Sunday, 3 July 2011

New York New York

The flight to New York was uncomfortable to say the least. I don’t think I have been on a plane with so little leg room. I am thankful I am on an aisle but the flight is full so there is no chance of spreading out any further. There is also no chance of any sleep. The guy behind me is huge, of American proportions and his knees I can constantly feel in my back every time he moves. It was a long 8 hour flight with airline attendants severely lacking any form of customer service. US immigration was equally as bad with queues for that non-US being dealt with by only 2 booths. As soon as the US residents had been processed by the 5 other open booths we second class visitors could use those booths. The US always put themselves first.

Following the directions of the shuttle bus company I rang and was told the pickup was going to be another 40-50 mins away. Not that nice to hear at midnight local time (5 hours behind London) and with no sleep. 7 others were in the same boat and we waited and waited. A group of 4 who were waiting really lost the plot and mouthed off at anyone that would listen, arguing between themselves but providing entertainment while we waited. Finally an hour and a half after I had rung the bus finally turned up driven by the biggest African-American I have seen. He tried to make up for lost time in a pretty hairy ride. The nice Asian girl I had been chatting to in the airport fell asleep with her head on my shoulder!

My luck was in and I was dropped off first! The receptionist at the hotel Thirty Thirty (yep number 30 on 3oth St East) felt sorry for me I think and put me in a lovely room suitable for wheelchair access. So I have a small lounge, large bathroom with a huge shower and 2 huge flat screen TV’s and a very comfortable huge bed with pillows for Africa. I sink into bed at 2am having been awake for 24 hours. I dread the thought of getting to the free Lower Manhattan walking tour I booked from home by 10am via the not yet experienced underground.

The underground is quite an experience here and there does not seem to be the human assistance visibility like in London. It is so very hot underground waiting on the platforms and absolutely dirty and grubby. Luck was in as I happen to arrive on the correct platform having bought my 7 day pass for a cool US $29. Cheap as chips. While Manhattan is a wonderful grid pattern you do have to know which way is north and south and therein lays the difficulty especially when you don’t know where you are when the underground exits. I have got pretty good at who I choose to ask when I am stuck and yesterday a nice lady came up to me to ask if she could help while I was staring down at my map. Being a creature of habit I am a little concerned when I do get home that I won’t be able to go out without a map in my hand and camera in my bag! They have become permanent features.

The meeting place is at Bowling Green by the “Charging Bull” and true to form there is a lady waiting in an orange T ready to take the 12 of us on a guided tour- free but tips accepted. Bowling Green is a handkerchief sized piece of grass with an important past as it is believed to be the spot where the Dutch settler Peter Minult paid $ 24 for the Island of Manhattan. Bowling Green ( don’t you just love the name) still remains a public park but it now is home also to the Charging Bull- a large bronze statue symbolising Americas economic vitality. It’s easy to think that the bull has been there forever but in 1989 an Italian artist Di Modica created it independently and left it one night in front of the NY Stock Exchange, shortly after a Wall Street crash. It couldn’t stay there so was moved to this permanent site. Interestingly my first photo in NY is that of me with my hand on the roughly spherical appendages hanging between the bull’s legs! Said to bring good luck- we will see.

Broadway, the world famous NY street starts right here and heads north. It was here that the ticker tape parade was invented after the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty. There is a record of every ticker tape parade ever held in plaques cemented into the footpath.

We pass the US Custom House (now the national Museum of the American Indian) an important building in the 1800‘s when most tax revenue was gathered from imported goods. From here we headed off toward Battery Park, a beautiful green park at the tip of the southern end of Manhattan surrounded by water. It is practically an outdoor museum with some 13 memorials including the Holocaust memorial, NYC Police memorial and Castle Clinton. Castle Clinton (1811), used as an immigrant processing site, was on a small island connected to the mainland. Landfill has it now created most of Battery Park.  

The most poignant memorial is the World Trade Centre Sphere. The mangled bronze coloured sphere used to sit in the plaza at the base of the WTC. It was recovered from the wreckage of 9/11 and now rests here along with an eternal flame.

There is an amazing view of the harbour from here with ferries going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It is from here I glimpse the first view of the good lady herself. Most people know that the hand and torch were sent in 1876 as a gift from France and as US could not afford to set up an entire statue the hand sat by itself on a pedestal in Madison Square Park (different from Gardens) for years.

As we move closer to Wall Street we are told that most of this area was the original shoreline and parts were in canals to remind the Dutch settlers what they had left behind in Amsterdam. We pass the Fraunces Tavern (1782-but restored in 1900’s) which was frequented by George Washington and it is now a small museum. We walk up Stone Street and I think I am back somewhere in Europe as it is a quaint cobblestoned alley lined with restaurants. Into Wall Street and there is Trump Building (  formally Manhattan Company Building and not Trump Towers) bought by the good man himself for 8 M and to compete with the Chrysler Building as the tallest building . It held the tallest building title for just 3 days before the Chrysler building added a secret spire which added many feet to its height topping the 927 feet of Trump Building. The pyramidal green top makes it easy to spot from a distance. Further down is Federal Hall and a monstrosity of a statue of George Washington which marks the spot where this first president of US was sworn in.

The NY Stock Exchange can’t be missed with a huge US flag adorning the building. Trinity Church, a gothic style church sits amongst all the high rise buildings and seems almost out of place. Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton (inventors of the steam engine and the first Brooklyn Ferry are buried in the church yard. Yes a small cemetery in downtown Manhattan!

A short walk away is Ground Zero. You can easily see (and hear!) the construction site of the WTC with the Freedom Building nearly half way to completion. It will be 102 floors in total and not as tall as the twin towers. There is so much to see around this sight that gives you goose bumps. We visit St Pauls Chapel built in 1760 and has been in continuous use since then, surviving all the large fires of the 1800’s. George Washington was here when it opened and attended services here. More recently the chapel served as a rest place for rescue workers after the 9/11 tragedy and its fences were covered with missing persons notices in the days following. Inside there are several tributes.

Later I visit the WTC Preview site to see what is planned for the area.  The footprints of the two towers are being preserved in reflection pools and of course construction of towers is already underway. I also visit The WTC tribute visitors centre, a non-profit organisation run by the WTC Families Association. It features a gallery of moving images and artefacts and lead tours of the 9/11 site. All the tours are led by New Yorkers who experienced the destruction or last a loved one in the disaster.

I also find along the street the mangled T beam of steel that is in the shape of a cross that has been erected. It became a symbol of hope, faith and healing. If you look closely you can see 2 baseballs which belong to one who perished. His Dad asked if his sons baseballs (ones he had caught at a match) could be placed there and the story goes that when it was erected the dad was raised on a crane and was able to place them there himself.

The tour finished close to Brooklyn Bridge which I will return to and walk across on another day.  As I am close to the Staten Island free ferry I opt for a trip on the water and a closer look at the lady herself. Quite majestic really as we travel past reaching the other side, alighting and walking around to catch the same ferry back again. Very cooling, and free!


I take the underground up to Grand Central Station…..Wow! It’s the world’s largest and busiest train station and a gorgeous feat of engineering and architecture. It is hard not to marvel at gold veined marble arches and the bright blue domed ceiling. 500,000 commuters dash through here daily but the concourse has been constructed so cleverly that despite the perceived chaos you would not bump into anyone…it’s that huge. Inside is Grand Central Terminal, a dining concourse offering every type of food you could imagine. Also for good measure there is Grand Central Market, an upscale food market stocked with luxurious delicacies…I could afford some blueberries!

Street performers are everywhere and attract huge crowds. Mostly they are extremely talented and forever passing the bucket around. I have taken some videos of their performance as amazing as they were. There are also some that are not so talented for example the singing naked cowboy!

Being so close to Time Square I thought I would go for a peek. You can see me near the top left of this photo of the huge screen on the side of a building (in an orange T taking a photo).
The cross section of Broadway and 42nd street is a crazy intersection with thousands of blinking lights and flashing neon advertisements. The lights are blinding, the crowds are thick and the noise infernal but that’s Time Square. Nowhere like it in the world! I check out the shows and think that maybe tomorrow night I will experience Broadway!

Phew …day one, exhausting…so much to see and do!

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