New York Neighbourhoods
By Jennie Alexander
Actors, and artists, writers and publishers, dancers and designers are just some of the seething mass of humanity that makes up the Biggest Apple… New York City. Some are born and bred there but most come with a dream: success, a bright and beautiful future and creative expression found nowhere else on the planet. They work, they study, they play… and they do it en masse in the midst of their beloved city. New Yorkers are out and about. They’re creative, they’re gregarious and they engage.
Life is lived on the streets, in the bars, at the parks or just about anywhere that’s open for business. New York’s cafes provide a space integral to the city’s inhabitants. With so many of today’s people working from laptops or freelancing, the city’s cafes are not only a social space, but have metamorphosed into portable offices and meeting rooms, embracing the idea with Wifi, networking events and offering free publicity to their customers’ burgeoning small businesses. Cafes themselves are occupying an important place in today’s community as our social framework moves into uncharted territory. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than on an island that was purchased only a few hundred years ago for just twenty dollars.
As a city, New York divides itself into neighbourhoods, microcosms of a greater whole where the locals appear like members of a tribe, each with their own unspoken rules of dress, attitude and lifestyle. Wander through a neighbourhood and you’ll soon get a feel for its culture. Spend time in the cafes and you’ll pick up the local nuances as you watch the lives of the locals unfold. Visit the same cafe more than twice and you’ll become a local, greeted when you enter, your particular quirky coffee request already on its way with nods and smiles from the tribe as they break from their laptops, books or friends just long enough to say “Hi, how’r ya doin?” and make you feel you’ve come to the right place… you’re at home.
By far the best introduction to the Big Apple is to wander through Greenwich Village. Over the past 100 years it has attracted a colourful mix of New York’s finest. First the Italian immigrants came, then the century’s early artists and writers arrived, creating the area’s bohemian feel, followed by birth of the Gay movement, traced all the way back to the 40s, their equal rights fight culminating here with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The Swinging 60s also brought artists such as Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg who made the area their home and workspace.
The locals almost never call it Greenwich Village, preferring to divide their territory into two distinct sections. The “West Village” is a tree-lined, meandering collection of quiet upscale streets bordered by Houston, the Hudson River and 6th Ave. It bears no resemblance to the grid patterns of the rest of the city thanks to its own history as a set of horse paths for the wealthy. Here you’ll find small boutiques, quaint restaurants and the bars and cafes where the local literati come to work and play. Way too expensive for today’s hopefuls, the quarter has gentrified into a bohemian-chic enclave, but is still a must for those on the cafe trail.
Grounded was my first stop, hidden away in an odd street sporting low-rise apartments, warehouses and even a public car park, I couldn’t miss it with its big round sign, park bench outside and the delicious aroma of freshly ground beans. Inside was an oasis, a former carriage-house filled with light, thanks to a huge central skylight. The peeling cement floor, exposed airconditioning and bare walls gave a definite no-frills downtown vibe. Add potted palms, grungy sofas and a huge communal coffee table and you’ve got a cosily scruffy feel that the locals love. Laptop workers gravitate to the rear tables where it’s quiet and an in-house library creates community amongst the locals who donate their used books. Grounded was created by a brother and sister act, two cafe regulars from Cincinnati, who felt that New York was lacking in decent coffeehouses. They decided to open a neighbourhood place that would offer both good coffee and a friendly space to loiter in. Everything is organic, from the food to the daily milk supply, to their coffee beans which come from Portland Roasting Company in Oregon, an environmentally conscious micro-roaster using organic and often “shade-grown, farm friendly” specialty beans. Their espresso has a slightly sweet ‘berry’ finish, making it a delicious tipple.
“The Village” proper is further east, bounded by Houston and 6th Ave and ending around Broadway before it blends into the East Village. This is a more touristy area with rows of blues bars, Irish bars and student bars interspersed with NYU digs, cheap restaurants and Korean food-marts. The only place here worth visiting is Cafe Reggio, which opened on MacDougal Street in 1927 and has operated in the same spot continuously ever since. The oldest of the original Italian coffeehouses of the area, it’s the only one still standing and was a favourite with Kerouac. Even today, it maintains its classic Italian edge with wrought-iron tables and chairs, a selection of cakes and pastries to die for, and those tiny, Italian espressos rarely found outside Italy… and Australia!
Moving across Broadway, you’ll enter the East Village, famous for its anarchic, grungy vibe. Bordered by 3rd Ave, 14th St and Houston and stretching across to the alphabet avenues, today, it’s a thriving, multi-cultural village of hip, inexpensive eateries, boutiques and, of course, cafes. But it wasn’t always so. Back in the 60’s the likes of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground cut their teeth playing around the anti-establishment East Village bars. The 70’s brought the punk rock counterculture, still visible in the iconic Trash’n Vaudeville vintage clothing store, and the 80’s saw local galleries supporting graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jeff Koons. Grunge and punk is still apparent, and although the area is now a tamer place, with tourists outnumbering the anarchists, it still seethes around the clock like the human bazaar that it is.
The best cafe near the heart of the East Village is Mudspot, a long, thin, orange space on East 9th St, between 2nd and 1st Avenues. It’s likely your barista will be covered in an artwork of tattoos, the odd piercing or five and topped off with a head of honey blonde dreadlocks. Get used to sipping your latte to the sounds of the latest grunge rock but if that’s a tad too much, keep going through to the tiny outdoor garden at the back where the music isn’t quite so intense. Anti-establishment is alive and well here and proud to uphold the tradition. The coffee’s pretty good too.
Wandering east along 9th St through Alphabet City brings you to a more laid back residential neighbourhood complete with community garden centres proudly displaying their urban sculptures and tiny independent boutiques, forced away from the melee by its exorbitant rents. This is where coffee aficionados come to savour the famous elixir of the 9th St Espresso Bar. Voted best espresso outside of Seattle, this nondescript little bar has a big reputation and is widely considered to be the first real espresso cafe of the new wave to take off in New York. The philosophy is to do coffee very well and to that end other offerings have been pared back until, at my visit, there was almost no food at all. But the coffee is good… it’s what they do.
The owner of 9th St Espresso got his influence from childhood visits to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side. Sitting on Amsterdam Ave at 110th St since 1961, this charming cafe appears at the same time derelict, antiquated and intriguingly irresistible. Its interior is dark, cavernous and hot. On a summer’s day there’s no air conditioning, just a few floor fans but this seems to only add to the atmosphere. The place is busy but still manages to feel intimate and the clientele clearly represents the local neighbourhood: students on laptops, older students writing longhand or huddled over thick texts; a few elderly European-looking ladies, the odd intellectual perusing the New York Times and of course a few foreigners who’ve heard that it’s not to be missed. The coffee is abundant and pretty good using quality Columbia beans for the espressos, but you really go there for the amazing array of pastries. Strudels in all shapes and flavours, including the true Hungarian Sour Cherry Strudel, come fresh every morning. It’s a family business with two daughters working on the floor so no chance it will be closing down anytime soon, although their sometimes gruff approach did remind me of utilitarian Eastern Europe, pre-Perestroika.
Back downtown to Grammercy Park finds a quaint, neighbourhood cafe in the basement at 71 Irving Place. Simply named 71 Irving, it’s busy and buzzing. The clientele are New Yorkers, no tourists here, and they’re the local 20 and 30-somethings: hip, professional and very social. Reflecting the neighbourhood, it’s a place where friends meet to catch up, compare contracts (lot’s of actors here), do lunch and enjoy both great coffee and great food. The style is colonial American with slat-board walls, atmospheric lamps and even a fireplace giving a cosy but elegant feel. Along one wall there’s a staircase leading up…. to the ceiling. It was featured in the classic movie, The Seven Year Itch, with Marilyn Monroe, who exclaims “Where do they go? No place? A stairway to nowhere… that’s elegant.”
The owners, not happy with the coffee they found in New York, bought a farm upstate and now provide their own beans, Irving Farm, not only to their cafe but to such gourmet institutions as Wholefoods, Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage and Petrossian.
Venturing out of Manhattan I headed for Brooklyn, lured by the promise of a unique and exquisite cafe out in Park Slope; 30mins later and still on the subway, I knew I was in Brooklyn and was seriously questioning the likelihood of there being anything unique and exquisite this far from the epicentre. At Grand Army Plaza, I escaped the subway system and was instantly mesmerized by the most perfect brownstone houses I have ever seen. Unique to the USA, this architectural style is reminiscent of a bygone era of stately urban homes exuding elegance and style. Encouraged, I persevered and eventually disappeared through a pair of non-descript doors. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
The Tea Lounge is a massive warehouse space complete with the ubiquitous chipped concrete floors and open-face brick walls, with exposed air-conditioning pipes disguised under a thin coat of blue paint. Similar to a loft living space, areas are marked out by the furniture arrangement. Communal picnic tables in a well-lit area are for those working in groups and a Moroccan-style sofa extending the length of one wall caters for those working in solitude. The centre armchairs, sofas and coffee tables are arranged to create living rooms, conversation corners and desks where people can settle in and feel at home. The decor is op-shop grunge meets student digs, with the occasional shot of Baroque opulence. A row of Indonesian rattan fans high on the ceiling sway back and forth, gracefully synchronized though not moving fast enough to create any breeze. They only add to the eccentric mish-mash that makes Tea Lounge so irrestistible. The coffee is seriously good and the chalkboard menu of delights leaves one almost unable to choose. I went for the Shot Chocolate, which as you can imagine, is a shot of espresso dumped into a seriously indulgent hot chocolate, and then topped it off with a homemade Strawberry Shortcake. Tea Lounge offers an array of sweet things, all made locally and delivered each morning to their loyal tribe.
Further along the bar, I noticed a chalkboard offering of wines and a tiny dinner menu. One need never leave… just wander further down the bar from breakfast to lunch and then onto dinner. How perfect – a tea lounge for all occasions!
New York has always marched to the beat of a more exotic drum than the rest of the US. Finally embracing the onslaught of Seattle-inspired espresso bars, its ’take’ on these remains unique and edgy, just like the city itself. As I sank into my plush, emerald Louis armchair and sipped my Shot Choc I couldn’t help but think the world was all the better for it…