July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
March 20, 2012
March 20 may be the official first day of spring, but on West 28th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan, flowers are always blooming. That’s the home of the venerable old Chelsea Flower Market where wholesalers congregated in the 1890s to be near the then stylish Ladies’ Mile shopping district. In the market’s mid-20th century heyday almost 60 shops—many of them owned by generations of the same family—turned the pavement into a virtual botanic garden. There were vast banks of carnations, tightly-packed bundles of roses and tulips, tropical lilies, heliconias and ginger, along with pots, ribbons and floral decorations of every kind.
Re-zoning that allows for hotels and housing, spiraling rent and direct sale of flowers on the Internet has taken a toll on the market, forcing many shops to move to the suburbs. But reports of its demise are exaggerated, as I discovered on a morning walk through the market last week sponsored by the New York Botanical Garden‘s Continuing Education department.
The workshop, led by Maureen Laning, a graduate of the garden’s Floral Design certificate program and owner of Bedford Village Florist in Bedford, New York, met at 9 a.m. at the McDonald‘s on 6th Avenue at West 28th Street where men carrying towering ferns and massive bundles of pussy willows passed by, headed for delivery trucks double-parked in the crowded neighborhood around Penn Station. Congestion is a big problem, but apartment dwellers and pedestrians can’t complain about trash and bad smells because there’s no place more pleasing to the nose and eye than this little patch of urban garden, now home to about two dozen flower shops.
They get to work early—say, 4 or 5 a.m.—and close around noon. By then most professional designers and retail florists have come and gone, bagging the best and most unusual product, Maureen said. But mid morning is a fine time for casual flower-lovers to investigate shops like Superior Florist, founded in 1930, and G. Page, another longtime fixture at the market; Caribbean Cuts, which features exotic blossoms and succulents, now popular among designers for the texture they add to arrangements; and refrigerated Harvest Roses, which gets most of its blooms from Ecuador, increasingly one of the world’s biggest producers of cut roses, including the exquisite Malu rose bouquet I saw in the window—each blossom almost 5 inches from tip to base. (The leading cut-flower supplier to the United States? Colombia.)
Buyers need a tax identification number to make wholesale purchases, and then they typically mark up the price 400%, meaning a rose purchased for $1.25 wholesale could cost shoppers $5 or more a stem at a retail florist. But several of the shops, like Jamali and Planter Resource, welcome retail shoppers provided they spend over about $25. And they aren’t averse to haggling, Maureen said, especially near the end of the work day or for flowers at peak bloom which can last more than a week, if handled correctly.
Care and handling of cut flowers is one of the topics covered in semester-long New York Botanical Garden floral design courses; other offerings are one-off workshops, like the one I attended, “Shopping the New York Flower Market,” which was a little like falling down a rabbit hole in midtown Manhattan. I’d be late for my train if I had to walk along West 28th Street to reach Penn Station.
December 21, 2011
I used to think that shopping is an unworthy pursuit shunned by the serious traveler, who’s busy seeking out the deep meaning of a place instead of looking for souvenirs. But I used to think a lot of things and now I know better. Now I know that what’s on sale in the market—gold earrings in Dubai or red hot chili peppers in Oaxaca—is at the heart of the sense of place, not to mention a way of never forgetting where I’ve been in my travels.
To quell my consumer guilt, I started devoting my travel shopping to Christmas gift-giving, even when the holidays were months away. From Helsinki to Bali I took home presents, stashed them away and then wrapped them up for Christmas. It’s always fun to watch the puzzled faces of my nearest and dearest when they rip off the paper to uncover a Vietnamese water puppet or the ceramic face of a satyr from the Italian island of Lipari.
I love the teeming craft market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for silks and cunning carvings; the Marrakesh souk where I once bought a pair of antique Berber rugs; Malioboro Road in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for batik and leather; Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, a center for printed cotton like the quilt on my bed; and Beijing’s Panjiayuan antiques market, full of Ming Dynasty knock-offs and genuine bric-a-brac from the Mao era.
Christmas markets generally disappoint me. I once took a Rhine River cruise calling at German Christmas markets in medieval town squares from Cologne to Nuremburg. All I could find was Third World junk that only looks good if you drink a lot of Gluhwein.
But then on a very jet-lagged weekend package trip to Brussels one December I found the Christmas market in the elegant Sablon near the Belgian Royal Palace where I bought a little ceramic figurine of three boy choristers, their mouths wide open sounding high notes in the French Christmas carol “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.“ I bought it for about 5 bucks, intending it for my sister’s stocking. But the more I looked at the white-robed singers, the more I knew I couldn‘t part with them. They‘re caroling on my desk as I write this. I call them Henri, Hubert and Etienne. Merry Christmas, guys.
October 17, 2011
Mark your calendar: November 11 and December 9.
Those are the next two dates for Navajo rug auctions at Crownpoint, a dusty village of about 2,000 in northwestern New Mexico. The event, sponsored by the Crownpoint Rug Weavers Association, has been held for 4 decades on the second Friday of every month, giving devotees of Native American arts and crafts a chance to buy direct from the maker.
Granted, there are lots of other places in and around the 27,000 square mile Navajo Reservation to admire weaving, from the Heard Museum in Phoenix to collector textile shops like Garland’s near Sedona and lonely trading posts scattered across the reservation, each one famous for a different rug pattern. The old Hubbell Trading Post, which operated from 1878 to 1930, is now a National Historic Site in the hamlet of Ganado.
But the Crownpoint auction is unforgettable. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. potential buyers inspect the month’s offerings, heaped on tables at the back of an elementary school gym. Craft sellers set up shop in the halls and the cafeteria provides Navajo fry bread tacos. Around 7 p.m. the auctioneers in cowboy hats arrive on stage and the bidding starts, sometime going on for hours. Rugs sell for thousands of dollars, or just a couple of tens, so bidders have to look sharp and know their stuff.
Experts advise potential buyers to fold a rug in half to make sure the pattern is straight, check the tightness of the weave, watch out for puckered corners and uneven colors.
When I was there a number of years ago, I didn’t even buy a rug, just enjoyed the show, then drove on to Canyon de Chelly, one of the most beautiful canyon systems in the Southwest, a holy place for the Navajo and home to Spider Woman—a Navajo deity said to live atop an 800-foot-tall pinnacle in Canyon de Chelly—who taught the people how to weave.