Re-visiting New York City: the past is present
I grew up in New York City, although by now I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area almost as long as I did in New York.
My family lived in Belle Harbor, a small, isolated enclave of single family houses within New York’s borough of Queens, on a narrow peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. Most of the year it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but in the summer, the character of the neighborhood was transformed into a nearly private summer resort with a great swimming beach that I loved.
Although I visit New York often, I hadn’t been back to Belle Harbor for over twenty years. My husband and I stopped off there on a bright and clear Autumn day, after my Dad’s funeral. My old house is now an improved version of the house I remember. We took a walk on the beach. The tide was low and the beach was empty and quiet. I left with a sense of calm and completion … and with these pictures to help me remember my father and my childhood.
(left) A solitary Belle Harbor beach (right) My family’s former home from a distance of time and space
When it wasn’t ‘swimming weather,’ Belle Harbor was stunningly boring. So, as a young teenager, on Saturdays I would take a bus for a half-hour to the first (or last) stop of the subway in Brooklyn, and then take the one hour subway ride to Manhattan. It was always such a thrill to walk up the flight of stairs from the subway to the street. At first, the stairs would be dark, but I would able to hear the cacophonous traffic noises; then as I turned the corner of the stairs, daylight emerged and I would see the legs of the crowd on the sidewalk above. Finally, as I arrived on street level, I would know that I had left home and school behind and was a part of the throng of busy and sophisticated New Yorkers … as long as I was home by dinnertime. In those days, I would wander through the streets, go to a museum, the movies or to a play, go out to lunch or go shopping.
I guess my tastes haven’t changed because when I visit New York now, I still do those same things. Except now, I also ‘play tourist,’ that is, I take pictures and I visit the sights that I, when I was a real New Yorker, would have never deigned to visit of my own volition.
Here are my idiosyncratic suggestions of places to visit and restaurants and hotels to consider. I took these pictures during some recent trips.
New York’s Amusements
This Big Apple sculpture was one of many large ‘apples’ that were placed around the City as part of an art exhibit. I chose to photograph this one because of its alluring yet watchful eye.
New York is a great city for walking. It overflows with endless diversions, it’s not that large and it’s flat. I find it effortless to be engrossed and entertained in New York simply by exploring, observing and taking pictures. It’s actually a bit disquieting to realize how captivating it is to be a passive part of the New York scene.
I like to have a goal each day of exploring a particular section of the City. So for example, a nice day would be to walk down Fifth Avenue from midtown to the Village while doing some shopping, stop at the Forbes Museum on Fifth and 12th Street, and have a meal at Dean & DeLuca or Gotham Bar & Grill.
Or, one could walk up Madison Avenue from 57th Street to 82nd Street while window shopping, eat lunch at Payard Patisserie & Bistro and head to the Metropolitan Museum or the Neue Galerie and walk a bit in Central Park.
Central Park carriage
On one of my recent trips, I took the subway to Brooklyn Heights. It’s the first historic district in the United States and it hasn’t changed significantly since 1860, with small tree-lined streets, brownstones and small shops. I strolled down Montague Street to the Promenade and gazed at the wonderful views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I crossed Atlantic Avenue with its Middle Eastern shops, and walked to Amity Street in Cobble Hill to re-visit the brownstone where I once lived. I sat on the stoop of my old house and vividly and fondly recalled sitting in that spot thirty years ago, watching my toddlers play.
Aside from the Met and the MOMA, which each command a visit, there are some lovely, smaller museums:
The Forbes Magazine Galleries-diverse collection of world class collectibles and changing shows. They’ve sold off the Fabergé collection, unfortunately. Call before you go, since the Galleries sometimes close randomly.
62 Fifth Avenue (at 12th Street)
The Frick Collection-wonderful collection of Old Masters in a Beaux Arts mansion.
1 East 70th Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Jewish Museum-interesting exhibits, good lunch
1109 Fifth Avenue (at East 92nd Street)
Museum of Jewish Heritage-a new museum with interesting architecture in a lovely setting at Battery Park.
36 Battery Place (at Broadway and Battery Place)
Morgan Library & Museum-recently and expensively enlarged, but the original library is still the ‘must see.’
29 East 36th Street
Neue Galerie-German & Austrian art with a lovely restaurant.
1048 Fifth Ave (at 86th Street)
Asia Society and Museum-it sometimes has interesting exhibits; it always has great bathrooms.
725 Park Avenue (at East 70th Street)
Battery Park-leafy park at the southern tip of Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty; while you’re there check out the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Ellis Island-a fascinating experience preceded by a terrific boat ride in New York Harbor.
New York Harbor
Grand Central Terminal-great architecture and the Oyster Bar restaurant.
42nd Street and Park Avenue
St. Thomas Church-unlike St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Fifth Avenue and 49th Street, St. Thomas Church recedes into the background unless you view it from a distance.
1 West 53rd Street (at Fifth Avenue and West 53rd Street)
St. Thomas Church in New York brown stone
United Nations Headquarters-it’s a large, impressive and architecturally interesting complex. The tours are 45 minutes and well worth taking. There is a serene rose garden overlooking the East River that you can only enter if you’ve been on a tour.
First Avenue and East 46th Street
Central Park-when the sun is out and the Park is closed to auto traffic, it’s great fun to rent a bike and ride around the park. The longest loop is about 6 miles. You can rent bikes in the Park, near the Loeb Boat House parking lot on East 74th Street. Their quality isn’t great, but the location is very convenient.
Brooklyn Heights-historic district of small tree-lined streets, brownstones and small shops. The Promenade, from Cranberry Street to Remsen Street has superb views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Subway: 2 or 3 to Clark Street, A or C to High Street, N or R to Court Street
An NYPD car’s roof lights
I don’t see much point in going to the Gap or other mall stores when there are unique stores in New York. Here are the highs and lows of New York shopping:
Barney’s New York-super upscale.
660 Madison Avenue (between East 60th and 61st Streets)
Bergdorf Goodman-fabulous designer fashion and accessories.
754 Fifth Avenue (between West 57th and 58th Streets)
New York’s glamour, epitomized by this Bergdorf’s store window
Takashimaya New York-lovely Japanese accessories and household items; the downstairs restaurant is wonderful for lunch or tea.
693 Fifth Avenue (between East 54th and 55th Streets)
Tourneau-largest selection of watches I’ve seen; I especially like the pre-owned collection.
12 East 57th Street
A Second Chance-designer clothes at consignment prices.
1109 Lexington Avenue, 2nd floor (between East 77th and 78th Streets)
Century 21-huge, crowded store filled with bargains.
22 Cortlandt Street (across the street from the World Trade Center site)
Diamond District-wheel and deal among the diamond dealers, many of whom are Hasidic Jews.
West 47th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
Encore-consignment store with lots of barely used designer clothes.
1132 Madison Avenue (between 84th and 85th Streets)
I really enjoy staying in good hotels, especially in New York. Rooms in many New York hotels are small and claustrophobic, overlook an airshaft, and are noisy, so good intel is essential. At some point during your hotel research, it’s good to call the hotel directly (not the central 800 number call center) and find out the details and locations of the different grades of rooms and when they’ve been last renovated.
Hotel rooms are very expensive in New York, so in addition to checking the usual web sites and the hotel sites themselves, try AAA, which occasionally has the only discount available. Many hotels have good weekend rates. If you can’t afford a very good hotel, see if you can impose on your Aunt Lillian or other obliging New York relatives.
Here are some of the hotels I’ve enjoyed. All but the last one have great midtown locations. I lived and worked in midtown for four or five years and I still think it’s a great part of the city, especially for travelers. You’re in walking distance to great shopping, theater and museums.
Hotel Plaza Athenée-this is a small, sophisticated, very French hotel with a great location. It felt more like a fine Parisian hotel than a New York business-style hotel.
37 East 64th Street
Le Parker Meridien-the rooms are absolutely fine, but you would stay here for the pool and great fitness center on the roof, rather than the rooms, unless you get a room facing Central Park.
118 W 57th Street
The Barclay New York-Intercontinental-this is a formal style hotel. Some of its nicely decorated rooms are a bit small, so try for an upgrade. The West wing is quieter but has no view; the East wing faces Lexington Avenue, but is noisier. We stayed in a large suite here when our daughter graduated from law school and had a small dinner party in the suite that the hotel handled very well.
111 East 48th Street
The Plaza Hotel, now turning condo…
The ‘old’ Plaza’s international flags
The Regency-the good news: lots of celebs stay here…bad news: they get all the good rooms before you do. This is the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at where my ‘requested’ nonsmoking room was not available. After I begged the seemingly disinterested front desk daily to move me to a nonsmoking room, on my last night I was moved to a fabulous, huge (nonsmoking) suite.
540 Park Avenue (at 61st Street)
Waldorf Astoria-this is a huge, grand hotel, but it’s not as impersonal as one might think. The rooms vary; a corner room is good. When I stayed here last, I had hurt my back and needed lots of room service. All the service was prompt and the room service food was first-rate.
301 Park Avenue (between 49th and 50th Streets)
Palace Hotel-it has elegant, large, modern rooms. Ask for a room on a high floor facing St. Patrick’s; it’s a nice view and the rooms have great light. This is a good place to stay if you’re traveling alone since the staff is welcoming and makes one feel comfortable.
455 Madison Avenue (at East 50th Street)
212/888-7000 or 800/697-2522
Michelangelo Hotel-part of an Italian chain, it retains a certain Italian ambiance and flair, like the continental breakfast served daily in the lobby and the obliging service; the junior suites are large and comfortable (our suite was about 550 square feet, though it lacked a separate living room). I’d stay here again.
152 West 51st Street (near 7th Avenue)
The Lucerne Hotel-this is an extremely pleasant and less expensive hotel on the West Side, near the Museum of Natural History. The staff was very hospitable and helpful. The rooms are decorated a bit on the frilly side for my taste, but they were very comfortable and well kept.
201 West 79th Street (near Amsterdam Avenue)
Here’s a hotel I suggest you avoid:
W New York (541 Lexington Avenue)-it has a good bar, but the rooms are extremely small and the decor, while aiming for sophistication, is merely dull. After being shown a tiny room, we asked for and were given a handicap accessible room. Our theory: to accommodate a wheelchair, a handicap accessible room would be large enough for two people to avoid bumping into each other.
Although I think that restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area serve fresher, more exceptional food for less money than those in New York, there are tons of good restaurants in New York. Here are some I like. You’ll need reservations.
Babbo-Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant in the West Village. Service was a bit slow on my most recent visit.
110 Waverly Place (betwe
n MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue)
Brasserie-ultramodern, chic, a bit glitzy and fun; open late. It feels like New York.
100 E. 53rd Street (between Lexington and Park Avenues)
Candle 79-delicious organic, vegetarian food in a very attractive setting.
154 E. 79th Street (between 3rd and Lexington Avenues)
Florent-first restaurant in the meat packing district, open 24 hours, the food ranges from breakfast to traditional French food.
69 Gansevoort Street (between Washington and Greenwich Streets)
Gotham Bar & Grill-interesting, contemporary cuisine.
12 East 12th Street (between Fifth Avenue and University Place)
Le Bernardin-elegant, very expensive French seafood but worth it.
155 West 51st Street
The Modern – Bar Room-the delicious, small plate, Alsatian inspired menu and artistically spare yet elegant décor combine for an impressive evening.
9 West 53rd Street (located at MOMA, with a separate entrance, between 5th and 6th Avenues)
Payard Patisserie & Bistro-great for a sophisticated lunch, dinner or pastries.
1032 Lexington Avenue (between East 73rd and East 74th Streets)
Peter Luger-top rated for its exemplary quality steak.
178 Broadway (corner of Driggs)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn (take a cab)
Here’s a restaurant I suggest you avoid:
Country Café- at a recent lunch, the wrong entrée was served and the bill had to be redone twice before it was correct.
Good Casual Restaurants and Take-out Places
Bagel Works Inc-a variety of bagels, cream chesses, fish and salad.
1229 First Avenue (between 66th and 67th Streets)
Ess-A-Bagel-award winning bagels and smoked fish.
• 359 First Avenue (at 21st Street)
• 831 Third Avenue (between 50th and 51st Streets)
Dean & DeLuca-upscale sandwiches and salads.
75 University Place (at East First Street)
Gourmet Garage-wonderful gourmet breads, meats, cheeses and produce; great take-out.
• 117 7th Avenue South (at 10th Street)
• 2567 Broadway (at 96th Street)
• 301 East 64th Street (between First and Second Avenues)
• 1245 Park Avenue (at 96th Street)
• 435 Broome Street (at Mercer)
John’s Pizzeria-great New York pizza has a thin crust, lots of cheese and oil with very little tomato sauce. The sign of a great New York pizza is that it must be held away from your body to prevent the cheese and oil from dripping on your lap.
• 408 East 64th Street (near First Avenue)
• 278 Bleecker Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)
• 260 W. 44th Street (near Eighth Avenue)
Serendipity 3-it’s overpriced but great for a kid’s lunch or treat.
225 East 60th Street (between Second and Third Avenues)
Zabar’s Cafe-it’s next door to the famous gourmet food store and serves very good, inexpensive breakfast and lunch.
2245 Broadway at 80th Street
The quintessential hot salted pretzel
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2006. All Rights Reserved.