Saturday, November 23, 2013

an Urban Wilderness Adventure - part 1

We have had the good fortune to go on many amazing trips to really fun places, and of course meet fascinating people (just this week I got a phone call from Lama Tsephel, a Tibetan Monk we met in Ladakh - in northern India - in 1999!  He's doing fine).  Virtually all of the trips are centered around some activity:  mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, bike touring, etc to generally fulfill not only our wanderlust but also our obsessive need to "do something".  Many of those trips involve travel through big cities; in recent times we've been in Paris, Milan, Delhi, Mexico City, Oslo, Havana, Bangkok, Lima, Tokyo, Washington DC, Boston, San Fran, Seoul, etc.  But we've never really gone on a vacation "to" a big city, simply to go to the city.  But New York is not just another city; it kinda seems like THE city, and as such we recently went to THE city for a 4 day jaunt, simply to be there.

Our trip to NYC actually started about 8 years ago, when someone who knew us well told us we absolutely HAD to see the movie "Team America: World Police".  It is a hilarious movie and was our first exposure to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys who made it (somehow "South Park" has sort of eluded us all these years, and we have since seen Orgazmo, which is equally hilarious).  I think we watched Team America two or three nights in a row.  Then in 2011 they debuted the Broadway play "Book of Mormon" and of course we HAD to go!  We assumed that it would - like Wicked, Rock of Ages, Mama Mia, and other Broadway plays - come to SLC soonish, but to our chagrin once it finally started touring it went to LA, Chicago, Denver, and even England, but not Salt Lake. What up?  Perhaps his indignance at this snub is what has prompted mayor Ralph Becker to pursue building a Broadway style theater in SLC.  In any case, Ash decided that if BOM wasn't going to come to SLC, then we'd go to it, and hence our New York Urban Wilderness tour was born.  And if we could get into a taping of The Daily Show....well, then we'd have arriven!

We had several other incentives to go:  there's a vibrant urban gardens scene there for Ash to appreciate, it's the world HQ for cool footwear for me to appreciate, of course there are tons of great museums and historical stuff to see, and we have a great friend who lives right downtown who was a gracious host. And when he told us that not only could he get us "house seats" for not only Book Of Mormon but also Kinky Boots, we were in.  And the fact that New York just implemented a great new Citibike program meant that we could at least get a little wind in our hair (not that there's much of either!) by riding bikes around town:

New York is famous as a pedestrian-oriented city, but since the 90's there's been a strong push to accommodate bicyclists as well as peds, and Ash found out that there's actually a bikeway that does a full 30 mile circumnavigation of Manhattan.  So partly to get a broad overview of the city and partly to shake out the cobwebs of our redeye flight, we got on the citibikes in lower Manhattan and started our tour.  We made it about a mile before our first stop:  Battery Park, which was created from the excavations from the original World Trade Center excavations, and sported the city's biggest urban garden.  But alas, it was closed, so on to the next stop:  the Brooklyn Bridge. I didn't realize that going across this bridge is apparently a BIG deal; above the road is great walk/bikeway

and these guys were there doing a street performance, happily giving the tourists yet another way to part with their money:
I was surprised I was able to get the pic of this guy mid-flight.....
After successfully negotiating that, and anticipating that we might have to actually "ride" our bikes, we fueled up in Chinatown

 and headed north along the Hudson River.

The bikeway thing is great in theory and in places actually quite good, but isn't yet quite the magical bicycle carpet ride circumnav.  We didn't realize it 'til we got there, but the United Nations extends right onto the river, and so it forced us not only into town but onto a highway, where we were first "pulled over" by a cop telling us to get off the highway, but he caught us right about the time that he got stopped by traffic, so I simply waved merrily and cruised on up the shoulder, leaving him in a virtual parking lot.  However, it was apparent that route was not going to work out so well, so we heaved the unusually-heavy citibikes up over a brick wall onto a sidewalk, up and over a bridge, up some more steps, and into the fray of Harlem's surface streets.
Lamenting the bike path to nowhere
We were able to cut east over towards Columbia University and it's adjacent long, skinny Riverside Park (former stomping grounds of New York's first-ever Rollerblader:  Dr. Michael Elovitz) that had a great bike path that continued along the East River all the way to our new home in the Lower East Side.  So we didn't quite do the whole island lap, but we were close, and got enough riding in that I got a pretty healthy chub-rub from the phatty seat!

At one point as we were negotiating some traffic I slipped through an intersection and Ash and I got slightly separated, and suddenly I heard her hollering, which is pretty unusual since being across and intersection from each other was not a big deal. I looked back and she's waving her hands at me and I couldn't figure it out for a second until all of a sudden I looked up and......I was standing right under a big awning that boldly declared "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart!"  OMG, we were there!  And people were lining up to get tickets for the evening show.  But not surprisingly, popular shows are not kind to the unprepared so our odds of getting in on standby were low and we had already planned to take our hosts to dinner, so regretfully we moved on.

Knowing that we were both cycling geeks, John and his pro-triathlete wife Bec took us to a place called "Cannibal" for dinner.  I thought it an odd name for a restaurant - particularly one that specialized in esoteric meats and sausages, such as this one - but as I walked in and saw the waiters wearing Mavic bike mechanic aprons and saw an huge poster of Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx" crushing his opponents mercilessly on some epic climb in the 1960-something Tour De France, I got it.  And we also "got" the fact that we needed to drink a lot of beer; on both sides of the entrance way were huge coolers stuffed with hundreds of esoteric craft beers that we'd never heard of, though upon further inspection we were proud to see a couple of Uinta Brewing's finest!
tucked in the vast case.....some Utah brew

  John and Bec chose well, and we feasted accordingly.

Museums are of course a big part of New York, and while the Museum of Modern Art ("MOMA" to sound cool) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the "Met", of course) are the most notable, Ash of course snooped out the more esoteric museums.  The Tenement Museum is on a nondescript block in midtown and is a bit of a monument to the immigration populations that have been such a backbone of NYC since the beginning.  The buildings - which were apparently decrepit not too long ago - have been restored and the "museum" is a series of guided tours through the buildings that are very effective at bringing you back in time to the lives of the immigrants.  Our guide pointed out that there were something like 30 layers of wallpaper, paint, paneling, etc on the walls of what started out as a German beer stube (one of over 700 in the several-block radius!) then became a Jewish market and is now in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The next museum we visited was the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces, or - as I shortened it to - The Anarchy Museum.  It's approximately 1/2865th the size of MOMA, and is devoted to the history of squatting in abandoned buildings (and the associated struggles - both virtual and literal/physical - between the City and the squatters), the fights to create open spaces/gardens and save them from demolition, the history of urban cycling in the city:
the curator's bike out front...

 and is the de facto chronicler/champion of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.

For the latter they developed an exercycle-based generator to help keep Zucotti Park "charged", and the charger was brought back to critical life in the aftermath of last year's Hurricane Sandy when it was the only power game in town.  
I love the fact that they used pretty much the worst exercycle I've ever seen, straight out of the 70's
The Anarchy Museum was definitely a bit out there, but we actually did find out about it here:
Fodors is not known for promoting anarchy museums
speaking of reclaiming urban was nice to see an (unattended?) outdoor bike repair/rental shop in one of the highest rent 'hoods in the country!
We had heard about the "Highline" as a new, must-see place in the city, and it's pretty extraordinary.   In order to move the meat out of the Meatpacking District the city built a rail line in from the river but to keep it from affecting traffic they put the rail line up 100 feet above the street.  As the meatpacking business declined the rail line was abandoned and it became a blighted area.  But in the late '90s a couple of guys decided that it had a lot of potential, so they basically spearheaded an effort to create a beautifully-landscaped - and very skinny, since it's along a rail line - park along the rail bed 100 feet above the bustling streets of town, and only a couple of sites in NYC are as popular a tourist destination as the Highline.  Here are a few shots:
The walkway is on the old rail bed
here are the old tracks
A new spin on the iconic sailor-kissing-girl shot
some quirky art; this is a bit of Greek goddess meets Devo
watching traffic flow must be the urban equivalent of watching planes take off?
some pretty random art
It stretches almost a mile
Old and new juxtaposed together. 
The construction adjacent to the park is going at a mad pace to put up cool lofts, condos, retail stores, brew pubs, etc.

 It was an impressive display of the potential economic impacts of the vision of renewal - and gentrification - that only a couple of people have.  Here's the full tale:

It's pretty inspiring.

Looking down from the Highline I saw this, and said "hey buddy, check out that gas station".  She said, yeah, whatever, then did a double take:
are those sheep?
Yep, those are sheep alright.  The minimart's neon sign says "open", and the gas prices are updated.....
More wandering for the day, which of course included additional urban gardens:
complete with some cool lamps:

And as the light started to wane, we began to anticipate why we were there:  The Book of Mormon!

To be continued......

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