Five Days in New York

10th Avenue - view from New York Highline

Just before Christmas the Harte family took their first ever trip to New York. Here’s  a post on what we managed to squeeze in. Bear in mind we went as a family on a reasonable budget so you won’t find tales of cool bars or expensive restaurants here. We had fun though.

We flew with Aer Lingus from Birmingham to JFK via Dublin rather than go direct from a UK airport to JFK or choose the Birmingham to Newark route. We got the price down to circa £470 each (other options all seemed to be £600 min) – best I could for the dates involved (18 – 23 December). A bag went astray on the way back but was back with us within a couple of days.

We stayed on the 16th floor, room-only, at the Affinia Manhattan, corner of 8th Avenue and 31st Street, next to Penn station. It was handy for Times Square, the Empire State Building and close to the top end of the Highline. We had a studio suite, compact but big enough for two double beds and a small kitchen. It was a nice hotel, quiet, friendly staff. Pricey at circa £200 a night but worth it we felt.

What we did (paid for stuff):
Empire State Building (Adults $25, Kids $19) – We went to the 86th floor of the Empire State. You can pay more and carry on to the 102nd but it was high enough for us. Great views and no queuing at 10am.

MoMA ($25, Kids free) – Our kids will only stomach one major 2+ hours museum vist per holiday. We made a good choice in the Museum of Modern Art given UK primary school educators seem very keen on 20th Century Art so my 10 year-old daughter was already familiar with some works. Three cinema-related things impressed me. Firstly, the MoMA cinema had a Pasolini season on. Imagine living in a city that would show Pasolini on a big screen and have people show up for it. Awesome. Secondly, there was a Quay Brothers exhibition. I love those crazy Quays. Thirdly, there was a screening of Christian Marclay’s The Clock on a large screen in a room with sofas. Myself and the boy (aged 6) parked ourselves at the front for 10 minutes or so. We were both hooked as the film (24 hours of film excerpts of people looking at their watches and suchlike) is put together as if it is itself a richly plotted movie. Also, when familiar moments appear on screen, in this case an excerpt from When Harry Met Sally, the crowd laugh and applaud. I would love this to come to Birmingham. I would happily watch the whole darn thing in one sitting.

Theatre – we saw Spiderman – Turn off the Dark. Camp and knowing in places, I enjoyed this, as did the kids. I suspect had we been kid-free we might have tried for tickets to Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross (though it has  had poor reviews).

What we did (free stuff):
Staten Island Ferry – the best free boat ride ever. Views of Manhattan, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty.

Brooklyn Bridge – We caught the metro to Brooklyn, walked back through Brooklyn Heights and then back over the Bridge into the Financial District.

Ground Zero – you need a visitor’s pass which you have to get in advance. We didn’t realise this, however, we lucked out and picked one up at the entrance. The sites of the two towers are now black, marble fountains surrounded by newly planted oak trees. It’s impressively done.

Central Park – we walked the bottom half of it. Past the ice-rink and up to Belvedere Castle. All lovely. Lovelier in autumn or summer I guess.

The Highline – Thanks to a late prompt I remembered about The Highline. A former elevated freight rail line now converted to an urban trail/park. It’s a joyful hour stroll – a real highlight of the trip. We have Highline potential in Birmingham y’know.

Shopping – well it’s free if you don’t buy anything. Certainly Tiffany’s is worth a look (nice building, high ceilings).

Times Square – madly busy, too busy really though enjoyably glitzy.

We had a nice ‘so-big-we-took-some-home’ meal in a place called Carmine’s on the Upper West Side and a lovely breakfast in Andrew’s Coffee Shop on 7th Avenue near to our hotel. As I say, we didn’t go big on eating out. However, we did enjoy the abundance of Delis in New York. The one closest to our Hotel served everything from Pizza to Sushi. In the UK a ‘Deli’ is an excuse to sell fancy cheese and meats at high prices. In New York it was simply a place where you could get any kind of food, at reasonable prices, at any time of day or night.

Getting Around
We mostly walked or caught the Metro ($2.25 per trip to go anywhere. if your child can squeeze under the barriers they go free). The cab to and from the airport (fixed fare of $52 + $6 tolls) was fast and scary with much beeping of horn.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip. I think next time would see more exploring of the other Boroughs but for a starter, we did okay I think.

Some pics what I took:

Dear local councillors, fix my mom’s street

Date: 18 August 2009
From: Dave Harte

Subject: demolition/regeneration of houses on Naseby road, Alum Rock

Dear all,
I am a former resident of Hazelbeach Road in Ward End (B8 3HL) and am writing on behalf of my mother, still a resident there, about our increasing concern regarding the condition of properties and land on Naseby Road. For quite some time now, a number of years as I recall, the houses on the south side of the street have gradually been vacated and demolished due to subsidence. However, a couple of the houses still remain occupied and therefore adjoining houses remain undemolished. The street is falling into significant disrepair with fenced off patches of land between the undemolished houses becoming overgrown, vandalism on the houses themselves and graffiti appearing on walls.

My writing to you now was prompted by the relatively recent vacation and boarding up of the corner house on Naseby/Hazelbeach with the result that graffiti has now appeared on the wall facing Hazelbeach. Having watched my mother, now 78, tolerate this for many years now I feel the situation must be brought to some kind of resolution.

I spent all of my childhood, up to the age of 19, on Hazelbeach road and it is an area that I remain extremely proud of. My mother continues to live there because she too is proud of the area and feels safe in a neighbourhood and house she has lived in since 1967. Yet the appearance of her immediate surroundings are being allowed to deteriorate and I find it simply unacceptable. Ward End and the area around Ward End Park are, I’m sure you would agree, hard-working working class neighbourhoods where people like my mother have spent their working lives trying to improve. Yet here we are with the City planners content to let this situation on Naseby Road drag on for years and let a proud area descend into decay.

I implore you to do all you can to intervene and help support the residents of Hazelbeach and Naseby roads to once again feel proud of their streets.

Date: 27 September 2009
From: Dave Harte
Subject: Re: demolition/regeneration of houses on Naseby road, Alum Rock

I still haven’t had acknowledgment of this. Can you update me on progress of this query?

My favourite newspaper – weekly and hyperlocal


I know this is odd but my mother and I share an unspoken bond over a newspaper. Well, unspoken till now I guess. But in all the talk of hyperlocal news on the web and the local paper here in Birmingham going from daily to weekly I thought I’d explain why the Connacht Tribune is the greatest newspaper in the world.

The Tribune is a regional broadsheet covering the county of Galway in the west of Ireland. Because it has a sister paper covering the city of Galway (the City Tribune News) it’s free to focus on rural issues and covers news from all areas of Galway, including the region that my mother is from (North East Galway). I say ‘news’ but more often, once it gets down to these smaller, more sleepy areas, it focuses on cultural, social and farming stuff. So the price of sheep in the local market sits alongside the names of the winners of the local card game tournament. Its sports coverage of Gaelic games is incredibly comprehensive as well, right down to schools level.


Its coverage of deal people is second to none. Death announcement and death anniversaries take up several pages. Such things are a real feature of local newspapers in Ireland, perhaps the one income stream that’s remained steady in the face of the advertising downturn.

Overall it has a depth of coverage that would be the envy of other local newspapers. Its quite a read, as weeklies should be. And in communities where access to the web is problematic the paper version is vital for well, knowing how expensive sheep are. But for me and Mom it has a deeper resonance. For her it connects her to the area she left nearly 50 years ago and for me it connects me to her, to the place that shaped her early experiences and a place that I spent every summer holiday from the early 70s till the late 80s.

The problem at the moment is actually finding a copy in the UK. It used to be the case that finding a wide selection of regional Irish newspapers was easy, many local newsagents in specific neighbourhoods stocked them as a matter of course. Or at least they would order them in. But whatever supply chain was operating in Birmingham seems to have ground to a halt as far as the Tribune is concerned. It just seems to have dissapeared from the shelves.

But its scarcity is, if anything, making it more important to us. That we can’t get a joint fix of it until one of us goes to Ireland to get a bundle of back copies has if anything made it clear how much we value it.

Like nearly all newspapers, its website is of course rubbish, but who cares. This is hyperlocal as I understand it, something that I’ve yet to see the web replicate and kind of hope it doesn’t any day soon.

A short, sober weekend in Newquay

You’d have thought that Newquay was nothing more than a playground for well-off 14 year old drunken teens causing havoc in what otherwise is a peaceful seaside town. That isn’t quite the reality of course; for a start this isn’t a peaceful seaside town.

It’s a noisy vibrant place with a few too many stag parties and lots of parents shouting at their children as they drift from arcade to chip shop to gift shop. In fact it’s much like any seaside town, just not a Devon/Cornwall twee seaside town. And in that sense, for us as a family on a short break down there, it was ideal. We love chips by the sea, loud arcades, sheltering from the rain in caves along big beaches, getting sunburnt under cloud cover, having a pint in a bar with too-loud music. We love all that stuff. If you want typical Cornwall/Devon then go to St Ives. Newquay is Rhyll for the south coast.

Our brief weekend there was a freebie, courtesy of BMI Baby with input from Newquay tourist board. They sent Nicky Getgood and Karen Strunks to Belfast as well. They didn’t tell Nicky and Karen what to write and they haven’t told me what to write either. However, not having to pay for your flight or accommodation and getting free entry to the aquarium and Zoo does colour your judgement a tad. It certainly gave us family stuff to do (zoo was very nice,  aquarium was, well, an aquarium, I can never get excited about them but the kids loved it). The accommodation was in a quieter bit of town near the lovely, long Fistral beach.

Pure Shores Lodge, the ‘accommodation partner’ as the PR company referred to them, has the very friendly Lisa from Great Barr at the helm. It’s clean, relaxed, does a really fantastic breakfast (big on locally sourced produce) and has free wifi. Has decent Trip Advisor reviews if you don’t believe me.

The centre of Newquay does seem a bit overrun with bars designed solely to appeal to the stag and hen parties that descend on the place (lots of Brummie ones I was quietly pleased to see). They contribute to a rather drab central strip that’s a mix of cheap surf tat shops and fast food outlets. Plenty of places to get pasties though – mmmm pasties. But once you step off the high street: those beaches! Wow! Big, wide, impressive and with waves. Those in the know say other beaches further up or down are better but the further you go from the centre of Newquay the more self-consciously cool the beaches become and the less comfortable a family of brummies with simple needs feels.

In some ways Newquay seems to not know what it is trying to be. Teen-central (I saw no marauding teens by the way but then we were in bed by 10.30pm), stag/hen hotspot (great place for one – no question) or family resort. The taxi drivers who drove us to the airport and back were worried about some aspects of the way Newquay has changed but blamed poor policing and lax licensees rather than the visitors themselves.

Overall I suppose the issue is that Devon/Cornwall seems to be full of ‘nice’ places and Newquay doesn’t quite fit the mould. But Newquay isn’t Port Isaac, it isn’t Boscastle and is the better for not being so. It’s Skegness, it’s Weston-Super-Mare and is full of Brummie, northern, Cockney accents just as those places are. All I can say is we had a blast – even, in fact especially, on the rainy Sunday. We ticked off a long list of typical family seaside holiday stuff in a short amount of time. The pics and this short video tell the story I think:

Old School Flying

I’ll keep this brief but last year for my 40th birthday present I got a voucher to fly in an old aircraft from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. For one reason or another it took a year to redeem the voucher so on my 41st birthday I managed to do the flight.

The plane was a 1930s Dragon Rapide. It was tiny for a passenger aircraft, only seating eight people and the pilot. The sound it made comes straight from a 1930s film. It was a good ride and given the age of the aircraft felt very secure and safe.

Here’s an in-flight video I took. We flew over Cambridge, Ely and Newmarket race course:

Google Street View plus Fixmystreet – a winning combination

For too long now the houses in the street next to where my Mom lives (in Alum Rock, East Birmingham) have been boarded up ready for demolition. Some have gone but others remain. In fact they’ve remained that way for several years now. I don’t actually know what the plans for them are but I seem to recall that subsidence issues meant most of the street had to go.

I’ve been cross about this situation for a long time. These are the streets I grew up in after all – a proud working class neighbourhood, once predominantly Irish, now largely Asian. The gradually neglect of these streets is a disgrace and I wrote a letter to my Mom’s councillors about it a few months ago to little effect (a response from one of them promising to look into it). I pointed out that if this was a more middle-class area the situation simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

I had been meaning to bring my camera along to take some pics but with the beauty of Street View I don’t have to. There’s the whole street in its neglected glory set out for anyone to see. Have a look around. Go to Farndon road as well, that’s the same. Admire the boarded up house that confronts my Mom every time she goes to the shops.

So having grabbed a few stills from Street View I’ve now used them to make a submission to Fix My Street (or rather, Fix My Mom’s Street, that’s a website waiting to happen isn’t it?)

To give my Mom some credit she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. I’m not sure she knows how to cause a fuss but even if she knew I doubt she would. Clearly I’ve developed some kind of middle-class angst about it but if this was your Mom’s street wouldn’t you try to do something? She’s lived in this house since 1967 and she’ll probably stay in it for many years to come so the bottom line is it isn’t something she should have to tolerate. I’ll report back on progress; should there be any…..

People Power/Media Power

Well today was a bit of a frenzy. The Act on CO2 People Power campaign was launched and I found myself being wheeled in front of the media for most of the day.

It started gently with an interview down the phone with Radio WM’s Phil Upton. He even left a comment on my Facebook wall afterwards – nice touch.
act on co2 shoot

Then at 10.30am a government minister turned up. Along with her press assistant, three people from the PR company, two people from the Energy Savings Trust (one in a lovely white lab coat) and a photographer. Phew – it was busy.


Then the BBC arrived at 4.30pm and spent about an hour and a half shooting a sequence that may appear on your TV sometime in December or January. I got the idea that this was a story that gets slotted into the news agenda when other stuff doesn’t crowd it out. This time there were two Beeb people, the same three PR people (who helped with mine and the kids’ tea – ta) and one of the energy saving guys. This involved an interview and plenty of shots of the family using energy. You can see that in the picture above – there’s the youngest watching telly, let’s hope she doesn’t leave it on standby after she’s finished. As an aside, if the kitchen scenes ever make it to air then the kids aren’t usually fed pizza and Maltesers. It was what I had to hand to keep them quiet as the camera rolled.

Overall a busy but quite enjoyable day. Now I have to get on with the actual campaign thing itself which involves keeping a diary of my energy use. More on that as it progresses. Some nice playing with the Current Cost device in the meantime as well (which impressed the PR & energy people). Got some graphs going on (and better ones to follow):

Take a run at the sun

Woolacombe Bay
A week in a dull, foggy and sometimes drizzly north Devon has left me invigorated on the running front. We had a four day break in a caravan near Woolacombe Bay which was lovely bar the weather (total sunshine in four days: about 45 minutes). It was great for running in however and I managed three runs in successive days – a rare event for me.

Day one saw me dropping down from the caravan park to the beach and then back along the dunes – about 5 miles. The next day I got lost in some woods and then found myself trying to get back via the coastal path from a tiny place called Lee. I only covered about 7 miles but it took me over an hour with lots of tough climbs. My final run took me along the famous Ilfracombe Branch Line except that I went too far and a planned 40 minute run ended up being 75 minutes.

Despite getting lost I can heartily recommend Croyde Cycle maps as the most detailed way to find your way around that bit of North Devon be it on foot or on bike. They only cost a couple of quid and include the kind of detail that OS maps don’t. Namely, the phone numbers of local pubs and restaurants, how often the buses run and even how muddy a particular path gets.

All this mileage is in aid of my so far rubbish training for the forthcoming Birmingham half-marathon which I’m pleased to see has a blog.

Finally, the title of this post refers to one of my fave summer-type songs. I found a nice video on youtube that sets the song to someone’s Super 8 footage of their summer hols. I plan a Super 8 related post soon so this seems apt:

My long lost family

Here’s some audio from my archive. I studied radio at university and for my final year piece we were required to do a classic 27 minute Radio 4 style documentary. That’s quite an intimidating length for an undergraduate who’s longest radio package to date had been about 5 mins. I recorded the bulk of mine over a few days in Ireland in Easter 1996. I’ll outline what my idea was briefly and then let you listen to the results for yourself. 

My long lost family
My Dad was born out of wedlock in 1930s Ireland. He was brought up in the country by a foster family and never knew who his mother or father was. My Dad died in 1979 and we often wondered if we would ever find out for ourselves about his origins. So this documentary involves me going to Ireland to see what I can find. My intention was to make some kind of soul-searching ‘finding myself’ piece. A road movie on the radio is what I had in mind and in fact the finished piece isn’t far from that. However I did find out far more than I anticipated – take a listen. 

Feel free to download and repost as you like.