Since my entire family was headed east for my sister Melissa's law school graduation, and we were all passing through New York, we decided to make a touristy family reunion of it and all go visit New York together over Memorial Day weekend. This was my first visit to the city; it made quite a favourable impression, and I'm sure I'll be back.
It had never occured to me that Times Square was not actually a place in itself, but merely the name of a street. I had expected, you know, a square: some kind of open space, a paved park, like a city square usually is. Where do they fit all the people on New Year's Eve? The only thing there is the famous ticket booth and a little strip of sidewalk, surrounded by a truly staggering volume of advertisement that would be intensely irritating if it weren't kind of an entertainment in itself, a theme park of American commerce.
We stayed at a hotel in Murray Hill, which is southeast of Grand Central by half a dozen blocks. Due to some screw-up with the reservation, we ended up taking over a couple of apartment-style suites on the penthouse level. It was hard to mind the mistake too much.
There's a pretty broad range of ages in our family, and we tried to mix grownup friendly activities with destinations that would appeal to the younger set. One of these was the Times Square Toys 'R Us store, with an indoor five-story ferris wheel and an animatronic tyrannosaurus, among other attractions. I ended up riding the big wheel with Joanna and Abigail, the latter of whom probably would have enjoyed the ride more had she not worried, at every revolution, that it was about to end...
We all had week-long metrocards and went everywhere by subway.
Michael turned seventeen during our trip, and we celebrated the occasion with a dinner at restaurant Osso Buco.
Afterward Olivia, Andrew, Michael, and I went to see the Blue Man Group perform. It was an energetic and entertaining performance, with lots of creative percussion and lighting tricks. There's no speaking or singing, but there is definitely communication, with lots of sly subtle elements snuck in to keep you paying attention.
Of course we had to go check out the classic view from the top of the big landmark. This was actually a lot of fun; it was a bit overcast, but there was plenty to look at, and it gave me a much clearer sense of the island's layout than I'd ever gotten from looking at maps (though I had to refer to a map the whole time to figure out what exactly I was seeing).
I felt uncomfortable going to see the site of the former World Trade Center, but I guess it would have been kind of absurd to avoid it completely on a tour of downtown Manhattan, and with a group as large as ours one necessarily has to accomodate others' preferences about the itinerary. So off we went to look at the big hole in the ground. I have never felt personally connected to this disaster, in the way a lot of Americans apparently did, but I felt like I was expected to feel something, standing there. There certainly was a sense of awe at the scale of the whole thing, and at the damage that remained to the surrounding buildings; but really, it was just kind of weird, like I was trespassing on a stranger's funeral.
I was glad to move on. We spent a while at the little chapel nearby - St Paul's, I think? - where the rescue workers camped out during the recovery operation. I had a much easier time relating to that little place, with its ancient graveyard and sense of historical continuity.
Downtown Manhattan has a great sense of place. In the built-yesterday suburban cities of the West, one often feels that most of the streets, most of the houses, most of the neighborhoods are interchangeable; arbitrary scrawls drawn on a map by some developer with no motivation other than the maximization of profit, remembered by none but their temporary inhabitants. In Manhattan a sense of history is almost inescapable: every building is a century old, every street name rings with legend, every district has spun off its own brand name. Every street you walk, you are Somewhere.
We took the ferry across to Staten Island, then cruised through the suburbs via train. The nominal destination involved some kind of historical park, but this turned out to require a ridiculous amount of walking from the train station, and we ended up just rolling right back and calling the whole thing a sightseeing expedition.
The Statue of Liberty is a lot smaller than I had thought. In photos with the New York skyline in the background the perspective always makes it look like it's some kind of skyscraper, but it's really just this little thing. I'm sure it actually would be an impressively large statue if I hadn't grown up expecting something five times bigger.
I once read a magazine article about this cathedral, better known as "St. John the Unfinished" in view of its century-plus history of construction, and decided to take a trip uptown to see it. I've toured cathedrals before, but I really was not prepared for the immense scale and awe-inspiring majesty this one offered. It is the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and its scale is overwhelming even with major parts still incomplete.
I took a sunset walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, partly because it seemed like a classic New York thing to do, and partly because I'd heard it had a great view of the Manhattan skyline. The bridge is well suited for walking - much more so than the Golden Gate Bridge, which is the only other major transportation bridge I've seen that seems to be set up for pedestrian use. It's built on an accessible, human-feeling scale, has wide-open views of some great skylines, and on the nice warm summer afternoon when I was there it was crowded with tourists, bicyclists, and the occasional pedestrian commuter.
I stayed in Brooklyn for a few days with my sister and her girlfriend Jodi. We went out for a nice sunny-day cruise through the botanical gardens over the weekend.