What struck me about the Empire State Building is how omnipresent it is . . .
It can be seen from nearly everywhere in Manhattan. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, there it is in the distance, wandering down 42nd Street, there it is, towering above the buildings. And most significantly it is there at night -- lit up in red, white and blue or whatever the season dictates. It was my bearings when wandering around Chelsea at three in the morning and the first thing I saw arriving at night on the airport bus. Quite frankly, the Empire State Building is New York City.
There is no doubt this is the symbol of capitalist America. It symbolises the power and symbolism of the United States around the world. When I looked up at it I remembered its original intention -- that to be a symbol of hope in the age of depression. The Chrysler Building is older, by one year, but the ESB was an emblem of confidence as the rest of America plunged into tough times. And it was one of the first buildings in the world to be helped by a movie. In 1933 King Kong climbed to its summit with Fay Wray and its image was flashed around the world. It was the tallest building in the New York until the completion of the World Trade Center in 1972. And sadly, after September 2001, it has sadly returned to that role.
As a tourist you feel obliged to visit it. I made the pilgrimage eleven years ago and in 2003 it has been made more tourist-friendly but with tighter security. It is a good place to come to orientate yourself with Manhattan. From the observation gallery Manhattan looks like a manageable island. But before you ascend in the ear-popping elevators make time to see it from below in its entirety. I think the best view is from the 42nd St sidewalk near Bryant Park (see photo). From there the ESB looks spearlike and its art-deco lines and curves are at their most beautiful. From immediately below on Fifth Avenue or 34th Street it is easy to miss. Many a tourist has walked past without knowing it is there -- until they look up!
There are entrances on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. The first floor is a maze of flecked marble corridor and art-deco murals, not to mention a very extensive security search. Tickets to the observatory floor are $9 and if you wish to combine this with a virtual reality flight over night-time New York -- $20. You are corralled into a high speed elevator that takes you to the 86th floor. The elevator travels ten floors a minute and travels so fast that your ears pop. Audio tours are available when you emerge at the 86th Floor and there is another elevator to take you to the observation deck. I must say there are more attendants to see to the needs of tourists then there was when I visited 11 years ago. A hundred others have the same idea as you and it may take a bit of elbow maneuvering to get the view you want. The Empire State is one of the few places in New York where foreign and domestic tourists congregate in such numbers. But as you expect the view doesn't disappoint and is meant to be even more amazing at sunset or when the lights of Manhattan come on below. You want Woody Allen's romantic New York -- come up here when night falls.
From here you get some perspective of Manhattan as an island. To the east the grid of streets stretched to the East River with Brooklyn and Queens in the distance. E34th Street directly below me looked like a gourged canyon with yellow cabs buzzing below. As you move to the north the great silver spike of the Chrysler Building comes into view (see photo). Further north Bryant Park looks like a green patch amongst the concrete and Central Park is a verdant emerald blot stretching as far as the eye can see. To the west is the Hudson with ships and aircraft carriers moored at the piers. But it is the south which has the best views. Manhattan tapers to a point stocked with skyscrapers and 'Liberty Island' can just about be seen in the distance. And no one on the observation deck can ignore the poignant changes which have occurred here. The great blocky mass of the World Trade Center has gone and the New York skyline is poorer for it.
In fact when I retreated to ground level I reflected that once again the Empire State is the tallest skyscraper in Manhattan. At the time when it was built it was a symbol of confidence, a metaphor for the start of the modern age. It is the oldest and greatest skyscraper in America, nee the world, and now looks as ancient and elegant as any other world class sight. Seen from a distance or up close there is only one word to describe the Empire State Building.
Imperial . . .