Monday, 28 July 2014

Days 470 to 475: New York

Here are some facts about New York.

1. It is a city. A big city.
2. It is made up of five districts, or boroughs as they are called here. They are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island, but the only one visitors care about is Manhattan. Some of them occasionally pretend to be interested in Brooklyn, but they're not really.
3. Manhattan is stuffed full of skyscrapers, many of them very famous. Other cities also have a lot of skyscrapers but none of them are as cool as Manhattan's. As far as is possible with skyscrapers, which are a concept that only became possible in the late 19th Century, Manhattan has historic skyscrapers. Seven of them were, at one point, the tallest buildings in the world.
4. Danielle and I were there, from Tuesday 22nd to Sunday 27th July.

Probably that last fact is the most pertinent, as if not for that I wouldn't be discussing New York now. After two weeks of recharging at home, and a weekend of dancing and drinking at two weddings, we found our feet on American asphalt, surrounded by tall towers, yellow cabs, hot dog stands, and the rush of a city in a perpetual hurry. Welcome back, I thought.

This is the fourth time I've been to New York, and it never lets me down. It's one of the world's big cities, in terms of everything. It's a powerhouse of influence: money, fashion, architecture, food, lifestyle. I first came here as a beardless youth, aged 20, in 2000. It was my first non-family trip abroad, coming about in the somewhat unlikely circumstances of a pub quiz victory. More precisely, a series of them, as a victory in our local student union led to various other victories, and eventually winning the Scottish final. I still haven't wrapped my head around it. To this day, I love a good pub quiz, but my weakest round is always the music round, and it's not the strongest of my former team-mates either. Yet, this entire series of pub quizzes were entirely music based. How on earth did we win?

Back in 2000, New York was a little different, as you might imagine. It had these, for a start.

Three years later, on my next visit, this time paid for out of my own funds (i.e. a credit card) rather than won, there was just this:

Today, we have this.

I wrote a lengthy entry about the various proposals for the new World Trade Center, but in the end none of it matters, because this is the one that was built. 541 metres tall, or a symbolic 1776 feet (1776 being America's year of independence), it's virtually finished and I have to say, it looks alright. In the manner of the original two, it's a fairly no-nonsense colossal glass tower and won't win awards for elegance or poise, but it gets by on sheer size and reputation. The original two were four-sided blocks, but One World Trade Center has a neat little trick of having interlocking triangles rise from the 20th floor, giving it eight sides. This can look quite unusual (in a good way) from certain views.

It's being built just to the side of where the Twin Towers once stood. As I said, I visited in 2000 when they were still standing. I didn't go to the top because I was pushed for time, thinking, “Screw it, I'll be back here one day. They're not going anywhere.” Just over a year later they'd gone, and in 2003 the entire area was a building site and I couldn't get anywhere near. Finally, a memorial is in place – and it's good. Really good. At the exact position both towers stood are large square pools, inset in the ground, so that water pours into the ground before disappearing into a smaller square hole in the middle. The names of the dead are engraved around the perimeter.

Although I made a very brief in-transit visit (for just a morning) in 2012, this was effectively my first time in New York in over a decade, and it was strange seeing all these sights, vaguely familiar from years ago and also from TV and films. The World Trade Center was the strangest, as I quite clearly remember the plaza where the two towers once stood, and where now large pools flow.

The new World Trade Center is the tallest building in New York, usurping the Empire State Building from the position it re-held after 2001. It's the subject of my eventual review, but as you'll imagine was fairly ever-present during our trip. The World Trade Center is downtown, but it's the business district and we found less reason to go there. The Empire State Building is midtown, and midtown found more reason for us to be there. It's got stuff like this:

The Chrysler Building, the tallest building in the world for 11 months. Then, like a bigger kid chest-bumping it out of the way, the Empire State Building strutted in, owning the playground. A lot of people think the Chrysler Building is better, and there's no doubt the pinnacle - or the crown, as it's called - is very attractive, although I prefer the overall bulk and look of the Empire State Building.

Central Park. It's not exactly an obscure location within New York, taking up 6% of Manhattan, but in a very prominent position. It's a terrific space.

Almost as terrific as this space, a wedge of land between skyscrapers, near 34th Street. A whole bunch of stalls sold food and drink, with some excellent ales - or craft beers as America calls them. America used to have a reputation for pish-poor beer, and perhaps that reputation still lingers, but I was thoroughly impressed with the beer during my five days in New York. Craft beer has become fashionable, with lots of microbreweries popping up, with the happy result that I was spoiled for choice. A couple of times, Danielle and I found ourselves in this little niche within Manhattan, me sipping a craft beer and her sipping a margarita.

Madison Square Park (not to confused with Madison Square Garden, which is a sports and music arena) is another lovely niche, down some blocks from the Empire State Building. On a warm afternoon, after marching around busy streets, it made for a nice break. The Flatiron Building is just next to it, but I failed to take any photos.

This is Grand Central Station. I only really popped in to take a picture.


And while everyone goes all cock-a-hoop over the Empire State Building and the views from it - there's better. The Rockefeller Center is between it and Central Park, and offers great views of both, and of the rest of midtown. There was virtually no queuing (Empire State Building took at least an hour) and plenty of space to wander around the rooftop.

These are just a few selected highlights of New York - it's a city of unabashed highlights. We arrived fairly late on Tuesday evening, staying in Brooklyn, in what appeared to be a Chinatown. Ours was not a mission to explore the "real" New York, and so we explored our area pretty much no further than the door of our accommodation to the nearest subway station, spending our days in Manhattan. On our first full day, Wednesday, we visited Times Square, Central Park, and went up the Rockefeller Pizza. I also ate two pizza slices and drank a can of juice for $2.75, and was so happy with this that it became my lunch staple. On Thursday we visited the Museum of Modern Art and the Statue of Liberty. The Museum of Modern Art is full of stuff like this:

That's Jackson Pollock. And in case that wasn't immediate obvious, after a few days in New York it will be. I like Jackson Pollock's stuff, but there's no doubt it's a little samey - I saw several paintings virtually identical to this while there. Which is probably why not many people were looking at it, unlike this:

That's Starry Night by Van Gogh, if you look closely. A wonderful painting, but here highlights the problem with most art galleries for me - too many people. I'd happily have spent a few minute looking at Starry Night, but screw that if I'm going to tolerate being jostled for the privilege. So instead I just took this distant photo. This and the above Jackson Pollock picture were the only photos I took here. I think art galleries are like sunsets, and should be looked at rather than constantly photographed.

On the Friday we kicked the day off with a cruise on the Circle Line. We weren't the only ones.

But despite the crowds, it was a pretty idyllic cruise. This tourist boat goes all the way around Manhattan, and with warm and clear weather, it was a pleasure to sit back and enjoy the experience, over a leisurely 2½ hours.

Afterwards, we braved the Mobius queues of the Empire State Building, which I'll cover in my review, and enjoyed some time in Madison Square Park. And then, we went to meet Barry. Barry is an old university friend of mine, one I'd not seen since graduation in 2001. Upon graduation, I entirely abandoned the field of biochemistry forever, becoming a dishwasher, an English teacher in Korea, and finally an offshore worker. Barry instead remained on topic, but moved around from Southampton, to Georgia in America, then Philadelphia, and finally New York (or New Jersey technically, thought he works in New York). In the process, he collected a wife. With my own wife in tow, and with an additional friend of Barry's, we met for drinks. Barry's the chap on the right.

It was quite a lot of drinks as it turned out, and all of a sudden it was 2.30am and we were in the borough of Queens. Queens is very far from our Chinatown spot in Brooklyn, and we found that out the hard way. New York's subways are open 24 hours a day, which is great, but the service is more limited. With the only direct train down, receiving repairs since Hurriance Sandy struck in 2012, we had to back via Manhattan. It took over two hours. Fortunately, Danielle was far too exhausted to speak, let alone complain.

Saturday took a while to get going, as you might imagine, but we still managed to have a wander around SoHo and Downtown, where the new World Trade Center stands. You've already seen a bunch of pictures of it, but here's the Manhattan Municipal Building and a residential tower by Frank Gehry (the guy who did the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles).

We finished the day with a gigantic Korean meal on 31st Street, which appears to have become Manhattan's Koreantown since I was last there.

On our final day, Danielle explored SoHo again while I went into the Natural History Museum. Danielle got the better deal - the museum was full of children, and the queues were enormous. By the time I got in, I wasn't in the mood, so quickly walked past the parade of stuffed elephants and the like in a raging huff. I was cheered, briefly and slightly, by the side of a miniature World Wonder.

That's El Castillo of Chichen Itza, which I hope to visit in a couple of months.

I reunited with Danielle for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which features art from around the world and from around the ages, ranging from Greek sculpture to abstract American. It's truly colossal, and the kind of place best served by multiple revisits, each time focussing on one section. As it were, we had just a couple of hours, so treated it like a preview tour. However, I was impressed with their Egyptian temple, a real one transported over following the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, which flooded a large area of southern Egypt. One of my Wonders, Abu Simbel, wad meticulously relocated to avoid it being submerged, and to say thanks to the countries that helped, Egypt gave away a few smaller temples. I've already seen one in Madrid, and now in New York.

Sunday was our final day in New York, as we had a midnight Megabus to Toronto. We filled the remaining time with some drinks at a rooftop bar, and some food in a diner. After days of hot, sunny weather, the heavens opened minutes before we got in the bus. It was a timely goodbye.

Finally, as some of you may know, my Wonder quest was in part prompted by the New7Wonders project of around seven years ago, when a shady company courted publicity by staging a public vote on the New Seven Wonders of the World. It was flawed from start to finish, and the second half of this entry gives more details. To prove it wrong I've been visiting all these locations to make a more considered assessment. Well, getting the general public to pick seven man-made Wonders wasn't enough, they since went on to pick a highly dubious seven natural Wonders. That seemed to discredit them in the eyes of many, but still it hasn't put them off. Right now, they are in the process of picking the seven greatest cities in the world. Take a look at their shortlist of 21.

Barcelona - check. London - check. Istanbul - check. But what's this? No Paris? No Rome? No New York? Am I seriously expected to believe that these cities don't even make the shortlist? And check out what is actually on the list. Mendoza in Argentina, La Paz in Bolivia... I've been to these cities recently, and they're alright, but hardly the world's greatest cities. Reykjavik? Durban? Perth in Australia. Doha in Qatar? What the hell? There's even a place I'd never heard of, called Vigan, which turns out to be a city of 50,000 people in the Philippines. All of these are supposedly better than New York.

Don't worry, I'm definitely not going to follow up my man-made Wonder quest with a city Wonder quest - I believe Danielle would actually murder me. But I'm rather delighted to see the 7Wonder people entirely sabotage themselves. I look forward, very keenly, to their final seven of the greatest cities on earth...

1 comment:

  1. Excellent time in New York! Lived on the island for 2 years.....
    Nothing in the world like The Big Apple.......
    You really caught everything and your writing style is engaging.....thank you!


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