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June 22, 2014

New York Vacation

Friday 5/16

A frustrating start to our trip.

Our flight from Nashville to LaGuardia was three hours late, and our bags were soaked when they arrived. We took a bus and a subway into Manhattan and arrived at the Chelsea Lodge around 12:30 am. At the end of a long day, it was tiring carrying our luggage up the steep stairs to the second floor.

Saturday 5/17

We began the day with breakfast at The Dish, the diner around the corner from the Chelsea, where we had enjoyed several breakfasts last year.

We had a (literal) rain check from canceling our Harlem Renaissance Walking Tour the previous year. Guardedly hopeful, after several weeks of frustrating communication with the tour company, we were relieved when 86-year-old Andy Owens greeted us, with a smile and a handshake, in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. What was billed as a two-hour tour expanded into nearly four. Rather than centering on the early-20th century, largely cultural phenomenon that originally drew us, the tour focused more on an equally impressive early-21st century renaissance of the community.

Throughout, Andy pointed out symbols of community vibrancy. Outside a supermarket, he favorably compared sale prices advertised in the window to prices elsewhere in the city. He noted the clean-swept appearance of an outdoor basketball court, the green spaces, the plentiful shops and street vendors. He highlighted the cultural pluralism – whites moving in and now accounting for about 30 percent of the population, a large Sunni Muslim community, a growing number of African immigrants opening small retail businesses. We stopped for commentary at famous sites like the Apollo Theater and Sylvia’s Restaurant. We also toured of the small but interesting Genesis II Museum of International Black Culture, which Andy operates as an educational center. We saw and learned about the single-family homes on Strivers Row (so called for the black elite who lived there in the early 20th century), which cost in the $3 million range in today’s market, down 30-40 percent from pre- (2008) crash levels. Slightly less expensive are some fancy rows of brownstones. We walked three to four miles, and everywhere people were active, smiling, and enjoying the sunny spring day.

The limitations of exposure to the original Harlem Renaissance became clear at our first stop. Andy pointed out a historical marker, placed within the last decade, that marks the spot (now grass) where the famous Savoy Ballroom once stood. Similarly, the original Cotton Club is no more, though a club by the same name operates elsewhere. (Andy seemed unimpressed when we told him about the Cotton Club in Shanghai that we had gone to a couple of times.) The buildings that housed the Renaissance Theater and Renaissance Ballroom are (mostly) still standing, but they are vacant and in disrepair. Only the lobby area of the ballroom building remains. There are plans to restore the buildings. The site where Madame C.J. Walker became the first black female millionaire is now occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library. Andy explained that Ms. Walker legally changed her first name to Madame, so that white people (many of whom were accustomed to addressing blacks by first name only) would have to address her respectfully. We saw two famous Harlem churches that are still standing and in use. One was the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a large upscale church where Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. preached. The other was more modest but may be more historically significant. The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church served as a station on the 19th-century Underground Railroad. We did not see any sites connected with famous cultural figures of the (original) Harlem Renaissance, though Andy told us that homes once occupied by Duke Ellington (with a marker outside the apartment), Langston Hughes (no marker), and Zora Neale Hurston (no marker) are still standing. We did see a beautiful floor tile homage to Langston Hughes in the Schomburg Center, marking the site where Hughes’s ashes are buried. Also, a few weeks later, we heard on the radio that the former home of Harlem Renaissance-influenced writer Ralph Ellison is still standing.

After the tour, we found our way to Zoma, the wonderful Ethiopian restaurant on Frederick Douglass Blvd. at which we had eaten last year. Again, we left full and satisfied.

Sunday 5/18

We toured the (J.P.) Morgan Library & Museum. There is very little on Morgan’s historical role in American political economy, but there is much else. The art and photography collections, which we viewed on our own, were limited but impressive. My favorite photo was of Sophia Loren lounging at a picnic. Then, our docent provided helpful commentary for a tour of the library. The original architecture is classical in style, though there are modern additions. There were more books in the library than one person could read in a lifetime, but many were interesting from a collector’s standpoint. The docent could not tell us which books Morgan had actually read. We ate dinner at Lasagna Ristorante; it is close to our hotel, and we had enjoyed the food last year.

Monday 5/19

A work day. We found our way, via subway, to New York University. From 10:00 am until 3:30 pm, we combed through Philip Foner’s “unprocessed” papers at the Tamiment Library on the 10th floor of the NYU Library. The goal was to find any clues that might indicate why Foner, as consulting historian for the 1975 Folkways recording of Ossie Davis reading Frederick Douglass’s famous Fourth of July Speech, omitted the crucial “Constitution” section at the end of the speech. Omitting that section significantly alters the meaning of the speech. We tagged 100+ pages for copying, for future analysis. After I retire in May 2015, I plan to write a journal article that explores – and, hopefully, explains – Foner’s editing choices. We ploughed through only nine of the 14 boxes on our list. Fortunately, there was some flexibility in our schedule for the week.

Next, we headed for offices of the Institute of International Education, where I gave a book talk, organized by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. This was the first time (other than in my classrooms) that I have given an extemporaneous talk from an outline (as opposed to more or less reading a fully composed paper), and it went well. We even sold five books. Here is the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFIuNxLs0rI.

We ended the day by sharing an enjoyable Thai meal with cousins Mike and Dalia Weiss, who had attended the book talk.

Tuesday 5/20

We deviated from breakfast at The Dish to eat at Murray’s Bagels, which was as good an experience as last year.

The rest of the day entailed subway travel, three short boat rides, and lots of walking at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We did not climb up to Lady Liberty’s torch, but the museum was very informative. The project was managed by civil society organizations in both France and the U.S., as opposed to being a government-to-government arrangement. The French designers wanted to make a political statement in support of American-style liberty, as opposed to both the terror of the French Revolution and, especially, the dictatorship of Napoleon III. It was only later that Emma Lazarus’s famous poem was added and the statue came to symbolize the welcoming of immigrants. There were also interesting explanations of the various engineering feats involved and of design changes over time, mainly in the torch. I am waiting for scholarly reviews of Edward Berenson’s recent book, The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, but it sounds like a good, in-depth telling of the foregoing story.

The Ellis Island Immigration Station is still being restored. There are already a number of exhibits, and the building itself is interesting, but the main floor is still mostly empty. In this sense, the site is less interesting than Angel Island, which we visited a few years ago and which looks much as it did a century ago. Also, there was a temporary climate control problem, which resulted in many paintings having been removed from their display locations and sent to storage.

Wednesday 5/21

We went to Chinatown, returning to the Buddha Bodai Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, where we had eaten last year. This time, we met Dan Becker (whom we had befriended at the Shanghai Chabad Synagogue, when we were all living in China a decade age) and (literally) met his relatively new wife Sara and saw a photo of their twin daughters.

After a brief nap at the hotel (for one of us), we made our way to the New York Stock Exchange for the annual Members Meeting of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Five former U.S. ambassadors to China gave extremely interesting, unvarnished commentaries on the past, present, and future bilateral relationship. Afterward, we saw old friends, and I was pleased to meet a couple of people I had interviewed by phone for my book.

Thursday 5/22

Back to the Tamiment Library, where we finished work in the Foner Papers. Then, back to the Chelsea Lodge to pick up our bags and make our way to the airport. That’s when the story gets exciting, though not in the best way.

As we approached the platform at the 8th Ave. and 23rd St. subway station, after carrying two suitcases, and small bag, and a laptop backpack down several flights of stairs, a wide gate was open, because a woman with a stroller had just gone in or out. Terry led the way, and we walked through the open gate. We figured it didn’t matter, since we had all-week subway passes. In other words, we were not trying to steal a fare. Then two things happened. First, our train pulled up. Second, the man in the booth started shouting something, which we could not comprehend, through his speaker. We assumed he was fussing about the fares, so we ran our week-pass tickets through the ticket reader. By the time we did this, our train had left. With a wait of 20 minutes, we sat down on the bench. I was tired from lugging all the bags, and put the laptop bag behind my back, for comfort. (Do you see the problem coming?) Our train arrived, we boarded, and we road to the station where we needed to catch a bus to LaGuardia. Just as the doors closed, after we got off the train, I panicked in the realization that my laptop backpack was not on my shoulder. I thought I must have left it on the train, and banged – futily – on the doors, as the trained pulled out. We talked to a subway cop, who suggested we ride the next train to the last stop and try to recover the bag there. We waited and boarded the next train. However, about five minutes into the ride, I focused my memory, recalled having set the bag behind me on the first subway bench, and realized that THAT is where I had left the bag. We proceeded to the airport and, from there, called the subway system’s Lost & Found Department. The receptionist told us that we had to file a claim online.

So, frustrated and dejected, we proceeded through security. As I was removing my belt, my cell phone rang. Amazingly, a good Samaritan had found my bag, had taken possession of it, and had used my name card to track me down to my university, whose HR department was now calling me. (If only the guy had been able to read Chinese, he could have found my cell number for himself, on the back of my card.) I was overjoyed; it would be just a matter of time before I would get my computer back. Needless to say, I amply rewarded my angel.

But our New York Vacation (with conscious homage to the similarly named Chevy Chase movies) was not nearly over. Our return flight, like our outbound flight, was three hours late. (This time, at least our bags stayed dry.) So, by the time we arrived in Nashville – at around 11:00 pm – it was too late to catch our shuttle back to Chattanooga. We got a room at a motel near the airport. Once in our room, I was eager to send an e-mail to my new friend in New York, to make sure he had the correct shipping address. Before that, though, Terry discovered that in “helping” her by unplugging her Kindle Fire charging cord in our New York hotel room, I had left the wall adaptor behind. So, she used a USB port on her laptop for charging Her laptop was acting up, though. In fact, charging her Kindle was the last thing it did for a week; the hard drive promptly crashed. With great difficulty – in keeping with the spirit of the evening – I was able to send an e-mail from the motel lobby computer. For the next several days, we both acclimated to using Terry’s Kindle Fire for an Internet connection and basic functions like e-mail. We made it back to Chattanooga the next afternoon and promptly took Terry’s laptop in for repair.

Our house was, literally, a construction zone. Our contractor had begun work on a major kitchen remodeling project shortly before our departure for New York. He had hoped to have hot water restored by the time we returned, but that did not happen for another week. So, in addition to eating in a make-shift, waterless “kitchen” in our cluttered dining room, we took a mid-week break to stay at a downtown motel, where we could take hot showers, do laundry (not available at home at that point), and use a real keyboard for e-mail communication.

From there, things got steadily better, as all the foregoing problems resolved themselves. Happy ending, just like in the movies.

-- Norty