Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Remnants of the New York World's Fair Part 1

It's nothing new for me to be really into ruins and reminders of the past, but it seems like I've been extra interested in seeking them out lately. My friend Jim and I went to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the Queens Museum a few weeks ago and had a great time hunting out the remnants of the '64/'65 World's Fair. I had been once before, around this time last year, but it was definitely a place I was eager to return to, and Jim had never been.

The Unisphere still tops my list of favorite New York attractions, and it's just as impressive and generally awesome as it was the first time I saw it. I love that the park feels like a total secret, and it has been basically deserted both times I've been. This feeling of isolation only adds to the sense that you're traveling back in time as you stumble upon leftover pieces and parts of the Fair.

The fate of the New York State Pavilion is actually a bit uncertain at the moment — it will apparently cost at least $52 million to restore the structure, and "only" $14 million to demolish it — but it's one of my favorite areas of the park to explore. What I wouldn't give to be able to walk over the 567-panel terrazzo road map of New York State on the floor of the pavilion, or land a helicopter on the top of the Port Authority's heliport — now an event venue called Terrace on the Park.

There are actually a lot of fair remnants (big and small) if you look hard enough — triangular canopies, the undulating New York Hall of Science building, futuristic-looking water fountains and a few remaining sculptures like the Rocket Thrower, which was restored in 2013.  There are even more pieces that we didn't know still existed, like the time capsule and avenue markers, so we're already planning a return trip in the spring.

The Queens Museum just went though an extensive remodel and recently reopened and I definitely recommend checking it out. The building is actually a leftover from the '39 World's Fair, and the New York panorama (from '64) is something that everyone should see at least once in their life. Since our trip, I've become even more obsessed with learning about the fairs, and I'll definitely be more prepared when we return. I can't find any information about the fountains around the Unisphere, except that they were restored in 2010, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to catch them on at some point this summer. Now if I could only track down one of these color-block lamps, I'd really be in heaven.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Brooklyn Navy Yard: Admiral's Row

I don't remember exactly where I first read about Admiral's Row, the crumbling ruins of once grand, Second Empire-style homes used by naval officers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But once I read that they may still be standing, I knew that I had to check it out immediately. I found a lot of information warning of their imminent demolition (and plans to turn the area into a shopping complex), but I never saw anything documenting their demise. I figured I'd take a chance, and that chance paid off — they still exist, for now at least — even if they are in a state of extreme decay.

From older images I found, it appears that they used to be more visible as seen through an iron fence, but now there is a tall wall surrounding the whole area. Fortunately, there are portholes that you can peek through, and even more fortunately (for me at least) some of the plexiglass has been punched out in a few areas so you can stick your arm/head through for a mostly unobstructed view. I don't advocate destroying public property, but when it facilitates me creeping on, and photographing, old ruins then I'm definitely not going to be mad about it.

Sometimes I think I love crumbling ruins more than I would love the buildings if they were in their original state, although I wouldn't mind being able to time travel between both extremes. As I was peeking though one of the open portholes, I spotted a jet-black cat walking around, and when he saw me he stopped cold. He sat and stared at me for longer than I was completely comfortable with and it was definitely one of those odd life moments that makes me laugh to myself and think how wonderfully strange life can be.

I probably looked like a totally crazy person with my head stuck through a busted out porthole, snapping pictures of dilapidated houses and talking to a cat that no one walking by behind me could even see. As much as I still feel like a fool gawking at weird things in front of millions of strangers in the city, I'm definitely starting to feel more comfortable just doing my thing. I never regret the photo or detour that I take, and I never want to regret the ones that I didn't take just because I felt awkward about it.

I would love to go back to Admiral's Row and see if I can get even better photos, but I should probably hurry because whether it's razed and turned into a shopping center, or just completely collapses in on itself, the ruins are probably not going to around much longer.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Food: Joe's Shanghai

For the most recent installment of our regular dinners out, Katie, Jim and I went to Joe's Shanghai on Pell Street in Chinatown. We'd never been before, but I had walked by it after Christmas dinner at Nom Wah and took note of the massive crowd waiting to be seated. I got home and immediately looked it up on Yelp to see why it was such a popular destination. After reading tons of reviews raving about the Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings, I decided that it was worth a try.

I was concerned that we would have to wait a while to be seated (a common complaint) but at 7pm on Monday night we got in right away. The tables are large, so unless you have a party of 8, you'll most likely be seated with strangers. The tables are big enough that it's really not an issue, although it was bit hard to carry on a conversation since the three of us were all seated in a row. The first thing we were asked is if we wanted crab or pork dumplings, since I guess it's assumed by now that most everyone is there for their signature dish. We ordered pork (Jim and I aren't huge seafood fans) to share, and I wasn't starving so I opted out of ordering my own entrée. I did have a few bites of Jim's sesame chicken, which was perfectly tasty but not particularly memorable.

I'd never had a soup dumpling before, so I can't compare them to anything else, but I can definitely understand the appeal. You get a lot for your money (8 dumplings for $4.95, which falls perfectly within range of my magical $5 price point) and they were surprisingly filling. They are basically exactly what they sound like, which is a dumpling filled with hot (and sometimes VERY hot), delicious soup broth and a ball of meat/filling. They have the potential to be extremely messy or dangerous if you get too excited, but if you take your time they're actually quite simple to eat. The key is to plop the dumpling on your spoon, take a bite out of the top and slowly sip most of the soup before popping the remainder in your mouth. I appreciate any Chinese dish that provides me with a utensil more substantial than chopsticks alone, and believe me when I say that the spoon is your best friend when it comes to soup dumplings.

Yes, the service left a little to be desired (which I expected from the reviews), but it was adequate and an example of "you get what you pay for." I will definitely go back for the soup dumplings and if the reviews are to be trusted, I shouldn't really bother trying them anywhere else. Would I wait in a crowd like the one I passed on Christmas just for the dumplings? Probably not, but at least now I know why it's such a popular spot — even if I'm no closer to being able to actually pronounce the words Xiao Long Bao.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Recent Reads

I've had my New York Public library card for a few months, and it's already turning out to be one of my very favorite things. The library system took a little getting used to at first, but now I think I've got the hang of it. Basically, libraries here aren't really made for traditional browsing. To get the best results, you browse the collection online, place holds on titles you want, and as they become available they're transferred to the library of your choice, where you pick them up from a dedicated "Hold Room." When you place a hold, you can see how many other holds are placed, as well as how many copies are available. This varies like crazy, but I've generally been lucky in getting the books I request in a reasonable amount of time. 

Lately I've had a bit of a pileup in all of my holds becoming available at once, but I did go a little crazy and request a ton of books, so I can't really complain about too much of a good thing. This just means I have to step up my game and read more/faster, which is actually a good thing since I work best under pressure (and with deadlines aka due dates).

Below are a few of my recent reads, all of which have been from the library:

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

I blame Downton Abbey for my recent interest in the servant life, and seeing that Below Stairs was an inspiration for the creation of Downton was all I needed to know to pick it up. It's a relatively small book, and a quick read — I think I was finished in just a few days. Written in the 60s, Below Stairs is an easy, straight-forward portrayal of what it was like to be Margaret Powell, who worked in domestic service in London since the age of 15. It's not a very colorful or particularly fascinating account, but Powell is genuine, if a bit dry, in her story-telling. I tend to seek out books that plunge me into a world wholly different than my own, and Below Stairs definitely did just that. It's almost impossible to imagine a world in which £24 was a realistic annual salary, or where kids would work for weeks gathering and selling horse manure just to be able to afford to see a movie. I'm hoping that Servants is a bit more interesting, but Below Stairs did a good job of satisfying my appetite for all things turn-of-the-century British.

Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital by Eric Manheimer + Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam

I used to think it was absolute sacrilege to start a book and not finish it, even if I had to force my way through it. I still have a hard time shaking the thought that I'm failing when I stop reading a book that I've started, but lately I have come around to the idea that it might be ok to just move on to something that interests me more. Twelve Patients and Gracefully Insane were two books that, despite their incredibly promising premises (life at Bellevue Hospital and a history of an insane asylum), I found myself struggling to keep reading. After a few weeks of forcing myself to pick them up again, I eventually returned them and moved on. I think that a lot of what makes a book enjoyable is hitting it at the right time in my life, so I may return to these eventually and give them another try (especially Gracefully Insane, which I think I started at a time when I was a little burnt out on non-fiction).

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

Let's be honest: I'm probably never going to find a husband while reading books with titles like "The Poisoner's Handbook" on the subway. But then again maybe I'll meet someone who is just as interested in weird, creepy topics like I am and we'll live happily ever after, never quite trusting each other when we prepare dinner or drinks for one another. The Poisoner's Handbook was one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I would recommend it to anyone. It's nonfiction, but reads like a novel and every story told is fascinating. I didn't think I could go wrong picking up a book about poison, toxicology, forensic medicine and New York City, but it definitely exceeded all expectations. I liked The Inheritor's Powder when I read it, but now when I compare the two, Poisoner's is most definitely the better, and more entertaining book. As a bonus, I now know how to, and how not to, poison someone in 1920s Prohibition-era New York, if you're into that.

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker

My interest in the funeral industry has been going strong since last year, when re-reading Stiff reignited my need to know about all things death-related. While I think I'm close to reaching my saturation point with funeral home memoirs, Nine Years Under was a worthy addition to the genre. It was an easy, enjoyable read and detailed more of the personal (instead of technical) side of working at a funeral home. The urban setting and female point-of-view was a nice change from the suburban white male perspectives that seem to dominate the industry.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MOMA PS1: Mike Kelley

A few weekends ago, Trent and I decided to check out the Mike Kelley exhibit at MOMA PS1. It was my first time at PS1, although I'd walked by it a couple times on my previous trips to Long Island City.

I didn't know much of anything about Mike Kelley, but I'd read about the exhibit and his work with stuffed animals, in particular, seemed interesting enough to warrant a trip. Trent is a member of MOMA, which means that he got in free and could get guests in for $5. The normal adult rate is $10, but with my totally-legit-and-not-at-all-six-years-outdated student ID my ticket would have only been $5 even if I hadn't been with a member. It's a running joke with my friends that five dollars is my magical amount — I'll do most anything for $5 or less with very little expectation. The Mike Kelley show turned out to be a perfect example of this principle, because it ended up being mostly strange and a little disappointing, but because I only paid $5 I can't be anything but glad that we checked it out.

This is the first time that PS1 has devoted their entire building to the work of a single artist, and Kelley was certainly prolific enough to fill the large space. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that PS1 is located in a beautifully restored old school building, which I guess I could have expected if I had ever questioned why it was called "PS1". Just walking through the building is a total treat, with its worn wooden floors, exposed brick and tall windows — I've never really met an old industrial or institutional building with which I haven't fallen immediately in love.

Kelley's work is incredibly varied, and it's impossible to describe it as a whole, without just saying that it's really all over the place. There are drawings, enormous (mostly) abstract installations, videos, found objects, photographs and of course his stuffed animal pieces. I particularly loved (and was surprised by) the Pay for Your Pleasure installation corridor, lined with banners beautifully painted with monochromatic portraits of celebrated icons, each paired with a not-so-nice quote from the figure themselves.

We somehow missed the room of hanging, rainbow-colored stuffed animal "balls" on the first floor, so it was actually the last room that we visited. Unintentionally saving the best for last was a good move, however, and I wouldn't have had any regrets about paying $5 just to see this one room. 

There's something unnerving and a little sad about seeing so many childhood toys and stuffed animals segregated by color and mashed together into something new entirely. The room is bright and the colors cheery, but occasionally seeing a dangling tail, or plastic baby doll arm jutting out of the soft, furry masses definitely made me feel uneasy. 

There was a handful of other stuffed animal installations sprinkled throughout the rest of the show and this side of Kelley's work definitely appealed to my love of the creepier, strange side of life. I'm not embarrassed to admit that most of the rest of it just didn't really do it for me art-wise, but that doesn't mean that it's not worth exploring. I've tried to get into video installations and performance art before, but I just can't take most of it very seriously. Kelley was obviously an enormous talent, and it's a shame that it all eventually got the best of him.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bellevue Hospital

This is my last week at my current job — as a designer in the College department of publisher W. W. Norton — and I'm trying to make the most of my lunch walks around Midtown before I get to begin exploring the UES next week. On Friday I ticked an item off of my New York bucket list (how gross is the term "bucket list"?) when I finally walked over to see the Bellevue Hospital buildings in person.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that until recently I wasn't even fully aware that Bellevue still existed. I had always known about its notorious psychiatric ward, but in addition to being the oldest public hospital in the United States, Bellevue is still a fully-operational and modern healthcare facility. Thankfully my first encounter with Bellevue was as a spectator, not patient, and despite some modern additions, enough of the old buildings survive to satisfy my love of the creepy and old.

The best part of the Bellevue complex, of course, is the old psychiatric hospital building on E. 30th and 1st Avenue. Built in 1931, it became a homeless shelter in 1998 and there have since been plans to turn it into luxury rentals or a conference center, none of which have materialized, so it remains as a shelter. 

The brick building is in dire need of a spruce, but the grime and climbing vines just add to the overall level of creepiness. I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, per se, but you definitely don't get a happy, warm feeling from walking by the abandoned courtyards, ornate iron gates or boarded-up windows. 

I felt like a total idiot snapping photos as hospital workers and current-day tenants walked by, but I can't possibly be the only person to be captivated by the lurid history and architecture of Bellevue. I would love to explore the interior, which I'm sure is just as creepy (or even creepier) as I am imagining, but as a non-homeless female I won't be setting foot inside those notorious walls any time soon (and I'd be just as out-of-luck if it's ever turned into luxury rentals). 

I'm so glad I finally have a visual (and that unsettling feeling) to pair with all of the legends of Bellevue that I've always heard about, and it continues to amaze me that I get to go on adventures like this on a normal, everyday lunch hour.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Food: Papaya King

On Christmas Eve I had some errands to run that landed me on the Upper East Side. The east side of Manhattan is generally a mystery to me, although I'm starting a new job at the 92Y in a week so there is much lunchtime exploring to be done. As I was headed to the Lexington Ave Subway station on e. 86th, I passed by a Papaya King. I was hungry, had no more plans for the day and wooed by their wonderful signage, I decided to stop in.

There are a many hot-dog-and-papaya juice shops in New York (Gray's Papaya, Chelsea Papaya...) but Papaya King, in business since 1932, claims to be the original. There is also a location on St. Mark's Place, but the 86th street shop is where the merger of tropical juices and snappy hot dogs began. The place is teeny tiny, with only a few feet of counter space, so it's not built to linger.

I couldn't recall ever really trying anything papaya-flavored before, except maybe a few bland pieces mixed into canned fruit salad (ew) so I didn't really know what to expect. They have a few different flavors of tropical juice, but I ordered the regular papaya, along with one hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard. My total came to $4.90, and according to the menu board I could have gotten two hot dogs and a juice for just $5, but I've never really eaten two hot dogs in one sitting, so it would have been too much.

I tried the papaya juice first and I discovered that I don't really care for it. It's not that it's bad, but it was kind of bland? I've actually been trying to think of how I can describe the taste, but I'm kind of at a loss. It didn't really taste like anything I'd ever had before, but it kind of grew on me the more I drank. The hot dog was delicious, but — no disrespect to Julia Child who apparently called it the best hot dog in New York — I think I liked Nathan's better. It wasn't a stand-out in my hot-dog-eating adventures thus far, but it's certainly a step above anything you could ever get from a sidewalk cart. Especially since the last time I went to a hot dog cart in Central Park, I asked for one with only mustard and the vendor started to apply ketchup anyway. When I very quickly said "No - I just wanted mustard," he put the ketchup-ed dog BACK into the water with all of the other dogs, and pulled me out a "fresh" one. As far as I could tell, Papaya King doesn't do anything nearly as gross with their dogs, so that's reason enough to stop in if you're ever in the neighborhood(s).

Still Hungry? Nom Wah Tea Parlor  |  Rubirosa  |  Panna II Indian Garden  |  Umami Burger  |  John's Pizzeria  |  Momofuku Noodle Bar  |  The Nugget Spot

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

NYBG: Holiday Train Show and Snowy Walk

Ever since my first visit to the New York Botanical Garden last year for the spectacular Orchid Show, I've considered becoming a member. It's definitely worth it, financially, especially if you intend to go to all of the special shows ($20+/ea.) during the year. It is always hard for me to wrap my head around spending a lump sum of money all at once, vs. smaller chunks spread over time, even if the smaller payments add up to much more in the end.

But I finally came to my senses when my friend Jean-Marie and I were at the NYBG a few days before Christmas to see the Holiday Train Show, and traded in my ticket towards the price of a year-long membership. Much like getting my first New York library card, finally becoming a member to a museum/garden goes a long way towards making me feel like a true resident. Now, I can go to the garden anytime I want (and bring two guests), although I'm most excited to see the Orchid Show again and the cherry blossoms in the spring.

The Holiday Train Show was probably my least favorite of the shows I've seen thus far (Orchid and Kiku), but that doesn't mean it was not great. It just means that the flower shows I've seen have been so outstanding, that I found the train show to be a little dull in comparison. 

The show has trains, of course, but the main attractions are the hundreds of famous New York buildings and landmarks, recreated entirely out of plant parts (nuts, bark, leaves). They're incredibly intricate and kind of mind-boggling, and they definitely overshadow the model trains zipping in and out.

The bridges were a definite highlight, which should come as no surprise since I love the real life versions of each so much. I think what I actually liked least about the show was the amount of people (and children) that were crammed into the Conservatory. It's completely my fault for going two days before Christmas, but there's no doubt it would have been much more enjoyable if I'd had some space to breathe. We were constantly getting pushed, prodded or cut-off by grumpy toddlers and their entitled parents, which is something I'm not used to from the other (more adult) shows. 

I think maybe next year I'll do one of the child-free bar car nights, which seem to exist precisely for get-off-my-lawn types like me.

This past weekend I was still enamored with the snow from our "blizzard," even after spending all of Friday in Central Park, so I decided to head back to the NYBG. I'm already experiencing the joy of having fronted the membership money, and it was so nice knowing that the day wouldn't cost me a dime. It may seem strange to head to a botanical garden in January, but the Thain Family Forest is a huge part of the NYBG, and I knew it would be gorgeous in the snow. There were still crowds funneling into the train show (although it appeared much more civil than my previous experience) but the grounds were mostly deserted.

The main roadways were plowed, but the trails were not so I got an even more rustic experience than I had expected. Luckily the boots I bought on a whim have proven themselves to be a worthy purchase, and kept my feet toasty and dry throughout my entire expedition. I walked through most of the forest, stopping to see the waterfall on the Bronx river, the Goldman Stone Mill, the Hester Bridge and the Spicebush Overlook. The NYBG is one of those places where you can forget entirely that you're even in New York, and it was a perfect place to enjoy the beautiful snow. I highly recommend taking a hike there at any time of the year — snow is always magical, the fall leaves were beautiful, it's a really nice escape from the city in the hot, sticky summer and I can't wait to experience spring under their cherry blossoms. The best part about the Thain Family Forest? I didn't encounter one sticky, snotty kid on my entire walk — worth the cost of membership, indeed.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Six-Inch Blizzard

On Thursday night we got a "blizzard" here in New York — the Weather Channel called it "Hercules" and back in Ohio we would have just called it "6 inches of snow," or "January."

I took a detour from my usual route to work on Friday morning and ventured into Central Park for a pre-work stroll through the snow. I know a lot of people get grumpy about the snow, but as long as I don't have to drive in it (thanks MTA!) I think snow is absolute magic. So when my love, New York, is blanketed with my other love, snow, I'm pretty much the happiest person alive.

On my lunch break, I eschewed actually eating and instead headed back to Central Park. It was very cold, but as always the right winter gear makes all the difference. The southern part of the park was packed with people taking photos, sledding and building tiny snowmen.

The water was just starting to freeze in the Pond, and I couldn't help but notice that the ducks were still there. Everytime I see ducks in the park in the winter, I think of the Catcher in the Rye and how Holden is obsessed with finding out where the ducks go in the winter:

"I didn't want to start an argument. "Okay," I said. Then I thought of something, all of a sudden. "Hey, listen," I said. "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" I realized it was only one chance in a million."

Turns out that the ducks don't go anywhere. They just stay put, huddled against each other for warmth and begging tourists for food. I'm not sure why that part of the book always stuck with me, but I'm glad I got to see the very ducks he's referring to, after so many years of wondering about it.

Shortly after I got back to work, my boss said I could go home early due to the snow, so I headed back to Central Park for the third time and walked around the east side. I wanted to see the Conservatory Gardens, but the gate was closed by the time I made my way up there. I don't think I give the east side enough credit, although I start a new job on the UES in a few weeks so I'll have plenty of time to explore.

I especially loved the snow-covered bridges I came across — I would love to do a tour of all of the bridges and arches of the park when it gets warmer. Of course it's currently raining and all of the beautiful snow has melted or turned into a muddy pile by now, but that's part of what makes it so special. Snow has a very short shelf life, especially in the city, and I'm glad I didn't waste any of my time with this particular batch.