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 25, 2012
It isn’t the biggest, shiniest, most up-to-date and detailed globe in the world. But the American Geographical Society’s 18-inch Rand McNally Terrestrial Globe is doubtless the most precious because it was signed by 85 of the greatest explorers in modern times: from Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Not only did they sign it when they got back from netherlands (and netherworlds), they charted their courses on it in wavering ink lines across oceans and continents.
The Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, as it’s called, sits beneath a dark cloth, like a covered bird cage, in the Brooklyn home of the AGS, the oldest national geographical organization in the U.S. Founded in 1851, the AGS devotes itself to geographical research and education, sponsoring expeditions, supporting studies and disseminating information to laypeople with a strong interest in geography. As such, it takes a somewhat more scholarly approach than the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, which tends to focus more on photography and popular geography.
The AGS may not publish glossy magazines and make television specials, but it has the prized globe, given to the society by John H. Finley, a former society president and editor in chief of the New York Times. Finley kept the globe in his office at the paper, inviting newsmakers back from the jungles and poles to sign it. In 1929 he gave the globe to the society, which continued the tradition up to the present day.
In April at the St. Petersburg home of the Russian Geographical Society, two more John Hancocks were added to the globe, those of Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman cosmonaut in 1963) and Alexei Leonov (a 1965 space walk pioneer). It was the first time the globe had been taken outside the U.S., making it far less well-traveled than its signers, for an occasion marking the 75th anniversary of Russian aviator Valery Chkalov’s pioneering transpolar flight from Moscow to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Chkalov died the following year, piloting a prototype fighter plane, but both his grandson and great-grandson were on hand for the ceremony.
The U.S. and Russia have a surprisingly long history of geographical cooperation. In 1912 Russian scholars joined the 13,000-mile AGS Transcontinental Excursion; others later took part in the society’s Latin America mapping effort; more recently Russian geographer and businessman Mikhail Slipenchuk offered to underwrite the creation of 12 replicas of the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, one of which now stands next to the original at the AGS in Brooklyn.
May 18, 2012
Some people claim that pizza was invented in Greece; others say it hails from southern France. A friend of mine who went to Yale swears it comes from New Haven. Sheesh! Have any of these people been to Naples?
OK, it has never been proven that pizza was first popped into the oven in Napoli, though everyone knows pizza Margherita—a simple classic topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, mimicking the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag—was created by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to celebrate a visit to the city by Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889.
Anyway, who gets the credit for inventing pizza is a moot point when the answer to who makes the best pizza is obvious: Naples, Naples and more Naples. Fie on your Chicago deep-dish, your Roman pizza bianca and especially your mass-produced Domino’s and Pizza Hut. There is simply nothing like Neapolitan pizza made of hand-kneaded dough too fragile to toss, topped with fresh, authentic ingredients and baked fast on the surface of a bell-shaped, wood-burning oven. When the pizza maker (or pizzaiuolo) pulls it out on a paddle and slides it onto a plate, who can wait? The mozzarella is a milky puddle, with a mat of red sauce and a frame of incomparably chewy crust, flexible enough to fold in half and eat like a sandwich on the street. In famous Naples restaurants like Brandi, Da Umberto and Trianon da Ciro, pizza-making is high art, but you’d have to be cursed by the gods to find a bad pie anyplace in town.
Why, then, I have always wondered, is it so hard to find Neapolitan pizza in the U.S.? We’ve got every other celebrated Italian product from olive oil to shoes.
Caporuscio, born into a cheese-making family from Pontinia south of Rome, studied pizza-making in Naples before coming to the U.S., where he serves as ambassador-at-large for the APN. When discussing other types of pizza—for instance, the pies available at longtime pizza favorite John’s just across Bleecker Street—he’s always diplomatic: “It’s not better or worse, just different.”
Asked to comment on New Haven’s claim to the pizza birthplace title, he said, “They invented New Haven pizza there.”
A big bear of a man with palms permanently pink from handling pizza dough, Caporuscio explained that immigrants to America from the Campania region of Italy around Naples were farmers, shoemakers and builders, not pizzaiuoli. “And to make a Neapolitan pizza you need one thing,” he said. “A Neapolitan pizza-maker. Someone who understands all the details, how to stretch and raise the dough to keep it aerated, which is what makes it chewy.”
I had to press him on the delicate matter of the toppings, especially the cheese, because I’m a purist when it comes to mozzarella, which in Naples means mozzarella de bufala, unavailable in the U.S. because it isn’t pasteurized. Caporuscio solves that problem by making his own cow’s milk mozzarella, known as fior de latte, on the premises at Keste; only one pizza there, the Regina Margherita, features the imported buffalo milk version of the cheese.
I got a taste, of course, and it took me straight back to Napoli—which is probably the main reason why I love Neapolitan pizza.
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.
February 2, 2012
Over 1.5 million people take the train between New York and Washington every year. Some do it so often it almost doesn’t seem like traveling. They get on and zone out; three hours later—actually two hours and 45 minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express inaugurated in 2000—they’re in D.C.
But 225 miles of scenery lie between the Big Apple and our nation’s capital along tracks once operated by the venerable old Pennsylvania Railroad that run roughly parallel to Interstate 95.
Next time you take the train keep your eyes open. There are plenty of sights to see:
1. All aboard at Penn Station, New York, the slap-dash modern terminal below Madison Square Garden, a far cry from beautiful Beaux Arts Grand Central (celebrating 100 years of service next year).
At Penn you have to close your eyes to imagine what it was like when it was built of pink granite in 1910 with a waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracalla. Its demolition in 1963 was lamented by architects, including Yale’s Vincent Scully, who wrote, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
2. The New York Jets and Giants play football at the Meadowlands near the mouths of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Passing by on the train you wouldn’t know that the 20,000-acre wetland is infamously polluted, the perfect place for Tony Soprano to dump dead bodies. Instead, you see high reeds and water channels visited by snowy egrets and Peregrine falcons—indications that the natural wonders of the region may get a second chance, thanks to an ambitious plan mounted by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
3. The Acela train doesn’t stop in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital. But you’ll know you’re there when you see the big neon sign on the steel-framed Delaware River Bridge. With 9-foot high capitals and 7-foot high lower-case letters, it says, “Trenton Makes—The World Takes.” How‘s that for grandiosity? But back in 1935 when the present sign was erected (replacing an earlier version affixed in 1911) there was truth in the claim. Trenton was a major industrial center, producing steel, rubber and linoleum.
In 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware River nearby for a surprise attack on English-employed Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton. As the train goes over the river about 10 miles southeast of McConkey’s Ferry Inn (now the Washington Crossing Historic Park), it’s worth remembering how he and his ragtag Continental Army turned the tide of the revolution that snow-stormy Christmas Day at Trenton.
4. You get a fine view of the skyline as the train approaches 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. If the windows opened you might even hear monkeys chatter and elephants trumpet because the track goes right by the gate of the Philadelphia Zoo, American‘s first, opened in 1874.
On your way out of town watch for Victorian Boathouse Row, a National Historic Landmark on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, still a major rowing center that holds a big regatta on the Fourth of July.
5. When you reach Wilmington the train passes close to Old Swedes Church, built in 1698 by Scandinavian immigrants who came to the Delaware River delta before English Quakers settled Philadelphia. With a mossy, old cemetery said to be haunted, the church still celebrates Swedish St. Lucia’s Day in early December.
6. There’s fine open duck-hunting country south of Wilmington and you get your first real look at the Chesapeake Bay as the train crosses the mouth of the Susquehanna River at little Havre de Grace.
7. Then it‘s on to Baltimore where mostly all you see are the thick granite walls of the 7,000-foot long Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built in 1873.
8. Little foretells the train’s arrival in Washington, D.C., a city with almost no skyline, its uncontested high point the 555-foot top of the Washington Monument.
Collect your belongings as you pass through the grimy train shed at the back of Union Station, then disembark into Neo-Classical glory, thanks to an Act of Congress that mandated restoration of the terminal in 1988. The front door is better than the back, opening directly onto the U.S. Capitol.