“You’re going to New York in July?” my friend, who also happens to be a travel agent, asked me. “There are far better times to go. It’s stinking hot in July.”
Having been to what I consider the most amazing city in the world twice before, I didn’t listen. When it comes to New York, I thought, anytime is good time to go. Especially if you haven’t been there in 25 years.
This particular New York trip, with our three teenage children, was a we-can-only-afford-this-once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip. It was also about reconnecting with some cherished friends and letting them meet my family for the very first time.
Day one, and the advice of my travel agent friend hit me in the face like the hot humid air of a Manhattan subway station, which, on a 36 degree day in July, makes you feel like you’re in a massive public sauna.
There is one word that sums up true New Yorkers. Tough. Not only do they endure the stickiest of summers and most brutal of winters, they live with incessant noise, a highly imbalanced ratio of concrete to grass, limited amounts of space, both indoors and out - and on an island that’s a highrise home to 1.6 million residents, they put up with 51 million tourists a year. Yet it’s to the not-so-tough tourists like us that they’re most accommodating.
Stand in a subway station long enough, debate which line to take, map in hand, and a native New Yorker will help. Same scenario for any street corner. The locals genuinely want to help. They want to show you their town. When we mistakenly took an express subway uptown towards 125th street, a woman who seemed engrossed in her book turned around, called out detailed instructions from across the carriage on how to get back, then returned to her reading. A random act of New York kindness.
As we perused a menu outside a restaurant in Chinatown one lunchtime, a man with the beautiful classic De Niro accent told us to go round the corner and eat at the “best value Chinese you’ll get anywhere in the city”, then spent the next five minutes telling us why he loved his city so much. We would have walked right past his recommended restaurant otherwise, and missed out on a unique dining experience.
New York is as much a town of extremes as it is a city of storytellers. Listen long enough and you’ll hear someone telling someone else a story – on the subway, in the delicatessens, on the street, in the shops. Why did Woody Allen set so many of his films in Manhattan? Because this is where the best stories are told.
Of all the stories I eavesdropped on during my visit, the most moving was one I overheard as I stood beside a security guard and a police officer at the World Trade Centre memorial. As they looked at one of the 3000 names etched into the plaque around the massive waterfall that marks the tower’s footprint, the guard recounted in vivid detail of where and when that person was on 9/11 as if it had happened a month ago, not 12 years before.
The WTC memorial is in the midst of a construction zone as seven new buildings are constructed around it to replace those lost on 9/11. The museum is not yet finished and due to open in the northern spring of 2014. For me, standing on the edge of these cavernous waterfalls and walking around each edge, seeing name after name after name, was completely overwhelming. Suffice to say that my die-hard New Yorker friend Kathleen, who lived through every minute of that day, has not yet summoned the emotional capacity to visit the memorial.
The memorial pools and tree-filled plaza area are now guarded by the 101-storey One World Trade Centre, more commonly known as the Freedom Tower, clearly the bold new icon of the city skyline.
To experience the best of New York, you have to like walking. If you don’t walk, you’ll miss out on not just the finer details but entire neighbourhoods. In hindsight, this is why spring or autumn are the ideal tourist seasons here. Walking on 36C degree July days forced us to keep diving for relief into air conditioned stores, which kept my two daughters content but made my 16 year-old son believe we were on some kind of endless shopping expedition. The reward for his patience came in the form of fresh fruit smoothies from the street vendors, available on every third corner, usually alongside the hot dog/pretzel/gyros stallholder.
Just some of the surprises our walking trips revealed to us included: a Soho gallery with original Andy Warhols; a dog wearing sneakers on Fifth Avenue; the roar of 10 quad bikes doing wheelies through midtown; an $8 manicure for the females of the family in Greenwich Village; the best burrito off the street my daughter ever tasted; the elevated urban garden created along old railway tracks known as the Highline; a Soho store selling fossils and skeletons of assorted animals; and groups of Chinese men absorbed in card betting games in a Chinatown park. Every day is a different day when it comes to walking in Manhattan.
Travelling with teenagers here was not the highbrow cultural experience I anticipated. I mistakenly thought they’d be eager to see a few of the major museums and art galleries in town.
First up, we chose The Museum of Natural History – a winner for any kid above the age of two. Take note the entry fee is only suggested, so just mention the words suggested entry when you go through the turnstiles, and as little as $1 per person will suffice. This was a fun day, with a little learning thrown in.
In keeping with our tight family budget, we took advantage of the Saturday night free entry to the Guggenheim. A special light exhibit turned out to be unappreciated by our teenagers and the rest of the museum was actually too crowded for them to enjoy. I’m thoroughly ashamed to admit that after this, we decided against visits to The Met and MOMA and to leave the rest of their cultural immersion to the street.
We rejected the plethora of bike and horse buggy guys in Central Park and rented our own bikes from a place nearby on West 72nd Street. At just $20 per bike for four hours, this gave us the freedom to cruise through the green gills of Manhattan as well as explore the riverside pathway on the west side. Lunch stop was a street vendor’s charcoal chicken roll alongside the naval ship, TSS Enterprise.
The united sense of community pride among New Yorkers is palpable. There’s this quiet knowing that they live in the word’s coolest city, but the thing is they’re more than happy to share the love.
It’s a city of survivors, extremes, neighbourhoods, artists, dog walkers, concrete, amazing food, eccentrics, exhibitionists, culture, diversity, filthy summers, freezing winters…the list is infinite.
Above all else, it’s a city of city lovers. They love their city first - and we can’t help but love it back.
Postscript: A few little annoyances
- The humongous piles of smelly garbage on the footpath - can the rubbish not be picked up overnight so it doesn’t sit in the sun all day?
- The overpowering smell of dog urine from the flowerbeds around the trees on the street.
- Metro cards that don’t swipe the first time – one of our weekly cards usually took eight swipes to work, which meant a queue of 20 built up within seconds behind a stressed son, who had the dodgy card.
- The Staten Island Ferry. Already super crowded because everyone knows it’s the cheapskate’s way of seeing the Statue of Liberty, we had to get off at Staten Island and reboard, which made us feel like herded sheep.
- The city is absolutely smothered with Starbucks outlets. The upside – free wifi at all stores. The downside? The coffee. We did not find one place that served a serious coffee to match that of Australian standards. Now there’s a business opportunity for a good barista.
- The New Jersey train ticketing system – can it not be integrated with the Manhattan Subway, so one ticket system suffices if you’re staying over the river on the Jersey side?