Notes from Around the Sundial: New York part 2

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My Trip to New York - Part 2

I've already told you about the first three days of my recent trip to New York, along with my wife Mrs G and my daughter El. The second half was just as eventful. Read on…


Saturday was the day we'd reserved for going to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We'd booked the trip in advance. The day started with us getting the No 1 subway directly from near our hotel to the South Ferry, at the southern tip of Manhattan. Here we walked through Battery Park to the ferry terminal for trips to Liberty and Ellis islands. We had to queue for a few minutes, but because we had booked in advance, our queue moved quickly. I could see that the people in the other queue, who had not booked, were in for a long wait. Since 9/11, symbols of America have been considered prime targets for terrorist attacks, and you can't get more of an American Symbol than the Statue of Liberty. This meant that we had to go through a full airport-style security check before getting on the boat, with detector arches and x-ray scanners for our bags. I'd been warned about this in advance so I'd left my pen-knife back at the hotel. My sister had a Swiss Army knife confiscated a few years ago here. Once on the boat, we found there was nowhere to sit, but we didn't mind. The sun had come out, for the first time since we arrived in the Big Apple, and we were able to stand on deck and enjoy the views of Manhattan and the harbour.

The geography of New York is quite confusing on the map, with lots of different islands, rivers and sounds, but the simple fact is that it is the best harbour on the east coast of the United States. It is this that made it the centre of immigration and trade in the past, and this in turn made it into one of the biggest cities in the world. We were only going for a short trip from Manhattan Island, where the city is, to Liberty Island, which houses the statue and nothing else (except for the gift shop). The Statue of Liberty is the biggest statue of a person in the world; it's about 45m high and stands on a base of the same height. It's possible to climb up inside the statue right as far as the crown, where there are windows hidden in the crown, but the numbers are strictly limited and there was a 3-month waiting list, so we contented ourselves with just walking around the island and examining the statue from every possible angle.

Interestingly, the statue was originally conceived by French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi as a lighthouse to stand at the north entrance to the Suez Canal in Egypt, and was to be entitled 'Egypt bringing light to Asia'. The obvious inference was that by opening the Suez Canal, Egypt would be bringing the light of European civilisation to the ignorant Asians. But Egypt didn't want it, so Bartholdi looked around for somewhere else that might like a giant statue of a woman bringing light.

From Liberty Island it is a very short boat journey to Ellis Island. This was the main immigration centre for New York from about 1890 to about 1925, and approximately 12 million people passed through the doors on their way from Europe (or sometimes Africa or the Middle East) to a better life in America. At its busiest time, between 5,000 and 11,000 people per day were being processed here. Something like one in every 10 modern Americans has an ancestor who came to America through Ellis Island, so it holds a special place in the hearts of the American people. Immigrants had to pay the price of the sea journey, which covered accommodation and meals on the ship and also covered the cost of the return journey if the immigrant's application to enter the US was rejected. While 98% of immigrants were allowed into the country, 2% failed on medical or legal grounds. These had to return to Europe.

Ellis Island is now a museum and we found it fascinating. The main building has two enormous rooms: on the 1st (ground) floor is the baggage hall. Immigrants could bring as many possessions with them as they could carry themselves, so for most, this was just one very large chest. When they arrived in Ellis Island, they would hand their baggage over to the baggage handlers, who would guard it and return it to them later. The immigrants then climbed the stairs to the 2nd floor which was the main administration hall. As they climbed the stairs, a team of doctors watched them and looked for signs of any serious illnesses. About ten percent of immigrants would fail this medical test and would have to go for further tests, which could take up to a week. At the top of the stairs, a doctor would examine their eyes and check for trachoma, a particularly dangerous and infectious eye disease. Anybody with trachoma was immediately rejected and sent home. The next step in the process was a long queue, typically four hours. Then the immigrant had to answer questions: firstly, did they have enough money to survive in America for two weeks? This was the time needed to get a job. Secondly, had they already got a job lined up, which was illegal: American unions would not allow employers to organise the importation of cheap workers, so it was essential that immigrants arrived in America without a job prepared for them. About 10% of immigrants failed these tests, but could appeal over the next week or so: for example, if a person did not have enough money but was being met by a relative who vouched for them and would support them, then they could appeal, and the appeal would wait until the relative turned up at Ellis Island.

The museum had lots of exhibits showing things that people brought with them from Europe including national costumes, cooking equipment, musical instruments and sheet music in their own national styles, and even one of the first teddy bears. There were interesting documents such as a certificate from a Rabbi in Liverpool saying the food on board the ship to America was kosher. And lots of photographs of the immigrants.

In the grounds of the island, there is a circular metal wall on which are engraved the names of 600,000 immigrants, roughly one 20th of the people who passed through the island.

We had a late lunch in the very nice café on the island, then headed back to New York. By the time we got back it was about 4pm. Time for some book shopping: El and I returned to Strand Books, and then to Forbidden Planet. I was seriously tempted by a model of Nibbler from Futurama, but ended up buying a comic book: 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier'. That evening, we went out for a nice Indian meal in the 'Mughlai' restaurant near our hotel.


Sunday was our day for meeting relatives. At 10am, we met Mrs G's cousin H, who lives in the suburbs of New York. She drove in and met us at the hotel. We went for 'brunch' at a nearby restaurant. Brunch seems to be very popular in New York, judging by the throngs of people at the restaurant and the queues out the door. They served all sorts of different things, including bacon and waffles, frittata omelette in a wrap and the more traditional bacon and eggs. This kept us going, chatting to H, for about an hour.

Then we got the subway into the centre of the city for the 'Pride Parade'. This is the biggest gay event of the year. It used to be called the Gay Pride Parade, but they decided that it wasn't fair to exclude people just because they aren't gay. So anybody can now march and be proud of what they are. The general atmosphere at the parade was celebratory, as the bill to allow gay marriage in New York State had just been passed two days previously. Featured in the parade were two gay men who had been together for the last 54 years and now could finally get married. There were tears of joy all around – a very moving experience. I was also intrigued by the fact that there were gay football clubs, gay rock climbing clubs and so on. I didn't think being gay was anything to do with football, but then I realised that a gay man would have a real problem joining a traditional football club, even in somewhere as accepting as New York.

After about 2 hours of the parade we got tired of it, and headed down to the Meatpacker District, where we got a bite to eat. Then we walked the Highline, New York's latest park, which is an old raised railway which has been converted into a beautiful park. It goes above the streets for about 20 blocks. It's all very nicely planted and cared for, and it's odd to look down on a rather dilapidated part of the city from the carefully tended plants of the raised railway.

Then it was time for a quick trip to SoHo, the area 'South of Houston Street'. Here there are some curious cast-iron buildings, a distinctive style of architecture something similar to Art Nouveau. Finally, it was time for our second bit of relative-visiting. We got the subway over to Queens, a part of the city on Long Island, where we had dinner at the apartment of my nephew D and his wife L.


Monday was to be our last day in New York, so we had to check out of the hotel, but we were able to leave all our suitcases there and come back for them later.

Our first stop was Central Park. We reached the Dakota Building, an apartment block which was the home of John Lennon until he died. He was shot just outside the building, and his wife, Yoko Ono, still lives there. A small section of Central Park has been renamed Strawberry Fields in his honour and it is being done up as a quiet place for contemplation. There is one memorial to Lennon – a circular mosaic with the word 'Imagine' set into the ground – but otherwise there is nothing to see but the trees, the grass and the flowers.

The park itself is huge, about 4 kilometres from north to south, and 800m wide. We wandered through it, looking at the terrapins in the lake, the children on summer camp finding their way with maps, and the model boating pond (which I'm told featured in the movie 'Stuart Little'). At one point there was a man with a telescope who, for a fee, would let you look at some hawks who had nested high on one of the buildings beside the park. Eventually we started to get hungry, and decided we also needed to do some last day shopping. Mrs G went one way, El and I another. I wanted to go to a particular astronomy shop I had found on the web, and it wasn't too far from where we were. On the way there, we found a nice pizza restaurant. But arriving at where the shop should have been, there was no sign of it, and no sign that it had ever been there. I think the address on the web must have been wrong. To finish the shopping, El and I located a very large Barnes and Noble bookshop and spent a pleasant hour browsing. My third purchase of the holiday was a book of short stories by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges.

It was now time to meet back at the hotel and to retrieve our suitcases. As we got on the subway to the airport, we said goodbye to New York. We'd seen some slightly unusual sights, and done some interesting things, but haven't exhausted the possibilities of this amazing city by any means. We'll come back again someday!

You can see some photos of my trip at flickr.

Notes from Around the Sundial Archive


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