Lotsa serious crate digging for rekkids, and a trip back to the Tenement Museum after a walk in the New York skyline…
Our next day we’d dedicated to seeking out a legendary record shop north of Williamsburg in Greenpoint. It meant a bit of a hike, so we started with a leisurely return to the heart of Williamsburg to check out a Japanese store which conveniently sat next to the wonderfully titled Earwax record shop (though old 45s weren’t to be found) and a lovely neighbourhood pet shop offering the chance to ‘socialise’ rescued kittens – indeed, it was a bit of a marvel that we actually made it any further. As we headed up to Greenpoint, we passed the Brooklyn Automotive High School , motto ‘Manhood, Service, Labor, Citizenship’. Our imaginations conjured up the generations of Brooklyn youth who’d passed through their doors and the hot rods that must have hung around the street outside as the students tried out their skills on their own cars. If ever there was a model for the autoshop class in ‘Grease’, this was it.
A long slog through Greenpoint, with a definite Polish feel to the local community, brought us finally to the Thing. Upstairs, a fairly unremarkable antiques and collectables store but, heading for the back and some telltale piles of old records, and down the stairs to the basement, brought us to one of New York’s vinyl junkies meccas. Shelves of LPs stretched from floor to ceiling along rows disappearing into the murky depths, while boxes of 45s and 78s sat heaped on top of each other on the dusty floor. Clearly, this was territory only to be trod by the true crate digger, and even some of those who thought themselves up to the task were overawed by the challenge – witness the guy we saw heading out with a facemask clamped firmly across his mouth, and various bits of graffiti scrawled on the shelves from those who’d been bested by the task. I confess, I wouldn’t have liked to take on the LPs, not least as some of the covers looked decidedly mouldered or nibbled. Instead, we plunged into the crates, flipping handfuls of unsleeved 45s in search of paydirt. It was daunting, and the layer of dust and grime that covered them made it difficult to tell which would clean up well and which were genuinely ‘shagged’ (a technical term you won’t find in record classification guides). I kept trying to ignore the tempting crates of 78s I could see below the 45s – quite apart from the potential to eat up my luggage allowance in short order, I also had visions of consigning bundles of precious and fragile shellac to the baggage handlers that did not bode well. We persevered for some time, shifting and balancing crates in the confined space to plunge into the ones below. We unearthed one or two finds but, with nothing sorted or categorised in any form, it became increasingly clear that we were going to have to dedicate the bulk of the day to panning this particular stream for vinyl gold. I gave in, and dived into the crates of 78s – the first revealed dozens of jazz originals, including pretty much everything by the King Cole Trio, that back home would have had me making a pile of wants on the nearest flat surface, but I knew that I just couldn’t indulge that strain of collecting and still be able to bring back the rock’n’roll, rhythm & blues and soul that we were really after. So ruefully I had to slide them carefully back into the crate and hope that someone with handy wheels and plenty of storage space would be the next to touch them. Sometimes you feel like Lord Carnarvon deep in some Egyptian pyramid.
Emerging slightly disappointed, and gagging for a coffee, we found what we needed immediately opposite and the girls ordered drinks while I quickly scored a couple of nice singles at Grouch record shop next door. That set us on the long haul back, diving into the very original Peter Pan bakery for an injection of pastries before descending gratefully into the cool of the subway to get back to the apartment. With our record hunting senses thoroughly aroused, though, we weren’t back long before we stepped out again, leaving daughter shaking her head over her parents’ obsessions, to track down Human Head records. Fortunately, that one was only a few blocks away from our address, and turned out to have the ideal combination of collectors’ boxes and dollar bargains, loosely sorted under the ubiquitous ‘soul’ classification, that had us both building a respectable pile of finds. Even better was a pair of turntables and a relaxed attitude to playing cheap records that allowed us to check out some likely sounding titles that we didn’t recognise. It was only becoming aware of dusk falling outside that sent us back home, determined to make a return visit to see what we’d missed.
With a good day of record hunting under our belts, it was back to the sights of Manhattan again, and an early morning start to take in the High Line walk. It’s an idea that’s beautiful in its simplicity, but such a challenge in its realisation – rescuing a mile or so of derelict elevated railway serving the Hudson Yards industrial area and turning it into a green city walkway, weaving in and out of the buildings of a post-industrial landscape. Some wanted it gone because it passed outside the windows of their new chic apartments, others because the space below would have realised more real estate with development potential, others because they couldn’t see the attraction of renovating and preserving a stretch of cast iron industrial architecture. But those with a vision succeeded and it works wonderfully. We started at the Hudson Yards end, with the opening stretches passing above the railyards full of off-duty trains, with much of the tracks now covered by a forest of steel and glass modern development. As we meandered south, the buildings around got older, with examples of classic industrial art deco and early 20th Century iron-framed warehouses popping into view around each bend. With two tracks worth of width to play with, the High Line team have had plenty of room to plant, so the whole walk is like a garden path in the sky. After a cafe and art stalls, the line comes to an end in the old meat-packing district, conveniently just a short walk away from our next destination, the Empire Diner.
One of few remaining corner diners in the classic style, built in the frame of disused railcars, the Empire has kept all the attractiveness of the original design, but updated the concept of the New York Breakfast to incorporate new elements without losing any of the taste. We dived into platefuls of delicious brunch, pausing only to make notes about what we were eating so we could replicate it at home (cottage cheese, figs and honeycomb – a marvellous combination). From there we took a meander through Chelsea, taking in the arts market (reminiscent of how Covent Garden market used to look in the 80s before it was completely homogenised) before popping out the other side to make our way up to the Chelsea Hotel. Sadly, the hotel is now closed – ironically to return it to the apartment complex that it was originally intended to be, though much higher end – and we could barely see into the foyer, but we just had to make the pilgrimage to where so many artists and writers had made their home. Of course, my thoughts were primarily on the Beats, and I tried hard to picture Kerouac emerging onto the street after a marathon session hammering out On The Road, or any of Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller or Thomas Wolfe heading in and out. Still, we couldn’t help but be reminded of more recent celebrity guests: Kubrick, Dylan, Piaf, Cohen and of course Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in their fatal stay.
A rare deluge sent us hurrying to the subway where we took the opportunity to make a return visit to the Tenement Museum, this time to take one of the tours centred on the principal building. If anything, it was even more atmospheric than the first, as the front door opens onto a time capsule of a hallway virtually unchanged since the 19th Century and preserved by years of disuse after it was declared unfit for habitation in the 1920s. It’s almost unimaginable – a whole building in the heart of a major city lying dormant for decades, escaping demolition or redevelopment, until those with a passion for history and the ability to marshal funding, support and interpretation emerged to give it a new purpose. Everything is still there: the thick layers of wall covering, the dim electric light installed belatedly to replace lethal gas lamps, the toilets squeezed in on each floor to remove the need for families to make the trek down to the outside latrines, even the internal glazed sash windows, built in to allow at least a glimmer of natural daylight into the interior rooms (and once again brining the scenes in The Godfather to life). As with the majority of the Museum’s tours – the exception are the few dedicated to the architecture and preservation of the buildings themselves – this one focussed on the stories of the families who’d lived in the apartments on one of the floors, one German, one Italian. Here we were going back to a much earlier era in the saga of New York’s immigrants, for whom the journey across the ocean must have been an even greater undertaking than for the post-war generation who at least had some idea of the world outside their own countries. It was hard to imagine what it must have been like for those embarking on the long voyage to a new world, based only on sketchy information and a faith that their fortunes would be better than in their native land. The stories themselves are amazing, exemplified by the fortitude and determination of the German matriarch, abandoned by her husband who was for a long time believed dead but subsequently identified by the Museum as having lived for some years after leaving his family to fend for themselves. No social security for them, only a little charitable help if the trustees deemed them worthy enough which, in many cases, meant judgement not on need but on social mores. We desperately need something like this in London, before areas like Spitalfields and Clerkenwell disappear altogether under a tide of gentrification.
Next time, it’s Central Park, more crate digging, and that Statue…