Monday, October 31, 2011

New York Stories (5) – spooky!

The good news for the little tackers going out Trick or Treating for Halloween tonight in New York is that in many areas the snow will have melted and they won't all be slipping over, spilling their stashes of candy everywhere. Wouldn't that be terrible! I'm not sure whether we'll get a knock at the door up here on the 12th floor in our Manhattan Hotel, but you never know your bad luck, do you?

As we've driven across the country and walked around the streets of many towns, the Halloween decorations on houses and shops have been such a delightful thing to see. Some involve elaborate ghoulish figures, others are as simple and charming as a set of hand-cut pumpkins on the front steps. And so here's a few photos of the Halloween decorations we have seen all across the country, starting here with some we spotted in New York City in yesterday's walkies.

"I now pronounce you ghoul and wife" a macabre wedding ceremony on the steps of a Greenwich Village house.

I've been told these pumpkins are a special type grown each year for Halloween. They're supposedly much easier to hollow out and carve but aren't that good for eating (can my American gardener/readers confirm this?). We've seen them for sale in parking lots and local parks in some towns, with huge areas turned into a sea of orange as thousands of pumpkins are arrayed for customers to choose a few to take home.

This graveside awakening is enough to give you nightmares. Love their work (again in New York City).

Charleston, South Carolina, did itself proud with its Halloween decorations. We love these balcony folk.

This Charleston witch looks fab at the moment, but where do they keep her the rest of the year? Maybe it's in a cupboard to give burglars and snoops a fright?

Same deal with this Charleston front garden guy who greets passers-by with a cheery "boo!". Surely he lives in the attic in the off-season. Must terrify the electricians doing repairs up there...

Passing through many country towns we spotted simple harvest displays of haybales and pumpkins that are a simultaneous feature of this October Harvest/Halloween season. This one was in the town square of Swainsboro, Georgia. There were several of these in the square, including one with a scarecrow. Hundreds and hundreds of shops everywhere had mini displays of haybales/pumpkins/scarecrows in their front windows, even teeny little plastic ones on the store counter as well. The whole nation is into it!

If you think you've seen this photo of a front step harvest display before, you have. It's from Galveston, Texas.

Hand-carving your own pumpkins is a real skill. You can buy videos on how to do it, there are demos on TV on how to do it, and as these pumpkins in New Orleans show, when well done it's great folk art. At night, with candles inside the pumpkins, the effect is superb.

New Orleans cheerfully embraces graveside humour all year-round, and so Halloween just brings out the best in them. Virtually every balcony had something ghoulish hanging from it.

At any other time of year this front door in the Garden District of New Orleans would be a worry. Right now, it's just great.

Around the corner from that spooky front door, in the side garden, ghosts fluttered from the trees.

And in the French Quarter, the staff are here to help you find the graveyard of your choice.

The major Halloween Street Parade tonight in New York City is between 6th and 16th Streets in Greenwich Village, and we're not sure if we'll be there or not to join the crush, but it's no problem if we aren't there, as they televise it live on local TV, much as they do with the Mardi Gras Parade back in Sydney each year. Meanwhile, we await a knock at the door this evening, and hope it is merely a sugar-loving child dressed as a demon or witch, and not the real thing.

New York Stories (4) – walkies

While buying yet another T-shirt from a shop-owner in Savannah, she told me that she loved visiting Sydney: she saw the Opera House, shopped in The Rocks, caught the Manly Ferry, went to Bondi, then flew to Ayers Rock. It occurred to me that we tourists often stick to that sort of agenda in the cities we visit, just sticking to the famous attractions. And so everywhere we have been so far, as well as seeing the famous attractions, Pammy and I have been keen on going for walkies through nowhere in particular in each city or town, in the hope of seeing a bit more of the real, ordinary life of people who don't want to sell you T-shirts or take you on a tour.

And so that's part of our plan here in New York. The trouble is that as soon as we leave a famous building or street behind, before you know it, just a couple of blocks further away, there's another world-famous district or building getting in the way. Them's the breaks, so here's what we saw on our lovely cold-but-sunny Sunday afternoon's walkies today.

We started with lunch, in a Greek-run diner on Seventh Avenue. I had a burger and fries, Pam had a toasted sandwich. The great news about New York is that we've made it back to the land of decent coffee.

Also on Seventh Avenue, which is known as the fashion street, is this charming statue of an old Jewish tailor at his sewing machine, and in the background is a dramatic sewing needle and button sculpture, whose button was still filled with yesterday's snow.

No matter where you go, the giant buildings, like the Empire State, are there looking at you.

Pammy wanted to take a photo of the water tower on the building on the right, but even 10 streets away the Empire State loomed large.

Guess which building made it into the reflection here?

We were heading downtown for the first time in our visit, and as we walked through the Greenwich Village neighbourhood the array of fire escapes on the buildings looked like a dozen steel Zs lashed onto their sides.

We stumbled across Washington Square at the south end of Greenwich Village, and the sunshine seemed to have lured out every resident in the district.

These elegant houses catching the afternoon sun were around the northern edge of Washington Square.

Overlooking the square is this magnificent tiered wedding cake of an apartment block.

Inside the park, the residents here include hundreds of squirrels, all very busy indeed with collection acorns. Yesterday's surprise snowfall must have spurred them into action. Crikey! Is it winter already?

Looks that way. In all the shadier parts of the garden yesterday's snow had turned to ice that wasn't willing to go away.

The shopping in this area is all about small specialist stores. I bought a great T-shirt from a store specialising in all kinds of stuff from the Coen Brothers' movie, 'The Big Lebowski'. And next door was a chess store, with chess sets in all known permutations, including this baseball-themed set.

As the sun started to get low in the sky and the chills set in, we headed for home up La Guardia Place. In the middle of this street I spotted this wonderful statue of the former Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia. It's such a vibrant, energetic and non-pompous statue of a major civic figure. I love it.

At one intersection I spotted this remarkable looking building, but it's really just a giant trompe l'oeil. It's a great paint job on the side of a flat brick building.

OK. Guess the name of this street? If you answered 'Broadway' go to the top of the class. The remarkable thing about Broadway is that in most sections it's not very broad at all. On Sundays it's closed off to make a long, long series of street markets stretching across several streets.

As well as all the fashions, crafts and other offerings in the stalls, there are lots of food stalls here laden with a dozen different types of meats slowly grilling, plus deep piles of peppers and onions to be piled on top of whatever combo you want.

Marking the end of the Broadway markets, which are in the Flat Iron District, is the incredible building which gives its name to that district. The Flat Iron Building was one of the original skyscrapers of New York, and it was one of my 'must-see' buildings in this town. I have the same attitude to buildings as I have with sculpture: you have to see them in flesh to truly appreciate them.

The walkies haven't finished for the day either, as we're planning to walk from our hotel in 31st street up to the Iridium Jazz Club on 51st street to see some live music (Marshall Crenshaw with the Les Gibson Trio) tonight. Walkies might be a slow way to get around but it is by far the best and most interesting way to get to know a city. We plan to do a lot more of it, and the weather forecast for the next couple of days looks like walkies weather to us, at least most of the time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

New York Stories (3) – snow!

When planning this holiday, we always knew that our late-October/early-November stay in New York would be the chilliest part of the holiday, and we were right! But we didn't expect snow. We're thrilled to see it happen (I'm not so sure that all the homeless people here would share our excitement at the prospect, though). We spent quite a bit of time trying to take a still photo that captured the snow as it started to fall, and Pam's photo below captures the first flurries seen out of our hotel room window really well.

Then it occurred to me that one of my dodgy pan shots might work. It did. You'll have to forgive one error in the commentary: the local newspaper I looked at early in the day said it was the first decent fall of snow in October since 1925, but since then it seems that there were light smatterings of snow back in both 2002 and 1952. So October snow is a rarity here in New York, that's for sure.

Soon after we did this pan shot, we hit the streets with coats, brollies, boots and every other protection we could muster against the elements. Same old bustling street life. A bit of snow wasn't going to slow down the taxis, dull the horn honking or keep pedestrians off the sidewalks.

It was amazing how quickly the cars here accumulated a layer of snow as they got around.

Though it doesn't look like it, this dull, dark photo was taken at midday.

Even the ever-moving cabs, whose engines would surely provide a bit of snow-melting warmth up-front, were all covered in more than a dusting of snow. After lunch Pam and I split up: she sensibly went for the warmth and temptations offered by Macy's and other big stores in a humungous shopping area. I wandered around the streets for less than 20 minutes more, just looking, and by then my shoes were soaked, so too my coat and bag, and so I headed back to the hotel.

On the way, just a block or two from our hotel, I decided to try one last street-level pan shot and (keep an eye out for them) at the end of the shot three or four people dressed in full Moon Mission space suits, with helmets, wandered into the shot, all carrying umbrellas.

So who would've thunk it? Snow in New York in October. The weird thing about the weather here is that yesterday was bright and sunny, today it's snowing and blowing, and tomorrow it's meant to be bright and sunny again, although with temperatures barely into the 40s at best.

Now, 40°F is not quite 4.5°C, and that's a miserable max for a sunny day. The Weather Channel promises that it'll warm up a bit for the rest of our stay each day, getting all the way up to 57°F (13.8°C) on Wednesday. After the incredible run with warmth and sunshine all the way from Las Vegas to New Orleans and then on to Atlanta, we're not complaining for a nanosecond. In fact I would like to thank Huey the Weather God for making our New York stay so interesting. Onya Huey!

New York Stories (2) - sculpture

If you're a regular reader of this blog you might remember this photo below, which concluded our last installment from New York City. Not only were we quite proud of ourselves for actually making it out to the Broadway station in Queens, on the N Subway line, without a hitch; when we stepped off the train and descended the stairs to be greeted by this sight we two movie buffs were giggling to ourselves about how cool it was to actually be under one of those overhead rail lines that we have seen in so many movies. However, we weren't trainspotting or movie-buffing that day. We were looking for art, as a friend had tipped off Pam that the Noguchi Museum and Sculpture Garden was well worth a visit.

Queens itself turned out to be a multicultural area that felt just a bit, only a teensy bit, like our home suburb of Marrickville back in Sydney. You name an ethnic group, both Queens and Marrickville probably have them. Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese, Korean, North African, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, African, Egyptian, etc etc. After getting off the train it was an easy, shortish 10-block walk down the interesting main street (called Broadway) to the Noguchi.

It was a shame that we'd already had lunch before setting off on the train trip: otherwise our Tummy Time correspondent could have sampled this fine looking diner here in Queens.

However, we were here on a cultural mission to see The Noguchi Museum, which you can read all about here. The short version is that Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese/American artist who worked in many media. Here, the gallery mostly shows his sculptures in stone, steel and timber, but at the Gallery Shop you can also buy his hand-made paper lanterns, for which he is also justly famous in designer homeware stores around the world. The Gallery and Museum itself is set into two very different buildings which seamlessly flow into one another inside, and both in turn can lead you out into a tranquil outdoor sculpture garden. Pictured above is the white-walled, timber-floored building which consists of several large, airy open rooms that display the small- to medium-sized pieces in the collection.

The other building is a less appealing space, built from grey cinder blocks, yet the large, earthy stone sculptures here look as if they belong here and nowhere else.

As I have mentioned several times in this blog, it's the things you've never seen before, didn't imagine ever existed, which so often make the greatest impact as you travel. The Noguchi collection is another case in point. I always seek out sculpture galleries as a traveller, as mere photos in books fall way, way short of doing any sculpture justice. You need to see sculpture in the flesh to fall in love with it.

It's the stone which is always the star in every work here. Noguchi set up his workshop out here in the urban wastelands of Queens in the early 1960s in these very buildings, as they were in the same street as all the specialist stone suppliers who unloaded the ships from the nearby river.

His collection showcases marbles from around the world, plus granites, travertines and other beautiful stones. At times he works them into shapes as if they were children's plasticine.

Several pieces include a 'twist' on the stone, as if it were a licorice stick warped a fraction then plonked on a plinth.

As well as shaping the stones, he explores their inner textures, skilfully combining brilliant polished surfaces with pockmarked roughness in the one piece.

As we walked around the gallery, the garden outside could be seen through every window.

We've been to many superb Japanese gardens where the traditional emphasis has always been on creating a miniature landscape through the careful placement of stones and the clipping of shrubs, as well as the deft layout of sculptures, water, seats and pavilions. Here at the Noguchi, it is a simpler thing, a Japanese sculpture garden, a tranquil place with large, coarse gravel rocks at your feet, and a stimulating mixture of smooth and polished stones in shapes ranging from the geometric to the organic. It's not as precious as the more traditional Japanese garden. I felt more relaxed here, by comparison.

After the Noguchi visit, we stopped off at the Socrates Sculpture Park just down the road on Vernon Boulevard (here's a link to the website for it). Once a derelict riverside headland of weeds, the park is now an open area venue for changing exhibits by local sculptors.

The nearby district isn't flash by any means, but this Park and the Noguchi Museum are in the vanguard of the effort to rejuvenate inner urban lands in every borough of New York City, not just as a venue for art, but more importantly to improve the areas as places for anyone, everyone, to live in.

When we visited, we first came across this artful arrangement of glass doors.

A stainless steel giraffe across the way glowed with good cheer, despite the cloudy afternoon.

A small tree dressed in thousands of bangles looked like a long-necked tribal dancer ready to party.

One fears for the well being of this mortarless wall of bricks on a windy, stormy night, but perhaps the artist has given it inner strength?

And down by the riverside, this member of the Stones is just waiting for his cue to get rolling.

Standing on the edge of the Socrates Sculpture Park, the view here is across towards the many apartments of Uptown Manhattan.

With the first first dark clouds of the cold change forecast for tomorrow looming overhead, and with sunset not so far away, we wandered back up the 10 blocks to the Subway station and headed back for home.

Along the way, not sure at which stop, a young man carrying an accordion, accompanied by his young girlfriend/wife with a one-year-old baby on her hip (plus a baseball cap to collect the tips), asked for the passengers' attention and then started busking a Middle-European tune. It was $2 well spent. Then, when we got off the train at 34th Street, an acapella busker group (five African-American singers with a young white guy on upright acoustic bass) singing a very respectable doo-wop repertoire also loosened another two bucks from our wallet.

As I sit here writing this blog, it's actually snowing in New York around lunchtime Saturday, and it's set to get colder and snowier and windier the more the day drags on. They say it's the first time it has snowed here in October since 1925, so aren't we lucky to be snowed in! Pammy and I are still working on getting a decent photo of it for you (tricky stuff to photograph in the city, falling snow) but right now it's not so much fluttering down, as fluttering sideways in the wind.

While New York is such a marvellous headquarters for so many man-made marvels, it's really wonderful right now to see Mother Nature brushing her cold, snowy hand across the city, just to remind these mere mortals who is boss. Yes, ma'am.