Recommended Reading

Monday, April 27, 2015

Empire Diner / Chelsea

We could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China
Now all you're going to be is history
Help yourself, it's all you can eat at the Empire Diner tonight
You coulda had class, you coulda have been a contender
Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me
-"Great Wall of China," Billy Joel

Whether you love joining in endless refrains of "Piano Man," or you hate the thought of it (and there's no in between), some things just can't be denied. Billy Joel is a man who has put in his time as a musician, as a New Yorker, and as a New York Musician. Second only to Lady Liberty and possibly Beastie Boys, Billy Joel is the face of New York City to me. (Let it be known I grew up in a household where The Stranger is little short of sacred.)

I'd be lying if I didn't credit the piano man with plotting out my preconceived mental map--all the way from "52nd Street" to "Mister Cacciatore's down on Sullivan Street." And I am well aware that if I wanted to vy for the singer's affection, ladies and gentlemen, this Downtown Girl living in her Downtown World would be flat out of luck. Sure, it can be dangerous when lyrics become your sole framework for reality. But I choose not to think about that and instead, I try and find out the reality behind the lyrics! Amen?

So without further ado, I introduce to you the Empire Diner. 

The Empire Diner is one of the most beloved landmarks in Chelsea's eatery history. The once-swanky restaurant hosted an array of celebrity guests who made it popular during its hey-day in the 40's and 50's. Today Empire is one of only five free-standing diners remaining in the city, according to an excellent article from Scouting NY. This fact alone sings of the diner's age, days gone by when hospitality and fine dining went hand in hand. This came as a surprise to me, as I've always thought of diners to be characteristically kitschy a la American Graffiti.  

 When passing the diner at the corner of 22nd Street and 10th Avenue, the first thing I noticed was the stunning Art Moderne letters announcing the name "EMPIRE DINER", as well as a big, bold cue for me to "EAT." The rounded corners and the ribbon windows call to mind the late Art Deco period during which the building was constructed. All at once I felt hungry and deeply nostalgic for an era I never lived in. A day in the life, honestly.

In "Great Wall of China," Billy Joel is pointing fingers at his corrupt old manager who caused him years of trouble, inviting him to enjoy his last supper before becoming history--just like the diner he mentions. These lyrics carry a cutting-edge tone of "look what you've done" and a remorseful "what could have been." (Fun Fact: Billy Joel makes fitting reference to a line spoken by Marlon Brando in the classic film about New York mafiosos On the Waterfront: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.") The singer clearly witnessed the downward turn the Empire Diner took in the latter half of the twentieth century; and no doubt he still sees the fragments of its glorious past.

Tucked away on the far west side of Manhattan, Empire Diner is a rarity in conversation and nothing like the trendy hot spot it used to be. But there is a reason this gem of the past has been preserved, along with the restoration of the nearby High Line. This restaurant was as personal to its customers as it was popular to A-list regulars. While the stars have all but faded, the Empire Diner still stands, bolstered by the memories of neighbors and the musings of lyricists.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

For The Record: Top 5 NYC Album Covers

In honor of Record Store Day , and in a bout of intense R&R following a day well spent at my favorite vinyl shop, I'd like to celebrate with a bit of a tangent. Instead of photographing places we've all heard of but never seen, I want to discuss those sights we have beheld, thanks again to the artists we love. Here are five of what I consider to be the coolest album covers photographed in New York City: 

1. The Brecker Brothers

The coolness factor of this photograph goes well beyond the double exposure (note a ghoulish but casual pair of Brecker Brothers descending the subway stairs, jazz instruments in hand, you know.) The background photo was taken in the old City Hall station, which has since become sealed and defunct. But do not be scared by those ghoulish words--you can still catch a glimpse of the old vaulted platform by remaining on the downtown 6 train after its last stop, as it loops around the track to return uptown.

2. Augustus Pablo
Born to Dub You, year unknown

It's safe to assume that before there was Photoshop, artists relied very heavily on double exposure to enhance their image (and it totally worked.) This unreleased album by roots reggae legend Augustus Pablo was unveiled to the public in 2014--more than a decade after the Twin Towers, captured in the background of the album cover, had vanished in the tragic events of 9/11.

3. The Brooklyn Bridge

At first glance, this shot looks like it was taken on a pirate ship, so the moment of realization is automatically a bit of a letdown. But the Brooklyn Bridge is almost as picturesque, is every bit as iconic, and is probably more suitable for a band called "The Brooklyn Bridge." Best of all, the bridge looks virtually the same today as it did in the summer of '69, in case readers want to grab the gang and head out to re-enact this epic photograph.

4. Melanie

Another more DIY technique of spicing up an unedited photograph is the classic collaging method. Singer-songwriter Melanie, from Astoria, Queens, graces her own album cover in what appears to be a Central Park pasture overlooking the cityscape (and is actually just pasted quite cunningly atop another photograph.) Melanie shows the spirit of a hippie-fied Maria von Trapp--minus the bevy of children at her feet--which brings a bit of folk charm to an otherwise urban atmosphere.

5. Jimmy Smith

While luncheonettes are largely a thing of the past, and "Kate's Home Cooking" is no exception, Jimmy Smith's album cover offers us a glimpse of the good old days--or at least it impresses us with the appearance of a brave man smiling in spite of the racial unrest that he and other African-Americans faced in Harlem and in the U.S. during this time. The "Incredible" Jimmy Smith was a jazz organist who most likely frequented Kate's luncheonette during his stays in New York even when the camera wasn't rolling. The restaurant, situated nearby the legendary Apollo Theater, is said to have been the "soul station" for many of its talented performers, such as Count Basie and Art Blakey. I like to imagine artists like these winding down from a top-of-the-world performance to a refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola and some conversation.

Thanks for reading! What do you think are some of Gotham's greatest album covers?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bleecker & Macdougal / Greenwich Village

I was standing on the corner
Of the Bleecker and MacDougal
Wondering which way to go
I’ve got a woman down in Coconut Grove
And you know she loves me so
-"Bleecker & Macdougal," Fred Neil

My favorite part about putting sight to sound is discovering more to the story than what I’ve set out to find. The more pop cultural hodge-podge within a single edifice, the better. This is often the case in Greenwich Village, as this neighborhood represents so much of the art and culture we associate with New York, and has served as a musical mecca throughout the decades. Despite the fact that most of the city has been renewed and gentrified, it is not difficult to take a stroll down Bleecker Street and memory lane all at once--I would venture to say it’s impossible.

Also impossible is the task of choosing just one song about Bleecker Street, when the very theme deserves its own Wikipedia subcategory. As a result I have hand-selected a few tunes that I find to be strikingly personal and picturesque in their treatment of New York.

First, it thrills me to recognize “Bleecker & Macdougal,” because the name of its composer, Fred Neil, has gone criminally unnoticed, even at the height of his career in the 1960’s. While his folk-rock originals have slipped under the radar, Neil's work has been covered by popular artists like Harry Nilsson, who brought fame to the song “Everybody’s Talking” (and vice versa.) The blues-infused “Bleecker & Macdougal” refers to the corner where the San Remo Café used to stand, now replaced by an Italian restaurant, pictured below. The café, I learnt upon further research, once served as the stomping grounds of renowned Beat authors such as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Keruoac.

Many legendary Greenwich clubs along the strip have become history, in order to make way for bigger and better things, you know, like chain drugstores. However, several bars such as the Bitter End have miraculously escaped the musical massacre. Signage for retired venues like the Village Gate, while unlit, still exist to remind passersby of a brighter past.

The song “Bleecker Street” by Simon & Garfunkel is an unforgettable ode to the entire stretch of the street. Somehow, the route is far more breathtaking when these historic spots are put into focus. The lyrics they inspired are nothing short of poetry and stand as a guide to the time-travelling imagination.

Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand
On Bleecker Street

A poet reads his crooked rhyme
Holy, holy is his sacrament
Thirty dollars pays your rent
On Bleecker Street
-"Bleecker Street," Simon & Garfunkel

I can't help but wonder if both songs were inspired by the same cafe, the same corner, the same faces--what do you think?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tom's Restaurant / Morningside Heights

I am sitting
In the morning
At the diner
On the corner

I am waiting
At the counter
For the man
To pour the coffee

And he fills it
Only halfway
And before
I even argue

He is looking
Out the window
At somebody
Coming in

-"Tom's Diner," Suzanne Vega

Two important pop cultural landmarks stand as one in wedded bliss at the corner of West 112th Street and Broadway. Tom's Restaurant deserves a visit from music junkies just as much as it does from crazed fans of the hit sitcom Seinfeld (not to insinuate that one cannot belong to both distinguished categories.)

Yes, Tom's Restaurant registers first in the collective conscious (or at least in Google's most searched) as the iconic exterior shot which often zooms in on the furrowed brow of George Costanza. But it also serves as the backdrop to an unforgettable anthem of the 80's, penned and performed by Upper West Sider Suzanne Vega herself. 

The first time I approached the diner from across Broadway, I took in the perfect setting for a bittersweet vignette, the one Suzanne Vega experienced and wove into a lyrical masterpiece. As I passed the corner window, I imagined the singer-songwriter, as she described, seated with a cup of joe on a rainy morning, shuffling haphazardly through the papers. I pretended to be the girl with the umbrella who walks in and locks eyes with Vega for a brief moment--before she dashes away to the sound of distant chimes summoning her to the train station.

As it happens, the bells Vega heard and wrote about came from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, one block away on Amsterdam Avenue. The cathedral is visible from the point of view of a pedestrian approaching Tom's Restaurant from the west. I managed to capture a photograph of the cathedral alongside the restaurant (or rather, the cathedral photobombed my photo of the restaurant.)

The diner, which came to life in the 1940's, is still operated by the same Greek-American family, according to the restaurant's official website. Though they have faced recent hardships, including the death of the owner last November, the support of the community buoys the beloved restaurant to preserve its legacy onscreen and in song. Tom's Restaurant stands in its original glory, boasting that unmistakable neon sign which still lures the hungry, Harlem-bound hikers of Broadway--serving as the "morning star" of Morningside Heights. And, by George, the light is not going out anytime soon.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jerusalem / Upper West Side

Sing next year in Jerusalem
You know, the one at 103rd and Broadway?
'Cause this orthodox girl fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop
And why not?
Should she have averted her eyes and just stared at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?
-"Finger Back," Vampire Weekend

Those who are fans of the New York band already know that Vampire Weekend buries some of its most meaningful work beneath layers of jumbled jibberish and sporadic references. In its misleading major key, the song "Finger Back" discusses sectarian animosity at different levels, most touchingly in this tale of forbidden love between an orthodox Jewish girl and, presumably, a Muslim young man working at a falafel shop.

I imagined myself in the shoes of this girl as I set out one afternoon to visit the restaurant that inspired Ezra Koenig, indie poet laureate, to tell her fateful love story. When I surfaced from the 103rd Street subway station, I faced a restaurant storefront as understated as the story itself. Its royal blue awnings were decked in gold letters which read simply: "Jerusalem." I was soon to discover that, indeed, the restaurant inside could easily be mistaken for a "holy land" of sorts.

Once indoors, I placed my order to a smiling waiter--one vegetarian falafel sandwich with hummus, please--but for the first time in my life, food was not the first thing on my mind. As I awaited my cuisine, I did the unthinkable and stared at a poster of the Dome of the Rock that just happened to be hanging on the wall. As I stared I imagined how much more intense it would be if I had just fallen in love with the waiter and knew that the tensions between our respective cultures forbade us from being together.

Alas, I did not find love during my visit to Jerusalem--that is, apart from the deep and instant connection I felt towards my falafel sandwich. I unwrapped my food, prepared with expertise by a handsome Arab man, and bit into a medley of the freshest flavors and vegetables, paired with an all-American Snapple lemonade (to destroy whatever cultural awakening I thought I was having.) Kudos to Vampire Weekend for helping to season our musical tastes as well as our palates!

Before leaving, I asked the cashier if many Vampire Weekend fans came to see the restaurant. With a smile he informed me that indeed, fans traveled from as far as Canada to make their pilgrimage. (It’ll be the day, though, when an Israeli fan travels from her capital to its humble Upper West Side namesake.)

When I bade farewell, the cashier called after me, “See you next time!” I bit my tongue to keep from responding with traditional Passover well-wishes, “Next year in Jerusalem!” a refrain as fitting literally as it was inappropriate contextually. I thought about the "orthodox girl" and the "guy at the falafel shop" and I hoped that one day maybe they could be together.