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.
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.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
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