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Hate on the Hudson (Yards): How bad can it be?

Any stairwell will take you to the top of the Vessel, Thomas Heatherwick's architectural sculpture and the centerpiece of Hudson Yards in New York.

MAURA JUDKIS/THE WASHINGTON POST

By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: August 9, 2019

If you listen to New York media, the gaping maw of hell is a neighborhood just south of its kitchen. Hudson Yards is the "Horror on the Hudson," a "real estate grift" with buildings that are "pointy and shiny and pointless."

It has the Vessel, a Thomas Heatherwick architectural sculpture that is a "gaudy monument," that "looks like an unfortunate misshapen thing produced by your 10-year-old at summer camp, except it cost $200 million," and has been nicknamed "The Wastebasket." It has a shiny new mall, "a shopping centre as prosaic as they come."

Many of the restaurants, all from pedigreed chefs, are pricey -- Estiatorio Milos, a Greek seafood place, was the recipient of one of the most scathing reviews in recent memory, from Eater critic Ryan Sutton, who wrote that it "treats diners as if they were marks at a pickpockets convention." For a place designed to have the best of everything, "Hudson Yards is notable for having the worst of everything," wrote the Guardian.

(But tell us how you really feel.)

None of this has or will deter crowds from visiting the largest mixed-use private real estate development in American history, a neighborhood that also contains luxury residences, an Equinox hotel and the Shed, a space for visual and performing arts. A new section of the High Line runs through it, and if you walk it, you might encounter a rogue sign on the payment with two arrows, one pointing north and the other south. "Tourists: Chelsea Market is this way. Billionaires: Hudson Yards is that way," it reads, but really, the arrows could face in either direction. After critics have spent months dunking on Hudson Yards, for someone visiting from out of town, going there almost feels like a dare. It can’t be that bad. Can it?

There are a handful of good things in the place with the worst of everything, but some of them take effort to find. That’s because Hudson Yards keeps getting in its own way, with all of its Hudson Yardsiness. For example: If you show up in the morning for day-of tickets to the Vessel, you may be asked to form an orderly queue in front of the Cartier, which is, quite frankly, a bit too on-the-nose. While waiting on a recent Saturday morning, I watched four angelic children wearing unseasonal fall clothing jump, skip and hold hands in front of the Vessel. It was a modeling shoot.

"Grab her hair, scream," a member of the three-person creative team manning the shoot called out. "You guys are siblings teasing each other," the woman said. "You’re laughing at her, Alex, she’s being super weird." ("It’s going to be in a magazine, I can’t say," the shoot’s minder told me, with more than a little condescension. "A fashion magazine.")

It’s not much better on top of the 154 staircases and 80 landings of the Vessel, where you’re rewarded with striking views of ... Weehawken, New Jersey. Or the swimming pool of the Equinox Hotel next door. Or the Sephora logo, plastered on the side of the mall. Congratulations: You climbed 16 stories to see an ad.

And not for the first time that day: Walk into La Sieste Bastide, a sort of meditation room in the Conservatory - a store for high-end designey housewares and expensive clothes that look like they’re not - and you’ll encounter a room decorated like a Mediterranean beach villa. It has a swing chair hanging from the ceiling, and a dozen candles puncturing the darkness, along with the light from a flat-screen TV. The video that’s playing looks like a Provence version of the stock videos that play behind karaoke lyrics: happy couples, beach picnics, pristine nature. It will take a few minutes to realize that you’re sitting inside what feels like an elaborate ad for Bastide Ambre Soir candles, which cost $65 each. The candles in the room, by the way, are fake.

Spend a day at Hudson Yards, and you’ll find yourself in several situations like that one: shiny, engaging, but ultimately as hollow as the Vessel. The public art throughout the mall exists merely as an Instagram backdrop for after you’ve taken all your photos on the stairs. "I Was Here" by Lara Schnitger is a wall of two-toned sequins: rub your hand on it, and they change color, like an Etch a Sketch. True to its title, it’s banking on our narcissism. Both a Kayley and a Kaylee had signed their names.

These are a few of the things I saw at Hudson Yards: A $595 Rocky Horror Picture Show T-shirt. A $949 robotic crab, for sale at B8ta, the store’s more upscale version of Brookstone. An entire store dedicated to no-slip socks. Bone broth on tap.

Walking around, it wasn’t the ostentatious wealth that was striking. It was how ordinary the place was. The more time I spent in it, the more it reminded me of the mall where I spent teenage weekends wearing and folding spaghetti-strap tops at our local Hollister. The stores in the mall where I worked weren’t quite as fancy, but they were all playing the same roles: Bouchon Bakery was cast as Au Bon Pain. Instead of P.F. Chang’s, there was Wild Ink, a pricey Asian fusion restaurant.

Instead of Banana Republic, there’s - oh, wait, actually, there’s a Banana Republic on the third floor. Surprised to see it in a mall for rich people? There are fancy stores on the ground level, but the higher you go, the more you’ll encounter poly-blend fabrics and semiannual sales - a contrast that makes luxury stores, like the Cartier, feel cheap. There’s Uniqlo and Zara, Madewell and Lululemon. You don’t have to be a billionaire to shop at Hudson Yards. You just have to want to pretend you are.

A small voice of dissent comes from the Shed’s "Collision/Coalition," on display through the end of August, where the artist Tony Cokes’ slide shows about gentrification and the perils of mixing art and money are a tiny nip at the hand that feeds, and provide a frisson of subversion. "What is really at stake on this terrain," one slide reads, "is the heart of the city."

But here is Hudson Yards’ redemption: It has cheap food, and the cheap food is good. Peach Mart is chef/restaurateur David Chang’s take on a convenience store, with beautifully packaged Japanese and Korean snack foods and cheffier takes on gas-station food. Tucked away on the top floor of the mall, its shelves are stocked with interesting flavors of gummy candy, chips, Kit Kats and Pocky. Triangular boxes contain premade katsu sandwiches, and the $3 beans and rice, ladled out of a big pot, are probably the best deal in the entire building -- and an even better one if you win the game of rock, paper scissors that the cashier might invite you to play, rewarding winners with a dollar off their purchase. There’s also Fuku, Chang’s fast-food fried chicken chain, on the second floor. (In the not-cheap-but-good category: Kawi, his high-end Korean restaurant, where, when you finish your meal, you might find yourself the only one walking through the closed mall, like a ghost.)

But the real draw to Hudson Yards -- the place that will entice even the most jaded New Yorkers to rub elbows with the tourists -- is Mercado Little Spain, the Jose Andres/Ferran and Albert Adria-led Spanish food hall in the basement of the mall and, at least on the day that I visited, the only part of Hudson Yards that felt like it had a pulse. Fight for a standing table in the market, and send a scout from your group to the more than a dozen stalls, where gazpacho and jamon and patatas bravas will compete for your attention.

Best of all are the pan con tomate, a simple garlic and tomato rubbed toast (the pan de cristal bread is imported from Catalonia), and the tortilla de patatas, a velvety potato-egg omelet with a center that oozes in the most comforting way. There’s paella in pans the diameter of hula hoops, and friends can share a round of churros dipped in chocolate (most dishes are between $5 and $21). At the bar, you can sip a vermouth and soda, or tip back for a porron. And if you get tired of long lines, the adjacent Spanish Diner serves many of the Mercado’s most popular dishes, but with table service -- and more egg dishes, like a re-creation of the garbanzo and morcilla stew topped with a fried egg from Barcelona’s Bar Pinotxo at La Boquer?a Market.

So what do you do at Hudson Yards? You climb. You shop. You eat. You stand in the middle of the Vessel and take the photo that everyone takes from its center, where they put their phone on the ground so a halo of stairwells encircles it. And maybe you think about whether a great plate of lacon con patatas is good enough to make up for, well, everything else around it.

If Hudson Yards is hell, hell is merely boring, and maybe that’s also what New Yorkers hate about it: that a place in Manhattan can feel exactly like a suburban mall in any upscale suburb in the country. At least this particular hell has all the good flavors of Kit Kats.

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