New York, New York. Part I.

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Of all American cities I've been to, New York City is the only one with all proper elements of a genuine "big" city: dense skyscrapers that mask the true weather; unbearable noise of jackhammers; awful smells; bustling New Yorkers walking in a pace like it's the end of the world; everyone wears that blunt yet sophisticated attitude of "don't give a damn, I've seen it all"; people live in enormous apartment buildings downtown, not suburb, and walk right downstairs for groceries or a haircut; taxi (and Uber) drivers that speak the languages of all lands, except English; neatly dressed Jews in black outfits, even in the summer heat (no intention of stereotyping, but I think they symbolize thriving commercialism); homeless adorn the streets of Time Square (commendably, none of them panhandles); shabby little hole-in-the-wall type eateries that serve amazing food; shiny hot dog and kabob stands that kill with their aroma on every street corner...

 

The New Yorkers, though generally not as arrogant and obnoxious as Parisians, tend to think their city is the centre of the world. Such notion is not totally ungrounded, I have to say. Among the so-called global cities, New York is no doubt first tier in any category you care to consider: economy, world politics, culture, education, technology, media, sports, tourism... If NYC is an independent country, its GDP ($1.55 trillion, 2012) will be ranked around 12th in the world, comparable to large developed country like Australia ($1.39T, 2012). Quite an achievement for 8.5 millions people (2014) densely packed on about 305 square miles around the estuary of Hudson River (Australia has 23 million on 2,969,907 sq mi, for comparison).

 

And these 8.5 millions New Yorkers, despite of their fading Noo Yawk accent (nobody talk like Joe Pesci anymore, what a shame), are an interesting breed of people. They are energetic, stylish, worldly, street-smart, street-tough (you ain't gonna mess with nobody from Brooklyn, Bronx, Harlem, or Queens, where even a puny old lady can clearly beat you up with her walking stick), cerebral (has anyone, since the time of Diogenes, seen a homeless immersed in such solemn and deep contemplation in front of a church, instead of panhandling?), with a dry sense of humour (where else can you find a bohemian young man with an old typewriter to offer you free poetry, in the most expensive city of the country?).

 

One other thing that impressed me was that New York looked and felt safer that I'd anticipated. The streets and people, though not exactly friendly, didn't look in any way threatening or dangerous. I suppose my expectation was a bit low given New York's criminal past. Apparently it was no longer the age of the Irish Roach Guards, or Don Corleone, or the Harlem Riot, or the crack epidemic any more. In fact, NYC's crime rate has been in steady decline since the 1990s and was below national level in 2014. This year (2015) the Economist even ranked New York the 10th safest major city in the world (out of 50). The drop was attributed to innovative police tactics, aging of population, and most interestingly, the legalization of abortion in 1973 (so less babies were born in dysfunctional families and grew up to be criminals).

 

The best way to take a quick albeit superficial look at New York would be riding around town (meaning Manhattan) on a double-decker tour buses. It allows one to peer into the lively street scene with a commanding position without interfering it. And if you stand up tall, you can reach for the street signs above. Assuming you're swift enough not to be knocked over, you can freely leave your marks to provide further guidance to the busy intersections of New York City. For in instance, I'm pretty sure this sign on Broadway, lower Manhattan has tasted all possible flavours of chewing gums from all around the world (last pic).

 

So we start from Midtown Manhattan, the heartland of NYC, the center of the center of the world. One of the birthplaces of modern skyscrapers, this is home of some of the best-known high rises in the world: Empire State Building (never understand why NY call itself the empire state - it's non-descriptive, vain, and offers nothing but an opportunity for some discontent countries to accuse the US of being "imperialistic" in global hegemony), Chrysler Building (a fine specimen of pre-war Art Deco style architecture), Rockefeller Center, United Nation Headquarter (a featureless piece of brick)... and how can we forget, the Trump Tower (2nd row, last 2 pix). Good old Donald has been dropping his name like faeces onto no less than 33 large buildings in the city, much to the horror of any New Yorker who has an adequate amount of self-esteem and tastes.

 

The top of the Rockefeller Center offers an excellent view of the concrete forests on the entire island, from the canopy.

 

Some other attractions, though not as lofty, carry equally, if not more prestigious names: the Carnegie Music Hall (every musician's dream venue), Madison Square Garden (no, it's not square but round, and so-named because it used to be on Madison Square), the original Macy's store that takes up an entire street block, the flagship Saks store, the Broadway... When pass by the windows of NBC Studio, you can wave at the camera so your mom can see you on the evening news.

 

And of course the Time Square, which is not much of a square, but a busy intersection under a bright, vibrant, flickering ocean of sense-overloading, building-size LED billboards.

 

The street scenes in Time Square were just riveting. There were the biggest Toys R Us store and M & M store in the world (no escape when you have two kids); wonderful street artists (what do you know, they got web sites and take credit cards nowadays); girls with nothing on but a layer of paint; all kinds of food stands; some one erected an enormous styrofoam re-production of the VJ Day in Time Square, which was taken roughly at the same spot. Poor lady, she's been held in that awkward position for over seventy years now.

 

More interesting buildings in Midtown. The stately, temple-like structure in the 1st pic is actually a post office.

 

Cruising northward to Upper Manhattan, along the vast Central Park. In this self-advertised "magical" city, Central Park have to be one of its neatest tricks. I mean, just how these folks manage to fence out this enormous rectangle block of 873 acre, some 11% of entire Manhattan, from some the most expensive areas in the country? Mind you in the upper westside, median house price has reached $1.4mil, as of mid-2015; and a modest 1BR apartment went for about $3.4K a month. Back in 2005, some bozo who's got nothing better to do actually appraised the park, and claimed its real estate value was $529B. I half imagined hordes of real estate developers were drooling all around the park like vultures, only to be shoo away by socially responsible New Yorkers, who were determined to keep a piece of green land for their city. Anyway, the park is gorgeous, a serene and soothing island from the noise and chaos all around. Every year, the park receives about 35 million visitors, making it the most-visited urban park in the US. It's one of the most filmed locations in the world too. Here sleeping on the park bench was Jack Lemmon, who was kept out of his apartment (The Apartment, 1960); right there in the middle of the lawn, Michael Douglas, in a fits of rage, berated Charlie Sheen for betrayal, only to be betrayed yet again (Wall Street, 1987); in the most romantic of nights, Ginger Roger and Fred Astaire couldn't help but started swirling in their airy steps (Shall We Dance, 1937)... the park has been the center stage of New York city life for 156 years.

 

Along the 5th avenue on the upper east side, between 82nd and 110th street, are the most comprehensive and concentrated cultural exhibition the world has ever known. Along the street, one after another, are ten world-class museums: The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art, which we shall re-visit later), the Jewish Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (known for its Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern, and contemporary art collection), the Neue Galerie New York (specializes on early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design), and much else. The section is thus known as the Museum Mile. The Henry Clayton Frick House , although lies beyond the mile on 70th street, houses an impressive collection of the best-known works of major European artists. It would take years and years to plow through all the fine collections in each institution. I figure that's probably why Jackie Kennedy Onasis chose her post-White House residence (1040 5th Ave, the Abagon, 2nd row, 3rd & 4th pix) right within the mile, between the Neue Galerie and The Met. That lady's got tastes. Her flat, the only one with a street-side balcony, reportedly sold for $32mil in 2006.

 

Further north, Harlem offered a sharply contrasting scene. Below we have The Face of Harlem, as interpreted by a graffiti artist (or a vandal), painted on the plywood of a boarded up window on a seemingly derelict building. Just a few blocks away from the genteelness and sophistication of the Museum Mile, I found the menacing face intriguing and vivid.

 

Harlem was a tough neighbourhood, judging from the density of graffiti and pawn shops, as well as the conditions of the tenement buildings. The streets were just a little too gloomy for such a bright day. People went about their business with a stony and bleak look; their gaze empty while waiting for the bus or the traffic light. I suspected deep under each apathetic mask lurks a menacing face, waiting to be provoked and let loose. It all had that coarse and depressing vibe of a declining community.

 

The truth is, however, Harlem is not without its own refinement and sophistication. Long touted the "black mecca" and "unofficial capital of African American," Harlem has been the cultural and commercial center of Afro-American since the "Harlem Renaissance" in the 1920's, when Black literature and fine arts flourished and their music (jazz, that is) swept the world. As our schedule does not allow an in-depth cultural exploration, we could only cruised pass a few symbolic landmarks, such as the Apollo Theater on West 125th street, an African American equivalent of the Carnegie Hall. Its celebrated Amateur Night has lifted off the careers of numerous super stars such as Billie Holiday, James Brown, Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder, to name but a few. Other figures to be commemorated for Harlem's prosperity include Adam Clayton Powell Jr., an influential political figure whose rather fluid statue adorns the corner of 125th Street, in front of the A.C.P. State Office Building, and Duke Ellington, a renowned jazz musician whose 25-ft-tall statue towers over the northeast corner of the Central Park.

 

The Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement were inseparable with religions, which always have a strong presence in Harlem's daily life. Majority of African American (some 68%) are Protestants, like the followers of the handsome St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Romanesque Revival style (1st pic), or the Atlah Worldwide Church (2nd pic). A small fraction chose Islamic faith and attend mosques such as the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz (last pic), where Malcolm X used to preach until switching to Sunni Islam in 1964.

 

Next we headed south to Lower Manhattan, the other end of the island as well as the other end of the social spectrum, where the outlook improved considerably.

 

Lower Manhattan, the southern tip of island was where it all began. The city own its humble beginning to the Dutch, who built a few trading posts and settlements, as well as a small fortress in the 1620s to guard the entrance to the Hudson River. They called it New Amsterdam. Then the British showed up, and after a few skirmishes and exchanges, finally took control of the colony. Naturally they follow suit and re-named the colony New York to kiss up their Duke of York and future King James II. Not a bad thing really, as New York is far more pleasant and catchy a name than New Amsterdam, if you ask me. Anyway, to be faithful to history both names were engraved onto the front of the majestic Manhattan Municipal Building (1st 3 pix), which houses many of the city's agencies. The building is surrounded by a number of other important-looking institutes such as the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse (4th pic) and the County Court House (last 2 pix).

 

Today, the original site of New Amsterdam is known as the Financial District. The world capital of finance, it's the home of world's biggest stock exchange (NYSE) and many other world class financial institutions: Federal Reserve Banks, NASDAQ, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and much, much else. You can feel the pulse of money gushing in and out on its every heartbeat.

 

The streets of Lower Manhattan have a certain "old money" feel. Take this iconic wedge-shaped Flatiron Building on 5th Ave for an example. One of the world's tallest buildings when it's finished (1902), the Flatiron is the grandfather of all skyscrapers. But over the century its radical design has never ceased to amaze onlookers. With 5th Ave and Broadway on its two edges, it chisels into East 22nd Ave and form a rather streamline and sleek silhouette. Its facades, in Beaux-Art style popular of the age, are elaborate and elegant, with the hint of a Greek temple or Roman Coliseum. Just one block east, a contemporary skyscraper, the Met Life Tower (last 2 pix), was styled after the Campanile of Venice.

 

And there're much, much more. So many of them are National Historic Landmarks, I have to stop counting. What's certain is that every one of them has its own colourful stories.

 

Of course there are also "new money", meaning more modern and lofty buildings, as represented by the One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the US at 104-story and 1776 ft. Neatly shaped in simply geometry like an obelisk, it stands on the original site of the ill-fated Twin Towers of the original World Trade Center and dominates the skyline of Lower Manhattan. Other notable modern structures include the Fulton Center (key transition hub in lower Manhattan) and New York by Gehry at 8 Spruce Street (one of the world's tallest residential building, designed by Frank Gehry).

 

And much else...

On the lower east side is the original Chinatown. It inevitably had the look of a decaying neighbourhood, as the Chinese residence are gradually migrating out to livelier areas such as Flushing in Queens. Understandably the area had quite a number of Buddhist temples for spiritual comfort. But I found it hard to warm to the idea of a Buddhist temple that looks like a quick knock up from a deserted tenement building, for its lack of space, sincerity and solemnity - you need all those to cultivate religious inspiration.

 

From Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan, we took a boat to cruise on the Hudson River, along the island of Manhattan. On the dock, some geographically challenged fellas named their handsome sail boat "Peking." They probably had no idea that Peking is a land-locked city that lacks even a proper river to float a large boat like that.

 

On the other side of the pier is Brooklyn, which is connected to the island by the Brooklyn Bridge. Finished in 1883, it's the first ever steel cable suspension bridge, and still looked incredibly burly and sturdy. Sturdy enough to have Godzilla trapped in its cables and shot down by the air force apparently (Godzilla, 1998). Further in the background is the Manhattan Bridge, also a handsome structure. But because a little short on history (1909) and characters, it usually has to be invisible in the shadow (it didn't appear at all in the Godzilla Brooklyn Bridge scene, as I recall).

 

Lower Manhattan, viewed from the river on different angles.

 

On the other side of Hudson River is Jersey City, New Jersey. Considerably more affordable than Manhattan, it's a popular residence area for professionals in NYC.

 

The Statue of Liberty, though widely considered a prominent symbol of New York City, is actually located on Liberty Island, Jersey City. Everyone call her "Lady Liberty," but the facial features and the figure were just a little too masculine to me. Well, who knows what the French were up to. Anyway, she's quite soothing and pleasing to look at, especially for those who just set foot on the country from some remote corners of the world, knowing that finally they made it, to the most abundant, generous, forgiving land of all.

 

In those good old days (1892-1954), some 12 millions foreigners landed on Ellis Island (2nd-3rd), took an emotional look at the inspiring backdrop of Lady Liberty, swam through the paper work and physical examinations, and then shuffled off in the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal (5-6th) to their new lives.

 

Today, about half of the American have at least one of their forebears pass through the Great Hall of Ellis Island.

 

Midtown Manhattan, viewed from Hudson River.

 

Lastly, we briefly visited Queens, which is east of Manhattan, across the East River. It had some of those rare corners where you can still find single family houses, something you usually don't associate with NYC. But of course that doesn't say much about Queens, except that the real estate is cheap enough for people to afford to live big. The ever-expanding Chinatown in Flushing has overtaken the one in Manhattan as biggest Chinese enclave in NYC.

So this is it for a quick tour around the city. Next we shall go a little deeper into the city cultural scene.

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