We went to New York in March 2008. As we flew in on Saturday the 15th a 19 storey tower crane collapsed and killed 7 people. On Monday Bear Stearns, one of the oldest financial institutions was saved from bankruptcy in a fire sale. The stock markets across the globe were heavily marked down. As we walked around and looked and listened to the conversations that were all around us none of this seemed to intrude. Daily life was everywhere, momentous events seemed to be for others.
In many ways New York felt tired and past it’s best. There was no great surge in the construction of modern buildings. The shops weren’t doing anything new. The museums were world class, but not bursting with energy. They seemed fuelled by bequests from the great and the good, but not new bequests- those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to predominate.
When we went to Vegas many times I heard people saying words to the effect that “We are Americans, we rule the world. The rest of the world should get over it.” The arrogance was unpleasant. There was no hint of that around in New York.
We stayed in the hotel called “70 Park Avenue”. There were so many gadgets in the room which was huge that it made cleaning difficult. The rooms had flat plasma screens, plus play station and dvd player including of course movies on demand with surround sound and bass unit, an ipod dock, two telephones including a cordless one (I used one to phone the UK – mistake $4.95 a minute), battery powered dockable candles, an iron and ironing board , a mini bar, a wine cooler and glasses, fast internet connection and WIFI, eight separate lights (although they were all so feeble that you wanted one good light) all of which were dimmable, stationery and pens, air conditioning, two chairs and a large bench, 3 mirrors, room service to bring you food 24/7, wholesome eco snacks, a safe, a power shower plus bath and innumerable towels, and “a spend a day in your room and have a spa experience”.
Then on top of this in the wardrobe there was a leopard skin (fake) outfit to buy or a bathrobe or an umbrella. There were so many wires snaking in all directions that there must be a fire hazard. The kings size bed would have happily slept 4 or 5 people (or let them have a really good time). God knows how they clean it all. The only thing that wasn’t there was a kettle. And I had brought my own. Of course with the 110 volts it took an age to boil, but you have to have your tea in the morning. At least I do.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
We went first to see the Statue of Liberty, We looked at the map and decided it was a tube ride we needed. It turned out that our hotel was a couple of blocks from Grand Central and so wandered in there and found the subway and bought a ticket. Grand Central is a huge vaulted marble building. It is really very impressive. This was our first introduction to New York lines. There are queues for everything that is “big” in New York. You queue to buy your ticket, then you queue to get past security.
The line for security was about 200 yards long. It winds it’s way into the security tent where the airport style security checks take place. Then you get to queue for the boat to take you to the island where the Statue of Liberty is. The boats are all old and tired and full of people. It was cold and drizzly but the crowds were everywhere.
When you eventually get to the statue you can wander round it, buy cheap souvenirs and use the bathroom but that’s all. To go inside you have to book your tickets way in advance and we hadn’t. So then we caught the boat to Ellis Island where the 19th century immigrants were processed. The exhibition upstairs is full of memorabilia. We caught a show called n out we saw the play on it’s first day of opening. I can’t find any reviews on the web.
The show takes 25 minutes and is very well acted (by actors who are in the union (as they are keen to point out in the posters)). The space in which the play is acted is very cramped and will only seat around 50 people maybe. We are all far too close to the area which is made up to look like the stage. The plot covers Bela Lugosi who apparently plays Dracula in a 1932 film and having entered the USA elsewhere then decides to travel to Ellis Island to be let in officially. Since the play is only 25 minutes long it is difficult for it achieve much emotional impact. I suspect that it may well be tweaked in the forthcoming weeks to improve it. As it stands the audience applauded half heartedly and then left. We all kind of wondered what we had just seen and why we had seen it. However the three actors did work terribly hard and it was worth the 6 bucks a head we had paid. In 6 weeks time doing he same play 4 or 5 times a day I suspect the actors may well go mad.
Considering the human dramas that played out on the Island with families being ripped apart and the sick returned whence they had come it was strange that there was no emotional impact left. The building was purely a museum and thronged by tourists who seemed to be pretty bored by the place. We left to enjoy the Ellis Island fast food court. Unfortunately we didn’t – the food didn’t really qualify as food and it was cold. Cold chicken burger with crisps and nowhere to sit, did not float my boat.
South Street Marine District
So onward – we caught the boat back to the mainland and then wandered on to the South Street Marine District. We passed an impressive Navy memorial on the way complete with vengeful eagle. At the centre of this area is a shopping mall of the cheap and tacky variety complete with the noisiest food court I think I’ve ever seen. Really don’t bother.
Feeling less than overwhelmed we walked on to Wall Street. It is tiny – only about 3 blocks long and the buildings are deeply unimpressive. But you have to go to see it.
Walking onward we went to Ground Zero. The impact was huge and strange. We had seen the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with no emotional impact then we wandered near this hole in the ground. There were people milling around and a man played the flute. Some were crying. The hole in the skyline was massive. I couldn’t take in the significance. There was no grand memorial – no nothing - just people genuinely in shock.
A man walked past trying to sell post cards of the planes hitting the twin towers, I felt disgusted that he could even contemplate making money out of this. I needed a coffee and the ever present Starbucks came to the rescue. We then walked back the 40 or so blocks back towards the hotel. We covered most of the districts, Soho, Noho and China town to mention a few. Eventually we even did Times Square.
We needed somewhere to eat and I was reminded of the restaurants at Grand Central. We went to look and considering the magnificent setting they were really quite reasonably priced. We had a pleasant meal at Caprices And so to bed.
St Patrick’s Day
We decided to do breakfast at the hotel although we knew it was extra. It was fine but the universal American desire for tips irked me. They added 18% service charge and then left space for you to add your extra tip. Monday was St Patrick’s Day and we went to see the parade. The guide book said to watch the show from near the Metropolitan Museum. So we caught the subway there and waited.
It was sunny but bitterly cold with a stiff breeze blowing. On the street police were everywhere. At one point a mobile canteen and hot dog van drew up and dispensed coffee and burgers to the police. There were marksmen sat on the roof of the museum with their rifles and long lenses. Helicopters buzzed around in the air. No terrorists were going to disrupt this. I couldn’t help wondering if this was as much about job creation as security.
A motorcade passed and then nothing. Then some horses with riders followed by men with bins and brushes. These men got a round of applause. Then nothing.
Then groups of pipe bands followed by groups of soldiers or policemen or any other group that could march started to pass by. There were no floats. This was clearly going to be a long procession. An hour into the parade it was clear that it was going to be a very long procession and that we had better do something if we weren’t to freeze.
So went to the Guggenheim museum and it was wow! Most of the building was given over to an exhibition called “I want to Believe” by a guy called Cai Quo-Qiang. The installations are certainly eye catching. The main space was occupied by 9 Chrysler cars suspended at different heights with flashing light tubes coming out of each one. He likes to create explosions and then film them as art. His ideas are really far out but I have no idea where art becomes a con and where it is truly meaningful. I guess art ought to have something to say beyond the purely decorative.
So then we came out, bought the T shirt and the parade was still going. We bought a city pass for 65 dollars each which gave us tickets for the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Natural History Museum, A cruise around the Statue of Liberty, The Museum of Modern Art and the Empire State Building all for $65 each. However to get our value out of it we had to do them all – except for the cruise which would have been pointless since we had already done it.
Natural History Museum
Then we walked to the Natural History Museum. You can’t help thinking that the museums are modelled on those in London. The architectural style is very similar and the feel is the same.There was a ticket included for a show called Cosmic Collisions narrated by Robert Redford. Most of the museum feels as though it is some weird time warp.
All of the exhibits seemed to me to have been prepared in about 1950 and because they had done a good job they just left them. See stuffed animals in life realistic tableaux, see models of people in life realistic tableaux. See all sorts of ethnic exhibits. It is vast. We were more interested in the space museum and the Hayden planetarium. The show was really very good and the space effects were incredible. It was kind of like being back at school again though.
We took in Macy’s department store on the way and were greeted by staff at two of the escalator landings yelling “Happy St Patrick’s Day” in some kind of chorus of screams. Once was off putting, twice was strange. The store claims to be the worlds largest department store. It was certainly vast. As you get higher in the building the escalators haven’t been replaced and must be some of the oldest wooden ones in the world.
Empire State Building
Onward though – we had no time to waste. I wanted to catch the sunset on the Empire State building and so we went there. The queue was enormous and that was just to buy the tickets. Fortunately we already had those so we could join another queue to get through security. This lead to another queue for something and then a third and so on. Eventually we did make it up to the observation platform on the 82nd floor and the views were spectacular, but the place was rammed with people.
The queuing had all taken so long that we missed the sunset. For another fee you could go up another 20 floors to the 102nd floor but we decided we had had enough. The lift was so rammed with people that we opted to walk down 8 flights of stairs to speed our descent. We were hungry by now and went into a bar diner next to the Empire state and had some nice steaks before wandering back to the hotel to sleep it off and start again on the Tuesday.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tuesday dawned We did breakfast at the hotel again and then set out for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had the same feel as the Natural History Museum – lots and lots of exhibits but all captured in a time warp. We wandered round the Medieval exhibition, the Egyptian and the modern art. The museum has the distinction of having the largest shop of any museum I have ever been to.
As we got there a film crew was busily at work filming an episode of a new TV show called the “Gossip Girls”. Two girls were sat on the steps of the museum. They must have been frozen and even more so when we came out they were still there. The TV trucks and support vehicles were everywhere. No wonder it costs so much to make a TV show.
We were pretty much museumed out and decided to do some shopping so we went back to Time Square. The shopping was pretty naff and we headed off towards the United Nations.
On route we stopped at the Fossil store and I got chatting to a shop assistant and I asked how long to the UN.
“Oh you mean that building with all the flags, You know I’ve lived here all my life and on 9/11 I thought that was the building that got hit. I phoned my mum and told her.” Clearly there are dumb blondes everywhere.
On to the UN and there was the longest queue I have ever seen. As we walked towards the end to see how long it was a guard said “Hey are you normal tourists?*. I confessed we were and he said “Well just go to the top of the queue”.
So we did and there a man said “Hey are you normal tourists”. Again I admitted we were. He said “Well just go in through the staff entrance”.
We got to staff entrance and the woman said “You can’t come in here”. The man behind her said “No its alright they can come in”.
So we got into the UN in super quick time just in time to catch the last tour of the day. We wandered round looking at some brilliant Cartoons for Peace that were being exhibited before the tour actually started.
The tour was hosted by a nice young man who had just graduated. There were about a dozen of us on the tour. He described the UN and it’s duties selectively avoiding the problem areas of which there are lots. According to him there were only 3 non member countries, the Vatican and 2 New Zealand associated states – The Cook Islands and Neuie. He carefully forgot to mention Taiwan who has 23 million inhabitants.
Nevertheless we did get to see the security council auditorium and the general assembly auditorium and we did learn a lot (albeit selectively) about the UN. I don’t seem to recall that the UN was the shining success that he described it as.
We wandered out and walked back to the hotel for a short rest before going out to eat again. We found a pleasant looking café and had a fantastic steak before heading back to the hotel for the final night.
Museum of Modern Art
After breakfast on the Wednesday we headed out into the pouring rain and eventually decided to take the underground off to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). On the way we bumped into Bloomingdales and had a quick wander around. It actually felt a lot more up market than Macy’s.
When we got to MOMA the queue in the down pour was astronomic. We were about to abandon it and get a coffee when a man appeared and said that if we had tickets we didn’t need to queue. We had the City pass and that got us in to the dry.
By this point we had had too many museums and the exhibits failed to enthral us. A lot of the exhibits were about design. A caravan is a caravan – sorry it’s not art. Eventually we worked our way up the building to the Dali’s and Matisse’s but they didn’t impress and we were scornful of the black squares on black backgrounds. On the top floor the exhibition actually got interesting but by that time we wanted out. And so we left.
We wandered around a bit more – went into the Rockerfeller Center and ate in a Pret A Manger which claimed it was the biggest invasion since the Beatles. Thence, back to the hotel and a taxi ride to JFK found us there at about 4.00pm for a 7.00pm flight.
Airport and Flights
The usual airport shops failed to thrill us and so we were pleased to actually board the Virgin A340 for the long pull back to the UK. When we came out we had been given a free upgrade to Upper Class and it was great. Now of course we didn’t get that and the contrast was stark. The greeting in Upper Class is a glass of Champagne, in premium economy it is bubbly. The seats in Upper Class have foot rests and turn into flat beds. The ones in premium economy recline a bit and have a head rest.
The screens in Upper Class fold out and are bigger than those in premium economy. They offer free massages in upper class, although ours never appeared. The food is served course by course on china on your own tablecloth on your own table in Upper Class, in premium economy it all comes prepacked for you to open on your lap table. Even the menu in premium economy was ¼ of the size of Upper Class. The world is a better place in Upper Class – but and it’s a big but if I was paying which I was I wouldn’t pay the extra and if I had I would have found lots of things wrong.
Where was my massage, why was there a problem with my main course and of course there would be the biggy which was that I would have paid all that money and other people would have had free upgrades.
The plane started its taxi out of JFK. The pilot warned us that it was a long taxi out and could take between 45 minutes and an hour before we took off and so it wasn’t until about 8.00pm that we took off. These jets are so smooth and quiet. Turbulence is almost none existent. The night passed in a miasma of half sleep and when we landed at Heathrow at 6.00am local time.
we were shattered. We passed through check in and passport checks got our luggage very rapidly and then got into our car. I drove back and at first it was fine. But little or no sleep plus the tedium of the motorway had me fighting to stay awake. Somehow with a few lapses in the space time continuum we made it back home and crashed into bed.
In many ways New York is impossibly familiar. We’ve all seen it so many times on so many films. The films don’t give a sense of perspective that being there does. Before I went I thought Central Park was the size of the Bois De Bologne – wrong it’s a lot smaller – think, maybe, Hyde Park .
I assumed that the buildings would be mixed up with green spaces. Wrong. I thought every one would be rushing everywhere. Wrong Yet the people all speak understandable English, the museums seem close to the London models and the streets feel safe.
Sure there are differences, the streets are jammed with yellow taxis not black ones. In Vegas the taxi drivers all talked to you, in New York and London they don’t. London is a lot more expensive and a lot more full of it’s own importance. The ethnic mix in London is a lot greater. Like everywhere in the world now there are warnings on everything and prohibitions on everything. I saw a small child riding a push along car. The back of the car was plastered with warnings.
The road signs are crazy. It seems that pretty much anything you do will be illegal – including blowing your horn. This doesn’t deter any one much and horns sound all day and night. Every one pretty much ignores all of the warnings. Seeing adverts for diseases and their cure seemed weird. One said “is that spot on your tongue just a spot. It could be serious – cancer. Come and get it tested”. Alzheimers disease seemed to feature a lot in the ads – disease of the decade perhaps.
There did seem to be a disproportionately large number of feet doctors- podiastrists. Treatments available included treatment of nail and skin conditions, bio mechanical problems, sporting injuries, nail surgery, and verrucae. Ugh! Maybe New Yorkers have bad feet.
Another popular problem is for fibroids, whatever that is. There are so many diseases to dread and you can learn which ones to dread the most – just ride the subway. I was quite surprised to see adverts telling kids to wash their hands in the playground and avoid MRSA. Another advert was appealing for money to sack incompetent teachers. Really.
All of the traffic driving up and down the rutted and pot holed streets especially the huge trucks which rev noisily with their engines the size of a small bus plus the horns blaring make this a very noisy city. My hotel room on the 12th floor with double glazing was very noisy after about 4.00am
The city seems to be in pretty much total grid lock for about 16 hours a day with taxis making up about 2/3rds of the traffic. My guide book said “if you want to drive in New York – don’t. If you really really must drive in New York – don’t”. It seems like sensible advice.
Police seem to be everywhere. I have no idea how big NYPD is but it must be vast. There are officers everywhere in cars and walking. Then on top of that there are SWAT teams that hang about dressed in black with black hoods toting sub machine guns. I guess the fact that almost every public official carries a gun would seem strange if we hadn’t seen it so often on the films. The one thing that seems to be missing from all the security is CCTV. The universal coverage of CCTV just doesn’t seem to have happened. And that is good!
Unfortunately this doesn’t extend to security in building when you have to pass through metal detectors and X ray machines pretty universally. The American service ethos is still well and alive. I think it is far better to treat your customers as people as the New Yorkers do rather than a painful part of your existence to be ignored as far as possible as we do in London.
So this is the city you already know, past it’s prime but still powerful and noisy, with some great things to see and do.