Jun 18, 2012

Nothing Like New York

Central Park.  Monday, May 21, 2012

There are different stories going around about how we ended up choosing New York as our class trip destination this year, but this is what I remember.  We were considering Miami, California, other destinations, and were about ready to make a decision when Mr. Russell, the grandfather of one of my students raised his hand:

"Mr. Maycock, I just have to say, there's nothing like New York."

And just like that, the conversation turned.  And the rest is, as they say, history.

I never got what the big deal was with New York.  Indeed, I was kind of tired of New York this, New York that.  Every movie, every TV show seems to be set in New York.  How many cities have so many songs singing its praises?  What was so special about New York?

Well, now, having been there, albeit very briefly, I get it.

There are two overall conclusions I can state with certainty after my brief time in New York:
 Four days didn't even begin to scratch the surface of this great city.

And Mr. Russell was absolutely right.

Herewith just a few things I observed that, in my opinion, make New York like no place in the world.

Greenwich Village. Monday, May 21, 2012
I found the diversity within New York City to be staggering.  Sure there are "Irish, Italians, Jews, and Hispanics" as U2 once noted, but beyond the cultural diversity which is typical of most of the big American mega-cities,is the multitude of distinct neighborhoods in a tiny geographical area.  I less experienced this kaleidoscopic element of New York, and more sensed it.  We only got to the neon dazzle of the theater district surrounding Times Square, the steel and glass of the financial district on the south end of Manhattan, including the famous Wall Street (a very narrow street, to my surprise, and now closed to vehicle traffic apparently due to security concerns), the fire escapes clinging to brick-faced buildings you've seen in a thousand movies in the area around Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, a taste of Chinatown, Harlem, and the area near the South Street Seaport, a mere glimpse of Little Italy and some of midtown near the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.  That was it.  There were whole areas of Manhattan that we never got to explore, and then there's the other boroughs which we didn't enter at all--Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island.  In hindsight I feel like we barely went to New York at all, given how much we missed.  And yet what we Experienced was so rich and fascinating that I found myself eager to experience more.

Looking up.  Lower Manhattan. Monday, May 21, 2012

The kids look to Brooklyn. Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Manhattan, which is all of the City that we got to experience is geographically tiny, but feels huge.  It's a mere 23 square miles and just over 2 miles wide at it's widest point, yet it's got well over a million people living there (and I'm sure a million more that merely work there).  The above mentioned diversity makes it feel still larger, and I found it interesting to note that some Manhattanites seemed to be only familiar the parts of the borough where they lived and worked. I understand that, as west Columbus might as well be in another state as far I'm concerned:  I never go over there and know nothing about getting around in places like say Hilliard.  But it was particularly remarkable in New York where unfamiliar parts of the city might just be a mile or two away.

Central Park
Poet's Walk in Central Park.  Monday, May 21, 2012

Central Park deserves it's own special mention.  I've never seen anything like it.  Oh, sure every big city's got their green spaces these days.  But there's something especially striking about such a huge green space right in the midst of such a monster city.  Central Park is huge!  Green space isn't the right word.  Sure there are some classic park features--manicured gardens, ponds, ball fields and such, but there are parts of the park that feel like, well, the woods!  Wild land in the middle of Manhattan!  Frederick Law Olmsted was some kind of genius!  There are towering trees, looming hillocks that block out for the moment the Manhattan skyline, places where the vastness of the park muffles the bustle of the city to near-silence.  We spent all afternoon on Monday, May 21, traipsing through the park and got through maybe about half of it.

Some of the students contemplate Bethesda Fountain in Central Park
The Bandshell at Central Park

"The Scientist" clowning around with various Central Park statuary (left and below)

The Hustle
Street Performers outside Battery Park.  Tuesday afternoon, May 22, 2012

 "New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Now you're in New York"
                       --"Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z (feat. Alicia Keys)

One thing that fascinated me was the sense of infinite possibility in New York.  This is one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the United States,and  all kinds of world-famous names call this place home.  You'd think ordinary people would feel priced right out of this neighborhood (and I'm sure many are).  Yet there is this very American sense that you can show up in New York and have some kind of shot at Making It, or at the very least at making some cash.  New York is about the hustle, and it seems the ambitious can be found not just on Wall Street  but on every street corner, every subway platform, any old public space.  Musicians of every stripe, dancers, performance artists and "regular" artists, hawkers, vendors, "religious nuts and political fanatics in the stew, living happily not like me and you" (U2 again).  There were dozens of people dressed up as various cartoon characters wandering about Times Square--Elmo, Cookie Monster, Mickey and Minnie, Spiderman etc--and I got the feeling that these people were not hired by the giant Toys'R Us on the corner (for one thing many of them will talk to you--we had quite a conversation with Spiderman.  I did not know he was from the Caribbean!).  It seems you can go get yourself a costume and start wandering Times Square making a living off tips from photos with the tourists.

"Smile" on left, and "Free Spirit" pose with a character on Times Square.  I don't know who this is, but the kids were very excited to see him.

We came across these street performers as we were leaving Battery Park after our tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  In addition to being quite talented acrobats these guys were edgy comics as well.  They kept up a running commentary throughout their show that crept up to very edge of offensive, perhaps even dashing across the line and back again before you even had a chance to register.  They boldly--and hilariously--tackled taboo topics such as race and sex while priming the audience for their next stunt.  Even the process of passing the hat for tips was a funny part of the performance.

Our principal Mrs. Arthurs chats up one of the performers after the show.

New York Nice
One of my favorite things about New York is the people.  Yes, you heard me right, the people.  Before I want to New York I had all kinds of stereotypical images of the New Yorker.  Loud. Tough. Impatient. Tell it like it is. In a hurry. Ambitious.  Nice, however is not one of the words that came to mind, I confess.  I expected, as tourist to be brushed aside by impatient commuters, yelled at by jaded subway employees, honked at by taxis.   I did not have this experience at all.   Instead I found time and again patience with our tourist bumblings, and a willingness to help us out even when we didn't ask.  Passengers on the subway would overhear us puzzling over how to get to this or that point and kindly interject to provide us good advice.  I sensed a fierce pride in their city among the New Yorkers we met, and a desire to make sure we visitors knew what a great place we were visiting.  A lot of people say New York is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there--it's stressful, expensive, not as dangerous as it used to be I hear, but still you know its Big City living with it's privileges and pitfalls.  I can't speak to living there, but I can say that the people I encountered in New York made it a great place to visit.   In a city of millions I guess you can't really generalize about everyone, but either we got extraordinarily lucky or there really are a lot of nice people in New York.

After, an enjoyable few days I too can say:

There's nothing like it.

"One hand in the air for the big city
Street lights, big dreams, all lookin' pretty
No place in the world that could compare"
                                   "Empire State of Mind"

One visitor to New York made this nice collage of New York City images and set it to the U2 tune "New York" which I referenced several times in this entry.

1 comment:

Mai said...

For some reason, I thought you'd already been to New York! I'm glad you finally got to experience it, and hope you get to go back!! I've heard it's quite the memorable experience to run the NYC marathon!! :)