There are days when plans just come together and midway through the day you realize that you’ve constructed one of those perfect NYC days. We had one of those days over the weekend. It ended with a sunset view of the Manhattan skyline that was so incredible, that it couldn’t have been scripted better.
We also explored a small corner of the city that we have never been to before. As big as the city is, we often tend to stick to places familiar to us. It was a good reminder that the city is big and there is so much out there we have yet to see. I had never been to Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens before and when I saw that they were hosting free sculpture workshops every Saturday during the summer with a different artist and theme each week, I made sure to put it on our summer list of things to do.
It’s kind of hard to describe Socrates. At first impression it’s an odd little park that feels a little rough around the edges, but when you dig a little deeper and see all the art that’s happening – on view and in progress – you realize that it has a creative energy that you don’t see very often in public view. Aside from the free weekly art workshops for kids and adults (and outdoor movies in the summer too), there is a network of cargo containers and an open air workshop that make up artist in residency studios that the Park grants to select artists and architects. A small farmer’s market sold local and regional produce just a few meters away from where artists were working on their sculptures, and a dance company was working their way through choreography as part of a week-long residency program for dancers this month.
While we sat there watching the dancers rehearse, I realized that I felt like I was on an art school campus. It had that type of creative energy that we used to be surrounded by when we went to school, but haven’t really been immersed in since. It made me miss that free spirited energy back in college days when all we did was create and make things. In a city where there is so much art to take in, it’s somewhat unusual to have access to view works in progress like this. In the boat making workshop that we participated in last Saturday, it wasn’t just the kids who wanted to build and create; I saw a fair number of parents constructing their own boats alongside their kids. It’s hard to just stand idly by when there are so many fun and tactile materials to play with. It just goes to show…creativity can be contagious.
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This right here might be my favorite thing in NYC this summer. Governor’s Island is the first American stop for this rare collection of 19th and 20th century French vintage carnival rides and Fete Paradiso is every bit as charming as it looks. Even the background music of accordions and the mix of occasional cuts from the Amelie soundtrack that’s pumped in through the speakers adds to the atmosphere. I often think that attendants dressed in costume can be overdone (like in the Punk: Chaos to Couture show at the Met), but everything just works here, right down to the roped off pavilion where you can sit under strung lights and chandeliers and order food from the French cafe, Le Gamin.
The vintage rides are truly spectacular and it’s amazing that they’re still functional. You almost have to keep reminding yourself of just how old these rides really are and it seems like a privilege to be able to take a ride on museum quality pieces of art. Maybe the most glaring reminder that these date back to the 19th and 20th century is that the rides don’t have seat belts. The girls rode one dragon ride that went quite fast, backwards and forwards, and as they took off I heard them yell, “but where are the seeeeeatbelts!!!”
Fete Paradiso runs on Governor’s Island until September 29.
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I kept thinking over the weekend as I watched the girls enjoy the beach during our day trip to Montauk that we’re giving the kids a really good childhood. And it’s not because we have lots of money to spend on toys and gadgets and trips. On the contrary, we have pared down our lifestyle even further in the last 18 months, partly out of necessity and partly out of the desire to cut down on needless consumerism, but we also acknowledge that we are more fortunate than most. The one thing, for the most part, that we’ve had in abundance despite the intense juggling of business and work, is time spent with the kids. This is what I need to remind myself of when the envy starts to creep in. Oh you know, looking through vacation photos of friends on Facebook, admiring stuff that you wish you could buy.
But what I have learned in recent years is this: the stuff that you wished you sometimes had, that you thought you would need to give your kids a good childhood is often not necessary at all. Sometimes our perception of what we need can be influenced by what our friends and peers have, but it’s really not how much you have that’s important; it’s what you do with what you have that matters.
Not to say that the girls themselves aren’t immune to this. Mia in particular, will sometimes say that she’s the only one in her class who hasn’t traveled to another country yet (oh reeeally? I ask her). She’s been asking to go to sleepaway camp for the past few years like so many of her friends and I tell her, I don’t know, maybe some day. It’s these moments when I start to feel a bit bad that we don’t have the means to do some of the things that they ask for because frankly, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to afford sleepaway camp or extra dance classes or music lessons. But I just need to shake those feelings off because sleepaway camp or no camp, European vacation or not, the girls have a pretty sweet childhood.
Sometimes I feel like I manage our money a little too tight fisted and perhaps that’s rooted in the fear of what’s unknown, but when I see their smiles at the beach or the movies, or the times we spend in the burbs at my parents’ house, then I know that choosing experiences over things is right for us. It may get harder as they get older when they’ll feel pressured on their own to keep up with their peers, but I do hope that we’re laying down the foundation for them to feel secure within themselves, despite of all that (sometimes we need this reminder ourselves too). I remember wanting things and wishing my life was a bit different; I was a teenager once. I hope when they look back, they’ll remember how good it was and they’ll know that we tried to give them the best childhood that we could, just as my mom tried to give us a better childhood than the one she had.
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I think we might be all festivaled out from the past few weekends. We didn’t set out to spend Father’s Day weekend at 2 festivals. Actually, I was looking to recreate the tradition that we started last year – spending a peaceful day strawberry picking at a farm. We did decide to go to a strawberry festival on the North Fork, but we didn’t realize what a carnival-type scene it would be, crowds and all. I thought it would be more of a quaint, relaxed country type affair – you know, where people judge the best pie and race little piglets or something, but it ended up being more like Coney Island, but in the middle of farm land. We ate lots of fried stuff and a huge strawberry shortcake big enough to feed an entire family for $5. That was pretty much the only strawberry themed item at the Strawberry Festival, but eh…like I said about Disney World, I can embrace the cheese and have fun pretty much anywhere (that’s a good skill to have, by the way. Comes in handy when doing unpredictable, family outings). Besides, I think Mark secretly enjoyed chasing after Mia with his bumper car and repeatedly slamming into her.
Saturday was spent with my dad at a Korean block party somewhere in Queens. There were performances up on stage, ping pong tables, and oddly enough, a sand pit where Korean wrestling was supposed to take place later on in the afternoon (don’t ask…I don’t know), but as it is at most street fairs, it’s usually all about the food. I think what my dad really wanted though was a bowl of noodles at some restaurant down the block because he kept dropping hints even though there was food around us everywhere. Even after finishing off a plate of rice, beef and kimchi, he kept mentioning noodles (uh…dad…do you want to go get some noodles??). Finally about an hour later, he steered us towards the restaurant he wanted to try out, giving as an excuse the fact that Miss C hadn’t eaten anything yet. When we sat down, we realized that it was a Vietnamese Pho place run by Koreans (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and not a typical Korean noodle shop like he thought. It was ok though; my dad had spent a week in Vietnam last year and had eaten plenty of Pho, but he kept asking us and the waitress if it came with “hove”. Huh? Interestingly enough, the waitress knew what he was talking about, but Mark and I were completely perplexed. What the hell is “hove”? My dad kept insisting that he didn’t want any “hove” on his noodles and told us that in Vietnam, he liked the food as long as they didn’t put any “hove” in it.
Um, ok. “Dad, I don’t what you’re saying. Hove is not a word.”
And then it hit me about 15 minutes later. He meant herb . “Hove” was herb, but he couldn’t pronounce it correctly because, well you know, it’s hard for Koreans to pronounce an ‘r’, no matter how long they’ve lived in the states. He didn’t want any cilantro on his pho. “No hove, no hove!”
I told you Koreans didn’t like cilantro.
ps. I know Michelle Obama’s name is spelled wrong in that last photo. It amuses me endlessly that Koreans still get amazed every single time they see a non-Korean person eating and enjoying kimchi. It’s the same reason why Mark gets the white person treatment at Korean restaurants, which my parents then have to correct with the waitress. Oh, you know, getting cold water instead of hot barley tea, a fork instead of chopsticks, not getting certain individual appetizers when the rest of us do. It makes him so mad.
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I was talking with a friend while sitting on the grass on Governors Island over the weekend, observing just how many public parks and green spaces have opened in the city within the last 5-10 years – essentially the time we became parents. Aside from Governors Island, we now have the High Line, the Hudson River Piers and Parks, the Brooklyn Bridge Piers and Parks, the Williamsburg waterfront, and countless other playgrounds and car-free pedestrian plazas. Most of these spaces are still works in progress, spanning development over many years and opening to the pubic in phases, often one pier at a time for example, while funding gets established. Indeed, it’s been interesting to see the progress over the years and anticipate the build out of plans that are often available to the public. This year on Governors Island, we noticed the appearance of bright red benches, adirondack chairs and hammocks. This was my friend Megan’s first time on the Island and I told her how we always make a trip out here within the first few weeks of the season with the intention of coming back a few more times before it closes for the winter – but we never do, only because there is so much to do in the city in the summer and we want to hit all of our favorite events and spots at least once. Not a bad problem to have, yes?
In continuing with my documentary kick these days, I watched Urbanized last week, a film about the design of cities. There’s been a reversal happening in the last decade, a shift away from the suburbs as more and more people are choosing to stay and live in cities. This has resulted in revitalization of urban centers when decades ago the evidence of urban decay was palpable. We didn’t have so many public spaces like we do now growing up; we spent most of our time as kids playing Kick the Can with other neighbors in our street or playing on our swingset in our backyard in Queens. The city has changed so much since I grew up here (some may argue not for the better and it’s true – NYC has lost a certain edge), but the city continues to be a work in progress as it responds to the needs and wants of its growing population – and let’s also be clear – the agendas of politicians. As urban experiments, The High Line and Governors Island have been wildly successful. Closing off sections of Times Square to cars, something that seemed highly improbable years ago, was also a bold experiment. I think one of the more dramatic transformations of the city that I have witnessed in my lifetime other than Times Square is Bryant Park. The Bryant Park of my childhood was similar to Times Square – you just didn’t go there. In fact, I don’t think I ever set foot inside Bryant Park until the mid 90s. It was a dirty, seedy cesspool of trash and drugs. Hard to imagine isn’t it, as it’s probably one of the most bucolic, picturesque and lovely blocks in the whole city. Locally in our neighborhood, we’ve seen a playground and park similarly turn around within the 13 years that I’ve lived here. Sometimes we feel like old timers when we tell newcomers to the neighborhood that years ago, our beloved local playground was a drug infested space that you didn’t even want to walk past (and I didn’t; I used to cross the street to avoid walking next to the playground). It’s really hard to picture it now since it’s become a town center of sorts in recent years after its renovaton, with a local farmer’s market on the weekends and outdoor events all year round.
There are those who lament the loss of gritty character the city once embodied before the gentrification, the sterilization and even the disneyfication of some neighborhoods in NY. Arguably, the most egregious effect of gentrification is that people get priced out of neighborhoods and we see it all the time. I’m somewhere in the middle. I can sort of romanticise the NYC of my childhood and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else, but sometimes the city was too much and that’s why I left. When I moved back in late ’96, Giuliani was 3 years into his term in office and the changes to the city were already apparent. It felt like coming back to a new city. So while I do think gentrification is a really tricky issue, I do enjoy many of the changes that are happening and it makes me firmly comfortable with raising the kids here. The challenges to improve the quality of life in NYC are many and not made any easier by the fact that we are over 8 million people, but I admit to being surprised at how far the city has come since I was a kid. Even just this year we have a new bike sharing program, as controversial as it is. We can now recycle ALL plastic (huge news for the city!). The first Whole Foods in Brooklyn is going to have a 20,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse that will grow organic produce for its customers, largely because residents demanded it as an amendment to the roof top parking lot that was planned by Whole Foods (you mean, our voice and opinions can count?). I don’t really know what the city will look like by the time our kids are adults (or even in 5 years for that matter – we are set to get a new mayor this year after all), but I like what I’m seeing. More parks, more green spaces, more car-free plazas, more rooftop gardens and more farmers markets. There is just so much more to do and more places to do them in. A lot has changed in 10 years.
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I think visiting the Gold Coast mansions in Long Island is quickly becoming a favorite weekend pastime of ours. Last month it was the Vanderbilt Mansion; this past Memorial Day we made a visit to the Planting Fields at Coe Hall, the former estate of the Coe family. Unlike some of the other estates that we’ve visited, many of the rooms at the 64 room Tudor-style mansion are being restored just as they were when the Coe family lived there during the Gilded Age (oh, and all these Gold Coast mansions are weekend country homes, btw. Most of these families had main residences in the city). The formal dining room is set with fine china and silverware, and intimate photos of the family rest on mantles and tables. It’s almost feels as if we, the visitors, are like ghosts intruding in this family’s home; you can imagine the children racing up and down the hallway upstairs and guests sitting down to dinner at the set table.
The grounds of the Coe Estate covers over 400 acres of gardens, greenhouses (more of those pictures to come) and big, open lawns. For an $8 entrance fee per car, you can spend the day here, spread your blanket out and have a summer picnic. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to slow down, lie on the grass and look at the clouds. It’s what summer looks like.
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