Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My New York From La Guardia to George Washington

After hiding from the sun for 15 minutes in a small sliver of shade, I boarded the M5 bus on the corner of Houston and La Guardia. It is 16:08 on a beautiful and sunny Saturday afternoon. This is an ideal day to transform a ride on an MTA bus into a scenic tour of my beloved and adopted hometown, New York.

During the 15 minutes before the bus arrived I had a frantic dialogue with my iPhone to curate the playlist that will serve as the soundtrack for this journey. I have always explored this city with a soundtrack. This addiction started when I first moved to New York and was working as a DJ. During this time I became compulsive about always leaving home with my portable music player and the latest draft of my demo.

I board the bus, pay the fare and find a forward-facing seat on the left side of the aisle. I set the playlist to shuffle and press play as the bus pushes away from the curb, synchronizing the start of the first track with our departure. The soundtrack starts with the song Heartbeat, which is an energetic vocal house track by the British band the Knife. I switch my focus back to the outside world and my assignment.

Over the previous couple of days I had given much thought to this assignment: What perspective did I want to take? What tools did I need to bring? I decided that my piece would be personal, that a soundtrack would enhance the experience, and that I needed a way to capture my thoughts. The iPhone took care of items two and three while I was left with the tougher challenge of defining writing a personal account of the tour. This is what was going through my mind as the tour began.

As we reach the corner of Houston and Sullivan I notice a small Italian shop called Rafetto’s . I used to frequent this store when I lived on Thompson Street . It is one of the few businesses that have survived from the days when this little corner of SOHO was primarily a simple Italian neighborhood. More recently, the Italian businesses left in the neighborhood are mostly high-end brand shops from brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada.

We turn onto 6th Avenue and head north past one of my favorite Italian restaurants, Bellavitae , which is located on Mineta Lane off 6th. A few blocks north we pass the famous Gray’s Papaya , where I’ve consumed many hot dogs. Next I spot the location of the old Balducci’s deli , where I used to savor delicious freshly-baked amaretto cookies.

My New York Memory Map

View Memories Houston to George Washington Bridge in a larger map

For many years I walked the stretch of pavement between Spring and 23rd Streets on a daily basis. This walk, coupled with a loud dose of electronic music, functioned as the caffeine fix that kick-started my days. This is why I would subject myself to this mode of transportation in the summer, fall, winter, and spring, rain, shine, or snow.

Despite the many good memories that I have from this area of the city, the visual landscape from the area between Houston to 17th street is not very appealing. It is dominated primarily by uninspired post-war developments populated by chain restaurant and retail brands, with some notable exceptions such as the Jefferson Market Library.

The architecture between 17th and 21st streets is a sharp contrast to the preceeding and following blocks. The buildings in this small enclave were originally constructed as luxurious department stores. Like much of New York, this area fell into a state of decay for several decades until being restored to its current well-maintained state during the last 15 years.

When we arrive at the corner of 20th street I examine my old office building . I notice that the Barnes & Nobles on the ground floor has closed. The storefront, which was once filled with a colorful selection of media and the recognizable faces of colleagues of mine on break, now looked like a dark and deserted void.

It was only 6 years ago that I stopped working here. I have many memories from eating and drinking at local restaurant and bars that have been replaced by new, and usually more upscale, establishments. This is a testament to the speed of urban renewal during the last decade in New York. In contrast, the presence of a few notable unoccupied retail spaces demonstrates the impact of the current economic crisis on the city’s ability to renew itself.

Once we cross 23rd street the buildings become less memorable and my personal stories and memories are less numerous. For many years I rarely crossed the 23rd street divide, which how this area came to be known amongst my friends.

The slice of 6th Avenue between 23rd and 34th is one of its least attractive parts. New cookie-cutter residential buildings dot this stretch, which is mostly lined with drab and grey post-war buildings. Aside from a few shinny new supermarkets and coffee houses, the commerce here is dominated by Indian clothing and jewelry wholesalers, and plants retailers.

As we approach the Manhattan Mall and Macy’s the crowd on the street swells exponentially. The weekend closure of Broadway above 34th has attracted a sea of people on this beautiful day. Looking at this spectacle I am reminded of my visit to Shibuya in Tokyo earlier this summer.

I look down at my iPhone to continue capturing my stream of consciousness and realize that I may run out of battery before the end of the trip. This realization leads me to think about my dependence on energy. I wonder how much energy it takes to keep this whole city “alive”, or even just one city block. The number is too high for me to even imagine. How long can we keep this up? What changes do I need to make in my life to help our society avoid a rude awakening?

I refocus on the world outside as we head into the garment district. Here the landscape changes to taller, though still mostly drab and grey, corporate-looking office towers. The commerce in this area is mostly fashion-related, as the name of neighborhood suggests. Bryan Park provides a breadth of fresh air in this boring midtown district. I worked just a few blocks away from this small oasis and enjoyed many lunch breaks sitting on one of its grassy patches.

Our arrival at Bryant Park is synched to the opening chords of the song My Beau, this is one of my favorite tracks from an LA-based artist called Daedelus. I feel like I am in that old VW Jetta commercial where the world around the car moves in synch to the beat of the music in the car.

We cross 42nd Street and the corporate office buildings quickly morph into imposing towers that exude a sense of power. This area through 55th street is a nucleus of banks, insurance companies, law offices, and multinational corporations. From the bus, the towers seem to be looking down at me with a hard and muscular stare. I feel very small in comparison; I enjoy the feeling.

When we reach 46th Street I begin to crave delicacies from a nearby Brazilian goods store called Buzios . This small shop, hidden on the second floor of a dilapidated building, is my favorite source for cooking supplies, cheeses, chocolates, and soft drinks from Brazil. On my first visits to New York in the nineties this strip of the city was overrun by Brazilian businesses. Now, Buzios is one of the few remaining Brazilian-owned businesses in this area that is still known as little Brazil.

At 55th street the row of towers comes to an end. A mix of residences, hotels and themed eating establishments line the few remaining blocks south of the park. I lived in this area during my first six months in New York, though I have spent little time here since I moved downtown.

While following along the southern edge of Central Park my view was limited to the south side of the street. The buildings lining this edge of the park are old luxury condominiums and hotels that are all in need of a good makeover. Especially when contrasted to the city’s newest and most luxurious shopping mall complex, which is located next door in Columbus Circle.

We reach Columbus Circle and take a right onto Broadway to cut diagonally across the island. The ten blocks above the Circle are home to many New York City treasures, including Lincoln Center and one of my favorite pizzas, at Fiorello’s . Broadway is lined with high-end residential complexes and big brand name stores. The buildings are less imposing and provide more visual breathing room than the power corridor we passed on upper 6th Ave.

We take a left and head towards the Hudson on an ugly stretch of 72nd street. When we reach Riverside drive I am struck by my view of the lush park and river. This is one of the few parts of the city that I had never visited; I can’t imagine a better day to acquaint myself with it. The song “Brother Love” from Animal Collective picks up slowly providing the perfect musical accompaniment.

The side of the street opposite the park is lined with beautiful upscale residential buildings. From 72nd through 120th there are strollers and kids parading down the sidewalk. This is by far the most family-friendly street on the tour. From my vantage point, the overall aura of the neighborhood makes me feel as though I have been transported to Brooklyn Heights.

After 60 blocks of river views the bus takes 135th Street over to Broadway for the final leg of our ascent to the George Washington Bridge. The contrast between Riverside Drive and this stretch of Broadway is severe. This section of Harlem is noticeably lower income than all of the other neighborhoods we visited along our route.

Most businesses in this area are locally owned with signage primarily in Spanish, with the exception of a few fast food restaurants and cell phone provider outposts. The sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood are strongly Hispanic. The cash checking stores, phone card vendors, and abundance of Latin restaurants and grocery shops are part of the visible support structure for to this large community of immigrants.

When we reach 165th street and are in view of the George Washington Bridge we are forced to transfer buses. I take the opportunity to soak up some sun and I start to think about what I’ve witnessed so far. A new bus arrives within five minutes, and our tour ends only a few minutes thereafter when I step off the bus across the street from the GW Bridge.

On the subway ride back home, still listening to my soundtrack, I think about the diversity that exists within the 200 city blocks that I traveled today. I enjoyed the opportunity to consciously survey the physical manifestations of this diversity in the buildings and streets of the city. I also realize how the diverse cultures and values that were manifest in the streets outside the bus, were equally reflected in the bus riders themselves. This pattern of reflection reminds me how the unparalleled diversity offered by New York is one of main reasons I call this city my home.

The Tour Playlist

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