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.


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

Early morning is one of my favourite times to stroll around New York.

It is when the city is at its most relaxed, when packages are unloaded at storefronts, when cafes pour coffee for early risers, when fresh produce is carted from the market to kitchen, when retail stores still snooze behind steel roller doors, when the traffic seems calm, when the pavements are not pounded, when the summer sun feels pleasant before humidity sets in.

Today I experienced a sleepy New York. Next time I’ll get up an hour earlier.

Gated Abandonment on Bowery ~ downtown NYC

A Lower East Side building has haunted me for a while. From under layers of graffiti, a Gilded Age stone design hints at a former glory; its elaborate iron fixtures are rusty and unkempt. Located on the corner of Spring Street, this building, Number 190 Bowery, is surrounded by restaurant supply shops, the New Museum, cafes, and restaurants.


Lonely intercom

Let me put it this way: In a city as densely populated as New York City, where space is prized, this is prime real estate. So how can such a gorgeous building stand seemingly empty?

I’m not the only one wondering. When I visited earlier this month to take photos of its street art, the homeless guys sitting nearby were asking me this question. I hadn’t a clue how to respond… and so, after a bit of research, I discovered the story behind it all.

<It would have helped had I paid attention to one (now obvious) sign…>

This Bowery building was constructed in 1898. It used to be the Germania Bank to a neighbourhood made up of the German working class.

By 1966, the bank was abandoned and put up for sale. Along came 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 thrown him off kilter.

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, along with his wife and daughter, still live in this six-story space by themselves. Maisel claims the building contains 72 rooms over 35,000 square feet. These values are yet to be confirmed as Maisel allows neither agent walk-throughs nor real estate valuations. Some food for thought: in 1966, Maisel purchased the former bank for $102,000. In 2008, its value was estimated between $30 to $70 million. Maisel has no plans to sell.

I haven’t been inside, but have read that a few levels are dedicated to Maisel’s photo and art galleries, and workshops. One can even take a week long photography workshop with the artist inside his home for $5,000 (includes full board). This would anyone one step ahead of those brokers, who are clamouring for a floor plan.

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… I’ve seen a slew of mosaics, paste ups, stickers, graffiti ,and stencils.

“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 it, and its tenants, in the future.

Williamsburg Bridge: Art on Art

It inspired Depeche Mode’s 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, set the stage for an aerialist who performed on it (illegally). I’m talking about the Williamsburg bridge, New York’s only suspension bridge 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, from Williamsburg to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Why hadn’t I discovered the bridge’s walkway before? I thought it was only used by cyclists, who I’d regularly see through the window of the M or J subway, which I traveled on to and from work. I guess I must have been 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, walking across the Bridge beats taking the subway. The Manhattan views are stunning – 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 behind it. Returning to Brooklyn, I see a more industrial view (note the now defunct Domino Sugar factory to your left) and the walkway drops you off at the doorstep of Peter Luger’s Steakhouse. Seeing the sunset from the bridge is a must.

Skyline Views

I have posted on Street Art in the past, and the Williamsburg Bridge is a great canvas for it. Street art covers the bridge’s walkways, mostly in the form of stencil art. I’ve walked over the bridge a number of times now, and every time I have seen new art. Unfortunately, graffiti has defaced many of the bridge’s plaques. Borderline art? Perhaps.


In Williamsburg, the Bridge is a backdrop to the neighbourhood’s streetscape. 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


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 foods. My parents were not, however, born in Russia. My mum was born in Harbin, China; my dad in Lindau, Germany; my siblings and I in Sydney, Australia. Alongside the Russian influences, I also learned German in high school and ate 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 with open arms and ensure we were seated straight away.  By no means a fancy dining spot — it was furnished in plastic and imitation wood paneling — we loved its food and would order without glancing at the menu: fried salt & pepper squid, sweet & sour pork, stuffed bean curd, Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, Singapore noodles, roast duck (my choice).

Sometimes we’d cave and take a peek at the ‘Chef’s Suggestions’, perhaps to order a plate of sizzling Mongolian beef or salt & pepper pork. It depended on how hungry we were and if we were with friends, who’d add their favourites to the order.

Hanging Roast Ducks

When not eating 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 packs of steamed pork buns, jars of preserved radish in chilli soy sauce, fresh tofu, which she’d later stir fry with bok choy. There’d be sponge cake  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 to New York, where I have indulged in a lot of Chinese food, which has never measured up to the standard of BBQ King. Perhaps it is because I’m nostalgic for my childhood, or maybe because the dishes are prepared differently in Sydney. Whatever the reason, I am always happy to enjoy a good Chinese meal in a city where it is normal 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 talking about Canal Street, where tourists search for fake Gucci this and faux Burberry that. Nor am I referring to Bowery, a haven for traffic jams, and kitschy storefronts selling random paraphernalia. I am talking about the calmer part of Chinatown centered under and around the Manhattan Bridge, the part that runs along 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 settled here came from Fujian province (as opposed to the Cantonese) , dubbing East Broadway ‘Fuzhou Street,’ after the province’s capital. The rare tourist can be found among the Chinese locals, who buy produce from the dozens of outdoor stalls brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables: persimmons, Asian pears, Durian fruit, oranges, apples, fresh greens. Fishmongers and butcher’s stores  are interspersed in between.

Asian pears, persimmons, oranges

Fresh Greens

Live CrabsWhat I like about this part of Chinatown is that I feel it’s as close I’ll get to China in Manhattan. Never mind that I cannot read any of the characters plastered all over the stores and buildings. There isn’t even any Chinese architecture. It’s just that the scene belongs to another country, and for a while I am transported from the norm.

Character Decoration

Butcher’s Shop

Chinese Newspapers

DVD Store

Next to the fresh produce markets stand 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 many wedding dress stores. I recently read 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 is called ‘New York Supermarket Inc’. Located at #75 East Broadway, it sits right under one of the Bridge’s archways. The complex is always bustling, and the sound amplifies when the subway rattles overhead. I like this place for its commotion alone. That said, I always browse the aisles and leave 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 mum, I love to buy steamed pork buns and sponge cakes. I have a few of my own favourite finds such as coconut creme (which my husband churns into ice cream); Japanese mochi balls, made of glutinous rice and filled with red bean, sesame, taro or peanut paste; vermicelli rice noodles; lychee gummi candy; and roasted seaweed. Hardly adventurous, I know, because 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 because I fear trying them, and partly because I have no clue how to prepare such ingredients. I love to eat, but cooking isn’t my forte.

Street Vendors at Forsyth Market

A little further from the supermarket, under another archway, is the popular Forsyth Market. Though I do not shop there myself, it is a busy because vendors sell produce at really low prices. Employing a “low-margin, high-volume model”, the market caters to residents and local restaurants who shop 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

This, coupled with the spike in rents, means a lot of business has relocated to Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens and Brooklyn.

Fuzhou Supermarket with Manhattan Bridge in distance

I’ll continue supporting Manhattan’s Chinatown because I like it for its vibe and food selection. It’s also easily accessible by foot, which makes for a great day of food shopping.

My Japanese mochi treat

I will need to make a trip, though, to experience the other 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