In search of vintage New York

In search of vintage New York

Like running into an old friend you haven’t seen for years, New York has a lot to talk about.

Words and photography Sarah Heeringa

As a green 18-year-old traveller standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, I had the uncanny feeling I’d just stepped into a photo from one of the National Geographic magazines lying around at home. It was the shock of the familiar rather than the shock of the new. Now in my 40s, I’m pretty excited to be making my first visit to New York, yet everywhere I go in a week of exploring, I feel similar sparks of recognition.

Cycling the edges of downtown Manhattan’s Financial District on a surprisingly sunny late-winter day, we see ‘that’ statue in the hazy distance. Looking across the light dazzled harbour the phrase “I lift my lamp beside the golden door” comes to mind.

Later, I ride the subway uptown to the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim and the Kandinskys and Picassos kept there. Heading to the gallery via Madison Avenue I see fiercely coiffured matrons taking their designer dogs and handbags for a morning constitutional.

In Central Park I pass the carousel, blasting out cheesy calliope music while moms coax reluctant children to climb into place on the painted horses. Two previous park carousels burnt down before the current vintage one was discovered by the Parks Department; it had been abandoned in an old Coney Island trolley terminal.

Wandering up through the Ramble I pass by Bow Bridge where countless scenes have played out – think of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the 1979 movie Manhattan . Climbing over a few grassy knolls, I reach the teardrop-shaped Strawberry Fields memorial opposite the Dakota Apartments where John Lennon was shot. Here, tourists snap selfies and a busker plays, you guessed it, ‘Imagine’. On nearby park benches rows of nannies tend to the needs of their tiny pushchair-bound charges. It could be a casting call for The Help .

I might reach for a word like iconic – if it wasn’t such a travel-writing cliché. New York is at once exciting and yet so familiar. It's like we’ve been here before.

Immigrant nation

New York has been shaped indelibly by the generations of immigrants who have passed through. It is the largest city in the United States and with as many as 800 languages spoken it’s also the most linguistically diverse. You can hardly walk down a street without hearing snatches of at least one non-English conversation.

Many immigrants lived for a time in New York’s crowded, dark and airless tenement apartments. An unintended consequence of the terrible housing was that life was pushed out onto the streets, where thousands hustled and made themselves understood in whatever way they could. You can see traces of this in today’s New Yorkers, walking and talking animatedly into phones held out in front of them while gesturing or hailing a taxi with their remaining free hand.

New York is a city of extroverts. Everywhere I go people are talking politics, often in animated tones while striding the pavement, their comments accentuated with generous Woody Allen-esque gesticulations. Walking along The Mall I fall into conversation with a friendly and well-heeled woman who turns out to be a Donald Trump supporter. “He’s going to make America great again – America’s not about handouts and taking in immigrants,” she says resolutely. I can’t think how I might begin to reply, given that we’re in the most famous city of immigrants. It’s the hodgepodge of languages and ethnicities that makes this place such a global hotspot and her comment falls unanswered between us, like a dropped puzzle piece from some inexplicable jigsaw.

Starstruck Vintage, 47 Greenwich Ave is a family-owned village fixture since 1980 with clothing from the 1930s to 1980s.

It’s become acceptable of late to mock Americans for their ridiculous excesses – amply helped by gun-toting Facebook Moms and buffoons such as Palin and Trump. But walking around New York’s smelly, dirty and chaotic streets it’s impossible not to be impressed by the privately funded civic wealth on display and the city’s crazy, subway-steam-fired creative vibe.

As first-time visitors, the rush hour switch from Subway Line 4 to 1 via the S Line makes me wonder what it might be like to run with the bulls. Later we ride the high-speed elevator up the 86 floors to the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Standing in the cold night air gazing at the immense twinkling skyline, I can’t decide what’s more impressive: the Art Deco marble front lobby, the building’s 103 levels – or the fact that the whole building took only 11 months to construct. An extension just added to a colleague’s single storey Auckland bungalow took longer than that.

Retiring to our East Village lodgings, The Standard, it feels so very New York to be sleeping across the road from the Village Voice , while at next door’s IBM headquarters the supercomputer and artificial intelligence, Watson, is busy mining insights from large amounts of unstructured data.

A few days later I’m invited for a game of chess by one of the old chess players in Washington Square Park. Watson would give these chess masters a run for their money but I’ll save myself the humiliation.  Once the crash pad of beatniks, folkies and hippies, the surrounding Greenwich Village is now one of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Traces of the area’s bohemian roots can still be found though, such as at Star Struck Vintage Clothing near the square, where I come close to buying a 1960s Harley Davidson black leather jacket (but it didn’t fit!).

Photo Blake Enting

A week in New York is almost paralysing in the possibilities and hopelessness of the task. In a blitz of touristing we stroll the High Line, visit Ground Zero, walk the Brooklyn Bridge, mix with awkward teens at Times Square, ride the night ferry to Staten Island, grab Chelsea Market burgers and take a dose of culture at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the Frick Collection – pausing to take the perspective of the privileged and peer out of Frick’s mansion across clipped hedges to Fifth Ave.

After dark in the uber-cool Meatpacking District we sip Manhattans in the jazz-infused Boom Boom room of The Standard, West. On the suggestion of a bouncer we slip up the stairs and out to a rooftop space which, amazingly, we have all to ourselves in that cool, still night.

The city exists in a constant state of reinvention, and gentrification of old neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side (LES) means you have to slow down and look a little harder for traces of the past. Every street tells a thousand stories, if only there is time to hear them.

At third generation Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, we feast on traditional handmade dumplings and Czech pilsner before rolling back out onto the street. “We were here before you were born,” is the tagline of the nearby McSorley’s Old Ale House, the city’s oldest Irish tavern and another LES institution. Here, the floors are dusted with sawdust, dark walls are lined with old art and newspaper clippings and Houdini’s handcuffs hang from the bar rail. The tavern only let women enter in 1970 after being forced to do so by City Law. We wind up there at the end of several late nights.

Orchard Street, once a bustling main thoroughfare, is still mostly lined with low-rise tenement buildings with their classic brick faces and fire escapes, including 97 Orchard Street, run by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Further along I pop into A.W. Kaufman – a lingerie store owned and run since 1924 by three generations of the Kohn family. Inside the tiny store a huge assortment of high-end European underwear and negligees are stacked in plastic bins and bags from floor to ceiling. Staff are said to be able to pick a perfectly-fitting bra just by looking at a customer – a skill warranting the store’s devoted clientele.

Other antiquated stores are dotted about – a piano store here, a tailor there – squeezed between bristling new designer stores, hipster cafés and luxury condominiums.

Wandering down surprisingly empty midweek streets I pass an old man or several sitting on cornerside stools, sharing a drink, contentedly taking in the scene. When these old timers shuffle off they’ll no doubt take with them another link to this district’s rich past.

In the early 1900s, nearly 10,000 Italians lived in nearby Little Italy. By the 70s its streets were teeming and crime-ridden – in the style of The Godfather and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver . Nowadays, Mulberry Street is busy with weekend tourists and the Italians have mostly all gone – apart from those running pizza, pasta or Parmesan stores.

Other streets that were once Italian are now part of Chinatown, where I visit the Eldridge Street Synagogue, built in 1887 as one of the first US synagogues erected by Eastern European Jews.

Amazingly, I am alone in exploring the fabulous upper sanctuary, painstakingly restored after parts fell into disrepair in the 1950s.

It’s a sign of changing times that where the street outside might once have had a mix of English and Yiddish signs, I step back into a street lined with Chinese signwriting. But some things never change and the current spread of Chinatown is generating mutterings and disquiet about the newest kids on the block.

Essex Street was once stuffed with pickle stores, but now only the Pickle Guys make pickles according to an old Eastern European recipe. Mesmerised by the store’s large barrels of pickles, olives and tomatoes I leave clutching a large tub of sweet and sours. Wandering past dusty old brownstones in a comical cloud of pickle aroma I start imagining that Big Bird might any minute come plonking around the corner.

Vintage and recycle stores are all over the Lower East Side. There are whimsical collections of vintage glasses, glorious old Vivienne Westwood coats, fascinators, furs and other fabulous remains of past Broadway productions, as well as friendly store proprietors to chat with … and there are retro leather jackets. The more jackets I casually try on, the more determined I am to find the perfect one.

On Ludlow St, the one-time home of Lou Reed and other musos, I finally find the American-made retro jacket I‘ve been looking for. There’s just enough time to slip it on before dashing past the queue for Katz’s deli (around the block) and into a cab to the airport.

Where to shop vintage in NYC: Cobblestones 314 E 9th St. Owner Delanee Koppersmith is a classic New Yorker - friendly and straight talking; her store a goldmine of retro underwear, vintage hats, shoes, dresses and memorabilia. Star Stuck Vintage (see image caption for more). Screaming Mimis 382 Lafayette St. A fabulous collection including retro jewellery and accessories, outrageous costumes and big name collector designer pieces. Fabulous Fanny's 333 East 9th St. A tiny store with a huge range of well-priced vintage frames and sunglasses and an eclectic permanent collection on display.

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