Month: August, 2006

On Governors Island

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006 | All Things, Friends, NYC History

Governors Island lies just a seven minute ferry ride from the southern tip of Manhattan, at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers. After taking over “Noten Eylandt” (and “New Amsterdam”) from the Dutch in 1664, the British New York Assembly renamed Noten “The Governor’s Island” in 1698 and earmarked the land for “the benefit and accommodation of His Majestie’s Royal Governors for the time being.” Eventually both the “The” and the apostrophe were lost, leaving the current name as it stands today.

Its strategic location suited ideally for the command headquarters and military post of the United States Army from 1794 until 1966. From 1966 until their move to Fort Wadsworth in 1996, the island was the United States Coast Guard’s largest and most complex installation. In 2003, Governors Island was sold to New York City for the bargain price of $1.00 and transferred to two parties: 22 acres, designated as the Governors Island National Monument, to the Secretary of the Interior, and managed by the National Park Service; and 150 acres to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a corporation formed jointly by the State and City of New York.

Currently, Governors Island is open to the public on a seasonal basis. This summer, public access continues through this Saturday, September 2, 2006. Since it was the last week to take advantage of the free tour and ferry ride out to the Island, I took the day off on Tuesday to explore in the morning, before returning home to take care of more mundane apartment matters.

Ferries to Governors Island depart from Slip 7 of the Battery Maritime Building terminal , northeast of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. At one time, this now-crumbling landmark building served as a twin to the original Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

Battery Maritime

Tuesdays through Thursdays just 40 people are permitted on the Island at a time for a guided tour. B and I arrived by 9:30AM with plenty of time to spare — affording me the chance to check out the new Whitehall terminal again.

SI Ferry Terminal

Terminals

We pulled into Soissons Dock at Governors Island’s northern edge aboard the Coursen, a 1955 vessel certified to accommodate 493 passengers. The dock commemorates “the heroic participation of the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment from Governors Island in the victorious attack against German forces near Soissons, France, July 18, 1918.”

Gov Island Terminal

Gov Island Terminals

Our group of about 15 was met at the Ferry Waiting Room/Visitors Center by two Parks Department guides – both named Meg[h]an, and one of whom was actually raised on the Island, back when it served as Coast Guard housing. The building across was once the island’s Post Office, and now houses a gift shop and a security station – the first of many repurposed structures on the island we would see over the next hour and a half.

Our tour was limited to the historic district, with the military history. The GIPEC-owned majority of the island, is (from what we were told) far less picturesque, comprised of corporate park, modern apartment complexes, and other supporting features. A prominent white tower sits at the island’s northern end: the air vent to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which runs beneath Governors Island. For two centuries, the island was run as a small, self-sustaining town for Army, and later Coast Guard, personnel, government employees and their families. There was the aforementioned post office (with a Manhattan zip code), a hospital, elementary school P.S. 26 (most high schoolers had a two-ferry commute to Curtis High School in Staten Island), two churches and a synagogue, a golf course and a Burger King – the only one in the country to serve both pizza and beer (to service the adjacent bowling alley).

Many of these structures have since fallen into disrepair, so we on the tour were only allowed the view from the street for safety reasons.

Gov Island Main

Army Housing

The two most prominent military fortifications on the island are Fort Jay and Castle Williams, which were erected between 1796 and 1811 in preparation for the War of 1812. Both structures sit within the Landmark District and are surrounded by unparalleled views of New York Harbor.

Lower Manhattan

With walls forty feet high and eight feet thick, this round sandstone bastion was set up to accommodate four tiers of cannons, when it was completed in 1811. Castle Williams and its twin fort, Castle Clinton in The Battery, were built to guard the waterway between Governors Island and New York City. The British never attempted to breach the harbor, though, and the growing sophistication and reach of firepower after the War of 1812 rendered these forts obsolete before they ever fired a single blast. A technical point: because the structures are fortified entirely of stone, they are named “castles,” and not “forts.”

Castle Williams

Once inside the Castle, its former life as a jail became apparent. From the Civil War through 1966, Castle Williams held as many as 1,000 prisoners at a time. At its most cramped, the unsanitary conditions led to many deaths; later, when conditions improved, it was considered a resort-type minimal security prison for AWOL Army soldiers. Several prisoners are rumored to have escaped from here and successfully swam to Brooklyn.

Castle Williams Interior

As we left the fort, the rain started coming down hard, limiting the photo opportunities. We passed the elegant brick houses of “Colonels’ Row,” which were built after the Civil War to entice men to join the service. At the time the homes were built, they sat facing the waterfront. By 1901, however, landfill from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue subway line expanded the Island to over twice its original size, pushing the waterfront out of view.

Nolan Park, set in idyllic woods, was the area reserved for the Army and Coast Guard highest officers. The houses in this area are clearly the grandest – mostly brick with tall white-columned entryways, free of the yellow-painted wood siding which marks the lower-ranked officers housing.

Colonels Cannon

We ended our soggy tour at Fort Jay — named for New York Governor and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Jay — which was built on the highest point of Governors Island. A dry moat, intended to blend into the surrounding land, runs around the perimeter of the 5-pointed-star-shaped fort (currently under scaffolding.)

Fort Jay

The terms of the Governors Island deed transfer protect acres of park land and prohibit the construction of permanent housing, effectively preserving the island for public use by eliminating its value for real estate developers. Other restrictions forbid its use for gaming venues and heavy industry. The Governors Island Alliance has created a set of illustrated guidelines for the parks and public spaces on the 172 acre island. Future plans under consideration for the island include proposals for a waterfront esplanade, hotel, amphitheater, museum, athletic facilities and a new City University of New York campus.

Back in Manhattan…

Battery Maritime

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Adventurous eating @ Congee Village

Monday, August 28th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Friends

SC and JG had arranged for a group of us to meet at Congee Village on Allen, with a call to “bring your appetite and your sense of adventure.” Congee Village, you see, specializes in Hong Kong and southern Chinese dishes of organ meats, innards and a startling array of pause-inducing fare. Still, I suspected that growing up in a traditional Chinese household had probably inured me to such things for the most part. Plus, I was interested in finally checking out this place which, since its opening seven years ago, has become a popular, almost hip dining destination among the late night Lower East Side bar revelers.

I arrived about half an hour early — forgetting how quick the ride from Wall Street could be on the J/M/Z train. I promptly ran into JB on Delancey and we decided to retreat to the nearby Starbucks for cool drinks before returning to the restaurant at the appointed time. Once there, we met (engaged!) AC at the neon-lit, lacquered wood bar; the three of us settled into the odd assortment of hulking wood and futuristic plastic chairs in the lounge area to await the others. SC and JG arrived soon after, with LR trickling in eventually.

Congee Village

Our group was escorted — well, partly escorted — to one of the banquet rooms down the narrow stairs. The restaurant is in fact, quite large — much larger than just the main upstairs dining space would suggest. I wonder if this was one of the basement karaoke rooms I’d read about?

After some negotiation, we settled upon a mix of “safe” and “adventurous” dishes from the impressively extensive menu. Here, the dried scallop congee, which arrived at the table still boiling, but a bit too gingery for most of our tastes. Also, fish maw congee… because SC and I couldn’t decide upon just one.

(Actually, all the congee is listed on the menu as “porridge,” which seems odd given the name of the restaurant.)

Congee

The “House Special Chicken” — crisp skinned and garlicky: one of my favorites of the evening. Sharing this “safe” end of the spectrum were the “Han Moon Style Chow Mei Fun” (thin rice noodles with shrimp, Spam(!) slivers, egg, beansprouts and vegetables) and a cylindrical bamboo pot filled gift-like with sticky sweet rice and meats. We were about a third of the way through the dish when we realized that what we were eating was not the “Sizzling Frog in Casserole” we’d ordered; it tasted like chicken because it was chicken (with black mushroom.) The waiter had inadvertantly brought us another table’s dish — whoops! (The frog came later.)

Special Chicken

Chilled jellyfish and this dish of “Sweet Pea Pods and Sauteed Duck Tongues in XO Sauce” over explanations of vernacular and “Would You Rathers” among friends both old and new — what could be finer?

Duck Tongues

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Out of the Frying Pan

Sunday, August 27th, 2006 | All Things, Eats, Friends, NYC History

Inspired by my recent Friends of the High Line event, I returned to Pier 63 Maritime to revisit the Frying Pan lightship. The first tours were scheduled for 2:00PM, so on the way over on 23rd Street, I stopped in at the Choux Factory.

Japanese chain Choux Factory opened its first U.S. store in Tudor City in 2004 to challenge Beard Papa’s for cream puff supremacy. Like its rival, the shop specializes in piped-to-order pastry puffs, bursting with a variety of flavored custards. Other similarities between the chains are striking: brightly colorful, shiny interior and a cheerful staff, greeting every customer in a chorus of enthusiastic Japanese. Choux Factory also serves Kona coffee, muffins and sandwiches.

The Choux Factory puffs are softer, sweeter and slightly smaller (and more expensive) than Beard Papa’s puffs. The vanilla cream is also thicker, though to my taste, not quite as good: the vanilla flavor of the Choux Factory custard seems less pronounced, and I do miss the dark flecks of bean evident in the Beard Papa’s. Still, accompanied by a steaming cup of their rich Hawaiian Kona, it made for a perfect snack on this chilly, rainy afternoon.

Choux Factory

Creampuff

By 1:30 it was raining pretty hard, but I was determined to tour the Frying Pan this last Sunday in August.

Lightship #115 is one of only 13 remaining from more than 100 built. Another lightship, the Ambrose, is moored at South Street Seaport and serves as a permanent exhibition space on navigation and the role of lightships. The U.S. Coast Guard used lightships as floating lighthouses to guard and guide ships that could not be served by a lighthouse – either due to distance or topography. Many were also used to mark the entrances to harbors. The ship at Pier 63 was originally stationed at its namesake, Frying Pan Shoals, 30 miles off of Cape Fear, NC from 1930 to 1965. After being decommissioned and used for a time as a museum in Southport, NC, the ship was sold in 1984 and moved to an old cannery in the Chesapeake Bay, where it capsized and sunk, remaining underwater for three years before being raised by its current owners. After tons of silt and shells were removed from the hull, the ship was outfitted with a replacement engine and in 1989 cruised under its own power to New York City’s West Side.

Frying Pan

The driving rain kept everyone else away; I was the only visitor to the pier this afternoon, and there was no tour to be found. After wandering around aimlessly for a bit, I tracked down a young man swabbing the deck (really), who invited me aboard to tour the ship on my own. And so I did.

Difficult to imagine 15 men living on the ship in such close quarters for months on end. I explored the three levels of the darkened ship at my leisure: the engine room, the galley, cabins and common areas.

Frying Pan Engine

Frying Pan Galley

Frying Pan Controls

Pier 63

I arrived home, did a quick load of muddy, rain-spattered laundry and headed out to meet B and his newly arrived Tennessee cousins for an early dinner at Vynl. By the time we finished our meal, the drizzle had let up enough to allow for an impromptu tour of the Upper West Side. The four of us strolled up to the Time Warner Building, passing the Hearst Tower, which gave me the opportunity to share some of what I knew. From there we hit Central Park, stopping to admire the prettily lit lanterns at Tavern on the Green, which I pointed out was the site of my high school prom, those many years ago. As darkness fell, we somehow found ourselves near Rowboat Lake and the edges of the Ramble. I don’t know which made me more uneasy: the relatively deserted environs or the shadows of Park critters skittering about — eek!; in either case, we hastily made our way back up to Bethesda Terrace and out to the misty streets.

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