Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Day of Three Boroughs: Or, Saturday (Part 2)

I called up my friend Gaby to see what she was up to. She had an interview planned for the evening, part of her epic 100 Interviews project (for which she has a book deal!).

“I’m going to Staten Island, if you want to come.”

Staten Island. I heard only the most awful things about this place. I once remember reading an interview in New York magazine’s Look Book section. The question was something along the lines of “What’s Staten Island like?” A girl, around 16, with straight brown hair, doorknocker earrings and a plaid shirt drolly answered, “It’s like Manhattan but not as cool.” I always wondered, what would Manhattan be like if it wasn’t cool?

I was sitting on my couch, the prospect of another evening with Dr. Gregory House staring me in the face. Or I could go to Staten Island and see what all the fuss (or lack thereof) was about. At the very least I’d get to take the ferry, which I had never done before.

“Yes. Yes! Yes. Let’s go to Staten Island.”
“Okay, but I’m trying to catch the 8:30 ferry. Do you think you can make it?”
It was 7:30 and I had to actually put on clothes, but I was pretty sure I could get there.

We hung up and seconds later I was a whirligig of flying clothing. What does one wear to Staten Island?? I made a sandwich for the road and ran out the door.

“Staten Island Ferry, please,” I said to the cab driver. “Do you think we’ll make it there before 8:30?” I have a tendency to wildly overestimate how long traveling by cab takes since all the other forms of transportation tend to take much longer (i.e., getting a train to Tribeca would take probably an hour, while a cab takes 15 minutes).
“What? You are kidding, yes? I get you there before 8 o’clock, you don’t worry.” Sounds good to me. We zipped down the highway and, as promised, I was there at five minutes to eight. The ferry terminal’s bright blue neon signs shone brilliantly above me as Gaby and I met and went inside.

A buzzing mass of people crowded in front of the ferry’s doors and just before 8:30 the doors opened and this mass moved forward onto the ferry. A janitor told us the best place to stand to see the Statue of Liberty, on the second floor on the right hand side. The cool night breeze floated through our hair as we stood outside on the balcony. “Oh heyyyy, Lady Lib!” I said. “How you doin, gurl?”

“Ooh gurl, my arm is damn tired, okay? Like can I get some relief up in here?”
Or at least that’s how I imagine she would sound.

The curators
We docked in Staten Island and walked to the site of Gaby’s interview. We passed a building that looked like Disney’s Hall of Presidents, along with a smattering of local bars and a strange lack of noise that I wasn’t quite used to. Gaby was interviewing two curators in an artist’s studio underneath a Subway (sandwich place, not transportation). It was one of the many sites of the Second Saturday Staten Island Art Walk, “a monthly art walk including gallery openings and cultural events taking place in public spaces, pop-up galleries, restaurants, cafes, artist studios and apartments around the island's North Shore,” which these two curators had, well, curated. Art in wonderfully unconventional places, filled with beautiful, strange, and interesting people.
Down a set of stairs decorated with mirrors, collages and graffiti, we entered the studio. Various artists had hung their work on the walls, mostly paintings and photography. People milled about the white-painted space drinking wine from small plastic dentists’ cups. People sat on a cluster of ottomans and a bed with an antique iron frame to view the artwork. While Gaby conducted her interview, I met one man who told me he modeled for Richard Avedon and another who traveled to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos on a regular basis. They both had scraggly, silvery/charcoal grey hair and talked a lot with their hands. There was also a woman who wore a coat made of bits of colorful fabric tied in knots, another a top hat decorated with a large gold spider brooch. Two girls with a parade of earrings down their ears had buzzed half of their heads while they let the other halves flow with long locks. A man wore a bright blue cardigan that stretched over his stomach. And then there was Minnie La Driver, a man in a bright red bobbed wig and red sequined dress who, as “The Ambassador of Love” answered the audience’s questions about love in a German accent. It was a cute little soiree, and after Gaby finished her interview we walked back to take the last ferry back to Manhattan, along with several laydeez goin’ to “da club.” You know, that one club that everyone goes to.

The Olive Tree Cafe
Starving, we decided food was in order. We could have easily gone to the East Village as we had done numerous times before, but went against our pattern and headed to the West Village instead. Gaby took me to the Olive Tree CafĂ© on Macdougal Street still buzzing with people at 11:30. It’s a Mediterranean restaurant and burger joint, one of Gaby’s favorites. I have always loved it when people take me to their favorite places because they tell you things about it that make them happy.

“See that screen over there?” Gaby pointed. “They play Charlie Chaplin movies on it all the time. I saw The Gold Rush on it. And look! You can write on the tables!” She slid a tiny ashtray filled with chalk toward her and drew planets on the black tabletop. I smiled. There are so many tiny little places and big, touristy things to do that it’s nice to see what people who live here have chosen for themselves as “the best”. I did a lot of new, exciting things today, but sitting at that table watching Gaby draw rings around Saturn was by far the most wonderful.

A Day of Three Boroughs: Or, Saturday (Part 1)

So, as is perhaps now readily apparent, I like to do stuff. Preferably cool stuff. And, as I’ve learned, doing cool stuff will sometimes take you beyond the island Manhattan and into the four other boroughs of New York. Yes, kittens, this past Saturday your very own Miss Manhattan was mostly not in Manhattan at all, but rather in *gasp* Brooklyn and Staten Island.

See? Overpass. They weren't kidding.
First, to Brooklyn for the New York Photo Festival, which entailed an extended train ride on the F. After about an hour, I arrived in the neighborhood Dumbo, short for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” And with that name, it does not disappoint. There are parts on the edge of Dumbo where you literally look up and see only bridge. The parts I like best of Dumbo are the old, historic ones—there’s an open space walled in with brick and iron bars that was once a tobacco market, along with the remnants of old, cinnamon-colored brick factories that have been turned into performance spaces, art galleries and apartment buildings. One of my favorite spaces was the Smack Mellon gallery, which featured a blank white wall on one side, with rugged, exposed brick and piping on the other. I’ve always liked my buildings a little grungy.

Awesome old Tobacco Warehouse used for the exhibition
But then there were the parts of it that I did not find as enjoyable. Dumbo is one of them newfangled, up and coming neighborhoods, so it’s still kind of in that phase where it’s really into itself. A friendly map near the neighborhood’s entrance pointed out all of the popular points of interest in the area. I hate maps like that because they only ever make me think, “Really? That’s all you got?” when in reality there could be much cooler stuff lurking around that they don’t want you to know about for whatever reason. While some of the cool old factory buildings hang off in the distance like the high school rebels smoking cigarettes behind the bleachers, there are shiny, spiffy new buildings toward the neighborhood’s center, all made of pristine concrete, chrome and glass. These buildings feel like snobby, nouveau riche cheerleaders—I didn’t like them at all.

Building preference aside, my real goal there was to see what was cooking at the New York Photo Festival. In 2008, the festival was founded by Daniel Power, the mastermind behind art book publisher powerHouse Books and Frank Evers, who also founded artist management agency INSTITUTE. It was created in order to succeed prestigious European festivals that create “an international atmosphere of inspiring visual installations, professional and aficionado fellowship and camaraderie, and news-worthy staged presentations, awards ceremonies, and symposia.” The festival is also meant to showcase what the future of contemporary photography might look like, displaying the work of many up-and-coming photographers, some of whom are still college undergraduates.

What’s really nice about the festival is that it’s not set up as a typical booth-and-vendor fair outdoors. Instead, when you purchase your festival ticket you’re given a map of all of the NYPH venues around Dumbo with a listing of what appears at each one. Then, you find the venue, see the exhibition, and move on to the next venue. Lather, rinse, repeat in a supremely awesome scavenger hunt-esque way. I started at the aforementioned tobacco warehouse then moved forward, down streets named after dead presidents (Washington, Jay, Adams, etc.).

My favorite exhibition was from China, entitled “Capturing Xiang Sha Wan,” part of which included photographers following camel herders in Malaysia. It was wonderful how they were able to make something so exotic by New York standards (I mean, we have a lot of things here but camels are not one of them…as far as I know) seem completely relatable. I also never thought I would think of a camel as beautiful, but these photographers proved me wrong.

After exploring the festival and Dumbo a bit more, I made the track back to my apartment in Manhattan. By this time it was early evening and though I happily sat on the couch and did nothing the night before, I was not inclined to do it again...