Charleston, West Virginia, is an escape from big city prices, crowds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A city that has time for you is a win.In Charleston, W.Va., you can park your car all day for $3, catch free live music almost every night and be seated right away — sans reservations — at the city's best restaurant.Servers and shopkeepers have the time to exceed expectations, often in delightful ways: The owner of Swiftwater Cafe designed me a custom sandwich, and the owner of Elk City Records, after we bantered about dogs, asked, "Ever heard Portuguese music?" Seconds later, a record spun and a gorgeous sound emanated from the speakers.I've visited three times in the last four years, taking small detours from road trips to eat at one of my favorite restaurants in the region, Bluegrass Kitchen. This time, I cast a wider net.Located on the banks of the Kanawha River, this bikeable capital city has visible scars from its economic struggles: boarded-up houses and vacant storefronts in the middle of town. As I wheeled around, I had the recurring thought that the city was far short of capacity, both in people and businesses. But that means it's a welcoming (read: affordable) place for artists, small businesses and visitors escaping big-city prices and crowds.Outings: Local favesLittle in Charleston impressed me more than Live on the Levee, and it wasn't the music. The city comes out of the woodwork for this free and weekly outdoor concert series in Haddad Riverfront Park - bikers in cowboy boots, teenage girls in too-high heels, hippies, canoodlers, dancers, smokers, dogs, strollers, young and old. In the lineup: 10,000 Maniacs in July and Tusk: the Ultimate Fleetwood Mac Tribute in August.One morning, I biked across the Kanawha River and found myself in a wooded haven, the Sunrise Carriage Trail. I walked a .65-mile zigzagging path up 180 feet to a spot that offers a generous view of the city when trees are bare. The path was built in 1905, when horse-drawn vehicles hauled material to build the hilltop estate of Gov. William Continue Reading

Quake pitches past into present in scarred Mexico City district

By Julia Love MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The powerful earthquake that rocked Mexico City last week had terrifying echoes of a more deadly 1985 shock in one housing project, raising tough questions about how ready one of the world's largest cities is for a major catastrophe. At its epicenter, Thursday's 8.1 magnitude quake was stronger than the disaster three decades ago that killed at least 5,000 people in Mexico City, toppling two tower blocks in the historic central neighborhood of Tlatelolco. Mexico City has made major advances since then, with regular earthquake simulations, improved building regulations, and seismic alarms designed to sound long enough before the shock to give residents time to flee. Nearly 100 people are known to have died in the latest quake, none of them in the capital. Yet experts noted the tremor's epicenter was further from Mexico City and two times deeper than in 1985, and warned it would be wrong to assume the capital could now rest easy. Such caution was palpable in Tlatelolco. Antonio Fonseca, 66, a longtime resident who witnessed the 1985 collapse of the tower blocks in the Nuevo Leon housing complex that killed at least 200 people, said memories of the event sparked panic attacks in the neighborhood when the quake rolled through the city on Thursday. "I'm quite sure that these buildings are very well reinforced," said Fonseca, a local history expert. "But there are many people who are still wary." When the ground began shaking in September 1985, local workers laughed it off at first, continuing with breakfast. Nobody believed Fonseca when he told them Nuevo Leon had fallen, he recalled. Later, Fonseca saw a group of children in the neighborhood's central Plaza de las Tres Culturas who had been waiting for the school bus, their uniforms caked in white dust from the building's collapse. This time around, residents feared the worst. Streets filled across the city when the quake hit near midnight. Crying and Continue Reading

Brussels, Belgium is Europe’s most underappreciated city

A week before the March terror attacks at Brussels Airport’s main terminal, I was wheeling my luggage toward a departure gate in the same building. My stay in Brussels had been a last-minute decision. I’d just wrapped up a week-long jaunt through Flanders, Belgium. Nearly everyone had warned me to skip boring, bleak, bureaucratic Brussels for Paris or London. But I decided to see Belgium’s capital for myself. And four days there left me with a very different impression. This is Europe’s most underappreciated city. Culture and dining rival Paris or Madrid. A rich stock of centuries-spanning architecture makes Brussels a visual treat. And a nonstop influx of global influences — the airport had check-ins for airlines I’d never heard of — means the city is thrillingly international and in constant flux. What Brussels has never had is crowds of tourists. While the city’s a global business hub — this is the capital of the European Union after all — it hasn’t registered as a vacation spot. And its limited flow of leisure travelers shrank even more after the March bombings. That’s a shame for Belgium, but an opportunity for travelers who zig when others zag. Hotel rates are low. You don’t fight for prime spots at monuments, museums, or meals. And despite the generally reserved Belgian character, I felt a lot of love here as a visitor. My home base was the sumptuous Steigenberger Wiltcher’s hotel, the kind of place I’d usually stare at longingly en route to my budget room. But weekend rates here — as low as $190 — seemed like typos. I spent my first day traipsing through superb and quite singular museums, like the Comics Art Museum (; the Musical Instruments Museum (; and the Art Nouveau-treasure Horta Museum. None were crowded. And even at the in-demand fish restaurant Le Continue Reading

The last arcades of New York City: A look at the remaining spots where greasy joysticks stand tall after the invasion of Angry Birds

New York City inadvertently developed a cure for Pac-Man Fever: insanely high rent. For purists looking for those venues of old where one could drop quarter after quarter in pursuit of a Donkey Kong kill screen or simply just to kill an hour or two, the city is a bleak landscape. But if you look closer and are willing to accept new approaches to this tried but not so true establishment, you'll find that these machines are far from ready to have their plugs pulled. Chinatown Fair - that windowless, video screen-lit bastion of adolescence - has fared only slightly better than the chickens it used to have play tic-tac-toe against customers. After shutting down in 2011 over a rent dispute, it reopened a year later yet currently resembles a survival bunker parody of Dave and Buster's minus the $15 burger, tacking "Family Fun Center" onto its title. Coins swapped out for gamer cards, you're more likely to get challenged to a Dance Dance Revolution dance off than you are a Marvel vs. Capcom brawl. Granted, in an era of Angry Birds, it may be increasingly difficult to lure gamers away from an iPhone and sit them in front of a grease-slicked joystick to defend space from invaders, but that's a challenge a few lone businesses are capitalizing on. "I like to think we're providing a better atmosphere than the subway," says Paul Kermizian, CEO and co-founder of Barcade, who feels there's still hope that high scores are out there waiting to be achieved, just not under the old model of the arcade business. "If you took the bar out of our any of our locations in New York City, we'd be closed in three months," he says of his franchise that made a name for itself with its combination of classic cabinets and craft beer. Estimating that Barcade's games make up about 15 to 20 percent of their business, Kermizian says, "I don't see how you can survive financially just on the quarters and tokens from the games. That said, Continue Reading

Feed me tenants: Industry City lures commercial kitchens — and storefronts — as it heats up a big revamp

Andrew Kimball is leading a tour through the ground floor of Building 2 of Industry City, a sprawling 16-building property in Sunset Park - the largest privately-owned industrial complex in the city. Where once there were dusty warehouses, now a budding artisanal food hub is emerging. In recent months, Colson Patisserie, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Steve & Andy's Organics and Ninja Bubble Tea have taken root. All have leased both commercial kitchens and retail spaces. Visitors walking down the mural-decorated hallways can buy lunch and watch the Colson workers baking the pastries. "Please don't call it a food court," Kimball said. A revitalization plan is heating up at Industry City and it starts with food. Last year, Belvedere Capital, Jamestown Properties and Angelo Gordon & Co. acquired a 49% stake in the sleepy warehouse complex and installed Kimball, the former head of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to lead a turnaround. His early focus: convincing local food manufacturers to open storefronts alongside their commercial spaces. The idea is to create a bustling food hall that will feed the thousands of employees at Industry City, help lure a new breed of tenants and ultimately become a destination. Jamestown followed a similar recipe years ago at Manhattan's Chelsea Market and has used it at other properties. "I think it's a great strategy," Bill Jordan, a vice president in the Long Island City office of real estate brokerage CBRE who is representing two tenants in the final stages of securing space at Industry City. "They've gone a long way toward providing an infrastructure. Tenants have been very impressed." Luring niche food companies is part of a broader plan to turn Industry City into a hub for what Kimball calls "the innovation economy" - manufacturers using new and emerging technologies. 3-D printing company MakerBot moved in last year. Kimball is hoping to convince other types of Continue Reading

The well-preserved city of Cusco in Peru is the perfect gateway to discovering Machu Picchu

More than 400 years after the Spanish conquistadors executed the last of the Incan rulers, another mission has taken hold in Cusco, Peru: To preserve what’s left of the past while beautifying the present. Take one step inside the 17th-century cathedral in historic downtown and glance at the gleaming gold displays of religious artwork. Climb the stone steps of Machu Picchu or Saksaywaman. It only takes a moment to realize the term “ruins” only loosely applies. The missing pieces can’t detract from the majesty of what’s left. It’s what makes Cusco and its surrounding treasures an ideal getaway from the New York minute. Keeping this bucket-list destination both beautiful and authentic takes time, and so should every visit to Cusco. My stay started with an overnight in Peru’s capital city of Lima. Since the Cusco airport services only domestic flights, that’s the best way to avoid a long day of travel. Flights from Lima to Cusco are 80 minutes. Once in Cusco, don’t underestimate the challenge of adjusting to being 11,200 feet above sea level. Every glass of beer and wine in Cusco hits harder than a Manhattan in Manhattan, and every meal takes longer to digest. Inoculation comes in the form of eight glasses of water a day, starting a few days prior to your visit. Be sure to leave time for naps, grab a pack of altitude sickness Sorojchi pills at the airport, and sip coca tea to calm your insides. At the spacious JW Marriott Cusco, a tea dispenser sits inside the massive wooden doors. Downstairs, a machine pumps oxygen into any room upon request. These will serve as creature comforts to some and necessities to others, depending on your age, health and experience with elevation. A decade ago, what’s now the JW Marriott Cusco was a decrepit convent with rotting wood, crumbling stones, and dirt expanses interrupted by green weeds peeking through the earth. Marriott then bought the property and Continue Reading

Readers sound off on gentrification, animal lovers and cake takers

Gentrification comes for us all Staten Island: As an avid genealogist, a former 35-year resident of Brooklyn and police officer there for 20 years, let me assure Spike Lee that his statement “you can’t discover this. We’ve been here” borders on the absurd (“Sentimental segregationists,” Op-Ed, March 5). In the early 1900s, my English and Irish ancestors could be found across Fort Greene, Bushwick, Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy. Maybe they were the ones back then complaining about how their neighborhoods were changing. Robert Prindle Very real Manhattan: Gentrification is very real. I respect Spike Lee, but I disagree with him — you can’t blame white folks for everything. There was a time, particularly in Harlem, where property was dirt cheap, and drug dealers, who in my opinion make the best entrepreneurs, were making corporate America-sized salaries in the street. They were thinking only about cars, clothes, women, diamonds and such, not investing back into the community. Omar Branch It goes both ways Brooklyn: I am an Irish-American Brooklynite, whose son recently joined the so-called gentrifiers moving into Fort Greene. My son is no “conqueror” — he is a working-class young man raised in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, which underwent dramatic change itself in the 1990s, from mainly white to largely African-American. I myself lived in the Albany Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant when that area was largely white in the 1950s. Here’s the point: There is a real double-standard when it comes to whites moving into African-American neighborhoods, based on a radical chic party line that whites are wealthy colonists oppressing historically poor minority areas. This is simply untrue. Like my son and his friends, many of the gentrifiers are native New Yorkers living paycheck-to-paycheck, seeking affordable housing. They have the same right to move into Fort Greene that African-Americans have to Continue Reading

Smith Island Cake bakery looks to expand in Crisfield

A global demand for Maryland's official dessert has the owner of an offshore island bakery in search of more space on the mainland, hopefully in Crisfield.Crisfield elected officials underscored this week that Brian Murphy and his Smith Island Baking Co., were welcome in the business-friendly city.Murphy said he had not purchased the former Riggin's grocery store on Charlotte Avenue in Crisfield, and would not comment on whether the baking company was under contract to buy it.At a City Council meeting earlier this month, Crisfield Mayor Kim Lawson said the sale of the grocery store to the cake company was near.Murphy also said Lawson did not attend an earlier meeting with investors, who had traveled to Crisfield to meet with the mayor. He denied that investors felt snubbed and were subsequently ready to pull out, despite a comment Wednesday by Somerset County Economic Development Director Danny Thompson that government leaders sometimes must "show some love" to get a business deal sealed."They came to meet the mayor and were touring the facility," Murphy said after the meeting, and added that city inspector Noah Bradshaw "was the only" city official that met with investors."The mayor was apologetic," Murphy also said.At the Wednesday meeting, Lawson and three council members that attended told Murphy that he had their support."At the end of the day, the mayor and city council will do our best to do what we can to show investors we're serious," said councilman Mark Konapelsky.A revolving loan fund through Maryland Capital Enterprises; business loans through the state Department of Business and Economic Development; and private sector backing are among potential financial incentives for which the bakery might be eligible, Thompson said, and agreed to work with Murphy in exploring options.Lawson reminded Murphy of his Talbot County residency, and also said he favored lending support to a venture intending to remain in the city."I want you for the long haul," Lawson Continue Reading

City of London Cemetery trying to promote grave sharing, as city runs out of burial space

LONDON — So you think London, population 8 million, is crowded with the living? There are many millions more under the soil of a city that has been inhabited for 2,000 years. And London is rapidly running out of places to put them. Now the city's largest cemetery is trying to persuade Londoners to share a grave with a stranger. "A lot of people say, 'I'm not putting my Dad in a secondhand grave,'" said Gary Burks, superintendent and registrar of the City of London Cemetery, final resting place of close to 1 million Londoners. "You have to deal with that mindset." The problem is a very British one. Many other European countries regularly reuse old graves after a couple of decades. Britain does not, as a result of Victorian hygiene obsession, piecemeal regulation and national tradition. For many, an Englishman's tomb, like his home, is his castle. That view is also common in the United States, which like Britain tends to regard graves as eternal and not to be disturbed — although the U.S. has a lot more space, so the burial crisis is less acute. In much of Britain, reusing old graves remains illegal, but the City of London cemetery is exploiting a legal loophole that allows graves in the capital with remaining space in them to be reclaimed after 75 years. Burks points to a handsome marble obelisk carrying the details of the recently departed man buried underneath. The name of a Victorian Londoner interred in the same plot is inscribed on the other side. The monument has simply been turned around for its new user — whose family, Burks says, got a fancy stone monument for much less than the market price by agreeing to share. Since a change in the law last year, cemetery staff have begun the even more sensitive process of digging up old remains, reburying them deeper and putting new corpses on top, in what have been dubbed "double-decker" graves. They'll be sold for the same price as the cemetery's regular "lawn" graves — those in Continue Reading

Rescuers can’t get aid to starving Haitian city battered by Hanna

GONAIVES, Haiti - The convoy rumbled out of the U.N. base toward a flooded, starving and seething city Thursday, carrying some of the first food aid since Tropical Storm Hanna killed 137 Haitians and drowned Gonaives in muddy water three days ago. Hungry children at three orphanages were waiting for the canvas-topped trucks, loaded with warm pots of rice and beans and towing giant tanks of drinking water. The trucks didn't make it. The convoy crept over mud-caked, semi-paved roads past closed stores, overturned buses and women wading in water up to their knees with plastic tubs on their heads. After about 45 minutes, the half-dozen trucks ground to a halt. U.N. peacekeepers wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests jumped out while others stood guard with assault rifles. Before them, a huge gouge marred the road. The floods had split the asphalt, and water ran through the 10-foot-wide (3-meter-wide) gap. The convoy turned around. And the children - like tens of thousands more in this increasingly desperate city - went another day without food. Later, Argentine U.N. troops stopped to dish out cooked rice from their own food supplies to a small crowd of hungry orphans. "I haven't eaten since Monday," 12-year-old Srita Omiscar said as she waited in line with about 50 others. Just a few blocks away, a woman's corpse in a floral dress floated in a submerged intersection. At least 137 people died when Hanna struck Haiti, 102 of them in Ganaives and its surroundings, officials said Thursday. Some 250,000 people are affected in the Gonaives region, including 70,000 in 150 shelters across the city, according to an international official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. Argentine Capt. Sergio Hoj estimated that half of Gonaives' houses remained flooded Thursday. Many houses were torn apart. Families huddled on rooftops, their possessions laid out to dry. Overturned cars were Continue Reading