Long Island City

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Do you look back now and wish you had bought into Williamsburg or Dumbo 10 or 15 years ago? (I know I do.) Today’s dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) takes place in a neighborhood that you may be feeling that way about in the very near future – and in fact, many of the true bargains are already in the past – Long Island City, Queens. One subway stop from 59th and Lexington (on the N and Q lines) and from Grand Central (on the 7 train), or from 53rd and Lexington (on the E train), this neighborhood is much more convenient to midtown Manhattan than most areas in Manhattan itself, has a thriving arts scene, and a park on the East River with magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline.

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Long Island City (LIC) was its own actual city until joining greater New York in 1898. The area was originally the home to numerous factories and bakeries, but now many of these spaces have been or are in the process of being transformed. The Silvercup Bakery site was converted in 1983 to Silvercup Studios, the largest TV and film production studio in the Northeast United States. “Sex and the City” shot there, and current shows shot at Silvercup include “Elementary” and “Girls.” The sign is visible from many areas in LIC and from the 7, N and Q trains as you head toward Queensboro Plaza. The iconic Pepsi-Cola sign, visible from most riverfront areas of Midtown East in Manhattan, sits in front of the former Pepsi factory, now being converted to residential condos.

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In my walk around Long Island City, I was drawn as usual to the waterfront – in this case, a beautiful sprawling park along the East River. Hunter’s Point South Park (a city park) and Gantry Plaza State Park meander for about a mile along the shores of the East River. The views of Midtown Manhattan from here are extraordinary.

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The rapidly changing nature of this neighborhood has its pluses and minuses, as is typical when an area is redeveloped. The building covered in graffiti from multiple artists, 5 Pointz, was painted over despite protests and has now been demolished as the site is being replaced by a residential condo development. On the other hand, since the contemporary art museum PS1 (named after the school building it took over) merged with MoMA in 2000, the museum attracts approximately 150,000 visitors a year to LIC.

The first open house I ever worked in real estate was for a friend and colleague who sold a townhouse in Long Island City for a record price, but one that was still a fraction of what one would pay in Manhattan, or Brooklyn. Queens has come a long way since Claude in Hair (the tribal rock musical on Broadway) claimed to be from Manchester, England, to disguise his shame at hailing from Flushing. Long Island City is already transforming, and while it is still possible to find relative bargains here, a beautiful landmarked townhome or a new development condo with a city view won’t be even relative bargains soon. I was recently asked at a party for advice on investing in a new area (not an uncommon topic of conversation once someone learns you are in real estate) and I recommended Long Island City. The largest producer of fortune cookies in the United States (4 million per day!) is in LIC, but if you decide to make a purchase in the area now, you might be able to create your own luck.

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Morningside Heights

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Bounded by Manhattan Valley to the south, Harlem to the north, Morningside Park to the east, and Riverside Park and the Hudson River to the West, Morningside Heights is an area with a long history (an important Revolutionary War battle was fought here) and many illustrious former residents (F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Cecil B. deMille, Fiona Apple, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama among them). Recently I have heard of a trend to call the area “SoHa” or “south of Harlem” – but other than the names of a few places in the neighborhood, have not actually heard anyone use this term! Recently I took a winter stroll through the area to get a feel for what Morningside Heights has to offer.

To begin my dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment), I walked along Central Park West until I hit 110th Street, and turned west. Dominating the horizon almost immediately is the fourth largest Christian church in the world, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Also known as “St. John the Unfinished,” it was designed in 1888 and begun in 1892, but was interrupted by two world wars and is still being fully completed. The Cathedral takes up a huge swath of land on Amsterdam Avenue between 110th and 113th Streets. A pleasant mix of secular and religious, the interior features sculptures of figures representing great thinkers of different centuries: representing the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are William Shakespeare, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. In 2001 the 20th century representatives were completed with a group of four: Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and Mohandas Gandhi. A center for the arts, Philippe Petit (the French high-wire walker who was the subject of Man on Wire) is the Artist in Residence.

When I stopped by on this dérive in late December of 2014, one of the largest pieces of sculpture ever exhibited in the US, Phoenix (by Chinese artist Xu Bing) dominated the nave, two enormous birds suspended in air, looking at the Rose Window. The Cathedral’s Halloween celebration is a “don’t miss” (unless you fail to get your tickets early enough and are shut out) – a screening of an old silent horror movie accompanied by live organ music, followed by the Procession of the Ghouls, a parade of costumed performers and enormous spooky puppets. There are so many reasons to visit the Cathedral – the Feast of St. Francis procession that could include animals as diverse as a kangaroo, a camel, or a yak; the wild and wonderful Winter Solstice celebration – that living in proximity to it would be sufficient to make someone want to be a resident of this neighborhood, in my opinion.

However, walking west from the Cathedral along 113th Street, the quiet nature of these side streets provides yet another reason to live here. Although Broadway is bustling with places to eat and shop, the side streets are largely residential. Continuing west, I ran into Riverside Park, gorgeous year-round. Walking north, I treasured the magnificent buildings along Riverside Drive that face the Hudson River and the park, and their wonderful old-world elegance.

Turning to walk east along 116th Street, I appreciated the banners representing Barnard College – Transforming women and the world for 125 years. One thing people don’t generally think of when they think of New York City is that in fact it is a “college town.” There are over 600,000 students enrolled in the city’s 120 colleges and universities – more than any other city in the United States (yes, more than Boston!). Continuing up 116th Street to Broadway, I entered the campus of NYC’s own member of the Ivy League, Columbia University. It is the fifth oldest institute of higher learning in the US, and one of only nine “Colonial Colleges” founded before the American Revolution. Originally named King’s College and located at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, it moved (under its post-Revolution name, Columbia College) to midtown for about 50 years in the 1800’s and then to its current spot (as Columbia University) in Morningside Heights in 1896. Although the campus was designed along Beaux-Arts principles, neo-classical styles abound, including its grand library, named one of the most beautiful in the United States.

Columbia’s presence remains a stabilizing force in Morningside Heights, but doesn’t dominate the neighborhood. Residential prices in the area are more reasonable than the Upper West Side, but with abundant public transportation it’s still an easy trip into midtown or downtown. Where else can you confirm who is buried in Grant’s Tomb (Riverside at W. 122nd) or search for peacocks wandering in a garden behind a grand unfinished cathedral? Morningside Heights is a wonderful destination, whether you are an occasional visitor or decide to become a resident.

Dumbo

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If you have ever been to Paris, you will know the experience of feeling that every street frames a picture-perfect view. It’s not difficult to take a good photograph in Paris – the city displays itself in such a way that every shot turns out to be achingly gorgeous. I love New York City, and particularly enjoy walking around the city in an unplanned way (a dérive), and wonderful photo opportunities are easy to come by (particularly in Central Park, in my opinion). It wasn’t until a recent walk around Dumbo in Brooklyn, however, that I had the same experience I had in Paris – an area so photogenic that it was hard to put my camera (phone) down.

An acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, the neighborhood is a relatively small swath of real estate largely between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges along the East River waterfront, and also continuing a bit east from the Manhattan Bridge. Originally a manufacturing area called Fulton Landing after the ferry stop that was the only way to get there from Manhattan until the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, by the 1970’s industry had largely moved out and the area had its new (endearingly silly) name. In the constant cycle of reinvention that exists in New York City, the area is now a hub for the arts, and for the tech industry – holding 500 tech businesses within a ten block radius. In 2007, the New York City Landmarks Commission made Dumbo a historic district, and since then the value of residential real estate in the area has soared.

To get to the area from Manhattan, there is still ferry service, but it is also easily accessible via subway. I took the 4 subway down the east side and transferred at the spectacular new Fulton station to the A train. One stop toward Brooklyn and I emerged ready to experience a walk around Dumbo. It is helpful to remember that the ground slopes down toward the river in this neighborhood, and with the Brooklyn Bridge on one side and the Manhattan Bridge on the other, it would be difficult to lose your sense of direction here.

Heading down Washington Street, I was quickly struck by the charming nature of this area. The streets are largely cobblestoned as in Tribeca, the repurposed industrial buildings (now residential) are warm rather than imposing, the ground level shops are interesting rather being cookie-cutter national chains, and the geometric shapes formed by the angles of the bridges to either side frame every view perfectly.

I am always drawn to waterfront if it is nearby, so I continued to slope down toward the East River. To my surprise, there were small rocky/sandy sections along the river that looked more like a beach than a riverbank! Of course, the views of the bridges to each side here were even more spectacular. Jutting out into the water toward the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw the famous Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 and helpfully covered so that it can operate year round (tickets are only $2). Looking back toward Dumbo, I could see the ongoing construction that is continuing to transform the waterfront. St. Ann’s Warehouse is converting an old tobacco warehouse to house its theater offerings (“Where theater meets rock and roll” – well, you had me at “theater” but I like where this catchphrase is going!). Because the shell of the building is landmarked, they will build an entirely modern facility like a nesting doll within the shell but not touching the walls of it.

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Walking along Water Street, one block away from the waterfront, I enjoyed looking at some of the colorful graffiti along some of the buildings under construction, but did wonder how much longer any of that will be around this rapidly transforming area. Passing Jacques Torres’ famous chocolate shop, I decided not to go in – this time. Continuing past the Galapagos Art Space while looping back to Washington Street and preparing to walk back to Manhattan along the pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge (highly recommended; see my photo tour of the experience here), I realized how many experiences were left for me to experience when I come back – pizza at Grimaldi’s, a ride on Jane’s Carousel, decadent hot chocolate at Jacques Torres – and decided that my next trip to Dumbo will be sooner rather than later.

There are no real estate bargains to be had in Dumbo these days, but if you have the money and the desire to live in a beautiful center for the arts that happens to be tucked away from the bustle of the city – but with killer views of it – in my opinion, it is well worth the cost.

A photo tour of a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

Whether you are fortunate enough to live and work in New York City, as I do, or are an occasional visitor, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is a magical experience – and free as well as good exercise as added benefits! The following is a series of photographs I took on a clear morning in late December (temperature was 38 degrees F, not bad in the least if you dress correctly), walking from the Brooklyn side to Manhattan. First of all, unless you plan to walk across both ways (which is not a bad idea if you have the time), the walk toward Manhattan is the more dramatic one. I also recommend this direction for the morning or evening hours – in the morning, the light is behind you and highlights what you are photographing, and in the evening of course the city lights are at their best. If you walk this direction on a sunny afternoon, the sun will be in your eyes as well as backlighting the buildings, ruining your photos.

I will be showing how to get on the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway from Dumbo – many suggest getting on it deeper into Brooklyn, but first of all, to be near the Brooklyn Bridge and not talk a walk around Dumbo is a tragic loss of opportunity (my next blog post is about my walk around this incredibly charming area), and secondly, all you get from the traditional route is a gradual incline up to the bridge with no significant views. You need to be good with stairs to take this route, however. After your walk around Dumbo, head away from the river on Washington Street, and soon signs will helpfully point out where you take a set of stairs up to meet the pedestrian lane.

It’s not a long walk, but allow plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views, and how they change as you walk over the East River. Keep looking to your left to catch views of the Statue of Liberty and later the downtown skyline featuring One World Trade, and to your right to see the Empire State Building and the rest of the midtown skyline (I particularly enjoyed seeing the Empire State, Chrysler, and 432 Park together, suggesting a skyline willing to encompass both the old and the new).

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