NYC: Day 1
The Courage of the Fearless Crew!
Rosie, MaceVindaloo, ThePlazaQueen, SteakGril, Diana, Wraith6, Runt, Farklempt, Susu, Csillag
How exciting a trip to the Big City! Some of us had been to the Big Apple a couple of times before, but this would be the first time in "The City That Never Sleeps" for the midwestern-dwelling Wooklets and for a few of the older ones among us, too. It's a scary thought for some, but we have courage for this adventure! Just getting packed was a challenge: how to dress comfortably, but not look like tourists from the Heartland? Fortunately we had the advice of Hutties who call New York home. Still, we found ourselves tearing through our closets and packing and repacking our bags. The most important piece of advice we got was "bring comfortable walking shoes!" We were so glad we listened to that one!
Knowing that we had airport security to deal with as well as several pieces of luggage to check, we headed for the airport early. Flying on a Friday, even early in the day, meant that each checkpoint we had to go through would be crowded. Fortunately, thanks to improvements in electronic kiosks and database usage, we could use the e-check-in option, even with luggage to check. We got our bags labeled and taken way, then headed for the security checkpoint with it's creepy x-ray machines and metal detectors. A piece of advice here -- remove everything made of metal: watches, sunglasses, bangles, necklaces, belts, and especially shoes! Who knew, but many shoes have a steel shank in the sole for support, and the security guards told us they set off the detector every time.
One thing that has changed in recent years due to security concerns is that only ticketed passengers may go through security to the main areas of airport terminals, therefore all of the interesting shops and other amenities are no longer accessible to non-travelers. So fun crowd-pleasers like a dancing fountain (designed to be the centerpiece of the terminal), or a tram which you can ride from one end of the mile-long terminal to the other, or the many shops and restaurants were off-limits to those who'd come to see us off.
Since we had some time before our flight left, we had a quick breakfast at the ever-popular McDonald's, which isn't different from any other Mickey D's except for the location. (Note: This is not necessarily a bad thing!) Then we decided to take a tram ride. This was the Wooklets' first time inside terminal security, after all, and they were determined to enjoy the start of their big adventure.
We decided to return to our gate via the "slidewalks" which also ran the entire length of the terminal. An annoying feature of long hub terminals for airlines is that they have many more gates available, and so a gate change is not a trivial matter. Our departure gate had changed by the time we got back from riding back and forth, but we still had time to walk further down the terminal to arrive at our new gate a couple of minutes before boarding started.
Boarding started and we were even seated in time to see our luggage being safely loaded always a comforting feeling to know your luggage is riding with you! Waiting for delayed luggage is a bother, and after all the time and energy spent packing, we did NOT want to be without our stuff! We departed on time and the flight was quick even with a little turbulence a nice addition to the experience. We arrived on schedule and our fellow Huttie was there to meet us easy to recognize from the "#WOOKIEEHUT" t-shirt he was wearing! We retrieved our bags and went off to start our adventure.
After dropping our bags off, we walked from our homebase to the subway stop and bought 7-day MetroPasses to use on the subway and city buses. This would end up saving us a lot of money and worry as long as we did not try to use the pass repeatedly within an 18-minute time limit within one bus line or subway, we could use it anywhere, anytime to get everywhere. Since subway rides cost $2 a trip these days, and we ended up using the things an average of 3 times a day over 7 days, the total would have been $48 per person! But these babies cost us $21 apiece for the week; even if we did the regulation commute twice a day, it's a bargain. It's a well-kept secret, and one which every traveler should take advantage.
We took the subway into midtown and got out by Bryant Park, behind the figurehead building of the New York Public Library (the building at the opening of Ghostbusters). The park evokes Paris, which is a deliberate thing, complete with a large stone fountains, beautifully groomed gardens, and gravel-lined paths. It's hard to believe that a couple of decades ago, no one came here because it was occupied by drug sellers and the homeless. The public bathrooms were bolted shut, and in some cases the jambs were painted over, as if the door would never be opened again! In the 1970s, New York City was nearly bankrupt; some of us remember the Ford administration refusing to aid the city in it's time of need. Services were cut, roads were not maintained, and things fell into complete disarray. People actually moved out of the city during this time. But with new affluence, industry input, increased private investment, and "tough love" mayors, New York has surged forward as the grand city we always knew it was. We admired the positive changes along the formerly very scary 42nd Street as we walked eastward to Grand Central Station to meet another fellow Huttie to have lunch the McDonald's we'd eaten felt like ages ago!
While we waited, we admired the zodiac mural on the ceiling, the Fabergé-like gigantic chandeliers, and the polished stonework quarried from Indiana limestone. We were told that the quarries which had provided the original stone were reopened during the restoration process so that the final appearance would reflect the original. If you follow the line of the ecliptic on the ceiling to the northern end of the station you might be able to make out what looks like a tiny rectangle of black straddling the stone edge of the mural and the blue of the mural itself. That was left there deliberately this was the color of the stone and mural prior to restoration!
The expensive and formidable restoration had been driven by the efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who could not stand the idea of losing another historic landmark to yet another soul-less monolith. She and others were responding to the loss of Penn Station the still-functioning Amtrak and LIRR station ended up buried deep underground, and Madison Square Garden one of the few in-city arenas/ stadiums was plopped atop it. Not to say the structure is hideous in itself, but the city lost a massive Beaux Arts structure even grander than Grand Central a very poor tradeoff. Who can blame the former Mrs. Kennedy for creating a fuss? There is talk now of moving Penn Station into the Post Office building across 9th Avenue to create the grand old train station again ... let's hope so! Her activism also saved Radio City Music Hall, but more on that later.
Once our whole group was together, we moseyed on down to Junior's, one of the many many great delis in New York. You can't come to the Mecca of delis and not indulge, so we got our first introduction here. Pastrami, matzoah balls, chicken soup, pickles, and cheesecake galore! In fact, we decided to try these items in every deli we could manage. When in Rome, do as Caesar might do ... but when in New York, oy!
After lunch we decided to jump right into sightseeing. Based on research we decided to purchase a CityPass for each of us. For a set price we could take in several attractions, including a boat tour, several big and famous museums, the Empire State Building, and something called Skyride, but more on that another day. As an overview to the whole Big Apple experience, we decided to start with a Circle Line boat ride around the Island of Manhattan weird to think of New York City as an island, eh? Come to think of it, four out of the five boroughs which comprise "Greater New York" are in fact on islands, or are islands themselves: Manhattan and Staten Island are islands, and Brooklyn and Queens are on the western end of Long Island. The Bronx is the only borough on the "mainland."
The CityPass was good for a 2-hour Circle Line guided tour, but for a nominal charge we opted to upgrade to the 3-hour full-circle-the-island tour (how can one resist such a blatant reference to Gilligan's Island?). Our tour guide, Dave, told us amusing stories and obscure trivia about the various sites we passed as we sailed. He pointed out the U.S.S. Intrepid which was moored on the next dock over from Circle Line and which was included in our CityPass. More on that on another day!
As we made our way south along the Hudson River, Dave pointed out Ellis Island the often notorious immigration depot for many coming from Europe and the Statue of Liberty; both landmarks and icons, and on our future agenda, so more later on those. At the southern end of Manhattan we could see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. At this point in the tour Dave pointed out the land-fill reclaimed Battery Park, the financial district, where the towers of the World Trade Center had stood, Wall Street and Trinity Church, and South Street Seaport as well as the terminal for the Staten Island Ferry. On our right as we turned toward the East River we saw Governor's Island, Brooklyn, the ever-famous Brooklyn Bridge ("Wanna buy a bridge?"), and the Brooklyn Navy Yard which must have been teeming with ships during Fleet Week a couple of weeks previous.
Traveling north up the East River under the Manhattan bridge, Brooklyn fell behind as the borough of Queens came into view. Many former working docks and warehouses have abandoned their former lives and the areas did fall on hard times. But new businesses have come into the area and old warehouse and factory spaces have been converted to lofts, a very trendy form of housing practically the only way to get a lot of space relatively cheaply in this town. Passing under the Williamsburg Bridge, we continued up the East River. About here, there is a park with a unique provenance. During WW II, munitions and artillery were shipped out to London, and when the ships came home, they were empty and needed ballast. They used whatever was convenient and cheap in London, and that material turned out to be rubble from bombed buildings from war-torn London itself. When the boats got back, they offloaded the ballast, and there was so much that it became landfill. The Lower East Side park is thus built atop foreign "land" yet within the borders of New York City!
Dave made a point of mentioning that the fictional Huxtable family of The Cosby Show fame fictionally lived in a trendy brownstone in fashionable Brooklyn Heights, and our own local guides told us that master chocolatier Jacques Torres's chocolate shop was in Brooklyn too, but since he was off judging pastry competitions elsewhere in the world, we would make our pilgrimage there another time. Progressing northward we saw the beautiful Art Deco Chrysler Building with its chromed crown, and the United Nations complex consisting of the General Assembly Hall, the Secretariat, and the Library. The U.N. was also on our future agenda so more of that later too.
Past the Queens Midtown Bridge (immortalized in Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song), on the Manhattan side was "Hospital Row," a bevy of hospitals specializing in everything from orthopedics to eye surgery and associated with the best universities and professional teams in and around the city. Dave even mentioned a number of sports celebs who had their career-saving surgeries here.
Roosevelt Island is right under the bridge between Queens and Manhattan, and is now mostly residential; several learning institutions, including the renowned French Culinary Institute, have dormitory spaces here. When the buildings were first erected, the island was used as an isolation hospital for those with infectious disease like tuberculosis. It was also built to house insane patients, and violent crime prisoners were also incarcerated here. Here's a mad idea: the prisoners were actually the wardens for the insane patients! A reporter, Nelly Bly, bravely went undercover as an insane patient in 1888. She survived the horrible conditions and her reports of the extreme and dangerous abuses shut down the whole system. By the 1970s, with housing in shortage in the city, the buildings had been renovated as living spaces and the tramway planned and built. The tram is part of the subway and bus system, so you can get on it for a unique view of this part of the city for the price of a subway ride. Despite its cliffhanger scenes in many movies, it's actually quite safe to ride. Rather an exotic history for what was once a small farm; in fact, the original farmhouse is still standing!
At about 96th Street on the Manhattan grid, a waterchannel known as Hell's Gate went off on a northeasterly direction a confluence of the East River, the Bronx River, and the Long Island Sound. The turbulent waters are the site of one the worst ship civilian maritime disasters in U.S. history: the General Slocum caught fire and sank, taking over 1000 lives in 1904. No one could reach the survivors of the fire to rescue them because of the turgid water.
Dave pointed out the immense Consolidated Edison Power Plant and the Steinway factory yes, that Steinway, the one that built pianos. He also mentioned Riker's Island. One Huttie who is also a Law & Order fan craned her neck to see this oft-referred-to holding area for criminal detainees awaiting trial, thinking how cool it is to glimpse these places she sees on the boob tube. In any case, Hell's Gate seemed an entirely appropriate name for the area, where the water rushed around and swallowed many a rowboat in colonial days.
The northwesterly channel, also known as the Harlem River, carried us between Harlem and the Bronx under several more bridges, including the lowest of the bridges, as well as one that must swivel open in order to let boats pass. A new feature on the Harlem River is the Peter Jay Sharp boathouse, which actually used to be on the Norwalk River in Connecticut. It was towed by tugboat just 10 days before we sailed past it! We don't know who owns it, but it's there! Across the river on the Bronx side is pretty run-down, but lately Bette Middler has taken up its renovation and beautification as a personal cause.
Two of the points of interest Dave brought to our attention along this stretch of our tour were the boathouse where the Columbia University crew team keep their boats and work out, and Gracie Mansion in Carl Schurz Park overlooking Hell's Gate, which is the official home of the Mayor of New York. The mansion is actually situated above the FDR Drive, and thus cannot be seen from the highway. He also made a point of mentioning the up-and-down history of Harlem. Once a vibrant musical showplace, this area of the city came to represent the worst of urban blight, but even here renewal is possible. Music again came to have an important role, anchored by the refurbished Apollo Theatre, and burned-out buildings were renovated into luxurious homes, albeit with displacement of long-time residents as the price paid for "improvement."
How's this for an example of stubborn New Yorkers? Once upon a time, there was little Spuyten Duyvil Creek ("spitting devil" New York City still sports largely Dutch names from its days as New Amsterdam), which connected the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. It originally flowed north through Marble Hill, which was on Manhattan island. In 1895, a ship canal was dug straight across the spit of land, which turned Marble Hill into a small island, bordered by the canal on one side, and the Spuyten Duyvil on the other. Then in 1914 the creekbed was filled in, and Marble Hill physically became part of the contiguous Bronx. There was an uproar among the residents who considered themselves to be Manhattanites, and a special act of the city government was passed so that these residents of Marble Hill retained their Manhattan voting rights. Sheesh!
Rounding the northern end of Manhattan, we passed under the Henry Hudson Parkway and came upon an unexpectedly lush stretch of green. This turned out to be a stretch of several parks. At this point, Dave mentioned that it was possible to walk around the entire island of Manhattan because of a city ordinance mandating public access to the water. Now that he had mentioned that, we realized that there were bicycle and walking paths along many areas and many many people always walking, riding or skating a model other cities should follow.
Dave decided that it was time for a geology lesson appropriate enough since geology plays a role in the development of the city. Up here on the northern end of the island there were some high bluffs of hard stone faced across the Hudson River by the basaltic Palisades region of New Jersey; the basalt forms hexagonally shaped columns, which makes for striking cliff views. In contrast, the hard stone which forms the substrate of the island of Manhattan is granite among the hardest igneous rocks and deeply metamorphosed sedimentary rock. It makes the island strong enough and stable enough to support the many, many monumental skyscrapers which came to represent New York. This hard rock substrate does not extend in the same manner across the East River to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. This factor, plus one other, allows Manhattan stretches skyward in it's unique manner.
Queens and Brooklyn are technically sitting on the "landfill" resulting from the last two ice ages, when debris and soil from points north were dragged down by the huge ice sheets and dumped directly onto the continental shelf. There are outcrops of bedrock in those boroughs, but mostly the substrate is sediment, composed of various grades of packed sand. And though large buildings can be supported if you build them right, geography plays an important role here there is a well-established phenomenon called "psychological geography" the "other factor" which limits the city's growth. People do not consider land across water or on the other side of a pass or mountain to be part of the local area. (Case in point, the Marble Hillites and the Spuyten Duyvil creek issue mentioned previously.) Thus, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island being "across the water" are not considered "the city" (that's actually what Manhattan is called) by natives or others, and the only growth possible was skyward. There was simply very little demand for development on the other side of the rivers, in any direction out of Manhattan. Plus, prior to all the bridges being built, you could only cross the waters by boat, and you can imagine what a hassle that was. It was such a hassle that men like Cornelius Vanderbilt made their first fortunes ferrying people and goods back and forth in a rowboat! Amazing what you learn on a 3-hour tour, isn't it?
(Speaking of the "3-hour tour" ... "the weather started getting rough ..." But never fear, we are equipped with umbrellas, being the properly prepared weather-listening, afraid-of-melting intrepid crew!)
Up there on the northern end of the island tucked away among the bluffs and greenery of Fort Tryon Park is yet another surprising treasure call the Cloisters. Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this collection of religious and domestic architecture is typified by covered quadrangles and corridors; the cloistered walkways give the exhibition space it's name. The structures were rescued from demolition from various locations in southern France and transported to the United States. The disassembled blocks were carefully numbered and reassembled in their current location through the efforts of the Rockefeller family, who also purchased the land across the Hudson River in New Jersey so that the view overlooking the river would be forever undeveloped. The Cloisters now houses a collection of Medieval art including tapestries, stained glass, and sculpture, as well as Medieval-era documented gardens and plants. The Cloisters were not on our agenda this time around, but they certainly will be next time.
Continuing south, we passed beneath the George Washington Bridge where a certain Little Red Lighthouse captured our attention. This landmark was immortalized in the childrenís book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge and children of all ages continue to look for this symbol of strength and significance irrespective of size.
Traveling onward, Dave pointed out the location of the Soldiers and Sailors memorial as well as what is invariably and incorrectly called Grantís Tomb in Riverside Park. Whoís buried in Grantís Tomb? Donít be fooled. No one is buried in Grantís Tomb. Technically, to be buried, it must be in the ground. Grant and his wife, Julia, are entombed in the mausoleum. Also located nearby are Columbia University, Riverside Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the seat of the Episcopal Church), and Theodore Rooseveltís birthplace. So much to see and so little time; these too will have to wait for our next visit.
As we neared our point of departure, Dave imparted another gem of Big Apple trivia. Real estate mogul Donald Trump owns properties all over Manhattan and naturally wants to keep their value high. One of his buildings overlooking the Hudson River along this stretch has the remnants of a long disused and rotting pier for the water-facing spaces to look out upon. Trump wanted to remove it as unsightly, but was overruled when the pier was deemed to be "accidental art" whatever that means! Art is in the eye of the beholder after all ...
By the way, Dave is not a native New Yorker. Like many residents of this city, he's from out of town, but he's lived here for nearly two decades. We found him to be knowledgeable in a way natives might not be, perhaps because those who are lucky enough to be born and raised here would take it all for granted. It's said that most New Yorkers are not from here, yet when they first arrived in the Big City, they often describe a huge feeling of relief, as if they had "come home," and it's very hard to displace them once they've settled.
Finally, just before returning to the Circle Line dock, Dave showed us the pier where many great ocean liners, such as the Queen Mary and the QE II of the past have docked, where Grace Kelly boarded the ship that carried her to Europe to become Princess Grace of Monaco, and where the R.M.S. Titanic would have docked had she not had a close encounter of the wrong kind with an iceberg. Another tragic note: the Lusitania sailed from this dock on its final voyage ... just as well this place is no longer a ship's dock, and now has been renovated into Chelsea Piers, a massive sports arena and movie studio. It contains a driving range, bowling alley, hockey rink, rock walls, basketball courts, sunken pools filled with foam blocks. It seems to have dispelled the apparent "curse" of this dock!
Our day in New York had started out beautifully sunny, balmy, and warm. As the day progressed, the turbulence we had outflown caught up with us again bringing a storm front with it. During our tour the skies darkened; rain fell, lightly at first but then in sheets. Fortunately even up on the top deck we were under cover, so we kept mostly dry. Those of us who enjoy storms watched the lightning strike the "city's lightning rod" at the top of the Empire State Building. It was clearly and dramatically visible from almost everywhere!
Back on land again during a lull in the sheeting rain (but still drizzling) we needed to make our way downtown in time for our dinner rendezvous. We hopped on a bus but only managed to go two blocks before getting caught up in rush hour tunnel traffic. We got off the bus and flagged down a more maneuverable cab to make the trip and off to the Empire Diner in Chelsea we went. The atmosphere was perfect an Art Deco diner with connections to many, many movies and shows, in a city that was essentially defined in an Art Deco era!
We had had a very long, very full day and now we were pleasantly sated so it was time to be returning to homebase. Our guides led the way back to the subway when one of the Huttlets had a brainstorm. A cartoon connoisseur, the Huttlet recalled some rather unusual fictional denizens of the city's underground tunnels, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She knew she wouldn't find ninja turtles, but perhaps she'd see Splinter, their rat leader, scurrying through the tunnels. Although no rats were spotted that night, it turned out to be an amusing way to spend the time waiting for our train to arrive. Anyway, we didn't need any "heroes on a halfshell that night" no trouble in Gotham! Just a lot of rain ... and we didn't melt!
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