Quick Hit: The Unisphere!

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Unisphere, taken between 1980 and 2006 – Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I have gushed before about visiting Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 world’s fairs. One of my favorite fair remnants is, of course, the Unisphere, which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Queens, though few people get out to see it in person. 

The structure is huge, and it’s very, very difficult to get a feel for its scale in photos. Standing 140 feet tall (that’s 12 stories!), it’s the largest globe structure in the world. It was built for the 64-65 world’s fair, the theme of which was “Peace Through Understanding”. The Unisphere itself was dedicated to “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe”. I love that dedication — I think it’s entirely relevant today, nearly 50 years and several paradigms later.

The structure was built on the foundations of the Perisphere, the centerpiece of the 39-40 World’s Fair. It was donated by the US Steel Corporation and built by Mohawk ironworkers. The three rings represent the paths of the three satellites that were in orbit during the fair, and at night a light glowed from the site of each capitol city on the globe, including one for the Kahnawake Indian Reservation, in honor of the Mohawks. In order to prevent any of those lights from going dark during the two fair seasons, there were three bulbs on a rotating base that could be rotated out if any light burnt out.

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Nowadays, the Unisphere mostly looks like this photo, taken in April – sort of sad. The fountains at its base are usually empty (or holding some stagnant water if there’s been a rainstorm lately), and kids are usually playing on its base or skateboarding around the edge of the fountains. There is one glorious time of the year, though, when Flushing Meadows-Corona Park takes the national stage, and the Parks Department decides it’s worthwhile to turn those fountains on.

In late August and early September, the US Open tennis tournament enlivens this end of the park with scores of people hanging out all day long to watch tennis matches. AND the Unisphere has its pools full and fountains on, spraying water joyfully into the air! 

If you’re heading out there between now and Monday to catch some tennis, definitely stop by the Unisphere for a gander and a photo. And, if you’ve been meaning to get out to Corona to explore the World’s Fair history there, it’s as good a time as any. Unfortunately the Queens Museum is closed for renovation until October, but there’s still plenty to enjoy – including baby sea lions at the Queens Zoo, also located in the boundaries of the park!

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The Metropolitan Opera: Pre-recorded but in HD

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The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival began on Saturday night, and of course I forgot about it until Sunday morning. Every summer, the Met airs some of its recorded performances on a screen outside on Lincoln Plaza, and it’s one of my favorite festivals in New York. It’s easy to get to, you know exactly what to expect, there are chairs (!), and you can arrive less than an hour before the “curtain” and still get a decent seat. No camping out for hours in the heat to sit on a blanket on the ground so far from the stage that you might as well not be there (I’ve been burned before, can you tell?).

I decided to brave last night’s screening despite an iffy forecast, and enjoyed about half of The Tempest before the rain arrived and sent my friend and I scurrying to a restaurant for a late dinner.

The festival continues with screenings through Monday, September 2. The only one of this series that I’ve seen is Aida, which is a spectacular production that would be great for first-timers or seasoned opera fans alike to take in (THEY HAVE HORSES ON STAGE!).

More info on the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

The Cat’s Pyjamas: The 2013 Jazz Age Lawn Party

 

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This past weekend was the second and final weekend in 2013 for the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island. Now in its 8th year, the Lawn Party is hosted by Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra, and is a chance to put on some 1920s duds, learn the Charleston, sip champagne cocktails, and listen to the beautiful melodies of the Jazz Age. In previous years that I’ve attended, it’s been a relatively sleepy little event, something that was a bit of a secret. This year, though, it was clear that the secret was out — when I arrived at the ferry terminal for the second ferry of the day, the line stretched far beyond the building along the lower Manhattan waterfront.

First, some photos. And please excuse the horrific quality – I’m in the market for a new camera.
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First, the good things about Saturday’s event.  It was very well attended and everyone seemed to be in a great mood. The costumes were fantastic (though seriously, ladies, let’s all agree not to order the “1920s flapper!!!!” Halloween costume for the event next year, okay?), and several groups really went the extra mile and brought pretty insane picnic setups that were fun to look at. The expanded food and beverage offerings were a great addition, and I was happy to see more vegetarian options available. St. Germain was out in full force and kept the revelers well-supplied with champagne cocktails. The weather was glorious! And the entertainment? Flawless, as usual.

However, there were also some problems. The event has grown magnificently in the last few years, to the point where it’s sort of outgrown its space. The Lawn Party takes place in Colonel’s Row, a long, narrow, triangular patch of grass lined by beautiful old trees and lovely old brick buildings. It is the perfect space for this event. However, this year’s crowd overwhelmed the space, so that by 1:30 pm there were picnickers set up everywhere and very few paths through the blankets to get to the food, or to the dance floor. There were also only two entrances to the space, meaning long admission lines even for folks like myself who had purchased tickets in advance.

The ticket prices have also climbed significantly over the last few years. If I recall correctly, 2011’s tickets were $8. In 2012, general admission was $15. And this year, tickets had soared to $30 per person. I do feel that the entertainers, vendors, and other attendants deserve to be paid, and paid well, but if tickets continue to rise, they will need to host the event at a site that is larger, with infrastructure such as actual restrooms in place. The roughin’-it feel was fine when the event was smaller, when it felt covert, when it felt like a secret. Now that this has become one of NYC’s better known summer to-dos, a place to see and be seen, attracting a wide range of people and families, perhaps its time to think about moving the event. I love, love, love Colonel’s Row for this event. I think Governors Island is pretty much the best possible venue for suspending disbelief and relaxing into a different time period for a moment. But if ticket prices continue to rise, there will be an expectation that the amenities will, as well. And while the organizers have managed to continuously expand the food service and ticket package offerings, they will need to consider the overall experience and amenities, as well.

Concerns aside, I had a wonderful time on Saturday and am hoping I’ll be able to attend again next year. I love the chance to sit on a blanket in a cloche hat, sipping a drink, listening to the band, and watching the parade of well-dressed folks wander by. And apparently, so does Bill Cunningham, who stopped by later in the afternoon on Saturday.

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Coney Island & the New Steeplechase Plaza

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Sunday morning I woke up well before my alarm and knew I wouldn’t be falling back to sleep. Rather than torture myself by tossing and turning for another hour or two, I bit the bullet and got out of bed. Without any concrete plans for the day and with these few “extra” hours of time, I decided to head to Coney Island for my first visit of the season. In August. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a little preoccupied this summer.

It was early, but the train from my neighborhood takes a little over an hour. I arrived along with the early morning beach bums. I decided to take my usual route, wandering through the amusement areas towards the beach and walking the boardwalk down to the New York Aquarium. As I strolled along the weathered wooden planks of the boardwalk, I immediately noticed something: my old pal the Parachute Jump was looking pretty spiffy.

The Parachute Jump may be a Brooklyn landmark today, but it was actually built for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, in Queens. Two years after the fair, it was moved to Coney Island, where it continued to operate until cost and safety concerns shut it down in 1964. How does a structure like this operate as a ride? Well, it’s missing a few parts today…

This ride, to me, looks completely, totally, absolutely terrifying. I would never ride it. But, hey, I’m pretty into it as a landmark and for its historic significance.

The Parachute Jump is right up against the boardwalk near MCU Park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team play. It sits a little back from the main boardwalk, and until this year, was fenced off and physically separated from the walkways. I was there in May when E finished the Brooklyn half marathon on the boardwalk, but in all the excitement I didn’t take a close look at the Jump. So imagine my surprise when I walked that way this morning and was greeted with this view:

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A carousel pavilion AND all that beautiful, uninterrupted open space around the Parachute Jump? Well, I do declare!

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This new area has been developed as Steeplechase Plaza, in honor of the amusement park of the same name that stood on this site. Steeplechase Park, known for the ride bearing the same name, was one of several iconic amusement parks at Coney Island that saw destructive fires in the early years of the twentieth century; when Steeplechase Park burned in 1907, its owner George Tilyou declared that he would rebuild a bigger, better park on the site, and then charged 10¢ for people to come in to see the smoldering ruins. Tilyou’s son purchased the Parachute Jump and moved it to Coney Island.

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Now, you can walk right up to the base and peer underneath it. There is landscaping, and some stepped seating around it. And, it also just got a brand new, very expensive set of LEDs installed on it — I’ll definitely be back before the end of the season to see the show.

The other reason for a return visit is just next door: the restored B&B Carousell (yes, that’s how it’s spelled)! The carousel was built in Coney Island, and operated there and in New Jersey between 1906 and 2005, when its owners planned to dismantle it and sell it off, horse by horse. The city purchased it and it spent five years being restored in Ohio, before returning to Coney Island and its brand new, shining, neon-encrusted pavilion right next to the Parachute Jump.

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Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I was there too early to see it in action, but I’ll be back. I grew up near a wonderful old public carousel in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut, and so I’ve always appreciated the whimsy of a standalone amusement ride. Next to the glitz and flash of Coney Island’s attractions, the B&B Carousell won’t be quite so exciting as the lonely carousel in the park in Hartford, but I’m sure it’s just as charming. And I’m glad to see New York City welcoming a carousel back home, and adding it back onto its roster.

Summer Streets: Putting the Park in Park Avenue

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Last Saturday, I got up early and headed into Manhattan to play on Park Avenue as part of Summer Streets, three consecutive Saturdays when the city shuts down motor vehicle traffic on nearly 7 miles of Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Instead of the whir of engines and the smell of exhaust, the streets are full of the sounds of bicycle bells and feet on the pavement.

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I joined the pedestrian traffic heading north at 23rd Street. There was a steady stream of people, even at about 7:30 am, and many organizations were present to teach people about bike safety, give out samples of food and energy drinks, and help out with our new bikeshare program, Citi Bike. There were many bicyclists, runners, and training teams, as well as a fair number of people just out to enjoy the morning with a leisurely walk, like me.

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One of the major draws for me was the Voice Tunnel, an interactive art installation in the Park Avenue Tunnel. Running from 33rd to 40th Streets, the tunnel is usually closed to pedestrians. For Summer Streets, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer created a light and sound installation where visitors record messages at the center of the tunnel that are then played on speakers synchronized with spotlights at about 10 foot intervals throughout the tunnel. It’s loud in the tunnel, with variable lighting conditions and moments of total darkness that can be very disorienting. However, the chance to walk through the tunnel was enough of a draw for me, and the artwork was an interesting bonus.

The Park Avenue Tunnel was originally built to carry the New York and Harlem Railroad, and then a streetcar line. Originally an open channel, the tunnel was roofed over in the 1850s with granite from the original railroad track below 14th Street. Now, it carries one lane of northbound automobile traffic.

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Emerging from the tunnel at 40th Street, I continued on the elevated roadway up to and around Grand Central Terminal. The facade of Grand Central is lovely and detailed, but because of the elevated roadway it’s usually impossible to really get a good look at it. Luckily, during Summer Streets, you can.

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I walked up to 60th Street, where I got on the subway back out to Queens. Summer Streets will be happening again tomorrow and next Saturday, with 7 miles of streets to explore, rest stops with activities for kids and adults alike, and a great opportunity to have enjoy a new perspective on familiar New York City streets. The event runs from 7 am to 1 pm, and you can get more info at the NYC website.

 

All the Island’s a Fair – Fête Paradiso on Governors Island

It seems sort of appropriate that most of the times I make Governors Island a destination, it’s for some kind of time-bending event – a game festival featuring a time travel agency, an 1860s baseball game, the Jazz Age Lawn Party (which I’ll be attending again next weekend! Stay tuned!). Governors Island lies between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it feels like a place that time has passed by.

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Last weekend, while my sister was visiting, we ventured out to Governors Island to check out Fête Paradiso, a traveling Parisian carnival featuring museum-quality 19th- and 20th-century amusements. That you can actually ride.

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Nolan Park is a beautiful expanse of grass shaded by old, tall trees and surrounded by cheerful, bright yellow houses. A refreshment area under a large pavilion occupies the center of the space, with the amusements dispersed around it. There are attractions for kids and adults alike — more than one of the adults I saw on the high-speed dragon carousel looked like they were significantly more terrified than the kids!

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There was also this carnival game, which had to be manually cranked by an operator to open and close the targets’ mouths. Having worked in an amusement park in college, I was immediately grateful that the games all operated themselves with the push of a button after watching this man struggle with levers.

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One of my favorite things was this bicycle carousel, which may look familiar if you’ve seen “Midnight in Paris” (the only other one in the world was in the movie and lives at the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris). The rides were originally created to familiarize people with the mechanics of riding a bike when bicycles were first invented, and require rider participation in order to move.


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The idea of getting comfortable with a new technology by playing with it is hardly novel to most of us; the best way to learn a new piece of software is to just dig in with a fun project. However, I thought that the scale and publicness of the bicycle carousel (or Velocipides
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Fête Paradiso will be running weekends in Nolan Park from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm until September 29, and it is well worth a trip out to the island on its own. There are also usually a bunch of other things going on out on Governors Island — even if the real draw for you is just basking in the sun on an open patch of grass.

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Ferries leave from Manhattan and Brooklyn, or, for $4 per ride, you can take the East River Ferry up to Long Island City, Queens (we took a beautiful sunset trip, pictured above); more information is available from the Trust for Governors Island website.

Ghosts of the IRT Subway System

In case you’re feeling as braindead as I am this morning, a quick hit: footage of the NYC subway from 1905. The IRT subway (Short for Interborough Rapid Transit) opened in 1904 and ran from City Hall to 145th Street. This clip shows the train moving through several stations, with riders running to catch the train.

In 1940, the city took over operations of the IRT system, and it now operates as the A division of the NYC subway (lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the Times Square/Grand Central Shuttle). In 1945, the IRT’s crown jewel, the City Hall station, was shut down. I checked it out with with the New York Transit Museum in 2011, and now you can stay on the downtown 6 train from the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop as it makes its loop back around through the ghost station.