Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Cultural Walking Tour in Queens, New York

What tourist doesn't know that Brooklyn's myriad neighborhoods are often radiating coolness? And what about my hometown borough of Queens? The words hip and Queens aren't usually uttered in the same sentence. Well, that's at least the way I saw it, until I took a walking tour with BQE Tours: The Brooklyn Queens Experience.

I signed up for a tour of a neighborhood -- Long Island City -- that I hardly know and that I had a bad experience with just a month before. I had a meeting and gave myself a crazy about of time -- two hours -- to find the venue close to LaGuardia Community College. Not only was I completely lost down streets that ended up at the rail yards and other unseemly venues, but I stopped five residents and students on the street and not one could help me, Google maps aside.I ended up asking two police officers who pointed me into the college -- my meeting was in one of their conference spaces -- but I still had to negotiate through stairwells thick with clouds of marijuana smoke, elevators that stalled and a host of other obstacles. Needless to say, I didn't end up with a great opinion of Long Island City. Then along came John Garay, co-founder, along with his wife, Elissa, of BQE Tours, who showed me that Long Island City is a creative neighborhood, brimming with a cool, hip vitality. Who needs Brooklyn when you've got Queens at my doorstep?

Unlike some other walking tours, this one was intimate -- they allow a max of 12 people -- and not one full of dry historical facts and figures, but rather an experiential tour where we were able to interact with artists at studios and galleries and sample locally-sourced food products. (Though John threw in enough history when appropriate. I found out that the neighborhood was founded in 1870 and it was its own city for a brief time. Plus 48% of its citizens are foreign born.)
Long Island City is an expansive neighborhood so John explained that we would have to do twice the walking as in their DUMBO tour: about 3.5 miles.

Though my express bus zooms over the Queensborough Bridge every day and my view hovers over Long Island City, I had no idea that it's a neighborhood where Jet Blue has its headquarters, where Brooks Brothers does its tie manufacturing, where Rolex has a factory and where a film industry is booming.

John pointed out Tourresol, a restaurant run by a French man who claimed that, when he first settled here, Long Island City reminded him a French village where, after hours, it was a ghost town. (Not any more!)

Our first stop was the small studio of artist Eduardo Anievas who's originally from Cantabria, Spain. Most of the wall space is hung with his acrylics and oils, mostly portraits and figures, some intriguingly abstract. His contemporary city scape bears shadowy figures, some holding umbrellas. I asked him about the inspiration for these pieces and he explained that he enjoys playing with positive and negative space, as well as the interaction between the figure and the background. Anievas enjoys doing small works that he creates rapidly: "In these small ones, I don't show fear because that would show up in my brush strokes." After we discussed painting, Anievas reflected on the evolution of the neighborhood: "By the time I go back to a painting and finish it, a huge building went up. So I feel guilty: they built the whole building and I just worked on one painting."

As we strolled along 28th Avenue, John explained why this street, which leads to Gantry Plaza State Park, is exceptionally wide: it was once the site for the old freight railway tracks. The park, a verdant, riverfront oasis, is named for the gantries and transfer bridges once used to load and unload the rail barges. Though the steel work remains, and gives the park its character, we meandered about, along boardwalks and paths offering stellar views of Manhattan's iconic buildings: Empire State, Chrysler, United Nations, and more. On one pier, several people tossed out fishing lines. Others were sunning on the green lawns, or lounging on Adirondack-style chair. John pointed out a construction site where a new library designed by Stephen Holl Architects -- what a perfect place it'll be to take in the Manhattan cityscape.

Then it was on to the LIC Flea & Food next to the LIC Boathouse. (John told me you can take out a kayak from here and explore the East River.) The Flea & FFoodis focused on all things made in Queens. (Another who knew moment for me.) John had us try several hot, spicy pickles, including sweet Chipotle from PickeMePete. As he gave us time to wander, I became aware that this was a United Nations of fare to sample. There was Baoshoppe Chutta Madrew serving up Ecuadorian sandwiches; and Lumpia Merienda with its Filipino egg rolls. I saw vendors selling Korean beef bowls, fried crabmeat wontons, and Japanese vegetable pancakes. John selected a specialty bundt cake for us to  sample from NYC Bundts that's noted for its itty bitty bundts. My favorite: macha tea with lemon glaze.

We headed across the street to Rockaway Brewing Company -- the oldest brewery in Queens -- where the small pub room whose ceiling is strung with scarlet red hued piping is packed with beer lovers. We were led to the rear room that's home to the brewing facility. Flint gave us a tour, and provided samples of the Original Flagship ESP that has a malty, sweet flavor and Nitro Black Gold Stout with hints of espresso and chocolate.

John was a wealth of surprising factoids, including that the  Empire City Ironworks factory that we passed dates from 1904 and it provided the steel for the new World Trade Center. Farther along our route is the oldest post office in the borough (from 1920) but more interesting was what was across the street: PS1, a contemporary art-focused museum. And -- again I had no idea about this -- in the summer they host Warm Up, an outdoor summer dance party and one that I hope to check out later this month.

Probably the most charming street we walked is tree-lined 45th Avenue, which happened to be a historic district with row houses from the 18070s. No far away, we pay a visit to the Dorsky Gallery that has an ever-changing array of exhibitions. This gallery is curatorial, providing a forum for curators to send proposals of interesting art: conceptually, visually, that speaks to a broad audience and references what's going on in the art scene. Each exhibition is thematic. "Homeland Insecurity: Vanishing Dreams" revolved around artists dealing with catastrophic situations. The current exhibition is "New Ways of Seeing: Beyond Culture." The eclectic selection of works from these world class artists reflects their cultural upbringing. Ivan Navarro and Courtney Smith produced a neon bench. Both of Christian Ruiz Berman's pieces are mixed media: one includes macaw feather and ostrich eggs. Rina Banerjee produced a sculptural collage work, using rooster feathers, gourds, ceramic balls, amber glass vials and much more.

As we continued prowling through the neighborhood, John made sure we saw the variety of experiences LIC offered, from a new indoor rock climbing wall that's become quite popular to an actual rock, a glacial erratic -- yes, it's from an ancient glacier that once rolled through this area -- that sits by its lonesome on 12th Street and 43rd Road.

John Brown Smokehouse is for lovers of BBQ, like myself. The Kansas City-born owner set up a cozy, informal patio in the rear with umbrella tables and benches covered with red and white checkered plastic tablecloths. While we wait for our pulled pork and burnt ends -- they were tender and flavorful, especially with a kick from the Ghost Pepper sauce on the tables -- I checked out the NYC-themed wall murals. One is the Statue of Liberty who's decked out with red lipstick and another is the #7 subway train. On a warm spring or summer afternoon, this is a more than pleasant place to enjoy lunch and hang out.

John ended our tour at the rooftop bar of the Z NYC Hotel, which I also viewed from the window of my express bus as we cruised over the bridge each evening. The hotel's lobby is decorated in a transportation motif, including a mural of the secret City Hall subway station, and antique luggage trunks stacked, making up the reception desk. Floored in astroturf, the roof provides scenic views of the 59th Street (Queensborough) Bridge and many of the city's signature sites, including the old Silvercup bakery that's been transformed into a film studio where the Sopranos and Sex and the City where both shot. With a prosecco in hand, we all toasted a great day in Queens, a borough with plenty of hidden treasure to be had.