TRAVEL: New York City – The Place

I grew up in the Bronx. Well, I lived there for almost seven months, in a wealthy, historic Jewish neighbourhood, but I did grow there in various ways, so technically, it’s a true statement. I mean, I had like five different loyalty stamp cards and a gym membership. Then I moved to Manhattan for almost three months, and grew up there, too.

New York was our home base while exploring the United States, and while living there, we got to see quite a bit. This is how I saw the city of all cities.

 

We flew into New York City on a winter evening after the city had just had a record breaking blizzard. Hoping to be welcomed by views of the Statue of Liberty and an iconic skyline, all we could see was mounds of dirty snow and a foggy dark sky. In fact, there was so much snow that after arriving at our new home, it was at least a week before we could even see what the yard looked like.

Our new address was in the Bronx, living with family friends, and when we first heard this, we were a bit worried. However, as it turns out, like most rough areas of town, the Bronx has a nicer side, and that’s where we were to live. Riverdale is an historic neighbourhood on the side of the Hudson River in the Bronx just north of Manhattan, with a lot of trees, big old houses and estates, and a large Jewish community. It’s also been home to a few famous names, such as writer Mark Twain, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, and slain US president John F. Kennedy. Another special thing about Riverdale is that it’s one of the rare places in New York City where you can have a full private yard, which was perfect for playing in the snow and making snowmen, and then in the summer, it was perfect for barbeques.

Our little winter wonderland in Riverdale. Not how you'd expect the Bronx to look.

Being so full of trees and green spaces, Riverdale is also the perfect home for animals, and not just the domestic kind. Living here, we were surrounded by squirrels and the occasional chipmunk, but night time is full of visits by raccoons and skunks fighting with the local cats. This could be annoying but because I’d never seen a real raccoon or a skunk, it was awesome. I can now report that skunks are actually quite cute, and look like little drunk kittens with short stumpy legs. Their scent is sort of like hot, wet, burning rubber. We also found a couple of garter snakes slithering about in the yard – another first for me.

Once we’d explored enough of our new home, it was time to venture out and see the rest of the city, but first we had to figure out the street layout. Most roads run either east to west (streets), or north to south (avenues), and are typically named numerically, with numbers of streets rising as you go north, and numbers of avenues rising as you go west. While at first this was a bit confusing, it soon made perfect sense, as you can easily figure out how far away something is by counting the blocks between you and your destination (for example, going from 22nd street to 42nd street is 20 blocks, or 1st Ave to 3rd Ave is 2 blocks). Just when you get the hang of this, though, there are some streets and avenues that are not numbered, and have standard names instead, such as Park Ave, Lexington Ave, and Madison Ave. Broadway is the main road that cuts diagonally all the way down and is usually a main centre of activity. I should also advise that as soon as you get to Downtown Manhattan, all the these rules come undone and the streets go any way they want, and there is no logic to it.

As soon as we knew how to navigate the giant city, it was time to get out there and take a bite out of the Big Apple.

 

THE BRONX

We loved living here with our big backyard and quiet, private neighbourhood, but in around five minutes’ drive, you can find yourself in the real Bronx. This is the Bronx you’ve probably heard about, with run-down buildings, rough-looking neighbourhoods and a few rougher-looking characters. Imagine a neighbourhood with an old, rumbling subway line running along above its main street, where the money just stopped coming in to maintain it and so chain stores closed down and turned into pawn shops and bargain stores. Instead of your iconic yellow taxi cabs, you just have suspicious strangers standing next to unmarked gypsy cabs, badgering you to take a cheap ride with them. This is a typical scene around the final northern stop on the number 1 subway line – our local stop while living in the Bronx. One day, Jessie and I were walking around looking for a bite to eat, and witnessed a dodgy deal go down – a guy discreetly slapped another guy a cool-kid handshake and both exchanged something in the process, just like in the movies. At that point, we decided that we didn’t really feel like eating around there, and because neither of us were in the mood for crack, we just went back to the car and left.

The pitch inside Yankee Stadium.

Again, there are some nice areas in the Bronx so it isn’t all bad. It has some nice restaurants, and also has the factory store for S&S Cheesecake – voted the best New York style cheesecake in the country, and probably the world. More famously, the Bronx is also home to the recently renovated Yankee Stadium – now a huge marble baseball arena with its own Hard Rock Café and other restaurants, it looks more like a stadium mixed with a classic museum. The Bronx also has the Bronx Zoo, which is the biggest and probably the best zoo in New York City.

 

MANHATTAN

Just below and beside the Bronx, and across the Harlem River, you come to the borough of Manhattan. This long rectangular island is where most of what people know of New York is: the skyscrapers, the landmarks, and the smoky manholes, to name just a few.

The East VS The West: It's clearly sign-posted.

Quite early into our exploration, we were driving through a tunnel in Central Park, and a young black guy, or ‘African-American male youth’, shouted at us one of two things. He either said “East side, motherfucker!” as in “greetings motherfucker, I am vocalising my support of the East side neighbourhood” or he said “East side motherfucker!” as in “Excuse me motherfucker, you appear to be from the East side neighbourhood, and I do not like that”. Either way, it not only brought to my attention the importance of comma placement, but the very different neighbourhoods of Manhattan – each with their own style and attitude, and I would later realise that young black guy was most likely not from the East side.

Near the top of Manhattan, you have Harlem which we found was mostly not a place where we wanted to spend our time. It’s as though the roughness of the Bronx and the tidiness of Manhattan clashed, and the Bronx won the territory. This means that its layout is like Manhattan with its wide main roads in a grid, but it looks like the Bronx, with run-down bargain shops and an elevated subway line. The roads have big potholes and the locals run street stalls selling knock-off sunglasses and bags outside of closed businesses where you can just make out what the old sign used to say before it was torn down or fell apart. As you go south, you see the effects of gentrification with old brown brick apartments getting renovated as the wealthy expand up from Manhattan’s heart, and push the poor upwards and over the river into the Bronx.

Central Park in Manhattan... notice the turtles on the rock!

Below Harlem, in the centre of upper Manhattan, you have Central Park, which splits the Upper West Side from the Upper East Side. These two neighbourhoods are quite similar, as in they’re both quite nice and desirable locations, with restaurants and cafes, but the Upper East Side is much more fancy and classy (expect older woman wearing fur coats), with its designer stores lining Fifth Avenue that runs through it. Central Park is a huge rectangular park filled with walking trails and lakes (with remote control sailboats and rowboats that you can rent), and also offers bike rentals and horse carriage tours. In addition to all of this, it has a seasonal ice-skating rink, a carousel, and its famous Central Park Zoo – a small zoo with some surprisingly exotic animals like snow leopards, and a special moving sculpture clock that has animals ring bells in famous American tunes (like ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’). I’ll also mention that Central Park is where I spotted my first real celebrity – Uma Thurman, casually walking about with her kids, partner, and a nanny.

Yellow taxi cabs carry naive tourists into the gridlock traffic of Times Square.

Travelling further south, you come into the busy, tourist-filled midtown, where the roads look like a slow moving river of yellow taxi cabs. Here is where you’ll find famous landmark icons like the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center (which offers an ice-skating rink in the winter). It’s also home of Times Square – a pedestrian area filled with huge flagship stores where Broadway intersects 7th Ave. There’s a Disney store, a three-storey M&Ms store, and a huge Toys R Us with an indoor ferris wheel, and a robot T-Rex from the film Jurassic Park. Midtown traffic is crazy, and if you’re walking, watch out for tourist scams – especially black guys trying to give you free CDs. Another big part of midtown are the Broadway shows, of which we were lucky enough to see quite a few, and I’ll write about that in a separate blog entry thing in the future.

Our apartment building in Peter Cooper Village at Christmas.

After almost seven months living in the Bronx, the family friends we were staying with moved into an apartment in Manhattan and we moved with them. Our new home was an apartment in Peter Cooper Village on the Lower East Side – a large private block of apartment buildings with lots of parks and playgrounds, with a nice view of the Empire State Building. Most residential buildings in Manhattan are beautifully designed pre-war buildings, built before the worries of war with luxury in mind, or they are post-war buildings, which are plain, brown brick block buildings when the idea of luxury was slipping away, and our new home was one of the latter. Moving from a proper house with a big backyard into a typical Manhattan apartment was a tough downsize, but it made it a lot easier to see more of the city, especially the lower half.

The giant Macy's department store, with nine storeys of madness.

Heading south from midtown, passing the giant Macy’s department store and Madison Square (which has a park full of tame, cheeky squirrels if you want to experience them up close – just go in with a bag of hot nuts), you find the East and West Villages, separated by Union Square. The Villages are the hip areas of town, where you’ll find quaint cafes and restaurants, along with bars, clubs, and art galleries. Union Square is a large square park usually lined with market stalls selling fresh produce and arty knick-knacks, which acts as a major transport hub for a bunch of different subway lines. You wouldn’t think a major metropolitan city would be a good area to keep dogs, but you’ll see a lot of dogs in this area – often wearing little knitted sweaters and riding in handbags or baby’s strollers, or they’re playing in tiny designated dog-run areas throughout the city. If people own a dog in New York City, usually they’re a bit nutty about them.

Once you go below Houston Street, you’re technically in Downtown Manhattan, which is where you’ll find the hip shopping district SoHo (short for ‘SOuth of HOuston’), and Little Italy (authentic Italian restaurants). Continuing down past Canal Street, you can find TriBeCa (or the ‘TRIangle BElow CAnal’ – home of the TriBeCa Film Festival) and China Town (quite a smelly area where English is not the first language so be careful when ordering food). While the film festival was on, we experienced a real red carpet event when we saw the amazing film ‘Detachment’ (with introduction by star Adrian Brody), and the less amazing but still interesting world premiere of the Kings of Leon documentary ‘Talihina Sky’, with Q&A with the band.

The new Tower One under construction at the World Trade Center.

Further south, and you find City Hall, the World Trade Center site (AKA Ground Zero), and the financial district surrounding Wall Street. As I write this, the World Trade Center site just looks like a large construction site as they redevelop the area and build the new towers, but they have opened the double-waterfall memorial garden, which is nice, despite the fact that it was opened ten years after the attack, but I’ll write about this more in another entry. Wall Street, on the other hand, is an area of narrow, bending streets between towering buildings that doesn’t get much sunlight, and is filled with busy men rushing about with suits and brief cases.

At the very bottom of Manhattan, you have a few ferry ports, including the free Staten Island Ferry – the secret way to snap free photos of the Statue of Liberty, standing just off the bottom west side of the island near the state of New Jersey.

The view of Downtown Manhattan from a ferry.

 

STATEN ISLAND

The only times we went to the borough of Staten Island were when we caught the free ferry from Manhattan to get views of the Statue of Liberty, and when we accidentally came the wrong way back to the city from a little getaway in Pennsylvania. Staten Island seems to be the odd one out of all the boroughs in the city, being disconnected from everywhere else, and not being a dense metropolitan area. From the road, it appeared to be a place of undeveloped land, factories and industrial parks. From what I saw in the little tourism video at the ferry terminal, it does have some tourist attractions, but not really enough to attract us to go exploring out there.

 

QUEENS

The Unisphere at Cadrona Park, Flushing Meadows, in Queens.

The borough of Queens is connected to Manhattan and The Bronx by a few bridges and tunnels, and is a part of the same island that holds Brooklyn. In addition to being a big residential area, Queens also has JFK International Airport (New York City’s main airport), and Corona Park in Flushing Meadows – home of that giant steel Unisphere globe that gets destroyed at the end of the first Men In Black film, and the US Tennis Open. Once again, Jessie and I got very lucky when our family friends offered us their VIP tickets to a day at the 2011 US Tennis Open, so we got to enter via the players’ gate, with photographers and fans flashing away on their cameras, and we got to see Roger Federer and Serena Williams hit some balls.

 

BROOKLYN

Jutting out from the east side of Downtown Manhattan is an old bridge of stone and wire called Brooklyn Bridge which is the most scenic way to enter the famous borough of Brooklyn. This borough is a perfect mix of business districts, residential zones, and tourist areas. In the centre, you find the sister to Central Park known as Prospect Park, designed and actually preferred by the same people that did Manhattan’s famous park, this place is made up of large open fields, nature trails, innovative playgrounds, and streams. It also has Prospect Park Zoo, a small zoo much like Central Park Zoo, but with more of a focus on education. I feel the need to also mention that there’s a meat pie and coffee shop a few minutes’ walk from the park called DUB Pies (or ‘Downunder Bakery Pies’) that does real meat pies and real café coffees like back in New Zealand. They’re not perfect, but when you’re a Kiwi kid missing the old mince and cheese pie, or even a sausage roll, then this is the place to go. We travelled many miles and many times to this place to stock up.

Along with being the backpacker hotspot for New York, with its youth hostels, and its hip bars and cafes around the neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is now becoming a big name in family real estate, as more and more families move away from Manhattan apartments and settle into the more affordable homes in the borough just across the river. Homes range from shared apartment buildings you’d find in Harlem to luxurious townhouses with front terrace gardens.

The Brooklyn Bridge, as seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park.

In the 1930s, New York mobsters would drive to the area underneath Brooklyn Bridge to dispose of dead bodies in the East River. Today, this area has been transformed into a perfectly manicured landscape known as Brooklyn Bridge Park, with green grassed fields, nature walks, and even a vintage carousel for kids. Just back from this area, you can find art galleries housed in old graffiti-covered red and brown brick buildings, and the famous Grimaldi’s Pizza, where hundreds of people queue down the street to buy whole pizzas (they don’t sell by the slice). Head further back, and you have the shopping promenade as you head into the fancier Brooklyn Heights, but while in this area, the one must-do is the bridge walk, where you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge along an elevated path through the middle, but watch out for the cyclists! They don’t seem to like tourists that walk onto their side.

Typical boardwalk scene at Coney Island, Brooklyn.

One more famous part of Brooklyn that tourists hope to see is Coney Island. Actually a peninsula, and not an island at all, Coney Island stretches out along the southern end of Brooklyn and features attractions like the New York Aquarium and the Coney Island Boardwalk and amusement parks. The aquarium is much more of a marine zoo than a standard aquarium, with animals like sea lions, walruses and penguins, in addition to your typical tropical fish tanks. It also has quite a spectacular jellyfish house, where you can see a bunch of different species of jellyfish glowing and drifting about like ghosts in the dark. The boardwalk runs along the beach, which gets very popular in the summer despite being very mediocre, but the main attractions here are the food stalls (buy a corndog!) and the classic amusement parks, which include the original wooden Coney Island Cyclone rollercoaster. To go on the rides, you either purchase an unlimited ride wristband, or put credit on point cards that get scanned at each ride (rides typically cost between two and five ‘points’).

 

THE WHOLE BIG APPLE

New York is a big city that puts itself at the top of the world, but describing its boroughs, rivers and islands doesn’t do it justice at all. The big apple is more than just facts, figures and maps – it’s a way of life, and so I’ve barely scraped the surface on this destination. To get the real feel of New York, you need stories from the subway, rides in the taxi cabs, and a roll of quarters for parking meters. You need a Metro Card and a bagel. You need a random Jewish holiday, and I need some time to write another entry about all of this.

The Statue of Liberty overlooking New York City.


Background:

Jessie and I lived in Riverdale in the Bronx from the first of February until August 22, 2011. After that, we moved into an apartment in the Peter Cooper Village in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until we left the United States on December 15th, 2011.


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