Friday, June 1, 2007

Staten Island and some comments about Harlem

On Saturday, May 19, I went back to Staten Island for the first time in a year to lead a tour; I'm embarrased to say that I hadn't had time to prescout it, as I often do of places I haven't been to in a while, so I was curious to see what might have changed.
(The photo on the right shows the owner of Laxmi's Restaurant, which serves Sri Lankan food.)

In this corner of Staten Island, though, much was the same. The tour covers a short stretch of Victory Boulevard from its base at Bay Street almost to the top of the hill where it reaches Silver Lake Park. The boulevard itself spans the island, and I have to imagine that a ride along the entire route of the X61 bus would show me the spectrum of neighborhoods in Staten Island. frm immigrant and working class, to some of the townhouse developments now scattered throughout the island, to the older, more settled and affluent communities that are harder to reach.

This stretch winds through an area of low, old 2-story buildings at the base (it's walkable from the ferry, although we take the bus uphill to the beginning of Silver Lake Park and then proceed downhill to do the tour) and then passes some fascinating Victorian style houses as we ascend. Just before we reach Silver Lake Park, the houses begin to become more modern, more affluent. We usually stay on the bus a stop after the actual beginning of the park: it is a beautiful stretch of greenery, and from our vantage point, we are actually on a sort of bluff looking into a beautiful green valley. So much of Staten Island consists of vast, lovely parks!

Anyway, once we reach that point and start walking back, our experience begins. The neighborhoods are compact and eclectic, the buildings a throwback to the 1950s, and at this point, Victory Boulevard is clearly geographically, or geologically, too difficult to develop with the type of townhouse clusters that mark so much of Staten Island. There are quite a few old wooden homes, some built into steep bluffs, that would pose a challenge to any architect trying to develop housing with significantly more dwelling units - and that may be one reason why there isn't much here now.

At the intersection with Cebra Avenue, we come to a small cluster of Albanian and Sri Lankan shops and eateries - perhaps two of the oddest pairs of ethnic groups in one site. We go to Lanka Market to buy spices and Sri Lankan "spice coffee" (packaged, not fresh), which is a mixture of coffee with coriander and ginger. Don't try it plain - it clearly needs to be combined with sweetened condensed milk, and then you have a beverage of an almost ethereal flavor. You can also buy Mexican products here, so that Mexican chiles have their own section amidst the Asian curries.

Emil's market across the street, which used to be on the corner, has taken a larger space next door. It's an Albanian market selling products from the entire Balkan region, but its main attraction for locals is the halal meat market in the back. They smoke their own meat, so we were able to taste some of it, and it had a deep rich flavor - Albanian jerky!

Although the photo above shows the Sri Lankan restaurant Laxmi's on Cebra Avenue, our group that day had lunch at New Asha Restaurant, a small, simple place with a handful for tables. I asked the owner to put together a platter of different dishes for us, and the food - various curries, dals and spicy vegetarian dishes - were scrumptious. I "chased" it with a bottle of Thai basil seed drink. I've had Sri Lankan ginger beer, which is so-so. The most unusual dish for us was curried jackfruit. The blend of flavors and textures was wonderful - we used the roti bread to create wraps.

The photo below shows a chef handing me a delicious quesadilla... Besides me the other customers were Mexicans, and I knew I was getting something truly authentic!

We were too full to go to Rey's (not Ray's) Pizza across the street for a burek. Rey's is Albanian-owned. Two years ago there was a burek shop across the street, but Rey's had been around longer and I guess the clientele was more loyal, so the burke place closed and people buy their bureks there. Nearby we visited the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center and saw the prayer room. Two years ago, with a large group, we were given a quick tour. We were a smallish group (6 of us) on a rainy day, so we took ourselves inside.

We continued downhill, where we came to Fernandez Grocery to have some of the best tamales I've ever had. I confess that I don't even know all the types we had. I just pointed and asked for one of each, and they ranged from very spicy to almost sweet.

A few storefronts away we came to the Africa Homeland Store, a Ghanaian market that caters to a small West African community in Staten Island. I'm aware that many Liberians have made their home here and was told that further down on Bay Street, towards the Alice Austen House, I'd find a Liberian restaurant. That's for another day.

West Indian food can be found near the base of Victory Boulevard, including delicious wraps at Island Roti, being prepared in the photo!