Saturday, June 27, 2015

New York City: East River Greenway

The East River Greenway starts (if you're doing it in a north-to-south fashion) in East Harlem at 125th Street, and is part of the larger Manhattan Waterfront Greenway biking/walking route that curves around both sides of the peninsula between the East and Hudson Rivers where approximately 4 million people can be found on any given work day. With that crush of humanity milling around through the dense dark canyons between the skyscrapers, the roar of construction above, the blare of traffic below, the smother of concrete and congestion that becomes even heavier in the breathless humid summertime, it's no wonder that the breezy borders along the water are popular places to walk, picnic, and relax. I started my walk one morning at Carl Schurz Park off 86th Street, in a section of the riverfront that has been a park area since the late 19th century.

Much of the Greenway is not very green, though the city has put in several small "pocket parks" along the way. It would have been a hot walk in the sun, even at that early hour, if not for the breeze coming off the water. The tide was in, and the waves were choppy with the conflict between the river and the sea.

The route is being repaired and expanded and in several places I had to go in to the city streets in order to keep making my way south. On one of these side trips, at about 56th Street, the sign for the Ideal Cheese Shop caught my eye, as did the notice for an apartment for rent above the cheese shop (which would indeed be ideal in many ways, except for the frustration of being so near delicious dairy products yet unable to indulge in them; the rent would probably be outrageously high as well). It was barely 9am and I was already wilting in the heat, so I popped into the shop to take advantage of their air conditioning and to marvel at the NYC-level price tags on the imported European products filling the shelves across from the cheese case.

Most of their cheeses are European as well, with just a few American products like Rogue Creamery's Smokey Blue and Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog. The friendly cheesemonger told me that most of what they stock is for the people who work at the United Nations headquarters a few blocks away, giving them a taste of home. I noticed that there were several raw-milk soft cheeses for sale, ones that obviously were not aged the required 60 days, and asked why the Canadian and Swiss cheeses made it past the borders when the French ones were still banned. There is a list, he told me, and it's mostly French cheeses on the list.

On the other hand, you don't see many American cheeses in France, either. Most of the French people I talked to are convinced that there are no cheeses worth eating in the United States, and that food in the USA is generally pretty horrible. Part of that is, I think, because most French travelers are going to tourist spots like Disney World or playing restaurant roulette in New York City, and part is that the French palate is still in the process of expanding to include non-French food using a wider range of spices and flavors. And then part of it is of course that "American" food is honestly pretty horrible in many cases, when the melting pot has produced a muddy mélange of meat and potatoes and reheated frozen vegetables, factory produced and cooked to death, washed down with instant coffee or sugary soda or watery beer. (To be perfectly honest, there were places in France where that's what was served as well, except for the coffee part.)

I spent more money than I should have in New York City, eating Chinese sausage-fried rice, Tibetan noodle soup, Japanese rice balls, Vietnamese red curry, Thai spring rolls, Korean grilled pork, Ethiopian spiced lamb, and Turkish hummous. I did walk off a good few of those calories on this 8- or 9-mile hike along the river, but only my bank balance has gotten thinner.

International visitors as well as employees were constantly arriving at the United Nations headquarters at 42nd Street, and English was suddenly the minority language. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. Maybe someday we'll actually follow it.

We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

There are a lot of places in New York City that I could have visited, with more time and more energy and more money. I didn't get to the top of the Empire State Building, and I didn't go to any museums. I didn't visit historic Harlem or prowl the bullish streets of the financial district. I didn't find the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, and I didn't explore the funky neighborhoods of the Village (East or West) or go across the bridge to Brooklyn - a place I have already visited several times in my mind thanks to author Betty Smith - or out to Coney Island or in to the heart of Times Square. And that's not even getting into all of the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods like the Chinatown district that form the ethnic patchwork quilt that blankets the five boroughs. But as I repeatedly said when leaving equally interesting places across Europe, that's just a reason to go back for another visit.

I didn't see any rats running around, but there were a lot of pigeons and many squirrels, plus sparrows everywhere, and the occasional cockroach. Sparrows and cockroaches will inherit the world; pigeons may be larger but they don't seem to have the cocky intelligence of your average sparrow. I saw no evidence of fish in the river, though did see a dozen rods parked up against the railing in various spots along the way, their owners relaxing on the benches in the sun.

There were a handful of tall mulberry trees bordering one of the pocket parks, easily identifiable by the spatter of black on the walkway beneath, and the birds fluttering in the branches above. The first tree I came to didn't have any ripe mulberries within reach, but the second hadn't been stripped by pigeons or passers-by. A woman was balanced on the park bench under the lowest branches, plucking and eating the soft ripe berries, and I joined her where another branch hung low. She said that she planned to come back with a ground cloth and a plastic bag - the mulberries were so ripe they were falling off their stems, and just shaking the branches would harvest them. I picked a few more to fuel me for the remainder of the walk, and kept going towards the Williamsburg Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest of the bridges crossing the East River, and opened in 1883. There used to be a train line taking commuters back and forth, but now it's just cars and pedestrians and intrepid bikers. The Williamsburg Bridge (1903) also connects Brooklyn and Manhattan; when it was built, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Rail traffic still rolls over this bridge, though not the trolleys that Francie Nolan admired.

Mr. Tomony who owned the pawnshop came home in a hansom cab from his spendthrift evening in New York . . . He was supposed to frequent such legendary places as Reisenweber's and the Waldorf. Francie decided to see these places some day. Some day she would go across Williamsburg Bridge, which was only a few blocks away, and find her way uptown in New York to where these fine places were and take a good look at the outside.

- Betty Smith, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" (1943)

So to get across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan you can take the Williamsburg Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge, and you can also take the Manhattan Bridge, a modestly ornate span that opened in 1909 just upstream of the Brooklyn Bridge. The East River Greenway starts to get less pleasant at that point; there's lots of construction, roaring traffic to one side, more graffiti and trash and general gritty-city-ness as the path goes under the bridges and starts worming its way into the port district, past the old site of the Fulton Fish Market, where for almost 200 years the boats and ships would come in with their loads of lobster and shrimp, crab and cod, skipjack and salmon and fluke and tuna and pollock and perch to be sliced and iced and sold in what was once the biggest wholesale fish market in the United States. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo started three centuries earlier and is the largest in the world, and in Seattle they fling the flounder for the delight of the tourists, but - from what I hear at least, since I didn't go there - the post-2005 New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx appears to still be doing well.

The East River Greenway ends where the East River does, at the southern tip of Manhattan and the South Ferry Terminal with its multiplicity of docks for harbor cruise ships and water taxis and the Staten Island Ferry. The waterfront pathway continues through Battery Park and up the Hudson River towards the Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, passing yacht ports and well-dressed Wall Street workers enjoying their probably no longer three-martini lunches, though you never know, given the financial shenanigans that take place behind the scenes. Or maybe it's that martinis are so 20th century, and the Manhattanites have moved well past the Manhattan, drinking things like The Up & Up Bar's Dreadlock Holiday which combines rum, gin, chartreuse, bitters, and lime juice into a $14 concoction that frankly sounds like a headache in a glass. Well, it's an interesting mixture, anyway, like New York itself - a little odd, a bit overpowering, a mix of old and new, and really expensive.

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