Welcome to New York

For centuries many people's first glimpse of North America was New York City. On my first ever visit to the USA I followed in their footsteps.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor...

America's New Colossus

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

It was the poet Emma Lazarus that created the legend. Her poem The New Colossus mythologised the new statue that had been erected in New York harbour, gave it a symbolism greater than the one originally intended. In her words this personification of liberty now became ‘Mother of Exiles’, her ‘beacon-hand glow[ing] world-wide welcome’ to those who braved the arduous voyage across the storm-battered Atlantic from Europe in search of a better life – the poor, the desperate, the destitute, those that possessed naught but a steerage-class ticket and a hope of a brighter future. The sky-thrust torch was the symbol of that brighter future. The poem continued:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This had never been the intention. Symbolism was intended, but not symbolism of that nature. The idea that became the Statue of Liberty was first conceived at a dinner-party in Versailles, France. There Édouard René de Laboulaye first proposed a grand symbol to not only celebrate the centenary of the United States’ independence but also commemorate the ties of friendship between the US and France. The sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi took up the baton, criss-crossing the States to drum up support in both nations while refining his design. Upon firsting arrival in America, in New York, he sailed past Bedloe’s Island and decided that this would be the ideal place for a grand statue commemorating the ideals of republican liberty. This grand amalgam of the classical goddess Libertas and the American people’s self-conception of themselves as Columbia would be a stately Lady Liberty however, Liberty Enlightening The World as its original name had it, one that would inspire through her example; she would not decidedly not be a revolutionary rabble-rousing strumpet like the French Marianne depicted in Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading The People. The cheer-leaders for the project on both sides were men of status, power and prestige; they had no truck with revolution. They favoured a liberty that came through noble enlightenment, not one that must be violently lead. This was reflected in the design of the statue. While it strode forward, shackles left in its wake, the elegant stole and the impassive facial expression (modeled on Bartholdi’s mother) gave an impression of serenity.

Pierre Eiffel was brought on board to transform the design into reality. He decided to build a great copper armature – in effect the exterior of the statue was a thin mould, held in place by a criss-crossing network of struts connected to a load-bearing central framework. This allowed the statue to expand and contract, sway and flex, with the elements. This was constructed in Paris and then shipped across to New York in pieces; in return Ameican supporters had erected the grand pedestal upon which it was to stand. The statue was finally unveiled in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland in a grand ceremony. No American women were invited to the island for the event (only two women attended, both French). Emma Lazarus’s poem remained unread.

It was the voice of the poor that mythologised the statue. While the French statue was funded by the wealthy elite, the American pedestal was funded by a stream of small donations – 80% of all donations were of less than a dollar. And as the number of immigrants to America swelled the first thing they would see from their crowded ships would be the torch of Lady Liberty appearing over the horizon. She symbolised in their eyes not an example or an exhortation but rather a welcome. She was the first figure they saw in their new homeland, greeting them with a mother’s embrace. Rather than a symbol of the ties between America and France she became a symbol of American freedom, opportunity and hospitality as opposed to the petty despotisms of the entrenched European elites. America was different - something Lazarus had acknowledged when she declared that this ‘new Colossus’ was Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land. She threw the gauntlet down to Europe with a rebuking cry of "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" Seventeen years after the Statue’s dedication a plaque was installed bearing the text of the Lazarus poem. This can still be seen in the museum inside the statue. This museum explores not only the design and construction of the statue but also its symbolic importance, with examples of how it has been used to stir up patriotism, bind the nation together, and symbolise an ideal.

Tickets for visiting Liberty Island are obtained from the Statue Cruises ticket booth at Castle Clinton in Battery Park. For $12 each Rebecca and I bought a ticket that covered access to the island and to the nearby Ellis Island as well as the boat ride across. We found both destinations equally fascinating, so I would advise any visitors to make an early start as we easily spent an entire day here. Unfortunately my 2007 edition travel guide was out of date; it said that the ticket office opened at 9am daily. Incorrect. We got there at 9 to discover the ticket office had been open for some time. In fact all the tickets allowing access to the monument (the museum inside its base and the climb up to the top of the statue’s pedestal) had already been sold out, meaning that with our ticket we were authorised to visit the island only. As such I would recommend booking ahead via the Statue Cruises website. By doing this you can also reserve a visit to the crown of the Statue itself; these are very limited in number, go on sale 6 months in advance, and cost an extra $3.

Even if your ticket is prominently marked ‘NO MONUMENT ACCESS’ a visit to Liberty island is still well-worthwhile. The ferry ride across the harbour is itself a treat (though you have to go through a lengthy and thorough airport-style security check), and you get a new perspective on the Statue by visiting her home. You also get a new perspective on New York by getting some gorgeous views of Manhattan’s southern tip. There are information panels dotted about the island, and visitors can hire audioguides. Best of all though are the free half-hour guided tours lead by a park ranger. This was my first experience of the American National Park Service and their rangers outside of Yogi Bear cartoons, and it was enough to entrance me and make me want to be a park ranger when I grow up! Our guide escorted us around the island, explaining the history of the statue (in easier and clearer terms than I managed above) and giving his own personal responses to Lady Liberty and what she symbolised to him as an American. He was both informative and entertaining. Best of all, he proved to be very helpful. After the conclusion of the tour I approached him with our tickets (which, as I mentioned, stated quite clearly that we would not be able to access the monument) and queried whether we were genuinely forbidden from entering the statue’s base. In reply he took a pen and scrawled ‘OK for 2’ on the ticket – and then directed us towards the queue for access. Fantastic! I’m not one to encourage people to bend the rules, but should you be unable to get a monument access ticket I would now strongly suggest that you query one of the park rangers about it.

Inside the monument we joined another ranger-lead tour (you can visit under your own steam but we had enjoyed the tour outside so much we certainly felt that it was worthwhile taking another inside). This showed us the original torch (much cannibalised in an attempt to make it glow better) before leading on to a display on the design and construction of the statue, and then on to its symbolism. From there a flight of stairs lead up to the balcony wrapping around the top of the stonework pedestal; the statue’s great green toes protruded over the edge just above us.

My advice for a successful visit would therefore be to book on line in advance, arrive as early in the morning as possible to allow for a full day, to take advantage of the free ranger-led tours, and bring food and drink as we certainly found our day eaten up by the two islands in the harbour (you can buy food and drink out here though obviously this comes at a price - $9.47 for a bacon cheeseburger in my case).

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip out to see what is most probably the most famous statue in the world. Almost 125 years after her construction Liberty still has the power to awe, to inspire, and – of course – to enlighten the world.
Statue of Liberty
Liberty Island
New York, New York, 10004
(212) 363-3200

Trains and Boats and Planes (and Feet)...

Another Hundred People just got off of the Train...

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

Once given leave to stay by the authorities on Ellis Island immigrants would be funnelled to New York’s train stations, from where they would be distributed out across a continent. Grand Central Terminal was always the biggest of these. But as its name – terminal – implies, it was also the end of the line, and domestic migrants used it to flock to New York to try to make good their dreams. In Copacabana Lola has ‘just arrived, track 17, all the way from Tulsa’ ; in Sondheim’s Company a character remarks that ‘another hundred people just got off of the train’. Grand Central is a place of arrival and a place of departure – how romantic, and how fitting for my first visit to the United States.

I spent two hours at Grand Central, and not because I was actually using the trains there (these days all services are local lines – Lola would not be able to get back to Tulsa, Okla, from here). Instead I turned up for a free tour. Every Wednesday at 12 :30 the Municipal Arts Society run a tour to explain the terminal’s history, architecture and legends. This is a free tour, though a donation at the end is expected. The tour is scheduled to last 90 minutes though our group’s guide – Marty – admitted in advance that he in particular often ran over. He did, but his detailed and (very) enthusiastic presentation was worth the extra. Certainly give yourself two hours to take part.

We started off in the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal (always ‘terminal’ – if you ask a local for ‘Grand Central Station’ they may well direct you to the nearby post office which is the only location in the city to go by that name). This huge vaulted space (470 feet long by 150 feet high) with its central ticket desk is instantly recognisable from a hundred cultural references. Yet it did not always look as good as it does currently. In fact, it is a miracle that the terminal even exists in its current form today. A tower block was almost built over it in the 1970s until public opposition from the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped the developers in their tracks (pun unintended). Regardless, very little maintenance was carried out post-WWII. The ceiling was black with tar and nicotine from cigarettes. The windows had been blacked-out during the war and never uncovered. There was a hole in the roof dating from 1957 when a Redstone rocket had been installed here to pep up a populace worried by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. The central information desk was covered over with plywood boards. Plaster and paint flaked from walls and ceilings, rain collected in puddles, bums panhandled on the ramps leading to the lower concourse. It is to the enormous credit of Metro North that when they took over the lease in the 1980s/90s they spent an absolute fortune to restore it to its former glory – they even completed the original design by adding in the matching eastern staircase that had been left off in 1913 (in those days no one worthwhile lived to the east of Park Avenue so why bother providing them with a convenient entrance ?). It is now as breathtaking within as its original Beaux Arts frontage is without ; more so, I would say !

The main concourse connects the 42nd Street frontage (to the south) to the main level platforms (to the north). Stairways rise to the west and east. At its centre stands the main information stand, topped with its famous spherical clock, its four faces fashioned from thin-cut opal sheets (it has been valued at between ten and twenty million dollars). The chandeliers as well are intrinsically valuable, having been fashioned from gold (and not just gilded as had been assumed for many years). These latter hang from the towering barrel-vaulted ceiling. Now the black goo that once coated that ceiling has been removed (except for one small section) to reveal a turquoise sky, spattered with 2500 golden stars and constellations. The Vanderbilt family commissioned a French painter, Paul César Hellau, to decorate the ceiling with stars. After its unveiling it was casually pointed out to them that the stars were in the wrong place – they were actually gazing up at a mirror image of the night’s sky. Rather than admit that the artist probably had his original design the wrong way up they improvised – the constellations, they said, appear as they would do to God, looking down at the city from above !

Marty led us outside and across 42nd Street to admire the grand frontage. The clock outside is the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass. Notably Park Avenue here lifts off at Pershing Square and becomes a ‘circumferential elevated driveway’ (it wraps around the exterior of the building at first storey level). I have to admit there is something quite fun about finding yourself in a taxi which suddenly takes off and drives up above the roads and sidewalks down below. Here he explained about the growth of the railroads in New York in the 19th century and the dangers inherent with the early locomotives. ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt was the railroad tycoon who authorised the construction of the first Grand Central Depot on this site. This later became Grand Central Terminal – when the latter was constructed between 1903-1913 the tracks were electrified which meant that they could be safely buried in tunnels beneath the northern part of Park Avenue (boilers, fires and smoke were not an ideal tunnel combination in the 19th century and disasters were frequentl ; as such at one timem municipal laws dictated that the trains had to be towed through the tunnels by horses). This enabled the selling of the air rights over the tunnels, bringing in more capital.

We returned via the western Vanderbilt Avenue side entrance, where the 1920s office of John W Campbell has been renovated as a rather nice – if very manly – cocktail bar called The Campbell Apartment. It is very Mad Men, all heavy tartans and dark woods and with the office’s original safe in its false fireplace. From here we descended to the lower concourse and the Food Court. The most famous eatery down here is the Oyster Bar which has been in almost continuous operation since first opening in 1913. It is also a very bad place to divulge secrets in – the acoustic properties of the Guastavino tiles are such that whispers often carry across to the other side of the restaurant. All the other food stalls down here are one-offs or small local independents. No Golden Arches here ! Rebecca and I returned after the tour to visit Juniors, where we shared a big chunk of the New York cheesecake for $6.25. This is very good value, as it works out to only one cent for every three calories ! I was glad we only had one to share as it was certainly big enough for two.

Grand Central Terminal is not just a train station. It is a shrine in honour of both the golden age of locomotion and the ‘gilded age’ of New York society, where fantastically wealthy dynasties (many of whom had gained their position by pretty unscrupulous means) began to plough back their riches into the city, remaking (and in many cases renaming) it according to their desires. The size and ornateness of Grand Central is a tribute to an age when form was as important as function. The Municipal Arts Society’s free tour brings that age to life. This is not just a tour about a railway station, of interest only to civil engineers and trainspotters. This is a tour that sheds a light upon the development of New York as one of the world’s greatest cities.
Grand Central Terminal
87 E 42nd St
New York, New York
(212) 340-2210

Island of Hope, Island of Tears

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

If the Statue of Liberty was the symbol of a new life in America, the neighbouring Ellis Island was the reality – an institution of the state wherein federal employees put a value on each human life.

In order to control and restrict the number of immigrants spilling out at the New York docks one central inspection and processing centre was required. The location chosen was an island out in the bay named after a Welshman, Samuel Ellis. Opening on 1st January 1892, by the time it closed for good in 1954 some 12 million people passed through its doors.

Its aim was to weed out those who would not be a benefit to the nation. Experts were employed to asses the health (physical and mental), education and personal resources of those who were directed here (notably, only the steerage-class passengers wound up here – first and second class passengers were processed on board ship). Family, friends or communities already established in the US that would sponsor the new arrivals and ensure that they did not become a ‘public charge’ counted in favour. For many, fleeing the cruel hand of state repression, victims of pogroms or police actions, the first sight of the great processing hall and the stern uniformed figures must have filled them with terror. I had heard of it as a fearful, ill-omened place.

Yet, as the exhibitions at the Ellis Island Immigration Museums show, in reality only 2% of prospective immigrants were turned away. Yes, the doctors were vigilant at spotting the infirm, the mentally-challenged and those who showed signs of communicable diseases, but the vast majority were allowed to enter the new land of hope (partially this is due to the steamship companies carrying out their own inspections; any passenger refused access would have to be trasnported back to their port of origin at the shipping line’s expense). It is now thought that over 100,000,000 American citizens (one third of the population) have ancestors who first stepped on American soil on Ellis Island. 3,000 people died on Ellis, mostly in the hospital facilities. While this is a high number it is nothing compared to the numbers of people who arrived here – on 17th April 1907 alone 11,747 immigrants were deposited at the quayside here.

The Museum on Ellis Island is rather a celebration of the dreams of all those who made it here to seek a new life. It chronicles their courage and enterprise. There is a centre on hand to help people trace their own ancestors who might have come through these doors. There are different exhibitions exploring different elements of the immigrant experience. A good starting point I found was the introductory film feature ‘Island of Hope, Island of Tears’ narrated by gene Hackman. This atmospheric 30-minute documentary is showed frequently in different cinemas and free tickets for slots can be obtained from the information desk on the ground floor. Other exhibitions show statistical analyses of the people that made up ‘America’, look at the peak immigration years before the first world war and examine how immigrants were processed. The ways in which immigrants were utilised to fuel the growth of the nation - encouraged to move on to where they were needed to power industry or settle new areas – and the reactions to their arrival from existing citizens are explored. The third floor has displays of items brought by the travelers and also photographs of the wilderness that reclaimed the island and centre once it was closed down in 1954. These mournful vignettes of an abandoned Ellis Island are very powerful; certain buildings elsewhere on the island are still like that though restoration of – for example – the hospitals are ongoing. These all surround the two great halls – the ground floor Baggage Hall, and the upstairs two-storey Registry Room (officials were once stationed to scrutinise those climbing the stairs. Shortness of breath would indicate an unfit individual). The Registry Room has been left appealingly bare, a great vaulted institutional space, though images of it in different configurations exist, such as a maze of mesh walls directing people to the registrars’ desks.

We found ourselves spending much longer at Ellis Island than we had anticipated. Even without having the cultural history of ancestors who sought entry to the US here Rebecca and I found ourselves moved by the individual tales of struggle and confronted with the obvious question of how to deal with immigration. At base the process seems heartless, a simple economic calculation of whether any given individual would be a net profit to the United States or not. Families would be torn asunder when some members were judged productive and others non-productive. But I found enough evidence of triumph and compassion to restore my faith in humanity, whether it be unwashed and in rags or in a uniform with a rubber stamp.

Tickets for are bought from the Statue Cruises ticket booth at Castle Clinton in Battery Park. A $12 ticket covers access to both Ellis Island and Liberty Island as well as the boat ride across. Don’t arrive too late or spend too much time at the Statue of Liberty to fully take in the exhibitions at Ellis. You can also book your ticket in advance via the Statue Cruises website. Thankfully, the museum is under cover so you are protected from the elements. Food and drink can be bought on both islands, though it is pricey (I bought a bacon cheeseburger at the Ellis Island café and it cost $9.47), so bringing grub with you could be advisable. I’m not sure whether the same item can be bought cheaper on Liberty Island or Ellis Island – due to an administrative quirk the original Ellis Island is in New York state, but the reclaimed and infilled land that completely surrounds it is in New Jersey, and the two states have different sales taxes. But the biggest piece of advice would certainly be to schedule enough time to take in all the history on display here.
Ellis Island and Immigration Museum
Upper New York Bay North of Liberty Island
New York, 10004
(212) 883-1986

Getting there and Back - JFK International

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

These days international travellers come not by ship but by plane. This means that they will generally land at either New Jersey’s Newark International Airport or New York’s JFK International out on Long Island. Flying with Delta from Manchester we touched down at JFK.

I have to say my memories of JFK are not great ones. The airport is rather run down and dilapidated to be honest – not exactly a great advertisement for the city. Upon arrival we had to walk down endless narrow grubby corridors with ‘70s decor and missing roof-tiles. Upon departure we couldn’t help but notice no less than 11 kite-like devices attached to the ceiling of Terminal 3 with hose running down from them to catch leaks. I also found the staff at Terminal 3 to be conspicuous by their absence. Arriving there to catch our flight home we found a melee of four separate queues but with no one to tell you which particular queue you should be in. We joined one, got to the desk at the front, and only then discovered that this was the desk for baggage drop and that we needed to check in either at another desk or on a computer terminal. The terminals did allow us to check in but curiously only gave Rebecca a seat number, 19B, which was in an emergency exit row (where she did not particularly want to sit !). I was not given a seat number though I was checked in. We managed to find a member of staff who had just come on duty who assured us that we would be seated next to each other at the gate. The desk attendant at the baggage drop counter (once we had got to the front of that queue for the second time) also assured us that we would be seated next to each other at the gate. At the gate I was finally given my seat number – 38F. Rebecca was still in 19B. We were assured that this was the best they could do. Only when I made a scene did they admit that, okay, 20B was actually free and moved me there. The next problem was that Rebecca did not want to sit in the emergency exit aisle where they had put her. The gate attendant then tried to move her to 38F. In the end we accepted the seats allocated to us but illegally swapped over once on board the plane so that I was sat in the exit row and Rebecca was in the row behind me. The really ridiculous thing was that she was then sat next to someone whose partner had been sat somewhere else on the plane. Every person we spoke to seemed to have a partner or family member that had been allocated a seat at the other end of the plane from them. I honestly don’t know who was to blame for this cock-up, JFK International or Delta Airlines, but it left a bad taste in our mouths after a genuinely lovely holiday. I can now understand why our friend Marie paid extra to fly into Newark on a carrier that was not Delta.

However, the one cause for concern I had prior to my arrival – Immigration – turned out to be painless. Frequent visitors to the US had laughed at me saying that with my passport being so full of stamps from North Africa, the Middle East, Russia and China there was no way I would be allowed into the country without a stern interrogation. As it was the fellow at the Immigration desk was friendly and even plonked my entry stamp right opposite my Syrian visa ! (It probably also helps that they have a video in Immigration explaining the process that seems to be narrated by Tom Hanks. If there is an American voice more likely to put you at ease and make you feel welcome than Tom Hanks I honsetly do not know who it could be).

There are a number of ways to get between JFK and Manhattan. One of the easiest – other than a private taxi – must be the New York Airport Service bus. These are regular mini-buses that spirit you straight from the airport to Grand Central Station (an easy walk from our hotel). At $15 per person and a 45-minute rideI can’t really argue with the service.

Coming back we found a cheaper (if slightly more time-consuming) way of getting to the airport from Penn Station. We caught the Long Island Railroad out to the Jamaica stop. There we bought $5 tickets for a shuttle monorail that deposited us at the terminal of our choice. Total travel time was maybe a shade over an hour but cost less than $10 each. Knowing how painless the journey was I would actually be inclined to use this method of travelling to and from the airport on any future visit.

Crossing Between Two Cities

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

New Yorkers are inordinately proud of Brooklyn Bridge. It was completed in 1883 to connect the then neighbouring cities of New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn was not swallowed up by New York until 1898). This was the first connection between the two other than by boat. At a stroke it transformed the area – for the first time commuting between the two cities became possible. Communities in the Lower East Side packed up almost overnight and moved out to the wider spaces and clearer air of Brooklyn, to be replaced by the next wave of immigrants. For the next twenty years it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. I’m not quite sure its fame has particularly spread outside America but its towers are certainly an adornment to the New York city skyline.

Rebecca and I had a dinner date in Brooklyn. Rather than get a subway or a cab there I decided that we should take the opportunity to cross the East River on foot via the Brooklyn Bridge. In hindsight this was probably a mistake. The bridge is fairly long, almost 2km in total, though the central span over the river is only a quarter of that. The July temperature in New York was breaking records (still 98°F at 8 o’clock in the evening). And we were dressed for dinner – dress and heels for Rebecca, suit and jacket for me. By the time we reached the restaurant I was soaked with sweat!

We left the subway at the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall station and headed east up the approach ramps. The pedestrian way separated from the road and soon we were walking on a wooden boardwalk suspended above the vehicle traffic. Cars rumbled below us, visible through cracks between the slats, while cyclists zipped past us. We progressed out into New York’s rarest commodity – space. Out over the river the distance from the buildings on either shore allowed us to gain one of our first moments of perspective. As darkness fell the lights twinkled behind and before us. The suspension cables formed a web-like mesh around us. It was all quite impressive.

I’d recommend a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge ; I am just sorry I didn’t have time on my first trip to new York to spend more time exploring Brooklyn itself. But I would advise you to prepare for the weather conditions – whether they be rain, wind or heatwaves!
Brooklyn Bridge
Access At Tillary Street And Boerum Place
Brooklyn, NY

The Multi-National Metropolis

Eat The Poor

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

New York is a city of immigrants. Each culture gave a little of itself to the make-up of this great city, particularly in terms of cuisine. This is a city whose bagels, frankfurters and old-school Italian restaurants are part of its image. In 2009 I foolishly attempted to win a bet by trying to eat myself ‘Around the World in 80 Meals’ – I maintained that it was possible to find food served from 80 different nations without leaving my hometown of Manchester. And I managed it – just about ! But how much easier, I found myself wondering, would it have been in New York ?

The fact I found myself chewing through four cuisines in the space of one morning owes everything to our friend Marie. A frequent visitor to NYC she suggested that we book ourselves on to a walking tour – a tour of the city lead by a resident guide able to give us a bit of local flavour. And local flavour was what we got. Big Onion provide a range of tours looking at different aspects of the city (the revolutionary period, the ‘gangs of New York’, gay and lesbian history) or different neighbourhoods (the Financial District, Central Park, Harlem). My two passions of history and food came together in one particular tour - The Original Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour.

We booked online and met up on the corner of Essex and Delancey (which actually wasn’t ‘very fancy’) at 11AM (the tour runs Fridays and Sundays throughout summer). Here we were in the historic Lower East Side. It was in the slums and tenements here that each successive wave of immigration in the second half of the 19th century deposited its human cargo. The bewildered newcomers would take stock of their surroundings, struggle to make a buck, and then get the hell out as soon as they could. When the Irish moved on their places were taken by Central European Lutherans. These, in turn were replaced by East European Jews. The Italians followed, and then the Chinese.

The biggest immigrant group today is Dominican. Our student-age guide handed out some hot and sticky-sweet Dominican roasted plantains for us to eat as she explained the changing demographics of New York. Then we progressed south to the area between Houston and Grand known in the 1830s and ‘40s as Kleindeutschland due to the number of Germans that lived there. We were shown an old 19th century church with pointed gothic windows. Yet above the door could be made out a sign in Hebrew – once the German Lutherans moved on the church was re-established as a synagogue by Jewish immigrants. These immigrants found the Lower East Side filthy and crowded. As with all the emerging industrial cities families were crammed three to a room in unsanitary and dangerous tenements. A few such businesses evoking the days of the Jewish Lower East Side still survive on Essex Street. One is The Pickle Guys (49 Essex Street). A little open-fronted store, its floorspace was mostly taken up by big red barrels and the smell of brine. Keeping to traditional recipes they sell pickles of all descriptions – gherkins, olives, garlic, tomatoes, celery. This provided our next snack on the tour : large knobbly pickles with a sharp bite.

Continuing on our route we saw where the Jewish presence has now been replaced by Chinese communities. The Kletzker Brotherly Aid Association on Ludlow was founded in 1892 to support people specifically from the shtetl of Kletzk (in modern-day Belarus). Although the plaster has peeled from their original sign a modern one lower down proclaims it now to be the home of a Chinese funeral home. On Canal Street Sender Jarmulowsky’s Bank operated as a very successful business 1873-1914. Unfortunately the fear of war caused its European customers to withdraw their money to such an extent that the bank crashed and Sender’s son Meyer had to flee a 500-strong mob across the rooftops. It is now a Japanese Cafe. Finally the Jewish Daily Forward Building on East Broadway, which was home to a socialist newspaper a century ago, has now been turned into upwardly-mobile apartments, a sign of the creeping gentrification of the area. In between, however, it was the headquarters of a Chinese Christian congregation. Having fled atheist China they didn’t much like finding bas reliefs of Marx and Engels on the facade of their new home.

By this time we had reached Canal Street and the official start of Chinatown. In 1870 roughly 200 Chinese immigrants called this area home. By the turn of the century there were 7000. Much as in the Jewish Lower East Side Chinatown too had their own aid associations. These were the tongs, and frequent clashes between the allied street gangs of, for example, the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs were frequent, bloody and under the radar of the white police. To me, modern Chinatown seemed a fully-functioning self-sufficient community almost independent of the city around it. Chinese businesses catering primarily to Chinese residents. Rebecca and I marvelled at the food merchants : fresh fish and seafood heaped on ice in store fronts, displays of dried mushrooms, ginger, seaweed and other herbs and spices, a bin full of fat gulping bullfrogs. It seemed as though anything that could possibly ever be eaten was for sale here. We also stopped for some food, courtesy of the tour. Firstly we had tofu, never a favourite of mine. Then we had what looked like small red polpetti but which were actually candied rosehips and blossoms. These latter were surprisingly nice. I found myself going back for more.

Turning a corner we suddenly found ourselves in Little Italy. One second we were among the Chinese minimarts on Grand Street, the next we had crossed a road and every building held an Italian restaurant. This area too was once a self-supporting community, but with the Mafia taking over the roles played by the tongs in Chinatown. Today, sadly, it is a tourist trap. Little Italy has gradually shrunk as Chinatown expanded, and all that is left are a few streets of cheek-by-jowl restaurants, delis and gift shops beneath red, white and green bunting. It is, however, all quite jolly as the business owners play up to their red-and-white checked tablecloth / Frankie and Dino / ‘this thing of ours’ stereotypes. It took less than five minutes for us to come across two friends shouting at each other across the street : « Hey – whatsamaddawidCHU ? » There were plenty of touts working their patter to try to entice tourists into their eateries. We nibbled on some salami, mozarella and parmesan from Di Palo’s Fine Foods on Grand Street. Its windows have apparently been stacked with cheeses and hung with cured hams since 1925. Our tour ended outside the Church of the Most Precious Blood with fresh cannoli (a pastry and sweet ricotta dessert). These came from Ferrara Cafe (195 Grand Street) across the way, the only place (we were told) that still makes its cannoli right there in Little Italy – as it has done since 1892.

All that walking and eating had made me hungry. With the tour over Rebecca and I had time to wander around Chinatown and Little Italy at our leisure. In the end we shrugged and went for the smooth sales patter of a restaurant tout and shared an antipasta platter at Caffe Napoli (191 Hester Street).

Big Onion tours are usually $15 ($12 concessions) though the Multi Ethnic Eating Tour costs an extra $5 on top of that for your food. It is a great introduction to the ever-changing demographic make-up of this great city of immigrants and a real eye-opener into a corner of Manhattan that a century ago most people would have quietly tried to ignore.
Big Onion Walking Tours
476 13th Street
Brooklyn, New York, 11215
(888) 606-9255

Leaving the US without Leaving NYC

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 12, 2010

I am – like most IgoUgo-ers I imagine – by nature an internationalist and I love the diversity of the world’s cultures and the differences that come from crossing a border. And one border can be crossed without even leaving New York City. Technically the ground whereon sits the headquarters of the UN is international territory and is generally accorded extraterritoriality. There are no passport border posts, but there is a thorough security screening in a tent outside the main building watched over, at the time of my visit, by Caribbean troopers in blue UN uniforms. Having studied international politics at University I could not wait to book myself on a tour of the UN Headquarters.

That is what I had to do however. Critics of the UN say that it is slow, unwieldy and overly beaureaucratic. I certainly found this to be true of the tour ! They set off at certain times during the day. I just missed an English language tour (the UN has six official languages remember) due to being stuck in a slow-moving queue for tickets and so I had to wait around the lobby of the General Assembly building for another half-hour until the next English tour. The lobby – based on a plan by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer – had the high atrium and curvy white balconies that I instantly recognised from North By Northwest (Hitchcock was actually forbidden to film here however, so the UN scenes in that film are recreations). I spent my spare 30 minutes admiring the Iranian carpets depicting the various UN Secretary Generals and perusing the tribute to those staff that lost their lives in that year’s Haiti earthquake.

The tour, when it came, was courtesy of a Japanese guide. We were sorted out with clip-on passes and radio headsets and led on a tour of the complex, admiring some of the fantastic / rotten gifts donated to the UN by its member states over the years. We were given a spiel about the good works of the United Nations. Notably the talk did not dwell overmuch on prevention of war, a task at which it has singularly failed – in tha past few years alone note the Russian invasion of Georgia, the armed conflicts between Israel and factions in Lebanon and Palestine, and the US-UK invasion of Iraq. There was some talk of ‘promoting dialogue’ but most of the tour focused on areas where the United Nations has historically been strong – aid, education, health promotion, the environment, responses to catastrophes (natural or manmade). It was a reminder that the UN does so much more than try to prevent friction between nations bubbling over. Just because it has historically failed in its most high-profile task does not mean that the organisation as a whole is worthless. Far from it.

That being said, the highlights of the tour were, of course, the chambers of the General Assembly and Security Council. The General Assembly is the main deliberative organ and all member states are represented equally here whether they are America, India or Andorra. We were ushered around the back of a huge bee-hive of a chamber, rows of lecture-hall-like desks stretching up to the central dais. On my visit I found the chamber’s seats speckled with people taking part in a debate – nothing world-breaking I’m afraid, just a HR conference. But thoughts immediately turned to Khrushchev banging his shoe on the desk in 1960, Hugo Chavez referring to President Bush as ‘the devil’ in 2006 and the mass walk-out of many European and North American nations earlier this year when Mahmoud Amedinejad of Iran accused the US government in complicity with the 9/11 attacks.

The second great arm of the UN – the ‘cabinet’ as it were – is the Security Council. This is a select executive arm made up of the US, UK, France, Russia and China (all of whom have veto powers) and ten other nations chosen by regional blocs within the General Assembly for two-year terms. The capacity of the five permanent members to veto decisions has been criticised as a real weakness of the organisation as they are able to effectively muzzle opposition to any action they want to take. Since 1984 China and France have used their veto 3 times each, Russia / the USSR 4, the UK 10, and the US 43 (over twice as many times as the other four members combined).

On this occassion we were not actually in the official Security Council chamber, as it was closed for renovation. Instead another meeting hall had been made up to resemble the chamber, down to the horseshoe-shaped desk and the Norwegian mural on the back wall. It was empty – we wouldn’t have been allowed in otherwise ! Our guide had had a number of hurried conversations to ascertain whether we could go in or not ; she explained that there had been an emergency meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in Guinea. (To which I nodded sagely and opined "Ah yes… the ongoing situation in Guinea. Of course…"). But this room (or rather the room for which it was standing in for) regularly plays host to the most powerful and influential people on the planet. Decisions affecting the globe, matters of peace and war, are debated here. Most notable of course would be Adlai Stevenson’s revelation of Soviet missile sites in Cuba in October 1962 ("Don’t wait for the translation, answer Yes or No !"). Personally I recalled being in a cash-and-carry in Manchester in early 2003 where the staff and customers were huddled around a portable TV cheering Dominique de Villepin’s address to the Security Council in which he systematically destroyed the Anglo-American arguments for invading Iraq.

In total the tour lasted about an hour, which for $16 is pretty pricey. But I suppose the UN needs the money. The whole complex was just rather tatty, a dated 1950s concrete Modernist centre that obviously needed upkeep. The signs didn’t seem to have been changed since they were first erected, paint peeled from the institutional mint-green walls, TV monitors did not work, hatches hung open and could not be properly shut. In many ways it is reassuring that what money the United Nations receives is spent out in the field (they currently have more ongoing peacekeeping missions than at any time in their history) rather than on their own headquarters. There was a small selection of shops downstairs (including a UN post office where you could buy UN stamps – valid only if posted from this building). Sadly the UNESCO stall had already closed for the day. I can see that a tour would maybe not appeal to anyone, and the commentary is rather air-brushed. However, it did stress the importance of the UN in terms of aid and the Millennium Development Goals, hopefully creating a more positive view of the organisation. And being able to enter the grand chambers of the General Assembly and Security Council is a real treat for politics nerds like me.
United Nations Headquarters
First Avenue (at 46th Street)
New York, New York, 10001
(212) 963-8687


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