New York – Part 1
New York was an interesting experience to say the least. The initial culture shock of arriving to a neighbourhood riddled with graffiti in Brooklyn eventually wore off sometime on day three. You travel to this grand city under false pretences that it will be how television has portrayed it – they couldn’t be more wrong. It’s rare to walk the streets of the city, or ride the subway, and see a white American. At university I learned about the diversified population and how white Americans were now classed as the population minority. This was indeed true. While there were many white people they were anything from French and German to Australian. This is not meant as a racist comment – it is simply an observation that the white America portrayed on our television screens on a daily basis is not all it’s cracked up to be. The diversification was a reality check. It was the United States’ way of saying “Kid, you’ve made it to the big city. Time to see why it’s the city of dreams.”
The city of dreams it was: the grandeur of the architecture is a designers dream; the quality and quantity of street art is, once you get over the initial shock, inspirational; the history and culture is ever present and alive and it seems that opportunity is all around. Visiting New York City was a once in a lifetime experience. I had once passed on the opportunity to visit the United States at university but I finally felt ready to explore a country and a city that I have always been so mesmerised by.
Staying in Brooklyn allowed us to explore further afield. Colleagues at work who have previously visited Manhattan in the past twelve months have often stayed in the city itself and missed out on the outer urban areas of the Bronx, Queens and, of course, Brooklyn. Visiting the city for ten days made sure we were able to do everything on our bucket lists but at a speed that allowed us to rest in between and have leisurely days that were not quite so hectic. We took a slight risk choosing a hostel rather than a fancy hotel, mainly because a hostel was around $50 each per night on average as opposed to $200 each a night. At the end of the day when you’re in a place with so much to do, your hotel room becomes somewhere to sleep and shower which doesn’t need to be luxurious when you factor in the rest of the costly expenses a ten day trip will entail. For what it was, the hostel was everything we needed. Though there were some definitive differences to the basic accommodation we have in the United Kingdom are used to from the likes of Premier Inn, Travel Lodge and Ibis hotels. Americans seem unaware that the best way to allow fresh air into the room is to simply open a window – rather they attach their air conditioning units into the window space and rely on this to regulate the temperature. To be fair, in New York the humidity can be extreme and we did use the air conditioning before going to sleep, but it was loud and sometimes not all that effective. Needless to say upon returning home it was a luxury to open a window and feel the British air circulate around the house. It was also a luxury upon returning home to have a decent shower. When my uncle lived in Washington DC a few years ago he often commented that the United States is behind in the basics and on occasion resembles that of a third world country. The drive from the airport to Brooklyn made me remember this. Seeing how they don’t seal up the gap between the window, wall and air conditioning unit, and topped off by the poor quality of shower and its pressure, it’s amazing how the United States is such a powerful and dominate country if they haven’t mastered the simple luxuries in life. Would these things have been different in a hotel at five times the cost? Perhaps. But then again, maybe not. For $50 a night though, we couldn’t complain. So long as there was a pillow under my head at night and a bed to sleep on, we were satisfied.
With that said, we wasted no time because as soon as we landed and checked into the hostel we were out exploring Central Park. I only know what I’ve seen in Friends when Phoebe and Rachel go running, or when Mila Kunis gets a date with Bryan Greenberg in Friends With Benefits – Central Park is beyond ridiculous in both size and beauty. New York is a big city but walking around Central Park you feel like you’re in the middle of the National Forest with all the greenery, rockery, lakes and nature that surrounds you. We often found ourselves in Central Park, even when we didn’t plan on being there we somehow found our way there. With the majority of housing in Manhattan being apartments, it’s a rarity that the American population has a back garden, so it seems Central Park becomes every ones garden. Yet for such a big city, with such a large population, Central Park didn’t feel crowded or busy – it was surprising.
However tranquil Central Park might be, there are reminders everywhere you go that New York City has been through tremendous hardships and overcome so much in it’s history – the architecture reminds you of the Art Deco period; the difference between luxurious grand scale buildings in Rockefeller and Fifth Avenue compared to rustic run down areas of the Meatpacking District and Harlem reminds you of the Great Depression and the Wall Street Crash; but most of all, heading to the Financial District, with American flags hanging off every building, there was an eerie feeling in the air. The sirens, smog from the grills and roadworks are even more prominent around this section of the city. The sirens however seem to put everyone on edge, including myself, and it’s understandable why.
Visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum puts life into perspective. So many lives lost on what started as a normal working day and the city is still recovering from the loss. Everyone has their “I remember where I was story” and many shared this as they walked round the exhibition. I’ve seen almost every documentary on 9/11 yet nothing can prepare you for the harsh reality you relive in the museum. Projectors show the events on pylons and walls all over. Everyone is silent as they take in what I would consider the biggest catastrophe of the modern era. Breaking the silence is voice recordings from those who left messages for their families and the siren beepers of Firefighters who have been down, not moving, for thirty seconds or more. It’s a huge culture shock to see remains of steel from the original structure; wallets and possessions of those lost that they carried with them on the day; crushed fire engines that were pulled out from the rubble; everything was so heavy that you wanted to take it in as quickly as possible to get out and away from it all. The fear is real, and it was enough to make me want to leave and go home. The whole experience, from the north and south pools in place of the old towers to a room with the photos of every person lost on the walls, is overwhelming. Needless to say we were not in the mood to do much after. We had to get out of the Financial District and retreat back to Brooklyn for a couple of hours to regroup and get our heads back in the game. 9/11 is an experience that should be seen and remembered, but nothing can prepare you for how overwhelming it is.