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Category Archives: New York Neighborhoods

Neighborhoods New York, Special Edition: Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl, April 30 2016

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Lately, I’ve been realizing I’m in a bit of a rut.  I slacked off with this blog some, I was spending too many nights zoning out in front of the television, and I wasn’t exploring the city.  So I needed to shake things up a little – cut the cable and stock up on books, get out and see more of the city, and have something to write about.

This weekend’s Brooklyn Bookstore Crawl let me do all three in one very big fell swoop.  In honor of Independent Bookstore Day, a lot of Brooklyn’s indie bookstores banded together to make a day out of it – with special sales, promotions, and funky events, meant to draw us all in and send us hopping from store to store.  And thus I spent the afternoon on a whirlwind tour – of five bookstores I actually know about already.  Oh well.

FREEBIRD BOOKS

I’d actually just been at Freebird, my first stop, only two days before.  Freebird is a quirky used book store, which is only open on weekends – but it also operates as a collection site for a couple of book-donation charities, like Books Through Bars, which gives reading material to prisoners.  Peter, the owner, was especially pleased with a couple of the books I brought in to donate; somehow I acquired a couple of Spanish-language books, including a Spanish-language guide to Feng Shui, which he said would definitely end up with Books Through Bars.  As he sorted through my books, I made a beeline to see if a book I’d seen a couple nights prior was still there.

Freebird hosts the only book club I’ve ever stuck with for more than two meetings – a club devoted exclusively to post-apocalyptic fiction.  I can’t even begin to figure out what draws me to that niche – because hoo boy, is that a niche – but I thought I was the only one who was into it, until last February, when I discovered the club.  The group’s been meeting there for eight years, and the members – a faithful lot – are all a wildly interesting lot, including publishers, doctors, students, and bakers among them.

But while just before our last meeting, I saw Peter slipping a used copy of the WPA Guide to New York onto a sale shelf – and was instantly covetous.  And – it was still there.  I brought it to the counter just as Peter was finishing sorting my books; he tipped me off to another club he’s thinking of starting, devoted to New York-centric books.

A young couple was coming in as I was heading happily out – their eyes drawn to some of the shelves towards the front, where Peter displays books that have especially unfortunate author photos or books with really bad titles.

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BOOKCOURT

Bookcourt is a little sleeker and spiffier compared to Freebird.  They also had a whole roster of events, all of which I managed to miss – I showed up about twenty minutes too late for a trivia contest, and an hour too early for an author lecture. But no matter. I tend to visit this place for some of the more mass-market things anyway – the rack of Dover Thrift Editions of the classics or their Moleskinne collection. In fact – usually I come to browse while sitting in an insanely comfortable couch they have towards the back.

Bookcourt was encouraging people to take selfies “with your favorite book”.  I wasn’t going to at first – something about a middle-aged woman taking a selfie seemed undignified, and there was no way in hell I was going to be able to pick one favorite book.  But then I spotted a nice big copy of Boccacio’s Decameronwhich is definitely one of my favorites.

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Plus the copy was also big enough to hide behind.

POWERHOUSE ARENA

I have absolutely no idea why I’d never realized that Powerhouse was also a publisher. Possibly because I’ve always only gone in when I was looking for something fairly small, to slip into a pocket on my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Or I hover towards the front, where they also have a little collection of blank books, crafty things and candles. Once I even got a map pinpointing “Brooklyn’s Best diners”.  But sure enough, they have a sizeable collection of titles themselves – mostly photo and art books, with some…odd craft titles as well.IMG_1885IMG_1886

GREENLIGHT BOOKSTORE

My ‘hood!  I’ve stopped in here plenty of times – so much so that I am in their rewards program, and it’s often one of my “I don’t know what to do with myself” options on a weekend.  Today, though, they’d really pulled out the stops for the Independent Bookstore Day activities – including a “photo booth” right by the door, where a bunch of local authors were taking turns letting patrons pose for pictures with them, complete with silly props.  I didn’t recognize the author holding court when I was there – Tanwi Nandini Islamwhose first book just came out. She saw me hovering curiously around the booth and asked if I wanted a picture.  “….I guess…” I said, putting my bag down.  I confessed that I thought that the whole idea of selfies was a little undignified.

“Aw, why be dignified?” Tanwi said. “In fact, I think that undignified is more interesting.”  She grinned and thrust a hat at me, and put one on herself, and then turned me to the camera and put on a mock-serious face.

Sometimes you just have to go with the moment.

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The crowds around the table where her book was were too thick, so I resolved to pick it up later in thanks. But I did find something tucked on a back shelf – a graphic novel retelling of some of the racier stories from the Bible.  The clerk chatted with me about the book as he rang me up.  “Have you ever heard this guy speak?”

“No, can’t say I have.”

“I did, for his last book,” he said, scanning my book.  “He’s pretty…interesting.”

I wasn’t sure why he hesitated until later, when I read through the book and saw that the author was also making an impassioned argument that there is a good deal of Biblical support for prostitution.  His scholarship is credible, but…he has a bit of a zealot’s fervor.  Still, it was an eye-catching enough title that Tanwi saw me with it as I made my way out, and gave me a wink and called, “That doesn’t look dignified! Good for you!”

UNNAMEABLE BOOKS

Maybe it’s because of the prices, or maybe it’s because of the curation – but I love used bookstores.  The people running them always have a discriminating eye, and eclectic taste.  Peter at Freebird is one example (come on, an emphasis on New York and post-apocalyptic fiction?), and here at Unnameable, there’s a good collection of religion, poetry, and small presses, a whole shelf of mass-market sci-fi paperbacks, and two shelves of books on sex.  Although that section is way up at the top of its bookshelf, so you have to ask for the ladder to get at it; I suspect a lot of people are too shy to ask.

Today, though, was the first time I learned that the staff has a collection of “Weird Things We Found In Books” posted on one of the walls.  I made my choice here early, but then spent a good five minutes browsing the wall before even making it to the cash register.

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If I’m giving books away to a used bookstore, I check them pretty carefully.  This has all only strengthened my resolve to check them even more carefully, or possibly never get rid of any book again just in case.

Neighborhoods New York Hometurf Holiday Special: Clinton Hill

Alien and Astronaut, 2015

So my neighborhood goes kind of big for Halloween.

The weekend before (or after, depending) there is a whole Halloween parade/fun day for kids in Fort Greene Park, complete with hay rides, a pumpkin patch, and a costume parade.  There’s also a dog costume contest at the north end of the park. And then at night, three blocks close to car traffic and three houses all stage competing stage shows – there’s the family-friendly option and the B-movie-lovers’ option, and then there’s the jazz band that jams on the sidewalk in monster costumes.   Combine that with every kid in the neighborhood running around hopped up on sugar, three ice cream trucks and someone selling glow-in-the-dark toys out of a street cart, and it’s quite the spectacle.

This year was the first time I’d tried to catch the dog show – and I foolishly thought I could just wander over a few minutes after they started.  Surely there’d still be a seat, right?

Ha.  There were over 150 contestants, all crowded on the steps leading down to the stage, with a tuxedoe’d MC and a woman in a kitty costume keeping some kind of order while scores of dogs in various states of dress waddled about.  The MC was already introducing contestant number 28 when I turned up, and I had to walk the long way around the crowd, stopping only to take the occasional picture before finally sitting on top of a wall next to a very friendly boxer, and in front of a French Bulldog with a strange little froggy bark.

Lots of people went with some variant of either cars or food; there was a matched set, a taco and a taco truck.

Taco and Taco Truck (Fort Green Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

There were no less than three Robin Hoods, four mermaids and a handful of dinosaurs.

T-Rex (Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

A lot of people also dressed up along with their dogs; like this “Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe”.

The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (2015 Pup Costume Contest)

The grand prize winners were a trio dressed as “Animal Control,” with the handlers dressed as squirrels being chased by a pug in a civic uniform with a net.  The Player Piano came in second.

Animal Control (First Prize, Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)Player Piano (Fort Greene Pup Costume Parade, 2015)

Things ended soon enough for me to try to get a healthy dinner before heading back outside; as I walked home, I passed small knots of kids already trick-or-treating in the various businesses along Myrtle Avenue, watching for shops with signs declaring “We Have Candy!”  The fishmarket had a hastily-scrawled message on a whiteboard – “All Out Of Candy, Sorry!”

I’d come up with a way to dress up as an angel – a hastily-pinned together thing with bedsheets, a sash, and a store-bought set of wings, with a royal blue sari draped around myself.  It was voluminous enough that I could put on layers underneath and not freeze outside.  My roommate – who is from Belgium, and said this was her first Halloween – declined my offer of a couple of my last years’ costumes, and said she would just observe.  We were on our way down the stairs when we ran into four kids – two from our neighbors on the second floor, and two other friends – who all turned when they saw us, and shouted, “Trick or treat!”

“Oh!”  We hadn’t counted on this.  “Oh dear…well, we angels don’t have pockets,” I said, “So… my angel helper can run up and get something.”  My roommate took the cue and ran back upstairs.  I stalled with some angelic-sounding patter, complimenting all the kids on their costumes; one girl was a phoenix, with elaborate makeup and a huge pair of gold wings, which she unfurled for me to show off.  “And you are?” I turned to a little boy, all wrapped up in green swaddling and green facepaint. Just as I was preparing to guess whether he was Leonardo or Michaelangelo Ninja turtle, he announced, “I’m a Green Mummy!

“Oh!  I’ve…never met a green mummy before, I didn’t know you….could be that color.”  Fortunately my Angel Helper came back with four Kind Bars she grabbed from the house stash and dropped them in each of the kids’ bags, and then we swanned out past them, me telling them to have a blessed Halloween.

 Most of the action was on the show blocks, but the whole way there we still passed clusters of kids with parents hurrying there; some of whom seem to have already gotten into the sugar.  One tiny Green Lantern was engaged in a swordfight with an Iron Man, until their cat-eared mother scolded them to “Knock it off and keep up!”  My roommate had offered to carry my things (angels don’t have pockets), but I asked her for my camera when I saw a kid dressed as an entire red British phone booth, complete with a fake take-a-number flyer advertising a used camera or something.  It even lit up inside.  Unfortunately, when I finally got my camera from her he turned his back to me, and I waited a couple fruitless minutes for him to turn back around to face me before giving up.  Meanwhile my roommate was trying to get a shot of the whole family of mom, dad, and three girls who’d all donned roller skates and light-up LED tubes to go as “Starlight Express.”

"Malice in Underland", Halloween 313 show, 2015

We’d showed up midway through one show, which was a strange mix of Alice in Wonderland with Fantastic Voyage – I think the premise was that Alice had been shrunk down to atomic size and she and her rag doll were now in Cheshire Cat’s body, trying to find their way to his brain.  An interesting idea, but maybe too high-concept in execution.  Right about the time that a bunch of kids in white body suits were trying to crowd the stage and Alice was saying “oh, no, Rags!  Cheshire’s leukocytes are trying to attack us!” my roommate turned to me and said “I don’t know if I get this.”

“Me either,” I admitted.  We went over to the next block, where Pam Fleming’s band was just wrapping up with “Monster Mash” before segueing into a slow blues jam about Satan coming for you and your woman.  It was near time for the second show to start, and I studied the set.

Set for Waverly Place Halloween Show, 2015

In years past, this show just used two side-by-side garages, one of which had a remote-control door opener; this year was their last show, so they went all out and made it bi-level, complete with full sound, neon lights in two separate languages and a video screen.

Set, 2015 Waverly Place Costume Parade

This block’s show always would go for the over-the-top gore and the B-movie monsters – lots of fake blood, fart jokes, and jump-scares.  For their final outing, they decided to go all-out, with a subplot about a roving reporter who’d devoted the past ten years to studying the “strange Halloween events of the past decade all fortelling a 2015 apocalypse”.  After a pre-taped review of all nine previous shows, he retreated to his “hotel room” at the top of the set, and the show then hit us with four classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, his Bride, Godzilla, and Wolfman, all rampaging through the set and fighting each other.  As soon as they showed up, about five parents towards the front who’d had kids perched on their shoulders started edging their way back away from the stage, all their kids in full-throated scream-cry mode.  The rest of the kids were a little baffled, and stayed so when Godzilla rampaged through a cardboard set of Brooklyn, squirting something out of a tank through the rear end of his costume.  “He’s pooping!” I heard one father in the crowd explain to his child.

Dracula, 2015 Waverly Place Halloween show

Dracula also showed up, as did a little girl in an Exorcist homage complete with bleeding walls and puked-up pea soup.  The show even sent our hero to hell, where he competed in a parody game show against past shows’ heros for a chance to be restored to life – but then he, and the world at large, was saved by Ultraman.

Ultraman, 2015 Waverly Place costume show

Only as soon as he got back to Earth, the Wolfman ate him, in a fantastic spray of fake blood.  The end.

Pam Fleming was starting up again as the cast took their last bows, but my roommate and I turned for home.

Neighborhoods New York: Fort Totten Halloween Special

I really should come back and do Fort Totten properly another time.  But this was too goofy to miss.

Fort Totten is one of the loads of forts scattered along New York’s harbor – built during one war or another, rendered obsolete, and consigned to a landmark or park status.  Fort Totten was built during the Civil War, and the original design for the battlements was far grander than what stands there today; but halfway through construction, it was becoming apparent that the Confederate Army probably wasn’t going to come quite so far north after all, so they scaled back a bit, and the “fort” ruins now occupy a small part of the shore overlooking Little Neck, on the northeast shore of Queens.

But that’s just the fort proper.  The area around it was a military base for a good while as well, complete with officers’ houses, a chapel, rec buildings, a workshop, an infirmary, an armory, and an officers’ club that ironically was designed by Robert E. Lee.  Most of it is now a city park, with some of the buildings used as training centers for city police, and a couple museums in some of the old buildings.  Rangers give tours of the fortification and battery itself.

But the weekend before Halloween, the rangers have a little fun and throw a different kind of tour.

The ads I’d seen said that the tour ran from 6:30 to 8:30; I thought I was doing well getting there just before 7.  But the line for the tour was already long and loud and boisterous, about fifty people huddled on the path down to the battery’s gate.  Four rangers kept order, waving us all into line and counting us off into groups, warning us not to use flashlights inside, and working the crowd.  One ranger was actually dressed in a full werewolf costume, and was asking kids in the line if they wanted him as a guardian.

I was in line a good 15 minutes, admiring the view of Bronx across the harbor as the line gradually shuffled down to the gate.  The rangers were all taking turns leading groups of about 20 of us through at a time, and our guide reminded us all one last time to not use flashlights, to stick together, and when a couple of kids said they’d been there before, he asked them not to spoil any surprises for the rest of us.  After winding us all up a bit, he led us in, giving us a potted history of the battlement during the five-minute walk to the fort itself.  He also wove in stories of a construction accident while they were building the fort, “and so that’s why we always see spooky things every year about this time…”  We all paused at a second gate.  “Okay!  Everyone ready to go in?”  All the kids shouted “yeah,” the adults laughed, and in we went.

To be honest, it was your typical “haunted house”, with lots of fake cobwebbing and spooky lights and costumed people jumping out and shouting “boo”.  But the path lead us through the creepy ruins of the granite fort, complete with iron-barred windows and dark winding passages and dim alcoves, which gave everything a genuinely creepy feel.  Midway through the tour I realized that I was outpacing everyone else in the group by about five feet, and turned around to see they were all cowering.  “What, you’re sending me out to die alone??” I teased them.

Except then a guy dressed as a zombie jumped out beside me and I screeched and hid behind the ranger.

The whole tour was more of a startle-then-laugh thing, though.  The rangers were clearly into it, hamming it up for all they were worth; a few other rangers scattered throughout were dressed as Ghostbusters and were there to keep order and calm down any genuinely-scared kids, and the path was strewn with loads more people dressed as mad scientists and witches and zombies and ghouls cavorting through the fort and jumping towards us and grabbing us and making spooky noises and generally having immense fun.  Our trip through the fort was short, but it was goofy.

There was one sincerely creepy moment, though – at the very end of the tour, we had to walk through a long tunnel, which they had pitch black except for a small pin light every ten feet or so.  “Just follow me through,” our ranger told us all, “just follow the sound of my voice!  There will be a light at the end of this tunnel, I promise, and then we’ll be safe!”  I was more worried about stumbling in the near-darkness, and was moving slowly, trying to feel for a handhold along the wall.  And soon I did see a light – or, at least, a lightish patch of something in the tunnel.   And then it got closer and I saw it was a glowing face, hovering in the air and coming towards us.   Once it got close enough I could see it was a glow-in-the-dark mask, slung against someone’s chest; still, it was spooky enough that I edged away from it, and a couple people behind me also squealed at the sight.

But then a teenage voice scoffed out of the dark just above the face.  “Really?” it said.  “Really?  People, I’m on my break.”

 The tunnel opened up beside the fort’s visitor’s center – closed for the night – and the ranger lead us all up the driveway and out, shouting out quick directions to where to catch the city bus home.  “Thanks for coming, and have a happy Halloween!” he chirped.   I asked him a couple questions before I left myself; was this an annual event?  “Oh, yeah, I think they do this every year, always the weekend before Halloween.  I wouldn’t know for sure, though, I’m from a Manhattan park – they just needed extra help this year!”  He told me that usually they saw about 400 people a night – but so far this year, they’d had a turnout nearly three times as high.

“You look like you’re having a blast, though,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.  They always get people to come help – from Manhattan like me, or Staten Island…even the people inside, those are mostly local kids who volunteered with our nature program.  Well,” he laughed, “we couldn’t get them too interested in nature for these past couple weeks, though.”

I was actually halfway to the main gate and on my way off the grounds when someone stopped me to ask where the “haunted castle” was.  “You mean the fort? I think it’s back that way…”

“No, I did that,” they said.  “I’m talking about the castle thing. You know, the mansion?”

I had no idea what they meant, but another passerby did, and gave them directions; I followed them a few paces behind.  We ended up at the old officers’ club, current home to the Bayside Historical Society, which was running its own haunted house.  Except this one was charging admission.  “Five dollars, please,” he woman by the door asked me.

“Oh….I only have two.”  The woman just eyed me.  “Um…you don’t take a check, do you?”

“No, afraid not.”

“oh….”  I turned to go; I hadn’t planned on visiting anyway.  “Well, thanks anyway.”

But a young couple behind me stopped me. “You don’t have cash?” the guy said.  “Don’t worry, we got ya.”  He handed money to the woman, saying “party of three.”  Grateful, I tagged along with them.

It was a similar case of costumed-people-jumping-out, but the museum’s rooms let them set up a few tableaus as well – a “funeral” room where a woman in a mantilla urged us closer to a coffin, so a guy in a zombie mask could sit up and roar at us, or a closed-off “autopsy room” we could peer at through a window only to see the “cadaver” was alive and begging our help.  A team of kids were the costumed zombies chasing us on the porch, but as soon as we were safely through the door they all dropped the act and went back to being kids just hanging out.  Still, it was all too much for some of the little kids;  we were going through the house just behind a young family, with a kid of about seven; when they got to the funeral room, I saw the kid take one look at the woman in the mantilla and beeline right over to the next door, passing by the whole room completely.  “Come see the dead guy!” she implored to his back, as he totally ignored her.

The house tour ended in a hall where witch-hatted women sold snacks and small toys like glow-sticks and light-up rings, and encouraged people to “take a selfie with the zombie” – a mannequin dressed in raggedy tuxedo and a zombie mask.  My new friends were heading over to the zombie, but I stopped them – “I got just enough for two candy bars,” I said.  “Can I get you guys some?”

“Really?” the guy gushed.

“Dude, you got my admission,” I said, fishing my money out.  In the end they only got one Hershey bar , and all three of us helped ourselves to a free “Halloween treat bag,” a plastic bag festooned with a toy skeleton keychain.  After taking turns taking each others’ pictures with the zombie, we bade each other goodnight and I wandered out to find my way back to the bus home.

Neighborhoods New York: Floral Park and Glen Oaks, Queens

Apparently New York City’s easternmost border is very porous.  So much so that even after a full forty-five minutes of Googling this morning, I could not say with any certainty where exactly its border with Nassau County even is.  Floral Park is the easternmost neighborhood, sure, but the neighborhood actually straddles the county line.  So visiting the neighborhood would put me over the city line if I took a step too far.  …At some point.  Hard to say where.

I’m pretty sure I was in Nassau County when I got off the Long Island Railroad – oh, yeah, that’s another thing, it is so far east it made more sense to take the LIRR train there from Brooklyn.  The only other option was 90 minutes on a subway followed by another 45 on a bus.  Seven stops on a Hempstead-bound train was much  more appealing, even though I was reasonably certain that at some point the train had brought me just outside the city limits – although within only a couple blocks’ walk, I was at the Little Neck Parkway, which according to most maps was well and truly in Queens.

To be honest, though, the exact location of the border may be just a technicality.  Even when I was meandering around the train station, all the houses had the same look of suburbia; small yards, rows of identical houses, lots of minivans in driveways, kids’ bikes dumped in front of garages and political signs next to sidewalks.  At the southern end of Little Neck Parkway, almost all the lawns had been clipped with the precision of crew cuts.  Many of the houses had already started decking themselves out for Halloween – plywood pumpkins or scarecrows set up by doorways, fake cobwebbing draped over hedges or flags over doors depicting Linus watching for The Great Pumpkin.  I counted about a dozen houses that all had the same “Enter if you dare!” sign on the front door in fake “dripping” red paint.

The weird thing, though, is that my usual reaction to suburbia – usually a full-body shudder and a flashback to a small-town childhood – wasn’t happening.  I had a sense of the history of the place – there were one or two folks who’d turned their houses into larger ornate things, but most houses were the same modest single-story bungalows that were probably original to the neighborhood.  Just off Little Neck the streets were nearly deserted; I jaywalked regularly on my walk north simply because there were no cars coming, anywhere.  One of the busiest streets I crossed, Hillside Avenue, was still fairly sleepy – no more than five or six cars lined up at the stoplight waiting for me to scurry across.

I lingered a bit where I crossed Hillside, studying the businesses.  There were a couple chains – Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut – but most were locally-owned, and catered to the neighborhood’s Indian population.  I counted three different shops offering sweets like burfi and jellebi all within two blocks of each other, with the Patel Brothers supermarket nestled between them all; its shop window promising a sale on jackfruit.  The bridal shop I passed had a row of mannequins in the windows, all wearing brilliantly colored and bejeweled saris and sherwanis.  And last on the block was a bar and smoke shop with the delightful name “Off The Hookah”.

But mostly it was houses – house upon house upon house, in the long quiet walk north.  I didn’t even finally see many people until I’d crossed Union Turnpike and got into Glen Oaks, and ran into a group of friends having four-way garage sale at one of their houses; four different card tables all strategically set up alongside each other, four people flitting back and forth between them.  They seemed to be doing brisk business – one man was showing a woman a turntable as I walked up, and another was taking money from another woman for an old lamp.  A couple people were picking through their big rack of clothes.  Despite myself, I glanced at the tables – and saw some very well-kept scarves and a couple glasses cases, all folded and tucked neatly into a box labelled “most $1 each”.  One of the salespeople wandered over just as I was pulling out a richly-patterned silk scarf.  “That’s beautiful!” he gushed.

I happened to have been thinking the very same thing.  “I’ll take it, how much?” I asked, as another man wandered over.  The first man called to a woman across the yard, but the second man saw I was also holding an eyeglass case and offered two dollars for the both of them.  “Sold,” I said, digging out my wallet.

The woman came bustling over, jumping over old toys strewn on the grass.  “What is it?  Did you need something?”

“Nah, we did your work for you, Dot,” the men laughed.

“Oh, okay!” she laughed too as I handed her the money.  “Works for me!”  And then she jumped back over the toys and ran to the far side of the yard again as I walked off, stuffing the scarf in my bag.

I’d noticed a steady stream of people on the sidewalk, but didn’t see what was drawing them all until the next block.  The Queens County Farm Museum was just up ahead, and had a whole roster of extra family-friendly events.  I’d been to the farm once before, on a quiet spring day when I was able to wander past the various vegetable gardens and peek in at the pigs and cows; this time, the farm was packed with a solid wall of people, all of them clamoring to get in line for the cornfield maze and the petting zoo and the hay rides and huddling around the booths and trucks selling roast corn and soda and hot dogs and grilled cheese and crepes.  The ponies were all down by the petting zoo, where some were shanghaied into offering rides to kids.  The alpacas were all huddled at the very far end of their pen, as far as they could get from the crowd.  The hens were all hiding under the eaves of their coop.  I didn’t even see the pigs.

The “pumpkin patch” was comparatively calm; it was about a half-acre patch of land, covered with pumpkins of various sizes and filled with families, all of the kids eagerly grabbing pumpkins and dragging them to their parents.  Most kids went for the biggest ones they could find and carry.  One kid, though, was going for quantity – he was concentrating on the smaller, softball-sized ones, but he was trying to pick up about seven of them at the same time. I watched him try again and again to pile as many as he could in his arms and under his chin, reaching down again and again to get the ones that toppled off.  There were a few parents posing their babies for pictures, balancing their costumed kids against the big pumpkins or in piles of smaller ones.

….I actually ended up with three small ones myself.

The noise and chaos drove me out of the farm soon after.  Just a block away was the Glen Oaks Village apartment complex, which somehow managed to be more bucolic than the neighborhood I’d walked through already – rows of neat brick apartment buildings and clipped lawns, and knots of people strolling between them.  The path I was on lead to a traffic circle at the complex’s center, with a park at the very center – complete with a Little League ball field, a knot of kids playing a lively pickup game on it.  Here and there some older folks kept watch from chairs on their front porches or balconies.  I found myself wanting to watch, but it was nearly time for the next train back to Brookyn.  So I wandered the full way around the traffic circle, watching the autumn light filter through the leaves just starting to turn gold and listening to the laughter and shouts of the boys, before I turned to head out towards the turnpike and the walk back to the train station and home.

Neighborhoods New York: West Farms, Bronx

This isn’t really a neighborhood people visit.

West Farms is just a handful of blocks tucked up inside the South Bronx; housing projects and a couple churches, mostly.  A scruffy supermarket, a nondescript “childrens’ center” in a bland brick building.  Wikipedia’s article about the neighborhood has an entire section devoted to its “social problems”, such as a high poverty rate, high crime, and a high incarceration rate.  For most New Yorkers, the only parts of West Farms they see are three blocks on Boston Avenue which they pass through at a quick march if they’ve taken the 5 train to get to the Bronx Zoo.

That’s exactly why I was there today. But it was a small enough neighborhood that I detoured a bit, ignoring what Wikipedia said about the “social problems”.  And to be honest, they were pretty easy to ignore.  Not that there’s much else to West Farms other than “the neighborhood you walk through to get to the Zoo”, honestly; but it’s also not a hotbed of danger either. It’s just people, living their lives.  Sitting outside on a stoop and listening to the football game. Mothers pushing little kids in toy cars. Middle-aged men getting off their shift at work saying hello to their neighbors.  Fathers scolding kids for whining about wanting a toy from the cheap five-and-dime.  A cluster of men sitting on lawn chairs and trying to sell day-old flowers arranged into bouquets.  Three teenagers walking together to the local deli, one of them sporting a glorious afro in a five-inch nimbus around his head.  Two women perched on the bridge overlooking the Bronx River, watching the water and talking about an upcoming picnic.

And there’s a lot of green.  The neighborhood is small enough that everyone could walk up to Bronx Park, home to both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanic Garden. But I also saw a small community garden tucked away beside a playground, an enormous dreamcatcher bobbing in a tree at its center. And just before the Bronx Zoo was the Bronx River Park, two blocks of green and benches along one bank of the Bronx River.  I wandered to the promenade overlooking the water, startling two turtles into diving off a log and swimming away.  Just at the park’s north edge, a waterfall drowned out any of the traffic noise around me.  And every one of the windows in every one of the apartment buildings was filled with plants, most of them huge tropical-leafed things.

This isn’t a neighborhood people visit, but it’s a place people live, and that bit of Wikipedia’s article isn’t all there is to it.

Neighborhoods New York – Tottenville, Staten Island

I had a friendly competition with one of my childhood playmates as we were growing up – we kept a running tally of who had been the furthest north, south, east, and/or west of our little street.  First she claimed the “west” trophy because she’d been to Chicago; then I took it when my family went to Tucson.  We both went to Florida so we had a big debate about “south”, and she claimed the “north” trophy with a trip to Boston until I took it with a trip to Maine.  Then I claimed “south” with a high school trip to Puerto Rico.  But then when she went on an honors club trip to Moscow, and nabbed north, east, and west all in one fell swoop, I called the game quits.

But that’s always put me in mind of those kind of cardinal extremes like that – the furthest fringes of a place.  And Tottenville also holds three trophies in one fell swoop – it’s not only New York City’s westernmost point, it’s also the city’s southernmost point – as well as being the southernmost point of New York State.  Worth a visit yeah?

…Well, kinda.  The fringes of a place also can be a bit…sleepy. The public transit can be nil, the big attractions and businesses are closer to the center, and usually all you find is a whole lot of houses and not a whole lot of people.

In Tottenville, though, they’ve at least tried to spin the houses.  Just a block from the train station, someone had set out a basket full of walking-tour maps, free to anyone who wanted to explore some of the Historic Houses Of Amboy Avenue.  Even though an old man stood in the doorway of the house watching me suspiciously, I took one.  The house wasn’t on Amboy Avenue yet – but it still sported a small sign on the lawn reading that it was part of the Tottenville Historic Society’s “Neighborhood Pride” program.  The part of the Amboy Avenue Tour I followed was short – only the last few blocks west to the water.  Most of the houses pointed out were older things, from the early 19th Century; little two-story buildings, lovingly kept up by their owners.  A surprising number belonged to former ship captains or boatmen – not surprising given given Tottenville’s history and marina, but surprising that a shipbuilder could have bought himself anything so fine as the brick Victorian house I passed towards the end of my tour, all gingerbread trim and stately porches.

The more recent houses along the water looked to be all McMansions, sadly; huge towering sprawling houses with huge garages and big columns, fake marble statues in the birdbaths.  One house was so grand that I mistook it for the Conference House, a historic landmark that was supposed to be right by the water.  I followed the long driveway towards the house, looking at the towering three-story white building with the grand porch ahead of me; it wasn’t until I was nearly at the front porch that I realized that a historic house most likely wouldn’t have pink flowered plastic upholstery on the porch furniture, or a hibachi over on the side lawn.

Oops.  I started backing away, then saw a plaque on a stone in the garden declaring that it was a memorial garden kept by the Raritan Women’s Committee.  So…maybe this was a public place anyway.  I still played it safe and stuck to the grounds, following a stone staircase through the woods and down the steep hillside to Raritan Bay, just behind the house.

I lingered a bit at the water’s edge, watching a huge ferry boat trying to do a three-point turn in the channel. Perth-Amboy was just across from me, no more than 150 yards; if the bay were to freeze, I could have walked it easily.  Instead I wandered the water’s edge a bit, looking for another path up and away from shore.  I didn’t find one – but I did find some sort of outsider-art lounge, a little clearing right where the tree line ended where someone had lashed together logs to make a rustic fence complete with gate.  Another framework of logs stood beside it making a sort of wall which was hung all over with bottles dangling from strings – water bottles, baby bottles, pint-size Jack Daniels bottles.  A tree next to the fence was also covered with bottles, all of them spray-painted neon colors and hung up on the tree like demented Christmas ornaments.  A couple of big logs lay under the tree, huddled near a fire ring.  I mentally saluted the creators as I turned to go.

I did eventually find the Conference House, which turned out to be a much more modest stone house in a big bayside park.  The house stood at the top of a hill and had a wonderfully sweeping view of Raritan Bay, and a few couples dotted the hill, their lawn chairs set up under trees so they could watch the water.  A lively older guy sat on the steps as I walked up, talking to a taller guy dressed all in black; he stopped when he saw me coming.  “Hi, can I help you?” he asked.

“Yeah, can I…go in?”

“Well, I can give you a guided tour,” he offered.  “You want a tour?”  I hesitated for a second – I usually like to explore places on my own.  But the taller guy piped up and said sure, he’d go on the tour, so I shrugged and said I’d join them – at least I wouldn’t be the only one.

And fortunately, Dennis – for he introduced himself then – was a heck of a fun guide; a really lively and animated volunteer, who took pride in the place and about how much there was to know about it.  The Conference House, as Dennis explained, used to belong to one Captain Billop, who ran the surrounding land as his plantation – “and I mean a plantation in every sense of the word,” Dennis added.  But in the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, it was the site of an early peace conference between two British military leaders, the Howe brothers, who met with Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, and Edward Rutledge to imply that the Colonial forces were vastly outnumbered and should pack it in.  Dennis was visibly having fun acting out the Continental representatives’ approach to the house – gesturing out at the lawn before us, telling us to imagine the field covered with British and Hessian soldiers jeering at Franklin and Adams – “and here was Howe standing here in the door,” he chuckled, folding his arms and trying to act smug, “standing right like this, just watching them…”

The whole house took up only about four or five rooms; two on the ground floor, three on the second, a cramped attic for the servants’ quarters and a basement he called “the factory”.  He had great sympathy for the servants, telling us about the heat or the cold they had to face in the attic and how they had to work to produce all the family’s goods, sometimes running down to flag down the ships entering the bay to trade with them directly. One of those servant girls, he said, may have eventually betrayed Billop to the Union Army towards the end of the war – he was just arrived home after a long night and gone to sleep when the Union Army came to take him away to a prison for several months.  The thing was, Dennis said, that right when he got home and collapsed into his room, one of the servant girls inexplicably got up herself and lit a candle in the front room on the second floor; and the Union Army came soon thereafter.  “So it was probably a signal,” he said.  That story has spawned a further story, he added, that Billop cornered that servant girl when he was finally released from prison and beat her to death, and that her ghost now haunts the house.  “But that’s just on Tuesday nights,” Dennis said wryly; he talked about the Ghost Hunters shows coming to investigate the house, but it seems he takes a dim view of the haunting claims.

A whole big family was waiting at the door when Dennis brought us back to the start, so I left him to his next guests and went wandering a bit in the park.  Conference House Park is far enough away from most roads and the JFK approach path that all I could hear was crickets, and the occasional fishing boat, as I followed one of the paths through the woods and out to the water’s edge again.  I think I ran into maybe two people while I was on the paths – a younger guy, camera in hand, striding purposefully back to the park away from the water, and a woman walking her dog.  More people seemed interested in just sitting out on the hill surveying the water; it was a good place to just loll, I’ll admit.

Instead of lolling, I head back to the train, stopping for a candy bar at the one deli I saw open, a scruffy place manned by two younger guys.  One wordlessly took my money for the candy bar and then went back to the movie he was watching on his iPad by the register; the other guy manned the sandwich counter, but the entire time I was there he was huddled over his iPhone playing Candy Crush.

One other place seemed open, and I’m actually tempted to go in another time – an Italian restaurant that seemed like the “fancy dress” place in Tottenville.  It was right by the train station, and I actually accidentally stumbled into their lawn when I first got out of the train; two kids dressed in valet uniforms sat at the driveway’s edge, looking bored, and I wandered around, confused, looking at their series of oddball lawn sculptures, a bocce court and a prop swing, with a big sign on it labelled “Just for pictures”.  A gazebo festooned with ribbons overlooked the bay, and a drift of rose petals still lay on the ground around it.  A big tent lay behind the house, already set up for some kind of big party, and a cluster of older men in three piece suits hovered around one couple dining on a side porch, every so often giving me odd looks.  When I went to turn back up to the main road I nearly tripped over a live chicken, one of two that were inexplicably wandering loose on the grounds.  The place seemed a bit more lively when I got back to the train station again; a few more couples strolled in the lawn, a cluster of people were by the bocce courts, and the valets seemed to finally have something to do.  The chickens, however, were nowhere to be seen.

Neighborhoods New York: Bushwick, Brooklyn, Ridgewood, Queens, and Wycoff Heights

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(Dusting this off – this is part of an ongoing quest to visit all of the neighborhoods in New York City.)

I actually end up in neighborhoods like this a lot – places where the artists and freaks all gravitate and have just started to establish a toehold, and end up being the verrrrry early stages of eventual gentrification.  I was one of the first wave of people to do that to the Lower East Side, I saw it happen to Williamsburg, and I’m seeing signs of it happening in Bed-Stuy.

People have started catching wise to that now, though.  I’d actually been to Bushwick once before, when I went to review a play in 2007; it was still calling itself “East Williamsburg” then, and in true artiste fashion, the play was staged on the roof of an abandoned warehouse (I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t know why today).  Back then it was a real sort of back-of-beyond place, the sort of neighborhood where you could round up friends and all go in on a raw loft apartment for cheap – but if you wanted walls you had to make your own.  Or, the sort of neighborhood where your family has lived there for three generations since Papa moved there from San Juan and lives in the house two doors down from where you’re living with your two kids which is good because Papa can watch them while you work nights cleaning offices.

The long-timers in such neighborhoods have started catching wise to what’s looming if suddenly a lot of young artsy people show up.  People generally were keeping to themselves, but there were a couple of streets where I sensed a certain unspoken tension.

Change seems to so far be coming slow.  I turned up on the last weekend of a free “open studios” festival, where all of the artists threw open the doors on the spaces they’d carved out of basements or storefronts or workspace shares and people were free to wander in and see what was going on.  A handful of gallery spaces also had group displays.  I first stopped in at one such gallery set up in a disused garage – three bored-looking artists scattered throughout a room, all sitting on lawn chairs, each in front of a wall covered with their work.  One woman saw me eyeing her project – she had a stack of leaflets with the word “Because” printed on them and a big line underneath, and people were encouraged to complete the sentence; she was posting them on the wall.  She encouraged me to contribute something of my own, and I considered contributing “[because] I choose to”, but then realized I’d only thought of that because I’d seen Matrix Revolutions the night before. I declined.  Another garage/gallery had a bit more of a crowd – it had a collection of indie games, and people were poking at the handful of Playstations and laptops and iPads cued up with their work, trying them out.  I lost badly at a game where you were a poultry inspector tasked with removing diseased chickens from a conveyor belt.  Still another building had turned its ground floor into a series of workspaces, most of which were open – one door promised live tarot readings, but I couldn’t find anyone there.  I passed another door where a wide-eyed little girl was watching an artist set up an installation of a room full of Barbies, dressed as ballerinas, and turned into marionettes.  One woman had turned her space into a vintage clothing boutique instead, where the gimmick was that everything was ten dollars; I didn’t see anything that suited me, but I did help myself to a glass of the free rum punch she was offering.

There definitely was a centralized street for the artsy types – the bigger galleries were all on the few blocks radiating out from one of the few subway stations in the neighborhood, mixed in alongside indie organic food shops, restaurants and yoga studios.  Iced coffee was in abundance, and every shop had Wi-fi.  Elsewhere, the further-flung and quieter bits of town were mostly families doing chores in the yard, kids on the sidewalk, and maybe a guy with a card table hawking Puerto Rican flags or t-shirts.  I saw a couple of artists mixed in there too – one bored-looking guy sat in a storefront festooned with what looked like wall hangings made of fur.  I passed another guy on another lawn chair on the sidewalk, checking his iPhone under a sign reading “art” with an arrow pointing towards a basement.  He looked up briefly as I approached, but the stairs looked rickety and the basement looked dark; I walked on.

I did poke into Molasses Books, though – a used bookstore/coffee shop operating out of an old storefront.  There was a decent assortment of books for such a small space, and the guy behind the coffee counter was blasting Kraftwerk’s Autobahn when I went in.  I’d actually brought a couple books just in case, and ended up getting quite a fair price; enough for a free iced coffee and a discount on a new (to me) book to take home.  It was quiet and homey in the place, and I ended up staying to finish my coffee there and flip through another book; I was there long enough to hear the sound switch over from Kraftwerk to Side Two of Born In The U.S.A.  Further north, I also stumbled upon Green Village, an impossibly packed junk shop where I browsed a good 20 minutes despite myself.

Towards the north end of Bushwick I actually crossed over into another neighborhood without even knowing it.  Ridgewood – at least the part I saw – was more of the same sort of jumble of older houses mixed with little storefronts mixed in with warehouses.  I saw a few kids playing handball in some kind of sports park, and stopped into the Onderdonk House, a Dutch Colonial House (or the recreation thereof) from the 1600’s.  They had a side gallery from the Bushwick festival set up on their yard, and a staff member offered to direct me to the tour that was then starting; I declined, preferring to wander around through the house.  First I poked in the back garden, peering in at a pen of chickens, then saw an open door towards the back of the house and walked in.  There was nothing there but shelves upon shelves of books.  I wandered through a couple more similarly-book-heavy rooms, puzzled, then through another door.  As I was closing that door behind me, I finally saw the sign – “Office Use Only – do not enter.”

Oops.

The remaining few rooms were given over to displays of some of the bits of pottery or glassware they’d found on the site, and recreations of “a typical Dutch Drawing Room from 1680” and the like.  An older man was giving a young family a tour of the place, but I left them be, giving things a quick look before casually walking out the front door past a staff member who thanked me for coming.  I thanked her and said nothing about my unorthodox entry.