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East Coast (V): New York, Part 2

This is the fifth in a series of posts about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first partsecond part, third part, and fourth part).

The rain mostly stayed away during my second day in New York, and I took advantage of the respite to go walkabout on Manhattan Island. My morning started with a particularly New-York style breakfast of a savoury bagel. I then walked to the east, towards the Flatiron district and its eponymous Flatiron building. The distinctively triangular building resembles a clothes iron (hence the name), and its shape is due in part to its position on the wedge-shaped intersection of Broadway, 5th Avenue, and East 22nd Street.

From Flatiron I jumped on the subway, heading south to Town Hall near the southern end of Manhattan. Here I wandered around to the east of the island towards the famous Brooklyn Bridge. One of three bridges connecting Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn in the east, it was opened in 1883, and remains one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States. I strolled along the bridge far enough to take a photo unhindered by construction before turning back towards Manhattan.

The south end of Manhattan is the home of the financial district and Wall Street. It is also here that the World Trade Center towers once stood before the 9/11 attacks. Today, the Ground Zero memorial stands at the site to memorialise those who lost their lives in 2001. Entry is free, but requires an online registration prior to visiting, so I did not get to entry the memorial proper. Additionally, crowds are extremely large; it can take over an hour to make it from the back of the line into the memorial. Obnoxiously enough, the construction of the new Freedom Tower at the north end of the World Trade Center complex means that the entire area is walled off, so you can't even see inside. I spent some time walking around the site before moving on.

Wall Street is a quaintly cobblestone boulevard running west from the World Trade Center. One of the first buildings you see is the venerable New York Stock Exchange - and I managed to capture a humourous moment with a paper-shredding truck sitting just down the laneway from the Exchange's entrance.

Opposite the NYSE is Federal Hall National Memorial. The original Federal Hall was New York's first City Hall, and famously served as the site of George Washington's inauguration as the first President of the United States. It was also the site of the introduction of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution) in the First Congress. After the Hall's demolition in 1812, the Memorial Hall was built in 1842, and it is now operated as a museum commemorating the historic events of its past. Out the front is a large statue of George Washington. When I visited, there was a ragged man huddled underneath the statue, playing on flute the most solemn version of _The Star-Spangled Banner _that I have ever heard (this is the national anthem of the United States, and is typically played with great pomp and circumstance at sporting events). The poignancy I felt is difficult to understate; seeing this quiet protest on Wall Street surrounded by the very individuals blamed for plunging America into the most devastating recession of recent history moved me deeply.

By now it had reached lunchtime, and I trekked back to the west side of Manhattan to meet with my friend David. I met him many years ago in Sydney, and nowadays he works for Google in New York. The company's office is in the former Port Authority building, located between 8th and 9th Avenues and West 15th and 16th Streets. Even by Google standards it is an amazing office, and it would be a wonder to work there day in and day out. The office is rectangular and long, much like Manhattan, and so internally corridors and meeting rooms are named as per locations on Manhattan Island to ease navigation. It's a little like Google has reconstructed the big city inside its own fiefdom.

Google owns the entire Port Authority building, and one of the employee perks is having access to the roof. Comfy seats are arranged around the floor for people to use and enjoy. There are truly spectacular views from here all around the city thanks to the building's location in a relatively skyscraper-free zone.

Departing Google, I wandered through the nearby Chelsea Market and onto the High Line. It's an elevated park built on a formerly abandoned section of the New York Central Railroad, and it reminded me of the Promenade Plantee in Paris, which was built to a similar concept. There are staircase entrances to the High Line all along its length, as well all kinds of interesting urban art installations. It's a popular spot for tourists and families; buskers ply their wares for people who've stopped for a break or a view, people set up picnics and photographs, and enjoy the ambience of a little nature in the busy city. There's also the cute novelty of strolling down grass-lined paths up above the busy New York streets.

Walking along the High Line gives you a great sense of the space constraints faced by New York City. The buildings that the Line squeezes past are so close that you can peer into the often tiny apartments on either side. The Line even passes through some buildings, providing natural shelter and shade. There is nary a gap between two structures all along the way, and many of the artworks are plastered on the sides of buildings, or in gaps caused by their shapes. The original rail lines still run along the park in many places, serving as a reminder of the service that the Line once performed for the city.

Coming off the High Line at West 30th Street, I walked back east towards the centre of Manhattan. I had a little time to kill before a scheduled visit to Top of the Rock, so I walked to 7th Avenue, then north to the southeast corner of the enormous Central Park. This is the site of the famous Apple store cube, and I stopped to take a quick photo for my brother, who is a massive Mac fan. The store is amazingly crowded; it's open 24 hours, and descending the spiral glass staircase takes you into a packed and noisy interior under the street level.

Walking back south, I headed for the GE Building at Rockefeller Center. Nestled in the heart of Midtown, the Center was built by the famous Rockefeller family, who were one of the most powerful dynasties in the history of the United States. The GE Building itself is also known as 30 Rock for its address at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and it is the home of the NBC television network and NBC studios. On the ground floor there's a great NBC store carrying merchandise from all of the network's most popular series, as well as the NBC studio experience tour. But the real reason I came here was Top of the Rock: the observation deck on the top of the building. It's cheaper and less crowded than the Empire State Building observation deck, and has the added bonus of having a view of the Empire State Building.

The view certainly does not disappoint, though the wind is icy cold up here so come prepared with gloves if you can. You get a great, clean view of the entire Empire State Building, and panoramic views of the rest of the city. I spent a long time happily snapping away; the rest of Midtown and the distant Freedom Tower dominate the south view (with the Chrysler Building just hiding behind another skyscraper), whilst Central Park rules over the north view. Seeing it from the air really brings the enormity of Central Park into perspective: the steel simply gives way to a huge expanse of green right in the heart of Manhattan Island. If you're pressed for time and patience in New York (and almost no one isn't), then I highly recommend skipping the Empire State Building and visiting Top of the Rock instead.

Having satisfied my inner photographer, I descended back to street level and headed further east and to the famous Grand Central Terminal. Possibly the most famous train station in the world, the famous Main Concourse is forever bustling and busy. An Apple store is seemingly carved into the stone wall at one end of the concourse, whilst down on the ground people scurry to and fro. There's a huge American flag on one wall, raised in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and remaining there to this day. Deeper underground is an extensive retail and food complex, as well as the subway station and the actual train platforms - 44 of them in total, with 67 different tracks. Grand Central now primarily handles traffic on the domestic lines that run within New York state; the Amtrak interstate lines depart from Pennsylvania Station to the west. However, Grand Central is much more beautiful than Penn Station; Penn is currently shrouded under construction scaffolding, and has nothing of the 19th century charm and grace of Grand Central. Simply put, it is the train station.

This was taken with a longer exposure to capture the ghostly impression of busy movement

Leaving Grand Central behind, I continued only a little further west before calling my day to a close. I made it to the Chrysler Building, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers in the country. It was built at the same time as the Empire State Building, during a time of strong competition for the tallest skyscraper in the world. Chrysler was finished a year ahead of Empire State, and so held the crown as the tallest building in the world for 11 months. Nowadays the building is far smaller than several of its neighbours, but I think it remains one of the most elegant. It is particularly famous for the terraced crown and spire at its peak; at night time, it is perhaps one of the most iconic features of the New York skyline.

And so my second day in New York came to a close. I found myself some dinner in Chinatown before heading back to Chelsea for a well-earned night's sleep. There would be three more days of exploring to come.

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