Thoughts on Hudson Yards, New York
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.
Domino Park – New York’s next High Line?
It was once a neglected and semi-derelict disused railway blighting the landscape of block after block that stretched from the Meatpackers District to Chelsea. Rudy Guiliani had signed an order for its demolition, but a determined local community fought to turn that elevated railway into the High Line Park, now one of New York City’s most popular public spaces. Since opening in 2009, visitors and locals alike have flocked to this verdant park. In summer, it’s a victim of its own success, with crowds of people walking through an architecturally rich landscape. In winter, you can still find space to yourself, for now at least.
But if like me, you find yourself in the city when the temperature’s hot, you’ll be pleased to learn that the team behind the High Line opened a new space this June which looks set to rival its elder brother. That space is called Domino Park, and you’ll find it across the East River in Brooklyn.
Domino Park extends along five blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront. The hulking silhouette of the Williamsburg Bridge looms over its southern edge. Across the East River, Manhattan’s skyscrapers flank the residential towerblocks of the Lower East Side.
Watching from the back is what’s left of the Domino Sugar Refinery. The brick factory that stands today was constructed in 1882 to replace an earlier building destroyed by fire.
In the latter years of the 19th century, sugar cane was shipped in from across the globe. The American Sugar Refinery Company was so successful, it was one of the original companies to comprise the Dow Jones index. Other factories followed suit and Brooklyn at that time handled over half of America’s sugar as a result. Prior to using sugar, food had been sweetened with honey or molasses. Refining sugar from cane or beet was difficult and time consuming, but companies like American Sugar Refinery brought it to the masses, A century later, though, demand for cane sugar had fallen dramatically in the face of competition from high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners.
It was almost inevitable that the Domino factory would close, just as so many of Brooklyn’s other industrial buildings have. But many of the industrial artefacts, such as the four syrup towers and crane tracks from the original factory, have been repurposed as props in this cleverly designed park.
An elevated walkway maximises the views across to the Empire State Building and down over the park itself. There are fountains, hardwood loungers and bench seating. The wood has been upcycled, taken from the factory which itself will be redeveloped. Planting is yet to become established, but as with the High Line a decade ago, a vibrant show of yellow and green grasses and other structural planting forms the bones of what will become.
This is a park which has its eye firmly on the local population. The playground was popular while I was visiting, as were the fountains. It would seem this is the place to bring your toddlers – or send your nanny. Even the playground’s a nod to the past, designed to resemble the process of sugar refining.
A lot of thought has gone into this park, and as the rest of the project launches, this is set to become one of Willamsburg’s most popular spaces for visitors as well as locals. It’s just a fifteen minute stroll from trendy Bedford Avenue, itself only a short subway ride from Manhattan’s Union Square. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the High Line’s crowds without skimping on its achingly-cool design, this could well be it.
A Wicked night out
This week I was fortunate to be invited to a press event to promote Wicked the Musical and The Broadway Collection. We were treated to a champagne and canapés reception at the splendid Aster restaurant, munching on smoked salmon blinis and bite sized chicken rolls. I’d been working hard at World Travel Market all day so it was a joy to put my feet up and relax.
Wicked’s UK Executive Producer Michael McCabe provided a bit of background to this well known tale. It’s been a while since I saw the movie, I’ve never seen the stage production or read the book, so his contribution was useful in explaining a little more of the story. In the musical, for instance, the witch is named Elphaba – named for the book’s writer L. Frank Baum, who apparently didn’t like his first name and insisted on being referred to as L. Frank. But it was the key theme that Michael highlighted that got me thinking: are we born wicked or instead are we shaped by our surroundings and the events that involve us?
The musical itself was enjoyable and entertaining. Wicked compared well to my previous favourites Evita and Les Misérables. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget the performance is live when it’s as faultless as this. The characters soon engage and endear themselves, even Elphaba (though of course she’s meant to!) and there was enough humour in the script to stop it from drowning in schmaltz. And let’s not forget the incredible voices – this is talent that doesn’t rely on audience votes and celebrity endorsement to make you appreciate what you’re listening to.
The highlight of the evening for me, however, came at the end. We were invited up on stage to handle some of the props and costumes from the show. I had no idea baby Elphaba would be so heavy or that the witch hat would be so uncomfortable – to my relief I’m not a natural witch after all! The costumes were weighty too, each reflecting the hours and hours of work that had gone into their design and manufacture. All credit to the actors who’d be wearing them under the house lights in November, let alone in summer in a city that barely knows what air conditioning is.
Where to catch Wicked
If you are in London, I’d definitely recommend hotfooting it over to the Apollo Victoria to see it. You’ll follow the millions that have seen it since it began its run in 2006, many of whom have seen it more than once. In New York, you’ll find it at the Gershwin Theatre right near Broadway on 51st Street.
It forms part of The Broadway Collection, together with favourites like Blue Man Group, The Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon and The Lion King. You can purchase your tickets in the UK before you leave from a number of tour operators and agents including TUI, Virgin Holidays and Lastminute.com. There’s more information on their webpage at http://www.broadwaycollection.com or check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/BroadwayInbound and tweet them at @BroadwayInbound.
I’d like to extend my thanks to Made Travel, particularly to their most welcoming press rep Anthony McNeill, who invited me to the event and took care of the tickets and refreshments during the evening. Find out more about them at made.travel.
New York for second-timers
OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge. You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial. So that’s it, right? Wrong. Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.
Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo
These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge. I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.
High Line or Lowline?
Both, of course. The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint. I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out. But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park.
Update: the Lowline has now closed.
Gospel brunch in Harlem
The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem. You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries. Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.
City of New York Museum
You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context. Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.
This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour. It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline. If you’re in the city between now and January, check out the Skyline installation.
Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution. Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground. Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.
Watch a game
Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium. In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden. The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well. For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else. Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.
Bryant Park Christmas market
Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas. My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early. Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.
Roosevelt Island tramway
It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone. After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card. If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.
New York Transit Museum
The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street. Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old. The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.
New York’s latest project? The Lowline Lab
Hot on the heels of the High Line, the elevated railway turned park which is now one of New York City’s best loved attractions, there comes a bold newcomer. Following the same tradition of cutting edge conceptual development, imaginative design and community involvement, a new way of injecting green space into the Big Apple’s concrete jungle is underway. It’s officially called Delancey Underground but unsurprisingly, everyone’s nicknamed it the Lowline.
A small group of talented individuals led by James Ramsey and Dan Barasch have been working on trialling a technology which would enable natural sunlight to be harvested and transferred underground in order to grow plants for a subterranean garden. The Lowline Lab, as the testing site is called, houses around three thousand plants in the former market building on Essex Street. It occupies a site about 5% of the proposed end result, large enough to give the visitor a sense of what the Lowline might one day be like.
This Lower East Side location has not been selected by chance. In fact, this is one of the most built up areas of a city blessed with squares and neighbourhood parks. A growing population and substantial redevelopment in the LES puts paid to any hopes of removing concrete and tarmac from any above-ground real estate so burrowing underground was the logical choice. With a suitable location identified – the long abandoned Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal – all that had to happen was for technology to catch up.
Working in collaboration with a number of specialist firms, the committed Lowline staff and volunteers have developed an impressive system of mirrors and tubes which feed light off the street and into the dark depths of the derelict market. Last October, the project set about testing whether plants could survive the New York winter when shorter daylight hours in theory wouldn’t provide the right environment for them to thrive. In fact, the opposite has been true and it has even proved possible to grow viable plants from seed. Spanish moss hangs from the ceiling, trailing down towards a plywood platform carpeted in shade tolerant ferns, exotic succulents and verdant shrubs. Seedlings labelled with lolly sticks emphasise the newness and experimental nature of the project.
With the market earmarked by developers, the Lowline Lab was set to close in March 2016 but a stay of execution was granted as the developers postponed their plans. Now, the Lowline Lab will be open to visitors until at least March 2017. This extension has brought with it new challenges, not least a plethora of pesky insects that have been as thrilled to move into their new neighbourhood digs as the human residents have been to repurpose them. Undeterred, the Lowline team have implemented a series of measures that will ensure that the experience of visiting this innovative underground garden isn’t marred by a thick cloud of midges. Nematodes have been placed in the soil to good effect, though the introduction of carnivorous plants has been less successful, partly because visitors have been tempted to touch their snapping jaws themselves.
With feasibility studies complete, politicians and community groups on side, support (though not funds) from owners MTA and a steady stream of interested visitors to the Lab itself, there are just a few fundraising and logistical hurdles to overcome. It seems the project could well come to fruition. At present, the team are confident they’ll have the Lowline up and running by 2020 or thereabouts. In the meantime, I’d strongly recommend that if you’re in New York one weekend before next March you take a trip down to 140 Essex Street and check out the Lab for yourself.
The best view in town
New York’s skyline begs to be admired from the top of one of its skyscraper observation decks, but which should you choose? Read my guide to the three main contenders, the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock and the new kid on the block, One World Trade Center, to find out which is best for you. For all three, unless you ascend in the evening, expect long queues so book in advance online.
The glamorous one: Empire State
The Empire State has been impressing visitors to the Big Apple since it opened back in May 1931. From the minute you swing through its revolving doors into the lobby adorned with gilded Art Deco wall panels you can’t fail to be impressed. It’s featured in more Hollywood films than you could imagine and it’s just about the most iconic site New York has to offer.
Best bit: the view down Fifth Avenue from the windswept 86th Floor observation deck looking towards the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty
Worst bit: the wind can be biting at this height, and you’re outside, so wrap up well or switch to the opposite side of the observation deck
Cost: $42 per adult (to visit the main 86th floor observatory and museum)
Opening hours: 8am to 2am daily, last elevator up 1.15am
Where to find it: 338-350 Fifth Avenue
The best view in town: Top of the Rock
What the Empire State Building can’t offer is a view of the Empire State itself, which is where Top of the Rock trumps it. Offering split-level viewing platforms behind glass as well as an inside lounge with padded leather benches, this is also the place to get a close up look at the Chrysler Building.
Best bit: the glass panels have gaps big enough to squeeze a camera lens through but not so big to bring on the vertigo
Worst bit: finding your way out at the bottom can be difficult as the Rockefeller Center is a maze of corridors
Cost: $38 per adult for regular access
Opening hours: 8am to midnight daily, last elevator up 11pm
Where to find it: 50th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
The new contender: One World Trade Center
Also known as the Freedom Tower, this, the tallest skyscraper in New York finally opened in May 2015, following the terrible collapse of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. It’s a lot more hi-tech than its competition, offering iPad rental for visitors to identify the city’s landmarks and guides that tell New York stories. There’s a surprise waiting as you exit the elevator but I won’t spoil it for you.
Best bit: the elevator ride takes you up 100 floors and whizzes through time as it does so giving you the brief chance to witness New York being built
Worst bit: the observation decks are behind glass, leaving photographers frustrated by reflections and dirty fingerprints
Cost: $40 per adult for general admission
Opening hours: 9am to midnight in summer, 8pm closing from September until Spring, last elevator 45 minutes before closing
Where to find it: West Street, corner of Vesey Street
It’s still hard to beat the Empire State if you’re a first-time visitor to the city, but if you have time, plan to ascend the Top of the Rock too. It’s well worth doing one by day and the other at night for two very different experiences. Time at least one of them for sunset. I wasn’t as impressed by the One World Observation Deck because of the issues with getting a decent view of the city, especially once it got dark and the lights were switched on.
In March 2020, Edge opens at the Hudson Yards – watch this space for my review of New York’s fourth observation deck.
On the ancestor trail in NYC
I’ve reached NYC on my Hammond book research trip, following a successful expedition to Hammond, Maine. Unlike in Maine, there’s a chance that the New York Hammond has a connection to the family, as it was bought and named after one Abijah Hammond whose family emigrated from Lavenham, Suffolk. A wealthy NYC merchant, he bought and sold property, mostly in Greenwich Village (then a separate place) and made enough money to build a mansion at Throggs Neck which overlooks the East River on the fringes of what’s now the Bronx.
I caught the 6 (singing J-Lo songs in my head, of course) and then the Bx40 bus to find his house at Silver Beach. It’s now in poor state, with a couple of refurbished rooms being used as offices for the Silver Beach Association. The delightful Carol from SBA welcomed her unexpected visitor with open arms and told me a little about the house, which dates from 1795. As a non-profit co-op, they don’t have the money for repairs, unfortunately, but it was good to know the local residents still refer to Abijah’s place as “the mansion”.
It was a real privilege to be in Abijah’s home, more so as this place is not open to the public. There’ll be more of his story in the book, and it looks like there’s quite a story to tell from this colourful character.