by Lee Foster
A bite out of the Big Apple reveals a city that is juicy and spicy, acidic as well as sweet. The term Big Apple was once a code word among jazz musicians, who said, “There are many apples on the tree, but to play in New York City is to play The Big Time…The Big Apple.” Many of the millions of annual visitors leave New York with a similar impression–the city ranks in the big time as an extraordinary travel destination.
New York City seems as resilient as ever, now beyond the 10th anniversary of September 11, perhaps aided by the city’s typical exuberance and vitality. The mood during a recent April visit was particularly upbeat, possibly aided by the seasonal hopefulness as blossoms burst in Central Park and plantings of red tulips and daffodils lent the city a festive air, especially in public spots, such as Rockefeller Center.
Today you can walk around the damaged World Trade Towers area and survey the progress in work on the 1776-foot Freedom Tower. A model of the monument and documentation of the site’s progress can be seen on the west side of the damaged area in a building known as the World Financial Center.
Interestingly enough, there is a public grieving place a couple of blocks south in Battery Park, where a large globe sculpture that was at the Trade Center is on display. This artwork was partially crushed in the destruction but remains relatively intact. “The Sphere” by Fritz Koenig was meant to be a symbol of World Peace, but now serves as a shrine to the World Trade Towers tragedy, festooned with flowers and private commentaries of grief.
Those of us who knew the World Trade Towers will always remember how they affected our perspective of New York. The view from the outdoor deck on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center towers, looking north to the center of Manhattan, simply stunned the imagination. If, as a visitor, you wanted to see the best of New York, this was the place to begin. Nowhere else in the world and at no other time in history had such an urban edifice arisen so dramatically. It will always be difficult to accept that these towers became the tombs for 2,800 innocent victims from 80 countries. New York has almost no buildings from before 1800, so the entire urban milieu has been created in less than two centuries. As a testimony to the resourcefulness of the human animal, a look at Manhattan from the top of the World Trade Center was without parallel. This view conveyed as much drama as all the plays on Broadway.
To enjoy the best of New York, a visitor must make judicious choices. There is so much to see, even if you confine yourself to Manhattan. The best way to encounter New York is to get comfortably settled in a hotel and then make a selective foray out from your lodging in each direction–south to the Statue of Liberty, east to the United Nations, north to some great museums and Central Park, and west to the theatre district.
Each of the top 20 or so New York hotels is a world onto itself, with the word “The” often prominent in the title.
When price is of no concern, The Sherry-Netherland, on the edge of Central Park, at 781 Fifth Avenue, would be an excellent choice. From the higher floors, the view of Central Park is unbeatable. When this handsome building was constructed in 1927, it was said to be the tallest apartment building in the world. The charmed life of the well-to-do in that era is maintained at The Sherry Netherlands today. A white-gloved elevator attendant is on duty 24 hours a day to take guests to their floor. Today there are 50 rooms for guests; the rest of the building is used by long term residents. Lodging includes a sumptuous continental breakfast in the signature Harry Cipriani restaurant off the hotel lobby. The restaurant also does gourmet room service for guests and residents, as the original venture intended in the 1920s.
The Wellington, another venerable but more affordable grand dowager hotel, is on the west side of central Manhattan, within easy walking distance of the theatre district and many excellent restaurants. The Wellington location, 871 Seventh Avenue at 55th Street, illustrates how a central location puts you within walkable range of so much in New York. Many fine restaurants and delis are in the neighborhood, starting with the famous Carnegie Deli, right across the street. The theatre district is a short walk to the south. Lincoln Center and Central Park are a short walk to the north. A traveler who masters the subway system can either walk or use the subway from The Wellington when the surface streets are gridlocked.
For a totally modern and affordable alternative, with a flat screen TV/computer monitor as the symbol in each room, consider the DoubleTree Metropolitan, at Lexington and 51st. The oatmeal chocolate walnut cookie gift to greet each visitor is a start at this family-friendly lodging. The hotel has a convenient east-central Manhattan location, within walking distance of attractions like Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building. Rooms have a modern and minimalist feel, with clean lines and basic services as the emphasis.
South to the Statue of Liberty
Everyone, at some point, should do a leisurely boat ride past the Statue of Liberty and then make a stop at Ellis Island to celebrate that North America is a land of immigrants. Here is where so many immigrants entered. The added pleasure of this National Park Service boat ride out to the two islands is a look back at the skyscraper landscape of lower Manhattan. The ride begins at Castle Clinton, the battery fortification at the tip of lower Manhattan. Allow a little extra time here (and at the Empire State Building ) for security processing, necessary due to the post 9-11 security requirements.
It is not necessary to stop at the Statue of Liberty. The boat ride perspective may be even more powerful than on the island. However, Ellis Island and its displays on the immigrant reality are most impressive. Here you see some of the actual trunks and suitcases of the millions who passed through to other parts of America. A photo wall shows the composite of faces that are American and Canadian. There are basic concepts to learn, such as that Asian and Latin American is the main immigrant story in the last 30 years, and they did not come through Ellis Island. However, 1880-1924 were the Peak Immigration Years, as the Ellis Island interpreters explain, with 9 million coming from Northwestern Europe, 8.2 million from Eastern Europe, and 5.3 million from Southern Europe. A lot of North Americans can trace their ancestral roots to those dramatic ocean voyages.
Once you return to Lower Manhattan, there are many other iconic images to enjoy in an easily walked area, beyond the World Trade site. It is worth mentioning that New York was founded by the Dutch as a business trade settlement, and has always been about business. Wall Street was once a walled wooden palisade protecting the Dutch of Nieuw Amsterdam from the Indians and the British. Look at Wall Street and the raging bronze bull that symbolizes the good news desired by every investor. Nieuw Amsterdam was a compact trading post bounded by Wall, Broadway, and the sea. Today you can glimpse the New York Stock Exchange during a trading session. The Federal Hall once housed the entire federal government in one small but stately structure. A walk through the area reveals an encyclopedia of American architectural styles at their birthplace. The immense popularity of the 1846 Gothic-style Trinity Church insured that Gothic would be the typical ecclesiastical architecture of American churches. The Frank Woolworth Building was briefly the world’s tallest building, but will always be noted as a structure whose standard of craftsmanship has seldom been equaled.
Everywhere, there are little eateries, often run by immigrants, where tasty food at a favorable price is offered. Walk up the east side of Lower Manhattan to gaze at the Brooklyn Bridge, the suspension bridge engineering feat from 1883, and perhaps pause for a drink or food at South Street Seaport, which also sports vintage sailing ships. Wavertree, from 1885, carried jute between India and Scotland.
To the north, but only a short taxi ride or subway ride away, is an intriguing neighborhood to walk, Greenwich Village. As a start, stroll through Washington Square Park, where chess players will be engaged quietly in serious combat. I happened on my last visit to be there in April, a time of sun, when it seemed as if every New Yorker was stretched out on the lawns to absorb the rays after a long winter. Even the dogs in the dog park were rambunctious. Around the Square the handsome brick houses were ornamented with the blossoms of pear and cherry trees.
New Yorkers, and partisans of New York, will often have their favorite restaurants to recommend, and there are so many. The possibility of a “discovery” is great and sometimes substantial passion will be exerted by New Yorkers to insist that you replicate their experience of the discovery. However, the New York restaurant scene is so vast and the quality is often so high, that you are likely to make unaided discoveries on your own. For example, when leaving Washington Square on my recent visit, I stumbled on the French Vietnamese “fusion” restaurant, named Apple, and enjoyed a Vietnamese Lunchbox plate whose masterly medley of ginger, soy, and garlic remains firmly entrenched in palatal memory.
East to the United Nations
If there is one institution that salutes man’s nobler tendencies, it is the United Nations. The UN building on the east edge of Manhattan (at 44th) becomes the focus of many visitors. There is drama as limousines with delegates arrive while the UN is in session. The multitude of flags flying in front of the UN reminds a visitor of the diverse nations on our planet. Along the river side of the UN there is a path to stroll, plus some surprising statuary, such as Russia’s biblical theme statue, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
Your actual opportunity to visit the UN compound will depend on current security issues, which are difficult to predict. The concrete barricades and metal detectors affecting your entry are a part of the modern scene. You may be able to enter the UN compound to look around, even when the UN is in session. You may be able to walk informally around the ground floor of the building and peruse displays about challenges of our times that the UN addresses–overpopulation, resource depletion, hunger, illiteracy, and hostilities. For a closer look, take the tour, if it is offered. Downstairs in the building is a bookstore with all the UN publications, plus souvenir stores selling crafts, dolls, and flags, a post office with UN stamps, and a coffee shop. Following a visit to the UN, a traveler can’t help but feel associated with the more hopeful, peaceful, and helpful impulses in man’s sensibility. After physically setting foot at this forum for peaceful resolution of differences, the traveler feels a tactile awareness of the UN.
Walking west from the UN, the architectural treat to savor is the Chrysler Building . The lovely curved art deco lines of the building can be enjoyed, especially from the south side, from many perspectives, including the small bars and restaurants that beckon a weary traveler to pause.
Further west is the Empire State Building, which must be experienced. From the top, you get the best current view of concrete Manhattan, now that the World Trade Towers are gone. At the top, there is an entertaining headset commentary by Tony, a taxi driver, whose thoughts are pithy newyorkerish commentaries on what you see, full of that worldly cynicism that is the local style.
Another icon worth visiting is the lobby of Grand Central Station, the rail hub. The railroads arrive underground. When you are in Grand Central, you have arrived. There is the anticipation of great events occurring. The ornate lobby clock in Grand Central Station has been a traditional meeting place for generations of New Yorkers and visitors.
North to the Great Museums
Walk north to the great museums by strolling up Fifth Avenue, with a turn left at Rockefeller Center. In winter you’ll see skaters on the pond, as lyrical a motif as one could imagine in this actuarial heart of the business world. John D. Rockefeller’s credo, starting with “I believe in the worth of the individual,” carved in granite, stands out as a document of Americana. There is an ever-changing garden at Rockefeller Center. In April, expect to find an abundance of tulips in the public area and a major annual orchid show in the tented domain of the skating rink.
North of Rockefeller Center is the first of the great museums to explore. Pace yourself when museum-hopping here, perhaps choosing one per day.
Most central is the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street). Tour the permanent collection in several distinguished galleries, such as paintings, architecture and design, and photography. The marvelous reality of MOMA is that it is likely to have in its collection a modern master about whom you may feel some affection. If there is a painting of Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Renoir, or Van Gogh that you enjoy, you may find it here. For example, in my college years, I enjoyed having Picasso’s The Three Musicians on the wall of my room in the college dorm. It was a special pleasure to see the original on the wall at MOMA.
Two other major museums are on the east side of Central Park, a long hike or a short cab ride away. The Metropolitan Museum of Art ( Fifth Avenue at 82nd) owns vast collections and mounts truly impressive shows. On my most recent visit, I perused the perennial Egyptian collection. The snail shell Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue at 89th, entices the viewer with an elevator ride up, then a long, spiraling path of descent as you view the exhibits.
Central Park is a sprawling, bucolic walking area for New Yorkers. April is possibly the loveliest time of the year in Central Park, when the blossoming trees and the bulb flowers are in bloom. Central Park is a place to stroll and discover on your own, enjoying the lawns, the trees, the water, and the bridges. You’ll find whimsical details, such as the Delacourte Clock of parading animals. Joggers and bikers fully take over the park on days when the roads are closed to cars. Children scramble over the rock outcroppings.
West to the Theatre
A visitor to New York will not want to miss enjoying a live theatre experience. This is what New York does so well.
The main theater district is west of Times Square around 45th Street. Although theater tickets can be expensive, remaining day-of-performance tickets may be available at TKTS (47th and Broadway).
On my recent visit I enjoyed a musical at the Ambassador Theatre on 49th Street. It is amazing how classic theatre experiences draw in audiences night after night for years. The high energy and athleticism of the dancers was impressive. The musicianship of the orchestra was outstanding. On the night of my theatre visit, about half of the patrons happened to be travelers from France .
For the potential visitor, these best-of-New-York suggestions celebrate the brawny vitality, exuberance, and creative energy of the city, which shows itself in so many fields, from business to the arts. The visitor truly taken by New York may well begin to chant the publicity refrain, “I Love New York .”
New York: If You Go
Tourism information is provided by New York City & Company, 810 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019; 212/484-1200; www.nycgo.com.