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East Coast (VII): New York, Part 4

This is the seventh in a series of posts about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first partsecond partthird partfourth partfifth part, and sixth part). The tardiness of this post is regretted - July/August/September are always very busy months!

My fourth day in New York was to be a walkabout day of exploring. I started by catching a subway north from Chelsea, back to the Columbia University area. Just near the university is the Grant National Memorial, which I had seen on the cruise the day before.

As the general of the Union forces, Ulysses S. Grant saw the surrender of the Confederate forces, the end of the American Civil War, and was then elected as 18th President of the United States. His government was marred by scandals and corruption, and he was left financially destitute after leaving office. He died in upstate New York of throat cancer just after completing his personal memoirs (the royalties from which went to his wife), and his tomb in Riverside Park is now the largest mausoleum in the United States. Grant and his wife Julia lie in large coffins inside, whilst a small museum dedicated to Grant's achievements as a general and President sits just near the building.

Opposite Grant's tomb is the enormous Riverside Church. Interdenominational in nature, the church was funded by John D. Rockefeller, and features a distinctive Neo-Gothic architecture. While not as opulent within as St Peter's Basilica in Rome or the Il Duomo di Firenze in Florence, it remains one of the most impressive churches that I have visited.

From the church, I walked north east across several blocks towards the neighbourhood of Harlem. Well known as a major African-American district, Harlem is a sharp contrast to the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. There is nary a building taller than four storeys; while gentrification of the area continues, many residents remain on income support, and there is a general run-down aura sweeping around the district.

125th Street is the primary drag through Harlem, and is a hub for arts and culture. Redevelopment and modernisation has seen global conglomerates move in next to quirky record stores and theatres. Its most famous landmark is the Apollo Theatre, near its western terminus. The Theatre is associated almost exclusively with African-American artists, and gained fame for launching the careers of such singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin - just to name a few! It was also notable as for being the only theatre in New York that would hire black people for many years as the fight for civil rights dragged on around the country.

I traversed Harlem from west to east, and then proceeded south along Lexington Avenue. The buildings gradually grew taller the further south I went, and before too long I cut back to the West to walk along the edge of Central Park. Before too long my legs were reminding me just how far I had walked, and I surrendered to them, taking a bus down to 5th Ave and Central Park South, where I strolled to the Hallo Berlin Food Stand on 54th Street for a delicious bratwurst lunch. There's almost always a queue because each order is made fresh, and the store's dictator/democracy themed specials are entertaining to read through and tasty to eat.

My afternoon plan was to explore Central Park with my friends Camilla (from Australia) and Yoojin (from South Korea but studying at Berkeley). Camilla arrived first at the southeast corner of the Park, and while we waited for Yoojin to arrive we ducked into the nearby FAO Schwarz Toy Store, tucked behind the Apple Store on 5th Avenue. The store is an enormous, giddy testament to all things child-like. Hundreds of children were running around the store, dragging their frazzled parents behind them. One of the staff, a talented magician, was mesmerising a small crowd with an array of sleight-of-hand tricks. Of course, the highlight was the big piano - a $250,000 room-filling novelty with a large queue of people lining up for a 5 second go. If the line hadn't been so intimidatingly long and full of children we might have waited for a turn, but our waiting time was up, Yoojin had arrived, and it was time to enter the park.

Central Park is truly enormous: its 340 hectares is enough that once you're deep enough inside, it's hard to tell you're in one of the busiest metropolises in the world. The noises of the city fade away as the park stretches on and on and on, with multiple waterways and weirs bisected by bridges carrying people, pets, and bikes through the green. There is a an enormous array of life and spectacle that takes place every single day in the park. We saw a number of bubble blowers and many fascinated children running after the huge billowing bubbles, popping them and coming back for more. People of all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life walk, jog, ride, drive, and amble through Central Park. It is wonderful watching the way a microcosm of human life interacts with the Park; highly recommended for the people watchers out there.

A short shower saw us take refuge for a brief while at the boathouse restaurant. We couldn't find a catered seat there as many other people had the same idea, so we waited around under the roofs until the rain cleared. Yoojin took this opportunity to extract some electricity for her phone, and when the rain cleared we continued the stroll through the park. We came eventually to the Conservatory Water, where people were sailing model boats, and further along to the east edge we found this magnificent Alice in Wonderland statue. Cast in bronze, the statue was erected in the 1950's for children to come and experience the magic of Lewis Carroll's story; as such, the statue has many flat and smooth surfaces that just invite the beholder to climb and sit.

Moving out of the Park on its eastern edge, we took a delicious set of detours in the high-end shopping district of the Upper East Side. Our first stop was La Maison Du Chocolat, a luxury French chocolate store where we savoured delicious cakes, treats, and drinks. My cake was heaven in the mouth, whilst the chocolates that Camilla and Yoojin ordered looked delightful. I'll definitely make a trip back here the next time I'm in New York, and make sure to have more time to savour. Just a few blocks down the street is Laduree, a French bakery famous for its macaroons. We eagerly joined the queue that stretched out the door, awaiting our turn to be called upon by the staff to select our macaroons. My favourite were pistachio, coconut, and oddly enough, rose petal. Macaroons are a pricey extravagance, but they are such an oh so tasty one at that.

Yoojin had to depart following our Laduree trip, so we sadly bid her goodbye. Camilla and I trekked back across Central Park to the Upper West side and Levain Bakery. Unassumingly buried below street level, Levain is featured in many foodies' guides to New York, and is famous for a six-ounce chocolate chip walnut cookie. The proprietors developed the monster cookie to help provide calories for ironman training events, and it is now the signature item on their menu. Feeling obligated, I bought one of the cookies, and it is hands down the best cookie I've ever eaten. I don't think I could manage one very often unless I actually turned to competing in ironman events, but resisting the temptation would be a sore challenge.

By now it was quite late, and so Camilla and I made our way to Koreatown near the foot of the Empire State Building for dinner. One of the things that is so incredible about New York is how it really is a reflection of the world at large; the main 34th Street drag of Koreatown felt like it could have come straight out of East Asia. We enjoyed some tasty bibimbap and noodles for dinner at a busy food court before parting ways after a solid afternoon of exploring. In this one day I had covered a great swathe of the north side of Manhattan as well as the sprawling Central Park: now, I had just one more day to spend in the city that never sleeps.

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