A Summer adventure in New York

Sometimes when I read The Guardian’s Q&A question What is your earliest memory?, I am surprised that people remember moments as late as when they were three or four years old. On this, I have a crisp memory and remember symmetry in dreams when I was a toddler. I am not sure if this is unusual. Apart from that, one of my earliest childhood memories is telling family “I want to go to New York!”. My mother would attest to that. I always dreamt of travelling as a child, and New York was on top of my list. I’ve never made it until now in my 40’s, and this was also my first ever visit to the USA.

Growing up in Trinidad in the 1970’s and 1980’s, you really could not avoid being seduced and attracted by the media images of the USA. We had exposure to numerous American television programmes and film, such as, Sesame Street (aired morning and afternoon), Laverne and Shirley, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Taxi, Working Girl, etc. There are far too many other songs, films and books that represent the country and cities. New York to this day is still tops and will always be a magnet for these creative outputs. Here are some of my highlights of my recent visit ‘across the pond’ with family this summer.

My first impression at the airport was a bit of apprehension for being fingerprinted and photographed at the immigration desk, which seems like a normal Home Land Security procedure for visitors. However, trepidation was quickly replaced with genuine awe on the first sight of the city as we approached on a Go Link shuttle bus from New Jersey. There was an amazing moon above the night skyline of skyscrapers in Manhattan – I couldn’t help thinking of the film tune Arthur’s Theme with the line ‘…Caught between the moon and New York City’. As there was traffic, our shuttle driver also took us for an extended drive around the buzzing and luminous Saturday nightlife. We saw famous landmarks such as the Lincoln Centre, Times Square, Central Park and recognisable famous streets.

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Day One – Close to the hotel was the impressive art deco Chrysler building, and it is breath-taking to see this many times throughout the next week. For Sunday brunch, we tried Scotty’s Diner on Lexington Avenue. It was very busy around 10:00am with people having breakfast, which I presume was a Sunday morning tradition. It was interesting to observe the dishes being served such as French toast and pancakes with a variety of toppings. The portions are definitely bigger there!  Therefore I stuck to a muffin in preparation for the big lunch that came later at friends.

Next was the trip to Queens to visit family friends and it was an adventure from the start. The walk to Penn Station was about seven blocks but not far away to walk. Again, it was amazing to see the shops at ground level but also to look up at the amazing architecture. It was a fabulous surprise to see on route one of the world’s most famous and tallest buildings – The Empire State Building.

It was the first time I used the city’s public transport. The Long Island Rail train ticket was reasonably priced to take us to Queens and seemed to run quite frequently for a Sunday. It was packed with young people heading to the Babylon Festival and we had a friendly couple who sat next to us. The young man even checked his app to tell us when our train was due to arrive in Sutphin Boulevard. The station exit that we came out had an amazing tribute to Jazz Legends of Queens. Apparently, New Orleans may be the birthplace of Jazz…but Queens is proud to proclaim that it is “the home of Jazz”. There is even a Queens Jazz Trail. I also noticed that ‘On the Road’ author, Jack Kerouac, was also a past resident.

It was also great to spend time with very dear friends and to see the suburban homes and gardens in the neighbourhood. There was a Punjabi celebration in a park closeby and according to Wikipedia, Queens is now an ethnically mixed community.

Day Two – We decided to use the buses and to walk around Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There were no location plotters in the buses, so you had to play attention for your stop which was considerably easy due to the street grid system. I love that about New York! I think this systematic urban planning for a new city has fabulous benefits and must have been exciting for the generations that made the modern city.

As we stopped near Bleecker Street, there was street art that resonated the social and cultural heritage, including the splendid punk band  The Ramones, and others leading all the way to Little Italy. Little Italy is a must to visit, especially if like me, you have Italian connections or relatives. This is where Italian migrants settled, and although now they may have moved out of the area – it really was incredible to see the sights, story and to imagine what life was like then. Little Italy also runs parallel to Chinatown, and therefore it was interesting to see the similarities with another migrant community.

Little Italy is a must to visit, especially if like me, you have Italian connections or relatives. This is where Italian migrants settled, and although now they may have moved out of the area – it really was incredible to see the sights, story and to imagine what life was like then. …On Little Italy. 

Next was a walk to the shore through the financial district past Wall Street. The financial district had banners up boasting that it was the Best in the World’s Capital Market. As I walked through with my business information hat on – I also thought of the Wall Street Journal and NASDAQ.

A short walk away is the station for the Staten Island Ferry, which is free to use and runs every 30 minutes. It is interesting to read why it is free now, as it wasn’t always free. The wind was blustery on the ferry but the views of the city and the Statue of Liberty are breath-taking and worth a fortune for a free ride!

After the round trip back to the Manhattan shore, we walked up to the 9/11 Memorial. As I approached the memorial, my exhilarating holiday mood changed to sombre and reflection. Taking in the scale of Ground Zero and remembering the television images on that terribly shocking and sad day kept crossing my mind. It is surreal, but also strangely connections you to those tragic moments when history changed. I was there for the thousands of people who lost their lives on that day. It was both a pilgrimage, and a duty to pay my respect at the 9/11 Memorial.

That day ended with a last walk along Broadway all the way to 37th street. It took about two hours but it was fabulous to go past the buildings, the African Burial Ground, Dean and De Luca Deli (from the film Manhattan), various shops and New Yorkers. It was nice just to observe people going about their normal business and leisure activities. It is fabulous to look up at the very tall buildings as you walk along the pavements on the ground. Again, I kept thinking of the people who had designed and planned the city in the past and how fulfilling it must have been to create this amazing city with towering architecture.

Day Three – Having worked in libraries and information centres, the next day I went to see the United Nations (UN) Headquarters from the exterior with it’s famous block architecture and international flags. You can get free tickets to see the visitors centre but time was short to spend a long time there. For many years and even now, I still use UN publications and their website for information. I have also blogged at work about their Year of Pulses 2016.

Next we walked along 42nd Street past the Woodstock Hotel where apparently my entrepreneur grandfather stayed on a business trip in the 1950s. And then we walked to 41st Street towards the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Library Walk. There was a great build-up of awe on the street approaching the library with plaques on the ground aptly designed with heart-warming and uplifting proses, excerpts and quotes on books, libraries, knowledge and information. The Library was close to our hotel and it inspired me a few times that week.

The NYPL building itself is designed in an European classic architecture and built on a spot that was once a water reservoir. I only had time to see one of the reading rooms but spent some time in the library’s shop too. It was very similar to the British Library’s shop and I bought some souvenirs. One tip – the NYPL (Twitter @nypl) has a fabulous Twitter feed that you should follow!

Just behind the library was the fabulous Bryant Park. My first visit was at lunchtime and it was fabulous to see the park being used during the lunch break by workers, people playing chess or just enjoying the warm summer outdoors. There was also live music one evening, and it was really awesome to take it all in with lofty buildings surrounding the park.

Times Square was a close walk away and good to see during the day and night. Coincidently, there was recently a BBC Two ‘New York – America’s Busiest City’ series that explained that Times Square initially was home to the New York Times, hence its’ name. The advertising boards have been a part of its’ peppered history and seedy days, but has been recovered to be a focal point for digital advertising boards, news feeds for advertisers and live news broadcasts. Day and night – it seemed to be a tourist hotspot.

Day Four – We took the subway this time to Queens and again it was an opportunity to use public transport. Grand Central Station was not far and as you enter – you are impressed by the décor, the lights, astronomical ceiling mural and station elegance. There is an Oyster Bar apparently too, but I did not get a chance to see it. The journey to Queens was my first time on the subway and it is different, as well as similar, to the London Underground and other underground networks I have used. You literally go from deep underground to way overhead above ground rail tracks! New Yorkers were happy to help confirm and to give me directions. Knowing me, I still had time to look out for poetry, art and buskers.

I was meeting friends again and was picked up from Liberty station in Queens. It is the place in New York where the West Indies meets the East Indies. The shops represent a multicultural community – the melting pot that Trinidadian Angela Hunte wrote about in the song ‘Empire State of Mind’ sung by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The food that my friends cooked or bought were on par to that in the Caribbean. It seemed like a home from home to the Trinidadian community there.

The shops represent a multicultural community – the melting pot that Trinidadian Angela Hunte wrote about in the song ‘Empire State of Mind’ sung by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The food that my friends cooked or bought was on par to that in the Caribbean. It seemed like a home from home to the Trinidadian community there.

Day Five – After a fleeting visit on the bus to the Museum of Modern Art and a walk to Central Park, I was excited to dedicate some time to seeing the park and to having a Hot Dog! The park was created for the public health and wellbeing for the residents of the city. It is also fascinating to see in the BBC Two documentary the number of animal and plants species that have to be cared for and the enormous amount of work that needs to be carried out to maintain a park that size. The park is beautiful with lush green trees, picnic areas, street entertainers, space etc. I particularly liked the ‘Literary Walk’ with statues of favourite dead people such as Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. The park is too big to see even in one day, but it is a must to see the contrast between the green spaces and the skyscrapers that surround it.  I also had a Hot Dog by the famous Nathan Hot Dog company, as recommended by one of the park guides.

Later that day we took a train to Mount Vernon in Westchester County, which passed through Harlem and over the Hudson River. I couldn’t help thinking of the negative reputation the Bronx had in the past, but ironically and more positively the music, dance (e.g. Harlem Shuffle and Break Dancing) and art that it inspires. Apparently it is still a place of contrasting communities with gentrification creeping into areas that were once neglected parts of Harlem. On arrival in Mount Vernon on the other hand, it seemed more affluent and picturesque. The best of both worlds, it is not far from Manhattan and within reach to the city for commuters.

Day Six – I had also dedicated a day to shopping at Macy’s. It was nice to spend quality time with my mother shopping. I didn’t go on a silly spending spree but it was still kind of my mother to buy me a dress in the summer sale. It was interesting to see a ‘sale checker’ in Macy’s. I haven’t seen this facility for shoppers anywhere before. It was great for checking prices when items get mixed up or are reduced further in the sales. It was also nice of the sales staff to offer us the Charity Weekend Card at $5.00, which allowed us to have a further 25% off the price of purchases. I was really pleased with the final sales and discounted prices. So the New York shopping sales is not a myth, even with the current sterling to US dollar exchange rate.

I rarely use Taxis in London, but I used the iconic Yellow Taxis with my mother. There were lots of them around, reasonably priced compared to London and are frequently used in Manhattan. The fierce competition between Uber and these traditional taxis on the road is also mentioned in the BBC Two documentary.

I also liked the SMART City initiatives and innovations I saw such as the street platforms for checking your ‘on the go’ connections, device charging points etc. There are also digital boards to keep New Yorkers and neighbourhoods informed.

The most negative aspect of the visit was the high quantity of homeless people in the city. Sadly, homelessness is everywhere in First and Third World countries. But I hope that they are cared for by the organisations responsible everywhere, especially in countries with cold winters.

On reflection, New York is one of those places where you just have to visit! I imagine it will be interesting whatever time of year you want to go, and there are many museums and shopping that would be better in the colder seasons. It is still one of the world’s greatest cities, and I hope to visit it again another time to have another bite of that Big Apple.