Homer: New York is a hellhole. And you know how I feel about hellholes!
Marge: It’s wall-to-wall landmarks! The Williamsburg bridge! Fourth Avenue! Governor’s Island!
“The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson”
I moved away from New York almost ten years ago and I haven’t been back to visit the city in over five. Much is as I left it, but some has changed. The World Trade Center and its ancillary infrastructure are still being reconstructed. There is more security around town, especially in the Financial District, including cops and closed streets and bollards and French barricades. It appears the security mission there has evolved from counterterrorism to counterrevolution. Zuccotti Park was quiet but there were still some protesters occupying the steps of Federal Hall.
My wife and I, along with her parents, stayed in the Millennium Hilton, the Space Odyssey Monolith style building right across from the World Trade Center. The last time I saw the Millennium Hilton it was closed and covered in dust. From our room we could look down at construction in the World Trade Center plaza and look up at progress on 1 WTC, now the tallest building in New York. In fact, I think we got good deals on the rooms because of the construction noise. Every morning at 8 o’clock the clanking would begin. It was not a place for sleeping late.
Sleeping late wasn’t necessary anyway. Almost everything we visited on this trip I had been to before, though we saw in four days what I had spent many much shorter excursions seeing. In fact, though I got some good photos, I felt like I was re-taking many from my pre-digital camera days (which were not so long ago). The most notable exception was the new National September 11 Memorial—more on that later. The other novelty was a quick stop at Alexander Hamilton’s grave in the Trinity Church cemetery, something that as a nerd I had always meant to visit.
Like every place I’ve lived there are things I miss about New York and things I don’t miss. One thing I miss about New York is that there is so much of it. Its limits are not obvious like they are in other cities. The size and density of New York’s parts obscure each other. In New York I feel like I could wander around forever looking at interesting things without ever leaving or passing the same place twice.
I don’t miss the crowds which in New York have a certain Soylent Green quality. My family and I rediscovered the crowds as soon as we wandered onto the Brooklyn Bridge from the street by way of a creepy staircase. For a bridge that was originally built for pedestrians, there is not a lot of room left there for them. The walk was busy: walkers in one lane, bicyclists in the other, joggers on the broad stripe separating them, and two-way traffic in each. The stretch from Manhattan to the observation deck around the west tower was probably more clogged with tourists anyway.
While on the bridge I had a good, quick reminder of something else I don’t like about New York’s crowds besides their existence: regular outbursts from the insane people among them. An angry cyclist approaching the bridge from Park Row shouted at pedestrians to “go back to the subway and stay off the bridge!” Like a lot of New York’s kooks, this cyclist:
- Lived in a crowed city that is completely unfriendly to his lifestyle, yet expected tourists, commuters, and other pedestrians to clear the way for his benefit.
- Tried to remedy his problem at once by shouting at random passers-by.
Clearly this man was not getting the mental health care he needed. At around 10,000 people per square mile, such problems of our nation get magnified and focussed in Manhattan.
I had a more energizing experience with the crowds as I ran some errands the morning of our departure. It was rush hour in the financial district and everybody was trudging to work. I pushed my way upstream and across the street to a deli. Aside from the construction workers taking their breaks in the back, the deli was a study in New York fast. I was in and out of there with our breakfast in five minutes. The guy at the counter even talked fast.
There were some good surprises: the renovated Staten Island Ferry terminals looked really nice and seemed actually pleasant. They are shiny and cheerful and modern where they were once unfortunate places you had to pass through before and after you rode the boat. The day’s weather was dismal in spite of the gleaming facilities: rainy, cold, and windy—terrible weather for taking the ferry. The visibility wasn’t too poor, though, and while we could tolerate the conditions we stood on the open deck and took pictures of the Statue of Liberty.
In Midtown we poked around the now-fashionable Rockefeller Center for a while. While the statue of Prometheus is the best-known public artwork there, I never paid much attention to the other installations which, along with the Art Deco buildings, gush the propaganda of progress. Interesting carved stone or metal reliefs decorate the outsides of each building, and the lobby of 30 Rock (or the GE Building, as my mom would call it) has some very cool and epic murals.
Even though it is much younger than either trendy Rockefeller Center, the eternally classy Chrysler Building, way-too-fancy-for-a-train-station Grand Central Terminal, or the monumental Main Branch Library, United Nations Headquarters looked worn and dated. They were doing a lot of construction there while at the same time attempting to hide it. In fact, the complex was disappearing behind a high iron fence (something I don’t recall from previous visits and which appears new), another victim perhaps of security paranoia. The tour we took was pretty lame; our guide was more of an escort who periodically activated our multilingual listening devices with a radio transmitter.
Another place doing a lot of renovation was the American Museum of Natural History. Both the main hall and the room with the whale were closed (though we could see the whale through a doorway from another room). Thank goodness the dinosaur exhibits were still open or I would have simply died. We got in and out of the museum through the adjacent subway, ignoring the jazz musician playing for tips until he helpfully reminded everyone that the B trains don’t run on weekends.