It’s one of the most difficult questions any traveler will face – what to do in New York City? You can’t see it all. I’ve been there many times, and I still haven’t even seen most of it. I was recently in town for a weekend event on the Lower East Side, and was able to stay an extra day to do some sightseeing. As I planned to catch an evening train home, I knew I had to be strategic and stick to one area. After researching the new venues and exhibits which had arrived on the scene since my previous visit almost three years ago, I decided to forget about the new stuff and see something old. Something which had been on my checklist for so long that I had actually forgotten about it. Because it had always been there, I never felt the rush to be first in line and so it was always something I would see next time. But, finally, next time had arrived, and I took the subway to City Hall so I could walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Considering that it’s been open to the public since 1883, the bridge was more crowded than I expected, especially for a Monday in early March. But the weather was nice and it was clear that not everyone was a tourist. I took advantage of the pleasant conditions and stopped to read each plaque detailing the thirteen-year building process. Yet, despite reading the description multiple times, I still couldn’t fully comprehend how the bridge had been anchored. I mean, I understood it in theory. But trying to envision the men physically doing the job seemed almost mythical. The foundations of the neo-Gothic stone towers were embedded into the ground a century and a half ago. And while the bridge has received much needed renovations over the past fifty years, the tower I stood on to take in the view was put into place using 19th century technology, yet still functioned as intended. Meanwhile, I took photos using the fourth iPhone I’ve had in ten years.
My walk across the bridge was not the first time I found myself fascinated by old architecture that weekend. The event I attended took place at the Angel Orensanz Center. Listening to the welcome remarks on the first morning, I was quickly distracted by the building in which I was seated. Thinking that it might have once been a church, I pulled out my phone and learned that I was sitting in the oldest surviving synagogue building in New York City. Built in 1849 and used as a synagogue until 1974, the building was eventually purchased by the artist Angel Orensanz in 1986 and converted into an art gallery and performance space. The interior was a wondrous mix of Gothic Revival detailing illuminated in shades of purple and blue. I sat in that building for two days listening to speaker after speaker share their story of how they found their purpose in life through travel, and yet I couldn’t help but to wonder what other stories this building held. How much history had these walls seen? Not big historical things, but the little things, the daily life that transpired here, the number of people who could walk inside and recall something memorable about their past. And now I was part of that group, the group of people who had entered this building and had a meaningful experience, connecting with others and finding a community.
The program itinerary listed a Saturday night after-party at a place called Broken Shaker at Freehand. I thought the name sounded incredibly hipster, and when I arrived at the given address, I was very confused, which pretty much confirmed my initial impression. I later sorted out that Broken Shaker was the name of the rooftop bar at Freehand. Freehand was a hotel that did not look like a hotel. It looked like an apartment building from another era. Stepping into the lobby, I felt like I had walked onto the set of a Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie, the design reflecting that cusp between post-war and mid-century style. Still completely unsure of what I was doing, but wanting to look like I knew where I was going, I followed a crowd onto an elevator. When the doors opened on the top floor, I emerged into what felt like a penthouse apartment, with a tiki bar in one corner and eight-track player in another. After a few refreshing drinks and fun conversations, I returned to my hotel and immediately tried to figure out where I had been. I learned that Freehand was formerly the George Washington Hotel, which had been built in 1928 and was used as a hotel, brothel, and apartment building whose tenants included a number of artists. Once again, I found myself wondering what kind of stories that building held, although I suspected they were far more indelicate in this case.
My weekend seemed to have inadvertently taken on a distinctly historic tone. However, there was one shiny, new building that captured my attention. In need of caffeine on Sunday afternoon, I suddenly remembered that there was a Starbucks Reserve Roastery in New York, currently one of only six in the world. I quickly made my way to Chelsea, and walked in the door feeling like I had just entered Willy Wonka’s factory. No, wrong analogy. It was more like a Hogwarts for coffee aficionados. I was spellbound by the activity and had to asking a barista by the front door, “Where do I start?” I ended up at the lower level, in line for a coffee tasting, trying to quickly decide which brewing method to choose. French press, pour over, and Clover were all familiar choices. So, of course, I picked the one I had never heard of before, the Siphon. I was led to the back, to a set up that looked like a science experiment but was in fact the Siphon. It was fun to watch, and I assumed it was a new Steampunk chic way of brewing coffee. But I learned that the Siphon was first patented in the 1830s. As coffeemakers have evolved, you’d think that the technique of pouring hot water over ground coffee would be perfected over time. Yet here was this nearly two hundred year-old method, providing me with the absolutely perfect cup of coffee. I’ve had Jamaica Blue Mountain brewed through a modern coffeemaker, and it was really good. I didn’t think it could get better. But after tasting it from the Siphon, I almost wished I didn’t know that it could get better. My morning coffee would never be the same after this.
Returning to my hotel, I walked past a young man standing outside an apartment building yelling at people. He was upset about the gentrification of the neighborhood and was shouting at us not to go into the nearby CVS and Equinox. Looking at the posters advertising new upscale residences for rent, I couldn’t deny that they looked attractive. I could see the appeal of living there. Yet I understood his frustration. Don’t get me wrong. I think new things are cool, too. But I also live near an area that has recently knocked down old buildings to put up new ones. The new ones are modern and sleek, but the windows keep falling out. The developers attribute it to a design flaw in the glass. When I bought my car, a selling point was that it would only need service once a year because of the advanced features in the design. Turns out, I have to drop my car off multiple times per year, always due to an issue with the car’s computer. My point is that there is value in the old, in things that have stood the test of time. Newer does not always mean better. Everything we buy these days is built to last for three years, ensuring that we have to keep buying. But consistent replacement is a detriment to our memories, and our history.
One of my favorite things about travel is seeing how things are built and done differently in other countries, and within different areas of my own country. Yet, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m happy to find a Starbucks wherever I go. Until I get my bearings, it’s nice to know I can count on that breakfast sandwich and a latte made the way I like it. But we don’t have to get rid of the old in order to make way for the new. If a structure is still standing, it’s very likely that it was built well and has something to teach us, whether about architecture, about history, about culture, or about ourselves. The Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t just connect us between boroughs, it connects us between generations.