If New York has any substance to the claim that it is the centre of the world, then the United Nations is it.
This is where planet Earth comes to meet, discuss, and argue the issues of the day. This gigantic brutalist building overlooking the east Hudson river houses the most important forum in the world. History is made every day at the United Nations and it was set up at the finish of the Second World War to try and find peaceful solutions to the worlds problems. And whatever you think of its politics--and 2003 has to be one of the worst years on record for the UN--it is probably the most unique sight in New York. Set aside at least a morning for the UN.
Luckily, it was situated at the end of my street. I was staying at the 'Y' on E. 47th Street with Times Square a few blocks to the west, and the gardens of the UN one block to the east. To get there is relatively easy. The subway takes you to Lexington/51st Street and it is within easy walking distance of the UN garden. When you enter here you actually leave American soil and step into an international zone. Before you enter, if you can, take a look at the gardens. There are beautiful views of the Hudson river with benches as well as some interesting statues. I especially like the Soviet one of 'workers beating swords into ploughshares' , which looks like it should have been in communist Moscow or Budapest instead of a stones throw from Park Avenue.
Security, as you would expect, is very tight, and especially so after 9/11. All hand luggage is left outside with security, and to gain entry to the building itself you must go through hand-searches and metal detectors. The numerous employees of the UN have to go through this as well each morning, but once you are through you are in the 60s decor of the UN lobby. My advice is to take the tours which leave half-hourly from the lobby for $12. My tour was taken by a charming Chinese lady and she escorted our group of Norwegians, Americans, and Dutchmen along the corridors. She was very careful to avoid politics and to stress that the UN's role was to promote dialogue and awareness of the world's conflicts. My rebel nature came out at this as I believe you cannot separate the United Nations with politics. The two are very interlinked.
Our first walk was to the Security Council and we were shown a huge Chagall mural of world poverty--more interesting was the view out of the window which showed the skyscrapers of mid-town Manhattan, especially the Chrysler Building, which was set against a sapphire sky. Then it was a short walk to the auditorium housing the Security Council. I've seen this chamber so often on TV this year that I thought I knew it anyway. There was theatre-type seating overlooking a set of oval tables with chairs bearing the names of five members (UK, Russia, France, China, and the US). She explained that the debate later today would be about Liberia flouting the international opal regulations. Unbelievably the UN doesn't have the power to enforce--only to debate, comment, and condemn.
After oohhing and aaahhing over intricate ivory carving from China and a fully fledged Thai barge we moved to the 'big one'--the General Assembly Chamber. This is where each of the world's countries sends representatives to meet and debate. The yucky yellow mural that overhangs it came from Sweden and was bad art in the 60s. One of the Dutchman cracked a joke about 'IKEA' and I couldn't help noticing that some of the earpieces on each of the delegates seats looked about 30-years-old. The whole UN building had a sort of retro Kennedy-era feel to it. We could make out the names of the countries on each seat and I made sure I had a photo taken against Iraq, but then we were quickly whisked away. The last part was where we were shown an angel statue that had survived Hiroshima and a display on the world's landmines. It was stressed all the way through that the UN's role was world peace through negotiation. There was even a department for freeing countries from colonialism. Very necessary in 1945, but in 2003 only 12 of the world's 655 countries were still colonies, but the UN makes it high on their priority. Why?
Also emphasised was the work it does on disease, AIDs, and poverty, and before you know it the tour ends in the basement with gift shops. I must admit I really enjoyed the tour and it is very different from the usual tourist attractions and it does make you think--which was exactly what I wanted.
I just wish they had better interior decorating. Mustard yellow against brown walls is not nice.