The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, or The City as it is referred to by the dwellers of the surrounding boroughs. All are synonyms for the concrete jungle know as Manhattan. The iconic skyline is probably the most well known in the world and is the very heart of New York City. More than that, it is a city like no other I have visited in this entire country.
It seems ironic that a car guy like myself could have such passion for a place where I dare not take my car. This is one location where I choose my best sneakers over my wheels every single time, and its a place I dearly love, but it didn’t start that way.
My first memory was a vivid, frightening experience provided by my father. One year on vacation he decided to “treat us” by driving through Manhattan to see New York City up close.
As I sat in the middle of the front seat, barely able to see over the dash, I got plenty of views of buildings reaching for the sky. I had never seen other cars so close to the family sedan as the sound of honking horns, sirens and my grandmother in the back seat praying out loud filled the air.
When you combine this experience from a young, impressionable mind with news reports of shootings and riots, it becomes easy to see why you would never wish to return to such a place.
Many years later a strange sequence of events happened. I was recently divorced and testing the waters of a new concept called online dating. I began exchanging emails with a lively woman from Staten Island who would later become my wife. During our exchange of information, my son’s high school band took a class trip to New Jersey. This same trip included a sightseeing bus tour of Manhattan. This was one where you ride around in traffic as a tour guide points out landmarks and various other notable things as you stare out the windows. At one point you were let off the bus for one hour so you could shop for souvenirs and then back on for the ride to the hotel.
Unfortunately, this is how most people get to see Manhattan, and while it offers a certain value, it barely grazes the surface of this incredible metropolis. The first time my future wife carried me to “The City,” it was a dizzying adventure.
This began with a ferry boat ride across New York harbor, which cruises right by the Statue of Liberty. She had been by the national landmark so many times that it might as well had been a light post. Once docked on the Manhattan side, an ocean wave of human bodies moves off the boat and into the streets beyond. Unlike any event crowd, here, the flow of moving humans is like a river moving into every available tributary. Some in small groups, others obviously alone, some hurrying about while others drift with the tide. Never before had I been in a setting where so many people were not all heading for one particular place.
Moving down the stairs and into the concrete and steel world of the subway system is like a twisted version of “Fantastic Voyage”. The map on the walls at every subway station resembles something out of medical book depicting the circulatory system, and in effect, that’s exactly what this maze of tunnels does. Like the rhythmic beating of the heart, the trains come and go virtually every five minutes. They draw in this human blood stream, move them swiftly through the city veins, and deposit them along the way.
If you can ever make sense of the map and read the signs in the stations below, the subway is hands down the fastest way to move around Manhattan, which is the very reason so many people use it. Getting your bearings once you return to the street level is whole other ball of wax, but street signs are abundant as well as various landmark buildings to help your mental compass.
Now is when the adventure really begins. When you walk Manhattan it takes on a very different look and feel. Some places are crowded and hectic while others are leisurely and serene. One such haven is Central Park, an 843 acre gemstone that encompasses lakes and ponds,an ice skating rink,extensive walking,cycling and running tracks,an impressive zoo and an outdoor theater. There is no vehicle traffic inside the park and this alone makes a striking difference in its feel and sound. Once inside it’s easy to forget that you are at the heart of the most populated urban environment in the country. Trees shroud the surrounding buildings, almost akin to a castle wall while the island’s native granite rock still protrudes above ground in many locations. You can easily spend the day here and still not cover it all, and this doesn’t even include the activities or temporary exhibits that are often found during the various seasons.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,or “The Met” as it is affectionately called, sits on the east side of Central Park. This quarter mile long,two million square foot landmark is one of the largest art galleries in the world. The Roman, Greek and Egyptian artifacts alone can hold your gaze for hours but even they are barely a highlight reel to the bevy of treasures held within these walls. Paintings,sculptures,carvings and even weapons and suits of armor grace the many rooms of this daunting facility. This is another location where time melts away with startling speed and before you know it the attendants are telling you its closing time. Grab yourself a map at the front desk, believe me you will need it, if for no other reason than to find the restroom.
I could go on for pages about the individual wonders to be found in Manhattan, but there are so many museums and sights that it would fill a book. (I’m sure there are many). Each iconic building has a story and look all its own. The observation decks of the Empire State building and Rockefeller Center offer breath taking views from heights where eagles dare,and give you some idea of the true scale of the island itself. While these scenic floors offer their very own perspective, the lobbies and foyers of many of the buildings are works of art all to themselves. The lobby of the Chrysler Building has some of the most stunning inlaid woodwork I have ever seen as well as dazzling mural artwork adorning its walls and ceilings.
Hiking the broad and ever present sidewalks of The City are where its hidden treasures lie waiting to be discovered. Any other city I have ever visited has a unique downtown or historic downtown district. These areas usually comprise a few streets or a couple of square miles at most. Manhattan is almost 23 square miles, and while much of that is residential, its inner communities all have their sights to see.
In no other city have I ever seen such a diverse collection of architecture and styles all in one place. The old and the new, the modern and traditional, the crumbling and the construction all live and breathe right alongside one another as normal and commonplace. As you trek through each of these areas it can be akin to crossing the borders of countries. From SoHo to Little Italy to Chinatown is just one small path of many that can be taken to soak in the coexisting cultures of this amazing and thriving urban wonder. The Garment District, The Diamond District,The Flower District, The Valley of Heroes, The USS Intrepid,The South Seaport, The Brooklyn Bridge, the various cathedrals and churches,Broadway and Times Square, the list goes on as around every corner is another wonder to behold.
The squares and parks that dot the grids of streets and skyscrapers are like an oasis, just when you think you’ve had enough concrete and steel, right around the next block are the trees and greenery and the serenity of a simple park bench. A recent addition to the various parks is a fascinating example of how Manhattan continually reinvents itself. There is an abandoned elevated railway the runs down the lower west side known as “The Highline”, where rail cars used to bring food goods directly to factories and warehouses in the meatpacking district.
The last rail car rolled off the Highline in 1980 and in 2005, CSX donated the structure to the City of New York for use as a public space. The first section of the unique renovation opened to public in 2009, and it is an incredible transformation. In many places the rails have been preserved as part of the overall feel, but the plants and flowers that line the artistic concrete walkways add a warm and earthy charm. Above the horns and the traffic, The Highline offers abundant sitting areas with views of the city that might otherwise go unseen, like the huge wooden chaise lounge chairs that overlook Chelsea Park and the Hudson river.
Back down on the street level is another unique Manhattan experience, and that is quelling your hunger. Beneath the towering skyscrapers, the ground floor of each building are the windows of retail business and restaurants. Here is a place where the big chain, cookie cutter eateries fight for their lives as the locally owned cafes and delis offer up such a diversity of cultural and ethnic menus that it would take an encyclopedia to reference them all. The majority of these places put the chef on display with your choices prepared right before your eyes, and the experience is one to be savored.
Fresh baked pastrami sliced by hand, pizza dough kneaded and tossed, steak and chicken grilled with peppers and onions, stir fried veggies, pasta hung and cheese grated are all on display while the various aromas vie for your attention. While seating in many of these places is limited, they each possess their own personality and charm. Some are rich with history while others dazzle you with style or the simplistic display of their wares. Indoors or on the sidewalk, mealtime in Manhattan need never be boring or mundane.
To that end, hiking the concrete jungle of Manhattan is an adventure that is never mundane. With so many things to see and experience, both seasonal and everyday, “The Big Apple” is the one vacation spot I have yet to tire of visiting. Mostly because it is alive and constantly evolving, the things that stay are very good things and the ones that change are always interesting to see.
Raise your torch high Lady Liberty, for you herald a gateway to one of the most uniquely American cities in this great land. Let your light shine on her always for she is vibrant and beautiful just like you. It is always thrilling to see you again, for you are truly the apple of my eye. I may rumble away into the night, but I always feel you tugging on my heart to return, beckoning me to park my wheels and don my sneakers once again. You welcome me with your ever present soft gaze, back to your city, who like you, never sleeps.
‘Til I hike your streets once again, I love you, New York.
-T. August Green