate more shoots and Bohemia Hall, the oldest beer garden in New York City, founded in 1910 when Astoria was largely Irish.
Another must visit, for me, is Madison Gardens for its changing art installations and neighborly existence with the sleek Flat iron building and the gawky, cheesy Eatelly lost in its cornucopia of cheeses, pastas and wines. Few blocks away is Manhattan China Town with its Made in China goods and smells stealthily encroaching on Little Eately, the Italian section of Manhattan. The day we had gone the Madison Square Park was hosting friendly table tennis, me missed tennis player Serena Williams who had inaugurated the event. I sat on the bench enjoying the myriad activities, the frisky chipmunks, the pet dogs and Orly Genger‘s ‘Red, Yellow and Blue’ undulating structures of hand-knotted nautical ropes painted in the three colors stretched across the Park. Last year, in 2012, it was Jaume Plensa’s forty-four feet tall white marble dusted ECHO placed in the center of the expansive Oval Lawn. The peaceful visage of towering statute appeared an anomaly in the cacophonous surroundings but after a melded in with the surrounding limestone buildings.
Nature took a backseat to free Summer theater, musicals and film shows. The first feel- good outing was the eclectic houseful show of Shakespeare’s ‘Loves Labor Lost‘, critiqued as ‘a mash-up of past and present to metallic sounds’. We were lucky to snag front row seats, the shows are free and the queues begin early morning for the evening show. Another culture freebie was the 12 noon snippets of Broadway musicals at Bryant Park, Manhattan, and despite the blazing afternoon sun the crowd flipped to Mama Mia songs. The HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival tradition, on Monday nights, is again a free bonding opportunity under the night sky. Our choice, the 1979 movie ‘Norma Rae’ (Sally Field had won an Oscar) was slightly off-key for the setting, more of an addendum to activities all around. There are other venues where one can enjoy free open air movies and best way is to check out New York summer activities and attractions websites.
Crammed in with all the food and societal outings were trips to funky neighborhoods TriBeCa (TRIangle BElow CAnal Street), NoHo (NOrth of HOuston Street), SoHo an upscale arty locale for galleries, lofts, boutiques in Lower Manhattan, DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and the artistic side of Brooklyn with ongoing art and theater shows and not to forget the Brooklyn Ice cream Factory, the oldest ice cream place in New York operating from an 1922 converted fireboat house in vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge.
Ice cream was followed, next day, by ‘Smorgasburg’, a mix of smorgasbord and Williamsburg, an open air food festival held every Saturday on an empty lot on Williamsburg’s East River waterfront. There were more than 90 food stands selling Asian, Middle Eastern cuisine, chilled soups, fresh juices, noodles, barbecue foods, requiring an appetite and an unlimited patience to queue up for your share of the treats. One could re charge their low low energy stretched out on the sloping grounds along the East River soaking in the afternoon sun. The Sunday market combines flea market and food.
Summer in New York is not all buttoned-down but quirky too as we gawked at the participants of the National Underwear Day in their tightly whites and neon-elsie’s giving competition to the Times Square’s kaleidoscopic facade. The under wears were okay but had to admire the spirit as not all bodies were sleek and uncluttered.
Central Park remains my favorite and every visit presents something new and this time it was the lone egret or heron preening on the Pond bank, oblivious to the clicking cameras, reflecting the New York attitude of aloofness as they hustle their way through redolent subway systems, past tourists and slackers, the endless line of iconic yellow cabs, the glitzy consumerism and traces of antique. They stopped… when commuters swiped their passes on seeing us struggle with our subway passes or for the moment of peace at the World Trade Center where the in flowing waters of the two fountains makes one pause and reflect on futility of rushing at breakneck speed, of conflict and competition.
The summer-ly sheen rubs on to us as we leave the city smug with having experienced another static make-over of New York.