The jewel of NYC

 



 

If Flushing Meadows-Corona Park sprawled across Manhattan's Midtown instead of a former ash dump in East Queens, it'd be the jewel of New York City. Tourists would swarm to it, clog up the internet with a million Instagram snaps of it, and coo about it endlessly to jealous friends and colleagues once they returned home. 

Not only is the park a vast lung of greenery and flora, it's a movie set; plenty of sights that belong there will have caught your eye on the silver screen and your own TV. There are attractions to rival any seen elsewhere in the city, world-famous sporting venues too. Best of all? There are rocket ships. And UFOs. Beat that, Central Park.
 

As it is, the majority of tourists (and New Yorkers, too) rarely stray too far from the close and familiar, and perhaps the park is all the better for it. The families who set up vollyball nets between trees and enjoy the endless parades of lawns and cherry blossom are mostly locals from Corona, a predominantly Latino neighbourhood. The footpaths aren't thick with impatient joggers and torturously slow packs of tourists despite the park being easy enough to reach; pick up the 7 subway from Times Square or Grand Central and head out under the East River into Queens and keep going until 111th St.
 

The site was originally transformed from an ash dump to host the 1939 World's Fair and again for the 1964 World's Fair. It's the second of these spectacles that provided the obvious landmarks we know and recognise today. The star attraction is the Unisphere, a steel globe 12 storeys high surrounded by frills of fountains and lights. The backdrop to the Unisphere is a concrete spectacle of towers and angles; the World's Fair observation decks and the US State Pavilion. Neither the observation towers nor the pavilion are open to the public; the saucer-shaped decks are in fact disguised flying saucers, or at least they were in their leading role at the climax of Men In Black, while the pavilion provided the stage for the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2.
 

A short amble away are both the Queens Museum of Art and Queens Zoo. The Museum is housed in the only building that remains from the first World's Fair and provided a base of operations to the United Nations before their move to Manhattan. The prize exhibition remains one commissioned and built for the 1964 World's Fair; the Panorama is a scale model of New York City that sprawls across 9,000 square feet of floorspace and details every single building in NYC standing in 1992. Queens Zoo also makes use of a World's Fair building; a giant geodesic dome that has been repurposed as the zoo's aviary.
 

If you visit by subway, your first sight of the park will likely be of rocket ships, a pair of pristine Atlas and Titan rockets that blasted the Mercury and Gemini astronauts into space. They're part of the New York Hall of Science, built in 1964 and in operation ever since. It's hands-on stuff with plenty for kids to do inside and out, but then who doesn't love rockets? To the north of the park, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is the current home of the US Open, and Citi Field provides grandstand views of NYC's other baseball team, the New York Mets. To the south, visitors row their hired boats across the calm expanse of Meadow Lake.
 

It may not be a place for the first-time, or even second-time visitor to NYC - it's a city rudely spoilt with sights and activities - but when you return next, set aside half a day for exploring Queens. Tennis, baseball, rockets, art, cityscapes, lakes and UFOs - Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a jewel of New York City, but it's one that few travellers discover.

 

   
"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 Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Unique bars

 

It's a futile exercise trying to list the "best" bars in New York City; not only are there hundreds to consider, but plenty more are opening every month. Consequently any list is ridiculously subjective to the point of pointlessness. So instead, here's a handful of venues if you're looking for "somewhere different" - whether it's to get boozed up, live the high life or make an impression.

 

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten (corner of N 3rd St & Berry Street, Brooklyn)

Would you honestly travel any distance to try a pub's house mustard? It's a ludicrous suggestion, or at least it is until you visit Williamsburg's Radegast Hall. Amongst the deserted lots and half-built condos of hipster central, there are a dozen craft ales and German swills to sample at the bar, while the beer hall offers long wooden benches, sausages aplenty and a full menu besides. A great place to mingle but avoid weekends during good weather; the retractable roof rolls back on the biergarten and you'll struggle to get through the door.

Boom Boom Room, The Standard Hotel (Washington Street at W 13th Street, Manhattan)
The Standard Hotel straddles the phenomenally popular High Line in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Ditch the trainers, dress up and take the elevator to the hotel's top floor. There are actually two rooms, though you probably won't find the one with the jacuzzi. Instead enjoy the most lavish bar you've ever stepped foot in and feel a million dollars, still considerably less than was spent on the fixtures and fittings; cream and beige leathers, polished woods and chandeliers, a carpet worth more than your house and floor-to-ceiling windows with views stretching to Midtown in one direction and to the Statue of Liberty in the other.

Drinks are pricey so order a signature cocktail, make it last and enjoy a New York sunset among the well-to-do crowd. Get there no later than 6.30pm otherwise you'll have to hustle the door staff and forget going altogether if it's after dark - the Boom Boom Room is renowned for extravagantly debauched late-night parties that you won't be invited to.

The Jane Hotel Ballroom (Jane Street and 12th Avenue, Manhattan)
In a former life the Jane Hotel was a seaman's refuge, the same that provided lodgings to the broken and traumatised crew of the Titanic. Now it's perhaps the best place to stay in Manhattan when your budget is tight, but even the guests miss the discrete entrance to the ballroom leading off reception. It's a place to try out for the atmosphere rather than any specific drink recommendations; the crowd is young, cosmopolitan and flush, 20 and 30-something year old New Yorkers, and the ballroom is actually a sweeping open study suspended in near-darkness.
 
Barcade (388 Union Avenue, Brooklyn)
More craft ales than you'll manage in a week of trying, two dozen arcade machines and the opportunity to see your high score live on in legend. Pouring quarters into video games and good beer makes for a fun night at Barcade in Williamsburg. Just don't get your hopes up about smashing those high scores - according to the chalkboard suspended above the crowds, the record for Arkanoid hasn't been beaten since 2006.

The Back Rooms (102 Norfolk Street, between Rivington Street and Delancy Street)
Prohibition outlawed the sale, production and import of alcohol in 1920, leading to the rise of smuggling, organised crime and bars operating in boozy back rooms away from the prying eyes of law enforcement. In the past decade, the Roaring Twenties have inspired numerous Prohibition-themed bars across the city. While there are plenty to recommend, some well-known bars such as Death & Co and PDT (Please Don't Tell) are usually more effort than they're worth.

For the beginner, start in the Lower East Side on Norfolk Street with a low iron gate marked "LES Toy Company". Half a dozen steps beyond the gate is a long, oily black alleyway below street level, then it's up the steps to an unmarked door. The warm and comforting light at the end of the tunnel is The Back Rooms, a bohemian, upmarket bar that welcomes you with open arms, regal sofas, dimly-lit chandeliers and crimson flocked wallpaper. Serving up cocktails in tea cups may seem a tad pretentious, but it's entirely fitting for the period.


The Raines Law Room (48 W 17th Street between 5th and 6th Ave)
Before Prohibition there was Raines Law, which in 1896 attempted to curb the drinking of men working six days week - the norm for the era - by prohibiting the sale of alcohol in bars on Sundays. There was a loophole; alcohol could be served in hotels offering accommodation, which led to saloons kitting out upper floors in beds and furniture. The Raines Law Room takes its names from this, yet another failed attempt to enforce sobriety. There's nothing to suggest a bar other than a covered doorway; you'll need to push the doorbell on the unmarked entrance and wait for a response. From plush Chesterfield sofas, guests can sip cocktails and summon waiters with electric bells. Reservations are required on several nights of the week, making it the perfect hideaway to impress your guests.


 

   
"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 Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Fireflies & barflies

 

 

"What did you say your name was?"
"Paul."
"Good to meet you Paul, and thanks. Have a great day."



And with that, Alan Tudyk shook my hand again, turned off Bowery and power-strolled his pet down 5th Street. You'd recognise his face from the dozens of films and TV shows he's starred in, but you probably wouldn't know the name unless you're a fan of Firefly. I'm a stupidly big fan. That was the reason I'd sat in the audience of his theatre show That Beautiful Laugh just an hour before, a couple of blocks away in the East Village's La Mama theatre. That was the reason I'd caught up with him, introduced myself and complimented his performance.

It was very much a New York moment - a fleeting experience, a serendipitous occurrence that feels unique to New York City. The phrase may be a cliche, and only a fool would argue that rushes of wonder can't occur wherever we are in the world, but each to their own - I'm hopelessly in love with the city, I feel special every time it reaches out to me. Lying beneath the cherry blossom trees in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, gazing up at the might of the Unisphere. Sipping cocktails above the Hudson River as the sun sets over the Statue of Liberty. Stood alone on Coney Island beach in the piercing winter sunshine. The saxophonist under the bridge in Central Park. Stumbling upon a block party in Brooklyn. Spongebob Squarepants and Catwoman making out on Halloween. 

I realised I was head over heels for New York six years ago, when the barman in Rudy's recognised me. I'd only drank in the Hell's Kitchen dive once, some six months before. We shook hands and introduced ourselves to one another. The barman's name was Gary, Gary the Glaswegian, and he wore rounded spectacles, a white shirt, black tie and waistcoat and a devilishly long beard. And then bought Gary bought me a drink because, he told me, I was a regular. In that moment of generosity the city won me over.

 


Six years later and there hasn't been a trip back to New York where I haven't called by Rudy's. It's small, it's dark, the booths have been reupholstered in red duct tape. But it's still $2.50 for a pint of Rudy Red, the jukebox is still the best in town, the hot dogs are still free and the crowd is always local; the cab-driving philosophers, the comic book writers, the retired Navy marines. The doorman still makes a big deal of telling me I'm too young to drink there and I better have some ID or else. I take everyone I meet to Rudy's, it's my New York tradition.

"Hey, are you Paul?" 

I was stood by the window pouring a pitcher of Rudy's Red, my first time back this year. The voice was a thick New York drawl, its owner wore a flat cap and an exploding moustache that obscured his mouth.

"I'm Danny, I'm the manager here. And this is Jack, the owner." Danny gestured to his frail and elderly friend. "We wanted to come over and say hello, and say thank you - for all the great things you say about us, for being a regular."

They wanted to thank me for being a regular in a bar I drink in three, maybe four times a year.

"I'm 85 now, but I've been drinking in here since I was 16," said Jack between slow sips of his shot. "I knew I wanted to buy this place right then, just had to wait few more years til I could afford it."

"All the years working behind the bar," said Danny, "I must have seen hundreds, yeah hundreds of kids come in here with a new date. They'd say 'Danny, I'm bringing her to Rudy's for her first time, and if she doesn't like it then I know she's not the one for me'. I remember this girl who brought a guy here, and-"

The stories continued for another twenty minutes. Hearing Danny's tales and meeting Jack, it was everything to me and a quintessential New York moment; generous, personal, unique. New York has never turned a blind eye or given me the cold shoulder, only shared experiences and opportunities I've cherished and adored. If we're lucky, we all find a place we feel we belong. New York is mine, every moment I'm there.


 

 

   
"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 Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

Ice Skating

 

 

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and more so in Manhattan. Christmas in New York City is something to be cherished. Of course there are crowds, idling tourists, plunging temperatures, but then there are Fifth Avenue stores wrapped in bundles and blazes of seasonal lights, noses nipped and cheeks of scarlet, piercing blue skies and a white sun casting frozen shadows long into the city.

And there's ice skating in New York City, falling flight on your backside while surrounded by some of the most iconic sights on the planet. Some venues struggle to fight back the crowds, but there are others where you'll share the occasion with a handful of locals, especially if it's early. 

Most people head to one of two venues - either the Wollman Rink in Central Park, or Rockefeller Plaza with 30 Rock soaring high above. Both are heavingly popular for ice skating in New York City, although Wollman Rink is larger and arguably more picturesque with the instantly recognisable skyline of 59th St to the south. Prepare your purse-strings for an assault, though - Rockefeller Plaza will charge up to $21 admission and then $10 for skate hire. 

Bryant Park has a large seasonal rink, The Pond, just a block from Times Square at 6th Avenue and 42nd St. Admission is free, but you'll still have to pay $14 for skate hire. The Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District also has a temporary rink beneath the increasingly popular High Line park - it's a good excuse to check out the independent stores and boutiques in the neighbourhood. Admission plus skate hire costs $15 in total.

If you want explore somewhere new, there are a few other options for ice skating in NYC. Central Park has another ice rink that's off the radar of most tourists because it edges close to the border of Harlem. You'll find Lasker Rink between 106th and 108th street, a stone's throw from the picturesque Harlem Meer, a glorious lake in the top-right corner of Central Park that the crowds rarely stumble upon. 

Another option for outdoor ice skating in New York City means a trip on the free ferry from Manhattan's Battery Park to Staten Island, and then the S61 bus to the War Memorial Ice Skating Rink in Clove Hills Park. It's not really a trip for first-time visitors - it'll take a lot out of your day and there's plenty to see on your first trip round - but the park offers a rugged, natural landscape that's worth a visit on a later date.

Finally, Brooklyn's Coney Island is a little out the way for Manhattan-centric tourists, and the indoor Abe Stark Rink is hardly as picturesque as a Central Park setting. On the plus side, you're next door to the towering red skeleton of the Parachute Jump, a fairground ride that was originally part of the 1939 World's Fair in Queens - and you're only footsteps from the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.  In all cases, check times and conditions before visiting any ice rink in NYC; opening times vary significantly from venue to venue, and unseasonal weather isn't uncommon in New York - an unlikely thaw will quickly scupper your plans.

  

   
"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 Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

St Patrick's Day

 

 

A thick-fisted gent brayed the bar and cheered as I flung the third shot of bourbon down my raw throat. The big hand said feck o’clock in the morning. My stomach said blurgh. The celebrations had somehow lost their way. Or perhaps they hadn’t. Perhaps I was going to be sick instead. Yes, that was more likely.


Such was the messy culmination of my first St. Patrick's Day spent in New York City, although I was hardly the first to raise three too many glasses in celebration. The parade first weaved through the streets of New York City in 1762; today it is the largest parade in the world with 200,000 marchers and 2 million spectators. During the late 1840s the southern ports of Manhattan were swamped by tens of thousands of Irish refugees escaping their homeland's deadly potato famine. The city's Emerald lineage means everyone's an Irishman in the days leading up to March 17th; foam hats adorn bemused grandmothers and frat boys alike, Midtown's Irish bars can't keep up with tourist demand for the black stuff.
 

The day before I found myself on the wrong end of that Guinness and bourbon-topped binge, I travelled across the city in search an altogether more authentic Irish experience, one that I would discover in the Bronx. Catch the MTA train from the palatial Grand Central station and you'll be plunged into the cavernous steel underworld of the city, emerging nearly 60 blocks later on the Upper East Side as it melts into Harlem, before crossing into the Bronx. Seven stops later and the conductor calls for Woodlawn, a neighbourhood at the northern limits of the city, miles from the lights and sights of Manhattan. What you'll find is a gentler, suburban side to New York City;
 free-flowing, care-free traffic; unobstructed views of the horizon.

The modern-day Irish who emigrate to New York often move to Woodlawn; around two thirds of the neighbourhood’s 8,000 residents are Irish or Irish-American; many new arrivals often live with friends and family in the neighbourhood while working in the city. My host Rachael, a fiery Irish twenty-something red of hair and green of eye, moved to Woodlawn to live with her cousin and friends: "You feel you're in a community which understands you and why you've come here. It's nice to think that, as corny as it sounds, there will be people here to look out for us if we need it."
 

Undiluted Irish accents wash across Katonah Avenue, a long stagger up a short hill from the MTA station and the main drag through Woodlawn. The Traditional Irish Bakery to the left and Sean's Quality Deli over the road are the first of a near-endless procession of Irish stores and bars. Riley’s Carpets, Behan’s Pub, the Emerald Pharmacy - if Disney ever set about building a theme park they couldn’t make it more Irish, save for dressing everyone as a Leprechaun.
 

We strolled along Katonah for late supper at The Rambling House, a modern single storey building with a faux-traditional restaurant sat alongside a darkened rectangular bar. I waded into their special mixed grill, beaten back only by the liver, which left a little room for a Guinness with the regulars. The evening before Saint Patrick’s Day and
  the good people of  Woodlawn were singing, drinking, laughing anddancing. And smoking, as if it the ban in New York had never existed.

"It’s not just here, the police turn a blind eye everywhere in Woodlawn," pointed out regular bar-prop Kieron, "so long as everyone's enjoying themselves and there's no trouble, but better you don’t talkabout it, eh?"
 

I promised never to mention it again and ordered a round of drinks for Rachael and the school friends she’d spotted across the bar and not seen for a decade. It wasn’t that unusual to chance upon a familiar face from the back home, explained Rachael: "On my second night here, I met a woman in a restaurant who came from the same village in Ireland as my dad," Rachael added, “her sister was my babysitter twenty years ago."
 

Irish blood often seems thicker than most, and in Woodlawn that sense of family matters more than anything. There isn't the legacy of Harlem
 or the shopping of Soho, but on the edge of the Bronx is a neighbourhood as unique as any other in New York City, and one the Irish truly call home on St. Patrick's Day.