Sunday, 16 September 2012

The City That Doesn't Sleep

Do you have a favourite city in the world? A part of me cringes when I hear anyone say they do. What I hear is not, "Paris is my favourite city". No, what I hear is, "Oh gosh aren't I well travelled and interesting!". Working class sensibilities mean I'm always on full ponse alert, the types who make a big drama when they detect the whiff of marijuana in the street, making a huge show that they know what it is, the types who wear a fedora but ironically, the types who refer to strangers as 'raaaandoms'. You know who you are. Anyway, this makes the following confession rather tricky. You see, I think I have a favourite city. New York. Well, it's definitely in my top two. (London, you know I love you, right? No homo).

I'm in New York for the second time this year. Partly work, partly a break before my tour starts. Did I mention I'm touring? What? No? Shocking. I am. Ticket details on my website You're welcome. I'm in New York and I love it. This is my fourth trip here and every one has revealed a different aspect to this vast, vibrant and dynamic city.

 From its Soul food kitchens in Harlem to the high flyer cockiness of Wall Street and the laidback, cool chic of the Meatpacking district, Manhattan Island alone, has enough to satisfy the most demanding of tourists for a couple of weeks before you even begin to explore the other four boroughs (Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten island) and beyond.

Whilst NYC compares with London on many levels, there is something particular about this city that keeps the tourist dollar rolling in. I think it is simply this, when you walk its streets, you literally feel like you're in a movie. The yellow taxi drivers honking, the animated traffic cops, hotdog sellers, vast warehouse conversions, humid subway stations, the overwhelming neon dsplay of Times Square, buskers and that oh so distinctive accent, means the city delivers on all its Hollywood-induced expectations.

And best of all, it's a working city, not a fabrication created purely for the satisfaction of the tourist. As a car slowly encroached on a crossing, a man, midway to the opposite sidewalk, flung out a hand and hollered "I'm walking here!" This really happened.

 This is a city of 'anything goes', a place where putting a dog in a hand bag is normal, where a skateboard is a legitimate mode of transport, of grid systems, celebrity, flamboyant emergency vehicle sirens, of the annual pausing in contemplation of 3047 lives lost, of hope, of American dreams and of Daily Shows. Never one to be outdone,

The city also takes poverty to a new level, with deprevation you thought went out with legwarmers and asbestos. These deprived quarters, often never seen by tourists, are a far cry from the uptown boutiques of the upper east side or the casual cool of Tribeca, home to Robert De Niro's film company.

 But largely, New York is an uptempo city of unending possibility, if you have the means. One that, contrary to popular belief is warm and welcoming of its guests. There is, as Londoners know, a difference between rude and 'in a hurry' and New Yorkers are eternally on the move. Having said that, it's easy to strike up a conversation with people on the subway, in bars or even in the street. That is when a 'quaint' British accent comes in very handy. Seriously, when you go, make like Julia Andrews. They love it.

The guidebooks are an excellent companion for newcomers and regular visitors alike and all the tourist attractions you may initially head for will not disappoint (be prepared to pay handsomely though - for everything) but once you've done all that, venturing beyond the tourist traps will prove to be a very worthwhile investment of your time.

Here are my top ten things to do in NYC.

10. Statue of Liberty
If you do one touristy thing. Make it this. While the queues may be lengthy, it's defiinitely worth the wait. Not only is the statue a magnificent structure, its history fascinating, but you also get great views of Manhattan Island. If you can, include the trip to Ellis Island to get a sense of what those early immigrants experienced when they first arrived in the land of the free. It'll make you more tolerant of the 100ml, plastic bag, shoes off palava at customs nowadays, that's for sure.

9. The High Line
This disused railway line is a peaceful haven running from the Meatpacking district - north. It's a beautifully kept, wonderful escape from the mania of the city. This decked walkway has sun loungers, water features and pristine gardens. The afternoon I walked the Highline there were also market stalls selling food, photography and fine art. Well, what do you expect in hip Meatpacking?

8. Spas
New York seems to have more than its fair share of high street spas. I get the impression that for many New York women, pedicures are a standard part of their beauty regime, unlike us British girls who simply opt for not wearing sandles. All spa employees here seem to originate from South East Asian. I wonder if this is because they are experts at game-facing their judgement of west women's feet. They smile amiably as they think 'this bitch's feet - disgusting!'.

7. Rockefeller Centre
OK, I lied. This is the other touristy thing you should do. The Rock is not only the location of Tina Fey's hit show, 30 Rock but also offers fabulous views across Manhattan including the Empire State Building. Furthermore, it opens late, something the E.S.B does not. (In fact, it's a pretty pointless building. They should knock it down). If you can get your shizzle together, why not visit at sunrise or sunset for stunning city vistas.

6. Broadway
What is there to say about Broadway? You are simply spoiled for choice here. Make sure you get your tickets from the TKTS booth (cnr 46th and Broadway). You can get great deals on ticket prices. They sell tickets on the day of performance so you may need to be flexible about what you watch but it's well worth it. I was able to see two fantastic shows that had closed in the West End but were in the midst of much-lauded Broadway runs. 

5. Meatpacking district 
Meatpacking will take you off the beaten tourist track into a world of swanky, cool bars, kooky restaurants and lowrise splendor. No high rises here. This is all about hip New York, the pace and vibe is distinctly different and you'll find yourself rubbing shoulders with a different kind of New Yorker. This is the playground (and work place) of artists, actors, producers and musicians. It occured to me that no one in Meatpacking seems to have a nine to five job. Everyone is just hanging around being tres cool. Get jobs, you ponses! 

4. Comedy Cellar 
This is one of New York's finest comedy clubs. Here the bill will most certainly include familiar TV names (yeah, um, familiar if you live in America) and occassionally the odd megastar will drop in. While I was in town, Chris Rock and Louie CK made impromtu appearances. Another night, the fantastic Aziz Azari dropped in to 'try some new'. On top of that, some of our fine imports have graced the stage including Gina Yashere and Jimmy Carr and as of Saturday, yours truly (brushes nails on lapel). The compact, tiny cellar offers up a fantastic night of top comedy so best to book in advance if your group includes more than one person. 

3. 9/11 Tribute in Light 
It may seem odd, maudlin even, to visit a city as it marks one of the greatest tragedies in modern history but it is actually very humbling and moving. September is a time when you can experience New York's deep resiliance, hope and unity. If you are in town, observe the moments of silence that mark each plane strike but also visit the Municipal Arts Society's 9/11 Tribute of Light (good views from Union Sq, Washington Sq and by Rectory Street Subway exit) to see this magestic display of 88 search lights next to the World Trade Centre site which seem to ascent infinitely into the night sky. The display is illuminated from dusk on the evening of September 11th until the following morning. 

2. Abyssynian Baptist Church 
I'm reluctant to include this in the blog at all and especially so high in the chart. Not because it's not any good but simply out of respect to this place of worship. Abyssinian Baptist Church (Odell Clark Drive/ 138th Street, Harlem) allow visitors into its church services on Wednesday evenings (7pm) and Sunday mornings (11am). Visitors must remain at the back of the congregation and dress appropriately (shoulders covered, no flip flops). What makes these survices so special is the incredible choir that opens the services. If you like gospel music, this is a must during your trip to New York. I'm a huge fan but never have I seen a performance of such vigour. If you don't fancy sitting through a service but would still like to see a rousing performance, the Harlem Gospel Choir hold a gospel brunch ever Sunday at B.B.King's Blues Bar and Grill.  Though it is a very touristy and lacks the authenticity of Abyssinian, it's still a fine show. 

1. Subway system 
Along with the London Underground this is one of the world's most iconic subterranean transportation system. Developed and extended several times and in many directions over the last few decades, make sure you venture underground at least once during your stay. It is easily the most efficient way to get around and of course, allows you to mingle with true New Yorkers. It can be a little confusing at times. For example, at some stations, the uptown and downtown platforms have different street level entrances. The cheapest way to navagate the system is to buy an unlimited week-long Metrocard. This costs about $29 and means you can travel freely throughout the system without worrying if you have the correct ticket. Whilst the network is great, ensure you have a good map as this is one thing that seems to be sorely lacking at most stations I passed through. 

 1a. Taxis
Also, even though the subway is a great way to get around the city, make sure you take one of the ubiquitous yellow taxis. A driver passed on a handy hint yesterday. He told me that because the shifts change over at the same time (4 or 5pm and 4 or 5am) it can be difficult to get a cab at these times. Bear this in mind when planning your journey. Remember, when giving the address they'll need the cross street and the avenue so (as I'm sure you've heard in countless movies) instead of saying 1485 Park Avenue, ask for corner of 117th and Park or if the place you need is on a cross street ask for 73rd between Park and Madison. It'll make you sound like a native New Yorker! (if you're heading into the higgledy piggledy Greenwich Village, you're on your own!)

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