Flight of the Conchords filming locations

Although it was never explicitly mentioned, Chinatown was a much a part of Flight of the Conchords as its music videos.

The HBO series depicted struggling New Zealander musicians Bret and Jermaine in their bid to conquer New York, or at least find a place for themselves. The pair frequently struggled with making ends meet, living in a decidedly unglamourous apartment where they shared a bedroom.

Pretty much all of the interior scenes in the series were shot in studios in Brooklyn, but the exterior shots of Bret and Jermaine’s apartment, featured briefly in the scene below, can be found at 28 Henry St, not far from the Manhattan Bridge.

Indeed, Henry Street seems to be a common location chioice when depicting struggling artists, as Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless – a struggling author – also calls Henry Street home before his narcotic-induced transition.

The rather generic office building used as the exterior of the ‘New Zealand consulate’ where the band and their hapless manager held meetings is a few minutes away at 232 East Broadway.

The other staple setting, Dave’s Pawn Shop, is just around the corner at 10 Montgomery St.

I can also report that the owner of the store was particularly excited to have a fan of the show visiting his shop. When he saw me taking pictures of the exterior he loudly declared “Flight of the Conchords!” and invited me to come inside for a chat, even insisting that he take a picture of me in front of the store.

As opposed to many film and television productions which often change filming locations dramatically from scene to scene, Flight of the Conchords stayed remarkably faithful to the Chinatown/Lower East Side area. For example, nearby Columbus Park was used for this scene where Bret and Jermaine battle with a racist fruit vendor:

‘New Zealand town’, which was a central plot point towards the end of the second season, was also constructed at 200 Clinton St:

Many scenes were also shot just over the bridge in Williamsburg, but for the most part it’s hard to walk around Chinatown and not think of scenes like these:

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“We don’t have this in my country”: Pinkberry

One of the best things about being an expat in the USA is finally getting to partake in all the things you’ve seen Americans eating/drinking/doing/talking about on television for so long, without having to wait for it to come to your country.

This week, we take a look at frozen yoghurt chain Pinkberry (less girly than it sounds).

What is it?

A frozen yoghurt chain that is quickly becoming the Starbucks of fro-yo.

Why is it a big deal?

Known as ‘Crackberry’ to its more ardent fans, the appeal seems to be that it just tastes better. Whereas the frozen yoghurt at most places is basically glorified ice cream, Pinkberry yoghurts have a renowned tartness that sets them apart. That and unlimited toppings.

What does it mean to Americans?

A delightfully different sugar fix that you’ll have to line up for. When the first Pinkberry was opened in 2005, the LA Times described it as “the taste that launched 1,000 parking tickets”, due to the lines that stretched outside the door at its West Hollywood location.

Where might I have seen it?

Pinkberry was a rather central plot point in an episode on the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry eats a portion intended for Jeff’s dying dog.

So what should I get?

Whatever you get, ask for lots of toppings. The fruit is cut fresh on-site, so I’d go for a medium original with kiwi fruit and strawberries or mango.

When can I get it back home?

Pinkberry seems to be expanding into unconventional markets. While Canada only has one location, there are already ten in the Middle East (of course it is a lot hotter there, so there’s probably more call for it). The UK got its first location just last month.

The NYC Burger Battle Pt. 1: Shake Shack, Five Guys and Pop Burger

Remember that episode of How I Met Your Mother where Jason Segel’s character sends the gang all over the city looking for the “best burger in New York”, which he claims to have had on his first night there and has been unable to locate again since? No, you don’t watch that show, and you thought that last sentence ran on too long? Never mind, read on anyway.

Everyone knows a good burger joint in New York. The word ‘famous’ gets thrown around rather liberally when it comes to such places, but there are a few patty-slingers that have garnered a solid reputation.

As I am nothing but an iconaclast, I’ve tried some of New York’s truly “famous” to see if they match the hype, and to pit them against each other in a “Battle Royale with Cheese”. This week, it’s the growing juggernaut of Shake Shack versus the slider-slingers at Pop Burger.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack has become as famous for its lines as its burgers.

Even though it only opened its first location in Madison Square Park in 2004, it has quickly become something of a New York institution, with punters willing to line up for an hour to get their chops around a Shackburger. In 2005, New York Magazine also gave the restaurant the title of ‘Best Burger’.

The Shake Shack legend has grown from there. There are now six locations across New York City, and last year the company expanded outside of the city, opening five new interstate restaurants. The chain was also the subject of some appallingly obvious and repeated product placement in the appallingly obvious and repetitive Something Borrowed this year.

I eschewed the Madison Square Park location (which has a line so long that the restaurant has set up a webcam for customers to check online) in favor of the recently-opened Battery Park City location. I still had to line up for ten minutes just to order, and opted for the basic ShackBurger and Fries. It took another ten minutes for my order to come up.

It’s inevitable that a 20 minute wait is going to build anticipation, so I was expecting big things. The meat was indeed succulent, the sauce wasn’t overpowering (I hate a burger where you can only taste the sauce) and the vegetables crisp and fresh. In all, however, I didn’t get that struggling-to-fit-it-all-in-my-mouth, sauce-dripping-through-my-hands moment that I’ve had with great burgers. There’s something a bit unsatisfying about a burger you can eat with one hand.

I also finished it comfortably and wished I’d gotten something else to help fill me up. The ‘double’ may be a more satisfying option, but it’s a bit expensive at $7. The fries were good, though I was glad I’d grabbed some extra salt.

Judging it on its own merits, it is a great burger, but it’s not the unforgettable burger that many make it out to be.

Verdict: A solid burger that does not justify the wait.

Pop Burger

The Pop chain is a slightly more upmarket option with three locations across Manhattan. It’s more of a restaurant/bar than a fast-food burger joint, but a ‘counter menu’ is on offer for those looking to eat on the run (or just somewhere else).

I was told that the ‘Pop Burger’ sliders were the specialty of the house (as well as its namesake), and so opted for them at a tidy $7.75.

I’m still not sure about the whole ‘slider’ trend. Clearly there is a school of thought which holds that foods tastes better in miniature form, and mini quiches and mini pizzas seem to bear this theory out. But I’m just not sure about ‘mini burgers’ (let’s call a spade a spade). They might work as finger food or canapes, but are they a meal?

The answer in the case of Pop Burgers is ‘no’. There’s something aestheticaly pleasing about a neat little burger you can eat in two mouthfuls, sure, but it’s not something that’s going to hold you over past 4pm. I could have gotten fries to bulk things up a little, but that would have pushed my costs into double figures.

For what they are, these sliders are very tasty. I could find no fault with the flavor, only the portion size.

Verdict: Delicious but ultimately unsatisfying.

The winner is… Shake Shack.

Cliche tourist things to do in New York City and are they worth it? Pt. 1

New York is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, but are the sights that built this reputation really worth the effort? Over the last few years I’ve done them all, and seeing as I have an abiding interest in making sure people don’t waste their time, I thought I’d help you out. You can thank me later.

Note: this advice is written for the visiting tourist rather than the long-term expat. If you’re here for a while, you should do all of these once.

Rockefeller Plaza

This might be one of the few outdoor activities that’s best done in winter. The Plaza looks great in ice rink mode:In summer, it just looks like a food court:

That said, the Prometheus statue is more impressive in real life and it’s not like you have to pay for it.

Worth it? Yes. It’s iconic, and because it’s in midtown it’s probably not taking you too far out of your way anyway. 10 minutes will do it, though.

Staten Island Ferry

You do get some nice views of the Manhattan skyline for about five minutes, but do you really have anything to do in Staten Island? Unless you’re interested in getting some Italian, most people usually end up just getting back on the return ferry.

Also, if you’re using this ferry to get some shots of the Statue of Liberty, you’ll need a good camera lens, otherwise your pictures will end up looking like this:

Worth it? Probably not, you can get skyline views elsewhere. Definitely not if you’re also doing the Statue of Liberty and/or Ellis Island.

Times Square

You already know you won’t be having it to yourself, but do you really know just how packed Times Square gets? Every square inch of space is packed with tourists and panhandlers. You probably won’t mind if it’s your first time visiting and you wanna stop for pictures every 10 metres anyway, but after a while you get a bit over it.

If it is your first time, try visiting at night, when the lights have more of an impact. It’s still impressive during the day, but not the same:

Worth it? Yes. Crowds aside, it’s still spectacular. Try squeezing in a Broadway show too.

Wall St

What, really, are you coming here to do? The US Stock Exchange that you can’t go inside anymore? To get a picture of a Wall St street-sign? Punch a federal bail-out recipient in the face?

The ‘Bull’ statue is decent, but be prepared to share it:

Oh, and if you think you’re the first person to think of a hilarious picture with the bull’s testicles:

Worth it? Not really. It’s a business district. Unless you’re into watching a bunch of suits on their cell phones, don’t bother.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t seem all that special when you consider Manhattan’s other similarly handsome bridges, with Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and Queensboro Bridge on the east side alone.

But a walk across the the Brooklyn Bridge is a worthy activity. You get some great views of Manhattan and can finish it off with a stroll around DUMBO (District Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), one of Brooklyn’s nicest neighbourhoods:

Just make sure you stay in the pedestrian lane, unless you want to get yelled out by an irate cyclist.

Worth it? Definitely.

Museum of Natural History

This Museum’s glory is also its crux: it is massive.

Like the British Museum, there’s almost too much going on, and you could lose a whole day trying to see it all.

It has great exhibitions on a regular basis that are worth the extra coin, but maybe save it for a wet weather day.

Worth it? If you have the time, absolutely.

What It Looks Like Inside The 9/11 Memorial

This is an article I wrote for New Matilda this week on the recently-opened 9/11 memorial.

It took a decade and plenty of wrangling over costs and administration, but Manhattan finally has a public memorial to the attack on the Twin Towers. Daniel Fitzgerald was one of the first visitors.

They need the clicks more than me right now, so follow the link.

Cheers.

New York: no longer the home of the skyscraper?

Kurt Vonnegut once called New York “Skyscraper National Park”, and I’m sure it was an apt description at the time.

But Kurt is (sadly) dead now, and so is the accuracy of his remark. New York City has not only been surpassed as the home of the skyscraper, one might even argue that its skyline isn’t particularly impressive anymore. A visit to any major city in Asia now puts it in the shade.

It’s not really New York’s fault, of course. Skyscrapers are, by nature, major investments, so they tend to follow economic trends. The turn towards Asia began to occur in the early 90s when towers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan began to approach the heights of New York and Chicago’s, reflecting the emergence of the Asian market. The turn was made official in 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur took over from Sears Tower as the tallest in the world.

That shift has now moved to include the oil-rich (not to mention flat and open) UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Dubai alone has 13 buildings currently in the top 50 tallest in the world, all of them completed in the last five years. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in 1930, 99 of the 100 tallest buildings in the world were in the United States, 51% in New York City alone. Today, Asia boasts 72 of the world’s 100 tallest buildings. New York has only six.

The result, then, is that New York fails to awe the way it used to. Speaking from personal experience, I found that Hong Kong had far more of an impact on me when I visited last year. Because there is a premium on space in the former British colony, developers have no place to build but up. As a result, every square inch of space, even on mountainsides, is stacked with towers of at least twenty stories.

Not only are tall buildings in ample supply in Hong Kong, but the tallest of them are still incongruously impressive. The Two International Finance Centre building (at the right of the picture above) is a remarkable sight, so much so that even Batman felt compelled to jump off it. It truly justifies the name now given to such structures: ‘supertall’.

The completion of 1 World Trade Centre (projected for the end of 2013) will mark an impressive return to the supertall scene for New York, of course, though with five more taller buildings set to be completed over the next five years in Seoul, Shanghai, Incheon, Mecca and Busan, the tallest building in the United States will barely be clinging to the global top ten.

All of this means that New York is no longer the skyscraper capital of the world. Arguably it isn’t even the skyscraper capital of the United States, with Chicago boasting the tallest building in the country (Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower) as well as more entries in the top 50 in the world (four to New York’s two).

However, while I may cite economic and geospatial issues as driving this change, I like to think it reflects one factor most of all: a declining lack of ambition. New York is a developed city in every sense of the word. It is not an emerging power with a point to prove to the rest of the world; it’s New York, the most famous city in the world, the original seat of power. Its skyscrapers, though they may not be the tallest, are standing testament to the durability of the city’s influence over the rest of the world. Oldest is probably more impressive than biggest, which these days is a fleeting honour.

In that sense, then, New York will always be the home of the skyscraper.

SPiN New York: review

Don’t let the contrived lower case ‘i’ fool you, this place isn’t an epic tool-fest.

If there really is a ping pong revival going on in this country, Spin (I refuse to bow to their irregular capitalization) is merely the first of many “ping pong social clubs” that will spring up across the USA, but for now you’ll have to make do with locations in Milwaukee, St Petersburg, and yes, New York City.

Located just a block from the Flatiron, Spin NYC is a sports club-cum-nightclub. The entrance is guarded by a bouncer, but then it’s downstairs to your old family rumpus room, if your old family rumpus room had about twenty ping pong tables, a bar, and about 50 strangers running around in there.

For afficionados, the tables and paddles play true. For those who didn’t have a table growing up and were barred from using the neighbours’ after one too many errant footballs through their windows, it’s still a fun night. Each table is supplied with a bucket full of balls, with errant balls being scooped up by net-wielding staff members, so you don’t spend half your night chasing after those little orange orbs.

In a most unexpected celebrity twist, Spin is partially owned by Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, who suddenly seems a lot cooler now, you must admit. My playing partners on the night I visited Spin informed me that Suse (as I’m sure she’d like me to call her) and ex Tim Robbins had been at the bar the week before watching a tournament, idly chilling with the punters.

While Suse and Timmy weren’t in attendance for my debut, professional ping pong player Wally Green was spotted taking on opponents with a cell phone, something he apparently does on a regular basis.

If, as suggested here, ping pong is the “new billiards”, Spin might be just the place where you want to brush up on your skills.

What’s the damage?

Starting at about $7 for a beer, with a decent range of domestic and imported options.

Table hire comes in at around $40, so you’re better off splitting the cost with a party of a few people. Let’s face it, ping pong is more fun that way anyway.

Where?

48 East 23rd Street, near Madison Square Park.

What’s a good time to go?

We visited on a Thursday night, which wasn’t too crowded, though you’ll still have to wait for a table. Make sure you put your name down for a table as soon as you get there. If you have to wait for a while, who cares? It’s still a bar.

Alternatively, if you just feel like having a few drinks and taking in the spectacle, you might want to visit during a tournament, including the monthly ‘Ping Pong with the Models’ tournament. Because…models.

“We don’t have this in my country”: Chipotle

One of the best things about being an expat in the USA is finally getting to partake in all the things you’ve seen Americans eating/drinking/doing/talking about on television for so long, without having to wait for it to come to your country.

This week, we take a look at Chipotle Mexican Grill (or “Chipotes”, to those in the know).

What is it?

A wildly popular Tex-Mex chain with a menu of just four items (burritos, burrito bowls, tacos and salads) and a Henry Ford-esque assembly line used to put them together.

Why is it a big deal?

Chipotle’s hook is “food with integrity”, because they use naturally raised meat, organic produce, and dairy products without added hormones, most of which is sourced from local farmers. The company also boasts of preparing almost all of its food on-site, with no freezers or microwaves on the premises.

PR aside, though, I can personally report that Chipotle is delicious, inexpensive and satisfying.

What does it mean to Americans?

Fast food with a conscience. Chipotle is generally regarded as a healthy alternative to greasy burger joints, despite revelations that a fully-loaded burrito isn’t really any healthier than a Big Mac.

However, customers’ ability to customize their order in a more healthy manner was enough for Health.com to place Chipotle at number 6 on its ‘Top 10 Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants’ list.

Where might I have seen it?

Reality television seems to give Chipotle a solid plug: Ozzy and the gang were regular customers on The Osbournes. Viewers of Keeping up with the Kardashians (we know you’re out there somewhere, ‘fess up) will also have seen Kim and the gang chowing down on Chipotes.

In what was less of an endorsement, South Park did the chain no favours with its ‘Dead Celebrities’ episode from season 13:

So what should I get?

It’s hard to go past a pork carnitas burrito bowl with guacamole. Guac might be $1.95 extra, but it’s always worth getting.

Herbivores can opt for the just-as-good vegetarian burrito bowl, which comes with beans and free guac.

When can I get it back home?

Chipotle opened one restaurant in London in May 2010, but the company said earlier this year that expanding their US operations is the main focus for now.

There are two more locations in Toronto.

Finding an apartment/sublet in Manhattan on craigslist

The process of finding an apartment in Manhattan has been fodder for countless TV shows and movies for a reason. It can be painful, and far less amusing than they made it look on Seinfeld.

Likewise, Craigslist has a reputation for being a bit dodgy, and I’m sure it can be a haven for people like this:

However, I managed to find a room on Craigslist with relatively few dramas, so I thought I’d impart some of the knowledge I picked up along the way. This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a few tips intended to aid your search.

You might also like to check out this page for tips on finding a place using means other than Craigslist, as well as this article from the New York Times which provides some useful advice on managing your expectations.

Note: The advice I give here is for someone who is looking to have a room to themselves. There’s plenty of value out there if you don’t mind sharing, I’m sure, but it’s not for me.

How much should you be paying

Location, as always, is crucial. A distance of ten blocks could amount to a difference of $200 a month if it’s the distance between a good neighbourhood and a rough one, or harbour views and dumpster views.

After a few weeks of researching, it became clear to me that the rough price ranges (per month, without utilities) for each neighbourhood were:

Inwood/Washington Heights: $500-700
Harlem: $700-1100

(Obviously, many ads try to pass their West Harlem or East Harlem location off as Upper West Side or Upper East Side respectively, which may explain why some UES locations are advertised at apparently bargain prices.)

UES: $900+
UWS: $800+
Midtown: $1200+
Lower East Side: $900+
East Village: $1000+
Greenwich Village: $800+
Downtown: $1200+
Chelsea: $1000+
Chinatown: $850+

Getting a sense of how much a room should cost in each neighbourhood will also help you avoid scams or undesirable “catches”. $500 for a furnished room in Tribeca really is too good to be true, and there’s going to be a serious catch, such as:

-you’re sharing the room with five backpackers;
-the owner of the apartment wants you to clean their house and walk their dog every day;
-“Did I say Tribeca? Sorry, I meant West Orange.”

Responding to an ad

First off, read the ad in full. Some people have a tendency to ‘bury the lead’ and put an important detail at the very end, such as “females only”.

When it comes to emailing the advertiser (be it the tenant or landlord), you should have a basic template that you revise slightly for each ad. You’ll be sending out a lot of these, so it’ll take up way too much of your time to try and come up with something original for every ad.

Also, send out as many as you like; it’s like looking for a job, you have to cast a wide net.

Once you’ve made an appointment to view the apartment, confirm it the night before you visit. More than once, I had arranged a viewing with someone who completely forgot about our email conversation from a few days earlier.  Remember, even people living in Manhattan can be flaky.

Viewing the room: what you should check

It’s easy to remember to check things like where the closest subway is or whether there’s a washer/dryer in the building, but there are a few things you might not think to ask, such as:

-Check the parking conditions on the street, even if you don’t have a car. If you have visitors, they’ll want to know where they can park and how long for.

-Make sure the tenant explicitly outlines what utilities you’ll have to pay for and how much they usually cost per month. If you’re not a big TV watcher, for example, it’s probably not worth your while forking out $50 a month for an elaborate cable package.

-If you visit the apartment in warm weather, ask the tenant what it’s like in winter. If you visit the apartment in winter, ask how cool it keeps in the summer. There’s no use in opting for a nice, breezy room if you’re going to be freezing in three months’ time. Also, your utility costs will fluctuate in tandem with the seasons.

-If there isn’t an elevator, how many floors do you have to walk up? Think seriously about whether hiking up five floors is something you can handle doing several times a day.

-Don’t be embarrassed to ask a lot of questions of your host, particularly about what their daily routine involves. You’re going to spend more time with this person than your friends or your family, you need to know if you’re a good fit.

Avoiding scams/weirdos

Craigslist has a notice about avoiding scams which everyone who frequents the site should read.

However, in light of the fact that those Nigerian 419 scams still seem to do so well, I feel it’s important I stress this point: DON’T HAND OUT YOUR FINANCIAL DETAILS OR TRANSFER MONEY TO SOMEONE YOU DON’T KNOW.

Sorry for raising my voice, but it’s important.

I myself have yet to have any negative experiences using craigslist, but it can still be daunting experience visiting the home of a perfect stranger. If you’re a bit wary of checking out an apartment on your own, you should probably take a friend.

Also, if someone seems a bit off, don’t be embarrassed about backing out. You don’t owe them anything.

Okay, that’s all for now. Happy hunting.