Of Broadway, an urban aircraft carrier, and the Tenement Museum…
Having mastered our surroundings, we couldn’t wait to tackle Manhattan proper, and decided to focus on satisfying some of Miss M’s Korean cravings with a trip to the BTS (Korean boy band – don’t ask) store in Times Square. We hopped off the subway at the bottom of Broadway to give ourselves the chance to see a swathe of Midtown and were quickly captivated. I’d feared that much of traditional Manhattan would have been swept away in modern steel and glass. Instead, Broadway itself was largely still made up of modest but still impressive late 19th and early 20th Century buildings, and glimpses along the east-west streets revealed classic fire escapes, rooftop water towers and the vestiges of advertising painted on brick side walls. We worked our way up slowly through Union and Herald Squares, stopping to take in the towering shelves of the Strand bookstore (so many gorgeous books on NY history and architecture, but got to save suitcase room for records!), the NY branch of Forbidden Planet, the Flatiron Building (sadly closed for refurbishment at ground level) and gawp at the towering traditional skyscrapers, still impressive even after they’ve been surpassed many times. Glimpsing the Empire State as we neared 34th Street was a particular thrill – it’s corny, I know, but it is such an art deco icon that seeing it for real meant a lot more than I’d expected. Times Square was, as it should be, heaving and I left the girls shopping for Korean pop culture to take a stroll down 42nd Street. Again, a lot of scaffolding detracted from some of the atmosphere and I felt a bit of a fraud tackling it in daylight when the neon competed with the strong sun, but still the essence of one of the world’s most theatrical streets shone through and the sight of Sardi’s restaurant in particular brought back all those tales of late night suppers for theatre folk. Reunited, and starving, we broke away from Broadway, pausing only to take in the Brill Building (another one under refurbishment at ground level – there’s a lot going on this summer) and dove away across 6th Avenue in search of something to eat not primarily aimed at tourists. 8th Avenue came up trumps with a lovely independent bakery selling bagels, and we sat contemplating the scene outside, now with a relaxed just-off-Broadway vibe but not long ago the boundary of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen.
Lunch over, we plunged across the road and through the heart of Hell’s Kitchen to reach the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, veteran of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the space race, having plucked astronauts from the water on their return to earth. With such a big space to fill, and lots of hardware filling it, it’s easy to get completely distracted by the big stuff, but the individual stories paint a fascinating picture of the real lives of American sailors over three climactic decades, and the displays don’t shy away from reflecting what ordinary men, many of them from fairly deprived backgrounds, felt about their country’s involvement in conflict in South East Asia. Particularly moving, too, was the footage of a kamikaze attack on the Enterprise, especially when one could step immediately out onto the very area of the ship where the attackers struck and see the site of the gun turret destroyed along with its crew striving to the last to bring the enemy down. Naval history and our taste in classic 70s movies came together with a book on the USS Indianapolis, the inspiration for the backstory of Robert Shaw’s character in Jaws which has subsequently turned up amongst my birthday presents!
Getting pretty exhausted in the heat, we made our way back across Broadway, stopping to take in rows of beautifully-restored brownstones surrounding the home since 1955 of the Actors’ Studio and to imagine the dozens of familiar screen faces who would have climbed its front steps to study under Lee Strasberg. On a similarly cultural note, we took a walk along 44th Street in order to call into the Algonquin Hotel, home of the famous round table frequented by the likes of Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, James Thurber and Alexander Wollcott. I’ve idolised those writers for years (not that any of their style has rubbed off, I hasten to admit), and though the table now sits in pride of place in the wood-panelled main lounge, set off by subdued lighting and a painting behind it, I couldn’t quite believe that I was surreptitiously touching the same wood on which so many of my literary heroes had eaten and, more frequently, drunk. I’m not sure how one would bring it to life – a bunch of actors/re-enactors, n
o matter how well-scripted and earnest would, I suspect, just Disney-fy this hallowed corner. Perhaps the only way to recapture the magic would be to surround oneself with a bunch of bitingly witty close friends, fill them full of cocktails, clear the rest of the room and set them loose – and if I ever win the lottery, I’ll let you know if that works!
Having mastered the Williamsburg Bridge early in our stay, it made the ideal route to the following day’s headline destination, the Tenement Museum just off Delancy Street in the Lower East Side. The Museum came with glowing recommendations from others who’d visited Manhattan recently, and we were keen to build it in early enough in our stay to allow a return visit if we liked it. And we did. The Museum’s premise is strong enough in its own right, telling the story of New York through the waves of immigrants who have given the city its unique culture and character, but it enjoys a home that few museums of its kind could ever hope to achieve. It comprises two buildings, one with a visitor centre and bookshop at ground floor level but otherwise both boasting interiors largely unchanged for decades. The first available tour on the day of our visit was in the later addition to the museum’s estate and focussed on post-war arrivals to the city through the stories of three families who had occupied an apartment in the building. (Sorry, no photography allowed, so you get a selection of NY street scenes instead…)
The first was a Jewish couple who had both survived the horrors of Auschwitz and escaped the disruption of post war Europe to build a new life in America. As with many of the museum’s featured families, the story had been built up through the personal memories of the couple’s children who had not only suggested, and even provided, particular artefacts to bring their era to life but had also recorded their reminiscences to be played back through carefully contrived systems hidden in everyday household objects. Thus, aside from the household clutter that would have prevented visitors from moving around, we were given a vivid insight into the lives of two girls growing up as American children of parents still immersed in their Jewish heritage while sitting in the apartment as they’d have known it. As Europeans already all too aware of the realities of WWII (not all Glen Miller, cool uniforms and Lindyhop, despite what the vintage scene would have us believe), it was fascinating and poignant to learn, almost at first hand, what happened to those who survived the holocaust.
The next family story struck even closer to our particular interests, focussing on a young Puerto Rican mother who arrived in New York with her two small sons in the early 1950s. If she had been slightly younger, or the boys slightly older, this would have been the cast of West Side Story (which, as has been pointed out, would have been called East Side Story if it had been produced when it was written before the Puerto Rican community shifted to the upper West Side), but their story was all the more captivating for avoiding a Broadway cliché. Despite having seen the film a dozen times, and thrown myself around the stage as a Shark, I’d never really taken on board how great the impact was of thousands of Spanish speakers arriving in a concentrated area of New York within just a few years, and struggling to integrate whilst maintaining their own cultural heritage. That part of the apartment was done out in pure early 60s aspirational kitsch, with a particularly deft touch of a photo of Mum, dolled up for the wedding of one of the boys and standing alongside her 1950s TV set laden with ornaments, displayed just above a carefully-sourced example of exactly the same model of TV and copies of the same ornaments. These people take their displays seriously!
The remainder of the apartment was given over to the story of a Chinese family who arrived in the 1970s and saw the East Side through to the departure of the garment industry that provided labour for many Chinese women, and its subsequent gentrification. In a departure from pure authenticity, an adjacent room had been done out to represent a small version of a typical garment sweatshop (a term, we learned, because the temperature and humidity was kept high to help the clothes hang straight, not just because of how hard the employees worked). It was stunning to hear that a relatively small area of New York was once the supplier of a huge percentage of the US’ tailoring output, reminding us yet again that this small island was a massive centre of industry long before tourism took hold.
More from the East Side next time…