Friday 24 October 2014

Travel: Changing face of New York

Constance Harris

Published 11/11/2013 | 01:00

A pre-demolition building offered as a blank canvas for graffiti artists in Long Island City, an up-and-coming neighbourhood of New York, full of trendy coffee houses, characterful restaurants and music
Constance standing by a truck with a model of that famous picture of Irish emigrants on a steel girder

I lived and worked in Manhattan, New York, back in 1989, a time when the city was dealing with a truly awful reputation for danger and dirt – and it was justified. Sizable parts of Manhattan felt apocalyptic no matter what the time of day but most especially at night.

But there was as well, a magic and splendour and a power unlike any other. There were culturally rich neighbourhoods identified by ethnicity – the eastern European flavoured Lower East Side, the Italian Quarter which spanned from West Broadway into the West Village in downtown Manhattan.

There were fabulous markets and restaurants to be found everywhere and street entertainment from all over the globe. 42nd Street was sleazy but fabulously lit at night. It was also full of racial tension and no white person went above West 92nd. Everyone wore dark glasses, even on the subway. Being shoved and banged into on the sidewalk by dashing citizens was just the way it was.

The city was like Ridley Scott's futuristic portrayal in Blade Runner with shootings, murders, violence, vagrancy and a nocturnal glamour second to none. Having said that, any time I got into real trouble and I can count three times, a New Yorker always came to my assistance. They weren't as indifferent as they liked to let on.

New York is made up of five boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and The Bronx. Three considerable things happened to New York – most particularly Manhattan – in the last 20 years: Mayor Giuliani and his 'zero tolerance policy'; 9/11; and the power shortages of the immediate years after. These factors elicited a transformation of consciousness in the city. New Yorkers reviewed how they lived and they made radical changes.

Today, Manhattan feels like the safest city on earth. It's like a giant, up-market, gated community. The vagrants are gone, as are the dark glasses.

People smile and say 'hello'. There are children and buggies everywhere. Gardens are being created on obsolete industrial structures. There are Apple, Anthropology and designer stores in every neighbourhood it seems.

I make a point of staying in different neighbourhoods each time I visit New York and then potter about, discovering. Last month, while staying on the Upper West Side, I discovered Halloween in New York is amazing as they go all out for it, decorating buildings, some six stories high, with cobwebs, climbing skeletons and pumpkin lanterns.

I stayed in the Hotel Beacon (hotelbeacon.com) which is famous in Manhattan for its fabulous historical location, its proximity to the wonderful Beacon Theatre (right next door), as well as its huge rooms and suites, which all have kitchens because this was once an apartment building. Hence its popularity with families and travellers who like to self cater. (There are still some long-term residents and their dogs in situ, which adds to its authentic Manhattan character.)

The Beacon is a true neighbourhood hotel. They obtained tickets for me to the sell-out show on next door (I probably should have booked the tickets before I left home, at broadwaycollection.com, which is where we got tickets for U2's production of Spiderman), they filled me in on the history of their neighbours, and they told me all the best designer bargain stores to go to. I loved it. But as one who remembers and loved the edginess of old New York I have been wondering where did it go? The eastern European Lower East Side is disappeared, absorbed into the ever growing Chinatown. The flea markets, diverse street culture and quirky independent diners are all gone. Everything in Manhattan is upmarket, if you want character go to the Boroughs.

A visit to the NYC & Company information centre at 810, 7th Avenue, was enlightening. There I found information on the communities I noted had disappeared, what was on offer in the various boroughs of New York, tours to go on and such. Just ask for information on whatever neighbourhood you're interested in or see nycgo.com/ neighborhoods (note the American spelling in the url).

I learned from them that the best Italian Quarter for a true foodie was to be found in The Bronx, on Arthur Avenue. Though it meant getting off the 'island', I have to tell you the food I tasted there made it worth the effort. It's just one street. But on it are genuine Italian bakeries, meat houses, cafes and restaurants. The Arthur Avenue indoor market sells fresh vegetables, meat and pastries and has casual cafes, etc. There I had the most incredible fresh pasta dishes, salamis and cannoli I have ever tasted. Better than anything in Italy. There are even old guys there who hand roll cigars for you. The late James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame used to go there every week to eat and stock up his larder.

As it is about a half hour taxi ride from The Hotel Beacon, I recommend you go to Arthur Avenue, enjoy a good nosh-up then work it off with a visit either to The Bronx Zoo, or the small museum in Edgar Allan Poe's former cottage home, and then return to Albert Avenue for seconds. If you are a baseball fan you could take in a game at the Yankees stadium.

The next day we decided to take the LIC subway to Long Island City in Queens, which we had been told is becoming the new Manhattan. Long Island City was New York's big industrial quarter. It still is, but it is also an exciting, newly emerging neighbourhood of artists, creative restaurateurs and cultural activity as it is still a (relatively) affordable place to live.

Long Island City is the home of JetBlue, Aer Lingus's new aviation partner in America and the leading low cost airline in the USA. Barely a decade old, from meeting with the JetBlue people it seems like they have established themselves to be the opposite to everything we all associate with low-cost airlines, which in America have a reputation for being truly dreadful. JetBlue refer a lot to Ryanair and how they don't do this, that and the other, that that airline does – for example no layers of charges or penalties. One bag is checked in free; physical disability is not a liability; eats are big (and made in Northern Ireland).

Long Island City also is the home of the Noguchi Museum, has several TV studios and is often the place we see featured as 'Manhattan' in shows such as The Good Wife. While 1950's styled American diners are pretty rare now in Manhattan, here there are several. Vernon Avenue and its locale oozes with hip coffee houses, characterful restaurants such as Opendoor, small music venues, dog walkers and vibe. (It very much reminded me of that nineties Cameron Crowe movie set in grunge-era Seattle, Singles.) Lots of holiday makers opt for good hotels here such as the three star Wyndham Garden hotel as they cost about half to two-thirds the price of a Manhattan hotel, and are just a short (ten-minute) subway ride from mid-town Manhattan.

With the way such neighbourhoods are developing it's easy to imagine fun lovers actually bypassing Manhattan and spending long weekends in Brooklyn or The Bronx.

GETTING THERE

Aer Lingus flies twice daily from Dublin to New York and currently three times weekly from Shannon to New York. From April 2014, additional frequencies will be added on the Shannon to New York service with up to six flights weekly. Aer Lingus operates from user-friendly T5 at JFK, known as JetBlue's T5. This allows for seamless same terminal connections with JetBlue to 40 destinations in North America. Fares start from €229 each way, including taxes and charges, for travel from November to March. New transatlantic routes start from April 2014 to San Francisco and Toronto from Dublin. For information on New York, boroughs, events, tourism, etc, see nycgo.com/neighborhoods. The Hotel Beacon, see hotelbeacon.com. For tickets to Broadway productions: broadwaycollection.com

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