When the girls were little, solo walks around the city like this were rare. They still don’t happen very often even though they’re school age and there are now 34 hours a week spent apart from them, but yes, sometimes long solo walks do happen. They’re often not planned and most times are spur of the moment when I run in to do an errand and just decide to keep walking. You know that saying, “taking a walk to clear your head”. I suppose it’s true especially when your thoughts can sometimes suffocate you, but I also notice that when you’re walking briskly through a city that you have a long history with, the neighborhoods and streets move through like scenes from a movie and your thoughts and memories flood in alongside them.
You know how some people from your past pop into your head very randomly? Maybe someone you didn’t even know that well and hadn’t thought about in years and years until you see something that triggers a memory. Like a girl I used to know in art school who was really obsessed with Steely Dan, or that guy in the architecture program who I traveled one summer with up to Quebec City and camped out for 2 weeks along with some other people up in the woods by the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec in late August, 1990. That trip would be the one time in my life I have seen the Northern Lights. There was a stretch of rain during that trip that wouldn’t stop for days and we were all sitting around a fire after the rains finally eased up trying to keep warm. I remember one girl, who I didn’t know at all, say out loud almost as if to herself while staring at the fire, “I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m happy.”
Funny how certain memories and voices stay with you after 24 years. I’ll never forget this Russian woman who was one year ahead of me in art school. We were in the same advanced color theory class together and as we were getting ready to head into class, she looked down at me and my weekly color assignment as I was crouched by my locker and said to me dryly in her thick Russian accent, “we’re not in Rubin’s class anymore”, referring to the first year color theory class we all had to take as freshmen. She had a head full of fiery red curls and was a good 4 inches shorter than me, but damn if she didn’t tower over me during that brief exchange. I still remember her accent and the intonation of her voice when she spoke to me that day. If she intended to knock me down a peg she succeeded.
Sometimes I wonder where these people are and what became of them. Some just pass through your life momentarily and you know you’ll never see them again. Others who you think might stay in your life forever end up moving on as well. But sometimes against all odds you might catch a face that looks familiar as you’re moving through this city on perhaps a walk like this one the other day. I was in a crowded subway about 10 years ago and in my peripheral vision saw someone looking at me a little more intently than is normal for train riders who usually avoid making eye contact with each other. When I looked over, it was a face that looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I wasn’t sure if I knew him or not. He gave me the slightest smile of acknowledgment, but when I didn’t return it the smile quickly disappeared. He left the train when it arrived at the next station. I tried to place that face the entire train ride home, shuffling through people and memories and years. I finally did remember who the man was – I didn’t know him well but we attended some of the same East Village parties back in the day and had some good conversations whenever we saw each other. I’ll never forget how quickly his face changed from that half smile of recognition to a look of doubt that perhaps he made a mistake.
I like when random people come into my thoughts when I have the space and time to let my mind wander. I like when I can sit down on a bench by myself in Washington Square or Tompkins Square Park and think about all the people I’ve encountered though various times in the past. Sometimes those days seem so removed from present life that you have to ask yourself, “did that really happen? Did I really know these people?” But yes, I did know these people and even though there is little chance that I’ll ever see most of them again, my life is so much better for having known them.
Posted by Jenna | 11 Comments
Did you have a good weekend-before-Halloween? One of our favorite harvest festivals in the city happen to be in the Meatpacking District and that’s where we spent our morning on Saturday. It’s held in the little plaza off of Gansevoort and the activities and even some of the food is free as local businesses in the neighborhood donate their time and goods. The kids are at an age, as Mia rather begrudgingly observed, where they are aging out of some of the holiday events in the city, but this harvest fest is still fun and age appropriate. I like it too because it’s small and very neighborhoodly and I guess I still get a kick out of the irony of this very family and kid friendly event held right in a neighborhood that was known for sex clubs, slaughterhouses and prostitutes even as recently as 15-20 years ago. But you know…NYC has changed, yada yada.
I guess Mark has now lived in the city long enough to even wax nostalgic about the old days. He started working as a pastry cook in Soho when it had long turned touristy and expensive in the mid to late 90s, but the Meatpacking District was nothing like it is now when he took a job at a new restaurant in 1999. Fressen was one of 2 restaurants that opened in the meatpacking district at a time when you could walk around and still see blood stains and grease on the cobblestoned streets. Meatpacking plants and butcheries still remained in the area, but down from the few hundred that existed when the neighborhood got its name. It was kind of exciting to go down to the restaurant in those days when Mark worked nights. There was really nothing there – just dark streets, hand lettered signs from the meatpacking plants, and the iconic sidewalk overhangs where sides of beef hung on large metal hooks that characterized this neighborhood. All of it is gone now of course, and all replaced by high end boutiques, hotels and restaurants. Probably the last nail on the coffin to any connection in the neighborhood’s namesake was when Western Beef closed in the mid-2000s.
But I think the closing of a little restaurant called Florent in 2008 was the most devastating blow to the area to New Yorkers who liked to lament on changing times. I loved Florent. I didn’t go there as often as I would have liked, but I loved its story: the owner, a Frenchman who named the restaurant after himself and put his name in lights – pink neon lights in the front window – took over a luncheonette on Gansevoort Street in 1985. Florent was much beloved, but its fate fell like so many businesses like his; the rent was reportedly increasing to 30k a month (30k!).
I might very well be destined to become one of those old people who sit around in outdoor cafes remembering how things were back in olden times, but I admit I still rather enjoy the new Meatpacking District, especially on a brilliant October morning like this past weekend. Ironically, some of the early retailers and restaurants who moved into the area in the late 90s and early 2000s as the first wave to gentrify the area have closed up or moved on to other neighborhoods because the rent has gotten so high (Stella McCartney comes to mind, and Fressen closed some years after it opened). Seems like only the big chains like Apple can afford the rent these days.
Posted by Jenna | 6 Comments
I’ve done a lot of camping and hiking in my late teens/ early 20s and have spent a lot of time on the Oregon Coast and camping out in the woods and national forests on both coasts, Minnesota and even up in Quebec, but I don’t really remember being in such awe of nature like I have on this trip. Maybe it’s because I was just a kid back then and didn’t really appreciate it like I do now. You know how unimpressed with the world teenagers can be, even for a city kid who suddenly found herself in the middle of the woods for weeks at a time with just a backpack. “Isn’t this amazing??!!?”, I ask the girls. “Yeah”, they reply, a bit less enthusiastically than I expected they would. Oh, kids. But I get it.
The last time I did any sort of camping was right here in the Olympic National Forest. That was about 20 years ago and the only time Mark and I had gone camping together. We packed minimally and I figured we could just cook on a fire because that’s what I always did when camping, but when we got to the campgrounds after a 3 or 4 mile hike, we discovered that fires weren’t allowed. I still laugh at the hilarity of us trying to heat up tofu dogs with a lighter (yeah, that doesn’t really work). It started to rain the next morning so we left the site early. I never owned a pair of proper hiking boots and I think we were both in sneakers, but I remember booking down that trail in the rain so fast. I was hungry and wet. I think the first thing we did was drive to the first restaurant we saw (it was a Sizzler).
It was stormy the day we visited the Hoh Rainforest in the same national park, but much to our relief the rain and wind slowed down when we drove into the forest from our cabin on the coast. We even saw some sun breaks. But the rain started up again as we headed out on a short hike. Half of the family turned back when it started raining harder and the rest of us continued. I had 2 big, heavy cameras on me and it was ridiculously cumbersome to try and take photos while trying to keep the cameras dry. Halfway through the trail, I got stung by a yellow jacket bee in my thigh. At that point, I just wanted to get back to the info center, where there were warning signs about yellow jackets as I recalled, and look at the sting. I hurried the rest of the way down the trail as the rain started coming down harder and it reminded me of the last time we left the campgrounds in the forest.
Despite the rain and the bee sting, our visit to the Hoh Rainforest was pretty spectacular. You just can’t describe something like this in words or really even in pictures. I’m looking forward to the years when the girls can hike longer distances so we can really explore some more of mountains and forests of Washington. Maybe we’ll even go camping again someday. We certainly won’t be waiting 20 years to come back.
Posted by Jenna | 7 Comments
There are some memories that get left behind in childhood and some that stay imprinted in our minds. Not sure why some stay or go, but it’s been interesting to see how some of these childhood memories inform some of our decisions as parents.
I’ve written before about how we rarely traveled when I was a kid. From photos, it appears that my parents and I did a bit more traveling in my earliest years before my brother was born – I remember going to Niagara Falls; I’ve seen photos of us in Washington DC. But it seems that after my brother came along, the traveling became less frequent. I don’t know if it’s cultural and the influence of how my parents grew up themselves, but I’m pretty sure the whole notion of vacation didn’t exist under the circumstances of their upbringing back in Korea. I remember getting exasperated by their “why do you have to go there?” response every time I told them that I was going on a trip. They never understood why I wanted to leave NY when NY had everything. And visiting a destination twice? That was even harder for them to understand. But sometimes I also wonder if this was actually the norm back when I was a kid because I don’t remember any of my friends traveling either. Maybe it happened, but from my recollection I never heard of my friends taking trips to Florida or the Caribbean during Spring Break or going to Europe, or really anywhere. It could just be that I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Queens and people vacationed the way we did – occasional weekend motel trips to Montauk or the Poconos – or that vacation was an entirely different concept back in the 70s or 80s, but Spring Break and Summer vacations to us were playing in the back yard, playing with our toys, watching TV and yes, sitting around the house getting bored.
Those few trips to Montauk and the Poconos, however, are some of those memories that stuck around. They were never very long and they certainly weren’t fancy, but I remember that they were fun. We’d gather a few other families, sometimes cousins, aunts and uncles and sometimes family friends, and we’d rent a few motel rooms and all pile in for the weekend. I hadn’t been back to Montauk since one of those childhood trips so it had been a good 30 or so years since I’ve been out there. At one point a few years back, it seemed like everyone in our neighborhood was going out to Montauk. It had become suddenly hip and was on everyone’s radar. We decided over the weekend to take a spontaneous drive. It’s pretty far from the city, especially because of one lane traffic at the end of the island, but not a bad drive from where my parents are. We left early in the morning and stayed until the sun went down before our drive back. When we got to Montauk, nothing looked familiar to me – not the beaches or the town and at night, the whole place seemed to transform into a party (by the way, you want a sure fire way to make yourself feel instantly old? Realizing that all those teens and college aged kids spilling out of those house parties are much closer in age to your kids than you are should do it. I seem to be doing that a lot these days. I see a group of teenage girls and think, oh my god, this could be the girls soon. But I digress). It wasn’t until we got to the lighthouse at the end of the day that I felt a sense of familiarity. I remembered those rocks and I remember taking photos on that rocky beach.
Ironically, I was the first person in my family to take a trip outside of the states, overseas on a plane. It happened twice and both times I went without my family. The first was on a government sponsored trip to Korea when I was 10, the one and only time I had ever gone back since being born there and the second happened when I was 17 on a school chaperoned trip to London and Paris during Spring Break. Our high school conducted many of these trips to a few European cities every year. Twelve kids on a 9 day trip chaperoned by a nun and a biology teacher (I went to a Catholic high school). Pretty wild for this British music obsessed American teenager in the late 80s. I feel really grateful to my parents for sending me on those 2 trips and opening up my world. The first trip was hard because it really was a culture shock and I was away from my parents for 2 months at still a young age in essentially a foreign country (and that was the point of the government sponsored trip – to reacquaint Korean American kids with their home country. We were even on the news because this was the first program of its kind). The second trip was just pure fun – and yes, nuns know how to party, especially when they start drinking at dance clubs and uh, French Burlesque shows.
Because we’ve made travel a priority, I’m learning that fancy vacations don’t matter to the kids, just as I don’t think those childhood trips to Montauk would have been any more memorable had we stayed in fancier digs or ate dinner out at restaurants instead of cooking meals on a grill. Similarly, we’ve figured out how to travel fairly on the cheap no matter where we go (someday the girls might roll their eyes over stories of how their mom stuffed suitcases full of snacks to save money on food). I know we’re lucky in that we have family to visit in such nice places as Seattle every year – the girls look forward to that trip every summer more so than anything else. I also know that we’re lucky to have my parents’ house in the Long Island burbs to escape to on the weekends. It makes city living all the more bearable when you don’t feel so trapped in by concrete and crowds at all times. But despite what my parents have always told me when I was a kid, that there was no reason to leave NY, I think it’s important to show the girls that there is indeed life outside of NYC and that people live differently in different places. So we do what we can, and what we have is good.
I hope your summer is good too.
Posted by Jenna | 11 Comments
Washington Square Park is one of those NY places that I have a long history with, going all the way back to high school when my friends and I would venture into the Village on the weekend from Queens. I graduated in this park too, 13 years ago from grad school at the NYU-wide graduation ceremony. Having had a formal graduation earlier at Carnegie Hall for the Tisch School where most of my classmates and I had family and guests attend, this ceremony was just for pure fun. My friends and I ran around the streets surrounding the park in purple gowns that day, one in a sea of many purple gowns.
But I mostly associate Washington Square Park with summer during my art school days 10 years before that when I was living on St. Mark’s Place. I have one vivid memory in particular of a hot summer evening at a friend’s apartment. We were bored with nothing to do and stuck in that kind of bored state that makes you lethargic and unmotivated to move from the couch. It had been one of those days that was steaming hot, the sun so strong that you just wanted to take cover inside and hide from the heat. By the time the sun went down, we were ready to venture out. After walking aimlessly for half an hour around the village we ended up in Washington Square Park that evening where we spent the better part of the night. I don’t know why that particular night sticks out so much in my mind, but it felt like one of those iconic NYC summer evenings.
Washington Square Park is the kind of urban park that is always packed with people, especially in nice weather. There are sunbathers in bathing suits spread out on blankets in every patch of free grass and you can always find musicians, drum circles, chess players, and street performers in the outer perimeters of the fountain. It’s not the best park for relaxing, but it is a good place to people watch. For whatever reason, the park hasn’t been in my usual routine of places to go since I graduated from NYU. I don’t even think I’ve ever brought the kids there. It seems like we’ll either go to the East Village or the West Village, Soho or Union Square, but we rarely find ourselves in the middle. Funny how that is sometimes, isn’t it?
The girls and I spent all the day Sunday in the Village attending the World Science Festival (more on that to come) and I showed them the fountain at Washington Square Park for the first time. Of course, they wanted to get in immediately. We even ate lunch at Dojo which is closing this summer due to a rent increase (ughhhh). I still think of this Dojo West location as the “new Dojo” even though it’s been around since 1991. The original Dojo on St. Mark’s Place which opened in the 70s was our frequent haunt back in college. The restaurant was divey in that late 80s St. Mark’s Place sort of way and when Dojo West opened, my friends and I always referred to it as the newer, upscale Dojo. Back in the day, you just couldn’t beat the Soy Burger dinner for $2.95, a huge crispy soy patty over brown rice and salad with their famous carrot ginger dressing that has since been copied many times over. There was also the Hijiki Tofu patty for 30 cents more if you got tired of the soy burgers. My friends and I, who were all vegan at the time, ate there at least once a week. It was cheap, convenient (it was down the block from school and my apartment) and you really couldn’t do better than 3 bucks for a filling, healthy meal. When the original Dojo closed in 2007, a little piece of our collective history went with it. Although I hadn’t eaten at either Dojo restaurants in over a decade, I knew I had to go one last time before the West 4th location closed. I always thought I’d go with one of my old friends for old times sake, but I ended up going with the girls, which is sort of fitting in a funny way. And with that last meal (with a soy burger patty, of course) I said goodbye to another little piece of my past.
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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.
Posted by Jenna | 10 Comments