empire state

The greatest city

12 May 2016

I’ve spent more years living in California than New York, but because I was in Manhattan for my first independent decade – the years between leaving my childhood home to having children myself – New York City is where I feel most free and alive. I went to college there, built a career there, met my husband there, became a real adult there.

Two of us left New York in 2001, just before the horror of 9/11. Fifteen years later we returned as six, on the first trip there our kids will remember. And it was like coming home again – to a brighter, cheerier, remodeled home.

The year I moved to New York City, 1990, was the year homicides peaked in Gotham. The city was dark and grimy, and streets reeked of stale urine. Salespeople followed me suspiciously around stores, and I realized with chagrin that my normal west coast attire – frayed cutoff denim and a worn khaki canvas backpack – made me look more homeless than middle class to Manhattan eyes.

Then, the word Brooklyn evoked images of Bed-Stuy and deadly racial tensions. Nolita wasn’t a thing yet, and a few fetish clubs were the only life in the Meatpacking district. Chelsea Piers and Chelsea Market didn’t exist. Alphabet City on the Lower East Side housed squatters and junkies. The windowless walls of the abandoned New York Coliseum cast a dark shadow over Columbus Circle. The twin towers of the World Trade Center still dominated the Manhattan skyline.

The city’s rejuvenation began slowly with the disappearance of daily nuisances, like the uninvited squeegee guys and drawn-out honking at intersections, as the police began ticketing minor offenses they used to let slide. Then, quite suddenly, the city seemed to bloom with good developments – cleaner streets, fewer vagrants, brighter storefronts, safer neighborhoods – as if clearing the weeds had made way for flowers to grow. It was astounding to witness.

The New York City of today is even brighter than the city of my rosy memories. It took me a couple years to grow to love the rough and scruffy NYC, but NYC today is worthy of love at first sight.

Times Square used to be sleaze central, with prostitutes, drug dealers, and menacing guys manning dark doorways. Now it’s lit up like an NFL stadium and looks like an outdoor Vegas mall, minus the showgirls.

times square

There are even stadium bleachers for people to sit and watch the action. The area is well-policed, so aside from inevitable pickpocket activity, the main fleecing, relatively benign, is costumed characters posing for pictures with tourists, who will soon find they’re expected to pay for the privilege.

times square bleachers

The new Brooklyn Bridge park is gorgeous and thoughtfully functional. The Brooklyn side of the bridge used to be scary.

brooklyn bridge park

Now the entrance to the pedestrian walkway is well-marked and welcoming.

brooklyn bridge pedestrian entrance

And the walk toward Manhattan as breathtaking as ever.

brooklyn bridge walkway

New Yorkers crow about culture like Californians bask in weather. I used to think, “California has museums too. We have orchestras and theater.” But culture in New York City is not just Broadway, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum. Creative human expression is part of daily life – subway musicians, street performers, generations of architecture, the best of global food, even the way people dress. The city buzzes with inspiration.

Where I’m from, you don’t just go for a walk and run into carnival performers on stilts. Here, no one blinks.

brooklyn bridge acrobats

There’s always something to see in this town. New Yorkers are too cool to gawk at celebrities. But they might pause to appreciate a good performance, especially if they’re already relaxing in Central Park.

central park acrobats

And the food…the FOOD.

You can find the best of everything here, made with passion and consumed with passion. Everyone has an opinion. Eating is not a passive activity.

The pros behind the smoked salmon counter at food emporium Zabar’s, an Upper West Side destination since 1934, know they’ll get a lecture if their slices of nova aren’t thin enough to see through.

zabars

And at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, they’ve been serving up the world’s best pastrami sandwich since 1888, when there were only 38 states in the Union.

katz's

Before it even gets to the carving table, this hunk of beef has been cured, rubbed, smoked, boiled and steamed. This isn’t food you just whip up at home.

You know by looking that this hot pastrami, not just sliced but skillfully carved, is a game changer.

pastrami carving

I was in ecstasy with the warm, tender, deeply-seasoned meatiness of the pastrami, and in agony over the fact that any other pastrami had now been ruined for me.

Another Katz’s specialty: bright green half-sour pickles, crunchy and lightly salty.

pastrami half sour pickles coleslaw

Navigating Katz’s is like participating in a live-action NYC game – get your ticket ($50 lost ticket fine), figure out which line for which counter (sandwiches, grill, drinks, fries/latkes/other), where to pay (another counter, or on your way out), where to tip (jars at the various counters), where to sit (elbow in to a free seat). Step up and be decisive, or you’ll lose your turn.

katz's deli

With four kids, we ate a lot of New York pizza, by the pie and by the slice. The red neon in the window casts a funky glow on the classic pizza at John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street. Serving up coal-fired brick oven pizza in the West Village since 1929, John’s is one of the oldest and still holds its own as a classic.

johns pizza bleecker

There was never a line when I lived down the street from Levain Bakery on the Upper West. I always thought of it as a bread bakery because of the name.

levain bakery

But since I’ve been gone, Levain has become famous for its giant, mounded cookies. Now the line is always out the door and down the block.

levain bakery counter

Billed as “the most decadent cookie on Earth,” the cookies come in four flavors: chocolate chip walnut, dark chocolate chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and dark chocolate peanut butter chip. The cookies are the size of a large scone, dense and weighty. But the crisp outside gives way to a gooey, ultra-rich interior.

levain bakery cookies

We tried them all, each more incredible than the last. The chocolate lovers were in melty nirvana. Seemingly less sexy, the oatmeal raisin was every bit as soft, creamy and decadent.

Levain cookies made me think every other cookie I’ve ever had was a total waste of time. And I’m not even a cookie girl. The hype is real.

levain bakery

When I was a student in New York City, I had time but no money. When I joined the rat race, I had money but no time. It was funny to be a tourist in the city for once.

You need an arial view to appreciate Manhattan – the sights, the density, the unexpected green spaces on high rooftops. We took the kids up to Top of the Rock, the viewing platform at the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

rockefeller center

It’s less crowded than the Empire State Building, and you get the bonus of being able to look out at the Empire State and imagine King Kong hanging off its spire.

top of the rock empire state

Top of the Rock has two viewing levels, a large lower one with glass panels around the perimeter, and a higher one with no obstruction.

top of the rock north view

We joined the crowds on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, everyone snapping photos of the Manhattan skyline as we pulled away from the island city.

manhattan skyline ferry

From a distance, people are always surprised at how small Lady Liberty looks. Up close, she is less than colossal, but still big.

lady liberty

Walking around the statue, you appreciate the size of the pedestal and the artistry of Liberty at all angles.

liberty pedestal

Inside the pedestal is a small museum with the history of the statue. You can sit on a cast of her large copper toes.

liberty foot

Back at South Ferry, I showed the kids the James Watson House, dating back to 1793, in the skyscraper forest, looking like The Little House with the city growing around it.

fraunces tavern

We did a quick breeze by new-to-us attractions, like the bigger, better Chelsea Market, filled with food and shops.

chelsea market

And the High Line park, an abandoned elevated railway transformed in recent years into miles of tranquil urban green space above the crowded streets.

high line park

We even met up with our friend Monica, a teacher’s assistant at our public school in California, who was on a six week train tour, visiting college friends of hers around the country. Monica had only a day in New York, and we spent half a glorious spring day with her, taking turns giving her a break from her 27-pound backpack and carrying the spare leg brace she’s cheerfully hauling around just in case her regular one breaks. Monica is a superstar.

monica

And a shining memory of my life…seeing Hamilton on Broadway. I bought tickets last fall, before Hamilton mania had spread across the country. When the lights went down, I felt bubbly excitement, like I hadn’t felt since before my toughened New York years. A girl next to me sobbed when at last the music began.

The reality of the production soared past even my stratospheric expectations. I felt the power of transformation, renewal, creation – the story of Hamilton the man, the story of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story of New York City. I’m not even a musical fan girl. But the hype is seriously real.

richard rogers theatre hamilton

The good news is that almost all of it is in the Hamilton soundtrack, which for $22 is a work of art you can carry around in your soul – the story, the music, the performances. More than a story, more than history, it’s life…made musical in a way you never could have imagined, but when you hear it sounds not just perfect but inevitable. It’s rare, true genius.

My two oldest kids, who also came to Hamilton, may never match that musical theater experience, featuring not just an original Broadway cast but a cast starring the MacArthur genius creator of a Pulitzer-prize winning musical. But we savored the experience together, and we will never forget it.

New York Directory

Zabar’s
2245 Broadway (btw 80th and 81st St)

Katz’s Delicatessen
205 E Houston Street (between Ave A and Norfolk St)

Levain Bakery
167 W 74th Street (btw Columbus and Amsterdam Ave)

John’s Pizzeria
276 Bleecker Street (between Jones and Morton)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa 12 May 2016 at 12:06 pm

makes me want to take my family next week! while that’s not likely, I’ll look to bring the family sooner rather than later…what a great story and trip you shared with us. thanks!

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:04 pm

yes lisa, your family would have an amazing time!

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Debby Ruskin 12 May 2016 at 12:23 pm

What a treat to read your amazing prose about one of my favorite cities. You brought your travels and some of my memories to life, and I love thinking about your wandering the streets of NYC reminiscing with B and the kids!
When I wangle tickets to Hamilton, I will be that much more excited having read your post.
Thanks so much, Lilian!

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:04 pm

thank you debby, you are sweet!!

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Patti 12 May 2016 at 4:22 pm

Lilian, your writing gives me chills!
It is so good I feel like I was on this vacation with all of you. However, my regret is that I could not smell or taste the delicious food. ❤️☘

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:03 pm

thank you dear patti!

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Kathie Boucher 13 May 2016 at 3:22 pm

Clever you to have the foresight to snag the Hamilton tickets last fall. I’ll be in NYC with friends this October. No luck–they’re now selling tickets 18 months out for the show.

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:03 pm

hi kathie – dumb luck i think! i feel so fortunate – an unforgettable experience!

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Margie 13 May 2016 at 4:02 pm

Lilian, this is brilliant! No surprise there but such a pleasure to read. Your history entwined with NY’s history, the areas you cover, of course the food, the way you uniquely photograph the sights…all wonderful! By the way, it wasn’t just B. You met Tom and I in New York, too.

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:02 pm

ms margie – did i really meet you and tom in nyc? when claire was there?? thanks for the reminder, fun times! xoxo

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MikeD 13 May 2016 at 7:09 pm

I enjoyed your review … as a Manhattanite (born, reared and educated) who departed, from much of what you described as the state of the city even in 1967, to cross the country living a different life with different experiences. Eleven states latter I am now back on the East coast at NC. I still have family in NYC, NY and NJ but visit the latter mostly. On an occasion just a few years ago, I decided to tour NYC almost as tourist. Having attended HS in The Bronx and college in Brooklyn, I knew the subways well so traveling was easy. Air conditioned subways cars were a major shock … and a delight. I needn’t repeat your wonderful story yet I noticed for the first time, the energy in the town. It really was exciting. Of course, like you, I was a CA layback resident so that may have been the reason for noticing the energy. yet, I don’t think so. The city has changed … and changed upward. It was always fun and with population increases and $investment, parts of the city’s once scary places have been renovated (meat packing area, SoHo, Nolita,) and Inwood (home to Hamilton’s creator!) had a >$1 million dollar apartment sale! It was an exciting dating venue as a teenager and college student with all the cultural events, public parks/beaches and historic sites. Thanks for jogging my memory of my hometown. One loss has been the removal of the Sunday ‘blue laws’ re: non-food retail stores not being allowed to be open. That was a beautiful period … maybe, just as busy midtown streets have been converted to pedestrian walkways, Sundays might have just restricted hours of operation. Sundays in NYC those years, were as layback as any day in CA.

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cg 19 June 2016 at 11:00 pm

hi miked – thank you for sharing your own manhattan history, i loved reading it! sorry so late replying, i’m way behind on life. but i loved your comment at the time and again re-reading it now. nyc love!

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