Tag Archives: New York City

Home Again, Home Again

To travel is to learn. This is what I believe. Either we learn about where we go, about ourselves, or about how to navigate new, unseen situations.

These are good things, it’s safe to admit. And when one travels in a condensed period of time, all of these lessons are learned in more shortened time frame, often rubbing up against other lessons, and making reflection upon these episodes difficult. Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.

I have arrived home from New York City, having gone non-stop from Seattle early Thursday afternoon, and the schedule was chock full. There was no down time other than sleep, and I walk away from the trip exhausted, but sated.

Thursday evening, after landing?  Drinking.

Friday? Bagels, The American Museum of Natural History, a quick signing of books over at the Downtown Barnes & Noble, and a celebratory dinner at Delmonico’s, where we talked about the “Eh, it doesn’t suck” review of Sweet Tooth from the Wall Street Journal (By the way WSJ? I’m so using ” ‘Kate Hopkins’ is looking for Mr. Goodbar with a vengeance.” as a blurb).

Saturday? A walk through Central Park, shopping around Union Square, dinner at an average Italian place that I had apparently ate at back when I visited Manhattan in 2000, the Lion King on Broadway, and then partying with my friends at a “club” until 2am.

Sunday? Deli for brunch, and then  The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the day, followed by dinner at Adrienne’s Pizzabar, and we closed out the weekend with a passionate discussion about modern art (more on that later).

Today? Today was a travel day.

See? There was no down time. I say this, not to brag, as much as to reflect upon what we accomplished. My compatriots and I played tourist, full-on, annoying swagger, stare-at-the buildings, tourist. And it was ambrosia.

I realize that I had completed a rudimentary overview of New York’s history before heading to the Big Apple, and that, perhaps, it was supposed to influence how I approached the city.  Perhaps I thought I was going to provide journalistic answers to journalistic questions about the city. Or perhaps I believed that I was going to treat the visit with a more academic perspective.

Instead? Instead I took the lesson I alluded to the other day: People go to New York to do stuff.

So I did.  And it was glorious.

If I happened to learn a bit about the place in the process?  That is what Bob Ross used to call “A happy little accident”.

What Is It About New York City?

I’ve been playing around with a simple question: Why do we go to the places we go to?  And, as I sit here, a mere 24 hours before leaving for a New York City weekend, I ask in this instance, why do people go to New York City? What is it that draws people?

Sure, we can say that it’s a big city, and as such, it has access to activities and products that smaller cities do not. But this is the same reason that people go to London, Paris, Mexico City, or Tokyo. So why go to New York City over these places?

There’s little doubt that there’s a mystique about the place. It has a grandiosity that comes from several variables. For one, it’s a financial heavyweight. With that, comes those displays of wealth seldom seen in other cities.  For instance? The city is chock full o’ skyscrapers, whose mere existence is a result of the capital that comes into the region. Yes, every major city in America (except Washington DC), has a handful of skyscrapers. Only in New York are there several square miles of them.  Walking through shadows of the Bank of America Building, The Chrysler Building, the Citigroup Center, and others of its ilk,  is to be reminded on a continual basis on how small an individual can be.

The response to this reminder of insignificance is defiance, manifested through both the New York City attitude that everyone has heard about. But it also manifests itself via another New York City institution, the arts scene, represented most often by Broadway, but you can see it in every aspect of the arts, from The Ramones, to Alvin Ailey, to even Frank Sinatra, who once sang of New York ,”If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”. And what is the artist if not the pinnacle of individualism?

Together, these two vastly different scenes create a dichotomy on a seven mile long island that exists no-where else on the planet, at least in size of their grandeur Sure, Tokyo has skyscrapers and London has the West End, but neither of them carry the mythos associated with their New York City counterparts.

It is this that separates New York City from the other cities of the United States, and even the world.  Yes, it’s a huge city. But beneath it lies the dreams of wealth, glory, power, and fame.   People head to New York to do things, and often end up making history in the process. It’s a city designed to NOT be the central location of federal politics, and in doing so, has come to represent America better than Washington D.C. ever could.  Paris, London, and Rome have history tied at the hip to the political decisions of their respective states. What is Rome without Ceasar, Paris without Napoleon, or London without Victoria?

New York? New York has Alexander Hamilton, Babe Ruth, George and Ira Gershwin, Edith Wharton, Duke Ellington , and  Grandmaster Flash.  It’s the city where jazz became refined, baseball became popular, and Hip-Hop evolved from the block party traditions of the 1970′s.  In the end, New York City is a place where interesting things happen in large part due to the backdrop behind it and the resources available within it. It is the perfect amalgamation of money and individualism.  What possibly could represent America better?

 

Delmonico’s: It’s All About The History

Delmonico's circa 1902

If ever there were an example that gave insight into my own character, this is likely it. Here I am, a week or so from heading to New York City, a city filled with world renown restaurants, and me with the resources to choose which one I could go to. My decision?

Delmonico’s.

Why? Because for a history geek like myself, Delmonico’s is chock full of the ghosts of the past. I get giddy just thinking about it.

Delmonico’s, as a name, has been around for a long time. It  is older than the city in which I currently reside – Seattle. It is older than the state of Washington, older than organized baseball, and older than the American Civil War.

Yes, yes, I know. The current incarnation is a mere recreation, trading off of the name. It is not the original, or even the second coming. If my math is right, the current version of Delmonico’s is actually the fourteenth version, if you count the initial pastry shop that the brothers Delmonico founded in 1827. But it’s the idea that’s grabbed me.

Why? Because Delmonico’s brought restaurant dining to New York, and later the rest of America. I talked before about the culinary landscape of New York City at the time Delmonico’s came into being, and it’s important to understand just what this new type of business added to the city. It was (supposedly) here that  à la carte ordering made its debut in America, as well as the ability to eat your own table, unshared by strangers.

Think about that for a moment – a New York City without restaurants, without a place where you can sit down and be both separate from yet intrinsically part of the food scene of New York City.  The restaurant scene of the Big Apple is a direct descendant of the legacy that Delmonico’s at least inspired, if not outright created.

It was a restaurant visited by the like of Charles Dickens, and the place where Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday. It was the place where (purportedly) the Lobster Newberg was invented, along with the Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and, of course, the Delmonico Steak. Delmonico’s is a name weighted with the past, and carries with it the authority of tradition and quality. Why else would the name last through nearly two centuries, with the past 90 years being without an actual Delmonico on site?

I recognize that today’s restaurant is merely trading on the name. But for me, that is enough. It knows its past. And if I can have a meal that connects me to the New York City of 1837, even loosely, then I’m okay with that. I will be there with my friends and loved ones, and for a moment or two, I’ll get to think about what it must have been like to eat at Delmonico’s at its heyday.

How did New Yorkers Eat in the Early 1800′s?

The above picture is a lithograph of a dinner celebrating the life and celebrity of Washington Irving. While I have interesting in the first Knickerbocker, he’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, look at the style of the banquet hall – long tables, shaped like the interior Hogwart’s dining hall. The picture gives a good indication on how the upper class ate in social engagements.

But, as with all banquets, these are the exceptions to every day eating, not the rule.  So what was the food culture of the era of 1825-1863? Let’s set aside Delmonico’s, the first name often brought up when talking about eating in that era. Delmonico’s should be noted, but again, they are the exception, not the rule. The idea of “restaurants” had yet to take off in Gotham.

The first thing we have to remember was that New York City, more than another other city on the planet at that time, was designed as a financial center. The first way this manifested itself was through shipping, which meant merchants, which meant people buying and selling cargo. This also meant that the city attracted business men. It has been reported that on any given day in New York City during this era, one should add an additional 60,000 people to its citizenry, all temporary residents who stayed an average of three days. This people had to be fed somehow, and the primary way was through the hotels and boarding houses where they stayed. Those who put up these boarders were expected, through etiquette and tradition, to feed those who stayed with them.  Hotels were expensive, and often had their meals reflect that status. Boardinghouses were middling to cheap, and the food served at these places were famously poor.

Other places where people could eat included the chophouses I mentioned yesterday, with some of these evolving into eating houses that sat next to or near the various playhouses and theaters that were popping up throughout New York City, including a place called Windust’s that sat next to the Park Theater in 1824. The idea of catching a dinner and a show, has its roots way before the idea of “Broadway” could even be fathomed.

Also around the theaters, and peppered throughout the city were the bakeries who provided the daily bread and pastry fix, to the confectioners, now far removed from their apothecarial past. Then there were the taverns, where drinking was the primary order of the day, and food was provided to keep people drinking. Coffee houses had similar a similar outlook, with the intent of keeping people on site as long as New Yorkers could bear.

And for those who had less money to spend, or no time to get home during the work day, food peddlers provided cheap food directl, calling out their wares which included everything from oysters and clams, to baked beans, strawberries and mint, hot yams, and corn on the cob peddled by the hot-corn girls.

All of this was in place by the time Delmonico’s arrived on the scene, and changed the landscape of the New York Dining scene. But, I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself.

Vimeo Find: The Street Aesthetic of New York City

[ylwm_vimeo  height="480" width="640"]27973852[/ylwm_vimeo]

Yup, I’m getting geared up for our trip. And I’m realizing that there’s no possible way for me to cover every topic I want to before I go.

Which means…A reason to go back!

Of Grids and Canals: The Legacy of DeWitt Clinton

When it comes to cities, it’s rare to be able to look back in history and point to one person and go “This is the guy! This is the man that made <insert city name here> the city that it is today!” Usually a city is shaped and/or remembered by thousands of events, none of which even come close to falling under the heading of “city planning”.

DeWitt Clinton, who lived between  1769 and 1828, is a name that needs to be remembered in the history of New York. For, at first as Mayor of New York City, and then later as Governor of the state of New York, he initiated two different projects that would both help shape the path of New York City for generations after he left his mortal coil. He is one of but a handful of people to which we can point and go “This is the guy!”

Item #1: The Grid

Geography is destiny, and by the early 1800′s, people living in New York City lived mostly south of Greenwhich Village, leaving close to five miles of the island of Manhattan as unplanned territory.  Yet, with immigrants from Ireland arriving, and the city growing at a torrid pace, it didn’t take a genius to see that it was possible that entire island may one day be filled with residents of New York City. The cities leaders new, even back then, that it would be good to have a plan to which the city could be built around.

As Mayor of New York, Clinton had both influence and power, and in 1807 he appointed the commission that would literally shape the streets and avenues of New York City.  The result? The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, a work of remarkable foresight and planning that shaped Manhattan’s growth into the twentieth century.  It was this map that laid out the grid of Manhattan Island, what with the Avenues running north-south and the streets running east-west. It was this map that changed civic engineering in America, from the chaos of the Boston and Philadelphia to the regimented shaping of cities yet to come.

And while the resulting map has it’s own history, it should be noted that DeWitt Clinton had his hands in the appointment of those who helped create the grid.

 

Item #2: The Erie Canal

The problem was simple. It cost less to ship items to England than it did to ship them to areas of the rapidly growing midwest. The Appalachian Mountain Range made transportation between the east coast and Pittsburgh and beyond prohibitively expensive.  The solution, as detailed by DeWitt Clinton was far more complex – a canal that would run from Lake Erie and Buffalo, New York to the Hudson River and New York City.

Yes, it cost $7 million dollars to create by the time it was finished in 1825 (Roughly $133,136,983 in today’s money) and Clinton’s political opponents used the cost to paint him as loser. But history has demonstrated the brilliance of the plan, for the Canal accomplished three distinct achievements:

  1. Shipping costs dropped dramatically, to the tune of 95% according to some.
  2. Now that shipping to back and forth to the east coast was cheap, this fueled the economic opportunities to many towns and cities of the Midwest. This, in turn, fueled the population growth of many cities, including the likes of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit, where opportunity now was available to those willing to take advantage of the canal.
  3. New York City became the preeminent port city of America, quickly outdistancing the likes of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, and soon shipping more annual tonnage than these three cities combined.

Item 3 is the reason that New York became as large as it did, for it was the shipping business that made New York’s name internationally in the nineteenth century, and made it the primary choice of destination for all immigrants into the United States in the early-to-mid 1800′s.

And thanks to the commissioner’s plan of 1811, the city already had a plan to deal with the increasing population, making it better able to accept the incoming immigration wave than most any other city in America.

The fact that DeWitt Clinton had a role in both of these events, to me, demonstrates the genius of the man, and illustrates how well government can work when the right person or people are in the job. For without DeWitt Clinton, New York  would be a very different city today.

Just How Big Is New York City?

Map courtesy of http://www.new-york-hotels-offer.com/map.html

New York City (now) consists of five boroughs. I qualify this with “now” because, as recently as one hundred and twenty-five years ago, when New York City consisted of simply Manhattan, and the other four boroughs were cities unto themselves.

 

In order to get some semblance of how frickin’ big New York City with the five boroughs, if we were to separate them out, four out of the five boroughs would still make the top ten most populous cities in America. From the 2010 census:

  1. Los Angeles, California – 3,792,621
  2. Chicago, Illinois - 2,695,598
  3. Brooklyn, New York - 2,504,700
  4. Queens, New York - 2,230,722
  5. Houston, Texas – 2,099,451
  6. Manhattan, New York – 1,585,873
  7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 1,526,006
  8. Phoenix, Arizona – 1,445,632
  9. The Bronx, New York  - 1,385,108
  10. San Antonio, Texas - 1,327,407
Staten Island, with it’s population at 468,730, would sit somewhere between 35th and 40th place, roughly the size of Sacramento.

 

New York City is big. Really big.  At 8,175,133, it’s over twice the size of Los Angeles’s population. Yet, from a square mileage perspective, it’s 75% of Los Angeles’s size.

 

I can remember my first time on Manhattan, and looking up and down the Avenue, and my brain going “pop”, because it was unable to grasp the evidence directly in front of it.  If you’ve never been to Manhattan , it’s impossible to imagine what 1.5 million people sitting on  22.7 square miles looks like.  If you have been, many of you will understand the awe that this borough presents to you inspires.

 

Consider this – Philadelphia, a city roughly the size of Manhattan,   fits roughly the same number of people in 134.1 square miles, roughly six times the land mass of the Island of Manhattan.

 

I realize that we throw around the word “awesome” like some men throw around singles at a strip club. It is one of the more unfortunate idioms of this current era.  So believe me when I say this: Manhattan is awesome, in that it can and does inspire awe.