Americana Across the Empire State

Olcott Beach Carousel Park

Like a boomerang, I completed a 33-hour trip across New York State and back last weekend, leaving Penn Station on Friday at 1:20 pm on a Buffalo-bound train, returning by car to Staten Island at 10 p.m. Saturday night. The Hudson River Valley, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, downtown Buffalo, Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes all sped by in an often-rainy blur–but there were plenty of highlights.

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Fete Paradiso: Antique French Carnival Rides at Governors Island

Fete Paradiso, Governors Island

When people ask me what I like most about living in New York, my answer is always the wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods within reach. If I want Arabic food, I have dozens of options on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge. If I want Greek, I head to Astoria, where I can buy a dozen varieties of feta. And so forth.

But a traveling exhibit on Governors Island of antique French carnival rides provides not only the opportunity to experience another culture, but also another time. Fête Paradiso, which will leave New York at the end of this month, brings together a collection of late 19th and early 20th century carousels, flying swings and a pipe organ.

A short, free ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge Park brings New Yorkers away from the city and to an island where time seems to have stood still for decades. Take a short walk to Nolan Park, and suddenly you’re traveled back more than 100 years, to 19th Century Paris. From Fête Paradiso’s website,

The extraordinary festival of artisan-crafted, vintage carousels and carnival rides – like a French film miraculously come to life – is the first of its kind to appear in the United States. Among the classic attractions, which come from the collections of Francis Staub and Regis Masclet, is a bicycle carousel from the late 19th century – one of only two in the world that were created in Paris to encourage the use of what was then the new mode of transportation – the bicycle. (The only other bicycle carousel can be seen in the feature film Midnight in Paris.) Fête Paradiso will also include an early 20th century Music-Hall Ball Guzzler, a carnival game that features life-size caricatures of Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, Charlie Chaplin, the Fratellini Brothers and other celebrities of the time. …

To further enhance the nostalgic, dreamlike experience, a bumper car pavilion from 1900 has been transformed into a beer garden and special event space with food reminiscent of a French carnival prepared by New York’s legendary French bistro Le Gamin. In addition, a 1930 children’s carousel has been repurposed into a music kiosk, where performers will entertain visitors with period music and side show performances to heighten the Fellini-inspired environment.

The bicycle carousel dates to 1892, and riding it was quite an experience, physically and mentally. Those riding the carousel are expected to pedal, first forward, then backward. I left the ride out of breath, eager for a cold refreshing $4 lemonade from the concession.

As the carnival attendant, dressed in black-and-white striped shirt, warned us to mind our iPhones and other valuables, I thought back to the makers of this 121-year-old ride. As they fashioned the intricate metal bicycles and painted beautiful scenes around the top of the ride, they hardly could have imagined that more than a century later and a continent away, little children and grown adults, all carrying tiny telephones that doubled as video cameras, would be enjoying their handiwork. To those who built this ride with an eye for detail, beauty and enjoyment, I extend my appreciation. I am thankful as well to the collectors who had the foresight to preserve this collection of nostalgia and the imagination to assemble it into an attraction for New Yorkers to enjoy.

Fête Paradiso is here until Sept. 29 (when Governors Island all but closes to the public for the season), though one of the carnival workers said the rides may return here next summer after visiting warmer sites in the United States for the fall and winter. For more information on Brooklyn and Manhattan ferries to Governors Island, check out Governors Island’s website.

Below are some photos from my trip to Fête Paradiso last Sunday …

Fete Paradiso, Governors Island Fete Paradiso, Governors Island Fete Paradiso, Governors Island Fete Paradiso, Governors Island

Fete Paradiso, Governors Island

July 4 on Coney Island

Nathans Coney Island, Brooklyn

Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a new record today, eating 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.

Yuck, yuck, yuck!

I didn’t make it to Coney Island today to watch, but I was there last night, when a swaying tower closed many of the amusement rides for safety concerns. The nearly 50-year-old Astrotower, which once offered commanding views Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ocean, was partially dismantled during the night in the hopes that rides, including the Cyclone, would reopen today.

The newly restored B&B Carousell (yes, the second L is intentional) was also closed late last night, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the Astrotower; I think I was just there too late. I was also looking forward to seeing the lights of the newly blinged-out parachute jump, but the 262-foot tall structure was dark.

The evening, however, was saved by fireworks, which shot off over MCU Park after the Brooklyn Cyclones beat the Staten Island Yankees 2-1. I had a good vantage point across the street from Nathan’s.

Nathan's Famous, Coney Island, Brooklyn Nathan's Famous, Coney Island, Brooklyn

If you missed the fireworks last night, MCU Park and its concessions will open today at 4:30 p.m. The Cyclones are on the road, but the park will offer a good vantage point for tonight’s fireworks at 9 p.m.

I hope to see them from across the Raritan Bay at the end of the fishing pier in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze.

Signs of Spring in New York City

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils in bloom between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge

The first signs of Spring are evident throughout the boroughs this week. While daffodils have been in bloom for a few weeks now, tulips are on the verge of opening, and many pear, cherry and plum trees seem to be at their prime.

The Spring colors have been striking. Here are some photos I have taken over the last week in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Tulips in Washington Square Park
A field of tulips in Washington Square Park prepares to open into a sea of yellow.
Narrows Botanical Gardens in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils and forsythia add a splash of Spring color to the Narrows Botanical Gardens between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge.
Cherry blossoms in Prospect Park
Cherry blossoms frame Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Prospect Park
Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Though these trees have yet to respond to Spring’s mild temperatures, the residents of Brooklyn have. Many were out enjoying Prospect Park last weekend.
Pear blossoms in Red Hook
Pear blossoms on Conover Street in Red Hook.
Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn
OK maybe Spring isn’t everywhere. I couldn’t find a single Spring blossom along the Gowanus Canal from my vantage point on the Union Street Bridge.


Staten Island’s Wild Turkeys: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

Staten Island turkeys
Wild turkeys along Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood

Did you know Staten Island had a turkey infestation?

Friends of mine on the other side of the country have a difficult time believing me when I tell them I have wild turkeys in my New York City neighborhood. But anyone who has ever driven down Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood knows that it’s true: Hundreds of wild turkeys roam the streets, sidewalks and front yards around Staten Island University Hospital.

The following are five facts about Staten Island’s turkeys that you probably didn’t know:

  1. They began as pets—nine of them. The Daily News reported, “Ocean Breeze’s turkey terror began in 1999 when a local resident liberated her nine pet birds at nearby South Beach Psychiatric Center.” Of course, since then, they have become a huge nuisance for residents, as Dongan Hills resident Marian Besignano of Alter Avenue told the Staten Island Advance last year:

    Mrs. Besignano recalls that the first sightings of wild turkeys in Ocean Breeze occurred about 12 years ago. “When we saw one big turkey and three babies, we called the Advance, and a photographer came and took a picture,” because it was so unusual, she said.

    She felt sorry for the birds, and fed them. “And the woman photographer from the Advance wanted to buy food for them,” she remembered.

    “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have fed them!” she said.

  2. They’re a hybrid species—and this makes it all the more difficult to find them a home. The Staten Island Advance reported, “The state DEC says recent photos of the turkeys here show feathering that indicates they are hybrids, likely a blend of domesticated turkeys and special captive-bred wild turkeys.DEC has so far been unable to find any facilities willing or able to take the turkeys that would be able to keep them separate from wild turkey populations,” the report continued.
  3. A local resident has offered to relocate them. Greg Ruggiero of Dongan Hills told the Staten Island Advance last year that he would donate $5,000 to cover their humane transport to a safe, new home (as well as a store-bought Butterball roaster for every turkey successfully relocated). But at the time the article was written, no facility could take the birds and keep them separate from others (see No. 2, above).
  4. They’re as famous as drunken baboons in South Africa. The humor website ranked our infestation on a Biblical scale, up there with flying carp, hordes of African snails and other phenomena from the far reaches of the world.
  5. Our residents are split on whether we should harvest the turkeys and serve them at local homeless shelters. In October 2011, the Staten Island Advance reported:

    Less than a month before Thanksgiving, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released its long-simmering “Experiences and Attitudes Toward Turkeys: A Richmond County Survey,” conducted by Cornell University by mail and phone with 451 residents of Dongan Hills, South Beach and Ocean Breeze.

    A DEC spokesman was unable to provide a price tag on the survey — but here’s what was learned:

    Sixty-one percent of respondents reported seeing turkeys daily and 25.5 percent weekly.

    But how to manage them presents a split decision: A combined 51 percent answered that harvesting some of their meat for local food banks is “very,” “moderately” or “slightly” acceptable.

    But 47 percent flat-out say no way.

So for now, the turkeys remain. They survived Sandy. They survive Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. They even survive Hylan Boulevard. A few weeks ago, near Cromwell, I almost honked at the car in front of me for not moving when the light turned green—and then I realized, we were stopped to let the turkeys cross.

These reports include sporadic stories of the turkeys being angry or aggressive. Thankfully, among the dozens of times I have run past them on Seaview Avenue, none has tried to attack me. They either ignore me or walk away slowly.

A few years ago, I saw them outside my home on Delaware Street in Dongan Hills Colony. They hung a right at Dalemere, probably heading to the Chapin woods. I wonder what would happen if they had continued on and settled in the yard of a Todt Hill estate?

Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

Grand Central Terminal

This 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal has been in the news for a few weeks here in New York City. While I missed much of WNYC’s reporting on the subject, I commemorated the anniversary by taking a 2-hour Municipal Art Society tour of the station yesterday, and by reading much of the 100-year-old New York Times special section, a PDF from the archives that the Times made available last week.

Here are five interesting facts I picked up in the last couple days:

  1. The Glory of Commerce sculpture above the 42nd Street entrance weighs 1,500 tons and was carried up in sections in June 1914. Designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, the final, full-size piece was carved in Long Island City, Queens.
  2. The Grand Central Oyster Bar also turned 100 yesterday. Though, like the station, the restaurant fell into decline in the 1970s, it has been in almost continuous operation over the last 100 years. Having heard what the station was like in the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a restaurant as nice as the current oyster bar being in the station. Sure enough, it wasn’t that great of a place to eat. Owner Jerome Brody describes the decline of the restaurant, before he assumed ownership in 1974:

    With the decline of the long-haul passenger train system, came the decline of the restaurant. It had no position among New York restaurants, and while thousands of commuters passed by everyday, very few went inside to eat.

    In 1974, when I was approached by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to take it over, the old restaurant had been bankrupt and empty for two years, having become in its last days not much more than a sad, old coffee shop. Reluctantly, I inspected what remained of its former grandness. The elegant marble columns you see in the restaurant today were then painted aquamarine over wallpaper. The wall covering was yellow Cello-tex™. The furniture was upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.

  3. Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue Graham, in the whisper gallery just outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I have never tried the whisper gallery, where two people can stand across the room from each other and hear each other’s whispers carried across the vaulted ceiling–but plenty of others were trying it yesterday.
  4. The use of ramps in a public building was fairly new. It was seen as an efficient way to move large amounts of people from one floor to the next, without the inconvenience (and danger) of stairs. The New York Times described the ramps in its Feb. 2, 1913 edition:

    The infinite pains taken in this respect is used as an illustration of the care taken in every detail. When it was decided that inclined walks should serve as the footways leading into the huge subterranean station, the idea was borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Ceasar’s army–no pains were spared to arrive at just the proper angle of inclination.

  5. For 25 cents, you could store your bags, and then change your clothes in a private dressing room, with a maid or valet to assist you. Again, from the Feb. 2, 1913, New York Times:

    Should the woman passenger want to primp us still more, or if she should want to return after a shopping tour to change her costume for a social function, she may have her suitcase or her trunk, for that matter, sent to a private dressing room, for the use of which, with a maid in attendance, she will pay 25 cents …

    The man with two days’ business or pleasure to crowd into one can reserve a dressing room at the barber shop, leave his suitcase there all day, rush back at 6 o’clock to get into evening clothes, with the aid of a valet if he wishes, all for 25 cents. A haberdashery adjoining the barber shop is ready to replace a lost collar button or supply anything else needed. Here, at least, men are accorded equal rights with woman.

And there you have it. If you want to learn more, join the Municipal Art Society on one of its weekly Wednesday tours of Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Which Two Presidents Were Sworn in in New York City?

123 Lexington Avenue
123 Lexington Avenue, where the United States’ 21st president was sworn in in his second-floor parlor. (Almost all pictures on this site are my own; this one, however, I borrowed from Google.)

Do you know the answer to this one? I almost stumped a history-know-it-all-with this question.

Those who know me know that I spend most Friday nights at Lee’s tavern, a decades-old bar and pizzeria by the Dongan Hills train station in Staten Island (more on Lee’s in a later post). Among the regulars at the bar is an older eccentric fellow whom we’ll call BW.

I had never had a conversation with BW prior to last Friday, but I had heard from others that he has a Rain Man-like knack for remembering dates and other trivia. He also has a reputation for annoying people with odd selections on the Internet juke box, like Old McDonald Had A Farm (to be fair, I’ll add that last week he played one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs, “That’s Life.”)

Last Friday, he was at the end of the bar, chatting with a husband and wife. The wife turned around in disbelief and said to no one in particular, “It’s Friday night and they’re talking about Martin van Buren! Martin van Buren!”

As long as they were talking about a president from our state, I seized the opportunity to challenge them with some recently acquired New York City presidential trivia. I jumped up from my table, put my hands on their shoulders and asked them, “Which two presidents were sworn in in New York City?

Immediately BW spoke up: “Washington and …. and … Theodore Roosevelt?”

“Right on Washington, wrong on Roosevelt, but you’re on the right track.” (Both Roosevelt and the correct president, Chester Arthur, were from New York and took office in the state of New York after an assassination.)

With my hint and some more time to think, he finally guessed correctly—and for a bonus, without my prompting, he added the street where the swearing in took place: Lexington Avenue.

And there you have it. If you ever want to stump a history-know-it-all, you now have a good trivia question. And if you want to know more …

  • George Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street, on April 30, 1789. The original building was demolished in 1812. The building that stands there now, once the United States Custom House, is now Federal Hall National Memorial.
  • And Chester Arthur was sworn in in the front parlor of his home, on the second floor at 123 Lexington Avenue (between 28th and 29th streets) by New York Supreme Court Judge John R Brady. The building is now home to Kalustyan’s, a specialty Indian food store.

In her fascinating account of James Garfield’s assassination, “The Destiny of the Republic,” (which I am now reading) Candice Millard describes the swearing in:

That morning, Arthur had received a telegram from Washington warning him that Garfield’s condition was perilous. Still, he had not been prepared when a messenger had knocked on his door late that night. Just a few hours later, he found himself standing in his parlor, its green blinds closed to the newsmen gathered outside, with a New York state judge standing before him, swearing him into office. By 2:15 a.m. on September 20, Arthur had become the twenty-first president of the United States.

Lee's Tavern, Staten Island, NY
My Sam Adams (in a Heineken glass) at Table 6 at Lee’s Tavern, Staten Island, last Friday night, just before my conversation with BW.