PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
We arrived at the only RV park within 50 miles of New York. As we had noticed with Chicago, there is a great business opportunity in having an RV park near a major tourist city. The park that we stayed at is actually on the New Jersey side of the river, but it's within easy walking distance of the SEPTA subway station that takes you right into Manhattan. It also offers a spectacular view of the evening skyline and we were just a couple miles from Liberty Park where the Statue of Liberty is found.
The Dutch originally founded the settlement that was to become New York City. There is the oft-repeated story of the Dutch purchasing Manhattan Island for a mere equivalent of $40 from some local Indians. Recall though that the idea of ownership of land was ludicrous to Indians. The settlement was tolerant of all religions and it soon became a center of great trade between all nations and the local Indians. There were no military fortifications of any kind, by any country, on the Island. The British, simply and bloodlessly, took over when they declared themselves to be in charge and had the military force in the harbor to back up their declaration. The Duke of York (the King's brother) who led the overtaking British force renamed the settlement New York. As we would learn, New Yorkers were not the rabble-rousers during the American Revolution that the Bostonians proved to be.
The island of Manhattan is basically oriented north to south. The southern tip is the financial area - Wall St, World Trade Center, etc. Incidentally, there really was a Wall located in this area when the Dutch were in charge. The middle area is home to the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Times Square and the Theater district. The Upper West End refers to the area west of Central Park, Upper East End is the area east of Central Park. Both are very rich, exclusive areas. North of these is Harlem which is undergoing another renaissance. In fact the famous Apollo Theatre is undergoing renovations, but they haven't postponed the classic Sunday amateur contests. Bill Clinton's office is located in Harlem.
Long Island, located just east of Manhattan, is several times larger than Manhattan and is oriented south-west to north-east. Brooklyn, Kings and Queens boroughs are located on the western end of Long Island.
As we had successfully done before in other cities, we signed up for a double deck bus tour to get oriented. The tickets were good for two days and we needed both days just to cover the area! We saw at least some of most of New York's 5 boroughs -- a very 'east coast' phrase -- think of them like large areas such as counties or municipalities. They are Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan itself. This included a trip to Brooklyn to see the Manhattan skyline at night and a harbor night cruise that was simply lovely. We saw so many classic sights including Lady Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc.
Having come from Southern California, we were amazed that there wasn't so much as a hint of the suburbs in all of Manhattan. Gas stations and super-markets are nearly non-existent. Land is too expensive and folks don't usually drive cars in Manhattan. Playgrounds are few and far-between. Some schools close off a adjoining street for use as a playground during recess. The entire area is nearly all high-rise and brownstone row houses and businesses. It was unusual for us to see that the street vendors were the commonplace source of fruit, sandwiches, drinks, gum and magazines (versus going into a store). The vendors seemed a personal touch in what could be an incredibly impersonal concrete and glass environment.
We loved the vast diversity of multi-culturalism in New York City. For instance, we saw a Buddhist monastery in an old Jewish synagogue. With more than 8 million people in the city, there was every imaginable language being spoken around us. We did not have a single negative experience with regards to the stereotypical "New York" personality. People were generally quite friendly. Many of the other stereotypes of NYC are true - masses of yellow taxicabs, crawling traffic, neon everywhere, jaywalking anywhere and continual construction. On the other hand it was also true that the streets themselves were quite clean. We felt safe anywhere we went. City police were often visible and though we thought about pick pocketing being a potential problem we didn't hear a whisper of it occurring from anyone.
Much of the emphasis of the bus tour is on the sentinels of the city, the skyscrapers. We drove past the Chrysler Building, with its distinctive layered arcs at the top. We saw the emerald tinted United Nations building boasting scores of national flags. The matriarch of the city, however, is still the Empire State building.
The view from the top of the Empire State building is astounding. Driving around New York on the bus left no doubt that it covers a large area, but the best way to comprehend the size and density of the place is to see it from the top of a skyscraper. The entire island of Manhattan and much of the neighboring boroughs are laid out beneath the observation deck. It's simply spectacular.
Speaking of architecture, Grand Central Station truly is grand. What a wonderful building to have as your commuting depot. It has its own tour and you can learn so much trivia about the building itself and it's history, including how Jackie Kennedy Onassis led the crusade to have it designated as a historical landmark so that it could not be renovated. Jackie is beloved by New Yorkers for her leadership on this issue.
The second morning of our visit, we boarded the wrong subway train. We didn't realize our mistake until the train broke out of the darkness of the tunnel into the bright light at the bottom of an immense crater to the accompaniment of the conductors chant "World Trade Center, World Trade Center next stop".
The echoes of the horror of 9-11 still persist in a very material way. The hole in the ground left after the rubble was cleared away is many blocks long, several blocks wide, and many stories deep. The rebuilt subway station rests at the bottom of one cliff wall, and looks out into the brilliant sunlight of the void.
There is a temporary memorial at the top of the stairs to the station. There are also plans to rebuild on the site. In the mean time, the monstrous hole in the ground is a poignant reminder of an equally monstrous act.
As we wandered around the city, we found ourselves near Times Square and 42nd Street/Broadway several times. It's an intense area, especially at night. If there is an essence to the hustle and bustle of New York, it's at Times Square. The bright lights, dense traffic and hordes of people are an assault on the senses that some folks thrive on, and others cringe at.
After having had our fill of Manhattan for the moment, we took some time to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Ellis Island is an intriguing place with an abundance of stories. For tens of thousands of immigrants, these buildings were the gateway to the United States of America. "Gateway" is an appropriate word for Ellis Island. It wasn't a joyous place, but didn't have the negative atmosphere of a prison. It seems to have been a hectic place where harried bureaucrats processed wave after wave of humanity. The stage setting of bureaucracy and tedium was often punctuated by the intense feelings of dreams realized and families re-united. Immigrants were subject to an initial 7 second medical inspection. If doctors suspected anything, a chalk mark was made on the shoulder or sleeve of their coat and they were sent to a new line. The displays and dioramas in the museum provided a palpable image of the confusion and frustration caused by the myriad of inspections, analyses and bureaucracy. The main building itself was quite beautiful and voices simply echoed inside it. You could imagine poor European immigrants being awestruck and cowed with its appearance and then anxious to please when a bureaucrat announced their name aloud to begin the next phase of the immigration process.
The same ferry that took us to Ellis Island also carried us to the Statue of Liberty. She's a beautiful monument to an essential concept. A poem graces the base of the statue that reminds us that the ideal is not for a select few:
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.