November 1st, 2008
An ‘indie travel guide’ to New York. Cool stuff to do that isn’t packed with tourists. This list is based on a month spent over in the city. We found New York has lots in common with Brighton, not least its very own ‘Brighton Beach’ and Williamsburg is just like our North Laine crossed with London’s Shoreditch. These suggestions exclude all the usual tourist stuff – there’s plenty of places that list that.
Coney Island must be the weirdest place on the planet. A twisted version of our own Brighton Pier, and home to rundown themepark Astroland, this place is deserted in the Winter, busy only in the height of Summer, populated with down and outs the rest of the time, wandering around here is a bit like being in a surreal horror movie.
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow – a old fashioned freak show, featuring sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists, tattooed ladies, and on our visit two dwarfs – ‘Penguin Boy’ who has no arms yet can play a drum hanging from his ear lobes with his flipper like hands, and ‘Little Jimmy’ who claims to have been an Oompa Loompa and is also a stripper.
The Coney Island Cyclone – one of the oldest rollercoasters in the world, this a real bone shaker and well worth riding if you have the stomach for it. The first drop is insane!
Brighton Beach – just down from Coney Island (turn left after arriving at the beach and keep walking). Also known as Little Odessa (its in the film), this is a Russian district, where all signs, restaurants and (probably) people are Russian.
Williamsburg is a small district in Brooklyn, and has recently merged with neighbouring Greenpoint to provide an indie mecca. The world capital of trendy bands, this place is or has been home to Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, The Hold Steady, Black Dice, TV on the Radio, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Animal Collective and countless more.
As well as lots of little shops and art galleries (most inexplicably only open on weekends or Mondays), this area is packed with cool cafes, bars and gig venues.
Most of the shops and galleries can be found on Bedford Avenue, and down the streets adjacent to it.
Galleries are often only open on weekends and Mondays. The site FreeWilliamsburg have a list and map.
Try Sound Fix Records on Bedford Ave at North 11th. Check out their lounge (open from 4PM), they often have live bands in there and its an great space.
Beacons Closet at 88 North 11th is the best place in the city for vintage clothes, I managed to buy 5 t-shirts and 3 hoodies for just £40.
North 6th has always been the place to go, including the art space Galapagos at No 70 which has a massive pool of water in the first room, The Surf Bar at No 139 which is full of actual sand and a few others. Head to the end of this road (lower numbers) for an amazing view of Manhattan. These day’s North 6 seems to be a bit more mainstream though, it even has an RnB club.
Grand Street lies between North 1st and South 2nd and seems to be the best spot for nightlife. Wander down and pop in and out of the various bars. Highlights include the redneck-like dive The Trash Bar, go through the curtains at the back and you’ll discover a hidden gig venue.
Aside from the Williamsburg Music Hall, most gig venues round here are secret DIY affairs. Find out what’s on in the Showpaper, available from most shops and cafes.
MOMA is just like our Tate Modern, just a bit smaller. There are some famous artists on display, such as Andy Warhol, Pollock, Picasso and Van Gogh. Equally interesting are the exhibitions which change regularly and often provide the opportunity to view retrospectives of artists you may not have heard of.
The Brooklyn museum has some of the most interesting art you will find in New York, the exhibitions change often and can be pretty ground breaking. Similiarly, The Whitney hosts annual and bienalle exhibitions which provide a flavour of some of the leading contemporary artists from all over the States. The 2008 Bienalle featured some excellent installations.
For something truly unique though, visit the Chelsea Galleries. In the few blocks between 20th and 26th Streets and 10th and 11th Avenues there are around 300 galleries, which puts Brighton to shame with our small amount! Many can be found on street level, and some buildings house 12 or more individual galleries over various floors. Walking round here is quite surreal and you’ll certainly see a wide range of art. There are no places to stop and eat round here though so beware.
There’s lots of arthouse films on in New York – think Brighton Arthouse The Duke of Yorks times 100! Still, its easy to see some of these films in the UK if your near a good cinema. Whats more rare are the retrospectives at The Film Forum at 209 W Houston Street between Varrick and Sixth Avenue, which let you see classic movies on the big screen all year round. I was lucky enough to catch Midnight Cowboy – set in New York, and Rear Window – actually set where the cinema is located – on various visits to the city. Be warned, although its a lovely cinema, with cakes and tea, the seats are not so comfy.
On a Sunday morning, Harlem gospel is the thing to do. Its best to pick a church, find out what time the service starts, get there half and hour before and stay for the entire service. Don’t be one of the church hoppers who pop into one church for 10mins, and then move on to try another: you won’t get the full experience plus its incredibly rude and disturbing to those who are trying to enjoy the service.
Many of the churches are fully set up for visitors and have a second floor where you will likely be placed. If you are lucky enough to visit on a the first snowy day of winter as I was and the place is empty you’ll get to join the locals on the main floor – a fantastic experience.
The most popular church is The Abyssinian Baptist Church, queues of tourists round the block commence up to an hour before the service begins. This was the church I found on that wintry day, and although the pastor Rev. Calvin Otis Butts the third is an amazing speaker the choir is smaller and less full on than some others in the city. Also the high proportion of tourists, and coach tours, in such a small church means it feels less of a unique experience.
Another church I found, which had an amazing choir, literally filling the floor in a true “Sister Act” style was New Mount Zion Baptist Church (171 West 140th Street; 283-0788), although when we were there the infamous guest speaker Rev. Al Sharpton insisted all guests left before giving a speech asking the congregation to campaign against the acquital of two policemen who shot a groom dead on his wedding day. So Harlem is still a political as well as religious center, and all the richer for it.