While attending university in the late 90’s, some friends and I decided we were going to take a bite out of the Big Apple. We bought tickets on the train from Union Station in Toronto to Penn Station in New York City, and arranged to stay at the unique and budget friendly Carlton Arms on 23 at 3rd. What we had not planned on was the impending snow storm that was pounding the Isle of Manhattan, and a storm that would continue through our 12 hour train ride. Actually make that 14 hours, as the storm had closed all three airports and the train was making additional stops along the way to try and help stranded commuters. Exiting Penn Station we were shocked at the amount of snow on the ground, and the general mess of traffic, partially created by the weather. We decided that without a shovel we needed a cab to get us to our hotel, and after unsuccessfully hailing our own cab, we were very observant and saw that people who were offering cash to the man in the middle of the road to get a cab, got the next one available. Following suit, we were in a cab, which took us about two blocks from The Carlton Arms and informed us that we should walk from here and dropped us off.
The Carlton Arms offers rooms designed by local artists, some with an ensuite washroom, most sharing the bathrooms in the hallways. The building is a walk up with a buzzer at the door. Every surface is covered with brightly coloured and sometimes thought provoking works of art, this includes the stairwells, the rooms and the washrooms. On arrival you are given a few keys of available rooms so you can choose which room is right for you. The staff are friendly with advice for anything you need and there is even a hotel cat.
It is incredibly easy to create a list of things to do in the city; theatres, shopping, parks, museums, restaurants and so much more, it can be hard though to fit all the things you want to do into one trip. My first trip created a love affair with the city, I found myself trying to take in all the city had to offer visiting quarterly throughout university. The energy of the city is alluring and intoxicating, constantly evolving and reinventing itself. As I started to research my new favorite destination I found an amazing 7 part, 14 hour series directed by Ric Burns for PBS called New York. The series traces the history of the city from its Dutch beginnings to present day, a must see for anyone interested in learning more about the city. As a frequent visitor and observer, the series reinforced my impression, that things are just done differently in NY than anywhere else in the world.
The late 90’s offered a lot for electronic music lovers and followers of DJ Culture, there was the emergence of Club Kids, and NY was the place to see the likes of Junior Vasquez and David Morales and visiting DJs like Carl Cox, John Digweed, Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold and Paul Van Dyk. They played legendary venues like Peter Gatien’s Limelight, Twilo and Palladium. The club scene was amazing, brilliant lights, the DJs working the crowd and occasionally Madonna would make an appearance to drop her latest track. When the music ended, you would find yourself on the streets of the city, dawning sunglasses, heading back to catch a cat nap and a shower.
Being from Toronto, NYC gave me the opportunity to shop global brands that were not available in Canada. Fashion Television and Jeanne Becker taught me well, I would head down to Soho to the boutiques of Anna Sui, Isaac Mizrahi and my personal favorite Todd Oldham. Todd’s shop was located at 123 Wooster Street and I can not tell you how many times I was there hoping to have a chance run in with him. This was the era of Calvin Klien, Betsey Johnston and Donna Karan and many of the department stores like Bloomingdales and Macy’s were carrying these brands, which offered a poor student like me great sale prices on these popular brands. Then there were the luxury department stores like Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, here I liked to window shop and get to see the lines from the runway, truly amazing. Then I discovered NYCs best kept secret at Church and Cortlandt Sts, Century 21. This is an amazing store with last seasons items at incredible discounts, my favorite find was a pair of Jean Paul Gautier pants at 10% of the original ticket price.
NY is a haven for any fan of skyscrapers and architecture. The Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building, The Flatiron Building, 30 Rock, and the pinnacle on the tip of Manhattan was the World Trade Centre. These incredibly imposing buildings were a highlight of the city through the 90s. Towering over the rest of lower Manhattan and visible from all of the boroughs around the isle. They served as a gateway into the city and a symbol of the optimism of the city and its economic engine. I was hard to imagine the city before these buildings were constructed.
New York offers thousands of museums and galleries filled with well known and up and coming artists works. The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, giving patrons the opportunity to start at the top of the gallery and make their way down the circular walkway down to the grand entrance. the opportunity to view artist works from multiple distances around the gallery allows for maximum enjoyment. The Metropolitan Museum started exhibiting fashion in their lower level, giving fashionistas the opportunity to see amazing gowns like the red dress collection from Valentino. The Museum of Modern Art is filled with works by contemporary artists like Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.
No trip to New York City is complete without attending a Broadway show and times square. TKTS in Times Square offers day-of discounted tickets and afforded me to see up and coming stars like Matthew Broderick in How To Succeed in Business, Sarah Jessica Parker in Once Upon a Mattress, and Allen Cumming in Cabaret (at the former Studio 54). Times Square and Broadway in the ’90s was a little more colourful, as it was an area also known for prostitution and the sex trade.
Back before the world became obsessed with paparazzi photos of celebrities, you could actually find yourself in a restaurant at a table next to celebrities. I recall grabbing a bite at Joe Jr. Restaurant in Gramercy only to discover Isaac Mizrahi and Sandra Bernhard at the booth behind us. Cafeteria style seating was popular in the 90’s, you never know who would be sitting next to you, at the time I was a huge fan of Claudia Schiffer, and one night ended up sitting with a photographer that was just going over his proofs after shooting with Claudia earlier that day. What a city! One of my favorite places to eat in New York is Cowgirl on Hudson, a lesbian tex-mex bar and restaurant with one of the best chicken fried chicken I have ever tasted, served with a huge scoop of mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy.
Summertime weekends in NY feature street markets, truck arrive in early morning and within an hour the streets are closed to traffic and tents and booths are set up selling everything from food to clothing to almost anything you could imagine. The markets are traveling and move to a different street every week. This also gives you the opportunity to different areas within the city to explore interesting less touristy areas like The East Village, China Town, Little Italy, even venture up for brunch and enjoy the sounds of the Harlem Boys Choir.
Strolling through Central Park is an amazing escape in the city, whether in Strawberry Fields or walking around the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservior, you find yourself forgetting about the busy city surrounding the park. You should give yourself an entire day if you want to explore all the park has to offer.
I started watching for seat sales on airlines, I had mastered public transportation from La Guardia, JFK and Newark and eliminating the long train trip from Toronto gave me more time to explore NYC. It was in June of 2001 that I spent half a day down at the World Trade Centre, photographing and admiring the structure and their presence as I sipped on my cappuccino. It was the last time I would see these buildings in person before the 911 tragedy and the last time for almost 10 years that I would visit the city I love.