This isn’t my first trip to New York. I started visiting in the 1980’s, thanks to the fact that the man I was living with in London had a sister and niece in NYC. The man is long, long gone but not so his sister and niece, who have come to be considered family – infrequently seen but much loved; the ex outlaws as we call each other. And, they are the reason for this visit, just to spend time in their beloved company. This is just some random reflections and travel notes from that trip.
I haven’t been back to New York for probably 12 years, so it is both familiar and unfamiliar – I have to relearn the subway for a start, those multi coloured arteries that link the different neighbourhoods of this endlessly fascinating city. Being from Australia I envy any city with an underground train system. Sure, it might be a bit grimy down there, but my goodness it is a great way to get around. I think I cover off a good section of the alphabet this stay. As I am staying in Brooklyn, the R line is my main focus, but it is the slow boat to China, stopping at all stations and often delayed – or in fact, stopping at only a few stations on the weekends. I learn to leap out and dash across the platform to catch an Express train, hoping like hell I’ve leapt on the right one, but realising that even if I haven’t, as long as I don’t pop my head up gopher like out the subway hole, my Seniors Return fare ticket ($2.75 US) is good to get me to where I eventually want to go if I need to retrace my steps.
I give up trying to understand what the driver is saying over the intercom. In fact, right from catching the taxi at the airport I have submitted myself to the knowledge that any one involved in transport in this city is virtually unintelligible, at least to me. A fact that results in a couple of embarrassing, on my part, exchanges with people behind glass at ticket counters; and has me studying the subway map clutched in my hand intently as I tick off the stops, as there is not a chance in hell I’m going to understand the verbal recitation of the stops.
I get great pleasure from the busking travelling minstrels on the train, and insist on giving them money, much to the disapproval of my ‘family’. In the course of just a few rides I encounter a mariachi band, a trio of soul singers and a Chinese opera violinist. All bring a smile to the face; well maybe not the Chinese violinist.
This city has a museum for everything, and this visit I return to some well loved ones , plus experience some new to me. I start with the Museum of Modern Art; fitting given that our very own NGV has just opened a major exhibition of loaned works from MoMA. This has been achieved in part because MoMA is going through a major renovation and construction to expand the gallery space, which may explain why my visit is not as exciting as others I see this trip. However, I did discover a photographer, Stephen Shore, whom I now Follow in Instagram.
The Guggenheim is virtually closed as they bump in a new exhibition, but the side wing is open and I do a quick whip around a children’s art exhibition and a small exhibition of major pieces from the collection. A warm up to the Met just down the road.
I feel a bit like Hansel & Gretel in The Met, wishing I had breadcrumbs to spread behind me to ensure I actually make it out again. The place is huge. But, my focus is the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibition. The exhibition features “the work of designers who for the most part were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition ……….. most acknowledge its enduring influence on their imaginations”. Cleverly, the garments are displayed throughout the Medieval and Byzantine Art galleries, so you are both forced to reflect on the influence of religious art on the fashion, and to look at items in the collection, not just the garments. All the while, hypnotic music is pulsing through the gallery. Unfortunately I don’t make it uptown to see the the display in the Met Cloisters, but thoroughly enjoy what I do see on Fifth Avenue.
I am eager to see the new Whitney building, a museum that has always held a special place in my heart as it was where I discovered the marvellous Edward Hopper. The Whitney is devoted solely to American art, and there are two highlights here today for me. The first is the exhibition of Grant Wood works. Who I hear you say? Well, you will all know him because he is the artist who painted the iconic American Gothic painting. But, there is so much more to the man than this work, and I discover that I am a great fan. The second highlight was the small collection of Jacob Lawrence war paintings within the An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection 1940-2017 exhibition.
I have a brief but interesting visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, down in the financial district, but it was my last museum visit that was a particular revelation – the Museum of Art & Design (MAD). A relatively small space, on Columbus Circle, but a real delight (and I gather the restaurant on the top floor is very good also). It is here I discover the work of pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro, whose aim was to spotlight the artistic merit of the so-called female domestic crafts. She pioneered a painting collage hybrid she called femmage, and they are beautiful. On the next floor I am introduced to the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was an annual guidebook published between 1936-1967, listing businesses across America that were sympathetic to African American motorists and travellers, thus helping (and hoping) to make their travels safer. The artist Derrick Adams used the Green Book as the inspiration for his work in this exhibition. Fascinating.
I had two walks on my Must Do This Visit List – the Highline, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
No visit to New York is complete without a walk along the Highline. What a truly brilliant idea this was – a terrific example of innovative urban landscaping that in turn has completely revitalised a once down at heel area. The architecture going up is amazing, and the place buzzes. I walk the length of it (2.3 km or 1.45 miles in their money), starting at the Whitney, and then back again. As I walk the drizzle stops and the sun comes out, thus the crowds slowly build. I stop half way to enjoy a very yummy panini from one of the food carts, followed a bit further by a magnificent ice cream sandwich to reward my efforts.
We tackled the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn side, struggling against the steady flow of walkers doing it in reverse. But, the view is so much better our way, as you are walking towards that famous skyline. A word of warning: whichever way you walk it, the path is also a bike path and the local bikers get very very cross at oblivious tourists intent on taking selfies and ignoring the faded lines delineating the bike lane. If you want to avoid an earful, stick to the pedestrian side.
We continued our walk to the site of the World Trade Centre and were unexpectedly moved by the fountain memorial, which captures so much in its simplicity.
My morning ritual always includes indulging in a decent coffee in a cafe, and being in New York is no exception however proves trickier to achieve than here in Melbourne (which is, as I instruct mine hosts, the coffee capital of the world). The search for a good coffee starts each days outing, with mixed success. I Google Australian cafes in New York, and there are quite a few, especially in Brooklyn but unfortunately not in my end of Brooklyn. Bluestone Lane is one of the originals to conquer NYC, and there are numerous outposts now, including one just near The Guggenheim so I pop in on my Guggenheim Met day, only to see a queue of people waiting to get in. So, I opt for a take away coffee and prop myself up on the bench outside the neighbouring church and people watch. But, I have to admit the coffee was somewhat disappointing – success gone to their heads maybe?
However, I do come to realise over the course of my coffee journey that Americans seem to like a more bitter coffee flavour, or is it a stronger aftertaste, than we are used to in Melbourne. Maybe it is because they have grown up on that stewed bottomless stuff that passes for coffee there.
I find three brands that hit the spot. Gorilla Coffee, an independently owned micro roaster in Brooklyn (472 Bergen St, Brooklyn). Blue Bottle is a small chain started in the early 2000s in Oakland California – they were purchased by Nestlé in 2017 but still manage to turn out a good brew, despite the rather soulless environment I find in the Park Slope store (although the brown molasses cookie was delicious and still occupies a corner of my taste bud memories). But both were surpassed by my find on my second last day, Birch Coffee, which has 10 outlets in Manhattan. The one I find is a hole in the wall at 884 Ninth Avenue – I managed to secure a stool, and was a very happy girl. An honorary mention can also go to FIKA, a Swedish brand with outlets across Manhattan – although it was their chocolate rum ball type thing that really got my attention.
But, whist on coffee I couldn’t help but notice just how much plastic and disposable cups are consumed. Even if you are drinking the coffee in you are often given it in a take away cup. Why??? And then there are all the iced tea, smoothie, frappe and whatever else they drink plastic cups – all with straws. My head was filled with images of the landfill that must be generated by this alone. The keep cup concept hasn’t seemed to have caught on yet, but boy does it need to.
Unfortunately I don’t make it to any shows, but we do manage to see three movies which are yet to make an appearance in Australia. The first was a documentary about the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was before this film unknown to me, but I am now a member of her Fan Club. RBG, as she is fondly known, is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a truly formidable woman who fights fiercely and intelligently for the rights of the American citizen. She is the voice of sense on what is becoming an increasingly right wing court – which will become more so if she dies and Trump is able to make another appointment. Given she is 85 and has had several brushes with cancer, her ongoing health is of concern to all liberal thinkers.
I followed this with another film about a formidable woman, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, played by the wonderful Annette Benning, in The Seagull. In fact everyone in this film of the play was terrific, with a cast including Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy and Billy Howle. A must see when it comes here.
My last film was not so successful, despite its all star female cast of Dianne Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen. The latter was wonderful, and provided the only laughs. Without her the film would have been completely woeful. Called The Bookclub – predictable cliché ridden waste of talent.
Friendship is what brought me to New York this time, and it is what I leave thinking about. The people we meet along our way; the people we keep. I haven’t seen this lot for maybe 8 years, but I slip back through the crack in time and take up my place within the comfort of their beating family heart. My visit is full of dinners around the kitchen table; of school music recitals; of walking the crazy family dog around the local park whilst admiring the Chinese exercise classes; of getting to know the (grand)kids; of errands and doctors visits. And, I couldn’t be happier. The ties that bind are invisible but strong.
And, I have an added bonus in my two Aussie friends who moved to the Big Apple 14 years ago, and have made a hugely successful life for themselves there. I stay the night in their groovy apartment in the financial district and enjoy dinner at a local institution followed by an amazing milk punch (and no, it wasn’t the warmed milk drink I was imaging but instead a highly lethal but delicious cocktail made with clarified milk among other things). A quick coffee and a final hug on my last day sends me on my way.
Hopefully my next visit will not be so many years away.