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.
Like many of the country’s big city’s New York was once a mecca for mid-century exotica, tiki bars, and places conceived entirely on the impressions of far away lands one could get from the album covers of Martin Denny or Alfred Lyman. Almost all of it is gone, though a few places still pay homage to American fantasies about Polynesia and the mysterious East. Nestled in a nondescript strip mall in Staten Island is New York City’s last remaining vestige of authentic tiki culture. Tiki establishments usually came in one of two flavors: the Trader Vic’s style cocktail lounge or the gussied up Chinese restaurant. Jade Island Restaurant, as you might guess from the name, is among the latter.
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 recent years, pop culture fascination with the end of the world has resurfaced after years of dormancy during which we were all enjoying the good ol’ years of Bill Clinton, the dotcom industry, and a relatively peaceful time as long as you ignore that whole Balkan thing. Yeah, we might have used a giant asteroid to destroy Paris just for kicks from time to time, but when it comes down to ending the world, we pretty much became disinterested during the 1990s. The end of the Cold War seems to have dashed our post-apocalyptic fantasies. Gone were the days of an Evil Empire and a Red Scare. Gone were the days when middle school youths would organize themselves out in the woods to build a bomb shelter that would eventually evolve to resemble a foot deep hole covered by a sheet of warped plywood.
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.