New York City Reflections

Within the last year and a half, I’ve travelled to three foreign countries. Somehow New York City, on my own soil, is more foreign than anywhere I’ve been overseas.  It was an outlandish experience for me because I’m so used to greenery, fresh air, and towering mountains constantly within eye-view.  New York is engulfed by gargantuan skyscrapers in every direction, and the sun is rarely visible unless you’re on the outer edges of Manhattan island.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the sun really is because the light is being reflected off one of the massive glass buildings.  For the entire trip my sense of North and South was inverted because I could never tell where the sun was.  I had no view of the horizon and couldn’t tell where I was.  

The people are very different as well.  When our taxi drove through Manhattan for the first time, I was stunned at the pure diversity.  As I looked at the people commuting around me, every person’s skin tone was different than the next.  The New York natives had traffic and sidewalk etiquette in their blood, and I could do nothing more than follow their lead.  They move through transactions much faster than I do in Huntsville, and often times I awkwardly stood in people’s way who were trying to pay for their items and get on with their business.  Their ethics are quite different than anything I encountered on my world travels.  When I went to Asia and Central America, there was a similar sense of connection and love among the people there that felt like home.  The shocking revelation was that I felt more similarities than differences with the people who spoke foreign languages.  Here I was on my own soil with English speakers whom I felt no connection to at all.  It was common for me to spark up conversation with the people of Vietnam or Honduras. But in New Yorkit was as if everyone was socially awkward.  Conversations with strangers in simple places such as elevators or restaurants were obsolete. 

Day 1

We flew into New York through the Laguardia Airport, the discount JFK International Airport.  As we flew past Manhattan, I caught a tiny glimpse of the giants that were about to surround me, but I thought little of it; aerial shots of lower Manhattan simply don’t do the Big Apple justice.  Laguardia was possibly the shabbiest airport I’ve ever been in.  I was surprised that the third world country I visited this summer had a better airport than one in New York City. From the outside, it looked practically abandoned. 

Thus began the long taxi ride into Manhattan.  As we passed the bridge leading into Midtown, I saw buildings in all states of condition.  A recently built high-rise apartment complex could have sat right next to a border-line tenement.  It’s an old city that’s in a constant state of renovation, and it shows around every corner.  

Our hotel was right in the middle of Times Square (charming, I know).  We drove right past one block and suddenly I was surrounded by enormous LED signs the size of buildings.  It was quite the sensory overload.  When I stepped out of the taxi, my ears were filled with car honks and snippets of people’s rowdy conversations. My nostrils were filled with the aroma of smoke. 

After we checked into our hotel, we strolled to the Rockefeller Center area.  What would take about 15 minutes to navigate through downtown Huntsville took twice as long in New York.  We were constantly interrupted by crosswalks and people giving away handouts.  Eventually we made it to Rockefeller Center and saw many iconic buildings, including Radio City Music Hall and 30 Rock.  It was also a sprawling shopping district.  What stood out was the shops themselves. In most of my travels in the U.S., there is a fine line between locally owned businesses and corporate chains.  New York’s shopping options were entirely ruled by corporations and brands familiar to any eye.  As someone who takes a firm stance on supporting local businesses, New York was a total drought, at least the areas we ventured to.  I’m sure there were other areas to be seen which weren’t as commercial, but it was difficult to tell if a "local" establishment was really born and raised in New York. 

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by the Richard Rogers Theater, which currently houses the hit musical Hamilton.  As a fan, I couldn’t pass up a photo.  Of course I never actually saw the play; Lord knows that won’t happen until I’m 50.

To finish off the day, we ate dinner with some old friends of ours, and then took to the Empire State building.  While Empire State is probably the most cliched building in America, there was something truly charming about being on top of it.  It was nighttime while we were up there, so the observation deck wasn’t too crowded and we got some sweet views.  I could easily see each individual street and could even make out silhouettes of the financial district on the south end of Manhattan.  This, plus listening to Frank Sinatra atop the city made for a whimsical evening. 

Day 2

We kicked off the day with breakfast at a diner off Times Square.  It was meant to replicate a Brooklyn diner.  I guess my only problem with it was that it wasn’t actually in Brooklyn. 

From there we walked back to Rockefeller Center for a tour of NBC studios at 30 Rock.  It was amazing to see their historic facilities, having been the first major broadcasting company in the U.S.  We saw a number of studios, including Saturday Night Live.  If you’re ever in New York, this was a fun tour.  You get to see a lot, and the tour guides alone are worth the trip.

After NBC we took to biking through Central Park.  I know biking in Central Park is one of the most cliche-sounding things you can do on a visit to New York, but it was hands-down the best part of the trip.   There is something about it which brings out a new level of whim. It’s hard to describe, but you simply have to experience it for yourself.  I put my earbuds in and listened to some more Frank Sinatra, and it was unforgettable experience.  The fact that the entire park is man-made only goes to show that there are few limits to what can be accomplished in NYC.  We saw lots of public art, and even a statue of Hamilton, which I didn’t pass-up either. I’ll say that if you and your family are ever in New York, don’t hesitate to bike in Central Park.  It’s some the most fun you’ll ever have. 

After biking, we chowed on some Ray’s (original?) Pizza, and then took to our hotel for a much needed breather.  It’s amazing how quickly New York can wear you out.  I felt my skin literally getting hotter just from how tired I was and had to change into sweatpants just to let my body ventilate. 

Day 3

This was the first day we went to Lower Manhattan, which is an experience in and of itself.  It simply takes too long to get from Times Square to the financial district by cab or foot, which leaves only one option—The subway.  

The subway is scary as hell, and the fact that it’s underground doesn’t help much.  My dad led us into one of many entrances to the subway along the sidewalk.  The first thing I noticed was the smell; the air was hot and sweaty.  I held tight to my backpack as I waiting on my dad to get us "metro cards" so we could use the subway.  People came out of the underground every few minutes as a train rolled through.  Every few moments I’d hear a bellowing roar as the entire room shook and trains rushed to their destinations.  Loud intercoms gave updates of what trains were going where. People came out of the underground every few minutes when a train rolled through. They moved quickly and had no interest in talking to anyone.  Frankly, I had no interest in talking to them either.  

Once we had our cards, we walked down another set of stairs and through a turn-stall.  We were on the platform.  It was uncomfortably thin.  There was a great haze in the room from the trains’ exhaust.  The floor was black with filth, and the walls were made of tile of all things.  The tracks themselves were jet-black from decades of wear.  In addition, nothing stood between the people and their train; just a pit that you hoped you didn’t step into.

My immediate thought to all of these images was "How do you go about renovating this mess?".  I know underground trains in New York have been used for ages, but these must have dated back decades.  There appeared to be no easy way to update them to the naked eye. The problem is that New Yorkers need these trains, so it’s not like they can shut them down for a year to repair them.

Getting on the train was worse.  I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I was starving, and the inside of the train was cold, contrast to the heat outside.  I felt weak in my seat. I sat clinging my bag, though no one on the train seemed an immediate threat.  

The beast rattled and roared through the underground.  Occasionally we’d pass other trains and I could literally look other passengers in the eye en route way to their destinations.  Then they’d disappear and we’d pass blue and red lights.  Then it all came to a stop.  We repeated this about four times until my dad said we had arrived.  

When we reemerged into the light, it was another world entirely.  The buildings were somehow bigger and everything was in shadows.  We hadn’t walked but a few steps, and I could see the top of the new Freedom Tower.  We immediately scoured a place to eat.  

We ate at a variety quick-service restaurant which was a New York chain, and they had a nifty idea.  They made organic, preservative-free food at low prices.  It was good food too.  Once they changed their selection from breakfast to lunch, they gave away whatever food they had left for free to customers and the homeless.  It was one of many innovative ideas that I’m sure have sparked in large cities like New York that will someday make its way to my neck of the woods. 

We had a lot of time to kill before our first destination, so we hit a few quick stops on the way, and boy were they quick.  We looked at Trinity Church, which is a massive bit of old world architecture among big glass skyscrapers.  While we were there we looked at Hamilton’s grave and family plot. 

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Then we moved into the stock exchange.  That particular day, a worker’s march was taking place, and their shouting in unison bounced off the walls into the stock exchange.  We were surrounded by brokers and analysts in suits, a glimpse of the elite.  It was abundantly clear that this was the financial capital of the world.  I briefly got a glimpse of the stock exchange, and the place where George Washington was inaugurated.  Looking back, I didn’t have much time to appreciate these places, but I should remember this is the city that never sleeps. 

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The first major item on the agenda for that day was the 9/11 Memorial.  I won’t go into any in-depth detail about my experience with 9/11, as I was too young to remember any of it, but seeing the fountains built in place of the Twin Towers was eye-opening.  They were gigantic, and the sheer amount of space they took up shook me.  

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After this, we entered the museum, which is probably the greatest museum I’ve ever been in, and easily the most innovative place I’ve set foot.  It’s built underground around the foundation of the original towers.  Simply the thought process required to build such a thing is mind-boggling.  The space it takes up is huge, and it showcases massive artifacts from the debris of the catastrophe.  Simply writing about it gives me goosebumps.  They not only recovered so much but managed to pay great homage to the victims of the attack in all forms of service.  One would have to spend days in the place just to learn everything.  There are so many things to see and so much reading material it’s impossible to see it all at once.  It’s a collaboration of many dedicated artists, architects, historians, and average Americans coming together to remember a tragic event, and it assembles perfectly.  There’s no denying that this is a must-see for those who visit New York. 

We took an express train back to Times Square, stopping at some iconic landmarks along the way, such as the Flatiron Building and Grand Central Station.  Then we finished off the night with some Italian food.  

Day 4

For our last full day, we dove back into the horrors of the subway and trained to the financial district once more.  This was our earliest start of the week, and our visit to the Freedom Tower.  When we arrived in the area, the 9/11 Memorial was only sparsely occupied, as not many people were visiting.  It went to show that the location can be a pilgrimage of remembrance at some times, but also that this city has since moved on from the attack.  The image was very calming, in fact.

Going into the Freedom Tower, I knew that this would be the first time in my life I would be exposed to ultra-modern technologies, as this is the first "super-tower" in the western hemisphere.  Simply looking at its height made me wonder how man can build such structures.  As we entered, everything was made of glass, all polished, not a stain or scratch in sight.  Entering the queue, a series of video screens played interviews of those involved in the process of building the tower, from construction workers, to architects, to fundraisers.  The one word to describe their tone is recovery. Some of these people were involved with the construction of the original World Trade Center, and wanted to see it back up again.  It was a testament to the sense of revival that embodied that tower. 

Then we entered the elevator.  My father had told us earlier in the week that he’d been to the original World Trade Center on business before.  He said that no elevator topped its speeds, and that he could only imagine how fast this elevator would be.  The doors closed, and the we realized that the elevator wasn’t lined with glass, but TV screens.  It displayed the progression of Manhattan since the beginning of time as we ascended.  In the corner of the cab, a counter rapidly marked how high we were, indicating we were moving at speeds I thought never possible.  When the doors opened, we could see all of Manhattan, the five burrows, and beyond…with a little haze.  The observation deck was circular about the whole tower, and is entirely glass.  It even has restaurants, too. We may have spent over an hour up there, and savored every moment of it.  Satisfied with our visit, we entered the elevator, and made a fast decent to the ground.  

From the moment we entered the Freedom Tower to when we left, there was an underlying sense that the new skyscraper was the World Trade Center brought back to life.  It was a symbol that New York officially bounced back from the attack and was revived, in a sense.  I walked away from it almost wishing I had appreciated this more while I was at the top. 

We took a few blocks’ stroll to Battery Park for our next destination.  The southernmost tip of Manhattan was quiet and peaceful; a nice little park with some public art and plenty of greenery. It felt like something out of Chattanooga.  At Battery Park we boarded a boat to head out to The Statue of Liberty.  I wasn’t too excited for it at first, but once I got a look at her, it really was something to see.  That is, until we got on the island.  

My gripe about Lady Liberty isn’t as much the statue itself, but the process of getting a good look at it.  We went through three checkpoints in our time there, and to go into the pedestal, we weren’t even allowed to have any belongings.  I found it ironic that I had to be stripped of liberties just to get a good look at the The Statue of Liberty.  I’ll admit I’m glad I saw it, but next time I’d probably just take a boat ride around it without having to do all the extra stuff on the island.  I’m sure it’d be a more liberating experience. 

Once we were back on Manhattan island, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then subwayed back to our hotel.  The rest of my family was calling it a day, but I wasn’t done yet.  I don’t know why, but somehow my parents trusted me enough to go out on my own for some more biking in Central Park…close to night time, too.  It was my last chance to reflect on New York.

I walked up 8th Avenue to avoid the hustle and bustle of Times Square and made my way to a bike rental shop.  I rented a bike for one hour and walked it to the south end of the park.  I turned on some Frank Sinatra and took off.  I thought about all I’d seen, learned, experienced.   It was just like Frank said in New York, New York; "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere". Many people came here to build a life, a career, a business, and that legacy has continued to this day.  It really did feel like this was a breeding ground for success.  As I rode that back to the south end, I felt unstoppable.  I thought about what I’d do when I came back, what area of town I’d stay in, and what I’d try to do.  Given that I’m going into college in a year, that trip certainly won’t happen soon.  But even then the spirit of the city excites me for it.  It’s a spirit that tells me that though I may be on a budget, I could still make a lot out of a little, and I’m ready to find out how. 

I returned the bike and walked back to our hotel, satisfied with my trip. 

While I’d never live in New York, there’s no denying that I want to go back. The amount of things I didn’t do fills a staggering list, and I didn’t have many opportunities to connect with the locals.  But it has been good to be home these last few days, and reflecting on the trip in this manner has allowed me to appreciate it even more.  Getting to share it with you makes it all the better.   There’s not doubt in my mind that reflecting on my trips is one of my favorite things to write about.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this recollection, and I’ll see you all again soon. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; October 2016