Of Central Park, more crate digging, and that Statue…
We were back in Manhattan again the following day to take in the scenery of Central Park. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – stories from the dark days of the 70s and 80s had created a vision of a dangerous place, even in daylight, where wandering from the main thoroughfares was highly unrecommended; by contrast, more recent guides gave the impression that everything had been tidied up to the extent that it might seem more like a theme park to ensure that no tourist was unoccupied for more than a couple of minutes. And how much would we be able to see? Some of the guides left us feeling that it was an immense tract of land, impossible to cover more than a small bit on foot, and in the oppressive heat, we didn’t fancy trying to cycle around it. Luckily, we judged that starting around 77th Street would bring us in at about the mid-point, which not only proved to be an ideal place to begin a walk but also gave us a look at the upmarket apartment buildings east of the Park – just like those described in Bonfire of the Vanities, or occupied by Burt Lancaster’s character in Sweet Smell of Success, with their liveried doormen minding the canopied and carpeted walkways leading from front door to kerbside.
The Park turned out to be delightful. We strolled along to the boating lake for a coffee, then worked our way slowly towards the southern end, past the Bethesda Fountain and stopping to relax in the shade of the trees on the Sheep Meadow. We weren’t hassled, or touted and the rangers quietly going about their business clearly were keeping the place beautifully tidy as well as safe. We emerged opposite the grand hotels along Central Park South, desperately wishing we could linger to listen to the invective being directed at an out of town chauffeur by the commissionaire at one of the plush entrances – the finest example of pure New Yorkese we heard in our entire stay. From there onto 5th Avenue, with grand high end shops on either side but the heat driving us onwards towards shade and lunch. A diversion around the Rockefeller Centre didn’t find anything to tempt us (but did give us another chance to take in the architecture), so we made a beeline back to the food court at Grand Central, knowing we’d both eat well and be comfortable.
The heat was really getting to us, so we decided to slip out of Manhattan and head back to Williamsburg where, after drinking in the balm of our newly-upgraded aircon, we headed back out to travel a few stops out on the subway to find Northern Lights records, a recommendation from our Brooklyn fellow vinyl obsessive and so definitely to be followed up. Tucked away in a sidestreet in one of the lower rent areas of town, and with an unprepossessing storefront that we almost missed, it proved to be a real joy. No big finds, but row after row of unsleeved 45s to sift through, all well-loved but in good enough condition to give them a fair chance of being playable – and there was a turntable there to give them a quick spin on, too. We’d loved to have stayed there for hours, but closing time was drawing near and we didn’t fancy wandering around the area too late into the evening, so we jumped back on the subway, comparing notes on our finds – soul for Mrs M and a selection of east coast 50s rock’n’roll and doo wop for me, classic New York sounds.
For dinner, we were keen to try a little Italian just a few doors down from our apartment which was clearly, literally, new on the block – Dough Vale. The welcome was warm and personal, and the pizza was perfect, and accompanied by an explanation from the owner-cum-chef as to how the ideal pizza dough should be prepared. For pudding, Mrs M and I were set on Canoli (as eaten by all good Sopranos characters at every opportunity); on the basis of our description, daughter wasn’t sure until the owner interjected in best Brooklyn Italian: “I tell you what – I bring you three Canoli and if you like it, you can pay for it, and if you don’t the third one’s on the house”. How could we refuse? And, of course, she liked it and, of course, he wouldn’t take the money for it, sending his wife back to redo the bill despite our protestations. That’s DOUGH VALE, South 3rd Street in Williamsburg – not to be missed if you’re anywhere in the area.
Our last full day in Manhattan was reserved for one of the big ticket items on any New York visitor’s schedule, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We’d not deliberately set out to make this the climax of our sightseeing, but the tickets we were particularly after (of which more later) were only available right at the end of our stay which made it something special to build up to. One could hardly describe the Statue of Liberty as midcentury, (unless you’re talking about the 19th Century), although Ellis Island’s operating era from 1892 to 1954 falls nicely into our particular period of interest, but the Statue is such an iconic element of any vision of New York throughout the 20th Century that we felt we were visiting one of the defining sights of our era. The boat trips out to the respective islands are an experience in themselves. Subject to understandably high security (could you imagine the symbolism of an attack on the Statue?), and despite their frequency with boats leaving Battery Park several times an hour, they are all packed, with the crowds shuffling forward en masse to be herded onto the first available boat – all very redolent of what the immigrants at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries must have experienced going the other way.
That Statue itself is breathtaking, no matter how many times one has seen it in film, photograph or other imagery. The surrounding grounds have the benefit of being a designated National Park, which preserves their dignity despite the magnitude of the flow of tourists arriving all day, every day. We wasted no time in heading up into the Statue, which is where our prior planning came into its own as we joined that very small proportion of visitors discreetly sporting an additional wristband with the magic words ‘Crown tour’, indicating that, for no extra charge, we would be heading as far up the Statue as it’s possible for the public to get. The trip up is special in its own right – one set of steps to get us up to the level that surrounds the foot of the Statue, then a steep double helix spiral staircase winding up inside the body of Lady Liberty before emerging onto a narrow platform around the inside of her forehead with the windows of her crown at our head height. I’d expected that we would be shuttled through quickly but instead we found only one other family up there, just about to leave, giving us as long as we wanted to admire the views, stare up the raised arm towards the torch above us, and chat to the charming Park Rangers taking care of visitors. There we learned that the ladder to the torch has been closed to the public since 1914(indeed, the Crown, too, was closed to the public for several years during renovations), meaning that we were standing where generations of visitors have climbed throughout the 20th Century. The view itself is limited, but the feeling of being at the heart of the subject of so many millions of photographs is something very special indeed.
Back at ground level, we couldn’t help ourselves from taking the almost obligatory dozens of photos of the Statue at close range, and of the Manhattan skyline just across the water. Liberty Island now boasts a new museum dedicated to the history of the Statue, replacing a much smaller affair that used to live in the base. That alone could eat up a good hour or more as one studied the story of how the Statue came to be, its design and construction, the struggle to provide it with a suitable home, and its impact on culture in the US and beyond. But one has to be mindful that is just as much to see across the water at Ellis Island, involving another crowded boat trip to be disgorged where countless immigrants began their passage through the gateway to their Promised Land.
If anything, Ellis Island is even more architecturally interesting that its more dominant sister. Pressed into various government uses after it ceased to be the immigrant gateway in 1954, it fell into disuse and was rescued from dereliction over the past few decades, and is still a work in progress with some of the outlying blocks still awaiting renovation. The main hall, though, has been beautifully restored, and the designers wisely resisted the temptation to fill the gaping space, instead leaving it as the first arrivals from each boat would have experienced it, filled only with people. The historical displays are confined to the rooms around the periphery and the equally vast, if lower ceilinged, booking hall below where those who had passed the various tests purchased their onward tickets to wherever in the great continent they were to begin their new lives. The display on the wider history of immigration in the US was particularly absorbing, reflecting the stories of those brought to the country by force as well as the immigrants, particularly the European ones, usually associated with Ellis Island. Again, we could have spent hours there and to get the full experience with time to wander the grounds, it would be worth making trips to the two islands on two separate days.
Back in Manhattan, we headed round to the South Street Seaport area, formerly a neglected dockside area but regenerated after the ravages of a hurricane to provide a shopping and dining destination based in the old dock buildings and convenient for the Wall Street crowd. We joined a heaving Friday night throng of workers at an excellent taco restaurant, then stepped across the way for the world’s most outrageous ice creams at the aptly-named Big Gay Ice Cream company. To give ourselves time to devour these towering desserts, we took a stroll along the East River frontage, passing below the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges for another perspective on these superb examples of turn of the century civic engineering. The Brooklyn Bridge in particular looks good from every angle, and it’s not hard to understand why it means so much to New Yorkers from both sides of the River. Turning up into the East Side, our route took us through the heart of Chinatown, providing us with the kind of insights into everyday city life that were the icing on the cake of our trip. A softball game on a tarmac diamond below the Manhattan Bridge, the buzz of the residential area of Chinatown, the shops catering for locals rather than tourists. By the time we turned into the Bowery to head for the subway, we’d clocked up yet another day of walking, but with every yard made to count.
And in the next and final instalment, we meet the Muppets, take on Katz Deli again, and top up the records with a few more must haves…