A Travellerspoint blog


Around the World 2017: Exploring the boroughs of NYC

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Queens may have been the focus of this stay in New York City, but that didn't mean we were going to leave without visiting Manhattan. I've been to most of the major cities in the world, but I've never encountered anything like the collection of unique neighborhoods jostling against each other in downtown Manhattan. For lovers of cosmopolitan culture it has to be one of the most interesting areas in the world to walk around in. The only place I can think of that comes close is central London.

We kicked off our morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, the largest and most well-known farmer's market in the city. The setting surrounded by New York skyscrapers is incongruous, but New Yorkers are very discriminating when it comes to their food. The stalls were laden with the highest quality produce and there were countless options for artisanal meats and baked goods.

After a light lunch with fresh-squeezed lemonade, we drove down to my favorite downtown neighborhood, Soho. There we discovered that street parking is currently non-existent, and were forced to pay extortionate rates at a lot. I think I paid forty-five dollars for three hours, and that was advertised as a deal. We found our way to Dean and Deluca, a gourmet food store I've been going to since I was kid growing up in Brooklyn. The store has gotten more and more crowded over the years, but it still has the best selection of hard-to-find delicacies that I've ever seen. We walked around the neighborhood and enjoyed the unique Soho atmosphere, and eventually ended up in a beautiful park tucked away amidst the brick apartment buildings.

We drove back to Queens and visited a few more ethnic food stores on the way back to Flushing, where we met my college roommate George and his wife for a hot pot dinner. Then we all went back to the Chinese supermarket at New World Mall for another shopping trip before calling it a night.

I had a lot of special events planned for Saturday. One of the huge advantages of living in a metropolitan area with more than ten million people is that there's never any shortage of activities. The only problem I had when looking at the list was choosing which ones would be the most fun. Eventually we settled on a scavenger hunt, a barbecue festival, a Brooklyn neighborhood party, and a Queens night market. In twelve years in Miami I've never been able to line up a day like that.

Our first stop was the Randall's Island Treasure Hunt, which turned out to be more of an orienteering activity without any actual treasure at the end. Nevertheless, the older kids had a great time perusing the map and scampering around the southern part of the island hunting for the next control point.

One particularly beautiful spot on Randall's Island is beneath the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to Queens. The arched concrete piers that support the section of the bridge that traverses the island look like the entrance to a palace created by a lost civilization of giants.

We drove to downtown Manhattan where I was prepared for the parking situation with a new weapon, the SpotHero app. This app allows you to shop for parking garages online and purchase a space in advance for much less than you would pay just driving in. It makes a huge difference when parking downtown can cost forty dollars or more for a couple of hours. My fifteen dollar reservation worked like a charm and we took a short walk to Madison Square Park and the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. This annual festival attracts barbecue specialists from around the country who set up trucks around the perimeter of the park. The park was crowded but we were able to find enough grass to put down our mat and I left Mei Ling to guard the kids while I foraged for barbecue.

There was no shortage of things to see in the busy area around Madison Square Park. Just outside of the park we found a fresh-squeezed lemonade stand, the famous Flatiron Building, and a Hare Krishna parade.

Thanks to the barbecue lunch was taken care of so we went back across the East River for Red Hook Fest, a community arts festival in Brooklyn. Red Hook was another area that used to be a "no-go" neighborhood when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 70's and 80's. However, like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the area has experienced a renaissance in recent years which has been spurred forward by the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Sandy. However, the lack of proximity to the subway seems to have prevented the same kind of hipster explosion that has transformed Williamsburg and LIC.

The festival was pleasant if somewhat low-key. The kids spent the time at an art tent and playing with paper planes while Mei Ling and I watched some activist-minded spoken word performances. Relaxing in the waterfront neighborhood park was a great way to spend the afternoon.

The highlight of the day came at the end with a trip to the Queens International Night Market, a huge convocation of ethnic food stalls held every Saturday night in the summer in Flushing Meadows. Before gorging ourselves we treated the kids to a game of knockerball, where we rolled them around in enormous inflated balls on a grassy hillside. Fortunately, despite my trepidation, no one suffocated or threw up.

The market stalls mostly featured cuisine from Latin America and East Asia. The selection was broad and the atmosphere was energetic, with both vendors and patrons reflecting New York's amazing cultural diversity that is unequaled anywhere in the world.

After we'd filled up on meat skewers and ceviche, we hung out outside the market where they had a succession of DJ's and performers at an outdoor stage. The highlight was a crew of talented Asian breakdancers.

We started our last full day in New York at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket, a year-round Sunday farmers market in Queens. It was a pleasant, medium-sized produce market in a very diverse residential neighborhood. The market was adjacent to a community park with a huge jungle gym that made the kids' morning.

We headed back close to our home base for LIC Flea and Food, a weekend craft and food market on the bank of the East River.

We couldn't putter around the flea market for long, because we had to met old friends at the Bedford Avenue block party in Williamsburg. Naturally the kids found the art station right away, and got their first taste of tennis at an impromptu court laid down in the middle of the street. New York City is definitely a great place to be a kid in the summer.

We spent the evening bouncing around ethnic food stores in Queens and then headed back to Flushing for more Asian food. After some hunting around, we found one of the legendary Xinjiang barbecue trucks for our final New York City meal. Our flight to Taipei the next day would be leaving before lunch time.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Around the World 2017: Queens, New York

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Since Mei Ling and I got married six years ago, we've experienced a cultural double life. We live in Miami, a city not known for Asian culture, but we frequently interact with the small Chinese community here. Mei Ling cooks incredible dinners that fuse the best of Asian and Occidental ingredients. Our kids are mixed of course, so it's important for us to keep them in touch with their Chinese heritage. Part of that means taking them to see the maternal half of their family in China every couple of years. The way it's worked out, every time we've gone back we've had a new kid to show off which adds a special quality to the reunion. We've also made a tradition out of expanding our China visits into around-the-world trips with multiple destinations, partially to mitigate the pain of flying halfway around the world in one day. The itinerary from Miami to Mudanjiang is particularly brutal, requiring three flights with long layovers and more than 26 hours of transit. In the past we've broken up our trip in such places as London, San Francisco, and Seoul. This time round we settled on New York City as our first stop, which is a great departure point for the Far East due to the polar shortcut. Mei Ling was also set on visiting Taipei to see her elderly great uncle. I've become addicted to European road trips so after much thought I chose a Scandinavian itinerary that would take about three weeks to complete. That meant we had to extend the trip to six weeks, our longest continuous trip ever. We decided to leave the day after the older kids finished school and return the day before Spenser turned two, in order to maximize the lap child discount.

New York City is both Mei Ling's and my favorite city in the world. I grew up in Brooklyn but left when I was 17, so I never got to experience the city as an adult native. However, my parents lived there until I was 40 and I have several friends there, so I was able to stay acquainted with New York through frequent visits. What I've always loved more than anything about Manhattan is how one can just walk around in the downtown neighborhoods and be assured of seeing unusual people, unique stores and galleries, and amazing performances. In the years since I left New York, the eastern boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have flowered and become home to diverse communities of Asian and Latin American immigrants who maintain a close connection to their native lands. Those exotic influences have fused with urban renewal in formerly blighted and colorless neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick to create new hubs of cultural activity that are completely independent of Manhattan culture. New York City was a great place to grow up, but I feel that in the last twenty years it's only gotten better.

This was our fourth trip to New York City as a family. In the past we've stayed in the Upper East Side, Chinatown, and Williamsburg. This time we knew we were going to focus on the Queens culinary scene but still wanted to visit Manhattan and Brooklyn. The obvious choice was Long Island City, an up and coming neighborhood just north of Brooklyn and across the river from midtown Manhattan. We could get our funky hipster fix right where we were staying and have easy access to Queens all the way to Flushing via the Long Island Expressway and Roosevelt Ave. Pickings on Airbnb were very slim a month in advance, but I took a chance on a place with some mixed reviews that was about half the price of the cheapest acceptable hotel.

Another advantage of staying in the outer boroughs is that a rental car becomes feasible. New York's public transportation is very outdated with respect to the modern nerve centers of the city and is rather user unfriendly for strollers. Taxis are insanely expensive and Ubers can be hard to find. Therefore, the first place we found ourselves after getting off the plane was at the rental car agency picking up a spacious SUV with plenty of room on the back bench for three child seats. We drove straight to Flushing whose population is at least 50% Asian. The largest community of Asians in Flushing is Chinese, and Flushing's Chinatown has surpassed the original Manhattan Chinatown both in size and in its resemblance to a modern Chinese city.

One of the best places to sample authentic Chinese food in Flushing is at the enormous food court at New World Mall. Besides cuisines from various regions of China, there are also stalls providing selections from Korea, Japan, and Thailand. It would probably take a month of continuous eating to get through all the delicious options. We were already exhausted from the flight and the car pickup, so we made some quick selections of spicy seafood and Xi'an noodles. Mei Ling fed the kids while I made a video of the exuberant cornucopia of Asian cuisine all around us.

We made a quick stop for necessities at the Chinese supermarket upstairs and then drove to Long Island City where we located the entry to our Airbnb after some difficulty. The place turned out to be perfect for us as it was clearly appointed for short-term rental and not someone's residence with artwork and bric-a-brac for the kids to break. The only slight disadvantage was a long, steep staircase up to the second floor apartment. However, all the kids seemed to enjoy the challenge of negotiating the steps.

We woke up to a beautiful Thursday morning, perfect for a walk through the neighborhood to breakfast at LIC Market. Unfortunately LIC Market is not an actual market, but it still provided us with a decent and satisfying breakfast.

After breakfast we continued exploring Long Island City on foot. It's an entertaining area that still shows many of the trappings of its colorless past of warehouses and office blocks, yet also has a large number of new-appearing ethnic restaurants and boutiques. It gives a sense of what Williamsburg must have been like about ten years ago before it exploded into the hipster paradise it is today.

We found our way back to the car and took a short drive up to Euro Market in Astoria, where we marveled at the enormous selections of Eastern European beers, preserves, and cheeses.

It was still early enough to spend a few hours at the Brooklyn Children's Museum so we decided to fill the rest of our afternoon there. This is the oldest children's museum in the United States, and I'm fairly sure I never went there as a child. That's probably because my Mom considered the area to be too seedy to venture into, but like many other parts of Brooklyn Crown Heights has experienced a lot of gentrification in recent years. The neighborhood was full of the beautiful bowfront Victorian houses that are typical of Brooklyn.

The museum turned out to be a lot of fun for the kids and a good way to spend an afternoon. I found it much better than the Children's Museum we have in Miami, but not as good as the one in Houston. We headed back to Long Island City for a solid dinner at the Brazilian restaurant Beija Flor, which thankfully was half empty at that early hour.

After dinner we still felt a lot of NYC energy so we drove east on legendary Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. As the avenue courses eastward underneath the elevated track of the 7 train, it passes through diverse ethnic neighborhoods each of which boasts its own cluster of ethnic restaurants and street food kiosks. Our first stop was Little Bangladesh, in Jackson Heights, to taste jhal muri from Baul Daada's tiny kiosk. The puffed rice snack came out so spicy that I could barely force down a couple of mouthfuls. We saved the rest for later.

We strolled around the neighborhood for a little while visiting South Asian markets and absorbing the atmosphere. Eventually we got back on Roosevelt Ave and drove all the way to the enormous Asian supermarket Sky Foods in Flushing. Despite the size, we didn't come across anything we couldn't have found at our favorite Asian supermarket back home. The turtles did look very tasty though.

We were tempted to stop in the Central and South American section of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights for another dose of street food but in the end fatigue overcame us and we finally surrendered to exhaustion.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:37 Archived in USA Tagged new_york_city brooklyn queens long_island_city Comments (0)

America's Northern Midwest: Chicago

I had been to Chicago twice before and the city had never left a great impression on me. In fact, my first visit suggested Chicago was unfit for human habitation. I was interviewing for medical school one February and staying on campus. When I walked out of my room into the street an Arctic wind hit me in the face full blast, wringing a stream of tears from my eyes. Seconds later the tears froze on my cheeks. I made it to the interview but I'm not sure if I listened to a word. There was no way in hell I was going to be moving to that tormented place. My second visit had better weather but a paucity of inspiring sights and experiences. I was hoping that with more experience traveling and all my Internet research that I could show my family a more exciting and interesting city than I remembered.

When we reached Chicago we drove straight for the Navy Pier, a popular entertainment complex which was providing a relatively inexpensive venue to watch the Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Michigan. It's probably a fun place on a regular day with carnival rides and exhibitions but as the evening set in the limited open space became more and more crowded and oppressive. The food options were awful and the breeze off the lake brought in cooler temperatures than we were dressed for. By the time the fireworks were halfway over I was pushing us towards the exits ahead of the rush. The view of the skyline was more impressive than the fireworks themselves.

In the morning we were eager to explore the third largest city in the country. We drove straight to Chinatown for brunch. The view from the traditional Chinatown Gate was encouraging with a long line of Chinese restaurants and other businesses but we soon discovered that almost everything was concentrated on this one street. At the end of the street was a plaza with several more restaurants including Joy Yee, a Pan-Asian noodle shop where we had a pleasant meal. Aside from the restaurants there was little sign of Chinese culture and few of the pedestrians and customers were Chinese. Unlike either of New York's Chinatowns or the ones in Boston or San Francisco, it wasn't the kind of place where you could suspend belief and imagine you had been transported to the other side of the globe.

People have many different images of Chicago but few think of it as a beach town. That's somewhat odd because I'm hard pressed to think of any American cities that have as many beaches close to the city center as Chicago. Even living in Miami we have to schlep across the bay to get to Miami Beach. People forget that Chicago is along the shore of a lake so large it might as well be an ocean and there are actually twenty-four public beaches within the city limits. We picked Oak Street Beach, not far from downtown, and I was surprised by how much sand there was. I would never have known I wasn't at the oceanside. The towering skyscrapers just behind the beach made the incongruous feeling of being at the beach and in the city even more acute.

One thing that we weren't expecting was that Chicago would have the most beautiful and impressive downtown of any American city. Naturally the first one anyone would think of is my hometown of New York City but I found Chicago's to have more interesting architecture, more space between the skyscrapers and therefore more sunlight, and a more energetic vibe overall. We walked up and down a long stretch of North Michigan Avenue that is known as Magnificent Mile. We ducked in and out of high-end boutiques and enjoyed amazing views of historic buildings and the Chicago River. The rippled, aquamarine surface of the water was a splendid accompaniment to the distinguished skyline.

South of the river a series of enormous parks occupies the space between Michigan Avenue and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here we found the reflecting Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known to locals as The Bean. Artist Anish Kapoor has never provided a detailed explanation of the sculpture's meaning but the prevailing interpretation is that the reflection of the sky and clouds on the polished metallic surface is like a doorway from the ground into the heavens. It's a perfect sculpture for a public place as the distorted reflections make for awesome photographs and the curved underside invites pedestrians to walk beneath.

Bistro night was at The Girl and the Goat, a very buzzy restaurant whose owner had been featured on the Top Chef cooking competition. We had made our reservation weeks in advance and naturally the restaurant was packed and full of energy. It was a great night out after a long day of sightseeing although the menu wasn't quite as innovative as we were expecting.

We started the next day at a farmers market uptown before moving on to the curiosity shop Woolly Mammoth. The market was good-sized but unremarkable and Woolly Mammoth was mostly focused on taxidermy and the grotesque, which wasn't as fun for us as the offbeat boutiques we'd visited in Wisconsin.

We were more impressed by the greenhouses at the Garfield Park Conservatory in central Chicago. This was our third botanical garden of the trip even though I'm not particularly interested in botany. However there's something about greenhouses that I find impossible to resist. In the best ones I feel like I've been transported to a primordial Earth unsullied by human civilization. The Garfield Park Conservatory was particularly lush and aesthetically pleasing, a wonderful respite from the urban expanse.

We went directly from raw nature to one of the extremes of human audacity. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1973 until 1998 when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. I wouldn't call the tower ugly but its black, block-like composition doesn't carry the same gravitas as the New York City skyscrapers that held the title before it or the innovative and beautiful Asian buildings that surpassed it. The main attraction for travelers is the Ledge, a small glass-floored balcony that projects outward from the observation deck to give visitors the illusion of being suspended hundreds of meters above the city streets. It was somewhat annoying being forced to watch the painful social media antics of those in the line ahead of us once they took their places in the box. Exaggerated expressions of terror and handstands seemed to be the most popular choices, accompanied by low grumbles from the line once people had gone over their time allotment in search of internet-based validation.

We planned to have dinner in one of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. My research advised me there was a Little Italy just west of Interstate 90 in the center of the city, but once we arrived we didn't see much except for a couple of fairly low-end restaurants and pizza places. It seemed like a typical generic residential area with a lot of businesses catering to college students, unsurprising since the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago was a block away. There may have been a more Italian flavor to the neighborhood in the past, but to someone who cut his teeth on Little Italy in Manhattan and the North End in Boston it was pretty disappointing. Even The Hill in St. Louis would easily take the title of the best Italian neighborhood in the Midwest over Chicago's version. Instead of stopping we drove uptown to Little Vietnam, also known as Little Saigon. I was surprised to find out that Chicago had a Vietnamese neighborhood given that the vast majority of war refugees emigrated to California and Texas. However, Argyle Street was packed with authentic pho restaurants and Vietnamese boutiques. The only drawback was that the commercial part of the neighborhood was quite small, occupying only a few blocks of one street. It had begun pouring by that point and we couldn't have done much exploring even if there had been anything to see so we picked the most promising restaurant and were soon tucking into steaming bowls of delicious pho.

Our last full day in Chicago was centered around the Taste of Chicago, the celebrated food festival that had given me the idea to make Chicago the culmination of this road trip. One of my medical school roommates had told me about it and made it sound like the gastronomic experience of a lifetime. When I looked it up, it did sound good. Dozens of Chicago restaurants setting up booths in a park for samples of their specialties? Count us in. It sounded like a food hall on steroids.

On the way to the festival we stopped off at the Shit Fountain. The unusual sculpture was created by local artist Jerzy Kenar in response to all the dogs that have been allowed to defecate on his property without a clean-up afterwards. Surprisingly there was no outcry from the community or the city and the fountain has become one of Chicago's offbeat attractions.

We hadn't made it as far south as Grant Park on our long walk down Michigan Avenue earlier in the week, but we discovered it had one of the best views of the spectacular Chicago skyline we'd seen yet. Especially with the rococo Buckingham Fountain in the foreground, there couldn't have been a more beautiful setting for the Taste of Chicago.
Sadly, the culinary prowess of the festival failed to live up to the setting. It was far less a showcase for Chicago's bistros than a smorgasbord of fast foods, mainly dominated by every conceivable variety of sausage. It was reminiscent of a food court at the world's largest sports stadium. There was no shortage of patrons lining up for bratwurst, pizza, turkey legs, nachos, and burgers but I think we could have eaten just as well without paying the steep admission by walking up and down the block outside of Wrigley Field. I don't know whether there was a more restaurant-oriented selection when the festival started out in the 1980's or if I had just completely misunderstood the concept. Either way the food festival we'd chosen as an anchor for our road trip was one of the biggest disappointments. The funny thing was that by that point we'd had so much fun and seen so many amazing places in four states that it hardly even mattered.

We didn't stay at Taste of Chicago as long as we'd expected but we had a back-up plan. Two days earlier we'd spotted the Crown Fountain just south of The Bean but couldn't let the kids play in it. This time we'd come prepared with bathing suits for the kids. As soon as they saw the water they plunged in and had a great time while we watched the faces change on the singular LED monoliths from which the water spewed.

That was pretty much the end of the trip. We had a little time the next morning to stop at a couple of Polish and German grocery stores on our way to the airport but didn't encounter anything very surprising. Chicago had shown us an amazing downtown but had batted well below its size when it came to ethnic diversity. Overall I left with a greater appreciation of the city than on my previous visits but I didn't get the impression that Chicago was a world class city on the scale of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Boston. Nevertheless it had been a great itinerary and there's nothing I would have changed. Minneapolis, Madison, and especially Milwaukee had been unique and fascinating cities as well and the experience had recharged my determination to visit all the remaining major American cities.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in USA Tagged chicago midwest tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Cedar Rapids


We made the three hundred mile trek from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids in one day, but we gave ourselves the luxury of a detour to La Crosse, Wisconsin. There were several interesting things to see in this mid-sized town on the Mississippi. Grandad Bluff is a six hundred foot cliff that overlooks the town and has views that extend as far as Iowa. From the parking lot there was a paved path to the viewpoint and a refreshing summer breeze at the top of the bluff.

Downtown La Crosse looked like it hadn't changed much since the 1950's There was even an ice cream parlor that looked like a throwback to a post-war soda shop. We braved the long line to get refreshments for the kids. La Crosse was one of the most beautiful American towns we've passed through. The residential neighborhoods were really well kept with large, interesting houses. We looked up the home values later and were pretty amazed how inexpensive they were. Wisconsin's climate isn't to our taste but we found it to be one of the most pleasant and interesting states we've visited, probably only equaled by Oregon.

Close to the river it's hard to miss the World's Largest Six Pack, six enormous beer storage tanks that have been covered with giant LaCrosse labels. It was another reminder of Wisconsin's whimsical and creative character.

There's a nice highway that follows the Mississippi downstream along the western edge of Wisconsin. Once we turned back inland there was nothing but farms and fields as far as the eye could see. I've always been horrified by the prospects of long-distance drives through the American midwest but there was something hypnotic about all the flat, green expanses.

For some reason I couldn't recall I'd chosen an Airbnb in Iowa City instead of Cedar Rapids. It was a perfectly fine little house but it was a full half hour south of where we wanted to be. By the time we arrived we were way to exhausted to drive all the way back to Cedar Rapids so we had a local dinner and crashed.

We started our full day in Iowa at a local farmers market. So far we'd had a market on every weekend day and a couple on weekdays as well. As it turned out, a farmers market in the state synonymous with farming wasn't much different from anywhere else.

Despite its relatively small size Cedar Rapids had its very own food hall called NewBo City Market. It was a lowkey place without a lot of options but we were happy to have it. Eating at food halls has become an important tradition for us when we travel.

After lunch we drove southwest to Amana, the largest of seven villages in a cluster called the Amana Colonies. The Colonies were established in the mid 19th century by a group of German emigrants who wanted to live a religious communal life. Although the villagers no longer live a communal existence, they have maintained many of their traditions and the historic appearance of the villages. The villages' handicrafts and wineries have helped Amana develop into a tourist attraction with a theater and a museum.

On the way back to Iowa City we kept our eye out for the perfect cornfield close to the road. Eventually we found it and got everyone out for a close inspection of the beautiful plants that are so intricately entwined with the history and economy of Iowa.

After an early dinner we went to a fireworks show at the shore of the Iowa River. It was still one day before Independence Day but presumably the organizers decided they would get a better turnout on a Sunday evening than Monday. There was a beautiful community of houses built on floating platforms in the river, and a large park where we could run around and play Frisbee.

Monday morning we began the long drive back to Chicago. It was a pleasant cruise through more lush, rolling landscape carpeted with corn fields and dotted with white farmhouses.

We took a slight detour north to see the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin. This is yet another multi-year labor of a solitary individual, in this case a German pastor named Mathius Wernerus. This ornate religious complex of concrete and stone is covered in colorful mosaics of semi-precious stones and shells that were sourced from all over the world, along with broken glass and other debris. The Grotto was part of a wave of construction of religious shrines and grottoes that swept the Midwest in the early 20th century.

We had one more stop planned in Galena, a small town in Western Illinois with a lot of preserved colonial buildings. When we arrived it was very crowded with holiday weekend trippers from Chicago and just didn't seem like it was worth exploring. We drove around the town a bit but eventually decided to just press on to Chicago and arrive in time to get comfortably settled and have dinner.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:06 Archived in USA Tagged family iowa travel_blog midwest cedar_rapids tony_friedman Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Minneapolis

Minneapolis grew into a metropolis in the late 19th century on the strength of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia and the city still displays those strong cultural influences. In more recent years, however, Minnesota's welcoming policies for refugees have encouraged the settlement of tens of thousands of Hmong in the 1970's and more recently Somalis. Minneapolis has the highest concentration of refugees of any major American city, and their impact on the cultural fiber of the community has been dramatic. In addition, Minneapolis has a rapidly growing Latino population as well as a thriving gay community. As with other Midwestern cities, Minneapolis is far more complex than the white bread thumbnail sketch imagined by most coastal denizens.

Our Airbnb was a mid-sized house in the Sheridan neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. It was a fairly typical residential neighborhood in the process of gentrification, with a seeming excess of coffee shops and brew pubs.

Downtown Minneapolis would be an ordinary cluster of business skyscrapers and low-end eateries if it wasn't for the enormous network of bridges between buildings known as the Minneapolis Skyways. The skyways have been proliferating since 1962 and now extend for a total of eight miles, allowing downtown workers to shuttle between destinations without having to brave the brutal outdoor elements of Minnesota winters. All the foot traffic has nourished an industry of ethnic restaurants and small boutiques that make the Skyway a tourist attraction in and of itself. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of the enormous complexes of interconnected skyscrapers and malls we explored in east Asia.

Minneapolis is the northernmost major city on the Mississippi River, which runs through the center of the metropolitan area. Minneapolis doesn't have a redeveloped RiverWalk like Milwaukee but there are some interesting attractions along the western bank such as the historic Gold Medal Flour sign and the Guthrie Theater. The architectural quirks of the innovative Guthrie include the Pohlad Lobby, an amber-tinted box that projects from the side of the building, and the Endless Bridge. The Endless Bridge is a cantilevered extension that hovers over the parkway and terminates in a balcony with amazing views over the river.

On the east bank of the river about a mile downstream of the Guthrie is the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum. The appearance of the museum is similar enough to Gehry's famed Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao that it has been affectionately nicknamed the "Baby Bilbao", although the Weisman was constructed years earlier.

Before visiting an American city I always research ethnic neighborhoods. Minnesota's German and Scandinavian heritage are well-known, as well as the more recent Somali diaspora, but few know that Minneapolis has a sizeable Mexican community who are largely the descendants of migrant farm workers. All of these different elements collide on Lake Street in the diverse Phillips neighborhood south of Downtown. Here one can find the historic Scandinavian market Ingbretsen's, Somali restaurants and markets, and numerous Mexican mercados and taquerias. The Swedish folk art murals outside of Ingbretsen's are a landmark in the neighborhood.

One of Minneapolis's most unique and beloved attractions is Minnehaha Falls. I'm hard-pressed to think of another major American city that has a sizeable waterfall within its boundaries. It's an easy descent down to the trail and the waterfall is a beautiful sight as the water pours thirty-five feet into the pool underneath and sunlight streams through the gap in the tree cover. The park surrounding the falls offers four wheel surrey bicycles to rent which are a fun way to experience the landscape. Although it was a weekday there were hundreds of people enjoying the park, either riding the surreys or getting their feet wet in one of the countless shallow areas of Minnehaha Creek.

Minneapolis's twin city St. Paul tends to exist in the shadow of its larger neighbor despite being the state capital. Although the city has its own list of attractions we were mainly interested in HmongTown, a center for Hmong culture that has filled a former lumbar yard with a farmers' market, shops, and a food court. At the food court we had the most satisfying meal of our stay in Minneapolis, a delicious repast of stuffed chicken wings, pho, fried fish, and numerous other Hmong specialties. Hmong people began emigrating to Minnesota in the 1970's mainly as refugees from the wars that were ravaging their homeland in Southeast Asia.They and their descendants now number at least 75000 in the Twin Cities, which is probably the largest urban population of Hmong in the entire world. Being in Hmongtown was the closest feeling we had to international travel during the road trip.

In Minneapolis we were able to continue the offbeat theme we had established in Milwaukee by visiting the House of Balls, the studio and gallery of mixed media artist Allen Christian. The gallery takes its risque name from the the artist's favorite medium of bowling balls, from which he coaxes all manner of startling faces and alien shapes. Bowling balls are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this artist's original and entertaining body of work which ultimately defies categorization. We were expecting a tourist attraction of sorts and were taken aback to find no one present except for the artist himself, who graciously invited us to tour his studio despite the lack of advance notice. He told us that over time the House of Balls moniker had acquired a new meaning to him as a place where he finds the inner courage to explore new artistic territory. We were either too self-conscious or too overwhelmed to take any photos, but fortunately anyone can experience the gallery virtually on YouTube.

Restaurant night was at Spoon and Stable, the triumphant return of local culinary hero Gavin Kaysen from New York City where he was executive chef for Daniel Boulud. The farm-to-table style American bistro had an upscale setting and an unmistakable buzz in its second year after opening.

On the morning we left we stopped at the Minneapolis Farmers Market close to Downtown. This was an enormous daily market with hundreds of vendors offering virtually every variety of local produce as well as freshly prepared food. It was a fitting postscript to our three day stay in Minneapolis. We concluded it was an enjoyable city, at least in the summer, and worthwhile to visit but we didn't feel the same affinity for it as we had for Milwaukee. It was time to proceed onward to Iowa, a state I had never in my life expected to visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:51 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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