NYC for Spring Break: A pit stop

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Last week, I spent the first couple of days of my spring holiday in New York City, resting a few days before the long, arduous train journey to Montréal. I was there for roughly two days, and, somehow, within that limited timeframe, I covered a surprisingly large amount of ground. Williamsburg (brunch @ Egg, and coffee @ Blue Bottle), Long Island City (the postcard views of Manhattan from the Long Island Piers), the lively West Indian ghettos of Flatbush and the serene, tranquil Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. In addition, I visited the decidedly unwelcoming bizarre, Hasidic Jewish parallel universe that is South Williamsburg, the unsure of itself Lower East Side, and the claustrophobic, United Nations-like multicultural hustle and bustle of Jackson Heights. Too, I went to SoHo for some much-needed spring shopping and wardrobe renewal.

It was nice to break out of the Brownstone Brooklyn “trap” that often seems to characterize my New York City trips. Not that I spend all of my time there, but it certainly seems so. Funny enough, Williamsburg is always derided as being post-hipster and passé, though to me, it still seems very hipster, on both its north and south sides. Still, I acknowledge Bushwick is the new “destination” for them. Who knows, but at any rate, it is still probably the most “hipster” neighborhood in the country. And its dining scene packs a big punch for Brooklyn, meaning it still commands some relevance.

I love the loud, rambling elevated trains that area central to the quintessential Brooklyn backdrop and scenery. The same goes for subway stations, as dirty and often downright appalling as they can sometimes be (looking at you, 21st. St.). And the brownstone and limestone-lined blocks in places like Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Bed-Stuy (my favorites for brownstones), and Crown Heights (my favorite for limestones) never cease to pique my New York City imagination. Of course, I cannot forget Manhattan’s West Side’s infamous sleaziness; it is one of the few places in Manhattan that truly harkens me back to the much celebrated and misunderstood “Old New York.” Given its location, the lack of development and investment is somewhat puzzling. Long Island City has highly enviable, head-on views of Manhattan, visible from anywhere in the neighborhood, but especially along the waterfront. Even little random things, like the Chinese restaurant workers zooming around on motorized bicycles. All of these make for a unique, memorable atmosphere.

The diversity of NYC is what always gets me. Particularly, how unexpected and in your face it is. Guatemalans in Bensonhurst, Mexicans in East Harlem, Tibetans/Nepalis in Jackson Heights, Ghanaians in the West Bronx, and a medley of West Africans of several nationalities (in close proximity with Bengali-owned “halal” convenience stores) along Fulton Avenue in Bed-Stuy. NYC isn’t what it always seems, and things are constantly changing. The warp speed with which places change is fascinating. While the change I am most familiar with Crown Heights, I have seen noticeable changes and improvements everywhere. A few years ago, when I first visited Crown Heights, aside from the ubiquitous Trinidadian roti and doubles take-out joints, there was little in the form of restaurant or dining options. Now, a few years later, there are gourmet, new-wave Neopolitan-style pizzerias, trendy coffee shops, and gastropubs serving microbrews to scruffy hipster types. Impressive.

The drawback to getting to know a city like NYC is that after the first couple of visits, the “magic” wears off. It is both a good and bad thing, though. Sure, after that veritable magic wears off, one can further his/her understanding of the city and its people and places through repeated visits. Developing a reasoned and logical understanding of a dynamic, complex city as NYC can only come with time. To deepen my understanding of the city, on recent trips, I have visited off-the-beaten-path places such as Elmhurst, the Lower East Side, Jackson Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens/Flatbush, Hell’s Kitchen, Long Island City, Highbridge, and the Bronx’s splendid Art-Deco-y Grand Concourse.

My favorite part, of course, is the food, with my most recent trip exemplifying that. While I can still never seem to make the legendary Di-Fara’s work (most recently, they were closed on Tuesday), I did do Tom’s Diner, Barboncino, Ample Hills Creamery, Egg, Blue Bottle Coffee, Sweetleaf Coffee, V-Nam Café, and Delhi Heights. Ample Heights Creamery, located on Prospect Heights’ Vanderbilt Ave restaurant row, had an absolutely delectable salted cracked caramel and malted vanilla (among other flavors) ice cream. Hell’s Kitchen’s restaurant row on 9th Ave has the largest concentration of Thai restaurants I have seen, at least outside of a college ghetto or Thai Town in Los Angeles. Keeping in line with Southeast Asia, Sweetleaf (Vernon Blvd/11th ave) has really, really good iced Vietnamese coffee. And Dehli Heights’ Indian platters were both well-priced and tasty.

Without delay, here are a few photos from the trip:

The stunning Midtown skyline, as seen from Long Island City.
Graffiti along Manhattan's Bowery.
A man donning traditional Mexican cowboy (vaquero) attire. South Williamsburg.
The aforementioned salted cracked caramel and malted vanilla ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery.
The New Museum, also along Manhattan's Bowery.
Street art. Houston Street, Lower Manhattan.

A pair of Lower East Side residents:

Vintage storefront. Bowery.
Spanish-tiled rowhouses. Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
A hybrid Art-Deco/Gothic building. Ocean Avenue.
Yoko One. Egg, Williamsburg.
Apartment blocks in the Jackson Heights Historic District.
Bengalis near the 74th/Roosevelt train station in Jackson Heights, Queens.

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