These Vagabond Shoes (Are Longing to Stray)

UnisphereWell, here I am in the Big Apple. New York (New Yoooork, it’s a wonderful tooooown!). The location of so many TV shows I’ve loved: Castle. Beauty and the Beast. Fame. Flight of the Conchords. Elementary.

Top Cat.

You’d think the celluloid connections would suggest plenty of things to do and see in New York, but that’s not the case. I’m not that interested in chasing down film locations for the sake of it (and in any case, many locations from NY-set shows aren’t necessarily in New York, or even real).

Ticking Off the List of Big Things is also not something I’m very keen on. Of course I took the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, though I didn’t disembark at Liberty Island. She looks grand enough from the water.

I liked the immigration museum on Ellis Island too, because the social history of New York is fascinating. Tim and I saw some great pieces at the Museum of Modern Art, and tomorrow we’re taking in an off-Broadway show – but I’m happy enough to look at the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings from across the East River or from the street below, without having to climb them.

Into the boroughs

Instead, I find great pleasure in exploring neighbourhoods. I enjoyed poking around odd little parts of London at the start of this trip, and this week I’ve had the best fun away from the crowds, noise and bustle of Manhattan’s Midtown and Downtown. Instead, I’ve seen what places like Queens, Bushwick and Flushing have to offer. As a writer, a city’s commercial heart may be interesting, but it can lack the texture of the areas where locals live, work and play.

It was in the boroughs and quieter ‘hoods of Manhattan that I noticed things like the graffiti and the way the trapdoors to basements might be left open – perhaps for the unwary to fall into. It’s there I saw kids playing, and noticed the housing that was clad in weatherboard as well as brick; where we stopped at local cafes and had brief but entertaining conversations with staff and customers.

Long Island City, Queens

IMG_8055A lot of the boroughs are kind of quirky. The Z Hotel in Long Island City, Queens, gave us a terrific view across the East River to the Manhattan skyline, while being located amidst taxicab depots and a lot of light industry.

New Yorkers would have nothing to do with the odd passive-aggressive ‘Polite Notices’ (that weren’t especially polite) that I kept seeing in London, and instead tell it like it is with signs frankly warning you not to park in private parking areas.

IMG_8028This area also had a lot of these very old fashioned fire alarm systems – any passer-by could pull the lever to alert emergency services of a fire. We weren’t convinced that they were still active, though this one seemed to be attached to the telegraph wires. Tim had to exercise superhuman control to not pull the lever just to see what would happen.

In any case, Long Island City was a nice low-key district (and it was by chance I discovered that Silvertop Studios, which makes Elementary, is housed nearby). I had a pleasant time meeting the locals when I visited the local laundromat on our first night to clean up my travel wardrobe.

Lower West Side, Manhattan

Highline 1But it’s not all sassy signage and soap bubbles. Sometimes it’s reclaimed parkland. The High Line is a former above-ground freight rail line that was abandoned and then, in recent years, reclaimed as a linear park. Threading among derelict factories, new housing complexes and rejuvenated neighbourhoods in the Lower West Side, it starts in Chelsea and ends in the Meatpacking District.

The paths are pleasant, the greenery encouraged to grow without too much manicuring. It’s a welcome respite from the madness of the rest of Manhattan. It’s full of locals as well as visitors, and the path cleaves through a building at one point where you can get food and even a really excellent espresso coffee. (That’s right – New York has discovered espresso and the Melburnian coffee-holic can survive quite handily here.)

Highline 2

Central Park, Manhattan

The High Line isn’t the only lovely green space in New York. There’s the famous Central Park, too. No sign of Vincent the cat-faced, poetry-reading, tortured-yet-cuddly hero of 1980s Beauty and the Beast, but there was a lawn. On which we stretched out for little while, loving the rich smell of grass and loam, soaking up the hot New York summer sun until I began to wonder if I could get sunburned through my jeans, and also wondering if I would be nested on by squirrels if I sat still long enough. I took a flat-on-my-belly-in-the-grass-eye-view picture to convey some of the loveliness of my Lazy New York Adventure.

Central Parkflushing statue

Flushing, Queens

Another wonderful green space is in Flushing, the home of the World Fairs of 1939 and 1964. Very little remains of the old fairs beyond the layout and a few key structures (like the Unisphere, at the top of this post) but it’s a wonderfully quiet area in the borough of Queens.

When the sirens, the crowds, the smell of the subway and the sight of steam billowing out of grates (it really does do that) has your senses demanding downtime, a train to this huge park is just the ticket.

And when you have had enough of bloody parks as well, you can find some interesting urban neighbourhoods to explore.

Bushwick, Brooklyn

Bushwick 1But wait! I think I lied about the sassy signage! Not all of it is official, and I loved this little doublet of graffiti stuck on the side of a posting box in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

I also got a little unexpected NYPD Street Theatre in Bushwick, when I popped into a post office to buy postcard stamps and two burly officers seemed to appear out of thin air to deal with a customer who was getting stroppy with the staff about some problem with a… thing.

God knows. But they dealt with it with the kind of calm sternness one associates with the gruffer kind of primary school teacher, and nobody got shot. (I suspect I watch waaaaaay too many crime shows…)

Bushwick 2Bushwick also has some fabulous street art and we came across some great examples on a street that also boasted a coffee shop with a Twin Peaks theme.

Manhattan transfer

But if you love the bustling heart of a great big city, it’s there. The New York subway is every bit as grungy, sweaty, zippy and intriguing as I’ve always thought it would be; the New York delis as thriving and fascinating as expected, and with excellent food.

New Yorkers are forthright but mostly friendly, and they never seem to mind that Sinatra’s New York, New York is an earworm that I can’t help singing as I walk along.

Apart from anything else, Midtown gifted me with this gem – a Cupcake ATM. That’s right. An ATM. THAT DISPENSES CUPCAKES!!

No matter what you want from it – TV locations, green spaces, mad bustle, cupcakes from an ATM – New York, ladies and gentleman, does not disappoint.

Thank you to the Z Hotel and NYC and Co for discounted accommodation and other assistance.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.