“And the city lights
will burn you down
Or build you up
high above the ground.”
What is the real spirit of New York? When most Americans, and other nationalities, think of it, images of the financial district, the remnants of the World Trade Center, and Times Square, of the tallest buildings and the brightest lights, most generally come to mind. Following the road south from Chinatown, this was the New York that I was heading toward.
Even without my GPS, the tallest buildings in the city looming over the urban horizon were the only guidepost one needed to find this area. One thing I wanted to make sure to do while I was here was to see the new World Trade Center being constructed. I knew little more than it was supposed to be New York’s tallest building after completion, so mistaking another building still under construction for the tallest, I began to head toward that.
Turns out that it was not that building, and I was informed via a random road sign the correct way to the World Trade Center. Readjusting my course, I finally came to the correct area that proved nearly impassable due to the sheer chaos around the area.
So much of the area was still fenced off for various reasons, be they restricted or simply construction. And I don’t just mean the area immediately around the new World Trade Center. Police are everywhere. Whether this was the norm or not, I cannot say, as I was there on the day Osama bin Laden’s death was all over the headlines.
However, the sheer mass of people moving through, paying no attention to the cops or the protestors or the site itself, simply shocked me. I don’t know that I have ever been in that large a crowd before. It felt like two solid currents moving next to each other in opposite directions through the thin walkways the fences allowed. Anyone trying to get in or out of the current was completely at its mercy.
So between all of what was going on, the crowd and the fences and the police, it was very obvious that I wasn’t going to get much more than a glimpse and a few pictures here. No way that I was getting close to the building, and probably couldn’t even if I wanted to and there were something there to see.
I was close enough to the southern tip to catch the ferry to Liberty Island, which I decided I had enough time to do. However, the ferry schedule decided otherwise, ending around 5, and I arrived there around 6. So without the option of the ferry, I had no option but to admire the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island through the harbor’s boat traffic from Battery Park.
Battery Park itself was a worthwhile spot to be checking out, however, as there were so many interesting statues and random curiosities around. The Fort-turned ticket booth was certainly among the top contenders. But, the immigrant statue, the war veteran pillars, and the eternal flame next to the sphere made of World Trade Center debris were not something to be missed either.
When I had finally exhausted Battery Park of anything else it had to offer, I started making my way north through the steel and glass canyons of the financial district. Still to the south end of Manhattan, but east of the World Trade Center, the highest concentration of the highest skyscrapers make up the financial district.
In the narrow fjords between them are restaurants and bars filled with loudly shouting and exuberant men in suits. These places range from national tokens like TGI Fridays to local and much more lively establishments.
I tried stopping in for a beer at a couple of these places. The first was so insanely packed that I couldn’t even get a bartender to notice me and take my order. Granted, I was in nothing close to a suit, instead wearing a black t-shirt, gray hoodie, and a green fleece jacket. May just be preferential clientele?
So eventually finding my way back to a subway entrance, I decided to ride it to Times Square, as it was only a few blocks away from my hostel and I still hadn’t been there yet.
Immediately walking into the central Times Square intersection, at night, it is at first overwhelming. I knew eventually there would be a time when I would say that about a city, but it wasn’t until this that I would actually admit it.
In my own naïveté about the location, I had originally thought Times Square to be just one triangular intersection of tall, flashing lights. Much to my own bewilderment, it was a full 360 of billboards and news headlines and just general eye candy.
On the south end of Times Square, there stands a statue to Father Patrick Duffy, and behind him, a stack of bleachers highlighted by glowing neon red. Somehow, I don’t imagine Father Duffy would have ever imagined his name being attributed to a neon light amphitheater.
As far as the food and drink scene around Times Square, it is almost entirely generic national chains, those ones that can afford whatever outrageous rental price there is for these properties. And their prices reflect it. A pint of domestic beer where I grew up: $2-4. Boston, New York, etc. in general: $4-6. In Times Square, I found myself paying $8 or more for a pint of Miller Lite. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.
One thing that New York, among other large city that I’ve been to, seemed to lack was street acts. I ran into about 5 in Times Square and very rarely any others my entire stay there. In Times Square, I ran across such unique acts
I heard rumors later on in my stay that the stretch of 8thAvenue between Times Square and Central Park used to be what would be considered the Red Light District of the day. Maybe I hadn’t noticed on the walk before in the daylight, but at night its remnants were blatantly obvious. A couple adult stores every couple blocks for a while. Barkers at every other corner handing out flyers and discounts for strip clubs.
The large, intimidating profile of the ever-present Soup Man stared me down as I neared W 55th St. A couple blocks over was McGee’s Pub, the bar which the McLaren’s of How I Met Your Mother is based on.
After coming to the conclusion that the place was nothing special, I popped around the corner to check on the Spider-Man filming. It was gone.
I figured at that point that I had walked around enough for one day and decided to call it a night.
So what is the “Real” spirit of New York? Still can’t say I can answer it after that day, or even the days to follow. There is so much more that I would be able to do there even I spent multiple weeks just doing just what I did this day.
My conclusion is that New York can overwhelm you, but it isn’t overwhelming. If that makes any sense. There is so much of it. But any of it is so easily grasped by anyone who is looking to try.