03 November, 2010

The low and the High of it.

New York is the kind of place where people express themselves in superlatives. All or nothing. In Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood: “The Best Tiramisu In The World,” declares the sign. Tallest, biggest, best. You can be reborn. Shed your previous life, previous definitions, previous loan. It’s all about the here and now, and really making it. It’s the immigrant experience, writ large.

The sheer range of restaurants flabbergasts me each time I visit. The reinventing continues in many if not most of the city’s kitchens. Viagra empanadas, or smoked salmon roll with Idaho potato flakes, anyone? I actually tasted the former, which are, unsurprisingly, a lot tamer than they sound.

The urge to modify is not new. The (kosher) bagel dog which was developed (way back) in 1943 comes to mind. Still on the dog front, some claim Brooklyn's Coney Island to be the birthplace of the now-ubiquitous American hotdog, tucked in its white bread roll (and yes, frankfurters and wieners already had their homes in Frankfurt and Vienna).
Incidentally, "Coney Island dogs", with their beanfree, beef-heart chili topping, have nothing whatsoever to do with the original oceanfront Coney Island. They’re from Michigan.

As of this summer, you can once again have a hot dog at a newly opened Coney Island Luna Park. But it isn’t the Luna Park of 1903, which by 1907 had 1.3 million little electric lights, live elephant rides and a whole mess of other madcap, escapist possibilities. This was way back when it was feasible to be 22 acres in size in NYC, and this while cheek to jowl by two other pioneering parks, Dreamland and Steeplechase. Coney Island was quite simply the birthplace of the American amusement park, and as such an epicenter of a certain kind of pop culture.

Today, the blandification on offer by Mayor Bloomberg & co. translates (as of February) to the current Luna Park being owned by Central Amusement International (majority shareholder: Italian Zamperla which produced the brand-new rides and will manage the park). As of November 1st, the conglomerate has seen fit to evict 9 of the 11 long-standing, honky-tonk operations on the boardwalk. Every single one of the boardwalk places I saw and photographed last week (and which are shown here) will have to vacate their premises within the coming two weeks. They are yesterday.

The owners of Luna Park explained that it was looking to “extend its vision of a resurgent Coney Island.” It seems their vision involves a sports bar, sit-down restaurants, and retail.
Even the Cyclone is at risk. A legendary, clattery wood roller coaster inaugurated in 1927 and still in use today, its fate is also in the hands of Central Amusement International and Zamperla, who hold a ten-year lease on the land.
This process of cleaning up--and out--Coney Island reminded me uncomfortably of walking by the Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle Outfitter, Gap(s) et al. thronging the streets of SoHo. I was having trouble finding the galleries, as SoHo veers ever closer to being a tastefully sanitized outdoor mall. Ditto for Times Square, with its Ann Taylor Loft and Aeropostale clothing emporiums, Pop-Tarts World (where you can feast on Pop-Tarts sushi), the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and so on. I don’t want to become overly nostalgic about 1970s city grit and seediness, but man, I just wish they wouldn’t keep throwing out authenticity with the bathwater.

At least Times Square has its Naked Cowboy, who knows how to keep it real. He sued Mars Inc. in 2008 for trademark infringement (because yes, folks, he owns the “international” trademark to being kinda naked and playing a guitar). They’d had the gall to have the blue M&M play a guitar, similarly cowboy-hatted and kinda undressed. In a cartoon. Mars settled for undisclosed terms. Now the Naked Cowboy’s suing the Naked Cowgirl, a bawdy busker who refuses to become a paying franchisee of his, which would cost her $5k per annum. The Naked Cowboy claims that continuing as she does, she may bring about “a potentially permanent devaluation on a real American Brand and Icon.”
This latest lawsuit may not have his full attention though, since, on October 6, he officially declared--fully dressed-- that he would be running for President of the United States in 2012. On the Tea Party ticket. All the presidential merchandise you could wish for is already available for sale at his official website, where you can find his DVDs, i-Tunes downloads, his self-published book, and the Naked Cowboy Workout Method. That last one’s free, actually. Oh, and he’s an ordained minister, so he can marry you, if you swing that way. That’s a lot less free.  All of this with the aim of becoming "the most celebrated entertainer in the world."
Do I sound a touch bitter about all this? Can I legitimately be a critic? I did, after all, go home with a pair of Gap jeans, and maybe a t-shirt or two…But sometimes changes just feel wrong, sometimes people go too far.

Other times, changes feel very right. In the plus column goes New York City’s High Line, which I truly love.

I love the concept (old, unused raised railway turned aerial park), I love the wild grasses they’ve encouraged to grow, and the sense of immediate, pure escape that comes over me when I walk it. I love that the existing railway was integrated into the new structure, and that the neighborhood through which it runs is clearly reinvigorated by its presence. I love that lovers of astronomy set their telescopes up there on certain propitious nights. The High Line is a poem in mid-air, where children come for Halloween fun and the fabulous stroll come summertime.  

And they haven’t even finished building it. Gives me something to look forward to.
More thoughts, views and tips on New York:
- My Endless New York, by Tony Judt
- 36 Hours in NYC, from the Travel Section, NYT
- The Secret Subway Stop, from Yahoo News
- New York, I Love You, the film (Natalie Portman, Andy Garcia, et al.)


  1. Ahh, New York. So much to love, and so much to hate. I will admit I still have a soft spot for it. I do love it so!

    Welcome home.

  2. Hello Rose,

    I'm actually back in France again, knee-deep in preparations for my eldest's sleepover birthday party (with fourteen of her "closest friends"). But NYC is still on my mind--hmm, would that be a "NY State of Mind"?--and I'll write a bit more once I have a little more time.

  3. Salut Micheline,

    T'es bien gentille, merci pour ta visite!


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