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Half a Year In New York City

Hey! I thought I’d write and post some pictures about the last 6 months here. It certainly has been an adventure full of surprises, some challenges and plenty of laughs.

When I first stepped off the (first) plane in July the weather was just beginning to change. It had been the wettest Spring in 100 years and all the New Yorkers looked miserable. But the cool switched to humid instantly. I’d read emails about how London was sunny and beautiful whilst I looked up at the overcast sky and wiped the sweat from my brow.

New York filled me with new energy that had seemed to escape me after almost a year and a half of trying to set up2 businesses. In fact, every time I come back to New York the frenetic pace of the city jolts you into activity. You can’t laze about in Gotham City!

My initial efforts at hunting for a job seemed very successful. People answered my phone calls and emails and within a couple of weeks I had meetings nearly everyday – some were interviews, some were networking meetings, some were for a nice cold glass of Stella Artois.

Within a few days I started to believe that I was about to land a job – so I ignored one contact’s warning that ‘you could die of enthusiasm in New York’. Within three days, a lady at one of the largest marketing agencies in the world (Mindshare) offered me a job! Maybe I should have however recognized that the rain was a warning – it took her new boss three months to finally decide they weren’t recruiting.

After a quick trip to London for a stag weekend at the beginning of August, I returned to Manhattan and persevered. It was now ‘vacation-time’ though and I tended to have ‘informational’ interviews rather than any serious job prospect meetings. It was warm, sunny and the time allowed me to explore more and more of Manhattan.

I was (and am) staying with The Lady in West Village. Much of West Village is a quiet, low rise area with ‘brownstone’ houses built around 1850. It has been gently gentrified to become one of the most popular areas to live in New York (although they say it was a different story even ten years ago).

To the north is the tiny Meat Packing district and further north is Chelsea. To the east is Greenwich Village and to the south is TriBeCa. SoHo, East Village, NoLIta, Union Square and even Lower Manhattan (Wall Street) were within walking distance – and then I realized The Lady had a bike: I could reach Central Park and even further!

With a digital camera I traveled to each and took pictures...

Meatpacking is very different to the other districts close by. It is still a very commercial area where butchers ship in carcasses and chop them up to package meat for the shops and restaurants. Side by side are designer stores (Brits like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney have shops there), trendy bars, classy restaurants and even London’s Soho House opened a branch of its private members club and included a swimming pool on it’s 6th floor terrace. The area really is buzzing– until it gets too hot – and then the only tings that buzz are the flies around the smelly pavements and gutters near where the meat trucks park. With the long distance drivers there also appears old age professions at any time of the day: the police seem to turn a blind eye.

Greenwich and West Village is full of leafy streets divided by wide commercial avenues. Bars, theatres, cinemas and bistro cafes hide in nooks and corners. There is also a British Fish& Chips shop (A Salt & Battery) and a British Tea Room (Tea & Sympathy) and a British shop (Myers of Keswick) – if you ever feel homesick/fancy a pack of Walkers crisps. You soon find that even though everything is parallel you walk certain streets because of their ambience and the styles of the 18th and 19th century buildings.

In one part of Greenwich Village is Washington Park Square. Despite the historic buildings that surround it, the square is probably my least favorite open space that I have come across (I often avoid it deliberately when walking home from SoHo). A ‘Marble Arch’ style monument overlooks an area full of dodgy peddlers who whisper at you as you walk past them. Near the center is a small dog-area – one of the few places where dogs can run free in this dog-crazy city. The dog-area used to be in a triangular space on the northwestern part of the square but they had to move it a few years ago when the dog started digging up the ground. Much longer ago this part of the park was where the city’s hanging tree used to stand. People would crowd every week to watch the latest criminals be hung. The bodies were buried by the gallows (probably the only buried in the city after they banned cemeteries in Manhattan in the 19th century). So the dogs at the park a few years ago started coming back to their owners not with a retrieved ball but a human bone or two!!

To the south of Greenwich Village is SoHo. Originally built in the 19th century it became a light industrial area for many years featuring my favorite buildings: the ‘American Industrial’ style of pre-fabricated cast-iron buildings. The buildings are amazing particularly on Greene Street. The buildings in the 60s became artist studios then later became the fashion stores, high-priced restaurants and hotels there are today. There are still shops to discover, cafes to sit in, buildings to admire. I found myself late one night in the second oldest pub in the city, Fanelli’s, or so they say on the wall (I think).

Further east is Nolita: an area that is North of Little Italy. This is a more relaxed area, streets full of boutiques, chilled bars and restaurants. The more you move towards Lower East Side through this area, the more ‘hip’ it becomes /the more beards you see.

Further South and East you come across the areas that people like Martin Scorsece made films about. The ‘Lower East Side’ streets contain narrow lanes like Orchard Street that still have the tenement buildings where they crammed the people in. It’s the land of ‘Gangs of New York’ – the Irish came, then the Germans, then the Jews and now the Latinos.

Streets like Stanton Street boast the trendiest boutiques and urban lifestyle stores. More beards, more hats, more attitude – but it’s off the beaten track, so more of an adventure!

To give you an idea of how crammed the city was you just have to go to Chinatown a little south across Canal Street. It is a completely different world: Chinatown remains the one area that seems to be to be a city within a city – filled with sweatshops in basements and up on the top floors, gambling dens. I think that many of the Chinese here were probably born here but don’t speak English – they just don’t need to if they never leave the 40 blocks they inhabit.

Chinatown has over spilled into many of the other areas including ‘Little Italy’ however the Italians may be finally fighting back (or the city tourist board): I recently noticed that there have been more and more Italian delicatessens and restaurants. Maybe they are offering tax grants to keep the area’s flavor.

In September, the hunt for work went dead. Despite the fact that I expected that everyone would be back from vacation I didn’t get one interview or networking meeting that month. The sun was still shining and I had, by now, developed a network of fellow Brits. Quite coincidentally, everyone lost their job in September (which didn’t help my morale) and we spent days doing ‘job club’ in the beautiful late summer sunshine at Central Park or on the piers by the river.

I had more time on my hands so I decided to explore further. From The Lady’s apartment in West Village I could cycle along the river where they had built a fabulous promenade and the aforementioned piers that had been landscaped into gardens. Along the river you can see the old piles of the piers that used to take all the cargo and people into the city. They point out at the old industrial areas of Hoboken and the post 9/11 revitalized skyscraper-ville of Jersey City.

To the south is an area called TriBeCa which has the semi-industrial character of SoHo but not the tourists, stores or mayhem. You can venture through the streets and imagine the old factories and warehouses stocking goods just off the ships off the docks and piers. Some of the streets are still cobbled and bridges can be seen running across streets between buildings and you come across very old houses and workshops. Now stylish restaurants such as De Niro’s ‘Tribeca Grill’ and Nobu can be found on the street corners.

Further along the river is Lower Manhattan. The cycle path rides past Ground Zero. The first visit is very eerie and you are aware of an uncommon silence. It fills you with sadness. The next time you pass, you notice something different. New York is a city of progress – nothing stops in its way – despite the calmness, the area is rebuilding, revitalizing, recreating.

Lower Manhattan also contains Wall Street. Oddly enough, I find this area the most interesting parts of Manhattan. Like the City of London, many of the streets are based on the old network of lanes of the original port. Skyscrapers stand either side of these lanes now but you still can envision what takes place as you look down to the ‘slips’ to the river or down the alleyways – although, you have to remember that much of the area by the river has been created by landfill. There are some much older buildings (Schermerhorn Row built in 1812) nestled in the middle of the area that really gives you an idea of the change the area has gone through – at least in height!

West of here is Battery Park that looks out on the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island – both closed for security for now). I wave at the Lady every time I jog down there hoping she’ll bring me some good luck!

I always feel that Brooklyn Bridge is at the very south of the island but it is in fact west - at the same level as the World Trade Center area – close to the imposing City Hall. .

It’s a steep ride up the marvelous bridge but you finally get to reach quite a height and you first look over the financial district, then up the river and finally over to Brooklyn as you descend the other side.

On the Brooklyn side between Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge you find the district of Dumbo (you may remember a small park that you see in many films that looks up at the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan). This area is another industrial area that is gradually being taken over (supposedly) by artists and hipsters. Only gradually, I think – there’s not that much to do.

Just a little further north past Manhattan Bridge, you reach an area much like an old town called Vinegar Hill. It’s off the tourist trail and full of slim brownstone houses. Although people live here, it feels a little bit like a ghost town – or at least a ghost from the past. You look up a street with old store fronts – now converted to home’s front windows – and you can imagine the old horses and carts that must have traveled along a once busier street.

After I went to Vinegar Hill I cycled east from here and found myself in the Projects: lots of ‘homies’ turned to see who I was. I was glad I was on a bike! I hurried south and up into Brooklyn Heights. The Heights have grand mansion blocks and a raised promenade that overlooks Lower Manhattan and the old Brooklyn docks. Times are changing and these are too.

Further south you can climb Smith Street in Cobble Hill. This area is changing – once an area of thugs and hoodlums, again hipsters now hang in the café and their design stores. It’s fun and bizarre. One coffee shop called Halcyon is also a late night bar, a retro-furniture store (the stuff you sit on with your beer), a vinyl record store and an art gallery. Bar Tabac has also been a fine place for an out of town dinner on the odd night.

East of here you find Boerum Hill, you ride along tree lined streets (London Plain Trees) with progressive names as Pacific or Atlantic Avenue. They are full of smart brownstone houses – some split into 1 bedroom flats all selling for half a million pounds each.

South of Park Slope, is the grand Prospect Park. Designed by the same chaps that created Central Park this is one of the most striking urban parks I have ever seen. The cycle path orbits the park through dense wood, then open meadow-like fields, past families relaxing in BBQ areas, around a huge boating lake and then up a steep hill where a famous civil war battle was fought. Unlike Central Park, you shouldn’t enter after dark… people still get murdered there.

From the front of the park you pass the War Monument on Grand Army Plaza (roundabout) and the Brooklyn Library with gilt doors.

You can roll down hill and fight with the traffic all the way to Manhattan Bridge. If you find the cyclist/pedestrian entrance, you can cross the East River and see fantastic views of both boroughs as steel subway cars roll past. The exit takes you out into through an archway – that must have once looked triumphant but now is far too small for the volume of traffic. You turn around and find you’re back in the chaos of Chinatown.

Williamsburg is another great place to visit. Best journeyed using the subway’s L Train, it’s just one stop over the river. Amongst the low rise, once-cheap housing are art studios, galleries, Thai restaurants, dive bars, gig-venues, restaurants and other ‘hipster’ hangouts. Some say that this area has had its day but it really seems to be at the forefront of urban inspired art, fashion, music and lifestyle.

October got a little busier in terms of meeting people. I had five interviews with one company and they offered to fly me to San Francisco for my final interview (however, when they realised I was an alien they reconsidered!)

Naturally, the city had grown a little bit cooler but on the sunnier days I’d take the bike out. Along the Hudson they have built the river park – it stretches from Battery Park in the south to the top of the island. Some of it is re-developed and some of it is dated. Along it you get to see a variety of features: Old piers are left to crumble into the river whilst new piers are developed for leisure (and a spot of fishing), you pass the pier where the Titanic would have landed, the famous Circle Line boat boarding station, a Warship, a forgotten 19th century chariots (?), soccer pitches and golf ranges.

I also took a trip to the Rockaways on the subway’s A Train. This beach resort was empty at this time of year. I enjoyed walking for miles along empty beaches feeling the sun (and the wind!). You stumble upon buildings and parks that must have been swarming with people only one month earlier but now look boarded up as if for ever.

In November I started to talk to a guy called Adam about a new business he’s planning on setting up. I did manage to continue my bike rides: one day I rode up Broadway to Central Park and then turned east. I cycled up to the Queensboro Bridge hoping that it would take me to the small isle of Roosevelt Island that sits in the East River. The bridge however took me about 300 feet over it and into Queens! I cycled through industrial streets of the borough and found another bridge to the island. The island used to be where all the long term ‘hospitals’ were: i.e. where the loony bins were/where they locked you up if you weren’t quite ‘right’. About 25 years ago they built new accommodation blocks but some (modern) hospitals remain. On the southern most tip remains the remnants of the Victorian style buildings staring across at Manhattan. It sits alone in chilly silence facing the bedlam of Manhattan.

December became busier. I started to have job interviews, I got a cash in hand job helping a ‘dotcom’, I got offered a dog walking job, Adam asked me to help him pitch for an advertising/web piece of business with the promise of giving me a job if successful and a British agency asked me to help pitch for the advertising of the launch of a new men’s magazine!! It holds good news for the next year and fills me with enthusiasm again so that I’ll endure the snow and the chilly winter months! But I must watch what the weather tells me: last week it snowed more on a specific day than it had in 149 years!

So, anyway, that’s some news – hopefully next year I’ll get to write about other places I have seen: Upper West Side, Midtown or Chelsea. And then again, I could always go explore Harlem and the Bronx!

December 22, 2003 in Diary, Photography | Permalink


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