Tag Archive | tourists

New York: Accept No Substitutes

I was in Atlanta for work this past week and I wanted to go someplace for lunch. I was working in a very modern office that had some free pizza for lunch, but I wanted something healthier and to get out of the office for a little while.

Atlanta is not a pedestrian friendly city and my options were limited unless I wanted to take a cab someplace. A coworker recommended a shopping center a little way up the hill in the corporate park where we were, so I walked there.

My options for lunch were a Subway (no, a Subway worker once tried to put mayonnaise on a meatball sub and once you get past a certain age the smell of their bread is disgusting), a salad place, and a New York-style deli. For some reason, I picked the New York-style deli place. I thought maybe they would have good sandwiches.

The walls were painted with images from New York: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the like. It was a poor imitation of a New York deli. People waited too long at the counter and too long for table service. Maybe they have brilliant pastrami or hot dogs but the sandwiches I saw pass by were pretty paltry and would not have made it across the counter at a quality deli in the Big Apple.

I tried to eat a healthy option so I ordered a salad and a side of cottage cheese. I also ordered an egg cream because it’s rare to find those anywhere, so when I see one offered on a menu I feel I should order it. The egg cream was only OK: again, it would be way below par at a place like Ray’s Candy Store, where I’m proud to have taken people for their first egg creams.

This kind of fraudulent “New York” is not limited to outside New York. But if you’re within the five boroughs or even within a hundred miles of the city and you stumble upon a restaurant or deli that makes grand pretention to how “New York” it is, you can usually count that as bogus. If you’ve got to advertise it, you’re not the real deal.

Atlanta, and the South in general, has some of the best food in the world. I’ve been to outstanding barbecue restaurants, had soul food, Cajun food, and many varieties of Southern cuisine that are mouth-watering just to think about. I know there is better fare on offer in Georgia. Sadly, the metro-Atlanta area has undergone rapid growth that has scrubbed away meaningful culture, leaving it with a lot of the mundane corporate subdivision architecture. You see what this kind of consolidation has done to the New York suburbs and parts of the five boroughs as well: there’s an Olive Garden making money in Times Square while independent Italian restaurants in Little Italy struggle to get by.

I did not find an authentic New York restaurant in Atlanta. Maybe I never will, but that’s OK. The search for the real New York is enough of a herculean task at home. My children may have a radically different idea of what makes for a true New York experience than I do. As generations make changes and the demographics of the city churn through neighborhood after neighborhood, what counts as a true measure of culture fluctuates.

I made it back to the office after wolfing down my salad and cottage cheese. I had to get more work done before flying back to New York.

 

How to be a pedestrian in New York City

New York is a very walkable city. We have horrible traffic that makes driving regularly in the more densely populated parts of the city nearly impossible and a grossly imperfect but extensive mass transit system that makes owning a car in the city unnecessary.

Walking the streets of Gotham is mostly a joy. But there are also a lot of frustrations in getting about on foot, as not everyone is up on their pedestrian etiquette.

I think we can safely exempt tourists from some of the walking rules, because we need their money to keep the city’s economy afloat and many tourists are from far-away places that don’t have the same customs or don’t have the same walking-friendly infrastructure. Lots of American suburbs, for instance, don’t have sidewalks in their residential area (something that threw me for a loop when I moved from Yonkers to Yorktown Heights).

Here are five essential rules for how to be a pedestrian in New York City:

Keep to the right of the sidewalk or stairs. In most countries people drive to the right. The same applies to pedestrian traffic just as it would automobile traffic. Walk to the right and you don’t have weave around a million people going the opposite direction. It’s a very simple concept and usually works well for motorized traffic.

Stay focused on walking. You may be a master multi-tasker when you are behind your desk at work or in the kitchen of your home. The sidewalks of New York are a different place. Do not look read a book or mobile phone while walking. You don’t look like a deep literary soul when you try to read a book while walking, you look just as stupid as a smart phone zombie but twice as pretentious.

Keep your eyes ahead of you and avoid gawking. There a millions of dazzling sights and no city in the world makes for better people watching than our bustling Gotham. It’s tempting to soak in all that’s around you and give in to the wanderlust and marvel at the vibrant life of our city, but some of us are trying to get to work or catch a bus or subway. If you keep your eyes straight ahead and let the foot traffic ebb and flow around you easily, you’ll get to where you are going with much less of a hassle. The bearded strangers trying to make eye contact with you are likely panhandlers and not the next Walt Whitman.

Remain considerate of others. Walking three abreast is OK in some places, but we have limited sidewalk space and if you are traveling in a group, others are going to be moving quicker and need to move around you. Our sidewalk cut-ins are often limited and not as easily maneuvered by people in wheelchairs and the elderly, so go ahead and step upon the curb like the healthy person you are.

Remember when cars and other vehicles have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, except when they don’t. It’s OK to cross against the light when there are no cars coming, but if there are, stay out of their way. Pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic like they haven’t a care in the world are the ones I prefer to see smooshed.

So please be alert. Everything in New York requires thought and mastery, even walking from place to place. Life is too short to stumble through it cluelessly. If you focus on where you’re going you’ll be a happier person when you get there.

Rockport at Night

Rockport, Massachusetts has a certain surreal and extremely beautiful quality about it, especially as you experience sunset there in the summer.

Rockport is a relatively small town that experiences tremendous tourism over the summer and has struck the right balance between quiet residential life and tourist mecca. The town handles large volumes of visitors but without surrendering the picturesque and friendly charm that attracts them.

This poem, “Rockport at Night”, attempts to capture the beauty and spirit of a place that is becoming too rare in American life today.

Topless Women Are Not New York’s Problem

Topless women in Times Square have their bodies painted to retain a bit of modesty and offer to let tourists take their photos with them for money. That can cause a lot of problems as the opportunity to see a topless woman for free is quite alluring (strip clubs are quite costly and a Dad can’t gracefully lead his family to have lunch in one).

But the idea that’s been circulated by the mayor is to actually demolish the Times Square pedestrian plaza, and this idea is lunacy.

As a rule, topless women should be encouraged. Sure, they attract a lot of idiots and earn the disapproval of prudes, but that can be managed. The Naked Cowboy became a Times Square attraction and was quickly copied by more than one Naked Cowgirl. The painted women are not much more revealing than those performers.

There’s definitely a need to regulate the crowds and keep a sane amount of these kinds of solicitation performers to a minimum. When every unemployed landscaper and his brother decided they could rake in cash by being Elmo, chaos ensued. Police put limits on costumed characters. If they have to do something similar with the topless women, so be it.

But don’t do away with the pedestrian plaza. That would be incredibly stupid. The solutions to the overabundance of performers is to put limits on them like has already been done with the people wearing large costumes. A permit-based system is used by the MTA in the subways to make sure there aren’t too many subway musicians making too much noise.

Closing the pedestrian plaza in Times Square would be an admission that the city is one of decay and hopelessness again. I remember when the city was like that and while we may want to romanticize and glorify the past, we don’t want to return to the pre-Giuliani New York, trust me.

New York prided itself on cleaning up and turning itself around. Times Square used to be a notorious place full of criminals, drug addicts and the homeless. Theaters that were once beautiful were run-down porno houses. When Disney announced they were going to be putting a store in Times Square in 1995, cartoons depicted Disney characters passed out drunk or dead with syringes sticking out of their arms. But no one would think that now. Times Square is probably one of the safest places in the city.

Doing away with the current Times Square isn’t a solution to any current problem. It’s what people who can’t or won’t do what needs to be done. When there was too much crime in Central Park, we didn’t pave over Central Park.

The pedestrian plaza in Times Square was created because of the success in cleaning it up. Walking through Times Square used to be an even worse nightmare than it is today because you were dodging crowds on sidewalks that were not built to accommodate that many people. Driving through was no picnic either as jaywalking pedestrians held everything up.

Now Times Square is still an overcrowded hellhole, but not to tourists. If you’re a New York resident trying to get somewhere, you generally already avoid Times Square like the plague anyway during regular waking hours.

New York at Christmas Time

The holidays are a time when many of us are reluctantly pushed into public places to go through the motions about being happy about the holidays. Sometimes the very happiness of the holidays are mocking and angering. Sometimes the very image of others’ happiness is a slap in the face, and the holidays give other people’s happiness a particularly cold sting.

There’s no reason for the holidays this year to be any different. A cursory glance at the world at large doesn’t give the impression that there is much to celebrate.

It is my goal again this year, as in previous years, to not go into a single store to buy a Christmas present. I would rather be an antisocial Grinch and do all of my shopping online.

I get enough of the horrendously-behaved crowds in my everyday life. The holidays are a time to reflect on the blessing we have. While living in New York City is one of those blessings, living cheek-by-jowl with millions of other human beings is not. It’s an odd conundrum: We love New York, which wouldn’t be what it is without all of its people, yet a good many of those people are detestable.

But what else are we to do? We can’t live life as disgruntled hermits. We are social creatures and the people who are successful in living outside of society don’t live very good lives.

And besides, New York is beautiful around the holidays. Even the most jaded New Yorker can appreciate how beautiful things can become around this time of year. I embrace the “bah-humbug” aspect of the holidays in every way possible, and even I feel pangs of civic pride to see our city landmarks decked out in their holiday finery.

Here are five things you can do to experience New York City at its Christmastime best:

Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science consists of record-breaking gingerbread houses and you even get a chance to take home some of the gingerbread once the holidays are over. And the New York Hall of Science is a good place to escape to from the holiday scrum of Manhattan. It is in Queens, the greatest and most American New York City borough.

The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden has been running for over 20 years and runs until January 19. It features trains that run through beautiful models of some of New York’s greatest landmarks. The models are all made from plants. It’s like a New York-centric Rose Bowl Parade that doesn’t suck. It’s in The Bronx, and if you take some time to stroll through the Botanical Gardens, you will be amazed that you’re in a big city. It will be much less crowded after the holidays.

The Grand Central Terminal holiday light show is going to be crowded. Grand Central Terminal is always horribly crowded but it’s so beautiful that it’s worth it. The holiday light show will make you glad you went there.

Free reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works Bookstore Café. More than two dozen writers take turns reading from the Charles Dickens classic at this event. The book store raises money for Housing Works, an AIDS charity. Some free literature will make you feel better about yourself over the holidays.

Time Warner Center’s Holiday Under the Stars is a display of large lighted stars at the Time Warner Center’s large great room and are specially lit in a display that is set to music. The Time Warner Center does not have much to offer the non-millionaire shopper, so here is a chance to enjoy some nice holiday spirit at the center’s expense and maybe avoid some of the horrific crowds that clog other venues.

Holiday markets also abound. Union Square has one, as does Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. Here is your chance to buy last minute Christmas things or feel OK about doing some real retail non-online shopping this year. These may be crowded but there are enough of them and these are large enough that you should be able to find a nice place to shop among these many markets. They also usually feature local artists selling their work.

Whatever you do, get out there and see the holiday sights. Even if you hate the holidays and want to piss on everyone’s parade, it only counts if you do so in person.

Overrated New York Attractions (And Their Underrated Alternatives)

For the tourist, and many of the locals, New York is a series of attractions and experiences that everyone must check off of their bucket list in order to consider their New York experience authentic or complete. But there are some things that are overrated and that resident and tourist alike should move to the bottom of their list.

Let’s make not being a sucker one of the authentic New York experiences once again. Here are five New York attractions that get way too much attention, along with some more reasonable alternatives:

The Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is a beautiful monument to the enduring symbol of freedom America is to the world. However, visiting Lady Liberty means paying a shyster ferry company for an overpriced ticket out there, standing in a long line to go through TSA-style incompetent security care of the U.S. Park Police, and then riding to Liberty Island where you can wait in another long line if you want to get to the top of the statue’s crown. Once you get up there, you’ll have a few seconds in front of a small window before you are hustled on your way. It’s not worth the money or the time out of your life. As an alternative, the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free, requires no strip search, and will get you within great photograph distance of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Brick Oven Pizza.  Hipsters and tourists stand in long lines and pay high prices for pizza that is burned, unevenly cooked, and gives you less of everything. Somewhere a mob-connected pizza scammer is laughing until he wets his creased chino pants. Go ahead and wait hours for your sucky overpriced pizzas and brag to your friends how you pretended to enjoy the thin crust and the flimsy layer of “artisanal” cheese. Meanwhile, any real neighborhood pizza place will get you a delicious slice or pie for a good price. Here’s an effective litmus test of any New York pizza place: if it doesn’t have parmesan cheese for you to sprinkle on your pizza, walk away.

The Central Park Zoo. Every zoo in New York that isn’t the Bronx Zoo is playing second fiddle to that fine animal kingdom. The Central Park Zoo gets lots of foot traffic because of its location but it’s overrated and doesn’t have as much to offer as its counterpart in Queens. People are too enthralled with being in the heart of Manhattan to notice that the zoo they paid for sucks. Take the 7 train to Queens and you can experience the Queens Zoo in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The Queens Zoo is half the price of the Central Park Zoo and has more to offer.

Thanksgiving Eve Balloon Inflation Stampede. The night before Thanksgiving, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers, tourists and their children make their way to the Upper West Side to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons before the parade. While it’s a relatively mild, family-friendly mob scene, it’s still a mob scene that requires you to pack into a small area where you have no choice but to follow the slow moving crowd. The balloons are inflated but kept under nets at odd angles. This might make for some unintended comedy. It might look like the Buzz Lightyear balloon is being fellated by Pikachu and that might be hilarious, but it’s not hours of being herded like cattle hilarious, and you can’t expect your children to find that funny if you’re a parent. Wait until the Big Apple Circus comes to your borough and take the kids to see that. There will be some impressive talent and you can save Thanksgiving Eve for preparing for Thanksgiving.

Fancy cupcake shops. I like cupcakes as much as the next guy, but any bakery not run by blind monkeys can churn out delicious cupcakes. How a few choice cupcake stores have made everyone whore themselves out for their goods is beyond me. I was at a catered event and had a cupcake from the Magnolia Bakery. It was good, but so where cupcakes I had from school bake sales and every other bakery I’ve been to. For a good New York dessert experience, go to the Lemon Ice King of Corona in Corona, Queens. It is a famous place but it’s far enough away from Manhattan that you’ll have a real New York experience and not be a fool.

Standing Strong on Pier 17

Pier 17 Simply SeafoodFried food is the last thing I need to eat, but I needed to eat at a seafood restaurant at the South Street Seaport just to give them my business.

As I approached the Pier 17 mall, I found it surrounded by barricades with the only entrance guarded by a security guard turning people away. He admits that the restaurant is open, but calls it a “café” when it clearly is not.

“I understand there’s one restaurant still open inside,” I said to the guard, who was discouraging someone from entering.

“Well it’s not a restaurant, it’s a café. If you want to check it out it’s on the third floor.”

The restaurant that remains open among dozens of empty storefronts is called ‘Simply Seafood’ and it’s clearly a restaurant like any other food court restaurant in any food court, only this one is the only business left in a large three-level mall at the South Street Seaport.

The restaurant is the lone holdout in a large mall that a developer is trying to tear down. They have a lease and expect it to be honored. The landlord has used illegal and very underhanded tactics to try to remove them, such as locking the doors to the mall and reporting that the restaurant had closed, and is still using dirty tricks today. With shady developers normally getting away with their violations of private property rights in the name of economic development and the city normally either turning a blind eye or helping out in with corrupt deals, the urge to score one for the little guy is immense and well worth the price of fried shrimp.

Howard Hughes Corp. owns the property and wants to build another, fancier mall there. I would hope that if Howard Hughes were alive today he’d throw a jar of his collected urine at the people running this namesake corporation. Howard Hughes didn’t need to harass small business owners; he flew airplanes and banged Katherine Hepburn.

Security guards pace the otherwise empty mall eyeing customers suspiciously. There are bathrooms open on the second floor, but otherwise the mall is a ghost town of abandoned stores, makeshift barricades, ‘No Trespassing’ signs and caution tape.

Pier 17 empty mall

Despite the best efforts of the rent-a-cops, people continued to come for seafood. The restaurant’s struggle with the landlord generated publicity that has brought some people; it’s why I was there. The allure of touring a mostly-abandoned place brings more, and hopefully the chance to stick it to a real estate Goliath will bring more. New Yorkers can’t help but respect and admire the people who fight for their rights even against overwhelming force.

New York landlords are notorious for their unscrupulous behavior. The price of real estate is so high and both the expenses and potential profits so huge, a hold-out tenant can cost an owner lots of money. In the case of a prime commercial real estate in New York’s tourist-heavy downtown, developers stand to lose millions of dollars if they have to maintain a mostly abandoned building for the next seven years.

A small group of tourists asked the men working why they were the only business still open at the mall.

“We’ve got a lease,” said one of the men. “We’ve have a lease until 2020.”

I had a lunch of friend shrimp and fries. What made it such a delicious meal was helping a determined small business stick to their guns.

As I left the mall, the security guard at the entrance was turning away another group of potential customers, wrongly calling the restaurant a café. But not everyone was turned away, many continued through and moved on to give the restaurant their business, and I hope Simply Seafood is there for a very long time.

Pier 17 view of Brooklyn

Pier 17 guard outside

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