Besides being called Big Apple New York has many other sobriquets. But, that is beside the point. During our stay of more than two months in the US we somehow happened to only transit through it. Having come to America and not visiting New York would seem to be denying oneself something quintessentially American. It is a great melting pot of various nationalities and sub-nationalities which live and work together to create a community as diverse as it could be, yet each exuding its unique cultural flavour.
On our way back home we spent some time in New York and took in the sights that it offers. Our booking was quite accidentally in Queens – a borough where Asians are reported to demographically dominate. Queens is one of the five boroughs of New York, the others are Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island. Named after the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza and English Queen Elizabeth I the Borough of Queens is the largest in area of the five boroughs and is also supposed to be hosting most diverse communities. Around 50% of its people are foreign born with the dominance of Asians. Our hotel was once again a branch of Best Western where the receptionist was a Pakistani. Even the taxi drivers were Pakistanis. Incidentally, the Arthur Ashe Stadium where US Open Tennis tournaments are played in Flushing is within the borough of Queens.
On arrival back from Niagara we headed south for what is known as The Battery. It is also known as Battery Park. What, however is more interesting is that the place was known earlier as New Amsterdam because it was comprehensively overrun by Dutch immigrants. As the name suggests this was the area where artillery installations were erected to protect the settlement behind it from attacks from the sea. It is at the southern-most tip of Manhattan. As we were approaching it in New York Underground we got a bit frightened as the crowd progressively thinned out and we were all by ourselves in the compartment for quite some distance. The skyline on view from here was very interesting, numerous skyscrapers trying to scrape the heavens, as it were. These included the two towers of the World Trade Centre that were brought down in the 9/11 attacks. They are there in the picture taken from here.
We took a ferry to visit the Statue of Liberty in Bedloe’s Island (now called Liberty Island) – one of many islands around New York. It was evening and a cloudy day, the light was not perfect yet the statue was very impressive. Symbolising freedom and liberty for the oppressed it was fabricated In the freshly liberated France of 19th Century and transported piece by piece in crates to New York to be assembled there. The pedestal was made in America. The sculptor Bartholdi, living in the oppressive French regime of Napoleon III was obsessed with freedom and hence is reported to have worked for years on the statue. Ferdinand de Lesseps of Suez Canal fame was also present at the dedication ceremony.
The green statue of a robed woman taking a step forward, as it were, holding a glistening torch in a raised hand was a sight to behold. We didn’t have the time to scramble on to the platform but whatever we saw was unforgettable. It is a marvellous sculpture and the way the pieces add to the whole body is highly ingenious. Since it was cloudy we didn’t quite get its grandeur. Nonetheless, it must have been an inspiration for millions of immigrants who passed by to start their lives anew and to build their new homes in the New World. No wonder it symbolizes America – the land of liberty and freedom. Curiously, its installation did not beget liberty for millions of African Americans who continued to live and work as slaves.
For want of time we had no intention of diving into a museum and get lost for hours yet we chose to walk down the tree-lined Museum Mile. This is a section of the famed Fifth Avenue where the rich and famous play around. The Avenue is full of expensive shops, high-end restaurants and hotels and starts from somewhere near Greenwich Village and partially runs northwards alongside another famous site – the Central Park of New York, ending near Harlem. The famous hotel Waldorf Astoria and one of the country’s tallest buildings, the Empire State Building, are located here as also the Rockefeller Centre. It is a major thoroughfare of New York falling in the borough of Manhattan. It is popular location for Hollywood movie-makers. I do not know how many movies I have seen in my younger days that were shot in this area.
We started off from that architectural marvel of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. I had first seen it in a spread in the Square magazine even when I was in college, presumably when it was opened around late 1950s. It has always been peddled as one of the outstanding museum buildings anywhere in the world. Wright, it seems, had conceived the structure as early as 1943 but it took more than 15 years to realise his dream. Its spiral ramp climbing up to its domed skylight has captured the imagination of its visitors. The spiral can also be imagined as you stand before it and see a solid band of what looks like concrete move up in a spiral. The Museum houses some of the most famous works of art by iconic legends of the artistic world.
There are a large number of museums in the vicinity. As we walked down we came across the New York Metropolitan Museum – a huge, more than a hundred years old building that houses every conceivable item from the world over. It is one of the most visited museums. It is the largest art museum in the United States. It contains works of art from ancient times to middle ages – of almost all the European masters.
But we couldn’t have gone into the Museum as we had to look at other sites. Walking southwards we turned right into an opening the huge green stretch of the Central Park that looked far bigger than Hyde Park of London. While the latter was somewhat crowded when we saw it with children playing and people lolling around on the grass the former was more serene and quiet and perhaps much more green. As we entered the Park we saw a push-cart selling snacks. The man behind the pushcart looked Indian but when we talked to him he turned out to be a Bangladeshi. Apparently a recent arrival, he was still waiting for a steady job.
Exiting from the Central Park we entered the V Avenue again and stood at a bus stop to catch a ride to the Times Square. If one has to sample signage one has to go to Times Square located in Mid-Town Manhattan. It is a glittering place with massive illuminated billboards that frequently are animated. Awash with neon, the place blazes its way right into your consciousness. Thankfully the place is pedestrianised and one can take in the sights without the fear of being run over. Huge wall-sized monitors alive with colourful ads make it one of the most touristy sites of New York. Not one wall is seemingly devoid of a signage – still or animated. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it everyday. It is supposed to be Mecca for media companies. After all, it takes its name from New York Times when it started publishing from here more than hundred years ago. Being close to Broadway gives it an added advantage as Broadway is another place that has a large number of visitors and also is a tourists’ haunt.
We also took a packaged tour and it took us to the Empire State Building – an art-deco structure of 102 stories. Its height is more than 1400 ft. Built on the original site of Waldorf Astoria Hotel, it was thrown open in 1931. Named after the nickname of New York, Empire State, it was at one-time the tallest building of the world and now is only one of the tallest buildings in the United States. Its height went increasing during its construction as the competition with Chrysler Building hotted up. Eventually the Empire State Building came home with a few hundred feet to spare in height.
We were lifted up to the observation deck in high speed elevators. There are reportedly 70-odd elevators in the building, only some of which are high-speed, rushing up and down in the shafts at around 1000 ft. per minute. Once on the observation deck we found things familiar. We had had recently the experience of going up to the observation deck of Sears Tower in Chicago. This one in the Empire State was no different – except that the skyscrapers in the surroundings appeared a little too smaller, almost like midgets. One could not see very much in the distance because of a haze but as one looked down below it was kind of surreal. All structures of Manhattan that would appear tall from ground level looked like midgets.
I had a good look at the Brooklyn Bridge while being driven up and down. It may not be as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco but it has a lot of character, having been built in the 19th Century. Connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn it spans the East River. One of the oldest cable-stayed bridges, it was completed in 1883. The Tower Bridge of London was opened later in 1893 but it is much better looking and is a whole lot more iconic than the Brooklyn Bridge. It therefore does not stand for New York as the Golden Gate Bridge does for San Francisco.
It was time to leave for us. Regrettably, we had just a small slice of the Big Apple. We were leaving a great metropolis with a tinge of sorrow as we probably missed on many essentials of New York. But that is how it is when one is out on a shoe-string tour – you see some and miss out on much more. Worse, it was most distressing to remember the predictions that this along with other cities may go under water as a victim of global warming. Ruminating over what we missed I failed to sleep in a flight that was all through the night. But for me, looking out of the window towards the North daylight seemed to be accompanying me right through. Maybe, I thought, we were flying close to Greenland in one of those flight paths known as Great Circle.