Despite living in New York for some fifteen years now, and despite the iconic nature of this particular attraction, I had never been on — nor indeed even seen — the Roosevelt Island Tram. Somehow, despite countless trips up and down the FDR Drive and occasional trips back and forth across the Queensboro Bridge, I never once caught a glimpse of that bright red skytram being tugged across the East River on suspended cables. It could possibly be because I was, you know, driving, and if you’ve ever been in that particular part of town you know that it does not usually work out very well to distract oneself from the road. Eventually though, and probably after staying up late watching Nighthawks yet again, it was determined that enough was enough. High time to get suspended high above the river en route to a river island about which I know very little and which is visited rarely by anyone who does not live there.
In February of 2005, the bleak winter landscape of New York’s Central Park was splashed with color when Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude erected hundreds of gates with bright orange curtains along twenty-three miles of Central Park pathways. Construction of the art piece took 5,390 tons of steel, 315,491 feet of vinyl tubing, and 99,155 square meters. The gates were assembled in Long Island and trucked to the park, where they had to be erected without being bolted or dug into the park.
New York’s subway stations are adorned with many an odd historical curio, image, mural, or hidden wonder. One of the first ones I ever noticed and thought to wonder about was the beavers diligently gnawing away at branches throughout the Astor Place 6 train station. These furry little devils probably represent the point at which I decided not just to live, work, and play in New York, but also to poke around in its history — the stranger and more obscure, the better — and eventually become one of those weird old guys who wanders around with a pair of binoculars, offering tourism tips and trivia to random passersby who probably just want to get their picture taken with one of those ratty-looking Times Square Elmos. Anyway, despite being a relatively small (and these days, frequently shut down for weekend construction) station, Astor Place packs a lot of people in every day thanks to its East Village location. It also manages to pack a substantial amount of oddball history onto its modest platform, history that includes the richest man in America, an abandoned passage, a deadly riot, and yes — beavers.
As we mentioned in the article about the secret train platform beneath Grand Central Terminal, the venerable New York City landmark turned one hundred this month. The anniversary is being marked by a number of events, sales, displays, and tours that unfortunately were already sold out by the time I learned about them. Still, not one to be deterred, a crew of us dropped in for the birthday celebration and sought out our own Grand Central sights and curiosities. I’ve poked through the station numerous times yet still managed to find some things I’d never seen before.
Happy 100, Grand Central. The clock above the information booth has an opal face and is worth somewhere around $10-15 million, though rumor has it that the one on display is a replica. There is also a tiny cylindrical tube inside the booth. It contains a stairwell that leads to an employees’ only area below the floor of the plaza.
Because it is well documented elsewhere, I won’t go into the history of F.W. Woolworth, the Woolworth Building, or the stores to which the old man lent his name. For that, I urge you to check out the fantastic Woolworth Building episode of the Bowery Boys podcast. With that history thusly filed away, we can pick up our merry frolic through one of the city’s most iconic yet rarely seen first skyscraper. I say rarely seen because although you can marvel at the impressive exterior, the historic neo-Gothic lobby is off-limits to tourists, gawkers, amateur historians, and anyone who doesn’t work at a company housed in the building. It might be possible to get a glimpse if you wander in just after regular business hours and are really kind to the guard at the front desk, but barring that gamble on the mercy of strangers, you will just have to get a job at one of the many businesses that call the impressive building home. Oddly, my employer does have space in the Woolworth Building, but we have no access to the lobby. They don’t want our kind of rabble hanging around in there. But even if you do work in the building, there are still hidden niches and off-limit secrets to which you don’t get access.
For years since moving to New York, I’ve been meaning to visit the Museum of Chinese in America. Even back when they were in a seedy looking building down in Chinatown, with their doors constantly blocked by a proliferation of fortune tellers, it’s been on my list. But like many things, it didn’t happened. When they got their new building north of Canal Street, it reminded me that I wanted to drop in for a visit, yet still it didn’t happen. When I happened by an ad not too long ago for an exhibit about the portrayal of Asians in American comic books, and the lives of Chinese-American comic writers and artists in the industry, it finally got me off my butt and into the museum.
New York is full of fantastic museums and attractions, but if you are a little light in the wallet and are looking for something that is basically a museum, New York still has you covered. There are a ton of fantastic flea markets and antique malls displaying a dizzying array of curios, knickknacks, relics, and occasional works of art. For my money, and I do spend it from time to time, it’s hard to beat Manhattan’s Showplace Antique Center located at 40 W 25th Street (between 5th & 6th Ave).
In New York City, you have a lot to watch out for as you walk around. This is unfortunate, as the necessity of keeping your eyes on the ground or around you prevents you from seeing the incredibly wealth of architectural curiosities staring at you from above doorways and beneath windows. I decided to organize a little walking tour one fine, chilly day so that we might get some exercise, get out of our usual stomping grounds, and have a chance to seek out some of this city’s gargoyles, demons, dragons, leaf men, and the other stone and terra-cotta creatures that watch over us without us ever knowing. Along the way, we hoped to also stumble upon a few other curiosity and city sights we didn’t expect.
2013 marks the centennial anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. We’ll be writing plenty about the storied train station in the coming weeks and months, but I thought we’d kick off the celebration with one of our favorite weird facts about the place. Behind a nondescript, locked and ignored brass door set into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on 49th Street is an elevator to a secret Grand Central train platform that was used by President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited the city and did not want to deal with reporters and photographers. That door is about as close as you or me or most of the rest of the public is ever going to get to the secret station, dubbed simply Track 61 by Grand Central authorities, but behind that door and below the street is a wealth of fascinating history that includes not just Roosevelt’s secret train, but also a lavish underground party thrown by Andy Warhol.
I don’t usually go to celebrity restaurants. Unfair though it may be, I associate them with average food, higher prices, and a willingness to coast on the name of a disinterested star who was willing to slap their name onto the outside of the establishment. I’m in New York after all, and why would I sit with the tourists at Mickey Mantle’s or Don Schula’s or Michael Jordan’s when I just go to Keens and get an infinitely better meal for around the same price — and sit next to Teddy Roosevelt’s pipe to boot? However, I’m nothing if not a sucker for something marketed seemingly directly at me, so when legendary Knicks court general Walt “Clyde” Frazier appended his name to a Hell’s Kitchen eatery, my interest was piqued — first because I love Clyde, and second because it wasn’t a steakhouse.