Under the High Line

A random Monday posting, and not the usual L2 fare. In the main, it’s a story, one of three that I’ve written for The Masters Review flash-fiction competition. The story is fictional, but it draws upon the many real-life tales told in a disturbing book titled Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, by Jeremiah Moss.

Our dear Torontonian friend, SL, was staying with us when I picked up the book in Barnes and Noble.  “Good for you,” he quipped. “Now you can be one of those irritating people who are always banging on about how New York isn’t what it used to be.”

What we didn’t know was that during the course of the weekend we would all become those people who said that New York isn’t what it used to be. Browsing through another book on our coffee table, 111 Places In New York That You Must Not Miss, SL identified Il Vagabondo, a small bar on East 62ndStreet, featuring an indoor bocce court, that was founded by proprietor Ernest Vogliano’s grandfather in the early 1900s to attract the Upper East Side’s Italian immigrants. We made a plan to go there for coffee or a glass of wine, only to discover that it no longer existed. “It’s fun to watch the competition from a courtyard table, sipping wine and savouring scrumptious Italian cuisine,” boasted our coffee table book, published in 2015. Fun we wouldn’t have in 2018. Shame.

Next on SL’s list of places to see was The Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. According to 111 Places, the market offered “a huge array of edible treats you’d otherwise have to hunt down all over town, and diverse merchants you wouldn’t think could coexist under one roof. Mom-and-Pop grocers, many there for decades, sell oxtails, oranges, cuchifritos and couscous, next to booths run by bankers-turned-bakers.”

Not for much longer they won’t. Moss warns us that The Essex Street Market and indeed the entirety of Delancey Street is about to be eviscerated to accommodate the Essex Crossing, a $1.1 billion dollar “manufactured utopia of the future” featuring hulking glass towers comprising “luxury condos, office space, floors of interior shopping-mall-style retail, glamorized suburban food courts, and some “affordable” housing”. IMG_1578

Moss asks, “In the glitzy future mall, expanded to accommodate more new upscale businesses, will the old school merchants survive?”

There’s a similar story behind the High Line. Who, when visiting New York, hasn’t walked along the High Line and thought, how great is this? What a genius idea, and what a fun way to spend an hour or two. Read chapters 13 and 17 in Moss’s book and you might not feel quite so unadulteratedly positive. I enjoy a stroll along the High Line as much as the next person, but I have to admit that when I look at the immense, luxury condominiums that have sprung up alongside the tracks since the project was completed in 2011, and think about all the homes and small businesses that were wiped out to accommodate them, I can’t help but think that something has gone awry.

Gentrification. Progress. The way of the world. There’s nothing new in that I suppose, except the sheer scale and pace of it in a city like New York. Perhaps it has ever been thus.  Back in the late nineteenth century, the American writer, John Jay Chapman, wrote that “the present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost.”

Even when that powerful present comes up with a genius idea for turning crumbling railway tracks into a raised walkway bordered by wildflowers in the middle of the city, the loss of the past is undeniably sad.  And we are all a little bit complicit.

Here’s my story.

Under the High Line

Number One, Hudson Yards – forty floors of shimmering sapphire. A young woman emerges from its revolving doors into the oppressive late afternoon heat. Joanna, married to Zach, who is at that moment sitting in his sleekly furnished office in Bloomfield Place, cooking up deals and manoeuvring large sums of money in ways that Joanna does not even try to understand. Her work is with words, not numbers.

Joanna walks east, towards the entrance to the High Line at West 30th.  Partially constructed towers of steel and blue glass rise up around her like lumbering titans. She barely registers the intense noise that once overwhelmed her –  the crashing of metal poles, the juddering of Jackhammers, the beep-beep of reversing cranes, the rude blasts of car horns that is the soundtrack to New York life.

There were many things that had attracted them to their building, things that more than made up for the noise and the chaos that surrounded it: the river, just across the West Highway, and the amazing facilities in the building itself – a state of the art gym, a pool, an outdoor roof terrace and an indoor entertainment room, a basketball court, a bowling alley – a bowling alley! Everything you could possibly need, as well as a few things you definitely don’t, she and Zach are always saying to guests.

Joanna’s favourite thing about Number One Hudson Yards is its proximity to the High Line, along which she can stroll amidst wildflowers, grasses and trees to get to the Meatpacking District. To her the High Line is an unequivocal marvel.  A peaceful, rural experience amidst the grime and hurly-burly of the city. If she looks ahead, or straight up at the sky, she can forget that she is in a city at all. Of course, the illusion never lasts long. Not with those mega-condominiums (Number One Hudson Yards amongst them) looming on both sides.

This afternoon, Joanna is headed towards The Lobster Place in Chelsea market, where she plans to purchase some fresh sea bass for supper.  Somewhere below her feet, Louisa de Denartis is removing one last tray of Pignolli cookies from the oven at the back of the De Denartis Pasticceria and Caffé, founded by her great grandfather in 1910. Like her father and mother, Louisa has worked in the Pasticceria since she was small, learning to bake Biscotti and Bombolonas, Semifreddo and Sfogliatelle. She is an expert on Italian sweet delights, and on the habits of the customers who buy them. People like Al Baldiccio who ran the auto shop down the road for thirty years, and used to come in for a Cartocci and a cappuccino every morning, or Fran Merkowitz, who brings one or another of her grandchildren in for a hot chocolate and a Cannoli most Saturdays.

“There must be a way,” Louisa had insisted, when her father had told her about the new landlord.

“There is no way,” her father said, already defeated. “When the Big Guys decide to come to town, there’s no stopping them. Look at what happened to Al.”

Progress, people call it. Louisa remembers hearing about the laudable project to develop the disused railway tracks that ran above the heads, homes and businesses of people like them, remembers thinking that it would enhance all of their lives and bring customers flooding into the Pasticceria. What she hadn’t realised – maybe nobody had – was that it would also bring the Big Guys with their money and their grand plans and their unblinking determination to demolish every pasticceria, auto shop, tailor, and coach house that lay in their path.

Development and destruction, breakthroughs and burnt offerings. Bound together as surely as omelettes and eggs, with a logic that is so easy to spout but so difficult to live with if you live on the underside of the tracks.

At four thirty, after closing the doors of the Pasticceria for the last time, Louisa dusts the Pignolli cookies with sugar and places them in a white pastry box. Leaving by the back door, she takes the box up onto the High Line, where she finds the spot she thinks must sit more or less directly above the Pasticceria.

She sits down, cross legged, and opens the box in her lap. Some of the many people walking along fail to notice her until it is almost too late, and she is aware of their stumbled steps as they try to avoid her. She remains undaunted, offering Pignolli cookies with a quietly outstretched arm. A small boy takes one, but most people pass her by without understanding or even seeing the fragile beauty of her gift.

Joanna, on her return journey from Chelsea Market and swinging a basket laden not just with plump sea bass, but with Pignolli cookies purchased from the giant food hall opposite The Lobster Place, sees the young woman sitting on the wooden boards and thinks that perhaps she’s in need of help. She kneels down.

“Are you okay?”

‘Would you like a Pignolli cookie?” the young woman says, opening her palm.

“Actually, I just bought some,” Joanna says, indicating the basket.

The woman ponders Joanna’s basket. “They won’t be as good as these,” she says. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”

She leans back, eyes narrowing as if to examine Joanna more acutely. A kind of silence expands around them, and between them, a thin, weighty line is pulled taught. It feels to Joanna as though she is being challenged, even accused of something.

How ridiculous, Joanna thinks, and forces herself to break free of the young woman’s penetrating gaze. She stands and walks away, keeping her eyes on the path ahead and her thoughts on the fish in her basket, which she must get into the fridge. But she can’t seem to walk fast enough. Her mind is gripped by the idea that it is too late, that the sea bass has already gone off and will be inedible, everything ruined.


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Old Dogs and New Tricks


When we moved to this great city, we expected to see new things and meet new people. What we didn’t anticipate was that we might become new people.


Please don’t be alarmed. I’m not talking about plastic surgery, or about any upending of character or values. I’m talking about small shifts in what we choose to do, how we opt to spend our time.


Here’s what I mean. Back in London, L1 was not a shopper.  If the trend over the past decade has been towards men making up at least fifty percent of supermarket traffic, L1 hasn’t been part of that trend. He’s been the anti-trend. And yet, within days of moving to Manhattan, he transmogrified into someone who positively embraces the supermarket shopping experience. Could he possibly pop into Morton Williams on his way home from work to pick up some milk and broccoli? No problemo. Does he want to accompany me to Whole Foods on Saturday morning to pick up some grass-fed beef for dinner, and the other twenty items we need for the week? Nothing would give him more pleasure. I’m enjoying this new supermarket persona, but every now and again, catching sight of him wheeling the trolley through the fresh produce aisles or testing the ripeness of an avocado, I have the odd sensation of wondering who he is and what he’s done with my husband.

Continue reading “Old Dogs and New Tricks”

Taste Test

Still dreaming of those verdant hills and robust cabernets in Napa, and inspired by the story of the Valley’s triumph in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, I’ve decided to conduct my own taste test. I won’t be judging wines, but countries. No prizes for guessing which two. My test won’t be blind and the criteria will be a little more random than those used to judge wine – things like flavour, bouquet, tannin levels, acidity, and my personal favourite, legs. But I will be awarding scores out of twenty, just as the judges in Paris did.

I fully accept that judging entire countries on the basis of some randomly chosen factors, using a sample of one (me), and incorporating data from just two cities (London and New York) is in no way fair or scientific. I ought, at least, to try to get some data from some places like Virginia Beach and Birmingham.   But I haven’t got time for a scientific methodology, and neither have you. So I’m counting on you good people to indulge me in a harmless game of compare and contrast.

So. In no particular order, we begin. Continue reading “Taste Test”

Notes From Underground

Reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground


A few weekends back, L1 and I were headed to the Coffee Shop at Union Square, where they do a stupendous breakfast in classic diner surroundings. It was L1’s first foray underground. He couldn’t get over the industrial feel of everything, how it was all – both trains and track – just big hunks of metal held together by bolts and rivets. It has character, sure, but also a whiff of dinosaur.

A few days later, reading the New York Times, I understood why. The New York City subway, loved, hated and relied upon by some six million people a day, has been neglected. “The Making of a Meltdown” screamed the headline. “How Politics and Bad Decisions Plunged New York’s Subways into Misery.” Apparently we’ve arrived here in a year that has seen one subway disaster after another – the derailment of a Q train, a track fire on the A line, a stalled F train that had overheated passengers clawing at the windows – all of them attributed to century old tunnels, and track routes that are crumbling as a result of decades of underinvestment. The accusations were endless: Signal failures are twice as frequent as a decade ago; New York is the only major city that has fewer miles of track than in World War 11; and New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance record of any major rapid transit in the world. (Though, suspiciously, London’s Underground wasn’t even on the list.) Continue reading “Notes From Underground”

Is that a trombone I hear?

 “They’re not shy about using their horns in this city, are they?” L1 said on our first morning in the new apartment, as we craned our necks in the direction of the TV so as to hear Morning Joe over the vehicular argument that was gathering both pace and volume outside, five floors below.

“This, of course, is why a balcony is a complete waste of time in New York,” he added, clearly congratulating himself on having had the good sense not to pay whatever extra sum might have been required to secure an apartment with six square feet of precariously suspended outside space.

It occurred to us then, as it has almost every day since, that Manhattan actually has two great symphony orchestras. There’s the one that plays in the David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Centre, the NYPO (New York Philharmonic),maxresdefault and then there’s the one that plays on the streets.  The street symphony’s illustrious composer is not Mozart or Brahms,  but the combined comings, goings and inclinations of the millions who live, work and drive in the city.

Ordinarily it’s the string section that reigns supreme, with the leading first violinist being the undisputed concertmaster. But in the street orchestra, it’s the brass section that takes centre stage. The constant honking of horns by taxis, cars and giant SUVs forms the very core of the score in this city – mostly trumpets, French horns and trombones, with the occasional stupendously loud report from a tuba. (That would be a super-sized truck making its impatience known.) Continue reading “Is that a trombone I hear?”

On perspective

They came. They saw. They went.

Daughter K (all housewarming-party-sins forgiven) and her boyfriend M departed on Sunday, leaving our spare room looking extremely forlorn, ivory petals falling like tears from the weary looking roses on the window sill. But they remembered to strip the beds and leave the sheets in a neat pile, so there was one reason to be cheerful.

What superb company they were, during a whirlwind week that saw us taking in our  favourite local for dinner, strolling through Washington Square and Greenwich Village (highlights: the Fresh Store, and the Friends building), watching our flatbreads baking in an open oven at Dizengoffs and then eating them with scrummy hummus and bits and bobs, walking the Highline and most of Fifth and Madison (14 km, according to M’s iPhone), scoffing scallops and sliders at the Central Park Boathouse, nuzzling horses in the park,  shopping at Stella Dallas Living in Brooklyn (for vintage t-shirts and hats we will almost certainly never wear) IMG_0315and sampling the hospitality and delicious apple and walnut pancakes on offer in Toms diner. We welled up at the 9/11 memorial site, shot to the top of the One World Tower, peered through the half-light and pretended to be in a scene of SATC at Buddakan, and queued for forty minutes for a five-inch-high pastrami sandwich at Katz deli. We capped it all off with another viewing of The Orient Express (where it was me who fell asleep this time) and a classic all-dressed pizza at home.

In other words, we continued to experience the chronic hemorrhaging of money that is life in New York City. (I’m not going to lie to you. I pinched that phrase from Jonathan in Jonathan Unleashed. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing a treat.) Continue reading “On perspective”

Top Tips


Everyone knows that the US is the tipping capital of the world. Right? And that New York is the capital of the tipping capital. You probably know this even if you’ve never been to New York. If you have been here, maybe you’ll recall falling off your chair the first time you realised you were about to sign away another 20% on top of the not insignificant sum you’d already paid for dinner, or how tedious it was to be constantly rummaging around for dollar bills to give the guy who opened your cab door/ took charge of your suitcase/ brought that bottle of San Pelligrino up to your room.

But nothing prepares you for the tipping culture that engulfs you when you actually live here. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer and my Whole Foods delivery. Then came my encounter with the merry crew of supers who run this ship called Manhattan House from a labarynthine arrangement of offices in the basement. A nice Irish guy named Terry came upstairs to replace two ceiling bulbs and identify the source of the annoying beeping noise that we’d been hearing every ten minutes or so for the previous week. (It wasn’t the smoke alarm on the blink, after all, but the Verizon wireless router thingy needing a new battery) Being new to the building, I wasn’t sure what Terry would be expecting in terms of compensation. Was his work carried out part and parcel of the rent we were  paying? Did he send invoices to the landlord? Did he expect a tip? Continue reading “Top Tips”

At your service

Can I tell you about the amazing service ethic in this city? This seemingly inexhaustible willingness to give you anything you need, just as soon as you have the idea that you might need it?

My first happy run in with this super-service mentality came after we discovered that the previous tenants were cat owners. I’m severely allergic to cats, and cat dander ( the definition of which, if you don’t already know it, is deeply unpleasant and something you really don’t want to hear) was apparently everywhere in the apartment, so I spent the first four days crying 😥 and sneezing and generally feeling rubbish. JV, the amazingly nice and efficient managing agent, sprang into action. Within a day of my reporting the symptoms, she had amassed the names of three professional firms who could help. A day after that they all showed up to see what they were up against. An hour later they delivered their quotes. When we chose one firm, they arranged to come and do the job on the Monday (this was a Friday), bending over backwards to rearrange other jobs because they could see I was desperate. They came –  three no-nonsense women armed with with mops, buckets, vacuum cleaners and a huge extractor fan with a HEPA filter – spent eight hours tearing around the apartment like whirling dervishes, and left. Job done. And all in a third of the time it would take just to get someone to turn up for the initial site visit in the UK. When I marvelled at the speed at which they operated, the fellow in charge of the winning firm gave me a bemused look. “Well if we don’t do this, we know some other guy’s going to do it and then he’ll get the job.” It’s that simple. There’s this fierce desire to work, to get the job, and to stop someone else from getting it. And they all spur each other on. Continue reading “At your service”

What’s an L2 to do?


So here I am. Living on the fifth floor of an apartment building with about a dozen staff milling around in the lobby  – doorman, assistant doormen, concierge, mailroom attendant, valet manager – and dozens more roaming around the building, ready to fix my faulty washing machine or take delivery of my Whole Foods order. I’m a five minute walk from Bloomingdales (or Bloomies, in local speak), six minutes from Central Park, a short taxi ride away from Balthazar.

And thousands of miles away from my kids.

What the Hell am I doing here?

Continue reading “What’s an L2 to do?”