Being on the east coast of the country, New York City is one of the oldest cities in the United States. Relative to old European cities though, it’s a little toddler in terms of age.
Compared to London or Paris, the roads are much more straight and broad - evidence of a more modern design and construction, and over a shorter period of time.
Manhattan, which is where most people think of when they hear “New York”, is know for the hundreds of sky scrapers and broad, long and parallel streets. Some may be surprised, however, by some of the old gems hidden under that concrete jungle skyline.
It wasn’t my first time in New York, quite the contrary. I had been there many, many times, so the last time I was there, I wasn’t feeling like a tourist at all. I didn’t feel the need to visit any of the attractions or do any of the touristy things.
Everyone thought I was crazy when I decided to walk the entire length of Manhattan on foot from the edge of the Bronx to the financial district at the southern tip. They were right. It was in the middle of summer - and a hot summer at that. I had already spent an hour in the sun and I’d only reached the Columbia University neighbourhood where I decided to sit for a coffee and get back to my senses.
”I think it’d be better to do this in two halves” I admitted to myself after a couple of sips of coffee and a bite into a good American donut.
I love University campuses. They’re similar anywhere in the world. Something about all the intelligent young minds that makes me smile. Also, as someone that spent an unusually long time studying at various universities chasing down a number of degrees, it always brings back many memories.
Besides, the best cafes in any city or town are usually around educational institutions. I suppose they have the built-in clientele.
I spent some more time in the area generally referred to as Harlem because it is far and away my favourite part of New York. As an aficionado of classical American music, I could just be in Harlem and not go anywhere else. You may be shocked to learn how much influence Harlem has had on the music we listen to today in different parts of the world. It’s kind of on par with New Orleans in that respect.
The part of me that lives in fantasy silently hoped to bump into Luke Cage at some point.
New York is similar to London in how loud and cosmopolitan it is, except everything in NYC is more extreme. Central Park is one example of this. It’s similar to our Hyde Park in that it’s a very large park in the middle of a bustling city. It’s different, though, in how extreme the change in vibe is when you step into it from the concrete part of the city.
Central Park is many things to many people. To some, it’s an oasis of peace, with a thriving wildlife of its own in the ponds, lakes, reservoir and grasslands. To others, it’s a recreation space with sports arenas and fields. To some, it’s a territory for crime and clandestine activity.
There is an amazing view of the city from Central Park that I highly recommend. You only see one side of the city - the eastern and south-eastern end, but it’s a magnificent view indeed. You can sort of see the city age as you glance from south to north.
I also recommend to find a relatively quiet spot at the park and just listen to the city. It sounds like a living organism. New York has her own distinct sound.
I kept crossing the park from one side to the other in a bizarre zig-zag path between Central Park Way and Fifth Avenue. I decided not to venture too far east or west. At this point I had come to the realisation that I’d need about a month to do what I really wanted to do, which was to walk on every street, way, and avenue on Manhattan.
At this point I had decided that less was indeed more. I slowed down and took in the ambience - especially on the west side of the park. I became quite interested in the architecture on that side. If you look closely, you could see the different eras of Manhattan’s development. Generally speaking, the older buildings were lower and more European - made of stone and mortar. There are even some buildings in the Romanesque Revival style of the 19th century.
In those days, architects designed buildings to resemble 11th and 12th century structures. You could say at that time they were faux vintage. This is why a lot of buildings in Europe and elsewhere appear to be older than they actually are, and seem to have miraculously survived the centuries, when in fact, they’re not that old at all.
It’s a similar thing with the Renaissance era sculptures of Europe that were fashioned after ancient Greco-Roman art - giving the impression that contemporary sculptures of Plato are in such good condition when the real ones are either gone, or in a much worse state than you might expect.
Most people probably think the popular, immaculate sculptures of King David where actually from ancient times like the Alexander The Great statue of a similar fashion in Istanbul. It isn’t. It was made by the artist Michaelanglo in the very early 16th Century. It’s nearly tow thousand years newer!
Another example is Tower Bridge in London, which most people probably think is as old as the Tower of London. It isn’t. It was deliberately built to look old in order to fit in the area. You get the picture.
End of epic digression.
By the end of the first day, I had decided that this was in fact not a two but three day affair. I needed more time to be a non-tourist in New York. Apart from soaking in the ambience, including all the changes that had taken place since I was last there, I had to take photos too.
I also wasn’t going to bump into Luke Cage at that point, so I would have settled for Spiderman, Jessica Jones, Dare Devil or even Danny Rand (the Iron Fist).. or heck, any member of the Hand. I’d even be fine with meeting the Yardies, Triads, Mafia, anyone. :)
Unfortunately what I did encounter was the overzealous and ever-present NYPD. At some point I was simply standing near a lawn under a shade while catching my breath and re-orienting myself in what appeared to be a posher-than-average part of the island. I think I was in Hell's Kitchen. I was approached by two police officers who blurted out some incomprehensible commands at me.
”I beg your pardon? Sorry, can you repeat that?”. I honestly believe my “British” accent saved the day. The law enforcement officers went from a hand-on-hip posse to a more friendly one once they heard my voice. I was apparently standing on private grounds, but was I about to get shot for that? What a strange country.
That’s another thing about New York. Everyone is tense all the time. There is tension in London too, but we’re more grumpy than on the edge of punching someone in the face. Or worse, shooting them in the face.
I was very conscious of the fact that there were people walking around with firearms - concealed and otherwise. The security at MacDonalds was packing heat. The ladies walking around in uniform at the mall reception were packing heat. I just got this impression that everyone had something to prove and were waiting for an opportunity to prove it. That may not have been the reality, but that was the impression I got.
I did a lot of walking on the second day. I walked through Soho, China Town and some very smelly rundown parts with a lot of homeless folk on the streets. It reminded me of some areas of East London with the crack addicts lining the streets. Right next to that, again like East London, I arrived at another university campus and the giant Google building where things got really hipster.
The Google building, college kids and sudden splash of hipster colours were my cue to pop in somewhere for a coffee. It was so hot so I also indulged in some frozen yoghurt. There were two officers in there, heavily strapped. I was going to talk to them, but decided against it. In London, it’ would have been the perfect opportunity for an ironic joke or two with the officers - who wouldn’t be armed to the teeth. In NYC, it just didn’t seem like a very good idea.
After standing for a few minutes admiring the financial district from a distance, I made a sharp turn east through City Hall Park to get on Brooklyn Bridge. The idea was to return on day 3 to experience Wall Street and that part of the island. For day two, the plan was to take Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn and take Manhattan Bridge back.
I don’t recommend this by the way, especially in summer, unless you have my kind of endurance and leg-pain tolerance
Getting on Brooklyn Bridge was a little tricky because of the various bits of construction going on there. Once on there, it’s always a glorious sight. There are two types of people on Brooklyn Bridge; the New Yorkers trying to get to or from Brooklyn, and the tourists getting in their way.
Brooklyn Bridge is truly beautiful in that rugged industrial kind of way. It’s a feat of engineering and the more attractive of the pair. Manhattan Bridge is more utilitarian and more function-over-form.
I only got to explore the Manhattan facing end of Brooklyn for an hour before deciding to return to catch my train back. I don’t know Brooklyn much, but it appears to me to be one of those places that used to be one thing, but is now something else. There’s a stark contrast between the town and the people I saw there - if that makes any sense.
I decided I was done walking crazy long distances so on the third day I took the Metro to some of my stops. I arrived at Penn Station from where I travelled on the Metro to the Staten Island Ferry.
I actually had no particular interest or desire to see Staten Island. I only took the ferry because it’s one of the best ways to see the Statue Of Liberty - and it’s free!
On Liberty Island, you don’t actually get a good view of the statue. Yes, you can touch her, and go inside to the top, but since I wasn’t really a tourist, I was perfectly fine with my cup of coffee on the ferry while taking in some of the most amazing views many people miss when they go to New York.
On the ferry, you get an amazing view of south Manhattan, New Jersey and Queens.
I highly recommend taking a free ride on the ferry. You usually have about five minutes to run across to the other side to catch the returning ferry if that’s what you want. Alternatively you can take the next one half an hour later - which is how frequently they go. You also have to option to explore Staten Island if you’re interested, but I didn’t.
I spent the rest of the day in the financial district - Wall Street and The World Trade Centre. In London terms, those would be ‘The City” and “Canary Wharf” of New York.
Wall Street is kind of a dump, which is surprising because of how much money moves through that place. It’s a relatively old part of the city I suppose, so there’s quite a bit of dilapidation compared to the new shiny WTC.
My experience at the World Trace Centre probably deserved an entire post of its own. It wasn’t the first time I had returned since the twin towers came down, but it was the first time I had seen the finished rebuild. What a spectacle, and what a tribute to the people that lost their lives there.
I highly recommend a visit there if you’re ever in New York for sure.
I spent the rest of my time in New York outside Manhattan, on Long Island near the sea. That’s an extremely different experience and a welcome break from the intense energy of the Big Apple, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time not being a tourist in New York.
I think most people visiting New York for the first time will be disappointed at first, just like with many iconic cities. There have been too many great movies made, too many iconic photographs taken, too many best-selling books written and too many super heroes based in New York City for it to deliver nothing but a stellar experience. However, the Big Apple is just another concrete jungle in the United States with people trying to live their daily lives.
In order to enjoy the city, I think you have to allow time. You must first get used to the pace of things and the attitude of the people there. You have to realise that the people are part of the city, and as such, are a reflection of the vibe there. Then will you realise that you kind of have to be that way to survive there.
You may have to meet them at their energy level so you're not in their way, which might be a little difficult for someone from a less hectic place like London. Yes, London is much less hectic. Having said that, I think there's something in New York for everyone. If you don't like the noise, once you've seen all the attractions in Manhattan, you can always retreat to Long Island or one of the quieter boroughs that may be more your cup of tea.
Thank you for your time.