Monday, July 28, 2008

26. The Big Apple

Frank Sinatra sang, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” We were in the neighborhood, so we wanted to pay a visit to the “Big Apple” . . . New York City. We camped in the village of Florida, New York, about 50 mi. north of the city. Florida’s claim to fame is the former home of Mr. Seward who was largely responsible for the purchase of Alaska (Seward”s Folly). But that’s another story.

We chose the Black Bear RV Park because a guy named Al runs a van tour of New York right from the campground. His all-day tour began at 8:00 am. Al provided a non-stop flow of factual information and interesting stories about the city as he drove us down the New Jersey Turnpike, past the Giants stadium in The Meadowlands, past Sinatra’s home town of Hoboken and to Liberty State Park and the ferry terminal for a boat ride to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Along the way he pointed out huge mounds of new industrial lands that were once “worthless wetlands” but, after years of channel dredging and sanitary landfilling, are now productive industrial lands. (Not wanting to ruin the tour, we withheld our comments.)

Many of the European immigrants stayed in New York, but most were sent to this New Jersey terminal where they boarded trains for other parts of the country. The old rails and train sheds remain but are deteriorated and weed infested.

Ellis Island was one of the most interesting places we visited. The immigration station on the island opened in 1892 and processed about 12 million immigrants who came to America looking for new opportunities and better lives. This process only lasted until the 1920s when most of the operation was transferred to the U.S. consulates.

The old buildings deteriorated until the 1980s when the main building was restored and opened as a museum telling the immigration story. It now contains lots of old photos and documents and it’s a very fascinating place to visit, especially for those who had an ancestor enter the country through Ellis Island.

The ferry ride from Ellis Island to Liberty Island took only a few minutes and offered front porch views of the city and harbor activities from the Brooklyn Bridge to Verrazano Narrows. It was an overcast day but the rain held off.

It was a special feeling to finally set foot on Liberty Island, at the base of its famous statue, which was a gift from France in 1886. It was very interesting and, to many, an emotional experience. Visitors can no longer climb into the statue itself, but that was okay. Just being there was good enough.

Al drove us through the Holland Tunnel and into the heart of Manhattan. Our first stop was “Ground Zero”, the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. We walked around the area and looked through the heavy steel fence into the massive pit. It was hard to find a good picture angle, but you can see that the rubble is gone and the new “Freedom Tower” is under construction. When finished around 2011, the tower will reach a height of 1,776 feet. The Empire State Building is about 1,250 feet high.

St. Paul’s Chapel dates back to the 1700s. George Washington attended church there. His pew and personal chair are still there to see. The chapel is near the Ground Zero site and was one of the most important staging areas during the 9/11 tragedy. Today, it has memorials to those who lost their lives.
The final piece of steel salvaged from the twin towers was in the shape of a cross and has been placed near the chapel as another memorial. Several other wall sculptures and murals adorn nearby buildings. The Sept. 11, 2001 event made an impact on New York City that will never be forgotten.

Al drove us all around Manhattan, through the financial district, up the East River, past the Brooklyn Bridge, along the west side of Central Park, and past the Empire State Building, Trump Towers and other interesting sites.

We spent some time walking around Times Square and the Broadway theater district. This was a pretty intense part of town, especially on Wednesday which is matinee day at the theaters. Traffic was near gridlock, horns were honking (against the law in NYC), pedestrians were scurrying in all directions, bicycle taxis were weaving in and out of traffic, sidewalk vendors were selling their wares on the walkways, and street sweeping guys with rolling cans were cleaning the streets and gutters. The huge animated flashing signs of Times Square seemed out of control to us, after spending years dealing with sign regulations in our jobs. The total combination of sights and sounds was a challenge to the nerves and senses. It’s a different world.

We were advised not to drive downtown. It was good advice. Al gave us a white-knuckle ride that left us impressed with his ability to weave his van through heavy traffic and wedge it into the tightest places, inches from other vehicles, pedestrians, utility poles, etc. New York drivers are very assertive and not at all polite. They have no respect for bicycles or pedestrians. In turn, cyclists weave in and out of traffic and pedestrians J-walk everywhere. Many of the downtown streets are one lane with parking on both sides. It’s very congested. Driving in the Big Apple requires a different set of skills. It’s not for the timid. Al does it every day.

We left Manhattan around 5:00 pm. We didn’t think we’d ever get out of town during rush hour. But, once we got out of downtown, it was an uneventful ride back to the campground. Freeways flowed smoothly and Al put on a Joni James cassette tape for our listening enjoyment. Just before arriving at the campground, he played Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York”. It was the perfect ending to a full and interesting day. Our one-day tour barely scratched the surface of New York, but gave us a quick overview. Maybe we'll return some day and take in a Broadway show or a game at the new Yankee Stadium. In the meantime, we're happy to continue into New England in search of a good lobster dinner.