I arrive in New York three days ahead of schedule. I’m really excited to be here—not only does it mark the resumption of my journey around the world that was so unexpectedly interrupted, but I also get extra time to indulge in everything that this amazing city has to offer. Shows, dining, celebrity, the latest trends, the most illustrious traditions—the Center of the Universe has it all in abundance.
Living in New York
I proceed from New York’s JFK airport to my good friend James’s apartment, located at 41st St. and 10th Ave. I am horrified to learn that the rent on his smallish, but well-appointed, 1-bedroom midtown apartment costs $3800 USD per month. I’m even more horrified to learn that this is not unusual.
Rent aside, the outrageously high population density of Manhattan does carry some benefits. Like most buildings, James’s has a concierge, which makes it easy to receive packages and grocery deliveries, and to leave a key or message for a friend. Amazon even offers 1-hour shipping on certain items. It is unnecessary to do one’s own laundry because seemingly every block hosts a so-called ‘Chinese laundry’ that will do it for you for a reasonable fee, returning your socks and shirts folded, compressed, and wrapped into a loaf-sized package. Food is available 24 hours a day everywhere.
Outside of Manhattan, city life is experienced in a totally different way. We venture to the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queen’s for the local neighbourhood summer solstice celebration, and even though we venture only a few subway stops from Grand Central Station, the streetscape is transformed. There are few high-rise buildings, the sidewalks are narrower, and not many people are out on the street. Gas stations and nail salons are the dominant retail force here. The celebration in the park itself is lovely, however. Neighbourhood kids line up to have their faces painted, and young families sit together on the grass listening to a performance by the Queen’s Symphony Orchestra. The striking skyline of Manhattan, seen over the East River, forms the backdrop to the festivities.
The difference between Manhattan and its boroughs is even more striking on Staten Island. James and I take a ferry from the terminal at the southern tip of the financial district, passing the Statue of Liberty on the way. When we arrive, I’m astonished to see parking lots, low buildings, and a general lack of residential development. Why is the area around the ferry terminal, only a short (and free) boat ride from the financial heart of America, not dense with leviathan housing developments?
The experience is again different Brooklyn, which, I am told, is by far the most desirable of the non-Manhattan boroughs. While clearly much busier and wealthier than Queen’s or Staten Island, the parts of Brooklyn we see are less noisy, less dense, and less congested than Manhattan. It too can be reached from by subway in mere minutes. This is where those who do not wish, or cannot afford, to live in Manhattan come. Why it happened here, and not to the other boroughs, I cannot say.
The quiet side of New York
New York is famously hectic, but fortunately there are places within reach to escape the din of the city. Central Park is the most obvious of these, of course, and without it Manhattan would be intolerable. Gazillions of people swarm the southern half when we visit one weekend morning, and one path at the access point near Columbus Circle is so busy that a park employee is permanently stationed there with the singular task of telling cyclists to walk their bikes. The northern half of the park is quite peaceful, however, and we easily find a quiet bit of lawn to relax on. There are enough forests, ponds, meadows, and walking trails to make you forget, at least temporarily, the craziness of the city that surrounds the park.
Another good place to escape the crowds is Governor’s Island, which is accessed via a secondary ferry terminal just down the street from the one to Staten Island. The island used to serve some administrative purpose, but now its old brick buildings and open lawns are largely dormant. A section of the island has been converted to a sort of pseudo-natural vegetation zone planted with grasses and bushes. James and I sit in a courtyard, nearly alone, and enjoy an iced coffee from a food truck. Somewhere in the distance I hear music drifting over the air from a distance, a miracle in a city where the clatter of subway cars and the drilling of jackhammers normally drowns out anything pleasant.
Learning in style
New York hosts many incredible museums, and one could easily spend weeks engrossed in learning. I decide to visit three museums during my stay in New York: The fashionable Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the historic American Museum of Natural History, and the esoteric New York Transit Museum.
At MOMA, the most crowded of the three, masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Warhall are housed under the same roof as oddball creations by contemporary artists. James buys a one-year membership so that he can return again later to see the ever-changing exhibits, which carries the added bonus of giving us skip-the-line privileges at the coat check. An exquisitely eccentric special exhibit by Yoko Ono is on at the moment. My personal favourite of hers is Bag Piece, a sort of performance/sculpture hybrid where two people are supposed to climb into a large black sack and exchange clothes. When I visit, the bag contains only a single person who has decided to slither around the floor slowly, sort of like an earthworm would do when dropped into a cup of water. I wonder if Yoko Ono would approve of the improvisation.
The American Museum of Natural History is a different affair entirely. Its halls are packed with highly engaging exhibits showcasing an immense collection gathered on the thousands of expeditions financed by the museum over the years. Several halls are dedicated to the display of animals from around the world, many of them in elaborate dioramas designed to mimic the animals’ natural environment. Each diorama is encased in an ornate wooden cabinet set into the wall, with a polished brass plaque affixed to the front to explain the scene. Despite being constructed 80 years ago, the vivid hand-painted backdrops and lifelike scenery are quite convincing, and are works of art in their own right. Even more impressive is the collection of dinosaur skeletons, the first in the world. An enormous brontosaurus, assembled from real fossilized bones over 100 years ago, appears to still bear the original iron scaffolding that is used to position the bones into the well known dino formation. Rushing on, we venture into several other exhibit halls, belatedly realizing that we do not have time to see even a fraction of everything on offer. In one room is a display of actual asteroids found on the surface of the earth, including some of the largest hunks of meteoric iron ever found. Next is an immense collection of rocks and minerals. The special exhibit showcases life forms that can tolerate extreme conditions, such as its Tardigrade mascot, a small organism that can survive several years in outer space. And that’s not even a tenth of it. We leave when the museum closes.
The final exhibit we visit is the Transit Museum, which is located in an unused subway station in Brooklyn. Here the creation and operation of one of the world’s largest public transit systems is explained through posters and artifacts. The bulk of its construction in the first half of the 20th century was marred by political vitriol that any citizen would recognize in today’s battles, but somehow they overcame the controversies and build an amazing interconnected system that moves millions of New Yorkers per day, 100 years on. I’m particularly fascinated by the old subway cars parked at the nonfunctional platform. There is an example from every design iteration. Interestingly, not much seems to have changed since the 1960’s.
One could visit museums endlessly in New York—I particularly recommend the Tenement Museum, which I visited on a previous trip. But there is much more to New York than paintings and dioramas—there are shows to see, food to eat, and people to watch. And a close shave.