Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My New York Marathon

~ The weather for the first full day of my New York adventure promised to be cloudy but fine (and bloody freezing).

And just so you are not expecting an account of my running of the New York marathon – a feat I am never going to perform – this entry refers to my marathon walking tour through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, across the Williamsburg Bridge to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, back across the East River via the Brooklyn Bridge, and on to my accommodations at the YMCA through the suburbs of Williamsburg and beyond.

I left the YMCA at around 9am and went for my first breakfast at the Manhattan 3 Decker Restaurant just down the road. The 'Y' gives you a voucher for free breakfast, which you redeem when you order your food. I had eggs, bacon, toast and fried potatoes (a bit like potato fritters), and coffee. You can sit up at the counter (just like you see in the movies), or you can sit at tables. I got the impression that if you are eating alone, they prefer you to eat at the counter where you occupy one seat instead of a table for four, but if there are several people dining, you are expected to sit at the tables.

After breakfast I went off to explore the neighbourhood, and before I knew it, I was at the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge is one of several which spans the East River linking Long Island, where Brooklyn is, to Manhattan.

The Williamsburg Bridge is a suspension bridge across the East River connecting the Lower East Side of Manhattan at Delancey Street with the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn on Long Island. Construction on the bridge, the second to cross the East River, began in 1896. The bridge opened on December 19, 1903 and was completed at a cost of $12,000,000. At the time it was constructed, the Williamsburg Bridge set the record for the longest suspension bridge span in the world – the main span of the bridge being 1600 feet (488 m) long. (Source:

I was feeling pretty good, so away I went across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan.

By the way, I was delighted to see that the final confrontation between Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the recent remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 took place on the same pedestrian walkway I myself used to cross the bridge to Manhattan. But I digress.

After crossing the bridge, I came to ground around the Lower East Side where Chinatown and Little Italy are located, and where I stumbled across the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street.

The Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site (designated a National Historic Landmark in April, 1994), preserves a six-story brick tenement building that was home to an estimated 7,000 people, from over 20 nations, between 1863 and 1935. In that year, the owner, rather than continue to modify the building, evicted the residents and the building was boarded up and sealed, leaving only the storefronts open for business. The building is able to convey a vivid sense of the deplorable living conditions experienced by its tenants, especially the top two floors which contain rooms, wallpaper, plumbing and paper preserved as they were found in 1988. (Source:

By this time I had been walking for around three hours, and I knew I needed to sit down for a while, so I sat down in the museums little theatre to watch a couple of short videos about the history of the building. An hour later, feeling somewhat more refreshed, I went off through Chinatown in search of something to eat.

Bearing in mind the adage: “When in Rome, eat where the Romans do,” or something to that effect. I found a tiny little Chinese restaurant which seemed to be popular with the local population so I pointed to a couple of things on display in the window, and sat down to eat a full plate of rice, chicken, and vegetables. The whole meal cost me a whopping $3.00, which made it the cheapest meal by far on the whole trip.

Manhattan's Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. After an enormous growth spurt during the 1990s, it has been declining in recent years, partly as a result of the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, which forced the relocation of many Chinese businesses and residents, and also as a result of Manhattan's high rent increases. Unlike most other urban Chinatowns, Manhattan's Chinatown is both a residential area as well as commercial area – most population estimates are in the range of 90,000 to 100,000 residents.

The only park in Chinatown, Columbus Park, was built on what was once the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous slum area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the movie Gangs of New York). (Source:

I was to return to Chinatown several times during my New York stay, but on this visit, my explorations where kept brief since I still had much to discover.

From Chinatown I headed down into the Financial District, and started noticing signs pointing to the Brooklyn Bridge. Well, it was on my list of must see attractions, so off I went.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States, stretching 5,989 feet (1825 m) over the East River, connecting the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Upon completion in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world (the Williamsburg Bridge took that title 20 years later), the first steel-wire suspension bridge, and the first bridge to connect to Manhattan.

Originally referred to as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, it was dubbed the Brooklyn Bridge in an 1867 letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and formally given that name by the city government in 1915. Since its opening, it has become an iconic part of the New York skyline, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. (Source:

Of course, hundreds of other tourists also had the bridge on their list of must see places, and sure enough, they had turned out to see one of New York City’s most iconic images at exactly the same time as I had. Undaunted, I headed out across the Bridge for the Long Island side, snapping photos, and shooting video as I went. Having made it to the other side, I figured there was no point in walking back to Manhattan, so I started out for Greenpoint.

Big mistake. I had no idea where I was going, except that I worked out that as long as I kept roughly parallel to the East River, and headed west, I would eventually get to Greenpoint.

By now it was around 4pm and I had been walking for some eight hours.

It was around this time that I also faced a problem I was to encounter constantly during my New York stay. Namely, the lack of accessible public toilets and restrooms throughout the city. Thankfully, the New York headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the rescue! Seriously. Tired, feet aching, and with a bladder fit to burst I entered this imposing building (located on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn), in search of desperate relief. An impeccably dressed young man pointed my towards the restrooms and I quickly found the salvation I was seeking!

Off I headed again, through Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill, and on past the New York Naval yards. On a whim I decided to hop on a bus which seemed to be going in my direction. After a short ride I saw Driggs Avenue, and thought I must have been getting close to Greenpoint, so I jumped off the bus.

Big mistake. Again.

Up Driggs Avenue I plodded (or was it down?) towards Williamsburg, and stumbled headlong into the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

Williamsburg is inhabited by tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews, most belonging to the Satmar Hasidic court. Satmar is among the fastest-growing communities in the world, as its families have a very high number of children. The Satmar community of Williamsburg is no exception, and typically celebrates eight to ten sholom zochors (male births), and the same number of female births, each week. In addition, each year the community celebrates between 300 and 400 weddings. To date there are over 60,000 Satmar hasidim living in Williamsburg. (Source:

The sight of hundreds of Jewish men and boys dressed in traditional black outfits (long black coats, wide brimmed black hats, etc), was a sight to behold. There were men, women and kids everywhere, and all seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were also men, women and young girls pushing prams around the streets, and not all of the prams had babies in them. Some were just being used to move stuff around the neighbourhood. From what I could hear, almost no-one spoke English. They were all speaking Yiddish – men, women, and children. In deed, the Wikipedia entry cited above confirms that the Satmar hasidim study almost exclusively in Yiddish in their schools.

It was like being caught in a time warp. It was as if I had crossed an invisible boundary into this community, and then just as oddly, crossed another invisible boundary out of it again.

By now, I was exhausted. I had been on my feet for close to ten hours and they were killing me. Some how or other, I found myself back on Bedford Avenue, and knew I was getting close to ‘home’. I decided I should have dinner before I want back to the 'Y', and discovered a Greek restaurant on Bedford called Socrates. I walked in and tired and close to collapse, I ordered a meal of roast beef and vegetables, which I ate without much enthusiasm or appetite.

I finally got back to the YMCA at around 8pm, almost twelve hours after first setting out that morning. I got my shoes off as quickly as I could. I didn’t think I was every going to walk again, my feet hurt so much.

After downloading all the photographs and video footage from my cameras onto my laptop, I finally collapsed into bed for a much needed rest.

And so ended my first full day in New York City.

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