25 September 2016

114 hours in New York


Getting into New York can be something of a challenge for a first-timer or a seasoned visitor alike. Following two memorable visits in 2007 and 2010, my main memory of the train from Newark airport in nearby New Jersey was a family delighted by the guttural snoring of their little son and brother, who must have been only five or six.

This time after arriving from a five hour United flight across America (films watched: Mustang, The Lady in the Van) the distinguishing feature of the last few kilometres (or miles, if you prefer ye olde American measures) was the peculiar inability of the transit authorities to send a train down the line to Penn Station. For more than half an hour we passengers waited for a train to take us into New York, with inaudible voice announcements and plenty of electronic screens displaying adverts but none displaying clear information about when we could rekindle our collective love affair with the city over the Hudson River. Because after all, no-one apart from trainspotters aims to spend their holidays moping around train platforms.

Eventually a real train arrived and whisked us eastwards. Despite having used the train service before, it was unclear from the incomprehensible on-train announcements whether the train was about to arrive in Penn Station, some other location, or perhaps one of the small rocky moons of Mars. At the moment the train pulled into what turned out to be Penn Station, two other passengers and me all turned to each other and asked, 'Is this Penn...?' Luckily, it was, in the usual state of bedlam as befitting an American train station. I was glad to finally be back in Manhattan.

From there it was a quick three-stop subway ride south to my digs for the next few nights, the Chelsea Hostel in West 20th St. My single room was small and backed onto a noisy communal hostel courtyard, but at under US$100 it was a bargain. By this time it was late evening, so I retired for the night, preparing for a full day reacquainting myself with the city.

Walking the High Line
After breakfast at the hostel I took advantage of its great location. Walking only a few blocks westward I climbed the stairs to walk the southern section of the wonderful High Line, a former freight rail line converted into a leafy green pedestrian trail through the heart of the city. This was a new addition since I last visited New York, and it's a great example of clever and ambitious urban design that has immediately become a must-see part of any visit to the city. Taking a right hand turn from the end of the Line at Gansevoort St in the Meatpacking District, I walked south along the Hudson River Greenway, admiring the river vistas and checking out the Jersey skyline. As I walked, stressed New Yorkers were busy flogging themselves to near the point of exhaustion, running along the greenway with absolutely miserable expressions on their faces as if the exercise was an exquisite form of torture that is somehow mandatory for true locals.

My first destination was the September 11 Memorial Park at the former Ground Zero site, which is nearly complete. The new One World Trade Center building is tall and rather anonymous, but has the patriotic cachet of  being 1776 feet tall. More impressive is the surrounding memorial park, with the outlines of the two fallen towers now marked with beautiful sunken fountains engraved with the names of the dead. Following my roughly clockwise trail around lower Manhattan, I ambled through the Bowling Green and Castle Clinton at the very southern tip of the peninsula, before heading north again to take in those nerd bastions, Forbidden Planet and Strand Books.

After a detour by subway up to Central Park for some R&R and people-watching, the evening's entertainment was at the Upright Citizens Brigade in W 26th St, Chelsea. Always a go-to option for a cheap night out in New York, the UCB offers improv comedy that's cheap as chips but worth far more. There was just a little time for celeb-spotting as I went in, seeing a bearded Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger from 30 Rock, the voice of Baymax from Big Hero 6), who had just been onstage for the previous show. My outing was a gig called We Know How You Die, in which four improv artists stitch together a death narrative for one of three audience members. The one they selected turned out to be less interesting than they'd hoped - while the young woman had indeed been to North Korea, that was because she was Korean and lived in South Korea at the time, and she didn't have a great deal to say about the experience because she was a child at the time. Taking an alternate tack, the performers discovered the subject was basically a trust fund dilettante, and so naturally took out their struggling artist envy by turning the exercise into a roast. Which was both incredibly awkward and entirely entertaining, because she was attending the gig on a first date. Ouch.


Despite having been several times before, at least one day in New York has to be spent devouring the riches on display in the incredible Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is one of those collections that is so vast and absorbing that the opening hours of 10-5 can easily be insufficient to take in everything. Indeed, it's the main reason I've still yet to visit the intriguing-sounding Met Cloisters, which can be accessed on the same day as your Fifth Ave Met visit - there simply isn't time to get up to Fort Tryon Park to do both in a day.

I arrived at the Met shortly after opening time and spent the next seven hours engrossed in the amazing collections. For those with a London perspective, the Met is like having the National Gallery and the British Museum in one glorious edifice. I think I covered every room, but my closest attention was reserved for the fantastic Classical and Egyptian sections. The special exhibitions were equally impressive as the permanent collections, and included a comprehensive survey of the history of Pergamon, which I visited with friends in Turkey in 2002, and which has a whole museum dedicated to it in Berlin, which I savoured in 1997 and 2010. Also on temporary display were the riches of the Seljuqs, and a fascinating selection of crime photography throughout history, featuring of course the daunting, bravura work of the crime scene photographer Weegee (warning: graphic). To wrap up a fine day at the Met it's always a literal breath of fresh air to make the climb up to the roof terrace, which offers spectacular views over Manhattan and the imaginative installation art by British artist Cornelia Parker, 'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)', an architectural confection of the traditional American red barn and the mansion from Psycho.

Greek marble head of a youth, c.2nd cent.BC, discovered Pergamon, 1879

All this museuming was quite shattering, so it was a quiet evening afterwards. I occupied myself taking photos in Grand Central Station and hectic Times Square, thronged with sightseers at all hours.


A more relaxing day followed, starting mid-morning with the excellent free tour of the New York Public Library, a grand egalitarian institution dedicated to the free exchange of knowledge. This was followed by an amble northwards towards Central Park and a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) shop, where I picked up a nifty collapsible coffee mug and an LED torch with a flexi-head to twist around corners, which I mainly bought because it looked all science fictiony. There was plenty of time to catch a subway downtown back to Chelsea, where I met cousin Winnie at her work and joined her on the ride out to Park Slope for a family catch-up and to hear about life in Brooklyn since I last visited in 2007. A very pleasant evening with good wine and far-flung relatives.

Hudson Yards from the High Line

After breakfast in Chelsea I headed to the southernmost tip of Manhattan in Battery Park and walked up the eastern shore through the Seaport as the day turned hotter and hotter. I paused for a white at the Tkts half-price booth until learning that even half-price theatre tickets are more expensive than I'm willing to fork out for.

The highlight of the day came, and perhaps of the entire stay in New York, came shortly thereafter with the guided tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which had been strongly recommended by friends. For over a century the Lower East Side has been a melting pot of new American immigrants, and the museum tells their story by highlighting a few of the lives of families who have lived in one tenement building at 97 Orchard St. The trained guide describes the hard, densely-packed lives of the tenement dwellers, and spun tales of two particular clans in the cramped apartments they lived in: a family of Prussian migrants in the 1860s and Italian migrants in the 1920s. The tour is a fascinating glimpse into the family histories that helped to build New York and contributed to the multi-cultural America of today. If you're in town it definitely pays to book in advance!

97 Orchard St, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
(Plus a ridiculous American pickup)
Taking it easy for the rest of the afternoon, I rode the Staten Island ferry, which has been free to foot passengers since 1997, taking in the views of Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Copying most of the rest of the tourist passengers, immediately after disembarking at the Staten Is turn around at St George Terminal, I boarded the return ferry for the 25 minute journey back north. There was time to stop back in at Strand Books, where I picked up Anthony Blond's page-turner, The Private Lives of the Roman Emperors, which is full of the expected bad behaviour including the odd spot of matricide.
Lower Manhattan from St George Terminal, Staten Is

The evening was spent at another UCB comedy gig, this time in the hip environs of their East Village theatre at 153 East 3rd St. Five standups plied their trade for a bargain price, with varying but generally effective prowess, to a young and appreciative crowd. The most notable event was probably the unwanted crowd participation of a young woman in the front row who had seemed sober at the start of the show but after a solitary complimentary beer for playing along with an earlier skit she became increasingly erratic and began to treat the comedians' jokes as a two-way conversation, albeit a conversation in which one party is slurringly incoherent. There is one young lady who seriously can't hold her booze!


My last morning in Manhattan started with a Japanese woman calling home from the courtyard outside my room at 6 o'clock. There was time to mosey around Chelsea, stock up on a few supplies and write some postcards before midmorning, when I departed my room at the Chelsea Hostel, bidding farewell to the hostel cat and to New York, for the time being at least. The train from Penn Station took me back out to Newark, where an Embraer E175 was waiting to take me southwards on the next leg of my trip, a weekend staying in Apex, North Carolina, with my American friends Ruth & Phil. New York, I'll be back one day, rest assured.

Six brief video clips from my New York visit:

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