The juxtaposition of the traditional brick apartment buildings of W 28th Street with the futuristic glass and steel structures of Hudson Yards behind is a quintessentially New York kind of view. In the soft light of a clear winter morning, Edge and its neighbours looked almost ethereal. Close up, approached from the last stretch of the High Line, they were an imposing sight. Last time I’d been in the area, this was a building site. Today, this privately funded complex is making its bid to become the latest go-to neighbourhood in the city.
Edge won’t open until mid-March 2020; when it does, it will become the highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere. I had been offered a preview visit by the representing PR but it fell through half an hour before I was due to go up, thanks to unexpected construction work. I had to content myself with a view of the outside from below and the video projected inside the mall. Will it find its place in the already saturated market for high rise observation decks in Manhattan? Time will tell.
In the meantime, in front of it stands Vessel, which opened in 2019. The structure was dreamed up by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who had a hand in the new Routemaster and the failed Garden Bridge amongst other things. Entry is free, so long as you are happy to be pinned down to a specific date and time. You can get turn up and go up tickets on the day if they’re available, or reserve them up to two weeks in advance. That’s just as well, for a staircase (well, 154 staircases to be precise) is pretty much all it is.
Clad in a coppery metal (it’s actually Italian steel) which is intended to be weather-resistant, the structure cost an eye-watering $150 million to construct – an extra $50 million more if you factor in the land in was standing on. In the right spot, it might have been worth paying for, but surrounded by high rises, the only real view you get is of the shopping centre and the train yard beside the Hudson River.
If you’re unable to climb steps, it’s even more of a disappointment: the elevator runs only every 15 minutes (“to make sure it doesn’t break down”) and accesses just one of the 80 landings. If stairs are a problem, the sole view you’ll have is that facing The Shed, an event space that looks like it’s been clad in a curious kind of giant bubble wrap. As the surrounding platforms require visitors to tackle multiple steps, they’re out of reach. According to the media, this is being addressed, though there was no sign of any remedial work during my visit.
Critics have not been kind, dubbing it the “Staircase to Nowhere”. While the architects refer to it as honeycomb, others have taken their foodie inspiration instead from the humble kebab. Still more liken it to a waste paper basket. The name Vessel is temporary. The architects have solicited suggestions from the general public and been inundated with the likes of Staircase McStaircaseface, Meat Tornado, The Rat’s Nest and the Chalice of the Privileged, so it’s likely to call itself Vessel for the foreseeable future.
Even the aim of making this a place where people congregate seems a little fanciful given its less-than-central location.There’s nowhere to sit, and nowhere much that’s under cover, especially at ground level. For a plaza that’s supposedly designed to function as a meeting point, that seems a curious oversight on the part of the developers.
Hudson Yards’ position right up against the Hudson River also makes it an unlikely spot for acting as a meeting point. Though the 7 train is only a short hop from Times Square, if you plan to walk it’s a not especially scenic cross-town stroll. If you planned to meet undercover in the shopping centre instead, that won’t help much: there’s almost no seating there either, save for a few chairs and tables assigned to the cafes inside.
I couldn’t help thinking how starkly that contrasted with the High Line, where hardwood benches and recliners were factored into the design. But then the High Line began as a community project and from its inception, those planning its regeneration worked hard at making it a place that had a soul. Even on the most miserable of winter days, when the plants are a dessicated brown and the wind bites at your cheeks, you’re surrounded by the stories of the past.
So, like many who have reviewed the space, I’m afraid I too was underwhelmed with Hudson Yards. It didn’t help that my pre-booked slot for Vessel was for a day when grey skies bled first drizzle and then steady rain. The weather matched my glum mood. I expect I’ll return, to visit Edge, when I’m next in the city, but I can’t see a reason why I’d hang around at Hudson Yards beyond that. Instead, excuse me while I potter off along the High Line and find myself a bench.
For a first time visitor wanting to maximise sightseeing time, good weather is a must, but when’s the best time to visit New York City? I’ve visited in all seasons, so here are some observations and tips based on my experience.
Avoid summer if you can
Summer in the city, with its long sunny days and picnics in the park, sounds like the perfect recipe for a great trip, right? Wrong! New York in summer is humid and hot. Typical temperatures push 30°C which in my opinion is too hot for sightseeing. Add to that average humidity which peaks in August at around 70% and conditions are often unpleasant. It’s sweltering if there’s a storm brewing and when the rain does fall, it’ll be heavy and you can expect localised flooding.
It’s beach weather, sure, and there are some fun places to go close to the city like Coney Island, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple’s iconic sights like the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, then you’ll be standing in line until you’re good and sweaty. If you have booked to travel between June and August, then take a ferry to Governor’s Island to catch a breeze, rent a boat from Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse or head out of Manhattan to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Don’t write off winter
Travelling to New York in winter is not without its risks. If your holiday coincides with a big winter storm, then you can find yourself stranded if the subway system shuts down and the buses can’t get through. That said, there’s a lot of fun to be had snowballing in Central Park and seeing the rooftops dusted with powder. Overnight temperatures can plunge to -10°C or below, but in the daytime, it usually hovers around zero. Wind may well be your biggest problem, but an advantage of a grid pattern street network is that if you turn a corner, you’ll come out of the icy blast and warm up. Make sure you pack accordingly, and don’t skimp on the hats, scarves and windproof down jacket.
The main advantage of travelling in winter is the lack of crowds – those who venture to the Big Apple in winter are rewarded handsomely. First-timers can pack more into an itinerary and reduce the need for pre-booking popular attractions such as the Freedom Tower. It’ll also be easier to pick up tickets for popular Broadway shows. Restaurant week takes place in late January or early February, with lots of establishments offering special menus and good deals.
Spring and autumn might just be the best compromise
Temperatures by April are on the rise, and it can be warm and sunny through into October, so travelling in the shoulder seasons is a good option. You’re looking at an average of around 17°C in May which in my book is perfect for sightseeing. Statistically, October is the driest month, though that was also the month in 2012 that Storm Sandy wreaked havoc, so it’s not a dead cert. April is the wettest, but rainfall averages are fairly constant through the year so that’s not a deal breaker. Markets reemerge from their winter hibernation, blossom enhances the High Line and stepping out is a pleasure.
Book your hotel well ahead, however, because late spring and early autumn are when you’ll see accommodation prices spike – it makes sense, of course, as you would expect demand to drive up rates. May sees temperatures climb and after Memorial Day weekend, summer has officially started; try earlier in the month if you prefer it less busy. You’re more likely to find a deal in November, and maybe even plan a trip to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the leaves will be on the turn in the city’s parks to boot.
What I have learned over the years and through numerous visits, is that there’s really never a bad time to go. My personal preference is for a winter trip, but I’ve never had a bad holiday in New York yet.
Tempted to book? Don’t miss these earlier posts from Julia’s Travels:
There’s so much to see in the Big Apple so making sense of it all as a first time visitor can be daunting. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Use the subway
Getting around in New York’s traffic can be hell so why waste your precious time sitting in traffic? Instead take the subway. A one week MetroCard costs $30 plus a $1 fee to buy the card. Tip: save your card and take it with you on your next holiday – the card is reusable. Standard fare per journey is $2.75 so you don’t have to use it much over a week to get your money’s worth. Check out the MTA tourist’s guide here: http://web.mta.info/metrocard/tourism/index.html.
Both JFK and Newark airports, serving UK carriers, are located out of Manhattan – JFK is out in Queens and Newark is over in New Jersey. Both take a similar amount of time to reach. If you are offered a coach or shuttle connection to the airport as part of a package, think carefully as to whether to take it – journey times are often double that of the subway or Long Island Rail Road, especially at rush hour. Note that if you take the subway or LIRR to JFK you’ll need to connect to the AirTrain which requires an extra ticket (a $5 fare). In the city, look to see whether you can take an express train; for longer journeys (e.g. Upper West Side to Battery Park) these can be considerably quicker. But at busy periods, you might have a better chance of getting a seat (or even getting on!) if you take the local. Print off a map from http://web.mta.info/maps/submap.html or download a free app so that you can ensure you don’t go whizzing past your stop.
See NYC’s museums and attractions free of charge
Time your visit right and you could save a ton of money. Many of New York’s premier attractions offer free entry at particular times of the week, so before you consider buying a tourist pass, work out which attractions you want to visit and when you can see them for nothing. For example, up in the Bronx, the Zoo offers free entry on a Wednesday, though some exhibits charge an additional fee, such as the excellent Congo Gorilla Forest.
The nearby Botanical Gardens offers free entry on the same day, so combining the two makes sense. The city’s top museums are also free some of the time – try the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on Tuesdays after 5pm (reservations recommended) and the Museum of Modern Art between 4 and 8pm every Friday. For a fuller list, check out http://www.nycgo.com/articles/free-nyc-museums and double check things haven’t changed just prior to your visit.
Go local and eat at a food cart
Some of the best food in New York can be found at the city’s food trucks. Famous burger chain Shake Shack started from a cart in Madison Square Park back in 2000.
No matter what your favourite type of food, there’s a truck to suit. Try Calexico, a Cal-Mex eatery with a range of restaurant locations and carts scattered across lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, including the Flat Iron and SoHo. Schnitzel and Things brings an American twist to German food and again shifts from place to place; follow them at http://www.schnitzelandthings.com/ to find out whether they’ll be near you. If you’d rather try something from the US, then I have a couple of recommendations. Shorty’s on Wheels is the mobile offering from Philly cheesesteak provider Shorty’s – check out its website http://www.shortysnyc.com/truck-schedule.php for the week’s locations as the vehicle moves on a daily basis. Luke’s Lobster have a number of restaurants scattered across the city bringing a taste of New England (think clam chowder, crab and lobster rolls) but they go mobile via the Nauti Mobile. Find them here: http://lukeslobster.com/nauti and check out their scrumptious menu.
Get off Manhattan
There’s so much to do and see that it is tempting to limit yourself to Manhattan, but that would be a pity. On a summer’s weekend, there are few places better than Governor’s Island. Take the ferry from southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle and enjoy fabulous views of the New York skyline from two wheels without having to worry about traffic. Over in Brooklyn, the neighbourhood of Williamsburg contains a clutch of great shops (and eateries) centred on Bedford Avenue including the Goorin Bros. hat shop, the Bedford Cheese Shop and the delightful Red Pearl, a boutique selling clothes, jewellery and gifts: http://shop.redpearlbrooklyn.com/. If you have enough time to venture further afield, take a Metro North train out of Grand Central and visit the quaint town of Rye or, a little further on, Old Greenwich, one of Connecticut’s prettiest little towns and home to the Sweet Pea’s Baking Company: http://sweetpeasct.com/.
Begin at Canal Street. Head along Canal and into Chinatown. My favourite parts are around Mott and Mulberry but the whole area is interesting just to see how different it is from other nearby areas. I can never suppress a snigger when I pass Mei Dick barbers. Vietnamese businesses are slowly colonising parts of Chinatown and of course it has Starbucks et al, but it remains a very Chinese neighbourhood. It’s also a great place to pick up a bargain I ♥ NY T-shirt or Hoodie. Haggle hard!
Next, take the J or Z subway (brown) to Essex and Delancey. Head across the street to Orchard Street and visit the Lower East Side Tenement museum. By European standards this isn’t old, but it is for Manhattan and the room sets give a clear picture of what life would have been like for garment workers in this district back in the 19th Century. Architecturally it’s very interesting inside too as some of the rooms are in their original condition complete with years of peeling wallpaper. You can book in advance at www.tenement.org and there are various tours you can book onto which give you a themed talk into an aspect of tenement life that appeals. It really does bring history to life and helps you understand the context of the buildings.
Cross the street and head for 205 East Houston Street, in particular Katz’s deli. This old Jewish deli has been there for years; it’s a New York institution. The food is amazing; the setting is humble. I can recommend the pastrami on rye and you should also taste the knish. Wash it down with an egg cream. This was the setting for the famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally but as you’ll see from the many pictures that adorn the walls, this is a favourite of many celebrities and politicians as well as the NYPD and FDNY.
Two of my favourite squares are a short walk from each other. Take the subway to Union Square which has a thriving farmers’ market every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It began in 1976 with a few farmers and the number of stallholders has grown steadily to around 140 today. North of Union Square at 23rd Street is Madison Square Park, alongside which you’ll find the triangular Flat Iron Building which dates from 1902.
North via the subway again at 42nd Street is what’s been termed the greatest railway terminal in the world: Grand Central station. It certainly outshines Liverpool Street at rush hour. This building is spectacular on a sunny day when the light shafts in through the windows, rivalling nature’s crepuscular rays. Walk across 42nd Street and pass the Chrysler Building. You can’t go up, but the building is worth a look nevertheless.
Keep heading towards the river for a look at the United Nations Building (44th Street and 1st Avenue). You can book guided tours which are interesting, with the disarmament exhibits particularly poignant. It is necessary to pre-book tickets at http://visit.un.org/wcm/content/site/visitors/home/plan and as with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State you do have security screening for which you need to allow time.
At 59th Street and Lexington, you’ll find Bloomingdales. Buy a Little Brown Bag and walk a block up to 60th Street. Serendipity 3 is a cute cafe featuring as its signature drink frozen hot chocolate, located at 225 East 60th Street. From there, head for the Roosevelt Island tramway. There isn’t a lot to see on Roosevelt Island itself but this tiny cable car is worth a ride in itself for the view back to Manhattan. Metro cards are accepted. Website http://rioc.ny.gov/tramtransportation.htm has the schedule.
Museum Mile is an integral part of the Upper East Side and my two favourites are both alongside Central Park. The Guggenheim is an amazing building for its architecture, all white curves of loveliness. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this building; if I’m honest, it fascinates me more than the exhibits inside but this is a must-see on your itinerary. Find out about the current exhibits at http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york. Up at 103rd Street is the Museum of the City of New York. Overlooked by many visitors, it tells the story of New York’s growth over time via a must-see film. Exhibits change, but will stay in your mind. A permanent fixture is the Activist New York display, featuring campaigns that range from anti-slavery to the suffragette movement, artefacts such as the Gay Bob doll and changing attitudes to the preservation of historic buildings. While you’re up here, it’s worth crossing the road into Central Park to see its only formal space, the Conservatory Garden, and Harlem Meer.
For dinner, head into Spanish Harlem. A block north of Tito Puente Way, a street named in honour of the outstanding Latino musician though I couldn’t find a plaque, I dined at Amor Cubano. It’s Cuban, obviously, though much around it is Puerto Rican. The food is delicious, the welcome familial and the atmosphere enhanced by live music. Camaradas el Barrio, a couple of blocks away, offers the best Puerto Rican food in the area and again has live music most evenings. But if you want to follow in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett, then there’s only one place to go. Patsy’s Pizzeria has been a favourite since it first opened its First Avenue doors back in 1933.
Part 2 of my guide to the Big Apple covers Manhattan’s west side from Washington Square to Central Park.
This route begins in Washington Square, where Harry left Sally after their road trip from Chicago. This landmark square has also featured in the Will Smith film I am Legend and is worth a visit for a picture of the arch. Head north along West 4th Street, through the attractive residential area of Greenwich Village. Turn left into Grove Street and a couple of blocks further on you’ll come to the building that featured as the apartment building in the hit TV show Friends. Backtrack a block and head north along Bleecker Street. There are plenty of boutiques and cafes, but the one that may well have a queue outside is the original branch of the Magnolia Bakery, whose melt-in-the-mouth cupcakes featured in the HBO show Sex and the City.
One of my favourite things about New York is its capacity for change so today I’d recommend you then have a wander in what was once the heart of New York’s butchery area. Today the Meatpackers’ District is home to cute cafes and designer clothes stores, where warehouses have been turned into cutting edge businesses.
To get to the heart of the Meatpackers District, continue north along Hudson Street and right into Gansevoort Street. In the area bounded by Gansevoort and West 14th Street, you’ll pass enough boutiques and outlets to get a feel for the area. Turn down Washington Street and at the corner with West 13th Street is the Hogs and Heifers bar from the film Coyote Ugly. One block south is the start of the High Line, a fantastic community-driven renovation that showcases the architecture of the area whilst turning an overground railway into a recreational facility for locals and tourists alike. It’s heaving in the summer but in the winter, pick a clear day and you’ll be able to wander in peace and really appreciate your surroundings. Wrap up warm against the wind though – when a cold wind blows across the Hudson, it bites into your face like a swarm of angry mosquitoes. One of the architectural highlights is The Standard Hotel which straddles the High Line. Nip down for a Fat Witch brownie from the Fat Witch Bakery in Chelsea Market at 9th Avenue. Go online to www.fatwitch.com to see what might tempt you.
Back on the High Line, continue north; the park narrows and widens, offering vistas over art installations and views across to skyline landmarks like the Empire State. There are plenty of cosy nooks and crannies to snuggle up and you’ll have some of these pretty much to yourself in winter.
Follow the High Line right up to 30th Street and then head east past the Post Office (don’t stand too close to the building or you might get an unwelcome souvenir from the pigeons). It’s a fair walk across so you might wish to hail a yellow cab, but the walk will take you to 6th Avenue. Make a left and walk three (shorter) blocks to Herald Square at the back of Macys – the largest department store in the world, allegedly. Plenty of cafes and food outlets are located in this area as this is the heart of Midtown.
Just a block over, on 5th Avenue, is the Empire State Building. You may wish to reserve in advance as it can be pretty busy; go online at www.esbnyc.com. This Art Deco structure is one of the world’s most iconic buildings and definitely worth a visit. Don’t let them upsell you to the Skyride – it’s not worth the time or the money. The views from the 86th floor on a clear day are excellent, but the wind can be strong on at least one side of the viewing platform. Prepare yourself with a photogenic hat or plenty of hairspray.
North along 5th Avenue takes you to Bryant Park, where there’s a good Christmas market and, when the weather’s warm, al fresco eateries. Cut back west to Times Square and note the location. It’s tourist central, of course, emblazoned with neon and awash with comic book characters just dying to pose for a photo. If you like what you see, come back after dark. From Times Square, head for the subway and take the red line to 72nd Street (it’s an express stop, so the 1, 2 and 3 are all fine). If you’re hungry, try a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya and walk a couple of blocks over to the park.
Central Park is a must and from the west, you’ll follow a trail of pampered pooches heading into the park. If you have your own back home, pick up a canine-friendly gift from the New York Dog Shop on 73rd Street – purple squeaky Empire State toy, anyone? Enter the park at the 72nd Street Traverse and look for the memorial to John Lennon, the legendary musician shot on December 8th 1980 outside the Dakota Building which stands across the street. The Imagine mosaic forms part of a tribute area known as Strawberry Fields, funded by a $1 million donation from John’s widow Yoko Ono. Continue through the park. In summer, you might rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse; in winter, perhaps try your luck at ice-skating on the Wollman rink.
The days of one Central Park attraction might be numbered, however. Despite Mayor de Blasio’s intention to ban them, at the time of writing it is still possible to take a horse and carriage ride through the park; they congregate along 59th Street at the southern edge of the park. They’ve been a part of the Park since the day it opened back in 1858 and Hollywood stars such as Liam Neeson and Danny Glover have made no secret of their opposition to the Mayor’s plans, along with an estimated 67% of New Yorkers. Find out more about the issue at www.savenychorsecarriages.com.
When you’re done, make your way back to see the lights of Times Square. You may wish to eat at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but those that love it enjoy the singing wait staff and its 1950s retro diner decor. You’ll find it at Broadway and 51st, or if you can’t see it, listen out for a song. To round off the evening, pay a visit to the observatory platform at the Top of the Rock. This offers unrivalled views of Manhattan for one reason – your view will include the Empire State Building. Depending on the season, this after-dinner slot may coincide with sunset, and it’s certainly an impressive vista after dark, although you may not wish to ascend this and the ESB in the same trip, especially if your time is limited. Pre-book your ticket at http://www.topoftherocknyc.com to avoid having to wait in line.
Here’s my guide for the first-time visitor to Lower Manhattan.
Begin at the southern tip of Manhattan, on the reclaimed land known as Battery Park City. Walk across Battery Park until you see Castle Clinton (the large circular fort) and get tickets for the Statue of Liberty – I’d advise an early start as the queues can be long, even out of season. Take the Circle Line cruise, get off at Liberty Island and have a close-up shot with the Statue. You can go up inside the crown but you need to pre-book tickets which have limited availability. When I last visited, the exhibition inside explained the technology behind creating the structure. Book tickets ahead of time at www.statuecruises.com
The second stop on the Circle Line cruise is Ellis Island. Temporarily closed after damage sustained by Storm Sandy’s flooding, it has now reopened. This fascinating museum tells the story of immigration to the USA, focused on the migrants that came through Ellis Island. You can imagine how scared some of them would have been as they stood in the hall with its huge arched windows. Some of the pictures are haunting and it’s definitely worth hiring an audio guide to hear the stories. Allow at least a couple of hours to absorb the information – more if you’re a history buff or genealogy fan.
If you’re not bothered about seeing Lady Liberty close up, you can take the Staten Island ferry from right next to the South Ferry subway building. It’s free and runs every 15 to 30 minutes. You get the same amazing view of southern Manhattan and Battery Park from the back of the ferry without having to pay, or queue. The platform at the rear of the ferry is small, so wait by it when you board to be sure of a good spot on the left as you look back to Manhattan and across to the Statue of Liberty.
On your return to Battery Park, walk across the park to the Skyscraper Museum, tucked away opposite the Museum of Jewish Heritage on its western side. Lots of people don’t know about this place but it has some interesting exhibits of skyscrapers within Manhattan and a main exhibit that changes regularly. Check for current exhibit details at www.skyscraper.org
Head over to Bowling Green subway (green line) back towards the South Ferry station – you’ll see a sculpture crafted from 9/11 debris. Walk north up Broadway and you’ll soon come across the Charging Bull sculpture the centre of the street – worth a brief photo and you sometimes get street performers or musicians hanging out here.
Carry on up the street until you get to Wall Street and take the obligatory pictures of the New York Stock Exchange and opposite, Federal Hall. You get a cool view standing next to the statue of George Washington and looking out over the street. Now head north towards Fulton Street and turn down the street heading for South Street Seaport. It’s worth noting that there’s a TKTS booth here which often has shorter queues than its better known counterpart in Times Square. The old fish market has closed and relocated to the Bronx. The seaport buildings were hit badly by Storm Sandy in 2012 but renovations have been extensive. Pier 17 has reopened and there are a range of pleasant eateries in and around this area which makes a good spot for a lazy lunch. If you want something quick and on the run, I love Ruben’s Empanadas – a little taste of Latin America right on Fulton Street.
Stroll off lunch with a walk along the East River boardwalk until you are just short of the Brooklyn Bridge – it makes for a good view. You may wish to head up onto the bridge itself – you need to walk at least halfway across to you get a true feel for the bridge’s amazing architectural quality. Alternative views can be had by taking a yellow water taxi across to Brooklyn and view Manhattan’s skyscrapers from the east. Note that water taxi fares in summer are cheaper because in winter you have to buy a day pass.
Backtrack along Fulton Street and head for the tiny church of St Paul’s Chapel at 209 Broadway. You’ll find the 9/11 Chapel of Remembrance here and if you walk around the back, you find the Liberty Bell in the churchyard. Take the road to the right of the church and cut across to the junction of Liberty and West Streets for the entrance to the 9/11 memorial. There’s no need to pre-book tickets anymore now that the museum is open – all the security checks now take place inside the museum, which is worth a visit. You can also ascend New York’s tallest building, the Freedom Tower. Your final stop just a few steps up from the memorial site at 233 Broadway is the Woolworth Building; built in 1913 and once the tallest building in the world.
My choice of dining in Lower Manhattan is at Fraunces Tavern, located at 54 Pearl Street. Hop on the subway and travel a few stops to go back in time – this is the place where George Washington bade his farewells to his officers back in 1783. Fittingly, there is now a museum of American Revolutionary War history in the building. The bar has an extensive menu of over 130 craft beers and ciders, hosts live music at weekends and the food is good too.
“You walked from the subway? Did you come with a SWAT team?”
Jack was trying to be funny, I think, playing on the reputation of the South Bronx as dangerous. I was in his shop, DeCicco Brothers, on Arthur Avenue, where in true Italian style I had been embraced and welcomed as part of the family within about fifteen minutes of rocking up. There was no mistaking he was proud of his Italian heritage: the shop was packed with the distinctive blue of the national team’s football kit and piles of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m Italian, I can’t keep calm”. Low rise and lined with trees, this characterful street at the heart of Little Italy had more in common with leafy Greenwich Village than a gang-infested no-go zone.
The Bronx has had a hard time shaking off its bad boy reputation. “The Bronx is burning” was a phrase coined in 1977 by the media (rather than sports commentator Howard Cosell to whom the phrased is wrongly credited). It referred to the many fires that burned that summer when ageing housing stock combined with closures of firehouses had horrific consequences. The closure in 1973 of the 3rd Avenue El, New York City’s last elevated railway, and the completion of urban planner Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway a year earlier, had fractured a community. The social and economic problems that were to follow resulted in a reputation that’s been difficult to shift.
New York has a long history of Italian immigration. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, around 5 million Italians, the majority from the Mezzogiorno, came to the USA and around a third never made it any further than New York’s five boroughs. Little Italy in Manhattan, now a shadow of its former self, retains a smattering of restaurants that fool only the most gullible of tourists into thinking they are in a genuine Italian-American neighbourhood. In truth, the Italians have long since moved away and the area is gradually being assimilated into Chinatown. According to some reports, the 2010 census doesn’t record a single Italian-born individual living in this part of the city.
Little Italy in the Bronx, in contrast, is thriving, a tiny oasis of cor-fee and mozzarella and prosciutto packed into a few streets of the Belmont district. At Tino’s Delicatessen I sipped a cinnamon-scented cappuccino in the company of four elderly gentlemen, their faces lined and puffy from years of pasta and hard living. Despite the warm November sunshine, they were heavily wrapped up against the elements. Pausing occasionally to apologise for the profanities which escaped their lips, they put the world to rights as they probably did every morning. I’m not sure what they made of me, an outsider.
A few doors further down Arthur Avenue, Jack DeCicco’s father Tony wandered in off the street and was keen to share his story. Together with his wife, he had arrived from Napoli in 1969 and had been in Little Italy ever since. He was immensely proud of his neighbourhood and took me to some of his favourite haunts: the Casa Della Mozzarella around the block on 187th Street, described by one Brooklynite as “oral dairy porn” and Vincent’s Meat Market, where row upon row of sausage and salami hang like chandeliers from the ceiling. The area is a foodie’s paradise, where everything from salt cod to handmade ravioli can be bought today just as it has been for decades.
In a city that likes to reinvent itself and in a borough where so much was destroyed, there’s something comforting about the number of businesses that were founded at turn of the last century rather than the current one. Go and see for yourself – no SWAT team required.
I’m a creature of habit. Packing for a trip to New York, I fall into the same tried and tested routine. When it comes to spending money, that means a wallet of crisp dollar bills which quickly morphs into a pocket full of nickels, dimes and pennies. Spending this ever-growing mountain of coins involves finding a retail assistant (and a queue of other shoppers waiting behind me to pay) with the patience of a saint while I count out the exact change. Of course, if they didn’t add on the tax at the till, I could sort it out beforehand instead of admitting defeat and breaking another twenty. So, at the end of the trip, I tip my leftover coins into the drawer at home and resolve to do things differently next time.
This time I have. For the last two days I have been trying out a Caxton FX currency card. Loaded up with dollars and bearing the Visa logo, I can use this like I would a regular credit card, but without the end of holiday bill that can take the edge off a good vacation.
Here’s what I did with it.
Day 1: The Bronx
Tino’s delicatessen in Arthur Avenue looked like the perfect spot for a coffee. Four elderly Italians with accents like Robert de Niro sat at one of the pavement cafes while I took the other. Interrupting their conversations every now and again to apologise for their colourful language, they spoke warmly of this close-knit community that had been their home for decades and puffed cigar smoke into each other’s faces.