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.
July 5, 2012
The thing is, there’s just too much art in the Louvre Museum—35,000 pieces, and that’s just what’s on display. There are also too many people, some eight million a year tromping past the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory.
Enter the Louvre-Lens, an outpost of the great Paris museum, scheduled to open in December. Other landmark museums have already opened satellites: the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; the Pompidou Center in Metz, capital of the Lorraine; even a baby Hermitage in Amsterdam. But the rising Lens museum marks the Louvre’s first foray outside the City of Light.
Strictly speaking, overcrowding is not the reason why the Louvre is building a $200 million facility in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. It has more to do with the accessibility of the town of Lens—which can be reached by train in two to three hours from Paris, London and Brussels—and a deep need for urban renewal in an old coal industry center that lost its last mine in 1986, pushing unemployment to 15 percent.
Also driving the museum’s creation is an effort to attract French people to the Louvre; as it stands now, foreign tourists chiefly flow through the I. M. Pei Pyramid at the threshold of the Louvre in Paris, so it’s hoped to attract les Français at an offshoot outside the capital.
The infant Louvre in Lens was designed by the award-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA with a long, low entrance building lined in glass, underground display areas where visitors can see behind-the-scenes conservation and storage, and a Gallerie du Temps housing a regularly changing collection of 250 masterworks ranging across 5,000 years of art history (including at the time of opening Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté, a French national icon). The side by side arrangement is a vastly different approach from that at the Louvre Paris, where you’d have to walk six miles to visit every room. Having worked off several pounds in past visits to the Paris mother ship, I welcome a more compact experience in art appreciation at Lens. Don’t tell the curator, but I think of it as Louvre Lite.
July 3, 2012
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, a place where history lingers on as the spirited people of Vietnam charge into the future. I love especially its French colonial character, a vestige of decades when the tricolor waved over the country. Badly beaten by nationalist armies, the French finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1954, but the U.S. took up the battle against the same enemy in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
When the last American troops evacuated and the north and south reunited in 1973, Vietnam seemed to disappear behind the red walls of its communist regime, stagnating economically until free market reforms were instituted in 2005, stimulating an explosion of growth, with unbridled development in its wake. Saigon shot up, but Hanoi lagged somewhat behind, which helped keep its French colonial architecture and ambience intact. So travelers can still feel the subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese cultural blending that infused couture, art, literature and cuisine during the colonial era in Hanoi.
Embarked on a grand mission civilisatrice, the French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda. With them came the language of Voltaire, Impressionist art, café society and Catholicism, a faith still practiced by an estimated six million Vietnamese.
A first stop for flâneurs is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic edifice with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris, completed in 1886 several blocks west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Black Flag guerrillas laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883, forcing harassed French colonists to hide in Ba Da Temple down the block; later the communists closed the cathedral, though worship resumed in 1990, reaching an annual climax at Christmas when choirs sing and little girls wearing traditional red and yellow ao dai tunics perform in a pageant.
Next catch a bicycle taxi—known as a pousse-pousse, which means push-push in French—to the Hanoi Opera House, inspired by the beautiful Palais Garnier in Paris. A yellow and white neo-Classical confection on August Revolution Square, it celebrated its centennial last year and often hosts performances by the Vietnam National Orchestra and Ballet. You have to attend an event to see the marble staircase, French murals and chandeliers inside, as well as the balcony where the Vietminh took control of the city in 1945.
Nearby is the Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1901, one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on honeymoon, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who had to take refuge in an underground shelter during U.S. bombing raids in 1972. American war correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel at its nadir during the war. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam: A History.
But the Metropole re-emerged victoriously after a 1990 restoration, a perfect evocation of the colonial era, beginning with the vintage Citroën parked in the porte- cochere. The three-story lobby yields to intimate sitting rooms lined in dark, precious wood, prints, chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk, where it’s easy to imagine men in white linen smoking opium-laced cigarettes. Additions were built to the rear, but the rooms in the old section summon up the colonial era best with elegant entryways, sitting areas and beds underneath slowly revolving ceiling fans.
It’s unwise to romanticize the colonial period, of course. French rule impoverished landowners, encouraged opium addiction and almost broke the spirit of a people with a long love of independence. All that’s behind the country now, but the French-Vietnamese style perseveres, a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
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.
June 18, 2012
My mother, a great traveler, used to say that all you do is sleep in a hotel. So where you stay doesn’t matter as long as there’s Paris or Barcelona outside the door. Well, yes, one can take that approach, passing by the Connaught in London, the Raffles in Singapore, the Athenee Palace in Bucharest without checking in. But great hotels are often tourist sites in themselves with rich histories and distinctive architecture. So even if I’m staying in some very cheap and basic place, I make it a habit to peek into five-star havens, maybe have a drink at the bar or powder my nose in the restrooms with their gold-plated fixtures and cloth hand towels. Very refreshing, but a jolt when I have to face the depressing reality of my own not-so-sumptuous digs.
Best is to split the difference, I have found, to find mid-range places to stay, neither too luxurious nor too austere. When I’m lucky and do my homework I sometimes end up in hotels that please me just as deeply as any luxury palace could. Places with character and careful, loving management. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites:
The Hotel Las Golondrinas is a happy choice in Oaxaca, Mexico, a provincial capital surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur, site of Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, predating the Aztec empire. The hotel, about a ten-minute walk from the town’s pretty zócalo, is a modest, low-rise complex built around a series of courtyards, decorated with ceramics, easy chairs, fountains and bougainvillea. Rooms are bare, but very tidy and the staff is friendly. Reserve ahead, though, because Las Golondrinas is popular with Norte Americanos, especially academics. Doubles are about $70.
Whole books have been written about the riads of Morocco, occupying old aristocratic town houses with interior courtyards, rooftop terraces, colorful tile and hanging brass lamps. I tried several in Marrakech, but ended up happier than Scheherazade at Le Gallia, a 17-room French-Moroccan hideaway near the Place Jemaa el-Fnaa. Doubles are about $75, with breakfast featuring tartines as tasty as any on the Left Bank.
Speaking of Paris, where searching for a nice, modestly priced hotel room can seem futile, I’ve become a devotee of the Hotel les Degrés de Notre Dame. Tucked in the maze of streets east of St. Michel metro on the Left Bank, it has a restaurant/bar where guests check in, five floors with no elevator—a factor that scares people off, but keeps rates down—and ten guest chambers with wooden beams, cubbyholes and old-fashioned furniture. Two of them have a sliver of a view of Notre Dame’s apse, where Victor Hugo’s hunchback rang the bells. Doubles start around $150.
Rome is as tough a nut to crack as Paris, but there’s one inn I can recommend there: Hotel Navona, around the corner from the Pantheon on via dei Sediari. It occupies several floors of an old palazzo, set around a central courtyard decorated with stones from the Baths of Agrippa, which occupied the site in Roman times. The proprietor is an architect who keeps making changes, adding rooms, updating the décor. But ask for one of the old rooms because they have the most character, even if the bathrooms are tight and the furniture alla nonna. Standard doubles start around $130.
This summer London is bound to be booked up tight, what with the Olympics. So watch the games on TV and go later. Even so, you should reserve ahead at the Celtic, the new home of St. Margaret’s Hotel, a great old London chestnut that recently had to move a few blocks away from its previous location to a refurbished Georgian building on Guilford Street near Russell Square in Bloomsbury. Fans of St. Margaret’s, who were legion, can rest assured that the homey, shipshape ambience has moved along with the beds and drapes because the Celtic remains in the good hands of the Marazzi family, Bloomsbury hoteliers since 1952. Doubles are about $150, including a stout English breakfast.