Escape to New York for a cultural fling
by Heather Cassell
My girlfriend and I were feeling the tug of New York pulling at us from 3,000 miles away, or it might have been my auntie, who lives in Manhattan, asking us to visit. You don't have to twist our arms to escape to the Big Apple.
We were overdue for our Broadway and museum binge. Not to mention checking out some of the restaurants on our list.
We checked into our Airbnb rental on 19th Avenue around the corner from my auntie's flat in Chelsea for a few days until her other guests departed. Chelsea is a great neighborhood. We got a taste of real New York staying in the cramped apartment, sleeping underneath the stairs. In spite of the situation, our host was gracious long before we arrived and full of advice, even though we've been around the New York block a few times.
You can't beat staying in Chelsea. Now known as the gayborhood and filled with art galleries and cafes, Chelsea doesn't take away from the neighboring queer historic Greenwich Village. Gone are the transgender ladies of the night and leather boys, along with the nightclubs that once filled the Meatpacking district. They vacated the narrow cobblestone streets half a dozen years ago when designer boutiques began claiming the area. Trendy restaurants with beer gardens and art galleries followed, paving the way for the new Whitney Museum.
Chelsea Piers and Market, Eataly, and Union Square are all within walking distance. It's easy to get to 42nd Street and Broadway for the theater, and to the airport on the Metro, the city's public transportation system.
Take a bow
Gay actor Neil Patrick Harris stands to be corrected. Broadway is for the gays and the Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots and Fun Home shouldn't be missed. During our Broadway romps we've seen several plays or musicals where gay life was included. However, this is the first time we've seen two shows and one Off-Broadway play, Straight , that turned LGBT experiences into art, placing it front and center on stage for the world to see rather than character parts.
Needless to say, Kinky Boots is fabulously fun and there isn't a bad seat in the house. Actually, we advise sitting in the Mezzanine level or higher up to allow for an unobstructed view taking in the spectacular show. Kinky Boots was a winner from the get-go with the creative team behind the musical including gay playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein, who penned the script, and the upbeat songs and music that can't be beat thanks to ally Cyndi Lauper. The duo created a fantastic musical adaptation from the 2005 British-American movie that is profound with its inspiring message just as much as it is enjoyable.
It was refreshing to see lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's best-selling graphic memoir, Fun Home, adapted into a musical. It introduces audiences not only to her personal coming out story, but growing up with her father's painful story of being a closeted gay man. Fun Home is a cerebral and nuanced musical that is "so lesbian" (read: processed) in the best way, from the songs to the staging at Circle in the Square Theatre. It is so good, that earlier this month United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power brought dignitaries from around the world – even those from anti-gay countries – to the show to help them better understand what it is like to be gay or lesbian and the difference between living out loud and proud and living in secret.
Straight explores a similar question about living authentically and the choices people have to make in a modern day context. The play shows that even with marriage equality and being able to serve openly in the military, coming out isn't always that simple. In millennial fashion the characters don't necessarily want to label themselves because they don't perceive the labels to be holistic of who they are and their relationships. The play twists and turns, leaving the audience talking at the end: who gets hurt, living authentically, and relationship investments are just some of the topics of conversation among theatergoers as the lights go up.
It's hard to see everything showing on Broadway in a week, doubling up matinees and evening shows, but we gave it our best shot. During our Broadway run we also saw An American in Paris, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical , and the Broadway opening night of The Humans.
Beautiful, is a good staple biographical musical about songwriter and singer Carole King's early life in the music industry and rise to fame. The music was great and audiences leave the show feeling good.
The Humans delves deep into the muddles of a frayed middle-class American familiy's dreams. Today's struggles and woes can be seen through the Blake family as they gather for Thanksgiving dinner in New York's Chinatown in the eldest daughter and her boyfriend's newly moved into and yet unpacked apartment. The family broaches the challenges of their lives while struggling to remain upbeat. It's exquisitely executed in the writing and acting.
I was blown away by An American in Paris simply by the choreography and set design that is so breathtaking with its invocation of the postmodernism art movement in post-World War II Paris that the audience has an out-of-body time travel experience (at least I felt that way). More of a ballet than a musical, the stage adaptation of the 1951 Academy Award-winning Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron film is something every visitor to New York should attempt to see.
However, the hottest ticket in town, Hamilton , eluded us and it was our own fault. We simply didn't listen to our Broadway connection before the rest of the world knew about Hamilton . Talking with some of our new theater friends next to us while waiting for Beautiful to begin they echoed the buzz about the hip-hop musical. Theatergoers believe that its effect on musical theater will be similar to how Rent – the re-envisioning of the opera La Boheme into a rock musical – shifted people's concepts of what a musical is and can be. That's just a once in a generation type experience that shouldn't be missed. The tickets are like platinum, being sold nearly a year or more in advance, according to media reports. (Pssst: Hamilton is going on tour and coming to San Francisco in March 2017, so if you can't see it on Broadway, try to get tickets here.)
Strokes of creativity
After she got her fill of Broadway and restaurants, my girlfriend returned to San Francisco, leaving my auntie and I to hit the galleries, museums, and stores.
The new Whitney Museum opened its doors in the Meatpacking district last May. The contemporary and modern art museum designed by architect Renzo Piano is perched at the start of the High Line. The building, with its clean lines and minimalist and modern structure, is a piece of artwork itself outside of housing an enormous collection that visitors can enjoy on eight spacious floors. Visitors can also enjoy taking in the view of the Hudson River on one side of the building and the view of Manhattan on the other.
I happened to catch the "Laura Poitras: Astro Noise" exhibit, which is on display until May 1. Artist, filmmaker, and journalist Poitras' first solo museum exhibition explores government surveillance using interviews and leaked classified U.S. documents provided by Edward Snowden and her own personal experience of being placed on a U.S. government watch list for a decade after being seen filming eight minutes of an attack in a Baghdad neighborhood where she was staying with an Iraqi family and where a U.S. soldier died. She sued the government to get answers, only to be entrapped for years. The exhibit is thought provoking and a must see, even if you aren't into government conspiracy theories.
Stepping back in time, I ventured across the Hudson past the Statue of Liberty to Staten Island to check out the Alice Austin House. Austin was a turn of the century socialite and photographer who documented the immigrants and New York life in 8,000 images with the assistance of her friend Gertrude Tate, who lived with her for 50 years.
The house preserves her extraordinary work as a documentarian and artist and serves as an exhibition space for photographers who continue in the same spirited vein as Austin's work. Staten Island, which is reachable by the free Staten Island Ferry, is also experiencing a resurgence of culture, and probably most appropriately to the working class community, microbreweries have been staking a claim to the island. Austin's story is amazing and definitely worth the adventure, if not a well-deserved pint of beer for making the journey.
Another discovery this time around was New York's preeminent pop-up Gallery 151 in Chelsea. Housed on the ground floor in a real estate office, gallery manager Anna Gritsevich has an eye for talented artists. I happened to catch fine art photographer Anna Friemonth's first solo show "Words for Women," a tongue in cheek play on derogatory phrases, such as "sugar tits," and "trophy wife," aimed at women through highly stylized photographs. The exhibit recently closed, but check out Gallery 151 and keep an eye out for Friemonth's work.
History and culture buffs might be interested in checking out the Tenement Museum, Grand Central tour, the Sex and the City tour, the Center for Jewish History, and the Jewish Heritage Museum. Each museum offers unique and profound insights to the human experience in New York and around the world and who doesn't want to reconnect with the fabulous foursome ladies of Sex and the City ? You can get all the behind the scenes secrets and relive your favorite moments with On Location Tours.
Eat like a king or a queen
It's challenging to find our obligatory slice of New York pizza every time we head to the Big Apple. The reason being is that there are so many amazing restaurants, not pizzerias (although there are great pizza spots too), to check out that in recent years we get to the airport and realize we never got our slice of pie.
We tasted the world while we were in New York.
High on our list were the acclaimed Red Rooster in Harlem, which only accepts reservations 30 days in advance and tables go fast (it is well worth stalking the reservation desk), and Michelin-rated Junoon, which serves modern Indian cuisine. Both restaurants were exceptional, as expected. My girlfriend was only slightly disappointed that Junoon's dishes weren't spicy enough for her, but the food was still deliciously remarkable.
Surprising discoveries we made were Almayass, the Gander, and Victor's Cafe. Our dishes took us to the Middle East for Lebanese-Armenian cuisine that was bursting with flavor at Almayass; home to America for re-envisioned American cuisine at the Gander; and dreaming of Cuba, we had an authentic replica of a Havana dining experience at Victor's Cafe.
Brunching around town we checked out Westville, which includes vegetarian dishes, in Chelsea and the Wyeth Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Both restaurants put their own spin on American classics and offer up healthy options for health conscious diners.
For cheap and fun eats we checked out SPiN, which serves up healthy bar food along with great cocktails and a good game of Ping-Pong. The Ping-Pong social club, which is backed by actor and activist Susan Sarandon, is located in a former Woolworth store that once opened up into the subway station. That has long been closed off, but guests can still see the subway cars go by while hanging out.
Need to grab a late night bite after the theater or clubbing? The Halal Guys at the corner of 56th Street and 6th Avenue have you covered with the best chicken and rice in Manhattan.
My girlfriend and I did finally get a slice of pie, but not the traditional thin crust dripping with greasy cheesy goodness that you fold in half. We stepped up our pizza dining experience at Artichoke Basille's Pizza and Bar where we got a three slice sampler (big enough for two to share one order) with the artichoke, vodka, and pepperoni wedges that could be addicting. The pizzeria has several locations around New York and even one in Berkeley.
We checked out the newest hotel in a long time in Union Square, the Hyatt Union Square, and the Hyatt Times Square, both of which opened in 2013. We also discovered the Sanctuary Hotel in Times Square.
Getting to NYC
We flew Virgin America into John F. Kennedy International Airport. Arriving late at night we suggest several options from private companies like ExecuCar to on-demand car services like the women-run SheRides or the obvious Uber or Lyft. Otherwise we are public transit girls hopping on the air train at the airport that connects with the subway.