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NYC offers a revolutionary visit from past to present

by Heather Cassell

Theatergoers wait in line to see "Hamilton" at<br>the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Photo: Heather Cassell
Theatergoers wait in line to see "Hamilton" at
the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Photo: Heather Cassell  

During this tumultuous and wacky political year, it was only fitting that my girlfriend and I journeyed to New York City to see "Hamilton."

During our long weekend, we also took in a few historical landmarks and exhibits of artistic movements that shaped America and, of course, ate our way through the city's latest foodie trends.

It was our shot to finally see the musical of this century during a recent trip to the Big Apple. "Hamilton," which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's lesser-known founding fathers, didn't disappoint. It was an excellent history lesson wrapped up with catchy rap dialogue and hip-hop and R&B lyrics and â€" oh, and a hysterical King George III of Britain. It truly is a game-changer, much like "Rent" and "Wicked" were in re-envisioning the musical genre.

Hamilton was President George Washington's right-hand man before becoming the first U.S. treasury secretary, establishing the U.S. Mint and the nation's first bank. (The touring production of "Hamilton" is currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.)

If we didn't do anything else in New York our trip would have been complete. Yet, I couldn't resist thinking about presidents who hailed from New York.

 

Where greatness resides

The Empire State has given the U.S. seven presidents, including two Roosevelts: Theodore Roosevelt, who remains the nation's youngest president and until recently the only one who came from New York City (President Donald Trump now lays claim to being the second), and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the longest-serving president.

Theodore Roosevelt grew up on East 28th Street in New York. His former home is now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site and offers tours. Franklin D. Roosevelt's childhood home is in Springwood, about a two-hour train ride up the Hudson River near the last stop in Poughkeepsie.

Other presidents who came from the Empire State were Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester A. Arthur, and Grover Cleveland.

It's well worth the day trip to tour FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's stomping grounds, known as the Hyde Park Trail, especially in the autumn when the leaves are turning. About a decade ago I ventured up the Hudson to Hyde Park. It has been one of the most memorable trips to New York I've ever taken. The trail includes FDR's childhood home and is now the site of his presidential library and Val-Kill, the only national park dedicated to a first lady, located two and a half miles from Hyde Park.

The area includes mansions owned by famous wealthy families, like the Vanderbilts. One of the mansions, which was auctioned off last year, inspired at least two of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton's novels.

Hyde Park is also home to the original Culinary Institute of America. I recommend going for lunch, but make reservations far in advance as it's difficult to get a table at either Hyde Park or its other location in St. Helena in the Napa Valley.

New York loves the Roosevelts. In the middle of the East River is Roosevelt Island with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, and in Riverside Park stands the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument.

Four Freedoms Park is a modern park that offers a quiet escape from the hustle and the bustle of the city. A tram, which is the cost of a Metro ride, takes visitors over to the island that spans two miles in length and is less than a mile wide. The island once housed the city's undesirables in the lunatic asylum and the smallpox hospital. Rubble from the island's history still marks where these buildings once stood and are noted with plaques, but the island is now undergoing a resurgence with families who have found luxury living in proximity to the city. Couples push strollers as children run along the tree-lined grassy grounds of the waterfront leading up to Four Freedoms Park that overlooks the East Side of Manhattan, the United Nations, and, in the distance, Freedom Tower.

New York's ties to the Revolutionary War remain somewhat in obscurity because the city didn't inspire poetic romanticized imagery of the battle for independence like Boston and Philadelphia did until "Hamilton" hit Broadway. Many of the battles fought against the British in New York and its boroughs and islands were bloody and brutal. The city also was lost to the British and soon after burned down, according to the New York Freedom Trail.

The trail offers a virtual and self-guided tour of 19 of the city's most important revolutionary sites, such as Trinity Church, the gravesite of many of those who fought in the Revolutionary War, sandwiched between today's titans of commerce on Wall Street.

However, nearby Trinity Church is Fraunces Tavern, which served as Washington's headquarters during the war.

"Untitled c. 1955," a brass wire, iron wire, and galvanized iron wire sculpture by artist Ruth Asawa on display as a part of the "Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction" exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo: Heather Cassell

Flashing forward nearly 170 years, my auntie and I left my girlfriend to her own adventures as we explored the Museum of Modern Art. Two exhibits are worth checking out: " Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction," and " Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends," which are on display through August 13 and September 17, respectively.

Bisexual artist Rauschenberg is often noted for being on the cutting edge of the Pop Art movement as it emerged. The exhibit follows the evolution Rauschenberg and works of his friends â€" dancer Merce Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage; artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Susan Weil, and Lee Krasner, who was married to painter Jackson Pollock, among others of the period. Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, was one of the last survivors of this era of artists.

On the floor below the Rauschenberg exhibit is a collection of women artists' postwar abstraction works.

The styles and materials the artists use is traditional in retrospect to gender and perhaps, philosophy. Rauschenberg and his friends were more interested in constructing and deconstructing man-made materials and objects while the women artists' works were more craft and textile, utilizing materials that could easily be absorbed back into the earth. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the two unique artistic styles.

 

Tasting NYC

The art of New York's food scene is evolutionary and always taking a new twist on cultural flavors and how they are presented. Two eating trends that have taken ahold of New York are Indian street food and food halls with adjacent artisan shops.

During one of our first nights in the city, we went to Pondicheri, a trendy restaurant that stays open late, serving a variety of Indian street foods and selling cute T-shirts with slogans, like "Keep Calm and Curry Up." We were seated immediately and offered Madrasi Mix, an Indian snack with a blend of seeds, nuts, and cornflake- and Rice Krispies-like bits flavored with cumin, to get us started. Then we ordered samosas, naan bread, Kerala chicken kababs, Vindaloo ribs, Lamb Rajasthani, and Calcutta dal. The food was served in small portions, but it was still enough for a feast for the three of us.

Pondicheri is just one of many Chaat restaurants in the city.

For dinner and a show, Broadway offers a variety of exceptional restaurants to enjoy before heading to the theater. This year it was a tossup between historic Keens Chophouse, revisiting Victor's Cafe (http://victorscafe.com), and District Social before we headed off to see "Hamilton."

Keens would have fit nicely into our historic New York adventure. The chophouse, established in 1885, is known as much for its fine meats as its signature autographed clay pipes signed by famous actors, politicians, and others that line the ceiling and walls.

Instead, we enjoyed a cocktail at Keens and dinner at District Social, a somewhat retro-modern restaurant and bar that has been a popular spot in New York's theater district since the late 1990s. The menu offers diners an eclectic mix of American and Italian dishes with a Moroccan lamb tagine thrown in to provide a little exotic flair. The food was good, not too much or too heavy, except the three-cheese polenta (it was more cheese than polenta in a very sinful way), and the wine selection was small, but well selected.

We also liked Chelsea's newest restaurant and bar, Rouge Tomate Chelsea, stopping in for nightcaps after our evening adventures. The much beloved New York destination wine bar relocated from the Upper East Side to two reclaimed 19th century landmark carriage houses on West 18th Street near my auntie's flat. The restaurant's new location not only delighted New Yorkers, but also its sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier. The new location enabled her to expand on the bar and restaurant's wine offerings, which are excellent.

During the day, we continued our adventure exploring the city's food halls.

Food halls have been cropping up all over, from the East Side's Canal Street Market crammed in between Chinese shops in Chinatown to the Gansevoort Market on the West Side near the Whitney Museum in the Meat Packing district.

Each market has a different atmosphere, embracing the character, history, and vibe of the local neighborhood while offering something modern and new. However, many of these markets are somewhat hidden in plain sight. The entrance is often unassuming in the brick buildings along the narrow streets. Yet, the new painted glass doors and metal signs above rolled up metal doors signal the hipsters have arrived in neighborhoods, like Chinatown, that are slowly being revitalized, and more established neighborhoods that underwent gentrification decades ago.

One of the city's newest markets, the Canal Street Market, is a posh eatery filled with Asian-influenced food stands on one side and a shopping on the other side where local artisans sell their crafts in open booths.

The Gansevoort Market is three years old, but in 2016 it moved into a larger space that boasts 19 unique food stalls and, of course, the Big Gay Ice Cream stall.

Another sweet delight is the Jacques Torres Chocolate Museum in Lower Manhattan. Chocolate lovers will enjoy walking through a brief history of chocolate from Mayan civilization to its export to Europe. Visitors get to learn how the cacao beans are cultivated to create the traditional Mayan hot cacao drink to how chocolate truffles are made. The best part is visitors get to sample both chocolate treats.

On Sunday, we enjoyed brunch at Freds Downtown on the top floor of Barney's in the Chelsea neighborhood.

 

Where the hip rest their heads

One of New York's newest and hippest hotels is the Roxy Hotel. Formerly the Tribeca Grand Hotel, the Roxy is located at the tip of the triangle created by 6th Avenue, Church and Canal streets, and is the sister hotel to the Soho Grand Hotel. The luxury boutique hotel's 201 guest rooms have been completely redone to reflect the downtown lifestyle where art, celebrity, and finance merge. The Roxy gives guests (even their pets, which stay free and enjoy organic treats) and locals star treatment â€" people can enjoy oysters and cocktails while getting ready for a night out on the town or at the hotel where there is Blackstones Salon. The hotel shows art house independent documentaries and movies at its cinema and live music and hot DJs at its nightclub in the basement.

 

Getting to and around NYC

JetBlue had an amazing deal on a red-eye flight that we snagged. We landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport early in the morning, arriving in the city just in time for breakfast. Once we got into New York we got our Metro Cards and zipped around the city by using the free apps New York Subway, Google Maps, or Citymapper. All are available in iTunes and Google Play.

 

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