New York photos
New York City. Three small words that together conjure powerful impressions of prestige, majesty and awe. The largest city in North America, epicentre of global finance, media mecca and the political capital of mankind. But does New York rightfully brandish the moniker, “greatest city in the world”? Convinced that only NYC could challenge London’s lofty perch as Liam’s favourite city, I travelled to the Big Apple with immense anticipation. Since childhood, no other place on Earth had I wanted to visit more so than New York. Accordingly, I arrived with stratospherically high expectations. New York certainly did not disappoint (although I’m sure I won’t find it difficult to pop a trivial complaint or two into this entry). The more time elapses since my visit in August, the more I love New York City. I initially departed thinking that London had perhaps triumphed in the battle for number one. But now I’m not so sure. They are both extraordinary cities, peers on a level far above all others, the only truly “global” metropolises. Interestingly, my Danish travel companion Nadia didn’t quite share my sentiment. She loved New York too, but was satisfied with her megacity experience when returning home after six days. I must just be a megacity person, because I doubt I could ever be bored in places like London and New York.
I’ve always been fascinated by New York City’s geography, surely one of the most unique and complex of any urban area on the planet. The epicentre of this vast metropolis is of course Manhattan; a thin island that stretches for 21 kilometres between the East and Hudson Rivers. Initially purchased by the Dutch for the equivalent of US$1050, Manhattan’s 59 square kilometres is now valued at more than US$3 trillion. The island is defined by Downtown and Midtown, two of the most important business districts in the world, as well as Central Park, Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Manhattan is subdivided into neighbourhoods, each with distinctive characters, ethnicities and socio-economic compositions. To the east of Manhattan is Long Island, which extends from New York Harbour into the Atlantic Ocean. The New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens occupy the far western portion of the island. Brooklyn is New York City’s most populous borough, while Queens is regarded as the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. To the far south of Manhattan is the suburban and conservative Staten Island, often sneered and snubbed by most New Yorkers. The only borough on the American mainland is the Bronx, located directly north of Manhattan and Queens. The City of New York was formed in 1898 when the previously separate cities amalgamated, with each becoming a “borough”. The subway system that opened in 1904 helped integrate the newly formed city. The five boroughs of New York City proper consists of a population of 9 million, although 22 million live in the metropolitan area that extends into Long Island, New York State, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This vast urban area is essentially one enormous metropolis, yet to New Yorkers the business district of New Jersey, immediately across the Hudson from Midtown Manhattan, is categorically not within the prestigious boundaries of New York City and located in an entirely different state.
Since the accommodation on Manhattan is obscenely expensive, I opted to stay across the East River in the trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg. Williamsburg is a leafy, medium-density neighbourhood with large Italian and Dominican communities and an artist colony. It is somewhat similar to the inner suburbs of Melbourne, with its café culture, grunginess, hipster fashion and gentrification. The immensely popular “Smorgasburg” on the banks of the East River is also reminiscent of Melbournian events like the Queen Victoria Night Market. Each Saturday, one hundred of New York’s coolest food trucks set up shop in a park that provides views of Lower Manhattan. Williamsburg thrives with activity on weekends with people brunching and seeking alternative clothes and houseware at the flea markets.
View from flea market in Williamsburg
Nadia and I stayed at an Airbnb apartment for six nights and were hosted by a seemingly charming musician. Unfortunately though, she spoilt the positive sentiment I had for her by sending Nadia an accusatorial message after our departure. She requesting her missing towels back, or threatened to reflect her annoyance in the Airbnb review of Nadia. About an hour later, she sent a slightly apologetic message after finding the towels hanging from the coat hangers in our room. She didn’t do any favours to the international perception about the collective intellect of the American race. I think Nadia was far too conciliatory in her responses, justifying my little rant here. By sheer coincidence, American Kally, who I met in Guatemala, lived literally five blocks away from the Airbnb apartment and she and her housemate generously accommodated me for two nights after Nadia’s return to Scandinavia.
With such limited time in New York, I decided to prioritise exploring Manhattan’s myriad of neighbourhoods and therefore skip the major tourist attractions and other boroughs. Even in seven and half epically packed days, I was unable to visit every neighboured; missing Harlem and Washington Heights. I will describe my impressions of each cluster of neighbourhoods sequentially from south to north.
I have to concur with the typical New Yorker attitude about Downtown in Lower Manhattan; its easily the island’s most boring area. Although it boasts several of the city’s most iconic features, Downtown is an inherently lifeless district of steel-and-glass skyscrapers and minimal ground-level activity. No wonder New York’s commercial centre is continuously shifting to Midtown. Downtown is the oldest part of New York City, but unfortunately the only vestige of the Old World is its layout of winding and narrow streets. The Downtown skyline is dominated by One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. The two massive square pools at its base are harrowing memorials to the victims of 9/11. Each victim is represented by a tiny plume of water that falls into the pool. I was humbled by the design and symbolism of the memorials, but thought the excessive photographing taking place, especially the practice of taking gleeful selfies, was thoroughly distasteful. It shouldn’t be treated as a leisurely tourist attraction to visit. Also in Downtown is international finance’s equivalent to Mecca: Wall St. I was unprepared for how narrow, unassuming and ultimately underwhelming Wall St is, having expected a wide boulevard with monstrously grandiose buildings. But the visual insignificance of the place that stock-markets and currency the world over dependent on heightens the sense of Wall St’s omnipotent power. Just off Downtown is the Statue of Liberty, the beacon of hope and opportunity for the millions of migrants that have flooded into New York Habour over the decades. Nadia and I avoided the tourist-trap boat tours and boarded the free Staten Island Ferry for a close inspection of Lady Liberty.
Statue of Liberty
Every borough of New York City boasts at least one Chinatown, but Manhattan’s is surely the biggest and perhaps the most expansive in the world (outside China). It should be noted that Manhattan’s Chinatown is not merely a street as it is in Melbourne, but an entire neighbourhood. Chinatown sprawls in the shadows of Downtown’s skyscrapers. The sterility and lifelessness of Downtown is juxtaposed by the rambling crowds, clutter and colour of Chinatown. The area is eerily reminiscent of Hong Kong, another place where imposing monuments to corporate wealth rise above a vibrant and unpretentious street culture. Unpretentiousness is what distinguishes Chinatown from other neighbourhoods on Manhattan; no efforts are made to glamorise it and the image-driven culture of New York is notably absent. Stylish shopfronts and beautified sidewalks are unnecessary to the Chinese. Their inherent pragmatism instead determines that all available spaces in Chinatown should be exploited and are crammed with products and advertisements. Dumpling houses, fake merchandise outlets and shops brimming with delicacies that only the Chinese could find palatable are characteristic features of Chinatown, though this is also a residential neighbourhood. A white Caucasian obviously feels like an outsider in Chinatown, but never unwelcome. I admire the Chinese mind-your-own-business attitude and therefore their ambivalences toward outsiders. They barely notice you and never exhibit judgement, even to people with novel ethnicities. Amid all the hysteria in the West about the growing clout of Beijing and the Chinese diaspora, I think emigrated Chinese people teach lessons about how to live in a multicultural society. Chinatown’s gradual encroachment is condemning historic Little Italy to extinction though. The residential Italian community have already migrated to the boroughs, but a small and atmospheric enclave of standard Italian restaurants remain… for now.
Chinatown in the foreground, Downtown behind; admittedly I didn't capture the most lively photo
Manhattan is a place of extraordinary diversity, epitomised most markedly by ambling from Chinatown to New York’s trendiest neighbourhoods, TriBeCa and SoHo. A sixty year gentrification process has transformed this former derelict industrial zone into the ultimate scene for New York’s affluent attempting to appear fashionable and cool. This differentiates the neighbourhood from the unashamed, Trump-esque flaunting of excessive wealth in the Upper East Side. Upmarket cafes and chic clothing shops occupy magnificently restored former warehouses with cast-iron architecture from the nineteenth century. The sidewalks are leafy and spotlessly clean, significantly contrasting to the nearby streets of Chinatown.
The East Village, located north of Chinatown, is widely cited as New York City’s coolest neighbourhood. Cheap rent in the 1960s attracted artists, musicians and students to the area, which facilitated the development of the East Village as the centre of counterculture. In recent decades, the affluent and trendy have moved into the neighbourhood, compromising the authenticity of its hipster identity. Although the artists, musicians and students have gradually been squeezed out, the East Village remains an ethnically diverse community with large numbers of Eastern Europeans, Latinos and Asians. The East Village challenged my preconception that Manhattan was one continuous stretch of high-rise buildings with a gargantuan park in the middle. The East Village is actually a medium-density neighbourhood that is more evocative of the placid quietness of suburbia than the freneticism of an inner city. Like any pleasant suburb, the buildings are characterful and feature contrasting facades (an exoticism for Danish Nadia), although most of the older structures are composed of red brick. Beloved century-old delis and bodegas exist beside gritty cafes and contemporary restaurants. The East Village is rather green, with broad canopies shading the streets and lush parks peppered throughout.
As one of the world’s greatest cities with an unrivalled ethnic composition, New York is an extraordinary foodie destination. Synonymous with the New York culinary scene is of course street-food, sold at inconspicuous corner-shops and food-carts throughout the city. The quintessential New York eating experience is to devour a humble hot dog, probably the most emblematic and ubiquitous street food item available. In New York, hot dogs are often consumed with a serve of tropical fruit juice (i.e. papaya, coconut, pineapple), an unusual combination invented by a 1930s entrepreneur to deliver tropical fruits to the New York market. I sampled two grilled dogs (the proper cooking method) with crispy fried onion, sauerkraut, mustard, ketchup and a serve of sickeningly thick banana juice at a cult icon of the New York hot dog trade: Gray’s Papaya. New York’s next most beloved street-food is “halal”, which essentially constitutes Turkish kebab/Middle Eastern shawarma served with all the trimmings. While most halal food-carts sell generic and mediocre renditions, Nadia and I sampled halal at Vendy-award winning King of Falafel and Schwarma. The prestigious Vendys are to the street-food scene as the Oscars are to the film industry: the best street-food carts in New York City win. I was served an American-sized portion (rarity in overpriced New York) of marinated grilled chicken with falafel, rice, pickles, salad, garlic sauce and chilli sauce; one of the tastiest Middle Eastern-style meals I have ever eaten. Nadia and I visited another Vendy winner in Washington Park, a tiny vegetarian Indian food-cart operated by an affable Indian chap. Despite the extremely limited space, he was able to dish up dosa (South Indian crepe-like wrap) filled with vegetables and coconut chutney and with a spicy chutney and raita on the side.
Iconic New York dishes, such as hot dogs, bagels, lox, pastrami sandwiches and cheesecake, generally derive from the Eastern European Jewish migrants who came to New York in the late nineteenth century. I don’t understand why the delectable bagel has not gone gangbusters in Melbourne yet… perhaps that will be the next wave. Bagel stores are found on virtually every New York City corner, selling a range of deliciously chewy bagels. Countless fillings can be added to bagels, most notably cream cheese (also countless varieties… I quite liked jalapeno cheese) and cured fish. The classic bagel is with lox (smoked salmon) and plain cream cheese, which I sampled at the New York institution Russ and Daughters. Probably the institution of the New York culinary scene is Katz’s Delicatessen in the East Village. Katz’s is famous for its pastrami on rye, a sandwich with a mountain of mouth-watering, salty pastrami beef smeared with mustard and with a side serve of pickles. The cavernous interior hall maintains its Old World charm and featured in the film “When Harry met Sally” (“I’ll have what she’s having” – a pastrami on rye). I indulged on an intoxicatingly rich New York cheesecake at a classic American dinner, with booths, brightly coloured decor and a humungous menu. I also sampled “chocolate egg cream”, which is a drink consisting of chocolate syrup, milk and soda water. The New York pizza is famous for its thin crust, vast surface area and greasiness. Its sold by the slice on almost every block (very very large slices) for as little as 99 cents, although adding the classic New York topping of pepporini adds 30 cents to the deal. At Smorgasburg, I sampled the classic American side dish of “mac n cheese” at a popular food truck. Expecting an extraordinary flavour to defy the rather meagre ingredients used (bow-tie pasta, cream and cheese), I was sorely disappointed. Also at Smorgasburg, I enjoyed a typical American-Italian style sandwich: a generous portion of pork belly with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato and pesto in a baguette.
Pastrami on rye
This is turning into a colossal blog entry, so perhaps its time for an intermission. I’ll resume my discussion of New York City in the next entry.
That’s all for now,
New York photos