Uptown urban jungle
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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In fact, as I wait here I can't help but think myself quite lucky, because I've just spent a great couple of weeks in New York City training for my new job, and by next week I'll be in Edinburgh, Scotland, starting work and beginning another interesting chapter of my life. We'll see how that goes but rest assured that I made the most of NYC, so the next couple of entries will be dedicated to my spare time here.
The firm put me up in a tidy and well appointed shoebox of a room in the Hotel Chandler, strategically located on East 31st Street in the shadow of the Empire State Building and quite near Times Square, Flatiron (with its famous wedge building above) and Madison Square Garden. It was also only a walk of a couple of blocks into the office which made the commuting aspect of NY city life much easier than usual.
As well as all the big ticket attractions located nearby there was a variety of smaller but just as interesting things to do and see as well. There's always something happening around here so whilst I didn't go inside the Museum of Sex (I'm too bashful for that), the taxis, diners, street traders and hobos populating this relatively central and apparently well-to-do area kept me occupied instead.
One of my more interesting initial discoveries was a local church on 5th Avenue with thousands of blue and yellow ribbons strung up on its fence. Each ribbon has the name of a US serviceman that has been killed in the most recent Iraqi conflict so whilst most of the city is festooned with patriotic flags and slogans, such scenes do remind you that the big cities are a little more objective, level-headed and democratic than some of their intensely nationalistic media would have you think.
On to the bigger ticket items though. Like most of the time I spent in town the weekend was absolutely glorious weather-wise. Mild, sunny and not too hazy was the typical order of the day, so I spent most of Saturday and Sunday hunting new sights. Walking north from the hotel I was soon at Grand Central station (a hapless taxi hanging off a bridge the only thing to see here), before checking out the Chrysler building, a masterpiece of 1930s art deco architecture that the locals love because of its beautiful crowning spire (only unveiled on the building's opening) and groovy foyer. A nice way to start of an architectural tour indeed.
En-route to the Rockefeller Center (below) I passed by the towering spires of St Patrick's cathedral. Having never really thought of the USA being home to 'beautiful' churches I was quite surprised to see this pretty gothic construction starkly superimposed against the looming grey skyscrapers around. The doors were open so I went inside where the vaulted arches and colourfully stained glass windows transported me back to some of the grand European places of worship I've witnessed. The blaring of the traffic just outside and the milling crowd within bring me back to reality in short order however.
Which was good because the next stop - the neighbouring Rockefeller Center - really, really impressed me. Despite the Great Depression the 1930s must have witnessed a flurry of massive construction projects in central Manhattan and this complex of buildings spreading over five city blocks (12 hectares) would have been one of the grandest. Tree-lined plazas are surrounded by street sculpture and vibrant flowers interposed with the colourful and ornate decoration on the buildings' massive facades. Dozens of American flags flutter in the sunshine whilst crowds throng through the cafes and shops or slide around the ice skating rink that is set up here each winter. The design is awesome but timeless in a way only classic architecture can achieve. Magnifique!
Continuing the journey north saw an adventure in Central Park. I knew it was quite large but I didn't expect the mixture of woodlands, lakes and manicured parklands that is found here. Kiddies were loving the Alice in Wonderland memorial and I was particularly surprised with the wooded area called The Rambles - literally a forest in the centre of Manhattan that teems with all sorts of critters and is probably the most natural and peaceful place on the island. That could also mean it might not be a good idea to wander around it by yourself.
The park was created from 850 acres of wasteland in 1853. It's absolutely huge so it took a while to cut across the fresh greenness - I certainly didn't see that coming...
Model boats on the lake looked like fun and the pyramidal structures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were also unexpected, but I was here to see New York's very own Cleopatra's Needle, a genuine ancient-era hieroglyph clad obelisk that is one of a pair given to Britain and the US in the 19th century by the Ottoman Turks and that are now on display in strange settings just like this. If you've read my London entry you would remember the twin to this that sits on the Embankment of the Thames. Coupled with those seen in Rome, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere (my memory fails me), I've now witnessed quite a few of these around the world. Bizarre.
Climbing the Empire State will always be a highlight of a NYC visit, so after a long queue (even at a quiet time of day) and then paying $16.50 for the privilege I eventually found myself on the 86th floor observatory deck to check the view. Pretty amazing as the photos show and really bringing home the scope of this incredibly dense urban sprawl.
From glimpses of Central Park through the mid town superstructures northwards to the massive growth of downtown skyscrapers punctuating the southern horizon, the view is definitely spectacular. Queens to the east, New Jersey to the west, and literally thousands of oversized buildings covering the length and breadth Manhattan in between. It's the first concept I've really had of a mega-city, in the true sci-fi sense of the term, where every space up, down and around as far as the eye can see is one concrete jungle. Seeing it from up here really puts things into perspective when you get to ground level and walk the streets again.
Now this place is jammed with gawpers pretty well any time you want to go, but especially around sunset on a nice day when the waiting time can hit two hours. Definitely leave your Sleepless in Seattle moment until near closing at midnight. If I wanted to get a bird's eye view again I'd probably try the observation deck of the Rockefeller Center instead - a tad more expensive but probably less crowded. It also has an added bonus of having a much better aerial view of Central Park. Whatever, if you visit New York though you have to get up one or the other...
Back on the ground and it was time to appreciate the little things again. It is a massive place with plenty of attractive scenes, and there's great (and inexpensive) food everywhere if you're willing to taste it and see. It seems like half of these restaurants are run by Spanish speakers these days, which surprised me, but I'll cover that more in the next entry. Another highlight here is the hilarious and highly creative TV advertising - which sort of makes up for the poor programming.
Apart from that it's a hard and fast place which reflects itself in a lower than average ratio of attractive women. But what it lacks in that regard it makes up in action and vibrancy. More from Downtown shortly....
Where I stayed