NEW YORK — I was sitting in the sun on a lime green Adirondack chair on the terrace behind New York City’s spectacular new Whitney Museum of American Art. Cars whizzed by on the West Side Highway in front of me.
Yes, just like West Virginia’s capital city, the largest city in America also has a West Side. And parts of it, too, are in the midst of a renovation.
The changes in Hell’s Kitchen and other West Side neighborhoods would amaze Jerome Robbins, who brought the 1957 blockbuster musical “West Side Story” to the Broadway stage. The movie version, widely considered one of the best musicals ever made, followed in 1961 and won 10 Academy Awards.
The story line is “Romeo and Juliet” told in the context of the rivalry between two West Side street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Steven Spielberg is filming a remake with release set for late December.
Beyond was the Hudson River, where, at the docks along this stretch of shore, titan ocean liners had disgorged disparate waves of tourists and immigrants from the Earth’s four corners through much of the late 19th century and two-thirds of the 20th.
Decades ago, my mother, brother and I had been two of those disembarking passengers, having boarded the SS Queen Frederica three days earlier in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada’s historic Atlantic port. The trip had been exciting, to say the least: We were headed to a rendezvous with my father, who had accepted a new post at the U.S. Navy base, the world’s largest, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Travelers from Charleston will find it much easier to get to New York than we did — and certainly easier than the immigrants who came before us. You can fly from Yeager Airport, of course. There’s no direct flight — yet. A spokesman says they’re working on it.
Meanwhile, the driving time — gorgeous this time of year — is about eight hours. Just be careful and do the math: parking rates in New York are exorbitant, as much as $50 a day. But if you’re taking the kids, making the trip by car might be your best bet. You can also get there by bus (Greyhound) or train (Amtrak), though both will take some time.
This time, my wife and I had traveled to New York to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary and explore the West Side, the area near the river I first glimpsed as an enthralled child on his first trip to the United States.
The West Side encompasses neighborhoods like Hell’s Kitchen, named for the squalid living conditions suffered by its 19th and 20th century immigrant residents, and the trendy Meatpacking District, once the site of 250 slaughterhouses. Both neighborhoods have been the site of seismic change, but their original names have endured.
Much of Hell’s Kitchen has been subsumed by gleaming office, hotel and condo projects — Hudson Yards, the largest private development in U.S. history, chief among them. Thanks to the project’s soaring office and condo towers and its high-end retail, the name Hell’s Kitchen now has the cachet of being one of New York’s most prestigious addresses.
Hudson Yards is also home to a new cultural landmark, the half-billion-dollar Shed concert hall and art gallery, whose giant wheels allow it to open and close depending on the weather and type of performance.
You’ll also find a gargantuan metal sculpture there, the 15-story, copper-colored and climbable Vessel sculpture; it’s 2,500 steps on 154 flights of stairs to the summit and you’ll need to buy a timed-entry ticket. The news media in New York have not been kind to either the Vessel or to Hudson Yards; a recent critique in the New York Times was entitled “Another Reason to Hate Hudson Yards.”
Obviously, the people in Bella Abzug Park, the massive plaza at the foot of the Vessel that abuts the Hudson River and is named for the legendary local activist, hadn’t got the memo: The park was packed with New Yorkers and tourists getting their first look, many taking selfies with the city’s newest icons as backdrops.
One of those icons is yet to open. The Edge, the name chosen for the sightseeing observatory on the 100th floor of the tallest Hudson Yards tower, will extend 65 feet over the edge of the building and feature a partial glass floor. While that skyscraper is still under construction, the high-end shops in another, including luxury department store Neiman Marcus, are open and doing a brisk business, as are the many new eateries. The latter include the very pricey and much-lauded Queensyard, the project of a London restaurateur, and the equally pricey, Asian-influenced Wild Ink.
Being mere mortals, we stopped instead at the Spanish Diner in Mercado Little Spain, the massive Spanish food market at Hudson Yards built by celebrity chief José Andrés, known for his anti-hunger projects and leadership on hurricane relief for Puerto Rico as well as his groundbreaking restaurants. Sitting at the bar, we ordered the pan con tomate, bread with tomatoes, heavenly yet crusty slices of a baguette topped with an ethereal tomato spread far better and completely unlike the bruschetta we had expected.
We arrived at the Whitney bright and early the next day. The angular, eight-story steel-clad structure (think Star Wars) anchors the southern end of the High Line, the popular elevated walking trail built atop a defunct railway spur that runs north to the train yards over which Hudson Yards has been built. Lined with native plants, wild grasses and bushes, the High Line stretches 15 blocks north from the Whitney to the Shed.
The Whitney, which specializes in modern American art, has successfully transformed itself from a small, respected — if often-overlooked — art museum, into an artistic powerhouse and top tourist attraction, with more than a million visitors last year.
I was mesmerized by the works on display (a fraction of the 23,000 items in the museum’s collection). They included my favorite works by artists like Sam Gilliam and Morris Louis, the famed Washington Color School painters I had once, as an art student, hoped to emulate, and such other masters as Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.
Outdoor decks hang from the museum’s protruding eastern skeleton, the top deck doing double duty as both an observatory and outdoor terrace for the more casual of the museum’s two restaurants. From another deck, we watched sculptures being hoisted into place on a deck even farther below for the Whitney Biennial, an event every two years when the museum showcases new artists. (The Biennial runs until Sept. 22.)
On our third day, we grabbed a cab in a light rain for the Flower District, another West Side neighborhood that we wanted to see after reading news reports that the wholesale merchants there were being pushed out by rising rents as gentrification took hold.
The Flower District is where buyers from New York’s better hotels and restaurants get their flowers. The blooms, in dazzling colors, arrive mostly by air from warmer destinations early each morning and quickly fill the vendors’ shelves. There’s competition for the best flowers and most business takes place in the first few hours of the day.
Over breakfast at Mykonos Blue, the ground floor restaurant at the stylish new Hotel Hayden (where there’s also a popular 19th floor rooftop bar), I remarked to my wife that despite the new hotels and shops sprouting in the neighborhood, including this one, walking down the sidewalks here had been like strolling in a good botanical garden.
We hoped that at least this one West Side neighborhood would be spared the wrecking ball.