The Meaning-Seeker’s Guide to NYC

There’s a reason the night sky plays such an active role in nearly every culture dating back millennia. It is our tether to the scope of everything. Without the stars, we lose our footing and forget that we are, in fact, part of something vast and glorious and, well, magical.

When we look for meaning, it’s not just about understanding why we’re here, in the very practical sense of why consciousness exists. It’s also about feeling a part of something, a great human tableau that seems to have a collective soul of its own.

We matter, just for the simple reason that we exist alongside each other, and here are some places in the city that help remind us of that.

plaques

Central Park bench plaques: When I need to feel especially attuned to cosmic interconnectedness, I trudge to Central Park and take my time strolling around and reading the plaques attached to the benches. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, these plaques are used as a fundraiser, and at $10,000 a piece they endow the important work of the Central Park Conservancy. More than 4,100 plaques have been added to 9,000 of the park’s benches. The inscribed messages range from marriage proposals to thoughtful obituaries to musings on the beauty of the park. Each is a tiny but intimate window into the life of a New Yorker or New York lover. I’m usually in tears a few plaques in. (There are lots of obits.) Pro tip: Go now, when you’ll have plenty of empty benches to peruse, as opposed to in summer, when they’re all full of weary park goers.

mosaics

Chuck Close subway mosaics: Art can make us feel spiritually fulfilled. Something about the way in which it captures us—our moods, our moments, our likeness—and reflects it all back in a way that makes things a tad more comprehendible. Recently, one of the installations that moved me most was not in a museum. It was public art, part of the 86th station on the newly opened 2nd Avenue subway. The station is filled with 12 large-scale Chuck Close mosaic portraits in a variety of styles, featuring tiny glass pieces, large painted tile, realistic rendering, Close’s signature circle mosaics and more. The massive scale makes each portrait especially poignant. 

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Scales of the Universe exhibit: I’m of two minds about the universe and how its scope relates to our own philosophy of relevance. On the one hand, it seems we matter less if we’re so infinitesimally small in relation to what’s out there. On the other hand, we have the power to learn and understand the “bigness” of what’s out there, so maybe we really do matter after all. Come face to face with these grand questions inside the striking Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The Scales of the Universe exhibit circles the Planetarium, using the sphere as a scale of reference for the macro and micro measurements of our world. It starts as a representation of the observable universe and ends as a representation of rhinovirus, so you can try to understand both the universe’s enormous expanse as well as its precision. 

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Sunset Park overlook: There are boastful views. You know the kind. They’re grand, and they know they’re grand. These include views from places like Top of the Rock and One World Observatory. Sometimes, though, it’s more low-key perches that invite a literal and figurative change in perspective. Take this view of Manhattan from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. It feels almost like a discovery, like you’re one of the few people who’ve come upon it. The unexpectedness of it makes it that much more impactful. In a way, it’s a subtle reminder of the power of a different angle. 

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Lady M crêpe cake: Some people say that the meaning of life can’t be found on a plate. To these people, I say: you haven’t had Lady M’s signature crêpe cake. There’s no way for me to praise this dessert without coming off as melodramatic. It is a soft, delicate flower after a warm, spring rain. It is a first kiss with your first crush. It is the reason why the universe exists. Wait, did I go too far there? Excuse my sensationalism, I was mid-bite. This dessert’s perfection stems from its simplicity—20 thin crêpes, delicate cream, a crème brûléed top. It’ll help make you a believer. 

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The Not-at-All-Definitive Guide to South Brooklyn

Brooklyn has become ubiquitous. A little over a year ago, GQ magazine named the borough the coolest city on the planet. The PLANET! Young creatives in Paris and Stockholm are reportedly trying to recreate its carefully curated patina. Here’s the thing: the majority of these shout-outs focus on very specific areas, namely northern neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, among others. And you can find plenty of guides to those areas. But they make up only a small fraction of the borough, maybe 25 percent.

There’s a world of Brooklyn left to explore, and it’s not glossy newness that makes it inviting. Just the opposite, in fact.

A list of destination-worthy South Brooklyn neighborhoods in no particular order:

Brighton Beach:

Coming here is the equivalent of taking a time machine to a 1970s USSR, if the Soviet Union at the time was filled with overflowing supermarket shelves and tacky Roberto Cavalli. I love Oceanview Cafe and Cafe Glechik for pelmeni or vareniki–Russian- or Ukranian-style dumplings–tossed with butter and fried onions and topped with a hefty spoonful of sour cream. Add herring with red onions and buttery boiled potatoes and wash it all down with a glass of compote. Nearly every place in Brighton is blissfully BYOV (vodka, natch). The boardwalk is lovely, too. Elderly Russians love the sun (maybe because it was so scarce where they came from?) and congregate on benches, gossiping or playing dominoes. These scenes make me happy. If you’re going to eat on the boardwalk, try Tatiana Grill, but keep in mind that all of the eateries will be overpriced compared with those on Brighton Beach Avenue one block over. KeBeer, precariously positioned in the vast, in-between haze that separates Russian and American cultures, is a good place to drink some beers after you’re done beaching (though I’d stay away from any non-Russian eats). If you’re taking provisions home, I really love the variety at Brighton Bazaar. Pick up a vobla–a dried, whole fish–take it home, smack it against the table a few times, pick at its innards and wash it down with a pint. The only time my mother drinks beer is when she eats vobla. True story.

Hangin' on the boardwalk

Hangin’ on the boardwalk

Flatbush:

Flatbush Avenue and its surrounding streets have a buzz that’s hard to match. On a recent Saturday afternoon excursion, I ventured to guess that it was one of the busiest streets in the city at that precise moment. The neighborhood is filled with immigrants from the Caribbean Islands, and with them they bring some of the best examples of the region’s specialties. Roti rolls are commonly consumed in the West Indies and can most succinctly be described as Indian- and Caribbean-ingredient-filled burritos wrapped in a “roti” or naan-like pancake. Not, very succinct, I’m sorry. I loved my curried potato roti at Trini vendor Rama’s Roti Shop. Jerk chicken is another specialty, and while I’m not entirely familiar with specific restaurants, the Village Voice did a recent best-of roundup.

Bensonhurst:

An old Italian neighborhood that is at once familiar and new. Parts, like 18th Avenue and surrounding environs, seem like they haven’t changed in decades. (I can attest to that. I lived there 25 years ago). Head to Villabate Alba for delectable Italian/Siclian pastries like cannoli, sfogliatelle and ricotta mushrooms. Feast your eyes on special occasion cakes in a variety of colors. A sign stating that they import their ricotta directly from Palermo, Sicily proves they mean business. Nearby, Royal Crown Bakery bakes some of the best bread in the city. Their chocolate bread, only available on Saturdays and Sundays, is worth an early weekend wake-up. Asian immigrants have been moving in over the past decade, bringing a slew of new businesses. Though technically in Dyker Heights, nearby East Harbor Seafood Palace is a great place for dim sum.

Display case at Villabate Alba

Display case at Villabate Alba

Ditmas Park:

Though technically part of Flatbush, this neighb has developed an identity all its own, slowly transforming into a northern-Brooklyn transplant with the addition of a few NY Times-reviewed restaurants on Cortelyou Rd. Among the options are a new-American restaurant (The Farm on Adderley), a flower store that doubles as a bar (Sycamore), a modern Filipino restaurant (Purple Yam), a stellar hummus place (Mimi’s Hummus), a wine and small plates bar (The Castello Plan) and a closet-sized gourmet market (Market), with more establishments on the way. Walk the Victorian section for your own escape to the ‘burbs. These quite streets are scouted by NYC-based movie and TV projects to represent small towns and leafy suburbs. Nearby Ocean Ave. is a hodge-podge of ethnic shops and restaurants.

Victorian Ditmas Park

Victorian Ditmas Park

(Image via Design Squish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Common license)

Bay Ridge:

Bay Ridge feels like its own distinctive city, with bustling avenues of shops, apartment as well as expansive single-home dwellings, and access to a lovely waterfront with views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and across-the-bay Staten Island. Popular discount retailer Century 21 has an outpost here, and Tanoreen, one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, has called the neighborhood home for 15 years. Try the eggplant napoleaon and save room for a knafeh, a mesmerizing combo of shredded filo dough, cheese and syrup.

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

(Image via Watashiwani, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Midwood:

Ocean Parkway, flanked on either side by tree-lined medians and park benches, is one of the prettiest throughways in the city. Though mainly a Jewish neighborhood, Midwood is also home to immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. I love Kosher Bagel Hole for bagels and nearby Orchard for really fresh albeit really expensive fruit. Seriously, you’ll get sticker shock. They specialize in gift baskets, so just try to think of it as a special occasion place. Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J is a religious pilgrimage for the many pizza tourists who flock here daily. If you’re one of them, allot AT LEAST one hour for owner Dom to take your order and make your pie. He moves slooowly, as is expected for someone his age. Also, there’s no official list, he just tries to remember every pie order, which means chances are good someone who ordered after you might get their pie first. All in all, not a stress-free experience, but almost definitely worth it at least once. (Bonus: watch as Dom pulls your pizza out of a burning hot oven with his bare hands!)

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Di Fara Pizza

(Image via arnold inuyaki, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Sheepshead Bay:

A historically Jewish neighborhood with a large Russian immigrant population, Sheepshead Bay’s main feature is a pretty horseshoe bay with several marinas. Go fishing or catch a boat tour down to Coney Island. Locals and tourists love roast beef purveyor, Roll ‘n Roaster. Randazzo’s Clam Bar is popular for seafood, and if you’re feeling adventurous, plan a full night out at Russian supper club Rasputin. It’s bizarre in the best possible way and is sure to be a night you won’t soon forget (and you can BYO anything.)

Coney Island:

One of my favorite things to do is visit to the beach at Coney Island on a cold winter day. Bonus points if it’s snowing. You’re in New York City, yes, but you feel as though you’ve discovered an abandoned amusement park at the end of the world. Unless there’s a Polar Bear Club meeting, you’ll most likely have the place nearly to yourself. Which is not to say Coney Island isn’t a great destination during the summer. Catch the eccentric Mermaid Parade, or make a day of it with a visit to the recently reopened Totonno’s and a minor league baseball game. The Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium is right on the water, and each Friday and Saturday evening game is followed by fireworks. Luna Park, a new theme park abutting some older rides, features a few modern, pint-sized roller coasters. If you’re into those kinds of thrills, be sure to ride the Cyclone, which seems not long for this world. The rickety, feels-like-it’s-going-to-fall-apart-at-any-minute wooden coaster will send you flying in every direction and leave you with a few prized bruises.

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A full beach at Coney Island

Sunset Park:

Located south of South Slope and Greenwood Heights, Sunset Park is a vibrant neighborhood with a large population of Central and South American as well as Asian immigrants. The park that gives Sunset Park its name is fairly small and unassuming, but it features a lovely view of lower Manhattan. Debates about the best tacos in the neighborhood are neverending. Eighth Avenue is filled with dozens of delicious Asian spots. To burn off all of those calories, head to Melody Lanes, a laid-back and inexpensive throwback bowling alley with a famous bartender.

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

(Image via skelastic, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

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