A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in New York. As far as sidewalking goes, this is one of the best cities in the world. New York is a walking city and we walked a lot. I had been to New York before so this time was very different. No where on the agenda was running all over the city going to museums, shows and landmarks. We spent two days exploring Brooklyn (where my brother lives) and two days in the Lower East Side. Compared to previous trips this was the first time that I felt like I actually got to experience the city.
My brother lives in Bed-Stuy, which is in the north eastern part of Brooklyn. It is an area that is still not gentrified compared to other areas of the Brooklyn, but it still has a dense neighbourhood feel.
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Our first day out, we went to explore the 'home of the hipster', Williamsburg. You can quickly see why the neighbourhood is one of the destinations for young urbanites. The streets, especially Bedford Avenue, are full of shops and restaurants. The buildings are small by New York standards but the density would be considered monstrous in Victoria. The sidewalks were full of young trendy hipsters, though on whole, less beards than expected. One of the things that I was drawn to and I think makes the streets lively, is how narrow they are, even on ones with lots of shops like Bedford. Most streets have one real lane for driving with parking on both sides of it. Cars by necessity go slowly and people can easily find gaps to cross the street. There are big busy arterials as well, but they are not the norm.
In Victoria, even in small neighbourhoods like North Park, the streets are very wide. This gives even dense neighbourhoods an empty feel. While I understand that actually changing the streets would be challenging here. I do think that we could easily encourage more buildings to be built right to the property line and with an extension of the sidewalks it would encourage walking while also having people feel like they were interacting more with the city. Yes, people would complain about the limitations on driving, but changing more streets to one way would let you maintain traffic flow and parking while also giving back to the pedestrian.
|5th Avenue, Park Slope|
Our second day in Brooklyn we decided to check out Park Slope as we had been told that it had some good independent shops, especially along 5th Avenue. When we got there we were treated to an amazing street festival that went on for more blocks then we were able to walk. There were also quite a lot of great stores.
What I liked about Park Slope, but Brooklyn in general, was that you had streets that were humming with activity yet you could turn anywhere and walk up a quiet side street. That side street would usually be lined with some of the most beautiful row housing imaginable. Yes, I am sure that even by Victoria standards these places would be expensive, but it still felt very community focused.
For the afternoon on the second day we went and explored Prospect Park. For those that have not been it is an amazing oasis from the surrounding city. It is almost three times the size of Beacon Hill Park and like Central Park, designed by Frederick Olmstead. It is full of winding pathways, bridges, ponds and lakes. On this sunny Sunday, it was full of local Brooklynites enjoying the greenery.
Even though we likely walked thirty kilometres in two days we saw just a tiny portion of Brooklyn, there are over fifty neighbourhoods and we really only saw maybe four of them.
Lower East Side
For our last two days we rented an AirBnB in the Lower East Side (LES), as we wanted to spend at least a little time in Manhattan. We chose LES as it was really the least expensive option for AirBnBs in Manhattan, but I am so happy we did as it is perhaps one of the most rich urban neighbourhoods I have been to in New York.
|LES by Tompkins Square Park|
There was a lot in common with areas in Brooklyn, except being in Manhattan, it was even more dense than the places we had been and there was definitely a feeling of busyness that we had not felt on the previous two days. Of course, it may have been because it was not a weekend any longer. Like Brooklyn, many of the side streets were one way and one lane.
The Lower East Side used to be the home of immigrants living in low cost tenement housing. During the 1970's and 80's it became more run down and was actually the home of a large squatting movement. One of my favourite podcasts 99% invisible, did a great episode on it recently. While, in recent years it has certainly become much more popular and expensive, it still feels like it is for locals and not tourists. Nearby are many great bars and restaurants that are frequented by the people that live here, I know, it sounds weird, but lots of New York feels like it is just for the tourists. Despite being off the main tourist track it was still easy to get to the subway and move around the city.
Our one big tourist adventure was taking a walk on the Highline on the other side of Manhattan from LES. It is an amazing linear park that was born out of an unused elevated rail line. It takes the idea of the Galloping Goose Trail and moves past transportation into art. While I think that copying it in its entirety would be a little campy, there are certainly opportunities to borrow some of the ideas that have been used here to convert some of our unused spaces into an urban destination.
Two places in particular that come to mind are the walkway by the harbour bordering on the unused parking lots along Wharf Street; and possibly around the borders of the old BC Hydro site surrounding Rock Bay.
While I know that many people only get one shot at visiting New York, if you are going back, I would strongly recommend a visit to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, they are both amazing places that give you a small look at how the city really is.
|LES near the Tenement Museum|