Dumbo – it makes perfect sense

The sun returns. I have to pop my head outside to gauge the temperature because the repeating weather forecast on the NY1 channel quotes in Fahrenheit and I’m used to Celcius now. It has been a roller coaster of weather extremes this week and the confusion is evident on the street with some people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals while others are wrapped up in a couple of layers beneath fleece jackets. The former are in the know.

Williamsburg has been recommended to me. This laid back suburb of Brooklyn is the best part of an hours journey from the comfort of my Upper West Side hotel room, including a bridge crossing of the East River. Upon arrival I am greeted by wafts of pot from a guy walking by and that sets an appropriate tone for this middle class area. Things have a naturally slow pace here. People amble. The streets are generally narrow and residential with the townhouses generally 3 or 4 floors high – an antidote to the vertiginous silhouette of Manhattan.

Archetypal Williamsburg street
Archetypal Williamsburg street

First things first. I can’t continue this weeks consumptive catalogue of chaos, culminating on the Katz-tastrophe of yesterday. My digestive tract has filed for a restraining order against my mouth so I’m going to stick to recognised meal times and food groups starting with fruit and orange juice for breakfast.

A moving service just for Top Hats? That's posh!
A moving service just for Top Hats? That\’s posh!

Williamsburg is indeed a good recommendation (thanks Sarah). Life is centred around Bedford Street where cafes, book shops and boutiques line the way. People stop and talk on the street and it is obvious why folk want to live here. A detour to the East River provides a marvellous view of Manhattan that must add a significant premium to apartments in the new 20 storey development at the waters edge.

View from Williamsburg shoreline
View from Williamsburg shoreline

Local signage indicates that this is the site of a large former sugar warehouse. The Brooklyn Brewery is situated a couple of blocks north and they would presumably have been a major customer.

The G line south leads me to Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). It is a geographical oddity sitting as it does hidden in the dominating shadow of the imposing blue and white iron Manhattan bridge. Yet again this is another small distinct district, attracting edgy art galleries and small businesses to its warren of old industrial cobbled streets.

Ghosts of times past in Dumbo
Ghosts of times past in Dumbo

The galleries are so hip and informal you don’t always realise you are in them. I wondered into one ground floor warehouse unit to discover it wasn’t a gallery at all but a business meeting for The Economist. Business imitating art?

Dumbo - there's life in the shadows
Dumbo – there\’s life in the shadows

The small but fabulous Brooklyn Bridge Park offers uninterrupted views across to Manhattan with Manhattan Bridge to the right and Brooklyn Bridge to the left.

Manhattan Bridge
Manhattan Bridge
American steel
American steel

To fully appreciate the latter I reluctantly polished off a sublime ice cream courtesy of the Brooklyn Ice Cream Company who were shifting cones and tubs as fact as they could milk the cows on this sunny day.

What view? It's all about the ice cream.
What view? It\’s all about the ice cream.

The walk back across Brooklyn Bridge is mandatory and also packed. It’s not just tourists – far from it. Many commuters use the bridge and in the current rush hour who can blame them. Most of them appear to be yattering on blue tooth headsets, whether pedestrian, on bike or (yes) skateboard.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge

Back on Terra Firma there’s a crowd of people watching a collective of awesome street dancers bringing Michael Jacksons moves back to life, plus a few more he could never pull off. These guys are hugely talented and deserve all the money they collect from their appreciative audience.

Jacko could never do this
Jacko could never do this

That’s not the end of the street entertainment in these parts. I chance upon chess alley next to City Hall. Mostly old guys pit their considerable wits against each other and all-comers oblivious to the people striding by or the fearless squirrels that dodge between them.

Guys pulling off different kinds of moves
Guys pulling off different kinds of moves

It’s 6:30pm and I am desperate for a beer. Uncertain where to go in this part of town the subway to Greenwich Village beckons and it’s back to Douglas Street – the apparent epicentre of student boozing. The heaving “Off The Wall” delivers only promises of being served and after 5 minutes of inaction I’m back in Tuesday nights basement bar across the street for relative solitude and service. Unlike last time I refuse to be dragged into an all-nighter.

And – I’ve just been bought a pint by a very attractive Columbian girl. I just can’t help it. Technically she is handing out beers for a brewery promotion, and the beer is Bud Light (!) but deep down I know she can’t resist my Hugh Lawriesque English charms. We have a good old chat about the forthcoming world cup and she informs me that her country are shit now and she will be supporting Brazil. As for the Bud Light – well if it wasn’t free… she was almost apologetic in offering it when she realised I was English as she assumed I just wouldn’t lower myself to it. Turns out I am shallower than I appear.

Bud Light. Has it come to this?
Bud Light. Has it come to this?

My intentions of a Chinatown meal are being hampered by navigational problems. The problem in this town is that every intersection consists of two street names but how can you tell whether you are crossing to the North or the South? Two girls carrying a large poster promoting a Karaoke bar rested on a long pole suggest I stay in the area. I’m less inclined to ask why then to ask what they intend to do with the pole.

A long queue at Joes Pizza combined with the glowing reviews posted outside persuade me to find out whether the hype is true. It is very good pizza though I would doubt its “best in the city” claims. There’s a picture of Upper West Side resident Ben Affleck with the owner and he is quoted as saying it’s the only pizza place he will go to. Right.

Slices are a reasonable $3 each but a police officer next to me pays $6 for three whole pizzas. I’m not arguing. Attempts at conversation don’t really work – the NYPD have to hand in any sense of humour when they accept the badge but at least I avoid incarceration. That might not have happened a few years ago. I’m not joking – their record for social injustice is legendary but they are trying to tackle it. In a final “slice” of entertainment for the evening a lady introduces a “friend” to her husband on the sidewalk outside with world record levels of insincerity. She might as well have told hubby out loud “this is the bitch from work I’m always sticking the knife into when I get home”. I love it!

Not enough variety today? Want to know just that little bit more about the NY psyche? Here’s what I read about in a local magazine on the subway home – ladies you know you will all be doing this in 6 months time!

Night’s a delight but day’s OK

Up late and with a slightly sore head. I hardly drank anything last night – what do they put in the beers here? Barely yards out of my hotel and the party has started this cool and breezy mothers day morning. There’s a formative Mexican parade celebrating – who knows what.

Mexican dudes
Mexican dudes
Carnival queen?
Carnival queen?
Paraders prepare
Paraders prepare

Briefly detained it’s back on down to Hells Kitchen to check out a flea market which turns out to be more flea than market, so onward further to Chelsea where there are categorically no fleas allowed. This is the classiest neighbourhood I’ve visited yet. There’s money here and it shows, although it’s classy confident money rather than shouty bling money. Chelsea Market is a warren of wonderful food stores and eateries and out of duty I grab as many free tasters as humanly possible before begrudgingly paying for the most up-market Mexican burrito on record.

The three storey Apple store is packed full of people drooling over the dozens of iPads on display. Yesterdays (almost literally) craze the iPhone sits almost ignored the other side of the store. Compelling though it is I’m going to hold out until they release the iCare.

A hundred yard stroll leads me to one of the few “must do” things on my NYC action list. The HighLine is an old disused raised city railway line that has been (and is still being) converted into an long heavenly garden. It is an imaginative and inspiring re-use of what would otherwise be rotting old infrastructure.

High Line garden
High Line garden
Railroad to nowhere
Railroad to nowhere
View from the High Line
View from the High Line

Judging by its popularity I’m not the only one impressed by what is being done here and I would implore you to visit this unlikely urban oasis if you visit the city. You can make time – just skip that show you could see in London anytime.

I’m leaving the area when I overhear three people at a crossing talking excitedly about an underground gallery they have heard about and think is in the area. Zen navigation instincts tell me to follow them and they disappear into an unheralded door in a large brick warehouse structure that turns out to be the Seven Eleven Gallery which is so new that if you click on the link there is no website content yet. Inside is a semi-deserted space that a collective of artists have occupied to showcase their works.

Turtle Tower
Turtle Tower

It really is most enjoyable and substantially more engaging in my view than many of the installations on display at the Guggenheim.

Nature abhores a vacuum
Nature abhores a vacuum

There is humour, creativity and ingenuity in spades.

I want these
I want these

Curiously there is almost nothing for sale and the attendant explains they just wanted somewhere to set out their art but it seems everybody now wants a piece of it.

Roll on the evening and a loop of Brooklyn on the open top bus. I go to pick up a muffin but it’s two for one which is going to help my imaginary fitness drive no end. Temperatures are unusually low today with the remenants of the high winds that caused problems across the state yesterday so there are few on board for the trip and I myself am mummified in four layers plus a scarf.

Wrapped up for the night loop
Wrapped up for the night loop

It’s just about enough to keep out the cold. A favourite tour highlight for me is the iconic Flatiron building, as featured in numerous films.

Flat Iron building
Flat Iron building

Atop the building stands a human figure – one of many in the area installed by British artist Anthony Gormley. Following numerous alerts from the public the NYPD now know to ignore phone calls reporting somebody about to jump!

Watcher or Jumper?
Watcher or Jumper?

You really get a sense of the scale of Manhattan from Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
The sky's the limit
The sky\’s the limit

By the time the bus returns to base it’s getting dark and the multimedia sensory overload of Times Square really comes into play.

What now? It’s 8pm on a Sunday and I can go anywhere. Hunger – moderate. Energy – low but holding. Capacity for cheap thrills – high. Chinatown promises to deliver kicks aplenty.

Eastern promise
Eastern promise

A pit-stop at the appropriately named Dumpling Palace for … dumplings and hot and sour soup. As it happens the dumplings are inferior to those I have had in London’s Chinatown and the soup a poor relation to that from my local takeaway but both suffice and I can’t fault the lightening pace of delivery. The minuscule bill comes unprompted just as rapidly and once paid the chef stands opposite my table looking at me just to make sure I feel uncomfortable enough to sod off so he can pack up and go home. Todays diet really doesn’t bear thinking about.

A lot of stores are closed but there are enough open to indicate a return visit here and to Little Italy next door would be worthwhile another day. The subway journey back to the Upper West Side is crowded and colourful and I’m reassured by a local student who tells me she travels it regularly and the theatre of it all never wears off. That I can believe.