Thursday, 31 March 2011

Stories from the Concrete Jungle

View from the Empire State Building. Photograph: Mike Lee

'These streets will make you feel brand new'..sings Alicia Keys in the over-played Empire State of Mind. This is the first time revisiting my birth state as an adult, fully aware of my surroundings. I took everything in.

Coming from Britain, one thing is evident from the off, although it related to the entire country. Everything is bigger. Cans of soda (350ml instead of 333ml), bottles (591ml instead of 500ml), although these I believe are probably due to Americans measuring in ounces rather than litres. But it expands to food portions and so on. To give an example, it took me 40 minutes to eat one pretzel.

What must also be mentioned is that it is New York City being sung about, rather than the entire state (for the most part at least). Taking a train from Long Island to the City makes this clear, moving from an area of low-level construction, you start to see large buildings in the background, and as you start moving closer, you need to look up. No, seriously up.

The New York (City) skyline is famous; the Empire State building, the Chrysler building, the Rockefeller Center [sic!] are just the start. Banks and other offices compete for the largest office blocks also. This was made clear to me when I embarrassed by cousin by going into a building that looked architecturally brilliant to ask what it was to simply find out it was a bunch of offices.

In the few days I was there, however, I managed to see a lot. I visited the United Nations Headquarters and listened to a school orchestra (a nice touch I thought) perform in what appeared to be a beautiful interior in need of a clean and a new splash of paint. A short-ish walk brought me to the Rockefeller Center, where they place the famous Christmas Tree (if you watched Home Alone, you'll know the place) and it also holds an ice-skating rink in the Winter seasons.

Inside the building, my cousin (Sarah if you were wondering) and I went on a tour of the NBC Studio, which allowed us to see three of the studios that they use for filming. With the snow, rain and hail we felt on the Wednesday, we called it a day.

The next day I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a wonderful building) and saw the Picasso's, Monet's and Van Gogh's and a lot of other beautiful art. There was also a Dyson (yes, the vacuum cleaner) in the contemporary art.

Downtown was my next stop and my first stop was Wall Street. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Kairos Global Summit 2011 last month (was held in the New York Stock Exchange) so it was nice to be able to see everything, at least from the outside.

Not too far from Wall Street was Ground Zero. I wasn't in the United States when the Twin Towers fell crashing to the earth, making a symbolic dent to our daily lives. In fact I was in a Geography lesson. I remember some scrambling and we managed to get the television in turned on in time to be utterly shocked. I still remember being the only one to stay inside and watch the coverage during the break period; perhaps my American roots did not allow me to stop watching the flickering images.

Gazing at the construction was an emotional moment. It shouldn't have been. After all, I barely remember living in New York. Leaning against a wall, I simply watched the workers carry out their daily work and memories flooded back. Closing my eyes lead to my seeing people jumping from the immense buildings and people rushing around and I could hear the screams. On the same spot nine and a half years ago, this is what happened. I could not imagine exactly what happened but everything felt distinctly vivid. The memorial had some stories from the day itself and is worth a quick visit also if you around the area. The reconstruction looks like it will end up looking pretty amazing but it seems like it will take a while.

Since I was there, I felt compelled to visit something I had written about but not yet seen: the 'Ground Zero mosque'. I strolled off towards 51 Park Place, timing myself (4 minutes by the way). Park51 was quite tatty (compared to the rest of the place) and it would definitely be helped by some renovation. I went inside to see the building and was greeted by a kind man who lead me inside to the mosque area.

Since nothing has yet been changed, there is no real community centre right now, simply a mosque. Yet it was clear that an effort was being made. At the front was information about the place and in the praying-area were boards giving information about the pillars of Islam and also sheets containing the translations of the Islamic daily prayers. I wanted more information and found out that 500 people turned up for Friday papers. It definitely needs expansion.

On my final day I visited Times Square, the most luminescent part of New York. What I liked most about it was the space. In the rest of New York City you feel as if you are constrained between large buildings  on either side of you whereas in Times Square, the aura given off is not the same. You feel that you have space to breathe, buildings are further apart and don't feel so tall. One of the large screens showed passers-by in the street and occasionally it would zoom in on a few people who, in turn, were taking pictures of themselves.

Times Square at night was another picture entirely. The huge number of lights, advertisements and news bulletins lit up the Square and the people underneath. The lights in Piccadilly Circus are quite cool, this is worth visiting. What did shock me however is that the US Armed Forced Recruiting Agency is in the middle of Times Square. It was an interesting selection for this small box-shaped hut.

Finally, my trip came to an end with a trip to Broadway, where I saw Avenue Q, .a.k.a. 'the adult version of muppets'. If you haven't yet, you should definitely watch it. To give a little bit more information, here are the names of some of the songs: 'Everyone's a little big racist', 'Schadenfreude' (about happiness from the misfortune of others), 'I wish I Could go Back to College' and 'If you were Gay'.

New York City was definitely an experience. It seemed that I compared everything there to London. The problem here is that I find London beautiful and sometimes NYC paled in comparison. I love London's buildings, architecturally wonderful without a necessary emphasis on being tall. Iconic structures such as the Empire State Building lack a certain flair that the Gherkin or even the Big Ben provide. The large buildings seemed to impose upon me whereas perhaps I'm simply used to smaller buildings around London. Don't get me wrong, I had a great time in New York and it's a marvellous city. But whether I would pick it over London, well that's a decision I would have to make over a whole new blog post…

[P.s. I realise I didn't mention the Statue of Liberty and that's because I've seen it so many times before that I remember it pretty well and so didn't visit it on this trip.]