The Motherland (New York City) Revisited

During our visit to Diane’s hometown Canadian city this past holiday season, an ironically timed thing happened. Purely through coincidence, Diane has family in both Brooklyn and Queens that live very close to my semi-estranged parents. Living in the same small two bedroom apartment since 1952, my father always makes short sarcastic comments when I call about why we don’t visit more often. Unwilling to let us stay in the spare bedroom for no clear reason, we usually refuse citing the cost of lodging anywhere in New York City. Visiting my hometown only about twice per decade, I was looking for an excuse to pop in one last time before fleeing to the other side of the world.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge highlights my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge highlights my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood

Before you call me heartless, understand that parents of Jewish backgrounds pull a guilt thing that’s inescapable even if religion plays no role in their lives (like mine). Having used all frequent flier miles and free perks on our Annual Expat Destination Research Vacations, we got excited when we learned that Diane’s cousin in was getting married in Queens later this year. Under undue Chinese parental guilt (similar but slightly different from the aforementioned Jewish guilt), we quickly agreed to attend before thinking about the timing, financial implications or practicality. Given the timing of our MM2H filing and simultaneous listing of our house in March and April, we decided against the trip but naturally waited until we got home to tell the family.

DSC04606Because I planned on posting some stories and pictures about New York City during our transitional period until we finally move to Malaysia, I decided to revisit our last trip there. Occurring two years ago, Diane and I found a relatively inexpensive hotel (by New York standards) in the chic Soho neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Everyone loves reading about New York and I’ve found some great blogs about shoestring budgeting while visiting. This is not one of those posts. However, if a visit to the world’s most fascinating city is on your agenda and don’t mind staying a subway ride away from the unreasonably priced midtown hotels, we highly recommend a stay at Courtyard Marriott Manhattan Soho

Originally written as a hotel review way before I started this blog, almost everything in the post is still totally relevant except perhaps the strange views of the Freedom Tower which was not yet completed.  (The 9/11 Museum was also not completed. Although we missed it, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a visit based on everything I’ve seen and heard).

 

While I try very hard to keep my political and personal diatribes out of this blog, I did work at Number Five World Trade Center in the 1980’s (not one of the towers) so there will always be a very personal link between the incident and me. In the interest of the logical readability, I moved the hotel details to towards the end. And so I present my flagship post: Advice on how to visit New York for slightly less than normal and combine the obvious with the not-so-famous-but-still-very-worthy.

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park

Resembling hardly anything I remember from childhood, Lower Manhattan today is not the New York I grew up. Half a century removed as a native Brooklyn boy, Diane and I decided it was time to visit my family as a tourist instead of staying with her distant relatives in Queens. Choosing a hotel in NYC is intimidating, daunting and outright frustrating, even for a native. Having never considered anything south of 14th Street, we decided to stay in the trendy  SoHo neighborhood. Simply put, if you’re looking for a reasonably priced lodging (as NYC goes) and you don’t need to be in the heart of the midtown action, Courtyard Marriott Soho is an excellent choice.

Since 9/11, almost everything south of 14th Street has undergone total gentrification, turning disheveled areas like the East Village into yuppie enclaves of trendy boutiques, expensive eateries and interesting galleries. Although Times Square is easily accessible via a quick 10 minute subway ride, it’s interesting enough spending an entire week exploring the nearby neighborhoods like SoHo, Chelsea, Chinatown, NoLita, Greenwich Village, The East Village, TriBeca and Little Italy.

walking over The Brooklyn Bridge - A must do

walking over The Brooklyn Bridge – A must do

Shorter streets and smaller distances allow easy walking from the hotel without the need for public transportation or taxis. Equally reasonable for exploration from the hotel using only three subway stops are The Financial District, Statue of Liberty, and 9/11 Memorial. Probably the best way to get around cheaply is a 7 day Metrocard. Offered at any subway station and many convenience stores, $30 allows unlimited subway travel for 7 days. Traveling more than 10 times means it pays for itself and I assure you tired feet will no doubt need time in the subway. (Cabs are pricier and take longer).

Devoting an entire blog to New York’s attractions still couldn’t cover everything to do so I’ll post some suggestions on sightseeing from the SoHo area. Having said that, however, if this is your first trip to New York or time is an issue, I’d offer the following five things as “MUST DO” items

  • Attend a Broadway show. All live theater anywhere else on earth is second-rate
  • Visit a famous museum. The American Museum of Natural History is the most interesting if art galleries are not your thing.
  • Take the NBC Studio Tour and explore the Rockefeller Center area
  • Cruise around Manhattan on The Circle Line (but not in winter)
  • Culturally speaking, Ellis Island is more fascinating than The Statue of Liberty and since they’re right next to each other, take some time to educate yourself on America’s storied history.

 

For those unfamiliar, visitors should never ever eat hotel restaurants in New York City, Something will be open 24/7 that suits your taste and don’t ever pay five bucks for hotel bottled water. Bodegas are small mom and pop grocery stores located throughout Manhattan and always sell things for less than a hotel. Within walking distance from the hotel is the flagship site of Jacques Torres, one of the world’s premier chocolate makers making a perfect late night snack but since it’s only open during business hours, we suggest taking some back to the room.

 

 

Returning to the immediate area in and around SoHo, here are some great suggestions for a memorable New York City trip beyond the obvious:

About 15 minutes away from the Courtyard by Marriott lies Katz’s Deli. Those familiar with my blog know I rave about New York City food and there’s no better place to find it than this landmark eatery. Boasting the world’s best pastrami, chopped liver, kosher salami, tongue and knishes, it’s often packed but opens for breakfast making a 10 AM combination late breakfast/early lunch a perfect start to a neighborhood walking tour. Offering self-serve or table service, don’t forget to eat the pickles served on the side and for shit’s sake, PUH-LEASE don’t ask for mayo on any brisket style meat sandwich. Order a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda to complete the worlds’ best deli lunch.

 

After fulfilling your stomach’s needs, take a walk to the nearby Tenement Museum. Quickly becoming a highly popular tourist destination, they offer multiple walking tours of old buildings conducted by knowledgeable guides explaining the history of immigration to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. We recommend making a reservation for whatever tour captures your interest (there are different themes). Later, stroll around the quaint narrow streets of the East Village; Home to dozens of funky art galleries, designer shopping, fabulous retro art galleries and vintage record stores, almost anyone can find something to hold their interest. If footwear is your thing, look no further than SoHo.

 

On nearby Bleecker Street, you’ll find The Bitter End, New York’s oldest rock club where almost every notable band in history has played at one time or another. Live music plays every night.

 

Regardless of what else you do, make sure you chow down on a piece of REAL New York Pizza. Folded in two, served in wax paper and allowing the grease to drip off is the only acceptable way and after a long day of touring, I suggest stopping at Joe’s Pizzaat Carmine and Bleecker Streets for pizza you won’t soon forget. Sadly I don’t seem to have any pictures of Joe’s and I hate using internet pics so I’ll just show you what real Italian food looks like. Should you make it to Brooklyn, try L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst; it’s one of the oldest and most well-known Italian restaurants serving pizza, pasta and baked specialties

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Lower key than many midtown attractions, several great smaller museums call the SoHo/TriBeca area home and are certainly worth a visit. Enhanced since the NYFD’s heroic actions on 9/11, The Fireman’s Museum  at 278 Spring Street is worth a stop and down the street from the Courtyard by Marriott Manhattan SoHo hotel. Ethnically fascinating for cross-cultured married people like myself, a little known museum in Chinatown called The Museum of Chinese in American details the history and contributions of the Chinese community.

While in Chinatown head down The Bowery around 10 AM, pick any restaurant and enjoy New York’s version of dim-sum. Greasier, doughier and more delicious than anything in California, it’s always been one of my favorite things to eat in New York. After lunch, stroll down Mott Street and experience the hustle and bustle of small shops selling everything from Chinese herbal medicines to live frogs. They banned the sale of live frogs in San Francisco due to typical hypocritical American political correctness that denounces any cultural practice deemed “too barbaric”. (Hilarious to me coming from a nation always defending the right to possess weapons so hunters can slaughter defenseless animals).

 

Wrapping up a day of sightseeing with a nightcap at Ayza’s Wine and Chocolate Bar on the corner of 7th Avenue and Carmine Street makes a perfect ending to a great day. With an amazing array of selections, all delicious, you can’t go wrong as you can see from the pics below.

 

For a quick breakfast the next day, go to Russ and Daughters, 1 block west of Katz’s and order a bagel with one of 6 kinds of lox or smoked salmon. Eat it on a park bench nearby. Sadly, a real New York bagel (giant size) seems to be available in Bay Ridge, my hometown Brooklyn neighborhood, but I can’t find them in Manhattan. Assuming you’d have no reason to visit my childhood stomping grounds, eat a Manhattan bagel anyway and ask them why they don’t look like the bagels below (purchased at a corner store on 4th Avenue and 95th Street across from the subway station).

 

Enjoying SoHo’s convenient access, make sure you spend a full day exploring the Financial District. Simply hop on the number 7 train south to the last stop and go on a weekday when its bustling with workers. One of the least known and best free attractions is the National Park Service Museum in Federal Hall across from the NYSE. You can’t tour the New York Stock Exchange due to security concerns which is dumb because few people realize that the physical exchange where humans used to interact to conduct business is now obsolete. All trading is electronic, orders get routed to one of 13 different exchanges and the buildings are nothing more than heavily guarded server rooms scattered across Northern New Jersey. Employees still work there so CNBC can flash pictures and ticker symbols across the screen all day and nobody knows any better. (If this piques your curiosity, read Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis, the world’s best financial industry muckraker).

The nation’s second largest Holocaust Museum is in the area although I didn’t find it nearly as impressive as I’d hoped. While downtown, make sure you visit Ellis Island. Accessible only by ferry and combined with The Statue of Liberty, expect very long lines all times of the year. Probably one of the only attractions I’d ever recommend waiting on line for no matter how long, the museum is chock full of excellent displays, old photos and endless plaques explaining how we all got here (sans perhaps descendants of the original British settlers). These pictures are from a 2007 trip but I’m sure they haven’t changed very much.

 

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I’ve spoken about this before and I’ll mention it again. Enjoying the original and still the best New York City lunch is a must do while you’re there. Budget-wise and delicious, find a street vendor that sells Sabrett products (you can see it on the umbrella or somewhere on the cart) and chow down on a few “dirty-water-dogs”. Ask for them smothered with red onion sauce and brown mustard (these are standard items on the pushcarts). Once upon a time they were 50 cents and dominated the downtown lunch scene. Nowadays they’ve been replaced by a plethora of mostly Mexican style crap that doesn’t compare.

 

Recommending specific restaurants would probably be remiss since they change literally from week to week. If you’ve chosen the SoHo option, Little Italy is a 10 minute walk away although Brooklyn natives would never compare city food to Brooklyn Italian (the world’s best). Summarizing your gastronomic options, if I can make one suggestion I’d have to go with cheesecake. Junior’s in downtown Brooklyn makes the best and most famous with honorable mention to the Stage Deli in midtown Manhattan, but it’s worthwhile almost anywhere in New York, In fact, it’s almost worth flying back from Malaysia for.

cheesecake

If you’ve been enticed enough and want more reasons why you should avoid pricier hotels, read on.

The Hotel Details:

Honestly, it’s foolish to do much more than sleep at any New York hotel since there is so much to do. In the interest of the post’s theme, here are some hotel basics. Conveniently located on Varick and King Streets, one block south of Houston Street, the best transportation option from JFK is to simply stand on the NYC Taxi line. Under city legislation, the fare is a $52.00 flat rate to anywhere in Manhattan (plus tolls) so don’t pay anything more. Additional fees apply for late nights and rush hour but they are trivial. Travel time should hypothetically be about 50 to 60 minutes but never ever count on traffic as “normal” in New York City.

couryard

Only a block outside the hotel, the number 1 subway line allows easy access and transfers to any part of Manhattan you’d want to visit as well as the other boroughs (except Staten Island which nobody would ever visit except perhaps to ride The Staten Island Ferry from lower Manhattan). For visitors in the one percent wanting luxury and high prices in the same area, The Trump SoHo is two blocks away and will run about $650 a night in the cheap season. Similarly priced hotels in the area also include Four Points by Sheraton and Hampton Inn although they didn’t seem as appealing to us.

Visiting my childhood stomping grounds

Visiting my childhood stomping grounds

Resembling a tall and narrow but modern looking building, the Courtyard Marriott Manhattan SoHo is a skinny newer building sandwiched between several older style warehouse-looking structures. Promoted as a boutique hotel, it’s cramped but comfortable so if you prefer large lobbies, floors and rooms, choose another hotel. Sacrificing grandeur furnishings for comfort, convenience and price goes a long way in New York City and leaves extra cash that’s always needed in The Big Apple.

Consisting of contemporary furnishings with a small sitting area, some interesting books about New York, four computers with printers and a small bar, one flat screen TV and a few chairs, the lobby is perfectly suitable. Easily one of the nicest surprises, the staff is the one of the best parts of the hotel. Prior to our arrival, we received an email from the general manager asking if we had any needs and they always greet you with a smile and ask if you need any help with anything. Banishing the gruff reputation, I’d forgotten about East Coast hospitality from spending too many years in laid back California.

Times Square area

Times Square area

Featuring 20 floors with 6 rooms of equal size on each, take note that even higher floors will not drown out the never-ending horns and sirens but it’s slightly better than Midtown. We stayed in room 1703. Checking in is a breeze but the two elevators are small and can only fit about 6 people. As this trip took place before my house husband status, fitness played less of a role so I can’t comment on the exercise facilities but don’t expect anything fancy. New York trips are for eating incredible food anyway and your daily stair-master routine can wait (Disclaimer: I actually do get up and hit the hotel exercise room ever since my health-inducing layoff).

bklyn2Hoping I’ve convinced you to visit the world’s greatest metropolis, be assured it’s one of the most fascinating cities ever. While I can’t wait to visit places like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney once we live in Southeast Asia, New York City will always be home to me no matter where our expat experiment leads.

We love New Yawk accents, stories, pizza and anything else East Coastish. Please share your tales of New York or ask me a friggin question. 

Coming next week:
House Hunters International wants The Experimental Expats !! 

One thought on “The Motherland (New York City) Revisited

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