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THE TITLE OF MITCH BRODER’S new book is just what I’ve been doing lately: Discovering Vintage New York (Globe Pequot, $17) — or what’s left of it, anyway. While friends plan winter trips to Paris, Costa Rica, Burma, and other far-flung places, my own wanderlust is limited these days to the New York City of an earlier era. With Broder’s book as my guide, I’m discovering or re-discovering venerable Manhattan bars, restaurants, bookstores, hat shops, bakeries, etc. — some well-known, some not-so, some dives, some fancy — that have miraculously survived the relentless march of commerce.
I’m much happier at the Old Town Bar on East 18th Street, a dimly lit 1890s tavern with a 55-foot-long marble bar and a dumbwaiter bringing sandwiches up from the basement, than in some trendy new spot. Everything is original: tin ceiling, tile floor, stained glass windows, converted gas chandeliers. “We don’t want to be a hip place,” says an owner, and hurray for that. Broder, a seasoned newspaperman, wants us to have the whole back story; he gives us three pages of reportage on each of 50 places, plus sidebars with 25 more.
The book is a handy compendium of places I once frequented but had forgotten, always meant to get to but never did, and a few I’d never heard of at all. Wait too long, and some of these spots might not be there when you finally get around to it, Broder points out in the book’s introduction. “When places like these close, people who always meant to visit them start grieving. I wrote this book to save you some grief.”
Here’s a partial list of my winter itinerary, drawn from Discovering Vintage New York:
Barbetta, an old-school Italian restaurant on W. 46th Street, opened in 1906 in a brownstone parlor floor
El Quijote, a kitschy Spanish-themed restaurant on W. 23rd St., est. 1920
Right: Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
B&H Dairy, a Jewish lunch counter on Second Avenue dating from the 1940s. I remember the mushroom barley soup from my NYU days, but never dared to dream it was still in business.
Milano’s Bar on E. Houston, est. 1923 (new to me, though I’ve seen it in passing).
Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street in Chinatown, on the street since 1920, though in a different storefront, and possibly the first to serve dim sum in New York.
Yonah Schimmel’s antique knish bakery I know, and Cafe Reggio on MacDougal, the last of the original Village cafes where you can still get cannolli and baba rum and cappuccino in a nicotine-stained 1920s interior, both included in the book. Mysteriously, the White Horse Tavern, Minetta Tavern, Walker’s and Raoul’s, all favorite downtown haunts of mine, are not. But I find it heartening that there are enough old places left that Broder couldn’t cover them all.
Let the new places continue to open (and close). I’m feeling some urgency about checking out the holdouts. If not now, when?
Below: Wo Hop
NEW YORK HAS BEEN CHANGING FAST, in large part due to the soon-to-end 12-year reign of the not-entirely-beloved but undeniably greenery-conscious Mayor Bloomberg. Under his tenure, 750,000 trees have been planted and there have been innumerable improvements to the city’s public spaces, especially along the long-neglected waterfront. So the appearance this month of the 288-page Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone (W.W. Norton) is well-timed.
The book highlights 38 masterpieces of old and new landscape architecture, including such venerable favorites as Greenwood Cemetery, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and so on. There are midtown plazas and atriums, and newer sites that have quickly become high-profile tourist draws, like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But what pleases me most is the book’s inclusion of many unusual suspects.
Concrete Plant Park, the Bronx
For instance: Brooklyn’s leafy Eastern and Ocean Parkways, two of the most attractive and civilized boulevards in New York City (or anywhere), which rarely get their due. There are detailed descriptions of such obscure sites as the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, along a formerly waste-strewn industrial waterway; Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where IKEA built a 7-acre waterfront access facility on the site of a historic dry dock, and did it so well the critics were silenced; as well as new parks and sites in all five boroughs and on Roosevelt, Governor’s and Randall’s Islands.
Paley Park, Manhattan
I found the photography disappointing, a lost opportunity to romance some strikingly beautiful places. Edward A Toran’s photos are mostly overalls, lacking in intimacy, and often shot with harsh shadows or in dappled light. But the writing, including a stirring, nostalgic foreword by Pete Hamill and a reprint of a very funny 1914 New York Times article by critic James Huneker about Manhattan’s parks, which he called our “lungs,” help make up for it.
Columbus Circle, Manhattan
Quirky suggestions for eating and drinking near the featured landscapes include the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens (NYC’s last remaining outdoor beer garden) and the café at Fairway in Red Hook, whose dramatic harbor view is surely unique among supermarkets.
Going forward, a blog will keep the book’s info up-to-date.
Bryant Park, Manhattan
I LEARNED MANY NEW THINGS on Classic Harbor Line‘s architecture-focused “Around Manhattan Now” cruise last Friday, and was reminded of others I once knew but had forgotten. For example: the Statue of Liberty never gets old.
She just doesn’t. Every time you see her, no matter how frequently, your heart leaps a little. Especially from the deck of a mahogany-trimmed 1920s-style yacht, with a mimosa in hand.
A seafarer I am not, but the trip was smooth, exhilarating, and overall a class act. It didn’t hurt that the day was perfection, the skyline crowned blue with cartoon clouds. We embarked on the luxury yacht Manhattan at Chelsea Piers on West 22nd Street, and for the next three hours, American Institute of Architects docent Arthur Platt provided non-stop narration, emphasizing what’s new — and there is plenty — on the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, Governor’s and Roosevelt Islands.
The Manhattan is one of five boats, all replicas of vintage vessels, including two schooners — the Adirondack, above, and the America – and two smaller, more intimate motorized yachts, the Beacon and the Kingston. There’s a full slate of cruises, some narrated, some not — including a specialized infrastructure tour just for bridge nerds- – 7 swing bridges! 3 lift bridges! 4 arch bridges! — and the boats are available for private charters as well. Lest you think I’m shilling for Classic Harbor Lines because my daughter works for them as a crew member on several of their vessels, know that my enthusiasm is shared by many others.
I began in the cabin of the Manhattan, lured indoors by the plush atmosphere and air conditioning, and took my first photo through a window, below, of the Empire State Building, Jean Nouvel’s modernistic 100 Eleventh Avenue, and the mesh screen of the Chelsea Piers golf driving range, as we pulled away from the dock. Then I ran out to the deck and stayed there for the remainder of the cruise, trying to follow the rapid-fire narration as Arthur pointed out buildings of interest on all shores. The boat moved fast, and it was hard to take in all the images and information as we steamed along (though we did linger pleasantly for a while at Liberty Island, and again in the Harlem River, waiting for the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to open and allow us back into the Hudson).
Soon we were out in mid-river, above, gazing back upon the city, and being struck once more by its monumentality.
The Chelsea High Line — a mile-long public garden planted atop a once-derelict stretch of elevated railway — and the related explosion of new construction around it, streamed past on the West Side, above.
Above, Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers were among the first modern buildings in the West Village, and remain among the few.
Cruising past SoHo, Arthur treated us to the unsavory details of Donald Trump’s machinations to get the city to allow him to build an out-of-scale glass tower on Spring Street, above, claiming it would be a hotel, then selling the “suites” as apartments.
Goodbye to Midtown, above, as we headed south on the Hudson…
Hello to Downtown, above – Battery Park City, the curved facade of 200 West Street (Goldman Sacks) by Pei Cobb Freed Adamson, and the new Freedom Tower (now apparently called World Trade Center), helping make up for the loss of the Twin Towers and making lower Manhattan look almost normal again.
I marveled at how good Jersey City, above, is looking these days…
and wondered when Ellis Island, that great Victorian pile, and its immigration museum will reopen (it’s been closed since Sandy).
We sidled along Governor’s Island, but the piles of rubble along the waterfront were not picturesque enough for my camera (they are demolishing old Coast Guard barracks, and there are great plans for new landscaping in the works). We rounded Battery Park and entered the East River, below…
appreciating the distinctive yellow William Beaver building by Tsao & McKown, above, like a splash of sunlight in the canyons of the Financial District.
I felt sad seeing the hulk of South Street Seaport, abandoned since Sandy. Supposedly it’s to be replaced with something altogether different and hopefully more successful, but that all seems uncertain and wasn’t it only about thirty years old anyway?
Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, with its innovative wavy facade, above, out-marvels the once-marvelous, century-old Woolworth Building, briefly the tallest in the world.
Above, another ageless icon that needs no naming…
and a close-up of Jane’s Carousel at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a restored vintage merry-go-round in its ultra-modern Jean Nouvel housing.
In short order, we’re passing under the Manhattan Bridge, above, and alongside the revitalized-at-lightning speed DUMBO neighborhood…
then looking back toward those two bridges, near-age siblings (1883 and 1903, respectively), as we steamed north.
Here comes the Williamsburg Bridge, above…
hard by the now-closed Domino Sugar factory, soon to be converted to glitzy residential units by SHoP Architects.
I’m skipping (for blog purposes) the dull visuals of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on the East Side of Manhattan. Above, the ever-inspiring Chrysler Building and the 1950s UN Headquarters, sparkling and stunning after its recent refurbishment.
We pass under another of New York’s monumental bridgeworks — the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, in whose shadow I spent my early childhood (though you can’t see my old Long Island City neighborhood from here because of subsequent massive building on Roosevelt Island, below).
Happily, the Pepsi sign is landmarked…
Plenty of new apartments to go around on Roosevelt Island, above, it would seem. There’s also the husk of a Victorian hospital, below, which I explored with two college friends in the late 1960s, finding unspeakable things in jars. Why it has not been demolished, I can’t tell you. [NOTE: These photos are a little out of order]
We’re now in the upper East River, heading toward the Bronx. Below, part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan…
and the Triborough Bridge, below, evocatively named for its construction linking the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan (but recently and pointlessly renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which pisses me off).
Now we’re in the narrower Harlem River, below, between upper Manhattan and the Bronx, passing such landmarks as Yankee Stadium and the Tuckitaway Storage company, which Arthur mentions (twice) as an example of how businesses and people were forced out of Manhattan and into the Bronx when parts of the former were reassigned to the later — and how they resented it.
The turret, below, belongs to the Third Avenue rotation bridge, one of 13 (!) bridges linking Manhattan and the Bronx. I love the old curlicued cast iron light post, and the fact that it remains.
Below, the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse by Robert A.M. Stern…
And the embankment, below, where Columbia University graduates should feel a swell of pride.
Above, a surprisingly natural marshy cove in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, with a recently installed floating art piece made of discarded umbrellas…
and Washington Bridge, another of the of 13 mostly walkable bridges across the Harlem River.
Finally we reach the Spuyten Duyvil (“spouting devil” in Dutch, as this is where the waters of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, their different tides and compositions creating a treacherous whirlpool). The captain of the Manhattan called for the bridge to be manually opened for us, giving us time to catch our breaths before…
entering the wide waters of the Hudson River.
The change of direction got people up into the bow with their cameras as the George Washington Bridge approached…
its little red lighthouse of children’s book fame still standing proud, saved when threatened with demolition in the 1930s by its children’s book fame.
We cruised past Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, and the classic, elegant apartment buildings of the old Upper West Side, above…
which transitioned rapidly to the glassy towers of the new West Side, south of 72nd Street.
Above, a place I’d like to go for lunch one summer day, whose name I didn’t catch…
and the fabulous, shiplike Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street, an Art Deco monument that now houses Martha Stewart Omnimedia and other design-oriented companies.
Shortly thereafter, we disembarked at Chelsea Piers, exhausted from the sun and the wind and just being out on the water. Though I hadn’t actually done anything but run from one side of the boat to the other, snapping unsteady pictures of just a few of the 156 sites on the map we were given, I slept very well that night.
Since then, I’ve realized anew that New York is more than merely a city. It’s a civilization.
HIGH ON MY LIST of things to accomplish this winter, somewhere between “Buy house” and “Update password list” (now 8 typewritten pages long), was “New clothing storage for bedroom.” I had already winnowed as much as I dared, but my four-drawer dresser and single not-so-big closet were not cutting it. If I bought so much as one new sweater, I’d be in wardrobe overflow.
The bedroom in my ground-floor brownstone apartment has a big ol’ hunk of orange wall 75″ across, where once a fireplace stood. Quite a few inches on either side of my midsize dresser were going to waste. There was also the possibility of going up the wall, with some kind of highboy or armoire.
I began my shopping online, considering mid-century ‘bachelor’s chests’ of the type included in bedroom suites of the 1950s and ’60s. They run $600-800, which is about what I planned to spend, but they were dark, stolid, and masculine-looking. I wanted something lighter. With my limited budget, I was looking for a piece of secondhand furniture, so I had no idea what, exactly, I was going to find (that’s the whole fun of it, actually).
My Internet explorations led me to a company I hadn’t heard of, Furnish Green, whose website shows a wide-ranging mix of styles from rustic and cottage-y to industrial and Danish modern. Its site is well-organized and easy to search, but even better was visiting their midtown Manhattan showroom to view their offerings in three dimensions, which I did today. Furnish Green is a find, yet another of those hidden treasures New York offers up when you least expect it.
And where you least expect it. Its showrooms are a few unconnected office spaces on the fifth floor of a garment-center building near Herald Square. One is shared with a ballroom dance studio; another is used for furniture refinishing and for the photography crucial to their online sales (Furnish Green has a big Craigslist presence). That’s Jeffrey, below, one of three employees, in the workroom. The owner, Nathan, is also the owner of the ballroom dance studio.
The main showroom is a bright corner space tightly packed with moderately-priced pieces that are neither precious nor pedigreed, yet most have something quirky or interesting about them.
Furnish Green gets 10-12 new pieces every day. “We do something to almost every one of them,” I was told — not necessarily full-on refinishing or re-upholstering, but steam-cleaning, oiling and polishing, and often, painting, to turn a dull brown piece of American borax (an old term for furnishings mass-manufactured in Grand Rapids, Mich.) into something more closely resembling Shabby Chic.
I came, I saw, I bought (see below). And yes, they deliver.
FOR ONE REASON AND ANOTHER, I found myself in Midtown Manhattan three times last week and — to my surprise — enjoyed it. Even when I lived in Manhattan eons ago, I was a downtown person, rarely venturing north of 14th Street. After I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’70s, my visits to “the city” grew more and more infrequent. Weeks could go by without my having any need or desire to cross the river (especially after Brooklyn got a few shoe stores).
Yet, there I recently was, three days in succession, suddenly feeling my eyes had been opened to something immeasurably rich, complex, and vibrant I hadn’t noticed before. I found myself searching for signs of vintage Manhattan, for remnants of the pre-skyscraper era, dwarfed now by towering neighbors but still standing proud, like the little house, top, in Virginia Lee Burton’s children’s book of the same name, that got gradually engulfed by new construction.
On Day 1, I had a doctor’s appointment in the East 30’s. I noticed a brick carriage house I had never seen before, below, and wondered how long old tenements with fire escapes, cornices, and storefronts at street level could possibly remain in place, unprotected by Landmarks and subject to the relentless march of commercial development.
There are some gorgeous intact rows of 19th century townhouses on the side streets of Murray Hill, but I also noted surviving row houses here and there on the avenues. The grimy pair on Lexington, right, have that forlorn look of Burton’s little house, but you know they won’t be moved to the country (as the fictional cottage eventually was) but likely torn down when the economy commands it.
I took pleasure in noting old one-story structures like the two, below. By sheer coincidence, I ended up having dinner with a friend two nights later in the Art Deco building on the right, which now houses Tokyo, one of the first sushi restaurants in New York when it opened in 1969. A welcome discovery, it will become my go-to sushi place in midtown from now on, with mostly Japanese patrons and bartenders in kimono who have clearly been there from the first.
The following day, I met a friend for lunch at Schnipper’s on East 23rd Street, but our timing was off. It’s fine when quiet — a cafeteria-style burger place with a self-consciously retro vibe — but this time, it was a madhouse. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the din and repaired instead to Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue for authentic, scrumptious, and well-priced food. But I was still seeking signs of Olde New York, and later — for future reference when in need of a quiet, unpopular lunchtime spot — walked around in search of a place I had happened into one day last year, whose name I couldn’t remember. It was decidedly old-fashioned; I was one of the only customers, and I ate something like mushrooms on toast.
I found it under scaffolding on East 28th Street: a British pub called The Churchill, above, with a menu of fish’n’chips, shepherd’s pie, mushy peas, and so on. It was even quieter than I remembered; there wasn’t a soul in the place. It probably does better at happy hour.
The following day, early for a dinner date, I emerged from the B train at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking forward to a walk through Bryant Park. Below, my favorite warm-weather outdoor lunch spot, The Bryant Park Cafe, shuttered for the season.
I found the park itself transformed for the holiday season. Instead of the quietude and fall plantings I expected, there was a tacky Christmas fair, with merchandise a half-step up from that on Canal Street, set up in booths around a temporary ice skating rink, below, over the expansive lawn. It was lively and possibly even “magical,” there in the shadow of the New York Public Library. But the music (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York’) was hokey and I wondered when ice skating in the heart of Manhattan’s business district had become so popular that the nearby Wollman Rink in Central Park and the one at Rockfeller Center weren’t enough. (The Bryant Park rink is free; skate rentals $14.)
Then, naturally, I stepped into the library and spent the next hour leisurely enjoying its always-worthwhile exhibits. The current “Lunch Hour NYC,” open until February, is great fun. I actually learned a lot, including the origin of the term “lunch” (from the Spanish lonja, meaning a chunk or piece you can hold in your hand). There are etchings of Victorian-era Wall Streeters in top hats and derbies wolfing it down at an early lunch counter, and menus from diners to Delmonico’s. I watched all five film clips of scenes set in Horn & Hardart’s automats. and then signed up for my first New York Public Library card in decades (the last one didn’t even have a bar code).
My friend and I intended to meet up at one of New York City’s genuine hidden treasures: The Campbell Apartment, above, on the mezzanine at the back of Grand Central Station, a coffered-ceiling, intricately painted relic of the late 19th century, when railroad barons had their whiskey and cigars there. It being Friday night at 6:30, we were unable even to enter, so thick were the crowds. That’s when Barbara suggested Tokyo, where we sat for two hours at the bar sampling odd dishes that both the menu and waitress stated were “not recommended for first time.” But as we are old sushi hands, we loved them, as we did the Japanese rice vodka.
Altogether satisfied with my Manhattan experience, I’ve decided I am not bored with Manhattan. There’s still a lot for me to discover. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson about London, that must mean I am not, after all (as I’ve sometimes feared), bored with life.