There’s nothing particularly innovative or novel about taking a holiday in New York, so I can’t lay claim to any unique insights into the Big Apple from a vintage perspective, but having spent a fortnight there this summer in fairly conventional circumstances – a family of three vacationing in the school holidays – I was pleasantly surprised at just how much we achieved that satisfied our particular tastes. Besides which, I’d be failing in my duty as a blogger of vintage ‘stuff’ if I confined myself to the UK experience, so here goes at trying to capture the experiences of an Englishman whose perceptions of New York have been forged on a diet of classic novels, film noir, jazz records, endless viewings of West Side Story and late night re-runs of the Naked City and Car 54.
First, the context. While my solitary trip to the US was limited to Washington and Quantico, and very focussed on work, Mrs M is quite widely travelled on the West Coast and in the Southern States, so a visit to New York promised to open up a new angle for us both. Add to that our daughter’s fascination with all things Korean, which made the presence of Korea Town in Mid Town NY a major draw, and our holiday plans for 2019 seemed aligned. We’d contemplated starting with a visit to New York and then heading out to tour the surrounding area, and that would certainly have been desirable if we’d been squeezed into a Manhattan hotel room for the New York element of the trip, but as we started to explore Air B&B properties in the New York boroughs, it struck us that sticking in the city for the whole two weeks would allow us to relax and take in more of city life, rather than cramming in a selection of standard tourist destinations and then departing. Scanning the apartments available in late July, we toyed briefly with staying on Staten Island, until a wise New York resident friend pointed out that would be rather akin to visiting London by staying on the Isle of Wight. Instead, our research took us increasingly in the direction of Brooklyn, and we lit on an apartment in Williamsburg, just across the bridge from Manhattan, close to the Subway, and offering what seemed to be a vibrant community on the doorstep to complement the attractions of Manhattan itself. My New Yorker friend confirmed that this would be much more like staying in Islington for a London trip (and we like Islington), so that became the plan. Exchanges with our Air B&B host proved positive, friends steered us through the visa process, so we left the ground at Gatwick with a mixture of expectancy, excitement and slight trepidation – just the right combination to take on one of the world’s most iconic cities.
We’d timed our flight to bring us into JFK airport around lunchtime, US time, which meant that after clearing immigration we found ourselves on the subway line towards the city in the mid-afternoon. Our choice of Williamsburg as a destination already started to show its worth, as our stop was on the line in from the airport with no changes. Even that short journey was atmospheric as, like many of the surburban stretches of the subway, the line ran on tracks built as part of the elevated railway – the ‘L’ – instantly evoking scenes from The French Connection as we rumbled along the monumental girders. No London Underground sedate brick viaducts here – the line ran immediately above the road, giving us a glimpse of the two and three storey buildings that have hallmarked so many films set in the NY suburbs. Steadily we counted down the stops, until we disembarked at Marcy Ave, stepping out into a sweltering afternoon that made us instantly appreciative of the subway’s aircon. Crossing the road below the subway only added to the feeling of being in a film set, as we navigated our way up the few streets to our accommodation. There was the bridge over the expressway, with cars and huge trucks surging below us; there the wire-fenced recreation ground. All around us the tenement buildings, stoops and external metal fire escapes we’d feared might only exist in movies of the 70s and earlier. Our apartment was a classic Brooklyn tenement – a heavy front door leading onto a vaguely art deco hallway, many times overpainted and sporting a sickly yellow shade. No elevator, just a winding staircase with ornate banister hinting at more ornate pretensions when the building was new.
Bags dumped and after acquainting ourselves briefly with the layout of the apartment, we headed straight out to shop for food, conscious that a storm was in the offing, adding a heavy humidity to the already oppressive heat. Our host had recommended a Whole Foods store in the heart of Williamsburg which, although not quite chiming with our less healthy ambitions for our New York diet, at least gave us a reliable starting place. We set off on foot below the highway roaring above, then ducked under it through at atmospheric collection of low-rise tenements and small businesses. Already, we were struck by just how little homogeneity there was; in the equivalent parts of London, we’d have encountered endless chains but here there was the profusion of signage promoting local businesses that we’d only dared to hope for. Essentials purchased, we set off home again, wilting in the heat and feeling the first drops of rain in the air, arriving back at the apartment just as the skies opened. The new few hours treated us to a thunderstorm unlike any we’d encountered in the UK. Lightning flashed across the sky, thunder pounded, and the rain came down in a thick torrent, quickly flooding the alleyway alongside our building inches deep. Fortunately, it brought the temperature down a few degrees but, although now awake for some twenty continuous hours, sleep came slowly in the humid air.
We woke to brighter weather with the worst of the humidity dispersed by the storm. Luckily, we waited until this point to trip the mains supply to the apartment as, guided by phone by our host, I negotiated my way through a soggy basement that the previous evening would have been under a foot of floodwater to find the fuse board. Still slightly groggy, we elected to spend our first full day exploring our immediate neighbourhood, so set off back into Williamsburg’s shopping area. We were very quickly taken by the atmosphere which lived up to what we’d read before our trip. An initial stroll along Grand Avenue took us to the first of the many coffee shops that punctuated our travels, and our first laden platefuls of French Toast, and revealed a more conventional supermarket full of traditional American products to quench our appetite for ‘local’ flavour. Heading into the trendier part of town, we found lots of independent shops along the main drag of Bedford Avenue which, despite our determination not to start shopping too early in our stay, scored our first original 45. After another coffee stop to watch the world go by, we headed down to the East River State Park, recently created on the site of a demolished sugar factory, to catch our first view of Manhattan on the other side of the East River. It was hard to believe that we were actually looking at the skyline we’d seen countless times in film and photograph, especially as our spot gave us a direct view across to Midtown, with the unmistakeable silhouette of the Empire State Building amongst the towers on the other side.
As we meandered back down towards our part of town, we spotted a store selling vintage toys and records and, although it hadn’t featured in any of our prior research, gave it a go. Toys (mostly 80s or later) and old LPs in their hundreds abounded, but we feared that there would be no 45s until the proprietor pointed us towards four fairly small boxes tucked away at the bottom of a set of shelves. Three of them yielded nothing more than the US equivalent of the sort of 80s and 90s run of the mill material we’d find in many UK charity shops, but the fourth revealed a seam of 50s and 60s material that had us putting a good dozen to one side, all priced at a modest $2 to $3. With just one day in, it looked as if our hopes of a bit of a vinyl haul might prove to be achieveable after all.
To round off the day, and fortified by yet more iced coffee – this time from a very hospitable bicycle shop – we decided to tackle the Williamsburg Bridge which towered over the lower part of the area. Finding our way on took some doing; with two lanes for each direction of traffic, a subway line and a path dedicated to cycles, we discovered we had to cross underneath it to find the pedestrian footpath but the effort was more than repaid as we found ourselves crossing the East River in a forest of turn of the century ironwork, the subway rattling alongside us as we looked down on lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Navy Yard spread below us on either side of the river. We’d been slightly nervous of being exposed as vulnerable tourists, but instead were accompanied by a comforting mixture of pedestrian commuters, joggers and locals. The return journey took us well into the early evening, but left us very handy for one of the local restaurants recommended by our host, the temptingly-titled Pies’n’Thighs. Here we found that one of our very British nervousnesses about US life was baseless; knowing that portions are much more generous on the other side of the Atlantic, we feared that we’d get a very sniffy reaction to ordering meals to share between our weedy British appetites. Not a bit of it – here, as everywhere else we went, shared portions were delivered cheerfully and always with extra plates/forks/spoons as necessary, leaving us determined to eat out as often as we could.
More to come next time…