We arrived into the Big Apple by train from Chicago. The line is named the Lakeshore Limited because it skirts the shore of Lake Erie as far as Rochester and then heads south east, eventually meeting the Hudson River which it follows for the last 3hrs before arriving onto Manhattan. Unfortunately Amtrak trains no longer go to Grand Central Station, instead dropping passengers in Penn Station – submerged beneath Madison Square Garden. We didn’t even come up for air, hopping straight on a subway car north to our hostel. It was rush hour and the stream of commuters that we were inconveniencing with our rucksacks made it very clear that this is a busy city. Used to the public transit in other major cities we’d visited we expected people to be distant and wrapped in their own world that extended only as far as the book in their lap or headphones in their ears. It was a pleasant surprise then to meet a man who struck up a smiling conversation with us. “We’re travelling” we said, “I’d guessed” he replied, gesturing to our backpacks, “Welcome to New York.” I started to think that maybe New Yorkers aren’t as abrupt and impatient as their reputation dictates. The subway car ended up waiting for 10 minutes between stations because of an unspecified disruption, after the driver finished announcing this fact the face of our new friend contorted and he spat out “F%$@ING TRAINS IN THIS F%$@ING CITY!”. Maybe New Yorkers have earned their reputation.
Our first full day in NYC started with a walk to Central Park and then south to the Museum of the City of New York. Spread across 4 floors all connected by the self proclaimed “New York’s most exciting stairwell”, the museum chronicles the history of the city from its beginnings as a Dutch trading post through to the modern day. Many famous locations still retain their names from this time; the defensive wall that the dutch settlers built ran along the route of modern day Wall Street and the large tract of farmland to the north owned by the Bronck family is now the Bronx. Its status as a large natural harbour is what gave the settlement its initial popularity, then the construction of a canal linking Lake Michigan to the Hudson river meant that grain from America’s vast heartland could be shipped from New York more conveniently than any other port on the eastern seaboard. Finally, securing Ellis Island as the official entrance point for immigrants coming across the Atlantic (Angel Island just off San Francisco is the Pacific equivalent) ensured that 70% of those seeking the american dream came via New York in the early 1900s. It now stands as potentially the most multi-lingual city on the planet with 138 different languages used officially and unofficial estimates as high as 800. It’s worth visiting the museum because it really shows you how distinct New York is culturally from the US, but also from just about anywhere. “New York’s most exciting stairwell” tries to reinforce this with quotes from various famous literary figures regarding the city written all over the walls, some comparing it to a toilet while others call it perfect. I think there are probably more exciting stairwells to be found in the city but probably with varying levels of excitement depending on the time of day and the other stairwell users so overall this one gets the title. That’s my interpretation of it anyway.
Our day continued with a second museum, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We didn’t have time to explore the whole thing, deciding to stick to the areas dedicated to American history and American artists. There were some lovely paintings, some really impressive pieces of furniture and in a very large central lobby a few obligatory pieces of stolen Egyptian masonry. I especially liked their ‘visual storage’ section where they kept a lot of items that weren’t currently on display. Instead of hiding them away in a back room they were packed into glass shelving units, looking like the worlds fanciest charity shop. I think it’s a great idea and more museums should do it. We had lunch in the museum cafeteria where I saw a particularly awkward exchange. A diner had asked for a side of fries which they didn’t offer, only a child portion. “That’s fine,” the customer said in a rather exasperated voice but then the canteen worker proceeded to start spooning fries into the back of a miniature cardboard taxi. “There’s a space at the front for a fruit of your choice?” “I really just wanted the fries” “OK well I’ll put an apple in there for you, and what flavour juice box do you want in the back”. I was surprised the server didn’t eventually push it across the counter whilst going “brrrmmm brmm brmmm!”
The next day started with a subway ride to Harlem on the northern shore of Manhattan. It’s not known as one of the nicer regions of New York but it is home to one of the most legendary basketball courts in the world, Rucker Park. In the 60s and 70s some of the greatest players in the world would regularly participate in charity tournaments here to raise money for inner city kids and it is also a proving ground for up and coming talent. There is an excellent documentary about the role that ‘The Rucker’ still plays in the modern era called Gunnin for the #1 Spot which I’d highly recommend. Because it’s a public park as long as there isn’t an event on you can just turn up and play, I didn’t have a ball but luckily a couple of energetic kids were there and one of them challenged me to a game of 21. Even tough I was playing against 11 year olds it was still something to put up shots against the iconic tower block backdrop.
On the recommendation of a friend who lived in NYC for a brief period, we headed to a relatively recent public park called the High Line. Built on a disused elevated section of the New York Central Railroad line, the park winds its way for just under 1.5 miles through the high rises of Manhattan’s Lower West Side. We walked it in the evening, as it was getting dark and the lights of the buildings around us were just flickering in to life. It’s not that high off the ground, 4-5m maybe, but even from that elevation the traffic noise is less and you can experience the city from a different perspective. There is a part laid out like a theatre with tiered seats facing a ‘screen’ but the screen is just a large pane of glass and though it you can look down the length of one of Manhattan’s busy streets. For such a small park (or at least such a narrow one) it does a very effective job of making you feel separate and distanced from the city around you. Towards the southern end is Chelsea Market, similar to London’s Covent Garden but without some of the heritage. We found a burger place selling “the impossible burger” – a vegetarian burger that is so meat like it even oozes red juices when pressed. The flavour was decent but it cost 50% more than a meat burger so I’m not sure it’s going to convert any meat-eaters or form a regular part of any vegetarians diet. Still, an honorable idea.
Our final activity was a trip to Ellis Island. We’d planned to take the free Staten Island ferry and catch glimpses of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline from there. However when we discovered that for $18 we could go to the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island museum on one ticket we decided to go for it. The Statue of Liberty is nice, but like most statues it can be enjoyed simply by looking. Ellis Island in my opinion, is fantastic. The museum includes a free audio tour and leads you through the steps of a new migrant. At first I was a bit annoyed that the only way to get to the museum was by a boat you have to pay for, seeing as the island can be reached via a bridge, but actually getting dropped off in the same place that new arrivals would have and then walking up the same steps and into the same grand processing hall is so immersive. “Take a look at this hall” the audio guide instructs, “it’s probably the largest hall you’ve ever seen”. And it’s all still there, the same pews and the same desks that you’d have to approach, knowing that if the person in front of you said no you’d have to get back on the boat and return to the old world. From the moment migrants stepped off the boats onto Ellis Island they were watched by doctors who would come and label them with chalk marks if they saw any signs of physical ailments or illnesses. Even so over 90% of people who made it to the island were admitted to the United States.
For full photos of our time in New York, New York can be seen here: