Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Last Days of New York

So on Monday, just to remind us we were heading back to London in two days time, it decided to pour with a kind of rain that can only be described as torrential. Because we hadn’t brought our swimmers and snorkel we ditched our plan to walk The High Line and consoled ourselves with a serve of blueberry pancakes from the Clinton Street Bakery on the Lower East Side. 

Tori had told us about this place and we were under strict instructions not to be swayed by anything else on the menu as it would only lead to order envy. Pancakes and ONLY pancakes. And so we did as told and predictably Tor was right. We probably didn’t need the chocolate and peanut butter milkshakes that we ordered with them but it was in keeping with the chocolate salty sweet theme of calorie badness we’d established earlier in the trip at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Faffing about under awnings and trying not to get any wetter than we already were we then headed to MoMA to meet Bethany, whose convenient membership meant it was five and not twenty bucks to get in.

MoMA is the only museum open on a Monday and so it was predictably busy but we had a good couple of hours breezing through the major art milestones of the 20th century – Pollock, Picasso and the pop boys, including a rare chance to see James Rosenquist’s room installation billboard-esque painting F-111 from 1964-65. This extraordinary painting, that I remember studying in high school, is a brilliant damnation of what the artist has described as “the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, media and advertising.” 

James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-65
The F-111 was a fighter-bomber plane developed and paid for by US tax dollars during the Vietnam War and in Rosenquist’s immersive painting parts of the impressive fuselage pierce through a series of disconnected commercial images that bear increasingly sinister overtones the longer you look at them, from a mess of visceral spaghetti to a young blonde innocent under a hairdryer that looks suspiciously like a missile-head - all in bright cheery hues. It’s an iconic work that was first exhibited in 1965 and to see it here was kind of awe-inspiring.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-93
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), detail, 1991

We did the Cindy Sherman retrospective in a tidy 15 minutes, Bethany and I spending most of it putting out masters degrees to good use and discussing everything she’s made since about 1980 in a derogatory fashion. It wasn’t great. But we then had a pleasant 15 minutes twirling through the gift shop - of course – and so despite the soggy nature of the day it was good mix of food and culture and set the scene quite nicely for dinner that evening.

Several people had told me about Beauty & Essex and I’d booked us a table at this Lower East Side establishment several weeks ago. Lovely Boy wasn’t too happy about having to put a shirt and his Going Out Shoes on for the occasion but I assured him he’d be in good sartorial company once we got there. And as per, I was right. Beauty & Essex is as regarded for its menu as it is its location, at the back of a very cool pawnshop. 

You enter the storefront, selling antiques, old jewels and assorted musical instruments and head through an unassuming back door and into the bar. A huge chandelier hangs from above and plush dark sofas entreat you to sit back and get smashed on a roster of killer cocktails. Thankfully we had but one drink here before being seated in the restaurant, beneath beautiful old light fittings and a huge glass atrium roof.

The food is a tapas-style sharing menu in a range of culinary styles. We had five plates between us and it’s no exaggeration to say that each of them was exquisite and if the moment was in animation our eyes would have been consistently out of our heads in delight and ohmygodness. Tuna sashimi, beef carpaccio, braised short rib tamales, oven braised chicken meatballs and grilled cheese, smoked bacon and tomato soup dumplings that were so ridiculously good we had to order a second helping. 

And for dessert - warm cinnamon sugared donuts full of hazelnut creme and raspberry jam respectively, delivered in their own beautifully designed box. Holy hell they were good. I’ve had a lot of world-class meals in mind (yes, El Bulli, Fat Duck, I’m looking at you) but this was up there with the best. Great cocktails, incredible food, good service, in a brilliant, quirky, cool but not pretentious environment. We couldn’t have asked for a better penultimate New York night. Oh, and I forgot to mention the free champagne bar in the ladies bathrooms. Yes, seriously.

Side dishes as accessories #love

Tuesday was our last full day and thankfully the rain had all but disappeared, leaving a humid, temperamental, cloudy sort of mess in its wake. In the morning we set off for the financial district once more, this time to visit the WTC Memorial. I remember acutely being here in November 2001, about to start my internship and feeling intensely the grief, vulnerability and horror of New Yorkers everywhere. I also remember wandering around this area and trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened here and standing with great sadness in front of the fences of Trinity Church, overwhelmed as they were with photographs, tributes and missing person posters. Just two years earlier I’d stood at the foot of the twin towers and marvelled at their architectural bravado. Now, well it’s hard to get your bearings amongst all the construction but in the middle of all this rebuilding is the memorial plaza and the two reflection pools – this strange oasis amid the chaos.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the visit but I’d followed the controversy and ongoing debate around the design competition for years and was curious to see it. The two reflection pools that sit in the footprints of the two towers are enormous, nearly an acre each, and incredibly deep. The second drop in the middle is so deep that you can’t see the bottom, no doubt a deliberate part of the design. The flowing water, the space, the depth all brought a beautiful gravitas to the encounter and I was both moved and impressed by the poignancy and simplicity of the space. 

There was no one way to read these gaping holes, that so many people feared initially would be read as unhealed wounds, but the flowing water had a meditative, soothing quality and a life force that gave space to reflect but that also gently insisted on the inevitable moving forward of time. The bronze lip around each of the pools is etched with the names of all those who lost their lives that day, in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

Some people had left flowers and messages but largely they were unadorned. Rows of trees offer shade and space to sit and while it’s currently ensconced in fences, when the surrounding buildings are completed it will be open to the surrounding streets and accessible from every side and its significant beauty will be fully realised. I’m really glad we went to see it and gladder still that politics, religion and frightening ideologues were so deftly negotiated (or indeed avoided) to create a space that can be interpreted, respected and remembered by everyone in their own way.

If the WTC Memorial offers one way to reflect on Manhattan’s architecture – past, present and future – The High Line is another. The initiative of a group of conservationists, architects, historians and local residents, The High Line is a public park built along an historic above ground freight rail line that tracks down 10th Avenue. 

It opened in 2009 and was extended in 2011 and now runs from W30th St all the way down to Gansevoort St in the Meatpacking District. The old rails are visible most of the way and it’s been beautifully restored with a wooden walkway whose width oscillates between the buildings and gardens of wildflowers the whole length. There are benches for birdwatching, a dedicated stream for cooling your feet and art installations along the way – from billboards to sound pieces to a very unique zoo and a very naked peeping man, the last two unofficial contributions…

We had a gorgeous stroll down these 20 blocks despite the malevolent weather above and Lovely Boy rewarded himself with beer and bratwurst at the Standard Hotel’s biergarten at the other end for a walk well done. If we hadn’t lost the best part of Monday to the weather I’d have loved to have spent some serious time around Chelsea and the Meatpacking District but all we got was a walk along 14th St towards the subway. Something else for the Next Time List…

Spot the naked waving man...
The High Line Zoo 
Getting back to Brooklyn we ambled along Smith St looking for Brooklyn bargains and working up an appetite for dinner. I was seriously tempted by the blackboard offer out the front of Beauty Bar – 10 bucks for a martini and a manicure but hard liquor before 6pm is never a good idea, even when the bar is exceptionally cute and the seats are old 1950s hairdryers. Next time.

The view up 10th Ave from The High Line
We’d saved Calexico, an award-winning Mexican joint for our last dinner – another food truck turned permanent residence in Red Hook but getting there, we were told there was a half hour wait for food and no-one, including the staff, seemed to have much of a clue what was happening. Which is a shame, as the guacamole was excellent and bode well for a good meal. Giving up after 40 minutes of mild confusion we went back to the Mexican place of our first evening and had a grand time eating too many mouth-watering soft tacos and enchiladas before rolling home yet again.

By the time our last day rolled around all of Lovely Boy’s list had been ticked – hotdogs, baseball, Times Square, Rockefeller Centre and the rest of the Big Buildings, Central Park, the High Line, the WTC Memorial and shitloads of Mexican food. I still had a couple left, chief among them the Guggenheim. They were mid-instal of their next major exhibition so tickets were half price - which made me twice as happy as the exhibition I wanted to see was the Francesca Woodman retrospective anyway. 

Francesca Woodman, from the House series, 1976

Woodman was a young American photographer working in the late 1970s and early 1980s who tragically took her own life at the age of 22. I can’t remember the first time I saw her work but I was drawn then, and again now, to her haunting images – studies of the female form, explorations of constructed and emotional spaces and self portraits that in retrospect perhaps offer a beautiful and desperately sad insight into her imminent fate as she seems to fight to disappear into herself and her surroundings.

Francesca Woodman.
Another obligatory spin through the gift shop, we then headed back to Brooklyn to check out deKalb market. DeKalb Market is a unique mini market metropolis made out of old shipping containers. It’s a mix of food, design, vintage and homewares and I can imagine when the weather is a little brighter the crowds descend on this place – but on a wet Wednesday afternoon we had it basically to ourselves. Lovely Boy stalked the food while I went in search of last minute Things I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Live Without. Which, it turns out, was a vintage bauble ring.

By now we only had a couple of hours left before we had to leave for JFK which meant time for one last thing: a visit to the Brooklyn branch of David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar. We’d planned to swing by here for dessert the night before but having gorged ourselves on Mexican it seemed insulting to partake of world famous pie and not enjoy it. And so we went back for some candy bar pie. Think chocolate, gooey toffee, nougat, chocolate cookie crust and pretzels on top. It was so fucking delicious we couldn’t even stop to photograph the experience for posterity once we'd opened the packaging.

It was an appropriately sweet ending to our brilliant, inspiring, memorable week.

Getting back to London was totally tiresome but serendipitously I managed my third celebrity sighting in the dying minutes of our trip, clocking Clive Owen as he sauntered through customs at JFK. Holiday well done. See you again soon New York. Yes?

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