Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Inna and I had used up all our leave at work after two weeks in Britain back in August, so we decided to take advantage of the three day Labor Day weekend and go visit Inna’s son Arthur in New York.  We got a good deal at the Holiday Inn Wall Street, near Arthur’s apartment, and we left Annapolis around eight on Saturday morning.  The trip was a breeze, like doing a reverse commute, because everyone was heading south on I-95 toward the beach as we were heading north toward the city.

The Labor Day holiday is hands down the best time to visit the Big Apple because many New Yorkers bail for the Jersey Shore and the weather is still warm, but not steamy hot – although we encountered unseasonably warm weather for the end of summer.  And this time, through the wonder of Siri and Google maps, we even discovered a new route into NYC that avoided the always crowded Holland Tunnel by taking us on a big end run around to the south and into Manhattan via the Goethals Bridge from Jersey onto Staten Island, and then the Verrazano Bridge across to Brooklyn, and then the Hugh Carey Tunnel over to Ground Zero – literally – right near the 9/11 Memorial.

America’s greatest modern day tragedy has become big business and tourists flock from all around the world as if on pilgrimage to see the 9/11 Memorial and Freedom Towers which are rising into the sky like silver blue wavy columns of steel and glass.  The recently completed first tower reminded me of a shiny stiletto.  And it is definitely more attractive than what was there before.

Two things struck me as a bit odd about New York’s Ground Zero area. 

The first is just kind of goofy.  In order to achieve the previous super height of the Twin Towers that were destroyed by the exploding jets, they have built a stunning structure with its head in the clouds.  But the building sports a giant white tower on top that looks like an antennae hat, and which gets them what looks to be another couple of hundred feet.  Using this same architectural principle, you could put a 5,000-foot tower on top of a house and then call it the tallest building in the world.  That would certainly save a lot of time and money. 

Speaking of structural hats, did you know that the wooden water tanks atop many New York skyscrapers are no longer functional and are just there for show, like pointy tin party hats crowning each roof?  These days, most buildings are hooked into public water and no longer need to catch rooftop rain that can be gravity-fed to the tenants.  I think it’s kind of neat that they didn’t remove these rusty artifacts and allow them to serve as a visual reminder of times long past – some are even being turned into works of art.

The second thing I noticed was incredibly ironic.  And those were the many Arabs – especially women in head scarves and scowling men wearing Yankees baseball caps – aggressively hawking 9/11 Memorial souvenirs and books all around the 9/11 Memorial.  I’m sorry if that sounds racist, or politically incorrect, but the whole scene just rubbed me the wrong way.

Inna and I have been traveling a lot lately and we were recently in London where there is a building boom going on that is truly quite impressive.  And there are a lot of sky cranes and new buildings going up all over Lower Manhattan.  But there is also a helluva lot of infrastructure work underway too – roads, waters pipes, electric lines, and buildings getting face lifts.  Everywhere we walked it seemed like something was being torn up and there were orange construction fences, scaffolding, and gaping holes in the street on almost every block.  It often reminded me of a Bomb Zone, like a big city rebuilding after the war.
 In the past, I always visited New York City in the winter, during the lull right after New Year’s, when the holiday season is over, but the decorations are still up, and the tourist crunch takes a little snow break.  New York in January is brutally cold, and the cavernous walls of buildings turn the shaded streets into freezing wind tunnels.  But NYC in the summer is a completely different proposition.  Eighty degrees feels like ninety and the radiant heat coming off the towering stone buildings reminded me of my days hiking in the Grand Canyon.

Which brings me to the smell.  Now, I love New York City, no matter the season.  There is no place on earth like it.  It is an endless assault on the senses.  But that isn’t always a good thing.  And in the summer, the smell around New York City is horrific.  It is the smell of rotten garbage and urine, and it takes a while to get used to it. 

NYC produces an almost unimaginable amount of garbage every single day, and at night, all of the businesses and residents pile their overflowing trash bags along the curbs, creating plastic bag mountains of oozing waste.  And to its credit, the city has their crews out there first thing every morning picking up the garbage.  But it still gets pretty nasty when it's warm.

I was out walking at six in the morning on Labor Day, and the only people afoot were the garbage men and cops.  But they can’t get up early enough to beat the rats that come out of their underground haunts at night and voraciously attack the garbage piles.  It’s not uncommon to see twenty or more come scurrying out of a pile of trash sitting at the corner of a busy street.  And while it probably isn’t dangerous – I mean, the rats don’t attack you, or anything like that – it’s still creepy as hell.   Dimly lit stairwells literally teem with the creeping little demons at night. 


I have no idea how the city might solve this pesky problem.  Putting all of the trash in dumpsters wouldn’t stop the rats.  And poison always causes collateral damage, starting with the neighborhood dogs and cats.  So, New Yorkers have just gotten used to the whole smelly scene, like pig farmers who don’t even notice the overpowering smell on their farms. 
But the one thing they might try to do is to wash the streets a little more often.  Many large cities in Europe hose down their downtown streets on a daily basis – in Barcelona, they actually steam clean the streets – and the Big Apple is in dire need of a serious cleaning from head to toe.

New York City has always been home to a lot of homeless people.  Times Square used to teem with them before Mayor Giuliani and the Times Square Church teamed up to rid themselves of the human plague.  But as often happens with a serious societal problem like homelessness, when you shut down an area where the homeless gather in large numbers, they just move somewhere else a bit more out of sight and out of mind.  So, you will encounter a raggedy person sitting on the filthy concrete, leaning against a building with a change cup and a hand-lettered cardboard sign, asking for help, on virtually every side street in Lower ManhattanEVERY street.  As a general rule, they do not ever say anything; they just sit there quietly like sad dummies, hoping for a handout.  Many lie sprawled on the ground in postures resembling death.  It is a terrible sight to behold!  And we should all be ashamed that in a country so rich, and one that can afford the luxury of billion dollars a day military fiascoes, we can not care for the wretched and hopeless among us. 


 Okay, enough about the bad stuff in NYC.  Because the good far outweighs the bad.

I hadn’t been to the Museum of Modern Art since their major renovations about five years ago.  So we took Arthur and his girlfriend Tiala to see the world’s most amazing art gallery.  Sure, there are many art museums around the globe in much more attractive buildings than MOMA’s rather non-descript six-floor block of glass and steel, starting with New York’s Metropolitan of Art, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate in London, or pretty much every gallery in Vienna and Prague – but it’s what’s inside that counts, and no other modern art gallery even begins to rival MOMA.  This isn’t my personal bias; it’s a fact, Jack.  Of the world’s most critically acclaimed, touchstone top fifty paintings of modern time, MOMA houses about forty of them –  from Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” with its melting clocks, to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, to Monet’s wall-sized “Water Lilies” and Jackson Pollock’s “Number 31”, to Matisse’s “The Red Studio”, to Rousseau’s “The Dream”, to Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, and a take your pick assortment of Picasso, Magritte, Chagall, Ernst, Chirico, and Joan Miró – the modern art icon paintings are all there.  It is both reassuring and surreal at the same time – reassuring in that all of these magnificent treasures will always be there in this one spot for all the world to see, and surreal in the sense that all of these magnificent treasures are there in one spot.  


 Every time I go to MOMA, I hear someone say, “I saw that painting in Chicago last year,” pointing to “Starry Night” or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina's World”.  Or you will hear someone ask, in vague disbelief, “Is that the original?”

Oh yeah.  The one and only.

One of New York’s newest— and slightly hidden – gems is the High Line, a 1-mile-long linear park in Lower Manhattan that follows the abandoned West Side Rail Line that once serviced the Meatpacking District.  It’s an aerial greenway, fashioned after the Promenade plantée in Paris, offering spectacular views of Chelsea below and the Empire State Building to the north. 

Work on the trail began in 2006, and phase one opened in 2009, phase two in 2012, and phase three will be completed in late 2014.   The southern terminus starts at Gansevoort Street (3 blocks below 14th).  The old rail line hangs there in the air as if cleaved by a giant axe.

We arrived at the High Line a little after ten on a Sunday morning and things were already hopping.  Tourists and locals crowded the meandering stone path, and we immediately found ourselves within a white birch forest that framed the trail just like the real thing.  The trees soon gave way to manicured flower beds in full bloom, interesting sculptures, and stylish wooden benches lining the grass-divided trail.  At each cross street there were overlooks, and stairways down to the street; and some even sported wooden bleachers where artists performed free impromptu shows to the delight of the passersby.   There were vendors selling coffee, ice cream, sandwiches, and art works, and it had the look and feel of a European promenade – in the air.  It took us about an hour to walk the whole trail that ends at 30th Street, where a luxury apartment complex abruptly turns it away.  As with all trails, the High Line has been great for the local businesses and has led to much-needed reinvestment in the adjacent housing market.  Living next to the High Line is now considered hip and groovy.
And the next day, Inna and I stumbled onto a similar – although much shorter – aerial platform down at the South Street Seaport, complete with free chaise lounges overlooking the East River and several historic sailing ships.

South Street Seaport is the oldest part of NYC (1620's) and it looks just like Fell's Point in Baltimore, down to the cobbled streets, red brick waterfront warehouse architecture, and funky restaurants and bars.  We had a yummy lunch at the Paris Cafe, which was built in 1873, but almost wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.  Owning a business on the New York City waterfront these days is at best a crap shoot with climate change and sea level rise.

New York is constantly reinventing itself.  And that is a good thing.  It used to be the world's melting pot, but now it's more like the world's biggest cultural blender that is always turned on high.  It swirls together with an ever-changing mix of colorful and shiny objects.  And if you can get beyond the sour smell, it is very refreshing and really tastes great.