Travel Report: New York City Nostalgia.
New York City Nostalgia.
May 2007 & October 2012.
When people ask me about my most magical travel experiences, I still think of New York City. When I say magical, I’m talking about a genuine sense of awe that at times felt almost overwhelming.
A big part of it was context, of course. In May 2007 I was 29 years old and, I don’t mind saying, still pretty wet behind the ears. I had yet to marry, embark on a brief career in Hollywood media, divorce, travel Asia, start my blog, become a digital nomad and find true love. In short, I was just a pup.
I remember being incredibly excited on the plane over from Brussels. I was embarking on a month-long adventure around The United States, with NYC as the opening act. The City that Never Sleeps, The Big Apple. The place that, through music, cinema and literature, had fuelled my wanderlust like no other. I wanted to… “be a part of it” … New York, New York.
My base for the week was a budget joint called the Chelsea Star Hotel. It was one of the cheapest places in central Manhattan, with an array of options that included dorm beds and private rooms. Fortunately, I managed to bag a room, a tiny but serviceable space with a small bed, TV and Madonna vinyl plastered across the wall.
As hotels go it was nothing to write home about. But it did have a fantastic location on West 30th Street, just a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. While working on this article, I saw the place has since closed down. Just another example of time’s relentless march.
New York City Nostalgia.
I felt like I was walking on clouds that first morning. In fact, the whole experience unfolded as a classic NYC tick list. There were loud, nasal hot dog vendors and a huddled trio of donut eating police officers. Discussing, of course, last night’s baseball result with much gusto.
The roads meanwhile buzzed with tidal waves of yellow taxis. One even honked at me as I crossed a street. Seriously, it was all I could do to stop myself from yelling: “Hey, I’m Walkin’ here!!!”
On that first morning I took a chance on Tick Tock, NYC’s largest diner they say. It was everything I imagined a New York diner experience would be. The air was alive with criss-crossing streams of chatter from across the various tables. Moreover, the Jewish waitress called me “hon”, automatically pouring a cup-a-Joe before bringing the menu.
The resulting mountain of eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast and maple syrup was damn good! Thus I ended up taking breakfast at Tick Tock on four of my eight mornings in Manhattan. Hey, I’m loyal, if nothing else.
Documenting my adventures in this article has been tricky. Man, I did not stop walking and exploring for seven days straight. It would be impossible to cover it all in one single article, and luckily I don’t have to. After all, a whole chunk of my photos are crap to the point of unusable. Consequently, I’ve settled on a rundown of memorable moments.
Madison Square Garden.
With Madison Square Garden right on my doorstep, one of the first things I did was take its behind the scenes All Access Tour. This is one of New York’s most iconic events venues. It hosts professional hockey, basketball, boxing, wrestling and well… pretty much anything.
It’s also a legendary live music venue. Elvis Presley played four sold out performances here in 1972. Furthermore, this is where John Lennon last appeared onstage at an Elton John concert on Thanksgiving night, 1974. Later, in 1988, Michael Jackson pitched up during his record-breaking Bad World Tour.
The All Access Tour gives you an overview of MSG’s long and colourful history. Although it dates back to 1879 and existed in several locations, the current structure opened in February 1968.
That afternoon I got to walk through the arena, tour the VIP boxes and stroll through various locker rooms. I learned so much, including the fact that most professional basketball players have gigantic feet!
MSG sits directly above Pennsylvania Station, my hotel’s local subway stop. If there was a particularly long trip to make, this is where I’d come.
Constructed in 1910, the original building was an exceptionally handsome pink granite creation hailed as a Beaux-Arts masterpiece. One of the city’s greatest architectural works, they said.
New York City Nostalgia.
But much of the station’s head house was demolished in 1963 to make way for the new Madison Square Garden. This caused outrage across the country, serving as a catalyst for the passing of new architectural preservation laws. “One entered the city like a god!” raged the historian Vincent Scully. “Now one scuttles in like a rat”.
Like a rat, I scuttled about on daily adventures. I made sure to stop by Herald Square for a visit to Macy’s, the largest department store in the United States. Completed in 1902, it is famous for its lavish window displays, particularly during Christmas and Easter. I’d wanted to come here ever since seeing Miracle on 34th Street as a kid.
Photo courtesy of Ajay Suresh.
I took a cursory wander through several floors, but for the most part had little interest in the products on offer. Rather, I’d come for a ride on the store’s 100 year old wooden escalators!
Installed by the Otis Elevator Company throughout the 1920s, there are around 20 of these babies throughout the building. Made from oak and ash, they look gorgeous and still give off a pleasing creak as you rumble up and down the various floors.
Outside Macy’s, I found myself gazing up at the unmissable form of The Empire State Building. Within fifteen minutes I was gliding up the levels in another Otis elevator to its 86th floor observatory. This one certainly didn’t creak and, I was amused to see, displays the rise in altitude rather than the usual counting of the floors.
The Empire State Building.
It was pretty special up there on the 86th floor. There are few buildings in the world more iconic than The Empire State. Indeed I found myself thinking of King Kong, An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle and… err… Superman II as I emerged onto the open-air platform.
The panoramic is breathtaking, with so many landmarks to pick out. You’ve got The Chrysler and The MetLife Building. The Rockefeller, The Flatiron and The Statue of Liberty. On a really clear day, it’s possible to see six states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
After a bit of patience, I was even able to trace my walking route right back to Macy’s. Naturally, I made sure to come back one evening to see the city in night mode. It’s a totally different vibe, but no less enthralling. That was a special night actually. But one that now stays confined to a distant, dusty compartment of my old memory box.
Back down at street level, I ambled towards The Rockefeller Center via the chaotic crowds of Times Square. Wherever I went, there seemed to be noisy cartoon character people in all directions. There was a haggle of street preachers booming out the good word on West 45th Street. I also bumped into a man called Robert John Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy.
New York City Nostalgia.
This dude has been performing at Times Square since the late 1990s. Singing a range of mostly country and western tunes, he braves all kinds of weather in only his cowboy boots, hat and white briefs.
He positions his acoustic guitar over his briefs, giving the illusion of nakedness. Burck has also worked as an adult film star and, in 2010, embarked on an ill-fated campaign to become President of The United States. What a character.
Elsewhere, I stopped for a chat with this (allegedly) homeless guy called Brad. The honesty of his handheld sign stopped me in my tracks and made me drop him a dollar.
According to Brad, he lived an ok life on the streets of NYC, claiming that the local soup kitchens and boarding houses were pretty good. “In the winter I head down to California” he revealed. “The cold here will kill ya”.
At Rockefeller Plaza I passed on the observatory experience to take the free walking tour. Led by a tiny, exceptionally knowledgeable Jewish lady, we learned about the structure’s amazing history through a number of its most cherished art installations.
Built between 1930 and 1939 during The Great Depression, this stunning collection of Art Deco buildings was conceived by the influential Rockefeller Family as a commercial centre and all round urban renewal project. Today it’s home to hundreds of corporations, including NBC, who broadcasts both the Today Show and Saturday Night Live here.
The Rockefeller Center.
Of all the art I saw, a few pieces stand out. First, there’s the grand, bronze Atlas Statue, which depicts the Greek Olympian god Atlas carrying heaven on his shoulders.
The sculptor Lee Oscar Lawrie created it in the mid 1930s before its installation at The Rockefeller. Fans of the satirical TV sitcom 30 Rock will know the sculpture well. That’s because it features in just about every episode in establishing shots of Rockefeller Plaza, where the show is set.
I also liked the Industries of the British Empire sculpture by the German born American artist C. Paul Jennewein. The piece features nine gilded figures representing the once major sources of British income.
There’s coal, fish and tobacco, of course, in addition to sugar and salt. The African figure represents cotton, while Mr. Australia symbolises wool. I only just scratched the surface of The Rockefeller’s artistic delights. If I ever make it back, I’d like to spend an afternoon discovering them all.
As the days rolled by I moved from one ridiculously iconic landmark to the next. I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge for fine views of the NYC skyline across the East River. With a long history dating back to 1869, there is so much to photograph and tell. How I would love to come back, grab more shots, and do an individual article on the bridge.
New York City Nostalgia.
Naturally, I took a cruise out to Liberty Island from Battery Park. Seeing Lady Liberty up close is essential while in NYC. But in truth I found the experience a little anticlimactic, much preferring the ferry trip itself.
Indeed I felt more drawn to the nearby statue of Gustave Eiffel, who built Lady Liberty’s metal framework for the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. She subsequently found her way to America’s shores as a gift from France. It’s mental to think that the entire thing was shipped in separate crates and then assembled on the island ahead of its dedication in 1886.
On the cruise back to Battery Park I made a stop at Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The exhibit stands on what was The United States’ largest immigrant inspection centre, in operation from 1892 to 1924. They say around twelve million people were processed here. It later served as a detention centre for migrants and a holding point for POWs during World War II.
You can really feel the weight of history as you walk across the main processing hall. Through archive photographs, antique heirlooms, statues and art installations, visitors get an insight into what it must have been like to arrive in The New World. With little more than the clothes on your back and a head full of dreams.
Much of the museum proudly celebrates America’s diversity, as typified by the wonderful Flag of Faces: A Portrait of America. Comprised of archival images and actual photographs sent in by people from all over the country, this giant digital mosaic features thousands of U.S. citizens.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Any American can apply to have themselves or a family member included. There’s a $50 dollar fee, which goes towards preserving Ellis Island for future generations.
If I had to pick a favourite day, the afternoon I spent exploring Central Park would be right up there. On a rented bike I pedalled around as much of its 840 acres as I could on what was a gorgeous, blue-sky day.
I passed through The Mall, the wide, bench-laden walkway that runs through the middle of the park from 66th to 72nd Street. I stopped to admire Bethesda Fountain and remember all the movies it’s popped up in. Somehow I always think of Annie Hall and Mel Gibson’s son being kidnapped in Ransom.
I grabbed a salad box lunch from a deli and sat watching some local guys playing baseball. Later, I whizzed by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir before resting on a rocky platform overlooking Delacorte Theatre. Eventually, I pulled up at The Imagine Mosaic, Yoko Ono’s touching memorial to her husband John Lennon.
The mosaic sits as the centrepiece of the Strawberry Fields Memorial, a peaceful garden designed by Central Park’s chief landscape architect, Bruce Kelly. Following Lennon’s death in 1980, Ono received dozens of lavish memorial gifts from across the world. The mosaic, made by a group of Italian artists in Naples, was her favourite.
New York City Nostalgia.
Nowadays you can see all the little gifts that fans leave at the mosaic. Flowers, CDs, miniature guitars and soft toys, it’s clearly a spot that means a great deal to a lot of people. What’s more, there’s usually a busker or two around singing Lennon and Beatles songs.
Just across the road, I’m talking a few hundred yards, stands the imposing form of The Dakota. John and Yoko purchased an apartment here in 1973, joining an exclusive list of resident celebrities. In fact, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Roberta Flack and John Madden are just a few of its high profile occupants. And Yoko still lives here to this day.
Built in 1881 by the renowned architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, The Dakota remains one of the city’s prime real estate spots, with its cheapest apartments valued at around five million dollars. The building has popped up in several films, such as Rosemary’s Baby, Vanilla Sky and Chapter 27.
I definitely felt a chill run down my spine when I stopped to take in the main archway. This is where Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan, shot Lennon four times at close range on December the 8th 1980. John was quickly rushed to Roosevelt Hospital but pronounced dead on arrival.
From one of the saddest moments of my trip, I made my way to Harlem for what was surely the quirkiest experience of the week. For years I’d been fascinated by the prospect of seeing a live gospel church performance. Fuelled by my enjoyment of movies like Sister Act, The Great Debaters and Bruce Almighty, I began researching the possibility of seeing such a performance in NYC.
Greater Highway Deliverance Temple.
As it turns out, gospel performances are big business for the churches of Harlem. There are over 350 churches in the area, of which around 60 allow guests, for a fee, to come and watch their services.
In a crowded and somewhat unreliable scene, I signed up with Harlem Spirituals, who provide an informal bus tour around Harlem before stopping at a local church to see how they “praise the loooord”. The company works with a number of churches. On the day of my visit I ended up nestled in a back pew of the Greater Highway Deliverance Temple.
It was a crazy experience! The preacher delivered his sermon with an almost feverish passion, while churchgoers responded to his closed questions with wild, high-pitched exclamations. “Oooooh yeaaaah!” “You know it’s the word!” “Ain’t that the truth!”
When the singing started the place erupted. Everyone jumped up to dance, hips-a-shakin’, handbags-a-swingin’. Those little old ladies, dressed in their finest, were the most joyous of the bunch. Eyes closed, heads to the ceiling, singing their lungs out. In truth, I couldn’t help but feel like an intruder. Despite the fact that nobody seemed to care, or even notice that I was there.
New York City Nostalgia.
There’s so much I didn’t manage to cover in this article. Stuff I had to cut because this is already one of the longest travel reports I’ve ever written. Locations I couldn’t include due to a sparsity of half decent photographs.
Still, I’ll never forget watching The Color Purple at The Broadway Theater on 53rd Street. Nor indeed gorging on Junior’s Cheesecake at Grand Central, or getting a complimentary limousine ride after dinner at Frankie & Johnnies.
Finally, I’ll sign off with a couple of images from my brief second visit to NYC in October 2012. This time it was business, a scheduled interview with the actor Jake Gyllenhaal at The Crosby Street Hotel. As NYC experiences go, this was very cool. You can read about it through my short story End of Watch.
Putting this article together has inspired me to try and go back. I’d like to think that one day, in between everything else I want to do, I can squeeze in one last visit to The Big Apple. Give it the proper Leighton Travels treatment with a full guide. Until then, I’ll always have this for a dose of New York City Nostalgia.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
Great shots! thanks for the memories I lived across in NJ my first drive after my license was to go to Yankee stadium!! the Big Apple, if you can do it there you can do it anywhere we say! cheers
Ah that’s a nice story and great memories I’m sure. NYC is a special city, thanks for reading!
You are welcome
Great read. I could almost breathe the NY air.
Thanks for reading, I can’t believe how long ago that trip was. Such an intoxicating city.
Great pictures out here! It’s astonishing how you remember the details even after so long!
Longing to read more!
Thank you Divi. There will be many more articles coming out on my adventures across The U.S. Thanks for stopping by!
Can’t wait for the articles!
A great post on NYC Leighton. I spent a week there in icy cold January about five years ago and loved the city. It might have been cold but the sun shone all the time and it was oh so quiet. I remember eating Junior’s cheesecake in the basement of Grand Central Station too! Let’s hope we both get back there before too long – I’m sure we will. Enjoy your weekend. Marion
New York City at Christmas is a whole other experience I’m sure and every bit as wonderful as a late spring visit. Delighted to hear you also had Junior’s cheesecake in Grand Central. Sadly that particular store is no longer there. Thanks for taking the time to read this longer article Marion.
I adore NYC! But I think it’s a Marmite city, you either love it or hate it. It was great to read a post by someone who clearly loves it as much as I do. We were there way back in 1982 when many Brits said it wasn’t safe (high crime levels) and again in 2008, but I’d love to go back for a third time – one day maybe …
That makes sense, can’t imagine many people feeling indifferent about NYC. Let’s hope we both get to visit for a third time one day. Thanks for reading!
This makes me want to go back to NYC. I haven’t made it to Ellis Island, yet. This was a fun time of remembering and revisiting. Thanks.
Great to hear from you Mary! Hope you enjoy this series and of course all roads lead to Iowa.
I think my first trip to NYC as an adult was sometime around 2007 as well. What a great city! I’m lucky to be located just a 1.5 hour flight away so hopefully I’ll be able to make several more trips there in future.
Oh very nice to be in such close proximity to NYC. Thanks for contributing to the thread!
Awesome post for an awesome place. We have been there twice (2006 and 2012) and the place mesmerizes you with glitz and glam, as well as its stark contrasts between opulence and poverty. We still have not been to Liberty Island or Ellis Island. I’m with you on the diners. If you find a good one, stick with it for your morning breakfast. Thanks for the memories. Allan
Glad to hear that you’ve had your own NYC adventures. What were your standout memories?
Arriving and departing NY by train and Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall, the Highline Trail, Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Central Park, MOMA, Staten Island Ferry in the dark and so many more. 🗽
Love the idea of taking a tour of New York through all the movie and star references. I laughed but struggled to picture you as Ratso Rizzo. I want to visit all the sites with you (in your “I Heart NY” tshirt). Feel like I had a vacation myself in this post.
Thanks Memo, what a sight I was in that silly t-shirt. Well, I was full of enthusiasm, if nothing else. Thanks for sharing in my NYC nostalgia.
I was lucky to visit NYC when a friend was working there. Her job was in Madison Square Gardens so I had a backstage look at it. The most fun tour we did was our self-made tour of musician’s homes in Manhatten. It’s such a great city with so much energy. Great post, thanks for taking me back. Maggie
Oh, the musician’s homes tours sounds fascinating. What did you see exactly?
I can’t remember them all anymore, and I didn’t write it down. We went of course to the Dakota, the Chelsea (Van Morrison, Iggy Pop etc) and a few random houses in Greenwich village for Buddy Holly and I think Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious. Some we couldn’t actually find or got too tired walking:) It was fun!
This sounds right up my street! Next time, thanks Maggie.
Thanks for sharing your nostalgia – NYC is for sure a city that leaves its mark on all who visit. I visited when I was 29 too 🙂
Thanks Han, hope it brought you some familiar sights, and a few unfamiliar too. Have a good weekend!
So interesting to see what choices you made to visit in one of my favorite cities in the world! Glad you got to Ellis Island and, of course, Strawberry Fields. I could almost hear the music when you described the Harlem church (I haven’t done that one)! And you bought the t-shirt…
Thank you Ruth, appreciate you reading and adding to the comment thread. Could you try to tell me why NYC is so special to you?
I grew up 30 minutes from Manhattan. I’ll let this blog entry tell my story: https://ruthrosenfeld.com/2020/11/14/new-york-new-york/
Hi Leighton, this brings back memories for me too, though I’ve only visited NYC once, in a snowy and cold January 2009. Loved every moment, though it was in the days pre-Michaela so I’d love to return and take her to see it. Ellis Island was my favourite, such an incredibly moving place and actually a real eye opener for me. Thanks for bringing back memories (one of which was the food, oh God the portion sizes were frightening…)
Hey Phil, thanks for squeezing in a read of this during these busy and fun times for you. I wish I’d taken more food photos while in NYC.
I also visited NYC in 2007, although a month prior to you. I was only a teenager then, and unfortunately, many of my photos from there (as well as the rest of my trip around the East Coast) are low-quality or have been lost. It was a very-brief stay, but I did see the main sights, including taking the boat around Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty is situated. I’d like to go back and experience it as an adult, as well as spend a few more days taking it all in. I look forward to more posts from you, especially those from my home country!
Just a month before me eh? It’s weird to think of these little crisscrossings of travel way back when. Photos have also been an issue for me, hence the longer single article approach instead of individual location travel reports. Plenty more to come from across The U.S. throughout June and July. Appreciate the enthusiasm!
Yes, I’ve come to realize we’ve been to the same places (e.g. NYC, Spain) within a few month’s apart of each other. What a coincidence! Can’t wait to see more of your posts this summer; my annual summer travel reports (this time of the Mediterranean) will be up July and August!
Very cool post! You covered a lot of ground and NYC sights. I rediscovered NYC a few years ago and want to return.
You may not believe it but the Naked Cowboy’s dad, Kenny Burck, and I worked for Cinergy, now Duke Energy, a gas and electric utility in Cincinnati, OH. Kenny’s son’s exploits were well known though I never met him. His dad was quite a character too. He’d been married six times. That was the total as of about 12 years ago. 😃
Whoa, that’s quite a story! Small world and all that. I’m sure there’s been an extra marriage or two since you last heard. Hope you get a second bite of The Big Apple one of these years.
Thank you for sharing this nostalgia for New York, a city that must provoke this kind of feeling in many visitors. It has certainly been a strategic place on this planet for some centuries now. I also visited all the must-sees, I also left feeling like I hadn’t seen anything and wanting to move there one day for months, not to see everything, but to scratch the surface and soak up some of its energy.
I think the first time one goes to NYC you tend to gravitate towards those iconic sights. And that’s easily a week gone right there. If I ever do make it back, I suspect there will be a much more fascinating underbelly to discover. Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread.
I usually live in New York, but have been gone for nearly a year now due to COVID. The nostalgia I had going through this post was next level. Thanks for sharing, it put a big smile on my face!
Aw that’s very kind of you Katie, thank you for reading and leaving me your thoughts. Any idea when you might be able/comfortable to spend some time in NYC again?
Well honestly I’d be fine going back tomorrow! It’s just that once I leave Australia, I won’t be able to get back in :/
Brilliant!! Love the photographs. Those basketball players are giants lol😅 (the trainer).
Thanks for getting in touch Cheryl. Those basketball players are almost superhuman!
I may be biased, but I especially loved this post 🙂 I can tell how excited you are to be in the city. You will have to come back, the city is really coming to life!
Aw thanks Lyssy. Like I said, I would like to think I have one more visit in me. Plus there’s so much more of The U.S. I’d still like to see.
So much to see – if you ever need help planning you know where to find me 🙂
This post brings back such good memories of exploring New York. You covered a lot of grounds during your visit and all the images are fantastic!
Interesting to see to see the size of the basketballer shoe – that was huge! And also interesting to read about Overall, an excellent post, thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Thanks a lot, I really appreciate that. It was a challenge going through those old photos and getting them into shape. Plenty of editing and deleting.
I’ve been to NYC three times and each visit has been such a different experience. It’s amazing how many things there are to see and do. Judging by all the places you’ve visited, seems like there is still so much left for me to explore!!
Thank you so much for the kind words. From your three visits, what would you say were your favourite spots not mentioned in my article?
I really enjoyed the Met Cloisters, High Line and Frick Collection. There are so many wonderful spots in NYC. Can’t wait to return someday.
Fantastic tour of the Big Apple! I’ve never been to New York, but getting to see Ellis Island is near the top of my list of places I want to visit. I had so many family members who passed through there, most of which came from Ireland and Great Britain, so to get to see it would be amazing.
Wow, sounds like that would be an extra special trip for you. I wish I’d taken more photos as there’s a lot to the place. Thanks for joining me at the beginning of my U.S. blogging adventures.
Just reading your post, I can feel your excitement while exploring New York 😁.
You’ve covered quite a lot of sight seeing in this post … at times, it was almost hard to keep track with all of them! After reading your Liverpool posts (and your love for The Beatles), I was wondering whether you would have paid a visit to the Dakota building … and there, you did not disappoint – must have been quite a moment.
And you can see six states from the Empire State Building … that was quite amazing to read!
Aw, so glad you got round to reading, thanks for the kind words. I know that these longer articles are a bit of an undertaking for readers. An onslaught of sights and experiences to cover in just one piece. The Dakota was… emotional to say the least. Thanks for stopping by, really appreciate your readership.
You write wonderfully and in an astonishingly detailed manner even though it’s been years! I’m hooked 🤩
Hey Yoke, thank you so much for your kind words and for following. Hope you find plenty more to pique your interest. This current U.S. nostalgia series has six more installments on the way over the next few weeks. Thanks again.
Looking forward to it! Keep up the good work 😊
Love the post! 😀
Cheers Danny, thanks for reading!
This post is so cool! I visited New York City on my 30th birthday and it was very special too! My experience was rather different from yours, apart from the Central Park, the Dakota Building and the Empire State Building. I wish I visited the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, though, like you did. And, like you, I started with Sinatra singing New York, New York in my headphones on the airplane there and then went through all the New York-set films I know while in the city. It is impossible to walk around the city and not think about films, films, films, on every corner!
Hey Diana, thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts on NYC. You are right on the money about New York and the movies. If I ever go back I’d like to tick off more of those movie sights. Thanks for reading!
Amazing post! Beautifully written and love the photos as well!
Thank you very much! I appreciate you taking the time to read and leave a comment.