I Heart New York

Trip Start Mar 15, 2008
Trip End Oct 02, 2009

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Flag of United States  , New York
Monday, May 19, 2008

When you travel to a place, you have certain expectations about what that place will be like. Some places disappoint you; others exceed your expectations, or just meet them. Some surprise you. New York obviously is a place that you have high expectations for. Perhaps no other place in the world is used more frequently as a backdrop for movies and TV; perhaps no other city is more iconic and familiar to those who've never visited. So...
Thankfully, New York is awesome. The place meets your expectations, exceeds them and surprises you all in one. Manhattan Island is like a huge playground for adults, almost the antithesis to Disneyland, which, I'm sure, is fun if you're young with younger sensibilities.
Firstly, New York really truly looks like it does in the movies. This, you may think is a bad thing, because then when you finally visit, you've seen it all before. But it's makes the city seem strangely familiar, like you're visiting a place you saw in a dream. The streets are lined with tall buildings, running together like an endless wall; you feel like you're a child walking down a supermarket aisle. There's history in the old style turn-of-the-century buildings, with their stone facades mimicking a more romantic period of time. Unlike most other places we visited, there isn't a lot of the modernity of design that can make classic architecture seem ugly. New York looks like a stately old lady that's maintained her dignity despite her age, and hasn't tried to modernise with superficial plastic surgery.
Then there are the people of New York. When we arrived at JFK Airport and got on the subway, there was a guy with a miniature drum kit on the train, drumming happily away on the train. Normally you'd expect this to be very annoying. If you got onto a bus in Adelaide and there was someone up the back on a drum kit you'd probably get right off again or call the police. But the guy on the subway was actually very talented and he represented the experience of the life of the city. When you walk around New York, there always seems to be something happening, someone to look at or someone doing something interesting. People are either very excited to be in New York or slightly crazy from having been there too long, and this gives the place a sense of sublime character. It's like Hollywood is probably supposed to be; on one corner you get the fresh faced and enthusiastic youngster who truly believes he's going to make it in the town of dreams. And across the road you get the guy who never quite made it and is slowly losing his mind. All of this energy gives the city its intensity of life; it's quirkiness and its devilish humanity.
We arrived in the middle of the day and rode the subway for an hour to Manhattan Island, which is where the New York everyone really knows, is. We then changed trains and headed to our hostel in Harlem, the YMCA. We had a tiny room on the eighth floor with bunk beds and a mini fridge and TV. It wasn't the biggest room we'd ever been in, but was good for the price and in a great location only twenty minutes on the subway from Times Square. We set up camp, did some washing and shopping and then we were off for nine days of discovering the world's most famous city.
Leah had visited New York before, so knew what to expect to some degree, and this made things a little easier. Because of the size of the city and the number of tourists that visit, getting around can be a bit of a slog. Line-ups at popular places can be exhausting and long, and moving around can be time consuming. Fortunately we had a plan for what we wanted to do and a general idea of how long things would take, so we scheduled as best we could and set out.
The first place we visited was Times Square. Somehow, flat images of Times Square in a magazine or on TV don't do it justice. The place is a 360 degrees moving billboard of lights, advertising, news and people: tourists, office workers and those yellow New York cabs. It may not sound that interesting, but Times Square is actually an incredible visual feast for the eye to try and digest. Everywhere you look there's something going on. While the idea of all of this 'noise' may seem offensive to some, I found it very captivating - the Square lights up like a big city should. Every angle tries to capture your attention, to thrill you and entertain you and all you can do is spin around and try hopelessly to capture it on your camera. Yellow cabs fly past, New York city cops patrol and tourists snap away with their cameras and you really feel like your in the middle of it all: in the middle of New York and in the centre of the world. Then you turn down one side street and find you're on Broadway. Cross another and you're wandering through the biggest Toys-r-Us in the world.
After peeling ourselves away from this powerful distraction, we headed to Planet Hollywood for dinner. Shortly after we wandered down that side street I mentioned and found ourselves outside the Schubert Theatre where we had tickets for a Broadway show. The show was 'Spamalot', a musical version of the Monty Python film 'The Holy Grail'. Our tickets seemed cheap at $35 a pop, and we soon discovered why when we were ushered up three flights of stairs to the back row of the theatre. It didn't matter at all though, we could still see the action and hear the words and had a great time. The musical was very funny and faithful to the original with a few new songs thrown in for good measure.
The following days we roamed around the Island of Manhattan, cramming in as much New York adventure as we possibly could. In a city full of icons, just walking down the street or looking up at a building can be an experience, and we were fortunate enough to have nine days to take in as much of the city as possible.
Our time in Central Park had to be broken up into three separate visitations over three days; such is the size of the place. The park sits dead in the centre of Manhattan Island, a perfect break in the urban jungle, suggesting a careful deliberateness in the design of New York severely lacking in many other cities. The park fills 843 acres, is over 4 kilometres long and is a testament to New York life and history. We got off the subway in the morning and entered the park somewhere in the middle from the west side. When we entered, the first thing we saw was a sign reading: 'Strawberry Fields'. We'd inadvertently entered the small, inconspicuous section of the park that had inspired the famous Beatles song so many years ago. We didn't see many strawberries or fields there; it was mostly a smallish section of the park that had become a mini shrine to John Lennon. Alongside Strawberry Fields was a grey brick design on the ground that read 'Imagine', which was adorned with flowers left by Beatles fans. Many people milled and took photos around this pop music Mecca.
As we wandered, it became apparent that Central Park itself is not really for the tourists as much as it is for the residents of New York - specifically a chance to find some wide green spaces away from the uber-urban sprawl. During this warm time of year, many residents laid and baked in the sun, or just enjoyed the atmosphere of the park life.
While in Central Park we spent a good part of half an hour watching the many squirrels playing, running and squirreling about. The small creatures are very entertaining: they hop around like Warner Brothers cartoon characters, with na´ve grace and a happy energy.
After watching the squirrels (yes, not working can be wasteful fun), we hired a rowboat and headed out along the Park's central lake and spent an hour feeling like we were in the middle of an olden days Victorian English countryside setting. Only the rows of buildings that poked their heads up over the surrounding trees broke the illusion.
Over the following nine days, we returned to Central Park twice more. We wandered around the Lady Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, saw tortoises, and even had a picnic at the northern most part of the Park, watching the families play and the locals walk their dogs. Central Park is a wonderful icon for the people of New York to have. It's so lush, green and unspoilt and provides easy access to some of the great cultural precincts of the city. The only reason that Adelaide's parklands don't rival Central Park is that our city is so sprawling in its make up, the city centre becomes difficult to access.
After enjoying the Park, we walked south about twenty minutes and, after briefly passing the famous frontage of CBS's 'The David Letterman Show', we came to the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). If the Louvre in Paris is the world's most famous gallery, then the MoMA is surely second in running (its easier to say this when you've visited of course). The MoMA is as immense as anything New York has to offer, and by the time we'd worked our way through the first section of new 'Post Modernist Art', we realised we hadn't even begun to scratch the surface. The MoMA's collection included very recognisable works by classic impressionists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin and my favourite Monet. And of course there was a ton of works by Picasso, more modernist stuff by Warhol and Jackson Pollock and then the stranger ultra modern stuff, like where someone had painted a canvas plain white.
The Museum of Modern Art must be insured for hundreds of millions, such is the notoriety of the art it displays. In fact, there are so many works by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Da Vinci and Warhol, to name a few renowned artists, in New York, that if the city truly were to be destroyed by aliens or mutants as in the movies, then the world's stocks of great art would be sufficiently reduced; probably billions of dollars worth of valuable paintings would be lost. It's sad in a way that art has come to this - being appreciated more for its recognisability and insurability than it's influential ability. And it's sad also that we may know some of Van Gogh's most famous works from seeing them hung in our local McDonald's, rather than for seeing them as great works of imagination. But now I'm just being pretentious in my musings, aren't I? Oh well...
The following day we crammed even more of New York City into our already crowded senses. First we headed down to Madison Square Gardens where the New York Nicks basketball team play their games. I think Godzilla laid her eggs here in the Hollywood version of the movie as well.
Afterwards, we headed down to Wall Street, which is really just a street where the New York Stock Exchange and Trump Towers are located. We wandered east of Wall Street and found ourselves looking across at the famous Brooklyn Bridge. I think they blew that up in 'I Am Legend', to stop the zombie virus escaping Manhattan Island. Hmm... New York is in a lot of movies...
After wandering Wall Street, which might as well have been King William Street for all the interest it gave us, we headed north to the huge, smouldering hole in the ground that is the former site of the World Trade Centre. While every other part of New York gets shamelessly used as a location in movies, no sight other than the Twin Towers has been so shamelessly removed from the cinema, after the tragic terrorist attack in 2001.
What, really, is there to say about the cavernous sight that is the World Trade Centre? Now only cranes populate the sight, and nothing much in the way of actual construction seems to be going on. A high fence surrounds the sight, and a couple of posters showing future developments sit at one end, but really, any mention of the tragedy seems non existent. There was a small shop nearby, a newly opened but highly inconspicuous museum of images of the World Trade Centre attack, which charged a ridiculous $22 for entry.
It's interesting really, when you compare the Twin Towers museum of images to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. The Peace Museum requests an entry fee of 50 Yen (about 50 cents!!). And said museum offers more than just 'images' - images that we've already seen over and over: it offers an evenhanded argument against atomic weapons and a formal retelling of the events of the Hiroshima bombings. While I'm sure the New York Mayors office doesn't need to make an argument against Terrorism, surely they can offer a more fitting and accessible tribute to those who suffered during the attacks? Rather than just two big, empty holes.
As we considered heading back home, the clouds parted and the sun came out. We made a snap decision to go and visit the Empire State building, which we hadn't been intending to visit, as it was a somewhat dark cloudy day up to that point.
The Empire State building is so immense that if you were to walk around it, you wouldn't be able to see much aside from miles of windows heaving up to the sky. It's possible; in fact, that you could walk past the Empire State building and not even know it's there, such are the proportions. The only way to see it properly is from some distance away - at least four or five streets so that you can actually fit the whole thing sufficiently in your vision. When we were at the base of the building, I would've walked past it, had the various signs not alerted us to its existence.
The Empire State Building is a testament to the tourist line-up, like no other famous sight in the world (oh, sorry, except for the Statue of Liberty, of course). We entered the building, which Leah assured me had, on her previous visit, had a line coming down and out the front doors, around the corner and so on. We entered a room the size of two basketball courts and lined up behind a snaking line that filled half the room. Fortunately, we had bought a special ticket pack that allowed us 'front of line access', so we were moved to the front of the line. To our dismay, the room we were in was only the room to purchase tickets. We were then herded through metal detectors into another room bigger than the last, only to have to line up in the line, to get in the line to wait for the lifts. So, over an hour later, we were in those aforementioned elevators, which took us up to another floor, where we had to wait (albeit ten minutes or so) to get in another lift to go to the viewing section of the Empire State Building.
Whew! So we finally got our majestic view of New York City. The view from the Empire State lets you see how truly massive New York is, developed as far as the eye can see. I also got my very first look at the Statue of Liberty, to the south, tiny and distant like an ant (a tall, green ant). Across to the southeast we could see as far as New Jersey and to the north we could see Central Park and beyond. While the best views of Manhattan Island are to be seen from the boat that takes you to Liberty Island, the top of the Empire State provides you with a wonderful panorama of the city and a great test of your patience in waiting in line. But, of course, as with anything New York, it was well worth the wait.
The next day we chilled a bit, before heading out around 4 p.m. for our only adventure outside of Manhattan Island, in the borough known as Queens. How can you visit New York without going to a baseball game? And so it was, that we sat on the subway for an hour before reaching Che Stadium, the home of the New York Mets. We did try to get Yankee's tickets, but they were sold out well in advance, so for a day we became honorary Mets fans.
For those who don't know, baseball is the American version of cricket, it's just faster and the beer is more expensive. We rushed to the souvenir shop outside and jumped on the bandwagon with Leah buying a hat and me buying a T-shirt. We then went inside the stadium, which seemed a lot like the MCG inside, just not quite as large. The game was entertaining and the biggest appeal for the spectators is that every time the batter fouled and knocked the ball behind into the crowd, there was a chance that you'd get to catch a fly ball, which you would then get to keep. Quite a few came near us, but none close enough on this occasion.
The game was exciting and fast-paced and there was plenty of entertainment in between innings. Some fighter jets flew over because it was a Memorial Day Public Holiday, and there was a military band and so on. A very true slice of American culture, I think. Oh, and for the record, the Mets lost to the Florida Marlins. I can't remember the score, but the stadium emptied out in the seventh innings when it was clear the Mets wouldn't win. It was like watching Crows fans trying to get first out of the car park with 15 minutes to go in the final quarter. Ah, well, anyway. So we had a fun time and became baseball converts for a day.
The following day we ventured out to hunt for a New York icon that I had a personal interest in. We found, on the corner of Broadway and 112th street, the unassuming frontage of the Seinfeld diner. The outside of Tom's Restaurant in New York was used as the introduction shot to the scenes in Seinfeld that were set in the Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine's favourite diner. The fašade was exactly as it had been in that famous single shot from the series, instantly recognisable making the strange world of New York come to life even more. We entered the diner, which could've been any old diner in New York if not for 'Seinfeld', and we found an ordinary but crowded restaurant inside. It was near lunchtime, so we decided to eat and enjoyed a cheap but tasty roast. There was Seinfeld paraphernalia on the walls and even some of the customers were wearing Seinfeld T-shirt and had obviously sought out the restaurant as well. It's amazing to think that this tiny inconspicuous restaurant had garnered so much business due to the Seinfeld series.
After lunch we headed to Museum Mile in New York, specifically Central Park West, the long road that runs along the west side of Central Park. Along this one road are dotted an amazing run of over twenty Museums and galleries, including museums dedicated to American Indians, the Police Force, Natural History and, of course, Jewish Americans. We had two particular museums we wanted to visit. First was the world famous Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-respected architect, with the museum exterior itself being well known as a great example of modern design. Unfortunately, the frontage of the Guggenheim was undergoing restoration, so it looked more like an ode to scaffolding than a remarkable piece of design. Even more unfortunately, the day we were there was 'Family Day' so we had to shuffle shoulder to shoulder with all the noisy kids and parents up the unusual spiral staircase that made up the interior of the museum. Fortunately, there were plenty of interesting things to see inside the museum, including a collection of works by a Chinese artist whose means of creation was 'gun powder and explosives on paper canvas'.
Further down Museum Mile, we visited the Museum of the City of New York. This particular museum housed collections of art and artefacts from just about every period in history. We crammed as much in as we could in the Museum, but I imagine it would take you a week non-stop to take in everything, if only for 30 seconds. The Museum had a good collection of work by modern and postmodern American artists and a fine collection of crumbled Roman sculpture, all very impressive and posh. It was the kind of place where if you ate at the restaurant you'd pay $25 for a plate of nicely arranged imported Japanese bean sprouts.
New York is certainly a city of culture. Aside from the dozens of museums and galleries, you can barely walk down a single street without coming across an interesting historical building or copper statue. Much of this is probably lost on us tourists who just want an 'I Heart New York' T-shirt and a thousand different angles of the Statue of Liberty, but it certainly makes it a lively city to scamper around.
On the subject of said Statue, the following day we ventured to the very southern tip of Manhattan Island to catch the ferry south to the Statue of Liberty. We felt very fortunate to have bought our front of line pass, because the line to board the boat to the Statue was so long you'd need a taxi just to get from the front to the back of it (note: that was an exaggeration - but still the line was freakin' ridiculous). (Leah says: at least 500m honestly!) Fortunately, due to our 'special' pass, we only had to wait about an hour before boarding the ferry.
On first inspection, the Statue seems rather small. This probably has to do with the fact that it's on an island about a mile out to sea, but even up close it seems a little smaller than you might expect. Perhaps because it's always shot from a low angle makes it seem bigger in photographs than in reality. The ferry finally got us over to Liberty Island, giving us some amazing views of the Statue from all angles, and some amazing views of the skyscraper end of Manhattan Island.
We boarded and, after such a long wait, headed straight for the cafeteria for lunch. After satisfying our hunger, we ventured around the island to see the Statue. Liberty stands 93 metres (305 feet) tall; stand included, and is an impressive example of large scale sculpturing. The folds in Liberty's dress are very detailed, for example, and it's amazing to think that it was all so perfectly designed and moulded all the way over in France in the 1880's, and then shipped so far and reconstructed so perfectly. Many people don't know that the Statue's inside structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel, designer of some other famous French architecture, while the outer body was designed by someone much less famous, so I won't bother mentioning his name because you probably won't remember it.
We walked around the Island and the Statue and took about a hundred photos, but there wasn't much else to do, other than look. You can't venture up inside the Statue anymore, without paying a large fee, due to the potential threat of terrorism. So we spent about half an hour in the souvenir tent (hey, we're tourists, aren't we?) one of the largest souvenir shops I've seen. The souvenir tent was actually a marquee that you might employ for a wedding reception, rather than to sell cheap, Chinese made Liberty sculptures. But it was packed, bumper-to-bumper, so, I guess it's justified.
After this, we boarded another ferry, which took us across to the neighbouring Ellis Island, about half a mile away. Ellis Island is notorious in American folklore as the place where the masses of immigrants that helped turn the country into the melting pot that it is first landed to be registered. The island is no longer used as an immigration house, but instead is one large immigration museum. The Statue of Liberty is known, anecdotally, as the first piece of America that many immigrants saw when travelling on ships from Europe or Africa, before stopping at Ellis Island to be processed. The immigration museum was very interesting and it was particularly significant to walk the steps and stand in the halls that were the first ports of call for so many people escaping oppression to come to America.
After our visit to Ellis Island, we boarded the ferry once again and as we headed back to Manhattan, realised it was almost 5 p.m. We could hardly believe we'd spent a whole day on our visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
And so we headed back onto the subway for our comfy YMCA bunk in Harlem-
Oh, and I should mention the subway of New York itself - almost a character of the city in its own right, the subway is as efficient as it is dirty and is the main method of transportation for most New Yorkers. While we did see a rat or two wandering the tracks as we waited for trains, the life on a subway train itself can be a thing to enjoy independently. New York is such a busy and crowded place that it's hard to hide yourself from view, and so it was that we often encountered intriguing conversations and even more intriguing people on the subway. If someone has lost his mind and now openly talks to the voices in his head, then no doubt you'll get to hear about it first hand. And the most surprising part of the subway is the beggars. One man, for example, entered the train at a particular stop and loudly announced; "Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd please excuse me for a moment, I'd like to sing a song for you all." He then launched into a soulful and pitch perfect rendition of 'Stand By Me'. If it hadn't been for his dirty clothes, we might have assumed the New York mayor's office had commissioned this man to sing on trains to entertain people. He passed his hat around at the end of the song and many were happy to pay him for his talents. I guess you can get down on your luck very quickly in a place like New York.
The sun was beginning to dawn on our time in NYC. The Harlem YMCA had turned out to be a safe and friendly place to stay, and we'd particularly enjoyed eating at Popeye's Chicken, the chain chicken shop on the corner. The chicken was very tasty and, unlike KFC's chicken, didn't leave lacerations on the inner lining of the stomach. We did so much more in New York, but we've already gone on too long it seems, so I'll just try to sum up, before I lose your attention.
Just in case you couldn't tell, we really loved our time in New York. It wasn't just about enjoying the recognisable icons of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty or Central Park; it was about the overall character and life of the city. It was fun riding the subway and seeing all the people going to work, or going crazy and singing to themselves. We loved wandering around Times Square and seeing the huge Hershey's store and the giant Toys-r-Us. New York is a city where there's always something happening and you're always surrounded by people who're happy to be in the city. It really is the antithesis of Los Angeles: there's less sun in New York, but instead there's more culture, more history and more layers of a city that's alive and proud.
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Courtney on

You're right, New York City definitely doesn't disappoint. It was the most incredible place I have ever been. I haven't seen a lot, but I didn't want to leave. I felt like I could be there for years and never get bored. I want to go back so bad. You're blog describes it to a T. I wish I could have seen more when I was there.

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