Roosevelt Island

 

 

As a fan of live comedy I used to trawl the acts that appeared in my hometown. One local compere from Newcastle would always tell the same joke about Gateshead, where I lived. He would explain how he enjoyed visiting Gateshead, but only because of the view of Newcastle across the river Tyne. Meanwhile, the rest of Newcastle only had Gateshead to look across at, which at the time was as impressive as a disused quarry. 

I'm always reminded of that joke when I visit New York City, and wonder whether a comedian in one of its countless comedy clubs has ever poked fun at New Jersey or Roosevelt Island in the same way. Both enjoy views across the sky-scraping skyline of Manhattan but are hardly in the same league themselves. 

Roosevelt Island is worth a second look, though. It's the other island in Manhattan where New Yorkers live, aside from Manhattan Island itself - a fillet of land barely two miles long that stretches down New York's East River inbetween Manhattan and Queens. Its history is as lively and bizarre as anywhere else in the city - in the 19th century, it was home to lepers, lunatics and prisoners, tantalisingly close to civilisation but stranded by the deep currents of the river.

Reaching Roosevelt Island is so easy it's surprising more tourists don't stray there. There's a single stop on the Subway's F Line, but far more exciting is the Roosevelt Island tramway which runs from Manhattan's 2nd Avenue at 60th St, just a block from Bloomingdales. Built by the Swiss in 1976, two huge cable cars sail back and forth through the sky, alongside the Queensboro bridge which connects Manhattan to Queens.The tramway runs every 15 minutes, the journey between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island takes just four. As with the subway and buses, the journey is free if you have a Metrocard pass. 

Once you reach the island? It'll only take a couple of hours to walk its perimeter (although the island has its own bus service) and there's plenty to see; tucked in amongst the condominium homes of 10,000 New Yorkers are plenty of landmarks. Blackwell House dates back to the late 18th Century and is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It's a modestly-sized manor house that was typical of the period but now rarer than hen's teeth in the city, and named after the island's former owner - as is Blackwell Island Lighthouse at the northern tip of the island, with views beyond to Ward's Island and the Hell Gate Bridge. Before you reach the lighthouse, you'll spot a magnificent octagonal building; this is unsurprisingly known as The Octagon, and it served as the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, a vast L shaped structure that at one time held over 3,000 inmates. 

The south of the island is dominated by Goldwater Specialty Hospital; beyond that is a stretch of broad, flat land and the Renwick Ruin, the neo-gothic remains of the island's smallpox hospital. This area will soon turn Roosevelt Island from a neighbourhood considered off-the-beaten-path into a must-visit destination for locals and tourists alike, when in 2012 the FDR Four Freedoms Park opens at the southern point of the island.

Like the recently extended Brooklyn Bridge Park, Four Freedoms will be popular not only for the sensation of freedom from the airless metropolis, but because of the views it affords. But the views are there already - Manhattan's jostling, jigsawed skyline across the East River is up-close and magnificent. From the United Nations to the Upper East Side, you can very easily spend half a day snapping away and taking it all in. 

Cable cars, lunatics, lighthouses and postcard views - most New Yorkers will disagree, but Roosevelt Island is worth more than a glance from Manhattan
.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

NYC itineraries

 

 

NYC 101 - how to plan your sightseeing in New York City

I'm stupidly fortunate in that I've visited New York City so often in the past six years that I've lost count. Sometimes for a few days, at other times for a fortnight or longer. There's so much more of the world I haven't seen, but my heart absolutely belongs to this city. So a small part of my soul withers away when I see 'guides' to exploring NYC in a weekend or travel writers churning out the same braindead lists of must-see attractions. There are thousands of them and whether they're written for the sake of a pay cheque, hipster credibility or linkbait, very few are helpful to the first time tourist. If you're planning your first visit to New York City, all you really need is to chat with friends who have visited, a decent guidebook (I'd recommend Time Out in this instance) and the few words of friendly advice below. 

You won't see everything worth seeing in one visit

New Yorkers can't keep up with everything going on in their city, so you stand no chance. Just accept this and don't pressure yourself to see everything in one go. You can't.

Don't be a slave to an itinerary

New York City isn't like other cities; Manhattan in particular compels you to explore it on foot. The grid system makes it easy to get your bearings and navigate through the streets - because of that, you're always likely to stumble across something interesting - a store, a show, a shoot for a movie. In fact this will always happen, so a tightly packed itinerary will fall apart very quickly. That, or ignore all these impromptu experiences that make a trip unique and special to you - in which case, go back and read previous point. 

Choose two points and explore the in between

My favourite tip for experiencing New York City is to simply pick two attractions that you're comfortable walking between, check the maps to see what else there is along the way or nearby - and start walking. I took a friend to NYC for his first visit recently. On the third day, we chose two attractions on his list as our start and end points - we began the day at the Empire State Building (8am til 9am is best during daylight hours for this; queues are non-existent) and planned to end up at The High Line (a wonderful stretch of grasses, plants and pathway along a former elevated railway). Importantly, we didn't care much about how long it would take. If we finished early, we could always do something else.

We spent six hours walking just four miles, but our day took in the Empire State Building, Madison Square Park, The Flatiron building, Gramercy Park, lunch at Pete's Tavern, Union Square, the Strand bookstore, Washington Square Park, Bleeker Street and the West Village, the Meatpacking District and finally the High Line. Picking pairs of attractions can work really well; hit the Statue of Liberty or the Staten Island ferry in the morning, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the afternoon - in between you have the WTC site, Wall Street, City Hall and South Street Seaport, as well as Brooklyn Bridge Park for afters. 

Don't be afraid to be a tourist

There’s an odd snobbery that sets in once a person visits New York City. Watch for it when you ask for advice about visiting the Empire State Building. 'It’s not as good as Top of the Rock', they’ll invariably tell the New York newbie. They're not telling you this because they've necessarily compared the two, but because they were told the same and followed the advice, or because they don't want to feel like a tourist and appear to have some New York smarts. 

Both offer impressive views - how can they fail to? The Top of the Rock has the advantage of the Empire State Building in your photos, but you'll have to take them through glass panels. Both experiences have pros and cons - but only one of them is the Empire State Building. I love the ESB because of its place in New York history, the art deco fixture and fittings, the 102nd observation platform that began life as an airship terminal. You might want to visit because of Sleepless in Seattle. In fact you don't have to choose - whisper it, but you're allowed to visit both.

In other words, don't worry about being a tourist.


Choose your own adventure

Some guidebooks and travel writers also feel the need to spurn popular attractions to maintain their ego and credibility among other writers. In other cases, it's a matter of perspective. For example, Concierge.com will advise you to skip Times Square but can't recommend London's Big Ben highly enough. Why rubbish an iconic location in one city and not the other? It might be because the offices for Concierge overlook Times Square - they see it every day.

Have in mind the sights you want to see and tick off your list, but otherwise enjoy the city at your own pace, in your own time. So you don't get to that specific cupcake store or the Jewish bakery that the guidebook writer obsessed about - it doesn't matter. Go another day if it matters, but don't there's no mad rush. The Big Apple will always be around for you to take a bite the next time. 

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

NYC art


David Whitley learns a few important lessons on New York’s art museum trail.


As a general rule, art galleries are not really my thing. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the odd painting or sculpture – I just don’t havethe level of knowledge and interest to make studying numerous works aparticularly enjoyable experience. I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, you can probably go into any art museum in the world and see a fair few people trudging around, tryingreally hard to enjoy it but ultimately failing. Still, when there’s an art museum that is generally regarded as world class, I’ll usually feel obligated to go and have a look while I’m in town. And, in New York, that meant the Solomon R Guggenheim museum.

 

 

In this case, you could argue that the building is as (if not more) impressive than the collection itself. Frank Lloyd Wright has come up with a masterpiece – with the interior spiral providing a setting that is far detached from the usual series of grand, square rooms. But going round it did confirm a few things about how those who are more art bluffs than art buffs can get more enjoyment from the whole gallery-going experience. And this is pretty much it...

Go for short bursts


Trying to get your money’s worth by seeing everything is usually going to lead to tired eyes and overkill. It’s the equivalent of trying toappreciate food by ordering absolutely everything on the menu and making yourself sick. Pick a couple of sections that will probably be of most interest, see them at an easy pace, then get the hell out before it starts to become a chore rather than a novelty. 

Don’t worry about not getting it


I have seen lots of pictures by Van Gogh and Monet – almost universally regarded as two of the greatest artists of all time – and I’m yet to see one that I find even vaguely interesting. I’m sure there’s a world of complexity in the brushstrokes that I’m not getting, but I’ve stopped worrying about it. If I’m a Philistine for not liking Van Gogh, then I’m a happy Philistine. I don’t like olives, sauvignon blanc wines, films about the Mafia and the music of David Bowie either. I know I probably should, but I just don’t. It’s OK to admit something is just not to your taste – even if most others seem to think it’s wonderful.

Learn what is to your tastes


Monet might leave me non-plussed, but experience tells me that I really like Dali. And once you find a couple of artists you do like, then a trip to the gallery often has a treat at the end. Most of the work is the maincourse – a lot of spinach and broccoli, but the odd nice roast potato and some occasionally succulent meat. If there’s a Dali or two in there, then I’ve got pudding which I’m pretty much guaranteed to enjoy.  Over time, as well, you learn to understand what the terms such as expressionist, Bauhaus, rococo and cubist mean. Once you start fitting the artists you like into a rough category, you’ve got a far better idea of what sections to head for the next time you head to a museum. Think of it as being a bit like wine – you might not know too much about it, but you eventually workout that you’re more likely to enjoy a shiraz than a merlot.

Treat it as a mission of discovery


You know that joy that comes from listening to a compilation album and coming across something that you’ve never heard before but instantly like? Well an art gallery can be a bit like that too. The Guggenheim in New York, for example, has plenty by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and, yes, Van Gogh and Monet. They elicit little more than a yawn from me.

However, there are plenty of pieces by artists I’d never heard of before going in. Marcel Gromaire’s La Guerre, for example, is immediately striking and likeable. The chunky, almost The Thing from X-Men-esque characters in the trenches offer a very different take on the traditional battle scene. I also found myself really liking pieces by Barthel Gilles and Fernand Leger. Don’t ask me why, or who they are. I just liked them.

And, that, surely is the point. It’s not about the price tag or reputation or not, but how it makes you feel. Frankly, if a child-like scrawlmakes you smile or moves you in some way, then that counts for far more than seeing any number of supposed masterpieces. 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Nycgo.com, and had a New York  City Pass(Citypass.com/NewYork). He stayed at the Hilton Gardens Staten Island (Hiltongardeninn.Hilton.com) and the Affinia Dumont (Affinia.com) in Manhattan.

 

Jaywalking

 



David Whitl... sorry, David Whitley’s ‘friend of a friend’ discusses how to get anywhere on foot in American cities

 
Some American cities are about as pedestrian-friendly as minefields that have added bear traps thrown in for good measure. Despite reputations to the contrary, not every US city is like this, but generally the further south you go, the worse it gets. Dallas is a predictably appalling example of America’s slavish, senseless devotion to the car. The city is such a mammoth sprawl that it is often known as the Dallas Fort-Worth Area, a conurbation that is probably larger than most countries. 

But it’s not about distances. It’s about ease of getting between places. From a map, some areas look easy enough to walk between – perhaps a mile or two apart. But the time it takes to get from A to B is a different matter altogether. In Dallas, it’s rare to find a road that’s a normal two lane street. Most are four, six, eight or ten lane monsters. If you can imagine the joy of trying to get across a dual carriageway on one block, then a motorway on the next, you’re starting to get the picture.

Some of these snarling beasty roads have pedestrian crossings, but you’ll often have to walk 500m or so in the wrong direction to find one, and then wait about five minutes for the green man. When he does arrive, it’ll be for two seconds max. In fact, if anyone has a photo of a green man in Dallas, I’d love to see what they look like.
Essentially, you spend five to ten minutes trying to cross every single road, and this is why you’ve pretty much got no option but to repeatedly jaywalk.

Jaywalking – crossing a road in violation of traffic controls – is something of an art. It is illegal in the US, so *adopts arse-covering tone* my advice is not to do it. Ever. However, a friend of a friend once told me something like this...

 
1. Apply the green cross code
This is common sense. If you’re going to cross, make sure you do somewhere than you can see traffic coming both ways. Look both ways, and wait for the gap in traffic.
 

2. Speed counts
Of course, if there isn’t a gap in traffic, you’re going to have to make a break for it. If traffic is virtually at a standstill anyway, you can weave through it without too much danger other than angry shouts and bipping of horns.
 

3. Cross at the lights
Better still, cross at the traffic lights. If traffic is stopped there, it can’t go again until the lights change. As long as you’re in the road before those lights change, they’re hardly likely to accelerate into you. No-one wants those costly insurance claims.
 

4. Split into halves
The problem with this approach is that there’s often something coming the other way. If you can get to the traffic island, you’re fine – just wait for the gap in the other direction. If there is no traffic island, prepare to annoy everyone and stand right in the middle on the white line until that gap emerges.
 

5. Learn the light changes
Often traffic lights change way before the pedestrian lights change. By watching who else is stopping at the junction, you can generally work out which way the lights will go next and leg it across way before the green man invites you to.
 

6. Look like you mean it
Timid gets you nowhere in this game. If you’re going to go, go. Stride purposefully with no shame or run. Scared baby steps off the pavement and dithering will lead to the window of opportunity closing. Remember that anyone who can see you does not want to hit you. The danger is people who can’t see you. If you work on the principle that you never step out in front of a car that would have to slow down for you to pass, you’re getting it about right.
 

7. Don’t do it in front of policemen or children
The former is fairly obvious. I’ve never been stopped for jaywalking, but if I was I’d try the “perhaps you could describe the vehicles I caused to slow down or deviate from their path” defence. As for children, it’s about setting an example. Young kids don’t need the “running into traffic” idea implanted in their heads...


Ellis Island

 

 

 

 

David Whitley is moved to tears at the tiny island in New York Harbor that provided the first taste of America for millions of people.

 

The start point

Shouty right-wing America may try and claim that the country rose to greatness on many things – low taxation, a mythical set of shared values, the will of God, you name it. But if there is one fundamental reason that the US has become the sole world superpower it is today, it is mass immigration.

 

Don’t believe me? Then take a trip to Ellis Island. This tiny island in New York Harbor (although technically part of New Jersey) was, for so many new Americans, where it all began. Between 1892 and 1924, over twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island – the country’s primary registration centre and checkpoint. Today, at least 100m Americans are descended from someone who was processed there. These days the island is a big museum and monument to those who flooded in from across the world – and if there’s a more moving place in the entire country, then I’d love to see it.

 

Open door immigration

The Ellis Island story starts with the open door immigration policy of the 19th century. Politicians realised that the American population was small, and that more people were needed in order to build a strong economy. It was an open invite to the rest of the world to come and emigrate. And the rest of the world took it with open arms. Some came to flee religious persecution in their homelands, some came for the adventure and others came to escape often miserable conditions. None knew what they were really letting themselves in for when they arrived, but arrive they did – often with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

 

After journeys of a week or more on cramped steamships, they would enter New York Harbor, greeted by the Statue of Liberty and stunned by the Manhattan skyline to their right. As a number of first-hand accounts within the museum indicate, the poor, huddled masses and never seen anything like it before. The giant registration hall at Ellis Island was the last hurdle. It was where papers, criminal records and appearance were checked. Those deemed of poor character or poor health would face the heartbreak of being sent back. The rest would be passed through, left to fend for themselves, buying train tickets to places that were just names in a language they didn’t understand.

 

An emotional journey

Walking through that hall still has you choking back the tears. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place, and it is surrounded by a series of rooms that concentrate on one aspect or other of the immigration wave. Ellis Island is one of those places where it’s almost unnecessary to read anything – the wealth of old photographs and archive video footage are more than enough to tell the story of hope, fear and speculation. You can see the thoughts running between those black and white eyes. But some of the quotes from those immigrants, now either extremely elderly or dead, make you well up. “It means more to me than my native land,” says one voice.

 

Another response to the intelligence test, designed to weed out the mentally ill, is telling. When asked whether she would clean the stairs from the top or from the bottom, she responded: “I didn’t come to America to wash stairs.” Perhaps she didn’t, but the story is so often the same. Each wave of immigrants would be blamed by the previous ones for perceived increases in crime, and would have to survive by doing the manual jobs that no-one else wanted to do. The American bed of roses was often full of thorns. As one old Italian tale plastered on the wall says: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.” In a nutshell, that is the Ellis Island story. But the Ellis Island story is also the country’s, and a hundred million separate tales stem from there.

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Nycgo.com, and had a New York City Pass (Citypass.com/NewYork). He stayed at the Hilton Gardens Staten Island (Hiltongardeninn.Hilton.com) and the Affinia Dumont (Affinia.com) in Manhattan.

 

Read An immigrant’s tale : The foreigners that keep the US moving - Part 2 here