More fleas, some classic transport, the iconic sights of Midtown and trying the NY waterborne commute…

Sunday saw us back in Brooklyn, again at the end of a bit of a hike, to sample the much bigger version of the Brooklyn Flea, held in the atmospheric space under the arches of the Manhattan Bridge approach in a former warehouse area, now trendily dubbed Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Some of the stalls were the same as we’d seen the previous day, but there were many more and with a much wider selection of genuinely vintage items. I drooled over a selection of old cameras, typewriters and a couple of other items of classic technology that I couldn’t even think of getting home. Again, though, prices reflected the proximity to the city and we left empty-handed – rather to the relief of our packing plans but slightly disappointed that we wouldn’t be taking home some gem of vintage Americana to add to the collection.

Being back in Brooklyn proper, though, gave us the chance to take in the New York Transit Museum, a wonderful collection of transport hardware, equipment, posters and photographs. In many ways, it resembled its London Transport equivalent, until we descended a flight of stairs in the disused subway station in which it is housed and discovered a full set of platforms, still hooked up to the power supply, with a wide variety of subway cars stretching from end to end on both sides. That’s what’s missing from the London Transport Museum  and unlike London, too, they’re all open, so we loved the chance to wander through carriage after carriage, all restored with advertising from the respective period. I think the only thing I’d have added would be a car from the 70s in the battered, graffiti-laden guise that they ran when the subway system reached a nadir of neglect and crime. If nothing else, it would highlight just how far it has come now one can safely travel across town in clean, air-conditioned cars (though we relished our encounters with the odd eccentric, especially the guy conducting a lecture to no-one in particular on the merits of classic Gene Hackman movies).

From there, we stopped off in the outer reaches of Williamsburg, several stops short of our normal destination, to hunt down Rebel Rouser Records, one of the stores that had been recommended to us. It lay atmospherically just off the Broadway (not that Broadway), where the subway runs on old elevated railway lines, clattering noisily overhead on its massive girders as traffic poured along below, the bright sunlight casting stark crisscrossed shadows on the tatty shopfronts of local stores. We loved the sight and sound of the elevated as much as anything – all it lacked was some dented 70s saloon with a Popeye Doyle character racing the train overhead and we’d have been in vintage heaven. Still, Rebel Rouser did a fine job of putting us in a good mood, not least as it was the only place we went that actually boasted a rockabilly section as well as a stack of soul and other oldies, sending us back to the apartment with some excellent finds at very reasonable prices. Even better when I got home to read that we’d just walked through the area the Jive Five used to live in!

Having immersed ourselves in Brooklyn for a couple of days, it was time to head back to Midtown to carry on exploring some of the big bits of 20th Century architecture and so, after a whirl around Korea Town to sate daughter’s appetite for new make-up, we headed for Grand Central Station. Wow. I couldn’t believe that a working mainline station and subway hub could look that good. Even some years after its major restoration, it looks as if it’s just been opened – probably even better than new now that the air isn’t full of smoke and steam. The main concourse, with its ceiling painted with the night sky, is stunning, but it was the corridors below that set the whole thing off – areas that would normally have been neglected, or left in utilitarian state, have all been brought to the same standard as the principal circulating areas. A real gem is the food court, created out of a lower hall leading out onto the tracks, but now featuring a vast circle of good quality food outlets with ample clean and attractive seating areas in the middle, those running through the centre arranged to give the impression of railway carriages. We gorged on wonderful cakes from the Magnolia bakery and left able to peek at those heading for the high end Oyster Bar with interest but no envy.

Our next destination was the Rockefeller Plaza and the Top of the Rock, one of the small package of big attraction tickets we’d bought ourselves in advance. It’s hard to take in the art deco wonder of the Rockefeller Centre and the surrounding buildings. Constructed as a coherent whole, each of them at the same time gives an impression of towering clean lines whilst revealing delicious elements of deco detailing let unostentatiously into porticos and frescos. Having exchanged our tickets, we had time to wander in the basement of the Rockefeller building itself, still performing the functions it was designed for with a mixture of business, entertainment and retail, and so belying just what an unspoiled example of deco architecture it is. You’d expect a building of that age either to have had to compromise, or to have an element of it preserved out of synch with the commercial aspects, but here it all seems to work perfectly together. We’d chosen ‘The Rock’ for our high level view of Midtown on the basis that from the Empire State you can see everything but the Empire State, and sure enough the slightly torturous process of shuttling us towards and into the lifts was repaid with the freedom to spend as long as we liked taking in Manhattan from amongst the tops of the towers (though, of course, now looking up at many of the new additions). With the exception of the Chrysler Building, just peeking from behind another in front of it, we had a superb view and gave up our gazing only when the strong sun started to cook us. Back on the ground, we did a circuit of the block to take in the exterior of Radio City Music Hall, another riot of art deco and neon. We passed on the chance to take the Radio City tour on the basis that it focussed less on the architecture and more on the chance to meet a Rockette. When (not if) we get back to New York, we’re determined to get ourselves on a dedicated art deco walking tour so we can get inside more of these buildings to study the detailing as we were always left with the feeling that there was something just on the edge of our eyeline that we were missing.

From there, a walk down 6th Avenue to take in the atmosphere and a quick whiz around the City Library, before hot feet and flagging energy sent us into the subway. However, we weren’t done, and a quick ride downtown brought us to the Staten Island Ferry terminal to take advantage of the free ride it offers with excellent views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. As we boarded one of the orange monsters that ply their way to and fro across the bay, it was lovely to be surrounded by those doing this as part of their daily commute rather than by fellow tourists – although you could easily spot the difference as the regulars headed straight for the air-conditioned saloon decks while the visitors lined the rails to take in the view. Seeing New York from this angle also gave us the chance to imagine how the city must have looked to those arriving by ship, from the rich and glamorous aboard the most modern liners of the day, to the immigrants, tired after a long voyage in cramped conditions, and viewing their new home with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. It certainly whet our appetite for our visit to the Statue later in the week. On Staten Island we found little of interest near the ferry terminal beyond a corner shop dispensing cold drinks, but it was no problem to climb back aboard the Ferry and enjoy the view from the opposite side, taking in the Brooklyn shoreline (where we could just make out our new friend’s apartment building) and the East River stretching out under the Brooklyn Bridge down to On the Waterfront territory at Red Hook. There’s a bewildering array of boat trips on offer from Downtown, but the Staten Island Ferry rates high on route, atmosphere and, of course, price!