Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Walking in the City - Gramercy Park, New York

 For my first walk in the city since returning from my Amtrak Adventure, I decided it was time to pay some attention to the streets of Manhattan rather than the Avenues. With that in mind, I decided I would walk from 1st Avenue to 10th Avenue along 23rd Street, come back along 22nd Street to 1st and then continue in this zig-zag pattern until I reached 17th Street and Union Square.  

The walk along 23rd Street took me past one of my favorite buildings: The Flat Iron Building, an ornate triangular-shaped edifice designed to fit into the wedge of land available to the developers.

The building is only six feet across at the narrowest end. 
And this is what it looks like from the other end.

The next building to attract my attention was this rather elegant structure on 22nd Street East which was built as the Manhattan Trade School for Girls (the name is still engraved above the doors) and used as such from 1907-1915 before increased demand for vocational education for girls led to the need for larger premises. Today the building is still used as a school but is now a city public middle and high school - The School of the Future. 

If only future schools could be located in such beautiful buildings. I've never understood why older schools are often attractively designed while the newer ones, like the one on the left, (JHS 104 Simon Baruch), look more like prisons than places to inspire learning. Yes, the windows might have to have bars on them for security reasons, but couldn't they have made the building look a little more attractive and welcoming?

By the time I got back to 1st Avenue on 22nd Street, I realised that walking the full length of the streets was going to take a lot longer than I'd anticipated so I decided to limit my walk to between 1st and 5th Avenue which as it happens, turns out to be mostly the Gramercy Park district. The park itself is bordered by 21st and 20th Street to the north and south and Gramercy Park East and West which lie between 3rd Avenue and Park Avenue.

The park is one of only two private parks in the city. To gain access you have to be a resident of the surrounding houses or apartment blocks. There are quite strict rules about usage of the park, including apparently the taking of photographs in it even if you are a resident. 

View from the locked gates

It might be considered a status symbol to have a key to the park, but on the day I walked past there was no one at all using it, in sharp contrast to the neighborhood's other park areas which bustled with activity. 

My walk took me along mostly residential streets, but at the intersection with the Avenues, there were some interesting shops to be found.

I couldn't resist a peek into Burdick Chocolate Shop on E 20th Street - the sign outside announced they had both chocolate mice and penguins! 

A little further along the street I came across Beecher's Handmade Cheese store, where you can actually see the cheese being made in giant tubs.  

I was intrigued as I had first come across a handmade cheese store during my recent visit to Seattle and had no idea there was a similar store in New York. It turned out the two stores are both part of the same company, and despite the old-fashioned picture on the sign have only been in business since 2003 in Seattle and 2011 in New York.   

East 18th Street is home to Pete's Tavern, which was established in 1864 and claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar and restaurant in New York City.


It has also been recognised by the Friends of Libraries USA. (now known as United For Libraries USA) as being the place where O. Henry wrote 'The gift of the Magi' and Ludwig Bemelmans wrote 'Madeleine.' 

I guess in the days before coffee shops became popular as places to hangout, a bar was a decent alternative for a writer who didn't want to hide away at home, but unfortunately for O.Henry he was a heavy drinker so picking a bar as an office-away-from-home might not have been the wisest decision. 

My walk ended at 17th Street and Union Square, a busy place at the best of times, but even more crowded than usual due to the Farmer's Market. It's one of the contradictions that I like best about New York - one minute you are on a quiet residential street, the next in the center of the hustle and bustle of one of the most vibrant cities on the planet.   

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 36 - Return to New York

A day of mixed emotions. While I looked forward to seeing family and friends again after five weeks away, it saddened me to think the trip was almost over. I could quite happily have kept on traveling!

Our last journey started in the comfort of the Metropolitan lounge at Union Station in Chicago. The lounge offers comfy armchairs, internet access and free coffee and tea to sleeping-car passengers while they wait to board, a nice perk especially if, like us, you arrive over an hour early for the train.

We left Chicago in the dark, one last chance to admire the glow of city lights before they faded into the distance and we headed for the agricultural heartland.

The overnight portion of the journey took us through Indiana and Ohio. We saw more of Ohio’s countryside than expected as we woke to find the train was running over an hour late. By the time breakfast was over we were in Pennsylvania and heading for our first New York stop: Buffalo. There was still another nine hours to go but the knowledge that we were back in New York State confirmed the reality that the trip was near its end.

After the flatlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the sight of New York’s majestic forests and hills stretching as far as the eye could see was a welcome relief. Maybe I’m biased as I live in New York, but I’m always stunned by how grand its scenery is.

As the train heads south from Albany it follows the east bank of the Hudson River, sometimes so close that there is little separating the tracks from the water other than a short strip of pebbles.

I was surprised to see that cargo ships still ply the river this far north of Manhattan.

But all too soon it was time to gather our bags. This sign was our sign that at the next stop our adventure would be over:

The trip was amazing in every respect; the scenic train journeys, the delightful cities we visited, the fascinating people we met, all combined to create an experience way beyond what I’d imagined. That the US is a large and diverse country is an accepted fact, but the trip gave me a far better understanding of just how big it is and how varied people’s lives are than looking at a map or reading about it in a book could convey.

It’s easy to think that the way one lives is the ‘American’ way. That the concerns of most Americans should be the same, but when you see the isolation of some of the large farms or even small towns, and note the different attitudes as you move from city to city or coast to coast, it is obvious that in terms of day-to-day life there are few similarities. People may have the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their families, but the means of attaining them are very different, as is the definition of success in achieving those ambitions.

The trip has left me with an increased desire to learn more of the history of the country and see more of it – there’s still the huge interior for me to explore and, thankfully, several Amtrak routes not yet taken, including the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco which various fellow passengers declared the most scenic of all Amtrak routes. Travel by train may not be the fastest way to get around the country, but in terms of being able to relax in comfort and enjoy the wonderful scenery on offer, it’s hard to beat.   

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 35 - Final Day in Chicago

Day 35 - the final full day of our trip. Maybe it was the idea of the adventure almost being over which took a little of the steam out of our sightseeing enthusiasm, or maybe it was the weather: hot, humid and very sticky with the constant threat (occasionally fulfilled, particularly when we stepped outside), of rain or storms. There was still so much we could see and do and now so little time to do it. 

We started the day with breakfast at Eggsperience purely because the name intrigued us and it happened to be just around the corner from our hotel. I have to say, their blueberry waffles and ice-cream are so good, I wish we had discovered the place on our first day! 

After packing up and checking out of our hotel, we came across this fun statue on Wabash Avenue:

designed by Ju Ming

Rather appropriate given the weather.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to Buddy Guy's Legends,which is touted as the premiere blues club in the world.

Several times a week they have free music between 12 and 2pm and, by chance, Eddie Taylor, Jr. was playing so we got to see yet another of Eddie Taylor Sr.'s offspring perform. For some of the pieces he was accompanied by harmonica players/vocalists. The music was tremendous. 

The place itself is a little commerical - it reminded me of the BB King Club in New York - so the atmosphere didn't feel as authentic as the Blue Chicago, but it was so enjoyable it did make me wonder why I don't go and listen to blues music more often!

On our way to Buddy Guy's Legend we passed a grand building with an elaborate roof decoration on State Street. Closer inspection revealed that this was Harold Washington Library Center, the city's main public library. I was surprised to learn that it was only built in the late 1980's and opened in 1991 - it looks as if it comes from a much earlier period. 

I didn't actually go inside, but I wish I had, because I later learned that there is a Winter Garden on the ninth floor with a glass roof. The area is used as a study space and sounds spectacular, an ideal place for inspiration for a writer. 

Unfortunately, the weather worsened considerably during the afternoon, to the point where we decided to take in a movie to fill in the time left before we had to go to the station for our overnight train to New York.  Not quite the way I had envisioned ending our stay in Chicago, but, given the fun we'd had over the past three days, we could hardly complain. Besides, even that provided a new experience for me. It was the first time I'd been in a movie theater which had fully reclining seats! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 34 - The Beach and the Blues in Chicago

Our second day in Chicago dawned bright and sunny, a perfect morning to hit the beach. Surprisingly, Chicago offers several beaches all within walking distance of the downtown area making it easy to spend time in the sun without sacrificing a whole day of sightseeing. 

Our hotel, the Best Western River North, was just a short stroll along the Magnificent Mile from Oak Beach. Magnificent Mile, a stretch of Michigan Avenue, is home to just about every store you can think of. If you're a shopaholic the walk could take a considerable amount of time but, personally, shopping comes way down on my list of things to do even when I'm at home so I wasn't that impressed with its supposed magnificence!

These buildings near the end of the mile did impress me however:

Would you believe they were built in 1866 as a water tower and pumping station to solve the problem of waste disposal and drainage in the city? Which just goes to show that even sanitation buildings can be beautiful. The pumping station is still in use today although it is also home to a theatre company. The water tower hosts an art gallery for local artists. 

Mid-week and with school still in session, the beach was relatively quiet. Oak Street Beach is not a natural beach - it was created in the 1890's as part of a breakwater system to protect Lake Shore Drive from storm damage - and perhaps because of that, the sand is both incredibly fine and clean. 

It was so hot we had to rent a sunshade even though we weren't planning on staying that long. Neither of us wanted to spend the rest of the trip in pain, or return to New York looking like the proverbial lobsters! Sadly, it was also too hot to walk barefoot on that beautiful sand.  

After a morning on the beach we decided it was time to visit one of Chicago's other neighborhoods. The idea of Old Town appealed so once again we set off walking. Chicago's grid system of streets makes it very easy to navigate the city and it was interesting to note the change in atmosphere as we moved from the bustling downtown to the more residential Old Town. Gone were the skyscrapers, chain restaurants and big-name shops. Instead we found Victorian-style homes, quirky independent stores and cafes. 

Just in case you forget where you are, there are convenient signs to remind you:

It was a pleasant neighborhood though I think it would have been more fun to visit in the evening when there is apparently a vibrant nightlife including two comedy clubs. We already had other plans for the evening however.

We had discovered the Blue Chicago bar, located just around the corner from our hotel, but on our first attempt to visit the previous evening, there had been standing room only. I love blues music, but like to listen to music in comfort so we settled on returning the next night at eight when the venue opened. It turned out to be a good plan because, while there was only one other couple waiting when we got there, by the time the doors opened there was a considerable queue. We got front row seats to a fabulous performance by J.W. Williams Blues Band and Demetria Taylor (daughter of Blue's legend Eddie Taylor Sr.) Definitely one of the highlights of my visit to Chicago. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 33 - Chicago and Architecture Galore

I'd only been to Chicago once before and that was over fifteen years ago, but what stuck in my mind was the amazing architecture, especially the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune.

Wrigley Building
Chicago Tribune Building

    Even then these magnificent buildings were surrounded by towering skyscrapers of, in my opinion, non-descript design, but I guess I should have been prepared for how many more of these glass and concrete monoliths had been erected since. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 32 - St Paul, Minnesota to Chicago.

Day 32 threatened to thwart my plans to travel around the country by rail.

An email from Amtrak the evening before told of a service disruption which was delaying the train from the west coast by so many hours that the company was going to provide a coach to take passengers from St. Paul to Chicago by road. It was a sensible decision by Amtrak to ensure that at least some of the passengers bound for Chicago would get there as scheduled, but it was a huge disappointment for me.   

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 31 - A Grand Old Day in St.Paul

Day 31 started at the farmer's market in downtown St. Paul with the idea that we'd pick up a few goodies for a picnic lunch. I wish I could have bought some fruit and vegetables to bring home with me. It all looked wonderful.... and huge! Who knew green onions could be so big?

And then there was the rhubarb. Masses and masses of it, for about half the price I'd pay at home, displayed in enticing piles rather than the sad little pre-packs offered by my local supermarkets. We'd stopped in at other farmer's markets on our trip but never seen anything as healthy looking as the produce on display here.