Visiting New York City

by Sarah Birdsong
The Information Kiosk of Chinatown, NYC.

I’ve known Stephanie for sixteen years. So when she asked me to be a part of her bridal party, the only word that sprang to mind was “yes!”

We’d seen each other through countless life stages and painful periods of growth. And I was more than happy to assist her in starting the latest chapter with her wife-to-be, Christine.

Luckily for me, Bensalem, Pennsylvania, found itself between two cities I could squeeze into my visit northeast. For the brevity, I’ll break this installment into three pieces: my New York City travel, my visit to Philadelphia, and of course, the wedding.

My reasons for dropping into New York were twofold, however. My uncle works and lives in the city and a visit was long overdue. He’s been a favorite of my extended family because of our shared interests in the arts. Having worked on Broadway building sets for the whole of his adult life, Uncle Bob has always fostered and nurtured my love of arts and music.

New York City: a Brief History

New York got its start as a Dutch trading outpost, originally named New Amsterdam in 1624. Eventually, after coming under English control in 1664, New Amsterdam became New York. The historical homeland of various Iroquois and Algonquin tribes, New York’s oldest thoroughfare, Broadway, has a history surpassing its colonist settlement:

The Manhattan Indians used the Wickquasgeck name for the path they took through the center of the island to [the] northern reaches. Coming south along it, Indians of various tribes reached the Dutch settlement at the southern end of the island. The Europeans could likewise follow it north—through stands of pin oak, chestnut, poplar, and pine, past open fields strewn with wild strawberries

 

… crossing the fast running brook that flowed southeast from the highlands in the area of Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, more or less where the Plaza Hotel stands, to empty into a small bay on the East River—to hunt in the thick forest at the island’s center and to fish the inlets that penetrated the eastern coast. As it was clearly destined to be the most prominent lane on the island when the Dutch widened the path they referred to it as the Gentlemen’s Street, or the High Street, or simply the Highway.

 

The English, of course, called it Broadway (Shorto 2005: 60).

Anthropology in Practice

Contrasting the city’s unrelenting urban landscape, New York State’s countryside brimming with vast tracts of wilderness, meadows and forests alike. The Allegheny Plateau dominates the southern region and the Catskill Mountains known as the Southern Tier along the northern border of Pennsylvania. Rolling hills constitute its bulk, with the northernmost region of Appalachia resting on the Allegheny Plateau itself.

Its northern edge divides New York from Canada along the cuesta, east of Lake Ontario, colloquially known as the upper state. Additionally, New York is humid and subtropical. Summer temperatures range from the upper 70s to mid-80s ° F (25 to 30 ° C). Winter seasons tend to see a temperature of −13 ° F (−25 ° C).

Things to Do in New York City in 24hrs or Less

We arrived in LaGuardia at 8am, the airport itself nondescript and sleepy. I was on a tight schedule and Sean was already irascible due to the hour at which we found ourselves traveling. Flights to New York City either ran early or late—and I chose the former.

First, we made our way to Brooklyn and our AirBnB via the F train to Canal Street. Unfortunately for us, Sean had picked the wrong train—so accustomed was he to taking the F train to Brooklyn—which had us slightly off schedule. Bursting with commuters, we were forced to become well acquainted with whomever shoulders we touched, barreling through the subway. The air was thick with the scent of fuel and sweat, the train’s denizens humorless. Fortunately, as our train made its way west, the crowd began to thin and we were finally able to sit.

As we waited for our stop, Sean and I discussed our plans. First on my list of places to go was Chinatown. There is no shortage of things to do in New York City, but I had specific destinations in mind. I’d also had a notion to visit Enchantments, New York’s oldest occult shop—as if I’d ever need an excuse to visit any such location. Beyond that, Sean had a mind to bring me to Trash and Vaudeville and Tompkins Square Park.

But first, we needed to drop off our luggage. Situated in Prospect Heights Historic District just blocks from Grand Army Plaza and Prospect Park, our pre-war AirBnB condo was both cozy and a sight for sore eyes after navigating to Brooklyn from the F to the Q. After depositing our belongings, we settled into a thoughtfully prepared breakfast, buffet style with our host and fellow guests.

My favorite aspect of traveling is the people I meet. AirBnB provides a unique opportunity to meet everyday, common people that you would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. Our Brooklyn BnB was perhaps the best example of this to date:

Of course, no one in New York is actually from New York. Our host hailed from Alaska. Despite the high cost of living, she preferred the substantial premium for housing over what she spent on simple items like food or toiletries on the Frontier. Our fellow guest was French and traveling with his son, which made for a wonderful conversation about international travel and food preferences. He was in town for a tennis match and had plans to dine in the Bronx for dinner. Sean gave him his condolences—he’d never had great luck in that part of town. By the time noon arrived, we were full of coffee, bread, and good conversation.

But I was ready to go. After corraling Sean and putting on my walking boots, we made our way to the 7th Avenue station.

Things to see in New York City: Chinatown

Being the stereotypical tourist I am, I couldn’t resist a photo by Chinatown’s famed information kiosk. That’s one more location off my bucket list! Densely populated and brimming with commerce, Chinatown is both eclectic and hectic with beautifully colored tenements and bustling thoroughfare.

Much like it is portrayed in endless forms of entertainment, Pell Street is iconic. Lined with colorful brick apartment buildings and small storefronts stocked with street food, produce, and trade goods, the short and narrow street ends abruptly at Mott. Its vibrant din flirted with overstimulation, chaotic in the most controlled sense. Classic and beautiful for its scramble, Pell Street is perhaps the best example of the Chinatown experience. While considering things to do in New York City, I strongly recommend you stop by Chinatown.

As we toured Chinatown, we stopped in Columbus Park. Tourists and locals alike milled, listening intently as street musicians performed on the erhu. Also known as the spike fiddle or the Chinese violin to the Western world, its steely voice narrated the afternoon in somber tones. In the square stood the statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Father of the Republic of China. Wearing a traditional changshan, Dr. Sun Yat-sen is remembered for the bravery and wisdom associated with his office.

The base is inscribed with words more relevant now than ever:

“All under heaven are equal.”

 

Places to see in New York City: The Lower East Side

At this point, we had walked Chinatown twice, exhausting sights to see. Piling onto the train, we made our way to the Lower East Side. I had my heart set on visiting Enchantments. It took a bit of pacing to find, given that I am continually distracted by pigeons everywhere I go. I can’t help but love the fat, dull creatures.

However, we did manage to locate it without much fanfare. Tucked away on 424 E 9th St., heady with warm incense and perfume, the shop welcomes you by way of two black cats. Enchantments’ familiars wound through our feet, chirping as we browsed. They were not starved for attention by us or anyone else who visited. We settled on a hand carved candle of protection from the back and an altar ointment for a Thelemic friend.

While we waited for our candle to be finished, we dropped into Flower Power. I visited for the sole purpose of purchasing palo santo, but I couldn’t resist securing a few handmade soaps that I ended up gifting to various friends. Because candles and magic take time to perfect, we made the most of our wait by dropping into a local watering hole, Doc Holliday’s. Devoid of pretense, adorned in wretched taxidermy, we were served by a personable bartender who shared our love of New Orleans. We shared our favorite travel tips and dining experiences, bonding over a mutual distaste for chicory coffee and its bitter notes.

Unfortunately, while we did manage to visit Trash and Vaudeville, our visit was brief. My bags were already burgeoning and we hadn’t even left New York yet. After refreshments and returning to collect our candle, we stopped off in Tompkins Square Park to enjoy the scenery and time off our feet. Situated in the middle of the East Village, it is a focal point for artists and eclectic characters on any given day. The city’s ambiance was electric and decidedly exhausting. While I can appreciate the pace at which this city thrives, I am not as easily impressed by neverending throngs of people searching for their own New York minute. The hour was growing late, however, and we had a dinner date with my uncle.

Places to Eat in Manhattan

After hailing a taxi, we made our way to Red Bamboo, our agreed upon dining for the evening. You won’t have a difficult time finding great places to eat in New York City, of course, but my uncle insisted Red Bamboo to be among the best. Up until that point, I hadn’t seen my uncle in person in well over a decade. I wasn’t sure we’d immediately recognize each other. In fact, I breezed right past him as I ran into the restaurant to use the restroom! It was Sean who found Uncle Bob, teasingly denying that he was, in fact, my relative at all. This humor is a staple in my family. Notoriously ill-tempered but good-natured, with more attitude than we scarcely know what to do with.

We spent dinner reminiscing about my grandmother and pouring over my recent 23andMe results. My grandfather was adopted and it’s been a lifelong mission of mine to unearth that history. Unfortunately for me, 23andMe provided more questions than answers, and the trail is still cold. In spite of this, I was able to unearth heretofore lost family photos from ancestry.com and quiz my uncle on their origins.

We wrapped up the evening in Washington Square Park, where Sean fought the fluorescent lights for a decent photo to commemorate mine and Uncle Bob’s visit. The first photos he captured in front of Red Bamboo were the clear winners. However, Sean will never turn down the opportunity to outdo himself. We returned to our AirBnB to prepare for our trip to Philadephia the next morning.

I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.

ADDITIONAL READING

I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

NYC Parks: a comprehensive list of New York City’s parks amidst the concrete jungle.

Explore Chinatown: Chinatown can be overwhelming at first, but this guide can help you get started if you plan to visit.

Enchantments: this is simply a must-have for your travel itinerary if you have any interest in the occult.

Flower Power: another staple visit for anyone interested in the occult, they are purveyors of herbal supplements and incenses.

Trash and Vaudeville: this is one of those goth girl pilgrimages that I couldn’t pass up—and neither should you.

Red Bamboo: this menu is entirely vegetarian and vegan-friendly, however, anyone can find something they’ll enjoy here!

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