Downtown and Brooklyn in search of fleas, and meeting a vinyl collecting god…
Having immersed ourselves in the stories and culture of early and mid 20th Century New York, it was time to bring ourselves starkly up to the more recent events in the city’s history with a visit to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. I won’t go into detail about that here, as it would turn a blog focussed on vintage topics into a simple travelogue, but suffice to say that both museum and memorial are expertly and sensitively done. The events of that Tuesday morning have shaped so much of the history of the 21st Century and, like the death of President Kennedy for a generation before us, most of us can remember vividly where we were as events unfolded around lunchtime in the UK, that it is sobering to be reminded in graphic detail of the reality of what happened in the minutes, hours and weeks after those hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers, changing the New York skyline for ever and adding an indelible chapter to its story. The memorial in particular is so simple in concept, but so very right a way to commemorate those who died, that it’s hard to imagine that any other plan might have been considered: two pools, each marking the footprint of one of the towers, surrounded by the names who died, with an endless cascade of water running down towards what would have been the basement. We spent much longer there than we’d anticipated, but every minute was worth it.
After a stroll through Battery Park City, replacing the rows of piers that used to typify the commercial downtown, we dropped in at the Skyscraper Museum, a delightful little attraction charting not only the development of New York’s iconic skyscrapers, but also the wider history of the building form. Having sneaked into the art deco heaven of the Woolworth
Building entrance hall earlier that morning, it was fascinating to learn more about the towers that had survived and, sadly, been lost as New York reached ever higher upwards. Equally absorbing was the history of the development of the city’s apartment blocks, making the link between the photographs that we’d pored over of Manhattan in midcentury times and the blocks we could see from the bridges as we crossed the East River. The icing on the cake was the charming ladies manning the
small shop and ticket office, who were keen to hear – and pass comment on – our own selection of a favourite skyscraper. Any mention of the Chrysler Building met with their firm endorsement but it was clear that the Empire State still ranked as a brash newcomer in some quarters!
Back into Battery Park proper (if only to prove to ourselves that the Battery is, indeed, ‘down’), dodging the touts offering boat trips, clocking the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry for future reference, brought us out on to the southern tip of Manhattan Island to look back at the city rising before us. Just around the corner we found the Museum of the American Indian – one of the few disappointments of our trip (although it was free, so we had no real cause for complaint). Whilst there was an impressive collection of artefacts, we’d hoped for more of a narrative history of the lives of the indigenous tribes and the tragedy of their virtual extinction as the settlers moved rapaciously westwards. I’d also rather hoped for something chronicling the depiction of the American Indian in popular culture as a means of legitimising them as the ‘bad guys’. As I’ve learned more of the truth of the story of the Indians in America, it’s troubled me how easily we assimilated the black and white concept of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ as a battle of right and wrong as simple as that of ‘Cops and Robbers’ or ‘Allies vs Axis’ in comics, TV, movies and childhood games. I’m sure it’s extensively covered in a museum somewhere – it just didn’t happen to be this one.
And back to Williamsburg by subway, once more baked, hungry and with much to contemplate over another feast at Pies’n’Thighs.
So our first weekend dawned, and with it the chance to explore the Brooklyn Flea that we’d read quite a bit about. We were in luck as a bit of on-line research revealed that it now took place in two venues – Williamsburg on a Saturday and close to the Brooklyn Bridge on a Sunday, giving us just a short walk to the Saturday spot in a vacant lot. Sadly, what we found was pretty much what you’d expect of a flea market in a relatively affluent area close to a major city: lots of quite recent ‘vintage’ items, some stalls providing a retail outlet for small traders of new craft items and the bulk of the genuinely collectable stuff tending more to the 70s and 80s than earlier. That said, we all found something of interest as we poked around in the blistering heat; I took the chance to sift through some boxes of old New York postcards to pull together a collection featuring early skyscrapers, some of them with the original stamp and message on the back, while steadfastly resisting some pricey but very tempting locally-themed posters and magazine covers. Mrs M tracked down a lovely 1950s cowboy-themed notebook, and we all gravitated to a cornucopia of a stall featuring a wide selection of dead stock and second hand toys, many of them in the real ephemera range that should really never have survived, which left us comparing our haul of eyeball pencil toppers, various Pez dispensers and some lovely Viewmaster reels.
Heading back to the apartment to drop off our booty and cool off before heading out for the afternoon, we were delighted to find that the City Reliquary, in a disused storefront slightly off the Williamsburg beaten track, was open. Having read about it in advance, each time we’d passed, it had been securely locked, and the collection of oddities in the window was bearing sufficient dust to leave us wondering whether that was part of the charm or whether it had closed down. Instead we learned that it is an entirely community-run enterprise, and hence only open at weekends. It’s an amazing display of New-York related ephemera, mostly sourced from individual collections passionately amassed over decades and now safe in a home where they can be enjoyed by others. The beauty is that, apart from the linking NY theme, there is no other rationale to what’s there – it’s just there. So, items rescued from the subway system during renovation, sit alongside souvenirs from the Statue of Liberty, close to a collection of items from the World’s Fairs, across from some baseball-related stuff, whilst in the back room are cases full of papier-maché dolls (artistically arranged on cardboard buildings) and products from a NY confetti company. It’s marvellous, unique, and deeply connected to the everyday lives of real New Yorkers. Definitely worth a visit.
In a baking afternoon, we headed off to Brooklyn to meet up with a fabled record collector to whom we’d been introduced by a friend through the wonders of social media (slightly less glamorous than carrying old-fashioned ‘letters of introduction’, but it didn’t feel much different in many respects). We’d intended to take in the Brooklyn Bridge and check out another flea market site en route, though a slight miscalculation in subway stations and the fact that the site had been replaced by the one we’d just visited left us taking a very long, hot walk along the major roads of the unattractive commercial centre of Brooklyn to get to the Bridge which, fortunately, was just as inspiring a sight as we’d expected. Making our way back through the park along the Brooklyn shoreline, replacing the industrial piers that once filled the area, we made our way back to the historic residential area, chock full of beautifully restored brownstones, to our fellow vinyl fanatic’s apartment. Although well known amongst R&B and soul aficionados, he’s a modest individual, so he shall remain nameless here, but he and his partner gave generously of their time as he shared with these complete strangers his passion for music, slipping onto the turntable a mind-blowing succession of fantastic records we’d never heard of, let alone heard or handled. Here were records of which only a few are known to have survived, along with others painstakingly restored from acetates that had never been released. Having moved to New York from the UK soon after university, he’s spent years travelling the country, searching out not only unknown records, but also the artists who recorded them, and has arranged a number of live performances by people who must have thought their music careers had ended decades before. Although we discussed the vinyl collecting market, we wouldn’t have known where to start in placing a value on any of those he played us, and wouldn’t dared be so crass as to offer the kind of cash we could afford for the kind of records he was showing us, even if he could be persuaded to part with them. Equally, he was sensitive enough not to make it seem that we were wasting his time by not trying to make any purchases, allowing us the pleasure of an insight into a collector in a league infinitely higher than ours. As we made our way back on the subway (from a station massively more convenient than the one I’d taken us to), all we could do was remember little bits of stories and treasure an afternoon that made the whole trip something very special.
Next time, it’s back to Brooklyn for some classic transport, more record hunting, and then the iconic sights of Midtown