Most of my insights about the city are picked up inadvertently when I take long, seemingly aimless walks. But sometimes I consciously choose to visit different city neighborhoods and public spaces with the purpose of writing about what I observe. Consequently, I recently set out with a friend to explore Governor's Island for the first time.
For over 30 years I had seen Governor's Island in the distance from the ferry when I traveled back and forth to my teaching job at the College of Staten Island. I knew the Coast Guard was stationed there, but I could only fantasize what lay beyond the fort and barracks that lined the island's shore, only 800 yards from Manhattan. But now that it is open to the public (it had been off-limits for 200 years), we decided, on an oppressively humid day, to take the comfortable seven-minute ride on a free ferry to the island.
The island is a green 172-acre site that is the oldest European settlement in New York. It contains two forts, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, which was used as a military prison for many years, that were a key part of the inner harbor defense network that was constructed in the early 19th century to protect New York City from naval attack. The 22-acre area containing the forts and stately historical officers' residences is now a national landmark.
No longer a military base, Governor's Island is now jointly run by the city, state and National Park Service. On the day we visited, the majority of people were families with young children cycling, picnicking, playing miniature golf and enjoying the vintage French carnival rides and carousels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Fete Paradiso, which is appearing for the first time in America.
The island also holds concert series, food festivals, and various art exhibitions. Governor's Island doesn't seem like a place that would attract hordes of art lovers, but it contains a temporary Sculpture Garden of interactive and sustainable sculpture projects on a lush green lawn -- the Parade Ground -- that is inviting to children. There are also spectacular views of Lower Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty from different island vantage points.
The southern half of the island is closed but will reopen next spring with 30 acres of park and public space newly developed. It will include a formal garden and constructed mounds, which will make a radical break from the flatness of the island's landscape. This completes the first phase of development, but 33 acres have been reserved for private development, with the hope of eventually bringing in enough money to cover the park's operations. The development of Governor's Island remains unfinished, but I am hoping that no Trump or other developer of monstrous monoliths is permitted to despoil a green space that so far has seen no egregious commercial intrusions and provides pleasure for its many visitors.
On another day I set out with another friend to visit Flushing, a neighborhood in north-central Queens. My memories of Flushing go back to college when a close friend moved out there, and I took the bus past neighborhoods that looked suburban -- mainly empty lots and private homes -- to my parochially urban Bronx eyes. However, contemporary Flushing has gone through a total transformation from when it was a predominantly Italian, Greek and Jewish neighborhood.
Chinese immigrants from Taiwan began to settle there in the late 1970s, followed by Chinese from other places, and they made it into one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic Chinese enclaves outside of Asia, as well as within New York City itself. It's a Chinatown that is wealthier than the Manhattan one. It includes a large middle class, as well as many blue-collar workers.
Getting off the number 7 subway at Flushing Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, I was struck by the crowds and the variety of shops, many with Chinese signage. These include Chinese bookstores, herbal medicine shops, invitingly lush fresh fruit and vegetable, meat and fish stores, a variety of Chinese restaurants, a Macy's, a Burger King, and an Old Navy. The streets are wider, and the buildings are much newer than in Manhattan's much older, more visually interesting Chinatown.
In fact, walking on Main Street you feel that you are part of an insulated ethnic world where some shops continue to display their wares on sidewalk racks, where there are no tourists, and Chinese is the primary language spoken. It brings me back to the Bronx of my childhood, though its streets are more vital and its future is not one of decline but of growing affluence.
But places like the Golden Shopping Mall, still exist -- a warren-like collection of very reasonable tiny restaurants that serve a wide range of dumpling and noodle dishes to an immigrant working class in the most basic, unadorned surroundings. I have a feeling that as Flushing prospers, glossier, more standardized restaurants will replace them. So, I recommend visiting Flushing before that transformation takes place and much of its authenticity is lost.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com