Opening Statement



Thursday, 1 September 2011

A Canuck's Guide To Manhattan NYC

Janet and I had a fabulous four days visiting Manhattan Island New York City! I've posted photos and or itineraries of Soho, Noho, Greenwich, Little Italy, Chinatown, Canal Street, the WTC site, Time Square, Central Park, Broadway, Fifth Ave, Park Ave, the Brooklyn Bridge, La Guardia and Harlem etc. etc. etc. How now to summarize and make any sense of our trip?

Welcome to my Canuck's Guide to NYC or "Neu Yawk" as the locals seem to pronounce it! We are bonafide baby boomer, Toronto born Canadians aka "Canucks", eh. I've not been to Manhattan since 1992. It was Janet's first visit. We can only share our own recent travel experience with you. Hopefully that might be interesting and  helpful to my fellow Canadian readers, and also perhaps readers from elsewhere too. Anyway here goes.

Hotels: We stayed at the renovated art deco New Yorker Hotel on 8th and 33th Streets in Midtown West; smallish but comfortable and clean rooms, in a convenient location, within easy walking distance of Time Square and beside a subway stop. Reasonably priced in the New York mid range, it was the height of fashion in the 1930's or 40's with the big bands, and big name celebrities. It shares it's art deco style with the Empire State Building built just down the street. The Tic Toc Diner on the ground floor of the New Yorker remains a popular eating spot with it's matching decor and just plain folk menu. Think fancy greasy spoon without too much grease. Visit for breakfast or late at night! Tres kool!

Transport: There's a subway station right outside the door of the New Yorker. The New York subway is pretty big but easy to follow with its A, B, C lines etc, also cheap and quick. It's really been cleaned up, even the homeless people are friendly, helpful and polite. The graffiti seemed to be gone. The cattle car trains seemed rather rough and tumbly and are made to handle large, large numbers of folk efficiently, which they did when we were there. Don't expect upholstered seats like on the Toronto TTC and avoid at rush hour at all costs. Otherwise it can be a good, cheap way to get around quickly.

The Hop On and Hop Off Buses are another option. A flat rate 48 hour full route pass means you can travel around the island seeing all the sites, getting on or off to visit the main areas and so on as you please, or just enjoying the tour on the frequent open air rooftop buses. Problems? Bad news when it rains, low branches and overhead traffic lights means don't don't don't stand up, and service ends ridiculously early in the evening. Otherwise not a bad idea to consider on a whirlwind trip.

Taxis? Everywhere and relatively cheap within Manhattan compared to most places I've been.

Car Driving and Rentals: No way unless you like trying to drive through permanent gridlock.The traffic usually reminded me of our own Highway 401 during Toronto rush hour on a bad day. Parking is in very tight supply and not at all cheap or convenient. Then add the street lights which most everyone drivers and pedestrians alike ignore. Very strange. In short; forget about it. I'd leave the driving to others.

The Sites: Buy a good travel guide or two to figure your top ten. It could easily take a week just to visit these during peak season what with all the crowds and so on. Think of Manhattan New York this way: It's a post modern version of itself that's now become the world's number one tourist site. Let me explain before we visit some of the sites we chose.

A million and a half people still live there either in exclusive condos, older rent controlled apartments, and in still heavily residential areas like Harlem. Many more people just work there in the many office towers. Otherwise? There's retail, retail and more retail, innumerable tourist sites, restaurants and over 250 Starbuck Cafes.

There's been a huge flood of tourists. Everything is slowly but surely being bought out and restored as heritage and tourism sites you can visit. The actual physical form of the Manhattan that you now see no longer necessarily serves its original purpose. Quite simply Manhattan New York often looks like a beautiful vision of what it was and perhaps of what you or the city would like to think it to be. For example, Little Italy isn't really a large sprawling Italian family neighbourhood anymore. Ditto China Town. Kerouac's MacDougal Street blues dissipated long ago but walking through here and throughout Greenwich Village we still remember and want to see the beats. Same with Bob Dylan at the Cafe Wha? or the Bitter End. The neighbourhoods remain similiar but with a new virtual character.

Take South Street Seaport  for a case in point.It's a gorgeous waterfront attraction with tall ships to photograph and a man made sand beach. The renovated warehouses are trendy shops and sea food restaurants. No swimming but there's nice lawn chairs and even couches. There's not much if any of the port activities being carried on here anymore aside from the upscale marina perhaps.

Within a short walking distance is the Brooklyn Bride. You walk over a special pathway on Brooklyn Bridge which is a great way to see the city skyline but I wouldn't want to drive across in a car.

A lot of the original, authentic life and functions in Manhattan itself may have very well have moved on long ago, and this reconstruct, or call it what you will, is what you actually see now instead. That's not to say it's bad just an interesting reflection perhaps on our life and times. The police are nice and friendly now, never gruff. The New Yorkers we met seemed pleasant and helpful and could even be a lot of fun. Gotta love the accents too!

One local suggested to me that the city lost it's past arrogance, and indifference between it's different communities and friendly outsiders since 9/11. They now know a sense of inclusiveness. Everyone needs to live and get by together in Manhattan. We were only there four days, so I don't know for sure about that, but we really enjoyed ourselves and felt relaxed and very at ease, frequently exchanging pleasantries with the locals and other visitors alike. Quite a change from twenty years ago, when it often seemed either very sleazy or stand offish, and I felt like you should just shut up, myob, and have eyes on the back of your head.

Because of our time constraints we were very selective on what we did during our four day visit. We regretfully avoided the top deck view from the Empire State building because of the long, long line-ups, and also a number of other must see sites. Peak tourist season probably isn't the best time for that. Still here are some of our trip highlights that impressed me the most;

Soho and Noho: Yes Soho has expanded north to Noho now while holding onto a lot of it's character. Expect off beat small restaurants, shops, patio bars, and music clubs with parks liberally spread throughout these areas of the city. Pretty laid back and a nice neighbourly walk.

Greenwich Village: More of the same. Still has live jazz in Washington Square Park with small combos playing bop. Lively but laid back. It's a pleasant rest stop just sitting on a bench under a sprawling tree watching Greenwich sidewalk life go by and pondering who else might've sat here in years past.

China Town and Little Italy:  China Town is a only a few square blocks now, and it looked pretty run down and squalid. The real Little Italy is now just basically Mulberry Street, and not necessarily the best place to go for pizza. I stand to be corrected, but one look and we moved on from both places.

Time Square: Imagine downtown Dundas Square Toronto with all it's neon lights and screens multiplied by ten. Matter of fact most everything in Manhattan seemed like Toronto times ten, be that good or bad, you choose. Truth be told I prefer Toronto's smaller scale to live and work but we quite enjoyed ourselves. During certain times, and I'm not sure when as a rule, all the traffic is cut off and tables and chairs are put out in the square instead. We loved sitting down just to watch the circus of life all about us. The huge neon tower to the north has raised benches underneath it. Players in costume wander around promoting their theatre show. Army recruiters in full dress march around trying to get the young folks to join the US Marines.The NYPD will pose with you for photos. There's the minstrels and beggars. The police station and army recruitment centre are prominently placed in the centre of the square. I didn't see any seedy crap games in the doorways or smutty looking shops like twenty years ago. The only bootleggers were going "Psst! Psst!" and trying to sell us fake designer purses and Rolex watches. Although very crowded and kind of cheesy what with all the signage and souvenir shops, Time Square has really been cleaned up. It was as different as night and day from when I last visited in 1992.

The New World Financial Centre/ 9-11 Site: I sat on a bench here a few times watching the sunset . I didn't know what to expect really. It often seems to me that ingrained images of the jetliners and collapsing twin towers, rerunning over and over again on t.v. and in our minds, have figured pretty significantly in our collective conscience of everything that's changed in the world, as we once knew it ten years ago. The site wasn't sad or hushed, quite the opposite. It's now a beehive of construction activity with at least six huge flag drapped cranes working around the clock on the monument and new tower. The latter is now about one half the size of the old WTC and rising taller. The original twin tower foundations remain as huge squares with waterfalls running down the four sides. Security remains quite tight, mostly because it is a construction site I would suppose. When I ambled in for photos I was perhaps quite properly and no doubt unceremoniously kicked out to go back to sit on my bench. Huge fences surround the site, where the tourist and commuter crowds mill about. There are gaps left here and there you can look through, and of course the view from my bench, with the crimson setting sun provided an interesting muse. I was left with a few impressions I'd still like to reflect upon some more. I posed for a photo with a US Army Afghanistan vet. He wore his fatigues and waved a big American flag shouting "Take no prisoners!" [!?]. It was a lot of fun sharing in his overstated enthusiasm but of course the really big tenth anniversary ceremonies will be this September 11th. Maybe I'll write more about the site then.

Central Park West and 5th Ave: The Central Park West Dakota building where John Lennon was shot and killed is of course still a mecca to see even if you can't go to the actual spot inside the driveway anymore. The Strawberry Fields memorial is across the street in Central Park. Yoko Ono still lives on the 6th floor south east corner. I looked up and the curtains were open but I don't know if anybody was at home. I highly doubt she'd appreciate a visit. Jackie Onassis Kennedy's posh 5th Avenue digs remain a popular site for a photo, especially in the awned entrance way with the address prominently displayed above but I passed on that too.

Harlem: Nothing was happening at the Apollo Theatre when we were there but it is still  open for business. I thought we might see some good R+B names on the marquee or even go in for a show but no luck. The street out front looked bleak and run down. The brownstones further along are apparently being bought up and renovated by successful blacks coming back to reclaim their heritage. Perhaps Harlem will go through a rebirth soon too.My understanding is it's still pretty poor, residential and not a big top site to see despite it's rich and important cultural history.

Shopping: Canal Street and Battery Park seem vastly overrated or maybe we just visited at off times. Everyone now knows you can buy counterfeit fashion, watches and jewellery here. Or maybe sometimes they are real, and hot off the counter from any one of the local brand name stores. All very dubious. You are supposed to haggle, and if they don't get their price the seller will walk away.

A Tip: Most all the big famous stores have a consignment area where the rich and famous sell off their swag, purses, outfits and jewellery. They've only been used once or twice at most. Virtually brand new and for a fraction of their usual outrageous price. Legal and for real!

Macey's: Janet was only in there a hour. It reminded her of shopping at the Bay when there aren't any sales, or Winners when there's nothing you'd really go gag ga over, or are off sizes. Maybe it was just an off day, because we have heard otherwise. You are entitled to ten percent off as a visitor on top of the alleged sales on top of sales on top of sales.

Century 21: Think of a fancier even more upscale Winners but it isn't necessarily going to be cheap or have a big wow factor. Still worth a visit or two.

Music Stores: I collect albums and cds. This is a specialty market these days but if you are interested:

Generation Records in Soho has an amazing collection of rare "live and studio" factory made cds [read real cds not cdrs]. Pricey but the real McCoy, if you collect these.

Bleeker Street Records in Greenwich Village: More of the same but different titles and a larger collection of regular rock stock with a quite diverse and in depth collection of titles. 

Off the Street in Lower Manhattan: Prog rock heaven! Ask and you shall receive. There are actual drawers full of additional titles you will be directed to. Probably the most extensive King Crimson collection I have ever imagined or seen. Import Brian Eno digipacks at a reasonable price. Overall not exactly cheap but well worth it and with good bargoons to be found. Custom made receipts available for customs. Call to see if you can find out when the manager will be there. The young staff are helpful but he apparently lives and breathes the genre. 

J+R Music and Computer World across from City Hall Park: A whole city block of electronics, computers, cameras, cds, albums and dvds. Discounts on top of discounts. Electronics in the US no longer seem to have the same wow factor in price and selection. Do you really want to worry about warranties and getting them home? Worth a gander if you don't care and God only knows what you might find if you take the time, the stock is huge. The CD's? Imagine the big flagship HMV music store in Toronto multiplied by five with an incredible selection of titles  mostly in the $3-$10 range. Rock, oldies, jazz, country, classical and blues. Vinyl too. They will ask if you want to pay in Canadian dollars using your credit card to avoid the exchange service fees. I visited twice, and maybe covered only about half the cd and record store. Plus the top third floor is all dvd's which I never got to. Boo hoo!

Food? Unfortunately we did not find out enough about the best restaurants and where they were before we arrived. We don't need Chef Ramsey. Manhattan also hasn't any shortage of every fast food and big name eatery you can name, just like Toronto. The Starbucks were a welcome airconditioned coffee, snack and internet break but for meals it was different. You need to know where the good places are, then how to get there, and perhaps plan your day accordingly. The Tic Toc Diner at the New Yorker ended up conveniently solving many a tummy rumble and was quite fun and even good in a pinch.

Souvenirs? If you must, check out a few stores, maybe in Time Square. The prices vary a lot and you can haggle them down further. I suspect they sometimes don't really care just so long as you buy something. Me? I broke down. An eighteen inch metal statue of the Empire State building with a removable King Kong figure that you can attach to the top. Haggled the price down a good bit, and had them open the box to make sure I got Kong. To each their own.

And last but not least La Guardia Airport. JFK and it are closer to NYC than Newark which is actually in Jersey. Be aware of this when you are booking a fight! A cab from La Guardia to central Manhattan is about $40, a shuttle bus about $15. Be aware that the shuttle will stop at every hotel, so it depends on which one you are coming from or going to. A driver from our hotel cost about $50 and provided quick and personalized transport in a nice cab which was well worth it, on our way back. Considering the New Yorker Hotel was the first shuttle bus stop upon our arrival, I figure we did pretty good. We came in and out just under the wire. Total chaos erupted at La Guardia during the earthquake, which we just missed as we arrived at our hotel. Later on the hurricane warning, which took a long time to sink in, resulted in a mad rush in the wake of our ace cabbie back to the airport, on our way out. We missed getting caught up in both!

La Guardia seemed grimmy and strictly functional, unlike Toronto's Pearson Airport. There were frequent delays and cancellations which were confusingly announced and mishandled, resulting in sheer madness, overcrowding, long line ups and pricey airline offers for our seats. Janet and I stayed the course, the flight passengers just before and after us being in total turmoil. Outside of a short delay in the airport lobby and being stuck in a very along line up of jets awaiting departure out on the tarmac, we got home only a few hours late. No big deal but we were very lucky indeed.

So that dear friends is my tale of two Canucks in Manhattan NYC! Hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did going. Overall yes, we would highly recommend the trip and plan to go back again. I won't wait twenty years this time around. Janet either. No way!




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