Friday, November 27, 2009

New York Impressions

~ In a previous entry (My New York Marathon), I wrote about my first full day walking from Greenpoint, Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, down past City Hall, then back across the East River via the Brooklyn Bridge, and back to Greenpoint after passing through the Hasidic Jewish enclave in Williamsburg. Although I described in some detail my route on that extended - and exhausting - walk, on reading through it again, I see that it was light on my actual impressions of New York City. So I've decided to remedy that oversight in this post.

Some people travel only to see the famous attractions, while others travel to immerse themselves as much as possible in the locations they have chosen to visit. I prefer the immersive experience, and as such, I was happy to explore the city on foot as far as I was able to. Right from the start, I tried to blend in as much as I could with native New Yorkers. Of course, this was an almost impossible task given that everywhere I went I carried a digital still camera and a video camera - and nothing cries out 'tourist' more than someone running around taking lots of photographs of tall buildings and famous landmarks. However...

Maybe it's the songwriter and composer in me, but I loved listening to the sound and rhythm of the city. The wailing sirens of emergency service vehicles, the subway trains, the car horns, the whistles and shouts of traffic cops, and the constant hum a city like New York imparts 24 hours a day. But most of all, I tried to tune into the voices. The cadences and rhythms of the staff and regular customers at the Brooklyn diner where I ate breakfast each morning; the heavy accents of the Polish immigrants around Greenpoint; the Russians in Coney Island, and the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg; and most common of all, the voices of so many African-Americans and Hispanics that now call New York City, home.

Although I was on my first visit to New York City, I had in a sense been there a thousand times before. In many respects I have grown up visiting New York vacariously over a period of some 50 years in the form of feature films, novels, television series, evening news reports, music videos, documentaries, and even Batman and Superman comics. However, it doesn't matter how many movies, television programs or other forms of second-hand experiences you use to form your opinions of New York City, nothing can match the experience of walking those city streets for yourself, taking in the scale of the place with your own eyes.

I loved the familiarity of the city, but even more I loved the serendipidous nature of simply wandering hapazardly around the neighbourhood of the Greenpoint YMCA and over to Manhattan and back again, all the while following anything that caught my attention, or looked or sounded interesting. In fact, New York is a city that engages all the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and even feel.

New York was everything I expected it to be - and more. Bigger, louder, faster, brasher, taller, grander, and so on. It was also safer, friendlier, easier to get around, and surprisingly, cheaper than I expected it to be. Unfortunately, it was also dirtier. But then the city does have a permanent population of around eight million, which is boosted on any given day by thousands of visitors who help add to the problem of trash creation and disposal.

Browsing through the hundreds of photographs I took during those first days, I see images of brownstone buildings, fire escapes, stoops leading directly onto New York sidewalks, a bright yellow Hummer, Polish language business signs, graffiti and large murals adorning city walls, and colourful dispensers for the many free publications that can be found all over New York. Then there are the images of unusual and interesting architectural features that are waiting to be discovered right across the city. Everyone takes photographs of the skyscrapers, of course, but my eyes were also drawn towards the swirling iron rails and curved wooden seating on the forecourt of the US Social Security Administration building on Federal Plaza.

Another series of images tries to record many of the other buildings around City Hall: The New York City Supreme Court; the United States Courthouse, and the US Court of Appeals office where I saw my first protest by (presumably) court workers, over some matter of great importance - to them, at least.

And there, in the midst of all this legal activity, I also discovered the magnificent African Burial Ground Monument (designed by Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon). The monument preserves a site containing the remains of more than 400 African Americans buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the Wikipedia entry on the burial ground, historians estimate there may have been 15,000-20,000 burials there. The site's excavation and study was regarded as the most important historic urban archeological project in the United States, which in turn has led to the site being designated a National Historic Landmark and National Monument.

My first photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge fail to do that magnificent structure any sort of justice and are hardly worth keeping - but I keep them anyway. What is it about the Brooklyn Bridge that makes it such an iconic attraction anyway? Why do hundreds, if not thousands of visitors line up every day to take photographs of this bridge, and why do they not also line up to take photographs of themselves standing on the Manhattan Bridge? Or the Williamsburg or Queensboro bridges? I don't know the answer, but I too stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and tried without much success to capture an angle; a vision; a unique perspective that hadn't been photographed a thousand times before.

Back on the Brooklyn side of the East River I stumbled across the first of many public art works that are scattered across New York. This was the wonderful NMS - Nature Matching System mural created by Tattfoo Tan (see image above) with the help of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association. This huge, beautiful work can be found directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge on Front Street, Brooklyn.

And so it went. My two months in New York passed far too quickly, and I only got to scratch the surface of this vast metropolis. That I will return next year for another look is a guarantee I am prepared to make right here and now. If you have yet to visit for yourself, I urge you to put the city at the top of your 'bucket list' and start your planning now.

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