On Wednesday morning, we awoke to the sound of a violent thunderstorm in the streets outside the hostel. When we eventually ventured outside, the storm had eased to a drizzle, so we took the subway down to lower Manhattan. (An aside about the subway system: not only is it far shabbier than the London equivalent, but its name causes no end of confusion. I went into a bank to ask for directions to the nearest subway, only to later find that she’d actually directed me to the nearest branch of Subway, the popular sandwich chain.)
We headed down towards the ferry terminal at the southernmost tip of the island, passing Ground Zero on the way. To be honest, the former location of the World Trade Center towers was rather unmoving. Nearly six years on, it no longer resembles anything other than a huge building site in the middle of the financial district.
At the ferry terminal was Castle Clinton, a fort built to defend NYC against the British in the 1812 war. It actually saw no action in the war, though these days it is frequently invaded by Brits such as us because it is used as the ticket office for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
The Statue of Liberty sits in the mouth of the Hudson river and provides a wonderful foreground to the view back at the famous skyline of lower Manhattan. At a viewing platform on the island was an annotated drawing from 1997 of the skyline as it was then. It was this, and not Ground Zero, that was for me the most poignant reminder of 9/11 in the city. The drawing was not a memorial to the terrorist attacks, it was simply an outdated diagram of a skyline that had once been dominated by two enormous buildings that just aren’t there any more. Apart from a small gap where the twin towers once were, the current cityscape looks entirely natural; it is the drawing that looks like somebody has sketched on two outsized towers, perhaps concept drawings of a future development, rather than an accurate drawing of what once was. For two such huge structures to be literally erased from one of the world’s most famous skylines is really very haunting.
Another ferry ride later and we were on Ellis Island, the site of America’s main immigration centre in the early 20th century. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million people entered the US at Ellis Island, their first sight of the land of the free being the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline. The museum was very interesting, although I totally failed to realise that there was more to it than just the main hall downstairs, thus missing out on most of it. I did find a relative called Mary Entwistle on the Ellis Island database, or rather I found five possible name matches for her.
Back on the sort-of mainland that is Manhattan, we walked through the financial district along Wall St. It was pretty much the same as walking through the equivalent in London, although the New York Stock Exchange was clearly identifiable as the front wall was adorned with an enormous stars and stripes. While grabbing a bite to eat at McDonald’s on Broadway (which had a grand piano on the staircase), we decided that since the previous night’s entertainment had been so good we might as well have a look to see what other shows were available for cheap.
While walking past Ground Zero on the way to Times Square with Neil and Leo, I heard someone call my name from over my shoulder. It was 5pm on a weekday evening, so the street was full of suited businessmen, among whom was the source of the voice: my Engineering pal Rob Collier. He is in New York for his training before he returns to London to move money around for a silly salary. Although I knew he was in the city (and, in fact, we had planned to meet up one evening but had been unable to), it was still rather strange to run into him in a street more than 3000 miles away from Durham. We couldn’t chat for long as he was off for some executive ten-pin bowling, though he was able to point out the swish looking hotel on the skyline where his bank are putting him up in a suite. It looked a bit nicer than our hostel, but I bet his air conditioning system doesn’t do an uncanny impression of the Niagara Falls.
An hour or so later, after buying tickets for Chicago (which we later to found to be entertaining, though nowhere near as good as the Phantom), Andy calls me on my mobile to find out where we were as he was watching news of an explosion at 41st and Lexington Ave. We were two streets to the north, though several avenues to the west, so we decided to head in that direction to find out what was going on.
Strangely, until we were only a few blocks away from the police cordon, nobody seemed to be aware of anything out of the ordinary happening. When we did reach the cordon, there were several dozen people taking photos of what we later learnt to be a burst steam pipe (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6905738.stm, but no panic.
Since we arrived in the States, it has seemed that every news story on TV is connected to terrorism in some way; it’s something of an obsession for the media. Yet here, right where almost every New Yorker you pass in the street would be able to tell you their own personal story of how 9/11 affected them, there is more of a relaxed, accepting attitude to whatever threat the city faces. To them, terrorism isn’t a catch-all word used by politicians in Washington to justify their actions, it is something that has irreversibly altered their lives and which they’ve been forced to accept the reality of. I guess it’s a similar view to that held by Londoners after enduring decades of IRA terrorism, although the scale of what happened to this city on one day in 2001 comes into focus when you see the lists of dead colleagues written on the side of each fire truck that passes.
Anyway, we hung around behind the police cordon, took a few photos and watched what I can only assume to be the FBI arrive (they were driving black cars with blacked-out windows, wore black suits, black ties and black sunglasses – the other possibility was Men in Black), before heading to the Theater District to watch Chicago which was nowhere near as exciting as the actual city of Chicago.
The following morning, our final full day in NYC, Andy, Alex, Ed and I headed for the UN headquarters on the eastern side of Manhattan. En route we visited Grand Central station, which is both grand and pretty central. It was still partially closed as a result of the explosion in the neighbouring street. Outside, it was a strange sight to see Red Cross tents and vans, as well as police and FBI in gas masks (there were concerns that asbestos dust may have been released, though this was later found not to be the case) patrolling the streets of New York. I bought a copy of the New York Post, which is the city’s equivalent of The Sun and was adorned with the headline ‘MIDTOWN VOLCANO!’ and lots of dramatic photos. The New York Times, which I had bought the previous day, looked to be taking a more sober and far less entertaining view on this tragedy so I left it unpurchased in one of the little dispensers that can be found on practically every US street corner.
The UN building is a must-see for any visitor to New York. It is a little island of liberal internationalism within a generally inward-looking, conservative country and the highly informative Swedish tour guide showed us both the General Assembly and Security Council chambers. It is technically international territory, so we stepped out of the US for a few hours to see the displays about how much money the west (read America) spends on the military and how a tiny proportion of that money would be enough to wipe out most of this planet’s ailments. I found it a little strange that the HQ of an organisation so often slated by US politicians could be sited right here in downtown Manhattan.
Stepping back onto US soil, we headed for the Empire State Building. It was the tallest building in the world from its construction in 1931 until 1970, and since 2001 has once again been the peak of New York City. Nevertheless, its position well to the north the financial district (where the twin towers had stood) means that it is unable to show off its height in the New York skyline because it is simply too far behind all the others to look at all special. Even its distinctive shape has been imitated by the Chrysler Building, leaving the Empire State looking forlorn and a little lost. Regardless of this, it is still the tallest thing for hundreds of miles, so we took the elevator right up to the viewing platform on floor 86.
At roughly this point, the clouds (which now enveloped us) decided they’d had enough of holding onto all that moisture and decided to let rip. I got almost as soaked as I did sitting on a boat just metres away from Niagara Falls. When the clouds did eventually lift, though, the view was fantastic and the position in the middle of Manhattan provided a view of the city that a harbourside skyscraper never could.
Macy’s prominently claims to be the world’s largest department store, and I think it may be correct. It goes up ten floors and down at least one, with entertainingly ancient wooden escalators carrying you between the uppermost floors. Also, and I’m not entirely sure how, it extends between 5th and 7th Avenues without being obstructed by 6th. After being deodorised courtesy of the free samples of aftershave that were being sprayed by eager salesmen all over the ground floor, we left Macy’s and headed to the district of Chelsea in search of some culture.
We found it within the many small art galleries in the district. The art was mostly modern, with some really good use of different media, including sculptures, paintings, mechanical chair things (it was very strange) and video.
Finally, on Friday morning we left New York bright and early, putting Ed on a Grayhound to Atlantic City and reclaiming our monster truck from Newark Airport’s long stay parking lot.