Life is all about making mistakes – hopefully you don’t make the same ones more than once. Back in 2010 I came to New York for the first time. I took a shared shuttle into the city from the airport, not realising that the cabs operating from JFK to Manhattan are all capped in tariff (currently $52.50, $56.50 peak times). The time taken to drop everybody else off at their locations more than made up for any difference in the price.
Fast forward to 2019. The nine years had wiped my memory, and so I found myself booking a shared shuttle for me and Ange from JFK to our hotel in the Chelsea Flower District of midtown Manhattan. A full shuttle and us being the last passengers meant that while we got a mini tour around midtown, it took us two hours to get to our hotel (some passengers just said let me out here and I’ll walk), but if we’d taken a cab we would have spent $10 more but got there a lot quicker. Ask me again in ten years to see if I remember that little lesson!
After checking into our new home, we headed out to get some food. Now, we’d been told food was expensive in the USA, but we were still shocked at the price of brunch. To be fair, it was at a newly opened sit down French cafe on 7th Avenue, but juice and eggs (with salmon and avocado) still ended up coming to USD$60!
We got ourselves week-long all you can use Subway tickets, even though we knew we were only staying four days. I figured that we would only have to take one or two additional trips for them to pay for themselves and the peace of mind generated by being able to take the subway anywhere would justify the additional cost (single trip price: $3 seven day card: $32)
After brunch we headed down to the lower east side to the Tenement Museum. The Tenement Museum is a shop on the corner of an old city block where tours leave. The tours visit one or other of the apartments in the same block which have been preserved in the condition that one or other of various families lived in it in different eras in the history of the city.
Our tour ‘Hard Times’ examined two families who had lived at 97 Orchard Street in the era of great European migration to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Its interesting that they don’t allow photography on the tour (even outside on the street in public!), because the images don’t capture the experience of being there and seeing firsthand what the apartments were like and what it would have been like living there.
In addition, the tour guide was very knowledgeable and told the stories of the inhabitants admirably. What really made me smile was that since they’d been running the tours for so long, some of the people who had been on the tours earlier had done their own research and were able to fill the gaps about what we know about the inhabitants – a handy coda to the standard tour.
While we were in the neighbourhood we visited Katz’s Delicatessen, as featured in When Harry Met Sally. I’d previously had a meat sandwich there in 2015 which had astounded me with just how much meat there was packed inside. At almost $25 for a sandwich I really didn’t feel the need to go inside, so we headed back towards the Subway instead.
Peter Bush: Mana
On the way we ran into a photography studio with an exhibit on, of all things, All Black photography. While rugby union is a religion in New Zealand (like ice hockey in Canada, or football in most of the rest of the world), it’s not huge in the US, so to see a photography exhibit in the Lower East Side of New York was very incongruous.
While the door was locked, we could see a lady on the phone inside, so I tapped on the window and she hurried over to unlock the door and let us in. She was very nice and answered our incredulous questions and it was a relief to get out of the heat and enjoy the air conditioning!
Greenwich Village featured in Ange’s list of things she wanted to see, so we walked through it on the way to the High Line. It was amusing seeing the schools letting out with the uniformed blond children being accompanied by the Hispanic help. A different feel than the neighborhoods in the Lower East Side! The houses were much more well groomed, almost staged in preparation for Halloween.
More rainbow flags in windows and hanging from lampposts indicated that we were in a more liberal area of town and Ange elbowed me, pointing to a street sign. Apparently we were at the corner of Christopher Street and each of the LGBT+ Streets. She grinned and asked me if there was something I wanted to tell her.
I didn’t realise at the time but we’d passed a single block from the apartment building which had featured in the TV program Friends. OK, so the exterior of an apartment wouln’t be that exciting, but it wouldn’t have cost anything to have a look. Next time. There’s just not enough time to see everything in New York!
The High Line
Pausing briefly to get a cup of coffee from a cafe which could have doubled for Central Perk (surrounded by millennials on their laptops), we made our way to the Meatpacking District for the start of the High Line.
The High Line is an elevated train line which was purposed to a pedestrian walkway after becoming abandoned. Free tours are run from the podium level on certain days of the week and take 75 minutes. They go through the history, how the project came about and the challenges faced. Very informative.
The tour finished at the Hudson Rail Yards and we elected to walk back to the hotel, which after the day of exploring may have been just a tad too much walking, but hard to argue when the map says we’re so close…
We got lost trying to find the exit from the World Trade Centre Subway station, eventually popping out through a surreal shopping area opposite the Memorial.
Two water features the same size as World Trade Centre Towers 1 & 2 are surrounded by plaques with the names of those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks. Servicemen who would have been celebrating a birthday have a flag placed by their name while civilians have a white flower placed by theirs.
The brass globe which stood in the foyer of WTC 1 is displayed off to one side and we go over and wonder at the damage caused by the collapse.
We were due to board a ferry at Battery Park at noon to visit the statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. So we walked through Battery Park, with views across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Again, a very different neighbourhood from what we’d seen thus far – not terribly different from Chelsea Harbour in London.
Statue of Liberty
We arrived in plenty of time for our allocated time slot on the ferry, but nobody was too worried and we were waved through to the security check point and then herded onto the ship.
We secured seats on the sheltered middle deck – the sun was shining hard and without any shelter we were concerned with over exposing ourselves. Not only that but it was lunch time, so Ange nipped away and returned with hotdogs. She even managed to snaffle a whole bunch of ketchup packets!
The ferry almost capsized as we got closer to the Statue as everybody ran to our side of the boat to get the iconic shot of the Statue.
We decided to forgo the Information Centre and instead picked up our free audio guide and headed straight for the podium entrance of the lady herself. Yet more airport type security met us and after we’d got through (happy at this stage to be out of the relentless sunshine) we entered the base and stood in line for the lift.
We could have climbed the stairs to the podium level, but elected to conserve our energy, cognisant that we still had Ellis Island to go. The signage wasn’t the best (the end of the queue didn’t know what they were queueing for), but we’d guessed correctly and it wasn’t that long before we were in the lift and heading up.
After getting out of the lift it was a few more steps up to the exit into the fresh air with amazing views in all directions. The majority of visitors were thronging the side overlooking Manhattan, which was a much more imposing view than the others.
We enjoyed the view, doing a loop of the outside before heading back down. On the way we had a chance to look up into the ‘skirts’ or the interior of the statue.
We also noticed the bolts holding the statue to the podium as we descended the stairs. I could only imagine the comically large wrench that it would take to undo those bolts.
Bearing in mind that we were short on time, we elected to do a single loop of the ground level before heading back.
We left from the same jetty as we were dropped off at – a series of boats making the route from Manhattan to Liberty Island, then on to Ellis Island before returning to Liberty Island and then back to Manhattan.
Towards the end of the day some would just go from Ellis Island to Manhattan directly. A large low slung building sat beside the jetty, the obvious destination and we made our way inside. Yet another audio guide station asked the pertinent questions (How many? What language?) and then we were inside.
We elected to start the tour at the Grand Hall where so many immigrants would have started their journey to becoming Americans.
The audio guide did a good job setting the scene of how it would have been for the “huddled masses”, and the hurdles that the immigrants would have had to overcome in order to gain access. My favourite was when they were asked if they had $20.
A group of three immigrants pooled their money to qualify and after the first of them was admitted, he slipped the second the money who likewise passed the cash along to the last of them, allowing each of them to show the same $20. For most of them the experience would have been harrowing. Not knowing what was going on, no English, fear of being deported.
The second floor was full of exhibits about their experiences, what happened and the volumes of people that came through. After a long while we made our way downstairs where we investigated the other exhibits.
They were brilliant – showing in a very matter of fact way the waves of immigration, backlash and xenophobia throughout history. I was amazed how the same arguments from back in the 1800s are repeated today.
After our trip to the Tenement Museum it was interesting to see the same neighbourhoods pictured as where the newly arrived immigrants settled in the Lower East Side. In fact one of the photos was of a street only a block away from Orchard Street.
Exhausted by all the walking, we paused to visit the cafe on the ground floor. This gave us enough energy to finish the exhibitions, but we didn’t have anything left in the tank, so afterward we headed back out to the jetties for the trip back to Manhattan.
Grand Central Station
Apparently New York’s crown jewel, Grand Central Station was built in 1913 and remains a transport hub and shopping destination. It’s featured in a whole bunch of movies, notably for me The Fisher King with Robin Williams.
Legend has it they were filming the mass dance scenes late at night and the extras were getting a little tired and grumpy and our man Robin goes down amongst them and cracks jokes and dances with them giving them a boost which got them through the filming. Anyway it’s famous for the number of people going through it, so I thought a timelapse video appropriate.
New York Library
As featured in the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, the stacks of the New York Library are picturesque – so picturesque, that the numbers of people coming to the Library to take photos far outweighed the numbers there for reading or researching. I didn’t know whether to be sad for the change in how people interacted with research and knowledge, or happy that the building had value over and above the storing and access to information.
I saw some signs saying something about Comic-Con, but very few people. What I had heard about Comic-Con is that people dress up as their favourite characters and descend upon the venue en mass. So it didn’t seem that Comic-Con was being held here. Shrugging we made our way to the subway to get to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
While waiting for the subway we noticed a lot more costumed people getting onto our train. Weird, it’s too early in the day for people to be leaving the Comic-Con… Then we found out that the same subway station we were using to get to the Intrepid was the closest one to the convention centre where Comic-Con was going on, and that the Library was being used as a pass distribution area to limit the lines at the centre.
The streets surrounding the conference centre were populated by persons with sign holders directing people to the venue. I don’t know which annoyed me more, those that asked if we were going to Comic-Con or those who didn’t.
Either way we made our way to the Intrepid. Fun fact: you can’t put subway lines in reclaimed land, and all the land near the Intrepid was reclaimed. That made our choices: bus, taxi or walking. We walked.
The Intrepid is impressive. It’s a museum built in an old aircraft carrier. Which houses the space shuttle Enterprise and the Concord. Plus an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-toting submarine.
While we were there the mayor we giving a press conference so we couldn’t clamber insider the Gemini return module. We resolved to do the rest and come back after the press conference.
There was plenty to entertain us, with various aircraft below decks and the flight deck taken up with an assortment of aircraft from all around the world.
The highlight was definitely the retirement site of the Enterprise. The lighting was such as to make it hard to get a good shot – the thing is huge!
Also in retirement down on the dock the Concorde sat beside an old nuke sub the Growler. Typically when I think of submarines, I think of a streamlined silhouette – a courgette with a conning tower. The missiles the Growler carried distorted the forward section of the hull, and as it lay in repose, the launch doors were open exposing the missile in launch mode, distorting the sleek lines even further.
Inside the cramped spaces we expressed disbelief that a hundred men crewed the vessel: the look on our faces leading to the explanation that only a third were on duty at any point in time.
The narrow hatches were awkward to navigate, even for Ange, let alone 6’4” me. I could see why they had demonstration hatches in the museum – it would be a terrible experience to get all the way down into the bowels of the Growler and not be able to go any further….
After the tour we headed back to the main hangar area and to our relief all the TV cameras had gone, allowing us clamber inside the Gemini return module. Lots of switches!!
We were keen on seeing a Broadway play, so headed across to the Half Price Ticket booth in Times Square. We arrived a little early – finding that the office opened at three not two. With an hour to wait we got some food nearby, ignoring the shady looking folk nearby scalping tickets.
When they heard we were interested in Hamilton tickets (starting at $300) a lady looking very much like Mama Fratelli from Goonies gravelled “I can get Hamilton for $200. $200 for Hamilton”. We politely demurred, a) not trusting any tickets we bought from her and b) not willing to spend that much.
An hour later we came back to the ticket office and our jaws dropped. The line was huge! I don’t know why we thought it would stay the same size while we were away but it promised a lengthy wait to get to the front.
We had talked to one of the scalpers and found out he could match the official half price ticket price for Chicago of $85 instead of $150, but I didn’t feel right buying a ticket from some dude off the street, so I thought rather than wait in line, let’s just rock up to the theatre and see what we could get. Chicago was playing just around the corner and so we headed off, reasoning that we would then know where the theatre was.
The lady behind the counter first offered us face value for the tickets we selected. When I expressed that it was too expensive, she immediately offered the same price as both the scalpers and half price booth. And not obscured. We gobbled those up, happy to get the better price and not to have to stand in line.
At night the haze of rain in the air made a magical evening, reflecting the neon and street lights as the city that never sleeps… didn’t. So that was the last night in NYC. Like the other great cities, it will soak up as many days as you throw at it, and we moved on to our next stop.