Radio Row

 

 

The most intriguing stories are often told by the most unremarkable characters. It isn't always the dazzling or the flamboyant that has the most to say, but the mundane.

 

In Downtown Manhattan is a broad sweep of avenue called Park Row. Adjacent is the Mayor's office in City Hall, opposite is the Woolworth building and a block away is the yawning scar of the World Trade Center site, a claustrophobic racket of construction and gawping tourists.

 

Park Row was known as Newspaper Row at the turn of the 20th Century, and was home to The New York Times, The New York Tribune and The New York World (the latter published by Joseph Pulitzer). Two of those titles no longer exist and The New York Times migrated to Longacre Square in Midtown long ago (which became known as Times Square). Today, Park Row plays host to camera stores, corporate coffee houses and no-name delis. But one store caught my eye while walking through City Hall Park, and it'd probably catch your eye, too. Dwarfed by newer buildings either side, there stands a five-storey warehouse, home to a hardware store called Weinstein & Holtzman.

 

"I'm not too sure, but I think we've been trading since the Twenties or Thirties, something like that." After picking my way through the toolbox of products and cluttered shelves spilling with drills, the staff weren't too sure what the story was either. The primary-coloured weather-resistant signs of decades past, such a unique name above the door will draw attention from many a passerby, some may wonder why a hardware store chose the financial heart of the country to set up in. But of course it didn't; when Weinstein & Holtzman was established, downtown Manhattan was a very different place.

 

The business did indeed open to the public in 1920, which means the hardware store is arguably one of the only survivors from the era of New York City's Radio Row, a warehouse district which stretched across lower Manhattan from the 1920s to the 1960s. Then, radio was as fundamental to the lives of New Yorkers as mobile phones and laptops are today. Radio Row was home to dozens to traders selling spare parts and tools to the public; while disposable goods is a commonplace concept today, it was alien then, so people would trawl through bins of valves and tubes and condensers, looking for the parts to fix their sets themselves. Children would often accompany their fathers after school, an adventure to scrounge and scavenge and salvage. Every store, every stall had their radios playing, the noise was deafening, a chaotic, crackling cacophony that echoed through the city.

 

Radio Row didn't just support the city's electronics industry, however. Dozens of independent businesses - restaurants, florists, printers and hardware stores - called the neighbourhood home. At its peak, over 300 stores spilt onto the streets with similar numbers in the floors above. When radio died down, the neighbourhood also moved with the times; TVs and HiFis replaced radios in store windows in the 1950s. It truly was a place like no other.

 

Radio Row tuned out in 1966; over a dozen blocks of warehouses and stores were razed in preparation for the next great chapter in New York's story - the construction of the World Trade Center. But there were bitter rows and fierce court battles; the city used the power of Eminent Domain to legally evict the business owners from their own premises. Those displaced were paid a pittance in compensation; most closed while a few scattered North to Canal Street and beyond. Just one spare parts business to trade on Radio Row is thought to still operate in the city today, a company called Leeds which relocated to Brooklyn.

 

Weinstein & Holtzman is a block to the east of the World Trade Center site, and so survived the destruction of Radio Row. Having spent an afternoon marching up and down the streets adjacent to WTC construction site, it's safe to say there no other stores like it to be found in the neighbourhood; a mundane hardware store that catches the eye, because it was a business that boomed in a city in tune with Radio Row and a long-forgotten melody.

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Navigator RTW

 

Tall tales

 


 

 

 

The only way is up in Manhattan, and has been for quite some time. Building a metropolis on an island of finite size means all the sprawl is upwards, not outwards. That's why Manhattan is a high-rise forest of skyscrapers, why population density and land prices are through the roof. The side-effect to this development is that buildings and plots of land are continually recycled, meaning every neighbourhood, every street has a story to tell and secrets to share about its past. All the events that have moulded the culture and colour of New York City over the past 400 years have transpired within a few blocks of one another.

 

 

 

 

In his book A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City’s Lower East Side, Author Eric Ferrara provides a bloody example of this phenomenon, commenting that the Lower East Side of Manhattan “was arguably the most murderous neighbourhood in the United States… over the last two hundred years, there was a murder on almost every single property I researched – and many times there were multiple incidents in the same building throughout the years.”

 

 

When stories are everywhere you turn, however, they can be easily twisted by memory or rumour, and even dinner with friends can lead to a fascinating but confused history lesson.

 

 

 

The Public is a up-scale restaurant in Lower Manhattan at 210 Elizabeth Street; a century ago this street and those surrounding it were the heart of Little Italy. Now there's barely a few blocks of pizzerias and tourist tat; Chinatown has sprawled to claim some streets while others have been consumed by the hipster boutiques of SoHo.

 

 

 

Inside, the Public hosts well-to-do New Yorkers enjoying Michelin Star dining, a few first dates going well or otherwise, and, on the night in question, me being treated to a meal by some very kind friends. There are two dining areas in the restaurant; one is broad with an arched roof lined with white tiles. The other room is the ground floor of the building next door, and runs long from the street to a study in the back where a log fire and cocktails are enjoyed. Candles, lamps and darkness dress the beautiful clientele.

 

 

 

"What did this place used to be?" I asked our host as we were seated at our table.

 

 

 

"This half," replied the host as she waved to the arched, tiled ceiling above us, "used to be a muffin bakery, the shape of the ceiling and the tiles used to retain the heat while baking."

 

 

 

Interesting, I thought, but nothing spectacular.

 

 

 

"The other half," she said, pointing to the doorway into the longer dining room, "used to the laboratory of Thomas Edison." Our host leaned in closer. "He would buy horses from nearby stables and electrocute them in his experiments with electricity!"

 

 

 

Our dinner party wasn't expecting such a shocking denouement - one of the world's most iconic inventors used to kill horses in the restaurant? Now that was interesting, if a little macabre. Proof that everywhere you turned in New York City, there was a story waiting to be discovered. And there is. Except on this occasion, our host's revelation turned out to be a tale taller than the skyline outside.

 

 

 

Rooting through the history books, it transpires Thomas Edison didn't electrocute horses, or any other animals. Three associates did, however. At a time when the dangers of electricity were yet to be understood, an electrician called Harold P. Brown sought to prove whether alternating or direct current was more lethal. Along with two colleagues, Brown approached Edison to borrow equipment so they might perform experiments with AC and DC currents. Instead, Edison provided the trio with the use of his personal laboratory. Over the course of a year, from 1887 to 1888, Brown and the others used Edison's laboratory to electrocute dogs, bought from children in the streets for 25¢ each.

 

 

 

While Edison supported the experiments for his own agenda (including the development of the electric chair), he wasn't directly involved. Besides which, Edison's laboratory wasn't in New York, it was in West Orange, New Jersey, and is now a national park. Edison's former employee and world famous scientist Nikola Tesla did have several laboratories in New York, but none of them were on Elizabeth Street.

 

 

 

So is there any connection between Thomas Edison and 210 Elizabeth Street? If there is, it's tenuous at best. The address was used by the Brush Electric Illuminating Company as an electric light station around the time of the experiments, providing power to electric lamps in the neighbourhood. And Harold P. Brown did work for Brush Electric in the early 1880s, but several years before any experiments were conducted.

 

 

 

Still, our dinner party lapped up the revelations about Edison (along with the soup), ignorant to the facts at the time. After all, we all love stories and New York, it's fair to say, is a place with plenty of them to tell. But in a city with its head in the clouds, you should always expect to hear a tall tale or two.

You can get the USA included as a stopover in the Globehopper RTW

 

Penn Station

 

 


"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed." - The New York Times, 1963

Nobody likes drinking in train station bars. They're the last resort of the weary traveller, the delayed, the desperate-to-be-someplace-other-than-here. Tracks in New York's Penn Station is such a place, a long, skinny bar serving oysters and Guinness to the down-at-heart and late-of-train. It's impossible to find without a local pointing the way and once you have found it you'd rather not leave - not because of the hospitality but because the alternative is navigating your way through Penn Station again.

A friend insisted we grab one last drink in Tracks before my connection to Newark Liberty International and it was the first time I'd stepped into the metropolis beneath the metropolis. It was an ugly place. I mean, really ugly. Penn Station may offer tourists relatively cheap and quick airport transfers to and from Newark but there's a reason guidebooks prefer to talk about Grand Central Terminal instead.

In the heart of Manhattan, buried deep beneath Madison Square Garden, it's a dirty, soulless bunker of corridors and panicked commuters, panicked because they haven't the first clue where the hell they are. It's a football-pitch sized version of the Industrial Zone in the Crystal Maze, but with infinitely less character and infinitely more people wondering where the exit is.

It wasn't always this way. When Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910 - above ground - it was a decadent temple of pink marble, glass ceilings and ornate sculptures. Tuscan columns extended across the frontage, behind which a shopping arcade led to the waiting room, the largest in the world and itself inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The scale and beauty dwarfed that of Grand Central.

And yet the City Council demolished it in 1963, deeming it an unnecessary, unsustainable relic in an age of ailing rail travel. Today nothing remains of the original Penn Station at the location except for a single staircase and two eagle ornaments. So instead of gazing up into the blue New York sky through an opulent vaulted ceiling of steel and glass, you can stand in line with three dozen pissed-off commuters in a miserable underground bunker, unable to comprehend why there are only ever two kiosks open at any time.

There was a silver lining to the destruction of the original Penn Station. So outraged were New Yorkers by the decision to raze the building that their campaigning led to the formation of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Act. It was this Act that saved Grand Central from a similar fate several years later. So while we can no longer enjoy a Roman spectacle in the heart of Manhattan and instead have to schlep down cramped passages bereft of light and soul, we should raise a glass to the legacy of Penn Station - in a railway station or wherever we happen to be.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published soon. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Crazy people

 
 
The panicked diner next to us pushed back from her table, stood up and whipped around to see who had snatched her jacket from the chair. We were seated outside a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, enjoying the warmth of the New York evening. Among the jovial passers-by tripping along the sidewalk, an opportunistic thief had fled. But who? 

"Was it the goat?" suggested the waitress.

It wouldn't have been my first guess, to be honest. A discussion was had between staff and other diners and it was agreed that yes, a goat roaming the streets of the West Village was the likely culprit. It was a deduction of Holmesian proportions, no doubt aided by the generous quantities of Sangria that proceeded it.

20 minutes later, our group had settled up, left the restaurant and walked across to 7th Avenue, where we were confronted by one man and his goat, a scruffy brown kid with matted hair and no jacket to speak of.

"Why are you walking a goat around New York," I asked.

"I need the exercise," huffed the owner. Touché.

"But why do you own a goat?"

"You don't have pets in Britain?"

Wasted bums screaming and lurching through the streets before lunchtime, evangelists spreading the word from their kerbside pulpits - that's standard colour for a city of any size. New York really pushes the crazy boat out.

The previous day had offered irrefutable evidence of this. As I sank my teeth into a burger on 3rd Avenue, a young woman called Moira passed by the cafe window. One of the eight million people in New York I'd never met, and I knew her name. It wasn't her face I recognised, but her breasts and the fact that I could count the freckles on them. The 29 year-old activist had recently made headlines the world over for her topless strolls around the East Village, on the basis that men were allowed to do so and it wasn't against the law. So why not, eh? A local approached her and asked to take her photo, and topless Moira posed accordingly.

Then there was the man playing golf on a cleared lot in SoHo, smashing balls into the wall of the adjacent store. The person dancing on a Times Square street corner with a cardboard box on their head, a collection bucket in hand and a hand-scrawled sign slung around his neck that read "I AM THE WEED MAN. I NEED MONEY FOR WEED." The haggard and haunted pensioner wearing a fur coat and blue felt fedora, furiously snatching at passing motes of dust. The woman in the Bowery passed out on top of a distressed piano. The gentleman wearing a cat hat.

That's not an unusual day. That's New York. It's a city where people can reinvent themselves, be who they want to be and live their lives accordingly. A city where you can wear a box on your head, let it all hang out, take your pet goat for a stroll or wear a cat on your head. There are sights to be seen in NYC, but its people are an attraction in their own right.

 

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Autumn 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Coney Island

 
David Whitley visits New York’s Coney Island – the ultimate throwback theme park 

We’re not in Williamsburg any more. Any moustaches spotted in Coney Island are likely to have been there for life, whilst titanic beer bellies are a more regular sight than drainpipe trousers.

This is the Brooklyn that hasn’t got cool yet. It’s a long way from that. The only artists in these parts are the sword-swallowers and contortionists that perform in the sideshows. Everyone else is too busy fending off the seagulls on the boardwalk to make creative statements.

Coney Island is a real throwback. It’s a place that, up until two years ago, allowed members of the public to pay $5 a pop to fire paintballs at a live human being. Shoot The Freak will be sadly missed by anyone who objects to the gentrification of the borough.

Still, at least there’s the Hot Dog Eating Contest. Once a year, binge eaters from across the world get together outside Nathan’s to stuff themselves with as many hotdogs as possible within 10 minutes. A man called Joey Chestnut has won five years in a row. He holds the record – 68 hotdogs in ten minutes. Others try and fail to attain it; an arena liberally plied with vomit in front of a bear pit-like 40,000 spectators is not uncommon.

It’s a squally Monday in spring, so nothing’s open. An observation tower clanks backwards and forwards in the wind, looking like it could collapse at any minute. Apparently it’s cheaper to leave it up there, closed and written off for visitors by perfectly reasonable health and safety inspectors than to pull it down.

The new Screamzone set of rides sits relatively polished, but empty. It’s one grade up from a fairground – undoubtedly thoroughly enjoyable for a couple of hours, but lacking that certain tinge of danger that should rightfully be associated with Coney Island.

By ‘danger’, I don’t mean the 1980s-style danger when the area was covered in syringes and roamed by the sort of chaps whose idea of sideshow performance was robbing people at knifepoint. Coney Island has cleaned up considerably since then – largely at the instigation of former New York mayor (and proud Brooklynite) Rudy Giuliani. He had an extensive new station built at the end of the line, and generally got people to get their brooms out.

Attractions come and go, as various companies try to make a profit from Coney Island. New Yorkers hate the idea of it being taken over by condo developments, but not enough to actually go and spend enough money there to make running rides there profitable. For many, it’s a place best kept in memory than reality.

But in a bid to stop the developers moving in, concreting over the boardwalk and introducing peace and quiet where screaming kids should be, three rides have been protected. Of these, the Cyclone is the icon. And it’s what gives that proper Coney Island danger factor.

This ancient wooden rollercoaster is not so much rickety as patched together Blue Peter-style with double-sided sellotape, loo rolls and wishful thinking. Probably best not attempted after 68 hotdogs.

Disclosure: David visited Coney Island as the last stop on A Slice Of Brooklyn’s pizza sampling-based tour of Brooklyn’s less heralded suburbs (www.asliceofbrooklyn.com). He stayed as a guest of the spanking new (and rather spectacular) Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg (www.wythehotel.com)
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roundtheworldflights.com have a great 4 day Essential Package