Dreamy Gardenscapes in Alphabet City ~ East Village, NYC

With temperatures nearing 100F in Manhattan today, a pleasant stroll in the East Village soon turned into a sweaty saunter. Perhaps the only neighbourhood with such a good amount of community gardens, I welcomed them as regular rest stops as I made my way along Avenues A, B, and C.

After an entertaining morning (more on that in a later post), my final pit stop at the 9th Street Community Garden Park was the perfect end note. So well tended, so well cared for – it was an escape from the motion filled sun drenched streets.

The 9th Street Community Garden Park is one of the larger community gardens that I have come across. Walking along its haphazard brick- and rock paved pathways, unless I looked through a part of the steel fence not covered in green, I hardly noticed I was surrounded by busy streets. Instead, I felt still; I even treaded softly from fear of making too much noise. I heard the chirp of birds, photographed blooms, followed bees with my lens, while cooling down in the shade of overhanging vines and canopy provided by a 35 year old giant willow tree. Except for a few others – so silent, they startled me; the flora and the fauna, I felt as if I had the space to myself.

It was as if I has stumbled into a dream when I entered this lot of green. It was such a contrast to the heat of the day, and the chaos of the streets. The East Village is probably one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in New York – I’ve read it has changed dramatically over the years, so I can’t imagine what it was like way back when. Today, it’s gritty and it’s glam; it caters to the  middle class, and the homeless; it’s streets are strewn with trash, yet they surprise you by offering a few beautiful community gardens to enjoy.

Enjoy the peek inside my favourite park so far.

Located on the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C, it’s hard to think of this garden having been anything but a beautiful green space. Prior to 1978, it was a dreary corner lot in an unsafe part of the East Village.

In the late seventies, the members who transformed it were from the immediate neighborhood. Though as the city changed, so did the membership. Today, the garden is sponsored by a handful of members – who pay $15 a year, as well as by NY’s Green Thumb organisation. The green space faces a well-trodden street lined with delis, restaurants, and laundromats.

9th Street Community Garden is so diverse in its plantings – on one side you might see a bush of voluminous hydrangeas; on the other – mini tomatoes, yet to turn red. I read that there’s a beehive in the garden, and its bee keeper/owner sells honey at the 14 Street Union Square Market. I noticed the bees, but didn’t see the beehive.

Quirk factors abound. From the furnishings -there’s plenty of seating, to the more unexpected finds.

I nearly missed this well camouflaged rabbit in between purple daisies. I was so distracted; I was trying to zoom in on, and photograph, this busy bee.

When the garden began, members expanded and enriched the available land, gaining additional lots through the condemnation of and the razing of adjacent buildings.* It now encompasses one acre.

Lush vines overflow and evoke that sense of otherwordliness. A mix of moonflower, honeysuckle and bittersweet – they were planted over two decades ago.

The beauty of the community gardens is multifold. Firstly, it unites a diverse neighbourhood through mutual collaboration of what looks to me like, a labour of love.

Secondly, sharing the garden with the wider community is such a generous act. It’s what makes a neighbourhood so much more appealing and inviting. Apart for giving someone like me a pleasant respite from the heat, such spaces are used for theatre productions, music events, private parties, school outings, or simply as a place to gather with friends. Thirdly, the garden gives members a place to exercise sustainable living. Especially in a part of NY that has such a varied population (East Village is a mix of low and mid income levels), spaces like this support a healthier way of life.

The community garden is unlikely to expand any further. I read that when the Green Thumb Organisation was transferred from the Dept of Parks and Recreation to Dept of Housing Preservation and Development, a number of the East Village community gardens were destroyed to make way for low income housing.

I cannot find any information about the future of 9th Street Community Garden Park. For now, their objective is to garner more community interest and involvement.

If you’re in this part of NY, I encourage you to visit one of the gardens. They’re so accessible that they’re hardly secret… yet when you’re there, you feel like you’re the only one.

*http://www.earthcelebrations.com/gardens/gardens.html

Manhattan in the A.M. ~ Lower East Side, NYC

I remember, years ago – a tourist in New York – one of my favourite times of the day to stroll around the city was in the early morning.

It is:

… when the city is in its most blissed out state.

…  when the busiest workers on the street are the delivery truck drivers, unloading packages to storefronts.

… when cafes are pouring coffees for the early morning risers.

… when fresh produce is carted from market to restaurant kitchen; to be prepped for the lunch rush.

… when retail stores are asleep under steel roller door covers.

… when the road traffic is at a calm pace; the pavement pounding – not so heavy; the sun, pleasant and warm over a probably soon-to-be humid summer’s day.

Today I got an inch closer to experiencing a still-sleepy NY in the AM. Next time, I’ll get up an hour earlier. Enjoy a jaunt through the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Gated Abandonment on Bowery ~ downtown NYC

There’s a building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that had intrigued me for a while because of its haunted look. The stone building shows evidence of a former glory – its Gilded Age stone design, now covered in graffiti; its elaborate architectural details, now rusted through and unkempt. Cornered by Spring Street on one side, #190 Bowery is located in a pretty cool neighbourhood amongst restaurant supply shops, the New Museum, cafes and restaurants.

Doorway

Lonely intercom

Let me put it this way – this is prime real estate yet the building looks abandoned. In a city as densely populated as New York City, where space is prized, how can such a gorgeous building be seemingly empty?

I hadn’t been the only one wondering; when I visited the space earlier this month to take some photos of the street art covering the ground level of the six-storey space (and as I discovered, its fascinating details), the homeless guys sitting in its vicinity were asking me this very question. I had no idea how to respond… and so after a bit of research, I discovered a very interesting story behind it all.

It would have helped if I had paid attention to a (now obvious) detail...

This building-on-Bowery was constructed in 1898. Originally, it existed as the Germania Bank in a neighbourhood that had been primarily made up of German working class.

By 1966, the bank was abandoned and up for sale. Enter artist and photographer Jay Maisel. In the market for a studio space, he was shown this building by broker, Jack Klein. In those days, Maisel was paying $125 a month for a 2,500-square-foot studio at 122 Second Avenue, though an unexpected $50 rent hike had been too much to fathom.

Klein convinced Maisel he could raise the money to buy the abandoned bank. That was the easy part. Then he moved in. The main floor was knee-deep in garbage and coated in soot. “I had to shovel shit against the tide,” says Maisel. He wasn’t getting a lot of support either; the Bowery was where people ended up, not where they aspired to live. “My parents cried,” he says. “Every single thing that can come out of a human body has been left on my doorstep. But it was more disgusting than dangerous. (NY Magazine.)

Maisel's name is right on the door...

An unused entrance

Today, Maisel, his wife and daughter continue to live in this expansive space – by themselves. Maisel claims the building contains 72 rooms over 35,000 square feet. These values are yet to be confirmed as Maisel doesn’t allow for agent walk-throughs nor real estate valuations. Here’s some food for thought though: in 1966, Maisel purchased the former bank for $102,000. In 2008, its value was estimated as being within the $30 to $70 million range. At this time, Maisel has no plans to sell.

Not having seen the building’s interior, I cannot speak for its space though I have read that much of it is dedicated to Maisel’s photo and art galleries, and workshop spaces. One can even take a week long photography workshop with the artist inside his home at a price of $5,000 (this includes full board). Hey, you’d be a step ahead of those brokers in sketching up a floor plan too.

The fourth floor, which Maisel once rented out to Roy Lichtenstein, is a work-in-progress. But there have been no major changes to the interior. It’s essentially unchanged from the Germania Bank that architect Robert Maynicke designed for the then-bourgeois neighborhood (it cost $200,000 to build). The original safe-deposit vault, still in the basement, is the size of a generous studio apartment; the marks on the main floor where the teller booths once stood are still clearly visible. (NY Mag)

Air conditioning is expensive, so Maisel makes his own shades to keep out the sun

The ground level of this building is available for rent. Interested? Go to: http://190thebowery.com/

Now, about those graffiti-covered walls… There’s a myriad of art found here: mosaics, paste ups, stickers, graffiti and stencils, all blended into a mash-up of street art (a different kind to Faile’s commissioned piece, directly up the street). I was interesting discovering works on all sides of the buildings stone exterior.

“We’re responsible for the sidewalks in front of our building… The city wants the exterior graffiti-free, but it’s impossible: 190 Bowery is a mecca for street artists”… Maisel tried scrubbing the building every week, but “it was like I was providing a fresh canvas for them.” Keith Haring used to cover the exterior in chalk babies, says Maisel, and that he liked, both for the spirit of the images and because they washed off so easily.

Alas – mystery solved! Neither haunted nor abandoned, for now all we can do is admire the building from the outside and wonder what will become of this gold mine, and its tenants, in the future.

Williamsburg Bridge: Art on Art

It has been the inspiration for both a Depeche Mode video and album art (respectively, Policy of Truth and World in My Eyes); appeared in the James Bond film, Live and Let Die; and more recently, in July 2011, was the stage for an aerialist who performed 285 feet over it (illegally). Not a bad feat for one of New York’s only suspension bridges that has been standing for over 100 years.

The Williamsburg Bridge

I recently discovered the beauty (and benefit) of the bridge after walking across it to get to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, from Williamsburg. Why hadn’t I discovered the bridge’s walkway before? I thought it was simply for cyclists, who I’d regularly see from the window of the M or J subway lines when I traveled to and from work. I guess that’s because I was looking at the bike lane which is separate to the walk lane, on the other side of the bridge.

Walkway - from Williamsburg side

On a beautiful day, a walk across the Bridge beats taking the subway. The views are stunning when walking into Manhattan – to one side you can see the Manhattan skyline dominated by the Empire State Building; to the other, the Manhattan Bridge with the Brooklyn Bridge further behind it. Walking back into Brooklyn, the view is more industrial (note the now defunct Domino Sugar factory to your left) and the walkway basically drops you off on the doorstep of the ever popular Peter Luger’s Steakhouse. (NB Sunset from the bridge is a must-see.)

Skyline Views

As much as I have posted on Street Art in the past, the Williamsburg Bridge has added to my finds. Its influence has crept onto the bridge’s walkways, mostly in the form of stencil art. I’ve since walked over the bridge a number of times, and every time I have encountered art that I hadn’t noticed previously. That said, I should acknowledge that many parts of the Bridge have been subject to graffiti that have defaced many of its plaques. Borderline art: perhaps.

Graffiti

Additionally, there are plenty of vantage points within Williamsburg where the Bridge forms the backdrop to a beautiful streetscape. So, in the words of Depeche Mode, “Let me show you the world in my eyes…”

A Williamsburg Streetscape

Is this Art?

Moscow, Moscow...

Nite Owl Repetition

Ink Art

Coloured Tile Installation

Forest Footprints

Subway in Passing

The Walkway

Accidental Graffiti Art Installation

Enroute to Williamsburg

Coloured Squiggles

Nighttime View

An Artist's Interpretation

Grilled Sunset View - Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges

Moonlit Gondolier

Wise Words

The Dividing Line

Goodnight...

Chinatown’s Underbelly @ The Manhattan Bridge

My family’s heritage is Russian and from an early age I was learning Russian, speaking Russian, eating Russian dishes. Both of my parents were not, however, born in Russia. My mum was born in Harbin, China; my dad was born in Lindau, Germany; my siblings and I were born in Sydney, Australia. Alongside the Russian influences, I also learnt German in high school and enjoyed a lot of great Chinese food.

Chinese Lanterns

As a kid, I remember frequenting our favourite restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown, BBQ King. The jolly round owner would greet us upon arrival with open arms and ensure we were seated straight away.  By no means a fancy dining spot, furnished in plastic and imitation wood paneling, we loved the food there and would order dishes without needing to glance at the menu: fried salt & pepper squid, sweet & sour pork, stuffed bean curd, Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, Singapore noodles, roast duck (that was my choice).

Sometimes we’d cave and take a peek at the ‘Chef’s Suggestions’, perhaps ordering a plate of sizzling Mongolian beef or salt & pepper pork. It really depended on how hungry we were and whether we were accompanied by friends, who’d bestow their favourites on the food order.

Hanging Roast Ducks

When not dining out, mum would make sure we had staples from the local Asian supermarket to enjoy at home. She’d make a weekly shopping trip and bring home a selection of goods: packs of steamed pork buns, jars of preserved radish in chilli soy sauce, fresh tofu that she’d later fry up with bok choy, and/or a sponge cake that we’d enjoy for dessert. I also fondly recall eating Haw flakes. I’d peel away the pink paper wrapper from around the stout roll, separate each flake, then pop them – one by one – into my mouth. They tasted like raisins or some other kind of dried fruit and I just loved them.

Steamed Buns

Fast forward a number of years and based in New York, I have indulged in a great deal of Chinese food, however it has never measured up to the standard of those BBQ King dishes. Perhaps it is because I associate them with a feeling of nostalgia, or maybe it is simply down to the dishes being prepared differently in Sydney. Whatever the reason, I am always happy to enjoy a good Chinese meal and living in a city where it is de rigueur to order take-out and have it delivered, I enjoy an occasional visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown to simply wander the food stalls and be part of the market buzz.

Abundant Produce

Chinatown (City Hall in background)

Now, I am definitely not referring to dodging the tourists on Canal Street, in search of fake Gucci this, and faux Burberry that. Nor am I referring to taking a stroll along the stretch of Bowery, a haven for traffic jams, and home to kitschy storefronts selling all sorts of random paraphernalia. I am talking about the calmer part of Chinatown that is centered around and under the Manhattan Bridge, running along and off of East Broadway in the Lower East Side.

East Broadway is also known as ‘Fuzhou’ Street

Shopping under the Manhattan Bridge

Many of the newer Chinese immigrants that have settled here hail from Fujian province (as opposed to the Cantonese) and East Broadway has been dubbed ‘Fuzhou Street’ after the province’s capital. There is the rare tourist to be found amongst many Chinese locals, buying produce from the dozens of outdoor stalls ladened with fresh fruits and vegetables – persimmons, Asian pears, Durian fruit, oranges, apples, fresh greens; fishmongers and butcher’s stores  interspersed between them.

Asian pears, persimmons, oranges

Fresh Greens

Live CrabsWhat I like about this part of Chinatown is that I feel it is as authentic to China as I am going to get in Manhattan. Never mind that I cannot read any of the characters plastered all over the stores and buildings, nor have I been in awe of any Chinese architecture (because there is none). It’s just that the streetscape feels like it could be set in another country altogether – and for a while I am transported out of the norm.

Character Decoration

Butcher’s Shop

Chinese Newspapers

DVD Store

 Side by side the fresh produce markets are DVD stores, dumpling houses, electronic game repair booths, hair salons, restaurants, herbal stores selling all sorts of dried stuffs, beauty suppliers, bubble tea cafes…. and surprisingly, a number of wedding dress stores. I read recently that:

 Luxury wedding ceremonies are traditional among the people of Fuzhou (capital of Fujian province). During Chinatown’s wedding season, which runs between late September and Chinese New Year, immigrants speaking the Fuzhou dialect host about 1,500 banquets and generate about $20 million dollars in restaurant business… In the late 1980’s there were no specialized bridal shops… By 2004, the number of bridal shops had increased to thirty-two, many owned by Fujianese. *

Dried Fish for Sale

Chinese Herbs

There is one food store that I always visit – ‘New York Supermarket Inc’. Located at #75 East Broadway, it sits right under one of the Bridge’s underside archways. The complex is always bustling, with the sound level further amplified by the subway rattle overhead – I like it for its commotion alone. That said, I always end up browsing the market’s aisles and leaving with a bag full of different Asian foods to try.

Entrance to New York Supermarket Inc (right)

Packets and packets of foods

I have tried the roll with greens – sauteed bok choy on a soft sesame bun.

Just like my mum, I love to buy steamed pork buns and sponge cakes. I do have a few of my own finds that I count on as well including (though not limited to): coconut creme that my husband churns into ice cream; Japanese mochi balls, made of glutinous rice, rolled into balls and filled with red bean, sesame, taro or peanut paste;vermicelli rice noodles; lychee gummi candy; and, roasted seaweed. Hardly adventurous, I know, as I do pass by the rows of canned quail eggs, jars of sliced sour bamboo shoots and packets of preserved duck eggs and think, “Should I?” But I always chicken out – partly from fear of trying them; partly because I have no clue as to what I would prepare with the ingredients. Unlike eating, cooking isn’t my forte.

Street Vendors at Forsyth Market

A little further up the road from the supermarket is the popular Forsyth Market, located under another of the Manhattan Bridge archways. Though I do not shop there myself, it is a busy part of the Chinatown scene where the vendors sell produce at exceptionally low prices. Employing a “low-margin, high-volume model”, many residents and local restaurants purchase produce here daily. If you want to be served, you have to get in line. Yes, it’s that busy sometimes.

Lines at the Market

Unfortunately the market vendors here are under continual speculation and subject to ticket sweeps by the city authorities and city regulators. Without going into too much detail about it, you may read more about it here. Street Vendor Project: Spoiled !.

Forsyth Market: Cheap Greens

Given this and coupled with the spike in rents that store owners have recently complained about in the area, it is no small wonder that there has been a steady relocation of business to the Chinatown’s situated in Flushing, Queens and Brooklyn.

Fuzhou Supermarket with Manhattan Bridge in distance

 No doubt, I’ll continue supporting this part of Manhattan’s Chinatown – not only because I like it for its vibe and food selection, but it is easily accessible over the Williamsburg Bridge by foot, which makes for a great day of food shopping.

My Japanese mochi treat

That said, I will need to make a trip to the other boroughs to experience their Chinatowns. I will post on those after I’ve visited them.

Beautiful Manhattan Bridge


*Quote from: “The New Chinese America: class, economy, and social hierarchy.” By Xiaojian Zhao