The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.
Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.
There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.
Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.
An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.
Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.
Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.
I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.
And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.
Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.
Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.
I was put in the terrifying position of watching over all three of my young children on my own for several hours. My wife does this every day as I commute to work in Manhattan and back. But she was doing food demonstrations for Flushing C.S.A. at an event at the historic John Bowne House recently and I was on my own with our three girls.
I had not planned what to do but my wife convinced me that taking them to the New York Hall of Science would be good. She was spot on. If you have young children and if it’s convenient to get to, the New York Hall of Science is a great place.
We stayed as long as we could but after about four and a half hours there, our three-year-olds had clothes that were wet from one of the water exhibits and it was time to start heading home. We had arrived before it was open but we left around 2:15 p.m. and I made a bee line straight for home and kept up conversation with the kids as best I could, hoping the motion of driving would not put the girls to sleep, but it did.
Kids napping in the car is a double-edged sword. On one hand the kids are guaranteed to take a nap at the same time. On the other hand that nap will not be that long and you will be stuck in your vehicle for an hour. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes that doesn’t work at all. You can’t go on a long trip because the kids could wake up at any time and start crying and you’ll need to take them home quickly. If you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck and may have to improvise.
I realized less than a mile from home that I was now going to be spending at least the next hour or more in the minivan. I was at peace with that.
Drive time can be a time of much-appreciated solitude. Quiet solitude is remarkably achievable even when you’re living in a city of millions of people. The size of New York gives its citizens a certain degree of anonymity. During my drive I passed by thousands of people, had close encounters with maybe half dozen drivers down narrow two-way streets, and did business with one fast food worker. I could give you the basic pedigree information about the fast food worker but nothing else, and I doubt anyone I encountered during that hour and a half could tell you anything about me.
When you spend most of your days without any peace and quiet, you learn to appreciate any small moments of quiet solitude you can get, and these drive times with napping children can be very valuable. They are something that takes the edge off of the frantic pace of the city, that gives us a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of our own corner of this metropolis without interruption. The same can be said of walks in the park or even walking anonymously down city streets.
Our teeming Gotham demands much of us and part of the thrill of living here is to embrace the breakneck pace of life. But when you get a chance for an hour of respite, no matter how diluted, grasp onto it and enjoy every minute.
Among the many holiday traditions that we go through are finding the fine balance between indulging in all the requisite holiday traditions with children while not creating a burning hatred of the holidays within yourself.
Considering that I live in one of the largest urban centers of the known universe, I am very much averse to crowds and would rather not go where there is a crush of people. And it’s not that these are New York crowds that makes my hatred of crowds so strong, I’ve found that in places like Atlanta, where the crowds are often suburbanites with not concept of urban life or shared space, people are more likely to get on your nerves and not know how to move or act in a crowded space. New York has more than its share of clueless retards who don’t know how to ride an escalator or even walk down a hallway, but there is at least a baseline population of those that do that can make life here bearable.
So the holidays tend to bring the tourists and other urban amateurs within the five boroughs to see the sights and sounds. We need their tourist dollars to help keep this show afloat, but we can see a lot of beautiful holiday stuff without having to endure the hoard of vapid slow-walkers that make visiting our beautiful city a shit show.
When some of my family wanted to head to Times Square the day after Christmas a few years ago, I thought they were out of their minds. I still went along with them anyway because I didn’t want to miss out on spending some time with family. While I was trying to navigate my way out of the giant M&Ms World store, I vowed to no god that I would avoid crushing holiday crowds at all cost.
I am very lucky and in a rare position as a New York City dweller in that I have regular access to an automobile. Part of that is a function of where in the city I live. I’m in a more suburban part of Eastern Queens. I’m still in the thick of a crowded city, but I’m in an area where driving a car is not the abysmal insanity that it is in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn. That gives us options to get to places that are off limits to a lot of my family and friends, including people with kids, so take my advice with a grain of salt.
I had a day off of work and we managed to get our brood, along with the help of grandparents, to Hicks Nurseries on Long Island. It has a lot of beautiful holiday stuff there – really nice trees and ornaments that lend dignity and beauty to the holiday. They also have a lot of the schlocky crap you’d expect people from Long Island to love (sorry Long Island friends but it’s true).
Hicks Nurseries on a weekday is a good time, on the weekend it’s a madhouse. It’s a nice madhouse and a nice place to get Christmas stuff, but a madhouse nonetheless – their credit card readers are also ancient and it declined my credit card even though it wasn’t overdrawn or anything.
While I try not to simply phone it in for the holidays, I want to lead by example for the children. If your kids see you going apeshit over Christmas, they’re going to go apeshit over Christmas too. If you act like Santa is maybe no big deal, then your kids won’t ask to stand in line for an hour to meet a man in a Santa suit. So when I saw people lining up an hour ahead of time to meet “Santa” at Hicks, I knew I didn’t want to linger. We did buy a tree though despite their credit card malfeasance.
For a good Santa with little to no waiting, head to Old Westbury Gardens. It’s a worthwhile place to visit any time of the year. It’s the former estate of wealthy attorney and industrial heir John Shaffer Phipps that is now open to the public and well preserved. There are interesting events there all year round. We brought our kids there for an arts & crafts event and discovered that they have a Santa Claus there on the weekends. There was no waiting. It was free (with admission to the grounds) and the Santa was friendly. Our girls did not want to sit on Santa’s lap and even expressed some skepticism afterwards (“Santa didn’t say ‘Ho, ho ho,’” one of our girls observed).
I’m very much looking forward to the holidays this year, and not just because I’m going to be getting some nice gifts and eat delicious food, but because I’m going to be spending more time with family, including my smart and tough daughters. Our family has had a lot of down moments this year, with death and illnesses putting a damper on everything. But getting to take time away from the busy workday and put in time with family, where it counts, is something to be joyous about, even in the most jaded of times.
This past weekend my wife and I went to an obnoxious Scandinavian furniture store and purchased some sensible furniture we will need for our recently expanded brood. The heavy boxes of yet-to-be-assembled furniture is still sitting in the back of our van, not because we lack for strength or willpower to haul them up to our apartment, but because we have yet to make the necessary logistical calculations and plans needed to move furniture in a New York City apartment.
Perhaps I should call Mike Moosehead, a bandmate and New York City hardcore punk musical Renaissance man among whose many talents includes the ability to “Tetris” large amounts of musical equipment into seemingly impossible spaces. He can figure out how to fit an entire backline of drum kit parts, amplifiers and instruments into the back of a taxi cab and narrow storage areas.
In New York City, space is such a premium that every move has to be calculated and every inch must be justified. Few can afford spacious living. And even in Northern Queens where we live, where things are not as crowded as other parts of the city (grocery stores in our neighborhood have parking lots – a rare luxury if you are accustomed to Manhattan life), space is still a precious commodity.
In the furniture store we found dressers and book cases that would have been much better without the very common decorative overhangs and trimmings. We had to go to the store with very exact measurements of our daughters’ bedroom and then sit down and do a lot of math after collecting all the dimensions of the furniture we were considering buying. No doubt every homeowner has to do that, but New York City living means getting right down to the half inch.
At the office where I work, there was a pay parking lot next to our building when I first started working there two years ago. It is now a construction site for a hotel that is being built. Even in this age of Airbnb, hotels are being built in spaces that would normally seem too small. Every square foot of this city can be made into a money-making venture. If you aren’t getting the maximum use of your space, you are losing money somehow.
At home, we have a nice two-bedroom apartment that was spacious when it was only two of us. But we began creating new human beings and now our apartment shelters five. Three of those are under three but they grow fast and our space is already crowded. It is going to be a months-long effort to make our space more comfortable to live in, and we have to plan everything out meticulously.
All things considered, we are lucky to have the problems we have. There are plenty of people who are living in more crowded conditions and we have a stable living situation in a safe neighborhood and a roof over our heads. But the maddening “Tetris” of city life continues unabated and won’t slow down.
Because New York City is constantly being remade and revised, pieces of the city’s past can often linger around and become subsumed into the present, sometimes barely noticeable. These totems of city history are treasures often right in front of our faces.
Such is the case with the abandoned track of the Long Island Railroad’s Rockaway Line, which has been a tempting forbidden zone to Queens residents since the early 1960s when this part of the LIRR stopped operating.
Years ago, when I lived on 101st Avenue only a few blocks from the abandoned Ozone Park station, I would walk by the abandoned tracks, which are elevated for much of its stretch through Queens. The city rents out the space beneath the tracks to some businesses along the way. And one auto parts business near Rockaway Boulevard and Liberty Avenue welded a large spider sculpture together from used auto parts and suspended this from one of the trestles over the track. It has since fallen down. While I was living in Ozone Park, a motorcycle club rented out one of these spaces beneath the tracks, and would have parties in their clubhouse there.
The success of the High Line in Manhattan has encouraged communities in Queens to push to make a three and a half mile stretch of this abandoned LIRR line into a similar park. The QueensWay is a plan to turn the abandoned line into a “family-friendly linear park and cultural greenway.” Others would like to revive the tracks so they can be used for public transportation again. This plan would meet a lot of resistance from people who now live near the existing track, and face an uphill battle for funding. The prospect of a 20-minute commute to midtown is enticing and New York’s transportation system is in such a shambles that any stretch of track should be welcomed with open arms. Maybe some long-term compromise can be reached, whereas much of the railroad is revived and used for transportation again but some segments are made into a park.
But I have long wanted to walk along some of this abandoned track and this weekend I got my wish in Forest Park. Not far from Woodhaven Boulevard, there is a paved road that looks like a regular street but is closed off to regular traffic. This road traverses an overpass that runs over a segment of abandoned track. With a two-year-old girl in a carrying pack on my back, I walked down a steep drainage gutter that runs along the overpass.
There were some N.Y.U. students there filming what they described as an experimental film, and they looked more nervous about filming on off-limits abandoned property without a permit than about the critical success of their film. They had camera equipment and enough food and beverages there to be a proper film crew. I discreetly made my way around them and started walking on some of the abandoned track.
The tracks are overgrown and the rails are rusted. Trees both grow out of and in some cases lay across the tracks. There is a lot of graffiti on the concrete surrounding the tracks and even some on the trees. Rusted wire towers stood sentry along the line; some of them have topped over. The lush greenery is also dotted with signs of the tracks being a party place. There are empty beer cans, and sadly, traces of a poorly-tended campfire.
A second overpass is more remote to pedestrians and has more elaborate graffiti. A collection of discarded spray paint can tops sit together among the leaves and other detritus.
It feels like stepping into part of history, even poorly preserved history from 50 years ago feels significant. It is a feeling of pleasant quiet and secret entre among the bustle and grind of our five boroughs.
Someday the Rockaway Line will be busy again, either with park-goers, tourists, or even trains. Take some time to explore it before this piece of overgrown history goes away.
At a proud moment last year, I won the Literary Open Mic competition hosted by my comrade-in-arts and Renaissance man Filthy Phill Lentz at The Cobra Club. I decided to celebrate my victory with a late-night snack before heading home. I drove to where my navigation system indicated was the nearest White Castle, only to find a construction site in its place.
It is at least the second White Castle to be purged from the popular and overrated borough of Brooklyn. The much-valued Castle in Williamsburg on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Humboldt Street was closed nearly two years ago to make way for more overpriced apartments.
Before I got married, I made sure my bachelor party ended with a visit to White Castle to cap off an evening of Yankees baseball, strippers and punk rock. When my band plays shows near a White Castle we are sure to stop by for some sliders on the way home.
I wouldn’t advocate eating junk food regularly, and I limit my White Castle visits to special occasions and balance with attempts at a healthy diet and regular exercise. But after a night of victorious effort, whether that be in producing great art, achieving a career or personal victory, or otherwise exerting yourself above and beyond the call, it is suitable to indulge with some excellent excess, and you should be able to safely do that in multiple locations around any major American city.
New York City has fallen behind in its White Castle Index, meaning that low-cost good food at all hours is increasingly unavailable. Williamsburg was once a haven for artists; it’s now home to the $150 doughnut. Williamsburg managed to strike it rich and still slide into the sewer.
I prefer White Castle, and I’d be happy to expound on its excellence both culturally and calorically, but there are other options that are similarly convenient and meaningful. Regionally there are many differences and the White Castle chain does not ready many parts of the U.S. But every region should have its own version of White Castle. Waffle House often fits the bill in many parts of the country. It is open 24 hours a day and has plentiful offerings of quickly made indulgent food at a relatively low cost (it might be useful to call this the Waffle House Index in the Southern U.S. I don’t know any Waffle House restaurants north of Pennsylvania). And diners are a great American institution that are being priced out of existence as well.
Everyone should be able to have an all-night restaurant that they can go to relax among their own kind (leaving it up to each person who counts as “their own kind.”)
If the all-night party isn’t available at an affordable cost, then something is wrong, and we are getting to the point in New York City where only the extravagantly wealthy can afford to live life to the fullest. That leads to a decline in the character and long-term viability of the city. Without strong, vibrant, working and middle classes, the cultural and physical rot of its society becomes evident very quickly.
The world’s best artists do not emerge from the pampered class that looks down their noses at the common people. The arbiters of taste and culture should not be people who’ve never waited tables, washed dishes, or dug a ditch. With fewer and fewer working Americans able to find a rewarding life in our urban centers, cities will cease to be engines of creativity and genius.
As goes the working class, so goes our city. Luckily, there are still numerous White Castles to be found in the outer boroughs. I’ll see you at one.