Is it an avenue or a street? Is it a boulevard or a thruway? Does it run one way or two? It has a distinct beginning but where does it end?
Broadway is one of the most famous streets in the world. More robust than mere vein, Broadway is a life-giving artery coursing the length of Manhattan’s long muscular frame, from Bowling Green to the Bronx.
Downtown it’s a south-seeking single lane; uptown at the Upper West Side’s doorstep, it jogs then forks into a four-lane, two-way boulevard that pushes north to the Bronx and beyond. Along its 13-mile route, there are traffic-free esplanades, a roundabout, a world-famed intersection or two, public art and grassy medians on which to sit and ponder your next move. Some of New York City’s most iconic buildings lay claim to a Broadway address.
Over the next few posts, I’ll be taking a closer look at Manhattan’s Broadway, from the southernmost tip of the island to its jaunty leap over the Harlem River via the suitably named Broadway Bridge. Where to start? At the beginning of course, which takes us to NYC’s first park: Bowling Green in the Financial District.
Tourists flock to the Financial District for the distinctive role it played in New York history, although “Charging Bull,” is a fairly recent addition. The Arturo Di Monica sculpture was installed in 1989 in response to the stock market crash just two years earlier. That’s some bull!
Brooklyn is often called the Borough of Churches, but Broadway in lower Manhattan has its share, some of the first ever built, although the famed Trinity Church at 120 Broadway was reimagined twice.
New York City’s oldest church is St Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton and, according to the AIA Guide, the city’s “only extant pre-Revolutionary War building.”
Lower Broadway has been dubbed the “Canyon of Heroes” due to its role as the route (from the Battery to City Hall) for ticker tape parades. Winning sports teams, political dignitaries and those of extraordinary achievement have been honored with parades and, much later, imbedded plaques along the route itself…
At One Liberty Park, between Broadway and Trinity Place, workers were readying for spring, planting what I think are tulips.
And across Broadway, one of my favorite works of public art, Red Cube, by Isamu Noguchi, is on point.
One of the city’s premier (and first) skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building commands respect at 233 Broadway. Lookie-loos like me aren’t permitted to photograph the exquisite, arched and terra-cotta-clad lobby, but you can pay-to-play: private tours, start at $20 for a 30-minute tour. I’ll be back.
Between Broadway and Park Row you’ll find the seat of local government, City Hall, where the mayor and City Council do their bidding.
And between Broadway and Chambers Street is perhaps the city’s very own brick and mortar example of political graft, the Old New York City Courthouse, ie the “Tweed Courthouse,” built in 1872. It’s said to have lined the pockets of William M “Boss” Tweed and his associates with purloined construction financing of more than $10 million dollars.
I walked the block in front of the Javits Federal Building searching for the site of the African Burial Ground after being sent by an uninformed guard to the opposite side of Broadway. Finally, I found its inauspicious entry, which, along with the difficulty of finding such an important historical site, disappointed. The monument was not open and I vow to return with the hope that the interior, which marks the burial place of 419 people of African descent, appropriately honors those entombed there.
Moving north on Broadway, through Tribeca, aka the Triangle below Canal.
Soho seemed a good jumping off point from my northbound tour of Broadway but I’ll be back next week, strolling, snapping and rubbernecking my way along one of the most fascinating thoroughfares in the world.
Meet me at the corner of Broadway and Houston!
# # #
Much information gleaned from the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Guide to New York City, Macmillan Publishing.
I love their efforts to conserve and breed species that are on the brink of endangerment or extinction.
Maybe even more important is the work zoos do to educate the next generation of animal lovers and protectors; that makes me all warm and fuzzy.
And I have a soft spot—having worked at the Philadelphia Zoo just out of college—for those behind-the-scenes heroes, the veterinarians and keepers critical to the health and well-being of the creatures in their care.
The fact is, most zoos have tried to reimagine the circus-like, bar-and-cage incarceration of an earlier age, adopting more natural, free range exhibits that simulate the animal’s country of origin right down to the grasses, trees and other surrounding flora. I love that zoos are trying.
But there’s no way around the fact that the animals are caged. That’s where the hate comes in; that creatures great and small are confined for our enjoyment. I don’t hate zoos for doing what they must, but I do hate the fact of confinement. Which means that a trip to the zoo is always a hair’s breadth from heartache.
Under the “love” category for me are the park’s original buildings, many repurposed for smaller exhibits and offices due to the changing nature of zoo planning.
The former Lion House now houses the Madagascar! exhibit, featuring fauna from the region.
Lions now “roam” the African Plains, one of the first “natural” exhibits of its kind, introduced at the Bronx Zoo in 1941, according to Wikipedia.
A few other denizens of the African Plains exhibit…
The Monkey House has closed. Larger primates, like the gorilla, have newer, separate exhibits. Other primates are scattered throughout the collection. The building first opened in 1901 and contains some charming architectural details.
Is it because we’re so closely related that gorillas, chimps, orangutans and baboons are especially sad to witness in captivity…
Zebras are now given free range in the African Plains exhibit but the old Zebra House still stands, to charming effect.
The Reptile House is one of the few buildings still being used for its original purpose.
Throughout the grounds, raptors are on alert…
But ain’t nothin’ like the real thing…
So much to see strolling the 265-acre parkland…
The Aquatic Bird House, built in the 1960s, retains its original use.
And many other delights…
Finally, bears are one of zoos’ biggest draws, with polar bears heading the lineup. Sadly, the Bronx Zoo’s 26-year-old, Tundra, was euthanized because of poor health.
But Grizzly Corner was busy the morning we visited, the usual bear antics in progress.
Oh, if only we didn’t *need* zoos.
If only we were unselfish enough to share this earth with our animal friends, to save fragile habitats and to work together to address the damaging effect of climate change. If only children the world over had equal access to education, to learn about and even explore delicate ecosystems and the critical part we play in sustaining them. If only animals weren’t exploited for their pelts and parts, their talons and tusks, for the so called “sport” of hunting them.
If only, if only, if only. Until then: zoos.
And until then, zoo animals will continue to act as unwitting ambassadors, helping to unlock the puzzle of us and all of our maddeningly human contradictions.
The Bronx Zoo is open everyday from 9 to 5; Wednesdays are free.
I always seem to be passing through Union Square on the way to somewhere else.
The square’s namesake park isn’t my favorite outdoor place, and it’s certainly not New York’s prettiest. There’s too much pavement, not enough green.
More hub than park, more revolving door than destination, Union Square is a crossroad of commuters and commerce that feels transitory, not tranquil. Maybe that’s what happens when you combine three separate stations—the IRT and two BMT lines—into one, creating one of the busiest subway hubs in the city. Then put a “park” on top.
It doesn’t help that 14th Street and others have been “malled” by a Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Burlington Coat Factory, Petco and, of course, Whole Foods. And some of the culinary stars of the past—Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café, the Blue Water Grill and the Coffee Shop—have all moved or shuttered due to climbing rents.
But despite what I might cast as shortcomings, Union Square is definitely worth more than a passing glance. Since I flit through regularly when traversing this magnificent isle, here’s my take on slowing down and giving Union Square its due.
A stately presence on the park is the Union Square Savings Bank, built in 1905 and current home to the Daryl Roth Theatre.
And just around the corner on 17th Street sits the former headquarters of the Tammany Society, built in 1928, currently being renovated. Thank goodness for landmarking.
Perhaps the oddest thing on the square, broadly panned after its installation, is an artwork called Metronome, a glass-fronted digital clock of sorts abutting a taller slab of gold-splashed concentric rings, like the aftermath of pebble meeting pond.
In its far too complicated configuration of rapidly changing numbers, the Metronome does tell time. Something about hours, minutes, seconds and tenths of seconds on the left, and hours left in the day on the right?!? (When I first saw it, I thought it was some hyped-up warning of, say, the rising national debt.)
The right side of the piece reads Mid-century Modern to me despite its 1999 installation. Close up, the spiraled facade reveals itself to be made of bricks and home to flocks of pigeons.
Truth be told, what brings many to Union Square, besides the numerous subway connections underground, is the Union Square Greenmarket, established in 1976, and a cornucopia of seasonal produce, charcuterie, artisanal products and baked goods of local purveyors, from upstate farmers to Brooklyn-based beekeepers to Long Island fisheries.
Along with seasonal produce, the market offers many artisanal items…
And there’s honey. All the way from… the rooftops of Brooklyn?
And other treats, both exotic and homey…
Love all the homemade signs…
There are potted herbs to flavor recipes or scent the air…
Best of all is the colorful flora, resplendent in Spring…
Sure, I can dis Union Square for being a homely also-ran when it comes to our city’s great parks and public spaces. But to pause, look and experience it as the destination it deserves to be is to discover some of the hidden treasures that make Union Square way more than a connection to somewhere else.
Make like Gandhi. Stop and smell the magnolias. There’s always another train.
After the anxiety of waiting for you-know-what, I wanted to cleanse my palette of bitter political aftertaste, plug my ears to the monotonous drone of talking heads, avert my gaze from the phony hijinks of a certain bellicose grandstander.
Spring had come and I needed a break. Lo and behold, right across the river, a new day dawned and with it came the perfect antidote to my political malaise: Yankee baseball!
That’s right, the Bronx Bombers were in da house and opening day excitement for Major League Baseball in general and the Yankees in particular was rising on River Avenue and flooding the city, east and west, north and south.
I came to baseball through my beloved, a New York native and Yankee fan from the get-go, who recalls paying less than a buck for a spot in the bleachers back in the day. And while I can’t lay claim to any sporting expertise, the joy that baseball sparks in my partner is reason enough for me to join in the euphoria (if not the game itself) that characterizes opening day.
Shops, restaurants and bars around Yankee Stadium depend on the revenue that the baseball season ushers in with that first pitch.
Everything from caps to jerseys to skivvies…
…is up for sale. Hell, you can even smell like a Yankee…
Or dress your best friend in Yankees’ regalia from head to toe…
There are homages to the greats everywhere you look
Given the times, there’s a major police presence…
And the New York press is on the story.
Naturally, fans celebrate…
Ticketless, I would have to console myself with the roar of the crowd, a distant voice calling the Yankee lineup, perhaps even a cheesy souvenir…
But in the end, surrounding myself with scores of hopeful baseball fans may be enough to lift this flagging spirit. I mean, spring, after all, has sprung; Major League Baseball season has begun; and Yankee fans are ready for fun. (And a world championship!)
Best news of all, when day was done, our one-and-only Yankees won!
That’s what I kept saying to myself as Hudson Yards rose on the Far West Side. Back in the early 2000s, the prospect of a new sports arena in Manhattan—a Bloomberg fetish of Olympian proportion—was enough to get me on my feet in protest.
We killed the stadium but lust over the slab of rail yards, just north of the High Line and west of the old Farley post office, grew rather than dissipated. Developers volleyed for control over the coveted 20-plus acre waterfront property, with Related Companies’ Stephen Ross the ultimate victor, having taken on the city’s mind-numbing bureaucracy while securing the lucrative government subsidies, private investors and anchor tenants critical to such a massive build.
(You gotta hand it to Ross: he’s everything Donald Trump isn’t: an ultra rich, mega successful deal-making wizard. And most New Yorkers don’t even know his name.)
With the opening last week of the initial phase of Hudson Yards, New Yorkers got their first peek at what Related has dubbed “New York’s next great neighborhood,” an absurd aphorism considering the $25 billion dollar project of sky-high condos, posh shops, epicurean eateries and curated cultural experiences will never be “neighborly” and is far from a “hood”.
Whether critics diss Hudson Yards as a glass-towered Shangri-La, a newfangled Oz or a plutocrat’s Disney World—all apt descriptions btw—it’s here to stay. And expand. Currently, builds on the west side of the project abut 11th Avenue, with the (beloved to my eyes) rail yards still visible through to the West Side Highway. But as construction continues, office and residential towers will cover the tracks like fast-growing kudzu, obliterating the yard’s hardscrabble persona with pristine extrusions of glass, metal and stone.
I’d adopted a sort of head-in-the-sand stance when it came to the development, ignoring not just the cranes and skeletal infrastructure piercing the western sky but also the growing media coverage regarding its progress.
Not anymore. I got me to the funnery. And it should surprise exactly no one that, despite the hype, Hudson Yards isn’t much fun.
Once on top of the Vessel and looking down, I couldn’t help but think of Islam’s most sacred shrine, the Kabaa, around which Muslims circle once entering Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram for the annual Hajj. Though at the Vessel, the pilgrimage is for selfies and social media, not Allah.
Hudson Yard’s promise to “cultivate unprecedented, first-to-New York experiences” will be pursued in the “Shed”, a “dynamic” theater, rehearsal space and gallery that morphs to accommodate varied genres and audiences.
Another savvy move on the developer’s part was linking the southern end of the project to the High Line, providing a steady stream of pedestrian traffic directly into its footprint. I read somewhere that Ross even tried to grab part of the High Line’s northern spur but was prevented from doing so by the city.
Hudson Yards’ PR peeps may call it an “emerging retail concept”, but let’s face it: a mall is mall is a mall. Expensive finishes, soaring atriums, steel and glass and “art” with a bit of sass… it’s a mall.
Of course there’s food. It’s a mall. Star chefs like David Chang (Momofuko), Thomas Keller (TAK Room), Anya Fernald (Belcampo), and Michael Lomonaco (Hudson Yards Grill) will serve trust-funded foodies, while Shake Shack, Sweetgreen and Van Leeuwen Ice Cream will tempt those of us wanting a step-up from the food carts just outside.
Perhaps Hudson Yard’s most confounding venue is Snark Park, a “We-called-it-snark-before-you-could” conceit that still has me puzzled. Is the commerce-meets-performance-art showcase for kids or adults? The hefty entry fee starts at $22 smackers, $28 for grownups.
Can it be put any better than Snark Park’s own breathless copy? Calling it a “brainchild” of its founder is rich enough, but then there’s this: Snark Park’s “Installations merge different approaches to art, design and architecture, reimagining everyday surroundings into extraordinary monochromatic concepts.” Got it? Or this: “An ecosystem of tailored design, Snark Park offers curated immersive art, custom retail and Kith treats all under one roof.”
But what’s inside, you wonder? Walls of ping pong balls, forests of hollow trees you can climb into, and ball-filled bouncy rooms, according to a description by Tim McKeough in The New York Times.
Much like the Museum of Sex, which I wrote about here, venues like Snark Park seem geared to those bored by all the thinking you have to do at real museums, folks desperate for that perfect selfie. And willing to pay the price.
Which comes to the summation of my Hudson Yards experience.
There are no intersecting interests on the Venn diagram that is Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in the country. The one-percent will launder their money invest in residential properties, avoiding the “poor door” while refreshing their collection of watches, shoes or handbags at Cartier, Forty Five Ten or Tory Burch. WarnerMedia, CNN and HBO, as well as corporate giants like Wells Fargo and L’Oreal USA will gladly pay the hefty rental fees, chalking it up to the cost of doing business, while wooing clients at the TAK Room or Hudson Yards Grill.
Tourists will be a critical wedge of the project’s sustainability, those who spill from the High Line or emerge from the #7, to climb the Vessel, lunch at Shake Shack, purchase a tee shirt then snap a selfie as proof of their authentic New York experience.
For New Yorkers like me, it’s a one-off. We’ll come here once, look around, take in the view, then head back to our neighborhoods: real neighborhoods where bottled water costs a buck and–because it’s all around you–“reimagining the everyday” doesn’t cost a thing.
After taking in the Armory Show last week, I wondered, what sold? And for how much? Were any of the images that caught my eye scooped up by the collectors or museum reps casing the joint?
Though gallerists may balk at disclosing sales figures, artnet.com isn’t as reticent, so without further ado, here are just a few of their findings.
Every painting by Florine Demosthene on offer sold. Bargains at $7000 each!
Works by Jonathan Lyndon Chase were bum-rushed by a couple of American museums during the preview, according to artnet’s Eileen Kinsella, going for an average of $20,000 each.
Zak Ove sold well. The crocheted, doily and lace piece called DP43 went for $16,000.
And the largest price paid, one million dollars, went for a Lee Krasner work called Peacock, completed in 1973, and a stab at poetic justice, however late in the game. Historically given short shrift among the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s, Krasner’s work may still be undervalued. Even *current* entries in Wikipedia lean sexist, with Lee Krasner’s own page containing a paragraph headed “Pollocks’ Influence,” while Jackson Pollock’s page refers to his “Relationship with Krasner”. Because, you see, men bear “influence” while women have “relationships”. Phooey to that!
And while it was great to see so many women and people of color represented at the Armory Show, sales continue to reflect the predominance of men, white men in particular, in a world where contemporary art’s strange bedfellow is capitalism.
So I’ll end with a photo I call “Artist with Silver Backpack Filled with Ideas”. Is she a student at Cooper Union or Pratt? Is she taking a break from classes at the School of Visual Arts or come all the way from RISD to see the show? Whatever she’s seeing, thinking, doing, Godspeed young woman! Imagine your work on these walls or any wall and then, make it happen.
Taking in the Armory Show will cost you. Sixty bucks when you add the tax and handling fees. But it’s a must-see if you’re a collector, art lover, student, up-and-comer, or just plain curious, like me.
Having moved to the Far West Side in 2001 from its original location at the Gramercy Hotel, the Armory Show now holds court on the Hudson River at Piers 90 and 94. Nearly 200 galleries from around the world showcase their best and brightest.
But you don’t have to put on your walking shoes or brandish that credit card because I hustled down to catch opening day and found respite from a wintry city drained of hue. The Armory Show is its own universe of color, shape and texture, with great people-watching to boot.
Who needs WORDS when you have pictures? So without further ado, here are some of the images that caught my eye.
Speaking of textiles, there were quite a few works featuring fabric and woven materials. Not usually my jam, but then again…
Another trend was…mirrors: painted, sculpted and adorned. I love the way the surrounding environs become part of the artwork.
Some of the video/paint works were downright scary…
But what about the big names, you ask? Were the tried and true among the trendy and new?
There were Warhols and Wei Weis, Abramovics and Nevelsons.
At a show as renowned and expansive as this, people-watching is half the fun!
See, I saved you sixty bucks.
But I have to say that my first trip to the Armory Show was worth every penny!
Great books like Catcher in the Rye, Washington Square, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Award-winning literature set in a city so captivating that I had to see it for myself. Classic books about a place so big, bold and beautiful it was a character in and of itself. Yes, books made me want to move to New York City.
But I don’t wanna lie. Because it was television, not books. It wasn’t Seinfeld or Friends or Taxi but an earlier generation of sitcoms that, in the opening credits, had me striding down Fifth Avenue, arm and arm with Oscar and Felix, Rhoda and Ann Marie.
In The Odd Couple, Jack Klugman played Oscar Madison, a sportswriter who shares his Park Avenue digs with photog Felix Unger, a well cast Tony Randall. I loved the show, based on Neil Simon’s play, but it was the opening—the breezy Neil Hefti theme song paired with on-the-streets-of-Manhattan visuals—that had me pining at fourteen for my own New York experience.
I didn’t know at the time—the show first aired in 1970—that a Park Avenue apartment was out of reach. (Opening credits put Oscar’s building at 1090 Park Avenue at East 87thStreet.) But it was that first glimpse of apartment life that birthed the notion that I too could have a sunken living room in the greatest city in the world.
Like most sitcoms, the series was shot on a sound stage. But the title sequence, which showed a rumpled Oscar jumping into cabs and “girl watching” in Times Square, caught the big city exuberance of Midtown.
Felix was the yin to Oscar’s yang, if not exactly gay then a sort of anal metrosexual, with his crisp suits and the occasional ascot. He marched down the avenue with what seemed like fusty ownership, probably whistling a snippet from a Verdi opera, tsk-tsking over Oscar’s penchant to litter. Felix wouldn’t have survived in a place like South Bend Indiana but in the Big Apple he was home, just one more idiosyncratic New Yorker, bless his heart.
That was the thing about New York-based television: the city was a character filled with characters! You met bartenders and hotdog vendors, cabbies and cops. It was ok to be an artist or iconoclast, a loner or to be downright weird.
Rhoda was another show that inspired me, one spun from The Mary Tyler Moore Show that had Mary’s friend Rhoda Morgenstern returning to her hometown to pursue a career as a costumer. Valerie Harper played the lead.
Although the show’s opening lacks the catchy punch of The Odd Couple, the visuals were enough to spark longing in me. I too wanted to explore the streets of the Garment District, stroll past the stone lions guarding the New York Public Library, barter with a fruit and veg vendor in Little Italy.
And Rhoda had a doorman! The idea that someone was paid to sit in the lobby and open the door or hail a taxi or take deliveries was so… New York. “Carlton” was one of those only-in-New York characters, someone you never saw but heard: a voice through the intercom. A drinker whose daily intoxication was baked into the script, Carlton was more proof that New York City had room for all comers, however bumbling, inept or addicted.
One of my favorites and likely the one that planted the “germ” that developed into a case of newyorkitus was That Girl, (1966-1971). Not only was Ann Marie—the character played so winningly by Marlo Thomas—an aspiring actress but she lived alone in a cute “bachelorette” apartment, side gigging as a temp or “salesgirl” while auditioning for parts.
How Ann Marie—or any other twenty-something character in a sit com—affords that apartment remains a mystery, as does her ability to buy the eye-popping fashions of the sixties, from A-line mini skirts to opaque tights and Go Go boots.
But when you’re dreaming big, pesky things like rent, utilities and grocery bills don’t figure in the visuals. I would have moved into Ann Marie’s flat in a New York minute, with its mid-century furniture, galley kitchen and interesting assortment of New York characters landing on her doorstep.
Fifty years later, the opening sequence still thrills me, with its dreamy New York skylines…
Outings in Central Park…
And ordinary street scenes of pigeons and horse carriages and Lincoln Center…
Sometimes I wonder how many young women I pass on the street today were inspired by sitcoms. Sex and the City had its pull in the aughts, and if I were a twenty-something today, gems like Girls, Broad City and High Maintenance would have me packing my bags for the next train into Penn Station.
But I’m already here. And even though it’s been twenty years since I arrived on Amtrak, I still love New York. I still love the ding-dong of closing train doors, the mad traffic, the broad avenues and quirky side streets, that “get-on-with-it” New Yawk attitude. Coming or going, I still get a lump in my throat when I catch the Manhattan skyline.
And even though Park Avenue digs and a sunken living room elude me, I’d like to think that my own personal sitcom, with its New York backdrop and audience of one, will enjoy a lifetime run.
Yes! say the people who bring us the Museum Of Sex. Yes! Oh, yes! God, yes!
But after my first visit I’m wondering whether the museum will satisfy… anyone. The frat boy and his inner 12-year old? Swingers seeking fresh fodder for their sagging libidos? That retired couple from flyover country looking to be outraged? The grad student bent on scholarship?
More destination than museum, “Mo Sex” presents an after-hours vibe with its dim interior, below ground lounge and a door policy so restrictive that only those cool enough to pay twenty bucks get in. (Meaning anyone over eighteen.)
Never before has “exit through the gift shop” been more instructive. Which is why, standing on Fifth Avenue at 27th Street, you may think the Museum of Sex is more retail scheme than museum, shelves bursting with dildos, naughty candies and S & M paraphernalia for the newbie.
Paying too much for a pair of cheap handcuffs aside, what’s inside the Museum of Sex?
Theatre of Desire, 1930-1990—a retrospective of work by Argentine-Italian Surrealist Leonor Fini—presents an early feminist’s beguiling and transgressive art; unfortunately the museum’s as dark as a fruit cellar. My camera kept warning me: Use the flash! Use the flash!)
As a feminist myself, I was happy to learn about Fini, who was included in MoMA’s ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’ exhibit back in 1936. Her woman-yielding-whip perspective is refreshing— especially to those of us weary of the cis-male gaze, tired of the inevitable *orgasm-face* that women have to make while simulating sex on camera.
Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971-1985 is a fun romp through the punk scene of mosh pits, pierced nipples and ripped fishnets. But the exhibit reads more like the bedroom walls of a rebellious teen than a scholarly exploration of punk’s pugilistic sexuality which, depending on the band, carried strains of feminism, queer culture and sexism.
ObjectXXX showcases artifacts from earlier times: vibrators, sex dolls, vintage vending machines, chastity belts. Some of the objects were better left to the imagination, like the fake hymen on display. Yes, there was a fake hymen. Don’t ask me how it was applied or if it ever fooled anyone.
Apart from the Fini exhibit, the highlight for me was eavesdropping on a tour guide training a recent hire. Trying to out do one another, they ping-ponged their way through competing examples of early precocity: Tour guide read his grandfather’s vintage copies of Marquis de Sade when he was only thirteen!!! New hire’s grandparents had threesomes!!! Tour guide’s girlfriend is cool with polyamory!!! New hire was hip to gender fluidity by the time she was ten!!!
Who then, will be satisfied by a visit to the Museum of Sex? I’m guessing that millennials searching for a group activity—like an escape room, a paranormal tour or an interactive play—might be drawn to the subterranean speakeasy, clubby persona and the “Jump for Joy” bouncy room filled with inflated “breasts”.
And the prospect of seeing gorged genitals, pubic hair and ouch-inducing paraphernalia, all safely behind plexiglass, no doubt draws a certain demographic. Tourists and suburbanites, bored “sophisticates” and hearty partiers might well be attracted to the scene, open ‘til midnight on weekends. Step right up for boobs and booze, for weenies and martinis!
But genuine art lovers and, yes, true deviants, might have more luck at the good old Metropolitan Museum of Art, or other institutions, where paintings like The Swing (Fragonard), Woman with Black Stockings (Egon Schiele), Venus and Cupid (Lorenzo Lotto), La Douceur (Picasso), and The Sofa (Toulouse Lautrec) are far more lusty than anything the Museum of Sex has to offer.
At some point every New Yorker finds herself in Midtown. Rather than brave the tourist-clogged streets around Herald Square or 42nd Street—shudder!—I take the side streets, where a surprising number of family-owned businesses plug on despite the rapacious grab of developers.
I’ve always been drawn to the small shops of the Garment District, those fabric, notions and trim shops that “unspooled” around the fashion industry, the latter a powerful economic engine in the city until the early ‘80s, when globalization started to take its toll. **
Twenty-two years ago, NYC’s Department of City Planning created the “Special Garment Center District,” in order to preserve “opportunities for apparel production, and wholesale and showroom use” in “selected blocks between 35th and 40th Streets west of Broadway.” ***
The rezoning was an attempt to save Manhattan’s garment industry by limiting real estate development, specifically the proliferation of hotels and “the conversion of industrial space into office use.” *** Thank you, City Planning!
It’s worth remembering, especially during incendiary times such as these, that the city’s garment industry wouldn’t have been possible without immigrants. According to the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s A Stitch in Time, “The skills of Eastern European Jews perfectly matched the industrial landscape taking place in New York,” that landscape, of course, being the garment industry. **
How were they doing, I wondered? Those old-world emporiums plying mother-of-pearl buttons, grosgrain ribbons, hooks and eyes? Although they seemed cast from a Dickens novel, with their narrow aisles, buckled floors and ancient cash registers, still, they were magical. Fusty warrens of space where, lo and behold, the perfect alabaster button, or ribbon the exact shade of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes, or lace befitting a debutant’s cotillion might possibly be there behind the counter or among the hundreds of boxes or spools teetering above.
Was West 38th Street still the antidote to a missing button or broken zipper or to that sinking feeling that the familiar squiggles of Manhattan’s fingerprint—Curry Hill, the Diamond District, Korea Town, the Garment District itself—had been rubbed clean, replaced with posh hotels, star-chitect builds and chic eateries?
The answer is yes, and no.
The button sellers still ply their trade, aided in equal parts by that zoning law of ‘87 previously cited—upheld in 1990 when developers sought to rescind it**—and from the publicity of shows like Project Runway, where the camera chases blue-haired FIT students sourcing a neon zipper, gem-like buttons or yards of rhinestone trim.
The biggest takeaway for me—after visiting about ten trim and button shops in the district—is that ownership has shifted, with Asian-Americans replacing Eastern Europeans as entrepreneurs. Yet again, immigrants put their brains, brawn and bankrolls behind Manhattan’s fashion industry and all the ancillary businesses that support it.
Some shops present a kind of organized chaos, with a mother lode of sparkly treasure stacked from floor to ceiling…
…while others have been transformed into clean and orderly museums of calm, with spools of satin ribbon housed behind glass, and black-clad salesclerks absorbed in the bright screens of their laptops.
Despite the fact that I visited on a chilly Monday morning, most of the shops had customers: one designer described the masculine vibe he wanted for the buttons on his sports wear line; two women examined bolts of lace for a bridal veil; another woman sparred with the salesclerk on the price per foot of tapestry-woven trim.
Some shops were chaotic, others pristine, but one thing common to all was the extraordinary assortment of product, from buttons to boas, embroidery to escutcheons, fasteners to fabric, ribbons to rivets.
And the wealth of materials astounds: wood, stone, bamboo and bone; ceramic, elastic and plastic; feather and felt; sequins and satin; metal, tortoise and horn.
Color seems a simple concept; but is “blue” or “yellow” or “green” an answer or a question? Which shade of blue, which green hue? The range of colors available behind each storefront presents a Pantone swatch book of possibilities.
So the next time I need to replace a button or match some thread, I won’t scan the Internet or shop one of those corporate “craft” stores, I’ll head straight to the Garment District, where searching is half the fun, where the perfect cornflower blue awaits and where a few enterprising shopkeepers are doing their part to both preserve and rewrite a fascinating chapter in Manhattan’s storied history.
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* Sung to the tune of Baubles, Bangles and Beads by George Forrest and Robert Wright. (I like the Sinatra/Jobim version.)
** Some facts gleaned from A Stitch in Time, the Fashion Center Business Improvement District’s 2008 pamphlet written by Gabriel Montero.
*** NYC Department of Planning, Special Purpose Districts